It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Monday, April 12, 2010

Norris Kelly Smith : Two Allegiances

"Brunelleschi had made just this point, probably some twenty years earlier: to wit, that every Florentine had to recken with two different "points of view", the one defined by Christian faith, the other by the Republic, the latter not so much "human" as "citizenly". The first involves the submission of one's earthy goals and desires to the ultimate achievement of eternal rest in Abraham's bosom - the second involves playing one's role (be it as politician, banker, entrepreneur, condottere in the ongoing life of the city)"

And so, Smith is going to devote a chapter to the real significance of Brunelleschi's tavolae -- not as the discovery of one-point-perspective, but as the assertion of two allegiances (to church and state) that characterized life in Medieval Western Europe.

And he takes the graphic expression of this duality back to the "first great perspectivist", namely Giotto, with special attention paid to the curious "correti" in the Scrovegni Chapel.

"The "secret chapels" are not relevant to the nature of the building, for it contains no galleries or other kinds of wall articulation; they prompt us rather to think about the meaning of the building as a symbol of the Church, wose nature is exemplified not in hierarchical offices and dogmatic formulations but in the lives and deeds of people like ourselves -- only the coreti remind us that we too must imaginatively and personally participate in that larger order of things that constitues the vital reality of the Christian Church, a reality for which the Church-as-institution serves only as an articulating enframement"

Except that -- there are other faux-architectural features that frame the narrative scenes. Do all of them "prompt us to think about the meaning of the building as a symbol of the church"?

Or, is all of the illusional architecture used, just like real architecture, to compose the narrative scenes with the interior space of the chapel?

The coretti serve to hi-lite the scenes directly above them and transition between the two long, side walls and the altar niche to which they run.

Giotto (1267-1337)

Smith then looks at another panel in the Arena Chapel,
and compares it with
another artist's version of the same story
painted in Padua several decades later:

Giusto Menabuoi (1320-1391)

"Instead of Giotto's dramatic confrontation of seven men and ten women across a dense heap of dead children, Giusto Menabuoi chose to pack his scene with more than a hundred and ten figures, all of whom are placed, however meaninglessly, within the confines of a single symmetrical room. Although by means of perspectival orthogonals Giusto has created a deeper room than any that Giotto defined, he has no perspective in regard to his subject - that is to say, he has taken no stand, assumed no standpoint toward the issues involved in the massacre"

And yet... Giusto's perspective does place the viewer at a point on the floor of that single symmetrical room, so Smith has just demonstrated that one-point perspective does not necessarily "assume a standpoint" regarding whatever issues are involved.

The two paintings make an interesting contrast, don't they?

Obviously Giusto has seen Giotto's version and been influenced by how Giotto draws a heavy, dramatic figure. But Giusto's sense of drama is different, both in the overall design and in the drawing of individual figures. Giotto's figures have so much more character and tension -- and that has nothing to do with the use of perspective.

Which is not to say that Giusto's painting is without its own delights - but it's more like the delights of a well crafted B-Movie.

But without the unbearable tension incited by Giotto, Giusto's massacre is like a fight staged in a Roman colloseum. The participants may actually be killing each other, but it's nothing more than a spectacle presented as a diversion for a bored audience.

And I've got to admit that Giotto's version is quite adaptable to Smith's theme of "two allegiances" -- with the dramatic opposition/confrontation between the church on the right and the state on the left.

Proceding with some more examples of "the kind of ethical concern that lies behind the varied inventions of Renaissance perspectivists", Smith offers the above bronze plaque of "Christ Healing the Demonaic", possibly from Brunelleschi, amd the above painting, possibly by Masaccio, in which the central event is Christ healing the lunatic son.

"It is in keeping with the perspectivist's concern for ethical integrity that they should have been drawn to subjects exemplifying Christ's power to bring wholeness, sanity, and order into the world that perennially lacks just those qualities"

And... I'm wondering just how often, if ever, this theme has been treated by the visual arts of the last 300 years. Certainly the secular art of the last hundred years has specialized in the reverse, i.e. a presentation of "see how crazy I am", a condition under which a concern for ethical integrity is irrelvant.

