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

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Meyer Schapiro ; Theme of State, Theme of Action

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

To bring out the interplay of text, commentary, symbolism, and style of representation in the word-bound image, I shall consider at greater length a single text and its varying illustrations. It is Exodus 17:9-13, the story of Moses at the battle with the Amalekites, raising his hands to ensure victory.

9 Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”

10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill.

11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning.

12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset.

13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

Here's the earliest version, c. 435, a mosaic from the nave of Sta. Maria Maggiore, Rome.

Schapiro suggests that the Christians of this era consistently saw the Hebrew bible as a pre-figuration for the Gospels - so in this scene, Moses raises both of his arms to assume the position of Christ on the cross - despite a Hebrew text that has the word 'arm' as singular rather than plural - not to mention the need to use at least one of his arms to hold that staff mentioned in verse #10

Schapiro surveys the efficacy of raised arms in earlier and later texts. I'm not sure that has to do with this example, but it is fascinating to know that two Irish saints, Columba and Finnian, used this technique while their followers were fighting over possession of a famous psalter, and that Charlemagne invoked it in a letter to Pope Leo III.

Indeed, this example has been already abandoned -- and there will be no further discussion of how the design relates to an interpretation of the story.

Unfortunately, the other examples could not be found on the internet. Schapiro offers black-and-white reproductions of them in his book, but they can do little more than show the position of the characters involved.

After 900, Aaron and Hur are each holding up one of Moses' arms, and Schapiro asks why. Is it because of the psychological pleasure of identifying with those who hold up the leader's arms? Schapiro shows how kings were also sometimes shown getting that kind of support - and speculates that the 5th Century version was more in line with the Classical figure of the Hero who stands alone.

Schapiro notes that even God got this assistance, as depicted by Raphael in 'Ezekiel's Vision', even though there is absolutely nothing in the biblical text that might suggest that angels were holding up His arms.

And even some bronze plaques from Benin show the arms of the ruler supported by his minions -- displaying not so much his need for help, but his power to command it.

All of which is fascinating, but without focusing attention on any specific painting or historical period, all we we're really learning from all this is that the author is a very learned and clever man -- having seen a lot of Medieval manuscripts, and studied the history of Europe and the Church.

In other words, this essay is all about him.

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