Friday, August 24, 2012
If a single work could represent the Reformation in art, this might be it.
The image above is the central panel which is revealed when the outer altarpiece doors are opened. The paintings were created to protect gilded wood carvings. Ironically, the "protective panels" have become more famous than the art they were meant to protect. In the history of art, The Isenheim Altarpiece has an iconic stature.
Like other works made in Northern Europe during the time, it treats the Bible as both historical and symbolic. The background is black because Grunewald treated the gospel narrative as literal fact. Matthew 27:45, "Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land." The figures on the left keep to this literal theme of the crucifixion events by depicting three of the people who stayed with Jesus at the cross, His mother Mary, John the disciple, and Mary Magdalen. But on the right side there is a person who was definitely not at the cross, John the Baptist, who had died before those events. Why is he there? And why is a bleeding lamb at his feet?
The right hand side is the interpretive or symbolic side, with John the Baptist reiterating with pointing finger his baptismal statement, "Behold the Lamb of God" and to reinforce that symbolism there is a lamb bleeding into a communion cup.
The symbolism does not stop there. Jesus's body is unusually twisted and covered by sores as well as wounds. The historical interpretation of this is that Grunewald painted it for an abbey church that cared for the sick and wounded, that he probably saw wounds inflicted during The Peasants' Revolt (which was an economic and tax revolt, by the way, not so much a religious riot although it is often confused with The Protestant Reformation, a nonviolent movement). Why cover Jesus with sores?
Two interpretations have arisen, one being that Grunewald wanted the sick to be comforted by relating to Jesus and the promise that "He bore our infirmities" as it says in Hebrews 4:15, but is also the meat of Isaiah's prophecy in chapter 53, that Christ carried our sicknesses, and sorrows, "and by His wounds are we healed" meaning that He took our sins upon Himself. The more Reformed interpretation, then, would be that Jesus is covered in sores as He was covered in sins for our sake, a visual to get across the meaning. After all, how do you show "sin" in a painting? In some kind of grotesque Dorian Gray fashion? And THAT is exactly how generations have viewed this painting, as a kind of grotesquery meant to rub the unsavory "illness" of sin into the flesh of Jesus before our very eyes.
Apparently, according to World War II era lore, the Nazis and Hitler himself thought the painting was a grotesque depiction and wanted it destroyed. Hindemuth's symphony "Mathis der Maler" (Matthias the painter) has become indelibly associated with this, because Hindemuth was criticized by the Nazis, the debut of the symphony was delayed several years (and threatened with obliteration), and Hindemuth was accused of openly attacking Nazi ideology. Whether the painting was ever a target of the Nazis has never been established but given the reaction to Hindemuth's symphony and Hindemuth's choice of subject to incite the Nazis' ire it seems safe to believe that indeed it is true that Hitler or a member of his inner circle, perhaps all criticized Grunewald's painting.
It speaks to the iconic power of the work.
Monday, August 20, 2012
First of all, we need to understand and remember that both of the terms "Middle Ages" and "Renaissance" originated from the late Renaissance writer and teacher Giorgio Vasari. He intended "Renaissance" to be the breathtaking and complementary term that it has become, and he intended "Middle Ages" to be the pejorative and dismissive term that it has become. In this way Vasari was a resounding success at coining terms. "Renaissance" means rebirth, and Vasari defined the period from the mid-1300's through 1500's as a rebirth of everything Greek, which consequently dismissed everything between A.D. 300 and 1350 as merely "in the middle" between the Greco-Roman (Hellene) age and its rebirth, as if nothing else mattered.
The criticism seems to work because several things fell to disuse or abuse in "the middle ages": observation of nature, natural proportions, compositional rules, perspective, and anything else that would seem to relate to the scientific study and conscience of humanity and nature. This can be summed up in the words "sacred and profane". To the medieval mind there were things which were sacred -- meaning that you could take them to the altar in church, like sacraments -- and everything else was profane, meaning that it belonged outside the church. "Profane" more or less described all of nature, human interaction and the human condition. Since people are sinful and thus "profane" then they can't be trusted to pose for sacred figures such as saints and thus portraiture, a vain contemplation of the Romans, fell to disuse. Human proportions were lost in the Byzantine iconography that dominated European and Asian art. Given our scientific proclivity to study what we see and meditate on it without fear of contamination from the natural world it prejudices us to think that people of the Middle Ages were stupid.
