A few weeks ago we were in Oxford, and had a couple of spare hours so went to the Ashmolean Museum for a wander round. I haven’t been in some time, and it used to be one of my favourite places as an undergraduate. I’m not an art historian, but the paintings in the Renaissance gallery have always fascinated me in particular. I took a few pictures and tweeted some thoughts at the time, and thought it might be worth putting them in a post. It’s a bit of a ramble of thoughts, but you’re very welcome to join me on a quick stroll around the gallery.
I quickly made for my favourite paintings in the world – Fra Filippo Lippi’s Joachim and Anna at the Gate
It has everything I find entrancing about painting of this era – the pure colours, the combination of symbolic and human elements, the sense of religious drama happening in a world which is spreading out beyond the figures. I can’t get over the fascination of the landscapes and towns which you often see in the background, or just behind the shoulders of the figures.
Like this St Jerome, which depicts him in a landscape very similar to the area where it was painted.
And he’s just hidden by the rock from where the viewer might themselves be standing in real life. So the viewer might realize with a shock that they’re standing with the saint, looking at their own town as if it was a strange place. It offers them a (literal) sudden new perspective. Rowan Williams writes often about the power of seeing things – and people – as if they are to be loved, and for him that metaphor seems to be literal at times. To “see” something differently, for him, is apparently not an abstract way of saying you think about it differently, but literally to look at it and have it look strange to you.
This aspect of the paintings offers a kind of shock of perspective where the viewer realizes they are looking at their own small town again, but as if they were standing next to the figures on whom history turned. It reminds me of the medieval mystery play cycles, in which the dramas of the Creation, the Passion and the Apocalypse were acted out in town squares by people the audience knew. This doesn’t seem to have been an illusionistic drama, in which the actors “disappeared” into their characters, but one in which the spectators were encouraged to see both Herod and the local swineherd ranting, for example, or both their mayor and the one of the magi. There is even a grim connection between people’s jobs and the scenes they performed in some cycles – so the fishers and boatmen’s guild would perform the Flood, for example, or the pinners (who made nails and mousetraps and small metal goods) performed the Crucifixion.
Coming back to the paintings, you see the same with those Madonnas set against a curtain with a familiar tower or town over their shoulder: the viewer sees that a twitch of the curtain would show the world they know, and that they’re standing on the other side of the curtain. Might they even see themselves by accident? You can see how easily this idea would extend into the Gothic notion of the doppelganger. But in this art it seems to be poised at a moment where a revelation might be about to happen for the viewer: the curtain might be just about to move aside. And how apt that it is often a curtain, like the Veil of the Temple, which for Christian viewers is going to be rent later in Jesus’ life because of the very scene they’re watching. A revelation is going to happen, and one which will “reveal” them differently to themselves.
This idea can get weird(er) as in this painting of Holofernes hosting Judith in his tent.
It’s a sumptuous vision of the feast, as told in the Book of Judith (one of the “apocryphal” books, which are accepted by some Christian traditions but not by others.) Whilst laying siege to the city, Holofernes invites Judith to this dinner, after which Holofernes intends to exploit her sexually (though actually she gets him drunk and slashes his head off, as shown in a number of other paintings.)
The image is crammed with material detail – glassware, candelabra, hangings, booze and crockery, of the sort which the family commissioning this picture would display when they hosted people. So where are they in the story? It’s very odd to realize that the gracious host and owner of this tasteful wealth is the vicious (and near death) tyrant Holofernes Painting historical and religious scenes like this produces vertiginous connections between the stories and our world as viewers. It poses questions much more than it offers didactic meanings.
Or sometimes you just have a flying bishop St Nicholas banishing an evil mermaid who was threatening a ship.
Which raises its own questions, I must admit. Or Caesar being stabbed in very contemporary dress.
And then his spirit watching his own funeral, in another intriguing scrambling of time and setting: they’re all in fifteenth-century dress, but they’re standing at the bottom of Trajan’s Column, recognisable on the right.
Another paradox, or at least an aspect which is difficult for a non-specialist like me to articulate (like the time collisions or the looking back into your own landscape) is the background of this St Anthony of Padua.
And this angel – they’re pictures of ‘people’ but they’re standing in stone niches for statues. Or rather, the painting includes a niche as part of the painted image.
It’s a fascinating and bizarre thing to do: reminding the audience of the artifice of what they’re looking at, depicting a person but depicting them as an image of themselves. It’s both a painting of St Anthony and the angel, and a painting of statues of them.
