Wooden Door panel: Ascension and Crucifixion

Another medieval idea, that of the 'Agreement between the Old and the New Testament', is foreshadowed by the famous doors of cvpress-wood at the principal entrance of S. Sabina. Eighteen out of twenty-eight carved panels survive, well preserved and contained within elegant borders of decoration in which stylized bunches of grapes and vine-leaves predominate. The panels display incidents from the life of Christ roughly paralleled by events in which heroes of the Old Testament, and Moses in particular, play the chief part. The manner of the carving varies; some panels are skilfully composed in the graceful balanced fashion of late Greek art while others proclaim their message in the lumpy uncompromising terms of a rough popular style.

Among the refined examples must be numbered the panel depicting the Ascension of Elijah (fig. 65). At the top the winged angel in his long wind-swept garment stretches out his right hand to touch Elijah as he ascends in the upward-slanting chariot. Below, Elisha clutches at Elijah's prophetic mantle while the onlookers crouch in dismay against a pile of rocks on which crawl a lizard and a snail. Another panel notable for its graceful and vigorous rhythm combined with a certain sophistication is that illustrating the Triumph of Christ and the Church.

65. Rome, S. Sabina. Panel of wooden door: the Ascension

This is made up of two parts. In the upper half a circular laurel-wreath encloses the figure of Christ, who stands the embodiment of eternal youth as also of untroubled majesty. At each side of Christ is inscribed a large capital letter, the alpha and omega which show him to be the beginning and the end, while outside the wreath are carved the heads of eagle, lion, angel and ox, symbolizing the Four Gospels. The lower part of the panel begins with the vault of Heaven, in which are suspended the sun, moon and stars—as if to indicate that what is being transacted is of universal import. Below stands the figure of the Church, veiled and clothed in flowing draper)'. Her hands are raised in ecstatic adoration while the apostles Peter and Paul hold above her head a cross enclosed within the wreath of triumph, to mark her destiny of suffering and glory.

Some of the other panels, however, make no pretence of finesse and present their clear, direct teaching with an artless simplicity. The most celebrated of these is a tiny panel at the top left corner of the doors (fig. 66). This is the earliest known illustration, in clear-cut terms, of Christ crucified. Even after the triumph of Constantine had made the cross an emblem of victory, motives of reverence or conservatism ensured that the death of Jesus was hinted at, in representations of the sacrifice of Isaac or the Lamb bearing a cross, rather than openly displayed.

66. Rome, S. Sabina. Panel of wooden door: the Crucifixion

The Orans, in particular, standing with arms outstretched more or less horizontally, became accepted as a veiled indication of the Cross, and, on the S. Sabina door, the figures of Christ and the two robbers appear at first glance to be just such men of prayer extending their hands in confident supplication. Naked except for a loincloth, they stand stiffly, gazing straight ahead, in front of a brick wall marked off into three parts by triangular-headed pediments.

Christ's majesty is declared by his size; he is almost as tall as the panel itself, and the heads of his puny companions reach no higher than his hands. It is only when the hands are examined with some care that the nails driven through them become obvious and the transverse ends of each cross are seen. Even so, Christ and the robbers alike stand with feet freely and firmly on the ground and there is no suggestion of suffering, so that the crucifixion scene, for all its crude realism, proves to partake of the timeless symbolic character which marks the most primitive Christian art.


Date added: 2022-12-11; views: 283;

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