Introduction:

     In the year of the Lord, one thousand one hundred and eighty one, the seventeen tripartite panels known as the Altar of Verdun were completed and dedicated to Mary, Our Lady, Most Holy Virgin, Mother of the Savior, the Lord's humble handmaid, footstool of the trinity, intercessor for sinners, consolatrix of the dying, Mater Dolorosa and Queen of Heaven. The time of the panels' dedication in 1181 fell in the short interval between the second and third crusade. The place of the new shrine was an Augustinian monastery near Vienna, the ancient Vindobona, watching over the majestic course of the eastward-flowing Danube from where the mountains glide into the fertile Pannonian plane.

     The new convent was erected on the remains of a garrison that had stood guard to protect the Roman Empire's north-easterly frontier. When in the common era's fourth century barbarian invasions swept over the border, Rome's political reign in the region ended, but a new, more spiritual power was getting ready to step up into the succession. Early in the fifth century, a small chapter of Augustinian canons, living by strict rules of poverty, chastity, and obedience to Christ's calling, formed an outpost of the New Order in the Pannonian region. They preached in words and deeds salvation's gospel and brought the news of God's ongoing new creation to people in distress. The hearts of rich and poor alike were changed and comforted and many came to accept God's abundant loving kindness. The canons did not only cultivate the people's minds and hearts but also the land, turning it into gardens, vineyards, fields and orchards. The intellectually and artistically gifted spent much time in spacious study halls where they copied scripture, wrote treatises and commentaries, and graced their manuscripts with the most carefully wrought miniature illuminations. Their days and nights were rhythmically punctuated by the canonical hours of worship, meditation and prayer. Patiently, yet filled with expectation, the canons entrusted themselves to the vast and upward flowing currents of God's word (Psalm 46:4 "There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God....") and lived, as mid-wives, preparing for the world's re-birth in and as God's City.

     The coming of this city is foretold by the movingly human figure of Sarah, wife of Abraham, and Isaac's mother, in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 54. The prophet, in solemn song, proclaims God's covenant with Sarah, the covenant of peace and freedom for the future citizens of the New Jerusalem. Enlarging on Isaiah's inspired prophecy, the apostle Paul invokes the name of Sarah as the namesake of the New Jerusalem, making her the mother of all who give sin the slip and escape from bondage. They are, like the Augustinian canons, the vanguard of human life in liberty: "But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all"(Gal.4:26).

Historical thumbnail sketch:

     Little is known in detail about the first 600 years of the generations of Augustinian canons and their labors. What is known is their success in preparing the foundation for the artistic and intellectual splendor that arrived at the end of the twelfth century when grave crises resolved themselves, surprisingly, into an unprecedented culture-wide consolidation. Here is a brief version of the legend that tells in echoes of primeval foundation myths how this consolidation came about: One pleasant day in the year eleven-hundred, or thereabouts, Margrave Leopold and his wife, Margravine Agnes, stood at the look-out of their mountaintop castle, when a violent rush of wind lifted the Margravine's veil and carried it off. Agnes, disconsolate at first over the loss of her treasure, found new strength and courage by tirelessly helping the people in her community. Nine years after the veil's disappearance the Margrave followed the lead of his pointers during the morning hunt. The dogs led him to a forest clearing near the banks of the Danube. There he found the veil, undamaged, hanging from the branches of an elder tree. Falling on his knees the Margrave vowed to move his court to the enchanted forest where the miracle had taken place. Soon a new castle, no, an entire community sprang up in the appointed site, complete with church and cloistered monastery for the ancient chapter of the Augustinian canons. The abbot started to enlarge the chapter's membership and received rich lands as endowments in perpetuity from Margrave Leopold's beneficence. The monastery flourished and became a magnet for artists and scholars from East and West alike. In the second half of the twelfth century religious, political and artistic forces combined in the conception and creation of the masterwork known today as the "Altar of Verdun".

