A New Way of Thinking in the Medieval Ages: The Deposition from the Cross Proves to be An Advanced Piece of Its Time

The ivory Descent from the Cross, carved in the thirteenth century and held today at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France is a composition of seven individually carved figures representing Christ, Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, and Nicodemus, as well two female figures, Ecclesia and Synagogia as representations of the Old and New Testaments. (fig. 1)   

Based on the use of the ivory, one of the most precious materials of the middle ages, and the intimate size of the figures comprising the composition, I will argue that this composition was not likely a piece designed for a large religious setting, but rather was to be owed and used privately, most likely by royalty. More telling in terms of how this piece was employed is the variable or movable nature of the composition, which indicates that while any one figure was iconographically identifiable, the compositional total of the equally weighted components was where the larger, didactic meaning was to be understood. With this in mind, it is my thesis that the ivory Descent from the Cross group should be seen as indicative of the beginning of a new era of thinking in the medieval ages; one that sets aside an older philosophy that limits the importance and creativeness of design and embraces what one can presume as a ‘gestalt’ approach to religion, community, and design. In exploring how this new pattern of thought influenced the creation of the Descent group, and how the composition was meant to effect the interaction with its viewer, my basic supposition will be supported by an analysis of the Descent composition in relation to the work of scholars, Charles Radding and William Clark,[1] who have compared the development of the Gothic style, particularly as it is known in the architecture of St. Denis cathedral, to the contemporary advent of the new philosophical thought of Peter Abelard within the cathedral school in Paris.  

The first clue to our understanding of this set of figures is in its size and material. Due to the size of the Descent, 23 cm x 24.2 cm x 30 cm2, it seems obvious that even as an altar piece in a small church, the piece would have been lost in the larger architectural space and thus would have served little didactic purpose. It can therefore be argued that it would better serve private devotion. This is corroborated by the precious status of the ivory from which it is made. The golden age of Gothic ivory carving spanned a century and a half, from 1230-1380 before it started to decline in status.[2] The use of ivory as the chosen material for this Descent is an advanced form of thinking in and of itself, since before the Gothic period, the use of ivory was reserved largely for precious book covers as a way to service the church.[3]  “When elephant ivory reappeared on European markets there was a new range of ivory object types: statuettes and statue groups for the church. The first type of objects made were statuettes, predominantly of the Virgin and Child, which were used liturgically, placed on the high altar on select feast days to honor the Virgin.”[4] The shift in the use of ivory statuettes from public altar pieces to artifacts meant for private worship illustrates a corollary shift in the lives of the Parisian people.

Tellingly, the fact that the Descent group was made of ivory, suggests that if it was indeed owned privately, that owner would have been of high social status.  In all probability, one of the few people who could afford that much ivory, would have been the King.  If this was indeed the case, based on the date of the object, it would have been King Louis IX, who is the only canonized King of France.[5]

Louis IX is also an appropriate choice for the Descent from the Cross’s primary audience because of the significance of the scene displayed. Recognized by the church as a Saint, Louis is known to have identified with Christ’s charity and life mission in relation to the greater good of the people.  A rare commodity, ivory not only showed the wealth and class of the king, but also his desire to support the spreading of the Christian faith. In fact, when he was young, St. Louis’ mother would often say, “Never forget that sin is the only great evil in the world….I would rather see you lying dead at my feet than know that you had offended God by one mortal sin.”[6] Taking this to heart, St. Louis made numerous attempts to honor God. For example, he “outlawed all forms of usury and compelled usurers to contribute toward the Crusades when their debtors could not be found to be compensated.” He even went on a Crusade in 1248, fighting nobly and with great honor, forbidding his men to kill prisoners and always expecting them to act as Christians.”[7]  He worshiped even during his capture, and after he was released he did not return to France right away, but went to “the Holy Land, and remained there in order to help fortify the Christian colonies.”[8]

Louis’ crowning architectural glory was St. Chappelle, his personal royal chapel, built to house a part of the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross brought back from the Holy Land.[9]  But he also contributed to the Parisian society by building hospitals, especially the “Quinze-vingt” for the blind. He expelled usurers from France, and replaced the King’s Court with popular courts, where he could hear the grievances of his people.[10] In these actions it is easy to see how he became known as the King of Christian ethics and morals, as they were infused into all his rulings and the ways he dealt with his subjects.

