The idea that images have sacred power is an old one- and something our modern sensibilities impute to historic or so-called primitive cultures. But it is still a behemoth that lurks uneasily beneath the entire tradition of Western art, and opens up one particularly baleful eye in the genre of medieval religious art.
To Classical thinkers, the term ‘image’ was richer than simply a pictorial depiction of a subject; it implied oikeiosis, a mystical, almost magical kinship to the model that established a unity with the divine realm. For Plato, art was but an imitation of the world, itself an imitation removed from the transcendent reality of ideas. For Aristotle, however, the artist strives to imitate tangible reality that is the manifestation of that transcendent realm/force…a force seen by the less sophisticated as the gods.
But where Plato decried art being only a painted surface, unable to be anything more than a shadow of the divine object, it was the Aristotlean ideal of artistic mimesis, the trend toward naturalistic representation, that echoed resoundingly in Christian posterity. In encouraging the imagination and eliciting an instrinctive emotional response, naturalistic art prompts the viewer to suspend their disbelief, to accept visuality as the complete verisimilitude of the subject. And just as the aesthetic fantasies of hyperrealistic Classical sculpture drove renaissance art to become ‘so like to life that it lacked only breath,’ the culture of sacred images and ritual-centres viewing shaped the Christian use of icons, relics and devotional paintings.
In the Antique world, the investment in ‘reading in’ invited by naturalism led to a lack of differentiation between deity and image. The image of a deity was imagined to possess both volition and interventionary powers whether miraculous, healing, talismanic or protective, which necessitated the treatment of the image as if it were the deity itself: paintings and statues, especially those within a sacred enclosure, were dressed, bathed, fed, garlanded, paraded and offered worship.
The visuality of those images was centred around ritual- the viewer was prepared for their encounter with the image through a series of ritual acts, from bodily postures and reverential attitudes to the privations of the pilgrim’s journey. The normal discourse of society is removed from the viewer in favour of a collective subjectivity in order that they might not only look on the image, but in order that the image should look back and heed their supplications.
Before the fifth century, the Church fathers- themselves technocrats of the written word, presiding over a religion of sacred texts- had inherited a lingering distrust toward images formed in the faith’s clandestine past, fearing that unsophisticated converts would respond to Christian images with just this kind of inappropriate adoration. Christianity had, for centuries, consciously avoided those practices and rites they observed in pagan society, and in many quarters of the church the ingrained fears of idolatry persisted. Some, such the Serenus the bishop of Massilia, went so far as to destroy the images of saints that adorned his church, furiously stating they should not be adored.
But as Christianity grew into a confident polity, its leaders began to reappraise the potential of art, both to further understanding and devotion in its adherents and express its triumphant presence. As religious images played an increasingly important role in conversion and instruction, serving as visual narrative to those without access to writing or from differing cultural backgrounds, pope Gregory the Great defended their function:
‘What Scripture is to the educated, images are to the ignorant, who see through them what they must accept; they read in them what they cannot read in books…placed in the church not in order to be adored but solely in order to instruct. It is not without reason that tradition permits the deeds of the saints to be depicted in holy places.’
Gregory held that images were able to convey the messages taken from written texts that were inaccessible to the uneducated or non-literate. He exhorted Serenus and other iconoclasts to permit images to ‘gain from them the instruction for which they were made…(and) explain that it was not the sight of the story related in a painted text that angered you, but the worship which had been paid to them illicitly.’
The crucial distinction Gregory draws is that it is the act of reading the image, of carefully intellectually grasping the meaning and spiritual relevance of the narrative, that should replace the physical responses such as bowing and kissing associated with worship of a literal spiritual presence. It is not the image that is moderated, but the action and intent of the viewer, who would then understand the images not as direct avatars of the deity as in Antiquity, but as intercessory glimpses of a distant and divine world.
Religious art retained this function throughout the middle ages. Its gilded hieratic majesty moved the worshipper bodily and spiritually, drawing them into a timeless, otherworldly realm that existed beyond, and removed from, the secular world. But while the bulk of medieval art brought the viewer to God, late medieval Flemish art subverted that trope to bring the divine into the everyday.
Artistic, religious and social thought of the time was governed by a complex interplay of intellectual pretence inherited from medieval exegetic scholarship, and realist pictorial skepticism. Realism and symbol, surface and depth were not exclusive but well understood to be subject to a web of overlapping meanings and interrelationships. Influenced by humanism and in particular the movement devotio moderna- a lay spiritual trend that advocated a more direct relationship with God and individualistic attitude towards belief that was popular among the wealthy merchant classes- Flemish art responded to the demand for religious imagery to be made accessible, made ‘real’, made immediate to daily life.
Artists such as the Tournaise painter Robert Campin pioneered a new class of religious imagery, forging medieval religious symbolism with devotio moderna’s assertion of the presence of the divine amid everyday reality into an iconographic language that was once at once utterly symbolic and utterly naturalistic.
One of the hallmarks of this language was its articulation of religious narratives within a homely context, actualising gospel events as a focus for devotion in a way that was instantly relatable to the middle-class viewer. Rather than taking the viewer into a timeless divine space, the divinity and mystery of the events are brought into the space of contemporary domestic life, a practice eloquently depicted in the Merode altarpiece.
Now held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Merode Altarpiece was begun after 1422, most likely between 1425 and 1428. With the centre panel measuring just 65 x 63 cm, the small size of the triptych, the intimacy of its imagery, and the depiction of the Virgin as the Madonna of Humility all indicate that the work was intended as a focus for private devotion rather than public worship- indeed, there is no evidence that the work was ever used as an altarpiece. As such, the conventions of this type of painting were less restrictive to the artist, allowing Campin to innovate within the established visual language of religious art.
