Waldorf University World Art Christian Islamic and Jewish Art Discussion


write a minimum of 800 words based on the instructions and the attached readings!

Discuss the meeting of sacer and profanus as illustrated in the architecture and decoration of Christian churches/cathedrals, Jewish synagogues, and Islamic mosques discussed by Soltes in chapters 10 through 14. Answers must include The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, the Hagia Sophia (church and mosque), the Dome of the Rock Mosque, and Altneu Synagogue.) In your answer be sure to include the following words/phrases:Torah niche, aron, bimah, mihrab and parokhetContinuous narrationNave, apseSymbols, chi and rhoCross flanked by creaturesDome of the Rock

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Thomas Edison State College | 14 Jewish Medieval Art and Architecture
From the end of the fourth century till the end of the Medieval and Renaissance and Baroque periods, as we have
begun to see– and as I have consistently said– Western art is largely Christian art. But we’ve also seen in our last
lecture how Islamic art on the periphery of the world of Christendom interfaces with it.
As in an earlier lecture, from late antiquity we began to raise the question, in what way Jewish art would fit into the
rubric Western art, which is primarily Christian? Particularly, as Jews are– as we move through the medieval
world– an archipelago of islands within vast, both Christian and Muslim, seas.
How, we might ask, would in the Medieval period when Christianity and Islam have become dominant?
Christianity, with its sense of God assuming human form, and therefore its open array of possibilities for
representing the sacre in human, and certainly in figurative, representational form.
And Islam on the other hand, with its ideas shared with Judaism of God as invisible, and therefore that cannot be
portrayed. And therefore making use in particular, but not only, of abstract and not representational kinds of visual
We have seen earlier how Jewish art in late antiquity is really fairly comfortable with figurative representation. And
even God might be represented, as we saw, by showing hands coming out of a sunburst, so as to take that
phrase, the Hand of God, and literally visualize it in the mosaic form or in the wall-painted form.
But how does this all play out when we move into the Medieval period? How will Jewish art respond to its own
internal prerogatives and to the world around it? If we start with the Alhambra in Granada, we recognize those
familiar aspects of Islamic decor. We recognize a monumental series of forms broken up into minute details. How
the minute details offer a kind of infinitizing quality.
How we have a dialogue between floral and vegetal form on the one hand and geometric on the other, between
curvilinear and rectilinear elements. How the whole thing interfaces with calligraphy, that in this case, we see
climbing up the frames to the right and left of these arches. Where in Arabic, the words, No god but God, are
repeated again and again.
If we look to Toledo, where there are two synagogues that have survived in Spain, and turn for an example to the
so-called Abulafia synagogue named for the individual who apparently financed it in the 14th century. Toledo,
which had been in Islamic hands, as Cordoba was, until about 1085. Toledo, which retained a large Jewish
community until 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella drove the remaining Jews out of the Iberian Peninsula in the
summer of that year.
If we look at a detail from the Abulafia synagogue in Toledo, we recognize familiar elements from the Islamic
decor in the world around when this synagogue was built. So again, vegetal and floral elements in interface with
geometric elements, curvilinear with rectilinear arches which are poly-lobed, that may recall to your memory’s eye
from our last lecture, the poly-lobed arches within the mihrab at Cordoba in its great mosque.
And of course, calligraphy, here across the upper reaches of the wall, and of course not in Arabic, but in Hebrew.
Not a passage that could be considered [INAUDIBLE] but a passage from the Bible, from the Psalms, that runs
across the roof line there. And then the roof itself, of course, colored and covered with geometric and vegetal
elements, that again, reflect and emulate Islamic style.
If, interestingly, we turn to the exterior of the structure, in fact, there’s not a single thing about it that would suggest
to us that it is a synagogue. The bell tower comes later, after 1492, when this was transformed into a church. And
we are reminded of the fact that as a rule of thumb, in both the Muslim and the Christian worlds, the Jews were
not permitted to build large synagogues, were not permitted to build synagogues that advertised themselves with
glory on the exterior, as churches and mosques might.
And so all of that devotion to decorative detail would have to come on the interior, as we’ve seen in the previous
image. And if we turn to the second surviving synagogue in Spain– out of the hundreds that were once there– the
second surviving synagogue, which also happens to be in Toledo, the Ibn Shushan synagogue, which is actually a
bit earlier than the Abulafia synagogue, from perhaps, the 13th century. We once again recognize the intricate
interweave of geometric and vegetal very stylized kind of detail.
We recognize how the capitals of the columns are done in a geometric and stylized vegetal kind of manner,
nothing that is even vaguely figurative. And we realize that we are staring at a series of arches that are in style
what are called keyhole or horseshoe arches, and that create because there was a whole series of arcades
across this interior, a kind of forest, that ultimately derives its inspiration from the great mosque in Cordoba that
was done between the late 8th and late 10th centuries.
The mihrab, of which we saw in our previous lecture. The poly-lobed elements within the mihrab, to which I
alluded a few moments back, but the main structure of which offers a fantastic forest of some 355 columns. The
number of days in the Muslim year. Arches rising on arches with striated alternations between dark and light
stones, so different in detail from what we find in the much more modest synagogue over in Toledo that we just
saw, the Ibn Shushan synagogue, but offering an inspiration for that synagogue.
Now, if in looking from these two synagogues in Toledo that so obviously reflect the artistic influence of the Muslim
world around them, we turn to the Christian world where Jews proliferate across those seas, and look to Germany
and to the City of Worms, we come to the synagogue, which is arguably the oldest of the medieval synagogues
throughout Europe.
Although begun in the late 11th century, it continued to be adjusted and altered and transformed through the 18th
century and was ultimately destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. So that what we have is a restructuring of it done at
the end of the 1950s, early 1960s. And again, we turn to the interior.
And we recognize, first of all perhaps, how interested the Jewish community was in not emulating Christian
ecclesiastical structure. Rather than having the roof held up by parallel colonnades that would give us a basilical
form, which by then is associated at least in the Jewish medieval mind with Christian ecclesiastical architecture,
the roof is held up by a pair of columns.
And so the spaces, in a sense, bifurcated into two sides. And in the center between those columns, we have a
natural location for an island that rises above the sanctuary called the bimah, the raised place. The platform from
which the Torah scrolls will be read. And in this case, we recognize that the entire thing has been encapsulated in
a kind of fence.
So it looks like a cage, which is a literalization of the phrase derived from the Torah, from the Book of
Deuteronomy, from a passage in which Moses is speaking in his valedictory sermon to the Israelites about the
importance of guarding all the precepts in the Torah. So the metaphor he uses is to build a fence around the
And here we have that metaphor literalized in a manner reminiscent of how the metaphor of the Hand of God had
been later literalized in ancient synagogue representations of God in action.
We recognize as well, that the seating arrangement goes around one side, the other side, and the back of the
sanctuary. Around this bimah, creating the kind of rectilinear horseshoe arrangement we recall from the ancient
synagogue. And none of the seats facing with their back towards the structure, which would be at the front of the
The aron, the Holy Ark, the lineal descendant of the Torah niche, the sibling of the [INAUDIBLE] and the mihrab,
as we have encountered them earlier. We’re looking here at a different representation of the same synagogue as
it would have been seen in the 18th century, when it appears that the caged fenced area had been removed. And
so the bimah is the space between the columns. But we can’t really discern it past the benches. And in the
distance beyond, against the wall, is the aron, the Holy Ark.
Now, you understand that in the rabbinic literature synagogues are said, or rather the commandment is given, the
instruction is given, the prescription is given, that synagogues be elevated above the community. And the ancient
synagogues we saw were able to do that. They were raised on platforms like the Roman temples were.
But in the medieval Christian and Muslim world that became impossible, because synagogues were supposed to
remain hidden within the community. And so instead, internally, they would be raised. But not with one focus, but
with two. The aron, the Holy Ark, is raised above the level of the sanctuary. And the bimah, the platform from
which the Torah scrolls are read, the aron where they’re kept, the bimah where they’re read, are both raised as it
were, above the sanctuary community.
And in the case of the German, and then more broadly, Northern, Central, Western, and Eastern Jewish world
known in Hebrew as Ashkenazi, the Ashkenazi world. So we have this kind of a configuration. With the aron at the
far wall, and the bimah in the center.
But Jews who came from Spain and Portugal, exiled, expelled from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496-7, were
called rather, Sephardic Jews. And the Sephardic style of configuring the interior of the synagogue differed in the
following way. The aron still placed at the far wall, except that the term for the Sephardim is not aron, but hechal.
A word which had been used in earlier Hebrew to refer to the temple itself.
So it overtly suggests that the place where the Torah scrolls are kept occupies, conceptually, the place that the
temple once had for a community of Judeans when the temple still stood. And the bimah, which is referred to not
as bimah but as teva in the Sephardic vocabulary, rather than being placed in the middle of the room, in the
middle of the space as in the Ashkenazi world, in the Sephardic world, is taken to the far end of the space.
So we are looking here at the far end of one synagogue, as we were looking at the opposite end of the Worms
synagogue. The first is the Canton synagogue. But there were half a dozen different synagogues throughout
Venice that we’re coming into shape in the 16th century, in the late 15th through 16th centuries, in part, because
of the arrival of a large community of Jews from Spain and Portugal.
So there was a Sephardic synagogue. There was a Levantine synagogue for Jews from the Near East. This was
the Canton synagogue. And the interesting thing is, that the second image from Venice that I have shown you is
that of the Ashkenazi, the German synagogue. Or let me explain.
In coming from Germany and settling in Venice, the Ashkenazi, the German Jews, were affected by the
architectural taste and proclivities of the Jews around them. Just as we have seen in general terms, Jews and
Jewish architecture to be affected or affected in the sense of going against the directions of the Muslim and
Christian architectural world around them.
So the Ashkenazi synagogue in Venice looks like a Sephardic synagogue. It has its bimah, its teva, at the far end
of the sanctuary, rather than in the center of the room, which would be typical for the Ashkenazi style. And we see
that here, as in the Canton synagogue, the desks, the pews, are all placed along the lateral walls so that everyone
turns 45 degrees one way towards the aron or 45 degrees the other way towards the bimah.