Au Contraire, they were as learned and intelligent as any age, and quite scientific. Just look at the Great Cathedrals, or Gothic cathedrals, they are marvels of science, math and engineering. It's just that the sculptures of people look like boneless drinking straws because artists relied on copying images inside and outside churches instead of looking at the people who were scurrying around the profane world with them. This led to ages of distancing images of people away from normal natural observation and distorting them via endless copying.
The Renaissance artists brought back what could be called Humanism. This simply meant that human models were acceptable as human models. In turn it mean that a human being could be used as a model for Mary, since she was also human, and even as the Christ child since He, too, was human. It is strange that in an age where creeds defined Jesus as "very human of very human" it became unacceptable within the church to use humans as models for humans. To the Greeks, Humanism meant an embrace of and fascination with human achievement and a curiosity about the limits and scope of human achievement. Ironically, it was the building of the cathedrals and the establishment of seminaries, universities, and libraries that brought Humanism back within the church, and by 1400 in both the North and in Italy and Spain in the South of Europe it was comfortably acceptable.
Along with Humanism came a return of natural observation and an acceptance of what the Greeks had discovered and recorded about nature. This meant a return or rediscovery of the following things:
- Linear subjective perspective
- Rules of human physical proportions
- The Golden Section
- Compositional rules and formats
- Contrapposto poses in sculpture and painting
- Portraiture and the use of human models
- Study of drapery
- Neo-Platonism or the use of Platonic ideal forms to substitute as "sacred"
- Nudity in art as a means of Neo-Platonic symbolism; in other words, as the Greeks had used
nudity to represent truth, ideals and purity, the Renaissance artists used nudity to represent
The Renaissance represents the birth of an age of cognazanti, people in the know who enjoy being in the know, and that was largely due to a shared knowledge and excitement over Greek forms and usage of them, and the ability to see and grasp what was going on via the presentation of Greek forms.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Rembrandt. That's what everyone calls him. That is how he signed his paintings, as simply, personally, Rembrandt. No one ever says "Van Rijn". Want to label yourself as a dork? Just call him Van Rijn.
Students have sometimes asked, Was there a Reformation style? Not by name or period but The Protestant Reformation was certainly embodied in the works of several artists from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Perhaps it is most easily seen in the paintings of Rembrandt. He was himself Dutch Reformed, from a family of Dutch Reformed.
The values of Dutch Reformed were in daily Bible reading and memorization. This was happily met in Rembrandt's time by the invention of the printing press and the availability of Bibles for the masses. The demand for images from the Bible stories increased in Rembrandt's day, something that he found personally lucrative as well as creatively fulfilling.
The Hundred Guilder Print, "Christ Preaching" (the famous print alluded to by that astronomical price may be the similar "Christ Healing the Sick") an etching by Rembrandt fetched as much as 100 guilders in the 1640's. To put that into context and -- please forgive the pun -- perspective, a family of five could live on 10 to 25 guilders a year, a house and garden in the Hague could be purchased for 300 guilders in 1630, so a hundred guilders was a princely sum.
Since his youth Rembrandt had been an entrepreneur as well as artist, not on a scale to rival Royal Court Painter Rubens but still substantially lucrative. He painted himself in costumes that he hoped would sell paintings from his shop. He painted his wife Saskia as historical and literary characters that he hoped would bring patrons. But throughout his paintings is an intimate interpretation of light and shadow that is at once theatrical and philosophical, yea, even spiritual. You can get the key to his symbolism of light and dark from many of his paintings, such as "The Blinding of Samson".
In the Bible's Old Testament, Samson was a judge of Israel, granted a gift of superhuman strength from God as long as Samson kept his vow and kept his hair long. But from the beginning Samson erred, breaking the very laws over which he was to judge, he ate honey from a dead carcass and dallied with Philistine women who worshiped idols and were the daughters of the enemies that he was to fight. His corruption culminated in his shacking up with Delilah, and it was Delilah at night in bed who wrested the secret of his strength from him and consequently cut his hair, thus ending his vow with God and losing his strength. Rembrandt's painting shows Samson at the moment that his eyes are being gouged out, blinding him -- but get this: Samson is being dragged into the dark, away from God and Israel, but his hair, the sign of his vow, is being held to the light because light symbolizes God. The yin-yang use of light and dark in the painting shows us Rembrandt's code: Light is synonymous with God and truth, darkness is evil and the ignorant dark world.
It is almost a direct logic as from the opening of the gospel of John, "The light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it... the true light which gives light to everyone in the world..."
