Antonello’s Moment 12: Encrusting Pieces of Time

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Since architecture, in Goethe’s words, is “frozen music,” it, like music, bears no relationship to the trio of signs of reality referred to earlier, or to a certain criterion of how human or divine a figure might be. Architecture may be proved to have some narrative elements; none are funnier or less devotional than the battle maps carved on the facade of Santa Maria del Zobenigo in Venice. Not a single religious symbol appears there. The benefactor who paid for the church commissioned these mementos of Venetian military victories to honor his service in the army, neglecting to commemorate the fact that he was dishonorably discharged. Music may have some symbolizing onomatopoeia (horns bleating like sheep in a Strauss work), but music and architecture present a different order of the shift we’ve traced in painting and sculpture, the transition from Gothic severity to Renaissance human.

It might be necessary to say here that Ruskin does applaud the unaffected “naturalism” of Gothic painting, when he’s confronted by the idealized classicism of the Renaissance. So much for easy distinctions. Sometimes, it seems, this thing called the Renaissance makes art more real, when depicting religious figures; other times, the Renaissance avoids the real world by excessive idealization. (Yes, and the Renaissance isn’t really an active agent “doing” anything.) But the naturalistic figures of Gothic painting are channeled into a framework, a purpose, a standard arrangement for worship where the divine figures tower over the mere humans. The Renaissance artists free man from the hierarchical society described by Huizinga and Adams. And in so doing, they drag down Mary and Jesus to the human level and at the same time freeze the figures of Gothic naturalism into classical rigidity. Both the “gods” (Mary and Jesus) and the commoners, are diminished in complexity by their reduction to sterile classical models, at least according to this view.

For Ruskin, the later Renaissance architects, in parallax to the painters, humanized (meaning watered down from the divine) their works by including more of themselves, by inserting their egos into their work with Renaissance balance and proportion and then with Baroque excess. Ruskin saw Palladio as an excellent designer of tombs or crypts, a glorifier of death with his use of colorless white Istrian marble, as a “humanist” who had squeezed all the natural life and sparkling color of the world out of his works, as a promoter of mathematical man-devised laws of harmony rather than spiritual truths.

But the shift to the realm of architecture brings up another question entwined with the damage to the Pieta: the issue of encrustation. Ruskin describes encrustation as the defining characteristic of Venetian architecture — the incorporation of elements brought from other buildings, locales, or cultures into a structure. This might consist of jewels or shards of colored marble, it could be entire sculptured reliefs inset, or it may be something as disembodied and substantial as the one odd green column brought from Byzantium and inserted in the middle of the Venetian Church of San Giacomo dell’Orio. Some of these materials were war booty, others may have been purchased or stolen. In Venetian naval history, the dangers and cost of a sea voyage dictated that each ship be laden with as much valuable junk as possible.

Column from St. Giacomo dell’Orio, Venice

Since almost every church and palazzo in Venice has been rebuilt multiple times, you end up with a mishmash of different elements from different styles incorporated into the latest. If you look at a series of palazzos on the Grand Canal which Ruskin notes as all having original Byzantine details from the twelfth century, you are moved by the old Byzantine arches standing out in their age and decrepitude. Ruskin says the Ca Barzizza is cut across by a “scar” of the old Byzantine architrave, and there certainly is no attempt to hide the contrast. You can actually appreciate this more than the gracefully incorporated Byzantine details of the restored Ca Loredan or Ca Farsetti across the Grand Canal, because it gives you a chance to see the historical transition most emphatically.

Ca Barzizza, Venice

At this vantage point on the Grand Canal, when you look at these six houses around you with Byzantine elements that were all there eight hundred years ago, you can summon Ruskin’s vision of “that first and fairest Venice which rose out of the barrenness of the lagoon; a city of graceful arcades and gleaming walls, veined with azure and warm with gold, and fretted with marble.” These houses and these arches were there when Antonello showed up with his oils. They were there for Venice’s defeat of Constantinople in 1204 and for the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. They were there when Giotto painted the Scrovegni Chapel, even when the Doge’s Palace was built.

The beauty of their original design is somehow compounded by the layers of history piled on, and their age. The designers of the oldest houses aren’t known. But soon, all of the houses will be designed by Renaissance or Baroque geniuses with specific names, and their ideas will comprise the substance of the building if one should try to “read” it. Reading the Ca Barzizza (from the twelfth century) is perhaps more like reading an Elizabethan play adapted from a Boccaccio tale, performed by a certain modern company on a certain stage in a noted style, etc., while a “Palladio” reads like Paradise Lost, the genius of one man.

In literature, the “intentional fallacy” involves overly concerning oneself with what the author intended to say instead of letting the text speak for itself. Henry James or Stendhal or James Joyce may not be the best guide to his own work. If he were, we could just have the author explain it to us, so we could know what he was getting at. Or better yet, he wouldn’t even have to write the novel if he could just tell us what he wanted to say. We presume that a novelist writes a novel because that is the only form she knows how to use to say what she says.

Faced with architecture from the Renaissance on, we feel almost restricted to the creator’s point of view. Certainly, the architect can transcend his own ego and make grand connections to the world around him as in Palladio’s arrangement for San Giorgio Maggiore in the Venetian lagoon, one of the defining views of Venice since it was arranged in the sixteenth century. But older works connect you to something different: St. Mark’s with its generations of encrustation or the Ca Barzizza with its scar of Byzantine arches, make us feel more like we are in the presence of a relic, a relic of another age, a sign as in something that touched that first Venice, that world of porphyry and gold. Ruskin’s encrustation is a perfect example of the semiotician’s index, a footprint of the past.

Wall, Venice

Pieta (1575) by Titian, Accademia, Venice

This raises the question: Can a painting have encrustation? Gothic pieces routinely have encrustations like the blood and thorns in Giambono’s Man of Sorrows, physical elements from outside the frame that invade and shake up the usual notion of a picture as something painted on canvas inside a frame, a striking use of multimedia before the Renaissance. Other non-physical details that are too important to ignore permeate and enrich a simple eye-to-canvas perception of certain paintings: the brushstrokes that Titian may have painted in his unfinished Pieta on the last morning of his long life. Or this historical fact about Bellini’s Virgin with Four Saints in San Zaccaria: Napoleon stole it away to Paris where it was transferred from panel to canvas in the only city in the world where this technology was possible at that time, thereby saving it from extinction and making it possible to see it now, even if this does not absolve Napoleon of thievery. Can encrustation consist of a layering of fact or history rather than something tangible? Can it consist of the absence or removal of something as opposed to addition? What about the Pieta ? Are the damages wrought in the twentieth century now part of the painting? Instead of obscuring the vision of Antonello, the inspired vision of one man leading us into the Renaissance, could the damage give us a new version of the “text” with unforeseen effects of enhancement of the spiritual/human crossover? Characteristics unintended by the artist?

Detail, Pieta, (Titian)

Over the last several years, controversies have raged over the restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper and the attributions of what he actually painted in The Adoration of the Shepherds. Should a painting be reduced to just what the man Leonardo did? Later overpainting seems clearly unwanted. What about the work of assistants, his workshop? What about Leonardo on a bad day? Would we chisel away all the floors of the Ca Barzizza to leave a lonely set of Byzantine arches? All of these embellishments, improvements, insults, rethinkings — are they part of the work, or a palimpsest of something once there, now lost? Should we contextualize the canvas more as an object now, like a piece of modern art, and not a picture? Once again, Antonello’s Pieta sits right there when it comes to asking questions.