Given our knowledge of his personal and public piety, the iconography of the Descent from the Cross figures also serves to point to ownership by the King Louis. Traditionally, depictions of the Descent from the Cross feature the story of Christ’s sacrifice, as Joseph carries the deceased Jesus released from the Cross, while Mary kisses Christ’s hand. To the left Ecclesia is generally shown holding a chalice in one hand and a cross broken off in the other. (fig. 2) To the right, Synagogia stands weeping with tables in her left hand and a broken spear in the other, meant to balance Ecclesia on the left.[11] (fig. 3) The common iconographic representation of the figures of Ecclesia and Synagogia, representing the Church and the Synagogue, shows them as draped females representing “the transition from the Old Law to the New.”[12] The Church typically wears a crown, carries a cross, and holds a chalice, representing the Redeemer's blood, while Synagogia is generally shown blindfolded representing the moral or spiritual blindness of darkness, sin, and ignorance. Often her crown falls from her inclined head and the Tables of the Law fall from her hands.  Ecclesia poses as the reminder of the redeemer’s (Christ) blood and Synagogia represents the Jewish end with Christ rising (New Testament to Old Testament).

Also on the right, Nicodemus kneels holding a scroll, with John looking on to the scene. (fig. 4) These male figures are similarly standardized in their iconographic representations. John is not only a follower of Christ, but is also the apostle who baptized Christ. Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, appears three times in the story of John; he addresses the arrestment of Jesus and assists Joseph in Christ’s burial, but here in the picturing of the Descent, Nicodemus represents the importance of Christ’s sacrifice in order to save the people.[13]

Like many ‘apocalyptic’ artifacts, the Descent from the Cross group serves to “[place] the viewer firmly in the last age, the period preceding the second coming, [including] the Last Judgment scenes and depictions of Christ.”[14] The first two stages of Christ’s life and death have already passed, therefore, the awaiting of his return places an emphasis on the viewer’s need for salvation before this happens. So here in the Descent from the Cross, the mother and father of Christ, the man who baptized him, the symbolic representation of the redeemer’s blood, the symbolic representation of sin and the end of the Old Testament, as well as the man who favored Jesus yet arrested and helped bury him, are all represented in this intimate scene of the fallen Christ--the man who has sacrificed his life for his people.

Like Christ, King Louis would have known the consequences of his spiritual ‘royalty’, yet remained loyal to his people and his position as the savior. The Descent from the Cross scene’s illustration of the passage of time and of Christ’s sacrifice would have been particularly appropriate for this sainted King.  Blurring the lines of social classes, the story of the Descent from the Cross signified Christ as part of the peasant class. Interacting affectively with this symbolism, the grouping of figures would have allowed King Louis to see himself “in an interaction with the incarnate God through the physical human beings depicted.”[15]

Due to the association of Christ with the ‘poor and humble class of society” through the easily-recognizable clothing associated with the peasantry, viewing or meditation on the figures in the Descent from the Cross group would have metaphorically transported Louis to another world of suffering, humbleness, and sacrifice outside the confined setting of his private chapel. The private devotional experience represented by this compositional piece was a significantly more intimate interaction than one might have had with monumental sculpture, such as the contemporary column figures that lined the entrances to Gothic cathedrals, although both can be said to “make eye contact with living people,” and were clothed in contemporary garments, allowing them both to “signal their shared humanity with the people who viewed them.”[16]  At its basis, I would argue that the intimate viewing and interaction with the Descent from the Cross group facilitated the king’s consideration of the other sides of Parisian society and allowed him to relate to the lower-class.

More significantly insightful however, is the alignment of the visual logic exhibited in the composition with an innovative philosophical movement, which Charles Radding and William Clark have identified with the teachings of Peter Abelard, originating at the Cathedral school.[17]  These scholars show how Abelard’s philosophy was reflected in the design of the new additions to the cathedral at Saint Denis. Their work demonstrates that by 1100, in a “variety of cultural and social expressions…there was (a) heightened concern with intention…in the new attitudes masters brought to ancient authorities.”[18] I would argue that this can also be seen on a much more intimate scale in the ivory Descent from the Cross group.

Radding and Clark show that Abelard and the second builder of Saint Denis had one main thing in common—as contemporaries, they both broke from tradition.  Abelard is famous for having debated “questions specific to logic instead of using logic principally as a means to religious truths.”[19] Most particularly, he questioned the meaning of things and how these meanings fit together as an enlightened whole. Similarly, the second builder at Saint-Denis, “broke from his models by creating interconnections between separate sections of the building.”[20] Unlike his predecessors, the second builder did not work section to section, separating the pieces with little regard to the structure as one unified composition, but rather “mentally organized the elements into a coherent spatial whole.”[21]  Given the inter-related meanings of each of the figures comprising the whole of the Descent from the Cross group, I would argue that these same influences can be seen at work in the Descent from the Cross.

