Tag Archives: symbolism

What medieval artistry tell us about that era’s attitudes toward creation: nature as conduit of divine meaning


LionContinuing with text from the “creation chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewisthis is the section on the arts:

We’ve seen the creation-focus in the sciences; now the arts. No one saw more clearly how the medieval openness to Creation impacted the arts than the early twentieth-century French medievalist Emile Male. Readers of C S Lewis’s The Discarded Image will be familiar with the themes Male unearths in his charming book The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Third Century: 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, says Male, deeply influenced medieval artists.

Medieval liturgical arts, like scholastic theology, show us again that medieval predilection for “sorting out and tidying up” that Lewis noted in his Discarded Image. Their carefully worked-out systems of conventional details amounted to a meticulous science of representing the divine through the natural. “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.” “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.”[1]

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 passed on to the Middle Ages—the understanding that God is continually communicating to us in everything he makes. Continue reading

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: Continue reading