Sin, Redemption and Temptation: Northern European art in the 16th century, pt. 1

1. The Garden of Earthly Delights: an allegory of sin and redemption

Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights, 1505-10, oil on wood (open)

exterior, closed position

As we previously saw with van Eyck's painting of the Arnolfinis, some paintings have inspired many interpretations. The Garden of Earthly Delights is one of those. The interpretations range from utopian/social commentary to the earlier, but largely discredited, belief that this was a religious painting to an elaborate alchemical interpretation.  It's an interesting interpretation since it takes into account the fact that Bosch's father was a pharmacist (and most pharmacists were alchemists) and it allows for a reading of the painting which sees the religious iconography in it as having a double meaning -- a condition which we have found to be true for other northern European paintings.  Alchemy existed first as a spiritual philosophy, and then evolved into an apothecary science of distillation, used to find cures. In particular, the alchemist wanted to find the elixir of life, a perfectly balanced substance made of the four elements which would change imperfections into perfections.  And although this substance would work on human beings, the goal was cosmic perfection.  Alchemy also preached imitation of the ways of Christ and the goal of recreating Eden on earth, so the Church did not disapprove of alchemy -- and a painting which centralizes the alchemical story can be taken, perhaps, as a mystical version of a religious narrative.

This is the basic alchemical allegory which is identical to the themes and organization of Bosch's Garden:
Stage 1) conjunction--opposites are united, i.e., substances which are wet and cold are joined with those which are hot and dry--the allegory is to Adam and Eve, with Christ in the role of a universal doctor and scientist, joining them together
stage 2)  Adam and Eve multiply--this is the step in which the four elements are unified and form a whole new substance
stage 3) the mixture bubbles, ferments, and then rots: putrification is the theme of this stage which is like death, hell, and world destruction, and the previously joined elements separate
stage 4) But separation results in the washing and cleansing of the ingredients. The religious parallel here is to resurrection and purification of the soul.  Distillation is thus complete, only to begin again, just as nature never finishes a process for ever.

Although some of the images in the painting support the alchemical theory, as does the fact that Bosch was the son of an alchemist, other sources for the images can be found.  And we should also recognize that at the time when Bosch painted this, the theme of utopia was an important theme in literature.  Although Bosch would not have read Thomas More's Utopia (it hadn't been written yet), he might have been imagining a similar story about the search for paradise on earth and the failure of finding it.  With a work as imaginative as this triptych, it's noteworthy that for many artists, the painting could be a visual poem without illustrating a story.  We've already seen that to be the case in the works of the Venetian painters such as Giorgione.  As a 19th-century writer about art once said, the best fantasias are those which combine the completely unreal or fantastic with something which looks so believably ordinary, you think the fantasia is real. And whatever meaning was intended by Bosch, the painting exerted an influence on other artists who were living at the same time.

silver monstrance for an altar, 1514-15
 the monstrance might be the visual model for the "alchemical" structure in the center panel
detail from left panel of the Garden: the giraffe may have been based on the illumination in the The Egyptian Voyage
page from The Egyptian Voyage, Cyriacus d'Ancona, 15th cent.

2. Grünewald, the Isenheim Altarpiece, and the Influence of Context

The impact of the Reformation on northern Europe was different from its impact in Italy, partly because many of the crusading reformists were German and Flemish, and partly because northern European cultures maintained closer ties to medieval forms of Christianity. The work of art in many respects mirrors these differences.  The Renaissance artist, whether northern or Italian, created his or her work of art for a specific patron and a specific audience. Whether the patron was a church or an aristocrat, the patron's role became much more important in the 16th century.  The characteristics of the art work therefore follow from certain assumptions or expectations which the artist has about the viewer of the art work and from certain expectations of the patron.  Although northern European work is often thought to be more emotional in form than Italian, this may not just be a sign of difference between the two regions; it may be a question of who the patron is.
Matthias Grünewald: Isenheim Altarpiece, 1500-1515 (first stage: closed)

The Isenheim monastic complex was a hospital order which specialized in caring for people with diseases like leprosy and the plague. The altarpiece was designed to communicate ideas about a particular disease, approaches to its cure, the relationship of suffering to revelation and transcendence, and the idea of disease as a metaphor for a spiritual test. It is not purely a metaphor, however, and it is not intended only for people who were ill. All men were believed to be sinners who could be rescued if they believed in salvation. Salvation was possible only because of Christ's sacrifice, and the sacrifice is the subject of the closed position of the altarpiece, the central panel.  This means that some of the context for the Isenheim altarpiece is medieval Christianity and its emphasis on imitation of the life of Christ -- imitation which centered on the sufferings of Christ and the belief that by imitating Christ's sufferings, one would come to accept one's own suffering.