Monday, August 13, 2012
Why is Peter Paul Rubens sometimes referred to in association with The Counter-Reformation? After all, most of the time we refer to Rubens as a Baroque artist and the cultural shifts we associate with that period are The Protestant Reformation, the change in wealth and social status, and the rise of neoclassicism as evidenced by the influence and power of the Academy. We might tie into The Enlightenment while we are at it. But the Counter-Reformation is a cultural wave that is more difficult to grasp.
In 1610 when Rubens painted the three tryptichs for Antwerp, Protestantism and the printing press had shifted the dependency of Christian believers away from the altars of cathedrals and more toward their homes and families. Private interpretations of scripture and a shift away from oral tradition and dogma meant a loss of stability for the Roman Catholic church throughout Europe. The church turned to the arts to draw attention back to what it had to offer. One thing was centuries of oral tradition. The three tryptichs by Rubens actually proclaim to some extent the wealth of the oral traditions and the visual heritage of the church.
The argument between Protestants and Catholics is ironically highlighted by this, because the foundation of the Protestant Reformation is sola scriptura, the Bible's authority alone, something Protestants would say was God-sent and unchanging, and the Counter-Reformation argument is founded on church authority, something that many perceived as ever-changing and a bit questionable, seated as it is amid sinful men.
Look at Rubens' painting. Anything strike you as odd? The one thing that I would point to is that leafy green tree. Why is it there? The answer is not documented with the painting but I think we can find it in another contemporary source, John Donne's poetry.
In "A Hymn to God in My Sickness" written in 1613, Donne says,
"We know that Christ's cross and Adam's tree were in one place..."
Huh? The Reformed Protestant studying scripture would ask, "Where did you get that?," because the concept does not occur anywhere in scripture. I think I could give you a fairly cogent argument for why it wouldn't, but it would take awhile. The Counter-Reformer would say, "It seems logical and it is in our traditions."
That is why it is the background of Rubens' painting, he practically painted the art as a signboard for returning to the Catholic church. "We," meaning the church, "know that Christ's cross and Adam's tree were in one place," because we have all the oral traditions and the saints to tell us these things, so come back.
It is the extra-Biblical or apocryphal elements that make Rubens a Counter-Reformation artist.
By the way, painting declarations of the majesty of the powers and authorities of Europe was Rubens' specialty, whether for The Apotheosis of James I in England or The Embarkation of Maria de Medici he was Royal Court Painter to no less than four kingdoms in his lifetime.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
There is ample evidence in Elizabethan literature that the topic of The Resurrection fascinated the 17th Century English playwrights and poets:
From John Donne's sonnets:
"At the round Earth's imagined corners, blow your trumpets, angels,
and Arise, arise from death, you numberless infinities of souls
And to your scattered bodies go..."
From Donne's "The Relic":
"...and think that there a loving couple lies
who thought that this device might be some way
to make their souls on that last busy day
meet at this grave and make a little stay..."
And The Last Busy Day from Shakespeare's Henry V, Act 4, Scene 1, Williams speaks at line 1980:
"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left."
It has been the general understanding of Christians that the resurrection of the dead is the final future happening at the end of all days. It was in The Apostle's Creed, "I believe in the resurrection of the body," and was in the Didache, also known as "The Teachings of the Apostles", which may have been recorded earlier than the creed.
In recent years, preterists, historists, and contextualists have tried to place the prophecy of the resurrection as an after-the-fact statement about a second century event, denying the possibility of future prophecy. Here's the problem with that: the Old Testament is rife with the promise of the resurrection, so if it's all about an A.D. 2nd Century event then the prophecies written before 600 B.C. blow the theory of "no future looking prophecy".
The oldest book of the Bible may be The Book of Job, and in it Job says, (Job 19:25-27) "For I know that my redeemer lives and He shall stand at last on the earth: and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another for me. How my heart yearns within me!"
The Book of Daniel ends with a promise to Daniel while he was a very old man in Susa (present day Iran), chapter 12: "But you go your way until the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of days."
There is a lot of argument these days between science and Christianity, most of it centering on Creation and whether or not Science can ever be fully reconciled to Christian faith. But, how can any scientist ever embrace the doctrine of The Resurrection as science? Even the apostle Paul said, (Romans 8:20 and 8:21) that the creation has been put into bondage to futility and decay. Aren't those saying, "the tendency to disorder" and the decay that is the cycle of the Laws of Thermodynamics?
The Christian believes in promises. The first promise is that God Himself will save. The Resurrection is the inheritance day of that promise, the rendering of The Will, so to speak.
All of the New Testament books and New Testament writers point to The Resurrection of the dead as a key belief and expectation.
