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Tales of the Middle Ages
True stories, fables and anecdotes from the Middle Ages

Religious Art

The Ascension

The Ascension from the Sacramentary of the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne, Limoges. About 1100. Folio 84 Verso, MS Lat. 9438, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

In the 11th century sacred art was still attempting to condense the teachings of the Gospels into signs and symbols, serving to guide God's people to the Promised Land. Some of these figurations are highly complex and reflect the intricate symbolism pervading the teaching of the doctrines of Christ. In the Saint-Etienne Ascension, the artist's task was to represent the mystery of the Incarnation and reveal in an image how the Word became flesh; to make plain the conjunction between the eternal and the temporal, nature and supernature, God and man. That is why this scene is laid out in two registers, one above the other. In the upper one Christ sits in glory, holding the Book of Life. In the lower we are shown the temporal world.

The Crucifixion

The Crucifixion from the Bonmont Psalter, about 1260. Folio 15 Verso, MS 54, Bibliotheque Municipale, Besancon.

The West became acquainted with images in which the Divine was aligned to the human condition, showing suffering and earthly torment, largely as a result of the capture of Constantinople in 1204 and the spoils brought back by crusaders. In addition, the development of trade routes along the Danube into the heart of southern Germany, whose merchants roved the East and whose Ottonian Emperor had closer contacts with the court of Byzantium than any other European monarch, led to the style of art shown here in the Bonmont Psalter, where poignant scenes of the Passion reflect those of Byzantine Calvaries.

The Crucifixion

The Crucifixion from the Sacramentary of Saint-Amand, from the second half of the Twelfth Century. Folio 58 Verso, MS 108, Bibliotheque Municipale, Valenciennes.

In Western France in the 12th century, manuscript painters kept to the Carolingian tradition; they modeled their work on books that were illuminated in the Franco-insular manner and created new styles that were an intermingling of trends. One new style triumphed about 1150 at Henin-Lietard, Saint-Amand, and Valenciennes, derived from the "renaissance" spirit active in the palentine school; its purpose was the revival of the imperial art of antiquity. This humanist tradition gave rise to monumental figures of Evangelists, Doctors of the Church, and Crucifixions stamped with a classical serenity.

Illustrations & text excerpts from: History of Medieval Art by Georges Duby. Geneva: Editions d'Art Albert Skira S. A., 1986.


Tales of the Middle Ages

© 1997-2004 James L. Matterer

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