The relationship between medieval art and the Bible is a complex and potent one, as a significant portion of Christian and Jewish visual production from the Middle Ages was predicated on scriptural sources. In the interest of space, this article will offer a brief history of this relationship through the consideration of several important artefacts produced between the third and the fifteenth centuries. Its special focus is on the engagement of medieval art with biblical narrative; objects discussed here encompass a wide range of media and come from the three Abrahamic faiths, and Christian images are chosen from both the western medieval and the Byzantine traditions. While at first glance these choices might seem somewhat arbitrary, the images were selected not only because they encompass some of the most important themes in medieval art but also for the particularly salient ways in which they grapple with the problems of narrative structures. Both the geographical and temporal leaps are meant to hint at the breadth of what we call “medieval art”: nearly a millennium-and-a-half of complex, varied, and fraught image-making.
Art historical literature that considers the interconnections between medieval art and the Bible is vast, which makes its historiographic overview a truly Sisyphean task: much of the scholarship that treats medieval visual culture engages, in some way, with the richness of these interconnections. Already in 1895, Franz Wickhoff published a study of the Vienna Genesis, a famous purple-dyed silver-ink manuscript, written in Greek and richly illustrated. Wickhoff’s taxonomy of early Christian narrative formulated in Die Wiener Genesis—he broke it down into complementary, epic, and continuous types—was rethought and simplified in Kurt Weitzmann’s Illustrations in Roll and Codex (1947), which suggested that narrative can be conceived to be either “monoscenic” or “polyscenic” (or “cyclical”). Weitzmann’s classification influenced countless studies of medieval narrative and was challenged and enriched by Otto Pächt in The Rise of Pictorial Narrative in Twelfth-Century England (1962). While focusing on twelfth-century English imagery, Pächt introduced viewers into the mix, pointing out their active roles in piecing together the narrative movement and so propelling a story forward. Setting aside earlier taxonomies, Pächt brought attention to the narrative lacunae, which require the beholder to recognize, connect, and interpret disparate scenes. Pächt’s approach has informed and been further developed by more recent studies of biblical pictorial narrative, some of which take a structuralist approach to its study, and some of which focus on the many-layered contexts—political, liturgical, cultural, scientific—that offer insight into the scriptural imagery under scrutiny. So, Wolfgang Kemp’s seminal study of Gothic stained glass, Sermo corporeus (1987), suggested that the preset armature of church windows and their geometric layout forced specific narrative fragmentation and rearrangement, which in turn generated new and varied sets of meanings offered to the viewer as something akin to a visual sermon. A very different approach is suggested in Suzanne Lewis’s study of medieval apocalypses, Reading Images (1995), which examines the relationship between the beholder, the images, the biblical text, and the accompanying exegesis, all within the immediate historical and physical contexts for the manuscripts in question. Both Kemp and Lewis published methodological think pieces that explore the concept of narrative in visual culture, with Lewis’s essay closely focused on medieval art, and with both providing very useful bibliographies. Joseph Gutmann’s indispensable studies, many of which highlight the role of biblical narrative in and the relationship between Jewish, Christian, and Islamic medieval art—and I draw special attention to his edited volume, No Graven Images (1971), which gathers excellent essays that approach this topic from a multitude of angles—have been complemented recently by the work of Katrin Kogman-Appel, who focuses on Sephardic illuminated manuscripts and their relationship to Christian and Islamic codices (2004, 2006). For the biblical narrative in Islamic art, one of the most recent and useful studies is Rachel Milstein’s La Bible dans l’art Islamique (2005), which—while offering a survey of scriptural themes in Islamic painting from Mongolian Iran to the present day—discusses a great deal of medieval material within its literary and historical contexts.
Image and Narrative.