Our relationship to the Pieta has become extremely complicated. Consider:

We are looking at a painting by one of the greatest Renaissance masters from his greatest period. He is somewhat unknown only because so few of his paintings survive.

The subject of the painting, painted with such emotion, is the Christian story at its most tragic peak, a source of spiritual reflection for a believer, or of astonishment at the innovative human qualities of the work, for a skeptic.

The sadness we witness in the frame echoes and echoes, reverberating in a burgeoning feedback loop, as we take in the damage on the canvas, the sense of fragility of human life compounded by the fragility of the object. First, we feel the palpable tingling sensation in the presence of something very, very old, like a scholar’s rock grooved by the dripping erosion of the centuries or an arrowhead chipped up long ago for battle. But then we divine that this particular decay is new, and the shock that it could happen now, brings home to us even moreso, age, decay, loss, death — of objects and persons.

And then we see that the circumstance of history holds this particular Renaissance masterpiece at a little distance from us, masked as it is by blurred faces and features, and this reticence distinguishes it from clearer Renaissance masterpieces, holds it away from us just out of reach; it does not offer all of itself but holds something back in reserve, like a god or goddess would. It is more mysterious, more holy if you like. All the other things — oil paint, Venice, art history, light, canvas, restoration, religion, architecture, our own lives, our own concerns — inform our viewing as if comprising a conditioning solution flowing around a specimen.

I want to make an outlandish case for Antonello’s being the central moment in [at least my] history of art. You are free to choose another.

Of the billions of years comprising the history of this planet, only the last 5,000 have involved the use of systematic language. The figure is not very exact. There’s evidence of written language starting around 3,500 BC in what is now Iraq and Iran. At the Metropolitan Museum, you can see a tablet from this era with scratchings representing quantities of wheat and barley. Another tablet records a man’s rations of bread, beer, oil, and onions — a creditslip in so many words.

We don’t know if the first people to write this kind of record down were incredibly articulate and conversed along these lines: “You know, I’ve been thinking that I could make these little symbols on this tablet so that we could keep a record of how many beers and how much bread you have each week.” Or, perhaps, they spoke a primitive tongue and at the moment of discovering writing, they just grunted, “Beer! Bread!” pointing at the tablet.

The period just before this, from about 10,000 to 5,000 BC, marked the most important developments in human history: organized agriculture, the domestication of animals, the beginnings of cities. It seems likely that people were writing things down in this age between themselves — notes, counts, and such.

The evolution of language and the use of tools had preceded these developments since perhaps 100,000 BC, fire from as early as 450,000 BC. Some twists of human language must have been there from the beginning, as they are intrinsic to the nature of symbolization. For example, lying, or the misuse of language, was possible as soon as verbal symbols were used to represent things; also humor contained in puns or the use of sarcasm. But the use of an alphabet, with a systematized means of written communication, really is confined to approximately 5,000 years. The most advanced of the murals in the caves of Altamira in northern Spain were likely painted around 12,000 BC. No one knows who painted the ingenious lifelike animals in relief on the rock face, but in some sense they may have been the greatest artists who ever lived.

But when we look back from now, from the dawn of the sixth millennium since writing began — writing that makes possible most kinds of culture including science and technology as well as literature, law, and architecture — we are impressed by how short a time it is. Consider this formula: If we think that we might live to be the age of a hundred, and then think of a great-grandparent or relative of ours who might have also lived to be a hundred, and who might have crossed paths with us around the time of our birth and their death, then we can see the entire history of civilization encompassing only twenty-five pairs of “you and your great-grandparent.” It is only an illustration. To make the lifespan only fifty years and to increase the number of pairs to fifty makes little difference. Or to add a few hundred years beyond 3,000 BC makes little difference either. The dinosaurs? Around 150 million years ruling the earth. Us, while we have been writing? 5,000 years. Almost everything mankind has ever accomplished falls into this fleeting period.

Venice provides an excellent vantage point for viewing a good chunk of this 5,000-year history. The Venetian entity (Republic, Empire, City) ran for almost 1,400 independent years from its founding in 421 AD to its fall to Napoleon in 1797. Its beginnings concerned the fall of the Roman Empire; the founders of Venice were running from the barbarians who were streaking down through Italy to sack Rome. The islands of the lagoon served as so many moat-encircled forts, their stone structures rising out of the water like phantom castles.

Venice ends after the formation of the United States of America and the start of the Industrial Revolution. The golden ages of Mayan, Incan, and Aztec culture began and ended during the Venetian Republic. Across time, there were ancient Babylonia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, China and India, the mysterious older pre-Colombian cultures, and everything else. Then Venice. Then the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the middle of all this, Antonello’s moment is the central moment. Even though the moment happened 4,475 years into the 5,000-year period, what comes before and what comes after balances out pretty well for looking at history and art.

Anthropomorphic pebble figurine
Excavated in Israel at Sha`ar Hagolan (Central Jordan Valley-Yarmuk River)
Neolithic, late 7th millennium B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art

For a moment pretend that only two things happened in history. The Neolithic Age transformed human life in the ages before writing with the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture, the founding of cities. Then, about 4,400 years after the invention of writing, the Renaissance offers itself, with the invention of printing, the creation of a more pronounced individual identity, the consciousness of time, the development of maps and navigation, as the beginning of our Second Act, which will include two more shifts into higher gear: the Industrial Revolution and the Computer Age.

Yes, Antonello’s moment is the principle moment of change, the moment when perception changed the most. And despite making claims of progress for the Renaissance, after this moment there also is a sense of loss, of that intensity of the Middle Ages. From now on, we are condemned to an unending parade of geniuses whose message, no matter how pious or righteously political their subject matter may be, will always primarily be, “I … yes I … am a genius, a brilliant talented genius.”

This will not be affected by any degree of estimable modesty, which will only serve to enhance the genius of the artist among his more plebian paint slatherers.

Perhaps, this is only a nostalgia for the past, akin to Paleolithic man sitting around the campfire bemoaning, “Life was so much more intense before we invented tools and agriculture. We never had to think about what to do — we just had to do it. Hunt, gather, hunt, gather. When you left for the hunt, no one knew if you would come back with any food or come back at all.” (!)

Standing in front of Antonello’s Pieta , you can grow dizzy with this sense that you are looking sideways in all directions of time and space and spiritual geography all at once from the same fencepost: looking at a holy object akin to the Gothic altarpiece, the Byzantine icon, the relic, but which is also a perfect human anatomy; pointing forward to a strengthening confidence of man over his own God; looking forward to the scratches made on this surface in the twentieth century and the questions about restoration, whether the text of the painting includes the history of its transformation through damage and how this relates to architecture and encrustation in a building; pointing back to Byzantium and Islam with the irony of the more divine elements having been rubbed out by a de facto iconoclast; looking forward to the revolution of Giorgione and the explosion of color and light on through Caravaggio and the Baroque to Goya, Turner, photography, Impressionism, and beyond. Antonello didn’t cause those developments, but he stands poised like a giant domino on a chain about to wreak convulsive havoc, with a nudge from behind.

Looking up above, these angels in front of us would take off on a flight through a Venetian sky if they could just lift Christ off the earth — the earth that we humans are held down upon.

Looking from down below, from the ground, we get a glimpse, just a glimpse, sometimes, of the whole story. Sometimes you come to a moment in time where you can see all of time; a moment of life when you see past death. At such a moment, the past comes clearly into focus, into the focus of our imagination, aided by those remnants of the past that we can still touch, that we can look at.

