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Forms of Salvation

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No one viewing a medieval, especially a Romanesque, tympanum or capital for the first time can fail to be struck by the inherent tension which gives this art its unforgettable dynamic impact. For there the simplest geometric form, a triangle, circle or square, can metamorphose into a wildly expressive grotesque or luxurious foliage as well as the most dignified narrative. It was in the 1930s, excited by the links between Cubism and "primitive" African art, that a Baltrusaitis thought he could explain all Romanesque sculpture as a simple schematic development from a simple form like a palm leaf, until Meyer Schapiro [1] pointed out he had neglected the meaning of its content. Indeed, the tension is not only with some arbitrary abstract form, but within the subject matter itself. For why should the monsters on the capitals and ambo in St Ambrogio in Milan be devouring each other? Why should a grimacing devil appear within the confines of a holy space at all?


Certainly, there is a tension when the potentially formless, or the unnatural form which is the monster, is subjected to very tight formal constraints, whether of capital, jamb and pediment, or of page layout and its demands of legibility. In this way it can veer to the purely expressive [2] or the purely formal of linear or more or less geometric decoration [3], and, at best, set up a centrifugal or centripetal force within a frame, like a Bach fugue. Just as clearly, however, formal criteria do not explain why medieval decoration, if that is what it is, takes such a lively turn.

If it is easy to point to some of the formal antecedents of this art which were to hand in 1000AD, - the friezes and sarcophagi of antiquity, the knot-work and interlace of insular manuscript illumination [4], the cloissonné jewellery of Celtic and German craftsmen, - it is far from easy to see why a simple corinthian capital should have been subjected to such varied treatment that a St Bernard could descry this Formosa deformitas while betraying his admiration [5].

Again, it is not enough to invoke the building frenzy of the 11th and 12th centuries, unsurpassed in fecundity [6], when a network of abbeys, priories and churches, coinciding with the birth of the new religious orders, - Carthusians, Premonstratensians, regular canons, Cluniacs, Cistercians, - spread across Europe; nor to point to the sense of exploration and struggle with materials found in this art, - where the perfection of metal forging in the shape of the anvil allowed better tools for the mastery of stonework, so evident from the 11th century on, - which echoes the experimentation with boundaries of form.

We do know at least that Romanesque art parades its extraordinary variety of invention within the recognisable structure of the One Church, just as the variety of romance languages from which the term derives, all sheltered under the canopy of the unitary Latin which is their parent, like the sinners under the cloak of the Madonna della Misericordia.

We know too, that it was an art born from relief, seemingly two-dimensional and linear in outlook and technique (though the play of mass and volume in sculpture is paramount), drawing rather than painting (though colour was prized above all else). If it is a graphic art [7], whose late descendant is the cartoon (though there relation between image and text is reversed), it is so in the sense of foregoing the illusion of reality as a surface appearance, of declining to trick the senses, and instead aiming to deliver the truth of a message, to tell a story as economically as possible. After all truth is not the same thing as reality, and when they meet, it can only be in a form of representation, what we say, for example, or a work of art.

In fact, the error of 19th century art appreciation was to apply the term primitive [8] to what was not understood, and to misrecognise for example what Boris Uspensky has called the inverse perspective used in medieval art [9]. Rather than the single vanishing point in the picture corresponding to the position of the viewer outside the frame, the viewpoint is within the picture plane itself, where a viewer becomes part of the narrative unfolding in various directions.

We can see, finally, that it is an art of movement, driven by something. In an era of metamorphoses, - of antiquity into Christianity, of Ovid into courtly poetry, of a monster into a pillar of the church and back again -, it mattered whether the impulse was towards nature, meaning the form our drive takes when it bogs us down in a mute and not necessarily pleasurable enjoyment, as a plant or animal [10], or whether it spurred one towards more pleasing speech and greater animation [11].

