Jacob wrestling the angel, Vienna Genesis

By Stevie Adams / in , , , , , , , , , /

– [Steven] We’re looking at
one of the most important early manuscripts that has survived from the early Christian or Byzantine era. This is from the early 6th century and it’s called the Vienna Genesis. It’s a manuscript of the
first book of the Bible. – [Nancy] And what we
see are illustrations at the bottom of each page. So the text is always on
top and these illustrations are at the bottom. – [Steven] This is really rare. Books that are 1500 years
old, don’t often survive. – [Nancy] Books are often susceptible to fires and floods. And so, this is a really unique object. And it preserves some of
the earliest narrative illustrations of Bible stories. That’s really important
for Christian iconography. – [Steven] But this
book is even more rare, then we might think. Not only has it survived,
but if you go back to the 6th century, there
probably weren’t that many books. To produce a book was a major undertaking. – [Nancy] All of the pages, which are made from animal skin, were made in a process that’s similar to making
leather but not tanned. And then all the pages were cut and ruled, and all of the text was written by hand and not in any way printed, using a press. And so, that was a very
time consuming process. – [Steven] And in this particular
case, the text is written in silver, which has now
tarnished, so it’s black. But originally, it must
have been a gleaming surface and really sumptuous. – [Nancy] And it’s been dyed purple, which perhaps suggests a royal commission. Writing in silver and gold
and dying parchment purple was seen as a very ostentatious thing. And it’s something that Saint Jerome, an early doctor of the church
who translated the Bible into Latin, it’s something
he preached against as being very un-Christian
and lacking humility. – [Steven] Now we’re
not sure who made this or where it was made. Some scholars have
suggested Constantinople, others have suggested Syria. – [Nancy] So this is
kind of a strange story. What we see is that Jacob wakes up and he leads his family across the river. We see Jacob in brown with a red tunic. And he’s leading servants and his wives, his wives are on donkeys. And then his sons are behind
and they are crossing a river. And we see a bridge. After they cross the river,
Jacob becomes separated from his family and he meets a man. And he wrestles with the
man and he wants the man, or is often interpreted to
be an angel, to bless him. And the angel blesses him and then the family goes on their way. One thing that happened
as a result of this story, is that the Old Testament patriarch Jacob, is no longer called Jacob
but he’s called Israel. And that’s seen as being
an important transformation in Jacob’s life. – [Steven] It’s a pretty
simple story to convey in terms of the basic narrative. But it’s a more complex
story, if one thinks about trying to convey the
transformative aspect. We see a kind of classical relief that has been bent in the middle. I can almost imagine if that
bridge was straightened out and this whole thing was
unfurled, that this would make a perfect frieze, that could
have been carved in stone. And so, that classical tradition
calls itself out to me. – [Nancy] I see the artist
trying to find a way to stretch this very linear
narrative and make it fit the space of the book. Even though there is a sense
that the figures on top are further away and the
figures in the bottom are closer to us, but
there is no differentiation in terms of size. We have some interesting
anecdotal details. We see one servant or a
son looking off the bridge and looking at the water
running down below. As you can imagine people
doing when crossing a bridge. And we see one of the wives turned around. We see the form of her body
underneath her drapery, which recalls more classical forms then the early Byzantine
scene that we’re looking at. – [Steven] And we see clear
references to the classical, even in the architecture of the bridge. Notice that the bridge
includes a colonnade and we can imagine classical columns. There are Roman arches
that the water courses through underneath. But I love the playfulness
and the malleability of the bridge, the way in
which the artist has been able to warp it around, so
that we’re seeing both its front side and on the opposite
side on the lower right. – [Nancy] In a way it’s very
typical of early Christian or early Byzantine or late antique art, we can see that the sense of
perspective is quite skewed. If we look at the columns on
the farther end of the bridge, they’re taller and bigger then the columns that are nearer to us,
which is the opposite of linear perspective
or rational perspective. And that mixing up of space,
in a very intentional way, is typical of this time. And so we have these classical elements and these more realistic
elements, and they are at odds or there’s a tension with
the more Byzantine elements or medieval elements. – [Steven] Here’s a moment
where the physiciality of the figures, the sense
that we really can understand their bodies below the
cloth comes into play. These are two bodies that
are going at each other and although it may have
a spiritual aspect to it. Their physicality really comes into play. – [Nancy] And one of the
details of the story, is that the angel
touches Jacob’s hip joint and we see that happening. And it puts Jacob’s hip out
of joint and he hobbles away. And that’s a part of the
story, and so we can see that pinnacle moment happening. Although it’s unclear exactly
who was reading this book. What I can imagine is an
individual from a royal household sitting down to read,
perhaps in the evening and the silver letters would
be reflecting and shimmery, almost mystical candlelight. And as they’re reading,
they’re using the illustrations to contemplate and to bring this particular story to life.

3 thoughts on “Jacob wrestling the angel, Vienna Genesis

  1. Super! The piece reminds me of, later, cycle plays, which would tell stories from the bible on stages, in stages. So I see this piece as instructive for those creating those cycle plays. They would move their wagons throughout towns, and from town to town, stopping to perform some specific aspect of a bible story. Then they would move on and do the next segment in the story. So we might think of 'The Story of Jacob' as a story board for future theatre-makers. 

  2. Thanks smarthistory kahn academy, as always for your beautiful videos on art with meaningful insights & detail!

    It is interesting that you mention Latin in the one manuscript example, but not that it is ancient Greek for the primary silver & gold one. It reminds me that even though art history & criticism is so wonderful & enlightening, that to not include things like the meaning of "bridges"—-perhaps the past (as portrayed so much bigger!!!) is more important that the nearer (smaller portions of the "bridge" in the foreground ) is more meaningful when looking at the past, which is what the Latin "religio" refers and this is definitely a religious document …when compared to your comment about this as somehow "primitive" compared to the art to come in the Renaissance with its" proper", "realistic" perspective based on "reason" compared to this work (as well as the to-come translated & distributed classical works of antiquity in science, philosophy, that gives rise to all this Renaissance in Italy
    to spread eventually across Europe, etcetcetc) -this realistic viewpoint is perhaps not the intention here! but rather some more mysterious thing at work, involving journeys, battles, & bridges to cross; in the same manner, there is no deeper examination of the story itself (a wrestling, all night match with god, whoa!!!!), all this stuff, context & meaning especially on a journey involving "bridges".

    If the Western religious tradition emphasizes the story of a man wrestling with god, perhaps that is the higher meaning that differs so greatly & in so many ways with Eastern traditions down to this very day! It is less likely that in Eastern religions of all shades, the point is never to wrestle at all most especially with god or his messenger; or with those who rule as prophets & kings, but instead, the choice is to fall to the ground, lower your eyes, stop breathing, & just "obey" without questioning, kind of thing. Perhaps Christianity's focus in the middle ages and in the eastern portion of the Roman empire focuses on this major difference, the individual man, the journey of such a heroic battle, the bridges of tradition & ancient wisdom that brings with it great rewards yet with punishments as well, is one worthy of great art & philosophical as well as historical perspectives in art criticism. 🙂

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