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2.Naturalism and Allegory in Flemish Painting

2.Naturalism and Allegory in Flemish Painting

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Published by: Ashli Sisk on Aug 10, 2011
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DAVIDCARRIER
Naturalism
and
Allegory
in
FlemishPainting
CONSIDERTHECHANGINGSTYLES
of
interpretation
of
onepicture,JanvanEyck's
ArnolfiniMarriage
(Fig.
1).
ForRuskinit
is
amarvelousexample
of
the"ingenuity"
of
theinventor
of
oilpainting:
eminentlyremarkableforreahty
of
substance,
vacUIty
of
spaceandvigor
of
qUIet
colourexhibitmg,evenmitsquamtandmmutetreatment,conquestovermany
of
thedlfficultleswhichtheboldestpractice
of
artinvolves
I
Theinscription,"JohannesdeEyckfuithic,
1434,"
SirCharlesEastlakenotes,can
be
translated,
"this
manwashere";possibly
"the
portraitsare
of
vanEyckandhiswife.
"2
Butsincethiscoupledoesnotresembleotherimages
of
them,it
is
bestthatthis"question
be
submitted
to
thosewhohavegivenmuchattentiontothehistory
of
JohnVanEyck."3CroweandCavalcaselle(1872)praise
thesense
of
depthandatmosphere;[vanEyck]nowhereblendedcoloursmorecarefully,nowhereproducedmoretransparentshadows
....
Ontheotherhand.thedrapenesareangularmplaces
4
In
1902
AbyWarburgbrieflydiscussestheinscription:
JanvanEyck
e
state
qUI
mquestastanza;comese
II
pittorevolessedIre'
"Vl
hontrattlmeghochepotevopercheml
fu
consentitodlessereteslJmoneocularedellavostraintimltadomeslIca.
"5
Brockwelldescribeselementswhicharelaterre-interpreted
(1912):
thesix-armedchandelierwithonecandleburning;thearmchairwiththedepiction
of
St.Margaret;thereflections
of
twopersons,one"apparently"vanEyck,
in
the
DAVID
CARRIER
i.<
associateprofessor
of
philosophyatCarnegie-MellonUniversity.
mirror.
6
A
1921
bookspeculatesaboutthecouple.
"As
forArnolfini
...
TheLorddeliverusfrombeingcaught
as
debtors
to
thelikeofhim."Thewife
of
anothermandepicted
by
vanEyck
WIll
probably
be
ahappierwomanthan
Amolfini',
.EachpIcturetellsitsstory
so
plainlythatanycompetentnovelIstcouldsetalltheseindividualstalkmgfor
us
Withouttheleastdifficulty.
7
Huizinga's
TheWaning
of
theMiddleAges
evokessuchanovella:
"Jan
vanEyckwas
here."
Onlyamomentago,onemIghtthink.Thesound
of
hIS
vOIce
stiliseems
to
linger
in
theSilence
of
thIS
room.Thatserenetwilighthour
of
anage
..
suddenlyrevealsItselfhere.
R
Onthewhole,thesecomments,thoughmoredetailed,donotdiffergreatlyfromthose
of
a
Quattrocento
commentatoronFlemishnaturalism.BartholomaeusFaciuspraisesonepictureforlacking
"only
avoice,"andsays
of
anothervanEyck:"Nothing
is
morewonderful
...
thanthemirrorpainted
in
thepicture,
in
whichyouseewhatever
is
represented
asin
arealmirror."9Theonetextwhichperhapsanticipatesmodemaccounts
of
Flemishallegory
is
Hegel's.Withoutanalyzingindividualpicturesatanylength,
he
doessuggestthatFlemishpainting
is
notjustanart
of
naturalism:
manyartIStshaveproceededtomtroducesymbolIcalfeatures
..
Forexample.
we
oftensee
COOst
lying.
.underadilapidatedroof,
...
and.roundabout,theruins
of
anancIentbuilding,while
in
thebackground
is
thebegmning
of
acathedral.
10
AndFriedlaendereffectivelysummarizesboththetraditionalpraiseforvanEyck'snaturalismandanticipatesthemodemconcernwithallegory.
Van
Eyck"offers
us
akind
of
snapshot,
©
1987TheJournal
of
AesthetIcsand
Art
Criticism
 
