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The Gesture of Saint Anne of Faras and its Mysteries

Passing by Warsaw on my way from the Chopin Airport to my hometown, I decided to stop at the National Museum of Warsaw to explore once again the Faras Gallery. One of its precious treasure is a fragmentary wall painting, described as the image of Saint Anne of Nubia. Like other wall paintings from the same gallery, it originally featured the cathedral of Faras (earlier Pechoras), located in the capital of the Kingdom of Nobatia (or Nobadia) (Cartwright, 2019).

Birth and re-birth of Christian Nubia

Established in the 4th century AD, Nobatia had grown out of a long ancient tradition of Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush (Ibid.; Adams, 1991:1800). Since the early Middle Ages it had been inhabited by a tribe of the Nobatae who developed their culture beyond the first cataract of the Nile, between present-day Egypt and Sudan (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:11-0:30]; Cartwright, 2019). To the south, there also existed other Nubian kingdoms, namely Makouria and Alwa (Adams, 1991:1800). Christianity reached this region in the 6th century AD, brought there by Byzantine missionaries (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:30-0:45]; Cartwright, 2019) but initially inspired by the Christian tradition of Egypt, and with minor influences from Byzantium, Syria and Palestine (Adams, 1991:1811-1812).

After the Islamic invasion of Egypt in the 7th century, Nubia emerged as a lonely “Christian island among the sands of Sahara desert” (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:45-0:59]), having developed its culture until the 14th century, when it was eventually sunk by the same enemy, with its monuments covered in sand (Ibid.:[2:00-2:10]). “They were [only] reborn [in the 1960s] when a Polish archaeological [rescue] expedition, headed by Professor Kazimierz Michałowski, explored the sites designated for flooding by the waters of the Nile at the Aswan Dam” (Ibid.:[2:10-2:26]). As a result, preserved objects from the Faras cathedral, mainly priceless mural paintings, were shared between the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum and the National Museum of Warsaw (Ibid.:2:41-2:52; NMW, 2019). The painting of Saint Anne has been displayed as a part of the Nubian Collection in the Faras Gallery since 1972 (NMW, 2014-2015:[2:42-2:52]; NMW, 2019). In 2014, the exhibition was redesigned, to mimic the layout of the cathedral interior and “present the wall paintings in a way that reflects their original placement, with the sound of authentic Coptic liturgical chanting heightening the experience for visitors” (NMW, 2019).

Styles of Faras wall paintings

“In church art, as in church architecture, it appears that the Nubians assimilated and combined influences from a variety of sources as well as adding touches of their own” (Adams, 1991:1812). Nevertheless, Nubian artists and architects did not only imitate the foreign traditions but created a Christian culture of their own, which is fully reflected by a distinctive style of Nubian mural paintings (Ibid.:1812; NMW, 2014-2015:[0:58-1:30]). “Initially monumental and austere, they gradually became to take on a unique local character allowing to be distinguished from Egyptian or Ethiopian images” (NMW, 2014-2015:[1:30-1:44]). Professor Michałowski has recognised different successive styles in the Faras art of mural paintings, in terms of their design, used colours and iconography (Adams, 1991:1812).

From the 8th to around 10th century, dimmed colours predominated, mainly ochre, white, and shades of violet (Ibid.:1812). Simultaneously, there were linear, frontal and schematic representations of human characters with elongated limbs, exceedingly large and absent eyes, and very few decorations (Ibid.:1812, Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95). They are stylistically typical of the Christian Egypt and it is believed that they were created by Coptic artists (Adams, 1991:1811-1812; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-1:40]). Among the represented figures facing the viewer there were mainly the images of Christ, His Mother, saints, angels and warriors (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:42-2:10]). Between the 10th and 14th century, Faras artists created in their own style, which had mainly been elaborated from the Byzantine, and apart from saints, they also represented Nubian dignitaries: bishops and kings (Ibid.:[2:10-2:40]). The paintings became intensely multicoloured, human depictions – more naturalistic and dynamic, with lavishly decorated details (Ibid.:[2:40-3:05]; Adams, 1991:1812). Saint Anne of Faras is dated back to the 8th century and so it features the characteristics of the early period (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-2:10]). Her image together with other Nubian paintings are usually referred to as frescoes (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). However, they are all tempera made on dry mud plaster by applying local natural pigments (Ibid.; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014 [3:05-3:20]).

Construction phases of the Faras cathedral

Apparently, the earlier 7th century cathedral of Faras was originally dedicated to the Twelve Apostles (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:96). In the 8th century, a larger temple replaced it on the same site but it was already devoted to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:96; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-0:48]). The temple itself played a role of a metropolitan church in its earliest period and was built on the basilican plan with an apse (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). With the passing time, its construction had continuously been developing until the 14th century (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-1:15]) and only since the 8th century, the cathedral’s walls had been plastered and covered in paintings (Ibid.:[0:15-0:48];Adams, 1991:1811). One of the most famous of all is the painting under study – a fragmentary preserved image representing the head and left arm of Saint Anne. In the 8th century, it decorated the northern wall of the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral (Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Female programme in the Nubian art

In the East, as in the whole Christian world, the inside of the church was segregated by gender (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). In line with this architectural tradition, the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral was dedicated to saint women and is believed to have been reserved for the female part of the Christian congregation (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). Simultaneously, access to other parts of the church, except vestibules, was strictly restricted to women (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). As the status of women in Christian Nubia is thought to have been relatively high (Ibid.:104), the iconographical programme of the northern aisle must have once answered their spiritual needs (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The idea is supported by the fact, there were found numerous representations of saint women, among them foundresses, queens, martyrs, mothers and healers (Ibid.:154). On the whole, there are preserved around thirty wall paintings from the northern aisle, half of which represent female themes (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:104).

At the same time, in other parts of the church, women characters, beside the Virgin Mary, were depicted relatively rarely (Ibid.:104). “[I]n the context of ‘the women-oriented programme” (Ibid.:125), the image of Saint Anne has been considered by scholars as one of the most significant (Ibid.:110, 125). “The veneration of Saint Anne is oftentimes cited as specifically ‘female’” (Ibid.:126). Undoubtedly, Nubian women, like other women in the whole Christian world, turned in prayers to Saint Anne for help when they wish to conceive, deliver successfully, or they ask for wellbeing of their children and their own (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019; see Gerstel 1998:96-98). By miraculous events in Saint Anne’s life, Christian women surely hoped for her intercession and fulfilment of their personal prayers (Mierzejewska, 2014:155).

Ancestors of God

Saint Anne, the Mother of Saint Mary, does not appear as a biblical character in the Canonical Gospels (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Bible is equally silent about the lifetime of the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). The story of Saint Anne and her Holy Daughter, however, are described in apocryphal gospels: the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, composed around the 7th century, and in the Protoevangelium of James, written in Greek, probably in Coptic Egypt, in the 2nd century (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95; Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Anonymous authors tell there about the events accompanying the birth and childhood of Saint Mary, clearly following the model of the Old Testament, describing miraculous births of patriarchs, such as Isaac, or the New Testament birth of Saint John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). According to the apocryphal stories, Saint Anne was married to Joachim, a pious Jew and descendant of the House of David (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). For a long time, they had been childless, which was considered as a reproach in Israel (Ibid.:154). However, thanks to their persistent prayers and the faith in God’s grace, being already in years Anne conceived and gave birth to a daughter, Mary – the future Mother of God (Ibid.:154). This is why in a later tradition the Jewish couple has become known as Theopatores, which means Ancestors of God (Ibid.:154). Existing also in Coptic Egypt, the same tradition locates this event in Bethlehem, believed to be Saint Anne’s hometown (Ibid.:154).

Mother of Theotokos

Particular interest in Saint Mary’s hagiography, which is not recorded in the Scripture, especially grew after the Council of Ephesus convened in 431, where the Virgin Mary formally became regarded as Theotokos (Mother of God) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Council’s decision had inspired numerous literary works dedicated to Saint Mary’s lifetime, including Her parents’ (Ibid.:154). Consequently, important events from Her lifetime were referred to as the subjects of the Liturgy and became frequently illustrated in contemporary art (Ibid.:154). In the Eastern Christianity, the image of Saint Anne with the little Mary has represented significant theological truths supporting the human nature of the Virgin born from human parents and so the human nature of Christ (Ibid.:154). Moreover, the granted title of Theotokos inspired more feasts dedicated to Saint Mary, which were consequently introduced in the Liturgical Calendar (Ibid.:154). Among them, there is a feast commonly known in the Eastern Church as the Conception of Saint Anne, to celebrate the moment when she became the Mother of Theotokos (9th December) (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). It also exists in the Catholic Church but it is known under the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8th December) (Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019; see Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Saint Anne of Faras

The fragmentary image of Saint Anne may have been once a part of a larger representation (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125): the Saint was possibly depicted in a full figure, while standing or being enthroned, with a little Mary in her arms or on her lap, which is indicated by her head slightly bowed to one side (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). Such an assumption exists because of “[t]he inscription accompanying the image of Saint Anne, [which] implies that the image of her daughter – Mary was also a part of the painting” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125). Tadeusz Dobrzeniecki (1988:97), however, notices that the same inscription can equally signify Saint Anne’s title of the Mother of Theotokos, which means she may have been depicted alone, without her Daughter.

Saint Anne of Faras is wearing a violet maphorion covering her head and surrounding the oval face, which is filled with calm and gentleness (Ibid.:110,125). Her wide open and large eyes are dominant and seem to smile while looking straight ahead (Ibid.:110,125). In their look, they give an expression similar to those observed in Egyptian portraits of Fayum (Ibid.:110,112,125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:106). Once  the viewer has got an impression the saint is looking beyond them, absent, the other time, they feel her warm gaze of understanding and comfort (see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:103). Even if Saint Anne’s figure cannot be seen entirely, it must evidently have been slender with elongated limbs; her right hand is supporting the chin and the long index finger is placed on the lips (Ibid.:95).

