Art And Iconography

The first Christian plastic images are found about 200 CE. Catacomb paintings include such Old Testament scenes as Adam and Eve separated by the tree with the serpent upon it; Noah and the Ark; Daniel in the lions' den; the story of Jonah in episodes. Here there was perhaps some dependence upon an existing Jewish tradition of pictorial representation of Old Testament figures and events. The synagogue at Dura had pictures of the Lion of Judah; of Moses leading the chosen people across the Red Sea; of the resurrection of the dead before Ezekiel; of the Ark and the Temple. Christian art could build on such examples, representations of Old Testament themes which could be seen to have strong symbolism for Christians: the ascension of Elijah, for example, or the three visitors grouped round Abraham's table (Gen. 18) seen as figures of the Trinity.

By the fifth or sixth centuries Old Testament and New Testament images appear in cycles of scenes in sequence, not necessarily paired as yet as they were later to be, so as to show how the Old Testament pointed forward to the New. Abraham, Moses, Jonah, for example, may be seen as representing stages in the salvation story. Manuscripts such as the Vienna Genesis provided Old Testament models and the experiment with New Testament additions to the repertoire is found for instance in S.Maria Maggiore in Rome. The concords between Old and New Testament, however, proved irresistible to artists. Benedict Biscop brought back from his fourth trip to Rome late in the seventh century a collection of symbolic images to illustrate the agreement of the two. There were strong incentives to pair images, the New Testament fulfilment of a prophecy with the Old Testament prophecy itself; Isaiah with the Virgin and Child; wonders worked by Moses with the miracles of Christ. These tie in closely with the typological parallels being developed in literature by the Fathers, especially Origen, Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, and Augustine.

By the twelfth century, the influence of liturgical drama is increasingly apparent. For example, in Easter week Christ's meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus would be acted out, with Christ dressed as a pilgrim with a staff and a shepherd's scrip, in a way which closely parallels representations in art. Abbot Suger of St Denis in northern France was especially important in leading fashions in iconographical design, and in his iconographical largeness of vision. The 'Tree of Jesse' window with the Kings of Judah, which he developed, was further elaborated upon at Chartres in the window there. The Virgin is enthroned above the Kings, with God above her, and on either side of the tree the Prophets are placed one above another. At St Denis the Old Testament Kings stand on either side of the door. At Dijon the Queen of Sheba with the feet of a goose or ass stands facing Solomon across the doorway.

For iconographical conventions to serve their purpose of making a story or a message immediately comprehensible, and telling truths both narrative and symbolic in pictures for the edification of the illiterate, there must be some more or less settled agreement about the interpretation of the biblical scenes which are being portrayed. By the twelfth century that had been more or less arrived at, at least for the purposes of pairing Old Testament with New or relating the history of God's plan for the world from the beginning. In the central bay of the north portal at Chartres cathedral ten statues of patriarchs and prophets both foretell Christ and tell in outline the history of the world. Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac represent the age when men lived according to the law of circumcision; Moses, Samuel and David the age of the Law; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Simeon and John the Baptist the prophetic age. In scenes around the Crucifixion in windows at Bourges, Chartres, le Mans, Tours, parallels are drawn between the rock smitten by Moses from which a spring leapt forth and the water and blood issuing from Christ's side when he was 'smitten' by the 'rod' of the Cross. The crowd who complained while they waited for the miracle are the people who do not rest content with the Law but come to quench their thirst at the New Testament's living spring (Exod. 17:1-7; Num. 20:1-13). The brazen serpent raised by Moses to heal the people is a figure for the elevation of Christ on the Cross. Abel is a prototype of Christ because he is the just man who is slain; Cain is the ancient people of God who slew him, just as the Jews killed Christ.

In most cases such visually depicted parallels can readily be found in writing in the standard gloss which had evolved by the end of the twelfth century (the glossa ordinaria); or are commonplaces of patristic exegesis. Iconography followed scholarship and attempted nothing new in terms of interpretation. It was of its essence that it should not, if it was to be theology in pictures for ordinary people.

A serious drawback to iconographical method was the difficulty of rendering many ideas and principles graphically or in sculpture. The bitter waters of Mara, changed into sweet when Moses threw in a piece of wood (Exod. 15:23-5), can readily be understood to represent the Church's work of producing living water for God's people, but the parallel is not easily conveyed fully in a picture. Still less can the finer conceptual points of doctrine be treated in this way with any hope of doing it accurately, or of making them intelligible to the unlettered. The real strengths of iconography lay in its symbolic and story-telling powers. The Protevangelium of James tells of many legendary events connected with the birth of Christ which entered into the iconographic 'canon'. The power of Old Testament iconography, then, always lay in the making of links with the New Testament, the underlining of the success of prophecies emptied out into fulfilment in Christ. It could also say something about God's care for the world by reminding the 'reader' of God's providential intervention in such episodes as those of the Ark, the burning bush, or the sending of manna. Perhaps above all, it has something to say about the nature of revelation, by putting before the eyes God's 'showing' of himself and his purposes.

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