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GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF MEDIÆVAL ICONOGRAPHY
I.—Mediæval Iconography is a script. II.—It is a calculus. The mystic numbers. III.—It is a symbolic code. Art and the Liturgy.
THE Middle Ages had a passion for order. They organised art as they had organised dogma, secular learning and society. The artistic representation of sacred subjects was a science governed by fixed laws which could not be broken at the dictates of individual imagination. It cannot be questioned that this theology of art, if one may so put it, was soon reduced to a body of doctrine, for from very early times the craftsmen are seen submitting to it from one end of Europe to the other. This science was transmitted by the Church to the lay sculptors and painters of the thirteenth century who religiously guarded the sacred traditions, so that, even in the centuries in which it was most vigorous, mediæval art retained the hieratic grandeur of primitive art.
These are the general principles which it concerns us to state at the outset as briefly as possible.
The art of the Middle Ages is first and foremost a sacred writing of which every artist must learn the characters. He must know that the circular nimbus placed vertically behind the head serves to express sanctity, while the nimbus impressed with a cross is the sign of divinity which he will always use in portraying any of the three Persons of the Trinity. He will learn that the aureole (i.e. light which emanates from the whole figure and surrounds the body as a nimbus) expresses eternal bliss, and belongs to the three Persons of the Trinity, to the Virgin, and to the souls of the Blessed. He must know that representations of God the Father, God the Son, the angels and the apostles should have the feet bare, while there would be real impropriety in representing the Virgin and the saints with bare feet. In such matters a mistake would have ranked almost as heresy. Other accepted symbols enabled the mediæval artist to express the invisible, to represent that which would otherwise be beyond the domain of art. A hand emerging from the clouds, making the gesture of benediction with thumb and two fingers raised, and surrounded by a cruciform nimbus, was recognised as the sign of divine intervention, the emblem of providence. Little figures of nude and sexless children, ranged side by side in the folds of Abraham's mantle, signified the eternal rest of the life to come.
There are also accepted signs for objects of the visible world which the artist must learn. Lines which are concentric and sinuous represent the sky, those which are horizontal and undulating represent water (Fig. 1). A tree, that is to say a stalk surmounted with two or three leaves, indicates that the scene takes place on the earth ; a tower pierced by a doorway is a town, while if an angel watch on the battlements it is the heavenly Jerusalem. Thus we have a veritable hieroglyphic in which art and writing blend, showing the same spirit of order and abstraction that there is in heraldic art with its alphabet, rules and symbolism.
The artist must be familiar with a multitude of precise details. He is not allowed to ignore the traditional type of the persons he has to represent. St. Peter, for example, must have curly hair, a short, thick beard and a tonsure, while St. Paul must have a bald head and a long beard. Certain details of costume are also unchangeable. Over her head the Virgin must wear a veil, symbol of virginity, and the Jews are known by their cone-shaped caps.
All these figures with their unvarying costume and arrested type have their place in traditional scenes. No matter how dramatic may be the scene in which they play a part, their every action has been previously determined. No artist would be rash enough to dare to modify the arrangement of the great scenes from the Gospel. If his subject were the Last Supper he would not be free to group the figures round the table according to his individual fancy. He would have to show at the one side Jesus and the apostles, at the other Judas Iscariot. If he would represent the Crucifixion he must place the Virgin and the lance-bearer to the right of the Cross, St. John and the man with the sponge to the left.
These examples, which it would be useless to multiply, will suffice to show in what sense mediæval art may be called a sacred script.
At an earlier period than that with which we are dealing these signs and conventions were of real service to the artist. By their help he could supplement the inadequacy of his technique. It was obviously easier to draw a cruciform nimbus round the head of the Christ than to show in His face the stamp of divinity. In the thirteenth century art could have done without such assistance. The artists at Amiens who clothed with so great majesty the Christ teaching at the door of their cathedral had no need of it (Fig. 2). The sculptors of Chartres knew how to express sanctity otherwise than by the use of the nimbus ; a virginal grace envelops St. Modeste (Fig. 3) and the great soul of St. Martin shines in his face. But faithful to the past the thirteenth century did not relinquish the old conventions, and deviated little from tradition. By that time the canons of religious art had grown to have almost the weight of articles of faith, and we find theologians consecrating the work of the craftsmen by their authority. In the Summa Aquinas devoted a chapter to the nimbus, and in it he explained why it is the usual symbol of holiness. Art was considered as one form of the liturgy, and Gulielmus Durandus, a liturgiologist of the thirteenth century, introduced several detailed expositions of sacred works of art into his Rationale divinorum officiorum.
