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)


The Index is found here

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Norris Kelly Smith: Perspectives on the Last Supper

"In order to make it perfectly clear why so little is gained by raising the discussion of perspective to the level of an abstract idea of "Renaissance space" or by reducing it to mechanical matters of technique and of vanishing points, and in order to be aware of the importance of the specificites of a given subject and a given commission, let us deal with a small number of images that are devoted to a single theme but conceived from different points of view"


"Of all the events of the Passion, only the Last Supper has been endowed with a liturgical or sacramental significance that necessitates its being understood within the framework of both temporal and eternal time"

(unlike the flagellation (socio-historical)
or the Resurrection (visionary-transcendent)

The Last Supper is "reproduced thousands of times every day ... and subsumes, symbolizes, and actualizes within itself the theory and means of Christian salvation as they were universally understood in the 15th century"

Masaccio (1425)

"It is relatively easy to accomodate the story of St. Peter Healing with his shadow to the familiar conditions of direct optical perception" but that approach would put the devout viewer of the Last Supper "in the position of being a disengaged spectator"

Sassetta (1423)

"An artist as naive as Sassetta may have had no qualms about squeezing the scene into a nine inch high predella panel, but then Sassetta was content to work within the tradition he had received from the trecento; it seems never to have crossed his mind that composing a painting might have required him to take his stand with regard to the significance of some theme or idea or body of thought as it bore upon his own or any man's personal existence.

"Though he was perhaps responding to the new ideas about seeing when he shifted Jesus from the end of the table to the center, where he confronts us as we confront the image, Sassetto's interpretation was as uncharged as Giotto's had been"

Giotto (1305)

"..for even Giotto had not been able to infuse that quasi-liturgical subject with the kind of narrational intensity that disntinguishes most of his Paduan frescoes. It is the most inert of all his compositions"

But there is one component
of the Last Supper
that is not reproduced
thousands of times every day:

The revelation of betrayal.

Jesus has just announced
that one of his disciples
will betray him,
and only he, the culprit, and the viewer
know who it will be.

Sassetta has the viewer
standing right behind Judas
and staring face-to-face with Jesus.

Is it I who will betray you?"
is a question that the viewer,
as well as the disciples
may well ask.

So Sassetta's vision
does indeed prompt the viewer
to "take his stand"
(and perhaps he does not deserve
to be called "naive")

Such confrontation is
absent from Giotto's version,
which feels far less evangelical.

But it does have that sense of mystery
that infuses Scrovegni's private chapel,
as all of the disciples
seem clueless
to the drama
that is unfolding at the left
between Jesus, Judas, and John.

And Scrovegni wouldn't want
to have his faith challenged anyway,
would he?

one might notice
that both of the above paintings
present a deep, illusional space
within their architectural renderings.

Sassetto has a separate vanishing point
for each of the flanking predellae,
which emphasizes the frontality
of Christ at the center.

But he also makes the heads
the same size
regardless of whether they
are at the near or far
sides of the table,
which tends to pull the viewer
into the middle of it all.

So does Giotto,
but his vanishing point.
if there were one,
would have to be far to the right
of the scene.
Giotto has placed his viewer
outside the room,
separated from Jesus
by all the disciples.

And there's also that thin, curious
pillar (or pole) to the right
that both blocks and is blocked by
the disciple who is sitting
on the other side of it.

(just as it might appear
to a viewer's binocular vision)

"The first artist to understand the necessity of defining a consistent perspectival standpoint in terms of which to interpret the Last Supper was, so far as we now know, Andrea del Castagno"

"How should a lower-middle-class shopkeeper and perhaps angry young man named Castagno, caught up as he plainly was in the exciting ideas and potentialities of the ars nova, interpret the Last Supper for patrons who were so unlike himself"

(because , as Smith explains, the Carmelites were a severely ascetic order who practiced self-effacement as a path to the divine presence)

"First of all, he had to chose a moment in, or an aspect of, the story of the Last Supper. That story falls, of course, into two more or less separate parts, the one having to do with the identification of Judas as the betrayer, the other with the institution of the sacrament of the Eucarist."

But don't paintings often present as simultaneous events which were not?

