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.


Painted Churches

When I lived in Cyprus, I had the opportunity to take a trip to the Troodos Mountains with a group of Orthodox Christians on a guided tour of some of Cyprus’s beautiful churches, led by my friends Frs. Ioannis and Andreas; we were blessed in Fr. Ioannis’ specialised knowledge as an iconographer and artist in his own right.

The group at Panayia Podithou

We saw many wonderful things there, including Panayia Podithou with its peaked roof that hearkened one’s thoughts to more western, northerly climes — but there for the same reason (snow!). This church, the first on our trip, includes a fresco of holy Moses removing his shoes at the Burning Bush (thus comes its name). It also has images of Christ giving the twelve apostles the Lord’s Supper.

After Panayia Podithou, we went into the village of Galata. There we saw the Church of St. Sozomen. St. Sozomen’s is a magnificent church (it also has better lighting than Panayia Podithou, and therefore stands out in my memory more!). The interior is entirely covered in frescoes of varying levels of ‘skill’ — although, the only one that would not necessarily count as ‘Byzantine’ was one of those ‘western’ Resurrection scenes with Jesus jumping out of the tomb with a banner. Similar to this (this isn’t the one, though):

Assembled on the frescoed walls of St. Sozomen’s are a variety of saints, biblical figures, and angels. The place is a riot of colour and a far cry from the simple dark wood of St. Columba’s Free Church of Scotland! The exterior of St. Sozomen’s is notable because it, too, is covered in frescoes. The roof has been constructed so that there is basically a portico surrounding the entire church.

Fittingly, amongst the frescoes painted on the exterior of St. Sozomen’s are icons of the Ecumenical Councils, from Nicaea to Nicaea II. This is fitting because — unless there’s a Sozomen of whom I am unaware (entirely likely!) — Sozomen was one of the early ecclesiastical historians, living in the first half of the fifth century. You can read his Ecclesiastical History here. Here’s the photo I took of the Council of Nicaea:

The Council of Nicaea

I also managed to get photos of the fresco of the Transfiguration:

And of the Last Judgement:

Our final stop was the Church Ayios Nikolaos tis Stigis (St. Nicholas of the Roof). It has two roofs, as seen below:

Apparently the original ‘Byzantine’-style roof couldn’t handle the snow, so they had to add a peaked roof like the one at Panayia Podithou. Ayios Nikolaos is full of frescoes, on walls, on pillars, everywhere. They are wondrously colourful and more than worth a visit, if you are ever in Cyprus. At this church, I first learned of St. Mary of Egypt, the anchoress who lived in the desert so long that her clothing disintegrated; to keep her safe from the sun and maintain modesty, she grew hair all over the body. There was also an image of St. Paphnutius, another Egyptian saint, also naked, with a beard that was strategically long.

In these painted churches of Cyprus, I first came to an understanding of one reason why Byzantine and mediaeval churches are covered in frescoes and mosaics of the saints and angels. It is a reason I was just reading about today in the latest book by Edith M. Humphrey (one of many Anglicans turned Eastern Orthodox), Grand Entrance. In the first chapter of this book, she has been endeavouring to demonstrate to the reader that worship and prayer (the subject of the volume) are never truly done alone. Part of our lack of isolation and individualism as we worship and pray comes from the presence both of the saints and angels themselves, those saints who are offering up our prayers in bowls before the Throne as in Revelation, those angels who are there to protect us and learn the mysteries of God with us.

The frescoes and mosaics — or, in the case of St. Andrew’s Orthodox Community here in Edinburgh, the individual icons plastering every piece of available wall, each showing us a saint or angel — are visual reminders of what’s really going on as we gather to worship the Triune God. Even if at, say, Morning Prayer when only Fr. Raphael turns up to pray, he is never alone. Not only is God, the One-in-Three, there with him (thus making the community at least two if not four but really just two because, as St. Gregory of Nyssa noted, there are not three gods but one God, although there will still be at least four hypostaseis, as beautifully illustrated by Fr. John Zizioulas in Being As Communion), the saints and angels assembled around God’s Throne are with him.