That is to say, towards the hechal or towards the teva, in accordance with the needs of the service at a given time.
You may also note in looking above, that there is a kind of balcony arrangement there. And the balcony
arrangement is for the women. The women seated above, the men seated below. But the whole style is very
theatrical. And here’s an interesting paradox.
The Ashkenazi synagogue, the Canton synagogue, the Levantine synagogue, the Sephardic synagogue, all of the
Venetian synagogues built at various times, as we now have them in the 16th century, were heavily influenced by
the extreme popularity that theater had in Venice at that time. It was a center of theater. And so the women’s
section becomes a kind of theatrical balcony.
So on the one hand, there’s very strong connection to the outside world, but not to its ecclesiastical aspects. And
on the other hand, the irony and the paradox is that by the year 1516 all of the Jews in Venice were required to
live in a circumscribed area. The area was the area near what had once been the iron foundry. And the word for
foundry in Venetian dialect is ghetto.
So the word ghetto came into being in 1516 in Venice, to refer to the area to which the Jews were confined
between sundown and sunrise, and where they were confined, as far as living accommodations were concerned.
So we have this range of synagogues concentrated in one area, isolated from Venice isolated from the world. And
yet, architecturally and decoratively, very heavily influenced by the Venetian world around them.
Now, if we turn from general principles of synagogue internal configuration– and the reminder that there’s no
configuration to consider on the exterior for any of them– if we turn from these to specific kinds of details, we also
find interesting little twists and turns in the matter of emulation and association and adaptation.
So if we turn to the north again, to Central Europe once more. And in this case, to Prague, to the synagogue
known as the Old-New. The Altneu synagogue, built, perhaps, as early as the 12th, more likely I think in the early
13th century, because it’s a very early Gothic kind of structure. So I can’t imagine it was built in a Gothic kind of
structure, before Gothic architecture was yet in development.
This Old-New synagogue, this Altneuschul, so-called because of the tradition that its stones, newly built as it was
in the 13th century, came old from the old temple in Jerusalem, carried all the way to Prague, to Central Europe
from Jerusalem. That structure we see on the interior as offering the same general principles we saw a moment
back in Worms.
So we have the pair of columns sustaining the roof. We have the bimah in the center between them, a kind of
fenced bimah. And in the distance on the far wall, you can recognize the aron. All of that, as we might expect. But
as we look up to the vaulting in its Gothic style, we find an interesting thing.
There is a fifth rib that the architect has installed. And the reason for that is to avoid the possibility of having a
cruciform within the synagogue. If we look to the church of Amiens in France, we see this sweeping array, not only
of stained glass window and arches, but looking at the vaulting, we have the typical Gothic crisscross vaulting that
takes us from bay to bay to bay.
Now, as much as Christian art, like Muslim and the Jewish art is absolutely overrun with symbolic significance, I
suspect that the use of the cross vaulting in Gothic style was not thought of as particularly important as a
cruciform, although it takes that form. But from a Jewish perspective, in a medieval world where Judaism was
always at risk, it seems that in Prague at least, there was intense concern that cruciform not be emulated. And so
the false fifth rib is added so as to prevent the sense of cruciform.
If we look towards the small, almost Romanesque rather than Gothic style windows, we recognize that in Prague
there was one of the earliest efforts to use the six-pointed star as a specifically Jewish symbol. I remind you that
image, the six-pointed star, is an image that predates Judaism, Christianity, Islam. It goes back thousands of
years in the pagan tradition. And represents the meeting of opposites, of sacre and profonos, so of heaven and
earth, of male and female.
The male phallus, as it were, pressing up. The female pubis, as it were, pressing down. The interweave between
these two equal and opposite geometric symbolic elements. And that in turn, the six-pointed star has a long
medieval history of being referred to in conjunction with five-pointed stars. For example, as stars of Solomon,
stars of David, shields of Solomon, shields of David, and the like. In use in a range of contexts, from alchemy, to
Christian and Jewish, and Muslim symbolic language.
But it isn’t until we get to the end of the 16th, the beginning of the 17th century really, in Bohemia, in Prague and
its environs, that the six-pointed star starts consistently to be used as a Jewish symbol, and referred to as the star
or shield of David. In fact, when we think back once more to the question of specific Jewish symbols, we’re
reminded of an image that we saw many lectures ago that shows the seven-branched candelabrum as the
preeminent Jewish symbol from antiquity forward all the way through the medieval period to modernity.
This is an ark curtain, an aron curtain, a parochet that hung before a Holy Ark in aron in a synagogue in South
Germany and Bavaria. And was done by Jacob Gans, because he signed it. And dates from about 1772. And here
we see not only the seven-branched candelabrum, the menorah, that not only alludes to the menorah in the
temple as it once stood.
But also, you may recall in its sevenness, connotes the redemptive idea of the relationship with God, as defined by
seven for the commandment to keep the seventh day holy, as the most practical week-by-week kind of
commandment came from Sinai, together with the other nine, and carried the Israelites from slavery to freedom
from Egypt to the Promised Land.
And so the sevenness is associated with that redemptive promise and obligation. Even as even its sevenness
connected back to the Genesis cycle of creation, ultimately has an earlier pre-Jewish, pre-Christian, pre-Muslim
history in pagan understanding of seven as a number of perfection and completion, as we have seen.
But we see other symbols on this parochet. We recognize above the menorah, a crown for example. And the
Hebrew phrase, Keter Torah, crown of the Torah, reminds us that the Torah is being symbolized, in this case by
the crown, which also at the same time of course, stands for the King, David, his crown, the anointed, the
mashiah, the christos, to give it in Hebrew and in Greek.
David as the aboriginal, anointed one whose lineal descendant will be the messianic figure of the future. Flanked,
the crown is left and right, by a pair of winged lions. Lions that are lions of Judah, the tribe from David comes.
Lions with wings. They remind us of the kind of border creatures that we understand have a long, long history that
connect our reality to that other reality.
We find the menorah flanked by a pair of columns, a pair of columns which we have seen a number of times
represent the temple by synecdoche. The pair of columns referred to in the Book of Kings by name, as having
stood before the house that Solomon created for God, and that had a further iteration in the second temple and in
its Herodian additions.
These columns, encircled by vines, whereas in Christianity the vines would be a symbol of Christ as the vintner,
for example. Here, the vines are an allusion to a passage in the Book of Hosea where Israel is referred to as a
luxurious vine. Moreover, we notice that the columns are twisted, as it were, which is a borrowing from a Christian
tradition of the original columns of the temple having been twisted. A tradition which we will discuss further on in
another lecture.
The point is, that there is a good deal of borrowing from here, emulation from there and transformation. And by
the way, the double-headed figure at the bottom of the parochet alludes to the state, the Bavarian State, and its
sponsorship in an emancipated way of the Jewish community.
If we think of borrowings and influences and emulation, no parochet is more fascinating than one done in the 17th
century in Cairo under Ottoman patronage. Where once again, we see the pair of columns, in this case doubled,
alluding to the temple. Where we recognize the seven frames around the periphery, that should recall to your
mind the frames in prayer carpets from the Ottoman world, as in this carpet from [INAUDIBLE] of the 18th century
that we saw in our previous lecture.
And we also find then the mihrab opening, as it were, and above it, an inscription across the top in Hebrew. But
the interesting thing is, the inscription is done very sloppily. It says, this is the gate of the Lord’s; the righteous
shall enter here. But it’s done in a manner that suggests the Jewish patron rather too quickly wrote out the
inscription, for probably a Muslim weaver, who then weaving in the inscription, followed precisely the sloppily
written inscription above his Jewish patron, and didn’t do it as it should have been done.
The central image is rather interesting, because we have this goblet, and hanging within it, nine lamps. Nine,
which is in the Jewish tradition not only associated with birth and rebirth because of the nine months of pregnancy
for the human fetus, but also oddly, with a sense of perfection, because of the strange way in which if you multiply
any number by nine, the number with which you come up gives you 9, as far as additives.
So early on in the Jewish tradition nineness came to be associated, because of this strange mirroring associated
with the relationship between God and ourselves towards perfection. So that, perhaps, accounts for that particular
element within this parochet which is designed as a kind of Muslim prayer carpet, but yet which would have hung
before an aron, before a hechal, in a synagogue, perhaps in Cairo, back in the 17th century.
The parochet, in any case, is an emulation of the parochet, the curtain that hung before the Holy of Holies in the
temple in Jerusalem, as we discussed in an earlier lecture. And behind it of course, are the Torah scrolls
themselves, which are typically completely unadorned. So we see here an example of a Torah scroll, which as you
can see is a series of lines of writing.
There is no adornment. There is no color. There is no illumination. There is no decoration whatsoever. Nothing to
interfere, in other words, with the purity of God’s word that is conveyed in black on white without any kind of
decoration. But on the other hand, one wants to decorate because one wants to honor God and glorify God by
way of decoration.
And so the Torah, which is a double scroll, is rolled up together and then placed over the scrolls together. Is often
a crown, such as we see here from Austria from about 1780, where the Keter Torah, the crown of the Torah,
resting on the Torah, is in turn crowned by a Decalogue, a rendering in abbreviated form of the Ten
Commandments, which represents the Torah itself by synecdoche.
And again, a pair of lions, such as we saw a moment ago on that parochet from Bavaria from South Germany.
Here, a pair of lions that once again represent the House of David. So there is messianic, redemptive, salvational,
ideation behind this configuration that rests on what is after all the closest thing that Judaism has to either a
Davidic king or a high priest in the temple kind of figure.
The Torah is kept in the Holy Ark. It’s taken out of the Ark to be read by anyone in the community who is an adult.
By the way, any male in traditional Judaism from the 1920s. It became increasingly often that one would find any
adult female also could read in some Jewish communities. And it is marched among the congregation both before
and after it is read. So it moves about in a manner reminiscent of how in theory, the high priest once moved
around the precincts of the temple.
So with that in mind, we have not only the crown, but sometimes we have the two finials, each crowned with its
own separate crown. And so we see in each of these a crown on the crown. We also recognize that we have a
kind of squared tower or town tower architectural kind of element here.