As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, it is a central understanding and belief that Christ was raised from the dead. As Paul wrote in Chapter 15 of his first letter to Corinth, if Jesus did not rise from the dead then our faith is futile and we are false witnesses because all have claimed that He was raised from the dead, and if the dead are not going to rise then He didn't and we won't.
So, we look forward to that last busy day, looking to the resurrection of the body, when the sea shall give up her dead.
Salvador Dali was one of the younger artists to join in with Dada, and a latecomer. Influenced by the psychoanalytic writings and theories of Sigmund Freud and reveling in the revolutionary vogue of psychobabble, the dadaists were already moving away from the randomness of Dada and venturing into the deliberation of Surrealism.
That is probably the first thing any student of Surrealism needs to understand, that it was like a conference, a congress, a synod, with its own parliamentary rules about how the game was to be played and the style was supposed to go. The clearest evidence of that is how Dali himself, the late joiner was ousted by The Surrealist Congress before 1940 and the advent of World War II.
And why was Dali, the poster boy for Surrealism in all the fashionable magazines, ousted by his fellows? Because he validated the meaning of symbols in his religious paintings like "The Temptation of St. Anthony". His validations of symbolic science also got him into trouble with his former friends.
So, what is "The Persistence of Memory" all about? It is about the unconscious mind's inability to make sense of memories and it's insistence on reorganizing tropes. This has been theoretically stated many ways: the right brain never sleeps but not being the analytical side of the brain it occupies its nights trying creatively to draw order from the jumble of input that it takes in during the day; the unconscious mind (Id) reveals fears and anxieties and suppressed emotions through dreams; part of the brain is more spatial and visual and learns that way and therefore represents what it learns in new arrangements of visuals. Back then, it was the new vogue of personality to interpret dreams because Freud had introduced dream interpretation as a method of psycho analysis. Since it involved visuals and tropes and symbols and a quest for meaning and meant a new untapped gateway into the rich creative mine of the unconscious it was ripe for artists and was their baileywick.
In order to tap into the unconscious, the Surrealist artists cut to the chase, they didn't wait on slow laborious analysis of verbally recounted dreams, they ran into the dark mine via games such as "The Exquisite Corpse" and Automatic Writing. These required nearly trance-like states and detachment from awareness and reality. They produced strange shapes, "creatures" of the Id, with vague associations to reality, human bodies with birds' heads (Max Ernst's paintings) and things that looked like amoebas associating with roosters (Joan Miro's art). For an example of automatic writing, look at John Hurt's performance in the 4th Indiana Jones movie, where part of the subplot is the exploitation of psychic science in the post-war Fifties.
Dali's painting began as shapes from the unconscious. By the time he painted it he had seen plenty of the results from the Surrealist party games and free association sessions.
Of course, this is the Surrealist's game, to show us what fools we are for believing anything, as in Magritte's clever but a bit annoyingly derogatory "The Treason of Imagery".
In 1937 and 1938 the Surrealists fled Paris (and Germany) and Vienna because the Nazis labeled them degenerates and put them on wanted lists with guaranteed deportation to concentration camps. They fled to New York, the same city where Sigmund Freud was seeking treatment for cancer. While there, Dali met Freud. Who knows if that meeting related to a change in his approach to meaning, but in 1938 Salvador Dali entered a Hollywood painting contest with "The Temptation of St. Anthony", a painting that uses and validates Christian religious symbols and meaning.
Monday, August 6, 2012
The painting above is The Arnolfini Wedding or Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride, an oil portrait made in approximately 1434 by Jan Van Eyck. It belongs in the period of Art History known as The Northern European Renaissance and more specifically Netherlandish Renaissance oil painting.
You could get into a very formal critique of the techniques of oil painting, and it is certainly evidence of the hyperbolic or elliptical cycle of the development of oil painting in Europe throughout the Renaissance. Formally, it shows that northern painters had developed the techniques and chemistry of oil painting to a very refined level by the early 1400's, nearly a century before the Italians, so it seems obvious that Netherlandish knowledge made its way to Italy, but it also demonstrates through the strong use of linear perspective that excitement and awareness of Greek techniques such as natural observation, proper human physical proportions, and linear perspective to define space as well as compositional rules such as symmetry and the Golden Rectangle had made an impact in the north, undoubtedly circulated there from France and Italy and possibly via university students from Spain.
What the Arnolfini wedding represents in terms of technical achievement and formal qualities is superceded, though, by it's extraordinary demonstration of the cultural values and differences between the north and south. There is no comparable example from either 15th Century Italy or Spain that demonstrates the same demand for Biblical and theological detail, and in France one would have to look at the Medieval cathedrals to find similar details.
