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Jost Amman, after Melchior Bocksberger

Ezekiel's Vision of the Wheel and the Four Living Creatures, 1564, Letterpress, woodcut on paper, 110 x 154 mm, The British Museum, London, 1895,0420.240, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

Unknown artist, Northern Italy

Descriptio Rote secunde iuxta vitulum. Et secunda pars secunde dispositionis, from Henricus de Carreto's 'De Rotis Ezechielis', c.1313–15, Manuscript illumination, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, MS Lat. 12018, fol. 124r, Bibliothèque nationale de France: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10025464s

Unknown French artist

A panel from the Book of Ezekiel Window, c.1246–48, Stained glass, Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, Bridgeman Images

‘As if a Wheel were within a Wheel’

Comparative Commentary by

The visualization of Ezekiel’s visions of the chariot throne demands a powerful imagination. It is fantastical and bordering upon contradictory in its description of natural phenomena and cherubim, and even more so in its account of the wheels.

Their appearance were ‘as if a wheel were within a wheel’ (Ezekiel 10:10), they moved ‘in any of their four directions without turning as they went’ (v.11), and their rims were ‘full of eyes’ (v.12). The interrelation of the wheels and their movement required visualization beyond two-dimensional representation, challenging their illustrators to experiment with a variety of circular forms.

The three depictions of Ezekiel’s visionary experience, all in different media, demonstrate the diversity of representational strategies used by medieval and early modern artists to capture the appearance of the wheels. Despite their variety, all of them reveal an impetus to visualize a complicated, moving, three-dimensional structure upon a two-dimensional plane.

The stained glass panel shows two different methods of picturing the wheels: the first as multicoloured concentric circles, and the second in a smaller and less obvious grisaille window fragment, placed above Ezekiel’s extended right hand, as if he is presenting them to the viewer. In this smaller depiction, the wheels form a vertical line of interlinked circles, echoing the columns of roundels that form the whole of the Ezekiel window.

In the manuscript illuminations of the De Rotis, the wheels provide the structural foundation for the diagrams. In this particular image, the four wheels are arranged within a diamond formation. Tied together by golden lines, their interconnectedness is emphasized by their eyes, all of which look toward the wheel they are linked to. The diagram is then repeated three more times on separate pages, though in each case the diamond structure has been rotated ninety degrees, showing the movement of the wheels as described in Ezekiel 10:11 (Stones 2014: 143–50).

In the printed German Bible, the wheels become a three-dimensional structure, not dissimilar from the scientific instruments used at that time. Faced with the same issues as the makers of astronomical diagrams and models that illustrated the structure and movement of the cosmological spheres through circular rings, it is not surprising that this later image looks like an armillary sphere (a model of the universe in which a framework of concentric rings represents the movement of celestial bodies around the earth). Looking closely, it becomes something of an impossible object, entangling the viewer’s gaze within its overlapping rims and spokes.

Placed in chronological order—from stained glass to manuscript diagram to woodcut print—these works show a growing awareness of three-dimensional space: from simplified circles that engage one another in different ways, to repeated schematic structures whose slight variation implies movement, to the use of perspective. Like Ezekiel’s reports of his mystical visions, these visualisations become increasingly complex.

Yet it is not only the complicated descriptions of wheels within wheels that make Ezekiel’s visions so difficult to represent. Their interpretative history in Christian tradition makes them part of a dense typological network that draws different stories from the Old and New Testaments into relationship in order to reveal further and potentially deeper meanings.

All three of the artworks are part of larger visual programmes. The print portrays most of the book of Ezekiel within a collection of images that covers the entire Bible, while the panel of stained glass is a snapshot from the book of Ezekiel, which makes just one window in an entire building of images that tell the story of Christian salvation history.

Meanwhile, the diagrams of the De Rotis focus on the descriptions of the wheels in such detail that they become symbols of the entirety of Christian Scripture. Through the diagrams, Henricus and the illuminators who worked on his text unlock a further theological meaning of the wheels, the typological and cosmological implications of which are explored in patristic commentaries on Ezekiel. According to Jerome, the four wheels were analogous to the Evangelists and to various fours within the natural world—the elements, seasons, and cardinal directions—demonstrating how Scripture informed humankind’s understanding of the world (Dow 1957: 274). In Henricus’s manuscript the wheels are a biblical instrument, used to demonstrate the many layers and interconnectedness of Scripture.

 

References

Bergeron-Foote, Ariane. 2016. ‘The Wheel of Ezekiel: The Preeminence of the Face of the Lion’, Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books: 1–9

Christman, Angela. 2005. What did Ezekiel See? (Leiden: Brill)

Dow, Helen. 1957. ‘The Rose-Window’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 20.3: 248–97

Neuss, Wilhelm. 1912. Das Buch Ezechiel in Theologie und Kunst bis zum Ende des xii. Jahrhunderts, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Gemälde in der Kirche zu Schwarzrheindorf (Münster)

Stones, Alison. 2014. Gothic Manuscripts 12601320, Part 2, vol. 1 (London: Harvey Miller)

 ‘The Book of Ezekiel, Sainte Chapelle’, The Medieval Stained Glass Photographic Archive. Available: http://www.therosewindow.com/pilot/StChapelle/w10-scan-Frame.htm [accessed 03 March 2020]