Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

Last night we had our second meeting about John Eldredge, Wild at Heart. We were discussing Chapter 2, which is about the wild heart of God, especially as it is manifested in Jesus. At one point, Eldredge says that all the images of Jesus we have around are limp and passive — at least, all the ones he’s seen in churches are.

And I thought, ‘Well, clearly he’s been to all the wrong churches.’

So I went through my postcard collection to bring a few non-limp Jesuses to show the other guys. These aren’t the exact postcards, but here are the images of Jesus I brought to study last night:

San Marco, Venice

Sacré-Coeur, Paris

A twelfth-century piece of Limoges work of Christ in majesty now in the Musée de Cluny, Paris

The stained glass window of the Last Judgement from St Andrew’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral, Inverness

Jesus and Apa Mena, a sixth- or seventh-century Coptic icon now in the Louvre

The dome of Machairas Monastery, Cyprus

The Cross as Tree of Life from San Clemente, Rome

The apsidal mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

The Triumphal Arch and apsidal mosaic of San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

The images of Christ we see inevitably influence us and our faith, they affect how we view our Lord and Saviour. This is part of why the Reformed reject them — they can skew just as easily as uphold a right faith in Christ. And it must be admitted that Eldredge is not wrong about so much Protestant religious art.

One of the guys last night said that so much Protestant art is sappy and sentimental because it’s made for children, to illustrate a story or make the Bible accessible. It is not art for adults. He is probably right, which troubles me — my toddler likes Art of the Byzantine Era, Pauline Baynes’ illustrated Nicene Creed, and the occasional bookmark of the Sistine Chapel right alongside his Dr. Suess, Paw Patrol, and Beatrix Potter.

Why do we sell our children short and underestimate them?

What sort of messages about Jesus are we communicating to them and ourselves through this art?

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

against which Wild at Heart is reacting.

I think John Eldredge wants,

Mighty Jesus, fierce and wild.

The art above, most of which is medieval (with one each of modern Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican items), presents us mighty Jesus, King of Kings. He sits enthroned, passing judgement. He reigns as he dies, bringing life to the world. He can certainly be your Friend. And he blesses us from his majesty. Loves pours forth from his Sacred Heart.

Christ the King, throned in glory — this is the great theme of so many medieval mosaics and frescoes.

Yet he is the upside-down king, and here is why the Reformed are concerned about these images. Christ in glory — certainly true. But not wholly true.

One image I did not bring but wish I could have was the crucifix from Vercelli:

Christ is standing on the cross, in power. As King. Not hanging in weakness as in the later, Gothic crucifixes. At the moment of his greatest human weakness, at the point of his death, Jesus is at his most powerful. Some Byzantine crucifixion icons have the inscription, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of Glory,’ to emphasise the point.

Whatever our position on any of these images in particular or images of Christ in general, Eldredge has a good point — the carpenter of Nazareth Who refashions the crooked timber of humanity into something beautiful was neither limp nor passive.

Late Roman dress and church vestments

Last night while my wife was getting a haircut, I sat in the lobby of the hairdresser’s and looked at pictures on my phone, in particular pictures of Late Antique and mediaeval ivory carvings. Because they are magnificent. And beautiful. Scrolling through the photos from my various travels, I inspected this one for a while:

cropped fl felix 428This piece is in the best little (and free!) museum in Paris, the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Collection de Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (BnF). It is one leaf of a consular diptych from Rome depicting Flavius Felix, consul in the year 428. Amongst the many ivory artefacts that strike my fancy, I love consular diptychs in particular. If I remember Alan Cameron, ‘The Origin, Context, and Function of Consular Diptychs,’*  correctly, these diptychs were given as unofficial gifts by consuls and other Roman officials to commemorate their holding of office, particularly the sponsorship of games.

I zoomed in on Flavius Felix’s diptych and looked first at the open curtain behind him, and his staff, and his clothes. And his clothes caught my eye. First, it was the presence of what looks like a stole or pallium (I do not actually know the correct technical term here, sorry). Then I observed that he is wearing a long, ankle-length robe underneath a short, possibly fancier robe. Lucky Flavius also has a fancy, embroidered garment surmounting it all. I’m not sure what it is; it does not much look like a toga. I’ve seen images of togas before, like what this Late Antique emperor in the process of apotheosis is wearing:

From around 402, in British Museum
From around 402, in British Museum

These garments of Felix’s all caught my eye, as the title of this post has given away, because they are reminiscent of traditional clerical vestments as visible in Eastern Orthodox and traditional, Latin use Roman Catholic churches. That same Parisian museum has this Greek icon of the second half of the 16th century as an example:

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil
Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

Here we can see the similarities in the dress between Felix and the three hierarchs, even if they are not perfectly mirrored.

Years ago, you see, a low-church, non-conformist friend asked where on earth clerical vestments even came from. I did some Googling, and a website somewhere (this was before 2004, so I’m not rehunting this site!) said that the origins lay in the vestments of Roman lawyers.

Now, I admit to not knowing about Roman lawyers and not taking the time to investigate more thoroughly. However, the evidence of this consular diptych suggests that ceremonial dress of the Later Roman Empire was the source for the ceremonial dress of the church. This makes sense, since the liturgy is meant to be an event of great splendour and worship of a God of splendour. As part of the enculturation of Christianity in Late Antiquity, the clergy took on forms of dress from the secular world just as the church adopted secular, Roman styles from architecture, art, poetry, etc.

To close, here are some other consular diptychs I’ve seen:

Leaf from diptych of Areobindus, Constantinople, 506 (Musée de Cluny)
Leaf from diptych of Areobindus, Constantinople, 506 (Musée de Cluny)
9th/10th-century western European imitation of a Late Antique diptych
9th/10th-century western European imitation of a Late Antique diptych, BnF, Paris
Leaf of diptych of Magnus, first quarter of 6th c, Constantinople (BnF, Paris)
Leaf of diptych of Magnus, first quarter of 6th c, Constantinople (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Theodore Philoxenus Sotericus, Constantinople, 525 (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Theodore Philoxenus Sotericus, Constantinople, 525 (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Flavius Anastasius Probus, Constantinople, 517 (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Flavius Anastasius Probus, Constantinople, 517 (BnF, Paris)

*Journal of Roman Studies 103 (November 2013), 174-207.

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.