Where’s Jesus?

Book of Kells, Christ Enthroned
This is lovely and all, but where the *%&$ is it taking place? Book of Kells, 8th century. (Wikipedia)

Through most of the Middle Ages, artwork had a decided lack of environment. If you weren’t familiar with medieval Christian Art, you’d have a hard time knowing what the image at right even is, much less where it is happening.

What I see: Man with a bad bleach job and no thighs trapped in a tiny cell being watched by munchkins.  He may or may not be stoned.

What this is: Christ sitting on a throne in heaven, although a sitting position only partly explains the rather bizarre proportions.

His right hand is making a lazy gesture of blessing, while the artist apparently gave up on the left hand entirely because, you know, drawing hands is hard.

The four figures stuffed into the side panels are the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  You know that because there’s four of them.  Seriously, if you’re asked to identify four guys with Jesus, guess the Evangelists.

St. Matthew of the Sandwich Board in the Book of Durrow is another example of a highly questionable environment from roughly the same time period, which is exactly why I can so easily make up silly titles for him.

Eventually, this pose for Jesus, commonly called Christ in Majesty or Christ Enthroned, would include an oval (called a mandorla) drawn around Christ to indicate he is in heaven.  He has a special crossed halo.  Here he is also surrounded by four creatures that represent the Evangelists.

Codex Brushal, c1220. Christ in Majesty
Note the more upright gesture of blessing, the fact that he actually has a left hand, and some hint of him having a lap.  Codex Brushal, c. 1220 (Wikipedia)

A crucifixion image may have nothing more than a stylized Jesus nailed to a cross floating in space. Others may or may not accompany him, but they all look rather blasé about the whole thing.

Medieval Mosaic Crucifixion
Indoors? Outdoors? City? Countryside? Space? Underwater? No clue. Meanwhile, the Virgin Mary does her best Vanna White impersonation while St. John considers being upset.  11th century. Mosaic in the narthex of Hosios Loukas. (Counterlight’s Peculiars)

As we move forward in time, it is more likely that some sort of vague decorative design or background is included, which sometimes only further confuses the issue.

Jesus appears to have been cricified to the rafters, which Mary and John, seem more flirty than in mourning.  Also, someone seems to have set a fire under Jesus. From the Sacramentary of Saint-Amand, 12th century. Folio 58 Verso, MS 108, Bibliotheque Municipale, Valenciennes. (Godecookery)
At a guess, Jesus has been nailed to the rafters.  Also, someone seems to have set a fire under him.  Mary and John seem OK with this.
From the Sacramentary of Saint-Amand, 12th century.
Jesus Blessing Saints
Due to the lack of context, I’m going to presume this is Jesus blessing the crowd control ropes as the saints become unruly. (The Jesus Question)

Getting farther into the High Middle Ages we see increasingly stylized backgrounds, often woefully inadequate to contain the image subject.

Richard of Wallingford, Abbot of St. Albans
Richard of Wallingford, Abbot of St. Albans, forced to work inside a small box. History of the Abbots of St. Albans, 14th century. (Wikipedia)

It’s not until the very Late Middle Ages/early Renaissance that we start seeing attempts at realistic backgrounds as artistic focus starts shifting away from the abstract and more toward realism overall, such as when Snow (Almost) Always Looks More Fun in Pictures.

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