Fragments of the Gates of Hell

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed I my tweets about Byzantine art over the past day or so. I’ve been revisiting Byzantine art this past week – it’s been quite a while since Justinian and I have hung out together. And I can always use more gold backgrounds in my life, right?

Today, while finishing up my Byzantine projects, I happened to notice some fun details in “anastasis” depictions that have caught my attention. ”Anastasis” is the Greek word for “resurrection.” Depictions of anastasis don’t reference the biblical story of Christ’s resurrection, but are inspired by the Gospel of Nicodemus (also called “Acts of Pilate”), an apocryphal text. These scenes show a triumphant, victorious Christ who has broken the Gates of Hell in order to rescue his Hebrew forbearers. Probably the best known anastasis painting is this one:

Anastasis, Funerary chapel of Theodore Metochites, located at the Monastery of Christ in Chora, 1310-1321

Here, Christ is shown rescuing Adam and Eve from their tombs. Other patriarchs, prophets, and kings wait on the sidelines – perhaps waiting their turn to be rescued by Christ. I like a lot of things in this painting, particularly that Christ and Adam are dressed in similar white robes. Since Christ was perceived as a “new Adam” to reverse the effects of the Fall, I think it’s fitting that they are depicted in matching clothes.

Anyhow, what I noticed today were details at the bottom of this wall painting. The Gates of Hell are depicted in reddish panels, located underneath Christ’s feet. In between the two gates is the defeated Satan, who is wrapped in a bundle. Underneath Christ’s feet there are a bunch of tiny fragments:

Anastasis, detail of funerary chapel of Theodore Metochites, located at the Monastery of Christ in Chora, 1310-1321

It turns out that these fragments are keys, nails, hinges, bolts, locks, and other tiny bits from the locks which sealed the Gates of Hell shut. Christ, in his triumph over death, has burst through the Gates of Hell with a dramatic gesture. From a historical standpoint, these different depictions are especially valuable to scholars and archaeologists. Some scholars have found that this fresco includes the most detailed depictions of keys, locks, etc., that exist and have compared the wall painting to actual historical artifacts.1

I decided to look at the Gospel of Nicodemus to see if there were any specific references to keys, locks, or the Gates of Hell. There are a few references, particularly Chapter V (XXI): 1-3. Christ announces his arrival at the doors, and Hell cries “unto his wicked ministers: Shut ye the hard gates of brass and put on them the bars of iron and withstand stoutly, lest we that hold captivity be taken captive” (Verse 1). The captive saints in Hell protest against this action, and King David reminds Hell that Christ is the individual who “hath broken the gates of brass and smitten the bars of iron in sunder” (Verse 2).

The artist for the funerary chapel of Theodore Metochites really took the “in sunder” description to heart! Other Byzantine artists also depicted this scene, but usually with less fragments of locks and keys. Here are three other anastasis scenes that include some keys and pieces of the “bars of iron.” I’m showing details of the images below, but also providing links in case anyone wants to see the full scene.

Detail of Anastasis, Russian icon from 17th century (Hermitage Museum). Detail image courtesy of jimforest via Flickr[/add_caption_link].

Detail of Anastasis, west vault from Cathedral of St. Mark, Venice, c. 1180

These artists have left the Gates of Hell in shambles – it’s no wonder anastasis scenes are sometimes called the “Harrowing of Hell!”2 If you know of any other anastasis scenes that have fun depictions of keys, locks, bolts, hinges and the like – please let me know!

1 George Fletcher Bass and James W. Allan, Serçe Limanı: An Eleventh-Century Shipwreck Vol. 2, (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 449. Available online here.

2 If you want to be nitpicky, though, I think it’s more accurate to refer to Byzantine works of art as “anastasis.” The term “Harrowing of Hell” is an Old English and Middle English term, so it doesn’t perfectly apply to the Byzantine period.