St. Sebastian  central panel: Crucifixion St. Anthony, the Hermit

second stage, or the first opened position:

Annunciation (left wing), Choir of Angels (center), and Resurrection (right wing)
central panel (Choir of Angels; Mary and Holy Infant) Lucifer (detail from the Choir of Angels) 

I've included some images from the altarpiece which we did not look at in class because it really is impossible to know the magnitude of this work without seeing the whole thing. In the second stage (the first opened position), the choir of angels contains Lucifer, the fallen angel. He has led humans to rebel, but he expects that he will be deceived. He does not know where his defeat will come from or when, and now, as the angelic choir celebrates a birth, he does not know that this birth will be his downfall. This panel, which contains a female figure who is both Mary and the symbol of the church, and which also contains the holy infant who has already succeeded in tricking Lucifer, is a history of the defeat of the devil and the victory of God.

Second Opening and Shrine

Meeting of Paul and Anthony (left); Shrine (sculptor: Von Hagenau), with St. Anthony in the center; Temptation of St. Anthony (rt)
left wing (Meeting) right wing (Temptation)

The patients in the monastery hospital were required to assemble in the chapel several times daily, and they would have had a view of the altarpiece at these times. In the altar's open state, the viewer confronts the painful reality of his disease, presented in symbolic but very graphic form. But along with the presentation of pain, there is a presentation of the possibility of its alleviation. The patient viewing the altar would make an identification with the pain and suffering depicted in the panel.  The possibility of cure or transcendence is made in three ways: through identification with Anthony as he resists the temptation of the devil; through Anthony, another identification is made with Christ; and finally, through the use of medicinal herbs depicted in the panel on the left, the patient is offered the hope of medicinal cure.

The stages of the altarpiece are united in subtle ways.  The soldier who is blinded by the resurrection in the right panel of the first opened position has almost the same body position as the sickly figure in the second opened position lying below St. Anthony.  And both figures relate to the position of St. Anthony.  Another relationship is created through the color of the skin of the crucified Christ and the skin of Lucifer.  We could identify more of these continuities but their purpose is to create a continual link between illness and cure, between suffering and resistance or salvation.

Overall, and in several different ways, the altarpiece presented pain and suffering, the possibility of medical intervention, some of it less desirable than other aspects, and it presented death connected with suffering but the possibility of redemption as well. And it presented these possibilities as part of a community or communal experience. Just as Raphael's frescoes for the Vatican Palace created a type of theater, this, too, was theater, although a theater with a specific audience in mind and with a remarkably different drama being enacted.  On one level, Grunewald's painting is an almost traditional religious narrative, but when we understand the context and double meaning of the figures in the altarpiece, we enrich our own understanding of it and recognize it as a more subjective vision than that given us in most Italian renaissance paintings. Subjectivity, in this case, is not entirely the personal subjectivity of the artist.  Because Grunewald worked in close connection with the patron (the monks of the Isenheim monastery), subjectivity in this work is the subjectivity of a particular context, with the context being that of a monastery and a disease.

Northern European Art in the 16th Century: Part II

Dürer, Holbein, the Cult of Portraits, and the Rhetoric of Vision

Dürer's Graphic Works

The Four Riders of the Apocalypse, 1497-8; (15" x 11"; woodblock) Fall of Man (Adam and Eve), 1504; engraving 

The Apocalypse engravings (there are others in the series) are striking for their detail, their unconventional treatment, and size, which in this case, was larger than usual. The Four Riders should remind you of the engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil (which we looked at in class). The treatment of the Four Riders is unconventional in the way it groups the four horsemen closely together, creating an almost solid pyramidal mass which fills the large print. The massing creates a sense of stillness and order which might suggest the influence of Leonardo as does Durer's interest in describing ugliness and horror in nature.  Yet there is a distinctly northern European or gothic quality to the imagery -- Durer generally unites the two influences (Italian renaissance and German gothic), making it hard to say which is more important.  It is somewhat easier to distinguish between the two in the Fall of Man.  In this engraving, the bodies of Adam and Eve can be related to Italian copies of classical Greek sculpture, the type of sculpture which influenced Michelangelo's paintings of the human body in his Sistine Chapel frescoes.  The forest, however, along with the animals' symbolization of the four "humors," reflects northern European mystical thinking about the nature of the personality and symbolism.  In both cases (as well as in Durer's other prints), we should always be aware of the fact that Durer advanced the art of printing to a degree that no one else matched before him.  Remember that all differentiations between dark and light in the print is the result of the number of lines, their thickness, and how closely together (or far apart) they are placed.