238glvmgacertain
event-the
betrothal-in
acertainplaceatacertain
hour;"
thus
"the
mosttriflingthingsaredepictedwithgraveandinward-lookingscruple,investingthemwiththevalueandmeaning
of
ritualobjects.
"II
Withinthistradition,Panofsky'sjustlyfamous1934articlemarksaseachangeininterpretativestyle;mostlateraccountsaccepthisgeneralviewpoint,whilstusuallyarguingwithhimaboutsomepoints
of
detail.Sincethepainting,hedemonstrates,isa"pictorialmarriagecertificate,"
thequestionanseswhether
thiS
marvellousmterior
..
IS
sullrootedmsomeextentmthemedievaltendency
of
mvesting
vISIble
objectswIth
an
allegoncalorsymbolicmeamng
12
Thedogis
"here
indubitablyusedasasymbol
of
maritalfaith;"theburningcandlesymbolizes
"the
allseeingwisdom
ofGod";
the
"fruit
onthewindowsill"reminds
of
ourinnocencebeforetheFall;thediscardedshoesatthelowerleft,referringto
God's
commandtoMosesonMt.Sinai,showthatthesettingissacred.
13
Oncegiven,suchanallegoricalinterpretationisreadilysupplemented.Themirrorhasbeenvariouslyinterpreted.
"On
peutajouterqueJeanvanEyckasuperposeici
au
sacrementdumarriagel'ideedelaredemption
...
Ie
petitmiroirconvexe,symbole
du
mondeterrestre."
14
Alternatively,themirror
is
"a
symboloftheVirgin,andatthesametime,throughthereflectionappearing
in
it,amodelofpainting
as
apetfectimageofthevisibleworld."
15
It
maybe
an
additionalwitness
to
themarriage,orperhaps
van
Eyck's"intention
was
...
to
introduceinto
the
worldofGodapaintedworldwhichwouldbe
an
infinitesimalreflection
of
itsproportions."
16
Butamoremundaneview
of
themirror
is
alsoconceivable:
Theconvexdimlmshingmirror
IS
there
In
orderthatthewhole
of
theroommaybeseen
....
Convexmirrorsarealwaysround,forwhichreasontheroundnessin
thiS
case
IS
not
to
beinterpretedasasymbol
of
theworld
17
Onedetail
in
Panofsky'sinterpretationhasoccasioneddebate:
vanEycktooktheliberty
of
joiningtherighthandofthe
bnde
withtheleft
of
thebndegroom.contrary
to
ntualandcontrary.also.toalltheotherrepresentations
of
amarnageceremony.
18
CARRIER
Sinceingeneraldeviationsfrompetfectorplausiblenaturalismarereadascarryingsymbolicmeanings.isthisconsistent?Panofskyarguesthatthishandposition
"is
ananomalyoftenfoundinEnglish
art
withwhichJanvanEyckwasdemonstrablyfamiliar,"referringtoanarticlewhichnotesthatsuchhandpositionings,rareontheContinent,werecommoninEnglishart;possiblytheartistsawthoseworkswhensenttoEnglandonasecretmission.
19
ButSchrabakerratherseesanimage
of
"a
morganatic.
'"
i.e.,
left-handedmar
riage"
inwhich
"while
thebrideasusualoffersherrighthand.thegroomnowtakesitinhisleft;"andthisisanon-trivialpointsince,
if
correct.it
"forces
us
'to
abandontheidentification
of
thesittersthathasprevailed.'
"20
HelddefendsPanofsky.Schrabackerfailstoconsidertheimportance
of
thegroom'sraisedrighthand,whichseems"expressive
of
thesacredcommitment
of
thematrimonial
vow";
theusualjoining
of
righthandshasbeenmodifiedtoemphasize'thegesture.SincemorganaticmarriageswerenotknownintheNetherlands,thissymbolicreading
of
thegestureismoreplausiblethanSchrabacker'sliteralaccount.
21
AndSchrabacker'sownillustration
of
acoupleholdingrighthandsillustratesthisclaim:inthatimage,the
man's
gesturinglefthandislessaestheticallyconvincingthanisArnolfini'sgesture.ButRosenau,whosetextwasonemajorsourceforPanofsky,arguesthat
thenghthand
of
Amolfini
IS
raisednotsomuchmagesture
of
prayer.asPanofskythmks,but
of
speakmg._..Theintimacy
of
theceremony
IS
thusenhanced_
..
It
IS
theanticipatIOn
of
actIOn.ratherthantheaction,whichcommandsattenuon.
22
AsHarbisonnotes,Schrabacker'sinterpretation
"is
basedonaliteral(realistic)reading"whilePanofskyseesthegesture
"as
attributedtoartistic[symbolic]license.
"23
Therelationherebetweenrealismandsymbolismbecomescomplex.Friedlaenderearlierdescribedthehandswithoutraisingthesequestions:
Amolfim
is
reachmgout
to
her
WIth
hishand.agamstwhichsheshylyandreluctantlylaysherown.
HIS
otherhand
IS
raisedman
"eloquent"
gesture.
..
themaster'smstinctforuncovenngthehidden
IS
wiselytempered.
24
 