"This is the burden of Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel which deal with the powerful presence of the man Peter as he brings to bear the force of his authority upon the sicknesses, both spiritual and economic, of the Christian community of Florence"

Can you imagine such a mural being painted today? High-end Contemporary art is collected by a financial community that has specialized (and profited) from exactly the opposite of economic health.

In the contemporary world, only children's book illustration would suggest:

"the possibility of a world this lawful, lucid, and intelligible, but only by virtue of our being willing to accept a responsive and responsible position within the order of things" Smith feels is presented by Masaccio.

In the bronze plaque, the viewer must assume "my own position to be as closely defined or enframed as that of Jesus; I cannot imagine that I am a casual bystander like one of the marginal figures"

While in the painting, "my position, physically and psychologically, is unmistakably that of a mobile passerby who sees that something is going on within the precincts of an imposing building; but as an outsider.. I am quite unable to grasp the meaning of what I see".... this being "the earliest painting we know of in a fully systematic diagonal perspective.

And in the bronze, "the city we see is at once an ancient city..and a modern city as Brunelleschi and his followers would have liked to make Florence modern, freed at last from its ugly clutter of fortress towers and the partisan violence associated with them"

While in the painting "the cutaway building consists of an odd amalgamation of classical, medieval, and modern elements".. and ...

"the striding, twisting figure behind the near-central pillar is the key the artist has given us to his perspectival insight and intention"

Leading Smith to conclude:

"If the silver plaque was idealist in conception, the painting defends the stance of the nominalist.... and defends the liberty of the Christian citizen against the tyranny of ecclesiatical idealism that even then, in the 1452's was sending Hussites to the stake.... in many ways its sentiment is proto-Protestant. This painting is small in size and almost certainly was made to be displayed in the intimacy of someone's household"

"That the construzione legittima was on the side of idealist orthodoxy was understood by the better artists of the quattrocento"

BTW, Smith also notes that the detail areas of this painting
don't really look very good,
leading to theory that a good artist (Masaccio)
did the overall design
while a lesser artist (Andrea Di Giusto) painted the rest.

But we also might note
that the Philadelphia Museum
now identifies this painting
as a processional banner,
and the subject as
"Christ Healing a Lunatic and Judas Receiving Thirty Pieces of Silver"
by Francesco d'Antonio

So the diagonal perspective,
and the furtive twisting figure behind the pillar,
is used more to separate the two, dramatically opposite events
rather than to challenge the idealism of the church.

Viewers cannot stand directly in front of a processional banner
as it's being carried,
and so can only see it from one side or the other.
Wouldn't that account for there being two
separate scenes, one on each side?

(further discussion can be found here )

But even we disagree with
much of Smith's interpretation,
I would still buy his argument
that both of these artists are using perspective
to invite the viewer to "take a stand"
rather than merely to demonstrate
the technique of linear perspective.

Especially the painting of Judas/Christ
which seems to demand that the viewer
choose to face left (and sell his soul for 30 pieces of silver)
or face right (and accept the miracle of healing)

"Whoever casts about to find the classic application of Alberti's system will turn inevitbly to Perugino's fresco "Christ Giving the Keys of the Church to St. Peter""

Smith also notes that the other paintings in the Sistine Chapel are a "muddled lot" that were "undone by a taste for episodic historicity that quite overshadowed their concern for what should have been the unifying idea behind the whole series, the conception of Law"

And though it's been 40 years since I've been to the Vatican,
I kind of remember my disappointment with most of the paintings
- especially those by Botticelli since I like so much else of what he did.

Is a "taste for episodic history" the culprit here?
I'm trying to recall any such paintings that I've liked,
and so far, only The Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace
comes to mind

While Smith suggests that Perugino had "one great fell to him to deal with the only subject in the series that in its very nature had more to do with an idea than with an event" -- Christ giving Peter, and those church leaders who follow, the keys to the kingdom of heaven - and the subsequent "indisputable authorization of their monarchical power"

He also notes that the composition resembles the B-A-B format of the facade of a French cathedral - but "what gives Perugino's fresco its cogency is not merely its architectonic simplicity.. but rather its dialogical nature"

"The principal opposition is symbolized by the keys themselves: a bright golden one points upward toward heaven and downward toward Christ's heart, while a dark one, silver, tarnished or in shadow, points downward toward the plane of the earth which here takes the form of a wide paved piazza."

