V. Word and Image -- Typological Uses of Genesis 3:15

decorated initial 'H' ossetti's citation of the prophetical type from Genesis 3:15 in "The Holy Family" leads to another question concerning the relation of visual and verbal arts. When he makes the passage from Genesis 3:15 the organizing conceit of his poem, he employs a type which does not appear in the painting by the Manchester Master. Such a procedure is particularly appropriate to this type, because, although it is frequently echoed in literature, it does not enjoy the same popularity in the visual arts, and it does not enjoy equal popularity because it is difficult to illustrate. Certain problems arise in making representations of Genesis 3:15 since it comprises a prophetic, rather than an historic or legal, type. Unlike other kinds of types, a prophetic type does not necessarily offer a visual image. The problem is essentially that whereas other forms of typological symbolism possess two poles, both of which provide images, this prophetic type collapses the biblical text into its antitype: one cannot literally illustrate the type of bruising the serpent's head except by illustrating its antitype, the Crucifixion, which is an image in its own right. The ways in which artists have created images that embody this commonplace type provide important information about the relations between visual and verbal arts.

One common solution is to combine two realistically depicted images in a realistic — that is, non-historical — manner. For example, mediaeval carvings of the Madonna which show her with one foot upon a serpent take Mary as the seed of the woman. These carved Madonnas offer visual images of a symbolic or spiritual act, since Mary nowhere in the Bible treads upon a snake. The artist therefore has juxtaposed two realistic images, one of Mary and one of a serpent. Whereas the pictorial representation of a legal or historical type depicts only those elements present in the type itself, this portrayal of a prophetic type conflates two times, for it includes the serpent from the Fall and Mary, mother of Jesus, in the same image. A second instance of such conflation of two times appears in those mediaeval Crucifixions that include a snake curled around the Cross. The snake rarely gives the impression of having been bruised, and only the viewer's knowledge of Genesis 3:15 explains its presence. Another much rarer representation of this text that takes Jesus as the seed of the woman appears in the late seventeenth-century Resurrected Christ now in the Hospital of St John, Bruges. Christ rests one foot upon a skull, perhaps representing the old Adam, behind which curls a serpent with a human face-a familiar rendering of the serpent at the Fall. Christ's other foot rests on an orb that would seem to symbolize His dominion over the world. The juxtaposition of the risen Christ and the serpent from the Garden of Eden creates another assemblage of things which exist in separate times.

In addition to applying the words "the seed of the woman" to Mary and Christ, Bible commentators also took them to refer to the Church and its members, Isaac Watts's hymn "Captain and Conqueror" (1709) prays, for example, "Now let my soul arise/ And tread the tempter down," thus making the individual as a member of the mystical body of Christ fulfill a type applied to Him. Such applications of this type do not, however, appear in the visual arts during the last century, though the parallel applications to the Church are common. (As we have observed in George Eliot's application of this type to Amos Barton, such uses outside a devotional context appear presumptuous, and, unlike European art at 1300, Victorian religious art created few elaborate devotional objects for the individual worshipper.) A bishop's pastoral staff (1890) by J. D. Sedding (1838-91) in St Asaph's Cathedral depicts Christ's charge to St Peter within a crook terminating in a serpent's head. The positions relative to each other of the serpent and the scene representing the institution of the Church communicate the fact that after Christ bruises the serpent Evil by giving Himself to be crucified, he continues this battle with it by means of His Church. (This object is illustrated and described in Victorian Church Art [1971], the catalogue for an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 123-24. I have drawn heavily upon this valuable compendium of original research for much of the information cited in the text about such art forms.)

Rossetti's central panel from his Llandaff Cathedral triptych, The Seed of David (1860), offers another version of this theme. One of the shepherds come to adore the infant Jesus extends his shepherd's crook in homage, and in so doing he appears to drive forth a worm from an apple. This figure, who is both an antitype of David and a type of Christ's bishops, again exemplifies the principle of juxtaposition necessary to illustrate a prophetic type. Like the other examples we have observed, Rossetti's proceeds by juxtaposing either real events from different times or physically existing ones and symbols.