While the context into which each particular feature was placed was the primary drive in the design of the additions to Saint-Denis, the context of the Descent from the Cross was also taken into consideration with the design of the individual figures. (fig.5) Unlike traditional depositions where the artifact is of one object or material and physically connected, this artifact consists of seven different characters each portraying a different emotion and role in the scene. Small in scale, and possessing the ability to be physically moved and mentally interacted with, the complex composition  supports the notion that it was used for personal devotion, where each figure refers to  a different characteristic of the story, but each pertaining to Christ’s sacrifice.  As Radding and Clark suggest in terms of the building at St. Denis, “it was not the materials they had at their disposal, but the ways in which they thought about and ordered their materials.”[22]  The Descent from the Cross group represents the same visual logic that Radding and Clark align with Abelard’s gestalt theory, which they demonstrate significantly breaks away from traditional thinking.

When compared to the monumental column-figures, which “seem to make eye contact with living people who approached the church,”[23] the small statuettes of the Descent from the Cross served to engage the individual viewer through the use of touch as well as sight. And unlike the more famous Grand Tympanum portal compositions of the earlier Romanesque period, which required physical movement through the layers of sculpture at the doorway in order to engage the viewing public in a physical and imaginative relationship,”[24] the Descent from the Cross group evokes meaning on an emotional and spiritual level through easily-recognizable faces, and contemporary clothing that established social rank. Rather than physically moving through the piece, one was meant to move mentally.

While we can only speculate to the effect the Descent from the Cross had on King Louis, as its primary audience, I argue that it provided him the ability to cross a multitude of thresholds spiritually and socially, and was designed to bring him closer to an understanding of the people below him. With the Descent from the Cross group, the King was provided a close-up, intimate illustration of Christ’s sacrifice, which reflected his purpose as the earthly King, who must sacrifice himself for his people. It was an emotional interaction that was meant to spark devotion through the use of sight, allowing  Louis  to cross a threshold of spiritual devotion where the  intimate scene of Christ’s sacrifice would enable a mental  “journey to a holy site,”[25] situating the King within the scene, or even allowing him to envision himself as the persecuted Christ.[26]

The relationship between the viewer, the image, and the transition to spiritual meditation has been said to intertwine with the “triangulation that occurs between image, text, and action, whereby the individual parts…reinforce the whole, the suggestion of salvation through Christ’s blessings and heaven.”[27] The individual pieces that make up the scene of the Descent from the Cross combine visually to create a unified design, much in the same way the individual components of devotion, such as the viewer, the image, and the liminal space the viewer travels between, creates a unified approach to spirituality. The images reinforce the text, the text reinforces the idea of Christ’s salvation, and the idea of Christ’s salvation reinforces the viewer’s dire need for devotion.

The parallel between this process and the process of architectural design, where a variety of elements had to be integrated into an aesthetic whole, is the same.[28] As such, the Descent from the Cross represents another avenue to witness the beginning of a new era of thinking in the medieval ages, straying from tradition of broken thought and individual pieces to a new era where using gestalt theory in everyday life advanced the ways in which even the King could understand biblical teachings.

Bibliography

Branner, Robert.  St. Louis and the Court Style in Gothic Architecture, (London: A. Zwemmer, 1965.

“Descent from Cross.” In Medieval Histories, 2012. http://www.medievalhistories.com/descent-from-the-cross-gothic-ivory-group/. Accessed January 28, 2014.

Ehrstine, Glenn. “Passion Spectatorship between Private and Public Devotion.” In Thresholds of Medieval Visual Culture: Liminal Spaces.  (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2012): 302-320.

“Feast of King St. Louis IX.” Fish Eaters. http://www.fisheaters.com/customstimeafterpentecostsaintlouis.html. Accessed May 04, 2014.

Guérin, Sarah. “Ivory Carving in the Gothic Era, 13th–15th Centuries.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008). http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/goiv/hd_goiv.htm. Accessed April 25, 2014.

Olson, Vibeke. “Movement, Metaphor, and Memory: The Interactions between Pilgrims and Portal Programs.” In Push You, Pull Me: Physical and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art.  S. Blick and L. Gelfand eds. (Leiden: Brill, 2011):495-521.

Sullivan, Mary Ann.  “Ecclesia (Church) and Synagoga (Synagogue), column figures, South Transept Portal, Strasbourg Cathedral.” In Art History Webmasters Association, https://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/strasbourg/strasbourg.html. Accessed May 03, 2014.

Radding, Charles and William, Medieval Architecture, Medieval Learning: Builders and Masters in the Age of Romanesque and Gothic, (New Haven: Yale University Press: 1994).