"The downward, isolated key, located exactly at the center of the composition, is the item around which the argument of the painting turns, because for centuries it had been the pope's claim to temporary authority that had been disputed"

Concerning the two scenes in the middle-ground,
Smith is passive about their scriptural connections
- only allowing that the are "sometimes identified"
with the "Tribute Money" on the left,
and the "Stoning of Christ" on the right.

The power of the Apostolic Succession was, as Jesus explicitly declared, the power to bind and to loose. This is the dialogical opposition with which Perugino deals in the middle distance, ina pair of scenes that are addressed not to the Christian citizens in general but to the secular rulers of the various European statees - a point that is made clear by the relation of the two scenes to the two arches"

The Tribute Money

The Stoning

It remains a mystery to me
why these two episodes
were chosen to complement
St. Peter getting the keys to church.

One can note
that neither one concern issues
of faith or salvation or the kingdom of heaven.

Rather, they're just the inevitabilities of social life:
taxes have to be paid,
and radical prophets
have to be driven out.

But whatever the interpretation,
this painting, with its one-point perspective
on a public plaza stretching back
to imperial and eccelistical buildings
does seem to exemplify Smith's notion of
"taking ones stand" regarding church and state.

A stance that would be unthinkable
anywhere else in the world at that time.

Looks like a modern dance
doesn't it?

And I love
details like this.

Appropriate expressions
for being in attendance
at an event
both sacred and political.

And to demonstrate the importance of point of view,
Smith then commissioned an artist,
Robert Jordan,
to depict the scene as
it would have appeared to
someone standing among the figures in the middle.

Kind of amusing, isn't it?
(and not a bad painting!)

St. Peter and his keys are quite far away,
and we have no idea, now,
just why that group of people have assembled in the distance,
while some kind of conflict
is unfolding right before us.

And "with the sensitivity of a good artist, Mr. Jordan has grasped the fact that the standpoint is itself determined by architecture"

so he has added
some new buildings of his own
in the distance
to give some scale to the plaza.

This new P.O.V.
is quite 20th C., isn't it?

St. Peter and his followers
no longer stand
between us
and the abusive rejection
of the Christ.

Smith then offers a brief contrast
with Ingres' treatment of
the same theme 300 years later,
but first he notes
two intermediary paintings
with a similar layout:

Raphael "Feed my Sheep"

Poussin "Ordination"

Both Raphael and Poussin shared Perugino's concern for relating the full group of disciples to a continuously receding ground plane and a deep and varied landscape


But Ingres has reduced the group, minimized the men's contact with the ground (showing three feet for eight men) and has compressed the landscape into a shallow affair that, for all its optical versimilitude, oddly approximates the Ottonian artist's background... it is devoid of Perugino's kind of dialogical argumentation: it shows divine power to descend from uper left to lower right, through Christ to Peter, but does not invite us to "take our stand" with regard to any definable issue, nor does it in any way bring new insight into the meaning of Matthew's text. It no more reveals the artist's possession of a distinctive standpoint than does the average newspaper photograph"

The Ingres and Perugino versions
do make an interesting contrast, don't they?

(Though, I do count four feet in the Ingres instead of three.
Shouldn't an editor have caught something like that?)

I do suppose it would be more difficult
to "take a stand" in the Ingres landscape
since it is so broken and uneven.

But why doesn't Smith mention the architecture?

In Perugino it encompasses the stage,
while in Ingres, all we see is distant battlements
to tell us that we are outside,
rather than within,
a city.

As indeed, the Roman Catholic Church
had recently been given the boot
by the French Revolution.

We also might note that Ingres' viewer
is standing lower than Christ,
while Perugino's is standing a bit above.