From the passionate south of Italy to the stone cold technique of Flanders. From the severe, Gothic decorations of the Venetian workshops drawing their inspiration from the East — Greece, Byzantium, and the myriad multi-ethnic composition of Venice, fashioning their holy objects on wood with gold ground and tempera, met by the well-traveled Antonello, bringing the new techniques from Naples and Milan.

A moment like that is worth getting lost in a museum, is worth getting lost in a maze of a city, a maze of a world, a maze of what’s there, of what’s not there, of what was there and what’s not there anymore, of what’s supposed to be there, of what will be there.

That which we have lost is still lost — our loved ones, the old religion, Henry Adams’s Virgin Mary, John Ruskin’s first and fairest Venice, Antonello’s paint, the blush of an April morning, the step of our youth,the echoed ways of our distant forebears, our loved ones, our loved ones ….

Madonna and Child with Four Saints and Donator (1507)
Giovanni Bellini
San Francesco della Vigna, Venice

Note: Keith Christiansen, the Curator of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and the curator of Room 5 at the Met) alerted me to a book published by the Correr in 1993 (Carpaccio, Bellini, Tura, Antonello by Attilia Dorigato, Electa) and not translated from the Italian, which details a later restoration of the painting from 1990 to 1993. My version of the events in the painting’s life wasn’t too far off, but it was backwards in one case. I gave Pelliccioli too much credit and later restorers too little, for making the painting like it is today. Said Mr. Christenson: “Let it be enough to say that the faces of Christ and the angels are gone—removed in a drastic/unsuccessful cleaning that dates from the late eighteenth century. Each subsequent restoration has attempted to resolve the damage in a different way and what you see when you compare the book you have with the current state is really a reflection of two different ideas of what it is legitimate for a restorer to invent when there really is nothing there. Pelliccioli invented a lot.”

So I was correct that the painting had gone through another transformation in the second half of the twentieth century. I was mostly wrong when I said dramatically that the later restorers might have rubbed off some of the oil paint Antonello had brought to Venice in 1475, because it had already been rubbed off in the eighteenth century. (Though they might have rubbed off a little more of Antonello’s.) Instead, the later restorers had rubbed off faces filled in by Pelliccioli in the 1930s, not Antonello’s faces. But I feel vindicated that I never really liked those faces; they didn’t seem as good as Antonello’s other paintings, and my statement that I preferred the damaged version really meant that I preferred the pure mastery of Antonello, one of the greatest of all painters, stripped down to its iconic, faceless image.

Tim Noel Harris


Antonello’s Moment 11: Space

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Detail from the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto

As the figures of religious painting are undergoing this Gothic/Renaissance transformation, the landscape is undergoing a similar evolution. Giotto in his series for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua included two totally unexpected panels. As he filled the chapel with scenes from the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Assumption, Giotto inserted two empty panels, known as the corretti, something like “the corrected,” or exercises in perspective. (The dregs of an espresso with grappa added have the same name in the singular form: corretto.) They include architectural details to define the space, but essentially they are just pictures of space, of emptiness. These empty panels give a sense of rhythm both to the time sequence of the events portrayed in the chapel, and to the physical space of the room. They are analogous to a neutral shot in an Eisenstein or Hitchcock movie where the camera lingers maddeningly on a minor object, screwing up the tension before something explodes. In a world where a stylized icon of Christ abstractly inhabiting a frame was giving way to realistic scenes from His life in a worldly context, a frame of architectural emptiness represented something else new, indicative of man’s new sense of himself in a three-dimensional world. The subject of the corretti is almost equal to the artist’s ability to render perspective, and that innovation was based in apprehending the here and now rather than the past or the coming afterlife. Giotto may have been trying to envision an empty room next door to a scene involving Christ, or he may have simply painted his own empty room from the 1300s.

A trip through the Met reveals two more revolutionary treatments of space. Nearly three hundred years later, El Greco, who incidentally studied in Venice on his way from Greece to Spain, hallucinated his View of Toledo, one of the most out-of-time pictures ever painted, with impressionistic brushstrokes and a silvery light typical of Romanticism. In an assertion of his post-Renaissance powers, El Greco actually painted Toledo backwards, disregarding constraints from the natural world while honing in on his own spiritual vision. This spiritual light would become virtually the subject for the Romantic Age.

View of Toledo (1600) by El Greco, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Barbizon-er Theodore Rousseau’s masterpiece, The Forest in Winter at Sunset (started 1845–6 and continued for twenty years), fills a huge canvas with deep, dark gnarled trees whose scale isn’t evident until we discern the tiny human figure in the middle of the bottom. Nature has taken precedence over the inconsequential figure. The landscape becomes a testimonial about nature, assuming an importance surpassing the figure below. Giotto introduced a panel of NOT-MAN or NOT-CHRIST, an empty room in a manmade building, providing a rhythmic pause in the telling of his story. El Greco turned a cityscape around to suit his spiritual imagination. But by the time of Rousseau, the artist can’t really control the nature in his frame and man has almost been pushed out.

The Forest in Winter at Sunset (1846-1867) by Theodore Rousseau, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail from The Forest in Winter at Sunset

Michelangelo Antonioni would use the same technique in La Notte (1961), when Marcello Mastroanni looks out a window at an unidentified surface of urban stone that defies any relative spatial perspective until a tiny Jeanne Moreau enters in the lower left corner, her entrance triggering our perception of her “overwhelm‑ment” by her now (in contrast to Rousseau) manmade environment. In some sense, mankind is losing out as art moves forward, dwarfed by God, then by Nature, and finally, by Modern Civilization/the Dynamo.

La Notte (1961) Michelangelo Antonioni (detail)

La Notte (full frame)

If we play a game of changing backgrounds, like a postcard photographer at the fair who can magically change the background behind his figures, we would come up with something like this:

Gothic:  Mary and Jesus with a gold or brocade background

Renaissance:  Mary and Jesus with a detailed landscape

Baroque:  Mary and Jesus with a background of shadow or Mary and Jesus portrayed by commoners

Neoclassical:  Religious or non-religious figures in a landscape of classical architecture

Romantic:  Figures or none in a landscape created by God or Nature

Modern:  Man overwhelmed by a manmade world

Antonello has started down this path by placing his religious theme in front of a detailed worldly landscape. Humanity has crept in, both in the fleshly human characteristics of the dead Christ, and in the details in the distance which include the church of San Francesco da Messina from his hometown. Beforehand, he might have stuck to theological issues; now, the world starts to intrude.

Pieta by Antonello Da Messina (detail)

Antonello’s Moment 10: Room Five at The Met

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

At this point in our adventure we returned to the small Room 5 at the Met, where we suspected someone of anticipating our arrival. On the left side of the room:

First, in a freestanding case so that we can look at the back as well as the front, we find Man of Sorrows by the great Venetian Gothic artist Giambono. Traces of its pretension to being something like a relic are the actual thorns standing out in relief in Christ’s crown and the dried blood on his hands and his chest. Though Giambono has a name, an identity, the image is so stark, we tend not to think, “This artist was really good at making these,” but something more along the lines of “What is this thing?” or we actually think about Christ suffering. Giambono’s materials are tempera and gold on wood.

Man of Sorrows, (ca. 1430)
Michele Giambono

Next, we find an image of the Madonna and Child by Jacopo Bellini, the father, probably from the 1440s before his own Renaissance style fully developed (see his Crucifixion in the Correr). The background is gold ground, with no scenery, just the pure image in a fine, original frame.

