Image Composition in Religious Art

In their discussion of image composition in Reading Images (Chapter 6), Gunter Kress and Theo van Leeuwen outline three different placements of elements in images that gives the elements meaning in their placement to each other.  These placements are left and right, top and bottom, and center and margin.  According to Kress and van Leeuwen, the left/right placement shows the relationship of given or known information to new, the top/bottom reflects the relationship of ideal and real, and the center/margin placement often denotes hierarchy of some kind.  While I was reading this portion of the chapter, the images that came to mind as obviously having these relational placement are those of Western religious art.  The meanings created by these placements are often employed in religious art, whether a narrative is being told or the comparison between the heavenly and earthly spheres is being drawn.

Left/Right: Given/New

The natural progression of information from left to right is natural to cultures whose languages operate in this direction.  We begin at the left side of the space, and continue to the right as we read or follow a linear progression of images.  This is the basic setup for interviews and news broadcasts today, but the left/right relationship is especially apparent in the narratives and series found in religious art.

Byzantine mosaic, Ravenna

The mosaic shown above  pictures two scenes from the life of Abraham.  On the left, Abraham is pictured offering food to the visiting angels while Sarah laughs at their prediction of her future pregnancy.  As the image progresses to the right, another scene shows Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, the child that was foretold by the angels prior.  At first, the idea that Abraham and Sarah will have a son is presented and known, and the new development of Isaac’s offering follows.

The Renaissance painting The Calling of Matthew by Caravaggio can serve as a second example.  Matthew is sitting on the left side of the painting, dressed in black and pointing at himself.  His former, known life as a tax collector is behind him with the men counting the money.  He looks towards the light coming from the right of the painting, which symbolizes the call of Christ to a new life, the unknown.

Top/Bottom: Ideal/Real

In religious art, the top/bottom relationship could be better described as heavenly/earthly, or divine/mortal.  This placement is highly utilized in the religious sphere, for obvious reasons.

In both of these dome mosaics, the top of the images are clearly differentiated from the bottom.  There is a distinct line with a change of color as well as representations.  The beings in the top portion of the image are clearly divine, surrounded by clouds and floating in air, while  the figures represented below are on ground with grass, plants, and animals.

The elements of the real world, the plants and animals, represent tangible objects and information that the viewer encounters every day. However, the figures are looking upwards toward the ideal, emulating for viewers what the proper response to divinity should be.

Center/Margin: Hierarchy

While the center/margin placement can be found in several different contexts, it most often represents hierarchy in religious art, or simply an emphasis on a central figure with several marginal figures surrounding.  Usually this format is used to represent Christ and his twelve disciples, or the Virgin and Christ enthroned with surrounding angels and saints who are worshipping.  

In this glass window, the Virgin Mary is pictured in the middle, surrounded by various representations of saints.  Not only are they surrounding along the margins, but there are decorative elements that draw lines and directly connect Mary to each saint as they pray, showing the relationship between them.  Mary is the venerated figure that these saints pray to, but in turn, she is also reciprocates the connection to them.

Similarly, the large figures of Mary and Christ in the center command the attention of the viewer.  The adoring angels and saints are much smaller in comparison and only compliment the two main figures, emphasizing the importance of Mary and Christ.

Byzantine mosaic, Rome


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