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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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Plate 1 Crucifixion with Typological Scenes, Canterbury Cathedral, Corona Redemption Window, detail, thirteenth century. Photo: John Sells. With kind permission of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury. Plate 2 Adam, Eve and Serpent, St Botolph’s Church, Hardham, West Sussex, chancel wall painting, twelfth century. Photo: J.A. Kidd. Plate 3 Eve created from Adam and Noah receiving the Dove into the Ark, Genesis Initial, Winchester Bible, folio 5r, detail, twelfth century. Photo: © Sonia Halliday. Plate 4 Front of Enamelled Cross from the Meuse Region with Typological Scenes, second half of the twelfth century. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum. Plate 5 The Magi with Prophets and Old Testament Scenes, Canterbury Cathedral, north choir aisle window, detail, twelfth/ thirteenth century. Photo: © Sonia Halliday. Plate 6 David as Acrobat, Lincoln Cathedral, south transept window, detail, thirteenth century. Photo: Matthew Taylor. With kind permission of the Dean and Chapter, Lincoln.

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