One of the best starting points for the study of medieval art as it relates to biblical narrative is Dura Europos, a Roman border city located in modern-day Syria, on the right bank of Euphrates. Destroyed and abandoned in 256 C.E., the site preserves, among other important monuments, a synagogue decorated with vibrant murals. The murals comprise what appears to be the earliest biblical cycle figured in a continuous narrative and include scenes from Genesis and Exodus, as well as the books of Esther, Ezekiel, Kings, and Samuel; connections with Midrashic exegesis are also clear. Images here, symbolic and narrative, embrace the style one finds throughout the Near East: frontal figures are positioned against flattened spaces, and hierarchy of scale explicitly indicates the importance of significant buildings and main protagonists. Inscriptions in several languages accompany the images. Conflation of several narratives into a single panel is another feature that appears, for example, in the image that features Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. Here, read from right to left, are several episodes that have Israelites leave the walls of the city and approach the Red Sea, with Moses—a large, dominant figure—raising his arm to part it; the drowning of the Egyptian army in that same sea with Moses appearing again, smaller this time, his arm lowered to indicate the closing of the waters; and the miracle in Mara, which has Moses featured for the third time, again grown in size, his arm fully lowered as if to indicate the ultimate conclusion of the scene. The hand of God appears twice in the panel, as it appears elsewhere throughout the murals, indicating the invisible but anthropomorphic deity. The narrative is based on Exodus 14–15, while the inscription in Jewish Aramaic identifies not only the basic events represented, such as the splitting of the sea by Moses, but also the figure of Moses himself. The synagogue emerges as a summa of several biblical books, a visual encyclopedia that focuses largely on salvation history and liturgical ritual.
A different kind of narrative encyclopedia—this one focusing on Christ’s life and Passion—appears on the lid of a remarkable box from the Sancta Sanctorum that contains stones, bits of cloth, and pieces of wood brought home from the Holy Land by a devout pilgrim. Created around the sixth century in Syria or Palestine (now in the Vatican’s Museo Pio Cristiano), the box offers a glimpse of medieval culture’s manifold engagement with the scripture, anchored both in visual imagery and in material relics. The objects contained in the box and marked with the sites from which they were taken—Bethlehem or Mount of Olives, for example—undoubtedly functioned as mnemonic images, experiential aids that prodded the memory and allowed the pilgrim to recall the specific places where Christ’s terrestrial existence unfolded. The stones and wood, moreover, are loosely arranged into a Chi Rho monogram: Christ’s image figured through his name, through the word. The materiality of this word in stone is contrasted with the drawing on the outer side of the lid, which features the image of the cross on Golgotha, intersected by two objects that likely stand for the Lance and the Sponge. The image and the material relics are linked, semantically and visually, by the five painted narratives on the underside of the lid, which—although they do not seem to correspond fully to the relics within the box—detail the places most popular among the pilgrims: the Sepulcher, Golgotha, Mount of Olives, Bethlehem, and Jordan. They also recall the scriptural episodes that the pilgrim was meant to meditate upon while looking at and touching the contents of the box. The scenes painted in separate compartments, visually similar to the famous Rabula Gospels and notable for their detailed topography, include the Nativity and the Baptism at the bottom, the Crucifixion in the middle, and Holy Women at the Tomb and the Ascension on the top. The Virgin, prominently featured in four of the five scenes, offers us a rare glimpse into the early instances of Marian veneration, connected, perhaps, with the identity of the pilgrim to whom the box belonged. If the Dura Europos Moses sequence is meant to be read from right to left, in the manner of Aramaic or Hebrew text, the sequence here—neither chronological nor quasi-textual—rather recalls descriptions of mnemonic diagrams, described in treatises on artificial memory, and arranged so as to facilitate heuristic recall of Christ’s life and Passion.