And doesn't that positioning,
as well as posture,
make Perugino's Christ
feel a bit more approachable and gentle,
while Ingres' savior is
more assertive, dramatic,
and just a little scary?

Here is the Ottonian version
to which Smith referred.
And yes, we do note that there
are only six feet for 12 disciples.
(so the ones in the background
must be floating on air!)

And here,
Christ looms above the others,
not because he is standing on higher ground,
but because he is a larger person.

To end his discussion of Perugino,
Smith notes that:

"His fresco constitutes an eloquent defense of a conception of Center that painters found increasingly difficult to affirm after about 1520 - that difficultly is usually associated in our minds today with the term 'Mannerism'"

He does not elaborate on
how that "conception of Center"
might differ from those came
before (Madonna Della Misericordia, Florence)
or since (Ingres)
or suggest that Alberti's grid
was necessary to achieve it.
what those words might actually be.

But he does contrast it
with the modern notion
that self is the center of the universe.

"The results of the modern artist's effort at transferring "center" to the mind of the solitary individual, without reference to anything of "central" importance out there in the world, have been less than generally satisfying"

It's too bad Smith never took that
assertion about "modern artists"
as the theme of another book.

But would Columbia University Press
have published it if he did?

"The adoption of Perugino's (or Sixtus's) standpoint magnifies or enhances certain aspects of one's distinctive selfhood, but it diminishes or supresses others. Whoever takes the stand that the fresco urges upon us will recognize that this order of things composes a balanced and harmonious totality only for someone who accepts the limitations of that position. All those aspects of his or her individuality that pertain to passion, sensuality, a potentiality for violence, and whatever we ordinarily mean by self-expression are necessarily minimized. The self that stands here is one's public self, closely corresponding to the impersonal image we commonly encounter in the profile portraits of the quattrocento"

And Smith adds
that it is only public selves
that can get together
and do any convening
(as citizens do in public squares,
or cardinals do in the Sistine Chapel)

BTW -- this contrast between
public and private selves
might also distinguish those complementary
architects of Chinese civilization,
Confucius and Lao Tse.

The self-centeredness
of the post-war American artworld
would be Taoist
except that it's out-sized expressions
reveal a burning desire to turn the private
into a public statement.

"So as to put the issues (regarding Church and State) in the clearest possible light, let us consider briefly another composition that is of about the same date.. the "View of an Ideal City" now in the Walters Gallery...... no one seems to have shown much interest in what the "ideal" is that the design exemplifies"

Which is the "Christian Humanist" ideal
with which Smith has so much empathy.

At the center of the picture is a triumphal arch,
symbolizing the political authority of the emperor.
To the left is a tightly closed baptistery,
the center of moral authority,
and to the right is the wide-open collosseum,
where passions and the lust for agression are ritually exercised.

And as Smith notes - no Renaissance city had a collosseum,
no ancient city had a Baptistery -
and why does this fantasy city has no capitol building or town hall?

Smith speculates that perhaps no town hall was necessary
because the real seat of power
in that historic period was in the family
rather than civil institutions,
as it was in Roman civililzation,
leading him to re-assert his thesis:

"No work makes it plainer that Renaissance perspective was not, and was not then understood to be, simply a technical device -- nor was it, in any sense whatever, a rebirth of Roman perspective.... rather it involved the act of taking one's stand with regard to an established order of things in the world"

But these frescos from the villa
of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale
(now at the Met)
also seem to be presenting
an established order of things:

Would Smith say
that the technique of perspective
was only applied to, perhaps,
make the scene feel more real (mimetic),
rather than
involving some kind of stand-taking?

This one, in particular
seems to place the viewer
directly in front of
some kind of shrine,
not as a tourist,
but more like a supplicant
concerned with the mysteries within.

Although, I don't think personal faith
was a public event in the Roman empire,
that seemed to tolerate any practice
that didn't drive too many people crazy
and allowed a statue of the emperor
to be displayed in the temple.


Regarding northern Europe in the early 15th C.,
"developments in perspective were as rapid and striking"
"in the genres of portraiture and landscape, both of which bear directly upon the devolopment of the self consciousness of the self centered person, northern artists were somewhat ahead of their Italian contemporaries"

Which brings us to Jan Van Eyck's Madonna of the Chancellor Rolin.