Portrayal with no analogies

Representations of Saint Anne were quite common in the Christian art of the 8th century (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110;125), however, “the portrayal […] from Faras is for many reasons exceptional” (Ibid.:125). First of all, Saint Anne is missing a halo around her head, even though it was usually depicted as a typical feature of all saints (Ibid.:110,125). While there is another example of such a representation in the 8th century art (Theotokos, Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Italy), Saint Anne’s image seems outstanding in this respect (Ibid.:110;125) and “devoid of any direct or obvious analogies” (Ibid.:126). Dobrzeniecki (1988:95) suggests it is because her character does not appear in the Canon Scripture but only in the apocrypha. In turn, Aleksandra Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016:125) points out to “[a]nother singular trait” of the same portrayal: “the juvenile or perhaps timeless appearance of Saint Anne’ face” (Ibid.:125). As it is described in the apocryphal story mentioned above, Saint Anne was well along in years when she conceived her Daughter by God’s will and as such she was usually represented by artists (Ibid.:112;125). Also Sharon Gerstel (1998:98) observes that the saint’s “portrait-like depictions always underline her old age” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125), especially in the contemporary art of Byzantium (Ibid.:112,125). Yet the most original feature of all in the Faras image is the Saint’s mysterious gesture she makes by touching her lips with the index finger of the right hand (Ibid.:112,125; Mierzejewska, 2016:155). Its mystery has triggered a great interest among scholars and their numerous attempts for a possible interpretation have appeared in the literature on the subject (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125).

Timeless image of silence

The index finger posed on Saint Anne’s lips as if asking for silence may be a reference to the “silence of God” (Mierzejewska, 2016:155). The subject was brought into attention by Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian mystic who died martyr death in c. 110 (Ibid.:155). For Ignatius there are three mysteries related to the Daughter of Saint Anne, Saint Mary, namely, Her Virginity, miraculous Conception and the Birth of the Son of God (Ibid.:155). According to his writings, “silence expresses what is characteristic of the Father, as logos expresses what is characteristic of the Son” (Ryan, 1988:22). Bożena Mierzejewska (2014:155; see Mierzejewska, 2014-2019) also observes that the index finger on the lips may indicate a prayer in which Saint Anne is immersed. As the painting comes from the period of a dominant Coptic influence in Nubia, the traces of Saint Anne’s gesture may lead to Christian Egypt (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019).

There are actually similar representations of Coptic monks in the Monastery of Bawit, in Egypt, who were depicted with their fingers on the lips while reciting the psalms, according to  a monastic tradition of placing the index finger of the right hand on the lips while praying in silence (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). It was believed as well that the gesture protected a praying person against the evil powers trying to attack their heart (Ibid.:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016) mentions that the gesture is usually considered by scholars as the sign of contemplation, as it is in the case of representations of the Old Testament character of Sarah, who has just learnt she is going to conceive, or of the Virgin Mary at the moment of Annunciation (Ibid.:112-114; 125-126). “It could also express either sorrow or stupefaction in the face of sanctity – and, consequently, create a symbolic image of a human being listening to the voice of God” (Ibid.:125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988). Saint Anne’s gesture may have also had a more practical function of reminding women gathered in the cathedral’s aisle to keep silent in the church (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:114,126).

“Most perfect of all prayers”

The living cult of Saint Anne in Nubia, particularly in Faras, is testified by other paintings with her image found in in the northern aisle of local churches (Mierzejewska, 2014:155). Once Saint Anne is represented enthroned with Saint Mary on her lap, probably breastfeeding the Daughter (Ibid.:155), another time, she is depicted in a standing position (Ibid.:155). Such representations bring to mind some aspects of the iconographic depictions of the Virgin Mary, such as Galaktotrophousa, Hodegetria, or Eleusa (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:128-129). The appearance of Saint Mary’s Mother in Eastern churches may have also meant a celebration of the mentioned feast of the Conception of St. Anne (Ibid.:114,126), where her image would be a part of “the [entire] history of salvation [by] conveying a meaning close to the scenes placed on the northern side of the church related to the [representation] of the Nativity” (Ibid.:126-127).

In this context, Saint Anne’s gesture would symbolise her Immaculate Conception, as – according to the theological tradition – Saint Anne would have conceived Mary by kissing her husband’s lips (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:96). The miracle is represented likewise in the Coptic art, where Saint Anne is kissing a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit (Ibid.:96). Accordingly, Saint Anne of Faras is depicted at the very moment of the Immaculate Conception being experienced in the state of ecstasy and mystical silence, which is shown by her gesture of the index finger (Ibid.:196). Silence is therefore the most perfect of all prayers (Ibid.:196). This is a lesson that Saint Anne from Nubia teaches in present-day Warsaw.

Worth being remembered

Among all the representations of Saint Anne, which were very common and highly estimated in the Eastern Christianity, the image of Faras clearly stands out with its unique iconographical features described above. Despite numerous and thorough studies, their meaning still eludes a full interpretation and so its mystery triggers a continuous interest in the Nubian culture and its oriental face. Although the Nubian Christianity had gone away together with its Faras cathedral, left behind under the water, the preserved Nubian paintings, such as the image of Saint Anne, stay above as silent witnesses of the lost Christian civilisation that once flourished in the sands of the desert. Although Nubia made an individual and local culture, it was at once a part of the larger early Christian tradition, and so its heritage remains an invaluable source on the Christian history and art in Africa.

Featured photo: A detail from the 3D model of the Faras Cathedral (narthex), showing the Mother of God with the Child surrounded by two Archangels, Saint Michael (left) and Saint Gabriel (right). Their wings form a kind of canopy over the head of Saint Mary – a concept known in both Nubian and Coptic art. Photo by Karolina Kaczmarek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Adams, W. Y. (1991) “Nubia”. In: The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 6, Atiya, A. S. ed., pp. 1800-1801. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Adams, W. Y. (1991) “Nubian Church Art.” In: The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 6, Atiya, A. S. ed., pp. 1811-1812. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Archeparchy of Pittsburgh (2019) ”The Immaculate Conception: the Conception of St. Anne, ‘When She Conceived the Holy Mother of God’ According to the Ruthenian Tradition”. In: The Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh. Available at <https://bit.ly/33LyQ5f>. [Accessed on 19th October, 2019].

Cartwright, M. (2019) “Faras Cathedral”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BEh9sx>. [Accessed on 20th October, 2019].

Dingemanse, M. (2005). ‘Christian Nubia’ in Wikipedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License. Available at <https://bit.ly/3OYpY5b>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2022].

Dobrzeniecki, T. (1988) ”Święta Anna z Faras w Muzeum Narodowym w Warszawie. Symbolika gestu milczenia”. [“Saint Anne of Faras in the National Museum of Warsaw. Symbolism of the Gesture of Silence”]. In: Rocznik Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie, ann. 32. Warsaw: National Museum. pp. 95-214.

Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014) FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube. Available at <https://bit.ly/2J4yNtj>. [Accessed on 18th October, 2019].

Mierzejewska, B. (2014) ”Sala VI Malowidła z katedry w Faras” [“Room VI Paintings from the cathedral of Faras”]. In: Galeria Faras im. Profesora Kazimierza Michałowskiego. Przewodnik [The Professor Kazimierz Michałowski Faras Gallery. Guidebook]. Warsaw: National Museum, pp. 106-197.

Mierzejewska, B. (2014-2019) “Galeria Faras. Skarby zatopionej pustyni”. [“Faras Gallery. Treasures from the flooded desert”]. The National Museum of Warsaw. In: Google Arts&Culture. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VKPuPz>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2019].

NMW (2014-2015) “Galeria Faras. Skarby zatopionej pustyni”. [“Faras Gallery. Treasures from the flooded desert”]. The National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube. Available at <https://bit.ly/2IOtRZB>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2019].

NMW (2019) “Faras Gallery. The Professor Kazimierz Michałowski Faras Gallery”. In: National Museum of Warsaw, Collections. Available at <https://bit.ly/1p8RMzR>. [Accessed on 16th October, 2019].

Ryan, P. J. (1998) On Silence in Ignatius of Antioch. In: Prudentia, vol 20, no 2, pp. 20-27.

Sharon E. J. Gerstel (1998) “Painted Sources for Female Piety in Medieval Byzantium”. In: Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 52, pp. 89-111.

Sulikowska-Bełczowska, A. (2016) ”Kobiecy program ikonograficzny nawy północnej katedry w Faras” [”Female Iconography in the Northern Aisle of Faras Cathedral”]. In: Rocznik Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie, vol. 5. Warsaw: National Museum, pp. 96-129.

Successive Stages of the Analysis of a Work of Art

The multitude of images in our everyday life means that we usually lack time to look at them closely, without their careful analysis, or their correct interpretation, not to mention a proper methodology for such an interpretation, which we usually prefer to leave in the hands of historians of art. Anne D’Alleva, a historian of art, calls such a phenomenon the syndrome of “lazy looking” (2009:29). And what about a proper interacting with art after crossing the threshold of a museum or a gallery, and I do not mean here ‘a galleria’, a cluster of shops and stalls … yet, even in such a place we can encounter multiple visual representations, especially when some artists decide to arrange there an installation of their works or a collection of photos …

Still, let’s stay inside a gallery of paintings and works of art, or a museum. If we are generally interested in art and have enough time, I would recommend breaking our visit down into several stages. If we focus our attention on selected works of art, it will help us to improve the quality of our cognitive abilities in relation to the selected objects. As I mentioned above, the accumulation of images, the splendor of their colours and and shapes can cause fatigue and, consequently, discouragement … Consequently, we will leave “the center of art” even more confused than we are before entering it.

First think about an artistic epoch you are most fascinated about, then pick up a museum or gallery where you can see its expressions. Among all the exhibited works, pick up four or five and spend at least four hours for their contemplation; yes, yes … approximately one hour for each work of art … why so long? One reason is that famous galleries of art or museums can be really crowded. Assuming you are heading off to one of such type of places and an art object of your choice is famous, it may also take much time to wait on queue to see it. Secondly, the chosen object does not exist in isolation and is normally surrounded by works of art coming from the same context: an epoch, place of origins or style, and when I am writing about a need of selecting four or five works must-see, I do not mean making your way to them with your eyes closed – first, it is dangerous for yourself, then for other amateurs of are, who just being focused on art, are not paying attention to you elbowing across the crowd, and finally, a danger of bumping into a priceless object … So, open your eyes, analyse a chosen object … first in isolation, and then look around and see it in its context. Other artifacts or artworks, looking at you (or judging you!) from their glass-cases or from the walls, depending on what you are looking at, will help you to better understand your object of choice.

