the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Typology in the Doors of Hildesheim

Posted by gninja on June 1, 2006

Yesterday I sketched out the concept of typology and, with the Song of Songs, provided a brief example of how it was used. Typology was a favorite method used by medieval artists in organizing their works. Specifically, visual works were often arranged according to a structure in which depictions of type and antitype were juxtaposed so that their relation to one another (including conceptual and thematic similarities and contrasts) could be perceived.

While there are innumerable examples of typological juxtaposition in medieval art, the famous bronze doors of St Mary's Cathedral of Hildesheim provide a clear and accessible illustration of how typology functioned in medieval art.


These doors, purportedly commissioned by Bishop Bernward around 1015, feature sixteen different episodes– eight from the Old Testament, and eight from the New Testament.

A scheme of these doors would like like this (thanks to Anne Marie Bouche for the handy diagram):


As you can see, the division between the two doors provides a bilateral axis separating every episode from the Old Testament from its coresponding episode in the New Testament. The directional flow of these episodes is likewise important: whereas the events from Genesis leading up to and portraying the Fall of Man procedd in a downward direction, those which depict man's redemption through Christ progress in an upward fashion. It would be odd indeed to situate the Ascension of Christ at the bottom of any composition, wouldn't it?

To get the hang of how typology functions in a visual manner within each juxtaposed set, let's focus on one pair.

Here's the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden:


And, directly across, is the Crucifixion:


The episodic correlation between these two events is not difficult to discern. In the former, man succumbs to temptation thus resulting in Original Sin. In the latter, man is redeemed through the sacrifice of Christ. Fall. Redemption. Pretty simply.

But, for the art historian–and thanks to the artist–things get more interesting. According to legend, the holy rood (Christ's cross) was constructed from the wood of the Tree of Knowlege. In this sculpted relief, we see that the artist has emphasized such a connection through likening the shape and form of one to the other. Note how the branches of the Tree of Knowledge form the shape of a crucifix's ligatures. Note, also, how the tree or cross forms the center of focus in both images, with two figures on either side (the framing trees in the Eden scene count as figures here). In this way they not only mirror one another, but they also draw the viewer's eyes towards another significant aspect of the scenes: arms and hands. Both Adam and Eve and the Roman soldiers commit trasgression with their hands, the tools of touch, tools of a purely physical use. The Edenic pair reach out for the forbidden apple, and the Roman soldiers reach up with their spears and vinegar-soaked cloth to torture the dying Christ. I would argue that this visual parallel conveys a continuity between Pre-lapsarian time and the time of Christ (i.e. our historical time, according to Christian theology)– that is, the purely sensual and non-contemplative dangers of the tactile sense.

Although there are a few other echoes that can be detected in this set of images, I'll leave off here for the time being. But, I assure, this kind of comparison can be carried for every set of typological images in these doors.

6 Responses to “Typology in the Doors of Hildesheim”

  1. Zooey said

    How do you know though? Theory on the trees-as-figures is certainly /convenient/, but it’s like resting an interpretation of a poem on a word that, for all we know, Yeats chose because it rhymed with “why oh why won’t Maud go out with me?”

    Also how do we know the Crucifixion is included because it represents redemption? I can see why that version has served the Church well, but to me it pretty much was a nadir in terms of our relationship with our supposed Lord.

  2. gninja said

    To respond to the first challenge: why do we get to count the trees as figures? Perhaps I should have been more specific in my earlier comments. The trees here do not possess the *value* of figures, but rather the compositional weight. In a pictorial composition, particularly one depicting a typological set, balance would be of prime importance. That this artistic decision was conscious is difficult to deny. These doors at Hildesheim were massive in size and cost (remember, they were made of bronze), and they were commissioned, purportedly, by a bishop to stand in his Cathdral. This was no provincial parish church. These doors were painstakingly devised and executed, and *nothing* on them was done for the hell of it. In the eleventh century, one didn’t create a work of art in bronze and treat the material so flippantly.

    So, returning to the trees. Think of them and the correlative figures in the other panel as weights on a two sided scale. It doesn’t matter what is put on the scale on either side– so long as they have an equal weight, compositional balance is achieved. In the scene of the Fall, Adam and Eve are the only two figures present; so the devisor of the panel made the artistic decision to include trees as balancing elements to the figures of Mary and John, who were present at the Crucificxion.

