Archaeological Journal/Volume 1/Notices of New Publications: Iconographie Chretienne

Notices of New Publications.


Iconographie Chretienne. Histoire de Dieu, par M. Didron, de la Bibliotheque Royale, Secretaire du Comite Historique des Arts et Monuments, 4to. pp. 600. Paris, imprimerie royale, 1843.

France owes to the enlightened administration of M. Guizot (then Minister of Public Instruction) the formation in 183- of a comité (or commission) for the publication of historical monuments, on a much more liberal and extensive plan than our Record Commission. Under the term historical monuments, not only documents of history, but monuments of art and literature, were included, and it was proposed to publish gradually a complete antiquarian survey of France, with descriptions and delineations of all its monuments of antiquity. At first the whole business was trans- acted by one commission, but subsequently this commission was separated into four or five, according to the different classes of monuments it was intended to publish, purely historical, philosophical, scientific, artistical, &c. This new plan appears not to have worked well, and more recently the number of comités has been reduced to two, that of historical documents, and the Comité des Arts et Monuments. Both these comités have already issued many valuable publications, some of which we shall have other occasions to notice.

The subjects embraced by the Comité des Arts et Monuments had hitherto been less systematically studied than those of the other departments of historical research, and the comité found it necessary to publish short popular treatises on different branches of archæology in the form of instructions for the use of its numerous correspondents. These instructions, at first brief and incomplete, have by degrees grown into learned treatises, such as the profound volume on Christian iconography, which has just been completed by M. Didron, the Secretary of the Comité. This volume is itself only a portion of the subject; a second, on which M. Didron is now employed, will include the iconography of angels and devils; and there will still remain for future labours other scriptural subjects of pictorial representation, with saints, martyrs, &c.

The work now before us contains the history of the artistical representations of the Persons and attributes of the Deity during the middle ages. It is only necessary to know that it appears under the name of M. Didron, to be assured that the subject is ably treated. After an introduction of some length on the object and practice of pictorial representations of religious history and doctrine, M. Didron enters upon his subject by treating first one of the most striking characteristics of divinity and sanctity, which, when it appears about the head is called the nimbus, and when it encircles the whole body he distinguishes by the term aureole or glory. The nimbus is used very extensively; but the aureole surrounding the whole body is almost entirely restricted to the Divine Persons and to the Virgin, and does not dispense with the use of the other at the same time. The following figure, (fig. 1,) taken from an illuminated Italian MS. of the fourteenth century, in the Bibliothèque Royale at Paris, represents Christ carried up to heaven by angels: the Saviour has the nimbus about his head, and an elliptical glory about his whole body; the angels are also nimbed, but with a nimbus of an inferior rank.

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(Fig 1) Christ in an Elliptic Aureole.

By far the most general form of the nimbus[1] is a circle, but it sometimes occurs under other forms, particularly in early monuments. In Italy, and more especially in Greece,
(Fig 2) The Trinity creating Man.
the nimbus is found in a triangular form: in other instances it becomes square or lozenge-shaped. The circular nimbus, when it belongs to the Divine Persons, is always distinguished by four rays at right angles to each other, one of which is concealed by the head. The three Persons of the Trinity are thus nimbed in fig. 2, taken from a MS. of the thirteenth century in the Bibl. Royale at Paris. M. Didron proceeds to describe other varieties of the nimbus, which (as well as the aureole or glory) he believes to have been intended merely as the outline of the rays of glory supposed to issue from the head or body of the divine or sainted personage.
(Fig 3) The Trinity nimbed
These rays are sometimes found without the line of circumference, and in some of the figures given in the book before us, we see how the line came to take these different forms. As we have already observed, the nimbus of God is always (unless by a rare instance of negligence or ignorance in the artist) distinguished by two cross perpendicular bars, arranged in the form of a Greek cross, one being partly concealed by the head, above which it rises vertically. In fig. 3, taken from a MS. of the thirteenth century, in the same collection as the former, we have another representation of the Trinity, each Person of which bears the cruciferous nimbus. M. Didron gives reasons which appear satisfactory for believing that this form was not allusive to the cross on which our Saviour suffered. The nimbus appears to be derived from the pagan symbolism of the eastern nations: it is not found in Christian monuments of the earlier ages. We have just observed that the cross of the divine nimbus appears to have no connection with the Christian symbol of the cross: one of the cuts given by M. Didron furnishes a curious proof of this. In the more ancient monuments, where the nimbus is absent, the Person of Christ is frequently accompanied by, or typified by, a lamb, which lamb always has a cross, which is often placed on the forehead. In fig. 4, taken from an Italian sculpture of the tenth century, we have the lamb with the divine nimbus, and the figure of the cross in each limb of the cross of the nimbus.