Explanatory Speculations:

     Questions abound: Why was the work commissioned? Who conceived the theological program that permitted a work of such intellectual range to come into existence? And why was the work, a set of 17 tripartite instruction panels intended originally to be read by all and sundry, moved in the fifteenth century into sacred space behind an altar, only accessible to the officiating priest? There are a few speculative answers on record, but a new investigation is called for to find the causes.

     Two schools of thought address the question of authorship. The first rests on the defense of true doctrine. It maintains that the altar was commissioned for reasons of church policy to counteract two heresies: The eucharistic heresy of Berengar of Tours, condemned as heretic in 1051, and Peter Waldo's popular movement of the Poor Men of Lyons. Peter Waldo founded his movement for the working poor who were craftsmen and laborers as well as small traders in 1178. Six years later he found himself in serious trouble since he and his party were banned by the papal bull "Ad abolendam", promulgated by the synod of Verona in 1184. The defense of true doctrine school of interpretation maintains that it is the Church Universal's office, her magisterium, to defend established ecclesiastical teachings and stamp out error by all available means. One of such means against error was certainly available to the Augustinian canons in the text of Hugh of St. Victor's treatise on the sacraments of the Christian faith "De sacramentis christianae fidei." The fact that the triptych's theological program draws on this treatise which as an illuminated manuscript has been a treasured possession in the monastery's library (#CCI 311) since the middle of the 12th century, gives the defense of true doctrine explanation great plausibility and weight.

     The second school of thought does not look for an explanation in the doctrinal fights affecting the church universal throughout her realm, but rather in immediate, local, and, perhaps, more pressing, concerns. One of them, possibly the most potent, may have been the ambition to follow the example of Abbot Suger, "the father of the Gothic style", who had succeeded, around 1140, in making the church and monastery of St. Denis, near Paris, the radiant center of an intensely nationalistic new culture by combining spirituality, magnificence and splendor. The canons and their abbot may well have asked questions like "would not a religious work, surpassing in concept, beauty, and workmanship all others, soon become the goal of countless pilgrimages, and bring prestige, and also great prosperity to its patrons? Would not the reputation of such a precious work increase the town's and monastery's status and put the other aspirants to regional preeminence in the shade? And, lastly, would not the renown of such a work add sufficient luster to convent and community that they might become the future capital of the eastern provinces of the Holy Roman Empire, the buffer and frontier of Western Christendom? It is impossible to tell whether such deliberations took place. Neither Abbot Ruediger, under whose abbacy work on the triptych must have begun, nor Abbot Wernher, who superintended its completion, left a written record. Though they may have indeed followed Abbot Suger's example to add through their patronage to the glories of Christendom, they did not document the proceedings as Suger did in "De Administratione," his account of the restoration of St. Denis.

     The question, who is the author of the theological program, again leads into speculation. Clearly, the abbot and many of the canons were learned men, justly famed for the erudition displayed in the illuminated and illuminating manuscripts of their theological treatises. The monastery, situated at the crossroads of west to east and north to south, was a magnet for traveling scholars for whom theological controversy was the very spice of the monastic life. The triptych's program is so comprehensive that it may well be the product of a team of scholars expert in the scriptures, theology, liturgy; the writings of Augustine and Hugh of St. Victor. The theological program's universal scope and unprecedented, and perhaps unsurpassed, doctrinal intricacy, required method, vision and the intuitive gifts of the canons' carefully cultivated intellectus spiritualis. Artistic genius and craftsmanship of the highest order had to cooperate so that the theological program could be translated into a clear pattern of images: depictions of abstract concepts, clothed in history's garb, that were spellbinding and communicative enough to move the hearts and minds of people of all kinds. The canons and their abbot showed great powers of judgment, or perhaps heeded God's hidden counsel, when they entrusted the realization of the formidable task to the wandering goldsmith Nicolas of Verdun.