Dürer's Self-Portraits

Self-Portrait, 1493 Self-Portrait, 1498
Self-Portrait, 1500 

Dürer painted at least 8 self-portraits, and they would likely have been known to his contemporaries.  This fact works against our simply saying that in the 1500 painting, we see Dürer as Christ. What we see is Dürer modeling himself after Christ (or more accurately, after a painting of Christ made by Van Eyck), but in doing so, he reveals that he is never more than a human being. He can costume himself for every painting he makes, but the costume remains just that. So why wear different costumes? To represent oneself in terms of different aspects of one's personality?  And if that's true, then does that mean that in this painting, we see the holy side of Dürer's personality? Or instead, do we see his longing to be a god-like creator and not an ordinary man, combined with his admission of this impossibility?  But I think we can move beyond a psychological statement about the artist to arrive at a statement which Durer may be making about self-portraits: that there is an equivalence between paintings of Christ and paintings of the self-portrait. In other words, where Durer puts himself into the figure of Christ, he may be putting the self-portrait in the position of a painting of Christ and saying that the art of self-portraiture is as legitimate as the art of painting religious icons.

Hans Holbein, the younger

Portrait of Erasmus Writing, 1523/4 Portrait of the Merchant George Giesze, 1532

The portrait of the merchant is a true "occupational portrait" in that we learn more about George Giesze from the objects in the background than from his face or expression.  In contrast, the portrait of Erasmus gives us very little of the objects which would have been in his studio (books and pens, perhaps a globe).  Instead, the detail is in his face and in the intense concentration he gives to his writing.  Although Holbein produces both types of portraits -- the idealized occupational portrait (on the right) and the more naturalistic portrait (Erasmus) -- he moves increasingly toward the naturalistic representation of a person with very minimal information in the background. Although the portrait of Erasmus seems to relate to both types, the one of Charles of Solier (which we looked at in class) is unambiguously the second type (the more naturalistic portrait).

The French Ambassadors, 1533 (oil and tempera on panel; 6'8 x 6'9)

Based on an anamorphic projection, the skull at the base of the painting can only be seen for what it is if the viewer stands to the far right of the painting, a point from which the ambassadors then become distorted into emaciated figures. You can also use a special cylindrical tube with a mirror in it to see the skull. Once we recognize the skull, we have to reassess our response  to the painting.  It is more than simply am occupational portrait of two ambassadors.  What initially appears to be a painting honoring human knowledge is really a vanitas painting about the fate of mankind and the hubris of believing that knowledge might lead to a different destiny.  But the painting does even more than communicate that message – it challenges knowledge on another level as well.  Linear perspective, long in use by the time Holbein made this painting, is based on a single viewing point for the painting.  By implication, this means that every painting has a correct viewing point and likewise, the world can be understood from a single and correct viewing point.  But the Ambassadors, in order to be understood correctly, must be seen from two different viewing points.  The message of this painting, a message which requires the viewer to move if he or she is to get it, is one which says knowledge (of paintings and of the world) depends on movement or mobility.  There is no such thing as a single correct viewing point.  Perhaps that is why Holbein chose two worldly ambassadors as the superficial subjects of the painting.

A Feast for the Eyes: The Visual Rhetoric of Northern European Painting

In northern European art, we find a lot of paintings which use the device of creating a series of views - either through a mirror on the wall, reflecting something which is not directly in the painting, or a window which opens onto a scene outside of the main area in the painting, or, as we'll encounter later in the semester when we get to Vermeer, paintings which have other paintings on the walls of a room.  The viewer is expected to look at all of these scenes and draw certain lessons from them, because the multiple images are a type of rhetorical argument.
Quentin Massys: The Money Lender and His Wife, 1514

In addition to the earlier models for this type of image (models such as altarpieces and illuminated manuscripts), there are social factors which add to the importance of this idea of an image within an image, or a rhetorical approach which may have the goal of hiding or masking the real meaning of the art work:

1) the market and the economy: The early market was kept in the shadow of the church; its hours and days of operation were controlled by the church, thereby tying the market to certain religious observances.  By the 16th century, this was beginning to change and the market was becoming fully capitalistic, no longer subject to church control and ritual.  On one hand, images of the market might be expected to retain religious overtones; on the other hand, the market could be a scene of daily life and a genre subject for painting.  In this case, a painting of the market might actually be sold on the market since artists were now competing on the market rather than painting exclusively or even primarily for patrons.

2) the Reformation and iconoclasm: Iconoclasm was related to more than idolatry, or the belief that the image was thought to be as real as the sacred source of the image. That was certainly fundamental, because the destruction of images not only destroyed the image which was worshipped but also proved that an image was a material thing, and not sacred. The other component of iconoclasm concerned the wealth of the church - the money which went toward the purchase of paintings and sculpture represented the power of the church. Destroying images was a symbolic strike against the power of the church, a power which once controlled the market and now threatened to control the art market.

