Reading visual art: 42 Words in the story

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), Perseus and the Graiae (1875-8), silver and gold leaf, gesso and oil on oak, 170.2 x 153.2 cm, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Wales. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s unusual for paintings to contain words beyond the artist’s signature and any dedication, as considered in yesterday’s article. In terms of popular neuro-psychology, we’d suppose that when reading a painting our brains are in ‘image’ rather than ‘verbal’ mode, although that doesn’t seem to work with fully integrated text and images like comics and graphic novels. Nevertheless, until the twentieth century the great majority of painters paint the image of a guitar rather than the word, when depicting someone playing the instrument.

Stories in which written text plays a key role are common in literature, but few are regularly painted. Perhaps the most popular is the story of Belshazzar’s Feast, and its greatest telling is that of Rembrandt, painted around 1635-38.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Belshazzar’s Feast (c 1635-1638), oil on canvas, 167.6 x 209.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Belshazzar is stood, taken aback to the point where his eyes appear to be popping out, as he watches the disembodied hand trace out the foreign letters on the wall behind him. His right hand is steadying him against a salver on the table, having knocked one of the Temple vessels over, and his left hand is held up in amazement, as if to push the vision away from him. On Belshazzar’s left, a woman in a bright red robe is also transfixed by the writing on the wall, sufficient that she has tipped the contents of the goblet in her right hand onto the floor.

There is, unfortunately, a problem with the Hebrew writing on the wall. Rembrandt is believed to have been advised by a friend who was a learned Rabbi, but one of the characters is incorrect, and they’re arranged inappropriately in columns, rather than horizontally from right to left.

Less well known is the myth of Paris and Oenone, told in Ovid’s Heroides.

Jacob de Wit (1695–1754), Paris and Oenone (1737), oil on canvas, 99.5 x 146.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

Oenone was an Oread on Mount Ida, where Paris, son of the King of Troy, was a shepherd. They fell in love, and Paris carved her name on the trunk of many trees as a mark of his love. Jacob de Wit’s Paris and Oenone of 1737 shows the lovers suitably accompanied by a couple of amorini and their flock of sheep, as they recline by a trunk so inscribed (detail below). Without that clue, reading this painting would be difficult indeed.

Jacob de Wit (1695–1754), Paris and Oenone (detail) (1737), oil on canvas, 99.5 x 146.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

William Blake’s genius extended to the illustration of his own writings and those of others, in which he frequently incorporated text with images, often in whole books. I show here one example, taken from his late illustrations to accompany Dante’s Inferno.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Inscription over Hell-Gate (Dante’s Inferno) (1824-27), pen and ink and watercolour over pencil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

According to Dante’s verse, inscribed above the gate of Hell is a forbidding series of lines which leave the traveller in no doubt as to where they are going: to everlasting pain and tortured souls. This culminates in the most famous line of the whole of the Divine Comedy:
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate, traditionally translated as Abandon hope all ye who enter here, but perhaps more faithfully as Leave behind all hope, you who enter.

At this stage of Blake’s preparations for engraving, his watercolour has the words roughed in using script.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), Sappho (and Alcaeus) (1881), oil on canvas, 66.1 x 122 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Many of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings are strongly literary in their allusions. One particularly interesting example is that of Sappho and Alcaeus from 1881. Although now associated popularly with lesbian love, very little is known about Sappho’s life, and she may have fallen in love with Alcaeus, a contemporary poet. Alma-Tadema shows Sappho resting on a lectern and staring intently at Alcaeus, who is playing a lyre. She is supported by her ‘school of girls’, one of whom rests her arm on Sappho’s back. The artist’s hints at a lesbian interpretation are subtle: the marble benches bear the names of some of her (female) lovers.

Included text may also extend the references of the painting. In most cases, these are quotations to be recognised by those with sufficient learning, and almost invariably taken from the Bible or classical sources.

Robert Campin (1375/1379–1444), The Nativity (c 1415-1430), oil on panel, 84.1 × 69.9 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Campin’s Nativity from about 1415-30 follows the trend popular in the northern Renaissance of depicting the stable as a dilapidated thatched structure of the type seen widely across the countryside of northern Europe. The artist also adorns it with inscriptions to link it to the Biblical text, although these are sufficiently fragmented as to make it difficult to reconstruct their contents.

Masaccio (1401–1428), The Holy Trinity (1426-8), fresco, 640 x 317 cm, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

The tomb at the foot of Masaccio’s great fresco of The Holy Trinity from 1426-8 is that of Adam, the first man. The inscription above his skeleton reads Io fui gia quel che voi siete e quel ch’io sono voi anco sarete, translated as I once was what now you are and what I am, you shall yet be, a sobering reminder of our own mortality.