Madonna and Child (1440s)
Jacopo Bellini

Next we find a damaged tempera Madonna Adoring the Sleeping Child by Giovanni Bellini from the 1460s and a small tempera Adoration of the Shepherds by Mantegna, probably from the 1450s. In both pictures the background behind the figures extends into a detailed landscape, framing the holy figures in a worldly context. Mantegna’s colored fabrics push the limits of tempera, with germinating infants flowering out of Mary’s translucent golden purple robe.

Madonna Adoring the Sleeping Child (1460s)
Giovanni Bellini

Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1450)
Andrea Mantegna

But the next Giovanni Bellini, a Madonna and Child from the 1480s (after Antonello’s visit) shows the advances of oil technique. The difference is dramatic. The flesh tones of the figures are much more alive. The blue of the sky looms with greater depth. The cloth of blue and red and white folds more vibrantly. Along with the technique, Bellini has introduced a revolutionary off-center composition: a curtain behind the two figures is half pulled aside to reveal the subtleties of detail in the oil-rendered landscape. And there is just something about this man Bellini that he has a particular eye for the Virgin Mary — his Madonnas combine a spiritual grace with humanity that contains sex and spirituality in a continuity that no one can match. There! True to the new age, we have left the Virgin and are talking about Bellini.

Madonna and Child (1480s)
Giovanni Bellini

Next, Antonello himself makes an appearance; his Christ Crowned with Thorns explodes with emotive power and skillful oil technique in Christ’s flesh and hair and eyes and in the contrast of His human form and the dark invisible background. Here, as Bottari notes in another context, Antonello animates his work with “an inner energy that is a surprising anticipation of Caravaggio.” The face of Christ is yet a holy object, but his humanity emerges starkly from a chiaroscuro background of empty shadow, dispensing with both the Gothic gold or brocade and the Renaissance landscape.

Christ Crowned with Thorns (1470s)
Antonello da Messina

Detail of Job from The Meditation on the Passion (ca. 1510) by Vittore Carpaccio

Finally, a masterpiece by Carpaccio fills an ornate gold frame. The frame is almost a proscenium, for Carpaccio’s The Meditation on the Passion is like a play. Carpaccio’s Christ sits listlessly on a throne. To the left, St. Jerome looks directly at us in front of a stony, dead hermit’s landscape. On the right, Job sits in front of a skull which leads the eye back into a lively panorama of birds, leopards, horses, populated lawns and villages. Among Carpaccio’s greatest works are two cycles of narrative paintings (one depicting the life of St. Ursula and the other including the stories of St. George and the dragon and St. Jerome and the lion) for the Scuole in Venice; and we get the sense here that he could have been the great film director of Venice. The contrast with Giambono’s sacred object at the other end of the room is striking. There is no question that Carpaccio is putting on a show. The subject may be Christ in agony, but the scene will be filled with humorous animals or witty examples of charming town life in quadrants of such detail that they can be blown up into worlds unto themselves. Giambono’s Man of Sorrows asks us to solemnly contemplate the crucifixion. Carpaccio’s high entertainment says loudly and clearly, “Carpaccio is a genius!”

The Meditation on the Passion

Antonello’s Moment 9: Semiotically Speaking, “What Is This Thing?”

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Virgin and Child by Nicolò di Pietro Venice, Santa Maria dei Miracoli

At this point in art history, the nature of the image itself undergoes a drastic semiotic change. Consider some definitions from the field of semiotics, the study of “signs.” (See Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Peter Wollen.)

There are three different ways to represent a chosen object or entity — let’s say, a horse; or more semiotically speaking, three signs that could indicate the presence of a horse:

1 the icon, say, a picture of a horse

2 the symbol, say, the word “horse”

3 the index, say, a footprint of a horse

In category one, the icon, a drawing or painting or statue, represents the horse because it looks like it. In category two, the symbol, the word “horse” or “caballo” or “cheval” represents a horse because two people speaking the same language recognize that that particular sound or written word refers to that particular type of four-legged animal.

But category three, the index, as exemplified by the horse’s footprint, falls somewhere in between. It doesn’t look like a horse, but it has a lot more actually to do with a horse than a word. It literally indicates the presence of a horse and a part of a horse at an earlier time.

An index is a sign by virtue of an existential bond between itself and its object…examples cited by Pierce are the weathercock, a sign of the direction of the wind which physically moves it, the barometer, the spirit-level. Roman Jakobson cites Man Friday’s footprint in the sand and medical symptoms, such as pulse-rates, rashes and so on. (Wollen)

These categories are not mutually exclusive. Significantly, the photographic image falls into category three, the index (as well as into category one, the icon), because it is actually a mirror image, a “footprint” of the light emitted by the object or scene at the moment it was photographed, an impression etched on the negative. This ontological case for the immediacy, the authenticity of the photographic image, was instrumental in Andre Bazin’s critical writing on cinematic Neorealism in the forties and fifties. Bazin considered the photographic image not a depiction of reality but a part of reality; like the mold for a bronze relief, the film is “impressed” with the light cascading through the lens onto the film at a specific point in time and space. He had not been forced to consider yet the onset of digital photography where the images have been reduced to a series of numbers in computer files to be reconstructed as images. (Like traditional film, magnetic or analog tape for musical recording makes a “footprint” of the soundwaves, more accurately mirroring the “arc” of the sound than digital recording where numbers approximate the sweep of the curve in a stairstep fashion, as calculus differentials approximate the limits of a curve without rendering them exactly.)

Now, I would like to make a case for a new set of category three, the index or the footprint. First, I would include the religious relic. Aside from actual body parts of the saints or Jesus Christ, relics seem to be perfect examples of the index. The shroud of Turin isn’t a picture of Jesus or the name “Jesus,” but it is something that reportedly touched Jesus and signifies Jesus. The nails or splinters from the True Cross or the sandals that St. Francis wore or a dish that St. Teresa brought to her lips, have the same symbolic power.

Then, I would add virtually all art produced before the Renaissance and after the Classical Age, all an attempt to create something very much like a religious relic, not deceptively so, but definitely seen as acquiring some sort of spiritual association with the subject. So the Byzantine icon is more than a picture of Jesus; it is closer to Jesus himself. Icons themselves, while pictures to us, were worshipped, were bowed down to. The Buddha with the eternal gaze is not just a sculpture but the centerpiece of an altar of worship.The Gothic altarpiece, at least early on, is not a work of art, but a means of getting in touch with the eternal. The miraculous painting of the Virgin that inspired Lombardo’s Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice is another such religious relic, capable of miraculous acts in itself it was said. And the Chartres Cathedral and St. Mark’s Basilica — these are not buildings built by some inspired, famous, talented architect, but miracles of faith wrought by a community who only could have done it, presumably, with the aid of the Almighty.

When Antonello painted the Pieta in 1475–76, it still had the quality of an altarpiece; it is still a holy object worthy of worship. But art as entertainment is about to begin.

Antonello’s Moment 8: Ma’am’s Bible

May 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

When I was little, my grandmother gave me a Bible, an old-fashioned black leather-bound King James with delicate onion-skin pages.

I read this version of the Bible assiduously as a child, and the austere black volume harmonized perfectly with the no-nonsense religion practiced in my church. We didn’t have any instrumental music, no organ or piano, because they didn’t have them in the Bible. (Electric lights were allowed.) The effect of this was to encourage beautiful singing in four-part harmony, except of course for bellowing Brother X, who unfortunately sometimes talked his way into leading the singing.

