Medieval Art
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Medieval Art

Marilyn Stokstad

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eBook - ePub

Medieval Art

Marilyn Stokstad

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This book teaches the reader how to look at medieval art–which aspects of architecture, sculpture, or painting are important and for what reasons. It includes the art and building of what is now Western Europe from the second to the fifteenth centuries.

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Arte general
1.1 Stavelot Triptych, Reliquary of the True Cross, Mosan, Belgium, mid-12th century, The Pierpont Morgan Library.

Chapter I

An Introduction To Medieval Art

The True Cross

A strange but hauntingly beautiful object greets visitors to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York [1.1]. Drawn by the glitter of gold and jewels, we move closer and discover that we are looking at a three-part winged shrine, a triptych. The piece displays and protects two small enameled triptychs, which in style and technique are quite different from it. The label information—that this is the Stavelot Triptych made in the Mosan region of Belgium in the twelfth century—fails to satisfy our curiosity. The glowing colorful figures in their golden world have lured us back into the Middle Ages where works of art often frustrate our modern desire for information. We do not know who the artists were or even the location of the workshops where they mastered their craft. We do not know with certainty who ordered the work or provided the semi-precious stones, the enamels, and the relics assembled here. We have theories, suppositions—guesses, if you will—combined with some hard evidence from the works of art themselves and from a few documents. The study of history, literature, philosophy, religion, and folklore, as well as other works of art may help us to understand. Of one thing we are sure, the makers of the Stavelot Triptych believed that they had enshrined relics associated with Christ, including the Cross on which he was crucified. In contrast to the large triptych, the two small reliquaries exemplify the art of the Eastern, Byzantine Church.
Originally the Mosan artists placed them on a golden field enriched with semi-precious stones. (The velvet background seen today is modern.) In the wings, the Mosan artists added their own enamels to tell the story of the True Cross as it was known in the Middle Ages.
In the enamel medallions on the wings, the Mosan artists capture the drama of the legends and miracles of the Cross. According to the collection of saints’ lives written by the thirteenth-century bishop of Genoa Jacob of Voragine, the Golden Legend, Constantine, during the night before fighting his rival Maxentius for control of the Roman Empire, dreamed he saw the Cross of Christ in the sky. Angels told him that the sign of the Cross would ensure victory. Constantine ordered his troops to place the cross-monogram of Christ (Chi Rho) on their shields. In the ensuing battle at the Milvian Bridge outside Rome, Constantine won a decisive victory, killed Maxentius, and entered Rome in triumph. In the last scene, Constantine accepts Christianity and is baptized by Pope Silvester. In fact, Constantine granted toleration to all the unofficial religions in his empire, and he put off Christian baptism until the end of his life, in 337.
In the right-hand wing of the triptych, Empress Helena, Constantine’s mother and a Christian, has traveled to Jerusalem seeking the True Cross. In the first scene, she interrogates the Jews. They lead her to Golgotha and dig up the crosses of Jesus and the two thieves who were crucified with him. The True Cross reveals itself when it brings a dead youth back to life. In the medallion, a servant carries off the two false crosses. The empress brought pieces of wood and the nails from the Cross, along with the other relics, back to the imperial court.