And that we have bells. Because the bells ring as the Torah moves around through the congregation to let
everyone know it’s there, in a manner reminiscent of how on the gown of the high priest there were bells to let
everyone know when he was moving around, so that he wouldn’t be improperly touched, because he’s
sacrosanct. So that people could give way. And so with that in mind, the Torah will not be improperly touched. But
everyone yet, moves to it, and everyone can read from it.
Across the Torah is typically what’s called a tas, a shield that like the shield on the chest of the high priest, which
was covered with semi-precious stones, 12 of them, corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel. Here, we have simply
a tas, a shield that connects the Torah conceptually to the high priest.
And we see it decorated in this case, this beautiful 1870 Austrian tas, decorated with a pair of columns, that once
again, suggests the temple. The Decalogue, that suggests the Torah itself. The crown above the Decalogue, that
reminds us of the Davidic House. And the whole thing in this spectacular baroque, frothy style of vegetal decor
that recalls the way in which Jewish artifacts reflect the Christian world around them.
Now, if the Torah is so sacrosanct that it cannot be improperly touched, that also means it cannot be read in the
improper manner. Which is to say, that because there is no punctuation, and there are no vowels, one would have
to focus very carefully. And one might be inclined to use one’s finger to follow as one reads. But that would soil the
So what develops, as an additional liturgical element, is what’s called a hand, a yad, such as you see here
exemplified from Austria from 1725, with its fairly simple decor, its inscription, and its literalized hand at the end.
And so one holds that in one’s hand as one follows the text and reads along.
So ultimately, we have a Torah text, which is offered, as you can see here, in black on white with no decor
whatsoever, but an array and range of different liturgical objects that all fill out what is called hiddur mitzvah. The
commandment of beautification, derived in part from that passage when the Israelites have come through the Red
Sea and the so-called Song of the Sea, in which they are led by the sister of Moses, Miriam.
She chants, this is my Lord, and I will glorify, or I will beautify him. The fulfillment of that is in all of the elements
around the Torah. And the irony within the irony is, that throughout Christendom until the 19th and 20th centuries,
most of these objects would have been made by Christian artisans, because of the Guild restrictions that
prevented Jews from making their own Judaica.
So this art is Jewish in its use. It is a reflection of the emulation and the imitation and the adaptation of a range of
different visual ideas, interwoven with Jewish conceptual ideas that define the art around the Torah. Around the
synagogue. Around the community, across the Jewish world, in its variations, most of which are accomplished at
least across Christendom by Christian artists.
And so the Jewish medieval and Renaissance artistic world is one that is visually rich, but at the same time,
circumscribed, imitative, and emulative, in a manner reminiscent of how the Romans imitated and emulated the
Greeks and the Etruscans, with less innovation than is possible for the Romans. And a circumscription that will
remain intact until we move into the modern era. An era that we will get to eventually.
Thomas Edison State College | 13 Islamic Art from the Abstract to Figurative
In the year 610, at the age of 40, Muhammad, on a family pilgrimage in the spring to Mount Hira, not far from their
home in Mecca, found himself meditating alone in a cave. And experienced a revelation to him of a god that is
invisible, intangible, all encompassing, all merciful, the kind of God that Jews and Christians had preached for
centuries by then, but which in the environment in which Muhammad grew up, was the exception, not the rule.
He came back to Mecca and he began to preach new doctrines that resulted from a constant sense of revelation
of that God to himself. And by the year 622, found it necessary and desirable to migrate north of Mecca, some
280 miles, some 401 kilometers or so to a town called Yathrib, that later on would be called El Medina, the city,
because of its importance in his life, where he began to ajudicate between problems that tribes within that town
were having with each other and at the same time formulating both a political and a religious basis for what he
began to call Islam.
And from Medina, from Yathrib, around 627/628, made his way back to Mecca, took Mecca. And by the time of his
death in 632, that whole area known as the Hijaz, between Mecca and Medina and their environs in the central
Western portion of the Arabian Peninsula had become Islamized. The inhabitants had become mostly Muslim, a
word that means submitter or committer. Islam means submission or commission to the will of God, to the will of
Allah, as the word God is offered in Arabic. It is a faith that is centered on five principals, five pillars, the pillar of
belief that there is no God but God, that Muhammad is the seal and the final messenger, the final prophet after a
long list of prophets that begins with Adam and continues with Abraham and Moses and encompasses Jesus and
John the Baptist and a whole range of others. Muhammad is the culmination of that.
The second pillar is the pillar of prayer, that one prays, formerly, five times a day. The third, that one fasts from
sunrise to sunset during the course of the month of Ramadan. The fourth, one give charity to those who have less
than one has. And the fifth that, if at all possible, one make a pilgrimage in the course of one’s life to Mecca and
from Mecca to Medina and back to Mecca again.
These principles are nowhere laid out precisely, but are in– to be found encompassed in the primary text of Islam,
the first of which is called the Quran, a term meaning recitation. It refers to Muhammad’s recitation of principles
and issues and ideas that have come to him from God through the agency of the angel, Gabriel. In addition to the
Quran, the hadith, a series of sayings and stories about the prophet or coming from the prophet, but ascribed to
himself as opposed to the Quranic statements that are ascribed to God through the prophet.
So Quran and hadith become the textual basis for Islam which, within a decade after the prophet’s death, had
swallowed up, by 643 or so, the Sasanian Empire, the last of the Great Eastern Persian Imperia. And by 720 or
so, encompassed from Spain to India, from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas, within its sway of influence. So Islam
would be found across those vast territories.
Islam would encounter, then, the Byzantine Empire and finally dismantle it in 1453. Islam would encounter and
have constant conflict and contact with the world of Christendom across the Mediterranean, from Spain to the
Holy Land to Sicily and southern Italy in between.
And an obvious question within this context should occur to us, and that is, well, what then of Islamic art, which
would be in contact with Christian art, but which would, by definition, have an obviously different basis with respect
to its inherent nature.
If Christianity views God as assuming human form, then Christian art, as we have seen, can represent God, can
represent the sacre in human and certainly in figurative representation of form. Whereas we might expect for
Islam, that like Judaism, adheres is to a belief in God as invisible, as never assuming any kind of visible, much
less human form.
We might assume of it that it not only cannot represent God, but that it may not offer figurative representation at
all. If we look at the outset of where Islam might have found for its beginnings and look in the large sense at
architecture, then we turned to the image of the Hagia Sophia which, of course, is a church, a Church of Holy
Wisdom built in the sixth century by Justinian, the Byzantine emperor, which would be common in 1453, some
nine centuries later, when Islam in the form of the Ottoman Turks would finally take Constantinople, the city would
eventually be renamed Istanbul.
And so this church would become a mosque. So we see around it a series of four minarets, four towers, that aside
from offering an inherent kind of geometric contrast between the upward form, the slender almost phallic form of
the minaret, and the swelling almost pregnant belly form of the mosque dome itself, but aside from that, offers us
an equivalent in the contrast between the structure and the minarets to the church and the contrast between the
body of the church and the church tower.
For indeed, as the church tower is designed with its bells to call the faithful to worship, so the minarets up which
the muazzin, the callers to prayer, would climb five times a day would remind the faithful that it is important to pray
when the time comes.
On the interior, eventually, the Muslims would cover over the colorful, Christian figurative mosaics with whitewash.
But when this mosque in turn became a public museum, when modern Turkey in 1922 became not the Ottoman
Turkish Muslim state, but the secular state of Turkey whose inhabitants are mostly Muslim as it turns out, so the
interior would then be opened up again.
But we can still get a sense of how the Muslim conquerors, how the Ottoman Turks incorporated small
transformations. The addition of a minbar, bard, of a pulpit towards what was the apse before and, subsequently,
becomes the site of the mihrab, a term which I will define before this lecture is out.
Also around the periphery, four large tablets, circular tablets, tondos, on which are written the names of the four
original companions, the four original caliphs of Islam, that also correspond, of course, to the four minarets on the
outside, which in turn correspond to the four directions that define human reality.
Now, we recall that the Hagia Sophia dome itself represented a carrying fourth of a tradition architecturally that
began with the Roman Pantheon, this notion of a free standing domed structure, but that Justinian had changed
some of the details. That is the dome form became flat. That is instead of a singular oculus at the upper reaches
of the Pantheon, we have a series of openings, of windows, that both connect the dome to and separate it from its
support structure.
And this idea of a dome, hundreds and hundreds of years before Hagia Sophia would become a Muslim mosque,
is first seen in Islamic architecture in Jerusalem in the Dome of the Rock developed by the Abd al-Malik around
691 to mark a spot which has a threefold importance for Islam. It has the importance of being the site where some
Muslims believe– and not all– that Ibrahim, that Abraham, offered his son, just as Jews and Christians believe
Muslims are divided over the course of their history as to whether that son is Isaac or Ishmael. In contemporary
Islam, most Muslims understand it to have been Ismael. But at the time of Abd al-Malik’s dome, it was not clear to
everyone which son. And this site was considered important for that reason. It was considered important for a
second reason, that it marked the place where the son of David, Solomon, had built his temple.
And David and Solomon are among the prophets respected by Islam together with others like Abraham, Moses,
John, and Jesus. But the third– the most important reason for Islam to mark this spot is that, according to a
hadith, according to one of the traditions about Muhammad, on a single night, he took a ride from Mecca to
Jerusalem, called the Sacred Al-Quds from Mecca to Al-Quds to heaven and the throne of God back to Earth and
back to Mecca, a single night ride called the mir’aj, the ascent, the isra, the night ride on his steed, his talking
steed, Barack.
This miraculous event has, therefore, this site as the meeting point between sacre and profanos between heaven
and Earth. His point of departure from Earth to heaven, his point of return from heaven to earth, is the site of this
And so the Dome of the Rock, this is not a mosque– it is a monument– was built by a Abd al-Malik. It was built
also with a political angle in being closer to his, Abd al-Malik’s capital in Damascus, the Mecca and Medina. It gave
a greater stature to a third central site for Islam and its relationship with God that was closer, as a practical matter,
to Damascus.
