New Visions of time
New Visions of time. Gothic Art
On long summer evenings the statues at the west glowed in the setting sun, calling to mind not just the end of that particular day, but the end of time itself in the Last Judgment, New Visions of time. Today, the eroded granular surface of these limestone figures seems emblematic of the effects of the passage of time upon objects; originally, when brightly painted, they embodied a more dynamic notion of temporality, one in which time measured not so much loss, as movement towards the fulfillment of salvation history. For medieval viewers, time had a beginning and an ending, a purpose and a plan, which were organized by God from outside time. The modern viewer often misunderstands medieval pictorial narratives, not because the visual forms are so different.
What was new was their integration into a single coherent scheme. The result was so impressive in its clarity and cohesion that the portals were retained when Chartres was rebuilt, and two new transept portals added, after the fire of 1194. This conscious integration of past images into a new structure had occurred at St. Denis in the 1140s and was an important aspect of Gothic art. For just as the past was not rejected, but incorporated into the present, new Gothic forms did not obliterate those of the past, but were often added to them.
Time is presented in the Chartres portals as multilayered. Past, present, and future coexist simultaneously in the visual integration of the three doorways. On the next level are the hundreds of smaller figures carved in a narrative frieze that runs along the whole width of all three portals at the level of the capitals. This tells the story of the life of the Virgin and of Christ in a horizontal strip, beginning at the center, moving to the right, and then turning back to the outer left of the three portals and toward the middle again. This arrangement suggests the cyclical flow of earthly events.
It has also been interpreted as the creation at the beginning of time and, most recently, as Christ-to-come, eternal but not yet visible as the son of God. These last two suggestions share the notion, which I think is correct, that this tympanum represents past time – more specifically, the period between the fall of man and Christ’s incarnation to redeem him. This fits well with the signs of the months carved in the surrounding archi- volts, which represent the cycle of human labor set in motion by Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Christ is also the center of the tympanum above the south, or right, door, where he is placed in the lap of the Virgin Mary, who is seated at the “Throne of Wisdom”. In the two lintels below, Christ appears in scenes of the Presentation in the Temple and the Nativity, both focusing attention on the mystery of the Incarnation. This tympanum thus represents the present time of grace. Around it are placed the seven liberal arts, personified as women, with their ancient male exponents, such as Aristotle, placed beneath them as writers. These archivolts embody the wisdom and learning that is possible in this world (and which could be gained at the cathedral school of Chartres). Two of the signs and labors of the months at the inner left of the archivolt have often been described as misplaced blocks, but their presence underlines the continuity of the cycle of human labor into the present. For, according to Hugh of Saint-Victor, “the year is the present time between the advent of the Lord and the end of the world.”
The middle tympanum shows Christ in Majesty as he will appear in the future. He is surrounded by the four symbolic beasts, representing the evangelists, and the twenty-four elders, as described in the Book of Revelation. This elevated and timeless image of the Redeemer is, ironically, the most accessible of all the figures in the portal, both in his human scale and in his direct gaze. The other smaller figures are distinguished, too, by the direction of their looks; those in the time before grace do not behold Christ. Although for medieval people the end of the world was always nigh, one of the important new directions taken by Gothic artists was to see eternity in terms of the here and now.
Below this scene is another depicting the transition from the Old to the New Testament: darkness and obscurity give way to light and clarity. Christ himself covers the face of a female figure representing the Synagogue and crowns that of another representing the Church (fig. 53). This way of thinking, called typology, was already well established in the visual arts and was not “invented” by Abbot Suger, as used to be believed.
Although typology was a way of reanimating the past, and making it relevant to current ideological concerns, it was not interested in viewing events in time as a development, or a narrative. It was interested solely in archetypal references to salvation. For copying and redeploying the same compositional patterns in different contexts.
