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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 2 Word


A use of the Old Testament as precedent had addressed contemporary concerns by plucking examples from its texts, but a more rigorous approach to the Bible through scholarly analysis lay behind most medieval Christian iconography. Dipping into the Scriptures to support political or military activity, to legitimise status, to identify exemplary behaviour or to encour- age artistic activity, required little if any explanation or interpretation. The instances were cited to back-up particular issues and were quoted as final proofs or justifications for actions. Where the Old Testament was studied systematically, as the starting point for understanding the revealed Word of God from which hidden truths could be discovered, layers of meaning in the texts were uncovered and scrutinised. Interpretations of single words as well as of whole passages gave rise to familiar visual features. The Latin cornatu (horned), describing the face of Moses as he descended Mount Sinai (Exodus 34 v. 29), took a particular slant from the Hebrew from which it was translated and produced one of the most common attributes of any Old Testament character. In Genesis the forbidden fruit of the tree in the Garden of Eden is not named, but it became the apple – in Latin malum – associated with the same word mean- ing wicked or evil. Reference has already been made in the Introduction to the Latin word for throat which lay behind discussion of Adam’s sin as that of gluttony, expressed in art by his raising a hand to his neck in the Garden...

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