NaturalismandAllegory
OnlyoncePanofskymadetheopposition
be-
tweenrealismandsymbolismsoimportantwastherereasontoexaminesocloselythisdetail
in
apaintingwhichhadlongbeenwellknownandonpublicdisplay.Thequestionsraisedbythisexamplecanbegeneralized.Allegoricalinterpretationsmakepaintingsseemmoredeeplymeaningfulthandoearliernaturalisticdescriptions;still,sincenotextcontemporarywiththeworkssupportsthoseinterpretations,whyhavetheyonlybeendiscoveredsorecently?Supposeavisuallysensitive,historicallynaivestudentnotesthatconverginglinescan
be
drawnonphotographs
of
many
quattrocento
frescos;her
argument
thesepaintersknew
perspective-is
sowellsupportedbycontemporarytextsthatweneednotseektheprecisesource
of
anygivenartist'sknowledge
of
thatsystem
of
representation.Bycontrast,theclaimthatvanEyckpaintedallegoriesmayseemmoreproblematic.Perhapshisintentionsweresoobviousthatwhenverbalcommentariesonartwereterse,therewasnofeltneedtoidentifythoseallegories;alternatively,
since-as
Gombrichreminds
us-what
weseeinpicturesisalwaysdependentuponourpriorbeliefs,maybeourallegoricalinterpretationsprojectmodemconcernsintohiswork.Gombrichhasaskedwhethertherearesuchlevels
of
meaninginRenaissanceart.
"I
know
of
nomedievalorRenaissancetextwhichappliesthisdoctrinetoworks
of
pictorialart.
,'25
Thissimple-seemingclaimistricky.Theinscription
within
the
ArnolfiniMarriage
andwords
on
theoriginalframes
of
otherpaintingsmayshowthattheseworkscontainlevels
of
meaning.WhatGombrichmeans,Ibelieve,isthatthoughSt.BernardcompareslightpassingthroughawindowtotheVirgin'simmaculateconception
of
Christ,notext
of
van
Eyck's
timesaysthatflemishpaintersmadeimages
of
suchascene.Still,thereissomecontemporaryevidence.Theoriginalframe,nowstolen,
of
avanEyckAnnunciationcontainedthewords:
As
thesunbeamthroughtheglassPassethbutnotstainethThus,theVirgm,asshewas,Virginstillremaineth.
26
Even
if
vanEyckdidnotmaketheframe,it239wouldberemarkabledid
he
notapplythosewordstohisimage.Moregenerally,Gombrichallowsthat"religiouspicturesdoembodythingsas
symbols";
then
"the
symbolfunctions
as
ametaphorwhichonlyacquiresitsspecificmeaning
in
agivencontext.Thepicturehasnotseveralmeaningsbut
one."
Thissurelybegsthequestion,forwhatjustifiesspeaking
of
literal
and
symbolicmeanings
in
the
ArnolfiniMarriage
isthatthedepicteddogsymbolizesfidelityandthefruit,innocence.AfterquotingwhatIwouldcallanallegoricalaccount
of
Leonardo's
St.Anne.
"St.
Annestand(s)fortheChurchthatdoesnotwanttohavethepassion
of
Christprevented,"Gombricharguesthat
we
havenotwomeaningsherebecausesuchagrouping
"had
neverbeenconceivedasarealisticrepresentation.
"27
ButhowthencanwedistinguishrealisticandallegoricalChristianscenes?ElsewhereGombrichhimselftakesthe
Mourning
of
Christ
asaparadigm
of
arealisticscene:
"We
seemtowitnesstherealeventas
if
enactedonastage.
"28
Gombrichaskshowanallegoricalreadingcanbejustified.
To
answerthatquestion,consideranotherfamousexample,MeyerSchapiro'sexceedinglyskillfullymotivatedaccount
of
the
MerodeAltarpiece
(Fig.2).Thedevil,asAugustineputit,
is
trapped
by
thecross;heremicearecaught
in
thetrapmadebyJoseph.The
"tiny
naked
...
childbearingacross"inthecentralpanelemphasizesthathere
"metaphor
andrealityarecondensedinasingleobject."AndthelatemedievalfantasythatJosephhelpsdeceivethedevil,preventinghimfromrecognizingChrist'sdivinepaternity,fitsnicelyintothisanalysis;Josephtrapsmiceandthedeviltoo.Thisreligioussymbolismoverlapswiththesexualsymbolism
of
themousetraps,candles,lilies,windows,andfireplace.
"They
aredrawntogether
in
ourmindsassymbols
of
themasculineandfeminine."GivenChristianlegendsaboutlascivious,destructivemice,seeing
"the
mousetrap
of
Josephasaninstrument
of
alatentsexualmeaning...isthereforehardlyarbitrary."Thattrap,
"a
female
object,"
isalso
"the
means
of
destroyingsexualtemptation.
"29
ThisallegoricalinterpretationdiffersinimportantwaysfromPanofsky'saccount
of
the
ArnolfiniMarriage.
Sincetheinscriptioninthatpaintingisdiscussedbyearlierinterpreters,

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