Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas and the Incarnation in the Middle Ages



Last week, I was honored to appear on the radio with old friends from my hometown: the Poor Clares of the Monastery of St. Michael the Archangel. The sisters invited me to chat with them for an hour on the development of Christmas in the Middle Ages. I was glad to do so, particularly emphasizing a growing focus on the Incarnation in the west. Here's a link to the recording on Mixcloud

A good deal of the program referenced the visual arts and architecture, so I'm going to post a few images below for you to glance at while listening.


The Palatine Chapel, built in the Romanesque style, is the only surviving part of Charlemagne's palace in Aachen. The Holy Roman Emperors held their coronations as Kings of Germany here for many centuries until 1531.
The Romanesque church of Ss. Peter and Paul, Rosheim (currently in France, along the German border). Note the sturdy, box-like walls and high, narrow windows. The Gothic style would later allow windows to be much more expansive, turning cathedrals from dark halls lit by candle and torchlight into riots of color.

The famous mosaics of Theodora and Justinian in San Vitale, Ravenna may bear marks of heavy Byzantine influence, but western and eastern iconography had much more in common until the Gothic age.

The principles of Romanesque (or "Norman") architecture also, of course, lay the foundation for the stone castles of the medieval age. The Tower of London and the original keep of Windsor Castle are but two iconic examples of the Normans using Romanesque to subjugate the conquered Saxons.
When I speak of a pre-Gothic crucifix, I think of ones like this: the Santa Majestat at the Chapelle de la TrinitĂ© (Prunet-et-Belpuig). Fully clothed, gazing intently at the viewer, no crown of thorns or sign of suffering. The focus is on Christ triumphant on the cross, not sharing in the suffering of mankind.

Romanesque crucifix and mural of the Christ Child juxtaposed at the Cloisters at the Met in New York. Observe the continued similarities to eastern iconography.

Giotto paints the story of Saint Francis of Assisi instituting the Christmas crib at Greccio.


The 13th century sees an explosion of interest in the Incarnation. Above: a stained-glass window of the Nativity in Canterbury Cathedral, dating around the 13th century.

As the cult of the Christ Child grows, so too does that of the Blessed Virgin. Above: 15th century painting by Hans Memling of the Annunciation at the Met, New York. One of my favorite details is how the angel is painted in a deacon's dalmatic.

Toward the end of the program, I also mention the tree of Jesse: a common motif in medieval art to illustrate Christ's lineage from King David and his father, Jesse.

Don't forget to buy the sisters' organic soap!

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