Smith then offers various interpretations
regarding the exact moment being presented
and finally concludes that:

"Judas is unquestionably holding a morsel of bread, but the possibility of his making an immediate and dramatic departure (John 13:27-30) is ruled out, partly by the static and non-dramatic nature of the composition, partly by the fact that there is no exit"

"The painting is shown to be as silent as the nuns: every mouth is closed -- What the painting amounts to, then, is a mystical meditation on the Eucharist and on Christ's Passion (for the Last Supper must be seen in conjunction with the Crucifixion etc that are represented on the upper part of the same wall); it is not narrative illustration at all."

it is interesting to note
that nobody's mouth is open
even if the disciples
seem to be communicating
with hand gestures.

(had the nuns of this convent
taken a vow of silence?)

And yet,
there is Judas all by his dark
halo-less self,
smack in the middle
on the viewer's side of the
that very long table,
with all that swirly stuff
in the background panel
seeming to emerge from his head.

That feels dramatic to me.

(note: John White discussed this painting here .)

Taddeo Gaddi (1335)

"Taking account of the old-fashioned orientation of the nuns, Castagno seems to have looked back deliberately to medieval, perspectival models for his composition. The one that most readily comes to mind is the Last Supper that runs across the bottom of Taddeo Gaddi's "Tree of Life" in Santa Croce"

They are quite similar,
but Smith notes that
Gaddi has Judas to the left
(the unfavorable side)
and John to the right of Jesus,
while Castagno (like Leonardo)
has their positions reversed:

"in recognition of the fact that Christian salvation extends to him as well as to all other sinners - among whom, we must suppose,are the nuns of Sant' Apollonia"

here's a breakdown
of the position of Judas
relative to Jesus
in various Italian paintings:

Giotto: right
Sassetti: right
Castagno: right
Del Sarto: right

Perugino: left
Leonardo: left
Gaddi: left
Bassano: left
Ghirlandao: left
Rosselli: left

Since there seems to be no pattern,
at least regarding chronology,
maybe this issue was less important then
to artists and patrons
than it is now
to art historians.

But I'll agree with Smith
that Last Suppers
should be interpreted differently
if they were placed into
a monastery/convent's dining hall
where the monks/nuns
were invited to share a meal
with Christ and his disciples.

"Although Castagno chose to give his composition the retardataire appearance of a medieval relief or manuscript painting, his pride and self-esteem prevented him from abandoning the new perspectival usages ...and so we find him devising what was perhaps the most remarkable application of one-point perspective that is to be found in the whole body of Renaissance art"

"there can be no mistaking the fact that what appears to us to be a wide and very shallow stage was conceived by Castagno as a deep room, almost as deep as it is wide--- and if we assume that the room is a square, then the viewer's position lies about one hundred and fifty feet from the frescoes wall.. thugh the refectory itself is only about 93 feet long"

That is a funny space,
isn't it?

If those side panels
are as square as the ones
on the back wall,
then this is a very deep room indeed.

And as Smith notes,
the room has a different proportion
depending upon
whether you are calculating it
from the geometrics on the
floor, walls, or ceiling.

Is it possible that Castagno
was just using
whatever made the space
look best?

(of which the outstanding feature
is that long, white, horizontal table
before which the miserable Judas
pops out like a sore thumb)

Domenico Veneziano St. Lucy Altarpiece (1445-47)

"It is commonly said that the constuzione legittima was used to "create space". Castagno was probably the first artist to perceive that it can also be used to create an effect of spatial compression - that is, to eliminate or to drastically reduce an appearance of depth. (we cannot be sure of this precedence, for his sometime colleague Domenico Veneziano made a similar use in his St. Lucy altarpiece at about the same time"

Mantegna, The Dead Christ, 1480

"The effect of compression is of the kind we commonly encounter today in photographs that have been made with a long telescopic lens.. the same device was used some twenty or thirty years later by Mantegna in his painting The Dead Christ in order to give the body the big-headed, barrel chested, long-armed and short legged appearance of a dwarf to make it apear that Christ has been disfigured by death. Precisely the same effect can be produced by photographing a distant reclining figure with a 600-mm lens"

I think Smith is dead wrong that there would be
"precisely the same effect"
produced by a wide-angle lens,
since the width of the table
diminishes with distance
even though the proportions
of the Christ do not.