Whether this stricture of form become a limitation, a mental prison, a depiction of the suffering of sin, cast in Aristotelian terms [12] as absence of movement, or whether it represents a struggle for liberation of the spirit, the agency of happiness, from the heaviness of matter, - as it does in Romanesque art when one order of being (animal) is seen struggling to escape the suffocating embrace of another (vegetal), - or even when it conveys the fathomless bounty of creation, in which every creature however base participates in the lauding of creation [13], there is never a stasis.

This movement of the drive in art, its living impulse, is the same as the one with which we quest for our daily satisfaction. Thus, the real pleasure we derive from the interlace initials in medieval art [14] has something to do with the fact that it relates to a branch of mathematics known as topology, the art of knots, some figures of which happen to parallel the structure of the mind insofar as this latter also constitutes a real space for each one of us [15]. Secondly, it initiates a movement which returns back on itself, just as the satisfaction we derive from the activity of a drive (whatever we do to when we are hungry, say) comes when the pulsation returns from an external object (food) to the orifice on the body from whence it departed (mouth).

However, if the devouring maw, with which Hell and its offspring are so often represented, does not swallow all of creation but only its own kind, it is because we find in the dynamism of Romanesque art something open ended, dialectical, something that tends towards something greater, or something invisible, or just mysterious, at any rate, something that meant that one day, in the face of the inevitable theological schematism, its apparent opposite could appear, a Galileo for example, whereas further East, - despite, or perhaps because of, the Greek science they transmitted to the Latins in their translations, where the Aristotle commented by an Averroes had perhaps more far-reaching effects than at home, - the repetitive, geometric and arbitrary tendency of ornament in much of Islamic art, which produced the famous "arabesque", evokes mostly a fatalistic acceptance of what seems as fixed for all eternity as the stars in the last circle of the Ptolemaic system [16].

Medieval art reflects the open-ended nature of the creature's dialogue with its Creator, meaning that if sin is everywhere, even in the holiest places, so is redemption.

We could therefore venture that form and content come together when decorative motifs, sometimes suggested by architectural form, express the mysteries of a creation shaped by salvation.

David's Salvation

Until it was replaced by the cogito of Descartes, a shift from which one can date the beginning of the modern era, the guiding idea of the Middle Ages, the primary subjective framework, the concept without which any subjectivity was (and still is) unthinkable, to an extent unimaginable today, was salvation.

What allows us today to call ourselves civilised, the idea of the worth of every individual called the "sanctity of human life", is , albeit in a secularised form since the French and American revolutions, the major contribution of Christianity and a consequence of the idea of salvation.

This all-embracing, overarching, primary notion, closely linked to a concept of happiness of which the Church has always constituted itself the guardian, informs all medieval art. We find it at the dawn of Christianity, even before the dark ages, in 3rd century catacombs, as Daniel in the lion's den, or the three Hebrews in the furnace, or Isaac saved from his sacrifice. We find it later on when a monk or scribe, signing off his manuscript finis est deo gratias, also asks the reader to pray for his soul [17], when patrons, who commissioned works to be donated, asked in return for masses for their soul, and even, here in the vernacular of middle English, inserted in the middle of the Office, when the need to pray for souls in purgatory is stressed [18]. And we find it, of course, in the very architecture of sacred spaces and their decorative programmes. It explains why the image-idea of Christ as Salvator Mundi is present from the beginning to the end of the Middle Ages, from the Good Shepherd who took over from Orpheus, through its appearance on most Romanesque tympanii to the copy of the now lost Eyckian painting in a Bruges Book of Hours [19]. It also explains the focus on the Last Judgment as detailed in the Apocalypse and its anticipation of reward on the part of the saved, so prominent during the Romanesque period.

To be saved was not to be lost, not to be erased from the book of life, not to be one of the perduta gente [20] whose loss was precisely their access to bliss, the true bliss, bringing life rather than death, valid for all eternity as well as here and now. The Saint, on the other hand, was characterised by his or her privileged access to felicity, to such an extent that it could transform the body, subtracting it from the ravages of nature, an effect we try and achieve today by going for a work-out or following certain Oriental practices. It is this transcending or transforming of nature, not, as we have seen with Ovid, into a living memorial of a sexual drive, but into its opposite, reaching the miraculous [21], that gets us close to what is so sublime in medieval art.

