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.

An example of this that Lewis also wrote about, the medieval bestiaries, gives us some very odd and scientifically incorrect characterizations of animals (and some more fantastic creatures, such as the unicorn and the Phoenix), whose supposed habits may be read as direct symbols of holy things. Through a collection of model sermons for the main festivals of the liturgical year, the Speculum Ecclesiae (“mirror of the church”) of Honorius of Autun (1080 – 1154), these stories of the bestiaries made their way into artworks in a group of European cathedrals of the 12th century and beyond. At the cathedral tower at Strasburg, for example, we find an early 14th-century carving of a frieze of animals, all of whom have symbolic spiritual significance derived from the explanations of the bestiaries: “The eagle and its young, the unicorn taking refuge with a young girl, the lion reviving his cubs . . . the pelican feeding her young with her life blood, the phoenix in the midst of flames.” These serve as “so many symbols of the Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension,” for as Honorius said, ‘every creature is a shadow of truth and life.’[2]

Following the bestiaries, Honorius had said of the eagle that it is “of all creatures that which flies highest, and alone dares to gaze straight into the sun. When teaching his young ones to fly he first flies above them, then takes them up on his widely spread wings. Even so did Christ ascend into Heaven higher up than all the saints to his place on the right hand of the Father. He spreads over us the wings of His Cross, and carries us on His shoulders like lost sheep.”[3]

“The unicorn,” says Honorius, “is a beast so savage that it can only be caught by the help of a young maiden. When he sees here the creature comes and lies down in her lap, and yields to capture. The unicorn is Christ, and the horn in the midst of its forehead is a symbol of the invincible might of the Son of God. He took refuge with a Virgin and was taken by the huntsmen, that is to say, He took on human form in the womb of Mary and surrendered willingly to those who sought him.”[4]

“It is said,” Honorius writes, quoting the bestiaries, “that the lioness gives birth to lifeless cubs, but that after three days the roaring of the lion brings them to life. Even so the Saviour lay in the tomb as dead, but on the third day He rose awakened by the voice of His Father.” The pelican, according to the bestiaries, “after having killed her young, revives them at the end of three days by opening her breast and sprinkling them with blood, even as on the third day God raised His Son,” and the phoenix “burns itself on a pyre and on the third day rises anew from the ashes.”[5]

Each of these creatures, found in the art and architecture of Gothic churches, spoke its deeper meanings to all who saw it. This was continuous with the whole symbolic code used in the arts in that period. “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.”[6]

We may find in Male’s delightful exploration of the symbolic code that operates in medieval art something akin to the sort of secret code that Michael 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 “code” wasn’t secret. It was really sort of matter-of-fact—a shared, public set of artistic conventions that acted as a key to the deeper, usually scriptural, meanings of a given natural phenomenon or work of art. Just as the ideas of the scholastics spread widely among laypeople through (for example) the preaching of Franciscan and Dominican evangelists, the web of natural and artistic symbols that encoded those ideas were also “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.”

As Lewis knew, medieval artists’ use of natural symbols really was considered a form of exegesis—a direct parallel of medieval exegesis of Scripture. Lewis was also a fan of Dante, and Dante, in a letter to his friend Can Grande della Scala, claims that his imaginative creation, the Comedia, is a polysemous (that is, multi-layered) allegory that should be interpreted according to the four senses—literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical—usually reserved for the medieval study of Scripture. So, both in literature and in the visual arts, “the artist, as the [scholastics] 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.”[7]

In fact, medievals spoke of nature as a “second book,” complementing the book of Scripture. Since Creation is nothing less than the thoughts of God realized through his Logos, the Word, “the world is a book written by the hand of God in which every creature is a word charged with meaning.”[Male, ##?] The wise know how to read its meanings, whether in nature or in art, thereby accessing God’s thoughts. Thus in a monastery refectory Adam of St. Victor held a nut in his hand and reflected: “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.’”[8] Similarly, “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.’”[9]

As a whole, the sacramental symbol system of medieval art is not subject to individual interpretive fancy – the caprices of a single, fevered imagination. Rather, we find ourselves “in the presence of an ordered system, an ancient tradition,” detailed, closely knit, and founded on Scripture. “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.”[10]

A final note on the medievals’ love of creation. We might be tempted to say that they seem to have loved nature only for what it told them about God. But importantly, Male finds that many animals and plants appear in their art with no particular symbolic purpose. For example, we may look the façade of the cathedral at Laon, where “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.” There is a kind of riotous celebration of nature going on here, quite different from the meticulous symbolism we have been looking at. Male details the long and fruitless study of many scholars who, captivated by the symbolism often present in medieval art, have sought it in every detail – in every creature depicted. Sometimes, he concludes, a plant is just a plant, celebrated for its quiddity – for being so marvelously what it is. The Gothic cathedrals, especially, “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.”[11] What fun!

