Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Carolingian – Iconography in Religious Art

i·co·nog·ra·phy  /ˌīkəˈnägrəfē/
  • The use or study of images or symbols in visual arts.
  • The visual images, symbols, or modes of representation collectively associated with a person, cult, or movement.

Christ pantocrator mosaic Hagia Sophia, Wikimedia Commons

There are numerous symbols in religious art. The word ‘symbol’ will be a recurring theme from this time period forward. Although collectively called symbols, the word ‘icon’ may be used occasionally.

For now, let’s concentrate on a few symbols that are significant.  These symbols were created and used prior to the Carolingian period, but seem more visible in the Carolingian monastic abbeys perhaps due to Charlemagne's focus.   The use of symbols is seen in mosaics, illuminated manuscripts , stained glass, sculpture, in  frescos and textiles to name a few.  The artist of the time created art in whatever medium that they excelled in and used the symbols as identification to tell stories and a pictorial way to tell who the figure is. Since illiteracy was the norm, more people could recognize a symbol.

The symbols of the four Evangelists are here depicted in the Book of Kells.
The four winged creatures symbolize, clockwise from top left, Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke. Wikimedia Commons

Carolingian depiction from an Aachen Gospel, 820 Wikimedia Commons

Seen in the two images above are the first  four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  They wrote four Gospels which are the first four books New Testament in the Bible. These four men are frequently represented by symbols.  They are normally, but not always, shown with wings.  The basic meanings grew over the centuries and are individually articulated below.  Above one can compare the way the evangelists looked from the Celtic manuscripts to the Carolingian depictions. They evolved, but symbolically the same thing.

The Ebbo Gospels are an example of the early Carolingian Gospel book known for an unusual style of illustration of the four evangelists.  It was produced in the ninth century at the Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers, near Reims.  There one can see the stylistic renderings of a few of the evangelists.

Fol 7v: The Evangelist St. Matthew with his symbol the angel. (Sic. Winged man)

Above, “Matthew the Evangelist, the author of the first gospel account is symbolized by a winged man, or angel. Matthew's gospel starts with Jesus' genealogy from Abraham; it represents Jesus' Incarnation, and so Christ's human nature. This signifies that Christians should use their reason for salvation.” (Wikipedia)  He is also frequently seen writing in a book.  Matthew: the man.

 Fol 47v: The Evangelist St. Mark with his symbol the lion. Gospels from Mainz, Now in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague (The National Library of the Netherlands).Wikimedia Commons
Above, “Mark the Evangelist, the author of the second gospel account is symbolized by a winged lion – a figure of courage and monarchy. Mark has John the Baptist preaching "like a lion roaring" at the beginning of his Gospel. It also represents Jesus' Resurrection (because lions were believed to sleep with open eyes, a comparison with Christ in the tomb), and Christ as king. This signifies that Christians should be courageous on the path of salvation.” (Wikipedia)  Mark: the lion.

Fol. 104v and 105r of the Egmond Gospels. The evangelist Luke and his symbol, ca. 900 AD, Koninklijke Bibliotheek Website, Franco-Saxon illuminator, Wikimedia Commons

Above, “Luke the Evangelist, the author of the third gospel account (and the Acts of the Apostles) is symbolized by a winged ox or bull – a figure of sacrifice, service and strength. Luke's account begins with the duties of Zacharias in the temple; it represents Jesus' sacrifice in His Passion and Crucifixion, as well as Christ being High priest (this also represents Mary's obedience). The ox signifies that Christians should be prepared to sacrifice themselves in following Christ.” (Wikipedia)  Luke:  the ox

St. John, from the Coronation Gospels. Another Carolingian evangelist portrait in Greek/Byzantine realist style, probably by a Greek artist, also late 8th century.

Above, “John the Evangelist, the author of the fourth gospel account is symbolized by an eagle – a figure of the sky, and believed to be able to look straight into the sun. John starts with an eternal overview of Jesus the Logos and goes on to describe many things with a "higher" level than the other three (synoptic) gospels; it represents Jesus' Ascension, and Christ's divine nature. This represents that Christians should look on eternity without flinching as they journey towards their goal of union with God.” (Wikipedia) John: the eagle.

Folio 72 verso of the Codex Aureus of Lorsch contains an illumination of Christ in Majesty

"[…] the usual accompaniment to Christ in Majesty when portrayed during the same period, reflecting the vision in Revelations. They were presented as one of the most common motifs found on church portals and apses, as well as many other locations. When surrounding Christ, the figure of the man is usually at top left – above Christ's right hand, with the lion above Christ's left arm. Underneath the man is the ox and underneath the lion is the eagle. This both reflects the medieval idea of the order of "nobility" of nature of the beasts (man, lion, ox, eagle) and the text of Ezekiel 1.10. […].” (Wikipedia) 

Center of the ceiling of the "Velatio" cubicle: the Good Shepherd (also sheep and doves with olive branches in trees). Location: Catacomb of Priscilla, Italy, Rome. Date: Second half of the 3rd century, Wikimedia Commons

Above, "the image of the Good Shepherd, often with a sheep on his shoulders, is the most common of the symbolic representations of Christ found the Catacombs of Rome, and it is related to the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Initially it was also understood as a symbol like others used in art. By about the 5th century the figure more often took on the appearance of the conventional depiction of Christ, as it had developed by this time, and was given a halo and rich robes." (Wikipedia)

Lamb bleeding into the Holy Chalice, carrying the vexillum.Wikimedia Commons

Above, "the title Lamb of God for Jesus appears only in the Gospel of John, with the initial proclamation: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" in John 1:29, the title reaffirmed the next day in John 1:36.[1] The second use of the title Lamb of God takes place in the presence of the first two apostles of Jesus, who immediately follow him, address him as Rabbi with respect and later in the narrative bring others to meet him." (Wikipedia)

The Holy Spirit depicted as a dove, surrounded by angels, by Giaquinto, 1750s.Wikimedia Commons

The four winged creatures that symbolize the Four Evangelists surround Christ in Majesty on the Romanesque tympanum of the Church of St. Trophime in Arles Wikimedia Commons

Although not exclusive to Christian art, the halo (nimbus, aureole, glory) is nonetheless a religious symbol. This halo surrounding the head of a person in art frequently indicates a holy, sacred person, angels and prophets. The halo has been used by non-Christian religions as well.  It is the concept of energy from God, divine light or grace of God, a window into heaven.

Nativity and Transfiguration of Christ, with cross haloes; the apostles, angels and prophets have
plain ones. (1025-50, Cologne). Wikimedia Commons

Above is a story full of iconography. Notice Christ is standing on a ‘firm foundation.’ Speaking of that, observe what the feet are resting on in religious art; stone/concrete is good and solidlike the church.  Look at the body language of the characters, the different types of halos.  What are the people holding, if anything, in their hands? How about figuring out who is an apostile, angel or profit?

Iconography has been around since the Paleolithic times. Unfortunately, those are studies the Thursday Art Group of 5 (TAG-5) visited prior to the start of this blog.  One may not always know what all the symbols mean, but it is definitely an artistic language. The next time you visit a museum or church, start seeing at what you are looking at with different eyes―a new appreciation of what you see may appear―especially those religious sections that frequently get passed by quickly or you don't pay too much attention to!  My thought is that to appreciate the art, one must know more about the art. One doesn't even have to like it.  This is art appreciation.

Mary B.

P.S.  As you may already have observed, there are just few actual images from the Carolingian period on this post. Since free and copyright free images are what I post, it can’t be perfect; the visual references seemed more important. Okay, I’m having my own pity party here people!

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