by Mark Calderwood
The idea that images have sacred power is an old one- and one that doesn’t sit well with our rational modern sensibilities. But it is still a behemoth that lurks beneath the entire tradition of Western art, and opens up one particularly baleful eye in the genre of medieval religious art.
In the Classical world, 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 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 in Christian art. In encouraging the imagination and provoking an emotional response, naturalistic art prompts the viewer to suspend their disbelief, to accept what they see as the complete verisimilitude of the subject. And just as the aesthetic of Classical sculpture drove renaissance art to become ‘so like to life that it lacked only breath,’ the ancient culture of sacred images shaped how the Christian faith used paintings.
In the pre-Christian world, the emotional investment in ‘reading in’ an artwork led to a lack of differentiation between deity and image. The image of a deity was imagined to possess all the volition and miraculous, healing or protective powers of the deity: thus is was necessary to treat 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. Spectators were prepared for their encounter with the image through a series of ritual acts; bodily postures and reverential attitudes, even the hardships of the pilgrim’s journey. The unstated intent is not only that the faithful might not only look on the image, but that the image should look back and heed their supplication.
Before the fifth century, the Church fathers had a lingering distrust toward images, 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 ingrained fears of idolatry persisted.
But as Christianity grew more confident, its leaders began to reappraise the potential of art to further understanding and devotion in its converts, especially for those without access to writing or from non-literate cultural backgrounds. Pope Gregory the Great defended their function: “What Scripture is to the educated, images are to the ignorant…placed in the church not in order to be adored but solely in order to instruct.” The crucial point Gregory makes is that it is the act of reading the image, of thoughtfully grasping the meaning and spiritual relevance, that should replace the physical actions of worship such as bowing and kissing. The viewer is moved to see understand the sacred image as a metaphorical glimpse of a divine world.
But while the bulk of medieval art kept to this method of bringing the viewer to a remote, timeless God, late medieval art subverted that habit to bring the divine into the everyday.
Artistic and cultural thought of the time, shaped by convoluted medieval exegesis and pictorial skepticism, understood that realism and symbol, surface and depth were not exclusive, but subject to a web of overlapping meanings and relationships. And with spiritual trend of devotio moderna- that held the presence of the divine amid the everyday- being so popular among the wealthy merchant classes, Flemish artists responded by pioneering a new kind of religious art, built on an iconographic language that was once at once utterly symbolic and utterly real.
One of the hallmarks of this language was its articulation of religious narratives within a homely context, making them 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, as eloquently depicted in the Merode altarpiece by Tournoise painter Robert Campin.
Now held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Merode Altarpiece was begun 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 meant for private devotion rather than public worship. As such, the conventions of this type of painting were less restrictive to the artist, allowing Campin to innovate within the visual language of religious art.
The triptych’s centre panel contains what is at first glance a standard 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 cues the spectator’s correct response to the scene, after 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 of adjusting oneself to prayerful devotion: with road and window, Campin in particular calls attention to the spaces surrounding the central event, imbuing the scene with a 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 pick out and meditate upon their implications, to make their spiritual ‘reality’ immediate. 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, almost as if the picture suddenly reveals to the attentive viewer a glimpse of a profound spiritual meaning beneath its quotidian trappings. 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. These carvings indicate the importance of this type of bench, as a prized possession and symbol of hospitality in the medieval home, as an item often taken on pilgrimage, but also the Sedes Salomonis, the kingly throne adorned with lions of a Madonna in Majesty. The lily in an everyday maiolica pitcher is a standard prop of Annunciation scenes, speaking to 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; hence Marys 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 dispute, but to advocate a position.
Each of the domestic objects in the scene, depicted with relentless realism and in minute 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, 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. It is interesting to note that 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 being literal, these are actually a sophisticated depiction of the mystery and doctrine being actively imagined by the donors, their religious sensibilities and personal 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 the 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.