Today, the University of St Andrews Institute of Mediaeval Studies played host to Dr. Juliet Mullins, from University College Cork, who spoke on the topic ‘God Made Visible and Indivisible: Visions of the Crucifixion in Early Mediaeval Ireland.’ She discussed the nuances of the presentation of Christ both in the texts and in artistic works, from metal plaques on alters to elegant standing crosses in stone.
The topic is interesting because in Western culture today, we forget that the cross had a very different symbolic meaning at the inception of the Middle Ages. In the eastern Mediterranean, the association of crucifixion with an ignominious death meant that the crucifixion scenes depicted by artists in the region focused on the pathos of the moment. Ta symbol he situation is somewhat different in Ireland, however.
As a country beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire, Ireland had no such associations. What’s more, it had no native tradition of figural representation. The scenes of the crucifixion in Ireland therefore display a remarkably unique conception of the Christian story. This concept began with the portrayal of Christ on the cross as a victorious figure, one whose body was symbolic of the unity of the church and the beauty of faith.
This sense of the sinless beauty of Christ’s body is paralleled by the depiction of the Irish saints, whose lives of asceticism were conducted in the emulation of Jesus. Together, the saints and Christ created an ideal of the body which is in direct contrast to the perception of the ordinary man, whose moral state was reflected in his illness, injury, or old age.
An interesting demonstration of the place of bodies in the mediaeval religious, intellectual, and geographical mindset is the way people in the Southern Hemisphere, or Antipodes, were imagined. Mediaeval thinkers speculated about whether they were descended from Adam, and whether such descent occurred before or after the Fall as described by the Bible. If before, some Irish thinkers associated them with the same beauty and agelessness exhibited by the body of the saints, since they were untainted by sin. A further extension of this thinking applied these traits to some mythological figures of early Irish literature.
Through an exploration of the attitudes surrounding the depiction of Christ in crucifixion scenes in Ireland, a whole landscape of religious thought emerges into focus. The dichotomy between sin and purity, mortal fallibility and physical beauty reflected in the portrayals of average men, saints, and Christ displays the mediaeval Irish preoccupation with the stages of life and the moral condition of humanity.
Some of Dr. Mullins’ research on this topic can be found on the website of the ‘Christ on the Cross’ research project, where historians have collaborated to explore these topics in more depth.