GEM: Moses is on the wall

Medieval art and literature were profoundly permeated with typological thinking. Typology is a branch of Biblical exegesis that interprets persons and events from the Old Testament as prefigurations (types) of Christ and his revelation in the New Testament. The best known types prefiguring Christ are Jonah, Isaac and Moses, all of whom underwent symbolic death and resurrection. Medieval laymen could gain understanding of this kind of exegesis from comprehensive typological ‘reference books’, such as Biblia Pauperum or Speculum Humanae Salvationis. Both of them combine textual explanation of the biblical events (often in the vernacular) with images depicting the types and antitypes. Judging from copious amounts of preserved manuscripts and printed editions of these sources from whole Europe, the laity was well-versed in typological exegesis.

Strictly speaking, typological exegesis concerns Christ and salvation only. In practice, however, medieval painters and authors often made lose typological associations. This can be particularly puzzling for students of medieval art, as in the case of the Annunciation (ca. 1525), now in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, painted by Antwerp-based master Joos van Cleve (ca. 1485-1540). At first glance this is a standard early-sixteenth century depiction of the visit of Archangel Gabriel to Virgin Mary. The symbolical vocabulary of the painting is fairly clear, except for one detail: a small single-leaf print nailed to the wall between the retable and the baldaquin. It depicts Moses holding the tables with the Ten Commandments. The Old Testament’s Decalogue and the New Testament’s Annunciation/Virgin Mary certainly don’t belong to the standard arsenal of biblical types and antitypes. But there must be a clear reason for the presence of the Moses print, for medieval religious art knows no artistic discretion.

Some knowledge of medieval writings on the Ten Commandments might be useful here. Mary is often mentioned as one who never broke any of the ten precepts, not even in her thoughts. A fourteenth-century German Franciscan Marquard von Lindau went even further in his didactic treaty Die Zehe Gebot. In this work an explanation of every commandment is accompanied with examples of how Virgin Mary and the saints exemplarily kept the precepts. Die Zehe Gebot was well in demand up until sixteenth century in the whole German-speaking area, including the eastern parts of the present-day Netherlands and Flanders where the differences between eastern Middle Dutch and Middle Low German dialects were minor. Its popularity suggests that the connection between the Decalogue and Mary wasn’t anything unusual.The case of Marquard von Lindau’s Die Zehe Gebot and Joos van Cleve’s Annunciation makes it clear (yet again) that the research on religious themes in the Middle Ages should not be restricted to one type of sources. Only by  comprehensive studies of art and literature can we fully understand the depth and richness of medieval and early-modern culture.