This is the case with one of the most splendid typological schemes in medieval art, the so-called altar of Nicholas of Verdun (c. 1140-c. 1216), made for the monastery of Klosterneu- berg, near Vienna. It was completed in 1181 as an ambo, a kind of pulpit from which readings of the Bible were performed, and to which its imagery made reference, but it was later enlarged and converted into a folding altar (fig. 54). The scenes are arranged not chronologically, but according to a typological system. They are divided into three horizontal registers. The top one depicts prototypes from the Old Testament period before the law (ante legem). The bottom register portrays the events of the next biblical era, the period under the law (sub lege) from the handing down of the law by Moses to the end of the Old Testament. The fulfillment of this divine scheme is portrayed in the scenes from Christ’s life which take place in the middle row, in the time of Grace (sub gratia). Thus the fourth vertical row on the left wing begins at the top, where Abraham gives tithes to Melchizedek. At the bottom, the Queen of Sheba brings gifts to King Solomon.
The writings of earlier theologians are thought to lie behind the whole scheme. But it is not the theological figurae, as these typological images were called in their day, but the physicality of the figures created by Nicholas of Verdun which make this magnificent work so powerful. Nicholas, who came out of the tradition of metalworking practiced in the Meuse valley, in what is today Belgium, combined niello (metal alloy) and enamel techniques, which enable the figures to stand out in gold against limpid pools of blue enamel. He imbues these scenes not with the feeble veracity of having happened once upon a time, but with the rich resonance of forever happening. The dramatic movement of human bodies seems to have been choreographed by God’s divine plan. Like his enamels, Nicholas of Verdun’s art looks backward as well as forward, being an amalgam of Byzantine and Romanesque influences. But he transforms these, with drapery copied from antique sculpture and powerfully observed muscular movements, into a style that heralds what has been described as a mini-“renaissance” of classical forms, around the year 1200, transitional between the Romanesque and Gothic styles.
The paired scenes are not strictly typological, as in the Klosterneuberg altar, but often draw more complex parallels between events. For example, in the fourth scene God creates the sun, moon, and stars. In the interpretation below, the sun signifies God’s divinity, which is represented by the open book of the Holy Scriptures, and the stars signify the clergy. God’s creation of the world in these scenes is consistently interpreted as his establishment of the church.
The characters represented in many Gothic images were people from the distant biblical past. Artists often depicted them, however, as though they existed in the present. This is not because image-makers were naive or made historical errors. They simply did not see a vast gulf separating themselves from the time of Christ and the saints. They were participants in biblical history, not mere observers of it. This can be seen on the west front of Rheims cathedral, where the jamb statues, instead of being isolated as the ancestors of Christ had been at Chartres, interact with one another in telling the story of Christ’s life. Next to it is the Visitation, the meeting between the Virgin and her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist, who, feeling her baby leap in her womb, was the first to announce the divinity of the child that Mary was carrying (fig. 56). The raised arm of the older woman is a gesture of astonishment at this profound moment of recognition.
Modem scholars have been interested not so much in the story that these four statues narrate, as in the temporal sequence of their production. They exhibit three distinct stylistic phases of Gothic sculpture. The Virgin of the Annunciation is considered the earliest, carved c. 1230 by one of a team of sculptors who had previously worked at Amiens, where he had evolved a quicker method of cutting stone into smooth, static surfaces. Radically different is the work of the carver who created the two adjacent figures of the Visitation group. He shares with the metalworker, Nicholas of Verdun, a massively crumpled classicism, but he is also a superb delineator of the aging face and body of Elizabeth, who conceived her son in her old age. The angel nearest the door, usually dated some fifteen years later, was moved from its position as an escort on the left portal to this central position. This angel has been seen as the latest and most “Gothic” figure of the group: its ethereal body and radiant smile make it quite different from the two outer figures. Clearly, the consistency we expect in a visual narrative was not so important for thirteenth-century viewers (FIG. 57). They would not have seen Elizabeth here as an “older” image (but rather an image of an older woman) nor would they have noticed the antique references in her clinging drapery. The “naturalistic” and classicizing impetus that is evident in sculpture and painting at this time is to be seen not as the rediscovery of a series of antique models but as the searching by carvers for whatever sources they could find to give their figures presence. The narrative image was not a moment frozen in time, as we think of it today; it was elongated, stretched out into an ever-present now. This was certainly true of Christ’s crucifixion and the intimate interactions between angels and mothers on the Rheims facade.
