The story of painted narrative 1

Gaudenzio Ferrari (1475–1546), Stories of The Life and Passion of Christ (1513), fresco, dimensions not known, Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Varallo Sesia (VC), Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The consensus claims that narrative painting died during the nineteenth century, and some even deny that it’s possible to tell a story in a single painting. If you’ve read more than a few of my articles about art here, I’m sure that you’ll have realised that I disagree completely: narrative painting has been the mainstay of Western art for much of its history, and is still thriving today.

This weekend I’m going to try to explain how it’s possible to tell a whole story in paintings, and tomorrow show some examples of more modern paintings which use the most popular method from the Renaissance to do just that.

The problem for narrative painting is that, in most cases, images show a single moment in time, but stories by definition describe a minimum of two moments. In a novel, that’s straightforward, because just a few words can tell a whole tale: a person fell over and bumped their head. That may be trivial, but extend those eight words into eight hundred pages, and you can tell multiple interwoven narratives covering a millenium or more.

Painters don’t have that luxury, so have developed a range of techniques which enable their images to extend over time. The limited literature on narrative painting uses several different, complex, and ill-named terms to cover this. In my simplified terminology, I use just six words:

  • narrative, in which a story is depicted, containing reference to, or depictions of, more than one instant in the story;
  • instantaneous, in which the image is intended to show what was happening at a single moment in time, although it contains references to other moments in time;
  • multi-image, in which a series of physically separate images (e.g. paintings) is used to tell the story;
  • multiplex, in which a single integral image contains representations of two or more moments in time from a story;
  • multi-frame, in which two or more picture frames are used to tell a story, most commonly in comics or manga;
  • polymythic, which is a single image containing two or more stories.

These can be used in a simple flowchart to determine the correct category (or categories) for any painting.


The best way to explain this is with some classical examples of each, starting with one of the most famous of all narrative paintings.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Rinaldo and Armida (c 1630), oil on canvas, 82.2 x 109.2 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

Nicolas Poussin’s Rinaldo and Armida from about 1630 draws its narrative from one of his favourite literary works, a then-popular epic poem by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) titled Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), and published in 1581. I have written a series of fourteen articles showing paintings and telling its story, which start here. This particular episode is detailed here.

The sleeping knight is Rinaldo, the greatest of the Christian knights engaged in Tasso’s romanticised and largely fictional account of the First Crusade, who has stopped to rest near the ‘ford of the Orontes’. On hearing a woman singing, he goes to the river, where he catches sight of Armida swimming naked.

Armida, though, had an evil aim. She had been secretly following Rinaldo, intending to murder him with her dagger. As the ‘Saracen’ witch who is trying to destroy the crusaders’ campaign, she had singled out its greatest knight for this fate. Having revealed herself to him, she sings and lulls him into an enchanted sleep so that she can thrust her dagger home.

Just as she is about to do this, she falls in love with him instead – and this is the instant, the twist or peripeteia (to use Aristotle’s term), shown here. A winged amorino, lacking the bow and arrows of a true Cupid, restrains her right arm bearing her weapon. Her facial expression and left hand reveal her new intent, which is to enchant and abduct him in her chariot, so that he can become infatuated with her, and forget the Crusade altogether.

This is a single moment in time, in which Poussin has ingeniously incorporated references to the past and future. Provided that you’re familiar with Tasso’s story, it’s a superb example of instantaneous narrative, which has been practised throughout the history of painting across all continents and cultures.

In the late nineteenth century, instanteous narrative was commonly used without literary references to tell part of a story which the viewer was invited to complete: the problem picture. Like Poussin’s painting, these too contain visual clues to other moments in time.

Broken Vows 1856 by Philip Hermogenes Calderon 1833-1898
Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898), Broken Vows (1856), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 67.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1947), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s Broken Vows (1856) proved a great success when exhibited at the Royal Academy, and is one of the earliest of these ‘problem pictures’, a sub-genre which remained popular in Europe and North America for over fifty years.

A beautiful young woman, displaying her wedding ring, stands with her eyes closed, clutching a symbolic ‘heart’ area on her chest to indicate that her love life is in trouble. On the ground near the hem of her dress is a discarded necklace or ‘charm’ bracelet. The ivy-covered wall behind her would normally indicate lasting love, which was her aspiration.

A set of initials are carved on the fence, and on the other side a young man holds a small red flower in front of his forehead, which a young woman is trying to grasp with her right hand. The wooden fence appears tatty, and has holes in it indicating its more transient nature, and affording glimpses of the couple behind.

Calderon has deliberately introduced considerable ambiguity. The eyes of the shorter person behind the fence are carefully occluded, leaving their gender open to speculation. Most viewers are likely to conclude that the taller figure behind the fence is the unfaithful husband of the woman in front, but that requires making assumptions which aren’t supported by visual clues. Whose vows are being broken? Calderon leaves us to speculate in this instantaneous narrative.

I have written a series of articles tracing the history of these problem pictures, which starts here.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931), Aino Myth, Triptych (1891), oil on canvas, overall 200 x 413 cm, middle panel 154 x 154 cm, outer panels 154 x 77 cm, Ateneum, Helsinki. Wikimedia Commons.

