Diptych With Scenes of the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment: 1275-1325.
Many months ago I was introduced to a sensitively wrought object from the RISD Museum’s collection, a carved, ivory dyptich which seamlessly intertwines the lives of Christ and the Blessed Mother from the Annunciation to the Last Judgment, calling out key phases in the history of their sacred relationship. The dyptich is small, only about 10 x 9 inches when open, and yet some potent storytelling unfolds within the close quarters of the carving, and every inch of space is put to elegant use. The flow of pictorial narrative is fluid but unusual to our 21st century sensibilities, beginning in the lower left with the Annunciation and the birth of Christ, followed by the heraldic arrival of the three kings in the lower right. The top two registers are dedicated to Christ’s Crucifixion and the Blessed Mother’s celestial coronation, paired with the Last Judgment of Christ, who reigns omnipotent as the wee spirits of earth climb from sarcophagi beneath his feet. What a story, and it’s told with exquisite eloquence and economy in the space of 90 square inches.
This was an object of prayerful reflection for the person who owned it. The panels were carved sometime around 1300 and its craftsmanship signifies the importance of object to both maker and owner. But such impressive technical mastery underscores something even more culturally fascinating—the indispensible role of visual narrative as a vehicle for the stories that matter to us. I bring to this encounter the perspective of an illustrator, dedicated to the distillation of message and meaning in elaborately encoded constellations of visual signs. It’s no surprise, then, that I would be particularly struck by its maker’s mastery of narrative form.
There are striking structural likenesses between medieval art and things like contemporary comics, which continue to evolve in sophisticated ways. Check out Chris Ware’s most recent accomplishment, Building Stories, in which the architecture of page and picture become one, and the reading experience is as immersive as a 300-page novel. While the subject matter differs significantly in this comparison, the formal and temporal aspects of the reading experiences are equally sensitive to the architecture of pictorial narrative, transcending boundaries of space and time. In the dyptich’s lower left panel, for example, we actively decipher the story of the Annunciation and the birth of Christ almost simultaneously, accompanied by shepherds and their flocks embedded in the hills beyond.
Consider for a moment the enormous creative challenge faced by the maker of this object: wordlessly tell the life story of Jesus Christ and his Mother—from Madonna and Child to grieving mother and martyred son to King and Queen of Heaven—and make sure the person reading this story can carry it in his satchel on travels to strange lands. Make sure he can study it while resting beneath a tree, hold it reflectively in his hands as he dims the candle at night, carry its significance in his heart and dreams. A lifetime unfolds in this diminutive, sacred object, and we continue to learn from its eloquence.