The Ark of the Covenant (Quadriga Aminadab), detail from The Allegories of Saint Paul window by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

The Ark of the Covenant (Quadriga Aminadab), detail from The Allegories of Saint Paul window, 12th century, Stained glass, Abbey Church, Saint-Denis, France, Photo: Bulloz © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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Ark and Crucifix

Commentary by

What was once the central, pivotal roundel (and is now at the window’s top) shows the cart that brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem; on it, the Ark, beautifully decorated, is shown open, with Moses’ two tablets and Aaron’s rod visible inside.

Now comes the dazzling elaboration. At each wheel is the symbol of one of the four Evangelists: Matthew’s human, Mark’s lion, Luke’s ox, John’s eagle. Everything here is visionary; the symbols, wheels, and cart recall the great chariot-throne of God seen by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1). Emerging—almost growing—from inside the Ark is a crucifix, bearing the same decoration. (It is, then, the depiction of a crucifix; not of the crucifixion itself.) God the Father is behind the crucifix and holding it. Between him and the cross hangs an altar-curtain representing the veil of the Holy of Holies.

In the Holy of Holies a cherub was set at each end of the Ark; two more, far vaster cherubim loomed behind the Ark, with outstretched wings. These four creatures have in the roundel become the four Evangelists. The throne of God has become the altar of his Son. The Mercy-Seat of the Old Covenant is now united with the source of all mercy in the New. We can hardly tell if the Ark and crucifix belong on earth, or—like the Ark’s prototype—in heaven, or in both at once.

To enter the Holy of Holies was to cross the threshold of heaven. The High Priest did so for a few minutes every year; Christ, just once for all time. The Ark and the crucifix are on earth the two great humanly-made correlates of God’s evolving Covenant in heaven.

We are hardly used, now, to such density of reference, demanding such intensity of vision. Abbot Suger wrote of the High Altar’s sculptures that they shone with the radiance of delightful allegories and were intelligible only to the highly literate (Suger 1996: section 32). Hebrews 9 calls for just such awareness too; and rewards it, beyond measure, in our own access to its imaginative and devotional world.

 

References

Abbot Suger. 1996. On What was Done in his Administration, trans. by David Burr, available at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/sugar.asp [accessed 8 January 2018]