The reliquary box was an intensely personal object, but scriptural texts could be put to political use, and the Crucifixion narrative, employed for the meditative needs of a pilgrim, could become a vehicle for theological propaganda, as one clearly sees in the Chludov Psalter created between 850 and 875. The crucified Christ on folio 67r of the Psalter bears deceptive similarities with the Christ on the reliquary box: also dressed in the colobium, he suffers at the hands of his tormentors, one of whom has just pierced his side with a lance and another who raises a sponge soaked in vinegar to his mouth. An amphora with vinegar is precariously balanced next to the cross on top of a steep hill; at its bottom another amphora rests, filled with water and lime. Into this amphora, two men, clearly labeled as iconoclasts, have just dipped a cloth suspended on a long pole, which they now thrust at the image of Christ—his face shown in imago clipeata—in order to efface it. It is no mistake that the cloth rests at the painted Christ’s mouth, much as the sponge is directed to the crucified Christ’s lips. The visual echoing between the crucified Christ’s halo and the medallion shape of his image, between the two amphorae, and between the implements wielded by Christ’s tormentors and the iconoclasts suggests that Christ’s image is elided with Christ’s body and that iconoclasts not only deface the image of God but also assault its prototype thus engaging in what was described as the Second Passion. The image thus comments on the scripture while also taking a theopolitical stance: it marks the end of Iconoclasm in 843 and celebrates the victory of the iconodules, and its readers who likely belonged to a patriarch’s circle would have delighted in the complex elision of the biblical past and the more recent events.
The Chludov Psalter image suggested, in other words, that scriptural events prefigured the future, while the present could provide a comment on the biblical past. Far more frequently, however, medieval biblical imagery was concerned with demonstrating another kind of historical fulfillment: to wit, the typological continuities between the Old and the New Testaments. A particularly striking map to such prefigurative structures appears in Ottonian bronze doors commissioned by Bishop Bernward for the Church of St. Michael in Hildesheim and completed ca. 1015. A former tutor of Emperor Otto III, Bernward had both political and ecclesiastical ambitions and distinguished himself as a great patron of the arts. The Hildesheim doors are his greatest legacy: inspired by the monumental wooden doors of the Roman church of Santa Sabina, they stand some 16 feet, 6 inches in height, with each cast from a single solid valve in a lost-wax technique, and offer a veritable compendium of theological, exegetical wisdom in its 16 frames. The left door, which likely takes its cue from the frontispiece of a Carolingian Touronian Bible, is dedicated to Genesis and reads from top to bottom, visually indicating the Fall of Man it chronicles. The narrative begins with Eve’s formation, continues with the presentation of Eve and Adam, the scene of Temptation and the Fall, and the famous Accusation scene in which Adam and Eve pass the blame for their transgression. Here, God the Father, with a cruciform halo, dramatically points an accusatory finger at Adam and Eve; the sparse setting of the scene, with only a stylized tree and few sprouts of vegetation, focuses the viewer’s attention on the unfolding spectacle. Adam, while covering himself, gazes downward with huge, expressive eyes and points at Eve with his right hand; Eve, in turn, bends down and equally expressively points at the dragon-like serpent whose tail is wedged between her calves. This is followed by the Expulsion, the toil of Adam and Eve, the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, and the slaying of Abel by Cain that concludes the left-side sequence. The right door, conversely, is read from bottom up, an equally symbolic direction for the narratives excerpted from the New Testament that chart the redemption of mankind. The lowest scene is dedicated to the Annunciation, followed by the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, the Judgment of Pilate, the Crucifixion, the Three Marys at the Tomb, and finally the Noli me tangere. What is most interesting here is the typological structure presumed for the narratives that sometimes explicitly, sometimes loosely, are associated across the two doors. The Fall with its cruciform tree is thus juxtaposed with the Crucifixion that redeems the original sin committed by the first couple (humanity dies in Adam and is resurrected in Christ), while Abel’s sacrificial lamb in the seventh panel prefigures the lamb of God born in the scene across. God’s gesture of accusation and judgment on the left is paired with Pilate’s judgment on the right, and the Expulsion from Paradise figured across from the Presentation in the Temple suggests separation from and subsequent reunion with God. The most striking in terms of contrast is the insistent juxtaposition of Eve and Mary, the second Eve: the two mothers sit across from one another in the panels above the door knockers, and just as Eve’s child commits the first murder in the final scene on the left, Mary, on the right, conceives her child who will save humanity. The unusual emphasis on Eve’s sexuality may reflect a widespread concern, acutely felt in the eleventh century, about the seductiveness of women and the subsequently endangered morality of clerics, as well as hint at Bernward’s personal struggles with (and ultimate victory over) the abbess of the nearby monastic house at Gandersheim, Sophia, characterized in the vita of the bishop as “dissolute.” Like the Chludov Psalter, therefore, the Hildesheim doors bear the deeply personal imprint of their patron.
