Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Art of the Middle Ages - H.R. Rookmaaker

About the content of medieval works of art

by H.R. Rookmaaker
The question we wish to deal with is: What is the essence of the paintings
and sculptures of the Middle Ages? What is their true content? In theory
these works of art could have meant something quite different to
medieval people from what they mean to us today, and that is certainly
true in part. A statue of the Madonna means something quite different
to a believing Roman Catholic from what it means to a believing
Protestant, and it will have a different place of importance in each of
their lives. However, it is also true that the person who sees a Madonna
sculpture in a museum and has no idea that it is the Madonna will be
missing the whole point completely. But even to such an observer it will
be clear that he or she is dealing with divine, or at least elevated, figures
and not just with a mother and her child. (To prevent misunderstanding,
we have specified in the previous article that with the Middle Ages we
refer to that period from AD 800 to 1400, which means that the Flemish
fifteenth-century art and the art of the Renaissance are not included in
our discussion.)
It is possible, of course, to admire the purely aesthetic actualization
of the work; to appreciate the beauty of the figure as it has been sculpted
or cut out of wood or poured into copper or embossed in silver, to
marvel at the composition, the manner in which the various parts of the
work have been combined to form a whole. In short, we can value the
aesthetic aspects of a work on their own merits. And that is what we will
no doubt do, and any museum will try to present us with the most
beautiful examples.
But the question remains – is that really the essence of a work of art?
When a medieval sculptor was commissioned to create a Madonna
statue, it was assumed that he would devote himself to that task. To make
a Madonna was not just a pretext for making a beautiful sculpture;
rather, the more clearly this statue depicted the Mother of God the more
successful it was considered to be. This does not imply that the artist did
not set out to create an object of beauty. But to present the issue in this
way is to divorce these two aspects, and that is inappropriate. It is obvious
that someone who sets out to create a statue of the Madonna will try to
do that as beautifully as possible, first of all because its goal is to honour
her – and one certainly does not do that, if one can help it, with a piece
of junk, and definitely not with something that has been consciously
made to look ugly. Secondly, the commissioned artist would be a
craftsman who was expected to give the best he had to offer – a beautiful
statue of the Madonna. But it certainly had to be a Madonna and look
like one as clearly as possible. It would have been unthinkable to leave
out something considered to be characteristic of the Madonna; that
would have been seen as an affront to Mary, the subject. To give another
example, anyone setting out to represent St Peter was required to make
it look clearly like Peter, showing his characteristic attributes, such as a
key in his hand. And it would not have been acceptable to portray him
as a young chap, because that is not what Peter was considered to be like,
no one would recognize a youthful Peter.
The theme, the given, the Madonna or the St Peter, was of great
importance to the medieval person. If we lose sight of that we will be
missing an essential aspect of understanding medieval art. This is true
for all the traditional representations – such as the Birth of Christ, his
Circumcision, his Baptism in the Jordan, his Crucifixion, etc. These were
not simply attempts to give an account of what we might have seen had
we been present in Bethlehem or at the Jordan River or at any of those
sites. Such naturalism was foreign to people of the Middle Ages (but we
will go into that more deeply later on).
Think again of the Madonna: Mary with Child. The latter is included
to show why Mary is so important, to indicate that she is the ‘Mother of
God’. The point of portraying her is that she represents a reality that is
essential to us now, in the present. So it is with the birth of Christ: not
only is it meant to portray Mary but also to represent the Incarnation.
The Baptism in the Jordan is depicted for the purpose of showing Christ
as a divine person and, furthermore, of revealing the Trinity. Images like
these were created, in the first place, to represent Christian truths,
events from the story of salvation, dogmatic givens. They represent
realities which are still relevant, or better said, especially relevant for us
today. They are presented as sermons, dogmatic formulations on a par
with the Apostle’s Creed. And they are anchored in that Creed, as well
as in the liturgy of the church calendar. It is especially that calendar that
prompted the portrayal of many characteristic and recurring themes, to
the exclusion of other countless possible biblical subjects.