Far more popular than such attempts to illustrate Genesis 3:15 with this kind of device is using various analogues that embody good defeating evil. According to the Christian interpretation of this so-called first prophecy, Christ conquers Satan only by suffering on behalf of others. Unfortunately, this interpretation is impossible to illustrate literally with a single image, since the actual Crucifixion that event which bruises both Satan and Christ, shows only His suffering. Visual analogues, such as SS Michael and George defeating a dragon, create effective images of victory, but to do so they sacrifice the major spiritual truth contained in the Christian reading of the original text. Unlike attempts to represent Genesis 3:15 by combining literally true events from different times, such analogues take two different forms. The battle of St Michael with the dragon, for instance, takes place outside historical time, and by illustrating it, the artist can make a statement about the universality of the battle of good and evil. William Burgess (1827-81), who possessed an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of Christian iconography, uses this conflict for the dominant image in his 1878 design for an altar and reredos for Truro Cathedral, Cornwall (Illustrated, Victorian Church Art, 44). Burgess places a sculpted St Michael standing upon a dragon and thrusting his spear into this embodiment of satanic evil. Since this large central panel of the design was meant to appear behind the high altar on which would stand a crucifix, the worshipper would encounter a juxtaposition of cross and conquest.

Albert Gilbert's bronze St Michael (1899-1900), which he created for the memorial to the Duke of Clarence at Windsor, exemplifies a somewhat different application of this image. The 1978 catalogue for the Victorian High Renaissance organized by the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts contains Richard Dorment's description of the entire program (192-203; illustrated, p. 200).

Like such representations of St Michael and his dragon, purely allegorical images of such essential and universal conflict take place or exist in a spiritual realm outside time. Faith, hope, and charity are the three chief Christian virtues, and their representations frequently occur in church art. Drawing upon mediaeval iconographic tradition, Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) transforms such representations of the virtues into images of their conquest of the appropriate sins in the stained glass he designed for Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge, in 1873. Thus, Hope stands on Despair, Faith on Unbelief, and Charity on Hate; illustrated in A. Charles Sewter, The Stained Glass of William Morris and His Circle (New Haven and London, 1974, plate 431). The theme seems to have been a relatively popular one, for the artist repeated it in three lights designed for the Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin in Blackburn, Lancs (c. 187~87). Another purely symbolical or allegorical presentation of spiritual conflict appears on the brass lectern (1862), now in Gloucester Cathedral, which John Francis Bentley (1839-1902) designed for Hart and Son. Bentley, who converted to the Roman Church the same year he produced the design for this lectern, represented the Gospel triumphing over infidelity in the form of a magnificent eagle surmounting a dragon (illustrated, Victorian Church Art, 100),

Unlike these allegorical representations, essentially secular analogues, such as Perseus and the sea-serpent, St George and the dragon, and Apollo and Python, supposedly depict historical facts, though of course they may be treated either as myth or as a repository of conventional symbols. Many Victorian versions of these subjects, particularly those by Burne-Jones, concentrate more upon the man's rescue of the helpless maiden than upon any religious significance, but there are a few that have religious overtones as well. For example, when William Holman Hunt replaced a representation of a bas-relief of the Crucifixion which he had employed in an earlier version of The Lady of Shalott, he chose a well-known mythic analogue to Genesis 3:15. His final version (1896) embellishes the Lady's chamber with a bas-relief of Hercules obtaining the golden apples of the Hesperides from the dragon-guarded tree, a subject which Ruskin had discussed at considerable lengthin the last volume of Modern Painters (1860) in precisely these terms. Like Browning, who follows Milton in making elaborate use of classical materials for types, Hunt occasionally uses them as specific types and not just as partial analogues.

Our reading of Hunt's Hercules in The Lady of Shalott depends upon a particular form of the principle of juxtaposition, since in tracing the picture's development through many extant sketches, Hunt's illustration for the Moxon Tennyson (1857), and the Manchester and Hartford versions of the painting, we receive clues to its meaning. In Hunt's original conception of the picture, the Lady was dominated by a circular mirror derived from Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, which, like its source, surrounded the reflecting surface with scenes from the life of Christ. Hunt's point here seems to have been that Tennyson's figure of the artist should observe the life around her with a spiritual eye, and his painted versions of the subject and the Moxon illustration both still make this emphasis, though they reduce the scenes to a few, less obtrusive bas-reliefs. Hunt's painting, which serves as the statement of his artistic credo, is particularly interesting because it shows him applying typological imagery to a subject not drawn from sacred history.

As this rather special case suggests, the principle of juxtaposition necessary to identify an image as a type does not require that the image be accompanied by a linguistic text. Its position next to other typological images, or in a context created by their presence, also serves to indicate how such pictorial forms should be interpreted. Triptychs and other forms of image seriation exemplify that kind of juxtaposition created by placing complete scenes or pictures, rather than separate details, next to each other. Such means of organization inform Victorian religious painting, stained-glass programs, mosaics, eucharistic vessels, and other church art.