Nicolas of Verdun in Context:

     This man, Master Nicolas of Verdun, is known by his work, not his life. Neither date nor place of his birth have been established. The twelfth century was a time of general turmoil, power struggles, crusades, heresies, persecutions, famines, papal schisms, regicides, migrations and new threats from expansionist Islam. Little wonder Master Nicolas' birth records are lost. So is all other documentary evidence, e.g. guild membership, marriage license, etc. Tradition has it that Nicolas of Verdun learned his quadruple trade of goldsmith, enamel expert, painter and sculptor as an apprentice to one, or many, of the great artists who had followed Abbot Suger's call to restore and innovate the abbey of St. Denis.

     The symbolic and aesthetic center piece of St. Denis is the Golden Crucifix, a sculpture unparalleled in its bejewelled splendor and luminous, earth-rooted, yet transcendence capturing, beauty. This crucifix had been completed and consecrated, with pomp and circumstance, in the presence of the princes of the terrestrial and celestial realms, in the year eleven hundred and forty(?). Abbot Suger says in his account of the epochal restoration of St. Denis : "And barely within two years were we able to have completed, through several goldsmiths from Lorraine at times five, at other times seven the pedestal adorned with the Four Evangelists; and the pillars upon which the sacred image stands, enameled with exquisite workmanship, and on it the history of the Savior, with the testimonies of the allegories from the Old Testament...." Lorraine, with Verdun as artistic hub, is thus proven to be the home of the period's finest artisan-artists. Master Nicolas, by his own testimony, came from the town of Verdun, signing his works as NICOLAUS VIRDUNENSIS with his name carefully chiseled in stone. He thus broke with the medieval convention of the anonymous artist and established a precedent for the signature of individual genius, in the renaissance sense of the term.


The Masterwork's Educational Mission:

     The main purpose of Master Nicolas' panels is to clarify people's hazy understanding of their roles within God's timeless providential design for the stretch of time's duration. This plan, as rendered by the panels, now arranged as triptych, contains a vast number of possible links between time and eternity suggestive of the infinite number of relationships between the Many and the One, i.e. God and humankind. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the small Christian community in Rome, makes it sound quite easy for people to discern what is in the deity's mind when he says "Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made".(Romans 1:20) Yet it seems more likely that it takes the mediation of a true artist to make aspects of the divine patterns accessible to humans' sensory and intellectual powers of perception. Nicolas of Verdun was such an artist. He rendered imitations of temporal things in such a way that they disclose the nature of the eternal to the eye of whoever, in stillness, contemplates his work.

     The great Master of Verdun's renditions of reality are in harmony with other representative-revelatory masterpieces of the high Middle Ages. They confirm the knowledge of redemption that lies dormant, ready to be awakened, inside the human heart. But while the heaven-soaring spires of the cathedrals and the slender-columned, pointed arches of the naves proclaim, for all to see, the mind's flight upward, the pictures on the panels of Master Nicolas are an invitation to enter the inner spaces of the soul. Once in the inner sanctuary, the soul, in wonder, is suffused by the radiance of the very image in whose likeness she has been given life. Love crystallizes into faith in the moment of this recognition, providing strength and courage for the human creature to accept life's joy and sorrow for the duration of its passage through the world.

     Innumerable are the triptych's messages of piety in subtle interplay with onlookers' religious sensibility. Here is a random sampling: To love God in submission of will and exaltation of feeling; to die to the world and be resurrected in Christ; to accept oneself and one's life and be grateful; to be a good neighbor to those in need and bear each other's burden; to search for true understanding and not be deceived; to know that winning the world is not worth the price of one's soul; to realize that God is not mocked and look for the light in the darkness. The possibilities of reading, and misreading, the altar's signs are endless. But using the conventions of the Augustinian tradition in which the work stands, the following three 'lessons' are plainly there to be discerned.

First lesson: The Order of Time

     On comprehensive view, the arrangement of the pictures exhibits Time's Eternal Order as an intermingling sequence of the three world ages that follow one another during the interval between the moment of creation and the moment that will punctuate the end of time on Judgment Day.