St. Augustine described memory as “the present of things past” and in this respect most medieval art is an art of memory. This was considered a physical and material process. You may remember the diagram of the brain and its clearly labeled storehouse of memory (see FIG. 12) in the introduction to this book. If you cannot remember the diagram you can always turn back to it. But for medieval people, who lacked access to books, training themselves to remember important images and objects was a basic part of education. They remembered complex things using a visual system called artificial memory, which recalled objects through their systematic spatialization, association, and order. Artists’ images had to be both arresting and clearly organized if they were to be stored away properly. Striking painted and sculpted narratives, like those at Rheims or the more geometrically organized narratives in stained-glass windows, were a means of imprinting sacred stories upon the minds of beholders.
For St. Thomas Aquinas one of the most important functions of images in a church was their stimulating the beholder’s memory. Founders of churches were increasingly commemorated in monuments both outside and inside. The west choir of the church at Naumberg in Germany, built at the same time as the Sainte Chapelle in the 1240s, contains life-size statues of the members of the Meissen family who had been its founders and benefactors more than two centuries earlier. The intense naturalism of these figures attests to the artist’s urge to make people from the past memorable in the present. The same may be said of another of the great “historical” images in German Gothic sculpture, the Bamberg Rider (fig. 58). Now located on the side of a pier in Bamberg cathedral, but probably originally from the exterior, we do not know exactly who he is meant to represent. He has been identified over the years as one of the Magi, St. George, or as one of several secular figures such as the first Christian emperor, Constantine, King Stephen of Hungary, or Emperor Conrad III. The two most plausible suggestions are that he represents Emperor Henry II (r. 1014-24), who had founded the bishopric of Bamberg in 1007, or the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (r. 1220-50), who was also a benefactor. The Bamberg Rider’s youthful, idealized countenance is, indeed, more like that of a knight in German epic literature than a contemporary military leader, but the fluidity between past and present in medieval representation makes it difficult to be sure. Rather than worry about who he is, it is more fruitful to understand what he represents – the powerful union of the Holy Roman Empire and the church. The imperial associations are not only with the classical equestrian statues of the distant past, but also with contemporary rituals like the adventus, which was the ceremonial entry of the ruler into the city on horseback. Whereas we think of monuments as commemorating dead people, the point of erecting such a statue was to make it a “living memory” whose imperious gaze would be constantly visible to its subjects.
The increasing use of written records in the thirteenth century and the compilation of monastic, royal, and even town chronicles, go hand in hand with this increasing interest in the capacity of images to record and preserve memory. The thirteenth-century monk of St. Albans, Matthew Paris, illustrated his chronicles with lively marginal drawings. The French kings ordered their own elaborate account of the descent of the French nation from the Trojans in the Grandes Chroniques de France. Recording historical events, which had been a monastic preserve for centuries, increasingly became part of court culture and professional chroniclers created idealized accounts supporting the policies and claims of their superiors. A splendid copy of the Grandes Chroniques, made for King Charles V (r. 1364-80) between 1370 and 1380, is such a court product. It contains a full-page picture of a state dinner that took place in 1378, when the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV (r. 1355-78), brought his son Wenceslaus to Paris (fig. 59). The text before the miniature refers to it as a record, pointing out that at the feast itself “the grouping of figures and their positions were as is described below and in the miniature (en I’ystoire) hereafter portrayed.” The word for painted picture, “ystoire,” could mean history, story, or picture in the Middle Ages. What makes this picture especially interesting is not only that it records the positions and figures of the six diners, the three royal ones carefully placed against fleur de lys hangings, but that it also shows us an historical pageant that was performed on the occasion for their entertainment. This was a play about the great French crusader Geoffrey of Bouillon and his conquest of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, which had taken place nearly three hundred years earlier. Such entertainments, mounted with elaborate costumes and scenery, were a regular part of court life. Charles V hoped that this particular pageant would stimulate a new joint crusade against the Muslims. The illusion here is created for the page, not the stage. There is no attempt to re-create the scene from the viewpoint of its participants, that is, with the play happening in the distance. Rather it is pictured in the foreground, mingling with the servants who are preparing the feast before the table. Past and present, fiction and reality are interwoven, just as they are in the text of the chronicle itself.
