Throughout the Middle Ages a common image in art, architecture and literature is the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem. As the site of much of Christ’s ministry and His death, it formed an important part of aesthetic design. In architecture, the great cathedrals drew directly from the Temple in Jerusalem as the picture of the divine on earth. Proportions, layouts and motifs were drawn directly from both historical reference of the geographic earthly Jerusalem and the idealized heavenly Jerusalem. The trend began with St. Helen’s work in the Holy Land, to build churches and find and preserve holy relics, and continued through the paleo-Christian, romanesque, gothic, renaissance and baroque periods.
In religious art, you’ll often find the scenes of the Bible portrayed outside of Jerusalem. Only it is not Jerusalem, but the city of the patron or the artist. The clothing also tended to reflect the times and society. This equation was fairly common, as a way to make the Gospels real and present to all.
The same impulse may be found in Middle Earth.
This past week, the Grey Havens Group discussed the chapter ‘Of the Sindar’ in their continuing adventure through The Silmarillion. As a “satellite member,” I was unable to join in on the fun, but I was able to read and contemplate in step with them for once, rather than wandering down my own paths.
In this chapter, Thingol and Melian establish the kingdom of Doriath and the palace-city of Menegroth. Thingol is one of the three elves brought to Valinor to see it and lead the Eldar there in the beginning of time. He has seen the light of the Trees and the glory of the Valar. But he stays in Middle Earth, and creates a reflection of that realm in Menegroth.
Thingol enlists the help of the Naugrim in the construction of the Thousand Caves, and enshrines the memory of Valinor in its halls.
“There wrought…images of wonder and beauty of Valinor beyond the Sea. The pillars of Menegroth were hewn in the likeness of the beaches of Orome, stock, bough, and leaf, and they were lit with lanterns of gold. The nightingales sang there as in the gardens of Lorien; and there were fountains of silver, and basins of marble, and floors of many-colored stones. Carven figures of beasts and birds there ran upon the walls, or climbed upon the pillars, or peered among the branches entwined with many flowers. And as the years passed Melian and her maidens filled the halls with woven hangings wherein could be read the deeds of the Valar, and many things that had befallen in Arda since its beginning, and shadows of things that were yet to be. That was the fairest dwelling of any king that has ever been east of the Sea.” (Silmarillion 93)
Thingol and Melian create a glimmer of Valinor in the shadows of Middle Earth. Here is yet another vision of the theory of subcreation in Tolkien’s great mythology. The trend continues with the Exiles, in the creation of Gondolin, a reflection of Tirion on Tuna and later by the Edain in Armenelos and finally Imladris and even Minas Tirith. All are reflections of the “heavenly” Tirion, which itself is a reflection of the home of the Valar: Valmar and the palaces of Manwe on Taniquetil.