We had no musical instruments, no pictures in our church, no pictures of Christ as a blonde Scandinavian, as in some Protestant churches, and of course, no picture of Mary. We considered ourselves as distinct from Protestants. Officially, we didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter (though my family did at home), as we considered every Sunday to be a celebration of Christ’s birth, sacrifice, and resurrection — every day even. We baptized through immersion, not automatically at birth, but at the point when you wanted to wash away your sins.

Our church was really closer, in our attitude about images, to the Eastern Byzantine Church, to Islam, and to Judaism. We didn’t truck with all that fancy stuff — saints and jeweled robes and whatnot. The smell of incense in a church will make my mother feel sick. When an author describes the thrill of seeing a Roman church official’s equipage, carriage, robes — this makes no impression on me, I am just left clueless. Luxury and worldly power have nothing at all to do with God for me.

So it was striking in the Bible I got from my grandmother, that there is a picture in the frontispiece — a color plate with Samson, finely muscled and nearly naked, pulling some kind of mill in a circular fashion by a straining rope. Elijah, Moses, Jesus, Mary Magdalen, Abraham and Isaac, Esther, David, all of these were left up to your visual imagination. Enoch, too. Enoch was my favorite person in the Bible. There is only one line about him, “Enoch walked with God.” He went straight to Heaven without dying because of the perambulation with God. But who knows what he looked like?

My church grew out of the Second Great Awakening, a populist religious movement in the early nineteenth century. As far as I can determine, every religious revival, or every foundation of a new religion is a “purer than thou” proposition where the adherents distinguish themselves from the lazy, corrupt religion of the day. (Henry VIII’s divorce is a notable exception.)

So the early Christians were populist commoners in Rome distilling a new vision against a background of corrupt pagan Roman gods and aristocrats. Muhammad recognized the deity of Christ while fighting the vital hangover of polytheism and went so far as to codify Islam in five simple commands. The Eastern Orthodox church split away from the Roman church in their own purification rite. Luther rebelled against the Catholic practice of selling indulgences and saying confessions, to establish Protestant man’s direct relationship to God, banishing Mary from the Church in the process. With the Second Great Awakening, we distinguished ourselves from Protestants with baptism and other practices of purity.

Somehow, our iconographic principles lined up perfectly with Muslims and Jews and the various forms of Eastern Orthodoxy. The members of my old congregation might not accept my analysis here. But sometimes unique traditions are not as new as they seem. In our fundamentalist congregation, we actually had the same impulse, the same revulsion to religious art, as Jews, as Muslims, as Orthodox Christians, all shunning images of God. No, our God is too serious, too private, too unspoken to involve God in our little human artistic concerns.

However zealous my church, we were not without a sense of humor about our serious, pure nature. For example, the King James version of the Bible, really is the version for me, but an old joke in my church went, “I want to read the Bible in the King James, the way Peter and Paul wrote it,” some good folks not distinguishing the seventeenth-century translation from the original Greek of the New Testament (or the Hebrew of the Old).

So when I began to visit Catholic churches with paintings and to visit museums with pictures removed from Catholic churches, I had the same understanding of such images as a Jew, a Muslim, a Byzantine might. Perhaps I relate to the art more than would a Jew or a Muslim, but my fundamentalist background makes me keenly aware of all the ways Antonello’s Pieta represents a break from the past, a new way to look at Christ, a severe rocking of the gondola.

Already, Antonello had set up a powerful group of oppositions: life and death, gravity and flight, wings and arms, heaven and earth, the human and the divine, the repose of the skulls in the right foreground contrasted with the buzzing activity of “the world” behind in miniature. And viewing Antonello’s moment from the twenty-first century added a new series of oppositions to our layered understanding of the painting: Gothic and Renaissance, tempera and oil, canvas and wood, East and West, North and South.

Then another historical detail from the twentieth century, the recent damage on the canvas, threw us back to the implications of image-destroying, of iconoclasm, the eternal gaze. A new problem arises with these post-Rome, pre-Renaissance artists; who are they?

Adoration of the Shepherds, (1612 – 1614) – El Greco, Museo Nacional del Prado

Even though they share iconographic approaches, for the most part they are not known, not recognized or renowned, by name. For along with seminal inventions like the printing press, the Renaissance re-introduced the use of surnames, a practice popular in ancient Greece and later abandoned. Since Rome, people often went by one name, and artists as “artists” by none.  It’s easy to fall into a pattern where “Fra” becomes a first name instead of “Brother” for Fra Angelico and “Veronese” is a last name for Paolo Veronese instead of an indication that he is from Verona. We don’t know who painted Byzantine icons or early Gothic masterpieces because they didn’t consider their work as an opportunity for individual genius, but as a platform to glorify God.

The greatest achievement of Italian culture at the start of the fourteenth century was the awareness of the active presence of the individual in history and the world. (Barbara Tuchman)

Along with a growing consciousness of who they were, humans also began to keep track of where they were, with the development of maps, navigation, and voyages of discovery, and of when they were, with the dissemination of home clocks, personal watches, and calendars. More than at any time in the past, people saw their own identities with a specific name in a specific time in a specific place.

So before Cimabue and Giotto, we don’t know the Italian artists. Then, with the rise of International Gothic, the workshops of the Bellini and Vivarini families become almost brand names identified with a style. This is the onset of things to come, of the Renaissance change to the notion of individual identity revving up.

When examining the Byzantine mosaics in St. Mark’s or on Torcello (the island near Venice with the oldest church and settlement in the lagoon), we are struck by a magical piety in the compositions. When looking at a Tintoretto or an El Greco from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, we say, “That man was moved to heights of ecstasy and exaltation when he painted that! He must have been a very devout man!” And we will think of the artifact of his expression of piety as “an El Greco,” or “a Tintoretto.”  When we see an El Greco Jesus, we will think more about El Greco than Jesus — his rendering is just too unique. (And when, in the twentieth century, we see a secular El Greco portrait of a Spanish noble, a man important enough in his day to have El Greco paint his portrait, we won’t even care who the man is, but rather who it is that painted in this inimitable style.)

This naming trend is even more pronounced in the field of architecture.

…in medieval Europe the designers of buildings, like other artists, were rarely named or recorded in documents, and few of their works of art were signed…. Before the Renaissance, when the value of creative genius at last began to command as much respect as the wealth and enterprise of the patron, it is rarely possible to identify the artistic personalities of individual architects. (Deborah Howard)

After you have seen many buildings in Venice, it is almost impossible to accept that the late-1400s pre-Renaissance genius Mario Codussi, as prominent as any Venetian architect with the façade of San Zaccaria (below), the Clock Tower in St. Mark’s square, the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, Santa Maria Formosa, the Vendramin-Calergi, San Giovanni Crisostomo, and San Michele among the many works to his credit, was not even known or associated with these major works until an examination of relevant church and city documents in the nineteenth century! Architectural guides must refer to the arcades originally surrounding the Piazza in Venice as “Ziani’s arches” after Doge Ziani who paid for them much as one might say, “Bill Gates built a house,” or as earlier in this essay, when we said that Napoleon “tore down” a church, ignoring in our nomenclature the architects, builders, or wreckers who did the actual designing, building, and destroying.

San Zaccaria, Venice

Shifting focus north to France for a moment, you find a similar lack of individual artistic persona in connection with the greatest work of the Gothic Era.