Stages of the Analysis of a Work of Art

Finally, standing in front of a preferable work of art, you can start to observe its characteristics. Yet, at that point, it is not possible to escape from spontaneous and disordered thoughts coming to our mind at first sight; they are mostly related with our own feelings triggered by the work. I assume those are pleasant emotions, providing that the object to see has been selected deliberately. There equally appear some links between the work and our unconscious knowledge resulting from our culture, religion, history and education. Such aspects shape our experience and values All that phenomenon cannot be avoided, so let it approach you and tell you for a while a story. It is also a story about yourself … Finally, pay attention to its colours, lines, figures, planes. Does it show an abstraction or a representation? Now, take a step back in time, bring your initial thoughts and analyse them. What element of all observed in the work is the most significant, and how is it described in relation to the whole composition? What does the work reveal about the culture that once shaped it? Who was its creator and patron? Who could be its receiver? Now it is you … What does tell about your mutual relation? How do you read its messages?

By answering all those questions, from the initial stage, when you are in front of the artwork, being bombarded by its scattered meanings, through your attempts to focus on its describable physical features, till the end, when you enter a relation with it, you are in the process of its methodological and complete analysis. In history of art, these stages are professionally defined as follows: a formal analysis, iconography, contextual analysis, and finally semiotics. The formal analysis is also refereed to as pre-iconography, while the iconography stage can be imagined as a meaningful bridge joining the form with the context of an artwork. Accordingly, the third stage is known as the contextual analysis. And finally, there is semiotics, which after many art historians constitutes just a more interdisciplinary version of the combined iconographycal and iconological stages (D’Alleva 2012:35).

Such a conventional division into successive stages of the analysis of a work of art, which also can be named as the methodology in art, has resulted from numerous theories coined by historians of art of international origins, who usually worked at the turn of the twentieth century. Many a time, the methodology of the interpretation of art can be simply limited to two general analyses: formal and contextual. Although the former includes many elements, which are usually grouped into five pairs of concepts, yet the latter should always be further divided into separate stages. Hence, while studying a given work of art, one should know the difference between iconography and iconology, and between those two stages and semiotics, to follow the process correctly, especially if you are studying history of art. The methodology also helps to organize our thoughts in a coherent whole and give our analysis a deeper meaning, also by adding to it our own opinions about the work.

In the following months, each of the following four stages of the analysis will be further discussed by providing examples, a choice of which is wide, as the studied methodology in art can be applied to different expressions in art, such as two-dimensional works (painting, including fresco, photography, graphic), sculpture (also relief), architecture, installation, digital art, performance and video. Because of my profession, which is mainly archaeology, in my analysis I will normally use ancient and medieval works, though made by different cultures. Yet, I will sometimes provide some examples from later epochs for the sake of comparative studies and to illustrate a variety of artistic topics.

All your questions and comments are welcome.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

D’Alleva A., 2009. Jak studiować historię sztuki. [How to Write Art History], Jedlińska, E., Jedliński J. trans. Cracow: universitas.

D’Alleva A., 2012. Metody i teorie historii sztuki [Methods and Theories of Art History], Jedlińska, E., Jedliński J. trans. Cracow: universitas.

Medieval Comic Strip in the Technique of Sgraffito

The Tring Tiles are today remarkable survivals, witnessing the devotional curiosity of the Middle Ages with the Christ’s childhood (Robinson et al. 2008:118) and a clear reflection of “the resurgence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of Christianity’s focus on the humanity of Christ” (Casey 2007:2).  

Christian lore of medieval dominoes

“The scenes [on the tiles] are arranged in pairs [except for one of the canonical character], in a composition that resembles a modern-day comic strip” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). There are more traditional Christian miracles, such as a multiplication of food (Casey 2007:1): “planting a single grain of wheat, which immediately produces an entire crop for the poor to harvest” (Ibid.:1). There is equally a scene showing “healing the lame and the injured” (Ibid.:1).

The four other Tring Tiles preserved by the British Museum; Room 40 in the Medieval Gallery. Image cropped and colours intensified. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

Christ is obviously the driving force of all these miracles. Still He is also the hero of more humoristic but confrontational scenes while He is depicted “at play, [often resulting in fatal accidents], working in the fields or in the carpenter’s workshop, at school, and, occasionally, in trouble” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). On the whole, the “[stories] told by the tiles are drawn from the ordinary activities of children, though enriched by a miraculous element” (The British Museum II 2021), which, on the other hand, “struggle [to show] the notion of a child at once human and divine”(Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Consequently, the angelic face of the Child Jesus, as drawn on holy pictures in the Church, as much as in the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:2) “may belie the strangeness of his actions” (Ibid.:2); the Christ Child behaves as an average boy but granted with supernatural powers that he openly uses not only in good intentions but also for his own, rather selfish purposes; if the author of the Apocrypha “was to humanize the Christ Child, he went to such [extremes in Jesus’ behaviour] that centuries of Popes, Church Fathers, theologians and scholars have dismissed the stories as incorrect, […] exaggerated [and even heretic, as they declare] the [Child] Jesus to be rude, vindictive, unruly, and ‘non-Christian’” (Ibid.:3).

Mediation of the Virgin Mary

Such an attitude of the Church is not surprising; in the apocryphal legends, also illustrated on the Tring Tiles, Jesus transforms other boys into pigs and even kills his colleagues and a Jewish teacher for offending Him, after which, however, He restores them either to the previous state or even to life, especially on the initiative of His Mother, Saint Mary, who asks Him for mercy on behalf of the people and, in every instance, the intercession of the Virgin Mary sees the return to normality (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1; Munday 2018).

The image of the Virgin Mary with Jesus Child in one of the illuminations decorating the Infancy Gospels in Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8, fol. 027v (detail) (c. 1315-1325). Apocryphal Childhood of Christ. Written in French. Image source: Bodleian Library (2021) “Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38, pt. 1”. In: Digital Bodleian; Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Sometimes, the Virgin is represented as if She rebuked Her Son for His bad behaviour towards humans (Casey 2007:15) or even as if “it was the Virgin, not [Her Son], who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe” (Munday 2018). Such an illustration of the Jesus’s Mother shows the cult of the Virgin Mary at its height and underlines Her increasing, almost godlike power in the Christian tradition (Munday 2018; Casey 2007:15). Despite the negative reaction of the Church officials’ towards the Infancy Gospels, the Church simultaneously remained quite tolerant when it comes to a growing popularity of such stories among the lay Christian populace, and while they were being consecutively repeated in multiplying images created by artists in religious art, like those depicted on the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:3).

Starting with a miracle

I decided to start analyzing the objects from up down; consequently, I looked up at the uppermost tile in the showcase covered with glass. It displays two, rather unrelated scenes; the first one shows a cart drawn by one horse and two peasants harvesting a field of wheat, miraculously grown from the one grain which Jesus has planted (Fig.1A) (Casey 2007:27,39). In Pseudo-Matthew and Selden Supra 38 the grain is barley (Ibid.:27). The tile with the preceding scene of Christ sowing and multiplying His Mother’s grain is lost. Missing scenes obviously disturb the continuity of the story represented on the Tring Tiles. Although they can be easily complemented and retold by means of the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, the tile showing the reaping of wheat miraculously multiplied to a vast amount still remains combined with an unconnected accident, namely Fathers and Jesus at oven (Fig.1B) (Ibid.:39).

‘Unpleasant’ transformation

The latter scene (Fig.1B) shows three parents of Jesus’ colleagues who “are reluctant for their children to play with Jesus [and thus] often [implement] extreme measures to prevent [His] contact with [their children]” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). In the scene, they are standing with Jesus Child in front of an oven, pointing to it.

Fig. 1A “Harvesting” and Fig. 1B “Fathers and Jesus at oven”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

The medieval Infancy Gospels say that the parents have just hid their children in the oven away from Jesus only to find them later transformed by Him into pigs, when they finally open it (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “Missing from the extant Tring Tiles is the pig-children’s culminating escape from the oven, but this dramatic scene would undoubtedly have been part of the original tile series” (Casey 2007:38). The story is not a part of Greek and Latin texts of the apocryphal Gospels of Thomas or Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.: 38). Yet it may have originally been included in one of the early versions of Gospels of Thomas, from which it was removed for being too ‘unpleasant’ (Ibid.:38). Anyway, it reappears in early apocryphal literature of the Arabic Infancy Gospel but the boys there are transformed not into pigs but into goats (Ibid.:38). “The exchange of the pigs for goats has been attributed to a […] Jewish aversion to pork, a restriction shared with Islam” (Ibid.:40).

Another reason may be the historic antisemitic association of Jews with pigs or an Islamic notion (Casey 2007:40), according to which “Jews [and] Christians were once punished by being transformed into pigs and apes” (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, the story with the boys transformed into pigs already appears in medieval Christian manuscripts and so must equally have been included in the lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:38-39).

Privileged animals, a miracle, and the Crown for the Virgin Mary

In the lower row, there are two tiles; one from the left portrays jumping and apparently happy lion cubs, accompanied by Child Jesus, His Mother Mary and Joseph, and two Jews further behind them (Fig.2A) (Austin Date Unknown). The scene is to express the fact that in contrast to Jews, animals are able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God (Ibid.). In the scene, “Mary’s appearance reflects the evolution of the Cult of the Virgin by the early fourteenth century as she is portrayed in elegant Gothic dress, wearing the crown of the Queen of Heaven, as opposed to her depiction in Selden Supra 38, where she is seated, holding a book, with a shawl over her head” (Casey 2007:15).

Fig. 2A “Lion cubs” and Fig. 2B “Broken plough”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Next scene on the same tile (Fig.2B) is the first of the three (two more are shown on the next tile in the same row: Fig.3A&B) illustrating Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough. In the first scene (Fig.2B), a workmen is scolded by his master for breaking or cutting a plough beam too short (Priory Tiles 2021). Jesus observes the incident and eagerly helps to fix the tool; He miraculously repairs the beam (Fig.3A), which can be successfully applied again in ploughing the fields (Fig.3B).

