Glimpses of what Creation meant to medieval Christians, from Emile Male’s The Gothic Image

The First day of Creation: ivory panel from the cathedral of Salerno, ca. 1084

Oh, how the medievals loved Creation. C S Lewis once observed, “Marcus Aurelius wished that men would love the universe as a man can love his own city. I believe that something like this was really possible in the [Middle Ages].”

No one saw more clearly the medieval love affair with Creation than the early twentieth-century French medievalist Emile Male.

Way back in the mid-90s, when I was at Gordon-Conwell (and a library rat), I was browsing through a stack of books given to the community by the widow of a professor who had passed away, and I came across Emile Male’s The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, tr. Dora Nussey (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958; orig. pub. 1913). Flipping through it on that day, I gathered that it promised a key to the rich symbolic system standing behind every piece of medieval art.

Yesterday, while working on my course Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry (and the related book), I found myself wanting some secondary source that would explain some of the medievals’ high regard for, indeed love for and even veneration of, Creation. So out came Male–finally I’d get to read it!

What follows are a few notes from Male’s book that deal with Creation and related themes–themes readers of C S Lewis’s The Discarded Image will be familiar with: the medieval passion for sorting and ordering information; the absolute subjection to the authority of tradition, especially written tradition; the importance of scripture in forming the medieval imagination. All of these, say Male, deeply influenced medieval artists.

On the theme of what I think can fairly be called medievals’ “Creation spirituality,” Male portrays medieval artists and art as saturated in that sense of the sacramentality of all created things that Gregory the Great bequeathed to the Middle Ages—the understanding that God is continually communicating to us in everything he makes. Male takes this to be an extension of the principle of allegorical interpretation: that under the literal sense of scripture hide deeper spiritual meanings. So: “The artist, as the doctors might have put it, must imitate God who under the letter of Scripture hid profound meaning, and who willed that nature too should hold lessons for man.”

Finally, taking a tip from Michael Ward, we may find in Male’s delightful exploration of the “symbolic code” that operates in medieval art something like the sort of “secret code” that Ward believes C S Lewis used when he implanted into each book of the Narnia Chronicles the atmosphere and values of one of the mythical/Ptolemaic planets. See Ward’s Planet Narnia for that—especially the early chapter on “secrecy” as both a Lewisian and a medieval quality. However, we should remember that for medieval artists and likely the majority of their audience, the symbol system wasn’t secret. It was really sort of matter-of-fact.

So here is Male:

1ff          Chap. 1:

“The Middle Ages had a passion for order. They organized art as they had organized dogma, secular learning and society. The artistic representation of sacred subjects was a science governed by fixed laws which could not be broken at the dictates of individual imagination. It cannot be questioned that this theology of art, if one may so put it, was soon reduced to a body of doctrine, for from very early times the craftsmen are seen submitting to it from one end of Europe to the other. This science was transmitted by the Church to the lay sculptors and painters of the thirteenth century who religiously guarded the sacred traditions, so that, even in the centuries in which it was most vigorous, mediaeval art retained the hieratic grandeur of primitive art. . .

“The art of the Middle Ages is first and foremost a sacred writing of which every artist must learn the characters. He must know that the circular [2] nimbus placed vertically behind the head serves to express sanctity, while the nimbus impressed with a cross is the sign of divinity which he will always use in portraying any of the three Persons of the Trinity. He will learn that the aureole (i.e. light which emanates from the whole figure and surrounds the body as a nimbus) expresses eternal bliss, and belongs to the three Persons of the Trinity, to the Virgin, and to the souls of the Blessed. He must know that representations of God the Father, God the Son, the angels and the apostles should have the feet bare, while there would be real impropriety in representing the Virgin and the saints with bare feet. In such matters a mistake would have ranked almost as a heresy. Other accepted symbols enabled the medieval artist to express the invisible, to represent that which would otherwise be beyond the domain of art. A hand emerging from the clouds, making the gesture of benediction with thumb and two fingers raised, and surrounded by a cruciform nimbus, was recognized as the sign of divine intervention, the emblem of providence. Little figures of nude and sexless children, ranged side by side in the folds of Abraham’s mantle, signified the eternal rest of the life to come.

“There were also accepted signs for objects of the visible world which the artist must learn. Lines which are concentric and sinuous represent the sky, those which are horizontal and undulating represent water (Fig. I [p. 3]). A tree, that is to say a stalk surmounted with two or three leaves, indicates that the scene takes place on the earth; a tower pierced by a doorway is a town, while if an angel watch on the battlements it is the heavenly Jerusalem. Thus we have a veritable hieroglyphic in which art and writing blend, showing the same spirit of order and abstraction that there is in heraldic art with its alphabet, rules and symbolism.

“The artist must be familiar with a multitude of precise details. He is not allowed to ignore the traditional type of the persons he has to represent. St. Peter, for example, must have curly hair, a short, thick beard and a tonsure, while St. Paul must have a bald head and a long beard. Certain details of costume are also unchangeable. Over her head [3] the Virgin must wear a veil, symbol of virginity, and the Jews are known by their cone-shaped caps.