For instance, William Butterfield's elaborate mosaic program (finished 1876) for the walls of Keble College Chapel, defines the significance of individual types by juxtaposing them to others. The designer, who arranged the Old Testament prefigurations in groups of three, included Moses striking the rock. This type, which can accept various interpretations, appears within such a triad, the central and largest scene of which depicts the miracle of the brazen serpent, a type of the Crucifixion. Moses bringing forth water from the rock appears on the right of the brazen serpent, while to the left of it -- and closer to the high altar — appear both Moses holding the tablets of the Law and Aaron as priest. This combination of typological scenes suggests that the designer of the program, in the manner of Victorian preachers such as Keble himself, intended the image of Moses striking the rock to bear several meanings simultaneously. Within the context of surrounding objects, it appears both as type of the Crucifixion and the New Law of grace; and, compared to Aaron, priest of the Old Law of ritual sacrifice, it also appears as a type of the new sacrifice, the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Another means of establishing typological relations appears in the stained-glass program in Jesus College Chapel, Oxford, a program dating from 1852. Here, rather than defining the individual scenes by placing them next to others from the Old Testament, each type is paired with its antitype. Thus, God creating Adam appears beneath the Nativity, in which God created the New Adam; either Moses striking the rock or sweetening the waters of Marah prefigures John baptizing Christ, and, taking the paired scenes from left to right, the following typological relations are made: the Passover and the Last Supper, the brazen serpent and the Crucifixion, Jonah being disgorged by Leviathan and the Resurrection, either God giving the law to Moses or Moses and Aaron passing on the priesthood and Christ preaching in the Temple, and Elijah's chariot and Christ's ascension in the presence of the Apostles.

Like this traditional pairing of type and antitype, Rossetti's altarpiece for Llandaff Cathedral, The Seed of David (1864), defines its typological imagery by juxtaposition of old and new. The work flanks a Nativity by two representations of David, that on the left as a boy ready to slay Goliath, that on the opposite wing as a crowned king singing praises to the Lord. Rossetti explained in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton that he intended the side panels to present "the ancestor of Christ embodying in his own person the shepherd and king who are seen worshipping in the Nativity" (Letters, eds Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl, 4 vols, Oxford, 1965-57), I, 338). David the shepherd thus prefigures the shepherds at the Nativity, but he also serves as a complex type of Christ, since he is the hero who slew Goliath. Furthermore, as shepherd he prefigures not only Christ but also the Church hierarchy. Similarly, David the king is not only a type of Christ but of all rulers who must give praise and allegiance to God. Moreover, just as David the shepherd prefigures the humble men present at the Nativity, so his portrayal as ruler symbolizes the three kings. Finally, following Keble, Browning, Woolner, and others, Rossetti makes David into a type of the true poet and artist. Again, the juxtaposition of images, say, David as shepherd and the shepherds at the Nativity, leads the viewer to read these congeries of typological images in the intended manner.

Church furnishings and items related directly to the Eucharist, such as chalices, monstrances, and pyxes, set the individual type within one or more defining contexts and hence do not present problems of interpretation. None the less, such ecclesiastical vessels frequently bear a series of juxtaposed types, not primarily to indicate the presence of typological imagery but to remind the celebrant that all Old Testament history leads to Christ's past and continuing sacrifice. Since elaborately decorated eucharistic vessels would be purchased or commissioned only by Roman Catholic and High Anglican churches, the types found upon such ecclesiastical metalwork are naturally those that appealed to these kinds of worshipper. Like the sermons of Keble and Newman, such eucharistic vessels employ types to prefigure this sacrament and not just the Crucifixion . For example, a silver flagon designed by Burgess (1862) contains images of David, Meichizedek, Abel, and Noah, while a chalice (1868) by John Hardman Powell (1827-95) similarly employs the sacrifice of Isaac and other types.[For the Burgess flagon, see Victorian Church Art, 44-5; and for the piece by Powell, see p. 80. For contemporary French work, see The Second Empire: Art in France under Napoleon III (1978), the catalogue for the exhibition shown jointly at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute for the Fine Arts, and the Grand Palais, Paris, 1978-9, 146.] One also encounters monstrances, chalices, and other vessels bearing the Tree of Life or depictions of the Expulsion from the Garden (Victorian Church Art, 36, 130-1.)

