Art(h)ist\’ry

the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Typology

Posted by gninja on May 30, 2006

Every few days or so (read: whenever my fancy is struck) I'll be devoting a post to a concept necessary to understanding medieval art. The majority of these will be constructs consciously employed by medieval artists or thinkers, although to mix things up I'll throw in a discussion of some methods art historians commonly use today when addressing medieval art.

As the title above indicates, today's 101 lesson is in typology. According to medieval exegetes, everything in the Old Testament could be interpreted as a prefiguration of a specific event or events in the New Testament. The Old Testament episode is known as the type, while the New Testament episode is referred to as the antitype.

Viewing events prior to the incarnation of Christ in such a systematic manner is necessary to the theology of Christianity. Time, or history, is not simply the linear progression of events, but rather the move towards a telos ("end") which is determined by how our actions (and the actions of our ancestors) relate to the incarnation, death, resurrection, and Parousia ("second coming") of Christ. This is known as Christological Time.

Because the Old Testament is the tradition from which Christianity arose, it would've resulted in some serious cognitive dissonance for Christians to neglect the words of God as related in the OT. Moreover, the VIPs of the OT, such as Abraham, Moses, and Isaac can't be thrown in the garbage heap as heretics, since they lived prior to the Incarantion. How very unfair (though, truth be told, the Judeo-Christian God isn't always a paragon of fairness, now is He?). The solution? Read their lives as typologies.

How this plays out in the art of the Middle Ages is the topic I'll tackle tomorrow.

But, for now, I leave you with something salacious. The Song of Songs, otherwise known as the Song of Solomon (the purported author). This extended love poem, to be found in every legit copy of the Bible– check your hotel room night-tables, kitties– is filled with some of the sexiest descriptions in literature and was the typological foundation for a high medieval form of religiosity known as affective piety. I'll get to that at some other time. What's important for now is that this steamy piece of biblical literature was read by exegetes as a description of Christ's love for the Ecclesia, aka the Church, aka the Virgin Mary. I guess if you're the Son of God, really loving your mom is cool.

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