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Representation of the image of the Lord in the mosaic of abbot Theodulf at Germigny-des-Prés
Keywords: interpretation, cherubs, apse, the Arc of the Covenant, iconographic program, oratory, Theodulf, Germigny-des-Prés, mosaic, the Carolingian era
Article was received: 16-12-2017
Review date: 26-12-2017
Publish date: 06-01-2018
The oratory at Germigny-des-Prés was built in 803-806 against the order of abbot of the nearby monastery Fleury-sur-Loire Theodulf as a place for private devotion. Theodulf devoted it to the “Creator and Savior of all things” and decorated it with mosaic, stucco work and marble” [1, p. 128-129].
The oratory initially had a shape of the Greek cross with apsidioles on all the four sides, and was intended to be used in Theodulf’s villa Germiniacum. The plan chosen by the architect was very close to the plan of the Etchmiadzin church after its reconstruction in 628 [2, p.16]. Side apsidioles around the Eastern apse were revealed during the excavations in 1930 [3, p. 150-152].
The later reconstructions (15th – 16th centuries) transformed Theodulf’s oratory into a basilica. A sign denoting the former border of the Carolingian church preserved in the eastern part of the basilica.
In the 19th century, the church endured several restorations, which led to the loss of the initial sculpture decoration of the apse. Restorations were headed by Albert Delton (1841-1856) and then by Juste Lisch (1866-1870s). However, as A.-O. Poilpré notes, there’s no document testifying to a finishing date of reconstruction of the eastern apse. Moreover, the idea about the original external and internal appearance of the apse with the Carolingian mosaic is also a disputable issue . This mosaic was found in 1841 by L.A. Marchand in the conch of the eastern apse after some tesserae had fallen. Nothing was known about it for many years, since it had been coated by plaster covering the surface of the apse. The disclosure of the mosaic and the results of further restorations hadn’t been thoroughly documented ; it caused some ambiguity about the authenticity of particular details of the composition that are significant for its interpretation – also a questionable issue. However, the range of the preserved images of the mosaic, which had been made at the earliest stage or its disclosure and restoration, made it clear that in general, the mosaic of the conch of the apse hadn’t been radically changed; therefore it is possible to interpret it using the existing iconographic composition. The relative integrity of the figurative scene is proved by the first images made in the early 184os.
Based on the analysis of the range of sources of the 18th century, A.-O. Poilpré formulates several important notes about the time of plastering the mosaic, which she dates the middle of the 18th century . Our work considers the modern ideas about the iconographic program of abbot’s Theodulf’s mosaic and supplements the existing interpretation.
Being the Bishop of Orleans and the abbot of the Fleury-sur-Loire monastery, Theodulf was one of the closest fellows of Charles the Great. He was the member of the Palatine Academy – a palace circle of the most talented poets and philosophers. Theodulf is also known as a poet and theologian, and he undoubtedly participated in the creation of the famous text Libri Carolini written in the context of aniconic disputes in the Byzantine world. This piece of art is a certain response of theologians of Charles the Great to the Second Council of Nicaea or the seventh ecumenical council (787) that not only allowed decorating churches with the images of God and His Saints [7, p. 284], but also defined that the image of God must present the Father and the Son in a single image and take into account that God is Trinity [8, 9]. Libri Carolini demonstrates negative attitude of Charles the Great and his theologians to the decisions of the Council. They were considered heretical, trenching on idolatry, though the Pope had approved those decisions.
Such an attitude of the Carolingian theologians to the decisions of the Council of Nicaea is usually explained by poor translation of the acts of the Council, in which the meaning “worship” was used instead of “veneration”.
As A. Freeman and P. Meyvaert suppose, the text Libri Carolini can be thought of as a personal creature of abbot Theodulf ; that’s why these researchers consider the text as a basis for explaining an unusual iconographic program of the mosaic of the apse of the oratory at Germigny-des-Prés.
The conch of the eastern apse bears the image of the Old Testament Ark against the golden background and two small angels floating above it. The Hand of God appears from the rainbow and points at the Ark. From two sides it is surrounded by two huge angels (cherubs) with their wings spread, touching each other. The left one has a crossed halo, another one’s halo is made of golden tesserae.
