Blog Template Theology of the Body: St. Nicholas and Medieval Depictions of the Gospel

Monday, March 23, 2009

St. Nicholas and Medieval Depictions of the Gospel

Before the invention of the printing press in 1140, the Church of the medieval period relied on colorful and concrete depictions of the Gospel narrative to instruct her generally illiterate population. Even after the invention of the printing press (which for some odd reason, Martin Luther seemed to liken to a greater miracle than the descent of the Holy Spirit), only the very wealthy households could afford to own and maintain books as personal property. One of the most common and beautiful ways to instruct the faithful was to paint Biblical and historical images on the panes of window glass, which would be illumined for the faithful by the light of the sun. Some of the earliest panels and fragments of stained glass are on display at Cluny; the images shown above date to the 12th and 13th centuries. They demonstrate the Christocentric impulse of medieval spirituality and catachesis; this impulse is made all the more vivid by the depiction of the lives of the saints who were redeemed, sanctified, and empowered by Christ's grace to spread His Gospel in the world.

St. Nicholas was an especially popular medieval saint. The original "Santa Claus" and "Father Christmas" was a Turkish bishop of the third century who was present at Nicea and who loved the poor; his characteristic gesture was the anonymous provision of the all-important dowry for three impoverished young women, which provided for their subsequent marriages (third from the top, above).

From the top, the medieval panels show:

1) The Resurrection of the dead: I Corinthians 15: 51-53- Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.

2) Christ consoled by angels after His sojourn in the wilderness: Matthew 4:10-12- Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.' " Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

3) St. Nicholas provides a poor father with dowry for his three daughters

4) Scenes from the life of Jesus: annunciation to the Shepherds; angellic adoration; the advent of the New Jerusalem, as the fulfillment of the prior reign of the Law and the Synagogue.