For Augustine this threefold time scheme of scripture represents vestiges of the holy trinity, the triune creator and redeemer deity who, in the complexity of his threefoldness, moves history. By definition, God is eternal, and so is the soul and the universe, while the human world is not. In the scripture based narrative which the triptych illumines, the first age is named the Age before the Law (ante legem) i.e., what modern philosophers call "the state of nature." This original period reaches from Creation to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. The second is defined as the Age under the Law (sub lege) and lasts from the time when Moses communicates God's Law to His people until the angel Gabriel brings his timely announcement of Christ's birth to Mary. The third period, the Age under Grace (sub gratia), starts with the annunciation and will be over at a date unavailable to the faculties of the human mind. The viewer of the triptych is led by the display of images to intermittently adopt this all-encompassing view of human life on earth, and can resort for guidance to the altar's dedicatory inscription.

Second lesson: The Order of Possibility

     Whereas the Altar's horizontal schema discloses the three time zones of God's providential order of the ages, the vertical arrangement calls up memories of specific events - three for each panel - showing how the three periods, in their co-presence, combine in purposive patterns. To abstract intelligible order from the flow of time, prophets, apostles and church-fathers early on formalized a scripture reading method known as typology or figuration. Many of the panels are relying on this method to convey their manifold messages. Yet, to grasp the immediate teaching goal, it is sufficient to pay attention to the underlying master conception, or theo- philosophic foundation of the pictorial arrangements.

     This master conception is that the new age, the evolving new creation, is charged with the possibility that the promises of the old age(s) may over time come true. By grace it is now possible to reconcile collisions between law and nature, resolve the tensions of internal and external warfare, and lift the ever-augmenting burdens of shame and debt and guilt. The very expectation of this reconciliation of humanity and the divine at the core of human personality is the Augustinian meaning of history. The practical side entails the harmonizing of drives and impulses with considerate forethought; pleasant relations between body and soul; the fortitude to benefit from interruptions of work-a-day equilibria by crisis; and sufficient empathy to recognize the "other" as other and, while acknowledging salient differences, as the same. To keep this transformative possibility of human maturation alive, a keen receptivity is needed that attends to the echoes of the Augustinian legacy over time. The apostle Paul, describing the conflict people experience, says "My inner being delights in the law of God. But I see a different law at work in my body a law that fights against the law which my mind approves of. How unhappy I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death? Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ!" (Romans 7:22-25). This is the apostle's formula for the doctrinal replacement, or supervention, of the rule of the Mosaic law by the rule of grace and charity. He legitimizes this move, and the rupture with tradition and convention it entails, by a figurative scripture reading. The new age has been foretold, since the beginning, by the prophetic witness of allegorically veiled testimonies in the Pentateuch and, later, more explicitly, in prophecies of the major and the minor prophets, including Christ. In terms of the Verdun altar, the change for the better the age under grace may bring starts with the Annunciation on the first panel of the triptych's middle band which represents the time zone of the Common Era. Thus our era - from the announcement of the Savior's birth to the pronouncement of his verdict on the day of judgement - embraces the future in both of its forms: The simple future of human time on earth, and the exact future of each human soul's and being's eternal destination: Apocatastasis and Plenitude, when God is all in all. (I Cor. 15:28)


Third Lesson: The Order of Virtue

     The first lesson shows the evolving, intermingled sequence of the three world ages, and the second elucidates the spirit and the goal of the reign of grace. The third of Master Nicolas' lessons sets forth the order of the virtues as a vital component in the great order of things. In the language of medieval theologians one can be more precise and say the third lesson deals with the qualitative attributes, i.e. predicates, of the seventh of the nine angelic hierarchies. The Verdun Altar's order of the virtues integrates Greco-Roman philosophic with Judeo-Christian religious teachings into a comprehensive set of rules for conduct aimed at a universal measured harmony. Rather than simply cataloguing virtues that oppose the seven killer sins of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth, the order of the virtues starts with virtue as generic concept, crests in the middle with wisdom and closes with truth.