In its original application, the nimbus appears to have been understood as representing power and intelligence, and was given to all supernatural beings. Even in Christian monuments it is not unfrequently used thus: and we find it not only applied to saints, but to the various personages of the Old Testament, to kings and emperors after their death, and even to the spirit of evil, and to allegorical personages.
(Fig. 4.) The Divine Lamb.
Living persons, who had reached a certain point of reputation of sanctity or greatness, were represented with a nimbus, but in this case it was always square. We are assured by Johannes Diaconus that this was the case; and his statement is supported by various monuments, which appear, however, only in Italy. M. Didron gives a cut of a bishop, from a Latin MS. of the ninth century, written before his death, with the square nimbus in the form of a roll of paper; another from a mosaic in the Vatican of the same century, representing St. Peter, with the plain circular nimbus, and Charlemagne and Pope Leo III. (who were alive at the time the monument was executed) both bearing a square nimbus; and a third, from a mosaic likewise of the ninth century, in the church of Santa Cecilia at Rome, representing Pope Paschal with the square nimbus. We reproduce this latter cut in our fig. 5. Various other examples of the square nimbus are cited, many of them very curious. According to the doctrines of the Neoplatonists, the square was of less dignity than the circle,
(Fig. 5.) Pope Paschal with Square Nimbus.
a notion which appears to have given rise to this square form of the emblem. It has been already observed that the nimbus is not found in the earlier Christian monuments. The Divine Person is there also frequently represented without a beard, which was quite contrary to the notions of a later period. The following cut (fig. 6.), taken from a very early sarcophagus in the Vatican, represents God, without nimbus or beard, condemning Adam to till the earth and Eve to spin wool. At the period of the Renaissance, and subsequently, the real character and distinction of the nimbus was almost entirely neglected.

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(Fig. 6.) God condemning Adam and Eve to labour.

From the nimbus, M. Didron proceeds to the aureole, or the nimbus of the body. "The aureole," he observes, "is a nimbus enlarged, as the nimbus is an aureole diminished. The nimbus encircles the head; the aureole surrounds the whole body. The aureole is as it were a drapery, a mantle of

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(Fig. 7.) Our Saviour in an Aureole of clouds.

light which envelopes all the body from the feet to the top of the head. The word aureole is much used in Christian iconography; but it is vague, and people apply it sometimes to the ornament of the head, and at others to that of the body. We here restrict and adopt it entirely to the great nimbus, which incloses, almost always, Jesus Christ, and sometimes the Virgin. It is true that antiquaries call this nimbus the fish's bladder (vesica piscis); but a dignified terminology ought to reject such an expression for its coarseness; it was invented by the English antiquaries, who repeat it perpetually. Moreover this denomination is false, for very often the aureole has not the form of a bladder, as we shall see. It has also been called the divine oval, and the mystic almond; the word mystic prejudges, before any examination, a symbolical intention, which we have very good reasons for doubting. Moreover, it is frequently neither an oval nor an almond; it is simply what the nimbus is to the head. The head being round, the nimbus is round; the body when upright forms a lengthened oval, and the aureole also lengthens itself generally into a form nearly oval. But when the body is seated, the oval contracts itself into a circle, sometimes into a quatrefoil; because then the four protruding parts of the body, the head, legs, and two arms, have each their particular lobe, their section of the nimbus, and the torso is collected into the centre of the four leaves." M. Didron gives many examples of the aureole in its different forms. The most common is that represented in our fig. 1, where Christ is seated on a section of a rainbow: this figure is the vesica piscis of the English antiquaries. In the preceding figure (fig. 7.), taken from a MS. of the tenth century in the Royal Library at Paris, Christ appears in an aureole formed of clouds, which mould themselves to the shape of the body.


(Fig. 8.) God in a Circular Aureole.

