Iconography 101: Types

During the Middle Ages, Christian theologians thought of the Hebrew Bible (the books they and most Christians call the Old Testament) as the authoritative source on the world’s history up to Jesus’ birth. In Emile Male’s The Gothic Image, the eminent French art historian observed that medieval clerics also held “a conviction that both history and nature must be regarded as vast symbols.” Consequently, they perceived key figures in the Old Testament, men like Abraham and Moses, as symbols of Christ. Important events pointed to Christ’s advent in history. With Christ’s coming, Male wrote of the thirteenth century mindset, “we have reached the central point in history, for all leads up to Christ as all begins anew in Him.”

From this point of view, thirteenth century theologians wrote long commentaries on scripture, such as the Glossa Ordinaria, that describe how Abraham, Joseph and many others foreshadowed and “typified” Christ. These “Christ types” are prominent in medieval art and the type theme echoes today in many churches and cathedrals in the U.S. Our trans-Atlantic survey of Christ types will take us from Chartres in France and Canterbury in England to Philadelphia, New York City, Princeton, NJ, and Washington, DC. Along the way, we’ll rub shoulders with the likes of Melchizadek, Moses, Aaron, King David, Jonah, and Joseph and discuss each in turn.

The North Porch at Chartres Cathedral, France

The North Porch at Chartres Cathedral, France

The North Porch at Chartres Cathedral holds probably the finest examples of medieval sculpted Christ types still in existence. The group (photo #1, below; click to enlarge) which includes from left to right Melchizadek, Abraham and Issac, Moses, Aaron, and King David was exquisitely crafted and illustrates perfectly how medieval theologians thought about these historical figures as types for Christ.

Melchizadek, Abraham, Moses, Aaron, David at Chartres Cathedral

1. Melchizadek, Abraham, Moses, Aaron, David at Chartres Cathedral

The book of Genesis tells how Melchizadek, king and high priest of Salem, brought bread and wine to Abraham and blessed the Most High God. Much later, the author of the New Testament’s letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as “a priest forever in the order of Melchizadek.”  In this way Melchizadek came to typify Christ as both king and high priest given that Christ instituted the sacrament of Communion or Eucharist using bread and wine. Aaron, brother of Moses, was the Israelites’ first High Priest and like Melchizadek was thought to typify Christ’s priestly nature. Theologians held that Moses prefigured Christ in that both men led people to freedom. Moses led the Israelites out of bondage to pharaoh and Christ led his people out of bondage to sin. King David’s presence in the group signifies Christ’s dominion and kingship although Jesus said, according to John’s gospel, “My kingship is not of this world.”  We’ll bypass Abraham for now and return to his story on Saturday because it is a key element in the Easter Vigil liturgy.

Princeton Chapel, Princeton, NJ

2. Princeton Chapel, Princeton, NJ

You can see some fine modern stained glass representations of Melchizadek, Moses, and Aaron (photos #3-5) in the main Chapel on Princeton University’s campus. In photo #4, observe that Moses seems to have horns growing from his head. A mistaken Latin translation of the Hebrew word for “emitting rays” led Michelangelo and many others to perpetuate the “horn” mistake. The stained glass image of David, with the harp for his identifying attribute (photo #7), comes from St. Mark’s Episcopal church in Philadelphia. As a quick aside, I should mention that Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica, built in the 1800’s, has a Christ type statuary ensemble that closely follows the pattern established at Chartres. I regret that I have no photo of it, but be sure to check it out if you visit Montreal.

2. Melchizadek (left) and Job at Princeton Chapel, Princeton, NJ

3. Melchizadek (left) and Job at Princeton Chapel, Princeton, NJ

3. Moses at Princeton Chapel, Princeton, NJ

4. Moses. Princeton University Chapel, New Jersey

5. Jacon & Aaron (right) at Princeton Chapel, Princeton, NJ

5. Jacob & Aaron (right) at Princeton Chapel, Princeton, NJ

St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

6. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

King David at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

7. King David at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

Not surprisingly, Jonah also became a Christ type. The man who, according to scripture, emerged from the belly of a great fish after spending three days in utter darkness, foreshadowed the gospel of account of Christ in the tomb between his death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday. Photo #8 shows a fourteenth century stained glass image of Jonah at England’s Canterbury Cathedral. Photo #9 offers a nice view of Canterbury’s imposing “Bell Harry” Tower. The sculpted whale (photo #10) alludes to Jonah’s story and appears near an archway at Washington’s National Cathedral.

Jonah at Canterbury Cathedral, England

8. Jonah at Canterbury Cathedral, England

Bell Harry Tower, Canterbury Cathedral, England

9. Bell Harry Tower, Canterbury Cathedral, England

Whale, National Cathedral, Washington, DC

10. Whale Sclupture, National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Finally, the patriarch Joseph was thought to foreshadow Christ because his brothers betrayed him by throwing him into a pit and then selling him into slavery. Christ, medieval theologians reasoned, was like Joseph because those close to him, including Judas and Peter, betrayed him too. Thirteenth century stained glass at Chartres (photo #11) depicts the brothers dropping Joseph into a pit. A twentieth century window (photo #13) at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York reminds us that Joseph, before he interpreted dreams and foresaw an impending famine in Egypt, started out as a shepherd and as such foreshadowed Christ as the “Good Shepherd.”

Joseph Thrown into a Pit, Chartres Cathedral, France

11. Joseph Thrown into a Pit, Chartres Cathedral, France

12. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York City

12. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York City

Joseph the Shepherd, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, NYC

13. Joseph the Shepherd, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, NYC

Mike Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 4/16/14

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