Welcome to this month’s ArtSmart Roundtable. What is ArtSmart? A couple fellow travel bloggers with an interest in art and I decided to do a roundtable series focused on making our readers “art smart”, e.g. understanding why certain works of art are famous and worth the visit while traveling. This month’s topic is Public Art. At the end of this post are links to the other ArtSmart posts by participating bloggers.
If you ever have a chance to visit Co. Louth in Ireland, make sure you stop by Monasterboice to see the Muiredach Cross. This giant high cross is one of the best preserved early medieval crosses in Ireland. It dates from either the 9th or 10th century and is named after either the commissioning abbott or local king of the area. All four sides of the sculpture are carved with various biblical and theological scenes to act as a visual marker of Christianity.
On the western side, the central image is of the Crucifixion. The image is all about symmetry. Christ is in the middle on the cross with a soldier on either side as well as the heads of the two thieves crucified with him. There are two circular forms that represent the sun and moon. The moon is a symbol of the Old Testament (only slightly illuminating humanity with an incomplete knowledge), and the sun symbolizes the New Testament as the light of Christ shines bright. A bird, either a phoenix or peacock, rests beneath Christ’s feet as a symbol of the Resurrection. To the right of this central scene is the Resurrection. All of these images are familiar if you have visited medieval cathedrals which feature the Crucifixion and Resurrection on the western facade. If you have seen the Bronze Doors of the Florence Baptistery, you’ll recognize the scenes on the vertical axis of the cross: the Arrest of Christ, Doubting Thomas, and Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) evoke the scenes of the Rise of Man on the doors. These images all echo each other by featuring three figures in each panel with similar arm positions to create a sense of unity.
The eastern side of the cross serves as a “greatest hits” of the Old and New Testaments to give you a summary of Christian theological thought. The central panel features the Last Judgement which parallels the Resurrection on its reverse. This image is less symmetrical, but it has repetitive symbols to visually link the two such as a phoenix, the rod and scepter to recall the shape of the cross and the lance of the soldier from the Crucifixion, and the figures of good and evil souls mimic the repentant and non-repentant thieves crucified with Christ. The panels on the vertical axis also echo the western side. In the same area as the Christ as Ruler of All scene is the Adoration of the Magi. This signifies the beginning of Christ bringing the Gentiles into God’s flock since the Magi came from far away lands and they were not Jewish. Below that is an image of Moses striking a rock to provide life-giving water to the Israelites. This pairs with the scene of Doubting Thomas as Moses trusted God’s commandment to receive something which he could see unlike Thomas who refused to believe unless he saw the resurrected Christ.
The north and south sides are much thinner and have fewer narrative panels. Yet those narrative panels also manage to echo each other. You have Pilate washing his hands of Christ’s fate on the south side, and you have the hand of God on the north side. The rest of the panels have animal and abstract interlaced designs that are a key feature of medieval and ancient Celtic art. The object at the top of the cross is a church built in the Irish style which symbolizes the primacy of the Church in life. This entire cross served as a teaching tool to remind medieval Irish Christians of their beliefs and how the Old and New Testament fit into the entire cosmology of their religion. By putting this imagery on an enormous high cross in a public area, it was able to teach a simpler version of what the monks and clergy saw in illuminated manuscripts away from the public.
Image of western side: Row17.
Image of eastern side: Benson Willis.
Image of southern side: Brian Shelly.
This Month’s Fellow ArtSmart Roundtable Articles:
*New!* Leslie of Career Girl Travels: ArtSmart Roundtable: The Not-So-Hidden Marble Tetrarchs in the Piazza San Marco, Venice
Ashley of No Onions Extra Pickles: ArtSmart Roundtable: Has Public Sculpture Lost Its Edge
Jeff of EuroTravelogue: ArtSmart Roundatable: Paris’ Haunted Père Lachaise Cemetery
Jenna of This Is My Happiness: Outdoor Sculpture in Florence
Kelly of Travellious: ArtSmart Roundtable: Jaume Plensas Outdoor Sculptures