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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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Chapter 1 Precedent


When Gervase of Canterbury wrote his eye-witness account of the dev- astating fire at his cathedral in 1174, he likened it to the Fall of Jerusalem and the grief of on-lookers to the Lamentations of Jeremiah.1 It was part of a medieval sense of identity to find parallels to contemporary situa- tions within the Scriptures, that is to make connections with a people whose successes and disasters were familiar through liturgy, lectionaries and detailed biblical study in the monasteries and schools. The Old Testament not only contained a rich collection of human experiences, but allowed comparisons to be made to the fortunes of those who had lived under the protection or punishment of the God now worshipped in the Church. A precedent was, simply, something that had happened before. When it was acknowledged within this religious context it of fered added dimensions and gained enlarged perspectives. An echo of the present moment within the books of Scripture linked contemporary events with those believed to have taken place under divine control. There was a bond with the people who had lived within the bounds of an earlier stage of sacred history, who had struggled at times to make sense of their condition but who had eventually come to realise an overall purpose in their varying fortunes. A modicum of comfort might be found and raw emotion tempered through comparison with their previous experiences. Precedents also of fered points of reference for actions undertaken by the Church, such as the Crusades, or...

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