The Hildesheim doors demonstrate several trends in image-making that would become immensely important for later medieval engagement with biblical narratives. One is the significance of the portal as the site for elaborate visual imagery. The doors served as liminal spaces of the sort, especially when they separated the realms of the sacred—the church building proper—from the realm of the profane, which remained outside of the church walls, of the domus dei, of the promise of heavenly Jerusalem. One of the most fitting images to mark such a liminal space was the vision of the Apocalypse, of Christ’s second coming and the Last Judgment. It is no wonder that one of the most imaginative scriptural texts that envisioned the end of the world gave rise to a plethora of imagery that attempted to do the same. Illuminated Apocalypses are among the most splendid books of the Middle Ages; majestic murals that picture the Last Judgment are among the most awe inspiring; sculpted tympana above numerous portals are among the most visually complex. For example, the tympanum of the Romanesque abbey church of St. Pierre at Moissac, France, envisions Chapter 4 of the book of Revelation, the Second Coming of Christ. Christ in Majesty, represented in hieratic scale, looms at the center of the tympanum, the book in his left hand, blessing with his right. He is a formidable figure, with staring eyes, crowned, haloed; the two seraphs that flank him hold a scroll and a phylactery. On either side are the four beasts, the symbols of the Evangelists, who twist in an elegant dance around the throne, and beneath Christ’s feet and all around him are the 24 Elders. These highly animated men, who hold musical instruments and chalices in praise of God, are separated into neat registers by wave-like lines, likely referencing “the sea of glass” (Rev 4:6). This is the summa of the Second Coming, the dramatic visual crescendo of John’s vision that collapses the eschatological narrative; for its elaboration, conversely, one must turn to contemporary manuscripts that had the luxury of exulting in the vivid details supplied by the book of Revelation. One such manuscript is the Silos Apocalypse (BL Add. Ms. 11695), illuminated ca. 1100 in northern Spain, at the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos. The text—the Commentary on the Apocalypse produced by Beatus of Liébana, an eighth-century Asturian theologian, geographer, and monk—is accompanied by 106 miniatures, completed by two illuminators, Munnio and Petrus. The Commentary survives in several arresting manuscripts of unparalleled vibrancy, and the Silos Apocalypse is one of them. Bifolio 147v-148, for instance, offers a stunning vision of the war in heaven, described in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation: “And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars: And being with child, she cried travailing in birth, and was in pain to be delivered. And there was seen another sign in heaven: and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads, and ten horns: and on his head seven diadems: And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered; that, when she should be delivered, he might devour her son.” Although the folio is a far cry from the abbreviated version of the apocalyptic events summed up at Moissac, the many episodes of the chapter are nonetheless conflated here. The woman, for example, is twice attacked by the dragon, a creature richly patterned and tied in knots, who spreads across the two pages, thrashing madly: just as he and his followers are being cast down to earth, the dragon continues to persecute the woman who appears in the left lower corner outfitted with wings and unimpeded by the river that pours out of the dragon’s mouth. On the right, the blackened bound Satan is contrasted with the Child who stands before the throne in the heavenly square above. The painted registers enforce the simultaneity of the action—the dragon exists both in heaven and on earth—while the expressive eyes and emphatic gestures of the protagonists endow the cloisonné-like page with supreme dynamism.