There’s a text directly under the mosaic: «Oraclum Holy of Holies et cerubin hic aspice spectans et testament en micat arca Dei Haec cernens precibus que studens pulsare tonantem Theodulfum votis jungito quaeso tuis» (“Look and contemplate this Holy of Holies with cherubs and see here the Ark of the Lord. Before this sight, try to reach the Lord of Thunder with your prayers and don’t hesitate remembering Theodulf in your prayers!”).
There exists the following information on Medieval inscriptions in the church. Three inscriptions are considered: one of them was thought to be a falsification, the second was lost, and the third one was reconstructed and can be found under the mosaic. The first one was discovered in 1847 on the abacus of the north-eastern column; but an article was written in 1923 that claimed that the inscription was a fake made by its discoverers . This inscription was about the dedication of the church in 806 and devotion to St. Genevieve and St. Germain. The inscription starts on the north-eastern column: “This church was dedicated on January 3” and continues on the opposite, south-eastern column: “806 by the prayers of saints Genevieve and Germain”. At the same time, there’s an opinion that it is a 19th-century copy of the original inscription .
The second inscription (which was lost and is only known by Catalogus abbatum Floriacensium ) reads that the church is devoted by Theodulf to God, and anyone who comes to the oratory for prayer should remember Theodulf: «Haec in honore Dei Theodulfus templa sacravi - Quae dum quisquis ades, оrо, memento mei».
Finally, the third inscription we have already mentioned is located directly beneath the mosaic. It was completed during Delton’s restorations according to the text found in Сatalogus abbatum Floriacensiumi (9th or 10th century) [4; 12].
The uniqueness of the iconography of the apse’s composition is usually connected with aniconic ideas of Theodulf. Apparently, the composition depicts the Ark of God standing in the Holy of Holies of the Temple of Solomon. The angels, protecting the Ark, are cherubs – as called by Theodulf. Not willing to depict Christ or the Mother of God directly, in his program Theodulf refers to the Old Testament images that were not forbidden to depict. However, the concept of this composition hasn’t been decoded completely. Among other works, devoted to this monument since the mid-19th century, the key study, considering its preservation and the history of its reconstruction, is the article by A.-O. Poilpré (1998) . The most interesting research, which is supposed to have solved the problem of interpretation of Theodulf’s mosaic, is the work of American scholars A. Freeman and P. Meyvaert . Further we’ll consider their conclusions in more detail.
A. Freeman and P. Meyvaert see not only the Old Testament images in the considered composition. The scholars suppose that the text Libri Carolini, considered by them as a personal creature of abbot Theodulf, is the basis for understanding the program of the oratory at Germigny-des-Prés. In the text, A. Freeman and P. Meyvaert find quotations from the Holy Writ, typological parallels, bridging the plots of the Old and the New Testaments, and various remarks, which they apply to interpreting the mosaic. In the composition they see the theme of the Jordan River, representing christening, twelve stones, piled near Galgala in honor of the priests with the ark crossing the Jordan River like on dry land, apostles and prophets, also symbolized by stones. Large angels – cherubs – above the ark, in the scholars’ opinion, symbolize the New and the Old Testaments, and the left cherub with the crossed halo symbolizes the New Testament. Touching each other with the wings they symbolize the final harmony between the Old and the New Testaments.
The central image of the composition is the Ark of the Covenant. It was subject to thorough restoration; its upper part contains large fragments incorporated in the 19th century. Based on the drawing by Théodore Chrétin, a mosaicist who had revealed and restored the mosaic at the second stage of the restoration works headed by A. Delton (1847-1856), A. Freeman and P. Meyvaert suppose that the Ark is depicted empty and opened. At the same time, based on the analysis of Libri Carolini, the scholars suggest the idea that the Ark of the Covenant symbolizes Christ, and manna, which had been stored inside it together with the tables and Aaron’r rod, recalls the sacrament of the Eucharist .
