Medieval Art is For Kids – and Grownups Too

As a mom, grandma, and Methodist Sunday School teacher, I know the value of  “expected suspense.”  Lift the flap books are a sure thing for toddlers, even for the 20th time, as are picture books where you already know what will be on the next page.
So it was with church art for illiterate Christians in the Middle Ages. Sometimes the story of Jesus would be on a scroll that the priest would unfold from the top of the pulpit. The first panel might show the Trinity (the headline). Next panel: The Annunciation. Next panel: John the Baptist. 
Nino Zchomeldise, assistant professor in the art & archaeology department at Princeton University, wrote a chapter on one such scroll for the book she edited, “Meaning in Motion: the semantics of movement in medieval art.” (I coveted that book and disclose now that Princeton University Press sent me a copy. I am thrilled to have it and to be able to relate it to an exhibit on view now.) In the panel Zchomeldisediscusses, one can just imagine the wide-eyed worshippers as each part of the story is displayed and told.

The triptych (one panel of wood, flanked by two more panels that can close inward) offered another kind of suspense. As one of the chapters in Zchomeldise’s book explains, the ritual opening of these panels could be a moment of high drama. A lift-the-flap moment to the Nth power.

Now I’m getting to the good part, the part that makes a difference to you. You can see some triptychs on display at the Princeton University Art Museum, part of the medieval alabaster exhibit from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Entitled Objects of Devotion, the exhibit is on view through February 12. It’s free. Get there if you possibly can. 

If your children go to Sunday School, bring them along. Don’t drag them through the whole exhibit, as that will be boring, and some of it (like the disemboweling of St. Edmund) is gory. But these beautiful, small alabaster altar pieces, crafted in England for the homes of the wealthy, are SS lessons in themselves. My top five for children who know something about the life of Christ:

#3  The visit of the Magi (pictured above left). Theologically, the visit of the wise men from the East shows that Christ came to the gentiles as well as the Jews. Visually enjoyable for children, it shows the ox and the ass eating out of the trough in the foreground (aren’t they cute?). Meanwhile Joseph is dozing off, presumably dreaming that he’d better flee to Egypt. The curator’s notes explain all this and it will surely make a vivid impression on children — as it did on the medieval worshipers. 

# 20  The Annunciation, which shows the four angels named in Psalm 85: 10 and 11. In the King James version (conveniently available as part of the exhibit) this psalm declares that “Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” All that happens in this altar piece.

I would also direct them to #19, St.John the Baptist, from Matthew 3:1-4, which we just finished studying at PUMC.  John is surrounded by four-legged animals and birds, quite lovely in the soft marble. It looks sort of like candle wax and the exhibit has a “please touch” panel, where you can compare the soft alabaster with the harder marble and granite.

The children would also recognize #52  Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and

#31 the Ascension  with everyone looking up in awe, and all you see are Christ’s feet suspended in air. So literal.

Plus of course the triptychs, as the early 15th century one on the right. The painted, gilded, wooden triptychs cannot be manipulated by viewers of the exhibit, of course, but you can imagine the dramatic opening when, during the service, the secrets of the Trinity would be revealed. 

 In the 21st century we are so far removed, so superior, so much more artistically and theologically sophisticated than they were in the Middle Ages — yet their art can speak to us, and especially to our children. 

Picture credits:

The Adoration of the Magi, mid-15th century
43.2 x 26.7 cm. (17 x 10 1/2 in.)
The Victoria and Albert Museum
Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Trinity, early 15th century
Alabaster and wood
55.9 x 31.4 cm. (22 x 12 3/8 in.)
The Victoria and Albert Museum
Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s