“All these figures with their unvarying costume and arrested type have their place in traditional scenes. No matter how dramatic may be the scene in which they play a part, their every action has been previously determined. No artist would be rash enough to dare to modify the arrangement of the great scenes from the Gospel. If his subject were the Last Supper he would not be free to group the figures round the table according to his individual fancy. He would have to show at the one side Jesus and the apostles, at the other Judas Iscariot.  If he would represent the Crucifixion he must place the Virgin and the lance-bearer to the right of the Cross, St. John and the man with the sponge to the left. . . .”


“[M]ediaeval art . . . is a symbolic code. From the days of the catacombs Christian art has spoken in figures, showing men one thing and inviting them to see in it the figure of another [as with allegory in medieval literature, per Lewis]. The artist, as the doctors might have put it, must imitate God who under the letter of Scripture hid profound meaning, and who willed that nature too should hold lessons for man.

“In mediaeval art there are then intentions a knowledge of which is necessary to any real understanding of the subject. When for example in scenes of the Last Judgment we see the Wise and Foolish Virgins to [15] the right and left hand of Christ, we should thereby understand that they symbolize the elect and the lost. Upon this all the commentators on the New Testament are agreed, and they explain it by stating that the five Foolish Virgins typify the desires of the five senses, and the five Wise Virgins the five forms of the contemplative life. To take another example, it is not as rivers that the four rivers of Paradise—the Gihon, Phison, Tigris, and Euphrates—are represented pouring water from their urns towards the four points of the compass, but as symbols of the evangelists who flooded the world with their teaching like four beneficent streams.

“An Old Testament personage in the porch of a cathedral is but a type, an adumbration of Christ, the Virgin, or the future Church. At Chartres the form of Melchizedek, priest and king, bearing the bread and wine to Abraham, should remind men of another priest and king who offered bread and wine to His disciples. At Laon Gideon calling down rain from heaven on to the fleece he had laid on the earth, reminds men that the Virgin Mother was this symbolic fleece on whom fell the dew from on high (Fig. 8 [p. 16: scan this and others])

“A detail of apparent insignificance may hide symbolic meaning. In a window at Bourges the lion near to the tomb from which the risen Christ comes forth is a type of the Resurrection. It was generally believed in the Middle Ages that for three days after birth the cubs of the lioness gave no sign of life, but that on the third day the lion came and with his breath restored them to life. And so the apparent death of the lion represents the sojourn of Jesus in the tomb, and its birth was an image of the Resurrection.

“In the art of the Middle Ages, as we see, everything depicted is informed by a quickening spirit.

“Such a conception of art implies a profoundly idealistic view of the scheme of the universe, and the conviction that both history and nature must be regarded as vast symbols. [Lewis may write at odds with this; see Daigle Williamson on Lewis on Allegory as distinguished from symbol] We shall see later that this undoubtedly was the view of the mediaeval mind. Further, it should be remembered that such ideas were not the property of the great thirteenth century doctors [theologians] alone, but were shared by the mass of the people to whom they had permeated through the teaching of the Church. The symbolism of the church services familiarized the faithful with the symbolism of art. Christian liturgy like Christian art is endless symbolism, both are manifestations of the same genius.”

[There follows an extended and fascinating examination of the physical elements of liturgy which functioned as symbols for a variety of theological and spiritual truths. This extends through the end of the chapter—p. 22; wonderfully supported by B&W images in the text.

[Then at the head of “Book I: The Mirror of Nature,” starting on p. 27, we have the following headings: “I.—To the mediaeval mind the universe a symbol. Sources of this conception. The ‘Key’ of Melito. The Bestiaries. II.—Animals represented in the churches; their meaning not always symbolic. Symbols of the Evangelists. Window at Lyons. Frieze at Strasburg. Influence of Honorius of Autun; the Bestiaries. III.—Exaggerations of the symbolic school. Symbolism sometimes absent. Flora and fauna of the thirteenth century. Gargoyles, monsters.”]

A bit of “Book I: The Mirror of Nature”:

27-8 great description of the façade at Laon, including the Creator counting on his fingers how many days it will take to create all things, and then leaning on his staff at the end and falling asleep. Then (28): “. . . a glance upward shows us vines, raspberries heavy with fruit and long trails of the wild rose clinging to the archivolts, birds singing among the oak leaves or perching on the pillars. Beasts from far-off lands side by side with homely creatures of the countryside—lions, elephants and camels, squirrels, hens and rabbits—enliven the basement of the porch, while monsters securely fastened by their heavy stone wings bark fiercely at us from above. . . . [The] cathedrals [of the old masters] are all life and movement. The Church to them was the ark to which every creature was made welcome, and then—as if the works of God were not sufficient for them—they invented a whole world more of terrible beings, creatures so real that they surely must have lived in the childhood of the world.

