Reading visual art: 1 Introduction

I’m surrounded by books about painting and visual art, containing a vast number of words written by eminent scholars such as E H Gombrich and Michael Baxandall. Yet when it comes to reading paintings and other images, comprehending them the way we might with literature, I’m less well-equipped than the average painter of the seventeenth century.

Visual artists of the past spent years as apprentices, during which they learned the meaning of the images they helped create. Many still spend time copying the works of masters, assembling them into their own mental library. After its publication in 1593, a copy of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, the first popular printed iconological dictionary, was to be found in many artists’ studios. We have its more modern successor, in the vast Warburg Institute Iconographic Database.

Modern Internet culture has memes, some of which are part of a novel and often transient iconography. Tragically, few appear to link with the rich visual culture of the past, from any continent or prior culture, and most will vanish into obscurity when they fall out of fashion. Much of our previous iconography has been part of a rich visual culture, with roots stretching back centuries or, in the case of some images, millennia. In this series I’m going to draw on those and trace the development of images through European history, and in some cases Indo-European precedent. My aim is to cast a little light on cultural riches which are fading fast, and so to help read visual art. Here are some examples to get us started.

Ship of fools

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Ship of Fools (fragment of left wing of The Wayfarer triptych) (1500-10), oil on oak panel, 58.1 x 32.8 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In this fascinating fragment of Hieronymus Bosch’s lost Wayfarer triptych, his Ship of Fools is actually a small boat, into which six men and two women are packed tight. Its mast is unrealistically high, bears no sail, and has a large branch lashed to the top of it, in which is an owl. The occupants are engaged in drinking, eating what appear to be cherries from a small rectangular tabletop, and singing to the accompaniment of a lute being played by one of the women.

One man at the bow is vomiting overboard, near a large fish which is strung from the branch of a small tree. Another of the passengers holds a large spoon-like paddle, which would be of little or no use either for propulsion or steering.

There are four additional characters (all men): two are swimming by the side of the boat, one, dressed as a fool, is perched high up forward in among the rigging, and the fourth has climbed a tree on the bank to try to cut down the carcass of a chicken from high up the mast. The vessel flies a long red pendant from high on its mast, with a gold crescent moon on it. The distance shows relatively flat countryside.

At the time that Bosch painted this, the Ship of Fools was a hot topic. In 1494, Sebastian Brant (1458–1521) developed Plato’s old allegory of a flawed democracy into a complete book detailing many human mistakes and shortcomings. Its title is Das Narrenschiff, the Ship of Fools, and it was illustrated with a series of woodcuts made by an unknown artist.

Ever since then, the occasional visual reference to this ancient allegory reappears. Come to think of it, it seems quite appropriate at present too.

Death and the maiden

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Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Death and Life (Death and the Maiden) (1893-94), oil on canvas, 128 x 86 cm, Munchmuseet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

Edvard Munch’s Death and the Maiden, Death and Life or The Loving Woman, from 1893-94, shows the souring of love, as a naked and wanton woman kisses a skeleton of a man. Framing them in repoussoir are long-tailed sperm cells, at the left, and two foetuses, at the right.

This is one of Munch’s most complex images, and invokes the cycle of life, from gametes through intra-uterine development, to love, then death. The artist here symbolically links Eros, procreation, and Thanatos, death, and is by no means the first.

In European art, personifications of Death have generally been derived from those of Time: a man bearing a scythe and sometimes an hourglass or sandglass (a timer consisting of grains of sand inside two glass bulbs joined by a narrow neck, resembling the figure of 8). From this evolved the Grim Reaper, often depicted as a skeleton or rotting corpse wearing long monastic robes with a deep hood, and holding his scythe.

Among the first well-known painters to show the everyday tragedy of early death coming to a young woman is Hans Baldung, a contemporary of Hieronymus Bosch. He made several paintings of this scene of Death and the Maiden.

Truth Coming out of Her Well

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Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Truth Coming out of her Well to Shame Mankind (1896), oil on canvas, 91 x 72 cm, Musée Anne-de-Beaujeu, Moulins, France. Wikimedia Commons.

By far the best-known painting of this proverbial allegory is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Truth Coming out of her Well to Shame Mankind from 1896. It’s commonly held that this was a pointed comment about the Dreyfus Affair, which was searing a hole in French politics and society at the time.

Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason in December 1894, for passing French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, and was imprisoned in the notorious Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guiana, from which few ever returned. After a further investigation in 1896, which revealed another Army officer as the culprit, new evidence was suppressed, leading to the acquittal of that officer, and clumsy attempts were made to charge Dreyfus with additional crimes.

France divided in its support for Dreyfus, and the famous novelist Émile Zola published his notorious article J’accuse! in 1898, which resulted in the author effectively being banished to Britain for a year.

Gérôme’s painting refers to a quotation attributed to Democritus, “Of a truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well” (or, more literally, ‘in an abyss’). But for the first time in visual history, his personification of Truth isn’t carrying a mirror, but a whip with which ‘to chastise mankind’. There are also serious problems in trying to associate this painting with the Dreyfus affair.

This is actually Gérôme’s second treatment of this theme, the original dating from the previous year, before the suppression of new evidence which should have acquitted Dreyfus, and long before Zola’s J’accuse! of 1898. The title he had given that earlier work was Mendacibus et histrionibus occisa in puteo jacet alma Veritas, which translates as ‘The nurturer Truth lies in a well, having been killed by liars and actors’, one of the original proverbial sources associating Truth with a well.

Gérôme used the same allusion in his preface to Émile Bayard’s posthumous collection of collotype plates of photographs of nudes, Le Nu esthétique. L’Homme, la Femme, L’Enfant. Album de documents artistiques inédits d’après Nature, published in 1902:
Photography is an art. It forces artists to discard their old routine and forget their old formulas. It has opened our eyes and forced us to see that which previously we have not seen; a great and inexpressible service for Art. It is thanks to photography that Truth has finally come out of her well. She will never go back.

Truth Coming out of her Well was Gérôme’s favourite painting in later life, and when he died in his studio in 1904, it was within his reach.

Why do angels have wings?

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Marianne Stokes (1855–1927), Death and the Maiden (1908), oil on canvas, 95 x 135 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Late depictions of angels such as Marianne Stokes’ Death and the Maiden from 1908, those evocative words again, were only too familiar to many Christian families across Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet the few depictions of angels in the Christian tradition to around 390 CE omitted wings. Then, between about 390 and 400, they suddenly acquired wings, and by 600 CE wings were universal and mandatory on Christian angels.

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Unknown, ‘The Burney Relief’ (Old Babylonian, c 1800 BCE), clay, 49.5 x 37 x 4.8 cm, The British Museum, London. By Aiwok, via Wikimedia Commons.

Winged gods date back long before the early Mediterranean civilisations. The famous Burney Relief shows the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and has been confidently dated to Old Babylonian times, around 1800 BCE.

If you know your Greek deities, you may also recall that the goddess of victory, Nike, and the gods Eros (love and life) and Thanatos (death) were usually shown as human figures with angelic wings. It would seem an easy step to propose that the early Christians simply borrowed this ‘pagan’ symbolism when they developed the first depictions of Christian angels around 400 CE.

I hope you’ll join me in unravelling these and other visual traditions before they’re buried under a pile of memes and forgotten.