Phrygian Caps in Art

Yesterday I was reading about Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1831) and started to think about the Phrygian cap that Liberty is wearing. The Phrygian cap is a soft, conical, red cap was traditionally worn in ancient Phrygia (modern day Turkey). In ancient Greek art, these caps were used as headdresses for people from the Orient. Eventually, the Phrygian cap developed into a symbol of freedom and liberty – they were worn by emancipated slaves in ancient Rome. In the eighteenth century, the Phrygian cap became popular with the French revolutionaries and subsequently was known as the “cap of liberty.” (The Phrygian cap has even been used as part of the official seal for the United States Senate.) This is a detail of Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap in Delacroix’s painting:

This cap made me think of my thesis, in which I argue that Aleijadinho’s Prophets (1800-1805) composition is laced with abolitionist sentiment. I briefly mentioned that the clothing of the prophet Amos could allude to abolition (it is possible that Afro-Brazilian capoeiristas wore similar outfits at the time the sculpture was created), but I didn’t consider Amos’ cap until now:

I wonder if this cap could have been influenced by the Phrygian cap. Part of my thesis ties in these statues to the political/revolutionary sentiment of the day, since these statues were created relatively soon after the 1789 French Revolution. Could Aleijadinho have been influenced by the Phrygian cap of the French revolutionaries? At first glance, it seems to me like Amos’ hat might be too long to be a Phrygian cap. I’m curious about looking at my photo archives, though, to see if I can see his cap in better detail. Interestingly, people have written about how the “turbans” of Aleijadinho’s Prophets seem to be influenced by Turkish costume (which perhaps could be a connection to Phrygia instead?).

It will be interesting to follow up on this idea and see if it leads anywhere. In the meantime, though, here are a couple of other depictions of Phrygian caps in art:

The Three Magi (Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar), mosaic at Sant’Appollinare Nuovo (6th century); Ravenna, Italy
(In this instance, the Phrygian cap indicates the that the wise men are from the Orient, not that they are emancipated slaves!)

Berthel Thorvaldsen, Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle (1817)

Joseph Chinard, The Republic (1794)

Anonymous, Louis XVI of France Wearing a Phrygian Cap, 1792 (Library of Congress)


The Virgin Mary and the Color Purple

In the world of art, the Virgin Mary most often is depicted in blue or red clothing. I am interested, however, in the associations that Mary has with the color purple. It is not terribly common to see Mary depicted in purple, even though there is interesting symbolism and iconography associated with that color and the Virgin. One depiction of Mary in purple (borderline indigo?) that I particularly like is an encaustic icon from the 6th century (Virgin and Child with Saints Theodore and George, St. Catherine, Sinai, shown on left). A recent conversation with my friend Jon has caused me to think about the color purple and depictions of the Annunciation (the moment in scripture when the Angel Gabriel “announces” to Mary her divine calling).

An Early Christian apocryphal text links depictions of the Annunciation with the color purple. This text, the Protoevangelium of James, dates at least to the 2nd century AD. It describes Mary as one of the pure virgins who was chosen to help spin the veil for the temple. The lot of spinning the “true purple and the scarlet” threads fell to Mary; “and she took the scarlet, and span it.”1

According to the Protoevangelium of James, the angel appeared to Mary twice, once while she was fetching water with a pitcher and again when she returned to her room to resume spinning.2Although the validity of this apocryphal text has been questioned, the story has led to many representations of the Virgin spinning. Many of these representations are pre-Carolingian or Byzantine, although the Eastern church still continues to depict Mary in this fashion.3 The image below is from a 12th century icon (Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow). The arrival of the angel has interrupted Mary’s spinning; she holds a distaff and the true purple thread in her lower hand. Not only does Mary hold this thread, however, but her cloak is also the same color.

I really like Lawrence Cross’ interpretation of this piece. He writes that Mary is seen “holding the distaff and the scarlet and true purple thread. The power of the symbol is now clear. In her consent [to her divine calling] and conception, she herself has become the new veil of the temple of God. The scarlet and the true purple is the symbol of her motherhood through which the divine Logos will become man.”4 I think the true purple cloak wrapped around Mary is a visual assertion of Mary’s divine role. I also think it could be a visual manifestation of the Holy Spirit descending upon Mary, especially since her conception is referenced by the small Christ child that appears within the cloak.5 It is especially interesting that the small Christ child is the same color as Mary’s cloak, as if He is covered by the Holy Spirit or by the veil of Mary’s body.

The color scarlet is also a fitting color for Mary and the Christ Child, since the royal color asserts that Mary and Christ are part of King David’s lineage.6 What depictions of Mary spinning/in purple do you like?