Pieter Aertsen: The Meat Stall, 1551

The Meat Stall is a commentary on the market and on Christian values and condemnation of greed. It is also a commentary on painting: the goods at the market are displayed as though they are paintings, in vivid strong colors and forms, dominating the space of the painting.  With two vanishing points in the painting, the objects in the stall seem to be released and to come forward from the picture plane -- almost as though they are protruding into the space of the viewer.  The viewer is implicitly invited to remove things from the stall (symbolically, to buy the painting). Because the painting addresses the potential buyer with the sign advertising the farm for sale, there is the additional implication that he can buy the land on which a religious scene is taking place -- he can buy a religious painting. But just as the meat in the painting is an illusion, so is the possibility of owning this "religious painting" within the painting. On another level of meaning, the belief that the icon possesses the powers of the saint is also an illusion.  On a more optimistic note, by placing the scene with the Holy Family in a distant view, Aertsen appears to be telling the viewer that the realm of the sacred still exists, but the viewer must work harder to find it.

Brueghel, like Aertsen, creates an image which requires work on the part of the viewer in order to uncover the meaning. In some of his paintings, the theme of destabilization (whether cosmic or social) is painted into the composition, one which is often characterized by extensive use of detail, sometimes covering almost the entire canvas, and by patterns of activity which radiate from a central spot. The composition is not usually related to a perspective view (even though Brueghel does use it), and in some of his paintings, it is extremely difficult to find the center point.

Brueghel: Children's Games, 1559/60 Brueghel: Hunters in the Snow, 1565

In Children's Games, the compositional focus falls on the children playing in the very center, one boy pulling the arm of another and stretching his body.  What do we derive from this image? A sense of the body and of movement in tension with resistance to movement; a sense of bodies and hands joining together to create a collective organism, but this organism is created through antagonistic movement.  The painting is dominated by oppositions, some of them less kinetic than others, some of them less embodied than others. As a painting which is dominated by oppositions, by movement, by stability and dynamism themselves set in opposition, it becomes a painting about destabilizing forces. And it is a painting which shows this destabilization through the bodies of the people in the painting.  The reproduction we saw in class, in which the colors were more accurate, also demonstrated Breughel's use of a concentric composition.  It is difficult to make out unless the colors can be distinguished because the circles of the composition lie in the movement of color.  It does not appear to be a random placement of colors, though, and speaks to the very strong likelihood of Breughel's familiarity with the recently published findings of Copernicus about the solar system.

These paintings are commentaries about the construction of the social order and changes within it, and about new images of the cosmos.  For the most part, they are commentaries which use images (rather than stories) to convey the message.  Even the "pure" landscape, Hunters in the Snow, is a pictorial commentary on social and natural order.

Prelude to the Baroque: El Greco's "Unified" Vision

El Greco: The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586 El Greco: View of Toledo, 1597

The painting of the Count's burial is divided into two parts: earthly events and celestial events.  The earthly events follow the events described in the text about the Count’s death.  The celestial events are show with greater freedom, and it is the contrast between these two parts which accounts for the interest of the painting and the main axis of its composition.  The division of the painting may reflect more than the division in the subject matter; it may also relate to a change in Spanish taste which was then overtaking the country–a stronger preference for the natural, for an emotional reserve and restraint which might be associated more with the early Renaissance and Masaccio then with the late sixteenth century and Titian.  But there is a unity or harmony which emerges through the differences in the two parts of the painting.  On the bottom, we see a horizontal array of figures, with a vertical heaven dominated by a triumvirate containing the enthroned Christ.  The shadowy night scene with almost no background is topped by a luminous scene which casts light on the dark scene below.  The contrasts are played out in the various types of movement--celestial and earthly, colors and lighting.  The contrasts between top and bottom give a greater fullness to each half than there would be if the painting had centralized only one of the moods in the painting rather than both.

Looking at the landscape and the burial together is instructive. The two paintings suggest that El Greco's view of the religious scene is almost a landscape: stormy, dramatic, and in motion.  In an examination of other paintings by El Greco and this one, we find that El Greco may have had a vision of the world as the unity of the spiritual and the secular which he then translates into paint.  In addition, his unity is a unity of the influence of northern Gothic mysticism, and the early and late Italian renaissance.  The fact that we find both in El Greco is not surprising: Spanish artists before and after El Greco responded to both northern and Italian developments.  Finally, we might note that El Greco's dramatic use of dark and light is very predictive of what we will see in the baroque period, the 17th century.