Monday, October 03, 2011

Old Testament Scenes and Figures in Art

We have often made comment here on the NLM about the importance of familiarity with the Old Testament. Too often does it seem that the Old Testament is forgotten or given a cursory glance at best -- indeed, I can recall recently overhearing a Catholic parent discussing the fact that he wanted a book of bible stories for his children in order to teach them the events of sacred scripture (so far so good!) but he then quickly added, "well, what I really want are the bible stories from the New Testament." Obviously he should want the stories from the New Testament of course, but as the conversation continued it became reasonably evident that, to him, the bible stories from the Old Testament were apparently not of major interest or concern -- or at least non-essential and optional. How unfortunate! His children are being potentially deprived of some of the most colourful stories of salvation history, indeed stories of their Faith -- and the same can be said generally, young and old alike.

Aside from the lack of familiarity with salvation history that comes with such a blind-spot, many related insights and truths can be lost as well. As Fr. Aidan Nichols noted in his wonderful book, Lovely Like Jerusalem, a "grasp of the great lines of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, is vital to a Christian culture..." He further commented that the study of biblical typology "enables a unitary reading of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, and a reading, moreover, which chimes with that found in the Church's liturgical feasts and texts." In short, there are a variety of reasons why we should not only be aware of the events and figures of the Old Testament, but that we should want to be aware of the same, instead of viewing them as secondary, non-essential frills.

This is one of the significant reasons why, over the years, we've tried to make our readers aware of the presence of the prophets and righteous of the Old Testament as seen through the liturgical year. As part of this, we've shown you various examples and Old Testament scenes in Christian art, and this is something we hope to continue to pursue.

This brings me to the subject of today's piece. I was quite interested to receive a copy of a book published a few years back by the Getty Museum, Old Testament Figures in Art:

Like a similar book I also received from Getty, Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I find this book extremely useful as a condensed visual guide to (predominantly) Christian art showing Old Testament figures and scenes, and also for the reason of some of the contextual information provided with the depictions, most especially the inclusion of the relevant biblical sources. The book is also neatly organized into particular events and figures; a very handy aspect in its own right.

NLM readers may also be interested to know that the art shown within comes from a variety of periods, from mosaic work and work in the iconographic tradition, to medieval illuminations, renaissance and baroque masters, and even a bit of representation from the likes of the contemporary Jewish artist, Marc Chagall. (Though the significant majority comes from the aforementioned periods rather than the modern period.)

If you would like to browse within the pages of the book to get a better sense of its contents, organization and layout, may I recommend Google Books.

The Creation of the Stars, Monreale, Sicility

At the very minimum this book can provide you with a visual catalogue of the great events and figures of the Old Testament as pictured these past two millenia, but it might also serve as a tool for your own reference and study.

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