TRAVEL DIARIES: HILDESHEIM – PART III
Thursday, July 8, 2010
BISHOP BERNWARD AND THE OTTONIAN ROMANESQUE
[This section follows from Part II, below]
Illustration of Bernward’s Column
On July 8, 2010, I traveled to Hildesheim, a city located west of the Elbe River, in Lower Saxony, in the district of the same name, about 40 km southeast of Hannover. I was there to see the Church of St. Michael’s, one of Bishop Bernwald’s cathedrals. Within this Church, among other outstanding materials of Romanesque Art, is the black column of Bishop Bernward, a bronze column depicting scenes from the life of Jesus. Nearby, at the Hildesheim Museum, is the Bernward Door, also in bronze, probably designed for the entrance to Bernward’s mausoleum at St. Michael’s. It is one of the most outstanding achievements of Romanesque Art, and its style replicates the craftsmanship and the spiritual gravity of the black column. [See Part IV, above]
BISHOP BERNWARD AND THE ROMANESQUE TREASURES AT HILDESHEIM
THE BERNWARD COLUMN (BERNWARDS SÄULE)
[right click on images and open link in new window for closer viewing]
Bernward’s Column: The capital
From the middle portion of the column
The miracle at Cana (John, 2, 6-8)
The metal-worker Bishop Bernward probably worked himself on the famous bronze column which is placed in the rear of the Church in the southern transept. It seeks to emulate Trajan’s column in Rome (see below), but it is evident on approaching it that it is fundamentally Christian and Romanesque, although the intention to imitate the great column of Trajan is precisely the spirit of the Romanesque, the style derived from the Classical.
Trajan’s Column in Rome
Depiction of the “turtle formation” on Trajan’s column
‘Adlocution Scene’ on Trajan’s Column
The Bernard column is Christian in its representations, in its darkness, which is not only the color of the column but the story depicted on it: the passion of Christ. The ascent is an ascent to Heaven, not to Glory, as it is in Trajan’s column, and what is depicted is not martial valor and triumph but the story of Jesus in Palestine.
The Bernward Column
It is not humanity that is celebrated here, but the soul and its travel to eternity, the “pure and infinite space” of Heaven. How different these contorted, rude and shapeless individuals, roughly clothed in peasant garb from the soldiers in Trajan’s column, from the Classical celebration of the triumphs and achievements of human beings in this earth and in this life.
And yet, the Romanesque figures are very much humane. They elicit a sympathy and compassion for the sorrowful life of humanity in its ‘vale of tears,’ which is precisely the intent of the Christian message.
Jesus speaks to his Apostles
The baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3, 13-17)
The blessing of the sisters of Lazarus (John, 11, 3)
The rich glutton and the poor beggar Lazarus (Luke, 16, 19-21)
In his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, 1953), Erich Auerbach analyzes Gregory of Tours’ description of a local brawl between Frankish chiefs in his History of the Franks (594 CE). Auerbach’s commentary on Gregory is pertinent to the sculpted narrative on the Bernward column because of the contrast he draws between the early medieval perspective and the classical:
“[H]ow narrow Gregory’s horizon really is, how little perspective he has with which to view a large, coherent whole, how little he is in a position to organize his subject matter in accordance with the points of view which had once obtained. The Empire is no longer in existence. Gregory is no longer situated in a place where all the news from the orbis terrarum is received, sorted, and arranged according to its significance for the state. He has neither the news sources which were once available nor the attitude which once determined the manner in which the news was reported. He hardly surveys all of Gaul. A large part of his work, doubtless the most valuable, consists of what he himself witnessed in his own diocese or of what was reported to him from the neighboring territory. His material is essentially limited to what has been brought before his eyes. He has no political point of view in the old sense; if he may be said to have any at all, it is the interest of the Church; but there again his perspective is restricted; he does not conceive of the Church as a whole in such a way that his work forcibly conveys that whole; everything is locally restricted, both in substance and in thought. On the other hand, in contrast to his antique predecessors, whose work was often based on indirect and previously processed reports, most of the things Gregory relates in his History of the Franks he either saw himself or learned at first-hand from the people involved in them. This is in keeping with his natural bent. For he is directly interested in what people are doing. They interest him as they move about him, irrespective of political considerations in a wider context. Thus his work assumes a character much closer to personal memoirs than the work of any Roman historian.” (84-5)
“This brutal life becomes a sensible object; to him who would describe it, it presents itself as devoid of order and difficult to order, but tangible, earthy, alive.” (91)
“Christ’s life among the lower classes and the simultaneous sublimity and shamefulness of his Passion shattered the classical conception of the tragic and the sublime.” (92)
“A complete change has taken place since the days of Ammianus and Augustine. Of course, as has often been observed, it is a decadence, a decline in culture and verbal disposition; but it is not only that. It is a reawakening of the directly sensible. Both style and treatment of content had become rigid in late antiquity. An excess of rhetorical devices, and the somber atmosphere which enveloped the events of the time, give the authors of late antiquity, from Tacitus and Seneca to Ammianus, a something that is labored, artificial, overstrained. With Gregory the rigidity is dissolved.” (94)
Auerbach’s rich analysis of Gregory of Tours’ History pertains equally to the sculpted narrative of the Bernward column. Here are evident the provinciality of the early Romanesque, its primitive perception and unadorned simplicity, the material content of the representations “essentially limited to what has been brought before his eyes,” which is in this case the eyes of the sculptor. As well, the vital self confidence of that early Christianity is evident here. The sentence, “[a] large part of his work, doubtless the most valuable, consists of what he himself witnessed in his own diocese or of what was reported to him from the neighboring territory,” rings so true for the sculptor of the Bernward column as well.
The observation that Christ’s life among the lower classes and the shamefulness of his Passion had shattered the classical conception of the tragic and the sublime is also directly appropriate to the scenes and figures of the column’s sculpture, which so forcefully shows the dignity of the poor and downtrodden, and the sadness of the story of Jesus. Indeed, the work represents the reawakening of the directly sensible, for there is no idealization of humanity here, such as is evident in the Trajan column or in the art of Classical Greece on which it is modeled. Here the poor folk that follow Jesus are little more than beasts, and their humanity is portrayed with empirical accuracy despite the distortions of the medium and the primitivism of the representation. There is no question but that a careful reading of Auerbach’s analysis rings as true for the sculptural narrative of the Bernward column as it does for the actual object of his study.
The witnesses to the Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain:
“And a large crowd from the town was with her.” (Luke 7:12)
These people here portrayed have witnessed the miracle performed by Jesus, according to Luke, outside the town of Nain in Galilee. Note the expression of devotion on their faces. The man in the middle above looks up to Heaven, toward “pure and infinite space.”
[CONTINUED IN PART IV]