Book Review

"Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello" by Jules Lubbock

Michael Vendsel
James Lubbock
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2007

"I know that it is pretty much an old saw that images are the books of the uneducated… But … the prophets totally condemn the notion, taken as axiomatic by the papists, that images stand in place of books." (Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 11, Section 5)

With these words, John Calvin expresses what has been the standard Reformed objection to the liturgical use of images in the late medieval Catholic Church. There is an impiety and liability to idolatry in the very nature of religious imagery, and beyond that they draw attention away from the Word, the place where the power of God for salvation is truly found.

In light of this tradition, the Reformed community has arguably tended to disregard or be outright suspicious of religious art from this period, especially as to its attempt to visually narrate Biblical stories. That is precisely what makes Jules Lubbock's Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello so intriguing. Lubbock attempts to explore the narrative quality of this art, which he sees as having been neglected similarly by the art history community. "The history of style … and the theory of art have succeeded one another as the latest fashion in art-historical writing about the Renaissance," he writes. "All have their place, but the neglect of narrative is regrettable. Likewise the fact that such images were made to assist instruction in Christian doctrine, serving religious and moral ends to which aesthetic ingenuity is the means, is also somewhat neglected. This book is an attempt to remedy the situation." His analysis unearths a profound sophistication in the way these images tell their stories, so much so that he suggests viewing them is better described as reading than as observation.

He introduces the book with a brief history of Christian thinking about the visual arts. "Early Christians, like the Jews," he writes, "had largely observed the second commandment, proscribing both the fabrication and the worship of representational images." By the mid to late fourth century, however, images began to be standard in the decoration of churches, and two centuries later an official approval came from Gregory the Great.

Lubbock takes particular note of the way in which Gregory speaks of images, especially his speaking of them as something to be read. Gregory writes, for example, that "those who do not know letters may at least read by seeing on the walls what they are unable to read in books" [emphasis Lubbock's]. According to Lubbock, "the implication is that just as the literate, those who could read Latin and Greek, can read the words on the pages of a book to learn the substance of a story, so too an illiterate … can 'read' the story from the visual images, and tell the story either to him- or herself, either in silence or reading aloud to others. A picture, therefore, is not a mere reminder of a written text, nor an illustration, it is a text in its own right, a witness to the events or a statement of doctrine just as much as the verbal record."

Lubbock notes that as iconoclastic controversies emerged over the centuries to follow, the precedent for the use of images was taken back to the time of the apostles. Luke himself was allegedly one of the foremost makers of religious images in those days. This apostolic precedent not only served to justify the ongoing production of images but also suggested that images were part of the apostolic deposit of faith. As such, they were of value to even the most literate members of the church. By the time of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, then, there was a broad perception that religious images served a vitally important storytelling function that was of benefit to both the literate and the illiterate. To fail to appreciate that, Lubbock argues, is to fail to appreciate something central.

The bulk of the book is Lubbock's painstaking analysis of the way in which various artists attempted to achieve this objective. Among other things, he considers an altarpiece by Duccio, chapel frescoes by Giotto and Masaccio Brancacci, pulpits by Giovanni Pisano and Donatello, and baptistery doors by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. After a brief introduction, each chapter moves through several frames of each piece (and sometimes all of them), noting the symbolism of sometimes minor details and the ways in which the elements coalesce to form an overarching story. The chapters are full of helpful photographs (many in color) deliberately taken from the angles at which spectators would originally have viewed the images. Lubbock concludes by considering whether spectators can actually be expected to have picked up on the complex meanings he has suggested. He admits that there is not much evidence to go by, but argues that "the little written material which does exist suggests that this kind of spectatorship was indeed practiced … that artists could count upon spectators to linger over and puzzle out their images."

Beautifully bound and printed, the book would be of obvious interest to those with a background in art history or art criticism. It is written at a level, however, where it would also serve well for those without such backgrounds who are simply interested in a deeper appreciation of Christian art from the late medieval and Renaissance periods. Additionally, Lubbock's thesis presents an interesting foil to the stereotype of the Middle Ages as being obsessively concerned with technical scholastic distinctions and less attentive to the narrative structure of Scripture. The book may also be of interest, then, to those with an interest in medieval intellectual history or the history of hermeneutics.

At the same time, the book does not contain much by way of sustained theological analysis of the nature or religious use of images. There is little, for example, that would directly engage the objections Calvin outlines above. Consequently, it would not be as profitable to readers who are interested in theological reflection on the nature of art and its role in liturgy or the history of Protestant-Catholic debate on those questions. The questions it does engage, however, are engaged quite thoroughly, so that the reader comes away with a strong impression of how central the concern for storytelling has been in the history of Christian art.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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