Whereas today we separate the realms of history and literature, in the Gothic period romances were written about the exploits of the French crusaders, just as they were about King Arthur or Alexander the Great, as though they were the same kind of events. Historical images filled the palaces and courts of Europe with exemplars of heroism, not only from biblical and Arthurian history, but also from classical legend. Ancient historians like Livy were especially popular with King Charles, who had many Larin texts translated into French. The illuminator has based the depiction on the way frescoes were often arranged in these domestic settings. This particular painting within a painting shows two knights fighting on horseback, complete with underlying inscriptions in two tiers along the side walls of this elegantly barrel-vaulted space. That this is the Castle of Fortune is significant. It suggests the mutability of all earthly things, coming, as they do, under fortune’s sway.
Sadly, most of the secular painting of Christine’s time has fallen foul of fortune. Much of it was destroyed during the very wars that these images glorified. But their destruction was also due to the fact that subsequent generations tended to value the representation of the eternal truths of the church above the selfadvertising secular chronicles of the local nobility. But both sacred and secular views of past time shared the conception of images as memory-places which not only remembered the deeds of the past but urged people to emulation and action in the present.
When people looked forward in the thirteenth century they did not see a future, only an end: the Last Judgment, when Christ would come in glory to judge the living and the dead. The blessed on Christ’s right, by contrast, line up in a more orderly fashion to enter the trefoil arch of heaven, where Abraham holds souls in a cloth. Smiling like the angels at Rheims, the blessed at Bourges retain a verticality and symmetry.
Although he has a tonsure in the picture, William was only a clerk in minor orders and not a fully-fledged priest.
Corpses were commonly buried facing east, so that they could sit up in their graves and behold their maker where he was to appear at the end of time. The Last Judgment is carved on the marble tomb of Ines de Castro, who was assassinated by order of King Alfonso IV of Portugal in June 1355 because of her liaison with the crown prince, Don Pedro. When Pedro became king of Portugal he placed her tomb next to his own in a transept of the abbey which bears the inscription “Till the end of the World.” At that moment Ines can push off the heavy lid to her sarcophagus like one of the little figures in her tomb (fig. 63).
This donor seems to get his own private Judgment. Next to it and even closer to the altar, a female member of the same family has had herself painted within a similar but smaller structure, by Taddeo Gaddi. Even more audaciously, she is a witness at Christ’s entombment, looking up to where his body is laid within a tomb that surmounts her own. What look today like strange combinations of different times – fourteenth-century donors, Passion events, and future judgments – are representations of the donors’ meditative or visionary expectations. A Franciscan text popular at this period called the Meditations on the Life of Christ encouraged people to visualize themselves as present at major events in Christ’s life, to project themselves into history. These unusual images of the Judgment at the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence suggest that, with the help of art, it was also possible to travel forward in time.
Time played a fundamental role in the elaborate decoration of private chapels. First, there was the new period of time, created by the church, between death and judgment. Purgatory, often imagined as lasting for hundreds of thousands of years, could be shortened through prayers, offerings, and masses sung in these chapels. Man could not control or own time because it was considered to be God’s property. Hence the church condemned money-lending, or usury as it was called, because gaining profit at interest was a function of the accumulation of time. The usurer, like all sinful mortals, sought ways of giving his ill-gotten gains back to God. Much of the art and architecture of the later Middle Ages was created in order to buy back time in the hereafter. If time could not be bought, space could, and wealthy merchant and patrician families, like the Bardi, invested substantial parts of their fortune in images that would, they hoped, ensure their future salvation.
