Narrative paintings can be intricate, like jigsaw puzzles, where you fit the different elements together and realise what the whole painting is telling you. Sometimes there’s a piece that looks like it came from a different jigsaw altogether, and doesn’t fit with the rest of the painting. This and tomorrow’s articles look at some examples of paintings in which there’s something odd, and incongruous.
Masaccio’s fresco of The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias (c 1425-8) shows Saints Peter and John (to the right of centre, foreground) distributing money to the poor, who are gathered in front of them. While that’s going on in the upper part, lying on the ground at their feet is the dead body of Ananias, who had retained some of the money received from the sale of his land, and comes from a different story altogether. Yet none of the figures seems in the least concerned at the corpse.
While you can look at almost any of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings and find the most extraordinary incongruities, there are some that stand out even for him.
The panels of Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi triptych form a continuous view of the local Brabant countryside, with its low rolling hills, and a city in the distance. The two wings show the donor and his wife, accompanied by the saints who vouch for their places in heaven, Saint Peter and Saint Agnes, and the adoration is concentrated in the centre panel.
In the foreground is what appears to be a fairly conventional and detailed depiction of the adoration of the Magi. The Virgin Mary is sat under the tumbledown eaves beside a small cattleshed or stable known in this area as hoekboerderij. The infant Christ is seated on her lap, steadied by her left hand.
The senior of the Magi, an elderly man, has removed his crown, which is to the right on the ground, and prays to the mother and child on his knees. His gift is an elaborate gold table decoration showing Abraham about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Behind him a second has also removed his headgear and holds his gift of myrrh on a silver platter. To the left is the third, a bare-headed African king wearing immaculate white robes, and bearing his gift of frankincense inside a sphere, on top of which is a phoenix bird; he has a child attendant behind him.
More unusually, a fourth king, identified as an anti-Christ, is inside the shed, wearing an ornate crown, and clutching a helmet with his left hand. His appearance is bizarre because his face and neck are sunburnt, but the rest of his skin is deathly pale. He is partly undressed, and has an old wound on his right lower leg.
Cornelis van Haarlem’s The Fall of the Titans from 1588-90 isn’t the place you’d expect to find butterflies. This shows the classical myth in which the gods have defeated the Titans, who preceded them. As a result the Titans fell from the heavens and were imprisoned in Tartarus, or Hell, as shown here. It’s claimed that flying insects, even butterflies, were associated with the fire of the underworld, although the two butterflies and one dragonfly appear completely out of place, at least to the modern eye.
After Bosch, the next specialist in the unexpected must be Caravaggio.
In 1605-06, he painted what was expected to have been a conventional depiction of the Virgin Mary, her mother Saint Anne, and the young Jesus Christ, for the altar of the confraternity of the Papal Grooms, in Saint Peter’s Basilica. What they got instead was his Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, which so shocked that it was only briefly shown in the parish church of Saint Anne in the Vatican, before being sold to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, in whose palace it still hangs.
At a time when even showing the Virgin’s feet was considered quite risqué, her low-cut dress was definitely beyond the pale, and Saint Anne is hardly flattered in her appearance. But look at what Mary’s left foot is doing, with support from Christ’s foot: treading on the head of a snake.
Michele Desubleo’s Odysseus and Nausicaä, from about 1654, gives a full account of this story from Ovid’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. The hero is shown naked, clutching a leafy branch strategically to his crotch with his left hand. His right arm is held out, apparently pleading his case to the princess, sat in her beautiful robes, and in the process of handing him an item of clothing. But Nausicaä’s left hand holds a wooden bat, and there’s a ball towards the lower edge of the painting.
This apparently refers to an obscure and apocryphal addition to Ovid’s account that claims the princess was playing an early form of real tennis at the time that Odysseus (almost) revealed himself to the ladies.
Even the French Revolution had its moments of odd incongruity.
Jean-Baptiste Lallemand captured one of those defining moments of the start of the French Revolution in this The Charge of the Prince of Lambesc in the Tuileries Gardens 12 July 1789 (1789-90). His style and vocabulary owe much to Watteau and the earlier landscape masters such as Poussin, and show this bizarre combination of violence, panic, and normal routine, without so much as a drop of blood being spilled.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, some artists were revelling in incongruous scenes, among them the young Jean-Léon Gérôme.
On leaving a masked (fancy dress) ball in the winter of 1856-7, an elected official and a former police commissioner fought a duel in a copse in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris. One was dressed as the character Pierrot, the other as Harlequin. Pierrot was wounded as a result, and the incident became notorious because of the personalities involved, and their comic costumes.
Gérôme shows Pierrot, as white as his costume, collapsed against one of his team, his face suggesting shock if not imminent death from a wound bleeding onto his chest. His limp right arm still bears his sword, now dragging on the ground. Two other friends are visibly distressed at his condition and trying to console him. Harlequin, with his second, walks off towards the distance at the right. His sword is abandoned on the snowy ground, near four feathers that dropped from the American Indian headdress of his second.
In the autumn of 1860, William Dyce stayed in the Conwy Valley in Wales for six weeks, where he sketched and painted avidly. After his return to London, he painted this Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting, 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.
The younger woman wears a formal ensemble which had recently been revived and designated ‘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 conspicuously incongruous for such an outdoor location.
Its reading remains elusive.