And we recognize that he has taken the domed idea, he’s elevated it, and he’s placed it clearly above and resting
on top of what we see as an octagonal structure, which in turn rests on a squared base so that we have then a
dynamic contrast between the dome that, as with the Hagia Sophia and as with the Pantheon, mimics– emulates
the dome of heaven and so symbolizes heaven, in a certain sense and the squared platform which in its foursidedness echoes, in symbolic terms, the four directions of profane, profanos, of earthbound reality, intermediated
by the octagon that not only intermediates in form between square and circle, but in fact represents– if one thinks
about how one gets to an octagon– a square superimposed on a square and turn, one over the other, 45
That gives one an eight-pointed star, the interior of which is an octagon. Now, the significance of this, of course, is
that if God is the opposite of what we are– god is invisible, intangible, singular. We are visible, tangible,
multifarious– at the same time, we might assume– we might believe that God must be in some sense like us
because we must be like God because God is within us, so we have godness within us.
Well, in that case, the four-directioned reality of our world must, in a sense, be echoed and echoe, in turn, a reality
of God which could be construed as four direction. But the realities can’t be the same, so we take one and
superimpose it over the other, turn it 45 degrees, and we have a statement of the relationship between God on
ours– and ourselves in abstract terms. And in this case, the abstract terms that intermediate between the full
squared base below and the sphere above.
Moreover, as we look at the details of the Dome of the Rock, we realize that there is a dialogue as well between
monumental and minute elements.
The dome soaring in its undifferentiated coloration over a structure, which is endlessly broken up by different
details, and that the details contrast with each other in terms of colors, green and blue, white and black, in terms
of forms, arches and smaller arches that not only echo each other, but ultimately echo the form of the dome,
contrast between rectilinear and geometric elements and curvilinear and vegetable elements, and the whole
conceived in a series of abstractions that refer both to the colors and to the various forms, both to the colors and
forms and to the calligraphy that works its way around the upper reaches of the octagon and the lower reaches of
the dome, giving us text together with image, the texts from Quran and hadith, which are themselves, in visual
terms, an abstract decoration.
And we can see this kind of an idea carrying forward in Islamic art as we move all the way to the 18th century,
some 1,100 years later, to the period of the Safavid Dynasty in Isfahan in Persia, where we are looking at the
Madar-i Shah Madrasa. So this is a school attached to a mosque.
And we see the same general principles. We see the dome. We see the dome echoed by the arch just below, and
within that arch, another archway. In fact, this is called an iwan. It is a directional archway that takes us in toward
the mosque beyond the school and within the mosque to the point of orientation in the direction of Mecca.
And we see the whole structure counterpointed with this pair of minarets that rise left and right to either side of the
iwan. We recognize the monumental scale broken up into an infinite arrays of minute details.
And so we also understand a paradox analogous to that paradox to which I referred earlier of taking a square and
superimposing it over another square to give us an eight-pointed structure that gives us both God’s reality as like
ours and unlike ours.
We’ll consider monumental minute in that sense. The minute decorations go on forever and ever. They have an
infinitizing quality. God is infinite. And yet, in being minute, they are like us. The monumental element is like God
and being monumental, and yet if we look at the framing of the iwan, which is decorated as the dome is, then the
frame is circumscribed as we are even though it is the monumental element, as God is, on which the decoration is
both minute like we are and infinitizing as God is.
So this kind of a dialogue between different elements that expresses the relationship between God and ourselves
in purely abstract terms is to be found across the Muslim world with diversities of detail that are accounted for by
diversity of time and place. If we look to India to among the most famous of Muslim structures, the Mughal period
Taj Mahal that was built by Shah Jahan between 1631 and about 1648 to ’51.
There is some question as to exactly when it was completed. We are looking at a monument, which is a tomb. It’s
not a mosque. It is not a madrasa. It’s not a monument to an event, such as the Dome of the Rock is. It’s a tomb.
But, of course, we already know that all of these kinds of structures are analogs of each other in terms of marking
border passages between one reality and the other, between living and dead, human and divine, and so on.
And so this tomb– this spectacular tomb offers us, once again, a dome that rests on an octagonal kind of
complexity that rests, in turn, on a squared base, flanked at the four corners by four minarets. The dome’s echoed
by smaller domes at the four corners of the octagonal base, as it is echoed by smaller domes on the peaks of the
minarets, as it is echoed by the arches, the large iwan-like arch and the smaller arches that work their way around
the periphery, the monumental structure offering minute details.
And the whole thing reflected in a reflecting pool that offers yet another level of divine human interface. Compared
to the reflection that moves and scintillates and is never still, the structure appears so solid. But we understand
that the water in which the reflection is to be found is part of God-M made nature, which is far more enduring in
the long run than any human made structure, even a magnificent contrivance, such as the Taj Mahal. So again, a
play on the matter, in this case, of that which is solid and enduring and that which is not solid and does not
endure, as a statement of the relationship between human and divine.
Now, within a mosque, one must be praying, ideally five times a day, toward– well, toward Jerusalem when
Muhammad was still shaping Islam. But by 627-628, as he took Mecca, the orientation– and the word in Arabic is
qibla. The qibla towards Jerusalem became the qibla towards Mecca.
And so, in every mosque across the planet, one finds a wall called the qibla wall in which a mihrab, a niche,
orients the devotee towards Mecca. So here, at the opposite end of the Muslim world, from India, we’ve come to
Spain to Cordoba and to a mihrab built in the late ninth, early 10th centuries during the Umayyad period directing
the prayerful towards Mecca.
And, once again, we recognize, on a smaller scale, monumental and minute. So look at the arch around the
mihrab. And it is broken up into 19 components, each one decorated differently, all of them infinitizing kinds of
decorations and all of them framed by a frame. And 19, of course, is not an arbitrary choice.
It is said that the first prophecy from God to Muhammad was articulated with 19 words. The words that open up
just about every passage, every surah, every chapter of the Quran in the name of God, the merciful, and
beneficent [ARABIC] is given by way of 19 consonants, so that 19 has an important and mysterious kind of quality
bespeaking the connection between human and divine.
And we see of this make mihrab not only the large arch with its decoration thus subdivided, within we see smaller
arches trilobed arches. And we see, once again, calligraphy just around the lower part of the 19-part decoration
that separates the lower from the upper.
We also notice a pair of columns left and right, which allude to the same thing that the pair of columns alludes to in
Jewish and Christian art. It alludes to the temple in Jerusalem. So we have in this mihrab both the obvious
references towards Mecca, but also the references towards Jerusalem.
And we’re reminded that the mihrab itself is a lineal descendant of the Torah niche, as we’ve earlier seen in this
example from Dur Europas of the third century that orients the praying Jew towards Jerusalem and, similarly, the
apse and even grander orientation niche that orients the praying Christian towards Jerusalem.
And just as the Torah nice and the apse not only orient the praying toward their goals of connectedness between
Earth and heaven, but are decorated with elaborate imagery that connotes the redemptive salvational quality of
God. If one thinks of the mihrab, one realizes the inscriptions and the symbolic handling of color and form and
number symbolism is also about salvational, redemptive kind of thinking.
Now, if one is praying five times a day, it may not be possible to be at the mosque all the time, so one seeks to
create an area in which one can pray that is separate from the Earth around one because Muslim prayer calls for
going down on the knees and putting the head to the ground. And so one needs to be separated from profane
In Ottoman Turkey, there developed the prayer rug, which offers a particularly exquisite means of separating
oneself from the profane earth. So from Gheordez in the 18th century, we see a prayer rug before us on the
screen. The mihrab, the niche right there before us, framed by a seven-fold series of frames alluding to the notion
of seven heavens. Seven is, as we have seen, an important number going back to pagan antiquity, coming
through Judaism and Christianity, found as well in Islam.
And here, the mihrab is flanked by the same pair of columns and stylized form that suggest Jerusalem and
hanging as it were, within the niche, is a stylized rendering of a lamp. And in fact, every mihrab in the Muslim
world, in every mosque, will be hung with one or more lamps, as we see here exemplified by a lamp that is
Ottoman Turkish and comes from the year 1549 that offers us a contrast between positive and negative space.
You look at the white and one way, and it appears to be the main theme. And the green and blue are subsidiary.
You adjust your eyes, and the blue and green become the main coloristic theme and the white becomes
subsidiary. The white is, moreover, filled on the lower portion with a series of what are called stylized cloud motifs
ultimately derived from China to Persia to Ottoman Turkey.
And with inscriptions, once again– interestingly, in this case, a threefold series with upper, middle, and lower
inscriptions Quran, hadith to be expected, but the lower inscription gives us the identity the poor and humble Musli
of the potter who made it, the date, and place, which is why we can say that it comes from Iznick. That it is
precisely from 1549.
And we are reminded both of the notion that the passage in the Quran that calls for such a lamb likens the world
to a niche and God’s light to that of a lamp. And we are also reminded of the fact that the eternal light, as a
representation of God’s presence, is found before the Torah niche, the holy arch in the Jewish synagogue. And
lamps are similarly found to represent God’s presence before the apse in many different kinds of churches.
But if we look at this calligraphy, we’re reminded that, as an important element of Muslim decor, calligraphy
develops its own style and vocabulary. The standard form in which Quranic passages are typically written is called
Kufic because it developed in a town in Iraq called Kufa.
But eventually, by the 10th century, there are, in addition to that kind of squared form, a series of six major cursive
forms. And then dozens of variance will evolve over time. No example of calligraphy as an art form, however, is
more interesting, more spectacular, than in the tughra, the signature of the Ottoman sultans, such as we see
exemplified before us here.
This is the tughra of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the key figure of the 16th century whose forces
by 1527 had gotten as far as Vienna and who, in this turgha, is signing a document of correspondence which-with the French King Francis I, in which they were discussing cultural exchange.
So Islamic art, that we began by asking about in terms of transfiguration, shows itself to be largely aniconic, nonfigurative in preference, from calligraphy to abstraction. So we turn to the so-called Salon of the Ambassadors at
the Alhambra in Granada, a structure of the 14th century from the Nasrid Dynasty there.
