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One of the reasons true art gives more pleasure than almost anything else in life has to do with its playful nature. For despite the weight of the message or the complexity of the ideas expressed, the very fact that the artistic medium involves the translation, indeed transposition, of reality into another dimension, from 3 to 2 if the medium is paint for example, engages a playful side, one that rises to a challenge of solving particular technical problems with more or less skill and elegance. It is the very aspect which, since it involves makebelieve, distinguishes human beings from other animals. It is also this same playful side that is the reason why art has been and will be condemned by the legions of “nay-sayers” who moralise from a position of literal-mindedness and fear of enjoyment.

As this translation involves thought as well as perception it is not surprising that, beyond the materialisation of light in colour, it is geometry, the art and science of lines and planes, that is paramount in both painting and sculpture. For there a line is not just the edge of a surface (where light disappears from vision), nor that invisible moment separating day from night, but the abyss that separates one surface from another, that break which is always bridged with the light that unites us all, the light that gives us dawn and dusk as well as the sfumato of a Leonardo.

What is the first line most children learn to draw, if not the one separating sky from sea called the horizon? That this is not unlike the way God worked, according to Genesis, justifies the superb miniature of Him with a pair of compasses in the great Bible Moralisée of 1220 now in Vienna [1].

Ab Initio

A line, however, is also a cut. It is a separation and thus a differentiation that is quite primordial. This is, incidentally, the chief and perhaps only reason a Lucio Fontana painting has some value, just as it is the play with the invisible and unknowable line separating life from death that does the same for Damien Hirst today. A line is a cut because with it an artist decides what lives and what does not, a bit like the third of the Fates, Atropos, who, while presiding over the first cut, that of the umbilical cord at birth, determines with her shears the advent of the last. Thus any work will with its first line bring into being a horizon that is also a stage, which, with front and back, near and far, can present an aspect of a life to be played out. When the cut involves a chisel we speak of taille directe, the most demanding of sculptural methods [2], the one Michelangelo practiced when speaking of freeing the form trapped in the solid block, and one which is the opposite of moulding in yielding clay the model to be cast in bronze.

Because of this basis of “re-presenting” something by means of a line, no work of art can dodge the question of what this “something” is. The well-known question of what a work is “about” also immediately presents a paradox which is that if the object is only skill itself, no amount of mastery will bring it to life. In other words, the question of the object is whether art has anything to show other than showing off. If a picture is a mute play how does an artist make it speak?

Interestingly, this already gives the lie to the absurdity of claiming one work is as good as another, because everything is supposedly reducible to differences of taste. Instead, the simplest criterion of success is already inherent in a work in relation to itself, where the gap between the aim and its realisation (skill) is more or less evident on one side or the other of the equation.

In medieval art, however, the concern is rarely with the radical cut; instead the line is most often that given by a fold. To experience the unparalleled power of the fold reduced to an ensemble of lines one has but to visit Vezelay and see the extraordinary tympanum above the central portal of the narthex in which Christ’s robe is made to express every possible emotion of the symbolic action that His brief presence on earth is here forever communicating to the apostles below, getting ready to face the fallen world in need of evangelisation. This was carved soon after the first crusade of 1095 which intended to free Christ’s tomb from the constraining hands of its latest conquerors, the muslim arabs, and before St Bernard’s call for a second from that very spot in 1146. In that sense it is one of the first examples of advertising as well, since it conveyed the very same message he preached by means of a highly graphic image.

To put this another way, if Paul Klee spoke of taking a line for a walk, one could say that for the medieval artist it was more a question of putting it on stage, of getting it to tell its tale. The urgency of the narrative is what marshalled the graphic skills of the artist and is also the clue to some of the greatest qualities of medieval art, not refinement but immediacy, honesty and profound humanity. To put it simply, not only did it have something to say and was not afraid of saying it, but, as it was generally rather good news, it did so with imagination, grace and intelligence, thus achieving a unity of medium and message which is still the best definition of “art”.


The line, and not the point, is therefore the beginning of art, its source, engine, power and magic wand, perhaps its finality. Of course one can argue that the point is all it takes and certainly Seurat showed how far one can go with these points; yet without the difference between points, darker or lighter, bigger or smaller, there would not be the minimal articulation which gives direction or relief. It is this relation between points that geometry calls a line, visible or not. It is also the means of articulation, the power of language in the visual sphere, the grammar and syntax of beauty.

If the enjoyment of the line lies in its movement, going from one point to another, turning it into dynamics and drama, even if only as a bare outline, the arc traced by something thrown skywards falling back to earth again, - like a prayer, for example, or an ogive arch, - the real challenge became how to suggest volume from a line by means of modelling, and how to move towards the articulation of space through the laws of perspective. These problems were solved fully only with the advent of what we call the Renaissance. The purest and one of the last expressions of a certain kind of sinuous linear graphism in art that is still “medieval”, realised before the advent of engraving as of perspective, - and one never surpassed-, is the altar cloth called the Parement de Narbonne of the later 14th century [3]. Likewise, it is when line became vector, exerting force in all directions from the same spot, as in dance, that we see the point of greatest impact in Western art, - in Bach, Bernini and Rubens, - with the advent of what we call the Baroque.

Articulation tends to go hand in hand with analysis, which in turn can loosen or sever according to one line and recompose following another, something that is the stock in trade of drawing. The length to which one could go in this direction just with drawing is shown by the St Barbara of Jan Van Eyck [4]. Here the analysis of the “social” in its activity, as work, parade and travel, which unfolds in the articulation of space by presenting architecture in landscape, - the very stuff Breughel would pick up and perfect a century later, perhaps because of this very drawing, - is simply relegated to the background of nothing less than another collection of voluminous folds on which the beautiful Barbara floats with the supreme serenity of the saint.