Thus, the theme is of particular importance. It is certainly never
incidental. It represents and confronts people with the Christian
realities that are the truth. Just as a sermon about, for example, the
suffering of Christ is preached not just for the purpose of telling us
about something that happened in the past, about history as such, but to
illuminate God’s grace and Christ’s work on our behalf, similarly it was
with the medieval representations of the main points of the gospel
(according to the interpretation of that era, of course, which is
sometimes disputable and sometimes not).
Such images, then, are never just an illustration or a ‘concretizing’
of a theme. They are intended to represent certain truths. And
sometimes they are much more. A certain Madonna statue may, for one
reason or another, come to possess an extra measure of holiness. In that
case it becomes very important to own a copy of that statue. We know of
instances (for example, the famous holy statue of Mary in Einsiedeln)
where a copy was placed next to the original so as to come in physical
contact with it, thereby creating a second statue with the same powers.
These practices may seem primitive to us, and the Reformation
emphatically turned away from them, but within the Roman Catholic
milieu they have been accepted for many centuries and in some places
continue to exist, even today.
We have seen, then, that the theme of the artwork is of utmost
importance, and that the content of the work first of all is manifested in
the theme. The practice of copying artworks was very common in the Middle
Ages. This is not referring to the unusual example mentioned above but
to copying as such. Books were transcribed, since printing presses did
not exist yet, and the painted pictures in these books were copied along
with the text. The same was true for more monumental works of art like
murals and sculptures. But we notice something peculiar here. Just as in
the copying of a book it was essential not to leave out or mis-copy a word
– in short, to be as precise as possible – while it did not really matter
whose handwriting or what style of letters were used to copy the text, so
it was also with illustrations or representations. Certainly one was
required to carefully reproduce the composition, the arrangement of
the original, and to copy its unique characteristics, but the style in which
that was done was considered of much less importance. We see that
copiers carefully followed the construction of the image, but worked in
quite different styles and, with respect to the details, allowed themselves
all kinds of freedom, freedom which copiers today would never feel
comfortable to take for fear of being reproached or punished for not
copying ‘exactly’.
The construction of the image then – the composition or the
formula – was important. That is partly because it was through this
formula that the content of the work could be understood. In reciting
the Apostle’s Creed we would never feel free to mix up the words or the
order of the sentences, or to say it in our own words; in the same way the
copier did not have freedom. If in the Creed we should recite the
statements in a different order, we would immediately be challenged to
justify our actions and would be asked whether we intended to change
the meaning or the emphasis. With respect to the examples mentioned
above, we see the formation of firmly established formulas which were
considered to be fixed. If the formula was changed, or if an artist were
to use a different, perhaps just as traditional, formula, it would be for a
specific reason; the content of the artwork would change; the exegesis of
the given would receive a different emphasis. Thus one encounters
Crucifixions that are very different in character. Christ can be rendered
as Christ the King, for his crucifixion earned him the position of King
and Lord over us and all things; or the emphasis can be on the suffering
of Christ, a formula that especially came to the fore in Gothic art,
though it originated much earlier.
We have learned, then, that for medieval works of art the content lies
in the theme, based on how that theme is expressed in a certain
composition or formula. The style, the characteristic artistry, is not
unimportant and should not be disregarded but in itself it means little
or nothing. A small print of St Jerome, for instance, would have
portrayed him just as adequately as the most beautiful painting, though
even the medieval viewer would not have been insensitive to the
differences – which would have had more to do with place and function
than with the actual content of the image.
In a subsequent article we will see that the above also applies to a
certain extent to Baroque art, though a completely different concept was
operative as well. But first we will have to turn our attention to the
fifteenth century.
It will not have escaped the thoughtful reader that on several points
I have formulated the issues and defined the terms in slightly different
ways than in my previous article ‘About the content of works of art’.
Further research has made that necessary. I hope to explain my reasons
for this in a later article.
For other articles belonging to this series, see the articles ‘About the content
of works of art’; ‘The Art of the Fifteenth Century’; ‘Baroque Art’;
‘Theme, Style and Motif in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’;
‘Principles of Nineteenth-Century Art’ and ‘Form and Content
of Modern Art’. These articles were originally published in Dutch from 1963-1965 in Ad Fontes.
Published in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker:
The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003.