Such ecclesiastical vessels that contain representations of separate typological scenes as part of another work fall in between two basic forms of juxtaposition. The first, exemplified by polyptychs, places complete scenes side by side or in series; and the second, at which we shall now look, includes types within realistically depicted scenes. The lamb and cornerstone in Hunt's The Finding, like many of the details of Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents, exemplify this form: juxtaposition that provides realistically conceived religious painting with a means of indicating the presence of types. Such devices are extremely valuable to the artist who wishes to employ types within a realistic setting, for without them he produces an ambiguous image. One indication that Millais intends the spectator to interpret The Blind Girl (1856) in terms of Christian symbolism is that he includes at least two obvious symbols. First, he includes a rainbow, which is a type of Christ and His promise of heavenly life, and, second, he places a butterfly, an emblem of the soul, on the poor girl's clothing [For an examination of this work within the context of the problems confronting the Victorian artist who would apply typology to a realistically conceived scene, see George P. Landow, "The Rainbow: A Problematic Image," in Nature and the Victorian Imagination, eds U C. Knoepflmacher and G. B. Tennyson (Berkeley, 1977), 341-69]. Paintings of the life of Christ, on the other hand, do not require such juxtaposition of two or more typological images to suggest their meaning, and, therefore, when William Gale depicts the boy Jesus in Nazareth (1869) holding a plough in the carpenter's shop, he makes an allusion to the many scriptural passages which describe the Saviour's career in terms of the ploughman. When I included Gale's picture in my study of Hunt, I was unaware of the symbolic implication of the plough. Now I would probably suggest that the shoes doffed by the mother of Jesus, like those in the Arnolfini Portrait, symbolize that the setting is holy ground. The bird above Christ's head would appear to be an emblem of the Holy Spirit, such as is found in works by Hunt, Rossetti, and Millais.

In addition to including types on a picture's frame, as Hunt does in The Finding when he there presents an image of the brazen serpent, the artist can also include such imagery on the walls of a depicted scene. Thus, Charles Collins, who wishes to point a parallel between Joseph and Richard the Lionhearted, includes a portrayal of the Joseph story in The Pedlar (1850). Such applications, which are common in Victorian painting, represent extensions of biblical typology to other subjects. Whereas Hunt includes pomegranates, or passion fruit, in The Shadow of Death (1873) to allude to Christ's passion, Millais employs one in Isabella (1849) to prefigure the lover's murder by the jealous family.

Shadow of DeathOccasionally, purely religious applications of typology follow the Northern Renaissance example and employ visual puns. For example, the shadow cast upon the wall of the carpenter's shop in The Shadow of Death is essentially a visual pun, and so is the way a shadow of one of the tools appears to be the spear about to pierce Christ's side. Similarly, the curved window behind Christ's head, like the firescreen in the Master of Flemalle's Virgin and Child in the National Gallery, London, creates the image of a halo. The use of the workbench in Christ in the House of His Parents to prefigure the high altar and Hunt's placement of his missionary in the pose of a Deposition in Early Christians Rescuing a Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids (1850) further exemplify such visual puns. Ever since Jacques Louis David painted The Death of Marat (1793) in the guise of a secular martyrdom, British and European painters occasionally borrowed the compositional schemes of religious art for secular applications. Henry Wallis creates such a secular martyrdom in The Death of Chatterton (1856) and Hunt does the same thing in Rienzi (1848-9).

A completely secular prefiguration, which owes little to typology, often appears in Victorian narrative painting. For example, in Robert Martineau's The Last Day in the Old Home (1862) the wastrel father's destruction of his son is prefigured by his sharing with the boy a champagne toast. The ancient family home is being auctioned to pay the father's debts, and, characteristically, one of the few objects the father has chosen to set apart from those being sold is a picture of a favorite race horse. The mother's anxious glance at the two suggests she fears that wine and horses will lead the father to bring his family even lower. Such narrative elements even occur in religious paintings employing typology, but they still do not represent an influence of this form of symbolism. For example, the skeleton of an animal which perished on the shores of the Dead Sea informs the viewer of Hunt's The Scapegoat (1856) just what this goat's fate will be. This grisly indication of the scapegoat's death, however, does not function as a typological image and we here have an analogue, and not an example, of this form of symbolism.

Like Victorian literature, Victorian painting and other kinds of visual art make many interesting applications of biblical typology. Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites base a theory of symbolic realism upon it, and designers of stained glass, mosaic, and other church art use it both as a source of iconography and as a means of organizing entire decorative programs. Like literary applications of prefigurative imagery, pictorial ones also appear in secular art, thus providing yet another instance of typology's effect upon Victorian culture.


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Print version published 1980; web version 1998