The apocalyptic imagery of Romanesque portals becomes augmented and nudged aside by new themes that gain currency in the twelfth century and focus on what has been termed the cult of the Virgin. Mary’s prominent role in the Hildesheim reliefs already points to the growing interest in the figure of Christ’s mother, evident both in theological writings and visual imagery, an interest that was to develop steadily throughout the following centuries. Marian narratives in architectural sculpture provide numerous examples of this trend, nowhere more evident than in the west and north transept portals at Notre-Dame de Chartres. Although, outside of Luke’s Gospel, references to Mary in the New Testament are minimal, Christ’s mother becomes a central character in the later medieval imaginary. As early as ca. 1120, the Virgin enthroned with Child and adored by the Magi, with Infancy narratives unfolding below, appears on the right portal of the west façade at St.-Madeleine Church at Vézelay, and this schema is taken up above the right doorway of the Royal Portal at Chartres (ca. 1145–1155). There, however, the Magi have been shed; at the top of the tympanum, the seated Virgin with Christ on her lap is flanked by angels. Below, the iconographic program found at Vézelay—Annunciation, Visitation, Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the Nativity—is enriched with the Presentation in the Temple, which is allocated an entire register. The sculpted program thus stresses the Virgin’s role in the Incarnation and serves to support the Christological narratives that unfold on two other portals (one of which is the Second Coming); the focus here is still on Christ, centrally positioned in each register of the right door, rather than on the Virgin. In the north transept portal of the same church, however, sculpted just over 50 years later, between 1205 and 1210, Mary takes her place as the Queen of Heaven alongside Christ. Here, the central tympanum has Christ and his mother figured as near equals, although Mary deferentially inclines her head and raises her arms in the direction of her son, gestures that led some to define this scene not as the Triumph of the Virgin but rather as the Coronation. The death and assumption of the Virgin are figured below, while Infancy scenes, including the Nativity, are displaced onto the left portal. Neither narrative visualized in the central portal can be found directly in the Christian scripture: stories of the Virgin’s death and assumption, which can be traced to the sixth century, were disseminated by preachers such as Vincent de Beauvais, while the story of Marian triumph has no textual counterpart at all, aside from typological interpretations of certain passages in the Psalms and the Song of Songs.
Typology, as we have seen, stands as one of the defining principles of medieval visual narrative, as is made evident by imagery in the Chludov Psalter and on the Hildesheim doors. Thirteenth-century Moralized Bibles—typologically complex and densely illuminated paraphrases and moralizations of the scripture—preserve some of the most interesting strategies for binding together Old and New Testament narratives while expressing contemporary concerns. Images placed in roundels interact with one another, enriching the adjacent text that comments on and explicates them. In the case of the early Moralized Bibles, discursive and especially visual commentary appears to place a striking emphasis on anti-Jewish rhetoric. Sara Lipton (1999) draws attention, for example, to folio 16 of Vienna ÖNB Cod. 1179, where the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:7–20) unfolds. The sequence begins with the image of the two, placed against the following verse: “Here the wife of Potiphar, perceiving the beauty of Joseph, accosts him concerning illicit love” (“Hic uxor Putiphar pulcritudinem perpendens Ioseph super illicito amore eum convenit”). The image is based on Genesis 39:7: “And after many days his mistress cast her eyes on Joseph, and said: Lie with me.” The commentary then equates the woman with “carnal molestation” that no man can resist except for Jesus Christ, who lived without sin and against whom her flattery and threats are useless. The sins to which the man succumbs in the commentary roundel are those of avarice, gluttony, pride, and, of course, lust. Here, lust is represented as a woman-headed serpent, who appears in the next commentary roundel, where she transforms into a cloak cast off by Joseph and left in the hands of Potiphar’s wife, with the text explaining that Joseph is refusing the “serpent’s worldly vanity” and choosing not to live “in tabernaculis peccatorum”—the tabernacles of sinners. The word “tabernacle” already points to the anti-Jewish sentiment, confirmed in the next two roundels. In the first, a distraught woman with a suggestively torn cloak presents herself to a concerned man; the text explains that “here the woman with ripped clothes and torn hair and spent tears makes false complaint about Joseph before her husband.” In the commentary roundel, below, a woman still more unkempt, with immodestly bare legs spread far apart, confronts a group of Jews. The commentary identifies her with Synagoga, a personification of Judaism, who “having feigned herself various injuries by Jesus, accuses Christ of false crimes before her high-priest and other doctors of the law,” thus rousing them to stand against Jesus. Potiphar’s wife, therefore, stands for carnal molestation, which, in turn, is equated with Judaism, both verbally and visually: the seductive serpent in the first commentary roundel of the series—an apparent evocation of the serpent from the garden of Eden—and the image of Synagoga clearly echo one another. (Synagoga is the iniquity personified, which lurks in wait of even perfect Christians, whom, as the commentary to the first image sequence details, it “compels to sin.”)