"In no other work is the confrontation of the temporal with the eternal, of the secular with the sacred, the State with the Church, so deeply meditated upon"

(And BTW, I'm quite fond of this piece
since it's so similar to
this one
that I've seen so many times
in the Frick Museum in New York.)

Isn't that hard-faced portrait
of the chancellor magnificent?

And Smith shares this contemporary quote
from Jacques du Clercq:

"The said chancellor was reputed to be one of the wise men of the kingdom, to speak temporally; with regard to the spiritual, I keep silent"
and Georges Chastellain:

"In as much as regards the world, this man was very wise ...but... in giving himself over too much to the one that was decrepit and fallible he seemed to remove himself from the most certain and memorable one..he strove to rise continually and to multiply what he possessed up to the very end"

As Smith notes,
Rolin also commissioned
the above "Last Judgment"
by Roger Van der Weyden.

In which:

"there is no far horizon, with all its implications as to future, hope, and expectation, for historical time will be at an end"

whereas in the Van Eyck:

"there is a wide landscape and a sweeping horizon, because the painting has very much to do with the world and with Chancellor Rolin's fervent hopes"

(which is probably why I have love the Van Eyck Madonna at the Frick so much -- that sweeping horizon where "towered cities please us then, and the busy hum of men")

So if Chancellor Rolin believed that eternal Hell awaited those who deserved it,
and if the Christian scriptures tell us that "it is easier for a camel to enter a needle's eye than a rich man into the kingdom of God" , how could he reconsile his rapacious accumulation of wealth and power?

Smith suggests that the image of the Princess (i.e. the Virgin) is the answer.
For she possesses "the virtues of gentleness, compassion, loving kindness, patience, and so on"

So it's not like Rolin has been evil -- it's just that he exemplifies the tough-minded virtues of masculinity, which are complemented by the feminine virtues of the Queen of Heaven.

"a polarization of masculine and feminine virtues for which no basis whatever is to be found in either biblical or classical thought"

Masaccio "Ananias"

In contrast to the renunciation of wealth
preached by St. Francis
or demonstrated in the Branacci Chapel
by Masaccio in paintings of "The Tribute Money"
or "The Story of Ananias"

"In the simulated relief above his head it is made clear that the world he finds himself in is not of his own making or choosing: it is the world of fallen man.. the world of murderous Cain and of drunken Noah"

(I can't see it, but Smith also notes
that the figures at the edge of the relief
appear to be gazing at a small, crescent moon
rising above the snow capped peaks
just as elswhere, the painter had placed a moon
behind the thief in his crucifixion scene.)

I think Smith
has hit on why
I find this painting so delightful.

The eternal contrast between earth and heaven,
with prayers to heaven
but no denials for our earthly ways.

So I have to agree with Smith that:

"What is at stake in all this is not a Mariological typology, as Heinz Roosen-Runge would have us believe, but the spiritual condition of a specific man who found himself torn between his religious and his political obligations"

All of which,
conducted behind the ramparts
of a fortified castle,
would be quite above
the world of the tradesmen
who seem to have been depicted
in those two small, almost comical
figures in the distance who are looking away
(is the one in big, floppy red hat the artist himself?)

Unaware of the Chancellor's fervent prayers,
the stubby guy with the big hair
is gazing out through the ramparts
at the great river that divides,
and the small bridge that connects,
the great man of the world
and the infant savior.

A wonderful painting!

How I wish it were in Chicago!

Smith then connects it to the notion
that Renaissance perspective,
and especially this painting,

"the emergence of territorialism that was so conspicuous a feature of European politics from the 13th Century onward. Whereas as men had once been united by their having been baptized into a common faith, their membership came increasingly to depend upon their having been born into the same teritory"


"The policy that the Duke of Bergundy and his chancellor were pursuing was plainly territorialistic, aimed at creating a state that could stand on equal footing with England, France, and the Empire"

But how can the historian distinguish territorialism
from the dynastic ambitions that presumably preceded it?