1 Protoevangelium of James 1:10-12. Text can be found online here. There is an interesting mosaic in the Chora Church (Kariye Djami) which depicts a priest handing a skein of the “true purple and scarlet” to Mary (shown on the right of the linked image).

2 In an article regarding European/Catholic art, Margaretta Salinger writes, “The author’s emphasis on [Mary] taking the pitcher, to go to the well, and then later ‘filled with trembling,’ returning to her house and setting it down, suggests that this text accounts for the ever present ewer serving as a vase in representations of the Annunciation.” See Margaretta Salinger, “An Annunciation by Gerard David,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series 9, no. 9 (May, 1951): 225.

3 In later periods, the theme of spinning was replaced with an emphasis on learning; the Virgin was often depicted reading a book. David Cartlidge discusses this change in subject matter and cites the apocryphal text, “No one could be found better instructed than [Mary] in the law of God and singing the songs of David” (Pseudo-Matthew 6). See David R. Cartlidge, Art and the Christian Apocrypha, (London: Routledge, 2001), 80. Full text can be read online here.

4 Lawrence Cross, “St. Mary in the Christian East,” Australian EJournal of Theology, no. 9 (March 2007), accessed online here.

5 A fifth-century analogy by the African monk Arnobius the Younger furthers this idea between Mary, the color purple, and the Holy Spirit. “Just as wool, to be transformed into royal purple cloth, must absorb the blood of a purple shellfish (conchylium), so the Virgin Mary absorbed the purple color of divinity when the Holy Spirit descended upon her and she was covered with a shadow of the Most High.” See Luigi Gambero, Mary in the Middle Ages: The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Thought of Medieval Latin Theologians (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005) 61. Citation can be read online here.

6 Maria Evangelatou, “The Purple Thread of the Flesh: The Theological Connotations of a Narrative Iconographic Element in Byzantine Images of the Annunciation” in Icon and Word: The Power of Images in Byzantium: Studies Presented to Robin Cormack, Antony Eastmond, Liz James, and Robin Cormack, eds. (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003), 262. Citation found online here.

Unique Fresco at Hosios Loukas

Over five years ago, I went on an art history study abroad to Europe. While we were in Greece, we were required to have a tour guide that was assigned by the government. This guide (I’ll call him “George”) was an interesting character who had halitosis and a penchant for recounting some of the more, er, naughty stories from Greek mythology. He was an interesting man that sometimes created rather awkward situations for our group. I remember one of my professors said that they would never go to Greece again if they had to have George as a guide.

George took us to some really interesting places, though. One of my favorite places that we visited was the Byzantine monastery Hosios Loukas. This church was built in the Middle Byzantine Period, soon after the renouncement of iconoclasm in 843 AD. There are many beautiful frescos and mosaics at this monastery, particularly in the main monastery church (called the Katholikon). I remember being awestruck by the beauty of the church and the etheral environment within the building itself. This special moment was a little disrupted when George started to break into some type of monastic chant. He wasn’t such a bad singer, but it was strange to hear such music coming from our tour guide. Nonetheless, Hosios Loukas made quite the impression on me.

The fresco above is found in the crypt of the Katholikon at Hosios Loukas. It contains two biblical scenes, the Burial of Christ (on the left) and the Women at the Tomb (on the right). This fresco especially interests me because of its uniqueness; at present, scholars have found no other artistic examples that combine these two scenes into one pictorial unit. Furthermore, it is unusual to depict Christ’s dead body wrapped in a shroud, which also pinpoints this fresco as unusual. Christ is being lifted into a sarcophagus by Joseph of Arimathea (at Christ’s head) and Nicodemus (at Christ’s feet). The Virgin Mary stands behind Christ. In the scene on the right, two Marys (as recorded in the Book of Matthew) have arrived at the tomb to anoint Christ’s body. They are confronted by the angel who points to the empty tomb; one woman gestures in surprise while the other makes a gesture of speech.*

More information and pictures of Hosios Loukas can be found at this site. The website is poorly designed and the photographs aren’t the best quality, but one still can get a general sense of the monastic complex and history.

* Disclaimer: I wrote some of the information about this fresco for an online academic database last year. Since I didn’t agree (I wasn’t even asked, actually) to give up the rights the material I wrote, I see no problem with including the information here as well. In other words, if you ever find part of this information verbatim elsewhere, don’t be alarmed. I didn’t plagiarize. I actually did write this.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.