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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 3 Time


Augustine claimed that he understood time, until someone asked him to explain it.1 His certainty was that it began with creation and would end when the cycle of evening and morning ceased. Between these two points, he noted in his Confessions, was the problem of its measurement.2 The Old Testament went some way towards providing a foundation for the reck- oning of time. Its pattern of the six days of creation became a measuring rod for the Christian understanding of the whole sweep of time, which it divided into eras of salvation history. The Church had seen the Old Testament fulfilled but still anticipated an end to the present age, with a final judgement followed by a seventh ‘day’ of rest which would be eter- nal. Creation of the universe had also determined a cyclic time, whereby recurring seasons established the annual pattern of work and from which, loosely linked and overlaid with schemes of feasts, fasts, prayer and Bible readings, the liturgical year was shaped. Medieval art ref lected time in many ways. The story of Joseph told through narrative sequence provided its own structure of beginning, pro- gression of events and conclusion. Other arrangements, by a juxtaposition of Old and New Testament scenes, brought together certain events that had occurred centuries apart in order to make a theological statement. Old Testament history could be condensed through selection of key happenings which marked the stages of its salvation scheme: these were sometimes set out in the first letter of...

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