A Thousand Words
Portrait of St. Luke in the Gospel Book of Otto III
by Mary Elizabeth Podles
This Luke is not a conventional seated scholar, placidly penning his Gospel. This Luke is a mystic, a visionary in a state of exaltation, lifted up to heaven by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and set among visionaries. The frame around him seems to be made of living trees, bursting into leaf and then into a fantastic archway made of ribbons, garlands, birds, lambs, and even the winds, all in warm reds and browns. Within the archway, the Evangelist sits in a mandorla, an almond-shaped aureole usually reserved for Christ or Mary in glorified state. Luke, like Christ on the Judgment Seat, is seated on a rainbow. The mystical vision has set him outside of time and space. A contrasting icy green sets the mandorla off from the frame in an expressionistic burst of color.
Similarly expressionistic are Luke’s enormous eyes, which seem to stare through and beyond the viewer. His arms are raised ecstatically, hands gripping the clouds above as if the vision were a palpable, touchable fact. The clouds are a series of overlapping circles in greens and purples, seemingly exploding with rays of light, as if their jagged outlines can barely contain their energy. (Clouds like these appear nowhere else in contemporary manuscripts except once or twice in depictions of Pentecost, in which, as here, the Holy Spirit breaks through into the apostles’ vision.)
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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
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