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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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Any study of the Old Testament in medieval art, attempting to bring together in some way the many centuries that make up the Middle Ages, has to find the common threads and broad categories into which the iconog- raphy might fit. Through changing politics, conf licts of interest, develop- ing doctrine, ongoing debates and hostilities between Christians and Jews and the rise of dif ferent religious movements, these Scriptures provided a continual source of reference for the Church. They were the authoritative backdrop on which the weight of scholarship hung, as the deeper meanings of the revealed word unfolded and as academic fashions, such as twelfth century humanism, were accommodated. As the first part of biblical rev- elation, the Old Testament remained a fixed foundation by which the Church measured its many concerns and to which it turned constantly, as the previous chapters have suggested, for proof of its status and identity, for knowledge of the divine plan and for insights into the human lot. Medieval art of the Old Testament was the visual face of layers of connections within the broad categories. Apart from the evident links between Old and New Testaments and between Jew and Christian, there were the interactions of scholar and poet, of word and image, of science and theology and the fusion of ideas that sought to define man’s relation- ship to the universe. The image itself was not devoid of a spatial context which gave it meaning. Beyond these interdependencies, though, the ico- nography...

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