ClSt / ComL 200:
Notes and Supplements: Monday, March 25

Pagan Mythology in Late Medieval Christianity

In the Cathedral complex in the Italian city of Pisa there is a Baptistry that contains an extremely elaborate marble pulpit carved by Nicola Pisano between 1259 and 1260. It is a spectacular piece of work, but it is in many ways of the late middle ages. The purpose of such a pulpit is to provide a priest with a conspicuous place from which to address the assembled congregation. His audience would be made up of Christians; and in a Baptistry, they would be assembled for the purpose of witnessing the sacrament by which new Christians were made. For this reason, the pulpit is adorned with scenes illustrating important episodes from the life of Christ and with figures representing the Christian virtues as well.

One of the virtues represented on the pulpit is Fortitude. One of the interesting things about this figure is that he is represented as a nude male in classical style, recognizable as Hercules by the lion skin slung over his right shoulder. The appearance of the pagan hero Hercules on a monument devoted to one of the most sacred rites of the Christian religion may seem surprising. But in fact, the incorporation of pagan mythology into Christian thought and worship is entirely characteristic of the Middle Ages.

A similar and more extensive example of this tendency is visible in the sculptural program of another cathedral complex, that of Florence. The campanile or bell tower of this cathedral is decorated with rows of carved medallions carved by Andrea Pisano (1295-1349), the son of Nicola. The medallions illustrate a variety of subjects. One set depicts scenes from biblical history, such as Adam and Eve working the fields after they have been expelled from the Garden of Eden. But in this same series appear scenes from pagan mythology, including the flight of Daedalus and Hercules after subduing themonster Cacus. These biblical and mythological "events" are evidently regarded as equivalent milestones in human history. Adam and Eve's sorry condition represents the difficult lot of humankind in general; Daedalus and Hercules represent those who, by artifice and by the measured use of force, respectively, have helped to improve that lot. Farther along in the series we find representations of the pagan gods--Mercury, for instance, and Venus--in the guise of planets. But there is little effort to hide their pagan identities, at least not in the case of Venus, who wears a diaphanous gown and holds in her hand a nude couple, male and female, locked in an amorous embrace. Besides being a planet, she is still clearly the pagan goddess of love.

Farther on the series come the seven liberal arts, such as astronomy, and then the sacraments of the Church, such as confession and matrimony. The libreral arts, like classical mythology, are a legacy of pagan antiquity, while the sacraments are institutions of the Church; yet both find their place in this remarkable series of images.

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