|An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments, Hans Holbein the Younger|
I came across this little beauty a couple of months ago in the National Gallery of Scotland. Unfortunately then I didn't have time to look at it or to even glance at the name of the author, and it was just recently that I managed to go back to explore it. it turned out to be a work by a very accomplished 16th century painter Hans Holbein the Younger (painter to Henry VIII).
I found myself captured by the painting not only because of this little guy with eyes like headlights lying underneath the skeleton but because it is the perfect illustration of theological believes of the 16th century. A perfect example of how art, theology and Biblical narrative can be rolled in to one and used for religious propaganda, in this case for protestant propaganda.
The image can be read clockwise from Adam and Eve to Jesus climbing out of the tomb, the narrative follows the biblical chronology. The Christian story here starts with the first couple at the tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3). The snake interpreted as a devil in Christian belief is shown here with a female face similar to Eve's, to make the connection between the two even stronger they are shown as friends exchanging secrets. The first couple is in the postlapsarian state - having eaten the fruit and covering themselves up. Their action brought sin (PECCATVM) and introduced death (Mors) in to the world. Above them is Moses receiving the tablets with the 10 commandments or the law (LEX). Below him is the Brazen Serpent on a cross, a reference to which is found in Numbers 21:4-9 - an event when Moses gives the Israelites a bronze serpent that cures snake bites (this seems a bit reminiscent of the Rod of Asclepius). The serpent is also mentioned in 2 Kings 18:4 were King Hezekiah declares that the image of the serpent must be destroyed because it became an idol. The traditional Christian interpretation would be that the bronze serpent served as a symbol for each individual Israelite to take their confession of sin and the need for God’s deliverance to heart. This interpretation is reinforced here with the inscription MYSTERIVM IVSTIFICATIONIS - mystery justification.
The painting is also divided in to two vertical planes by the tree and the scenes on the right (New Testament) are coupled with the scenes on the left (Old Testament) (a note: here the OT scenes are not meant to be and are not shown as the prefiguration of NT events) . For example Moses receiving the law is juxtaposed with Mary and a flying baby with a cross - the image of divine Annunciation, the ultimate gift of God to humanity - his son and grace (GRATIA). Bellow the Annunciation/conception scene we find Jesus preaching to his disciples. This is presented as the antithesis to Adam and Eve. The knowledge given by the forbidden fruit led to the fall yet the teachings of the lamb of God (AGNVS DEI) lead to redemption. And the mysterious justification is juxtaposed with 'our justification' (IVSTIFICATIO NOSTRA) - Christ on the Cross. And all this finishes with the Resurrection of Christ an his victory over death (skeleton) and sin (the devil holding the globe) (VICTORIA NOSTRA). This last image is not so much a reference to the scripture as to the apocriphal believe of the harrowing of hell. Harrowing of hell is an epic story that explains what Jesus was doing the three days that he was dead, that is he was in hell batling with the devil over human souls (there are some awesome art works of this). Thus here Jesus is shown victorious over death.
Caught between the two allegories, in front of what is plausibly the tree of life and death, we see a man (HOMO), on his right is prophet Isaiah (ESAYAS PROPHETAS) on whose 'prophesies' Christianity heavily relied, the most important of them is cited in the painting.
On the other side of the man is the second important prophet of Christianity - John the Baptist with a quote from John 1:29
'The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'
The painting is the perfect illustration of theology of its day and religious politics. The left side with the barren tree, darker colors, and scenes of sin and death entering the world must be seen as Catholicism. This is reinforced by Moses and the law which is meant to be interpreted that all Catholicism ever cared about is dogma and rules. The right side where the tree is in bloom and the colour palette reminds of spring represents Protestantism a faith that shows itself as knowing what Christianity is really all about - Grace, salvation, and victory over sin.
It is interesting that Holbein uses a binary system similar to that Christians used against the Jews with similar accusations. For example in representations of Ecclesia and Synagoga (Church and Synagogue). Ecclesia is shown as majestic whereas Synagoga is shown blind to the new revelation and grasping/clinging on to her dated laws.
In a really strange way this binary system seems to also be applied now in the science vs religion debate, then again I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's 'Case for God' so I might be imagining things. And yet the accusations that the Catholics assigned to Jews are similar to those the Protestants gave to Catholics and are now similar to those the fundamental/Dawkin’s atheists are assigning to religion..
As for me I am captivated how different aspects of the devil are represented differently: Devil the tempter, seducing to sin has a female face. The defeated Devil is a hybrid of Harry Potter's Dobby and Dr Who's Homo Reptiles as awesome as these analogies sound to me the image would be a combination of everything repulsing for its original viewership. It is interesting that the seductive devil was made believable to be capable of seduction and yet gross enough for the viewer to know the dangers of being seduced and the defeated devil was so disgusting that the viewer would have no pity. In other words in art God seems to have only one face the devil – thousands and in some cases unless you know the story well enough to know it’s the devil you might not guess it is