The church of St. Servatius in Siegburg, Germany has a treasure room full of medieval art and relics. Among the artifacts is a portable altar crafted around the year 1160 by the workshop of Eilbertus of Cologne.
Eilbertus was a master craftsman of Romanesque metalwork and enamel decoration, a sturdy artistic medium which withstands the centuries with minimal fading or decay. The colors remain brilliant after nearly a millennium. But Eilbertus was also a skillful iconographer, whose fluency with the symbolism of Christian art equipped him to construct dense and elaborate visual arguments.
Consider the top of the altar-box (click through for a larger display of the image):
Ranged in bands along the top and bottom of it are the twelve apostles of the Lord, labeled “apostoli domini.” Running down the right border are three ways of depicting Christ’s victory over death: at the bottom is the post-resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene in the garden, at the center is the empty tomb (“sepulchru domini”) with sleeping soldiers and the three women seeking the Lord among the dead where he is not to be found, and at the top is the ascension, “ascensio Christi.”
The event of the resurrection itself is not directly portrayed, of course, but Eilbertus juxtaposes three images of the resurrection’s consequences: the presence of the Lord to his people, the absence of the Lord from the tomb, and the ascension of the Lord by which he is now both present to us (spiritually) and absent from us (bodily) until his return.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, three pictures placed together in significant visual proximity are not increased simply by addition of ideas, but rather by a remarkable multiplication of meaning.
But it is the left border that showcases Eilbertus as the iconographic and doctrinal master that he is. In the middle is the crucifixion of Jesus, where the Son of God is flanked by his mother Mary and John the evangelist, as well as by the moon weeping and the sun hiding his face. At the foot of the cross, from the feet of the savior runs the blood of the crucified, and as it runs down the hill of the skull, it crosses a rectilinear panel border in which is inscribed “passio Christi,” the passion of Christ.