Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pathways to Heaven

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Pathways to Heaven


During the medieval period, the Christian religion was new, and art was widely used as a means to express faith. One way the gospel or “good news” was conveyed was by the creation of illuminated manuscripts which brought to life the word of the Four Evangelists. I will be looking at two different manuscript pages from this time, which through their expressive content, denote a path to salvation. The first work I will be looking at is Hiberno-Saxon, the Chi-Rho page from the Book of Kells, Iona, Scotland, from the late eighth century. The other work is Byzantine, the Ascension of Christ from the Rabbula Gospels, Zagba, Syria, 586. In both of the images, the medium is tempera on fine grained vellum, and they are approximately 1’x10” in size. I will show through visual interpretation and background information, how each rendering uses distinctive characteristics to communicate their divine messages. The Chi-Rho page uses intricately symmetrical interlace patterns and geometric designs, to create a feeling of sheer wonderment and closeness to god. The Ascension shows an idealistic representation of the celebration of Christ’s victory over evil, and offers salvation as a reward for following his path. Each of these pages uses its own variety of features to convey these specific ideas and feelings.


The Chi-Rho page was painted in an Irish monastery and was probably displayed on a church altar. Inspection of the illuminated page reveals a merging of the abstract and spiritual. Taking up almost the entire page, is a monogram, XPI, the first three letters of Christ’s name in Greek Christos chi, rho, and iota. Bold lines are used to make the letters stand out. Just two words appear on the bottom of the page-“autem” meaning “now” and “generation” meaning “the birth”, introducing St. Matthew’s account of nativity, in Latin text. From here, the eye is allowed to wander about, spotting images of animals and saints throughout. The rest of the page is covered in beautifully intricate circular patterns and designs and demonstrating the painstaking detail that


went into the creation of the work. The feeling is that hidden amongst the intertwined spirals and foliage patterns are representations of stories supporting the Christian faith. The viewer can get lost in the maze of detail, and this quality alone seems to ensue a feeling of mysticism.


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The artist showed great creativity in producing such beautiful patterns and forms from simple shapes and lines, and the multitude of lines required to make the patterns are astonishing. Celtic designs and fretwork displayed here served multiple purposes. Writing for the church gave the people of the monastery divine beauty, and the monks would use this page to meditate upon, bringing them closer to God. The Celtic designs incorporate geometry and symmetry into harmonic proportions, which gave the monks a better understanding of the devout path in God’s world. Perfect geometry reflected God’s perfection and divine order, and allowed insight into the harmony of the universe and the path to salvation. The lovely interlace was not just decorative, but it was symbolized never-ending conflict, and the journey of the soul.


The page confirms the monk’s dedication to honoring and preserving the word of God, and combines with long tradition of Celtic art, to create a priceless treasure. Prior to 400 A.D., the Hiberno-Saxon people had had no contact with Roman influence, and their art was strictly abstract designs. In this piece, the forms combine both Christian ideas with pre-Christian Celtic motifs and express the transformation to the Christian religion. The group of cats shows an adherence to the Christian family unit and the saints show their commitment to the Christian word. Surely one would have to be close to God to create a work of art so ornate and complex that a feeling of sacred bewilderment is produced. While the image appears almost monochromatic, the colors lend support to the feeling of marvel as they jump across the page.


Gold dominates the image, and purple borders the chi symbol, indicating holiness and imperial power.


Now that we have taken a look at the Chi-Rho page, and have discussed the important features which convey its holiness, I will be moving on to my interpretation of The Ascension page.


The painting is a representation of the story of Christ’s ascension to heaven. The composition shows the Virgin Mary, various apostles, and angels looking on while Christ is borne aloft in a mandorla by other angels. It is a celebration of the work that Christ accomplished, with vibrant colors on a white background. The first thing you see is the image of the Virgin Mary, hands up in prayer, gazing directly at the you as if she knows what is taking place and testifies to the almighty power of God. She is dressed in, and surrounded in an aura of blue, denoting heavenly love, and indicating her importance in Byzantine art. The gestures of the people on the ground lead you up to Christ appearing in a mandorla or bubble of blue light. The orientation of these forms, and the angels that flank him on both sides, compose a cross. The crowd is stacked upon one another in Byzantine style, and the masses are gesturing towards the spectacle above. This vertical movement directs the attention up to where the focal point is, where evenly spaced angels tend to Christ, and two of them are presenting him with victory crowns. Perhaps one is for him, the other for man who follows his teachings. The forms are placed symmetrically and the seven halos of the heavenly lend balance to the image.


The bottom of the painting is representational of this world, while the top portion is divine. The colors of the sky are purple and orange hues and seem to be not of this world. The painting shows the eternal composure of the heavenly beings, while the people appear shocked and


confused while in awe of this splendid event. The image defines the chaos of this world and the promise of eternal life.


The Ascension story is a fundamental truth of the Christian faith, and a conclusion Christ’s Passion. Its narrative does not represent an end to Christ’s life, but a beginning of a new phase of his ministry through the church. It is also paramount because it provides undisputable proof that Christ was victorious over Satan and the evils of mankind. The Ascension was a demonstration of the power bestowed upon his saints to carry out his work until he returns. For the worshipper, it leaves one filled with glorious anticipation for the return of Christ, which is said to occur in just the same way he went up to heaven. If his teachings are practiced, all will receive salvation and gain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.


The Ascension illumination uses a many different elements to express the word of God. It is an idealistic representation of the event, which means it conveys an idea as well as being visually appealing. Christ is carried upward by a fiery winged chariot with the Four Evangelist’s symbols upon it, which clearly shows that following the teachings of the gospels will earn a place in Heaven. Most interesting to me is the appearance of Christ’s right foot, which protrudes outside of the mandorla. This lends faith to the feeling that although he has risen to the heavens, he still remains, in part, of this world.


Despite the very different forms of illumination, there are some parallels that can be drawn between the two works. Each one incorporates unique features into the paintings, and use different contexts to express its message, while both use the work as a vessel to carry the word of the Almighty. Both of the images offer a unique perspective into early Christianity and a tangible channel for one to accept the Holy into their life. Although the subject matter is


different, the expressive content is very much the same. Amazing things take place right here on Earth. The path must be taken while we are here on Earth, in order for one to ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven.





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