Telling a story in a single painting isn’t easy. Indeed, some have claimed that it’s impossible. If a painting is a faithful view of a scene at a moment in time, strictly speaking it can only show that single scene.
For any art to be narrative, it needs to tell the viewer of at least two scenes in the story. Several techniques have been used to do that: for example, comics and graphic novels use long sequences of linked images which assemble into stories which are often more elaborate and detailed than purely literary works.
This series of three articles looks at one of the oldest techniques for storytelling in visual art, in which two or more moments from the narrative are shown within a single image. This is conventionally known as continuous narrative, but because that term doesn’t match its properties and often confuses, I prefer to refer to it as multiplex narrative, as two or more scenes are multiplexed into its single image.
Today, multiplex narrative is usually considered to be rare outside Renaissance art, and not a good way to tell a story in a painting. I’d like to show you that it has occurred in all periods and styles of painting, and that although it might look a little strange to the modern eye, it remains a highly effective way of telling a story in a painting. Indeed, once you’re accustomed to multiplex narrative, it’s good art and good reading.
This Roman painting from Boscotrecase, near the coast at Pompeii, dates from soon after 11 BCE, and is a fine example of multiplex narrative at work. It shows two distinct scenes from the myth in which Perseus rescues Andromeda from the jaws of the sea monster Cetus.
Andromeda is shown in the centre, on a small pedestal cut into the rock. Below it and to the left is the gaping mouth of Cetus, as Perseus flies down from the left to rescue Andromeda, kill the sea-monster, and later marry Andromeda in reward, as shown in the upper right.
The first time that you see a painting in which one or more of its actors appears twice (or more), it may seem odd and unreal. That is only because we have become accustomed to the many paintings which depict just a single moment in time. Distinguishing the different scenes which have been integrated into the single image is seldom difficult, and there are usually clear visual clues, such as the presence of the same actor wearing the same dress.
In common with all other visual narrative techniques, stories told in a single image, whether or not it shows multiple scenes, are much easier to read when you are already familiar with that story.
This relief shows the Death of Meleager using multiplex narrative. At the right, Meleager has killed one of the sons of Thestius, and is about to kill the other with his dagger. In the centre, Meleager lies on a couch, in the throes of death, his sisters beside him. At the left, Meleager’s mother Althaea throws a log or brand onto the fire to bring about her son’s death.
One aspect of multiplex narrative which has puzzled some is how to determine the order in which to read individual scenes. In general, there aren’t any rules, nor are they needed. Armed with a recollection of the outline of the story, the viewer proceeds in the same way that you might look through a photo album: oh look, there’s Meleager’s mother throwing a brand onto the fire; she did that to kill her son, when he murdered the sons of Thestius.
For much of the past, many of those reading paintings were largely or completely illiterate, but (like wandering bards and storytellers of all ages) they had an excellent memory for even long epics such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – for which visual cues from multiplex narrative would have been excellent.
Duccio’s The Healing of the Man born Blind, from his Maestà Predella Panels of about 1310, is an excellent example of a narrative painting as art emerged from the Middle Ages. Much of the panel is taken up by the first scene, in which Christ is healing a man we know – from the Gospel story – is blind. Back to back with him being healed as a blind man, he is shown healed and sighted to the right.
Duccio made that panel at a time before modern perspective projection was understood, and his efforts at architectural perspective now look strange. Some have supposed that there is some inherent contradiction between the adoption of modern ‘correct’ projections and multiplex narrative. Nothing could be further from the truth: Masaccio, one of the earliest adopters of modern perspective, through his collaboration with Brunelleschi, the architect who first discovered it, was also an enthusiastic narrator using multiplex technique.
Among several superb examples of both techniques in the same painting, The Tribute Money (1425-8) is perhaps the most famous. One of his marvellous frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, he packs three separate scenes into its non-linear arrangement.
In the centre, a tax collector asks Christ for temple tax. At the far left, as directed by Christ and Peter’s arms, Peter (shown a second time) takes a coin from the mouth of a fish. At the right, Peter (a third time) pays the tax collector (shown a second time) with that coin. And he had not the slightest difficulty in setting these three scenes in single-point perspective with its vanishing point at the head of Christ.
Multiplex narrative was popular in both the Southern and Northern Renaissance. My next example comes from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, Belgium.
Sergius dreamed that an angel told him that Bishop Saint Lambert had been killed. The smaller figures here tell the story of the Pope’s subsequent actions: nearest the viewer, the Pope and two of his cardinals meet a noble and a friar as they leave the building. A cardinal is seen crossing the bridge, near which a woman is doing her washing in the river. In the distance, the Pope presents a bishop’s mitre and staff to Saint Hubert, successor to Saint Lambert, on the steps of Saint Peter’s Cathedral. Beyond that, other figures travel out of Rome along a road.
Some artists used exceptionally long panels so they could paint an array of almost separate scenes across them in ‘landscape’ orientation. The earliest example that I have of that is unfortunately not an image of particularly good quality.