Culmination of the story in the middle

Below the second row, there is only one tile in the middle, which actually should be the culmination of the series (Fig.4: feature image) (Robinson et al. 2008:118). It is the only scene which occupies a full tile, which stands for its significance, and illustrates Christ’s first official miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changes water to wine (John 2:1-11) (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:46).

Fig. 3A and Fig. 3B “Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

By these means, the ‘unofficial’ life of Christ naturally complements the canonical version (Casey 2007:46). Moreover, including the biblical scene in the series of formally rejected stories also “[lends] an air of legitimacy to the marginalized apocryphal Infancy Gospels“ (Casey 2007:46).

Death and resurrection

The successive row of the tiles below again displays two of them with four related scenes. Starting from the episode on the left (Fig.5A), Child Jesus is shown playing alone a “game of making pools on the banks of the river Jordan, which is [suddenly] disturbed by a [bad Jewish boy] who destroys them: the bully promptly falls down dead” (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007:46). “Likewise, [in the first scene on the right side tile (Fig.6A)], when a fellow pupil jumps on Christ’s back in a playful attack, he is struck down, [in front of seated Zacharias]. In both cases instant dead is shown by the figures being flipped upside down” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Fig. 5A “Jesus building pools; dead boy” and Fig. 5B “Mary, Jesus reviving dead boy.”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

In the second scene of the first tile (Fig.5B), Saint Mary with the crown on Her head admonishes Jesus for killing the boy (Casey 2007:15). She puts “her hand on Jesus’ back, encouraging him to rejuvenate the dead boy” (Ibid.:15). Although Jesus still curses the Jewish colleague, He revives the boy, yet underlying that he does so only for Her Mother’s sake (Ibid.:15).

Caricatured faces

In the second tile, in the left side scene (Fig.6A), “Zacharias is hieratically seated on an elevated bench, holding a book […], his head capped with a stalked beret, a style seen frequently on Jewish scholars. He looks beyond Jesus to exchange gestures and glances with the Bad Boy, implying a possible collusion between the teacher and the boy, and reminding viewers of the Christian assertion that the Jews were blind to Christ [as it is also underlined in the scene showing lion cubs]. The exaggerated, yet comical, antisemitic caricature of Zacharias’ visage does not suggest a man of wisdom” (Casey 2007:20).

Fig. 6A “Zacharias, boy and Jesus; dead boy” and Fig. 6B “Joseph and parents; Jesus reviving boy”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Written versions of the Infancy Gospels also adds that “Jesus starts lecturing [Zacharias], pointing out the teacher’s ignorance, in contrast to Jesus’ superior knowledge” (Ibid.:20). The compression of the two successive events in a single scene, with Jesus and the boy jumping on His back, and the Bad Boy seen again upside down behind the first group was a typical artistic practice in the medieval art, also observed in a comic strip. Having killed the boy, Jesus again appeared in the right scene accompanied by Joseph who is standing in front of the Bad Boy’s annoyed parents, trying to calm them down (Ibid.:17,19). Meantime, Jesus restores their son back to life (Casey 2007:17; Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Castle tower

At the bottom of the showcase there is the last row of the two tiles; “[they] continue the polemic between Christianity and Judaism” (Casey 2007:36). The one on the right side shows in the first scene (Fig.7A), a father who has just locked his son in a tower with a huge key, “to protect him from the ‘accidents’ which seemed to occur when children play with Jesus” (Ibid.:36). However, already in the second scene (Fig.7B) “Christ miraculously pulls the boy through the lock” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Fig. 7A “Father locks son in tower” and Fig. 7B “Jesus pulls boy from tower”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

The symbol of a tower seems significant as it used to be an important feature of medieval Anglo-Jewish co-existence (Casey 2007:37). In England, the tower was a place of refuge for Jews or, like the Tower of London, it was used to imprison and execute them (Ibid.:37). “At times, Jews saved their lives by converting [to Christianity] while they were imprisoned […]” (Ibid.:37-38). The tile illustrating the tower may metaphorically symbolize such a conversion of the released boy, who was eventually set free by Jesus Himself.

Again in school

“Following an interlude of [those two Tring Tile scenes, in the left side scene of the second tile], Jesus appears [again in school (Fig.8A). He is standing in front of] a second teacher, a bearded Levi, seated on a bench with his legs crossed. This teacher also attempts to instruct Jesus, but Jesus rejects the teacher’s instructions, exhibiting his knowledge […] and […] the extent of his wisdom” (Casey 2007:20). As a result, “the teacher scolds him for his insolence, and slaps him” (Ibid.:21). In this scene, there also appears the mentioned practice of duplicating the same character in order to present it at a later stage of events, being the aftermath of the previous one.

Fig. 8A “Levi slaps Jesus; Jesus scolding” and Fig. 8B “Teachers, Jesus; lame persons”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Consequently, behind the ‘first’ representation of the Christ Child, “[the] second figure of Jesus shows [Him again] responding to the teacher, as he in turn, scolds the Hebrew master” (Casey 2007:21). The right side of the same tile (Fig.8B) further illustrates Jesus who is still engaged in preaching but this time there are two teachers seated in front of him (Ibid.:31). Behind Jesus, there are two lame people whom only Jesus, and not the teachers, can heal. “The compositional placement of the teacher [or teachers] seated on the left and Jesus standing on the right appears [in all such scenes and may be symbolically related to the right side associated with good, and the left with evil]”(Ibid.:20).

Difficult relations

By observing and analysing the artefacts behind the glass, I understood that the Tring Tiles not only illustrate the apocryphal Infancy Gospels to fill in the gaps in the biblical stories, but also to reflect tense and difficult Jewish-Christian relations in medieval England, where there was the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism, especially because Jews reminded blind to Jesus’ teaching; “the stories [represented on the tiles], sometimes not so subtly, reflect the conflicts that existed between Jews and Christians [already] in the early years of the new faith when both groups proclaimed the predominance and superiority of their beliefs, while competing over converts. The stereotypical, [even caricatured, depictions] of the Jewish figures, [usually featuring huge noses and bulging eyes] in the scenes on the Tring Tiles, reminds […] that these conflicts still existed in the minds of the fourteenth century English, even though King Edward [the First] had expelled all Jews from England in 1290” (Casey 2007:1-2).

Two other tiles

In the Middle Ages, “from the Jewish perspective, the fathers in both the tower and the oven stories would have recognized the need to hide their children from Jesus, not just for their physical safety, but to protect them from the threat of medieval Christians who attempted to convert [Jews] to Christianity” (Casey 2007:41).

Tring Tile on the left: Fig. 9A “Jesus and kneeling boys”. Fig. 9B “Jesus and boys at well”. Tring Tile on the right: Fig. 10A “Joseph and angry parents”. Fig. 10B “Jesus and kneeling boys”. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. Preserved by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo source: Mary F. Casey (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”, p. 42. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53.

Images depicted on the two missing Tring Tiles, displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum illustrate such conversions among Jewish children (Casey 2007:41-42). The first tile (Fig.9A) shows kneeling boys and Jesus preaching or blessing them in the first scene (Ibid.:41). The same composition reappears on the second tile, on its right side (Fig.10B) (Ibid.:41-42). “These images show [obedient] children, as Jesus’ blessing gesture suggests that he is fulfilling his mission and converting the children” (Ibid.:41); moreover, the “repetition of [the] image of kneeling children (Fig.9A and 10B) suggests a special emphasis on conversion” (Ibid.:42). The Infancy Gospels also read that Child Jesus “revives and blesses his playmates, after they accidentally fall while attempting to follow him as he jumped from hill to hill and slid down a sunbeam” (Ibid.:41). This underlines “the importance of Jesus’ life-saving power, even though following his lead can be difficult” (Ibid.:42).

The well

The second scene on the first tile (Fig.9B) is also related to the theme of conversion. Jesus and boys are at well (Casey 2007:42); while one figure is using a pitcher to draw water from it, others carry the pitchers, already full or empty, on their shoulders.

This is probably a reference to the baptism following the conversion. It also brings to mind the Gospel scene in which the adult Jesus talks by a well with a Samaritan woman who consequently experiences conversion (John 4: 5-42). Jesus then said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10).

‘Convert or die’ threat

The first scene of the second tile (Fig.10A) shows in turn Joseph and the children’s parents who have just witnessed Jesus’ ability to revive their dead children (Casey 2007:41-42). The one standing just in front of Joseph seems angry, yet others behind them look like wondering at Jesus’ miraculous powers (Ibid.:41).

Although those tile scenes show that the miraculously restored to life Jewish children were converted, in contemporary England, it was also “a reminder of the ‘convert or die’ threat often faced by Jews. […] In reality, the attempted conversion failed after a two-century effort which ended in [their] expulsion of 1290” (Casey 2007:42).

The Humanity of God

It was almost one hour, I was squatting on the floor in front of the tiles. The scenes drawn on them were both, informative and touching; not only do they portray politics, ethnic and religious conflicts in medieval England but also a strong desire of contemporary people to approach their God closer in His Humanity by observing Him as a human Child with miraculous powers, yet with flaws typical of common children. I also understood that the ten preserved Tring Tiles of the whole larger series would not give all the answers to the questions posed without the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, in turn, filling gaps in the missing stories expressed in art. And although apocrypha does not deepen the canonical knowledge of God’s Child as represented on the Tring Tiles (Rops 1944:115), they do reveal mankind’s desire to find human nature, with all of its aspects, in the Divine.

Nazareth, old postcard by Fadil Saba. Uploaded by TheRealHuldra in 2008. Public domain. {{PD-Israel-Photo}}. Photo source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

So deep in my thoughts I hardly noticed there was a group of visitors gathering in the Room 40 and trying to approach the object of my study. I quickly gathered my notes from the floor, stood up and sent my last glance at the red tiles. ‘To be continued during the lecture’, I thought.

Featured image: “Jesus building pools; dead boy” (left) and “Mary, Jesus reviving dead boy.”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Drawing by the British Museum (2021). Asset number: 191480001. Earthenware tile, lead-glazed. © The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: The British Museum (2021).