Thus, at Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, we are reminded that St. Ambrose (saint of the week here) is always with us worshipping YHWH as well (not least because of his bones below the altar):

At St. George’s Anglican Church, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (where my dad is priest), we are reminded that St. George (saint of the week here) joins us in worship:

We are never alone. And so, the next time you pray, ‘Our Father …’ remember that you join the invisible saints of God in our midst. When you pray, ‘Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us,’ alone, remember that you are not alone. You just cannot see your fellow worshippers.

Saint of the Week: St. Spyridon

I just returned from Cyprus, and one of the saints who figures largely in the church dedications of the island is St. Spyridon, one of the Fathers who made the journey to Nicaea in 325.

You can always tell St. Spyridon when you see him on a church wall (as on the exterior of St. Sozomen’s Church in Galata, Cyprus [my photo to the left]) because of his beehive hat. Spyridon was a literal shepherd before he became a spiritual shepherd (in Latin, that would be pastor). As a sign of his humble origins, he is always shown wearing this traditional Cypriot headgear.

The image to the left is from a large fresco of the Council of Nicaea (the whole thing is viewable here). It’s hard to tell because I didn’t have a good angle to take the photo (I took it from a good distance below the image), but Spyridon is pictured performing a miracle that tradition relates concerning his actions at Nicaea.

He is clutching in his fist a tile. Out of the top of the tile comes a flame, from the bottom drips water, and soil remains in his hand. This threefold nature of the tile was a refutation of Arius, showing how three things could share a single essence, an object lesson in the Holy Trinity.

Because what we have from the histories is brief, allow me to quote Socrates Scholasticus in full (from CCEL):

With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd, that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric. Many extraordinary things are related of him: I shall however record but one or two, lest I should seem to wander from my subject. Once about midnight, thieves having clandestinely entered his sheepfold attempted to carry off some of the sheep. But God who protected the shepherd preserved his sheep also; for the thieves were by an invisible power bound to the folds. At daybreak, when he came to the sheep and found the men with their hands tied behind them, he understood what was done: and after having prayed he liberated the thieves, earnestly admonishing and exhorting them to support themselves by honest labor, and not to take anything unjustly. He then gave them a ram, and sent them away, humorously adding, ‘that ye may not appear to have watched all night in vain.’ This is one of the miracles in connection with Spyridon. Another was of this kind. He had a virgin daughter named Irene, who was a partaker of her father’s piety. An acquaintance entrusted to her keeping an ornament of considerable value: she, to guard it more securely, hid what had been deposited with her in the ground, and not long afterwards died. Subsequently the owner of the property came to claim it; and not finding the virgin, he began an excited conversation with the father, at times accusing him of an attempt to defraud him, and then again beseeching him to restore the deposit. The old man, regarding this person’s loss as his own misfortune, went to the tomb of his daughter, and called upon God to show him before its proper season the promised resurrection. Nor was he disappointed in his hope: for the virgin again reviving appeared to her father, and having pointed out to him the spot where she had hidden the ornament, she once more departed. Such characters as these adorned the churches in the time of the emperor Constantine. These details I obtained from many inhabitants of Cyprus. I have also found a treatise composed in Latin by the presbyter Rufinus, from which I have collected these and some other things which will be hereafter adduced.

What I like about the story of St. Spyridon is the fact that he was made a presbyter for all the right reasons — it wasn’t because he had a clear singing voice for the liturgy, or because he was the only literate man in the village, or because he had the right educational credentials but because of holiness of life. He was so holy and had such spiritual authority that, although a simple shepherd, the people knew that he was the right man for the job.

This is a stark contrast with the lawyers and aristocrats who fill the clergy elsewhere in fourth century! It is a stark contrast to today where we are more concerned with one having the right training than we are with whether one is actually a spiritual leader. Perhaps seminaries and bishops should take the life of St. Spyridon to heart when they are seeking out and evaluating postulants for ordination. Imagine if we had a whole generation of clergy chosen for the holiness of their lives! We might even see spiritual fruit as a result!

Remember as well: God chooses the simple. Few of us are Origens — and he was branded a heretic post-mortem — but by the grace of Christ, many can be Spyridons.