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Art and witness - The Witness to Faith fgiven by the Jewish People in Medieval Christian Art
Béatrix-Marie de Drée
The art student, the pilgrim, the tourist, while appreciating art for art's sake, need to be aware that there are theological concepts found in many medieval art forms that are no longer acceptable in today's climate of dialogue.
Artistic expression in the Middle Ages was essentially Christian. The art of this period both has witness value and is instructive. It vouches for the reality of an event which is seen through the language of sign and symbol. It reveals the sense of the sacred in an age which, more than at any other time, saw the visible world as intermediary between God and man. A work of art is not pure invention, without any connection with the world in which it came into being: it bears witness to its time, as well as to the faith and personality of its creator. Its message is not only for an élite but for the vast majority of ordinary people, most of them illiterate. The Word of God is not only preached, it is also seen . presented for all to see like a great open book which progressively takes over every part of the building. It is the "poor person's Bible" capable of being read easily even by the most humble. Façades, porches, stained-glass windows, rood-screens, everything pertaining to worship, all are put to the service of the Word. The man of those days was not looking for a series of precise definitions but rather a vision of the tangible world centred upon God.
Biblical and legendary representations
The Bible was the great source of inspiration for the Middle Ages. As a result of this, the rôle of Israel as a people with a mission to give witness was a very important one. When cathedral art shows the saints of the Old Covenant and the Gospel alternating with each other, in order to underline the continuity between the two Testaments, it shows very clearly a witnessing to God before the nations, carried out as far as the final trial of martyrdom, if this is required. On the other hand, examples taken from the Golden Legend of Jacques de Voragine or the miniatures of the Hortus Deliciarum show the Jewish people in an unfavourable, even a hostile light: they are presented not only as faithless themselves but as endangering Christian faith by laying claim to religious truth within the context of the Church.
Less sensitive to the story-line of the biblical passages than to their meaning, the artist is guided by the theological tendencies of his day, contemporary tasteand popular piety. Instruction through art was thus supported by the highly developed cult of pilgrimage and the saints. There were numerous shrines in Europe which preserved saints' bodies as objects of a popular piety which knew no frontiers. Local patrons, monks or martyred bishops feature in the entrance to churches, on the walls or in niches on porches and facades: thus there are St Nicaise and St Callistus at the entrance to Rheims cathedral, St Denis and St Stephen in Paris, St Firmin and St Acheul at Amiens. Inside the building the story of their lives is unfolded, often embroidered with legends and illustrated by miracles. Numerous paintings and sculptures express their message of faith, often given without payment by the artist and undertaken only for God.
A few of the most striking may be mentioned here: — the window of the Redemption in Bourges cathedral. Christ is the Witness par excellence, who came to bear witness to the truth even unto death. He is shown carrying his cross, accompanied by Isaac who prefigured him, who also carries wood for the burnt-offering.
— on the south doorway of Chartres cathedral the blood of Old and New Testament martyrs is mingled in the same sacrifice. On the other hand, within the porch the break between Judaism and Christianity is expressed by the triumph of the saints over their opponents: St Stephen tramples his Jewish adversary underfoot, Leo the Great plants the cross in the mouth of a heretic (Attila?), St Jerome appears to be crushing a blind girl, the Synagogue; she lifts her head to point to the beginning of the scriptures which she holds in her right hand, while the saint grasps the other end of the scroll, holding up his Latin translation of the Bible.
— in the apse of the basilica of St Denis, Abbot Suger sought to stress the royal ascendancy of Christ by superimposing prophets and kings, witnesses to the realisation of the promises to the chosen people, especially to the tribe of Judah. They carry distinctive signs which would identify them to Jews of that time; they are often surrounded by a nimbus which signifies the holiness of their lives.
— the doorway at Senlis, a window in Angers cathedral, another at Chartres, those at Soissons, le Mans and other places, all illustrate the same theme: the tree of Jesse.
To biblical and legendary representations may be added symbolic ones, whose scope often corresponds to the vision of the period: the visible world as a prefiguring of the invisible one. In this area, even the position of the work has symbolic value: figures of the Jewish people, the synagogue, the goat, the donkey, the owl, are placed by preference on the north side, in the shadows where the light is dim; on the south side the heroes of the New Testament stand out clearly in a blaze of light.
In the chapel of the Virgin at St Denis the Ark of the Covenant is depicted as a triumphal chariot. It is shown as the pedestal which carries the cross: sur¬mounted by Christ upheld by the Father, it clearly shows that the old covenant is the support of the new one. A little further on, in another window, Jesus crowns the Church with his right hand while with his left he draws back the veil covering the face of the Synagogue, as if he now wished to make clear all the mystery of the old Law. A Latin verse, in poor condition, ac¬companies the symbol: "Quod Moyses velat, Christi doctrina revelat" ("What Moses covered with a veil is unveiled by the teaching of Christ"). The synagogue is not yet shown as humiliated as she will be frequently in the subsequent centuries. She is still depicted as young and beautiful, a witness who has fulfilled her mission. In founding the Church, Christ lays claim to all previous revelation. This is the true meaning of this art.
On the other hand, from the middle of the thirteenth century there are numerous representations of fallen Synagogues, which totter or flee, dropping their crowns or the tables of the Law. On the walls of the Beau Dieu in Amiens cathedral the young woman at the feet of St Michael, who weighs souls in the balance, is cast down into Hell. In the cathedral at Châlons-sur-Marne she flourishes the instruments of the Passion, for which she is held responsible. The banner in her other hand hears the device: "Sanguis ejus super nos and super filios vestros". In one of the windows at Chartres a little devil shoots an arrow into her left eye to signify that he has rendered her blind.
Nevertheless there are certain less negative symbols:
— the main stained-glass window in the upper basilica at Assisi illustrates incidents from the New Testament in juxtaposition with figures from the Old. This shows the extent to which the Middle Ages were dominated by the thought of St Augustine, expressed in these terms: "... that the New Testament should be hidden in the Old and that the Old should be made manifest in the New."
— in the south transept of Strasbourg cathedral the union of the two Testaments is presented in a very striking way on a medallion: there is a bust with two heads, united by the same stole crossed on the breast. The one head is identified as Moses, who holds an aspergillum in his hand for purifying the people with the blood of a bull; the other is Christ, who holds the chalice of the New Covenant, also sanctifying the people through his blood.
— the prophets on the buttresses of Amiens cathedral are accompanied by reliefs which illustrate their mission as witnesses: the seraph purifying the lips of Isaiah, Ezekiel contemplating the interlocking wheels, Jeremiah burying his girdle, Jonah praying in the Whale's belly, Daniel in the lions' den etc . . . The list could go on for ever!...
Such a brief explanation cannot give a full picture of the extraordinary artistic wealth of the Middle Ages; it is the most fruitful period in history for quality as well as quantity. It was a period marked both by a sense of the greatness of the Jewish people in their rôle as witnesses and by a prejudice and ignorance which has been perpetuated over the centuries. In the field of research and the analysis of works of art the witness given by the artist, his creative zeal, his capacity to go beyond himself, are the things which make up the essence of his message, to be faithfully transmitted through the medium of the sign.
Artistic experience is to lay hold of the absolute, and this can be a privileged means of communion among men. To take time to discover all this wealth in an era characterised by a desire to come closer to others in understanding, is surely a way to help towards a better comprehension of the world, of history and of man himself.
S. Béatrix-Marie, a religious of Our Lady of Sion, is qualified in drawing, painting and History of Art, and is especially interested in iconographical research.