Snyder, Janet E.  “Bodies Concealed and Revealed in Twelfth-Century French Sculpture” In Push You, Pull Me: Physical and Spatial Interaction in Late medieval and Renaissance Art. S. Blick and L. Gelfand eds. (Leiden: Brill, 2011): 467-494.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Descent from the Cross

c. 1260

h. 29cm

Musée du Louvre

Artstor: http://library.artstor.org/library/iv2.html?parent=true#

Figure 2

Figure 2: Descent from the Cross (The Church as the left figure)

c. 1260

h. 29cm

Musée du Louvre

http://cartelen.louvre.fr/cartelen/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=6859&langue=en

Figure 3

Figure 3: Descent from the Cross (Synagogue)

c. 1260, French

Source: Meredith Tavallaee

http://digitalrepository.smu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=upjournal_research

Figure 4

Figure 4: Descent from the Cross (Nicodemus)

c. 1260, French

h. 29cm

Musée du Louvre

http://cartelen.louvre.fr/cartelen/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=6859&langue=en

Figure 5

Figure 5: Paris: St. Denis plan during Suger's time and current plan

c. 1137-40, Paris

Artstor: http://library.artstor.org/library/iv2.html?parent=true

 


[1] Charles Radding and William Clark, Medieval Architecture, Medieval Learning: Builders and Masters in the Age of Romanesque and Gothic, (New Haven: Yale University Press: 1994).

[2] Sarah M. Guérin,"Ivory Carving in the Gothic Era, 13th–15th Centuries," in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/goiv/hd_goiv.htm.

[3] Guérin, "Ivory Carving in the Gothic Era.”

[4] Guérin, Ivory Carving in the Gothic Era.”

[5] Louis IX (25 April 1214 – 25 August 1270), commonly Saint Louis, was King of France from 1226 until 1270. Canonization is the act by which the Catholic Church declares a deceased person to be a saint, upon which declaration the person is included in the canon, or list, of recognized saints. For more on the art produced in the time of ST. Louis, see Robert Branner, St. Louis and the Court Style in Gothic Architecture, (London: A. Zwemmer, 1965.

[6] “Feast of King St. Louis IX,” Fish Eaters, http://www.fisheaters.com/customstimeafterpentecostsaintlouis.html, accessed May 04, 2014.

[7] “Feast of King St. Louis IX,” Fish Eaters.

[8] “Feast of King St. Louis IX,” Fish Eaters.

[9] “Feast of King St. Louis IX,” Fish Eaters.

[10] “Feast of King St. Louis IX,” Fish Eaters.

[11] “Descent from Cross,” Medieval Histories, 2012, http://www.medievalhistories.com/descent-from-the-cross-gothic-ivory-group/, accessed April 15, 2014.

[12] Mary Ann Sullivan, “Ecclesia (Church) and Synagoga (Synagogue), column figures, South Transept Portal, Strasbourg Cathedral,” in Art History Webmasters Association, https://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/strasbourg/strasbourg.html.

[13]While Nicodemus is a character referred to in the Bible.   ““Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”” John 3:1

[14] Vibeke Olson. “Movement, Metaphor, And Memory: The Interactions between Pilgrims and Portal Programs,” in Push You, Pull Me: Physical and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, S. Blick and L. Gelfand eds. (Leiden: Brill, 2011): 495-521.

[15] Janet E. Snyder, “Bodies Concealed and Revealed in Twelfth-Century French Sculpture,” in Push You, Pull Me: Physical and Spatial Interaction in Late medieval and Renaissance Art, S. Blick and L. Gelfand eds. (Leiden: Brill, 2011): 467-494.

[16] Snyder, “Bodies Concealed,” 475.

[17] Charles Radding and William Clark, “Transformations: Abelard and Saint-Denis,” in Medieval Architecture, Medieval Learning: Builders and Masters in the Age of Romanesque and Gothic, (New Haven: Yale University Press: 1994): 57-86.

[18] Radding and Clark, “Transformations,” 57.

[19] Radding and Clark, “Transformations,” 59-60.

[20] Radding and Clark, “Transformations.” 63-67.

[21] Radding and Clark, “Transformations,” 65.

[22] Radding and Clark, “Transformations,” 61.

[23] Snyder, “Bodies Concealed,” 467.

[24] Snyder, “Bodies Concealed,” 477.

[25] Glenn Ehrstine, “Passion Spectatorship between Private and Public Devotion, in Thresholds of Medieval Visual Culture: Liminal Spaces, (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2012): 302-320.

[26] Ehrstine, “Passion Spectatorship,” 319, suggests that the imagery illustrated was used as a “devotional medium” and the “devotional subject sought to create liminal spaces wherever she or he might be, and through whichever means appropriate.”

[27] Olson, “Movement, Metaphor,” 518.

[28] Radding and Clark, “Transformations, 80.