Finally, though, what Male’s analysis shows us is not just 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 in 13th-cdentury art the same thing we saw in Gregory the Great’s 6th-century spirituality: 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 that the medieval mind was equally comfortable with, and moved rapidly back and forth between, pigs and eternal verities.

A qualification of sacramentalism – it still recognizes natural causes

A last word on this: One might think that with all this symbolism going on in the arts, and with the sacramental approach to creation that reads divine meanings in ordinary things, medievals would never apply scientific reasoning independent of theological explanations. And in fact this has been a popular myth. Werner Heisenberg once said that in the medieval period, “nature was thought of as the work of God [so that] it would have seemed meaningless to the people of those times to inquire into the material world independent of God.” This is simply not true. Thomas Aquinas’s teacher Albertus Magnus, for example, wrote two scientific treatises that helped to found empiricism and the scientific method—“one on botany and one on zoology,” and sought empirical knowledge everywhere he went through observation and experiment. “He used his journeys through the Western world to further this interest, and was forever asking questions of fishermen, hunters, beekeepers, and bird-catchers.” Nor did he or his student Thomas find it necessary to inject theological explanations of these natural phenomena—God had given to each thing he created its own particular being, which must be understood on its own terms. “Albert and Thomas knew that the works of God cannot be grasped unless they are viewed as what they are in themselves. . . . Albert simply takes it for granted that theological arguments should be kept out of scientific investigations.”[12]

Nor did this attitude await the Aristotelianism of the scholastics. In fact, way back in 415, that thoroughgoing Neoplatonist whose thought was so foundational for the whole medieval period, Augustine, had made the same point in his Literal Commentary on Genesis: Don’t import biblical reasoning to the sciences, for it gets the science wrong and embarrasses the faith. He said,

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds as certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people reveal vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh that ignorance to scorn.”[13]

This medieval willingness to deal with the world in natural rather than theological terms manifested itself practically in another area that has become obscured by modernist myths: their beliefs about what caused illnesses.

Many modern commentators believe–based on some misleading evidence in the sources themselves–that medievals assumed all illnesses came from devilish or demonic sources, or, a variant, from some hidden sin in the sick person. This is not so. It is true that from a theological perspective, they did see all illnesses as coming ultimately from God (the ultimate source of all natural things and all our fortunes). But second, they perceived and affirmed many levels of causality, and they were comfortable shifting back and forth between these levels depending on the audience and occasion of their writings. And third, although sin was in a general sense considered the source of illness (as of all dysfunction in our world), a person’s particular sins or general sinfulness are rarely mentioned in medieval sources as the cause of their illness.

In fact, we can see medievals’ understanding of natural sources of illnesses from their frequent use of natural remedies. As far back as the 3rd-century teacher Origen, Christians understood that “as God causes herbs to grow, so also did he give medical knowledge to men. God did this in his kindness, knowing the frailty of our bodies and not wishing for us to be without succor when illness strikes.” Origen thus called medicine “beneficial and essential to mankind.” He was joined in this attitude by the founder of the first Christian hospital, bishop Basil the Great (see “compassion chapter”), who also respected the medical arts and associated natural understandings as gifts given by God to relieve the sick. Basil’s friend Gregory of Nyssa talked about the time his sister got sick and “their mother had begged her to let a physician treat her, arguing that God gave the art of medicine to men for their preservation.”[14]


[1] Emil Male, The Gothic Image, 15.

[2] Male, 42, 29.

[3] Male, 41.

[4] Male, 40.

[5] Male,40-42.

[6] Male, 14-15.

[7] Male, 14.

[8] Adam of St. Victor, Sequentiae. Patrol., cxcvi., col. 1433. Cited in Male, ##?

[9] Petrus of Mora, Rosa alphabetica, in the Spicilegium Solesmense, III., 489. In Male, 30.

[10] Male, 31-32.

[11] Male, 28.

[12] Pieper, Scholasticism, 116.

[13] Quoted by David Lindberg in “Natural Adversaries,” Christian History 76: The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2002/issue76/17.44.html.

[14] Darrel W. Amundsen, Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 135.

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