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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 4 Typology I


One of the key uses of the Old Testament in medieval art comes under the heading of typology. It was a method of exegesis that has been defined as ‘an establishment of historical connections between certain events, persons or things in the Old Testament and similar events, persons or things in the New Testament’.1 In art history it usually applies to a correspondence of mean- ing in two images placed side by side, or to a visual comparison between two pictures in which colour, form and line echo each other. The most familiar use of the term relates to the iconography of Old Testament images set beside events from the Gospels. In the corona window of Redemption in Canterbury cathedral, each of the frames of the New Testament sequence of Christ’s Crucifixion, Entombment, Resurrection, Ascension and send- ing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is surrounded by four episodes from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Crucifixion group (Plate 1), referred to in the Introduction, depicts Moses striking a rock in the wilderness (Exodus 17), Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22), the Passover lamb killed and its blood painted on the doorposts of Hebrew houses (Exodus 12), spies returning with a bunch of grapes from the Promised Land (Numbers 13). These Old Testament scenes are types, from the Greek word tupos, often translated as impression, pattern or likeness and having the more specific meaning in the context of biblical art of prefigurings of the future in prior history.2 They are not...

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