So they seem poised between painting them as alive and moving, and painting them as images of themselves. I often wonder if this kind of image acted as a bridge between the viewer and religious statuary or architecture, helping them to imagine pictures and statues of the saints as ‘alive’ and capable of being in relationships with them. Given that the people looking at these images would also have seen statues in church. These look faintly like statues coming to life, or people being made into religious imagery, imaginatively negotiating the mysterious process of someone being so holy they become a “saint” (whatever we or the spectators understand that to be), and then having been recognised as a saint, can be alive and meaningful for the people in later years. I wonder whether having a smallish devotional age like this helped people to negotiate between their immediate world and the past saints.
I even wonder whether the use of candles and rushlights would mean light and shadows often flickered on statues, as if they had just moved. Are these paintings part of an aesthetic and spiritual world in which the flickering of shadow on a statue is itself a symbol of their liveliness? Is that part of what is being painted here, the physical experience of seeing a votive candle play on the features of a statue?
Another example – this St (unsure, I have forgotten) and St Julian have great flair and liveliness, but they’re shown standing against a flat, formal wall as if they have stepped off the wall themselves, from a line of images of saints.
Their names are painted above their heads, as if they’re in a mosaic or a fresco of holy figures. It’s much less obvious than the effort which goes into painting illusory stone niches, but there’s still a hint of the negotiation between being “Saint Julian” and being the man with his hand on his hip in dashing contrapposto.
There is reflexivity too, in this secular image. It’s maybe less profound: the young man shows off the expensive and beautiful objects which he is cultured enough to appreciate properly.
We realize that the painting he has commissioned of himself is exactly such an object, his gaze challenges us to rise to his level by appreciating the picture The gaze and the display sets us a trap, I think: fail to be impressed and we convict ourselves of ill-educated taste, unlike him.
More time collision (I seem to be stuck with that phrase) here, as Mary, Joseph and John the Baptist watch Jesus sleeping.
His small stature and the book in Mary’s hand show that he is young here, and it’s a tender family scene, with St John hushing us so we don’t wake the infant. But the proportions of his body are wrong for a young child: he is proportioned like a man, and we realize that we are seeing the future, looking both at a sleeping child and the dead man whom his mother will cradle in her arms in other religious paintings. It is both in infancy and a “pieta”, dramatizing two of the emotions Mary is ascribed in Christian narratives: loving tenderness and agonizing loss. We could say it also dramatizes two of the central doctrines of the faith: the wonder and beauty of the Incarnation, and the horror and tragedy of the Passion. It asks us to look at them in the same moment, to see them as paradoxically connected even if we cannot reconcile them. Perhaps it even challenges us to asks how they can possibly both be true.
The book is implicitly, I think, both a simple primer to teach Jesus his letters, and the scriptures which identify him as Messiah. We could even read St John as hushing his own prophecies of Jesus as the Lamb of God, the pure sacrifice, which will culminate in the Messiah’s death. Certainly his crooked finger makes the classic John the Baptist gesture, pointing away from himself and towards Christ. Just as in the narrative of Jesus’ life, where he proclaims one is coming who will be greater than him, and acclaims Christ when he arrives, he physically points away from himself and towards where the spectator should be paying attention. You can see the same gesture, more subtly, in these other scenes of John the Baptist and the Holy Family.
His arm curves away towards Christ They’re less obviously stylized and symbolic, but the gesture (and lighting) guides the eye from John to Jesus. Tiny messianic pointing going on.
You can even see that arm in this earlier, and much more stylized, baptism of Christ. Something of an Orthodox icon about this one.
Though, unlike some Orthodox icons of this I’ve seen, Christ isn’t submerged in the water. That, I believe, is to signify Christ’s plunge into mortality and hell, the solidarity of God with humans shown in the Incarnation. It also reminds the viewer of the watery chaos which appears in Genesis in the creation narrative (and which has parallels in other Near Eastern creation stories, in which the world is produced after the killing of a water dragon): the Incarnation and Redemption as new creation. But, as I said, can’t see that here. In fact Jesus appears to not even be standing in the water. He is…walking on the water. Ah, I get it. Should have seen that earlier. Very clever. Right, having been outsmarted by several paintings, let’s go find a pint somewhere. The Lamb and Flag’s good at this time of day. Even the pub signs round here have messianic implications.