Medieval Christian iconography - why a ball?
December 6, 2005 7:00 AM   Subscribe

What is the significance of Christ holding a ball/globe in Medieval Christian art?

Such as in this work:

He holds it in his left hand.
posted by saffron to Media & Arts (24 answers total)
Christ Pantocrator iconography. The orb is still part of the British crown jewels.
posted by holgate at 7:15 AM on December 6, 2005

I guess this could be an example of Christ being protrayed as Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) ‘with his right hand raised in blessing and his left hand holding an orb’ where the orb symbolizes the Earth. Or what holgate said.
posted by misteraitch at 7:19 AM on December 6, 2005

Response by poster: My first idea was that it represents the Earth...but didn't they think it was flat at the time? The date of the sculpture is around 1200.
posted by saffron at 7:20 AM on December 6, 2005

Eratosthenes came up with a good estimate of the earth's circumference circa 240 BCE.
posted by MasonDixon at 7:36 AM on December 6, 2005

Various fruits and birds and other things were often used to in depictions of the Christ child to symbolize the passion. In this painting, for instance, it's a pomegranate. I've also seen goldfinches, grapes, and I think apples labelled in these works as "symbols of the Passion," though I've never read any explanation of why.

In any event, that would be my guess.
posted by occhiblu at 7:37 AM on December 6, 2005

(Errr, the capital-P "Passion" for that first one. Not just any ol' passion. Sorry.)
posted by occhiblu at 7:38 AM on December 6, 2005

No, the Earth has been known to be round for at least 2500 years.

The crown and orb and scepter have long been symbols of kings. Typically the orb is said to represent worldly sovereignty and was often topped with a cross in Europe - one nation under God.

So Christ holding a ball is just saying something like, "Christ the King".
posted by jellicle at 7:38 AM on December 6, 2005

In reference to "Flat World," Greek philosophers figured the world was round before Jesus walked the earth. The orb has always been a symbol of power from Roman times up. Here's a wikipedia entry on the matter.

As well as as a briefer Britannica article.
posted by Atreides at 7:51 AM on December 6, 2005

jellicle: It depends on what you mean by "has been known", the ancient Greeks certainly knew, but whether the Church accepted the earth was round (or whether they even knew of the possibility) in 1200AD is a different matter.
posted by atrazine at 7:52 AM on December 6, 2005

(You'll notice that in the crown & orb works, none of the people holding the orb is the Christ child. We're dealing with a different set of iconography, here.)
posted by occhiblu at 8:06 AM on December 6, 2005

In Terry Jones Medieval Lives they attribute the origin of the 'Europeans believe in a flat-earth' myth to Washington Irving, who made up an 'encounter' where Columbus confronts the church about the roundness of the world...
posted by Chuckles at 8:26 AM on December 6, 2005

That iconography being: Depictions of the Madonna and child are about birth and rebirth. The Christ has just been born, and he will be reborn. Pretty much every Madonna and child painting I've seen has some reference to his subsequent death -- like I said, the pomegranate (which further googling has indicated symbolizes Christ rising from the dead like the seeds bursting through the fruit), the goldfinch (which may or may not have a streak of red on its chest, symbolizing Christ's suffering during the Crufixion), or the apple (symbolizing the possibility of salvation through Christ).

It's a cycle-of-life, resurrection through Christ idea. In the same way, Pietas, in depicting the death of Christ, also work in the idea of his birth by having him held by his mother.
posted by occhiblu at 8:27 AM on December 6, 2005

An *adult* Christ with an orb in his hand is obviously different, but the sculpture linked in the original question is a Madonna and Child.

(And now I'll stop with the serial posting. Sorry.)
posted by occhiblu at 8:31 AM on December 6, 2005

atrazine: jellicle: It depends on what you mean by "has been known", the ancient Greeks certainly knew, but whether the Church accepted the earth was round (or whether they even knew of the possibility) in 1200AD is a different matter.

In spite of the popular myth of Columbus convincing a Spanish Court that the world was round, his actual sales pitch was that the Earth was quite a bit smaller than the Greek and Roman estimates. It is unknown whether the Spanish Court that was highly literate in the Classics from both Latin and Arabic sources really bought this claim or not. Christian cosmology was based on Aristotle. this book has more information.

This particular iconography is called Salvator Mundi or savior of the world. A quick google search found many examples of the Christ Child as Salvator Mundi both in Madonna and Child images but also to identify the Christ Child in relationship with other Saints such as Christopher.

I think that you really need more detail than is offered to identify the exact iconography in this case. It could be a pomegranate, it could be an orb of the world. The sculture is eroded enough that it could be ambiguous.

I'll respectfully disagree with occhiblu in that it's a fairly common tradition art for infant and adult religious and mythological figures to be portrayed with the same icons.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:54 AM on December 6, 2005

Obligatory Wikipedia link. I'm pretty sure it's the same symbolism.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:02 AM on December 6, 2005

And a quick "pomegranate Madonna" image search turns up ten times as many results (granted, a few of them not applicable).

I will step back from the absolutist "adult Christ never shown with same icons as baby Christ" claim, but I do think that a symbol of the Passion is still the most reasonable interpretation, given the setting and how common that symbolism would be (mother, child, birth, death). There's one link in KirkJobSluder's search that *might* be the Madonna and child (it's too small for me to tell), but the rest have Christ by himself.
posted by occhiblu at 9:16 AM on December 6, 2005

Science was the origin of the flat-earth concept. The Hebrews had recorded it as a sphere floating in space in disputably the first book (chronologically) written in the Old Testament: Job.

I'm not familiar with Christ holding orbs, but hazarding a guess: "He's got the whole world, in his hands.."
posted by vanoakenfold at 9:46 AM on December 6, 2005

Here's an example (although it's shown so small in the linked picture that it's hard to see) by Carlo Crivelli in his Massa Fermana altarpiece of the infant Christ portrayed as Salvator Mundi 'with his lips parted and his right hand raised in blessing, his left hand holding the globe of the world.' (The quote is from Ronald Lightbown's book on Crivelli.) In at least one of his other altarpieces, Crivelli painted baby Jesus as holding an apple, but the pose there is not the same as the example here.
posted by misteraitch at 9:56 AM on December 6, 2005

It's probably a song reference. Medieval Christians were bigger on the allusions that you'd think.
posted by fidelity at 9:58 AM on December 6, 2005

I know this question isn't about the flat earth myth and all, but I decided to look up a better source and found this: Has Thomas Friedman Fallen for the Columbus Myth, so I thought I would share. If you are interested, don't forget to click through to the comments.
posted by Chuckles at 12:02 PM on December 6, 2005

It's a basketball. Jesus had amazing ups, and could dunk over anybody.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:29 PM on December 6, 2005

As shown in Exhibit A.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:30 PM on December 6, 2005

How shall I put this? It seems kind of self-explanatory, but --

He's got the whole world in His hands.
posted by booksandlibretti at 4:08 PM on December 6, 2005

If ONE MORE PERSON in this thread gets that song stuck in my head, I am going to start kicking some serious ass. Consider yourself duly warned.
posted by occhiblu at 6:23 PM on December 6, 2005

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