What Were the Specifics of Depicting Scenes From the Life of Christ in Medieval Europe?
It is a well-known fact that Christianity had the great impact on all spheres of life in the European Middle Ages. It must be clear that art was not an exception. Nowadays many cathedrals and frescoes in them, which were made in Medieval, are considered as the high-value artworks. It also has to be mentioned that medieval is a quite large period that is separated into early, high, and late medieval. Each of those periods had its own specificity and features. That is the reason why it can be quite hard to make any detailed conclusions about the whole medieval period. It is also quite hard to talk about medieval Europe as far as it means to speak about many countries with their cultural and developmental traits. This way, one can make only very general conclusions, considering the specifics of depicting scenes from the life of Christ in the European Middle Ages. Scenes from the life of Christ in medieval Europe has its specific in its depicting and symbolic meaning in the figures that usually were on the pictures.
The figure of Jesus Christs is very important for Christianity, and thus it was significant in medieval. Jesus is famous by many miracles he did, according to the Bible. It is clear that many scenes from Christ’s life were depicted with many artworks in medieval Europe. As it noticed Hillerbrand, among the numerous scenes from the life of Christ, depicting of his mother, his birth, and his death, was especially important. Hillerbrand does not write about the reason of the importance of those scenes. However, one can suggest that Christ’s origin was especially emphasized in those three points of his life. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is also called the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the Bible, Mary became pregnant with Jesus being virgin. It must be noticed that a scene where the angel came to tell her that she will have a son also is one of important scenes that were depicted in different artworks in the European Middle Ages. The fact of Mary’s virginity shows a divine origin of Jesus and is a reason why the Blessed Virgin Mary is so important.
The figure of Saint Mary has strong connection with the scene of Christ’s birth. As Hillerbrand noticed, “the depictions of the Nativity have a uniform iconographic pattern, including a very young Mary and an aged Joseph, the latter to dispel visually any question regarding his ability to have fathered the child.” One more important point is the place where Jesus was born. According to the Bible, Saint Mary gave birth to Jesus in the stable. The fact that Christ, one of whose titles is the King of the Jews, was born not in a palace or any other similar place shows the fact that Jesus was much closer to common people than to gentlefolk, and that is confirmed by the description of his life. The birth of the Christ, son of God, who came to redeem people from their sin, according to Bible, is a very important event for all Christians. It is clear that in medieval this scene was very important and was depicted in many artworks.
One more scene from the life of Christ that is widespread in medieval art is the Adoration of the Magi. Shortly retelling this Bible story, the Magi form West saw the star and thought that it means the birth of the King of the Jews. Following the star they found newborn Jesus and give him their gifts. According to Ross, “the magi themselves signiﬁcantly represent the potential, universal acceptance of Christianity by all people” (4). Hillerbrand confirms this, remarking that the Magi are shown iconographically to represent three different ages and races of humankind. Considering the way the Magi were depicted, Ross also noticed that “in early Christian art, the ‘‘eastern’’ origin of the magi may be indicated by their depiction in the exotic dress of Persian astrologers or Mithraic priests, for example, short robes and the forward-folded Phrygian cap” (Ross 4). What is important, in the Bible there are no mentions about the number of the Magi. However, there is a mention about three presents they had for Jesus. Thus, as Ross remarked, some artworks can show two, four, six, or even twelve Magi; however, the traditional and most common representation of the magi is three. This way, one can see the importance and symbolic of figures of the Magi, and that was the reason why they presence on many artworks of medieval Europe.
Before considering the scene of the death of Jesus, that is one of the most significan, there is one more important scene that must be mentioned. It is agony in the garden that was depicted in may medieval artworks. Ross noticed that this scene is found in “manuscript illustration, mosaics, wall paintings, and sculpture throughout the medieval period in various formats” (7). According to Bible, agony in the garden is the scene in which Jesus prayed and reconciled with his impending torment and death. In this scene Christ is usually depicted in a landscape setting on a rock or mountain with sleeping apostles the number of whom can be from three to eleven. As Ross remarked, in this scene also can be depicted the hand of God and the angel sometimes bearing a cross and/or chalice. This scene is important because it emphasizes that Jesus sacrificed himself of his free will, even it was hard for him.
The image of cruciﬁxed Jesus is one of the most important in Christianity. The cross became a symbol of Christianity and people still wear it as a symbol of their religion. As Ross noticed, the image of cruciﬁxed Jesus was developed in the early Christian period and appeared in a variety of formats through medieval. Considering the cross about, Ross noticed that in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries there were developed pictorial types that included representation of the cross as a ﬂowering or leafy tree, “and the inclusion of personiﬁed ﬁgures of the Virtues nailing Jesus to the cross and embracing him” (59). Considering the figure of Jesus it was noticed that at the earliest images Christ was shown with open eyes, and even though nails are represented in his hands and feet, “the cross itself is downplayed, and the image emphasizes life and victory rather than death and suffering” (Ross 58). It is important fact that Jesus was often depicted not alone. As Ross remarked, the other figures were the ﬁgure of God the Father who seated or standing behind the cross and helping to support it, and the dove of the Holy Spirit often hovered over Jesus’ head. Such image is known as the ‘‘Throne of Grace,’’ and its aim was to combine the Crucifixion with a representation of the Holy Trinity (Ross 59). Two other figures that often are depicted in the scene of crucifixion are Mary, who normally was depicted on the left of the composition, “wring her hands, weep, or bury her face in her veil in an increasingly dramatic display. By the later Gothic period, she may be shown quite overcome with grief, fainting into the arms of her companions” and Saint John “normally on the right of the composition, may similarly weep and wring his hands” (Ross 59). As the example of it can be considered Crucifixion Icon (“Crucifixion Icon.”). Ross also mentioned that “images of the Crucifixion may also include donor or patron ﬁgures arrayed in prayer, as well as various Old Testament ﬁgures and prophets holding books or scrolls.” Considering the image of the death of Jesus in the context of different periods of medieval, it must be remarked that “while early medieval images often emphasized Christ’s triumph over death, later images directed new attention to themes such as Christ’s childhood and his suffering, encouraging viewers’ identification and imitation” (The J. Paul Getty Museum). This way, depicting the scene of the death of Christ where important part of the medieval culture and it has its variability.
Taking into account all from above one can conclude that depicting scenes from the life of Christ in the European Middle Ages was an important part of the art of that time. There were numerous of scenes from Jesus’ life artist depicted in different artworks. Among those scenes, the most important are the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, and the death of Christ. Each of those scenes and some other scenes of Jesus’ life has the specific of its depicting and some symbols that usually were on the pictures.
“Crucifixion Icon.” 2016, http://www.christianiconography.info/Wikimedia%20Commons/crucifixionIconGeorgia12thCentury.html.
The Bible. The New Oxford Annotated Version, 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2001.
The J. Paul Getty Museum. “Imagining Christ.” Getty.Edu, 2008, http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/imagining_christ/.
Ross, Leslie. Medieval Art. Westport (Connecticut), Greenwood Press, 1996.
Hillerbrand, Hans J. “Christology – Jesus In The Visual Arts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christology/Jesus-in-the-visual-arts.
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