13 May 2017


Part 6 of 8 of the Lecture Gold out of Egypt, which I first delivered on 20 April 2017 at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

Medieval art and architecture is magnanimous enough to include the Greek and Roman genii without forcing out any part of the Christian tradition. About AD 560, a Roman statesman named Cassiodorus took religious vows and founded a monastery in the far south of Italy; there, he built a scriptorium in which monks copied books, both sacred and secular, both Greek and Latin, as an exercise of piety. This idea of the monastery as a preservative of culture and learning was taken as far as Northumberland. The monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow obtained books from the personal library of Cassiodorus; one of them was the likely iconographic model for the Lindisfarne Gospels.

In Gothic art, Classical wisdom is represented by the sibyls, prophetesses who foretold the coming of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles just as the prophets of the Old Testament foretold it to the Hebrews. The Eritrean Sibyl wrote verses describing the Last Judgment than include an acrostic of the name Jesus Christ; she is the one mentioned in the Dies Iræ sequence. The Triburtine Sibyl interpreted a vision of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child to the Emperor Augustus at the time of the Nativity. The Cumæan Sibyl’s messianic prophecy was quoted in the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil. This is why the poet stood among the prophets in medieval liturgical plays, and in depictions of the Tree of Jesse.

The Moralized Ovid, written in the thirteenth century, applied the method that the Church Fathers used to interpret to Old Testament to the Metamorphoses: its author saw Theseus and Æsculapius as symbols of Jesus Christ. The Augustinian and Dionysian theology that first inspired Gothic art and architecture is profoundly Platonic; the doctors at the Cathedral School of Chartres studied the Timæus reverently.

This all might be mistaken for an early expression of Humanism, but there was an important difference in priority. Medieval Christians believed that the light of the Gospel alone revealed truth, goodness and beauty; insofar as the ancient Greeks and Romans saw them at all, it was through a glass: very, very darkly. Insofar as they possessed them at all, it was as borrowers or thieves, for these properly belong to the Church. Medieval Christians believed that they themselves understood the true meaning and worth of Classical art and culture, far better than the ancient makers of it. Their outlook was that of St. Augustine of Hippo:
If those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies ... but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them.

Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad.... These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the Gospel.
St. Augustine’s argument for inculturation as a triumphal statement, as an assertion of the universal prerogative of Christianity, can apply to any ancient or foreign culture, not just to that Greece or Rome or Egypt. The mines of God’s providence are everywhere scattered abroad. If the Metamorphoses can be moralized and read as a dim Christian allegory, so too can Norse and Celtic and Persian and Chinese mythology; if aught that is true in Platonism can be claimed for Christian use, so too can aught that is true in Confucianism, however much or little.


Works quoted or referenced:

The Works of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, translated by Marcus Dods, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1892).