A complex system of interpreting ideas incorporated into the program of the mosaic, proposed by A. Freeman and P. Meyvaert, very likely fits in the system of our ideas about the symbolical way of thinking of a medieval abbot solving the task of depicting of the “world unseen” by human eye. It is also closely connected with the representation of the idea of the Biblical typology, depicting the events and images of the New Testament in the images of events and images of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, despite a quite detailed analysis of the program of the mosaic by American scholars, their interpretation is still rather disputable. In 2007 another study was written ; it shows that the hypothesis of the American colleagues hasn’t clarified the situation thoroughly, and the program of abbot Theodulf again attracts scholars’ opinion. G. Mackie suggests the readers not to settle for seen images, but to imply the image of the Mother of God on a throne between the cherubs . The symbolical representation of the world unseen via the images of the world seen, where each subject or phenomenon has more than one meaning and refer to the phenomena of the higher order, is a characteristic feature of medieval worldview.
“Within medieval worldview – both the most abstract and the most everyday – each subject, each principle, each living being express the reality of another, the highest and inviolable law; they are the symbol of this reality” – M. Pastoureau writes in his work on symbolical comprehension of the world in the Middle Ages . The images of Theodulf’s mosaic perfectly demonstrate the correctness of this observation. Though the author of this work doesn’t share G. Mackie’s opinion about the unseen image of the Mother of God between the cherubs, he also believes that the seen images, depicted in the conch of the apse, should merely denote the presence if the unseen, help understand things unreachable by human eye. It becomes particularly important having in mind the aniconic beliefs of Theodulf. However, at the same time the “seen” must be inseparably linked with the “unseen” in such a way to straightforwardly point at the presence of Him, whom Theodulf didn’t dare depicting.
To understand the program, it is important to give attention to two iconographic details (aside from the integrity of the image of the upper part of the Ark) – the crossed halo of one of the large angels and the wound on the Hand of God. The question of authenticity of these fragments hasn’t been resolved categorically, but A.-O. Poilpré believes that these details can with high probability by considered as authentic . We agree that there are no sufficient reasons to cast doubt on the authenticity of these fragments. In case the monks of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, who had looked after the mosaic before it was covered with plaster, made any changes, we can assume that they wouldn’t change iconography due to their reverent attitude to the holy images of the apse. It’s worth noticing that the crossed halo had rather been damaged than improved, since, as judged by the condition of the mosaic, it can’t be excluded that some white tesserae had been replaced with the golden ones. Another important detail is the stain on the Hand of God, which is either interpreted as a wound [4; 16] or as a scar, created by Juste Lisch in the 19th century . We should notice that some drawings and a watercolor of P. Mérimée, painted at the moment of disclosure of the mosaic, there’s no Hand of God at all; it is usually explained by the fact that the mosaic hadn’t been fully revealed at that time . However, the hand appears on the sketch by a mosaicist T. Chrétin, who worked at the second stage of restoration of the mosaic (1847 – 1856). Some researchers believe that J. Lisch merely intensified the shadow that had already been on the Hand and turned it into a wound . In general, the quality of mosaic tesserae on this fragment is the same as the quality of tesserae on the hands of large angels, and can with high probability be considered as an authentic fragment .