And in this extraordinary stucco cupola up towards which we look, we see, once again, the eight-starred or
octagonic kind of formulation. We see, once again, monumental stretches of ceiling and dome broken up by
infinitizing minute details. We see the play of light and shadow, of dark and light, within this all white kind of
We also recognize, at the edges, what are called mugarnats, these little stalactite kinds of formations that hanging
from places where the ceiling and the wall meet, obscure precisely where that line is. So mugarnats not only offer
us another example of a monumental space broken up into minute details, but in obscuring the border between,
let’s say, ceiling and wall, are part of the question of where the border falls between God and ourselves.
So calligraphy, so abstract geometric form, so abstract vegetal, and floral kind of forms. If we look at another
prayer rug, this one from the 16th century– another Ottoman prayer rug– we recognize that the entire mihrab is
filled up with a stylized representation of vegetal and floral forms that suggests a garden of paradise, that
suggests a tree of life, that suggests that when I knew within that mihrab praying towards Mecca and thinking of
God and thinking of Mecca and thinking of Al-Quds, Jerusalem, of thinking of those connections between heaven
and earth, that, for a moment, I’m really in paradise itself.
But here’s the thing. We also find representational art within Islam. And one of the earliest mosques, the Great
Mosque of Damascus in the year 715, indeed, over the central doorway, we have a spectacular series of mosaics
that offer us a landscape with architectural and vegetal elements, that recalls Romans second, third, fourth style
wall paintings. And in being mosaic, probably not only emulated the Byzantine proclivity for mosaics, but it may
well be the Byzantine craftsman were put to use in creating this image.
But Islamic art also goes beyond the representational toward the figurative. So in illuminated manuscripts, such as
this translation of a Greek medical text by Dioscorides, the De Materia Medica, we see the physician Erostratus
reclining and his assistant discoursing to him. So we see two figures.
And we notice of them, by the way, that they have halos around their heads. Well, physicians are sacerdotal.
They’re like priests, pharaohs, kings. They intermediate between the possibilities of life and death, and so we find
them with the same sort of sunburst element that we’ve seen in Christian art just as we see these figures in
dialogue, so to say, visually, with the text, which is the material under discussion here.
But we even find illuminated manuscripts that offer us the prophet Muhammad, as we see here, on his way on a
journey accompanied by Abu Bakr and Ali, two of the four original caliphs, his two most important first followers, in
a manuscript that comes from a series called The Life of The Prophet from the end of the 16th century, 15941595.
And again, we see landscape, although flat. We see halo, but a soaring, flaming halo, which is the more typical
halo, particularly when the prophet is represented haloed. And yet, we see the prophet with his face covered up.
So we see him, but we don’t see him. Although there are also images where we actually see the prophet’s face.
And, in fact, we see the faces of caliphs in the form of the Ottoman sultans who took very quickly to the notion of
portraiture, beginning with Mehmet II, Mehmet the Conqueror, who in 1453 took Constantinople and transformed
it into what was becoming Istanbul, who transformed the Hagia Sophia into the mosque that we saw at the outset
of this lecture.
We see him represented many years later though, around 1480, when the Italian– when the Venetian painter,
Gentile Bellini, the most important painter in Venice at the time, was sent to Istanbul on a cultural mission and
spent 16 months there. So that there was interchange between the Ottoman Muslim world and the Venetian
Christian world.
And here, we see that Bellini has represented the sultan after he had conquered the city. And we recognize this as
a symptom and the symbol of the interface between the two worlds the European Christian and the Muslim
Eastern worlds mediated by Venice, whereby Venice brought portraiture to the Ottoman Turks and brought back
from Ottoman Turkey paper marbling, which would become all the rage in Venice, in Italy, and eventually in
This was a world, through the late 15th century, in which the Ottoman and Christian sides were in constant
contact, often conflict, and clearly benefiting through cultural interface. Between those two powerhouses, Islam
and Christendom, were sandwiched the Jews and Jewish culture. And what was happening with Jewish art and
architecture during this period of intense interface will be the subject of our next talk.
Thomas Edison State College | 12 The Language of Romanesque and Gothic Art
Western art history from the end of the 4th century forward as we have begun to see, is the history of the triumph
of Christianity. But Christianity finds itself not only triumphant, but often confronted with various traumas. So, for
example, when we arrive toward the second half of the 11th century, we begin at midpoint in 1054 with a great
schism that tears the church apart– between its Western and Eastern identities– over the question, among other
things but primarily over the question of whether the Pope– aside from the honor accorded to him because he sits
on the throne of Saint Peter– is entitled to a greater measure of respect with regards to ecclesiastical decisions.
He says, yes. The bishops or patriarchs of the Eastern seas say, no, our opinions are as valuable his, we who
come from Jerusalem and from Athens and from Constantinople and from Antioch and the other Eastern seas.
By the 1070s there was a crisis within the West itself. As the young German emperor, Henry IV, in 1073 begins to
challenge certain aspects of the authority of Pope Gregory VII. But, although that evolves by 1077 in favor of the
papacy, young Henry comes standing for three days in the snow barefoot waiting for an audience at Canossa in
northern Italy with the Pope to beg for his forgiveness. Even though it ends with a pro-papal perspective, so to
say, the notion of opposition to the papacy from within the Western world– the notion of church and state in
conflict with each other– that had had earlier manifestations, reaches a new kind of level.
And by the end of the century the Cluniac order has offered an alternative voice of authority to that of the Pope. At
the same time, it seems that by the end of the century piety must be on the rise. Because we find the ability of
Pope Urban II to shape the First Crusade of 1095 a very strong ability. And, while we may recognize his desire to
do so as part of his desire to unify Christendom under his banner, the fact that he can do so suggests piety. Just
as, on the other hand, the upsurge in the desire to go on religious pilgrimages suggests an increase in piety.
Not only to the Holy Land toward Jerusalem, this is part of the ostensive reason for the crusade, not only towards
Rome itself, but to the far Northwest of Spain in Galicia, Santiago de Compostela. So from the end of the 11th
century forward, we find ourselves engaged in a period of pilgrimage and a period that accordingly begets a whole
range of new structures and the decor of those structures along the path of pilgrimage– particularly the paths to
Rome and to Santiago de Compostela.
The path to Santiago starts from different points. In France, for example, it has four different starting points, but
three of those four end up making their way through to Toulouse. And in Toulouse we find the Church of St.
Sernin, of St. Saturninus, that marks a point where the Bishop of Toulouse of the 250s, St. Saturninus, at a time, I
remind you, when Christianity was superstitia was illegal.
So he arrived there as the bishop of an illegal church, and the pagan priests apprehended him. And he was
dragged to his death by oxen or by a bull, and where the bull or the ox stopped, that’s the point where by the 4th
century a church in his name had been built.
And by the time we get to about 1080, the end of the 11th century, we have the last in a series of structures that is
a magnificent Romanesque building from which we see in the rear of the apse with chapels around the periphery
and an enormous and very exciting bell tower. If we look at the floor plan of St. Sernin we also find a very
interesting thing that relates it to dozens of other churches throughout Christendom that have come into existence
between the fourth and the 11th centuries.
And that is that it’s not only basilical– so, longer than it is wide with a central aisle or nave separated by the walls,
from the walls, by colonades that give us side aisles– but, in this case, we notice that there are two side aisles on
either side of the nave, a total, in other words, of five aisles. And those in turn correspond to a number of
entryways into the church.
And then we realize that the church is itself is cruxiform. So the very structure of the church suggests the
crucifixion, suggests the body of Christ, suggests in symbolic terms the intermediation between heaven and earth,
between sacer and profanus offered by Christ.
And so if we turn, in this case, to Rome in a different church, the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano, we are
looking at the front facade and realize indeed five entryways, not merely corresponding to the five aisles, but in
symbolic terms suggesting five wounds, the five entryways into Christ’s body. For when one enters the church,
one enters Christ’s body because, in part, the church is cruxiform. And, therefore, it’s geometric configuration and
Christ’s body, so to say, on the cross make it one and the same.
Now the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano is also a cathedral. It’s actually the place where the Pope presides
as Bishop of Rome. St Peters is where he may preside as Pope of Western Christendom, but in his capacity as
Bishop of Rome his throne, his cathedra, is in this church, and, therefore, this is called a cathedral. And it’s a
church that, of course, has been constructed and embellished over the centuries so that the facade we’re looking
at here is an 18th century facade by Alessandro Galilei. Whereas the structure, the body of the church, ultimately
goes back to the 4th century and perhaps a half a dozen different iterations between that time and this.
Not all churches have five entryways, five doorways that symbolize the wounds into Christ’s body. The cathedral in
Orvieto begun by Arnolfo di Cambio at the end of the 13th century in 1290, a Gothic structure, has three doorways
that suggest in symbolic terms rather the triune nature of God, the church as a unity and yet with three different
portals into that unity. And, of course, we recognize as well the relationship between the idea of a house of God, a
house that’s intermediates sacerdotally between heaven and earth in Christianity with the same idea in Judaism.
And we will recall from an earlier lecture the early synagogues such as that at [INAUDIBLE] at Capernaum in the
Galilee with its three doorways. The three doorways in the synagogue symbolize the notion of the threefold
division of Judaism for liturgical purposes into Kohen, high priest family, Levite, priestly tribe, and Yisrael,
everybody else, and also symbolizes the temple as far as its threefold of division on the interior is concerned and
the threefold courtyards were concerned. Whereas for the church, the threefold doorways stand for the triune
If we enter into the Church of St. Sernin we’re confronted with a magnificent sweep of rounded arches that carry
our eye all the way to the apse in the distance. And we recognize in these rounded arches a reminiscence of
Roman arch except that they are much more attenuated, much more vertical, much more elongated. And so we
speak of the style that they bespeak not as Roman, but as Romanesque, a progression of such arches gives us a
kind of vault that we speak of as a barrel vault.
And often the capitals of columns along the way will be figurated with images of scenes from the Bible and
elsewhere. And so we speak in the 11th and 12th centuries of the Romanesque style with capitals that are
figurated on columns that are thick that rise to arches that are high but rounded and are the basis for structures
that have very thick walls buttressed from without and very small windows. And, therefore, typically Romanesque
churches are quite dark. St. Sernin is relatively bright on the inside compared to the norm.
