Sunday, December 25, 2016

One Thousand Years of the Christmas Story - A Century by Century Look at one scene from the Nativity

Being that it is Christmas and all, I thought that it might be nice to trace the story, as portrayed in art through the period know as the Middle Ages. Therefor we begin with the 6th century and end with the 15th (though my preference would be to end with the 6th because I like the early medieval period so much more). There is so much artwork on this topic that I have chosen to focus on the subject of the "Adoration of the Magi" also know as the "Three Kings" or the "Three Wise Men". This is a subject whose earliest surviving examples are from the 3rd century. It is also doubtless one strand in the evolution of the trend of giving gifts at Christmas which has become the major theme of the holiday for most of us.


A panel from a 3rd century catacomb sarcophagus now in the Vatican Museum


Most art histories will say that this subject "first appeared" in the 3rd century, but that, in my opinion, is a misstatement because not all of the artwork from the 1st century onward has survived, so unless we are able to examine every single piece that was created (which, obviously we are not) then we cannot categorically say what was or was not "first done" in any period. All we can say with any degree of certainty is what the oldest thing we know of is.



6th century depiction of the "adoration of the Magi" from Ravena
this image still follows very much in the manner of 3rd century
Roman (not Byzantine) models.

(On the topic of art historians, they also love to cite examples such as that above as being Byzantine, yet the model this clearly draws from pre dates the Byzantine Empire. Historians seem to often forget that "Byzantine" art was Roman art which slowly changed as the two halves of the empire drew apart.)

As I mentioned, the intent of this blog was to trace this topic, century by century, through the course of the Middle Ages, but I sort of faltered in the 7th century. For some reason, the ravages of time seem to have been extra hard on things produced in that century. There was plenty of artwork, and architecture produced in this century, but subsequent unrest and the (un)luck of the draw seem to have dealt this centuries artifacts a heavier blow. For example, there are a number of fragments of illuminated manuscripts from the 7th century, including a few that most likely originally would have contained a depiction of this subject, yet none have survived.



Late 6th century example. This cover is very similar in style and layout
(including the irregular shape of the top and bottom sections) to the 9th century
Lorsch Gospel cover, The 9th century example was worked with much more
precision so perhaps this example and that are both derived from another
example which no longer exists.
This example almost comes from the 7th century, (705) and almost shows the
Adoration scene, however it is only a fragment and only one arm of one king,
offing a box to the Christ-Child survives; it comes from Santa Maria in
Cosmedin, Rome.


The fact that there are many examples from the 8th century tells us that obviously the subject was not lost in the 7th, yet I completely failed to locate a single example in any medium from the 600's. The closest I came was a late 6th century example and another from 705 so there is a gap of about 120 years in the story. The fact that 8th century examples are found in places as far apart as Italy, Spain, and the UK, however, tell us that weather any have survived or not does not mean to say none were produced;  it also shows that the imagery was widely dispersed.


8th century Franks Casket showing the Adoration of the Magi

From the first half of the 8th century comes a fantastic ivory box, known as the Franks Casket. This is an example of the "accidents" that have determined what we have left of the Middle Ages, and how they came to us. It seems that in the first half of the 19th century the silver mounts on this casket were considered more valuable to the person who was using it as a sewing kit, than the box itself, and thus the mounts were removed and exchanged for a ring!

In this example we can still see evidence of the original Roman model of the subject in the form of the baggy trousers which the Magi are wearing. As with most early medieval artwork, regional style shows up more in the execution of the subject than in the format. (this is still basically the same model used since the 3rd century, but the Insular style shows up in the ornamentation and simplification of the design.) Another wholly innovative idea is the whimsical use of the duck, I find the little guy very amusing.

Made sometime between 744 and 49 this altar comes from Lombardi Italy 

The style of this altar is not so strikingly different from the Franks Casket though it was made on the other side of the continent, so to speak. It is my own opinion, but when I look at this sort of sculpture I am strongly minded of the metal-work produced at this time and cannot help but wondering if it was not originally covered in gold foil. From the grave finds of this period, we can see that gold work was one of their most prized achievements, and the peoples all across Europe seemed to value this sort of work; it would only seem logical to me that an altar of great importance would have been gilded, as were later examples which still retain their gold foil coverings. (gold, gilded copper, and even gold coloured silver were all used to ornament all manner of objects of the "Migration Peoples" of Europe)


Embossed gold foil ornament made as a burial offering (7th century)


Lest one think that all of the artwork of the early Middle Ages was of this "crude" and "primitive" style I include this next example of a fresco fragment from a church in northern Italy, executed also in the 8th century at approximately the same time as the altar above. This fresco comes from a cycle which also included the Adoration scene, but it is, unfortunately not as well preserved. By comparing these two styles, we see that the "crude" and the "naturalistic" were matters of taste and choice, not so much a lack of presence of skill. This is further told out in the 9th century artwork, of which we have much more to go on. Based on the examples from the time of the Carolingian Empire (began ca 768 with the crowning of Charlemagne) we see that these two styles were both in evidence, and very much in use, but began more and more to be incorporated together into single works of art. The Migration Peoples continued the tradition of their Celtic origins, and the people of the romanised provinces continued in the tradition of Roman art, but as the centuries passed the Migration tribes began to see themselves as "Roman" and thus continued the art of that culture along side their "own".



