In the first of these two articles demonstrating how to identify and read multiplex narrative, where the artist has incorporated more than one scene from the story into a single integrated image, I stepped through some simple examples. They can be more difficult in other paintings.
Clothing usually gives clear clues that one or more of the actors is included twice. What if the figures are nude, though?
Piero di Cosimo’s Misfortunes of Silenus (c 1500), shows a nude Silenus three times: falling off the back of his ass, and in both the left and right foreground. Although he’s reasonably distinctive in appearance, Piero wasn’t going out of his way to help the viewer.
This gets even harder when the actor is shown at different ages too, as in Aksel Waldemar Johannessen’s late masterwork Without Peace, started in 1921, telling his life story. He appears at its centre, cradling the body of his dead wife on his thighs. Above are three separate self-portraits of him undergoing earlier crises, and other figures from his past crowd much of the rest of this large canvas.
Multiplex narrative can also create flashbacks and flash-forwards, as used by JMW Turner as late as 1828, in his Vision of Medea.
This is the first in a series of more modern attempts to tell the story of Medea, and perhaps Turner’s only use of multiplex narrative. In the middle of the canvas, Medea is stood in the midst of an incantation to force Jason’s return from Glauce. In the foreground are the materials which she is using to cast her spell: flowers, snakes, and other supplies of a sorceress. Seated by her are the Fates. In the upper right, Medea is shown again in a flash-forward to her fleeing Corinth in a chariot drawn by dragons, the bodies of her children thrown down after their deaths.
Jacopo Tintoretto makes use of space and a development of multiplex narrative in his huge Crucifixion of 1565, for the Albergo in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Naturally, the painting centres on Christ crucified, but the two thieves executed beside him are not shown, as would be traditional, already hanging from their crosses.
Instead, to the right of Christ, the ‘bad’ thief is still being attached to his cross, which rests on the ground. To the left of Christ, the ‘good’ thief is just being raised to the upright position. There is nothing in the gospel accounts which actually makes this view anachronistic, but it is most probable that the crucifixions were more simultaneous. Tintoretto’s rearrangement avoids the archaic repetition of figures or other content, as he applies it to discrete passages within the whole.
In about 1470 Hans Memling created a unique view of the Passion in Scenes from the Passion of Christ. This features no less than twenty-three scenes, starting with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and ending with four showing the Resurrection. These are all integrated into a single fictional aerial view of Jerusalem, in what was possibly the first use of this startling technique.
This painting was commissioned by an Italian banker based in Bruges, Tommaso Portinari, who as the donor earned himself a place at the lower left corner, with his wife Maria Baroncelli at the lower right. Spread across the rest of this relatively small oak panel are scenes requiring the words of six chapters of the Gospel of Saint Luke, each fully integrated into a single visual narrative. I have marked them up in sequence in the image below.
The narrative path taken through the city starts at the upper left and, with few exceptions, winds its way without crossing its own path and confusing the viewer. Its only real navigational complexity arises between the ninth and thirteenth scenes. Otherwise it sweeps down to the foreground procession to Calvary at the top, and concludes at the upper right.
By about 1600, multiplex narrative had largely died out in paintings. It still makes the occasional comeback, though, as shown in my last two examples.
Camille Corot’s Diana and Actaeon from 1836 is a modern account of the well-known myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Actaeon accidentally stumbles across the goddess bathing naked, so is punished by being turned into a stag and slaughtered by his own hunting dogs.
A couple of centuries after multiplex narrative had fallen into disfavour, Corot uses it to excellent effect. At the right, Actaeon with one of his hunting dogs is just about to run straight into the goddess and her acolytes. Diana, appropriately crowned, stands pointing to the distant figure at the left, which is again Actaeon, antlers growing from his head as he is transformed into a stag.
Over a century later, multiplex narrative was used again, here by the American artist Thomas Hart Benton.
At the centre of Benton’s Achelous and Hercules from 1947 is Hercules, stripped to the waist and wearing denim jeans, who is about to grasp the horns of Achelous, shown in the form of a bull. Immediately to the right, Deianira is shown in contemporary American form, with a young woman next to her bearing a laurel crown and seated on the Horn of Plenty.
To the left of centre, Benton shows a second figure of Hercules holding a rope, part of a passage referring to ranching and cowboys, and further to the left to the grain harvest. To the right, the Horn of Plenty links into the cultivation of maize (corn), the other major crop from the area.