Studying various sources of abbot Theodulf’s inspiration, A. Freeman and P. Meyvaert give attention to the text by Venerable Bede De Temple and report that in this text the “number of cherubs has been increased from two to four”; therefore, the text is assumed to have become the source of iconography of the mosaic of the apse in Germigny-des-Prés . Though the possible role of the text as a source of inspiration for Theodulf’s program can’t be denied, we suppose that the primary role in this context belongs to the texts of the Holy Writ containing the description of the Temple of Solomon and the Ark of God. The fact that the apse is decorated with the Holy of Holies of the Temple of Solomon, correlates with both the above mentioned inscription by Theodulf calling upon to contemplate the Holy of Holies and the cherubs, and with the texts of the First Book of Kings (1 Kings 6:19-30). According to this text, the whole Temple was overlaid with gold (1 Kings 6:22) and decorated with the images of cherubs and palm trees. The rich golden background of the lower part of the mosaic, palm motives and cherubs in the elements of mosaic decoration, discovered in 1869 during the restoration works of J. Lisch above the apse’s arch and sketched by the architect Fournier , fully correspond with the Biblical description of the Temple. The images of great creatures, cherubs, touching each other with the wings also correspond with the text (1 Kings 6:27): “He placed them in the middle of the inner chamber; their wings were spread out so that the wing of one touched one of the walls and the wing of the other touched the other wall, while their wings met in the middle of the chamber wing to wing”. It’s not quite obviously seen in the text, how exactly the cherubs looked like, but we can imagine that each of them at least had two wings, like they have in Theodulf’s mosaic. Cherubs, being of the highest angels’ rank in celestial hierarchy , should always be near God and protect His Glory. The description of cherubs and seraphim standing near the Celestial Throne, can be found in the Holy Writ in the prophets’ visions (Ezekiel 10:1-22, Isaiah 6:2-3) where their appearance significantly differs from the appearance of angels sent to humans with assignments (Genesis 28:12; 32:1; Judges 2:1-4, Psalms 90:11; Matthew 18:10, Acts 12:7-10). But Theodulf’s composition doesn’t reflect this difference.
The description of the cover of the Ark of the Covenant and small cherubs on it is given in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 25:17-21): “Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you”. It’s important to note that, according to this text, the cherubs and the cover were a single whole. Placed on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, the cherubs at the same time symbolized the Celestial Throne and protected the Glory of the Lord located between the cherubs (Exodus 25:22): “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites”.
Thus, taking into account the description of the Ark of the Covenant in the Biblical text, the presence of small cherubs speaks for the fact that the Ark is depicted with the cover, not open, as A. Freeman and P. Meyvaert suppose based upon the sketch by Théodore Chrétin, where the ark is depicted without a cover and empty [20, fig. 4]. However, the watercolors by P. Mérimée (1841) [20, fig. 1] and A. Delton [20, fig. 2] don’t suggest such a conclusion. The artist could have developed such an image due to great losses of golden tesserae in the depiction of the upper part of the ark that should have been completed by him.
A. Freeman and P. Meyvaert also believe that Theodulf saw a pre-image of Christ in the Ark of the Covenant as the Eucharist that had been happening below at the Lord’s table , and the Hand of Gog stretching from the rainbow pointed exactly at the Lord’s table. The empty ark, in their opinion, would in this case symbolize the implementation of the celestial promise.
Unfortunately, the modern condition of the monument doesn’t allow us to come to a straightforward conclusion either about the representation of the cover of the ark – whether it was closed or half open – either about another question – whether it was full with sacred objects or empty. A vast area of restorations in the image of the ark doesn’t allow making conclusions about the initial concept of the author of the program using merely the analysis of the preserved fragments. The meaning of a large number of white tesserae in the upper part of the ark is neither known.
On the other hand, the texts of the Holy Writ describe the Holy of the Holies of the Temple of Solomon in detail: golden walls with palms and cherubs, and two large cherubs, touching walls and each other with the wings, and the Ark between them. According to the description of the Ark, on its golden cover there are two small cherubs, and it is clearly stated that the Glory of God will be there between the cherubs.
In Theodulf’s mosaic we also see the Ark, gold, four angels (cherubs): two small near the Ark and two large touching each other with the wings spread out. However, we can’t see the image of God in the mandorla, the Glory of God, which, according to the text (Exodus 25:22) could have been between the golden cherubs of the Ark. Probably, that’s why the interpretative arguments mainly focus on the Ark as the key pivot of the composition, the Ark as it is, thus in a strange way ignoring the most important parts of the Biblical text.
However, if these are the Ark and the Holy of Holies, as Theodulf writes, then the angels in his iconographic scheme should be put into correspondence with, firstly, the text of the Holy Writ with the description of the Holy of Holies, and secondly, the text by Theodulf himself (inscription over the mosaic), i.e. personalize not just angels, but cherubs always accompanying the Glory of the Lord! It follows thence that if Theodulf was going to depict the undepictable, the only image that could have been implicit in the composition, i.e. be present unseen by a human eye, is the Glory of God, the Divine Presence (the Shekhinah).