It was well for the art of the thirteenth century that it did so piously preserve the rudiments of this ancient symbolism, for by that means it attained the grandeur peculiar to works to which successive centuries had contributed. There was in art a something impersonal and profound, and one might say that such or such an attitude, such or such a symbolic grouping was the common choice. Surely it was not individual choice but the corporate Christian consciousness which lighted upon that sublime gesture of the Saviour when on the Day of Judgment He shows His wounds to mankind. The mind of the theologian, the instinct of the people and the keen sensibility of the artist all collaborated.
Mediæval art is like mediæval literature, its value lies less in conscious talent than in diffused genius. The personality of the artist does not always appear, but countless generations of men speak through his mouth, and the individual, even when mediocre, is lifted by the genius of these Christian centuries. At the Renaissance artists at considerable risk and peril freed themselves from tradition. The lesser men found it difficult to escape platitude and to attain significance in their religious work, while the great ones were no greater than the old masters who had submissively given naive expression to the thought of the Middle Ages. Following an accepted model it was possible for even a modest artist to produce a work which made a strong emotional appeal. One may well prefer the traditional Christ of the Gothic cathedrals showing His wounds to mankind to the vengeful Judge whom the genius of a Michelangelo, unhampered by tradition, conceived as cursing the lost.
The second characteristic of mediæval iconography is obedience to the rules of a kind of sacred mathematics. Position, grouping, symmetry and number are of extraordinary importance.
To begin with, the whole church is oriented from the rising to the setting sun, a custom dating back to primitive Christian days for it is found even in the Apostolical Constitutions. In the thirteenth century Gulielmus Durandus cites this as a rule without exception :-" The foundations must be disposed in such a manner that the head of the church lies exactly to the east, that is to the part of the sky in which the sun rises at the equinox." And, as a matter of fact, from the eleventh to the sixteenth century it is difficult to find a badly oriented church. Like other traditions of mediæval art the rule fell into neglect towards the time of the Council of Trent, the Jesuits being the first to violate it.
Each cardinal point has its significance in churches oriented in this way. The north, region of cold and darkness, is usually consecrated to the Old Testament, and the south, bathed in warm sunlight, is devoted to the New, though there are many exceptions to the rule. The western façade —where the setting sun lights up the great scene of the evening of the world's history—is almost invariably reserved for a representation of the Last Judgment. The mediæval doctors, with their curiously bad etymology, connected occidens with the verb occidere, and the west became for them the region of death.
After orientation it was relative position which most engrossed the artist, here again at one with the theologian. In early times certain passages in the Bible led to the belief that the right hand was the place of honour. Is it not written, for example, in the Psalms: "Adstitit regina a dextris tuis in vestitu deaurato?" In the Shepherd of Hermas which belongs to primitive Christian literature, the right is the place given to those who are marked out for honour. In the account of the third visions it is said that the Church caused Hermas to be seated on a bench at her side. When he would have seated himself to her right she signed to him to pass to the left, because the right is reserved for those who have suffered in the name of God. The mediæval theologians in their turn laid great stress on the dignity of the right hand place, and the artists did not fail to conform to so well established a doctrine. When, for example, the Saviour is represented in the midst of His apostles, St. Peter—first in dignity—occupies a place to the right of the Master. In the same way in the scene of the Crucifixion or in that of the Last Judgment, the Virgin is to the right, St. John to the left.
Again, the higher place was considered more honourable than the lower, and from this some curious compositions resulted. Of these the most striking is that of the figure of Christ in Majesty supported by the four beasts of the Apocalypse. The four beasts, symbols of the evangelists as we shall show later, were placed according to the excellence of their natures—man, eagle, lion and ox. When it was a question of disposing them in a tympanum, the dignity conferred by the higher and that conferred by the right hand place had to be taken into consideration. The following arrangement was the one generally adopted. The winged man was placed at the top of the composition and to the right of Christ, the eagle at the top to the left, the lion at the bottom to the right, the ox at the bottom to the left (Fig. 4).