By the middle of the 12th century the Romanesque is starting to lead to and yield to a new style called Gothic. And
whereas the origins of Romanesque are rather vague, it’s difficult to say exactly where and when we find
ourselves within the Romanesque. Where Gothic style is concerned, we can be pretty specific.
It seems that between 1137 and 1147, in his plan to rebuild the Abbey Church of St. Denis, the Abbot Suger, who
was affecting an alliance with the king against the nobility– so, by the way, we’re speaking then of politics and
religion again, the abbot and the king against the nobility– that in rebuilding the Abbey Church of St. Denis just
outside Paris, he introduced a new kind of style. And that style would radiate thereafter from Paris. So that by
about 1250 or so, within a century, there was very little going on any longer of a Romanesque style of
architectural construction. Gothic was it.
And we look by comparison with St. Sernin’s Nave to the Nave of Chartres, begun about 1194 and finished about
1220 or so on the site of an earlier church that had been destroyed by fire about 1145. And the first thing we
notice, aside from the greater sense of light, is that the arches come to points, we call those ogives. So the Gothic
style is a style with ogive arches, whereas the Romanesque style is a style of rounded arches. I like to think of
those ogives as a pair of hands meeting in prayer. There is such a sense of heavenwardness in the Gothic style.
And the second thing we notice is that, instead of a progression of arches in what we spoke of a moment back as
barrel vaults, we have between each arch crisscrossing ribs that gives us a very different kind of patterning. We
also find when we turn to the outside of a church such as that at Chartres that the buttressing, rather than being
pushed up against very thick walls, rather flies away from them in very exquisite patterns that we refer to as flying
buttress patterns. Flying buttresses which presumably carry the considerable weight of the high and heavy roof
down and then away from the walls, as opposed to directly through the walls down to the ground.
The consequence of which is that, whereas Romanesque churches have thick walls and small windows, Gothic
churches are able to have spectacularly large swatches of windows, such as we see here in this example of the
South Transcept of Chartres, where the central image is the glorification of Jesus surrounded by a series of a
dozen different elements that symbolize, of course, the Twelve Apostles. But actually the images are of the four
evangelists interspersed with eight angels.
Think for a moment that this is also referred to as an oculus. So think for a moment how the oculus at the peak of
the dome of the Roman Pantheon, which had become, in the Church of the Hagia Sophia, an endless series of
windows around the bottom of the dome connecting to and disconnecting from the support walls below.
Here the oculus has become a window, an eye, a rose window on the side facade of the western front of the
church. Or in the case of Chartres, not only on the western front, but on the northern and southern transept fronts.
So here we have an oculus from the south transept and below it, below the rows, a series of five images that
symbolically of course refer to the five wounds into Christ’s body, but which give us images above of the Virgin
and child and the four evangelists, and then just below them the images of four Hebrew biblical prophets-Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel– and below those coats of arms.
So once again we have a relationship between the noble supporters, or the royal supporters of the church, and
the church itself. We can get some sense of the spectacular quality of stained glass. If we look at a detail from one
of the side windows of Chartres, where we see Noah and his wife and two of his three sons. Ham, of course– the
son who in Genesis 9 saw his father’s drunken nakedness and went and bragged about it to his brothers and is
cursed thereafter– is left out of the picture, so to speak.
This Gothic style of spectacular colors interwoven with this very careful and clear dark-edged lead framing around
all the details would spread with the general Gothic style overall from Paris, around Europe, particularly along the
pilgrim routes, particularly along the pilgrim route to Santiago in Northwestern Spain.
And if we turn to the Church of Leon in Northwest central Spain on the French road, the French pilgrim route to
Santiago, we find a spectacular array of windows of which one set, as one sees here, emphasizes flora and fauna.
And another emphasizes royalty below and bishops above, which is to say those without and those with divine
connections in a kind of ascending hierarchy. So that the window program of Leon is all about the world as an
order that functions according to certain principles and hierarchies that take us from plants to animals to humans,
from this kind of human to that kind of human.
Now there are those who have argued in recent years that the buttressing that flies away from the side of Gothic
cathedrals really does not to do what traditionally everyone has always thought it did, which is to transfer the
weight and therefore make possible less wall and more window. But the issue is whether in the 13th and 14th
centuries they thought it did, which it seems to me they did. And so whether or not it is true from an engineering
point of view, from an art historical point of view, it’s the buttressing that makes possible these kinds of windows.
In any case, the Gothic style in the 13th and 14th centuries has as its intention really to invoke not only the Christ
narrative and the emotive content that it carries with it, but also a sense of the all-encompassing reality of the
world around us and of the power and the possibility for Christ to intervene between us and that reality that also
reflects the power of God. The reality of nature reflects God’s power. God as Christ intermediates between us and
God and between us and nature.
And so this whole period, in which the Gothic architectural style evolves, the 13th and 14th centuries, is one in fact
filled with an interest in a compendious and encyclopedic sense of reality. It’s the time when Saint Thomas
Aquinas writes his Summa Theologica, his compendium of all of Christian thinking.
It’s the time when Vincent de Beauvais writes his Mirror of the World, in which he tries to encompass all of reality-a section on nature, a section on science and letters, a section on history. There are those who argue that he
wrote a fourth section on morality. There are those who say, no that’s someone else.
It’s the time of Jacobo da Voragine, who wrote what’s called the Golden Legend, a compendium of all the lives of
all the saints. And so when one thinks about Gothic architecture, when one thinks about Gothic cathedrals, one
has to think encyclopedia.
And think of these windows with their broad encyclopedic purviews of nature and humanity. Think of the way in
which Gothic architectural style as exemplified, for example, in an exterior shot of the cathedral at Canterbury,
which combines this monumental structure with an infinitizing sense of minute detail that not only in the visual
aesthetic sense breaks up the monumental into the minute and therefore makes it more delicate as it were, but in
the conceptual and symbolic sense bespeaks the relationship between God and ourselves, for which the cathedral
is in itself inherently a symbol, a meeting point between God and ourselves.
God is monumental. We are minute. And yet all of the detail has an infinitizing quality that suggests God. And
against that we are the non-infinite element that is in relationship with God.
There was also something very heaven-pushing about this kind of skyscraper that one sees even more
profoundly, it seems to me, in a church like that at Salisbury. The Salisbury Cathedral once again infinite, endless
details, minute details that overwhelm the monumental structure overall. But the structure surging and soaring
toward the heavens.
And basically the Gothic style does that in England, and in France, and in Germany, and in Austria, and in Spain.
But there are exceptions to that sensibility that interestingly enough come back to the heart of Christendom itself
in Italy. Where in the Orvieta Cathedral that we saw a moment back and that we see again, there is a less-defined
verticality. There is more of an emphasis in this spectacular contrivance of relief sculpting and mosaic work across
the front facade. The facade like a stage set around the body. And around the body the alternating of dark and
light stones underscores horizontality. Those stones alternate in horizontal rows the pull against the vertical pull of
the cathedral, suggesting in a sense a more earthbound sensibility to the Italian Gothic style than that which one
finds elsewhere.
You can see this exemplified in other Italian Gothic churches like that at Siena or here at Pisa, where we see a
different mode of expressing horizontality. The lineation of dark and light is a bit more subtle. But the lines of
horizontality with respect to the arcades across the facade that are then picked up across the sides, fully assist
that process of pulling the church to a horizontal grounded level and not allowing it simply to soar heavenward.
Interestingly and ironically enough, of course, the famous campanile, the bell tower next to the cathedral, has
been tilting almost since it was built in 1173 as if it can’t wait to get down to earth.
Now we use these terms Romanesque and Gothic largely with an architectural kind of focus and a focus on
architectural detail. But there are important developments during the same centuries in sculpture and the flatter
media that includes, of course, the stained glass windows that are part of the architecture, or relief carving is part
of architecture or building in stone, and doors made of bronze and wood that are part and parcel of the world that
is constantly reinventing itself in new visual ways during this period of the 11th and 12th and 13th and 14th
If we turn to bronze reliefs from the Church of Saint Michael in Heildeseim, Germany, commissioned there by the
Bishop Bernhard around 1015 or so, we see an interesting instance of a transitional kind of style that carries us
from the Carolingian manuscripts, of which we saw a few examples in the past few lectures, which in German
terms would be called Ottonian toward the Romanesque style, where we see paradoxically a strong physical
sense of these figures and at the same time an inordinate smallness and delicacy to them. So that it very much
has the feeling this image does of an illuminated manuscript. It has both an emotive and a kind of physical power
to it.
What we see is God reprimanding, or admonishing, Adam and Eve. I’m going to show you two images of the
same thing, because one gives us here the color, whereas the other image actually allows us to see how the
image is structured more clearly. And it’s a reminder that you can never trust the kind of images you see. Whether
it’s on the television screen or in a book, you really have to go see the work itself to really understand color and
But we can get a sense here of God who leans in towards Adam and Eve. His halo at a kind of rakish angle that is
perspectivally offered. With one hand he’s got his book, that is the book of his law. And with the other hand, he
admonishes, and Adam and Eve cringe before that gesture.
Adam is starting to bend his knees, and his arms crisscross. One to cover himself, the other back to point toward
Eve. His bending back echoed by the form of the tree with its branch just over his back. And Eve is bent further
down, as it were, and she too crisscrosses her arms. One pointing down to the serpent, as it were, that lies there
supine but its neck twisting and its head looking back up at Eve, reminding us of that curse of the serpent to
bother the heel of Eve that comes when God discovers them to have done what God asked them not to do– eat
from the fruit, presumably of the tree that we see here between them.
No other, really– no other background elements, no other landscape elements. We have this marvelous
cascading down from left to center to right, from straight to bent to more bent, from head to head to head, limb to
limb to limb, in a manner that recalls the attenuated forms of Byzantine art and looks forward to the attenuated
forms of Gothic art, and on the other hand, is simply its own thing.