Ultimately not willing to depict the unseen God as seen for human eye, Theodulf refers to the Old Testament experience of representing sacred images and to the Old Testament text. He actually follows the example of Solomon, who had located the golden statues of cherubs and the Ark of Covenant in the Holy of Holies, knowing that it is the place where the Glory of God would be. But Theodulf doesn’t follow this example exactly. For some reason, he doesn’t depict the golden figures of cherubs, but presents the heavenly host in motion, visualizing the fragment, which, in his opinion, can be allowed seeing occasionally. To point at the Divine Preesence, he shows us its eternal, integral escort. Therefore, the Divine Presence – though not depicted, but not the Ark of the Covenant, is the key object of this program, the Glory of God, which, unseen by humans, but perfectly seen by the cherubs supporting it, is present “between the cherubs”. The images of angels in waving garments, floating in the air, and especially the motions of their hands (the fragments untouched by restorers are the most expressive) perfectly correspond with their main purpose – to support and escort the Shekhinah.
It is the first ant the main conclusion, but it is not the end of Theodulf’s polysemantic program. The person, observing the mosaic, wonders: why doesn’t Theodulf follow Solomon’s example literally, depicting not the statues of cherubs, as it is stated in the Biblical text, but the real heavenly host the statues had to symbolize? What’s the sense of such a decision? Apparently, the representation of the vision of the heavenly host allowed Theodulf to fix the Divine Presence in the church categorically, but not merely the possibility of such a presence, as it appears from the text of the Holy Writ. This unseen Glory of God is pointed at by the hands of the cherubs supporting it. The Hand of God from above, stretching from the rainbow - a symbol of the sacred promise of salvation – also points at it, and we can imagine this vertical continuing at the sanctuary, if in the days of Theodulf it was located not in the central but in the eastern part of the apse. And the wound on the Hand of God, since early Christian times symbolizing God the Father, helps solve another problem, especially topical after the Second Council of Nicaea, - representation of the Father and the Son, the Creator and the Savior in a single image.
We should notice that the depiction of God in the Carolingian times is a rare thing in liturgical manuscripts, but probably, aniconic ideas, at least during a quarter of a century, had limited its usage in public art . Theodulf wasn’t unique in his unwillingness to literally depict the Divine Presence. Among rare surviving Carolingian graphic ensembles there are those escaping this theme totally, focusing on a narrative aspect (Saint-Pierre-les-eglises, Shauvigny). But there’s also an alternative example. In Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair, Switzerland, the central apse demonstrates the Glory of God surrounded by cherubs and the choir of angels, singing, apparently, “Holy, holy, holy Lord…” – from the liturgical hymn Sanctus, which, apparently, had become symbolically linked with the image of the Glory of God since the Carolingian times, as can be seen in numerous manuscripts of the Carolingian and the later epochs.
Thus, in Theodulf’s mosaic, the representation of the Glory of God, invisibly present between the cherubs of the Ark, refers to the illustration of the liturgical hymn Sanctus, signifying the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer of the Roman liturgy, extensively established by Charles the Great. It, in its turn, symbolizes the sacrament of Eucharist  at the sanctuary-ark. And again we see the typological parallel – the Old Testament Ark with the Glory of God between cherubs, standing in the Holy of Holies of the Temple of Solomon, and the Christian sanctuary the Eucharist is performed – the greatest sacrament when the Lord manifests himself at the same time as the Sacrificing, Being Sacrificed and Accepting Sacrifice. Comparison of the Ark as a symbol of the Old Testament agreement of God and the people and the Christian sanctuary symbolizes the New Testament of a person with God achieved in the result of the Savior’s sacrifice, demonstrates the integral connection between the Old and the New Testaments, the idea of the Biblical typology perfectly realized by Theodulf.
Later, in the mid-12th century, the typological theme of “the Ark of the Covenant-sanctuary” will be literally depicted in the iconographic scheme of abbot Sugerus in the Quadriga of Aminadab Panel of the basilica at Saint-Denis.