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Image and Architecture
The symmetrical structure of the architecture is a frame within which images must fit. The sculpture group on the pediments of a Greek temple is composed hierarchically, with Apollo or other divinities at the centre, and less important figures at the flanks. In archaic art, such as the temple of Artemis, the central figure, Medusa, who is facing the spectators, is flanked by two identical lions, one of which is the mirror reflection of the other.
A similar system is found in Christian medieval art and architecture. The alignment of altar, cathedra and celebrant constitutes an axis that divides the ground plan of the basilica symmetrically into two equal halves. A central axis drawn lengthwise on the Church plan through the main altar, bisecting all transversal architecture elements and furniture in the church space, will individuate the axial positions of the entrance wall through the main door, the central panel of the pontile, or the Crucifix above the entrance of the choire enclosure, the apex of the triumphal arch, the centre of the apse and apsidal vault, as well as the cathdera situated within the apse. The images found in these "axial positions", such as the Majestas domini or later the Coronation of the Virgin in the apsidal vault, a clipeus image of Christ flanked by the 24 elders of the Apocalypse or the Eutimasia on the triumphal arch, and the Last Judgement above the main entrance, are all motifs of a symbolical order.
Past and future
The typical arrangement of apsidal images, as well as of altar-pieces, is symmetrical, and the portraits of Christ, the Virgin, or saints, are almost always turned frontally towards the spectator. On the long walls of the medieval church building, we find images of a quite different kind. Here we find stories from Genesis, from the Gospels, or from the vita of saints. These scenes, which are ‘off-centre' with respect to the church's main axis, are almost never composed symmetrically. Moreover, whereas the mentioned images that are aligned with the main axis represent scenes from the Revelation and other sources that anticipate or foreshadow future events, the images on the long walls are an account of things that once happened. They represent the past. Thus, the church is a symbolical space that separates centre from periphery, past from future. Apart from being assigned specific positions in the church space, symbolical and apocalyptic images that represent the future are also connected with a specific form: the symmetric one.
The Holy face
A survey of 590 portraits by Italian, Dutch and German masters from the 15th and 16th centuries shows that only about 1.2 percent of the portraits of secular persons are shown frontally. There are not quite as many representations of Christ from the same period, but there are clear indications that the frontal (symmetric) view in this case is much more common. Perhaps as many as half of the Christ portraits from this period are shown frontally (and symmetrically).
How is it that symmetry is used so often in representations of Christ, yet almost never, in the Renaissance, in representations of secular persons? According to written sources, the beauty of Christ was supposed to be of a spiritual kind; some even said that his appearance was ugly. However, the Scriptures connect his ugliness with physical pain. It is not a description of his likeness as such, but rather how he would appear to someone witnessing his suffering during the Crucifixion. In fact, other sources, such as the so-called Epistola Lentuli,gives a totally different account of him, describing him as of "venerable aspect" and having "a face without wrinkle or spot."
There are basically two types of Renaissance Christ portraits. The first, the Man of Sorrows, corresponds to the ‘ugly type': Christ has a sad expression, he wears the crown of thorns, and blood pours from his forehead – it is the ‘suffering type'. The second, the Holy Face, is totally different. Here Christ turns toward the spectator with a calm and gentle expression. It is interesting to study the way Christ's head is turned in these two cases. In the former (‘suffering') type, we have examples of frontal (en face) view as well as three-quarter profile, but the majority are three-quarters. In contrast, the Holy Face is exclusively full frontal (and symmetric).
The difference between the two types of Christ portrait corresponds to that between ‘past' and ‘present'. As we have seen, whereas images representing the past have no precise structure, representations of the theophany (the Apocalypse and so on) are always symmetrical, and the protagonist is always the central figure, frontally (and symmetrically) turned toward the spectator.