Zanobi Strozzi’s account of the story of Susanna and the Elders from about 1450 consists of four scenes which are only gently integrated into the whole. In the central two scenes, Susanna enters her garden, and gets into the bath there, with the two elders physically grappling with her in their attempted rape. To the left of them are the two heads of the elders when they were earlier spying on Susanna.
The scenes at the left and right tell parts of the later story, but it is not entirely clear which. That on the left appears to be a trial, possibly the second trial of the two elders in which Daniel has intervened. That at the right may show the two elders taken out of town to be executed.
Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Dance of Salome (1461-62) tells the story of Salome’s dance before King Herod, and the presentation to her of the head of John the Baptist. Salome is shown twice in the single frame: once dancing in front of Herod, and again giving Herodias the head of John at the back of the room. The middle event in the chain, the beheading of John, is shown in a side-room at the left.
Here, it is possible to deduce the story without already knowing it. There must be at least two scenes included, as one actor appears twice. This allows the viewer to establish the three scenes, but not the order in which to read them. Knowing that the man at the left is about to be beheaded, and that his head appears on a plate at the back of the view, places those two in order, and it is then not hard to guess that the scene of Salome dancing must have preceded those.
Hans Memling painted two of the most extended and complex multiplex narratives of all: 23 Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1470-71), below, and 25 scenes from the life of Christ in his Advent and Triumph of Christ (1480).
Each of the individual scenes making up the Passion as a whole is located in a different part of a fictionalised aerial view of Jerusalem, with the same subject, Christ, appearing in each one. Even for the modern and non-religious viewer, this is a fascinating painting which many of us could explore for hours.
This superb panel by Jacopo da Sellaio tells much of the tragedy of Orpheus and Euridyce, played across an integrated fantasy landscape. Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus dates from 1475-80, and is one panel of a series, now sadly dispersed across continents.
The start of the story is at the left, where Orpheus is tending a flock of sheep. To the right of that, his bride Euridyce is bitten by a snake very shortly after their wedding. At the far right, Orpheus, with the assistance of Aristaeus, puts the dead body of Eurydice in a rock tomb.
To tell the story given by Herodotus about the corruption of Sisamnes, known as the Judgement of Cambyses, Gerard David made two paintings which are now viewed as a diptych; the second work in the diptych employs multiplex narrative to extend its coverage of this grim tale.
Sisamnes was a notoriously corrupt judge under the rule of King Cambyses II of Persia, and accepted a bribe in return for delivering an unjust verdict.
King Cambyses sentences Sisamnes to be flayed alive, as shown in the foreground. In the upper right, the judge’s skin is then used to cover the official chair, as a reminder to all who sit in judgement of the fate that awaits them should they ever become corrupt or unfair.
The great Hieronymus Bosch was a not infrequent user of multiplex narrative. As his work straddles the divide with the next article, I will hold two examples over to that, and here show two earlier ones, the first the reverse side of an altarpiece, the other on the exterior cover of a triptych.
Bosch’s Passion Scenes (c 1490-95) consists of an outer background which is very dark here, containing various individual figures, surrounding a circular area in which he has painted scenes from the Passion. As the reverse of a panel for an altarpiece, it could only be viewed in one orientation, so the whole of this painting shares the same orientation.
The lower two-thirds of the scenes are carefully divided into frames, five in total, but the upper third merges its three scenes into a single multiplex image, in which Christ appears three times: at the left carrying his cross up to Golgotha, at the top on the cross, and at the right his body being laid in a coffin for burial. This uses a common location for those three scenes in an ingenious composition.
The central image of a pelican feeding its young from its own blood not only sets the moral theme of self-sacrifice, but also solves the problem of how to bring the peripheral scenes together in the centre.
The peculiarity resulting from this otherwise ingenious composition is that the narrative sequence begins at the five o’clock position, in order to accommodate the resurrection scene at the tomb, at the right. Bosch leaves the viewer to work that out, which should have been an easy task in this case, given the familiarity of contemporary viewers with the stories shown.
The exterior of Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi is a brown grisaille showing the Mass of Saint Gregory. Above and behind its altar is the figure of the resurrected Christ, still showing the marks of crucifixion on his side and hands, and wearing his crown of thorns.
Around Christ is a border of angels, and around those an arched area which contains seven scenes of the passion of Christ. These are read from the bottom left (Christ praying in Gethsemane), bottom right (the arrest), through the mid-left and mid-right, to the crucifixion at the top. Outside those narrative scenes are some more unconventional elements, including a winged devil flying off with Judas’s pale body impaled on a long lance.
In my cursory and highly unsystematic survey so far, I have shown you eleven paintings (and one marble panel) in which the multiplex technique has been used to tell a story in a single image. And we’ve only got to 1500.
Lew Andrews (1995) Story and Space in Renaissance Art, the Rebirth of Continuous Narrative, Cambridge UP. ISBN 0 521 47356 X.
The Story in Paintings: Modes of painted narrative
The Story in Paintings: Story circles – narrative form in Bosch’s Passion Scenes
Telling the story: narrative across media, including spoken, written, movies, graphic novels, paintings, photos, and music
The Story in Paintings: So what is a narrative painting?
Every picture tells a story: narrative paintings