8th century fresco from Castelsepiro, Italy. This is part of a Nativity cycle
and depicts the "flight into Egypt", an event which was necessitated after
the visit of the Magi, who had first visited King Herod, looking for
news of the birth of the Messiah. (he did not take kindly to the news)

The next two examples, from the 9th century, show us how firmly entrenched the original 3rd century model still was at that time. Both of these examples are from ivory boxes, one from Germany and the other from France. They exhibit the individuality of the artists who created them but still follow the original example to a high degree.




Top; mid 9th century casket from France (now in the Musee de Moyen Age)
Bottom; ca 800 panel from the Werden Casket now in the V&A


It might have begun earlier, and most probably did, but the earliest example which I found which begins to show a deviation from the original model comes from 10th century Spain.


10th century Spanish example

This example falls into the category of the "crude" and not much excuse can be made for it. Not everyone who did artwork had the same degree of skill, and time has often not left us with the best of what was produced. In this example, what we are seeing is a move away from the examples of the Magi wearing short tunics and loose trousers which were the distinctions made in the original models, signifying the Middle-Eastern origin of the Three kings. Also gone are the Phygian caps, but no crown or halo is yet found on the figures.



Top; Byzantine Menologion of Basil II, ca 1000
Bottom; Benedictional of St. Æthelwold
BL Additional 49598 ca 975

In both of the last two examples we see the manner of dress changing to keep up with the times and regional style, (these come from Constantinople and Winchester, and once again demonstrate the near universal iconography of early medieval art) but it is worth noting that they still have some nod toward the original trouser form of leg-wear.



A lovely carved door from Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Köln ca 1056
The top right panel depicts the Adoration, on the left the Magi speak with
King Herod, in the lower panel are the scene of Joseph's Dream and the
Flight into Egypt. This is an exquisite example of the state of woodwork
in the 10th century 

An orphaned illumination from a manuscript in the style of
the Bamberg Codex etc. from the first half of the 11th century.
It is now in the J Paul Getty Museum

The 11th century saw a continuation into the contemporarization of the costumes, but the basic format is still there; three kings presenting their gifts to Mary who sits on a large chair and holds the Christ Child. At some point along the way the Phyrgian cap had given way to crowns, another indication that the iconography had slowly been shifting away from the notion of "Eastern Kings" and was being replaced with generic kings, contemporaneous with the place and time of execution.

As early as the 4th century there was a wide variety in the examples of the objects which the kings were depicting as presenting as gifts. There is everything from indistinct balls, to bowls, cups, boxes, pyxides (cylindrical boxes) and large oval platters (?[in the 4th century church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome it looks to modern eyes as if they are offering pizzas!]) As time went on, this tradition generally held until the 14th century when urns, covered cups and monstrances became the usual objects.


A very much reproduced image, this
12th century ivory panel, now in the V&A
originates from Spain.


From about the same period comes this stone fragment from
Czechoslovakia, demonstrating the still near universal trend in
style and evolution of imagery across the continent.
From an exhibition  in the Schnütgen Museum in Köln comes
this 12th century German enamel plaque which in form and
style is very much like the previous two examples.
If any new trend can be detected in the 13th century perhaps it is the loosening up of the grouping of the three Magi, they are not always so clustered together and there is a tendency to give each person a bit more individuality. Their manner of dress and their crowns continue to reflect local styles, but overall the universalness of the format still holds.

From a church in a small town in Denmark comes this altar; the Magi have
been split up in order to fill two panels

From the Badische Landesbibliothek come this illustration
from around 1220 (MS Bruchsal 1 fol 11r) still very much
in the style of the 12th century

From St Mary's Church Black Burton mid 13th century. About the only thing
that has changed here is the changing trend in the style of crowns.
Notice here is an example showing that the mundane white walls we are
so accustomed to seeing were not original to medieval interiors of
even the simplest of buildings


In the 14th century we began to see a trend toward more "lifelike" examples and more innovation in the interpretation of the composition. I put the lifelike in quotations, because while they may seem more naturalistically rendered, they are still formulaic to the trends of their time and place of execution.



Early 14th century French Ivory

Late 14th century German Altar Panel by
Meister Bertram von Minden

Adoration of the Magi,  Pietro Lorenzetti ca 1335-40
The Italian Renaissance began in the 13th
century and led the way in the idea of incorporating a
naturalness into paintings that had mostly been absent
since the 9th century.

Old habits die hard and even though much of the iconography has disappeared, in the Italian painting some things persist. All of the Magi, Christ, Mary, and Joseph are still portrayed with halos. Although Mary is no longer seated on an elaborate chair, her status as "Queen of Heaven" is belied in a way which might well be lost to most modern viewers, because the rich indigo blue in which she is clad was reserved for the wealthiest of nobles.



English alabaster carving mid 15th century
Just as wooden sculptures were originally
painted, so too were stone carvings.

Adoration of the Magi, Mittelrheinischer Meister ca 1400
More of the medieval tradition still held in the Northern Kingdoms but
even here the hands of time were ticking and the middle Ages were over


In much of the medieval artwork, the various scenes associated with the Nativity, such as the shepherds, the Magi, and the birth in the stable were pictured in separate frames, but as time went on one finds more often multiple scenes combined in one image or object. In the last two examples we see the animals associated with the stable under Mary's chair in the first, and we see the scene of the shepherds in the background of the second. This was still very much read at the time as being two separate scenes, but this trend continued to develop in time until we reach the point in history when the Shepherds, the Magi, and the birth are all combined in a single scene and we find it in front of every church at Christmas time to this day.




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