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.