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

Friday, July 6, 2012

Meyer Schapiro ; Theme of State, Theme of Action - Part II

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

Now, this is real find!

A Hebrew manuscript from the 13th Century, now called the North French Hebrew Miscellany, showing the raised arms of Moses crossed over his chest, to specifically distinguish him from Christ on the cross.

This is a real treasure of Judaica, which has had as turbulent a history as the Jews who worked on and commissioned it.

As a Jewish scholar himself, Schapiro probably began to think about writing this essay when he saw this page in the British Museum.

BTW - here's it's version of Abraham and Isaac.

Schapiro notes that this version is "indistinguishable" from Christian examples - but I'd like to see a Christian example that had the same feeling of enormous dad along with a much smaller lad and angel-buddy in a courtyard.

Almost as fascinating is a Jewish-Persian version, done in a Persian style, with Moses back to a Christ-like posture --- since resemblance to Christ was not a disturbing issue in that Muslim country.

But in contrast, we have this psalter (1270-1274) of Louis IX, which shows Moses without the Christ-like pose. (the complete book is online here

Schapiro explains this as the consequence of a greater interest in action - i.e. the characters on the page are interacting with each other, rather than with the viewer.

Though the artist of the psalter favors the profile - whether a strict or a near profile - as more suited to action, he has not given up entirely the frontal pose with raised hands. But in a remarkable picture where he does use it - the scene of Joseph disclosing himself to his brother - this posture too belongs to action. Ina subtle way it both acting in the theatrical sense and an act of self-revelation. Joseph throws off his robes of office and stands up raising his hands high. Doing so he recalls to the others his posture when they had last known him as their brother earlier in the same book.

And here's that earlier scene

Then, we go back to the 'Moralized Bible' of the 13th Century to discover a very different interpretation of Moses prevailing over the Amalekites.

In this big picture book, that story is paired with a scene of Christ raising the hands of the priest as he prays before his congregation (the two scenes in the upper left column)

The accompanying text reads:

Moses who lifts up his hands which Aaron and Hur support while he prays so that God may give victory signifies the prelate who lifts up his hands high at the sacrament of the altar; the Father and Son support him and the Holy Spirit sends him the body of the Son by whose presence victory is given to God's people and the vices are defeated"

And Schapiro notes that that Moses faces (to be engaged with) the viewer, while the priest is seen in profile, as in other scenes of church rituals presented at that time.

Note: While looking up more images for this discussion, I found


fascinating webpage that introduced some later versions of this image:

Benno Elkan

John Dubrow

T hope the actual painting looks good, because I really like his treatment of a theme that the artist related to the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11.

An exhausted, and maybe depressed, Moses can only keep his arms in the air with the help of both youthful and mature vigor -- in a dry landscape that's as bleak and barren as it can be.

It's also interesting that the artist does not specialize in religious themes - he mostly does cityscapes.

And here's a small detail from Poussin's 'Victory of Joshua" - which mostly seems to be about heroic warriors.

I couldn't find any more of Schapiro's examples of this theme online - and I'm not sure it makes much difference. He only mentions each as one of many variations, of no special importance by itself or within a broader historical argument that is only faintly suggested. (i.e. the replacement of theological with secular concerns)

Latin Bible of 1560, after Holbein


As other examples of Biblical themes that have been secularized, Schapiro offers us secular images of a different story, that of Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph. In both cases, the artist has completely ignored that the biblical story has Jacob crossing his arms in order to bless the younger son with his right hand, despite Joseph's protest.

Though, as we can see above, Guercino includes those details, and he was almost an exact contemporary of Rembrandt.

So I'm not sure what historical trend is being proven -- though it does seem that Rembrandt was turning a biblical story into a Dutch domestic genre scene.

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