    The second question is not too difficult to answer. According to standard Christian theology God made Himself incarnate for the express purpose of dying for the sins of man. The agnus dei (lamb of God) became the sacrifice, thus allowing man a path to return to his state of purity prior to Original Sin (Jesus Christ provided a model by which all humans should live [aka “imitatio Christi”], including a form of self-sacrifice or abnegation, not literally death). The Crucifixion of Christ, then, actually allowed the process to occur. Thus, according to Christianity, it was a *good* thing. As a side note, those who accuse certain groups as being “Christ-Killers” fundamentally misunderstand Christianity and its dependence upon the legend of Salvation through the sacrifice of Christ.

  3. Zooey said

    So the analysis contains, then (perhaps), the disengenuity of attributing this to the artist, who was actually commissioned by a Church whose agenda (now that we know) is obvious. So is it art, or propaganda? It’s the equivalent (or near) of all the strapping 6ft white Jesus’ in our bibles – we don’t deconstruct what the artist was trying to tell us. Unless, and we would assume, the artist was entirely on board.

    Is it really a misunderstanding of Christianity and it’s legends? I would think we understand them entirely too well. It’s those who follow the fairytale who appear not to give any of it much thought.

    The question that remains is /what is this trying to tell us/? What do we /make/ of this? It seems like visual lessons from the bible, yet without being so informed by the same we couldn’t interpret it as such. Is it anything more now than just a neat door?

  4. gninja said

    Let’s take these point by point:

    Art or propaganda?

    Both. And I don’t see any reason as to why the two should be mutually exclusive. Although propaganda would be an anachronistic term to apply here, that with which we associate propaganda now can be associated to these eleventh century doors. Bernward was a powerful bishop who was known to want to arrogate even more power to himself and his bishopric. Having imposing, obviously expensive, and artistically innovative doors (this part I’ve neglected to mention so far– sculptures of this quality *in bronze* was heretofore unseen by the intended audience of these doors) proclaims the power of the man and institution that commissioned them. If a king could have his image struck in a new set of gold coins distributed throughout his domain, well a bishop could have a magnificent church or church accoutrements desgined under his direction. These doors aren’t just about what they portray; they are also about the conditions in which they were created.


    Is it really a misunderstanding of Christianity and it’s legends? I would think we understand them entirely too well…

    This is a question that betrays a misunderstanding of the art historical endeavor. As with any historian, it’s incumbant upon the art historian who seeks an understanding of the historical document (i.e. the work of art) to set parameters delineating the intended audience, and thus achieve an understanding of prevailing and specific ideologies of a select historical moment You say “we” (as in “we understand them…”), but our current understanding of or relionship to Christianity is entirely different from the medieval individual’s understanding of or relationship to Christianity. You go on to criticize those who subscribe uncritically to the fairy tale of Christianity. Such an argument is irrelevant. I have no interest in retroactively criticizing medieval individuals for their commitment to a religious ideology. Nor do I have any interest in retroactively criticizing the quality of a medieval piece of art. These artefacts (both ideological and artistic) are what they are, and my job is to understand how they functioned in their original context. Why this is important follows from your next set of questions…


    Is it anything more now than just a neat door?

    Hell yes. A resounding hell yes.

    1) Which I’ve already mentioned is that these were far too labor-intensive, time-consuming, and costly to “just” be doors. So that’s for the historical defense.

    2) The reason why I discussed these doors in the first place is because of their use of typology in their arrangement. What these doors accomplished in their own time, with virtuosity, was the transformation of a textual and conceptual convention into a visual one. Whereas exegetes would say “the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden is a typological counterpart to the Redemtption of man through Christ’s sacrifice” artists (or, the artist in this case) extended the parallels between these written accounts to the visual realm. They reified what was written, but, more importantly, found new ways of demonstrating these parallels *to the eye.* In doing so, more can be drawn from the typological pair. I’ve never come across an exegete comparing the act of grasping the forbidden apple to the act of thrusting a spear into the side of and inducing thirst in Christ. Although the dangers of purely physical acts are villified throughout medieval writings. The point is, here, the artist has allowed the audience to see another connection between these two episodes.