If in turning from bronze to stone we turned from a piece of a door to a piece of a tympanum that goes over the
doorway, and look for a moment to a tympanum at Autun, the Church of St. Lazare, done between 1130 and 1135
or so, by the sculptor Gislebertus, probably the most important sculptor of the early 12th century in that part of the
world. We see here a detail from the western tympanum of the cathedral where, along the lower register, we see
these naked, terrified, shivering dead who are about to be plucked up and weighed on the scales– that is, their
souls will be.
We have the angel Michael, and we have Satan. And we see Satan trying to push down the scales and Michael
holding up against him. And we see them cringing, these poor souls clinging to the angelic hem and others
already being plucked by their heads and devoured by these creatures.
But actually it’s a relatively small part of the tympanum that gives us hell. If we look at the whole, we realize it’s an
optimistic view. Because the whole left side is occupied by paradise, where we’ve got the figures of the Virgin and
Saint Peter to balance the figures on the right side of Saint Michael and Satan.
And significance prospective par excellence, the whole thing dominated in the center by this Christ, who as much
as he judges has a more beneficent sense than many other figures one might see, wrapped as he is in a nimbus.
And the whole thing marvelously attenuated– attenuation is very much the order of the day.
We’re still in Romanesque style. We can tell that in particular by the rounded arch around them. It’s Romanesque
arch. It doesn’t come to the ogive point that we expect of Gothic. But the figures are becoming attenuated in a
manner that will be typical of Gothic in particular.
And when we turn to freestanding sculpture and Gothic, it’s not just a matter of attenuation, but a matter of the
body positioning that creates such a delicate s-curve– as for example in this wonderful image of the early 14th
century of the Virgin and child in the high Gothic style. This wonderful example of stone carving where her body
bespeaks an s kind of curve.
And yet she’s enveloped in the classical drapery that we can trace all the way back to the Greek and Roman
vocabulary. So covered with drapery is she that we can’t see legs or really arms, so the whole idea of
[INAUDIBLE] has been lost in favor of this kind of s-curve.
And it seems that the artist is less interested in the volume of her than in the marvelous interplay of lines across
the surface of that drapery, these hurried tight lines across her upper body and then these looser, wider spaced
lines along the lower part of the body so light and shadow play across the surface, rather than substance and
volume filling out that which is beneath the surface.
If she is a delicate creature who assumes an s-curve, he, the Christ, is really a miniature adult resting on her arm
rather than within her arms. There’s something simultaneously solid and yet insubstantial about this composition.
There’s something very regal about it. There’s something less emotive, and yet it comes from the same time, but
a very different place.
Less emotive than the image we see before us here from the German School, from Bonn, Germany, of a Pieta.
Different time, different place, it is a different subject. But the whole sense of how one should feel is different here
from in the previous image.
This, of course, is also painted wood. Here the emphasis is on the blood spurting from wounds. The bodies
themselves are really puppet bodies. They’re doll bodies. It’s the wounds that count. It’s the magnificent faces and
heads that count. It’s the tilting of her head and the tilting back of his head in a marvelous kind of dialogue of
And what we have of course here is a Pieta, from that Latin word [LATIN] that means both piety and pity. And so
we have both visual and conceptual counter points here between piety and pity. Here we have the child become a
man, and yet across his mother’s lap, the man is after all her child.
And we are to feel with her the grief over her child. Or rather, we are to understand what both of them therefore
have suffered for us and feel sumpatheos with them in this fulfillment of the moment that, in a sense, is predicted
by the image of the Virgin and Child. Where the child in her arms who is a miniature adult is ultimately the child
who will become the man who self-sacrifices. Here we have this self-sacrificed man resting across his mother’s lap
as he once did when he was but a child.
And so we speak then of a range and variety of media, of figurative and abstract symbolic elements, a
progression of thought regarding the sacer-profanus relationship across Western medieval art as Christian art,
with questions of the relationship between that art and its pagan past on the one hand, and its relationship to
contemporary Jewish elements on the other. And from the 7th century forward, a further question of its
relationship to contemporary Islamic elements, on the third hand. For south and east of Europe from the 7th
century forward, during the Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque, Gothic periods, Islamic art will be developing
both apart from and interwoven with Christian Western art, as we shall see in our next lecture.
Thomas Edison State College | 11 Christian Medieval Art and Architecture
So our old friend Constantine, Emperor, having defeated Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge back in 312,
having worked out a bit of a modus vivendi with his Eastern counterparts, up to a point, by which, 324 or so, he
becomes the Supreme Commander of the entire period again. Our old friend Constantine shifts the focus of Rome
east towards the old Greek city of Byzantium, both perhaps because he founded a more conducive atmosphere in
which to promote the Christianity that he perceived as a glue to help hold the empire together, and because he
saw the primary danger to the empire in the imperia to the east and not to the barbary to the north by west.
And so Byzantium becomes rebuilt entirely between about 324 and 330, thereafter referred to as the city of
Constantine, Constantinopolis, Constantinople, named perhaps by him, perhaps named after his death in 337 by
his successors to honor him. And so the West collapsed in 476. The last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, is
deposed, and a succession of barbarian chieftains, in varying degrees thinking of themselves or not as Roman
Caesars, succeed in the West. While the East, the East Roman Empire, remains intact– that East Roman Empire
which later on will think of itself as we will think of it, as the Byzantine Empire.
And we’ll even reach a point in the sixth century when, under the Emperor Justinian, in the late 530s through early
560s, he will manage, in part through his very successful general, Belisarius, to reclaim and reconquer much of
Italy and parts of the former Western Empire including North Africa and so on. So for a brief period the Eastern
Roman Empire is West as well as East once again in the sixth century.
Justinian is, therefore, the Conqueror. Justinian is also called the Lawgiver. It is he who offers a compendium of
Roman law, going back to the early Republic and forward as far as the Theodocian Law Code of the 390s, to
create a totality that encompasses different continuities and different transformations with respect to peoples and
problems as one moves through that roughly 1,000-year period to his own time.
And Justinian, who is the Conqueror and the Lawgiver, is also the Builder, the builder of bridges, of waterworks, of
water systems, of palaces and churches. And certainly, no church is more spectacular then the Hagia Sophia that
he built beginning in 537 in the aftermath of riots, that he built on the site of two earlier churches to Hagia Sophia.
The riots that had taken place here were the Nika riots of 532, after chariot races.
You see, in Rome, eventually, as time went on, chariot races were not simply races. They were races with teams.
And teams had colors– blue and red and green and white. And the colors of the teams became more than simply
teams and chariot associations. They evolved into political and social associations.
And by the sixth century, the two key ones were the greens and the blues in Constantinople. And it seems that in
532, after one of these chariot contests, riots, as they often do today after soccer games, broke out in which two
individuals were accused of having murdered people. They were put in prison. They tried to take refuge
elsewhere. And things just spread, the unrest spread. And of course, support for the unrest came from some of
the members of the upper class who were not pleased that Justinian had become emperor, who thought maybe
they should be emperor.
And Justinian himself was a little bit nerve-wracked by the whole situation. But fortunately for him, he had a good
wife, Theodora, who said, hang tough. And hang tough meant send Belisarius and Mundus in. And about 30,000
deaths later, and the damage or destruction of many, many buildings– including earlier version of the Hagia
Sophia– the smoke cleared, Justinian was still in power, the riots were over, and you know, he had a new
opportunity to build.
And so created this spectacular structure of a dome surmounting a square, essentially, flanked by a series of
semidomes. Ignore for now, the towers, the minarets. They’re from a later time, and we’ll get to them later. But
look rather to the interior and observe how the dome rests on and is yet separated from its foundation by an
endless array of windows, so that one recognizes a relationship to the Pantheon. Obviously, this structure was the
primary inspiration for the Hagia Sophia.
But whereas the Pantheon is a perfect sphere, and where in the Pantheon, everything rises to a single oculus,
and one has no sense, on the interior, of the supporting wall structure around, with the Hagia Sophia, we’re
dealing with a higher but flatter kind of dome, not with an oculus but with an endless series of eyes connecting the
dome and disconnecting the dome with and from the areas below. And so the idea of the eyes as windows to the
soul has been, so to say, multiplied here for this church of holy wisdom that connects the imperium to the heavens
by way of the windows that connect the interior of the structure to the exterior world by way of light.
And the dome itself is echoed in not only the half-domes on the outside, but the large arches on the inside that, in
turn, are broken up into smaller arches, and subsets of subsets of arches and arcades, giving a marvelous
dialogue between monumental forms and minute details. And if one looks at a detail of one of these capitals and
its environs, one gets an even stronger sense of that. The carved stucco and the mosaic, in tandem with each
other. The carved stucco creating a capital that plays with the Corinthian capital, in turn derived from the Egyptian
idea of the acanthus as an evergreen, and therefore symbol of immortality.
Here, the whole capital’s overrun with this acanthus vegetal form, rising to the traces of those volutes, circular
elements, at the corners that we recognize as ultimately derived from Ionic capitals. So more continuity and
transformation with respect to detail, and the monumental form of the capital carved up into an infinitude of minute
details, just as above it, the beginnings of the mosaics offer us a series of eight-pointed stars. Eight, as I
mentioned in passing in my previous lecture, is in Christian thinking another kind of symbol of rebirth, of
regeneration, of renewal, because the cycle of creation in Genesis is a seven-day cycle. And therefore, the eighth
day would correspond to the new beginning, the new covenant. And because, according to a separate line of
Christian tradition, on the eighth day after riding into Jerusalem, Christ rose from the grave. And so eight-ness-which will be associated, for example, with baptismal fonts– here is associated with details that suggest
regeneration as a theme– redemption, salvation, into a new reality as a theme of the church over all.
Now, the internal configuration of the Hagia Sophia– interestingly, because one can’t see it easily– is basilical.
That is, a main nave leads towards an apse that directs one towards Jerusalem, and enormous columns separate
that nave from a pair of side aisles. And if we move from Constantinople back to Rome and turn to the Church of
San Giovanni in Laterano, structured perhaps in the previous century, in the fifth century– maybe even earlier, in
the late fourth century– we realize, of course, here we can still very clearly see the basilical form, in spite of all the
various decorative alterations that have occurred, from the 13th century floors to the 17th century walls, and the
statuary, to the 18th century ceiling.
