An epiphany (or two) in a Medieval cloister

Monday was January 6, celebrated in my native Spain as Reyes, the day of the three kings or magi or wise men. Children traditionally receive gifts on this date, known in the Roman Catholic calendar as Epiphany.

The cloister: in Tarragona's Santa Maria cathedral.
The cloister: in Tarragona’s Santa Maria cathedral.

Epiphany, from the Greek epiphaneia, means manifestation or making an appearance 

In a Christian context it refers to the recognition of Jesus as son of God. (For the Western church this recognition was the acknowledgement of wise men from afar: the Adoration of the Magi. For the Eastern church it was the baptism in the Jordan River.)

An epiphany with a small “e” is a sudden realization or moment of revelation. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this meaning appeared in the late 19th century.

I’m fascinated by the evolution of the word– from the manifesting of the divine to a realization.

It seems to refer to the illogical non-linearity of the creative process. An epiphany does not result from step-by-step progress, but lands like a lightning bolt. Not quite the same as a divine manifestation, but similar in its unpredictability and “other”-ness.

Revelations or when the divine enters the day-to-day

Although not religious, I’m drawn to how stories are told through images in religious art. The representation of scenes in which the divine enters everyday life are particularly fascinating. How to show a burning bush? An angel speaking to a maiden?

In my hometown, Tarragona, the Romanesque cloister has two depictions of the Adoration of the Magi carved in high relief on capitals atop columns, dating from sometime between the late 11th and mid 12th century.

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The wise men on their way to Bethlehem in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.

Stylized images from the early Middle Ages

Medieval art doesn’t aim for realistic depiction of the natural world but to convey a message, to tell a story. It is usually formulaic. There is an economy of elements (no extra characters or scenes) and a hierarchy of size (no ambiguity as to who is more important). For example, in the two capitals here, the horses have to be there to express the travels of the three kings, but they are far too small for their riders. 

Both capitals show the same characters in two scenes. One face of each capital shows wise men (with crowns) in transit by their horses, and the other presents a single wise man with Mary, Jesus, and Joseph in the background. The star shines above Mary and Child.

The Epiphany in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.
The Epiphany in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.

Telling a story with pictures

The first Epiphany, E1, is on the central column of the door to the cathedral and has suffered very little erosion. The second Epiphany, E2, is on a gallery column and is damaged, likely explaining the missing wise man. The author of E2 is probably responsible for many of the capitals with stories in the cloister.

Mary as Throne of Wisdom

In a common representation of the early Middle Ages, Jesus sits in the lap of a crowned Mary as if she were his throne. This form aims to present Christianity as the universal religion to which all nations will pay obeisance.

In E2, Mary holds a scepter ending in a fleur-de-lis (a stylized lily),  conveying regal authority and referring to her purity.

In E1, Jesus raises his right hand in blessing. Mary, the Child, Joseph, and the two wise men that are still on the road face forward. Only one character looks at an element in the composition: the wise man who half-kneels, offers his gift, and looks towards the Child.

A wise man on his way to Bethlehem in E2, the capital in the northern gallery of the cloister.
A wise man on his way to Bethlehem in E2, the capital in the northern gallery of the cloister.

The two wise men in E1 are jiving

In E1, the two wise men lean to their left, as if dancing. This slant is reinforced by the beardless king pointing to the star, in a line parallel to the back of the kneeling wise man whose body is in the next frame. The horses’ heads fall in a countering diagonal.

The Epiphany in E2, the capital in the northern corridor of the cloister.
The Epiphany in E2, the capital in the northern corridor of the cloister.

In E2, the Child reaches for the gift- and you feel his weight shift

In E2, the Virgin gazes down at the Child, who leans to take the gift from the kneeling king, who, as in E1, looks upward. From behind Mary’s left shoulder Joseph also watches the Child. (Like many a picture of new parents.)

The two views of Epiphany use formula to convey majesty, but also show humor and affection

For me, more than eight centuries after they were created, the humor of the dancing kings or the humanity of the leaning Child win out over the majesty and intended message. In fact, the Tarragona cloister sculptures have puzzled scholars as the artist(s) unexpectedly omitted or added figures or gestures to standard scenes.

I was not that sculptor’s primary audience, but his work continues to speak, reminding me that creating is often about knowing the script– and then riffing on it. Hmm, that probably defines being human.

Happy new year!

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