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January 24, 2006

The complex vocabulary of Gothic art: why decorations in medieval churches may best be understood as visual aids to preaching and teaching

Posted by Roger Homan

It is often argued that the decorations of Romanesque and Gothic churches were there to explain the Christian message to the poorly educated masses who could not follow the sermon. Prof. Roger Homan takes issue with this. He argues that the visual language of medieval art is extremely complex and requires a level of visual literacy every bit as sophisticated as reading the written word. Prof. Homan argues that it is much more likely that the murals and windows in medieval churches were used as visual aids to preaching and teaching.

We have 160 languages being spoken in London so we try to use colour and symbol.
So comments the guide to the recently opened Evelina children's hospital. A similar explanation is often applied to the profuse decoration of churches in the Romanesque and Gothic periods. For example the great window in the transept of Canterbury cathedral is called Biblia pauperum, a bible for the poor who were by implication thought to be illiterate. Stained glass, it is said, was for the nourishment of those who could not follow the sermon.

These conventional accounts seriously understate the complexity of the visual vocabulary of religious art. The recovery of the meanings of symbols in the religious art of France in the thirteenth century was a major research task for Emile MÔle who published his famous The Gothic Image in 1913. It is evident from MÔle's work that meanings and references were intelligible only by means of a number of scholarly works by medieval divines such as Honorius of Autun, Cahier and Durandus. The great visual schemes of medieval churches were surely more esoteric than we are inclined to assume.

One of the most extensive sets of visual vocabulary consists of "attributes". These are motifs by which we recognize a saint or deity. St Peter, for example, is usually shown bearing the keys of heaven or with the inverted cross, as he is believed to have been crucified upside down. St Mary Magdalene is identified by the alabaster box from which she anointed Jesus with precious ointment. If there is a dragon in the picture, we are beholding either St Michael or St George. These markers are complemented in some cases by conventional portrayals that have stabilized over the centuries: Mary Magdalene has long red hair, Peter a bushy white beard, Paul a receding hair line and so on.

Attributes of Christian saints often refer to the manner of their suffering or martyrdom and can be particularly gory. The knife borne by St Bartholomew reminds us that he was flayed alive. St Catherine's wheel is that on which she was bound and tortured. The gridiron accompanying St Lawrence recalls that he was toasted. The two loaves of bread with St Agatha represent her amputated breasts. So if the illiterate and simple-minded were to have understood visual symbols, they would have needed to retain a great deal more information than those who could be instructed or reminded by captions.

Colours and symbols are of course culturally rooted and may convey quite opposite meanings to different people. At Hindu weddings, red is the colour traditionally worn by the bride; for Christians it is the liturgical colour to commemorate the blood of martyrs. By way of expressing in material terms the value in which a patron is held, Vishnu is clad in gold: for the same reason the Virgin Mary has been clothed in blue since the pigment using ground lapis lazuli was more expensive than any other.

Such differences - depending on context - can even arise within the same tradition. Violet is worn by Anglican bishops but it is also the colour of the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. Within Christian iconography the serpent may in one place appear as the tempter and in another as the attribute of St John Evangelist who survived an attempt to poison him.

The reading of symbols in medieval art requires a level of religious education and visual literacy quite as complex as the reading of the written word. Because the owl is a nocturnal creature it was used to mark scenes and figures of the Old Testament, which medieval Christians regarded as a period of darkness. The unicorn, it was supposed, would come to rest only on the lap of a virgin: these days, not many people know that, but so it became an attribute of the Virgin Mary. The peacock was a symbol of immortality, according to a now discredited belief that its flesh was incorruptible. It was also thought that the pelican sustained its young with drops of blood from its own breast: so it evokes the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and continues to be used as a feature of the tabernacle in which the sacrament is reserved.

The great compilations of biblical scenes, such as the Biblia pauperum and Giotto's fresco scheme in the Scrovegni chapel at Padua set out vignettes in rows and columns with the intention that they may be related both vertically and horizontally. Meanings were to be read not in isolation but often in association with each other. Visual literacy requires not merely recognition but interpretation. Scenes from the Old Testament are featured not for themselves but because they were held to prefigure the New. This validation of the Old as the means of informing the New was already practised in Christian art of the Celtic period, in the eighth century Book of Kells and in the sculptured panels the high crosses that survive in Ireland. When we see an image of Jonah and the whale, we need to remember that Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish and that this prefigures the time spent by Jesus between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

And it is not only Christian art that requires of its reader the capacity to relate a narrative or personal character to the properties of flowers and animals. The lotus flower appears as an attribute of Lakshmi not only because it is conspicuously pure but because it is unaffected by the polluted waters in which it flourishes.

So medieval religious art attests to such a high level of visual literacy that we have to question whether it was ever achieved by the masses. It is more likely that murals and windows were used as visual aids in preaching and teaching - less likely that they could have been left to speak for themselves.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).


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Francis Yates, in The Art of Memory discusses the structure of theaters, for instance, Shakespeare's Globe, as aids to memory, so actors could remember their lines by attaching topics to features of the building, which included statues and paintings much like those in a church. This method must have been natural and normal when everyone went to church and watched the pastors doing the same thing as they preached. Or is it possible that the dramatic memory techniques came first?

Posted by: Robert Speirs at January 26, 2006 07:29 PM
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Thanks for a really interesting piece, like most things on the SAU site it has caused me to think - and it will really encourage me to consider Prof. Homan's theory next time I go around a Gothic Church.

Posted by: Jane at February 4, 2006 07:55 PM
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