Apparently, the famous physicist, Vasco Ronchi,
placed a reclining person in the same pose
and photographed him,
but that photograph is unavailable to me.

I also do not view
Mantegna's Christ as
"disfigured by death"
into the proportions of a dwarf.

Rather, I get the feeling
that the viewer
is being pulled right on top of Christ,
making His presence overwhelming -
just as reverse perspective
does in Chinese painting.

It's been 40 years since
I've seen the actual painting,
but I still remember
how the figure of Christ
felt pushed into the room
where I was standing.

"It seems probable that Castagno chose his impossibly disant vantage point in order to achieve a sense of psychological disengagement that is related to the self-evident disengagement of the disciples from one another and of the silent and both self-absorbed and self-denying nuns from one another"

To agree with Smith,
it does seem, to me,
that the disciples have
taken an oath of silence
(just like the nuns)

But however distant that vantage point may be,
it does seem that the imaginary room
in which the Last Supper takes place,
has been thrust so deeply into the real room
that it would encompass
the nuns as they sat at dinner.

Even if there is a Judas
and a lot of empty space
in between the nuns
and the distant table
where the disciples are sitting.

"What Castagno was concerned to accomplish, it would appear, was the suppression not only of space but of time- the kind of time within which persons play roles, develope traits of character, bear children, pass on traditions, and pursue personal goals. This is the kind of existence the nuns had forsworn in taking their Carmaldolite vows"

Can you imagine
having dinner every day
with Judas sitting
at the end of your table?

That's what I would call dramatic,
and relates to the personal goal
of accepting or rejecting Christ.

Smith concludes his interpretation with:

"Yet even their emotional perturbation (expressed by the turbulent panel behind Jesus, Peter, and Judas) is somehow external, part of a larger design predestined from the beginning of time. Castagno seems to have argued, perhaps for the nun's sake, that people only appear to be driven by passionate emotion, only look as if they are freely making decisions in moments of dramatic conflict, whereas in fact their lives are shaped by an all governing pattern, and if there seem to be ambiguities and irrational discrepancies in that pattern, it is ony because now we see them through a glass darkly"

Perhaps Smith has never sensed
the turbulent aura
around an angry or disturbed person,
but I'm guessing that
it would be sensed all the time
in a community of spiritual women
who have taken an oath of silence.

And I can't think of any other
narrative painting
whose characters express their emotions
in this way.


Jean Fouquet, 1452, St. Veranus curing the insane
(note: as an example of a museum behaving badly,
this is the ONLY image
that could be found on the internet,
since a commerical data library
has purchased all rights to it.)

Smith now begins
to compare the cultures
of northern and southern Europe
in the 15th C.

First, he presents Panofsky's distinction
between the Platonism of the south
versus the nominalism of the north.

But to get less theoretical,
he notes that the greatest distinction
in their artworlds
was that Italy paid attention
to the identity of the architects,
even if the architects of the north
had achieved greater innovations.

And he quotes Leonardo Olschki
to the effect that:

"In the first century of her creation,
Italy became a country of lawyers, notaries, officials, and judges"

... not that they were any more law biding
-- but that, perhaps, their complex world,
with it's factional violence provoked by
conflicting claims
needed more lawyers,
and the presence of stable, regulating institutions
to which architects would give a public face
and painters would represent
with the "lawful construction"
(of single point perspective)

Regarding Fouquet, Smith lays out the controversy:

"He seems to have been as much concerned with the theory of perspective as was any Italian - witness his introduction into several of his later works of those "optical curvatures" that have so beguiled generations of later theorists (such as Guido Hauck and Panofsky) but which, as Gioseffi and pirenne have made clear, are derived from an attractive but specious argument and simply do not correspond to the observable data of our visual experience"

while concluding that:

"It is typically Northern, however, that Fouquet's theoretical speculations had to do with the grasp of the comprehending eye rather than with the structural and quasi-mathematical regularities that were uppermost in Italian thinking at the time"

Smith then asks us to consider
this Fra Angelico fresco of
St. Lawrence Distributing Alms to the Poor (1447-50)
where the figures feel
"regulated by the architecture"
as opposed to the Fouquet
where they are
"engulfed within a vast interior
whose overall shape and dimensions
we cannot even begin to grasp"