The triptych’s centre panel contains what is at first glance a conventional Annunciation scene, with the angel Gabriel bearing news of the Incarnation to the Virgin; the right panel shows St Joseph in his workshop with a Belgian cityscape through the window. The left panel has portraits of the donor Pieter Ymbrecht (Petrus Engelbrecht) and his wife, unconventionally placed together. Both kneel ‘outside’ the house wherein the Annunciation is occurring, gazing through the open doorway at the miracle unfolding within.
The donor’s pose and placement indicates their instinctive response to the focal scene, mirroring the instructions to prayer given by Bernard of Clairvaux to approach the divine event personally, witness the miracle and be consoled by the message. That the donors kneel on the threshold, the final step of the garden path and the road outside, suggests the pilgrimage-like aspects to the adjustment to prayerful devotion: with road and window, Campin in particular calls attention to the spaces surrounding the central event, imbuing the scene with a latent narrative of spiritual journey to echo the earthly journey of the donor (and other observers). The viewer is thus cast as a pilgrim, penitent and mystical witness in the very act of looking at the painting.
Like most Flemish religious works, the Merode triptych was not designed for cursory glances. The work is saturated with symbolic detail and embedded meaning that requires prolonged contemplation to discern, and meditate upon their implications so as to make their spiritual ‘reality’ immediate and vivid. Like van Eyck after him, Campin’s structuring of the symbolism rewards prolonged looking, delaying awareness of the underlying meanings to produce a more vivid experience upon recognition, as if the picture reveals to the attentive viewer a glimpse of a profound spiritual meaning beneath the quotidian reality. The effect is not one of de-ciphering hieroglyphs, but of witnessing the image spontaneously transform itself.
In the central panel, the Virgin is herself contemplative, seated humbly on the floor in the instantly recognisable posture of the Madonna of Humility, emphasising her obedient humanity. Rather than being seated on a cushion she leans against a bench, its backrest decorated with carved lion finials that indicate the importance of this type of bench, both as a prized possession and symbol of hospitality in the medieval home and an item often taken on pilgrimage, but also indicating the kingly throne of a Madonna in Majesty (Sedes Salomonis). The lily in an everyday maiolica pitcher is a standard prop of Annunciation scenes, indicating the purity of the Virgin.
The light falling on the Virgin’s robe forms a star pattern, a delicate articulation of the medallion crosses adorning the mantle of the Theotokos in Byzantine art, that had during the middle ages transformed into the distinctive star recalling the Marian epithet as Star of the Sea. Just as subtly, the gleaming crescent arc of the candlestick base beside the Virgin references the contemporary theological controversy surrounding the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: whether Mary was an ordinary woman, or an extraordinary one without the stain of sin and thereby worthy to bear the son of God. Campin seems to not merely record the discourse, but to advocate a position.
Each of the domestic objects in the scene, depicted with relentless realism and in minute, precise detail, furthers the symbolic strata, easily discernable to the spectator accustomed to an abundance of visual cues to meaning. The room is lit by three windows, obviously and unambiguously representative of the trinity; the room’s suffusion with light is indicated by Campin’s clear, pure tones and the highlights painted in pure white. The casement window is partially shuttered, symbolic of the mortal flesh which hide Christ’s divine nature. This is echoed in the just-extinguished candle, as Christ’s divinity is eclipsed by the moment of his Incarnation, but qualified by the sole candle in the two scones above the fireplace: although there are two spaces, the duality of God and Man, the presence of just one candle indicates Christ’s nature as wholly divine.
The laver and towel hanging in the corner niche is an unusual inclusion in an Annunciation scene, and though often presumed to symbolise the Virgin’s purity, is by no means as clear-cut as it appears. Their presence references not a domestic setting but the piscina in the sanctuary, where the priest would wash the hands after the sacrifice and communion. That the messenger angel Gabriel appears robed in the alb and stole of a deacon continues the revelation of the domestic interior as the interior of a shrine. In this context, the table takes on the aspect of an altar, its sixteen sides and Bible open atop it proposing the theological view of the Incarnation as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
In painting the rays of light streaming through the glass window, piercing without breaking, Campin continues the medieval allegories of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Yet the tiny, flying baby Christ that rides down the seven gilded rays (enumerating the gifts of the Holy Ghost) is a surprisingly literal inclusion in a scene that so carefully hides its symbolism behind a convincing imitation of reality. In this case, the plastic-baby Jesus acts as the tabernacle within the sanctuary-room: in Annunciations where the sanctuary holds the host-container, it was heretical to depict the Incarnate Christ as well; in those where Christ is the tabernacle himself, the Infant can be safely shown in the flesh because He is already in the womb. As the tabernacle is a symbol for the Virgin as the hostel of Christ, the Merode Annunciation equates the physical body of Virgin with the spiritual/communal body of the church.
This is not to say that a contemporary spectator would read angel, flying infant or even the laver and linen as literally present in a middle-class house, but rather as indications of a transfigured, sanctified arrangement of reality; the scene littered with fictional signals as clues that it is not intended to depict reality, even the sacralised reality of a Flemish interior. Rather than a retrograde literalism, these are actually a sophisticated depiction of the mystery and doctrine being actively imagined by the donors, their religious sensibilities and personal intellectual-emotional engagement being galvanised through their prolonged contemplation of the triptych.
Religious art of the Middle Ages obviously differed in content and timber from the deity-images of Antiquity; while images were not held to contain the divine, they certainly subsumed it. Yet since those centuries past, the function of the devotional image remained, at its most basic level, unchanged- a ritual-centred means of viewing that moulded the body and drew the mind to the proper attitudes for contemplation their faith, and reception of a message of personal spiritual consolation.