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cf8mAx>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Austin W. (Date unknown). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iEdbol>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

Bodleian Library (2021). “Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38, pt. 1”. In: Digital Bodleian; Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Available at <https://bit.ly/39n0pHK>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Casey M. F. (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53. Available at <https://digital.kenyon.edu/perejournal/vol2/iss2/1>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].

Munday A. (2018). “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles”. In: A Writer’s Perspective. Available at <https://bit.ly/39VmJY9>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles. Available at <https://bit.ly/2NvIeaf>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Robinson et al. (2008). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Masterpieces. Medieval Art. pp. 118-119. London: The British Museum Press.

Rops D. (1944). Dzieje Chrystusa [Histoire Sainte – Jesus et Son Temps]. Starowiejska-Morstinowa Z. trans. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy Pax.

The British Museum II (2021). “The Tring Tiles; museum number 1922,0412.1.CR.” In: The British Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/367iAiw>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

The British Museum (drawing) (2021). Asset number: 191480001. Photo source: The British Museum (2021). Available at <https://bit.ly/3weMtIa>. [Accessed 3rd July, 2021].

Eagle’s Wings Spread over the Round Face of the Earth

Unlike the present prevailing idea of linearly running time, many ancient peoples around the world have thought of time as cyclic, which was particularly common in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Gillan 2019). “The Aztecs, among other groups, [such as the Mayans], believed in a succession of world ages and they depicted those ages on [the Calendar Stone]” (Andrews 1998:21).

Cyclic time

Representation of the Aztec glyph for Nahui Ollin (4 Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Ollin element, replaced by the god’s face on the Calendar Stone. Illustration from the Codex Borbonicus. Photo: “Figure 3. A standard presentation of the hieroglyph for Nahui Olin (Four Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Olin element. From the Codex Borbonicus”. Source: David Stuart (2016). In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

According to one version of the story, which is also analogous to the Mayan understanding of time, the Calendar Stone of the the Aztecs represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle (George 2004:25; McDonald 2013). Each of the four rectangles standing for the four eras/suns additionally includes a number 4 in the forms of 4 dots or beads, which is quite significant while reading the glyphs (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, 4 (as there are four dots) Jaguar is the oldest era of creation, supposedly between 956-280 BC (McDonald 2013). Giants who populated the Earth in that era were devoured by jaguars as they had not performed their duties to the gods (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). The next era – 4 Wind, ruled by the god Ehecatl – lasted for 364 years and it had monkey men in some versions, who were carried away and destroyed by hurricanes (Ibid.). 4 Rain was ruled by a water deity, Tlaloc, and it ended when its denizens, who were near human beings, were destroyed by the rain and fire (probably a volcano eruption) and supposedly eaten by turkeys (Ibid.). The last date – 4 Water – was the era ruled by the goddess Chalchihuiticue and destroyed by a 52-year flood and within which men drowned and maybe turned into fish (Ibid.).

Center of the Sun Stone with Nahui Ollin and five eras or suns: four destroyed and one that still exists (Painting by R. S. Flandes. Source: Source: O’Connell (2020).

The present creation (the fifth era) began on 4 Movement/Earthquake in around 1195 AD (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh, the sun god and Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Monster, were both created for this era by means of their own bloody sacrifice (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). This current creation was meant to be stable on the condition that the blood sacrifice was continuously made to the gods and it could probably last forever (Ibid.). Constant penitent sacrifice of human blood was therefore required for this era so the symbolism shown in the Sunstone is apparently all about the Aztec current world (Ibid.). By means of the Sunstone it was foretold that if the blood sacrifices had ceased, the world would have ended in earthquakes (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). These are some pretty vivid and scarily specific cataclysms responsible for the final destruction of the following eras but the most significant is the very central part of the Calendar Stone, as it stands for the current world and possible circumstances of its end (McDonald 2013).

If it is the Earth, where is the Sun?

Although the central face of the Calendar Stone may not represent Tonatiuh (see: Faces of the Fifth Sun in the World of the Aztecs) the image of the Sun is very present in the Calendar Stone (Aztekayolokalli 2018). The Sun is, however, hidden for those who do not want to see it (Ibid.).

The Calendar Stone represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

In artistic representation of Tonatiuh, where he is wearing eagle feathers, there are direct connections between the Sun and an eagle (Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Tōnatiuh” 2020). It is “relating to the belief that an eagle is a reference to the ascending and descending eagle talons, a visual metaphor for capturing the heart or life force of a person. This particular form of symbolism points to ritual of human sacrifice, which was associated with Tonatiuh and his devouring of the hearts of victims” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020). Hence the sacrifice of human heart offered to the Sun was called the Eagle Cactus Fruit (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh‘s symbolic association with the eagle [also] alludes to the Aztec belief of his journey as the Sun, […] travelling across the sky each day, where he descended in the west and ascended in the east” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020).

Accordingly, Tonatiuh may have been represented in the Calendar Stone in its zoomorphic disguise (Aztekayolokalli 2018). If so, where is it? Just in the center, caught in its flight (Ibid.).

Eagle representation as the symbol of the sun god, Tonatiuh, hidden within the complex image of Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

In order to discern it, one should look beyond the both elements building up its picture, the goddess Tlaltecuhtli and the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Aztekayolokalli 2018). There is the eagle’s beak sticking out of the Earth and pointing up to the sky, in the direction of the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.). There are its talons being at once Tlaltecuhtli’s claws grasping human hearts and tail feathers, just below the round Face of the Earth (Ibid.). The eagle’s wings are in turn shaped by the four “wings’ of the cosmic Butterfly, and outspread to four corners of the universe (Ibid.).

The three superimposed images create Nahui Ollin glyph (4 Movement) within the Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

The Sun is then superimposed over the shape of the Butterfly, and subsequently, they are both superimposed over the Face of Earth – astronomical event that takes place every year on July 26th, when the Sun is directly above Mexico City, in its zenith (Aztekayolokalli 2018).

Combined worlds

In the deeply carved background of the ring surrounding 4 Movement glyph, there are a few smaller date glyphs (McDonald 2013). On the right of the pointer at the top, there is the date 1 Flint Knife (Ibid.). On the left, there is a headdress glyph (Ibid.), which is interpreted as the name of Montezuma (Stuart 2016).

Four other Aztec glyphs adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. On top in blue, there is a hairdress on the left , and 1 Flint on the right. At the bottom, there are 7 Monkey on the right and 1 Rain on the left. Drawing by E. Umberger: “Figure 4. The two principal hieroglyphs (in blue) adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. To the left is the name of Moteuczoma II, to the right is 1 Flint, the likely calendar name of Huitzilopochtli”. Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

Hence, some scholars ascribe the Calendar Stone to the last emperor of the Aztecs (McDonald 2013). At the bottom of the same field, adjacent to the Nahui-Oliln glyph, there are also 7 Monkey (on the right) and 1 Rain (on the left) (Stuart 2016; McDonald 2013). These dates may refer to actual historical milestones in Aztec history (Ibid.). For instant, 1 Flint is likely to be the calendar name of Huitzilopochtli (Stuart 2016). As the god is the patron of the Aztecs’ city of Tenochtitlan, it may refer to the date when the Mexica tribe left their homeland, a legendary Aztlan, to found their new capital, which is now Mexico City (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the Calendar Stone would also contain historic records (Ibid.).

Xiuhpohualli and Tōnalpōhualli

The Mesoamerican “calendar consisted of a 365-day calendar cycle called Xiuhpohualli (year count) and a 260-day ritual cycle called Tōnalpōhualli (day count). These two cycles together formed a 52-year calendar round. The Xiuhpohualli is considered to be the agricultural calendar, since it is based on the Sun” (Gillan 2019), whereas Tōnalpōhualli is regarded more in a sacred dimension of time counting (Ibid.).

Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph. Photo: “Figure 1. Photograph of the sculpted face of the Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.” Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

“[The] Aztecs divided their year into 18 months of 20 days plus 5 days at the end” (Noble 2009:51). Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Noble 2009:51; see Gillan 2019; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). However, according to others, these 5 signs refer to the five suns; the four gone and the one, which is currently lasting in the current era (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Although the same sings may have got a double meaning, it is probable that only one of the two significant Mesoamerican calendars has been depicted by the Aztecs in the Sunstone (Ibid.). It is Tōnalpōhualli (day count).

Tōnalpōhualli (day count)

A ring of 20-day names circles the key image of the central creation in the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). The cycle starts slightly to the left of the pointer above the central face; so the cycle begins with the glyph of a Crocodile and ends with the glyph of a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, the first day is represented by a Crocodile or an Alligator (McDonald 2013). The next to the left is Wind (Ibid.). After that a House, Lizard, Serpent, Death, Deer, Rabbit, Water, Dog, Monkey, Grass, Reed, Jaguar, Eagle, Vulture, Movement (Earthquake), Flint knife, Rain and finally a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). To the right, the glyphs representing the Movement and Flint knife are depicted in miniature, compared to their larger characters around the central face (McDonald 2013). Additionally, “each of the day signs also bears an association with one of the four cardinal directions” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020).

A representation of the Tonalpohualli – ‘Counting of the Days’ 260-day calendar used by ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Two systems ran simultaneously with a group of 13 numbered days combined with a group of 20 name days. Thus, each day had a unique combination of day and number. Illustration by Richard Graeber (2016). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

That cycle of 20-day names consisted of a 260-day period (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018), which “was recorded in 13-day cycles” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020). It means that “each day [was] signified by a combination of a number from 1 to 13 and one of the twenty day signs. With each new day, both the number and day sign would be incremented: 1 Crocodile is followed by 2 Wind, 3 House, 4 Lizard, and so forth up to 13 Reed, after which the cycle of numbers would restart (though the twenty day signs had not yet been exhausted) resulting in 1 Jaguar, 2 Eagle, and so on, as the days immediately following 13 Reed. This cycle of number and day signs would continue similarly until the [twentieth] week, which would start on 1 Rabbit, and end on 13 Flower. It would take a full 260 [20×13] days for the two cycles, [where twenty day signs are multiplied by thirteen numbers] to realign and repeat the sequence back on 1 Crocodile” (Ibid.). Accordingly, the whole cycle “was broken up into 20 periods, [or 20-day names] of 13 days each, which was reflected in two interlocking wheels in this 260-day ritual calendar” (Gillan 2019).

