The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, C. 520 A.D.

Post Image“Painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who read” – Pope Gregory the Great.

Unedited version of picture can be found here.

In this new series, we are going to look at depictions of Jesus Christ in Europe throughout history in an effort to determine what effects historical events of the time had on the depiction of the son of God, and how changing artistic schools chose to represent this one subject.

Found in a basilica in Ravenna, this mosaic is one of the few examples of Greek mosaics that survive from this period, as most were destroyed in the 8th Century by iconoclasts; a school of thought that gained control in the Byzantine Empire from 754 AD that believed that all religious art should be forbidden in churches for fear of creating false idols. This dramatic movement came about following lively debate as to the place of art in churches – how were newly converted pagans to grasp the message of a single and invisible God if art were constantly made in His likeness? This is where the quote from Pope Gregory the Great comes in – it created a defence against those who weren’t in favour of art in churches in that the man with the highest ranking in the Catholic Church had come out in favour of it. Nevertheless, Byzantine Christian art adopted a unique restrained style; its aim was not to decorate, but to tell a story as clearly and concisely as possible.

The piece marks a progression from the traditional Hellenistic style; where the artist could have chosen to paint a huge, bustling scene of 5000 people, they have instead chosen to strip the picture down to its absolute basics, using the laborious process of mosaic. Instead of being used to depict scenery, the artist has created a background that consists solely of gold tile, concentrating the viewer’s eye on the central characters, thereby emphasising the sacred nature of the scene.

Christ occupies the centre of the picture, depicted as a clean-shaven, long-haired man donning a purple robe. He is surrounded by four apostles who carry food with covered hands – a custom of those bringing gifts to their ruler at the time of the mosaic’s creation. Christ does not acknowledge them however, his gaze, as well as theirs, is fixed upon the viewer, for it is they he is about to feed. This makes for an interesting composition – while at first the lack of movement like that seen previously in Greek and Roman in addition to the full frontal presentation of the figures may suggest a simple lack of skill, the way in which the clothes of figures are shown to to drape over their bodies points to a previous knowledge of Greek art. From this we can deduce that the omission of these techniques was done out of restraint and dedication to the sacred nature of the tale rather than incapability on behalf of the artist. This idea is strengthened when we pay attention to the way in which the drapery of the robes Jesus and his apostles wear show so clearly their joints in a similar fashion to that of classical Greek sculpture. In addition to this, it must also be noted that some skill must have been needed in order to accurately mix the different coloured stones in order to create a convincing skin tone and the colour of the vegetation surrounding the figures.

This mosaic shows immense dedication to the spreading of Christian beliefs to the newly converted. While skill on the behalf of the artist is evident through the inclusion of some amount of detail, the overall aim of the piece is one of truth to original message of the miracle rather than the shock and awe of later religious art.

Jordan Butt

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