The Ark of the Covenant

French school

Apse depicting the Ark of the Covenant, 9th century, Mosaic, The Oratory of Theodulphus, Germigny-Des-Pres, France, Photo © Bednorz Images / Bridgeman Images

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The Holiest of Holies?

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Theodulf was appointed Bishop of Orleans in around 798. His oratory at Germigny-des-Prés was consecrated in 805/6. Here is the mosaic in the apse, above the altar. It is no surprise to see cherubim and the hand of God against the golden vault of heaven. But where is Jesus? One answer is: in the elements of the Mass on the altar below. Yes, but surely we should, in the mosaic above, be offered a glimpse of the glory disguised in those elements, of the intersection of the earthly and the heavenly realised in them. This mosaic disconcerts us; it makes us pause. It was meant to. 

Theodulf’s whole chapel was a homage to the Holy of Holies of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. How fitting: for Jesus’s own body is, for John, the Holy of Holies (John 2:21).

The mosaic shows the ark of the covenant with its small cherubim facing each other at each end; from here, in the tabernacle, the Lord would speak to Moses (Exodus 25:8–20). The ark was eventually installed by Solomon in his Temple’s Holy of Holies; and here we see the two further, giant cherubim, a perfect pair in shape, measurements and height, whose wings spanned that inner sanctum (1 Kings 6:23–8; 8:1–9). The ark had always held a special place in Christian thought about art: it was modelled by Moses on a heavenly prototype (Exodus 25:9, 40). Theodulf wrote a polemic against the veneration of images. The ark, he argued, was among the very few ‘consecrated things’ worth a real intensity of spiritual gaze. He can prompt that gaze only and paradoxically through the material depiction of the ark. But which ark is depicted here: Moses’s ark, or its heavenly prototype?

So many questions, so few answers; such ambiguity between earthly and heavenly, material and spiritual.

And still no Jesus. We have been turned into seekers, and it is a strange and unsettling search.

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