If Moralized Bibles explicitly polemicized against the Jews in the service of the Christian reader, then Jewish manuscripts such as the Golden Haggadah offered an implicit argument against the invasion and appropriation of Torah motifs by Christians. Illuminated ca. 1320–1330, the Golden Haggadah (London BL, MS Add. 27210) is one of the most luxurious Sephardic Haggadot to survive. Made in the Barcelona area and illuminated by two artists with very different aesthetic sensibilities, it includes 14 full-page illuminations, with each folio subdivided into four framed sections. The text contains the Haggadah proper (the book for the Seder service) along with piyyutim (liturgical hymns) for synagogue services. Most images are dedicated to the Genesis and Exodus narratives and display clear stylistic connections with thirteenth-century Italian and French art. One finds distinct echoes, for instance, between the design of the Haggadah illuminations and miniatures in the Morgan Picture Bible (1244–1254), both of which place the narrative of Noah’s drunkenness (Gen 9:20–23) next to the Tower of Babel image. The Golden Haggadah as well as the Morgan manuscript have Noah cut the vine to prepare wine and fall asleep naked within the same scene, although the differences are also striking, and not simply because the Haggadah sequence reads from right to left: if the Morgan Noah’s nakedness is shown by his decorously exposed legs, the Haggadah Noah appears as nude as Adam does on a preceding folio. The naked Noah, conversely, is figured in the Padua Bible, an Italian manuscript from ca. 1400. Despite these similarities to Christian manuscripts, many Jewish books, and the Golden Haggadah in particular, are marked by the studied absence of anything that might be perceived as prefigurative of Christological themes: its rendition of the binding of Isaac scene, for instance, makes evident that illuminators took particular care to expunge any Christian connotations by placing Isaac on the ground rather than the altar, omitting images of wood, and picturing Abraham in a near-crouch over Isaac rather than in an upright stance.
Conversely, overtly Christian motifs are to be found on the so-called Freer canteen, a brass-and-silver Ayyubid piece made in Syria or Iraq in the mid-thirteenth century, which includes the enthroned Virgin and Child, along with the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple (now at the Freer Gallery of Art). The canteen belongs to an unusual group of Islamic glass- and metalwork objects that feature Christian narratives and whose patrons and makers are unknown. On the one hand, images on the spherical side of this ampulla-shaped canteen seem to be keyed to the loca sancta and may indicate the patronage of a wealthy Christian who wished to commemorate his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. At the same time, the episodes that adorn the canteen—the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Entry into Jerusalem—are carefully chosen: focused as it is on Christ’s terrestrial exploits, the narrative repertoire would have been perfectly acceptable for a Muslim patron who would have revered Jesus as a prophet. At the same time, these same narratives are known to have adorned churches restored by the Crusaders such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and so the canteen may have been made to recall, triumphantly, such restoration, even if short lived. The iconographic program of the canteen betrays certain unusual features, however. The Presentation in the Temple, in particular, demonstrates several incongruities: the Child appears neither in his mother’s arms nor in Simeon’s, but is propped up on the altar, as if seated, and turning away from Mary; in place of turtledoves, Joseph is carrying a casket; the prophetess Anna’s scroll has become a piece of drapery; the dome above the altar carries an upside-down cross; below, the crossbeam is inexplicably adorned with fish and a bird. The flat side of the canteen is still more puzzling, decorated as it is with haloed figures who stand under 25 arches; among them is an angel and a female figure, her hand at her breast. The two turn toward one another, as Mary and the Archangel would. If this is an Annunciation scene, it is an unusual one indeed, missing its basic attributes (such as the dove), and with the protagonists barely differentiated from the rest of what appears as their arbitrarily arrayed retinue.
