By Jake Weber
Modern America is obviously a far cry from medieval Europe. But modern Americans share an astonishing trait with those ancient Europeans: some of their understanding of the Bible comes not from reading it, but from religious artwork. Illiterate medievalists and Net-surfing global citizens, it turns out, are equally ignorant on certain biblical topics.
So says art history major Vanessa Hartel, '12, who was funded this summer by Albion College's Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (FURSCA) to analyze ways in which medieval and Renaissance artwork does—or more often doesn't—accurately reflect biblical text. She's looking primarily at images of angels and the devil, with inaccuracies that are embraced by medieval and modern societies alike.
For instance, Hartel notes that biblical cherubim are far from cherubic. "The Bible describes cherubim as having the head of a lion, eagle, ox, or man, with eyes all over their bodies, including their multiple sets of wings," she says. Cherubs, she further explains, were sent to kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and then keep them from getting back in.
"How did we get from those ferocious creatures to the Renaissance babies with wings?" Hartel asks. She adds that seraphim (the only other type of angel that is physically described in detail in the Bible) have six wings and were likewise terrifying to those who encountered them.
Through her research, Hartel has come to believe that the transformation of angel imagery was at least partly influenced by the church. "Human forms with wings don't explicitly appear in the Bible. But angels that look like humans can wear clothes, and that clothing can convey information about status and power," she states. Her research has turned up images of kings with their courts that reflect similar images of God and angels, suggesting that the artists intentionally meant to suggest the hierarchies were similar. In addition, "angels are often pictured wearing liturgical garb," she says. "If angels dress like church officials, that adds to the authority of individuals and the Catholic Church as a whole."
Modern Americans may smile at the medieval peasants' gullibility, but Hartel asserts that it's a lesson for today. "We're starting to return to a visual culture," she says, noting that video and photography are increasingly used to share information that was previously text-based. "If we still have these biblically related misconceptions hundreds of years later, when everyone can read the source material, what does that mean?" she asks. "I don't have an answer. But you have to ask: if your images don't match your text, how do you know you're properly following your religion?"
Hartel had little idea what art history was before she came to Albion; an art scholarship for photography required her to take her first art history class. This class inspired her to change her major from history to art history. With that and a minor in history, she then asked herself, "What do I love in history and art? I love religious art and I love looking at political and religious systems," she said. "So I added a religious studies minor. It just came naturally."
Her FURSCA project has convinced her to continue researching medieval art in graduate school. "It's really gratifying when I come up with theories and then find proof in other people's research. That's been the biggest joy for me."