The larger of the two Byzantine reliquaries in the central panel houses a fragment of the wood of the True Cross, which on the enamel cover is flanked by angels, Eastern saints, and Constantine and Helena [1.2]. The Eastern Orthodox Church revered Constantine and Helena as saints, but Constantine was not considered a saint in the West. The smaller reliquary held relics of the True Cross, the Holy Sepulchre, and the robe of the Virgin Mary, all of which were identified on a strip of parchment. In the enamels, St. Mary and St. John witness Christ’s death on the Cross. The twelfth-century text in the arches above the narrative roundels celebrates the Discovery and Exaltation of the Cross. It reads, “Behold the Cross of the Lord. Flee you hostile powers. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David has conquered.” The medieval artists succeed in giving the essence of Christian belief tangible form, both in the Western narratives and the static symbolic icons of the Eastern Church.
1.2 Stavelot Triptych, detail.
What else can we learn from these enamels? First, they are technically different, following the preferences of the Eastern and Western churches. The small rectangular plaques are cloisonné enamel, and the larger medallions are in the champlevé technique. Both use fine colored glass enamel, but in cloisonné the individual cells that divide the colors are formed by tiny gold strips soldered to the surface of the panel, whereas in the champlevé technique, the cells are gouged out of the metal plate. Cloisonné enamel is typical of Byzantine art (the art of the Eastern Orthodox Church), and champleve enamel is the preferred technique among Western artists. Eastern artists created two-dimensional patterns in translucent jewel-like colors with enamels that reflect light like rubies and emeralds. Mosan artists, working in the champlevé technique, try to suggest rounded, three-dimensional forms in space by using two or more colors in the cells. The two very different enamel techniques represent two very different views of the world.
Medieval art is essentially Christian art, but the Stavelot Triptych focuses our attention on an East-West dichotomy in Christianity, which continues to this day in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Not only do we see two different enamel techniques but also two different modes of representation. The Eastern Byzantine artists use a symbolic mode: static hieratic compositions in which figures, seemingly almost frozen in place, quietly adore the Cross. In contrast, the Westerners work in a narrative mode, creating lively energetic figures acting out dramatic stories of visions, battles, confrontations, and miracles. Finally, even the conception of Emperor Constantine differs—in the Byzantine Church, he was venerated as a saint; in the Western Catholic Church, he was never canonized, although his mother, Helena, was.
In the twelfth century when the Mosan enamels were made, Abbot Wibald led the imperial Benedictine monastery of Stavelot (1130—1158). The abbot was an important diplomat and adviser to three Holy Roman Emperors—Lothair II, Conrad III, and Frederick Barbarossa. In 1154, Frederick Barbarossa sent him on a mission to Constantinople. The Byzantine Emperor Manuel Komnenus may have given Abbot Wibald the two small Byzantine reliquaries as a diplomatic gift. The abbot traveled to the Byzantine court again in 1157, and he died in 1158 on the way home. In the period between the abbot’s two trips, the Western shrine for the Byzantine reliquaries could have been made in Stavelot. Of the artists who made the triptych, we know nothing.
The Idea of the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages—exuberantly self-confident Renaissance scholars looked back on this period of a thousand years as an interlude. They considered the centuries after the fall of Rome as a dark “middle” age because the period fell between the time of Classical Greece and Rome and the revival of learning in their own day. Today, these centuries appear to us as a brilliant period out of which emerged our own modern world with its rival nations, its different philosophical, political, and economic systems, and its varied forms of art and architecture. The medieval period extends from the fourth-century battle of the Milvian Bridge—when constantine’s troops, bearing the monogram of Christ on their shields, conquered Rome—to the fifteenth-century discovery of the Americas by navigators from Portugal sailing the uncharted ocean with the Cross of the Order of the Knights of Christ on their sails. Thus, two powerful visual images will begin and end our study—the Chi Rho and the Knights’ Cross.

