So my blog site-o-meter tells me that most people who come here via search engines are looking for one of two things: Yves Klein or medieval marginalia. Which means that, while making fun of philosophical book covers may get me quick attention, half-baked art criticism gives me the long-term gains.
So, since this here blog ain’t gonna write itself, it’s time for a subject near and dear to my heart: late medieval/early Renaissance religious art.
Oh don’t give me that look. I know, I know, dead saints looking pious and all that, isn’t it all boring, wasn’t all art in the middle ages religious, etc. To answer the last two: Oh Hell No. But as for saints looking pious—well, sure. But things get Strange in the late middle ages. Very strange, actually.
Yes, new ideas and styles, like figurative art, humanism, and perspective were taking hold, but old ideas—especially old ideas on semiotics in art and what it meant to depict a subject realistically—weren’t dead yet.
Perhaps my favorite example of this is the work of Carlo Crivelli. Crivelli was working in the late 1400’s, which is pretty much as late as the Middle Ages go by any reckoning*—but, it should be noted, not quite to the Reformation, where everything changes. Crivelli is known for quite a few things, but, as any Thomist will tell you, his most famous work is the Demidoff Altarpiece—or, well, the icon of Thomas Aquinas that gets used over and over again. Actually, that Aquinas picture is as good a place to start as any, come to think of it . . .
The first thing to notice is that, in good Medieval fashion, Aquinas is depicted with some of his attributes—those symbols that, at a glance, let you know who this person is, as well as why they are important. Attributes of saints don’t just serve as personal identifiers, as substitutes for writing the name of the saint under the portrait; rather, they recall a whole host of symbolic associations and meanings. In this case, Aquinas is shown wearing his black-and-white Dominican habit with a sunburst in the chest (his most usual identifying attribute) while holding a book in one hand, a church in the other. By using symbolic attributes, Crivelli associates Aquinas with the Dominican Order (and with St. Dominic, who is depicted beneath Aquinas on the altarpiece), with the givers of doctrine and teachers, and with those who support and enlighten the church. Even Thomas’s face, looking away from his book towards the church (and, within the whole altarpiece, to the crowned virgin and child at the center), seems to emphasize his role as a teacher, as one who belonged not to a strictly contemplative order, but one that shared the fruits of contemplation.
However, the artistic style is very different from what you would expect medieval aesthetics to dictate. Sure, there’s the whole “things are sized according to their importance, rather than actual size” thing going on**—see the image from the Smithfield Decretals at the top of the post for more of that—but that’s about it. The church is recognizable as an actual Romanesque basilica-style church, of the kind one might find in Italy. It’s also not a very new church, nor an idealized one; moss and creepers have taken up residence in the cracks in the mortar, and some of the masonry work has been replaced—the tower, for instance, may have lost its top portion at some point, which would account for the difference in colors of the mortar. Whatever else can be said about the church Aquinas is holding, it’s certainly not the “model of a church” guides to saint attributes attribute to him, nor one that is perfect and unchanging—this is the church in the world, faced with factions and divisions, with the Reformation a generation away. What’s more, St. Thomas isn’t depicted in an idealized way—he’s showing signs of age, and, a rarity for portraits of him, is actually depicted as being properly large, as he was in life*** This kind of figurative realism just wouldn’t have been seen in medieval art, where what was most real, and most worthy of artistic expression, was the transcendent reality, not the corporal one. Of course, this isn’t to say that all transcendent reality has been removed from the depiction; Aquinas may have been a giant, but living humans don’t hold churches. Crivelli is clearly having a bit of a lark with the whole “realism” thing—the juxtaposition of greater figurative accuracy with medieval symbolism and aesthetics has resulted in a rather surreal depiction of the saint. Aquinas has several other attributes that Crivelli could have used instead—a chalice, for instance, or (appropriately for a doctor holding a book) a quill pen. Instead, he chose the symbol that, when depicted in such a figurative way, would cause the greatest amount of cognitive dissonance. Symbolic churches, models of churches—sure, someone could hold those. A real, ancient church, one made of stone centuries ago at some actual place? Only a superhuman could do that.
Oh, and then there’s the whole perspective thing. Crivelli loves playing with perspective. You can see it in lots of places in his art, especially at the bottoms of his paintings; notice how everyone’s toes/Mary’s robes hang over the edge of the step.
Yeah, he does this a lot. What you can’t see, of course, is that there are pieces of wood glued on to the panel; Thomas’s sunburst, for instance, is a wooden hemisphere that’s been painted gold. The saints aren’t entirely stuck behind the plane of the portrait; rather, they’ve got toes trying to stick out over the edge, and bits actually coming towards the viewer, exiting their world and entering ours. Of course, they’re not the only ones entering our world; if you look in Thomas’s church, you’ll see that we’re entering theirs.
Crivelli’s use of Renaissance tricks of perspective, coupled with his medieval philosophical background, couple to give the impression that these holy figures aren’t really so far off from us mortals after all. The world of the saints and that of humans aren’t that separate after all. Rather than depicting them in an idealized fashion, Crivelli places his saints in a world very much like our own, one with run-down churches and steps that can actually be stepped over. His saints are able to break through to our world, and, when we pass through the church door, we can enter theirs.