Chartres Cathedral

The American historian Henry Adams sees a shared sense of purpose in the tight cohesion of the community who, after the disastrous fire of 1194, spent over sixty years rebuilding the Chartres cathedral (see his book Mont St. Michel and Chartres, published in 1904). The lowliest peasant who carries a stone is united in the same enterprise with the engineer who figures out how to throw the arched vaults ever higher toward the heavens: They are all there to glorify the Virgin Mary, to build Her a house which only She deserves. The designers of the stained glass, the carvers of all the statuary, the architects, never say: “I have a really good idea for this window or arch or doorway.” Rather, they say, “She will love the color of this window on the side of her bedroom. She will love the graceful entrance and porch to Her house.” The entire community, the entire society has one goal in mind. Adams sees this as the last time in history when the world is united in such a purpose.

In his Education of Henry Adams, he elaborates on the grand concepts of the Virgin and the Dynamo, the two era-defining objects of worship in medieval and modern times respectively. According to Adams, our end of the equation disintegrated from the unity of the Chartres parishioners and their dedication to Mary -driven by the law of entropy in physics, where energy dissipates and evens out into a random featureless field, the state known as chaos — to a point when all we have to worship is the efficiency of the dynamo, or the machine. This is the hell Adams saw for modern man, and it can never end: after Chartres, we are condemned to centuries of individual genius and technological innovation.

*entropy. 1) A measure of the disorder or randomness in a closed system. 2) A measure of the loss of information in a transmitted message. 3) A hypothetical tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity. 4) Inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society.

It is possible that Adams gives that twelfth-century crowd too much credit for selflessness, discounting the impulse to violate the tenth commandment against covetousness in favor of, for example, “building a much better church than they have over at Rheims.” And in the interest of full disclosure, the names of the stonemasons of the great French Gothic cathedrals are recorded though seldom cited. While Codussi was rescued from obscurity in the nineteenth century in recognition of his singular architectural works in Venice in the 1400s, no one has yet felt quite the same compulsion to speak of the magnificent work Robert de Luzarches did on the façade at Amiens.

This loss of the purity of motivation, as depicted by Henry Adams, which will culminate in the Protestant defenestration of the stained-glass Virgin, is certainly momentous, if he is correct, whether you see it as a good thing or a bad one. It is no less than the loss of innocence of the human race, as symbolized by the Christian Western part of it. (In the East, most technological innovation started much earlier, but didn’t rush dramatically through the rapid changes we call the Renaissance.)

The maturing of civilization from its so-called innocence before the Renaissance is not unlike the maturation of a child through the stages of self-conscious development. Seeing a child lose his or her innocence is painful to an adult even when they encourage the process. And Henry Adams with all of his eloquent detailed love for the Chartres cathedral, simply provides the parent’s tears for a civilization growing up and ready to leave the house (in this case, Mary’s house).

As every child who matures will someday become an adult, so the simple religious humility of a community will mature through a loss of innocence into something else, something like, well … us. The implications for a society maturing are the same as for the child. In a forgotten masterpiece I Improvisatore, Hans Christian Andersen has his Roman child narrator overhear his loving mother:

I heard her repeat to a neighbour what an innocent angel I was, and it pleased me greatly, but it lessened my innocence. Nature had given to me a gentle, pious character, but my good mother made me aware of it; she showed me my real and my imaginary emdowments, and never thought that it is with the innocence of the child as with the basilisk, which dies when it sees itself.

And as Henry Adams sees it, it is with all Christian society as with the child and the basilisk, a legendary serpent or dragon with a self-killing, lethal glance. Focus on oneself might just do you in.

Andersen’s child hero is told what a fine voice he has:

But how much distraction did this afterwards cause me! I thought no longer alone on the Madonna when I sung before her image; no! I thought, did any one listen to my beautiful singing. But always when I thought so there succeeded a burning remorse; I was afraid that she would be angry with me; and I prayed right innocently that she would look down upon me, poor child!

Mankind never felt the same remorse about starting the Renaissance. And felt no compunction about turning Jesus into a good-looking man.

Adams writes about the Chartres cathedral like a man who has lost his faith, but looks wistfully back to another time when a deeper religious orientation reigned. He writes about the Virgin Mary with such uncontrolled passion that ultimately, I don’t really believe him, don’t believe his belief; his concerns are more aesthetic than religious. He never really clues us in on his own point of view. John Ruskin (1819-1900) goes a step further in that he actually loses his faith at a specific time in his writing life (but seems to somehow always cling to it), and in that he makes an explicit case against the horrors of the Renaissance.

It is in Venice, and in Venice only, that effectual blows can be struck at this pestilent art of the Renaissance. Destroy its claims to admiration there, and it can assert them nowhere else.

Though one suspects Ruskin would have liked the original Pieta, he would gladly have rubbed out Christ’s face if he could have put a stop to the dreaded Renaissance that he saw as one continuous block of irreverence from the 1400s to his own nineteenth century.  After Napoleon’s rule trashed Venice and her churches and palazzos of so much, Ruskin became the father of faithful restoration, rampaging against ill-conceived updatings that destroyed the originals. He knew that the fancifying of Venetian art and architecture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a sign of weakness of the political entity that had once been the Venetian Empire. As Venice declined, the image-making, as if conceptualized by a desperate PR firm, took off. The wild parties, the masked balls, the decadence, increased with the gross ornaments heaped on the front of a church like the baroque monstrosity of San Moise. If only Ruskin could see the ubiquity of cruise ships in Venice today.

He wasn’t too far from my mother and my grandmother in that, for all of them, the fancier things get, the less religious they become (notwithstanding his beloved Chartres cathedral).

Ruskin urged a Gothic revival in architecture by proposing that the Renaissance was a fraud, that the Renaissance emphasizes the glory of man over God with an overemphasis on balanced proportions and man-imposed sterility. He thought history had been duped by the works of geniuses like Brunelleschi and Michelangelo into thinking that more mediocre talents could profit by the same classical influences. On the outskirts of any American metropolis, the Arterbournes’ new three-bedroom colonial on Appian Way in Parthenon Estates with a Roman-like portico and an atrium with faux-painted Greek-looking things would have … well, may Ruskin rest in peace.

He saw the statues of two Biblical scenes on the corners of the Doge’s Palace as emblematic of the ages. The Gothic group’s subject is The Drunkenness of Noah, the venerable prophet passed out cold (not an unreasonable response, perhaps, to The Deluge) while his sons stand by embarrassed.

The Renaissance group, The Wisdom of Solomon, offers Solomon putting his wisdom on display to settle the dispute between two rival mothers claiming a baby as their own. Solomon’s wisdom was to cut the baby in half and split it. Of course, that wasn’t really his solution, for the real mother fainted at the absurd proposal, confirming her true motherhood – and this all worked out swimmingly well for Solomon, now didn’t it?  For Ruskin, the Gothic work shows man honestly in his fallibility; the Renaissance shows man in his supposed sagacity with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. The Gothic Age sees man as he is.  The Renaissance man is, as much as anything, stuck on himself: how smart he is, how he can read, how he can tell time and read maps, how familiar he is with the classics, how important he is.

The ages of art from the Renaissance on can be seen as evidence of a growing confidence in man. The Baroque of Caravaggio adds the sweat and blood of humanity to the idealized forms of the Renaissance. The Neoclassical leans yet more heavily on the Achievements of Man in the classical and scientific ages, the Romantic Age raises individual emotions to a new level and Modernism raises individual perceptions to a similar height. This view is positivist, a vector pointing resolutely forward in seeing a progression through history.

Another school of thought has it that the ages of art oscillate back and forth between Dionysian and Apollonian extremes: Gothic naturalism followed by Renaissance idealism bouncing to Baroque grittiness back to Neoclassic high culture disintegrating into Romantic chaotic self-expression congealing into Victorian palaces of ice to be shattered by Modernism.