     Each of the seventeen panels connects the particular virtue presiding over it, by means of its location in the larger scheme of the altar's 'things', to an underlying theological principle that plays a role in the mind's economy and the soul's welfare. To read these signs is tantamount to deciphering a map of the "terra incognita" of human consciousness in theological notation. The entire arc of virtues relies on the tacit premise of an article of faith the apostle Paul communicates to his disciple Timothy "For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind"(II Tim. 1:7).

The Order of the Virtues as Stations on Life's Way :

     The first virtue, the 'virtue of virtues', is the origin and foundation of all the others. It defines the meta-ethical relation between creator and creation by the principle the philosopher Heraclitus formulated as "heeding the Logos", i.e., obeying the creative action-word of the eternal power. The same principle informs scripture "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Genesis 1:3) The first triad of the 'altar' illustrates the cosmic law obtaining between creator and creation in relation to the human creature. In simple terms, that speak to intellect as well as feeling, messengers announce the coming births of Isaac, Samson, and Christ. Abraham and Sarah, Manoah's wife, and Mary are struck with wonder and awe. Hesitatingly they come to believe in the promise and accept the burden of the message. Against all odds, they perceive in the promise of a child, an heir, the future's sacred sign. Trusting in their God, they incline their 'inner ear', knowing in the simplicity of their hearts that nothing is impossible with God. Though Sarah laughs at first in disbelief, she comes to join the others and, believing in the promise, becomes the mother of Isaac. By not prejudging what seems impossible as impossible and dismissing the promise as absurd, these venerable figures do their part for the historic events to come to pass and the immense redemptive work of time go forward. God's truth is represented not as self-sufficient but in need of human cooperation. When the angel Gabriel says to Mary "Listen Daughter," she had to overcome the fear of the unknown, the biggest fear there is, follow the law of her heart, draw on strength other than her own, and, reminiscent of the sybil at Apollo's shrine in Delphi, who submits to divine possession, welcome God's Holy Spirit:

"Lap of the virgin,
Seat of power and wisdom
Reserved for a child."



     Master Nicholas' illustration of the Annunciation is subtle: two rays of light reach Mary's eyes. By literally and figuratively seeing the light in the darkness she conceives the incarnate God. Her "Heeding of the Logos" is itself a true and holy sign. It is the well-spring not only of true obedience, a word derived from 'listening' but of human goodness: life-giving, superabundant, and, when in touch with its source, incorruptible. The next virtue is joy (gaudium), the jubilation over new life at the birth of Isaac whose birth is interpreted as messianic promise, or Samson who is said to prefigure the election of the savior, and of Christ in the stable. This is followed by scenes of ritual circumcision, a sign of adherence to custom. Next to appear are the virtues of awe and compassion (timor et misericordia) who belong to a triad concerned with the giving of gifts of Melchizedek to Abram, the Three Magi to the divine infant, the Queen of Sheba to Solomon thus indicating that the hearts of those who fear and honor God are able to love and give freely. The Red Sea Crossing, Solomon's wash basin on oxen presented as the globe's baptismal font, and Christ's baptism in the Jordan, all three illustrate the virtue of peace, of the peacefulness that comes as a result of reconciliation. The classical virtue of temperance presides over Moses' return to Egypt, Christ's entry into Jerusalem, and the first passover, marking the deeds of the avenging angel not as actions of wrath but forethought and clemency. The seventh panel conveys the knowledge how God sustains his people: Abraham is given bread and wine by Melchizedek, the high priest whose name means King of Righteousness; manna appears by miracle to feed the Israelites trekking through the wilderness; Christ, in the upper room, breaks bread and offers it with wine to those who are with him at the last supper. The virtue here is holy charity, love's life-giving, sustaining and regenerative power that overcomes the odds, even of death. Panel 8 was added in 1331 and replaces typology with analogy. Three crimes are shown: Cain killing Abel; Joab stabbing Abner; Judas kissing Christ with treason aforethought. All three events involve the sin of envy. The virtue to be juxtaposed is generosity, or liberality. Largesse d'esprit, or, in Latin, Largitas.