In a few instances, inscriptions in paintings have grown out of control and extend far beyond the pithy quotation.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Jason (1865), oil on canvas, 204 × 115 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In Gustave Moreau’s Jason from 1865, the context of the painting is given in the almost illegible inscriptions on the two phylacteries wound around the column at the left.

Cooke has deciphered their Latin as reading:
nempe tenens quod amo gremioque in Iasonis haerens
per freta longa ferar; nihil illum amplexa timebo

Nay, holding that which I love, and resting in Jason’s arms, I shall travel over the long reaches of the sea; in his safe embrace I will fear nothing.
et auro heros Aesonius potitur spolioque superbus
muneris auctorem secum spolia altera portans

And the heroic son of Aeson [i.e. Jason] gained the Golden Fleece. Proud of this spoil and bearing with him the giver of his prize, another spoil.

Moreau thus informs us that we should read his painting in terms of the conflict between Jason and Medea: Medea expresses her subjugate trust in him, while Jason considers her to be just another spoil won alongside the Golden Fleece. And she was a spoil which Jason was quick to dispose of when it suited him: when he met Glauce (or Creusa), he decided to move on and marry her too.

Edward Burne-Jones’ magnificent Perseus series contains a text summary, drawn from the Latin of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (1841-1905), a contemporary classical scholar and promoter. However, Jones was unable to accommodate that in the first of the series, and had to transfer it to the second.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), Perseus and the Graiae (1875-8), silver and gold leaf, gesso and oil on oak, 170.2 x 153.2 cm, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Wales. Wikimedia Commons.

Burne-Jones follows classical conventions in setting the text in block capitals. He uses V for the modern letter U, points separate its words, and there is no punctuation to mark sentences. As Latin is a highly inflected language, its word order has no effect on meaning, and is much more flexible than English. Working out the grammatical and sentence structure of the inscription is therefore not an easy task even when you know Latin.

These words translate as:
Pallas Athena spurred Perseus to action with her urging, and equipped him with arms. The Graiae revealed to him the remote home of the nymphs. From here he went with wings on his feet and with his head shrouded in darkness, and with his sword he struck the one mortal Gorgon, the others being immortal. Her two sisters arose and pursued him. Next he turned Atlas to stone. The sea serpent was slain and Andromeda rescued, and the comrades of Phineas became lumps of rock. Then Andromeda looked in a mirror with wonder at the dreadful Medusa.
(Modified from Anderson & Cassin.)

Others may have found his purist approach too incomprehensible, and in the final version painted in oils he dropped the inscription altogether.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Homeric Laughter (1909), oil on canvas, 98 × 120 cm, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich. Wikimedia Commons.

In Lovis Corinth’s Homeric Laughter (1909), one of the artist’s most complex, even abstruse, paintings of classical myth, he offers a clue to its reading in the long inscription (originally in German translation):
unquenchable laughter arose among the blessed gods as they saw the craft of wise Hephaestus
together with the reference to Homer’s Odyssey book 8 line 326.

This refers to a section in which Odysseus is being entertained by King Alcinous, after meeting Nausicaä on the island of the Phaeacians. To cheer Odysseus up, the bard Demodocus tells a tale of the illicit love affair between Ares/Mars (god of war) and Aphrodite/Venus (goddess of love), which has featured extensively in art. One day Hephaistos/Vulcan catches the couple making love in his marriage bed, and throws a very fine but unbreakable net over them. Hephaistos summons the other gods, who come and roar with laughter at the ensnared couple.

When the Pre-Raphaelites set their paintings in bespoke frames, they often used space within, but outside the picture itself, to support their visual storytelling with quotations from their literary source.

William Holman Hunt (1827–1910), Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1850-51), oil on canvas, 100.2 x 133.4 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

William Holman Hunt’s ornately framed painting of Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus from 1850-51 shows a scene from William Shakespeare’s play The Two Gentlemen of Verona with the aid of quotations from its script.

Arthur Hughes (1832–1915), Ophelia (first version) (c 1851-1853), oil on panel, 68.6 × 123.8 cm, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time that Millais was being eaten alive by midges when painting the background to his famous Ophelia, another Pre-Raphaelite, Arthur Hughes, was hard at work on his first painting of Ophelia, completed slightly later.

It shows Ophelia sat under a willow tree, by the stream in which she was shortly to drown herself, having been driven to madness by Hamlet’s murder of her father and his rejection of her love. To ensure the viewer is in no doubt as to the moment he shows us, Hughes inscribed the relevant lines from Hamlet Act 4 Scene 7 around his painting.