Ruskin and Adams clearly saw man as losing something moving from the Gothic Age into the Renaissance. In The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1921), the Dutch historian J.B. Huizinga writes:

When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. Every event, every deed was defined in given and expressive forms and was in accord with the solemnity of a tight, invariable life style. The great events of human life — birth, marriage, death — by virtue of the sacraments, basked in the radiance of the divine mystery. But even the lesser events — a journey, labor, a visit — were accompanied by a multitude of blessings, ceremonies, sayings, and conventions.

(Note that Huizinga’s universally acknowledged classic of historical writing sprang from “the need to better understand the art of … Van Eyck,” as if he too followed up on a trip to the museum.)

Did the gains of the Renaissance entail great losses too? Surely, we lost this immediate intensity, this unity of community in worship, this innocence of identity, this deep religious humility. Perhaps this intensity of the Middle Ages, if we were to travel back in time, would only come off to us as overwrought, as over-the-top overreaction to all stimuli. Barbara Tuchman formulates the Renaissance as “the period when the values of this world replaced those of the hereafter.”

We won’t make a judgment now as to the gains or losses of the Renaissance. But we will stand in front of Antonello and say, this is the moment in Venice when we are raised up in enlightenment ready to take over more duties from God, or we begin our slide down into chaos as Henry Adams would have it. It is worth pausing for a moment.

Antonello’s Moment 7: Looking Further Backward

March 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Man of Sorrows, (ca. 1420–30) - Michele Giambono, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

So were we following clues to a story? Sometimes it seemed the story was following us from the Bellini at San Francesco to a room at the Correr to a used bookstore in Gloucester, Massachusetts, all woven around the loss of friends, family, part of our city, and the carefully considered brushstrokes of a painter who lived over six hundred years ago. But the reverberation would not stop there, or ever really.

Back in New York, Tara and I strolled randomly into Room 5 (more on that room in a later post) at the Metropolitan, a small room that includes Antonello’s Christ Crowned with Thorns.

Tara and I had met when she was in art school, before we started a rock band, but our first years in New York, we didn’t visit the Metropolitan so much, despite the many hours I had lived in the Prado in Madrid. But we had lately gotten into the habit of invading the Met on Saturday nights at around seven before it closes at 8:45. At that hour, Antonello, or Raphael, or Monet, or the Temple of Dendur, can become all yours.

It’s different living in New York and visiting the Met, different from other museums. You can pay what you like (or join) and make short, targeted strikes to concentrate on something specific. The Met is so vast, a friend tells me he’s gone every weekend for years but I’ve never seen him there. In spite of its vastness, the Met doesn’t have to be a commitment, an endless excursion where you are determined to get your fifteen or twenty dollars worth, but a detour on a walk in Central Park, where you happen upon El Greco.

Room 5 became crystallized on one such cleared-out evening at the Met; one side of this room traces the history of Venetian painting from the Gothic painter Giambono and Jacopo Bellini, the father, through son Giovanni and son-in-law Mantegna, to Antonello and Carpaccio. The curator has organized this wall brilliantly to demonstrate the developments we have outlined; the burgeoning humanity of the Gods, the development of landscape, the use of oil and canvas, pointing toward the painting of light.

View of Room 5, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

While staring at the very realistic-looking blood caked on Giambono’s stunning slab of wood offering an image of Christ on the cross, a related but different development in art occurred to me. This concerned the nature of the image itself in God’s world, the relationship of the nature of the universe as we know it — as we see it — versus the nature of that universe that we don’t know and don’t see.

There, I think I said it right there, the nature of the universe as we know it — as we see it — versus the nature of that universe that we don’t know and don’t see.

Whereas I saw Antonello starting something, as you might say about a provocateur, and engendering changes that reverberated through the centuries, I realized that he also came after a long, long line of cultures hostile to images of their gods. I had to look before him to really internalize that Venice of 1475–6. And it was specifically the damage in Antonello’s Pieta, even if said damage is dated to the twentieth century, that raised the issue of destroying images back in the day long before Antonello was around.

Yes, I am addressing two different things here: accidental damage incurred in trying to fix an image, versus the willful intentional destruction of images deemed to be blasphemous. We are not sure when or how the accidental damage came to be, but we can be sure that the great skill and artistry brought by Antonello to his easel, his ability to dramatize Christ and his story visually, his ability to create some of the Renaissance’s greatest masterpieces, would have gotten him thrown out of more than one religion in the Middle Ages.

Antonello was part of a movement, the Renaissance, that brought warmth and humanity to the figures of the Christian religion. In the ages before his, images of Christ tended to be more god-like and remote, more mysterious. Could one possibly think that Antonello’s Pieta is improved by the damages wrought on his canvas? There is almost a perversity about the damage; all that is most divine, most “of” the world of the gods, the substance of the angels and the face of Christ, is exactly what has been tampered with, altered, flattened like an icon. (Remember the “flattened” right angel in the Pieta?) The Byzantine emperor Leo III would not have objected to the obscuring interference of these damages, would have gladly taken the turpentine rag to Antonello’s canvas.

Leo III tore the Church in half in the early eighth century when he institutionalized the doctrine of iconoclasm. To make an image of Jesus Christ became a new way to sin on the following rationale: No mere mortal could purport to say what it was like to be in the presence of God and have the temerity to paint Him. This stemmed from an even earlier bitter split in the early centuries of the Church over the specific nature of Christ the Son. The eastern, later to be the Orthodox Church, essentially believed that Jesus and God were one and the same, equal to the Holy Spirit. In the West, Christ was viewed as the human embodiment of God, with both human and god-like qualities, and therefore, a little easier on the eyes. The eastern or orthodox artist under Leo would not have dared to paint a dead Christ; if he had, he would have had to blur out Christ’s face, as in the Pieta. He could have assumed that Jesus had arms, legs, and a body, but he could never have made the egotistical presumption of knowing what God’s face looked like in the flesh.

It is emblematic of the egos of such artists as Michelangelo and Lorenzo Lotto that they left the subtler arguments about Jesus behind, and went on to execute “portraits” of God the Father himself.

Annunciation (1534–35) by Lorenzo Lotto - Pinacoteca Civica, Recanati. Note God above.

“Is art the ally of religion, or its most insidious enemy?” asks John Julius Norwich regarding the depiction of the gods.

“Speaking in necessarily general terms of the world’s great religions, it could be said that Judaism and — later — Islam set their faces resolutely against such practices, while the Hindus and the Buddhists saw no objection. As for Christianity, it has never quite made up its mind. For most of its history and among most of its adherents, pictorial or sculptural representations of Jesus Christ and even (though less frequently) God the Father have been enthusiastically encouraged, to the incalculable benefit of the artistic herit­age of the world. In certain places and periods, however — England under the Commonwealth being an obvious example — opinion has swung sharply in the opposite direction; and never has such a reversal wrought more havoc, or caused more repercussions through the length and breadth of Christendom, than that which was instigated by Leo III …”

Leo started quite dramatically in the early 700s in the most artistically beautiful city in the world by destroying the public icon of Christ towering over the principal gateway to the imperial palace in Constantinople. And all the people of the empire were expected to fall in line. Presumably, Leo would have gloried to rub out the faces of the Son of God and the angels in Antonello’s Pieta. But that would be an act against Antonello the human artist, not against Christ. Empress Irene’s ascension to the throne in 775 brought back the worship of icons, many of which miraculously reappeared from their hiding places, and this controversy raged back and forth for centuries. But even when tolerated in Byzantium, icons of Jesus and Mary had to be much more than just a picture of somebody.