Then, we're presented with Fouquet's version
of the Last Supper
as "the most radical departure from convention that is to be found in any fifteenth-century version of the subject"

"While it is likely that the artist had seen Pietro Lorenzetti's fresco at Assisi... the sense of Fouquet's painting is quite different"

Lorenzetti "preserved the liturgical stateliness of the Byzantine models.... and the shape of his figure group corresponds to the architectural setting... and Judas is clearly identified as the man without a halo"

While Fouquet not only has a short count of disciples (only 9), but "he has chosen to concentrate our attention entirely upon the identification and dismissal of Judas; no reference is made to the Eucharistic aspect of the occasion..... and the oddest and most original aberration from convention consists in his introduction of twenty-five spectators.. the worldly adversaries of Jesus who have given Judas the moneybags he so conspicuously wears at his side"

Then, Smith points out
the cathedral in the distance,
which is being viewed from the back,
i.e. the area where the clergy
are performing their rites --
the same clergy appear to be
among the adversarial spectators.

Is Fouquet hinting
that church officials
were playing the same role
in his day
that the Pharisees did
in the life of Christ?

To further that argument,
he then directs our attention
to Fouquet's "Lamentation",
where the same view
of the church can be seen in the background,
while, in the middle-ground,
the good guys (Joseph of Aramathea and Mary Magdalene)
are on the left (i.e. the side where parishioners enter the church)
and the bad guys (a high priest and pharisee)
are on the right
being enlightened by Nicodemus.

And the 30 pieces of silver
that funded the betrayal
(here, painted in gold)
are placed on top of the coffin

Leading Smith to conclude:
"The painter's concern for ethical integrity stands in sharp contrast to the Limbourg Brothers lack of just that concern - for Fouquet was a great perspectivist"

Smith then relates the theory advanced by Emile Male, Molinari, and Claude Schaefer that Fouquet's approach to narrative was following medieval mystery and passion plays.

But he rejects it, in favor of the more recent moralities and farces, like, for example "Mestier et Marchandise", where four characters represent the issues of the times (Mestier (artisans), Berger (rural people), Le Temps, and Le Gens), and the popular morality play, La Vie et l'histoire du Maulvais Riche, where the poor man has his revenge upon the rich.

Which Smith tells us is similar to Fouquet's Last Supper "as one on which a group of poor laborers and fishermen have been betrayed into the hands of rich burghers and powerful priest who have used their wealth to currupt a man named Judas, even as the representatives of that same ruling class were using their power to persecute and exploit poor but righteous men who had a better claim than they, perhaps, to being called followers of Christ."

... and then to draw his conclusion:

"Nothing was more important to the expression of this new ethical standpoint than was the radical informality of Fouquet's perspective which is completely at odds with the legalistic institutionalism that is so frequently to be associated with the constuzione legittima"

But Fouquet's perspective
is only "radically informal"
in comparison with Italian
(but not northern European)
and it doesn't necessarily
imply a stance that is
oppositional to church hierarchy
(even if other aspects
of that painting do so)

And, of course, Fouquet's images
appear in a book, not on a wall,
so they don't impact real space
the way a fresco does.

The issue here
is not so much perspective,
as it is architecture
as yet one more character
in a narrative,
and in Fouquet's narrative,
the architecture
is more compatible with Judas
than with Christ.

So, finally we come to the most famous
"Last Supper" of all,
and summoning a bit of hyperbole,
Smith proclaims:

"But we must not make light of the fact that Leonardo's Last Supper is the most dramatic image that has ever been painted in the history of mankind, so far as we know"

But, regrettfully, Smith immediately hands off the ball:

"In regards to Leonardo's "Last Supper" and all that pertains to its perspective, I have little or nothing to add to what Leo Steinberg has set forth in his admirably thorough analysis of every aspect of the painting. It would be superfluous for me to rehearse the observations he has made so well concerning this "polyvalent" or "polysemantic" work of art"

Which is doubly regrettful
because every work of art
can be said to be "polyvalent"/"polysemantic",
and Smith has little else to say
about Steinberg's analysis.

