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Panel of the Month

Posted By ltempest On May 24, 2011 @ 6:30 pm In | Comments Disabled

Idol Worship in Canterbury Cathedral

The figure of a pagan idol in a window in the north choir aisle at Canterbury Cathedral is extraordinarily beautiful. The limbs of the figure are well proportioned, neither attenuated nor squat, and the musculature of the torso is carefully defined by line and shading. He is nude but not naked. His body is completely uncovered, but he does not obscenely display his genitals. In fact, apart from the modest horns above each ear, the figure is neither monstrous nor grotesque. This is unusual amongst representations of this type of figure.

Idol Worship in Canterbury Cathedral

Idol Worship in Canterbury Cathedral

‘The standard idol in Gothic art’, wrote Michael Camille, ‘has demonic features.’ That is to say, medieval images of the deities of non-Christian religions tend to be frightful and monstrous. This is in contrast to the benevolent and beautiful Christian images of God the Father and God made flesh (Jesus Christ). In his book The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image Making in Medieval Art, Camille argues that idols in medieval art are constructed as opposites to Christian images – anti-images of religious medieval ones. Not only did this reinforce negative views of other religions but it defended Christian practices.

Whilst both medieval Jews and Muslims held to the Old Testament prohibition against the making of graven images, medieval Christians did not. Most theologians maintained that it was the false act of worshipping images that was prohibited, not actually making or looking at them. However, an undercurrent of anxiety over images still remained because it was such a precarious distinction. Depictions of non-Christians worshipping demonic gods helped to reassure medieval Christians of their position. Ironically, both Islam and Judaism were represented as idolatrous cults in medieval art. Camille explained that this lapse in factual representation resulted from the projection of medieval Christian anxiety onto others. Representations of Jews and Muslims worshipping statues on pedestals were an expression of the medieval Christian’s fears about Christianity.

Demonic monstrosity could be depicted in a number of ways, but usually operated on a principle of distorting the idealized human form. Ruth Mellinkoff has written extensively on negative perceptions of physical imperfection in the Middle Ages. She identifies the Bible as a principal source for negative views of body deformity. The voice of the Christian God in chapter 21, verses 16–23, of the book of Leviticus excludes people with imperfect bodies from membership in the priesthood:

‘And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Say to Aaron: Whosoever of thy seed throughout their families, hath a blemish, he shall not offer bread to his God. Neither shall he approach to minister to him. If he be blind, if he be lame, if he have a little, or a great, or a crooked nose, If his foot, or if his hand be broken, If he be crookbacked, or blear eyed, or have a pearl in his eye, or a continual scab, or a dry scurf in his body, or a rupture: Whosoever of the seed of Aaron the priest hath a blemish, he shall not approach to offer sacrifices to the Lord, nor bread to his God. He shall eat nevertheless of the loaves, that are offered in the sanctuary, Yet so that he enter not within the veil, nor approach to the altar, because he hath a blemish, and he must not defile my sanctuary. I am the Lord who sanctify them.’

Bodily perfection is equated with purity, and bodily imperfection is thought to be spiritually defiling. Were it not for the tiny horns on the head of the perfectly formed idol at Canterbury, he would seem the very model of purity.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.

He stands facing the viewer and the other figures in the scene. His hips and shoulders tilt in opposite directions in the elegant contraposto pose common to classical sculpture. The lack of breasts suggests that the Canterbury idol is male not female, yet the glass-painter has resisted the opportunity to represent genitalia. Exaggerated male organs are another convention in the depiction of idols. This has been shown to derive from the medieval response to surviving works of Greek and Roman art. On a visit to Rome the medieval Englishman, Master Gregory, was appalled to see the well-known statue The Spinario or thorn puller, which he described as a ‘ridiculous Priapus’ because ‘if you lean forward and look up, you discover genitals of extraordinary size.’ He was neither the first nor the last to react to this sculpture in this way. It is thus very curious that the Canterbury idol abides by the medieval rules of propriety surrounding adult genital nudity despite other clear references to classical sculpture.

