Archive for the Astrological Symbols In Medieval Art Category

Putting It All Together

Posted in Astrological Symbols In Medieval Art on April 3, 2011 by Tia Bissonette

As you can see from the previous posts, astrology was an essential part of early Medieval life. So much so, that it played a major role in the foundations of Christianity. Often called appropriation, this practice still goes on today. However back then, it was used to easily convert a pagan populace into christians. The Church openly used this until the reformation of the church. Here such connections with pagan beliefs were deemed sinful and promptly discontinued. As a result, this connections were left out of many churches built at this time.

Chartes Cathedral in France is unique in this right. It is a church that seemed to be plagued with bad luck. Throughout its history, it has been sacked and burned down a couple of times to name a few. This has led to a couple of reconstructions. You could say that the church is a hodge podge of time periods, in that, many of its parts were built from different time periods and in different styles. However, the part that concerns us the most is the Royal Portal.

Located on the west side of the church, this doorway combined symbols of both Christianity and the Astrology. Depending on who looked at the door, it could be read as Christ being surrounded by the four gospels or being surrounded by the four fixed zodialogical signs that represented the four basic types of people. It has been suggested that besides the use of standard appropriation, this hidden symbolism was used to show how knswledgable the art’s creator was.

With this in mind, one can see that one piece of art can have many different interpretations. If a person just takes the time to look, a piece can tell them something different with each viewing.


Narrowing Down The Subject

Posted in Astrological Symbols In Medieval Art on March 20, 2011 by Tia Bissonette

With many projects, I find it easier to understand it if I narrow it down after reading background information. This is why many of my future posts will be on how astrological symbolism is shown in various parts of the Chartres Cathedral located in Chartres, France. Built during the later part of the Medieval period, this gothic church was a well-known church. Which, makes it even more fascinating to see the dual meanings displayed in it.

I read a book this past week entitled The Hidden Art: A Study of Occult Symbolism in Art by Fred Gettings. In it he mentioned how “gothic cathedrals are repositories of arcane wisdom”. This was further explained when he mentioned how there was a time in history when the monasteries still knew sciences such as astrology. However, the church deemed this knowledge as unethical. Gettings believes, that after a period of time, only the masons (builders) were taught this “sacred” knowledge. This would explain why many cathedrals of this time displayed didactic meanings. The church would have read the meaning as the Christian one they commissioned, while the masons could show off their knowledge and in a way, make fun of  the church under its nose without them knowing.

Whether of not this was true of Chartres, such a practice was, and likely still is, common for artists. More information about this theory could lead to a better understanding of the whole practice of displaying a dual meaning in artwork.

The Prominence Of Astrology In Typical Medieval Life

Posted in Astrological Symbols In Medieval Art on March 11, 2011 by Tia Bissonette

It may be hard to believe that the use of astrology had a prominent effect on people of the medieval age, but we have to remember that it was a large part of everyday life. Before Christianity, astrology was easily found in almost every sector of life and continued throughout the early practice of Christianity. It was not until the reformation of the church, that the use of astrology was frowned upon and slowly decreased in use.

Just how prominent astrology was, was interestedly explained in Sophie Page’s Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts. According to this, everything relied heavily on astrology. Non-surprisingly, farmers depended on it to take care of their crops. Certain signs and seasons told them when to plant and harvest. Doctors also relied on it. They would rely on moon stages to tell whether or not a patient would live. These stages also told when and how to procure  a cure out of natural materials.

While these were just a couple examples of the use of astrology, you can see that Christianity could not decide to completely stop the use of astrology in a single day. Its use was to common in everyone’s life. Rather, as we have seen before, they used it as a tool through appropriation. By doing this they were able to convert people, and slowly start astrology’s disuse. First, by allowing one to only practice it if it helped society as a whole (horoscopes would have been outlawed, as they only helped individuals) or was just used to study. Astrology was later considered pagan durning the time of the reformation, causing its use to go down even more.


More On Christianity And Astrological Symbolism As One

Posted in Astrological Symbols In Medieval Art on March 6, 2011 by Tia Bissonette

Upon further research, I have come to find out just how connected Christianity is to that of older traditions. This is largely, because Christianity appropriated many conventions from other cultures. This included anything from symbols and ideas to general beliefs and stories. A likely reason for this was to help people who had just converted. These people would see the familiar aspects and would be more likely to stick with the religion. It would also make it easier to learn the beliefs and stories involved in Christianity. The same could be said about people who were thinking about converting. If they saw practices similar to those they had been doing their whole life, then there would be a higher chance that they would convert.

A lot of these similarities were given in Solange de Mailly Nesle’s Astrology: History, Symbols, and Signs. These included, to name a few, both having stories depicting heros triumphing over evil and the use of astrological symbolism. The later is quite fascinating. It includes how there are twelve zodiac signs, yet also twelve apostles. How a star guided the three magi and how both the birth and crucifixion of christ occurred on days with various solar events.

