Saturday, September 8, 2012

Green: Paradise and the color symbolism, history of color # 12

Green in Medieval times had rather varied symbolic meaning, depending if was used in the religious or secular context. In religious art it was a symbol of eternal happy existence, Paradise, and soul's hope for eternal bliss. Green robes symbolized eternal happiness through salvation, and often martyrs were dressed in red and green.

 As it was a happy color, specially the emerald was praised as the most beautiful jewel, in which all marvel of nature was incarnated and made imperishable. It was considered also an earthly representation of Paradise, and written about by monks. No wonder: emerald has strong color and is translucent, has light, and light and strong hues very important for the medieval aesthetics.

The painting on the left is by Hieronymus Bosch, who is often labeled as being  Northern Renaissance painter, but there is still so much of medieval elements in his paintings, also in this one. Bosch: a very mysterious painter, and lots was written about his speculated following of heresies. But this painting is quite conventional for Bosch's standards. It is the  left wing of the Last Judgement triptych, in the collection Gemaldesammlung der Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, in Vienna. It shows the fall of angels, and the story of creation of Adam and Eve, temptation and expulsion form Paradise. (Please click on the picture to view it bigger). It is about bliss, heavenly and earthly, and primordial sense of innocence, and about loss all of this. Also we see Jesus in Paradise. Why? Jesus was in medieval mystical writings and systems considered the Second Adam, the one who brings the Paradise back to the fallen human race.

But the hope of salvation was the expectation of something bigger, something which  could not be lost anymore, not a conditional existence in a Paradise in the story depicted in the Bosch's painting. It was about something above also the secular symbolism of green, which was found very limiting and temporary. In the secular world green was standing for Spring, new love, fertility. It was real hope for something beyond all  limitations, it was about the  life eternal, and the color of life was green, archetype of course,  but it got a new dimension: a heavenly one.

 And as such was totally elevated, wasn't anymore about life like in the Nature, where seasons  pass, or impermanent state of natural fertility which was bound with rebirth, suffering, aging and death. This life was about absolute perfection which never faded.

 And the hope, longing  for such existence was made one of the most important Christian virtues, (along with faith and unconditional love), and of course the color of it was green, because already showed symbolically what the all hope was about.

Mosaic of the apse int eh church of St Apolinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy. Thank you Berthold Werner for releasing this picture into public domain.
 This happy symbolism of green came from the earlier Christian art- early frescoes and mosaics. In this post I follow the line form the youngest to the oldest art. Now a mosaic which is c. 900 years older than Bosch's painting. The picture above shows VI c. mosaic with St Apolinare in Paradise, adoring the cross, sheep around him, a very typical composition. Above, on the wall, Christ is giving his blessing, and we have the repetition of Paradise and the sheep. Click on the picture to see it bigger.

An earlier mosaic, this time from V c, is on the entrance wall of the mausoleum of Galla Palcidia, Also in Ravenna , Italy.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd, mosaic, V c. Galla Placidia Mausoleum, Ravenna, Italy
This type of mosaic is part of the iconographic tradition of  mosaics seen in the one with St Apolinar. The iconography is overlapping. But here we have Christs who is depicted as beardless youth was the typical figure in early Christian art. He is not the Pantacrator Jesus giving blessing, he is tender and pensive, and all sheep are looking is his direction.This was a common way of depicting Jesus: among his sheep, in Paradise, not hanging on the cross. He was shown as such even in earlier art, in a fresco, still in the catacombs, also as a good shepherd. One stream of the symbolism of the color green has a long lineage dating from early Christian art.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Paradise on Earth-the legend

Legends were extremely important during the Middle Ages, sure. Some were the source of psychological strength, like the legend of the terrestial paradise, which gave people sense of hope and was interchangeable with the idea of heaven. First during the Renaissance this belief  faded away, but not completely, and when people stopped to believe in the paradise on Earth, their belief system became more gloomy, more fearful of devil and the punishing God. The disappearance of the belief  in terrestrial paradise is not the only factor that the times became very somber: more of natural catastrophes, more wars, including religious wars, legacy of black death,  increased activity of Inquisition, all combined with fire and brimstone preaching through XV-XVII c. gave way to a more depressive mood.paradise was no more to be found on the Earth full of suffering.

Medieval people were more optimistic: they believed that Paradise existed on Earth in their present times in some far away land, and trusted that some travelers indeed have seen it with their own eyes. Ancient manuscripts have maps, the Paradise was located somewhere in Armenia, China, India, later in Japan: in general it was very far  in the East. The Tree of Life was there, wonderful climate, of course vegetation was fabulous and abundant, with plenty of fruit to eat. There was not even a glimpse of darkness, day time always, never falling of a night,  and the Paradise was filled with light seven times brighter than the daylight on the rest of the planet.  The multitude of precious stones of many kinds was joy for the eyes. Abraham and Jesus was there too. This illuminated page from shows Christ on the lap of Abraham, with personifications of fours rivers in the circles of four corners of the mandorla. Those rivers are Euphrates, Gihon, Pison and Hiddekel were the four great rivers of the Paradise.

The Three of Life was in the center, also a Fountain of Life, which cured all imperfections a human  body could have. Sabine Baring-Gould wrote about this myth ( Curious Myths of the Middle Ages), mentioned maps pointing the location of the Paradise, but also writes about the manuscripts in which the legend is recorded as a  true fact, also he lists the various authors of the narration. For example he states that St Brendan took the journey to Paradise because one monk traveled there, and told about the wonder for this place, and St Brendan became very curious. St Brendan went to the East, very far, and reported on the Paradise he visited, and told about going further until he came to the place no one alive was allowed to cross.  According to Sabine-Baring a map in the Cambridge collection depicted the Paradise as a round island  located close to the mouth of Ganges. According to another legend  Alexander the Great was eager to see this land of delights, but hadn't possessed proper mind, as it was an inner Paradise, not the physical one. But the most detailed account was given in the Icelandic narration of Eirkes Saga Vidforla, form XIV c. mixing pagan and Christian beliefs. The following centuries the Paradise narrations didn't die completely out, the occurred as "learned  treatises."

What I was not aware of is the fact that the legend was also given strong  theological validity, and is found often in the books of sermons. Books of sermons in general are quite numerous, and give a good insight into medieval religiosity,  they also repeat legends. The master dissertation by Gavin S. Fort gives examples how this legend was functioning in religious life, specially interesting is the relation of this legend to medieval  monasticism. Monasteries were supposed to be images of Paradise on Earth, were people had the great opportunity to cleanse their souls ans enter the state of perfection, and have angelic habits. In monastic life celibacy was equated with the attempt to live like angels, than celibacy was a requirement in monastic life, later the argument for angelic life became a point in deciding that the celibacy should be extended to priests also. Later the belief  in a geographical location of the Paradise developed into the abstract meditative practice on the inner Paradise. Are you interested in additional reading? I recommend the Master degree thesis by Gavin S. Fort about Paradisal language in Medieval reform

  Take a look at this mysterious  diagram of a mystical Paradise  from the Rare Manuscripts Collection of Walters Museum of Art, by Conrad of Hirsau, XIII c.

I didn't find the remnants of this legend in today's Europe, not a full narrative but just some short mention about which I am not sure if this is  truly oral tradition as told,  but this fragment is similar what wrote Baring-Gould. According to this mention the Paradise was sealed by the walls of fire, and is guarded by an angel and no one could step in. The walls of fire are relating to some medieval reports about inaccessibility, (Baring-Gould), the angel with sword is of course the cherubim of the Genesis.