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Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas thoughts on painting and symbol...

Detail, Zanobi Strozzi, c.1433.
(Perhaps with some figure work by Fra Angelico?)
Predella to an altarpiece.
Tempera with gold on wood.
Wikipedia Creative Commons licence.
Image donated to CC by the Met.

* * *
                                           Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
                                           Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger;
                                           Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
                                           To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger
                                                 --from George Herbert, "Christmas" (I), 1633

I've long been friends with painters, and I love wandering among drawings and paintings. I have a particular affection for medieval paintings, and for the iconography of that era. One thing I especially find intriguing about medieval religious paintings is that the images possessed a function that was far more vital than that of paintings today. A painter in our time often wishes to have his or her painting in a static or traveling group show or a solo show. The painter desires to have images appear in an article or review, and longs to achieve the status of seeing his or her own paintings housed permanently in a museum. I dearly love to visit museums and would never dismiss them. But a medieval painter's labors joined a great variety of other crafted works to beautify and inspire in churches, cathedrals, synagogues, shrines, and castles. Art meant skill to make significant, beautiful creations. And many an artisan felt himself to be such a maker, part of a great body of people crafting and incarnating a house or way-station for God. Afterward, the made things were intimately connected to the highest spiritual feelings of many people, and they became an essential part of worship. Paintings, carvings, and sculpted pieces have frequently ended up in our museum collections, where they now have a more limited existence, drained of prior life and power, but yet... they once had that earlier glory. The symbolism in medieval paintings and icons likewise held meaning and a living power, where for most viewers today it remains merely a colorful mystery. 

So here's my Christmas greeting, rife with symbol and beauty: an adoration scene with ox and ass portraying the yoking of clean and unclean, centered on the infant Jesus. This iconography is extra-biblical, though reflected in St. Peter's highly symbolic dream of a sheet of clean and unclean foods let down from heaven. Such yokings reflect the baby's bringing of clean (Jewish) and unclean (Gentile) peoples together under the rule of Christ. Meanwhile the baby who binds the earthly and divine is radiant and haloed in gold, the metal at the top of the medieval hierarchy of metals. Perhaps he is so nearly naked and so radiant because painters of the era were inspired by a mystical vision from the prior century. St. Bridget of Sweden saw the baby lying naked on the ground, transfigured by light. 

St. Bridget may also be the source of the portrayal of Mary in prayer--and of her oddly blonde hair as well. Meanwhile, Joseph is less important, smaller, set back, crossing his arms in the attitude of one receiving a blessing. Mary wears a robe of heavenly, royal blue that discloses red, the color linked to Pentecost and the influx of the Holy Spirit. In Joseph, the colors are reversed. I imagine that for a Medieval viewer, the link from red to blood and martyrdom would have been clear as well--the fact that this strange, surprising child is born to die a martyr's death. Mary and Joseph are both serious-faced, befitting their role as guardians of the Messiah and the womb-tomb suggestions of the picture. I'm a little puzzled about the angels, as eleven is a peculiar choice, given medieval numerology. But there is another medieval piece that gives us eleven angels, the wonderful Wilton Diptych (and it has been argued that its heavenly court parallels Joseph's dream with sun, moon, and eleven stars, with Joseph himself honored as the twelfth.)

As in many medieval portrayals of the Nativity, the scene takes place before the shelter of a cave. The visual link between womb and tomb runs back to certain Neolithic passage tombs, and probably earlier. The womb is a place of transformation leading to new birth; the Christian vision of the tomb is also one of transformation and rebirth. The image of the cave (a mix of natural and altered stone) also reminds the viewer of the placing of the body of Christ in the cave (rock-hewn) tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. A cave being a piercing of the hard substance of the world by an ethereal body of air, the shape also suggests the divine that has come to pierce through the material world, and to be pierced in turn. The two support poles before the cave and the single bole of a tree may well have suggested the three "trees" on Golgotha to a medieval man or woman versed in the symbolism of the time. The tree is flourishing, again emblematic of new life. Far in the background, seven (a number of fullness and completion) towers on a hill and points the way toward heaven.

So there you go--a medieval Christmas card.
Have a joyous Christmas Eve and Day.

The Met site states that this tempera painting was originally attributed to the marvelous Fra Angelico but is now thought to be by his pupil, Zanobi Strozzi. Strozzi is known for his illuminations.


  1. Fascinating and thought provoking musings. I agree that the secular museums of our age are not so freighted with meaning as the Medieval cathedrals are/were, but in this time of darkness, they stand as confirmation of the sacredness of the individual voice, the possibility of creation in a world that seems to be unraveling around us.

    1. Yes, I do adore going to museums... Precious repositories in a strange era.

  2. Thank you for sharing your deep understanding of symbolism! It always blows my mind when someone illuminates the messages artists from another era intended to convey to often illiterate audiences through symbolism. One picture really can - and often does - tell a thousand words.

    1. And this one was a minor part of something larger, and not as complex as many--yet still so full of meaning.

  3. The tree on the left is equally, if not more, likely to refer to the Tree of Life in Eden. At least one early Church father (Hippolytus) writes of Christ being our Tree of Life. "The fruit of righteousness and the tree of life is Christ. "
    This idea is echoes in an Orthodox prayer - the Troparion of the Forefeast of the Nativity:
    "Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave!"
    And from that sort of imagery we eventually end up with Christmas trees.

    1. Yes, of course! The tree in the garden and the tree on which Christ hung are joined...

    2. I'm not Orthodox, but I have to say that I have some leanings that way... And also am participating in a project that will be led by an Orthodox priest. I do love the way the early fathers read the world.

  4. A great Christmas card. Here's to a merry one for you and yours!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.