The important thing is our basilica leads us from the nave all the way to the far end, where we find the apse. And
where we find the entrance, so to speak to the apse– a kind of arch that, if we could peel the entire building away
from it, would remind us of an arch like the Arch of Titus. Or put another way, as the Arch of Titus is one of many
Roman arches of victory, so the arch that separates the nave from the apse in a basilical church, such as that of
San Giovanni in Laterano, is in effect an arch of victory. It’s the victory of life over death. Those who enter this
structure, those who move towards the altar and the apse, those who pray in that direction, towards Jerusalem,
connecting themselves to God thereby, are promised a victory over death– an afterlife, as such.
And the idea of the apse, we recognize, is something that ultimately relates the church to the early synagogue. If
we turn to an apse form in San Clemente, where we can see it a little bit more clearly because the basilical form is
not so elongated that we can’t get toward the apse by way of the arch so easily, as we move from San Clemente
for a moment back to the synagogue of Dura-Europos that we looked at in our previous lecture, and we recognize
the Torah niche, we realize that the apse of the church expands the Torah niche from being a small inset into the
wall orienting us towards Jerusalem to encompassing the entirety of the end of the nave, of that wall orienting us
towards Jerusalem.
So orientation towards Jerusalem is shared by these two architectural elements. Their basic structure is shared,
but one is much larger than the other. And of course, the decorative schemata are shared, as well. For the Dura
niche, you recall, is covered with imagery that speaks the language of salvation from a Jewish perspective– the
image of the temple schematically, the image of Abraham and Isaac, and Genesis 22, and the binding, the
Akedah, the image of the seven-branch candelabrum, the menorah.
And when we look at some of the detail of the apse in San Clemente, we recognize that from a Christian
perspective, of course, we are also seeing redemption and salvation, beginning with the hand of God that we see
exiting a kind of upper cloud above, towards the cross in the center part of the image. So again, that idea of hand
of God taken literally that we saw in our previous lecture in a number of synagogue representations, here we see
in a church, in a Christian representation, coming down toward the cross upon which Christ hangs.
And on the cross around him, a series of 12 doves, of course, symbolizing the Twelve Apostles. And then to left
and right, the images of the Virgin and John the Evangelist. And the whole thing growing, as it were, out of a tree
of life, this acanthus, that we find at the bottom of the image that then overruns the entirety of the apse and, in a
certain way, recalls the vegetal formations of Augustine altar of peace, the Ara Pacis, in being both stylized and
regularized and organized and orchestrated, and yet filled with all kinds of different and unusual kinds of flora and
fauna to give us a sense of fertility, of fructification, of fecundity, which in this case, connotes the whole idea of life.
And the cross as the tree of life, growing out of this acanthus kind of bush. The whole thing’s set against a
backdrop of gold, below which we find the image of Christ, once again, as the Lamb of God, the Agnus Dei,
flanked left and right by a series of a dozen sheep that once again symbolize the apostles.
If we turn back to the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano, from which earlier image our perspective was such a
distant one, and come forward, thanks to the zoom lens, to the apse there, and the beautiful mosaics done in the
late 13th century by Jacopo Torriti, once again we find the cross as the central element. But not a cross upon
which we see Christ crucified. In fact, a cross through which water runs from the heavens above down below.
And in fact, the water flows down into four rivers that simultaneously represent the four gospels and are marked
with the names of the Four Rivers of Paradise, as they’re given in Genesis 2– the Gihon and the Pison and the
Tigris and Euphrates. So the image, as so often in religious art, does double or treble duty. It’s both the Gospels
and the waters of paradise. Just as those waters then spill out into a river that is labeled as the Jordan– and yet at
the same time, it’s not intended to be the River Jordan alone, which is an earthbound, profanus river.
This is an image of paradise, with Jordan as a kind of border for this idealized landscape that we are given here,
just as in the area above the landscape, we have a really double division of heaven, don’t we? We have the gold
leaf that marks the lower reaches of heaven. And above it, we have a blue area with all of those angelic beings
hovering in what is the upper region of heaven, where we see, as it were, God the Father.
And we’re reminded that the Greek understanding of the sky is that it has two components making up two of the
four elements. The four elements are Earth and Water. That’s two. And then the lower heavens, the aer, is the
third, and the upper heavens are called the blazing, or aither. So when we say fire and air, we really mean air and
the upper heavens, which is the blazing.
And of course, that’s the idea that has been conveyed here– the uppermost reaches of the heavens and the
lower heavens. And within the lower heavens that still form part of Paradise, as it were, we have flanking the
cross, left and right, the figures of John the Baptist and the Virgin. Which is to say two figures which, in the
profanus sense, would not be in the same place at the same time at this moment. And we have four figures from
among the apostles around them.
And then in significant perspective, smaller than the others, and yet present at the scene, as if they’re at the same
scene– from the 13th century, Saint Francis to our left and Saint Dominic to our right. And then smaller still, the
individual who commissioned this work, the donor, the one who gave the work to the church, Pope Nicholas IV-donor coming from the Latin “to give,” “do,” “dare.” It’s the same word as we have in our words, donation.
And so we see Nicholas IV there kneeling at what is ultimately a kind of tree, isn’t it? A tree of life, with waters and
a pair of deer that, out of the Psalms, symbolize human souls eager to drink, drinking at it. And the whole idea of
the cross as a tree of life, we see again and again reflected as we work our way through Christian art.
So we must understand that it’ll take however years before we can do that– that is, see the cross as the tree of
life. Thousands were crucified by the Romans for political crimes, for the crime of subversion, of superstitio, by
crucifixion– including, probably, hundreds if not thousands of Christians accused of subversion, of superstitio. So
clearly, time would have to pass until the use of crucifixion for punishing thousands of criminals who are political
criminals could be forgotten, until the cross could emerge as not a negative symbol of political punishment, but a
positive symbol of salvation– a tree of life symbol could, with Christ on it, or Christ implied but not actually even on
it, stand before the viewer’s eye.
So if we look here to a marble balustrade inscribed by the Bishop Sigvald in 725 to 750 or so, we see the cross on
the upper register, flanked left and right by a pair of trees, but in a sense rising from the very stylized tree that we
see on the lower register. In fact, we recognize that tree, flanked by a pair of border creatures, as an idea that in
our very first two lectures we observed again and again– this kind of threefold configuration with a tree or a
column or hero in the center, and creatures left and right, border creatures left and right, of that image.
That tree rises to become the cross as the whole central configuration is then flanked left and right by very roughhewn images that stand for the four evangelists. So we have the Man-Angel of Matthew, because of a tradition
that Matthew most effectively conveys the human qualities of Christ. And we have the Lion of Mark, because Mark
is said most effectively, by the same tradition, to convey the sense of Christ’s royal descent from David.
And we have the Ox or Bull of Luke, because Luke conveys most effectively the sense of Christ’s self-sacrifice.
And then the soaring Eagle associated with John, whose oratory is so spectacular, seen as almost a separate kind
of idea gospel from the other three that are called gospels of one view, syn-ops– ops being [INAUDIBLE] synoptic
And so this idea of the cross, and the cross as a symbol of salvation, the cross as a tree of life, the cross flanked
by images like those suggesting the gospels, is carried across media, across time, across space. If we turn to the
mausoleum of Gala Placidia, a pious Christian of the early fifth century, we see the cross in the center of the dome
of her mausoleum and stars creating this marvelous geometric pattern around it. And then in the far corners, in
the spandrels of the dome, we see once again four images that stand for the four evangelists.
So we also find other kinds of symbols emerging, as we follow in to the fifth and sixth and seventh centuries in
Christian art, in different contexts, in different places, in different media. If we look at the side of a sarcophagus
from Istanbul from the fifth century, we find that the central element, which at first glance looks cross-like, is
actually not a cross at all. It is an X, which is to say the chi, the first letter in the word christos, and the R, because
the vertical gives us the vertical of the R, and you have to come around and use part of the upper-right-hand
diagonal to complete what would then look like a P, but in Greek, is a rho. So chi, rho, christos, the first two letters
of the word Christ.
Contained within a circle– symbol of perfection, completion. A circle which is a wreath, so the more so, because it
suggests fecundity. And the whole presented by a pair of figures which we recognize as derived from the kinds of
victory figures we have seen in the spandrels of Roman victory arches that are evolving into what we will think of
later on as the images of angels.
Or we turn to a sarcophagus from about the sixth century from Ravenna, the sarcophagus that was reused as the
sarcophagus of Saint Theodore in the seventh century. And here we have the chi-rho again surrounded by a
circle, but interspersed with the chi-rho, the alpha and the omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet-symbols of Christ as the beginning and the end, and therefore the totality. And flanked left and right not by angels,
but by peacocks, peacocks which are emerging as important Christian symbols. Because, well, the peacock, back
going to pagan Egypt, is a symbol of immortality because of the notion that peacocks’ flesh doesn’t rot at death.
So there’s a sense in which it continues to live even after it dies.
Because the peacock is associated in the Greek tradition with a story of Io, who was carried off by Zeus, and then
in turn to be punished. Because Hera, Zeus’s wife, can’t punish Zeus, she puts Io away, guarded by the thousandeyed guardian, Argus. And Zeus finally sends Hermes, who puts Argus asleep, eye by eye by eye by eye by eye,
by telling him loads of stories. And as soon as our Argus is asleep, Hermes plucks out all of his eyes and tosses
them down below. And a bird that s going by happens to be the peacock, getting all those eyes on its tail.
So that the peacock with eyes on its tail becomes the symbol of the all-seeing church. And the peacock, because
of its association with Hera, who is the wife of Zeus and therefore the Queen of Heaven, comes to have an
association with the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Moreover– see, these things are never simple,
straightforward. They’re only and always complicated and interwoven. Moreover, the peacock has a very strange
cry. And so it came to be associated later on with the cries of Christian martyrs in the early centuries, when

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Christian churches

architecture decoration

medieval Christian design

artistic mosaics

Ahenny Cross

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