But Smith does want to tell us that:

"Leonardo made less use of "mathematical" perspective than did any major artist excepting Michelangelo"

Smith tells us about an early Annunciation whose perspective Kenneth Clark called "painstakingly and amateurishly correct", and about an only partially systematic perspectival grid in a Uffizi drawing for the background of the "Adoration of the Magi" --- but he doesn't tell what's wrong with the perspective applied to the "Last Supper"

There certainly seems to be a vanishing point (behind the head of Christ) and size of the panels on both the walls and the ceiling diminish proportionally as they recede.

How could perspective be applied
any more systematically that it already has been?

What is the problem?

Smith will never explain that,
even though he will then use a few thousand words to explain
why the absence of perspective
is appropriate to Leonardo's philosophic/political stance.

Needless to say,
I'm stunned that neither he,
nor the editors from the university press
noticed this omission.

The only aberration I see
is that Christ feels small.

Since the viewer is positioned
in the center of the room,
Christ is closer than the
disciples at either end of the table
so he should be a bit larger.

His smallness makes him feel vulnerable,
which is, of course,
the position that Christ was in,
not only during his last week on earth
but also in European civilization
as Christianity
was being replaced by secular humanism.

(although, the Christ figure
might not feel so small
in the actual room,
as opposed to in the resproduction)

Smaller or not,
the architectural framing
helps show Christ
as a center of calm
in a sea of human turbulence.

In this case,
the building, as a character,
supports rather than challenges
His mission.

we come to Tintoretto
who painted at least six
Last Suppers,
beginning with the one shown above
at San Marculoa

and ending
with the one
at San Giorgio Maggiore

In between
there was this one
at San Polo

this one
at Santo Stefano

and I've thrown in an image
of his "Wedding Feast" (1545)
just to compare it
with the other,
more dramatic banquet scenes

But this one,
at San Rocco (1576-1581),
is the one
that has drawn Smith's attention: is in the nature of the scene itself and of the composition of the figure group that there is no standpoint from which one might discover the event to possess anthing remotely approaching the symmetrical orderliness that the Cenacoli of the quattrocento so commonly manifested. Number and geometry are irrelevant, as are the placement and scale of the figures : Jesus is the smallest and most marginal of the men at the table, while an unnamed disciple in the foreground appears larger than St. Christopher himself.

... which leads him to conclude:

Like most artists in the middle years of the sixteenth century, he had lost confidence in the Renaissance idea of center and in the notion that there exists a simple congruity between the patterned regularity of an established order of things and the symmetry of our own bodies. He seems to been fully aware of the precarious contingency of existence that so limits our abilty to comprehend the central significance of the drama we are caught up in.

What Smith does not mention
is that the painting is located
at the upper-right edge of its wall
which would be a good reason
to locate the viewer (and the vanishing point)
off to the far-left of the scene.

And that Tintoretto had indeed
placed Christ at the center
of his linear construction
when he painted the Wedding Feast
30 years earlier.

We might also allow
that the placement of the characters
(Christ, disciples, beggars, dog)
is not irrelevant,
it just suggests
that the miracle of salvation
is happening at the edge
rather than the center
of the human hierarchy.

And, though small (since distant)
the figure of Christ
is still closer to the viewer's center
than anyone else except the beggar.

A hierarchy
in which the position of Venice
was heading south,
especially with the recent
loss of Cyprus
and the declining population.

An idea which Smith connects
to the architecture of the room:

Though the room is apparently very large, its structure does not call to mind any domestic, civic, or religous institution -- one might say that Jesus and his disciples were stangers in the city -- were not part of , but were opposed by the institutional establishment.

And that big dark, lonely space
gives me the the same feeling.

But we can also notice
that the ceiling is supported
by a heavy pillar
which itself
rests upon the
glowing halo of Christ.

Everything seems to center
on Him,
while the enormous figure
of the disciple
at the other end of the table
feels peripheral.

If that figure were
identified as Christ,
Christianity would be a dead issue.

Smith cannot resist
the temptation to
wander off the topic of this chapter

One has only to look at Tintoretto's Massacre of the Innocents, which painted a few years later in the Sculoa di San Rocco, and compare it with Giotto's fresco, in order to see what extent perspectival standpoint had ceased to be an issue. Tintoretto's figures act tumultuously and incoherently upon a receding architectural stage that consists of fragments of several buildings, the full shape and nature of which we cannot discern.

