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Vision of Constantine from the Stavelot Triptych Essay

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Updated: Jan 26th, 2022

Introduction

Works of art were often created as a part of a religious cult. Such pieces of art do not only comprise a part of our cultural heritage but also play (or used to play) an important role in the lives of the people who consider them holy.

Main body

One of the works of art chosen for this analysis is the medallion depicting the vision of the Cross that, according to the legend, was shown to Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become a Christian, in his dream. It is situated at the bottom of the left-wing of the Stavelot Triptych, a relic created in the 12th century at Stavelot Abbey and performed in gold and enamel (Hourihane 3). It is a portable altar consisting of the outer triptych and two smaller inner triptychs that contain the pieces of the True Cross.

An example of the Romanesque period art, the medallion described is a part of the legend about Constantine, “narrated” through three such medallions on the left-wing of the Triptych. According to it, Constantine had a dream in which he was told to fight under the sign of the Cross in order to win the battle of the Milvian Bridge. This dream led Constantine to the idea of converting to Christianity (Hourihane 3-4).

It appears that the functions of the medallion and the Triptych are similar to the usual ones performed by such relics, including the Eucharistic one. Still, being a part of the narration, being dynamic and not static, it also fulfills the function of education, explanation, and attraction of new believers (Hourihane 257). The cross is one of the key symbols of Christianity, and the faith in its holiness and the miracles attributed to it can be fortified by the stories of the boons received by the true believers from their God.

Another example that comes to mind when religious art is concerned is the places where people are supposed to converse with their gods, for instance, churches and mosques. It is hard to identify the term the Hagia Sophia should be associated with since its story is that of changes. It was rebuilt three times, the current structure being the third building created in the 6th century. Originally it was another Christian shrine, a basilica, but it was turned into an Islamic mosque in the 15th century. Finally, in the middle of the previous century, it became a museum and is not supposed to be used for religious purposes anymore (Schibille 47-48).

The structure and the decorations of the Hagia Sophia represent the historical changes it was connected with. The building itself is an example of Byzantine architecture, but the minarets were built during the rule of different Sultans. The mosaics depicting Christian saints and emperors were covered by Muslims because of the ban on such images in their culture. Since uncovering them in many cases means destroying historical Islamic art, the restoration works aim at finding an equilibrium between the cultures of the two religions (Schibille 56).

Being a shrine devoted to the wisdom of God, with its grand dome and abundant decorations (both Christian and Islamic in origin) the Hagia Sophia is intended to be awe-inspiring. The greatness of the building is meant to encourage a person to think about the greatness of God. As the dome and the minarets reach for the skies, they are supposed to help the visitor think about heaven and concentrate on his conversation with it (Schibille 57-61). Therefore, the Hagia Sophia has been a shrine for two different religions and has become the heritage of two different cultures, but the principal religious function carried out by it in both cases was glorifying the wisdom of the Creator.

Conclusion

The Hagia Sophia and the medallion have entirely different purposes of course, but the purposes are of the same, religious nature. It is this religious nature that defined the forms of the two works of art.

Works Cited

Hourihane, Colum. The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture. 2 vols. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Schibille, Nadine. Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Aesthetic Experience. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2014. Print.

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