“In this way the chapters of the Mirror of Nature are inscribed everywhere—on pinnacle and balustrade as on the smallest capital. What is the meaning of all the plants, animals, monsters? Are they due to caprice or [29] have they significance, and do they teach some great and mysterious truth? May one not suppose that they too are symbols, clothing some thought like the statues and bas-reliefs which we shall have occasion to study later?

“In order to answer such questions some attempt must be made to understand the mediaeval view of the world and of nature. What is the visible world? What is the meaning of the myriad forms of life? What did the monk dreaming in his cell, or the doctor meditating in the cathedral cloister before the hour of his lecture think of it all? Is it merely appearance or is it reality? The Middle Ages were unanimous in their reply—the world is a symbol. As the idea of his work is in the mind of the artist, so the universe was in the thought of God from the beginning. God created, but He created through His Word, that is, through His Son. The thought of the Father was realized in the Son throughout whom it passed from potentiality to act, and thus the Son is the true creator. The artists of the Middle Ages, imbued with this doctrine, almost invariably represent the Creator in the likeness of Jesus Christ. . . . Jesus Christ is at once Creator and Redeemer.”

“The world therefore may be defined as ‘a thought of God realized through the Word.’ If this be so then in each being is hidden a divine thought; the world is a book written by the hand of God in which every creature is a word charged with meaning. The ignorant see the forms—the mysterious letters—understanding nothing of their meaning, but the wise pass from the visible to the invisible, and in reading nature read the thoughts of God. True knowledge, then, consists not in the study of things in themselves—the outward forms—but in penetrating to the inner meaning intended by God for our instruction, for in the words of Honorius of Autun, ‘every creature is a shadow of truth and life.’ All being holds in its depths the reflection of the sacrifice of Christ, the image of the Church and of the virtues and vices. The material and the spiritual worlds are one.” (29)

30: “How mystical were the thoughts which arose in the minds of the mediaeval doctors in the presence of nature. We read how in the refectory of the monastery Adam of St. Victor, holding a nut in his hand, reflects—‘What is a nut if not the image of Jesus Christ? The green and fleshy sheath is His flesh, His humanity. The wood of the shell is the wood of the Cross on which that flesh suffered. But the kernel of the nut from which men gain nourishment is His hidden divinity.’” [Adam of St. Victor, Sequentiae. Patrol., cxcvi., col. 1433. Notes Male: “The same idea had already been elaborated by Augustine.”]

30: “Peter of Mora, cardinal and bishop of Capua, contemplates the roses in his garden. Their natural beauty does not move him, for he is intent on thoughts which are unfolding within. ‘The rose,’ he says, ‘is the choir of martyrs, or yet again the choir of virgins. When red it is the blood of those who died for the faith, when white it is spotless purity. It opens among thorns as the martyr grows up in the midst of heretics and persecutors, or as the pure virgin blooms radiant in the midst of iniquity.’” [Petrus of Mora, Rosa alphabetica, in the Spicilegium Solesmense, III., 489.]

And other examples follow. More:

“The whole world is a symbol. The sun, the stars, the seasons, day and night, all speak in solemn accents. . . . [he goes through the seasons, explaining what each symbolized in the Christian mind of the Middle Ages] Thus the thinker moved in a world of symbols, thronged by forms pregnant with spiritual meaning.”

“Are these the interpretations of individuals, mystical fancies born of the exaltation of cloistered life, or are we in the presence of an ordered system, an ancient tradition? The answer is found in the most cursory reading of the works of the Fathers and the mediaeval doctors. Never was doctrine more closely knit or more universally accepted. It dates back to the beginning of the Church, and is founded on the words of the Bible itself. In the Scriptures, indeed, as interpreted by the Fathers, the material world is a constant image of the spiritual world. In each word of God both the visible and the invisible are contained. The flowers whose scent overpowered the lover in the Song of Songs, the jewels which adorned the breastplate of the high priest, the beasts of the desert which passed before Job are at once realities and symbols. The juniper tree, the terebinth, and the snowy peaks of Lebanon are alike thoughts of God. To interpret the Bible is to apprehend the harmony which God has [32] established between the soul and the universe, and the key to the Scriptures is the key to the two worlds.”

This continues at least through p. 34.

Again, what Male’s analysis shows us is not the bare fact of the medievals’ love of Creation—that is simply implicit in the great mass of art they created. Rather, we see here the next level: the medieval understanding of the sacramental quality of the whole world: that spiritual meaning is delivered through physical means in all of creation. Their use of universal representative conventions and “symbolic code” in their artwork is indeed, as Male says, a kind of hermeneutic of creation that imitates their hermeneutic of scripture: it is an allegorical way of reading spiritual meaning from material realities. It is also a vivid illustration of Lewis’s principle, expressed elsewhere in his English Literature of the Sixteenth Century, that the medieval mind was equally comfortable with, and moved rapidly back and forth between, pigs and angels.

One response to “Glimpses of what Creation meant to medieval Christians, from Emile Male’s The Gothic Image

  1. Pingback: The Medievals Loved Creation « The Revealer

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