The dates of these paintings
show that these various perspectives
were not especially chronological

Uccello, 1424

"The composition is more nearly reminiscent of Uccello's Deluge than of any earlier version of the Massacre."

Raphael: School of Athens, 1512

Raphael (workshop) : Coronation of Charlemagne, 1517

Fouquet: Coronation of Charlemagne, 1461

"Although they are separated by more than two hundred years, the step from Giotto’s Massacre to Raphael’s School of Athens is a relatively short one, since both pictures are equally governed by rational lucidity. However, the chasm that divides Raphael’s fresco from Tintoretto’s Massacre is oceanic a chasm similar to the one that separates the School of Athens from the same artist’s coronation of Charlemagne , which was painted in the adjoining Stanza deli’ Incendio only about five years later. The subject lends itself perfectly to symmetrical formality, as Fouquet well understood when he showed the coronation (in Les Grandes Chroniques de France) to take place as had actually been the case, in Old St. Peter’s Church. Raphael, who had no doubt seen that church before its destruction was begun, chose deliberately to invent a highly fragmented architectural setting and to shuffle the arrangement of figure groups in keeping with that new way of thinking we now call Mannerism".

Bruegel: Massacre of the Innocents, 1562

"On the other hand, if we compare Tintoretto's Massacre with Bruegel's version, which had been painted about 20 years earlier, we can see that for Bruegel perspectival standpoint was still a matter of the greatest importance, though it did not involve the use of the constuzione. In a wide and deep landscape setting he sought to establish a dialogical opposition between a Flemish village community and a troop of murderous foreign soldiers who are led by an officer clothed in black"

This may be a wide and deep setting,
but this panorama does not offer
a single perspectival standpoint
any more than
the tapestries of that era did.

It's just that
the townspeople
are standing
in between the viewer
and the mass of soldiers.

had the viewer
immersed in the chaos
of soldiers and victims,
but that doesn't mean
that the viewer's standpoint
was any less important to him,
does it?

And come to think of it,
this kind of standpoint,
i.e. the relative positions
of the viewer and the various
things in view,
can be presented without using
single point perspective at all.

So one might argue
that the construzione
really was
nothing more than
an abstract idea of "Renaissance space"
that can be reduced
to mechanical matters of technique,
and all the issues
of "taking one's stand"
can be presented
with or without it.

Rubens, 1632

"By the time we come to The Last Supper of Rubens, the architectural setting has so shrunk that it consists of only a few fragments in the upper-right corner of the picture. The spatial volume is defined (or created) by the tightly compressed figures themselves, as they grimace and gesticulate, while the menacing dog looks not into the depicted scene but directly at us, as does Judas immediately above him. The occasion has become as dynamic and as internalized as a scene from Verdi’s Otello. The notion of dialogue within an institutional frame of reference has quite disappeared and, along with it, every vestige of the construzione legittima."

But these architectural "fragments"
are all acceptable
as suitable parts of the same building
in which the apostles have gathered.

The only part of the "constuzione leggitima"
that's missing
is a grid on the floor.

Smith's comment
is more relevant
to the drawing than the
final painting
in which the architectural space
has been more fully developed.
(to the detriment, I feel,
of the scene's dramatic force)

So why do we feel that "The spatial volume is defined (or created) by the tightly compressed figures themselves, as they grimace and gesticulate"?

You can imagine the background
with zero architectural detail at all,
and the power of the scene
would not be diminished.

(which would not be true
with all the other paintings
shown in this discussion)


Final Question:
Why did Smith ignore
this famous Last Supper
done in 1464
by Dirk Bouts?

Allegedly, it's the first
Last Supper
in Flemish panel painting,
as well as an early example
of one-point perspective.

(although it's been noted
that the rear room has its own vanishing point,
and neither point is on the horizon of landscape)

What a fabulous painting!

One may also note that the size of the heads
does not diminish with distance,
effectively pulling the viewer
onto the table between the two disciples
who would be looking at you,
as if a place at the Lord's table
had been prepared for you.
The circularity of the plate and tablecloth
seems to enhance that effect.

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