Friday, March 22, 2013

Medieval Hildesheim: Simple art, Complex history

Every semester as I teach Art History and we get through The Middle Ages, I use the 11th Century bronze doors of St. Mary's Cathedral of Hildesheim, usually simply referred to as Hildesheim Cathedral, to explain some of the thinking and style in European art by that millennial point.

Commissioned by Bernward, the doors were probably not actually made by his own hands but were likely fashioned by an anonymous master craftsman in bronze that would be known in the humble Medieval way as simply The Master of Hildesheim.  In the 11th Century Hildesheim was an important and sophisticated place, advanced in education, particularly in scholarship and theology.

The image above is of one panel on the doors.  The theme of the doors is The Fall of Humankind and The Salvation of Humankind, or you could say The Redemption of Humankind.  The picture is of Adam and Eve in The Garden of Eden after they have sinned.  They look convincingly ashamed.  Stylistically, however, they are not as convincingly natural looking as a Greek figure.  We generally refer to that as Byzantine, meaning that the copying of images within churches after the 6th Century rise of the Byzantine empires put an end to Greek naturalism and rules of Greek proportions and introduced centuries of art that by comparison seem crude or cartoonish.

Just look at Adam and Eve.  Their feet do not seem to rest on the ground.  Their bone structure is not evident, they only generally appear human in the most superficial ways.  If they were flesh and blood instead of bronze, there would be some serious doubt as to their ability to walk and survive.  In other words, their appearance is almost alien.  That is because the Medieval artist was dominated by the concepts of Sacred and Profane and he would not ever consider actually looking at and studying another living human for subject matter but would have instead relied on copying images available within the church, hence the cartoonish style.  To grasp this thinking I recommend Browning's poem "Fra Lippo Lippi" which dramatically explains the thinking of a medieval artist and the conflicts of that thinking.  Sacred things can be near the sacraments and the altar.  Things outside the church are profane things, and most of us, since we live and work outside the church, operate in the world of sin, or the profane world.  So thought a master artist of the first millennium.  That is why The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil looks like a giant sick dandelion instead of a tree.

The story of Adam and Eve and The Fall comes from the Old Testament, the very start of The Bible, in Genesis chapter 3.  So, we have the characters and setting in the art of the doors.  There is Adam, there is Eve, and at her feet there is the crafty serpent, Satan.  And, as I said, the tree.

But who is the other man?  You might at first mistakenly assume that it is a narrator pointing at our protagonists, but if you look you will see that they are looking at him and his pointing finger and a dialogue is evidently taking place.  He has a halo, and the man with the halo is pointing at them and telling them something.

In Genesis 3:8 it says, "They heard the sound of The Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day."  Well?  To walk, especially to make noise, you need feet, and a body.

Then, in the next verse, Genesis 3:9, God calls out to them.  Well, hey, to call out means you need a voice and implies the physical environment, its needs and limitations.

Obviously, in Genesis chapter 3 God incarnated in order to meet His creations face-to-face and have a little tête-à-tête about what they had done.

This is a complex theology, a concept called a theophany, generally interpreted as meaning that Jesus came to visit people in the past ages before He was born of Mary in Bethlehem.  These days someone might start talking about time travel.  A theologian of 1022 would have probably said that God is outside of time.  There are other theophanies in scripture, such as The Angel of the Lord with whom Jacob wrestles and the Son of Man who speaks to the prophet Daniel.  It is generally interpreted that every Old Testament occurrence of the phrases "The Angel of the Lord" and "in appearance like The Son of Man" are pre-incarnate theophanies of Jesus in the Old Testament.

That's some sophisticated knowledge and theology from an artist who seems to lack the sense to go look at a tree!  It is one of the paradoxes of the Medieval paradigm.

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