Christianity And The Early Christian Church

We have been looking at an image made for a triumphant Christian Church. Christianity did not begin as an imperially sponsored religion. In the first century, Octavian, who was made Roman emperor by the Senate with the title Augustus, formed a united empire. Far from Rome, in Palestine, where Herod ruled as Roman governor, a woman called Mary gave birth to a child she named Jesus. The Gospels tell of angelic messengers announcing the coming of the Messiah and wise men traveling to Bethlehem to recognize him as the Christ, the Son of God. Later his followers declared his birth to be the beginning of a new era, year one of the time of our Lord, Anno Domini, A.D., today more ecumenically referred to as the Common Era, C.E.
At first, few people would have been aware of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish carpenter who performed miracles of healing and who claimed to be the Son of God and the Messiah of the Jews. Jesus urged his followers to love all humankind and to consider life on earth merely a preparation for life everlasting in Heaven. By his death on the Cross, Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of all humanity. The Christians said that Jesus arose from the tomb and returned to God, his Father in Heaven, but he would return to judge the world and take those people deemed worthy back with him to paradise. This message of faith and hope soon gained followers, especially among the poor.
The central body of Christian belief is contained in the New Testament, which together with the Jewish scriptures, called by the Christians the Old Testament, form the Bible. The New Testament consists of four Gospels (meaning the good news), attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These four Evangelists provide four versions of the life and teachings of Jesus. St. Pauls letters to the new Christian communities (the Epistles) and the Acts of the Apostles record the establishment of Christianity as an organized religion. The New Testament concludes with St. Johns Revelation of the end of earthly time in the Apocalypse. The sacred texts of the Jews provided the Christians with the historical context for their belief. Christians saw Old Testament events as prefigurations of Christianity; for example, the deliverance of Jonah from the sea monster became a prototype for the Resurrection of Christ, and the shepherd of the 23rd Psalm could be identified with Christ the Good Shepherd. At the end of the fourth century, St. Jerome edited and translated the Bible into Latin, the vulgar or people’s language, and his edition is known as the Vulgate.
The form of Christian worship was at first very simple. When Christ gathered with the apostles for the Jewish Feast of the Passover and defined the bread and wine as his own body and blood, he established the sacrament of Holy Communion. “And he took bread, and gave thanks, broke it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” (Luke 22:19—20) The new concept of Christian commemoration, added to the original Jewish rite of thanksgiving for divine intervention and salvation, has remained the core of Christian worship.
The Christian Story and Liturgical Cycles
Christians use two kinds of time—historical and liturgical. Events in the Life of Christ may be represented as a narrative in historical sequence or grouped and organized according to the order in which they were celebrated by the church. The Western Christian liturgical year is based on Christmas (fixed on December 25th, the Roman solstice) and begins with the first Sunday in Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. A second set of calendrical calculations establishes the date of Easter, which is set by the Jewish Passover, and consequently based on the lunar year. The eastern Christian Orthodox calendar is based on Easter.
Events in the Gospels are usually organized into three “cycles.”
The Marian (or Nativity) Cycle: Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Annunciation to the Shepherds, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation in the Temple, Massacre of the Innocents, Flight into Egypt, Jesus among the Doctors.
The Public Ministry Cycle: Baptism, Calling of the Apostles, Calling of Matthew, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, Jesus Walking on the Water (Storm on Galilee), Marriage at Canaan, Raising of Lazarus, Delivery of the Keys to Peter, Transfiguration, Cleansing of the Temple.
The Passion Cycle: Entry into Jerusalem, Last Supper, Washing the Apostles’ Feet, Agony in the Garden, Betrayal (Kiss of Judas), Denial of Peter, Trial of Jesus, Pilate Washing His Hands, Flagellation, Crowning with Thorns, Bearing the Cross, Crucifixion, Deposition, Lamentation (Pietà), Entombment, Descent into Limbo (Harrowing of Hell), Resurrection, Marys at the Tomb, Noli Me Tangere (Jesus and Mary Magdalene), Supper at Emmaus, Doubting Thomas, Ascension, Pentecost.
Other themes used in Christian art include:
The Last Judgment, or Second Coming.
The Fathers of the Church (Scholars and teachers of the early Church).
The Latin Fathers: St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory.
The Greek Fathers: St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Athanasius, and St. Gregory Nazianzus.
Lives and miracles of the Saints.
At first the Christians gathered in the homes of members of the congregation to reenact the Last Supper by taking a full meal together. Twenty-five officially Christian houses (tituli) are known to have existed in Rome, and there must have been many more. The communal meal became formalized into a ritual (the Mass, or Eucharistic rite) performed by a priest, in which bread and wine miraculously became the flesh and blood of Christ (transubstantiation). Eventually, the supper table became an altar; and the house where the Last Supper was reenacted became known as the House of the Lord—Domus Dei, the Church.
As a more elaborate service developed in the fourth century, elements of Jewish worship—reading from sacred books, collective prayer, and song— were incorporated into the Christian ritual. The service was divided into two parts—one open to all, and a second part reserved for initiates. In the public part of the service—the liturgy of the Word—the clergy and people invoked the saints and praised the Lord with hymns. Then, in the liturgy of the Eucharist, the initiates alone celebrated the Lords Supper [1.3]. The priest consecrated the bread and wine, asking God to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. A complicated ceremony of the breaking of bread and taking of wine followed. The service ended with collective prayers of thanksgiving and a formal dismissal, “Ite, missa est” (Go, you are sent forth), from which the term for the service, the Mass, is derived.
The second important rite in the early Church was the initiation ceremony called baptism. The simple washing away of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands mentioned in the New Testament became an elaborate and formal ritual presided over by the head of the Christian co...

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