Biblical mind’s eye

If you’re anything like me, Biblical narrative creates images of each particular scene in your mind’s eye. In a poem about the Nativity I suggested that the “… acute mind’s eye forms images that centuries of art have fashioned”. In the same poem I noted that these images are “… as numerous as those who have them”, and no doubt what you see is very different from that which forms in my mind – that’s inevitable. Artists’ depictions across the centuries will have been the product not only of their own imaginations, but also of what they saw around them. Thus, we find buildings in classical style, or landscapes that seem far removed from those of the Holy Land. Nevertheless, there are sometimes elements that are unsettlingly contemporary: in Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross, the faces of some of the figures surrounding Jesus have punk-like piercings!

It would be difficult to illustrate or describe just what I do imagine. The surroundings of the scenes are neither particularly historic nor contemporary; indeed, there is little if any background at all, but there are certainly the people. Even then they don’t have memorable features; it is perhaps expressions and gestures that figure more prominently. Some of the more familiar events tend to provide the most immediate images: Christ’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana, the feeding of the five thousand, or turning out the money changers and sellers of doves from the temple. But others are of smaller details such, as the soldiers gambling at the foot of the cross – why? I don’t know! Each scene, imprints images in my mind – I can’t prevent it – it seems entirely natural and spontaneous. But I’m glad they do, for isn’t this what brings the narrative to life and enables us to identify with it in a much more personal, vivid and intense way?

If you’re reading this and making sense of my thoughts, it is reassuring! If you think they’re slightly odd – I understand. Yet the artists who, over the centuries, have created images of Biblical events also needed to rely on their own minds’ eyes to inspire their work.

Of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, that experienced by the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has always resonated profoundly with me. They were with him all that time as he walked with them and explained what the scriptures said about him, yet it was only when he blessed and broke bread that they recognised him, and then he vanished from their sight. That precise instant is captured in a small section of a medieval stained-glass window of which I have an illustration. Christ raises his hand in blessing; the two disciples, one at either side, each raise a hand in a gesture of astonishment frequently found in medieval art. I find it very moving that an anonymous stained-glass artist of centuries ago has depicted this miraculous moment in a way that is immediately apparent, through gesture and context, as clearly today as it was when the window was first made. The scene was recreated in the artist/craftsman’s own mind’s eye and reproduced in the beauty of stained glass. It is not as I imagine the scene, but it has a direct impact because the artist and I both share the wonder and significance of it, even though separated by some six to seven hundred years!

Andrew Mayes

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