Traditionally, paintings have often been assembled into diptychs, triptychs, or polyptychs so that the viewer can read a story across them. Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s triptych showing the Aino Myth (1891) contains three separate images which tell one of the stories from the Kalevala myths. It is therefore multi-image narrative, within which each image is itself conventional instantaneous narrative. This too relies on its literary references: you can read my short summary with additional paintings, starting here.

For some modern viewers, the strangest of these visual narrative techniques is multiplex narrative, in which key figures within a story appear more than once in the same image. This was perfectly acceptable during the Renaissance, and was so widely used that most authorities who wrote about painting didn’t even remark on it. Since then, viewers seem to have developed more rigorous expectations, possibly reinforced by photographs, and it is generally claimed now that multiplex narrative is somehow unacceptable or confusing. It isn’t in the slightest once you’ve understood what’s going on.

Masaccio (1401–1428), The Tribute Money (1425-8), fresco, 247 x 597 cm, Brancacci Chapel, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Masaccio’s fresco in the Brancacci Chapel of The Tribute Money (1425-8) contains three images of Saint Peter, and two of the tax gatherer, which are carefully set and projected into the same single view. Although each is spaced apart from the next, no pictorial device is used to separate them into frames. This is multiplex narrative.

His literary reference is to the Gospel of Matthew, in a story in which Christ directs Peter to find a coin in the mouth of a fish so that he can pay the temple tax. In the centre, the tax collector asks Christ for the temple tax. At the far left, as indicated by Christ and Peter’s arms, Peter (shown a second time) takes the coin out of the mouth of a fish. At the right, Peter (a third time) pays the tax collector (shown a second time) his due.

Masaccio demonstrates how important space and layout are in successful multiplex narrative. This is taken to extreme in my next example, a brilliant painting which has many modern parallels in children’s books. Perhaps what seems so alien to modern adult eyes isn’t so difficult when we’re young and receptive.

Hans Memling (c 1433–1494), Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1470-1), oil on oak panel, 56.7 x 92.2 cm, Sabauda Gallery, Turin, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

In Hans Memling’s Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1470-1) 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. Because these scenes aren’t placed in separate frames, they form multiplex narrative, with the same subject, Christ, appearing in each one.

The Renaissance mind coped happily not just with multiplex narrative, but with other visual storytelling devices.

Gaudenzio Ferrari (1475–1546), Stories of The Life and Passion of Christ (1513), fresco, dimensions not known, Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Varallo Sesia (VC), Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Gaudenzio Ferrari’s Stories of The Life and Passion of Christ (1513) arranges twenty frames covering the life of Christ around a central frame with four times the area of the others, showing the crucifixion. The frames are naturally (for the European) read from left to right, along the rows from top to bottom, although the crucifixion is part of the bottom row. This is a layout which is commonly used throughout graphic novels too, of course, and is a superb example of multi-frame narrative more than three centuries before Rodolphe Töpffer started experimenting with comic form.

Although modern accounts of narrative in paintings usually claim that instanteous narrative dominated after the Renaissance, this too is so simplistic as to be misleading. Some of Europe’s greatest painters were far more adventurous and richer in their visual storytelling.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, The Fable of Arachne) (c 1657), oil on canvas, 220 x 289 cm, Prado Museum, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Diego Velázquez’s Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) may contain three separate stories: one in the foreground, a second in the background, and a third in the painting of The Rape of Europa shown in the far background. This would make it polymythic narrative at the very least. Full account of this painting is beyond the scope of this article, and is given here.

Hieronymus Bosch had earlier mixed narrative devices on the reverse of his painting of Saint John on Patmos from about 1490-95.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), Passion Scenes (detail) (c 1490-95) (CR no. 6B), oil on oak panel, 63 × 43.2 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Berlin. Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

In this singular painting Bosch brings together multi-frame and multiplex narrative modes, arranged around a circular area, in this way. The modes and layout enhance the telling of the story in a way that I have not seen in any other painting.

Finally, there are plenty of paintings which appear to be narrative when you try to read them carefully, but which currently defy any categorisation. This most often occurs when they make contemporary references which are now lost or obscure. William Dyce’s Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting from 1860 may appear to be non-narrative at first sight.

William Dyce (1806–1864), Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting (1860), oil on board, 36 x 58 cm, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Wales. Wikimedia Commons.

In the autumn of 1860, Dyce stayed in the Conwy Valley for six weeks, where he sketched and painted avidly. After his return to London, he painted this in oils, showing the rough and rugged scenery above the valley, a rock outcrop filling much of the left half of the painting. In its centre is an old woman, and to the right a young one, each dressed in traditional clothes, and knitting. A sliver of a crescent moon is visible low in the sky.

The younger woman wears a formal ensemble which had recently been revived and designated the ‘Welsh national costume’, as might be worn for Eisteddfods and other special occasions. They are both knitting stockings from scavenged scraps of wool, an activity which might have been common earlier in the century and performed indoors at home. It had largely disappeared by 1860, and is a conspicuously incongruous activity for such an outdoor location. Given Dyce’s record as a narrative painter, this looks as if it’s intended to tell a story. But what?

Having established the rich range of narrative techniques available to visual artists, tomorrow I focus on recent examples of multiplex narrative in the paintings of JMW Turner, Ford Madox Brown, Edvard Munch and others, including one fine painting from 1947.