     The center panel portrays the crucifixion, Christ's death on the cross for human liberty that was pre-figured by Isaac's, miraculously interrupted, sacrifice on Mount Moriah. The virtue here is wisdom. Not just wisdom in the sense of prudence, Aristotle's phronesis,which is one of the natural virtues based on the proper operations of the intellect. Wisdom at the center of Master Nicholas' order of the virtues is cast as "wisdom incarnate" in the historic Christ who represents the Wisdom of God, Eternal Mind, Will, Reason, Power, Goodness, Knowledge, Justice, Life, Light, Plenty, Love and Forgiveness. The next two panels, ten and eleven, are additions from the year 1331, and extol, a bit incongruously, the virtues of sobriety and concord. They lack the coherence of the original design.- In Panel Twelve, typology and its symbolic surcharge are restored: the blood of the Passover lamb protects the safety of the Israelites while the avenging angel kills the Pharaoh's firstborn son; Christ liberates Adam and Eve from Hell (not a canonical episode, but often used by the Fathers); and Samson rends the Tinmath lion. All three episodes signify the spirit's victory over death by virtue of fortitude which consists of great resilience and courage. The following panel exhibits more triumphs: Jacob blesses Judah; Christ, in full vigor, steps over the sleeping Roman guards and leaves his tomb; Samson, moving lightly, carries the doors of Gaza, he had forced open, up to the hilltop of Hebron. The virtues here are Hope and Justice, intimating that Hope is indispensable for Justice to succeed; both virtues point together, as a proleptic reference, to the Day of Judgment, i.e., the end of history. Faith and Humility are the virtues presiding over panels fourteen and fifteen. Faith, i.e., the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen, comes first since faith is held to be the indispensable precondition for the human understanding of God, self, and the universe at small and large. Faithlessness, according to the altar's teachings, cannot reach knowledge, nor can the faithless comprehend humility. The patriarch Enoch, Christ, and the prophet Elijah are depicted here (panel 14) during their sky-bound journeys as the most luminous exemplars of faith. Faith like theirs is the foundation of the City of God, the terminus of human desire, and the faithful of all ages receive the virtue of humility as gift. They can also expect to be the beneficiaries of the Paraclete, third member of the Holy Trinity, whose actions are recorded on panel fifteen where humble faith comes to fruition. Noah, fifty days into the great flood, receives the promise of new life when the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove brings an olive twig from Mount Ararat. The waters subside, the ark reaches terra firma, and man and beast can make a landfall. Much later, in Jerusalem, fifty days after Christ's death and resurrection, the apostles receive the Holy Spirit's fiery tongues to bring the message of grace to people scattered over the entire world. The third depiction of the Holy Spirit portrays Moses, fifty days after the first Passover, on Mount Sinai, ready to receive in fear and trembling the revelation of the law of life and bring it to God's people. The last two panels are no longer typologically conceived, but render the ultimate things that at an unforseeable time will have come to pass after the end of time has passed away. What is at stake here is the knowledge of the exact future when human history will have been suspended by eternity's coup de grace. The depictions of the Second Coming, the Day of Judgment, and the resurrection of the dead are not for the faint of heart. They are for those who are sustained by faith and patience. The virtues of these last two panels are chastity and patience, topped by truth. Unrepentant sinners, and those who have committed the sin that can not be forgiven, the sin against the holy ghost, come to naught by being devoured by the Leviathan.

The others, radiant, take their appointed places as citizens of the eternal city to enjoy the flawless knowledge of plenitude forever. No third possibility can be conceived in this portrayal of truth's irrevocable verdict where logic's iron law of the excluded middle rules beyond appeal: tertium non datur.


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