The one problem with the endlessly pleasing linear play that makes medieval art instantly recognisable is that it lends itself more readily to copying and to pastiche. This caricature of the line was perfected in various recreations of the medieval style in the 19th century, most visibly in the extensive restoration and replacement of stained glass, so often the victim of the inherent violence of the worldliness it tried to stay above.

What complicates our relation to medieval art is this legacy of the 19th century, an age of genius politically and commercially, the beginning of true globalisation and the final flourish of the values of Christian humanism passed down from the Middle Ages before its mutation into socialism, but an age of indescribable darkness artistically, certainly for the visual arts, an age of consolidation rather than creation, which took stock of the brilliant western heritage by building great museums and collections. It was rather less than fortunate that, rightly singling out what was left of medieval art after the revolutions as the summum, or Haute époque, it could not resist subjecting some of it, in its rough and ready and “primitive” state, to the “improvements” of the idealised version of the Middle ages then gaining currency, including a new prudishness, as if the “neogothic” could be more medieval than the original. This meant that many a sculpture got a new lick of paint, and a few something worse, a new “cut”, usually the face. It means that taille directe now sometimes requires microscopic analysis of the surface to detect the presence of other tools and hands in the few cases where this is not instantly recognisable to the experienced eye. For as the century had nothing much more to contribute other than a greater mechanical perfection, - a distant last on the scale of artistic value -, but here put in the service of sentimentality, the results are often as distinctive as they are disastrous. Not even the genius of Viollet le Duc and his team escapes this charge especially when their very success (Pierrefonds, gargoyles of Notre Dame) tricks the general public despite itself. No wonder modernity, when it came in the 20th century, was so extreme and so brutal.


Given this history, the question of attribution to a recorded artist which bedevils the generally unsigned works that have navigated their way to us through the ages needs a word of explanation.

Let us take the example of the St Catherine from the Church of Our Lady in Courtrai/Kortrijk, which is, despite its restorations, perhaps the most arresting, and certainly one of the best-loved stone sculptures surviving from the end of the 14th century, and one of the most seminal for the characterization of the so-called “Franco-Flemish” contribution to the international gothic style [5].

This sculpture is already an exception in being documented: an alabaster Saint Catherine belonging to Louis Mâle, Count of Flanders, is recorded as returning from Lille to Courtrai where it had been made during his lifetime, this in 1386, two years after his death [6]. At the same time there is as much documentation as there ever will be for an artist called Andre Beauneveu, not only naming him on various occasions as working for all the notables of his time, being an ymagier of King Charles V, - as well as working for his brother Jean de Berry in Bourges and Mehun,- but sometimes detailing actual projects, such as the King’s gisant for the necropolis in the Abbey Church of Saint Denis, which makes this latter the only recorded sculpture by this artist. This is an astonishing fact. For the most highly rated artist of his day there is but one certain work remaining. For his contemporary, who was the predecessor of Claus Sluter at the Burgundian court and equally celebrated, Jean de Marville, there is none at all.

At any rate, Beauneveu is also recorded as working for Louis Mâle on the latter’s funerary chapel dedicated to St Catherine, his patron saint, in Courtrai in 1374, long before he decided to be buried in Lille and had things moved there (presumably also the Catherine – see above). Nowhere, however, is it specified that Maitre André actually made this sculpture. More than that, one could even ask the question to what extent Master Beauneveu ever even wielded the chisel himself as opposed to directing a craftsman, by means of sketches or other instructions, just like the master mason/architect on a cathedral site in relation to scores of workers. In contemporary art today, after all, this relation of the artist pondering his concept versus the mere technician realising it in a medium like bronze or stone, or any material one cares to think of, is the absolute norm.

That is why we should be less mesmerised by the name and focus more on the work, at least the one in which an artist has made a successful interpretation of a model, his own or his master’s. For judging by style alone the attribution to Beauneveu has been rejected because of the differences with the gisant of Charles V of more than a decade earlier [7]. Focusing, however, on likely stylistic development, it has also been argued that it represents a freer flowering of the earlier stylistic trend [8]. The problem is rendered more difficult in that the one is a very realistic portrait of a historical figure where the other, derived from the most traditional form of the Virgin and Child, is an idealised Saint onto whose countenance each of the faithful must be allowed to project their own fantasies to bring it alive. Most experts therefore know they are only as convincing as the reasoning they can martial; keeping it rational rather than tendentious is already more difficult, for if finding similarities of detail is relatively easy, explaining away significant differences is a little bit harder, and often forgotten. In the end, we only have hypotheses which are always open to the revision brought by fresh evidence. What is certain is that no amount of reasoning, or rather, rationalisation, can counter the first impression, which is either, - and this is unfortunately the case in the majority of works, - that the figure remains imprisoned in the awkward , stiff and strained strokes of the less talented or copying hand, or that it hits you with its very real presence, as if lifted off its pedestal. This latter is as true of the Saint Catherine as of the gisant of Charles V. In this rare conjunction of documentary evidence with quality it would seem churlish to deny a positive attribution, but it shows us the amount of analysis needed in almost all other cases where no record exists at all. Fortunately, reassembling a work in this way, line by line, into the unique arrangement that is called a signature, is also one of the greatest pleasures it can give.

[1] ONB Codex, Vindobonensis, 2554. To top
[2] See no. 7
[3] Musée du Louvre.
[4] Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.
[5] See no. 8.
[6] D. Roggen 1953, p.229.
[7] R. Koechlin, Gazette des Beaux Arts 1903.
[8] F. Baron, 1981.
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