According to the inscription around the holy face in a diagram of the Ten Ages of Man, God knows no past or future but only the omnipresent now: “I see all at once. I govern the whole by my plan” (fig. 65). What God’s gaze oversees in this diagram is the passage of a man’s life from his mother’s lap all the way around to the Gothic grave at the bottom of the page. So an image served the medieval art of memory. This is one of a series of diagrammatic images – teaching such things as the seven sacraments.
Here there is also a sense of circular movement, following the sun’s movement through the sky from east to west. On this left, or north (cold), side of the doorway, the summer months give way to winter. The next six months, on the opposite southern side, move away from the door as spring rebirth begins again.
The twelve articles of faith – which prefaces a psalter made for the English baron Robert de Lisle. In contrast with another popular circular image of time, the Wheel of Fortune, the spokes of this wheel are all fixed on God. The ages of man were often combined with the ages of the world, so that people at this period spoke of their world as grown old, like the figure of decrepitude lying, in the lower right, in a state of moral and social decay and awaiting the final conflagration at the end of time. Robert de Lisle, aware as he looked at this image of the circle’s inexorable turn, joined the Franciscan order late in his life in the hope that wearing a religious habit might secure him salvation.
The most all-encompassing circle of present time was that of the year. Below the tall jamb figures, along the lowest level of the socle, are depicted the so-called twelve labors of the months, accompanied by their respective zodiac signs.
The year begins on the inner right side with December – a peasant killing a pig – below the sign for Sagittarius. On the other side we see the warmer summer months, from June haymaking through treading the grapes in October, to winter sowing in November.
But in fact the labors also formed a sort of “social calendar” in which certain months, like May, were associated with more noble pursuits, like hunting and hawking. What proves that the sculptors and designers of these images were observing the present world around them, that differences in climate throughout Europe caused shifts in the arrangement of the labors. At Amiens the peasants would have seen themselves laboring on the well-watered fields of the Somme, crossing the socle clockwise year after year below the zodiacal signs. For we should not forget that the rise of Gothic art in Europe coincided with the rediscovery of astrology, which at the courts of kings as well as the surgeon’s shop conditioned how people lived their lives in the present. The times to bleed and to marry were plotted by the turning patterns of the stars above, which were visible to the naked eye.
Time was often measured in terms of space, not only in common devices like sundials and the newly invented hourglass, but also in more complicated astronomical instruments used to calculate the position of the stars, like the astrolabe. Yet it was adapted to a Gothic design, like the one dated 1342 in the British Museum. The shackle which joins the suspension ring to the base, or “mater,” is incised with Gothic tracery patterns and cut through with a delicate trefoil. Other Gothic shapes, quatre- foils, are also found on the “rete,” which is part of the precise computing mechanism that moves on the base. Two of the star pointers of the rete are shaped as grotesque animals. One of the uses of the astrolabe was to determine the exact time of day or night from an observation of the altitude of the sun or one of the stars mapped on the rete. One of the most sophisticated computing instruments of the Middle Ages, the astrolabe was almost always as superbly crafted and as complex as any art object. The history of Gothic art, like Gothic architecture, should never be separated from the history of science and technology, of which it is an integral part.
In the 1330s, when the new light of Giotto and his followers was changing the shape of space, the invention of the escapement mechanism led to the appearance of the mechanical clock, able to strike the appropriate number of bells at the right hour and thus forever changing the perception of time. It allowed the day to be divided into equal hours. Public clocks appeared in the cities of western Europe in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and they transformed time. City councils, courts, schools, and workplaces all began to use the newly defined hour to regulate work in a way that differed from the varying and unfixed canonical hours of liturgical time. The impact of this change upon the history of art still needs to be written, but it goes hand in hand with the new interest in measuring space that, both in Italy and the north, saw the rejection of the overlapping narratives of eschatological time. Just as the new clocks did away with the confusing and competing polyphony of different bells and sundials in favour of a single machine that could be used to regulate all other timepieces, so too the idea of events unfolding within a single, coherent, unified space became possible.