Consider this: portraits were scarce until the 15th century; marriage did not require much in the way of ceremony, no one kept "wedding albums" or mementos; only wealthy and royal subjects could afford large portraits; miniature portraits were not a fashion until the age of colonization in the 17th Century; and photography was not invented until 1828 and not practical for widespread use and cultural influence until the 1860's, more than 400 years later. The evident mix of humanism inherent in a portrait of a business man and his wife and the express discourse of Biblical and theological symbolism and knowledge is not only enough to cause us to pause and ponder, it was obviously meant for that purpose, to cause us to pause and ponder and to get its effusive message.
The Protestant Reformation did not start until nearly a century later in 1517 and Gutenberg's invention of the printing press was still a decade away, but the culture from which both of those revolutionary events sprang was the same culture as the Arnolfinis and the van Eycks inhabited, one where devotion to the scriptures of The Bible and daily study were as much a part of life as regular meals. Seminaries, creeds and confessions sprang up in northern Europe north of France. It is to that world and that audience that Giovanni Arnolfini took the willful and extravagant step of having a symbol-rich portrait painted in the entirely unnecessary pretext of announcing and recording his wedding.
This was Not common, it was remarkable. Any person who has studied their pedigree and ancestry and researched their genealogy will tell you how grateful they are for the ancestors who recorded their weddings in churches (which were also the courthouses of their day). It wasn't a requirement. Most weddings were as simple as the single gesture depicted centrally in the painting: two people held hand and pledged their devotion. That was it. Think of the scene in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". If family was involved then you might want witnesses, if you were at all religious, especially if you had been baptized then you might involve clergy, if you were God fearing then you might want a priest, if there was property involved or any family interference then you would "post the bans". But, you did not have to.
What Arnolfini and van Eyck have done is Not record a wedding, they have recorded the Meaning of Wedding and their statement of what they believed a wedding to be in terms of scripture and theology. The symbols tell us that, and those symbols represent a syllabary and grammar of symbolism shared universally through northern painting for centuries and distinct from anything seen in the south until Spanish painters such as Velazquez reference it two centuries later.
The candle in the lamp in a room lit by daylight represents God. So, they are telling us that God is witness to their wedding and present over them. Then we see that their shoes are off, his in the foreground, hers devotedly set near the prayer bench in the background, symbolizing that they stand on holy ground. Thus we get their interpretation of marriage as something holy, nearly sacramental (true sacraments occur in churches, usually at altars, instrumented by priests or pastors).
Above a mirror in back Jan van Eyck has elaborately signed the wall, "Johannes van Eyck fuit hic", Latin for "Jan van Eyck made this" or probably more apropos, "Jan van Eyck was here". Even among signatures on paintings this is remarkable, notable. Few painters signed their works. Many late 14th Century and early 15th Century northern painters are known merely as "the master of" such as "the Master of Flamelle" because the Medieval practice of humility via anonymity was still the norm. To elaborately write on the wall indicates a desire to demonstrate that a public witness, in this case van Eyck himself was there. There was also a priest present. We can tell this because van Eyck took another elaborate step and that was to paint his reflection, dressed in blue, alongside the priest dressed in red in miniature reflections in the mirror.
Flanking the mirror are symbols familiar in the 15th Century as they are today as male and female. And between them, in the mirror, is Christ. As with several other symbols in the painting, the male and female symbols remind us of the first commandment or commission of the Bible book of Genesis that God made them male and female and told them to go forth and multiply. And to tell us that they believed that God sanctified this union they took the really elaborate step of painting The Passion Week, the last days of Jesus followed by His resurrection from the dead in miniature around that mirror.
When I project this painting in class I always project it life-size, actual size, so that I can use the eraser of a pencil or the end of a pen and demonstrate that the little rondelles are so small that they are the size of beads that could be covered by something as small as the end of a pencil. In other words, they are little oil painting that would fit on the end of a pen.
And in those Rondelles are scenes of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after The Last Supper, betrayed by Judas, arrested by the Roman soldiers, taken and beaten, given the cross to carry, crucified between two thieves, he died, His dead body was taken down and mourned, he was placed in the tomb, He rose again from the dead, He ascended in the presence of witnesses.
All depicted in the type of space that a jeweler would envy.
So, it is not merely a remarkable double portrait in the techniques that revolutionized European oil painting, it is a declaration of the values and beliefs of Arnolfini and his culture on the threshold of the Protestant Reformation, and a lasting declaration of their interpretation of marriage as a union before God and in His great scheme and mystery.