This is just a short list of the things mentioned in the book, but it gives a good point of showing how similar the two ideas were. With this in mind, it would be interesting to look at individual images (similar to the previous post) and study how connected, yet dualistic the meaning behind the symbolism is.

Ancient and Christianity Symbolism As One

Posted in Astrological Symbols In Medieval Art on February 27, 2011 by Tia Bissonette

Christianity played a large role in medieval art. It was a newer religion and as a result, many images serve as a way to teach the religion and reenforce its lessons. This can make it harder to locate astrological symbols if we do not know where to look. While looking for a book giving background information on astrology, I stumbled across a small, yet fascinating book that gave an example of the way in which Christianity appropriated from that of the ancient.

Titled  A New Sense Of Destiny From Ancient Symbols: Renewal Of Vision Through The Lost Language. This book by George W. Fisk gave an interesting look at how traditional religious images in Chartres Cathedral were given a deeper meaning if you applied ancient knowledge. While this is not a painting, we can still apply this symbolism to other types of art media. Fisk’s idea revolves around the four figures shown encircling Christ (central figure in the image). These figures are of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Any person versed in religious stories will understand these figures as representing the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

While this is true, the figures also represent the four main elements that all zodiac signs are categorized by. These being air, fire, earth, and water. To go into detail on each of the elements characteristics would be worthy of a post devoted to each of them, but to sum it up. Each element’s three zodiac signs have their own personalities and outlooks on life. According to Fisk, people of the Medieval ages were familiar with this information and would have instantly recognized the four elements.

Overall, it was an interesting read and opens many doors to finding this type of symbolism. Before, I was trying to avoid books with Christian art for this topic, because I felt that there would not be ancient symbolism in it. I now know that this could have caused me to miss a lot of hidden images such as what is at Chartres.

Photo credited to:

Introduction to the Middle Ages

Posted in Astrological Symbols In Medieval Art on February 20, 2011 by Tia Bissonette

Like with any other project, I find it helpful to read up on background information before I dive head first into general specifics. It makes it easier to understand concepts and connect ideas later on. As a result, all three books that I have read this week deal with the general time period of  the middle ages/ medieval era.

The first one, The Mediaeval Artist at Work by Virginia Wylie Egbert, was a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping it would be an in depth look of how an artist of this time period worked and what type of supplies they used. This would have been beneficial to show how some artists incorporate symbolism into their work. Overall, the book was not completely bad, just to simplified. Its main points were that many artists of this time wrote treaties, which are books citing their views on art, and how they often worked with more than one type of media. Interesting, just not very helpful for our topic.

The second book was worse. Medieval Studies: An Introduction by James M. Powell had basically nothing to do with the time period. Rather then focusing on information in medieval studies, it was a field guide on how to study the medieval period. It talked about determining dates and how to studying various items from this period, as well as what to classify them. This would have been useful for someone looking for information if they were new to the practice and not as a source of general information on the culture.

Overall, the most helpful book I read was The Medieval World by Peter Kidson. While the book is not that long, it gives an adequate amount of information. The book starts off with describing how the Roman Empire was overtaken by Germans, thus beginning the middle ages. The fusing of these two cultures, and the beginning of christianity, makes this a good area in time to look at the use of symbolism. This is because we should be able to see the use of christianity combined with pagan symbols, possibly astrological signs. The book then finished with a description of how art evolved to be more about christianity.

Symbolism In Art

Posted in Astrological Symbols In Medieval Art on February 6, 2011 by Tia Bissonette

For many years, artists have used symbols in their art as a way to give it a deeper meaning. These symbols were common to a specific time period. For example, size variances was popular in Ancient art. This basically involved portraying important figures, such as kings, as bigger than the rest of the image. Whereas the use of Christian motifs increased around the time of the Byzantine empire. The purpose of many of these symbols was to give the viewer of the artwork a message. This included anything from the artist’s opinion on a certain subject to background information telling the viewer what the painting is about.

What has always interested me is the symbolism involving the use of astrology and mythology. Back before the rise of Christianity, art commonly contained symbolism referencing “pagan” gods, mythology, and the night sky. These symbols were commonly seen in their day to day life, which made them easy to interpret. However, with the rise of Christianity, many of these symbols were appropriated to mean different things or abandoned.

The medieval time period is often seen as the dark ages. A time of a decline in the arts. Truthfully, while art from this time is not always as “pretty” it served its purpose. It was able to convey its own messages. My main goals of this research will be to answer many questions. Among them will be: how was astrological symbolism used?, was any of this symbolism appropriated to have christian meanings? what was the purpose of these symbols and did they fulfill this function?

Thus, I have created Ars Est Celare Artem. Latin for “it is art to conceal art”, this blog will focus primarily on the astrological and mythological symbolism found in medieval art. My hope is that with research and the sharing of information, more people will be able to recognize and read this symbolism. The more we learn about this time period, the more we will be able to understand it.