This round of days was not meant by the Aztecs to depict an actual date but rather to represent the counting of time itself (McDonald 2013). The 260-day ritual calendar was an important characteristic of all Mesoamerican pre-Colombian cultures (Ibid.). Apparently, “it originated by ancient peoples observing that the [Sun] crossed a certain zenith point near the Mayan city of Copan, every 260 days” (Gillan 2019). Yet for the Aztecs it was not related to any solar or astronomical calendar features as it seems (McDonald 2013). Most likely it could have been related to the length of pregnancy (9 months) in correlation with the period of the earth’s translation around the Sun in a 365.25 days of the solar year (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2012; “Aztec Calendar” 2019). This idea is confirmed by the fact that Mesoamerican peoples named their children after the day name of their birth in this ritual calendar (McDonald 2013). “When the child was born he or she was given the name and number of that particular 24 hour piece of time. The ancestors could identify the potential, qualities and capabilities that existed in that space of time, and this was the basis of his/her responsibility to everybody and everything that surrounded them. [In this context], mother and father were responsible for insuring their child grew up recognizing and knowing its potential and capacities and thus its responsibilities by maintaining the rhythm in which it was born” (Aztekayolokalli 2012).

Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl

The next ring of carvings consists of a repeated design of 5 dots, called quincunx, which are inscribed in little squares (McDonald 2013). After scholars they seem to represent preciousness or maybe jadeite (Ibid.). An archaeologist, Nicoletta Maestri (2019) writes they represent the five-day Aztec week in each square. Aztekayolokalli (2018), however, interprets that symbol differently. He claims that 5-dot symbol represents the five movements of Venus around the Sun in a period of eight years (Ibid.). The last number comes from 8 triangular signs set upon the ring of quincunx, which can be interpreted as rays of the Sun (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; Maestri 2019).

Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli, as depicted on page 14 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. The sign above him is the year 1 Reed in the Aztec Calendar. The god manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus. Painting by an unknown author – Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Public domain. Source: “Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“Known to the Mesoamericans as a bright star, […] Venus was especially important in [their] religious and agricultural calendar with its average 584-day cycle being carefully observed and precisely calculated. Even the architectural layout of [important Mesoamerican cities] were built and aligned in accordance with the appearance of Venus at particular moments during its cycle. […] Mesoamerican astronomers recorded that the planet appears for 236 days as the morning star in the east, then sinks below the horizon for 90 days, and reappears for 250 days as the evening star in the west before disappearing again for 8 days before restarting the cycle over again. In actual fact, Venus can be seen with the naked eye for approximately 263 days in each spell, and it is not known quite why or how the ancient astronomers had arrived at their particular calculations” (Cartwright 2017). And it is probably a coincidence that this number of days when Venus is visible also overlaps with the 260-day ritual calendar. However, there is no evidence confirming that the Mesoamerican day count, Tōnalpōhualli, was related in any way to the appearance of Venus.

As the morning star, Venus was described as the Beginning of the Daylight, and as the evening star – it was named the Companion of the Sun (Aztekayolokalli 2018). “Each aspect of Venus – morning and evening – was manifested in the form of two ancient Mesoamerican gods: the feathered-serpent Quetzalcoatl and his canine companion Xolotl. Quetzalcoatl represented Venus as the morning star, and Xolotl represented it as the evening star” (Cartwright 2017; see Aztekayolokalli 2018). Simultaneously, another Mesoamerican deity, “Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus (Ibid.). As the twin brother of Xolotl and the avatar of Quetzalcoatl, he was imagined as both and so represented the morning and evening star aspects of Venus (Ibid.).

The Moon

Going outwards, the next string or band of images in the Calendar Stone is obscure to scholars (Mc Donald 2013).

“The image above reproduces the Coyolxauhqui Stone, showing the Aztec goddess of the Moon. The giant monolith was found at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Image courtesy of the Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico. Source: National Earth Science Teachers Association (2020). “Coyolxauhqui”. In: Windows to the Universe.

There may be some representations of feathers, beads and blood drops but it is really not clear (Mc Donald 2013). Aztekayolokalli  (2018) believes the ring represents kernels of corn. There are 10 such kernels between each of the 8 sun-rays (or triangles pointing outside the center), which create a pattern looking like a lace decorating the ring (Ibid.). Additional 3 grains of corn are visible on top of the square, sticking out in the middle of the “corn lace” (Ibid.) Consequently there are 13 grains of corn altogether, and the number 13 represents the number of the Moon rises in a year cycle (Ibid.). What is more, the Moon also moves 13 degrees per day around the Earth (Ibid.).

Two encircling dragons

The final, encircling ring consists of two thick fire serpents or dragons, called Xiuhcoatl (McDonald 2013). Such imagery points to the fact that symbols of serpents are significant in Mesoamerican cultures (Ibid.). The fire serpents’ tails are at the very top with their pointed ends framing the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.).

Ballcourt marker from the Postclassic site of Mixco Viejo in Guatemala. This sculpture depicts Kukulkan (Quetzacoatl) with a human head sticking out of its jaws agape. Some scholars define it as the head of a human warrior emerging from the serpent’s maw. In the Calendar Stone such images are identified with divine beings. Photo by Simon Burchell. Photo: “Ballcourt marker at Mixco Viejo” by Simon Burchell (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Kukulkan” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their bodies are divided into squared segments that have butterfly symbols (Nahui-Ollin glyphs) inside them and the serpents encircle the whole disc only to end with their open moss at the bottom of the Stone (McDonald 2013). These rather nasty looking serpent faces have noses or perhaps tongues that curl up and back (Ibid.). They are probably adorned by star signs (Ibid.). Revealed in the dragons’ mouths are two more deities, represented as two anthropomorphic heads sticking out of the animal bulks (Ibid.). Such imagery is typical of the Mayan god, Kukulcan (the equivalent of Quetzacoatl), who has been similarly represented among others in Chichen Itza (Mexico) or Mixco Viejo (Guatemala) as a feathered serpent with a human head protruding out of its open jaws. Yet the gods on the Calendar Stone are identified by archaeologists as other deities. The left god is probably the Sun god and one on the right is the fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli (Ibid.). One interesting thing about more or less human looking faces of the deities on this stone is that they all look quite ferocious (Ibid.). They have got open mouths as if screaming or biting in a hostile and aggressive manner (Ibid.).

In the margin of the Circle

But It is not the end of the mysteries of the Stone (McDonald 2013). The ragged looking edges of the Calendar Stone have some meaning as well (Ibid.).

Depiction of Itzpapalotl, Queen of the Tzitzimimeh, known as Aztec star demons. Illustration from the Codex Borgia. Painting: “A drawing of Itzpapalotl, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgio”. By an Unknown author. Public domain. Source: “Tzitzimitl” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These unfinished looking side areas depict the constellations or, as the Aztecs called them Tzitzimimeh, which means star demons (McDonald 2013; “Tzitzimitl” 2020). They were “associated with the stars and especially the stars that can be seen around the Sun during a solar eclipse. This was interpreted as the Tzitzimimeh attacking the Sun, thus causing the belief that during a solar eclipse, the tzitzimime would descend to the earth and possess men” (“Tzitzimitl” 2020). These demonic beings were terrifying to the Aztecs as they were responsible for the eclipse of the Sun and by extension for the death of the Sun and the Earth (McDonald 2013). Eclipses were the moments of terror for the populace of the Aztecs and the only thing they could do to keep the Sun moving in the sky was to feed it human hearts and blood, as much as the gods once sacrificed themselves in order to create the Sun, the Earth and the Moon (Ibid.).

The Queen observing the ceremony of offering human sacrifice at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the Queen played by Diana Botello. Photo: “Sophisticated culture … Apocalypto”. Source: Alex Von Tunzelmann (2008) In: “Apocalypto and the end of the wrong civilisation”. In: The Guardian.

Star demons were part of the Mesoamerican cosmic mythology but it does not mean that the Aztecs did not understand the eclipse phenomenon. Such an assumption would be rather peculiar, providing that Mesoamerican cultures used to reflect important astronomical events not only through their art but also in layouts of their whole cities. The Calendar Stone itself is a complex mechanism combining the Aztec multi-dimensional understanding of time with particular dates and astronomical events. And even though the Aztecs dressed most celestial bodies and events in colourful mythical costumes, they held the essential knowledge of the universe and its cosmic scheme. It is probable, however, that such knowledge was ultimately reserved for the Aztec elite, namely emperors and priests, in order to keep control over the peoples within the Empire and to threaten their enemies.

Fragment from Apocalypto (2006): Director: Mel Gibson; Writer: Farhad Safinia Stars: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Gerardo Taracena; Network: Touchstone Pictures. Icon Productions.
Although the film tells the story of the Mayas, it looks more like a portrayal of the Aztec Empire just in the eve of the Spanish Conquest (see: Von Tunzelmann A. (2008). The fragment shows the solar eclipse and the reason of the Aztec dominance due to their astronomical knowledge. Source: vsprlnd25 (2012). In: vsprlnd25 Youtube Channel.

Such an idea has been well represented in one of the scenes from the film Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson (2006). Although the director has meant to represent the culture of the Maya, its interpretation rather fits the Aztecs and their ceremony of massive human sacrifice in the city of Tenochtitlan. In the scene, when the eclipse of the Sun takes place, darkness falls down on the crowd at the foot of the pyramid. It looks as if the end of the world was coming. People are terrified, the next victim is stretched over the altar and waiting for cruel death. But the emperor and the High Priest are not afraid. They exchange a knowing look as if they knew what is going to happen. Another religious attendant is theatrically entering into trance, while the High Priest is assuring the gathered faithful that the gods have been sated by the offered sacrifice; hence they will spare the Sun and life. Finally, he turns to the gods asking them to let the Sun shine again. And after a while, the Sun reappears in the sky. The crowd is cheering. The Aztec elite has once again legitimized their power and right to intermediate between people and the deities.