In Italy especially, and indeed most generally in other countries, the outline of the aureole is more regular and geometrical. It is in some instances a perfect circle. The accompanying cut (fig. 8.) is taken from a fresco in the great church of the convent of Salamina in Greece, executed in the eighteenth century; but, as M. Didron observes, Christian Greece of our times is a country of the middle ages, and a monument of art there executed in the eighteenth century answers to one of the thirteenth century in western Europe. Here the aureole is circular, and supported at the four cardinal points by four cherubim. The field of this aureole is divided by symbolical squares, with concave sides, which intersect.

The Divinity has here his feet on one rainbow while he is seated on another. In fig. 9. we have the Virgin, with a plain nimbus, seated in an oval aureole, intersected by another lesser aureole of the same form, which encloses her feet. It is taken from an illuminated manuscript of the tenth century, in the Bibl. Royale at Paris.

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(Fig. 9) The Virgin in an Aureole.

We have said so much on the nimbus and the aureole, that we must pass much more rapidly over the remaining, and much larger portion, of the important volume before us. In the first section, M. Didron treats of the different manners of representing the first Person of the Trinity, God the Father. The Father is properly represented as the Creator; yet in some monuments, and especially among the Greeks, the Son usurps the place of the Father, and is frequently represented in the act of creating, as well as in other acts and attributes belonging to the Father. In the following figure (fig. 10.), from a fresco of the eighteenth century, at Salamina, Christ is represented as the Almighty—ὁ παντοκράτωρ. In some instances we find the second Person of the Trinity placed in a superior position, or with higher attributes, than the first. In other instances we find the Father clothed in the attributes of pagan deities, as the god of combats, &c. Some of the singularities of this kind may perhaps be attributed to sectarian doctrines which ruled at the time and place where they were made. Platonism, Judaism, and Gnosticism, are sometimes traced distinctly in early monuments. The Father is frequently represented by a mere hand, inclosed in a nimbus, and issuing from the clouds: he generally appears aged and with a beard, and is frequently clad in the mantle and crown of a Pope.
(Fig. 10) Christ the Almighty.

The different events of the history of our Saviour, and his immediate intercourse with mankind, give to the Son a much more varied character than the Father in the hands of the medieval artists. "In iconography," as M. Didron observes, "the God par excellence is Jesus." We prefer sending our readers to the book itself than to attempt giving any notion of the mode in which this extensive part of the subject is treated. It embraces many collateral emblems, such as the cross, the fish (ἰχθὺς), &c. With regard to the fish, we think that M. Didron has shewn satisfactorily that this figure, when sculptured on the early Christian sarcophagi in the catacombs, signified nothing more than that the person buried there was a fisherman. There has been a tendency in archæology to extend too widely the system of symbolism. The Holy Ghost, the third Person of the Divine Trinity, also occupies a considerable space in Christian iconography. Its most common form is that of a dove, always accompanied with the nimbus. The following miniature (fig. 11.), taken from a French manuscript of the fifteenth century, represents the Holy Ghost carried upon the face of the waters in the work of creation. The nimbus of the Creator is here not bounded by an outline.

At other times (and not unfrequently) the Holy Ghost is represented in a human form, sometimes with the dove seated upon the head or arm of

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(Fig 11.) The Creation.

the figure: this occurs chiefly when the three Persons of the Trinity are represented together, and the Holy Ghost appears as joining the Father and the Son.
(Fig. 12.) The Trinity.
In these cases a regular gradation of age is most commonly observed: the Father appearing in the character of a man far advanced in years, the Son as a man in the vigour of age, and the Holy Ghost the youngest of the three. The last cut we borrow from the book before us (fig. 12.), was taken from a French miniature of the fifteenth century, and represents the three Persons of the Trinity, each with a cruciferous nimbus, and enveloped together in a flamboyant aureole, not limited by an outline. M. Didron's book ends with the chapter on the Trinity. The importance of this work, and the complete and satisfactory manner in which the subject is treated, seemed to call for a longer notice than we shall be able, except in few cases, to give to new publications. t. wright.

  1. M. Didron's observations on the Nimbus were first published in an article in M. César Daly's Revue Generale de l'Architecture et des Travaux publics, of which an abridged translation appeared in the Literary Gazette. They have been revised, newly arranged, and much amplified, in the Iconographie Chrétienne.