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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 6 Synagogue


Synagogue came to represent post-biblical Jewry, descendants of those who had formulated Old Testament history and ideas. In medieval art she was depicted as a female figure, akin to literary portrayals of the city and people of Rome as a woman or goddess.1 In a tenth-century Gospel Book, Roma is illustrated with three other women, crowned and bring- ing tribute, who represent the four parts of Otto III’s empire.2 Behind the image of Synagogue, her personification and certain attributes, even the context in which she appears, lie verses from the Old Testament inter- preted by the Church as relevant to her attitude and status. She was used to illustrate manuscript initials to certain psalms and prophets, such as the opening to Habakkuk in the Lambeth Bible. Sometimes she carried a scroll or the stone tablets of the Law, indicating her continued adherence to the old regime. Mainly she found her place beneath the crucified Christ where, with a veil covering her eyes and a crown falling from her head, she was often portrayed in a posture of defeat as she turned away from the cross. The Hebrew Scriptures, the common ground between the Jews and Christianity, had provided the basis of ongoing argument over the relative merits of their opposing viewpoints. Some of these Old Testament texts, directly or through polemic or exegesis, became summarised in the iconog- raphy of Synagogue. She was a ‘carrier of doctrine’ as well as a people.3 1 Prudentius, A Reply to the Address of...

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