The Stone of Tizoc

Apart from the Sunstone, probably the best and most interesting example of other Aztec stones to look at is the Stone of Tizoc (McDonald 2013). This is also because it may shed some light on the meaning on the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). By comparing both monuments, it can be seen what a masterpiece and a great accomplishment the Sunstone is (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc. The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. Photo: “The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens”. Source: George Grant MacCurdy, An Aztec “Calendar Stone” in Yale University Museum, American Anthropologist, (Oct. – Dec., 1910), pp. 481-496.

The Stone of Tizoc was found buried in the Zocalo just a year after the Calendar Stone was found, namely in 1791 (McDonald 2013). Tizoc was the Aztec tlatoani (1481-1486) who came just after Axayacatl (1469-1481) (Ibid.). He was not a very successful emperor and so he did not reign very long, just about six years (Ibid.). Yet his stone is a masterwork of propaganda and cosmic imagery (Ibid.). It is proportionally thicker than the Calendar Stone but has a much simpler design on its topmost surface (Ibid.). The image there is probably meant to be a solar disc and it is very similar to the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). Although much simplified (Ibid.). There is also a carved depression in its center, which was meant to hold the blood and hearts of sacrificed warriors (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). Hence it is likely that this stone was used as Cuauhxicalli for holy sacrifices (McDonald 2013).

Tom sides of the Stone of Tizoc represent historical, though mythologized scenes. Its size is impressive while observed beside the Museum visitors. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. Photo: “Piedra de Tízoc original. Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City” (2006). No machine-readable author provided. GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The most interesting part of the Stone of Tizoc is actually represented on its tom sides (McDonald 2013). First of all, there are fifteen repeated images of Tizoc carved in very sharp cut but fairly shallow relief on the surface (Ibid.). Tizoc is not shown as himself but rather in the guise of the god Tetzcatlipoca, known as the Smoking Mirror, or Huitzilopotchtli – the patron deity of the Aztecs (Ibid.). The scenes depict Tizoc conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the personified town (Ibid.) (likewise pharaohs are represented in Egypt while fighting back their enemies). In reality Tizoc had a reputation of a coward and an unsuccessful ruler (Ibid.). But the interesting thing about the Tizoc monument is that it combines historical events and places with the cosmic ones, just like the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). As such, they both serve at once as a historical document and a religious one (Ibid.). Tizoc has been shown conquering or rather claiming to have conquered real places, like Xochimilco (Ibid.). On the other hand, he has got a divine mission (Ibid.). On the surface of the sacrificial stone there is probably depicted the Sun, on the underside – the Earth Monster; in such a context, Tizoc is depicted just between them, metaphorically holding apart the Sun from the Earth (Ibid.). So this device gives a ruler the central role, not only in military expansion but in cosmic terms, just like in the Maya world, or elsewhere in other ancient cultures beyond America (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc (detail). The scenes depict Tizoc
conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif
in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the
personified town. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Calendar Stone is similar in its meaning to the Stone of Tizoc but even more significant (McDonald 2013). As it seems, It functions at several levels at the same time (Ibid.). It combines some historical dates with the cosmic scheme of creation and destruction of the previous worlds/eras or the suns (Ibid.). And it commands in a sense a continuation of sacrifices to the gods through its imagery and places all these variables in the mandala like scheme of really great complexity (Ibid.).

Definition of the Disc

Not all is still understood about the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). So great is the content and the information depicted (Ibid.). Whatever the final and exact interpretation of the Sunstone is, it gives some interesting knowledge about Mesoamerican cultures and their relation to the cosmic scheme of the universe and their deities (Ibid.). The Calendar Disc also contains “millennia of accumulated astronomical knowledge and wisdom” (Aztekayolokalli 2012). It combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. “It was not just a way to keep time – it was a complete philosophy of time in which every day had a religious significance. [The Aztecs] also believed that time went in cycles – ultimately in the repeated destruction and recreation of the world” (Gillan 2019).

The Calendar Stone combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As Dr McDonald (2013) also believes the enormous sculpture of the Calendar Stone not only has encoded a message about the cataclysm and cosmic destruction but also the warlike imagery of the Aztec nation itself. It must have been an imposing and threatening message to those who saw it (Ibid.). There was serious intimidation going on there and cooperation must have been coerced through the art (Ibid.). The very shape of the stone itself calls to mind the ultimate human sacrifice of blood and hearts (Ibid.). This was the kind of monument which reminded the populace of Tenochtitlan and of the peripheral provinces of the Empire of the power of the gods and of the rulers and state itself (Ibid.). The destruction of the Sun and the universe hung in the balance, so obviously obeying the authorities was the best course to follow for survival (Ibid.).

Featured image: Calendar Aztec Stone in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. Photo by Dezalb (2018). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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Images of the ‘Infancy Gospels’ on Medieval Clay Tiles

Once again I found myself among the finest artefacts gathered by the British Museum; I felt as if I had been in the middle of piled or scattered volumes, surrounding me and calling for being opened and read. Walking up and down between all the museal objects, without paying them enough attention, would be like skipping pages of those books and missing their stories. It is worth thus choosing one and read it from cover to cover.

Room 40 in the British Museum

At that time, the Room 40 of the Medieval Europe galleries was my destination for homework; I was studying one of the core modules of Medieval Cultures at Birkbeck College and was analysing medieval artefacts preserved by the Museum for the following class. There were just few people around so I decided to squat on the floor and making my notes in front of ‘my homework’. Those were eight red clay tiles resembling large domino blocks of 33 centimetres long and 16 centimetres wide, but without black dots (The British Museum I 2021).

Instead, there were intriguing medieval representations of apocrypha scenes related to the unknown events of Jesus Christ’s lifetime, which is not recorded in the canonical Bible (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1). Such artistic documents do not only seem uncommon in traditional representations of the Christ but may be also provocative in their interpretations (Casey 2007:1). First of all, the official image of Jesus known from the writings and art stand here in sharp contrast to the illustration of Christ provided by the tiles, especially because they depict and regard Him as a Child at the age between five and twelve (Ibid.:1). Such images, however, do not belong to a canonical tradition of the Gospels but are taken possibly from the anonymous second century’s Apocryphal Infancy of Christ Gospels, translated into art in the form of the earthenware rectangular tiles in the fourteenth century AD., precisely circa 1330 (Casey 2007:1; The British Museum I 2021).

Biblical story of the Child Jesus

The four Gospels written by tradition by the Evangelists, Saint Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only recognized source of Christ’s life and ministry (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Nazareth as depicted on a Byzantine mosaic (Chora Church, Constantinople) (created between 1315-1320). Meister der Kahriye-Cami-Kirche in Istanbul – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202. Public domain. Colours intensified, Image source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Marble sculpture of “Christ as the Teacher” (Cristo docente) by anonymous early Christian Roman sculptor (the fourth century AD.) Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome. Photo source: Weitzmann, K., ed. (1979). “Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century:”, p. 524; statue: 469. In: MET Publications.

According to the Evangelists, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew, the Holy Family, after their stay in Egypt, returned to Nazareth in Galilee (Rops 1944:109). Little Christ’s homeland was just that little town, white and green, situated on the slope of the rolling hills that enclose the Jezreel Valley to the north (Ibid.:111). The streets and houses of Nazareth are like all the streets and houses of the East (Ibid.:111). The city is only distinguished by the number of its churches, monasteries and bell towers; it is surrounded by a semi-circle of gently rolling hills dotted with villages with houses made of white clay (Rops 1944:111). Among the olives, the vineyards and grain fields, bullets of black cypress trees shoot up into the sky (Ibid.:111). The gardens of Nazareth are full of lilies and verbenas, and on many walls of its houses, juicy flowers of bougainvillea spread their covers in the colour of episcopal purple (Ibid.:111). It was in this environment that Jesus the Child grew up (Ibid.:111). However, one should not imagine him under the very graceful figure represented by a late antique statue from the fourth century, known as Jesus the Teacher, preserved in the National Museum of Baths of Diocletian in Rome: he is represented there too calm, too well-mannered, and hieratic in his long pleated tunic (Ibid.:111). Rather, it should be assumed that little Jesus looked like one of those lively, nervous kids that one still meets on the roads of Palestine, lightly dressed, barefoot, with an expression of great intelligence on passionate and serious faces (Ibid.:111).

The House of the Holy Family

The life of the Holy Family, whose secrets so many painters wanted to represent, was passing in one of the modest houses of Nazareth, one of those that can still be seen today (Rops 1944:111). There is usually only one room inside them; there is a sweet smell of oil in the air; smoke from the fire often comes out only through the door; in the evening, a clay lamp placed on an iron candle, or on a stone protruding from the wall, casts a dim light (Ibid.:111).

In the modern town of Nazareth, there are plenty of monuments ascribed to the times of Christ Child: the Basilica of Annunciation with said remains of the house of the Virgin Mary, the Mary’s Well or Joseph’s workshop. Based on various archaeological excavations, it is assumed the Holy Family’s house looked like the one in which the Archangel Gabriel announced Mary she would conceive and bear the Son of God (today overbuilt with the walls of the Basilica of the Annunciation); it was probably largely underground, embedded in the soft local limestone; God’s Child was to walk up its rather primitive stairs, in the contemporary Basilica, they are today decorated with mosaics (Rops 1944:111-112).

Bejt-haseter

Jesus received the education that all young Israelites received; it seems that at that time there were whole cycles of studies described by the Talmud (Rops 1944:112). They were dependent on the synagogue, and they were led by a hassan, someone like a sacristan, perhaps the administrator of a venerable place, where the faithful gathered (Ibid.:112). In the bejt-haseter, an elementary school, boys, sitting around the great scroll of the Law, repeated the verses of the Torah in chorus until they had memorized them perfectly (Ibid.:112).

Probably, the adolescent Jesus did not pursue further studies in one of the rabbinical schools that existed near Nazareth (Ibid.:112). This assumption is supported by an openly expressed amazement of Jesus’ family members and acquaintances who heard his wise preaching in God’s matters (Ibid.:112).

Finding in the Temple

Jesus, therefore, grew up in Nazareth living in a modest house with his mother and adoptive father, Joseph, and after his death, He lived in the company of numerous cousins (Rops 1944:113). The canonical messages regarding this period are limited (Ibid.:113): “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him” (Luke 2:40). And only one episode of this time is known from the Bible; namely, the one that happened in the twelfth year of Jesus’ life, when a young Jew was becoming a man and a “son” of the Law (Ibid.:113).