Sin, therefore, was no less and no more than the refusal to achieve bliss, to be happy, to be saved, a necessary requirement for which was the willingness, however inarticulately, to pray. This was no less optimistic, given that we are subject to a structural but unconscious imperative to maximise enjoyment in our brief lives, than a modern therapy which encourages an individual to enjoy "like everyone else", openly rather than guiltily. It makes it less surprising, at any rate, that Jacques Lacan, invoking Dante, characterised that modern ailing, depression [22], as a "moral weakness" (without in any way denying chemical determinants), albeit in the specific sense of not speaking well (remaining at the level of the chemicals), and to which he opposed the gay savoir of the troubadours [23]. It also makes it less surprising that a Karl Marx, a latter day prophet if any one was, was fond of quoting Ezekiel's version : dixit et salvam animam meam.

Ignorance of language was at the root of an important conceptual error of popular 19th century psychology, alive today despite Freud's attempts to lay it to rest, which was the confusion between feeling and emotion. Not so in the Middle Ages which had the most extensive map of the human psyche drawn to date, that of the Church Fathers. A feeling is simply an emotion which has lost its idea, or rather its representation, since an idea is an emotion - always linked to an act, that is, usually the act of speech. An emotion, as the word indicates, is a movement, of the soul say, which may or may not lead to a change. For example, contrition, when it leads to spoken confession, can effect a real change in a person's view of the world: one does not feel the same person after than before. King David had such a change of heart and the whole of contemporary therapy aims at something similar. In medieval art the representation of an emotion is the clear expression of an idea - St Peter [24] for example, whose tonsure and jug handle ears, signify unambiguously his position as mediator in relation to heaven. The question, indeed accusation, of idealisation implicit in representing ideas is irrelevant because what matters is the clarity of their expression, whether simple or complex, singly or in a narrative chain.

If it is a cliché to say that without the Bible one cannot understand anything of Western Art how much more true this is of the Middle Ages when it was a Book that was as alive as any Book has ever been and its narratives always replayed. The one book in this Book, the first and last expression of the idea of salvation, the inimitably poetic, eloquent, persuasive, convincing and irrefutable testimony to God's power and mercy, was the book of Psalms [25], the memorisation, recitation and meditation of which was the chief occupation, not only of the monk, but of many lay people, again to an extent inconceivable today (perhaps not if one reflects on their own version of the same practised by certain militants in the name of Islam today).

One reason the Psalms, written in the first person singular attributed to King David, constitutes the ultimate text in the economy of salvation, is that they dramatise man's dependence on a creator, meaning that, despite the illusion of autonomy if not auto-generation [26] fostered by that imaginary construct we call our ego which obnubilates this all too obvious fact, we are sons of fathers. The second reason was of course that David represented the very model of a sinner in that he had another man killed in order to sleep with his wife. Many Books of Hours of the second half of the 15th century have a miniature showing David spying from a window on a naked Bathsheba bathing in the garden below.

Solomon's Women

This is not the place to go into the nature of that thing to be saved called a soul, treasured above all else, what Plato [27] called agalma, the inner core of a person which is what is most desirable about them, except to point out that for a man, the path to paradise might be blocked by women. They posed, and still pose, a dilemma most economically captured in Shakespeare's sonnet "expense of spirit in a waste of shame", which shows, more than any real death of the body, the second or symbolic death that threatens, that of the spirit. It is, of course, the point at which sin becomes mortal. As women embody, literally, for men, the kind of enjoyment that can either lead to true bliss or perdition (waste), it led and still leads some to feel forced to chose between women and God, since, according to Vincent de Beauvais "Woman, created from the rib of man, is not made in the image of God". Nor was it just the privilege of anchorites to see only death and decay beneath the seductive skin of beauty. More amusing is the fact that the most ingenious of the troubadours, Arnaud Daniel, devoted one poem to a friend's request for advice on whether to grant his Lady's wish, as the code dictated, that he "embouchait sa trompette". Indeed, the difficult relations between the sexes in their battle for primacy are the subject of hundreds of Fabliaux which are rarely represented, except for a satirical painting at Villeneuve-Lembon, which shows one monster, the Chicheface, feeding on submissive wives and consequently starving while the Bigonne, feeding on over-obedient husbands, is bloated.