Irregularities on the Freer canteen, however, belie the richness of later medieval Islamic imagery that figures biblical stories as they are found in the Qur’an, the hadith, and such history narratives as Stories of the Prophets. The Quranic appropriation of these stories, taken both from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and sutured together at times in anachronistic ways (so, Moses’s sister Miriam is cast as the mother of Jesus), affords less attention to events, such as the Expulsion from Eden, and more to the protagonists of the story, such as Adam, the first prophet. In turn, the Stories of the Prophets expanded allusions to Jewish and Christian scripture found in the Qur’an and added many more legends, chronologically arranged, and inclusive of a vast number of characters, among whom, for example, are Seth and Joshua. Although it seems that the first miniatures of biblical narratives do not appear until the fourteenth century—usually, the grand vizier Rashid al-Din’s Jani’ al-Tawarikh (World History) is cited as one of the first to employ a full program of such illustrations—one finds earlier, isolated images that ostensibly show biblical figures. So, the Persian translation of Ibn Bakhtishu’s Manafi al-Hayawan (Benefits of Animals), originally put together in the eleventh century and illuminated in Maragheh (Ilkhanid Iran) between 1297 and 1300 (Pierpont Morgan M.500), illustrates the chapter on humans with an image of a man and a woman, who are generally interpreted as Adam and Eve. The two haloed figures stand in the lush garden; because both the Qur’an and the hadith specify that the couple wore clothing even in their prelapsarian state, their bodies are not entirely nude, although their garments hide little. Here, as elsewhere, the vast geographies of medieval Islamic imagery are marked by their immediate environment. At times, it is evident in the facial features of the protagonists (the Maragheh Adam and Eve, for example, are painted with Mongolian characteristics), and at times in the accoutrements provided for the stories: so, a fifteenth-century Iranian painting from Hafiz i-Abru’s Assembly of Histories shows Korah (Qarun) being swallowed by the earth along with all his earthly possessions (Num 16:31–32), among which is a Chinese-style porcelain vase painted in delicate white and blue.