The horns are the only hint that there might be something demonic about him. Besides altering the natural proportions of the body, combining animal and human features and body parts was a popular way of distorting the human form to make it monstrous. Tails, claws, hooves, floppy ears, scales, wings, snouts and beaks are just a few of the possibilities that could be brought together to create a figure of evil. See for example the demonic winged figure that flies down to try and turn the gentiles away from Christ and back toward Satan. The Canterbury idol is extremely reserved by comparison. Not only is he neither disfigured nor obscenely naked, but he is much more man than beast.

The inscription reads: ‘STELLA MAGOS DUXIT: ET EOS AB HERODE REDUXIT’ and below ‘SIC SATHANAM GENTES FUGIUNT: TE CHRISTE SEQUENTES’ (contractions expanded). Madeline Caviness translates this as follows: ‘As the star lead the Magi and lead them away from Herod: so the Gentiles following thee, O Christ, flee from Satan.’ This sort of comparison between two actions or events is known as typology. It was a popular method of interpreting the New Testament especially in relation to the Old Testament, which was thought to prefigure it. The panel forms part of the surviving twelfth-century glazing of the cathedral. It is from a series of typological windows that interpret the life of Christ through comparisons with other events, usually from the Old Testament but including more recent events.

Fig. 2.

Fig. 2.

There were once twelve of these windows in the choir, transepts, and presbytery. Madeline Caviness has reconstructed their scenes using a list of the inscriptions in a manuscript written by William Gastynbury, monk of Christchurch Canterbury (Oxford, Corpus Christi MS 256). However, the immediate panels surrounding the one with the idol still survive in window nXV [Fig. 1. North choir aisle, window nXV]. The panel next to it is the action referred to in the inscription, the Magi leaving Herod [Fig. 2. Three Magi Leaving Herod]. Christ leading the Gentiles away from Satan is an allegorical event that does not occur in the Bible, but has been created as a type of the Magi leaving Herod. The panel beyond this on the same register depicts Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt [Fig. 3. Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt]. This is also compared with the Magi leaving Herod.

Caviness has demonstrated how the parallel between the Israelites following Moses away from Pharoah and the Gentiles following Christ away from the idol/Satan is reinforced visually [Fig.3 and main picture]. Both the idol and Herod, who occupy the same position in each panel, are lodged in a red interior that stands out against the otherwise blue backgrounds. The idol is therefore presented as a tyrannical ruler. However, this does not explain why he was chosen to represent Satan.

Madeline Caviness has made two important observations that help us to explore this question further. She has suggested that the idol might have been modelled on a real sculpture, and that this would explain its adherence to classical proportions. As she says, such a model would certainly have been available in England at the time. The Historia Pontificalis records that Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, shocked the Papal Curia in Rome by buying pagan statues for his palace on a visit between 1149 and 1151. Could this scene in the glass of Canterbury Cathedral represent an aesthetic response to new stimuli? Caviness says the use of colour in the window as a whole is non-naturalistic, but perhaps the delicate shade of blue used for the idol was meant to approximate grey stone? What she doesn’t consider is what this might mean for the English response to Henry’s taste in collecting. Does the window perhaps imply that the sculpture brought back from Rome received idolatrous attention? Caviness has also considered the homoerotic potential of the image. Same-sex desire is implied in that the idol is a nude receiving male visual attention.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 3.

However, the imagery could function on multiple levels. Alternative comparisons across the panels in the window are also visually reinforced. Both Christ and Pharoah are shown bearded while Moses and the idol are clean-shaven [main picture and Fig. 3]. The comparison between Moses and the idol is thought provoking, because Moses himself was often depicted with horns in this period. The well-known mistranslation of rays of light as ‘horns’ in Jerome’s Latin version of the Bible lies behind this great oddity of medieval iconography. Ruth Mellinkoff has described the importance of the figure of the horned Moses in the formation of medieval episcopal identity, especially in symbolic interpretations of the bishop’s mitre. Moses is of course not horned here, but the horned idol is in such close proximity with this usually horned patriarch of the Old Testament. While the comparison may well be one of good and bad horns, the idol is much more integrated into the imagery than one might think comfortable.

Rosie Mills


M. Camille, The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image Making in Medieval Art, Cambridge, 1989.

M. Caviness, Visualising Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle and Scopic Economy, Philadelphia, 2001

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