    And to the “now” part of the question:

    I believe that the genius of much medieval art lies not in mimesis (I doubt anyone would argue that; and besides that was never the point), but rather in its ability to move the mind of viewer and provoke inventive thought. I don’t mean inventive in the modern sense. I mean inventive in its (thoroughly attested) medieval sense: to gather known and newly learned pieces of knowledge, store them in a mental inventory, and recombine them to lead to more useful thought. We simply do not have the critical and attentive eyes our medieval counterparts had. And it’s no wonder– we live in an infinitely more visually stimulating environment. Consequently we’re lazy lookers. But we can do so much better (both as lookers and as image-makers) if we can get to the bottom of, really understand, the way in which the medieval artist brought together image and written (or verbal) knowledge to provoke or manipulate us into pursuing a certain kind of thought.

  5. Zooey said

    Except for ‘lazy lookers’. You might want to check on the Wiki on computer and video game development before you make such comparisons. Or the budgets that go into advertising breakfast cereal to children. The fact that we /are/ beset by the multitude of media that we are makes the majority of us very discerning – we aren’t all Fox News watchers.

  6. gninja said

    True, “lazy lookers” is a term that requires a much fuller explanation. Now, we process more information at an incredibly higher rate. That can’t be denied. We’re bombarded with visual information daily, and we’ve become masters at separating it and collating it properly in our brains. We even interact with it–most significantly–online, not just by leaving comments, say, on a blog, but also by scanning swathes of visual material at a high speed and determining almost instantly whether the content is valuable enough to merit further attention.

    So, while I say lazy lookers (a derogatory term for which I should find an alternative), I recognize that, in reality, our generation comprises probably the most active lookers in history.

    What I, lazily indeed, use that term for is our less conscious and thus less critical acceptance of the ideas that images provoke. Because we are, in contrast to my term, such *active* lookers, we have trained ourselves to absorb and process information instinctually. *However,* while medieval artists created art as a jumping-off point, intended to guide the onlooker’s mind toward slow, meditative thought, I think we can employ some of their methods to enhance even our own interaction with visual information, as well as the effectiveness of the images we assimilate. Part of our trouble now is that we’re still a print-based culture coming to terms with the reintegration of visual and written data online. We still read unillustrated, linear books, and we approach online content in much the same way, I think. Image is often (though less and less) subordinated to text, and content is communicated promarily through text.

    So, let’s get back to the doors at hand to illustrate my point. These doors would greet the congregation as they entered the church, or as they stood outside the church. Looking at them, two basic concepts would spring to the mind of the viewer: the up and down movement associated with “good” and “bad”; the axis of the door separating pre-Christian time from Christian time– with Christian time represented on the viewer’s dexter (the “good” side). Both artist and viewer were complicit participants in an ideological system in which up and right are good, and down and left are bad. No words are necessary to evoke this comparison, and the literal orientation of the arrangement served to orient the thought process of the viewer. Then, moving inward to the individual pairs of panels, the viewer would confront visual comparisons and parallels known (say, having learned about it earlier through a sermon) and unknown (something of the artist’s own creation). Both elements would compel the viewer to contemplate what is being seen and how it compares to other texts or images stored within his mind or mind’s eye. And since the artist was an active agent, his (in this case, someone working to endorse the power of a Christian institution) images and the form of those images would consciously lead the viewer’s thought in a certain direction. In an upcoming post, I will demonstrate how two different artists illustrating the same text had very obviously different agendas, as shown by the images.

    What does this have to do with us? Two things. First, there are already those who understand how the *form* and *look* of information changes its reception. Advertisers are, as you mentioned, a great example of those people. But more content-based media have yet to catch up. Online magazines, for example, still follow a rather boring multi-page format in which text is linear and illustrations serve mostly as either documentation or dividers within the text. Why not use images for other purposes? I hope to articulate what these other purposes might be in later posts.

    Second, let’s try to assimilate visual information less instinctually and more consciously. Let’s ensure that everyone has the tools to question the icons. Two giant arches may mean “eat here now.” Why not, if we were so inclined, use those arches (or variations; medievalists didn’t have to wrangle with copywrights) in other visual formats to imbue those totemic images with other meanings. Make them into mass semiotic receptacles and loci for debate. Or, why not *teach* image processing in school? Why not teach people how to look at an image and understand all the things the form is communicating? Medieval students– wealthy or monastic though they were–were taught how to do this. Why not do the same and make it an available mental tool for everyone?

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