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Behind the Image

Understanding the Old Testament in Medieval Art


Judith A. Kidd

Scenes and characters from the Old Testament appear frequently in Western medieval art, yet the study of their significance is a neglected area of iconography. A common literature for both Jews and Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures had an especially broad appeal for the Church of the Middle Ages. Many sections of medieval society identified with the Hebrews of the Old Testament and sought from them direct models for leadership, moral behaviour and even art itself. Most of the imagery in medieval art derived from close study of the biblical texts and from the retelling of these stories in contemporary poetry and drama.
This interdisciplinary study of art history and theology takes a thematic approach to the ways in which the Church drew on the ancient texts, focusing on the topics precedent, word, time, typology and synagogue. The introduction given here to the vast scholarly and literary hinterland behind the art, with insights into the thought processes from which the images emerged, not only brings fresh perspectives to specific sculptures, wall paintings, stained glass and liturgical objects, but facilitates a better understanding of Old Testament iconography wherever it is encountered.


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A number of people have contributed to this study, not only by specific support within its diverse areas but in the chance remark and the casual conversation. In particular, I should like to thank those who have assisted with trans- lations and with the pictures. Trudi Morrissey has carried out the ground- work for obtaining permission to reproduce some of the images and has helped with the Latin verse. Jane Hornblower has also willingly shared her knowledge of Latin and Joanna Campbell her insights into the German lan- guage. I have met kindness and generosity from Stuart Whatling, Matthew Taylor and John Sells, who have of fered their photographs to be included in this publication and from the staf f at Sonia Halliday Photographs, for whom no research has been too much trouble. Elena Greer has provided encouragement from the start of the project and Adrian Campbell’s pro- fessional expertise in computer technology has seemed like rocket science to someone who has been immersed in the medieval world. Without the generous hospitality of the Warburg Institute library in London and the help of its photographic department, this book would not have seen the light of day.

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