Spiritualising the human form in the Middle Ages

 

Yesterday I took advantage of free museum day in Paris to make my third trip to the Musée nationale du Moyen-Age (aka Musée de Cluny). Some items not previously viewed were on display, sometimes because they’ve redone some displays, sometimes because I may not have paid enough attention in previous visits. Anyway, besides some really amazing ivory carvings that really deserve their own posts, I spent a little time with some fragmentary Gothic sculpture.

But I took no photos of that sculpture. Nonetheless, here’s something like what I saw, only more complete, from the central portal of Chartres Cathedral:

These three figures, you will note, are extraordinarily tall and slender. Kind of cubey around the edges, too. This is in part because they are, in fact, pillars. Since they serve an architectural function and are not stand-alone statues, they have been adapted to the space.

Nonetheless, I have seen other mediaeval figures like this; this slender, elongated form is not reserved for Gothic column-statues. Byzantine icons also tend to be sort of … low on flesh, if you will.

This lack of fleshiness was first pointed out to me on a trip to the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, where our guide, Fr Ioannis, a painter and iconographer, asked some of the better-informed what struck them about some of the frescoes at Panayia Podithou. The answer: They look fleshier than a lot of classic Byzantine icons.

Fr Ioannis explained that this was due to ‘Western’ (add, ‘Renaissance and later’) influences upon Cypriot iconography. A classic Byzantine icon will be long and slender with nary a muscle and certainly no bulk to the figures. I present to you, as an example, the fresco of the Transfiguration on the exterior of St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus (15th-c, my photo):

Transfiguration -- Sozomen's

You can see here that the figure of Christ in particular is a fairly unfleshy sort. This Byzantine style is also visible in an ivory plaque in the Musée de Cluny depicting the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Otto II* and his wife, the Byzantine princess  Theophano in 982/3:

The above is not my photo; mine was taken on my phone and is blurry. Nonetheless, this Byzantinising image is also very religious. In the centre is Christ who legitimates Otto II’s rule as Holy Roman Emperor; He is the largest, central figure, crowning the two monarchs who are dressed in Byzantine style. Compare it to my photo of this ivory carving of Christ crowning Romanos and Eudoxia in Constantinople a few decades earlier.

What this waifiness signifies, I believe (and as the post title suggests), is the spiritualisation of the human form. It is not necessarily a retreat from the goodness of the human body; the East and West are both accused of this in the Middle Ages, but if you take this visual evidence with the written evidence of the best theologians, you will see that there was a very strong belief in the inherent goodness of the human body as part of God’s creation.

In the Renaissance, the spiritual aspect of God’s good act of creating was found in expressing naturalism, from Fra Angelico to Michelangelo. In the Middle Ages, it was found in expressing spiritual truth.

The human person is not only a pscychosomatic unity but also inspired, inspirited, spiritual. We are tripartite — spirit-soul/mind/nous-flesh. Naturalism grounds the image in the present reality too much for the mediaeval mind. The goal is to set the mind on things above (Col. 3:2). Therefore, not only in subject matter (Christ, his Mother, the saints, Bible stories) but in style, that which is above is transmitted to our minds through the art.

The human form is elongated. Its muscle is toned down. It is still explicitly and specifically human in these mediaeval images. But now it is also otherworldly. It is spirit-and-body all at once. In a human face visible to you on the street today, you cannot see the soul. In contrast, in a mediaeval statue, ivory, or painting, you see the inner as well as the outer.

This spiritualising impacts the art in more ways than this, but I’ll leave it there for now. The next time you see such a form, I hope its intrinsic beauty will strike you to spend some time in your own nous looking for the spiritual and then moving upward to the God of the uncreated light.

*Here’s a happy-looking Romanesque Otto from a manuscript illumination.

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