Monday, 26 March 2012

The iconography of Western art

As a young man I explored as many of my County's mediaeval churches as I possibly could, and soon became fluent in the iconography of the surviving painting and sculpture. A man walking across a stream with someone on his back was St Christopher, of course, and a chap tied to a tree with arrows sticking out of him St Sebastian, except when he was headless or depicted with a wolf at his feet in which case he was St Edmund. St Bartholomew was usually holding his own flayed skin, St Catherine tied to a wheel, St Michael with a dragon and so on. As it was designed to be deciphered by simple peasants I had little problem with it.

Later, a basic classical education helped understand post-Renaissance painting, which to the uninformed seems mainly to be acres of naked pink women with wispy bits of gauze and enigmatic smiles. Lots of naked pink women usually meant it was The Rape of the Sabine Women, and a single naked pink woman standing in water The Birth of Venus. The art of the counter Reformation brought naked pink rent boys, dressed up by Caravaggio as, well, anything he could think of, really. But his saints got more complex. St Jerome had the skull and book, but only a hint of the nimbus or halo that shouted 'Saint!'  and in The Calling of St Matthew he had to include three pointing fingers including Christ's to indicate it was the hungover rent boy and not the bearded elder who was St Matthew. 

Still, with a bit of knowledge you could work your way through it. Sister Wendy, now 82, makes the point in the Telegraph that the young are losing out in understanding the art that fills our great galleries and churches because they know neither their bibles nor the classics. This is undoubtedly true, but not a matter to despair. 

Whereas my generation had to learn all that stuff and carry it in our heads, there being no alternative, the young nowadays can call it up on their mobile devices - they need to learn information management, not the classics. Faced with a painting of a chap with a halo being grilled, they just google 'saint burned on gridiron' and up comes St Lawrence. It's that the young are still visiting galleries that's important. 


Anonymous said...

Yes and no Raedwald…

Nothing can beat a good education, and the "find out on the internet" approach is not a basis for a good education.

We have been subjected to tens of reiterations of the "comprehensive" system since the 1960's, and the results are still leaving much to be desired.

OK, it was true that the previous system, which broadly consisted of grammar schools and secondary modern schools, left much to be desired.

But one thing that never seems to have been tried, is a privatisation of the education system (not on the Margaret Thatcher model, of handing the monopoly to some huge foreign company), based on local people ensuring that there are a couple of good schools in their area, for little Johnny to go to, without some kind of post-code lottery being invoked.

This is not rocketry, they have been doing it in Ireland since they gained independence.

We also need to put an end to Blair's aim of sending everyone to university, having loads of meeja students (and the like) wasting their time, when they would be better off learning a trade or something, seems a tad wasteful. Apart from that, it indebts the student, and tends to imbue a sense of entitlement too.

Calfy said...

I like this post Radders. In line with the excellent Ian Gilbert book

Weekend Yachtsman said...

"they just google 'saint burned on gridiron' and up comes St Lawrence."

True but still wrong.

If you have no education you rely on others who do (SOMEONE has to know, after all) and then you are more easily manipulated. See under "Global Warming" and any number of other headings.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned at my prep school was to use my head and my intelligence to challenge everything that was ever presented as a fact. A sort of ten-year-old's "Nullius in Verba".

It has stood me in good stead.

Ignorance is never good.

anon2 said...

"They just 'google saint burned on gridiron' "

Uh uh. The only word they really understand there is google. They don't know 'saint' or 'gridiron', they don't use -ed endings or verb tenses, and they are hopelessly challenged by prepositions.

Anonymous said...

Visiting mediaeval churches, a pleasure of great solace and a spiritual journey, much easier to do once, now, all are locked - many are permanently locked up. All part of Britain's now headlong descent back into barbarism.
At least some City Cathedrals are still open - for a quiet prayer and reflection.

hatfield girl said...

Standing, a child, in church or assembly, missal or hymn book in hand, fiddling with the little silk ribbons and the holy pictures, joining in the singing and the declaiming - it does wonders for reading and vocabulary skills. And for recognizing who's who in the paintings when faced with them in the flesh.

For Google a starting point is needed; an inner road map.

Marvellous post.

Anonymous said...

Is recognising saints any more use than recognising exotic birds - or in my day - exotic bombers.
It wont put a meal on your plate.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Anon 0143: you miss the point. Any fool can put a meal on your plate, plenty of fools do just that today - look at the City.

But an educated population is a prize beyond worth, for reasons already stated.

Anecdote: my youngest (23) was coming to dinner; he called to ask what time, I said "An hour or two - we're just killing the fatted calf. To my everlasting shame, he had no idea what I was talking about.

That is what we're in danger of losing, and if you think it doesn't matter you just might be part of the problem.

James Higham said...

I was thinking that this should be one aspect of every child's education. I'm woefully underdone on art and wish I'd learnt more.