In search of an unusual Easter present? Susan Roberts reviews a CD-ROM telling the story of the Bible through medieval art.
In any second-hand or charity bookshop there are always a few, rather forlorn, old Sunday School books with brightly coloured illustrations. They often have a bookplate inscribed with the name of a conscientious prize winner – and are clearly long forgotten and little wanted.
But the stories in them were once very familiar to anyone who grew up within a strongly Christian tradition. The tales of Joseph and his coat of many colours, Daniel in the lions’ den and Moses cast into the water in a rush basket were required reading in old-style Sunday School and RE lessons. Not to mention the miracles, the feeding of the 5,000, the water turning into wine and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
The fact these stories are no longer cultural touchstones is perhaps to be lamented. They – and many many more in the Bible – form a deep strand in our cultural heritage, at least in Europe. Any serious student of History, English or Art needs to be familiar with them.
‘Images of Salvation’ aims to address this. It’s a CD-ROM that tells the story of the Bible through medieval art with images from cathedrals, universities and libraries around the country. It’s been produced by Christianity and Culture, a think tank based at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York and St John’s College, Nottingham.
It was originally intended for university students who lacked the Biblical background to understand the references in the material they were working with, say the publishers.
'Those who have grown up without a knowledge of Christian thought and practice, or come from other faith communities, can feel substantially disadvantaged as they seek to engage with cultural forms which assume Christian understanding.'
But it has since found a much wider audience – schools, for example. It is, in fact, a good tool of reference not just for students but for anyone wanting to catch up quickly with Christian doctrine and background and their influences on medieval art.
It is a fairly formal package, presented as a mini encyclopaedia. The CD-ROM has 180 full colour images illustrating dozens of key themes, from the Creation and the Fall to the nativity, the parables, the miracles, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
It neatly provides the doctrine relating to each theme, Biblical passages referring to it, further background and images illustrating it.
On clicking ‘Miracles’, for example, you’re informed that that the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000 and the Miraculous Draught of Fishes recall similar feats performed by Moses and Elijah such as the harvest of manna, drawing forth water from a rock and the multiplication of bread and wheat.
The raising of Lazarus also has an Old Testament model: Elijah and Elisha both raised the children of widows from the dead. Healing miracles, such as the healing of lepers, are closely related to exorcism. Illness was often associated with diabolical possession both in Biblical times and later.
It’s also good for researching less well known themes – like the Harrowing of Hell. On this it has three images showing Jesus wrestling with Satan in the world of the dead in the three days between his death and resurrection. Two are held at the British Library and the third can be found on a sarcophagus cover in Winksworth, Derbyshire.
If you’re interested in further reading on the subject, it explains that this was a very popular theme in Old English literature – ‘harrowing’ comes from the Old English ‘hergian’ which means ‘to harry or despoil’.
This isn’t a CD that is likely to win over anyone with only a passing interest in the Bible and its artistic legacy. Visually – and in the way it presents its material - it does little to draw the reader in.
But for an committed Christian or a keen student needing to access background information quickly, it’s an excellent resource. It’s also an intriguing spring board for future research.
Images of Salvation CD ROM can be ordered from Christianity and Culture, St John’s College, Chilwell Lane, Nottingham MG9 3DS. Or visit www.york.ac.uk/inst/cms/candc/
Cost is £15 plus £1 package and posting for UK orders.