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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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Western medieval art is both compelling and remote. It attracts with its architectural innovations and its stone incised with surface pattern, which gradually gave way to more naturalistic forms, the intensity of colour in enamel work, manuscripts and wall painting and the display of its confi- dent vision in stained glass windows. At the same time it can be dif ficult to access. There is a certain mystery to its often unidentified figures and images. The artists were mostly anonymous and even where they did indicate their names, such as Mateo at Santiago de Compostela and Giselbertus at Autun, we know nothing else about them. They were to a large extent constrained by artistic tradition, their iconography – the selection and meaning of their subject matter – was largely determined for them, especially in the theologi- cal programmes of important religious centres. Until the later centuries they were not of fering their own impressions of the world but conveying visually, in monumental and more private art, pictures which had their ultimate roots in words and doctrines. From what may be termed the beginning of the Middle Ages, the time of Charlemagne who was crowned Emperor by the Pope in the year 800 in Rome, through to the fifteenth century when artist personalities had emerged, imagery was inspired largely by religious teaching and had an ecclesiastical context. Now it ref lects perceptions of minds distant in outlook, when even incursions into classical philosophy or natural and physical science rarely caused world views to...

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