Anonymous follis, attributed to the reign of Basil II (976-1025 AD)

Followers of the prophet Muhammad (570?–632 A.D.) had moved even further in the iconoclastic direction by associating image-making itself with blasphemy, ensuring that the great themes of Islamic art would be vegetal, cursive, and geometric. The violent Muslim riots of 2006 combined outrage at the fact that cartoons of Muhammad were sacrilegious with a plainer, more basic outrage at the fact that Muhammad was drawn, painted, sculpted, or represented in any way.

Mihrab, (A.H. 755/1354–55) Isfahan, Iran - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Leo III and Muhammad were the most extreme expressions of a movement that swept across the so-called Dark Ages in Europe, the glory of Byzantium, through the Greek-influenced culture of the Sassanians in central Asia, to the Buddhas of India. Everywhere, artists rejected classical Greek forms we might in different contexts call “realistic” or “idealistically human” in favor of “the eternal gaze” of the Buddha, the imposing iconic stares of Jesus and Mary eventually tolerated in Byzantium, the austerity of Gothic altarpieces. All of this art strove to mimic the power of a religious relic, certainly at least a religious object worthy of worship or prayer. The eternal gaze was the thing, and the snapshot moment of Greek and Roman art was out.

Around this time, Tara bought a medieval Venetian coin for me and developed an interest in buying ancient coins. She picked up surprisingly cheap bronze monies for only a few dollars, monies once used to buy a loaf of bread at the time of Christ, and she painstakingly brought out their luster with repeated brushings and soakings in olive oil. Such coins from the Roman Empire are simple to date by the stamp of their respective emperors. They are not valuable enough to be worth faking until you get up into silver and gold. This different art form provided clues similar to painting. As Andre Malraux visually demonstrates in his epic The Voices of Silence, Celtic coins from the so-called Dark Ages show artists rejecting the classical heads and peacocks of Greek coins in favor of figures with disembodied features startlingly and disproportionately recombined to look like something cubist in a Picasso or a Braque.

Giotto is often viewed as the discoverer or rediscoverer of perspective at the dawn of the fourteenth century, along with Massaccio a hundred years later. But the first wave of artists after the decline of Rome didn’t forget the lessons of Greece and Rome; they rejected them. They found classical human forms dull and stale. The flat, static quality of Byzantine icons was an effect as conscious as the flatness of abstract expressionist field painters in the 1940s, even if it was conceived as an attempt to create god-like images rather than art. Gothic artists in the age before Giotto would struggle to bring perspective back into the visual language because their predecessors had forgotten those lessons almost on purpose, just as Romanesque builders would re-learn how the Romans erected their domes and arched aqueducts.

We wandered over to the Egyptian section at the Met to see encaustic funereal portraits from Roman-era sarcophagi, or casket covers, and found that the artists in classical times had an astounding ability to render perspective, at least in portraiture. The faces are somewhat exaggerated. The eyes are huge to emphasize the affective looks of the deceased. (They are the forerunners of Keane’s saucer-eyed children seen in American homes in the 1970s.) But the artists don’t exhibit any particular lack of facility in rendering a face — no problem that requires a profile or some other trick. The portraiture is not as advanced as Hans Holbein the Elder or John Singer Sargent, but it doesn’t strike one as being from a different millennium, which, of course, it is.

Fayum portraits (Egypt-Roman period) 1st century BC -1st century AD) Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

So perhaps those artists who created Byzantine icons, Gothic altarpieces, eternally-gazing Buddhas, would have approved of the damage done to Antonello’s Pieta, the manner in which the angels’ human flesh and Christ’s human face are covered in obscurity, an obscuring fig leaf of destruction, covering the shame of the Gods gone human.

Seated Jain Tirthankara India, (Gujarat or Rajasthan), Solanki period, 11th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Antonello’s Moment 6: Giorgione and the High Renaissance

March 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Tempest (1508) Giorgione - Accademia, Venice

Just after the dawn of the half millennium in 1500, when Venice, Florence, and Flanders had all well absorbed the new Renaissance techniques, Venetian painters suddenly engendered a second wave of revolutionary practice: the young painter Giorgione, who lived to be only twenty-seven, began to apply his colors directly to the canvas without underdrawing first, preferring to paint things as they look, not as they are. Titian, Lorenzo Lotto, and Sebastiano del Piombo followed suit. Giovanni Bellini, well into his 70s, immersed himself in the new techniques, attending to the lessons of the young generation in his later years, as he had to Antonello’s and Mantegna’s and his father’s over a life that spanned Gothic, Early and High Renaissance. (Some art historians argue that Giorgione did underdraw before he painted, but like the argument that oil may have seeped into Venice before Antonello, neither detail will change the arc of change, the trend of art history.)

Vasari, writing later in the century in Lives of the Painters, dismisses this new Venetian colorist school as decadent, as abandoning the “truth” of accurate life drawing of muscles and tendons and bone structures, for mere light. Vasari was a prominent painter in the court of Florence and his rival Florentine point of view casts suspicion on his objectivity.

For eventually, the Venetian preoccupation with rendering light became the norm, radiating like an orb in multiple directions through art history, pointing toward modern notions of aesthetic truth grounded fleetingly in the way things appear, in multiple points of view, in instances or instants of perception, and pointing to generations of artists who took Giorgione’s cue and looked at the world in a new light: the Baroque chiaroscuro of Caravaggio and Ribera, the Romantic moonlight of Friedrich, the Barbizon school’s preoccupation with light, the suggestive swirling forms of late Turner and Goya, the Hudson school, Impressionism, and even photography. What you see is what you get, and what you see is light, not form.

The Florentines and the Flemish, though their accomplishments were probably the most advanced in this era, both suffered from what Thorsten Veblen has called “the penalty of taking the lead.” Whoever comes along second after an invention is discovered is often able to adapt the new invention without being saddled with unalterable patterns that went with the discovery. (Veblen cites how the British invented the steam railway and then laid many miles of track at a certain width. The Germans were able to see that a different width of railroad track was more optimal and could start their railway network with a more optimal design, not stuck with the physical manifestation of a brand new idea.)

The Venetian painters of the generation of Giorgione weren’t stuck with the way it is supposed to be done — Vasari’s gospel of how you had to paint — so they just took the new techniques and ran with them, adapting them to rendering the reality at hand however it could be done, and laying the ground for the High Renaissance.

But the earlier change, Antonello and the first wave, was the watershed moment, freeing the generation of Giorgione for their own revolution, sitting on the divide between the Gothic and the Renaissance, the East and the West, Byzantium and Rome, the North and the South, Flanders and Florence, plaster and canvas, tempera and oil, the godly and the human, the Pieta sitting right there at the transition moment for every one of these cataclysmic evolutions in art, in religion, in history, in philosophy, in technique.

And as the Pieta vectors into a line that leads forward into other styles and suggests a matching line pointing back to older ideas, it is all the more heart-stopping to think of the very oil that Antonello applied to the Pieta in 1475–6, rubbed off some time in 1960 or 1970 something.

La Vecchia (1508) Giorgione - Accademia, Venice


The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) Caravaggio - Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1825-30) Caspar David Friedrich - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The Weeders (1868) Jules Breton - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys (1873) Jean-Francois Millet - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Grand Canal (1835) J.M.W. Turner - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

View From Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow) (1842) Thomas Cole - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

San Giorgio Maggiore (1908) Claude Monet - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Palaces Foscari, Giustinain and Rezzonico, on the Grand Canal (1875) Carlos Naya - George Eastman House Museum

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