The specificity of Korah’s possessions offers visual amplification on the usually reductive biblical narrative, a recurrent feature of those images that are made to accompany scriptural text. An opposite approach becomes current in later medieval Europe with the creation of the so-called Andachtsbilder, an infelicitous moniker for devotional images that rather than elaborating on a particular biblical narrative, instead extract one or two figures from it in order to incite contemplative meditation in the beholder. This was the role of icons in Byzantium and beyond, and this was also the function of crucifixes, which isolated Christ’s figure from the rest and intensified devotional fervor. In the fourteenth century, this concept was extended to include other protagonists of the Christological drama, among whom was, most certainly, the Virgin: so, the later Middle Ages witnessed the appearance of such images as the Pietà, which divorced the grieving Mary and Christ from the rest of the Lamentation group. Similarly, an isolated image of Christ and St. John the Evangelist was, in essence, a reimagined scene of the Last Supper, from which other apostles and the setting itself were made to fall away. A sculptural group now at the Cleveland Museum of Art, carved between 1300 and 1320, is a case in point. Nearly 93 cm tall, it is an impressive and striking image, which foregrounds the tender relationship between the handsome Christ and his beloved disciple. John’s head rests on Christ’s breast, close to Christ’s heart. John’s eyes are closed, but Christ gazes straight ahead, one hand on John’s shoulder, another gently supporting John’s hand. The image is based on the text, and more specifically on the Gospel of John 12:23–25 (“Now there was leaning on Jesus’s bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, and said to him: Who is it of whom he speaketh? He therefore, leaning on the breast of Jesus, saith to him: Lord, who is it?”). Andachtsbilder, popular in male and female monastic communities in the Upper Rhine, are in particular associated with medieval mysticism and visionary literature, and this kind of sculptural group is no exception. There were several Christ–and–St. John ensembles at the Dominican convent of St. Katharinenthal, and at least one of them was a catalyst for mystical phenomena for those nuns who prayed before it: the vitae of two St. Katharinenthal nuns record that one sister, Anne of Ramschwag, grew transparent and glowed from within, while another, Adelheid Pfefferhartin, levitated; both sisters were observed by other nuns. The visual abbreviation of the Gospel verses therefore led to an expanded engagement with the devotional image: the bond of knowledge and love between Christ and his beloved disciple was something beholders aspired to attain, modeling themselves on both men, and seeking to share in St. John’s love for Christ as well as in Christ’s love for the Evangelist. The desire for imitatio, the longing to become one with Christ at his Passion, finds perhaps its ultimate outlet in the Man of Sorrows imagery, which reached the highest affective pitch in the fifteenth century—here, Christ is presented alive but suffering, bleeding, eternally tortured—in a never-ending Passion in which beholders are invited to share. The image can be traced back to the Byzantine prototype, the icon of Christ as the King of Glory, simultaneously exalted and tormented. But the image of the Man of Sorrows, which gained great currency in later medieval Europe when it also became associated with the miraculous vision of St. Gregory, is quite unlike the Byzantine icon: here, Christ’s eyes are often open, his wounds displayed, his liminal state emphasized. Such a Man of Sorrows, held up by a dark-winged angel, stands against a golden background in Master Francke’s 1420 painting, now at Leipzig’s Museum der bildenden Künste. Christ’s body is ashen, his downturned mouth is blue, and his barely opened eyes fix the viewer with a tormented, accusatory gaze. With his right hand Christ draws attention to his side wound, about to pull it open; his left is holding a miniature whip. Two diminutive angels in the foreground attempt to support Christ’s hand at the same time as they carry the Instruments of his Passion: the column, the scourge, the lance, the sponge. Behind stands the cross with the titulus crucis and two nails still hammered into the wood, marked with blood. Blood pours down from underneath the crown of thorns, streaking Christ’s forehead and temples; it smears his hands; it trickles out of the side wound. This Eucharistic image par excellence has its basis in Isaiah 53:3–6 (“Despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows … he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins”) but does not refer to any particular episode in the Christian scripture: it points, instead, to the Passion narrative as a whole, summed up in one single, powerful vision of suffering.
This synoptic, necessarily wide-ranging, and just as necessarily brief essay only begins to hint at the complex relationship between medieval art and biblical texts. It also points to several challenges that await any student of medieval biblical imagery. One is the need to untangle the multivalent and fluid relationship between text (written and spoken) and image that ostensibly illustrates, but just as often enriches, changes, and subverts it. Another is the necessity to recognize the many demands that narrative places on the viewer, locating the meanings of its very structures in the beholder’s cognitive faculties. Yet another is the importance of considering the many contexts—visual, political, devotional—which inform the way that these visual narratives are produced as well as the ways in which they are received. Medieval art engages with the Bible ardently and with breathtaking complexity, tasked with not a small responsibility: to illuminate the vital, and fraught, relationships between humanity and the divine.
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