Christ among the Doctors, c. 1560, by Paolo Veronese. Public domain. Colours intensified. Painting source: “Finding in the Temple” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The event in question is the famous scene from the Temple; Mary and Joseph, as devout Jews, went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (Rops 1944:113). Perhaps for the first time they took the Son with them (Ibid.:113). In the evening of the first day of their journey back, Joseph and Mary were looking for Jesus among their friends and relatives (Ibid.:114). They did not him all day, but assumed that he had joined some group of relatives or friends (Ibid.:114). Extremely worried, they returned to Jerusalem and it took them three days to finally find Him in the Temple (Ibid.:114). In its cloisters, surrounded by a circle of students, the wise men taught; the children squeezed into the crowd of listeners and were sometimes allowed to ask questions (Ibid.:114).

The twelve-year-old Jesus, however, was not among the listeners but sat among the wise men of Israel (Rops 1944:114), and “[everyone] who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you ‘.’ Why were you searching for me? ‘ [Jesus] asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ “(Luke 2: 48-49). Jesus’ words show that He is fully aware of his mission. There is also the teaching of the Gospel that whoever wants to follow Christ must sever all human ties and bonds (Ibid.:114).

‘Unofficial’ God’s life

This one and only event in Jesus’ childhood, described in detail in the Bible, though so eloquent, has not satisfied yet the curiosity of the crowds since the first centuries of Christianity through the Middle Ages to the present day (Rops 1944:114).

New Testament Apocrypha. First page of the Gospel of Judas (Page 33 of Codex Tchacos). Uploaded by WolfgangRieger (2009).”The Gospel of Judas. Critical Edition”. Washington 2007. Public domain. Photo source: “Infancy gospels” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There are yet other ancient records of Christ’s life but apocryphal, that is to say officially rejected from the standard Bible, though not sanctioned by the Church (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “In everyday conversation ‘apocryphal’ refers to a story of doubtful authenticity, but one that is nevertheless told frequently, perhaps even believed widely. The New Testament apocrypha are books accepted by neither Catholic nor Protestant faiths, although artists and theologians have used them as sources of information and ideas” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).  Especially in the Middle Ages, the apocrypha was used to elaborate on gaps in the Gospel stories, which were thought fairly sparse in details about the life of Christ (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007; Austin Date unknown). “Apocryphal stories, [such as the one] based on the dream of Pilate’s wife, […] or of the forging of the nails for Christ’s crucifixion were [therefore] incorporated into medieval mystery plays and were an integral part of the imaginative religious experience” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). The light and colour used in the art of churches and cathedrals additionally embellished the words heard from priests during their homilies; by various artistic expressions, people who everyday experienced poor and hard conditions, could admire the splendour and dignity of the image of the mighty and omnipresent God who yet became Man and suffered for the sins of mankind. At the time, when Biblical stories were accessed in paintings and sculpture for the illiterate populace, their main characters were treated similarly to modern celebrities, and like today, common people wished to know more details about their lives than the official version of the Church was able to offer.

Jesus between His years five and twelve

“One of the most frustrating  absences in the Gospels is the early years of Christ’s life, [that id to say when He is between five and twelve. In the Bible, “Christ is encountered as an infant and then later as an adolescent disputing with the doctors of the law in the Temple but no mention is made of His upbringing or his relationship with his parents” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Nazareth,1842. In the Holy Land Book. Image by David Roberts. Public domain. Photo source: “Christ Child” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the eyes of contemporary people, this gap had successfully been complemented by the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, believed to have been written anonymously by early Christians from the second century AD., who imaginatively tried to create their own fictional version of what Jesus’ childhood might have been like (Casey 2007:3). Yet these imaginary pictures were quite successfully interwoven with the canonical portrayal of Jesus’ life (Ibid.:3-4). Simultaneously, the apocrypha author built up the stories around their own experiences in the process of the development of Christianity (Ibid.:3; see Elliott ed. 2005).

Anecdotes about the Christ’s Childhood

Surely, the Infancy Gospels had circulated in oral tradition before a series of their written compilations appeared (Casey 2007:4). From the very beginning, however, all of them shared several cohesive narrative elements (Ibid.:4). Central to this genre is the Gospel of Thomas dating back to the second century (Ibid.:4). It “describes the doings of Jesus during his boyhood, no record of which exists in the canonical gospels.  According to Thomas, Jesus proved to be an infant prodigy at school, instructing his teachers in the unsuspected mysteries of the alphabet and astonishing his family and friends by the miracles that he performed” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown). The Infancy Gospels tell a lot of different anecdotes about this unknown period of Christ’ childhood (Rops 1944:114-115). Some of them are famous and charming; Jesus, playing with His companions, makes birds out of clay, and then gives them life, and when He claps his hands, the wonderful creatures start flying in the air (Ibid.:115). Jesus is also playing with the other children at the entrance to the grotto, and then suddenly two huge snakes come out of it; the joyful flock runs away screaming, only Jesus remains and calmly orders the dangerous beasts to place their heads under the feet of His Mother, Mary (Ibid.:115).

Jesus (on the right) animating the clay bird toys of his playmates. Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, Germania, 14th century. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Apocrypha also attributes many miracles to Christ Child (Rops 1944:115). Many of them are modelled on the miracles of the canonical Gospels; they tell that one seed Child Jesus planted is enough to feed an entire city in times of famine (Ibid.:115). Another time, the Apocrypha depict the young worker who is resurrected by Christ (Ibid.:115). Other miracles are rather magical; Jesus, riding the mule, turns the spell on him and the animal becomes a beautiful youth again (Ibid.:115). Another miracle tells that as the little Christ calls out, the salted fish begins to roll and flutter (Ibid.:115). Another time at school, when a teacher starts teaching Jesus the alphabet, the Child proves that he can do it, even though he has not learned it before (Ibid.:115).

Other apocryphal miracles can seem utterly repulsive while being attributed to the Son of God; when the same teacher wants to punish his rebellious Student, he sees at once that his hand is withered (Rops 1944:115). In turn, to show off His power to His playmates, Jesus turns one of them into a ram, another, who poked Him, becomes stroke dead (Ibid.:115).

Apocrypha in art

In the eighth or ninth centuries, the Gospel of Thomas was furthermore compiled with the Protevangelium of James, including the Apocrypha of the Virgin Mary (Casey 2007:4).  As such, it formed the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.:4; see Elliott ed. 2005). And when the cult of the Virgin Mary had grown since the twelfth century, an interest in her Parents’ lives and the Holy Family with the Christ Child in the center also raised, and so did the interest in the Apocrypha, which was mainly reflected through art in the whole Christian world (Robinson et al. 2008:118). As such all these, more or less known apocryphal fairy tales served especially as a source of inspiration for the painters and sculptors of the Middle Ages; paintings and mosaics of small churches and images of Gothic cathedrals are full of memories of these Christian legends (Rops 1944:115).

Saint Anne ( circa ninth century AD). Nubian wall painting. By unknown author. The National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain. Source: “Saint Anne (wall painting)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is enough to mention a set of wall paintings created inside the Nubian church of Faras, with the representations known ultimately from the Apocrypha. Among them, there is the eight century’s famous representation of the Virgin Mary’s Mother, Saint Anne with her mysterious gesture of pointing her index finger to the lips (see: Saint Anne of Nubia – “it will make you speechless”.). “Scenes such as these are [also] depicted in the [fourteenth century’s] Tring Tiles” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).

Medieval apocryphal writings

With the late twelfth century, an increased fascinations with the humanity of the Christ, especially with His childhood, had further inspired the creation of a large number of manuscripts, which mainly originated from the writings of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, many of which were written in vernacular languages (Casey 2007:4). Such extensive compilation of the Infancy stories, along with the French manuscript Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 (circa 1325), combined of the Anglo-Norman manuscript, Les Enfaunces de Jesu Crist and an Apocalypse manuscript, were apparently the foundations of the now lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:4-5). Although the Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 is the most complete medieval illuminated manuscript with the Infancy Gospel stories, its illustrated simple and miniature figures significantly vary with the style of highly expressive and highly caricatured images on the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:5).

Red clay tiles

The Tring Tiles, ceramic pieces of 3,5 centimetres in thickness, were made in the technique known as sgraffito, an expensive hand-worked process popular especially in France (The British Museum I 2021; Austin Date unknown), which involves “decorating ceramics [where] a substrate, usually ‘slip’, is incised to reveal the contrasting ground underneath” (The British Museum I 2021). Obtained in this way slip-decorated designs on the tiles were additionally lead-glazed (Ibid.). The group of tiles was uncovered during the late Victorian (the mid-nineteenth century) restoration of Tring Parish Church in Hertfordshire, which has given the tiles its name (Casey 2007:7; Austin Date unknown).

Four of the Tring Tiles preserved by the British Museum; Room 40 in the Medieval Gallery. Image cropped and colours intensified.. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

“Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring” (Munday 2018), it is not sure if they had originally been laid down in the church or only preserved or applied there after being moved from elsewhere, even from abroad (Austin Date unknown; Munday 2018). “More research into the origins of the tiles needs to be done, for the mystery is still far from solved” (Ibid.). Nevertheless, “the peculiar character of their sgraffito design, may suggest that they were produced in the east of England, where this technique was popular on pottery” (British Museum II 2021).

Having been found, the tiles were continuously passed through many hands before achieving their final place: nowadays, ten complete tiles and a few fragments are known, of which the eight are preserved in the British Museum and the two, saved by a local resident, are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum (The British Museum I 2021; Casey 2007:7-8; Austin Date unknown).

Still their number is not complete; the tiles must have been part of a much larger scheme, unfortunately now lost (Robinson et al. 2008:118). Their condition is surprisingly good, and for this reason, it is believed that the tiles had never been walked on in a pavement of the church floor but were possibly used as a frieze set on the walls of the chancel (Austin Date unknown; the British Museum I 2021). What message were they to convey?

Featured image: The Wedding Feast at Cana (Fig.4), represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology;
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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