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How do you sculpt a misunderstanding? That was a question which confronted me delightfully in a couple of objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum last month. They were both beautiful and moving in their different ways, but they raised engrossing questions about how meaning is communicated in objects, and how audience reactions are part of the meaning of a piece.

The first was a memorial effigy of Doňa María de Perea, a Spanish noblewoman, from the end of the fifteenth century. The austere lines of the carving – made rather more austere by the fact that it is now missing the paint which may have made it look less bleak – present a solid, serious image of the deceased woman.

Maria de Perea 5

Small details complicate, or break up, this memorial solidity. The label nearby informed us that the books at her feet represent her piety (I don’t know whether the smaller figure reclining on the books is a daughter, herself, or someone else…). They also provide another centre of attention, and almost seem to be hidden amidst the heavy hem of her garment. The books and figure make a small dynamic patch at the end of the body in repose, perhaps like the dogs under the feet of Crusader effigies.

Maria de Perea 2

But the label also directed our attention to a detail nearer her head, which made the meaning of the figure even more complex. Above the massive, slightly ponderous rosary clasped in her hands is an intricate patch of carving around her neckline.

Maria de Perea 3

The simple, wide folds of the outer garment are shown to cover a delicate and expensive-looking inner garment, with finely-made edging around the neck. There are even some tiny buttons, some of which are undone, and one of which seems to have been pulled out of line by the weight of the neckline.

Maria de Perea 4

If not exactly a misunderstanding, this certainly comes close to a paradox. In representing Doňa María’s piety and discretion, the sculptor has added this elaborate little neckline. After all, she wasn’t wearing these wide folds of simple cloth because she couldn’t afford better clothes. It’s a matter of decorum. But how is the spectator to know this, unless there’s a tiny hint that she has plenty of seamstresses and knows exactly how to dress when she wants to.

Of course this meaning – of restrained decorum – is embodied in the effigy itself. I assume that intricate, complex work like this garment edge is much more skilled and labour-intensive to carve, and thus more expensive. The physical fabric of this part of the statue signals the same values of good taste and discretion as the garment it represents – a flash of virtuoso luxury to highlight the simplicity and restraint of the whole piece.

I was absolutely intrigued by the way this piece of carving embodied the tensions involved in physically representing Doňa María’s piety and social graces. As spectators we have to engage in a double vision, both being “taken in” by the simple, even basic lines of the work, and also noticing the intricacy of the detail. For the effect to work fully (I think), they have to be both present, neither “cancelling out” the other, nor blending to produce a joint middle ground, but offering two perspectives which we switch between. (After all, the effigy doesn’t present her as either a dangerous hypocrite or misrepresented by her clothes.)

It reminded me of a passage Baldassare Castiglione’s book Il Cortegiano (or The Courtier), in which he describes the ideal courtier as possessing the virtue of sprezzatura, something like “grace” or “nonchalance”. The real courtier never admits to trying hard, or having difficulty, but allows those around him to perceive how nonchalant he is when dealing with tricky matters – and Castiglione gives examples from costume parties and masques at one point:

All of this greatly enhances the attractiveness of what he is doing, as when a youth dresses up as an old man yet wears loose attire so as to be able to show his agility; or when a knight dresses up as a country shepherd, but rides a beautiful horse and wears a handsome costume. For the spectators assume they are seeing what they are meant to imagine, and then when shown far more than what is promised by the costume being worn they are highly amused and delighted

The double vision is essential here to demonstrating the grace and meaning of the costume: the audience must look, be deceived, look again, be undeceived, and find delight in the process of moving between the two (perhaps repeatedly.) This seems to be part of the meaning which the effigy of Doňa María offers, visions of simplicity and complexity which inform and deepen each other’s meanings.

The other object which caught my attention was a large altarpiece from Troyes, produced in the late fifteenth century. It presents Christ on the cross in the centre (with the patron carefully present amongst the mourning group), flanked by scenes from the Passion and Easter narratives. One of these shows Mary Magdalene gong to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection.

Gardener 1

She’s shown holding a jar, or some sort of vessel, an item which brings together her intention to anoint Jesus’ dead body with her traditional identification as the unnamed woman who washed Jesus’ feet with tears and perfume. It’s the jar that identifies her as Mary Magdalene, or rather the jar that makes her into Mary Magdalene.

To be pedantic, that small female figure does not have a pre-existing identity which we work out from clues such as the tree and the jar (but which we might also recognise from her facial features or her clothes if we knew her well enough), it is those things which produce her identity. She is holding a jar which makes her Mary Magdalene, and also represents the other jar in the earlier story.

The figure she has just met (or is about to meet) is also recognisable by his attributes. Or so she thinks. Christ, shown still half-wrapped in his shroud, leans jauntily on a spade, as can be seen in the image.

And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

This passage from John 20, in which Mary does not recognise the risen Jesus until he calls her by name, has been the subject of deep theological reflection. Preachers have also made a great deal out of her believing him to be a gardener, and this is clearly what the image her is trying to convey. This is Mary Magdalene mistaking Jesus for the gardener.

But, to be tediously pedantic again, Jesus was not the gardener. As far as the Gospels mention, he had absolutely no caretaking duties with regard to either Gethsemane or Joseph of Arimathea’s grounds. The spade isn’t his. But it’s in the image to show what is happening here: Mary Magdalene is mistaking him for the gardener. This is an attempt to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this piece: how do you sculpt a misunderstanding? How do you show that Mary does not know who he is, whilst allowing the spectators to know?

The solution to this – carve him with his hand on a spade – is absolutely delightful. Because it leaves so many questions unanswered on a literal level: why is Jesus holding a spade? Had someone left it lying around? Was he leaning on it to get his breath back? Even – and even more speculatively – is the actual gardener the man in civilian dress shown wandering away with something slung over his shoulder whilst Christ emerges and walks past the soldiers, in the larger image in front of this one? Has a whole gardener subplot slightly taken over this set of carvings?

Gardener 2

Of course these questions (aside from the identity of the bloke with the beard and the hat) are beside the point. The smaller image of Mary and Jesus cannot be interrogated from this point of view. Just as Mary does not exist as Mary because of her face, but because of her iconography of the jar, the spade is not a realistic object found in the garden by the tomb. It is a way of signalling Jesus’ identity – or rather, of mis-signalling it.

We go through a process of interpretation which matches these items to the story as we know it, and identifies both the people in the scene and the part of the narrative they are representing. Perhaps we’re momentarily puzzled by Jesus carrying a spade, and then realize it’s because Mary has to mistake him. In which case, we’re making precisely the inverse movement to Mary: we know who he is, but not what’s with all the lawn paraphernalia, before we click and see why he’s depicted like this. Or perhaps we go through it in the same order as she is supposed to, seeing a mysterious figure who then coalesces into meaning.

Either way, the meaning of these figures depends upon us being able to switch back and forth between two perspectives, rather like the effigy of Doňa María. We have to be able to see the appearance of things, and then see how that appearance is made up of inner and outer meanings, which inform each other. The inexplicable spade is a lovely encapsulation of the way these images offer us two clashing meanings to shuttle between. They enrich our sense of what is going on here, and also call attention to the processes of meaning, of seeing and interpretation, which we are engaged in. That, apparently, is how you sculpt a misunderstanding.