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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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Meyer Schapio : Words, Script, and Pictures

(this is Chapter One of Meyer Schapiro's "Words, Script,and Text".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

Chapter 1


A great part of visual art in Europe from late antiquity to the 18th century represents subjects taken from a written text. The painter and sculptor had the task of translating the word—religious, historical, or poetic—into a visual image. It is true that many artists did not consult the text but copied an existing illustration either closely or with some change. But for us today the intelligibility of that copy, as of the original, rests finally on its correspondence to a known text through the recognizable forms of the pictured objects and actions signified by the words. The picture, we assume further, corresponds to the concept or memory image associated with the words.

That's a lot to assume -- and don't worry -- Schapiro will immediately back away from all of it - as he queries the very notion of 'intelligibility'

As with all the art history that I'm reading, I focus on examples, and the first one is this fascinating version of 'Susanna and the Elders' found in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome. Dated back to the 2nd-4th Centuries A.D., it has some of the earliest extant images of Christian narrative, including the very earliest Madonna and Child.

Above is the so-called 'Greek Chapel' which tells the story of 'Susanna and the Elders', one of my favorite themes in European painting.

Here is my favorite version.

The colors in this reproduction are probably more accurate, since it comes from the website of the museum that holds it. But the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is quite stingy about what it freely shares on the internet, so they offer nothing larger than this.

Here's a detail to whet the appetite, and make one buy a plane ticket to Austria.

And here's another detail, taken from the zoomable image on Google Art

Here's another detail -- and it's going to take a supreme act of willpower not to capture any more -- because unlike the paintings in the Roman catacombs that are only of historical interest, Tintoretto's version compels attention regardless.

The catacomb paintings are fascinating as a small window into the early Roman church - in which, apparently women played a greater role than they would in the centuries that followed under the leadership of a celibate male priesthood. Tintoretto was addressing the lust that older men feel for younger women. In a city like Venice with its celebrated sex industry, the satisfaction of it would have been a convenient commercial transaction. But the mural in that 2-4th C. Roman catacomb was more focused on the honor and challenges of being a woman.

Susanna as a lamb between two wolves, from the Arcosolium of Celerina in the Catacomb of Praetextatus, mid-4th century.

So yes, these paintings are fascinating, but only in that historical context that historians, like Schapiro, might provide for them.

Though in this essay, the author is using examples only to discuss the interpretive challenges that an historian faces.

Schapiro offers the Susanna story from the Book of Daniel as interpreted by Hippolytus of Rome (170 – 235) for whom the story was an allegory for the relationship between the Church, Christ, the Saints etc -- though, of course, no one knows if the painter had any of this in mind - and the same could be said, with even greater complexity, about the representation of any story in any work.

BTW - here's yet another version of the story. (I can't find the date, but suspect it is 9th Century) This Susanna is no less a victim of these scheming voyeurs - but she does seem to be less innocent.

In contrast to the metaphorical interpretation of Hippolytus, this Carolingian illumination of Psalm 43 (44) from the Utrecht Psalter is used to exemplify a very literal approach.

The last lines of the psalm read:

22 Yea, for thy sake are we killed all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter.

23 Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? arise, cast us not off for ever.

24 Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and forgettest our affliction and our oppression?

25 For our soul is bowed down to the dust: our belly cleaveth unto the earth.

26 Arise for our help, and redeem us for thy mercies' sake.

... which the artist has represented by showing God above, asleep in his heavenly bed, while the city below is under attack and the citizens are praying for deliverance.

Contrasting the above with a Byzantine illustration that presents the psalm as an allegory for the Ressurection, Schapiro concludes:

The freedom of interpretation in the Utrecht Psalter, with the frequent shift from the literal to the symbolic, while the style of drawing remains the same, is a characteristic feature of this remarkable book.

And actually -- this is exactly how I would envision the psalm, in a presentation of the modern (Woody Allen) theme of "God - the Underachiever" - which turns out to be as old as the psalms.

BTW, a recent blogger has suggested that:

The artist, however, would have benefited much from a view of modern comic book organization of text and images, as the three columns of Latin capital letters and subsequent depictions of the text lay in a hodgepodge of space, inseparable to the discerning eye.

But perhaps that quality of 'inseparable' is what makes this design more appropriate for thoughtful adults rather than bored children.

Folio 270b , Bodleian Library Hezekiah and the water clock, illustrating II (IV) Kings 20:1-11, with its 'moralizing' equivalent, Doubting Thomas, from a Bible moralisée. France, Paris; c. 1235-45

Schapiro notes that sometimes one image is coupled with another to represent its symbolic meaning.

He chose some images from the 13th C. Moralized Bible in the Bodliean Library - pairing the sacrifice of Isaac with the crucifixion of Christ.

But the library has only put the above pair online - probably because it's the only known image of a medieval water clock.

OOOPS -- I just found the Abraham/Isaac on the Bodleian's own website

BTW - the Biblical text about Hezekia totally puzzles me. In order to show Hezekiah that a miracle is going to happen (i.e. his healing), Isaiah reverses the order of steps and a shadow. As translated, it makes no sense to me -- and possibly not to the artist as well, as he decided to depict a current water clock, presumably turning backwards.

And it certainly is lively - the characters seem to leaping from the page, an effect which is lost in the black-and-white reproduction in Schapiro's book.

Next, we travel to the Benedictine abbey of Sainte-Marie in Souillac, where a 12th C. sculptor carved the story of Abraham and Isaac - showing an angel carrying the ram to the sacrifice - as might satisfy a rationalistic commentator who was wondering how the ram got there.

While the other side of the column shows several couples embracing - which Schapiro interprets as a man wrestling a boy, exploring the psychological aspect of the pious father and his victim/son - or perhaps exemplifying discord/disobedience in contrast to the peaceful submission depicted on the opposite side.

But I'm not sure why the lower couples could not be male/female - whose intertwines would certainly complement the natural appetites depicted on the front. (shown below)

Is this Abraham embracing Isaac, before or after the aborted sacrifice?

If any scholar has ever written about the possible interpretations of this remarkable piece, I can't find a link on the internet.

Formally, it seems to perform the vertical functions of a column while still telling its bizarre stories - though I'm sure it would really help to see it in person.

The front shows a twisting, writhing mass of monstrous animals biting each other, including the man at the top of the heap.

It appears that the sculptor (or his patron) was something of a natural philosopher - with life depicted as an endless struggle of all against all - including father against son. It's connection to the episode from Genesis is rather thin - and I can't think of anything else like it.

The rest of the sculpture at Souillac is beautiful and fascinating as well -- but I suppose I really should be getting back to Schapiro.

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