Perhaps a simple argument would suffice,
but Smith does not pursue this digression
any further.

And one might ask...
just how perspective connects
to these issues.

It certainly makes the painting
feel like a window into the real world,
apprpropriate for presenting a real dilemma.

But the viewer is not involved
(any more than those two figures at the ramparts)
and the viewer's stance
is not relevant.

Roger Van Der Weyden
"St. George and the Dragon"

At this point,
Smith launches into a digression
about castles in the paintings of that period.
(he is, after all, primarily an architectural historian)

He notes that the castle is
very important in the St. George scene
shown above.
(i.e. Sir George and his lady
have just come from there)

Robert Campin "Nativity"

...while the castle is more marginal
in this one.
(showing that nativity occurs out in the countryside)

Reflecting, he suggests,
attitudes appropriate
for the aristocracy or the bourgeoise

And contrasting with the scene
where Rolin, the bourgeois administrator
is located within a castle
that may or may not be his own.

Whose castle is it anyway?
And which city
has been depicted so
realistically beyond the ramparts?

Smith notes that these are questions
which art historians have debated.
(New Jerusalem, Liege, Maastrict, Prague, Lyon?)
and Smith favors Li├Ęge,
as a town which often had
an adverarial relationship with
the Duke of Burgundy,
especially after the Maid of Orleans
was sent to the stake in 1431
(after being extradited by order
of Chancellor Rolin himself)
and Burgundy had to side with France
to the detriment of the Flemish towns
which depended upon commerce with the English.

"at the very center of Rolin's religious concern, we have reason to suppose, was his vision of a certain kind of reconsiliation between the Baptistery and the Town Hall - between the seat of ultimate and ultimately monarchial authority on the one hand, and the lives of busy men in the urban marketplace on the other. How understandable it is, therefore, that he should have assented with enthusiasm to suggestion that a radiantly idealized image or Liege, peaceful, prosperous, and secure by virtue of submission to God's will and to his appointed vicars on earth, should be included as an essential element both of his prayer to the Virgin and of his address to the duchy's townspeople"

(Smith cites the historian, Richard Vaughan,
for most of the relevant material
regarding the Counts of Bergundy,
and their conflicts with townsfolk)

"Just as the intensely personal presence of the specific man, Nicholas Rolin, sets Van Eyck's painting apart from the formulary works of medieval art, so too, does the nature of this city view announce to us that a new stand has been taken with regard to certain religio-political issues and concerns"

But what kind of stand
is being taken here?

Chancellor Rolin has declared his reverence
for the savior
and it is apparent
that he is a rich and powerful man.

But Rolin is just a henchman,
however pious he may
or may not be.

Neither he (nor the viewer)
is expected to act like a free citizen in the public square
of a republic.

This painting is hardly encouraging
of some kind of stand taking
on a religio-political issue
as Smith has suggested was involved
in Massacio's "Tribute Money"
or Perugino's "Keys of St. Peter"

But, nevertheless, Smith ends the chapter by concluding:

"Van Eyck invites us to take our stand within the circle of these battlements, and therewith within the circle of certain religious and political "theology", and to see for ourselves what the results of assuming that standpoint might be. They have to do with the most intimately personal aspects of sin and forgiveness, with self-awareness and world awareness, with aristocracy and egalitarianism, with ancient traditions and restless modernity, with the grievous limitations of temporaral existence and with an eternal blessedness.."

O.K. so submitting to authority
might be considered as
one kind of stand taking.

But why has Smith failed to note
that the pictorial space
of these 15th C. Flemish painters
differs from that of the Italians?

The distant background
may be following the basic rule
of perspective that size
is inversely proportional to distance,
but the foreground does not.

And the foreground space
of the Rolin Madonna
feels so weird.

Wouldn't both Rolin and the Madonna
be too large to walk through
those arches
that lead out to the garden?

And isn't Smith telling us
that the Rolin Madonna
is asserting that allegiance to church and state
is the same thing,
rather than the
"different points of view"
that he defined at the beginning of the chapter?

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