LBST 321 Art

St Apollinaire apse mosaic

St. Apollinaire apse mosaic, Ravenna 533-49 ce

For a detailed iconographical analysis of this mosaic, click here and here.

Christ Pantocrator, Monreale

Christ Pantocrator, Capella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily 12th c

Liberal Studies consists of the critical multidisciplinary study of influential works and ideas in the Western cultural tradition—from ancient to modern times.

LBST 321 Special Topics in Western Culture: Medieval to Early Modern.

Between approximately the 4th and the 15th centuries Christian thought shaped the cultural and social landscape of Europe. Christianity permeated political and personal life, social institutions, economic relations, the understanding of the natural world, literature and art. While the Classical world view held by Plato and Aristotle was that the cosmos was rational, ordered, moral, purposeful and could be known by human reason, the world view of the church was what we could call in contrast supernatural, that true knowledge was only possible by Divine revelation.

In this Visual Art Module we explore the arts of drawing and painting, the arts that have to do with revealing the visual appearance of the world, whether outer world of nature or inner world of the human imagination. In the first session, we take a look at different kinds of paintings from different eras, and examine the ways in which they represent their worlds. In the second session we focus specifically on the concept of the altarpiece through an examination and discussion of Early Christian, Medieval and Renaissance paintings and their celebration of the central tenets of the Christian faith.

Capelle Palatina

Capella Palatina interior

On Jesus’ right, in the image above, the name “Jesus” is represented using the Greek alphabet as IC with a tilde (sign over these letters) to indicate abbreviation (the first two letters of the name). On his left the name “Christ” is inscribed, in the same way, as XC with tilde.

In his left hand Christ holds a book in which is written the words recorded in John’s Gospel, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). His right hand is raised in blessing; three fingers are held up to indicate the Trinity, and two fingers joined to suggest the two natures united in his person.

“Pantocrator” means Ruler of All; he is the Christ of the Last Judgment.

Monreale Pantocrator

Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo, Sicily Pantocrator

Christ’s halo, the iconographic symbol for sanctity, is inscribed with a cross and sometimes with the Greek letters omicron, omega, nu, spelling “HO ON.” In English, this becomes “Who Am,” the name used for God in Exodus 3:14.

Giotto, Last Judgment

Giotto, Last Judgment Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy 1306

“This extensive depiction of the Last Judgment in the west of the Scrovegni Chapel is dominated by the large Christ in Majesty at its centre. The twelve apostles sit to His left and to His right. Here the two levels divide: the heavenly host appears above, people plunge into the maw of hell below, or are led by angels towards heaven.

The way this large fresco is divided into registers is traditional. But if we look at Giotto’s invention in detail, then his novel attempts at visualizing different spheres, as well as abstract beliefs, become particularly apparent. In the center of the representation, Christ is enthroned as supreme Judge in a rainbow-colored mandorla. The deep, radiant gold background, the style of painting, and the delicate substance give the impression that the heavens have opened in order to reveal the powerful, extremely solidly modelled figure of Christ. Different levels are likewise alluded to when the choirs of angels disappear behind the real window, or when the celestial watch in the upper area of the picture rolls back the firmament, behind which the golden-red doors of the heavenly Jerusalem shine forth. The black and red maw of hell, which seems to anticipate Dante’s “Inferno”, is different again in its impact.

The way in which Giotto establishes a connection between the present-day world of the faithful and the world beyond all time, the world of the Last Judgment, contains another interesting detail. The donor Scrovegni, still alive at the time, kneels next to those being resurrected and offers “his” church to the three Marys, assisted by a priest. The latter is portrayed in a most lively manner: his robes hang – painted quite illusionistically – over the arch of the portal”.


Van Eyck Ghent closed

Jan Van Eyck, Ghent altarpiece (closed) 1432

Van Eyck Ghent open

Ghent altarpiece (open)

For a detailed iconographical analysis of this altarpiece, click here.

Van der Goes Portinari altarpiece

Hugo Van der Goes, Portinari altarpiece (open) 1476-79

Portinari closed

Portinari altarpiece (closed)

Portinari altariece right panel

Portinari altarpiece, right panel

The right wing of the Portinari Triptych shows Tommaso Portinari’s wife, Maria Baroncelli, with her elder daughter Margherita, accompanied by Mary Magdalene and St Margaret. The beast between the two saints is a dragon, the attribute of St Margaret. According to the legend of St. Margaret, she was thrown into prison because she rejected Olybrius, the Roman governor. In prison she was attacked by the Devil and, while at prayer, swallowed by a dragon. Since she was carrying a small crucifix, she was able to cut a hole in the monster’s belly and escaped.