Regard for the traditional order is especially evident when it is a question of representing the blessed who compose the Church Triumphant. On the Portail du Jugement of Notre Dame at Paris the saints ranged in the orders of the arch form, as in Dante's Divine Comedy, concentric bands round the figure of Christ. The ranks of patriarchs, prophets, confessors, martyrs and virgins are seen in succession. Such a classification conforms to that adopted in the liturgy. At Chartres the artist went further, and in the right bay of the south porch—which is entirely devoted to confessors— the saints round the arches are classified as laymen, monks, priests, bishops and archbishops. A saintly Pope and a saintly Emperor occupy the crown of the arch, and seem to be the two keystones of the structure.
Above the choirs of saints are the choirs of angels. These are frequently ranked by the artists in the order devised by St. Dionysius the Areopagite, who first described the invisible world with the precision and grandeur found later in Dante. His Celestial Hierarchy, translated into Latin in the ninth century by Scotus Eriugena, was often expounded by the doctors, notably by Hugh of St. Victor. It inspired the artists who carved the nine choirs of angels in the south porch at Chartres. They are there ranged in the following orders: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels and Angels. All these celestial beings, according to the doctrine of the Areopagite, form as it were great luminous circles round the throne of God, their brilliance increasing in measure as they approach the source of all light. So at Chartres the Seraphim and Cherubim carry flames and balls of fire because they dwell nearest to the centre of heat and splendour.
In the art of the Middle Ages care for disposition of parts extended to the smallest detail and led to ingenious devices. For example, a little crouching figure is almost always found under the bracket which supports a large statue. The superficial observer sees in it a piece of pure decoration, but careful study has shown that each of such small figures is in vital relation to the figure above it. Apostles tread under foot the kings who persecuted them, Moses stands on the golden calf, the angels tread on the dragon of the abyss, and Christ tramples on the adder and the basilisk. At times the emblem on the bracket does not connote triumph, but relates to some feature in the life or character of the hero. At Chartres Balaam has his ass beneath his feet, the Queen of Sheba has a negro bearing gifts from Ophir (Fig. 5), while beneath the figure of the Virgin is the burning bush (Fig. 6). The connection between the statue and the figure beneath the bracket is so close that at Notre Dame at Paris it has been possible by the help of the storied supports to reconstruct almost to a certainty the large figures in the left doorway.
But no disposition met with more favour than that controlled by symmetry. Symmetry was regarded as the expression of a mysterious inner harmony. Craftsmen opposed the twelve patriarchs and twelve prophets of the Ancient Law to the twelve apostles of the New, and the four major prophets to the four evangelists. A window in the south transept at Chartres shows—with audacious symbolism—the four prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Jeremiah bearing on their shoulders the four evangelists, St. Matthew, St. John, St. Mark, St. Luke (Fig. 7). In this way the artist would tell us that although the evangelists rest upon the prophets, yet from their spiritual vantage-ground they have a wider outlook. The four and twenty elders of the Apocalypse frequently correspond to the twelve prophets and the twelve apostles. In the same way parallelism was employed when treating of the Virtues and the Liberal Arts.
Schemes of this kind presuppose a reasoned belief in the virtue of numbers, and in fact the Middle Ages never doubted that numbers were endowed with some occult power. This doctrine came from the Fathers of the Church, who inherited it from those Neo-Platonic schools in which the genius of Pythagoras had the numbers impressed on all things." The construction of the physical and moral worlds alike is based on eternal numbers lived again. It is evident that St. Augustine considered numbers as thoughts of God. In many passages he lays it down that each number has its divine significance. "The Divine Wisdom is reflected in. We feel that the charm of the dance lies in rhythm, that is in number; but we must go further, beauty is itself a cadence, harmonious number. The science of numbers, then, is the science of the universe, and from numbers we learn its secret. Therefore the numbers met with in the Bible should be considered with reverent attention, for they are sacred and full of mystery. He who can read them enters into the divine plan.
Excerpted from Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century by Émile Mâle. Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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