The clock was not simply a device to serve secular purposes. Churches soon came to house the new chiming mechanical clocks. One was built at Bourges cathedral in the 1420s by Jean Fusoris (c. 1365-1436). The new time was also appropriated by religious allegory, as in Heinrich Susos Clock of Wisdom, or Horologium Sapientiae, a dialogue between the author and Lady Wisdom written in c. 1334 (fig. 69). ” In a manuscript of this work illuminated in Paris in the middle of the fifteenth century, by which time the new hours had become standardized, the page and the picture move away from the Gothic layering of time. Wisdom, in her guise as Temperance, appears before the author amidst an exhibit of time-measuring devices. From left to right we see an astrolabe, a clock which chimes the hours from a bell suspended at the top of the page, another tall mechanical clock with five bells, and on a table five smaller portable timepieces, one of them spring- driven. Yet the machines depicted here are still enclosed within Gothic casements and buttresses, just as the text uses traditional theological tropes to develop an allegory about eternal values. To the left, the Dominican devotee gazes up from his book to contemplate the vision of Time and its wise ordering. Despite all its deep space and minutely delineated mechanical contraptions, this superbly structured page, like Heinrich Susos text, is still contained within a Gothic visionary perspective.
Christ ascended to heaven leaving behind no bodily remains for his followers to venerate; so objects associated with his death, most especially the Cross, became the most powerful things in Christendom. According to legend St. While eastern Christianity had developed an image-centered theology, which gave the icon some of the power of its divine prototype, in the west the only objects that could be venerated as holy presences were relics. Whereas an image could make the absent present, the relic was presence itself.
Relics were believed to possess miraculous powers. The Floreffe Triptych was constructed only after the relic had dripped droplets of blood during the Office of the Invention of the True Cross on 3 May 1254. With thousands of “fake” particles of the Cross flooding the market and relic inflation rampant, it was important for the monks to have such a miracle occur in order to authenticate their own precious particle. The art that frames the relic constituted a kind of theater of devotion, staging the object in a way that would bring out its power. Relics had been the focus of spiritual strategies in the West for centuries, but what makes the Gothic period different is that the line between relic and the reliquary, like that between the icon and the picture, began to blur. As time went by holy body parts came more and more to be displayed in transparent containers (fig. 72), or, somewhat contrarily, were framed by so much richness that, as in the Floreffe example, they were almost obliterated.
What might be called the Gothic image-explosion of the thirteenth century, in which a repertory of new themes and images was developed, had little in common with the proliferation of pictures in the mass media of our own day. Holy images were far too powerful to be circulated without it having first been determined for whose eyes they were made and for what specific purpose. Different kinds of images were developed for particular devotional functions by diverse social groups, such as lay confraternities (brotherhoods devoted to religious or charitable purposes), extra-religious movements such as the Beguines as well as religious orders, and cloistered monks and nuns. Nevertheless, one of the major developments of the period was that visions of God became available to ordinary people, not only within the institutional framework of the church. Even public depictions of Christ’s crucifixion could burst into action and address the beholder, like the cross at San Dami- ano that spoke to St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). This moment was later depicted as part of a frescoed narrative of the saint’s life in the Upper Church at Assisi, part of the fresco cycle which some art historians still link to Giotto. An older image was often more sacred than a new one. This scene also shows how different the experience of images was in Italy compared to northern Europe. Cult images in France and Germany tended to be three- dimensional altar statues or large-scale sculptures like those at Naum- berg, whereas in Italy the Byzantine tradition of wall and panel painting was still the prevailing custom. Here miraculous images the crucifixes that speak to and interact with Italian saints and mystics like St. Francis and later St. Catherine of Siena – tend to be not statues but two-dimensional paintings.