If David was a model for the cri de coeur, for squaring things with one's Lord and Master, his son Solomon was the prototype for a more complex relation to women. The erotic Song of songs is his but so supposedly was that paean to the model housewife at the end of Proverbs. Moreover, that most wise of men who asked the right things of his Lord, in the end [28] displeased Him, for his love of many women, the roll-call of which, Pharaoh's daughter, Moabites, Edomites, Sidonians., prefigures that of Leporello [29], led him to "follow false gods" [30].

Although concern about the nature of women in medieval debates may seem ridiculous, like the question of whether a woman has a soul, it is as well to remember that the great feminist Simone de Beauvoir asked the same question, and that Aristotle's idea of women having to be "determined" by a man, in the grammatical sense of fixing a floating meaning, in marriage, is borne out by an anthropologist of the stature of Levi Strauss when he showed that the fundamental structure of any society, its rules of kinship, is determined by the circulation of women in it, meaning how women pass from being daughters to wives.

The general medieval solution was to elevate one woman, Mary, into the position of mediatrix between a man and his unbearable guilt in relation to the Father, thereby reversing the opprobrium heaped on Eve, seen as the instrument of man's loss of bliss, and her descendants, instruments of the wrong bliss. Mary's white knight was none other than St Bernard, who also wrote volumes on all aspects of love, in his commentary on the Song of songs, for example. The reversal of Eva into Ave produced some of the most enduring works of medieval art, in ivory, stone, paint and words. The prayers Inviolata integra et casta es Maria and Ave regina coelorum [31] are also great poems. A Dante could solve it in a personal way, albeit by means of the longest detour in literary history during which he acquainted himself with all the possible properties of the soul after death as broadly defined by Thomas Aquinas, by making his Beatrice qualified, in her very name, to bring a beatitude directly authorised by God. Needless to add that women themselves could make art too [32].

By the 15th century piety had moved firmly into the private sphere and, following the wild success of Marian devotion, into the Books of Hours which, centred on the Office of the Virgin had already replaced the Psalters they had grown out of in the 13th century. Made for the laity in all shapes, sizes and expense, this "bestseller of the Middle Ages" also heralds its end in artistic terms, at least after the invention of printing in 1452, when the trompe l'oeil so skilfully used for its own sake in the borders of Bruges and Ghent mss till the 1520s [33], is transferred more and more to the ceiling (Mantegna), panel and, eventually, canvas, while the texts return to the business of being a collection of little letters on a blank page.

[1] 1932 To top
[2] No. 1
[3] No. 15a
[4] Book of Kells
[5] Letter to William of St Thierry
[6] also further East: Ankor Vat, and West: the Toltecs
[7] as in the Greek graphein meaning both writing and drawing
[8] as the Greeks did with "barbarian" tongues
[9] 1970
[10] Ovid, Dante's Inferno
[11] Paradiso
[12] Nicomachean Ethics
[13] Psalms
[14] or courtly poetry, conceived by the jongleurs as "ingenious, intricate and woven"
[15] Imre Hermann
[16] Astrology as determinism proscribed by Etienne Tempier 10 December1270
[17] No. 22
[18] No. 19
[19] No. 26
[20] Dante, Inferno III, 3
[21] the Virgin Birth for example
[22] Tristitia rather than melancholia
[23] Télévision, 1973
[24] No. 14
[25] which opens with Beatus Vir, blessed is he
[26] Milton's Satan: "there was no time when we were not as now"
[27] Phaedrus
[28] I Kings 11,4
[29] Don Giovanni
[30] No. 19
[31] No. 24
[32] No. 22
[33] No. 26
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