Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Art Historian's Dilemma and Thoughts on Marignalia

In Flores’ piece “The Mirror of Nature Distorted,” the argument is advanced that there was a shift in the depictions of animals in medieval art that corresponded to the changing intellectual attitudes of the time. Medieval artists, it is claimed, were influenced more or less by both the “allegorical” and “scientific” attitudes (Flores 4). As Flores tells it, by the early modern period, allegory, symbolism, and instruction had given way to a secular, scientific naturalism. The subtitle of Flores’ paper is “The Medieval Artist’s Dilemma in Depicting Animals,” but the dilemma may belong more to the art historian than it did to the artist. Following our class discussion on Thursday, while a general shift in the style of representation of animals throughout the Middle Ages is clear, the model Flores provides obscures as well as explains—though a “realistic” aesthetic may have become dominant, this in no way translates to the extinction of allegorical representation. In particular, I would like to push back against the location of the motivation of this shift in a “new aesthetic principle” (Flores 10).           
“Art is an imitation of nature. Works of art are successful to the extent that they achieve a likeness of nature” (Flores 10). These are the words of St. Thomas Aquinas that Flores tells us are a sort of motto for the naturalistic form of representation. While I do not doubt that this standard is relevant for the elephant sketches of Matthew Paris and illustrations in hunting manuals, it is not at all clear to me that this standard was anything novel. To claim that the images which accompanied the Physiologus were not intended to achieve a likeness of nature, as Flores implies, is inappropriate. Crucial is the definition of “nature.” It might be more fruitful to take St. Thomas Aquinas’ words as a timeless standard for art. Thus, as we witness changes in the likenesses on display in art, the question becomes, how did conceptions and perceptions of nature change?
Evidently, what Flores and Resl mean by “naturalistic” is a resemblance to the world as it comes to us through our eyes. That Matthew Paris’ drawings of the elephant at the Tower of London are naturalistic is to say that, relative to other drawings, they better resemble what a real-world elephant looks like. Is it right to say that, for having seen one in person, Matthew Paris better captured the nature of the elephant than those who had drawn before him? But where is the dragon in his sketch? Or the small elephant lifting the fallen elephant with its trunk? Taking Aquinas’ standard as a new aesthetic principle implies that the artists’ who did not have access to the actual animals they drew could not imitate the nature of the animal. I have a sense that I may have set myself a little bit of a trap though. It may be important to distinguish between the natural animal and the nature of the animal. Anyhow, I suspect that medieval scholars and artists would not readily agree that the legend of the elephant and its symbolic, religious meanings were apart from the nature of the elephant. Thus I take issue with Flores’ claim that “[i]n examining depictions of animals during the Middle Ages, it becomes apparent that an artist’s ability to reproduce nature is not necessarily the overriding consideration in his creation of a work of art” (5). While this may simply be relocating the allegorical/scientific distinction, I think it is important to ask, in evaluating an animal image, what conception of nature or what facet of the nature of the animal is being reproduced?
            I want to shift gears here and ramble briefly about a different aspect of the depictions of animals in medieval art: the enjoyment, both of the artist and the audience. Animals are good to think, and they are also good to draw and good to look at it. Resl acknowledges that the care and enthusiasm manifest in animal depictions in religious contexts goes beyond what was required by the moral and religious messages that the animals were intended to, could have been intended to, communicate (199). Both Resl and Janson too, in his discussion of apes in marginalia, recognize the simultaneous futility and irrelevance of the question of meaning for many instances of animals in medieval art. While it certainly varies and I am sure that many of the tropes, in marginalia in particular, started off playing off of particular set of meanings, it seems not implausible that much of marginalia may be the elaborate doodling of highly skilled artists situated in a particular tradition and thus inheritors of a particular repertoire of motifs.

            As somebody pointed out in class, the apes and rabbits and other animals in marginal art are nearly always situated in a crawling floral or leafy pattern. If I may speculate, I have a little hypothesis regarding the role of marginalia. Writing has long been a powerful symbol of artifice and civilization, and the beautiful penmanship of medieval scribes was a particular peak. The orderly lines of text on the page of a manuscript are an embodiment of the human. The margins of the manuscript seem to serve as a sort of buffer zone, a liminal space between the human and the nonhuman. Hence the ordered naturalness of the vines and flowers, but also the confusion and upside-down-ness of apes absorbed in reading and giving shaves.



  1. "It may be important to distinguish between the natural animal and the nature of the animal. Anyhow, I suspect that medieval scholars and artists would not readily agree that the legend of the elephant and its symbolic, religious meanings were apart from the nature of the elephant." Exactly! Could you say more? We tend to use the term "nature" as if it is independent of our conceptions of what nature is, and yet (as was said several times in class), "nature" itself is a contested term. In Christian thinking, the "nature" of an animal as a creature of God is inseparable from its existence as a living being; from this perspective, to depict its "nature" is necessarily to depict its creatureliness, including its relationship to God's final creation, man. Just because we do not see this nature with our eyes doesn't mean it isn't real, so to depict only what we perceive with our eyes is (arguably) to leave out something significant about the creature's nature (not to mention the draco and little elephant!). On the marginalia: why should the margins of the book be somehow nonhuman? This is an intriguing thought, but needs more unpacking! RLFB

  2. I am excited by your hypothesis for the non-human space of marginal artwork. As you compare, the orderly scribe work of the text represents the human realm, and the borders of the parchment are for non-human animals and flora. I agree that this is a fun explanation for why there are some strange creatures depicted around the text: the non-human realm of the margins is for fantasy, speculation, and wonder. When the margins are not being used to illustrate the written words, it becomes more difficult to understand the artist’s motivation for including certain drawings. For example, a set of images from class from a book of hours included biblical scenes associated the prayers, but just outside of these illustrations on the page were golden vines and reading apes. The marginal depictions are whimsical at the least and even fantastical; I doubt the illuminator witnessed an ape reading a book in a hood in his daily life, but its presence on the parchment is evidence of the ape’s place in the realm of imaginative possibility. This reasoning can also ease the habit of connecting marginalia with ambiguous symbolism: creatures with human heads and bird-like legs are difficult to pin to religious allegory. Perhaps the human hybrids are meant to set apart the marginal space from the orderly, human text as distinctly nonsense, creaturely yet inhuman, and so strange that their explanations could not be conveyed simply through words.

    K. Beach

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. "I think it is important to ask, in evaluating an animal image, what conception of nature or what facet of the nature of the animal is being reproduced?"
    Something to grapple with when answering this question is dealing with different paintings of very similar subject matter. Take this Renaissance painting: Boar Hunt by Frans Snyders features near identical composition to several of Gaston Phoebus’ illustrations, such as this one: Both feature dogs chasing down several boars in a hunt. Obviously, works of art painted 200 years apart are going to look very different, but there are striking similarities. The boar, for instance, is in the same exact pose in the Phoebus and Snyders paintings, and the landscape perspective is similarly skewed to show off all the dogs. They’re also for similar audiences. The Snyders painting was meant to be shown in hunting lodges, and Phoebus was writing to huntsmen.
    The main difference between them is the presence of the human hunters. Something I noticed during our discussion was that the “naturalistic” paintings shown to us never included humans, while the “symbolic” animal images always showed their interactions with humans. While it would be incredibly facile to reduce the distinction to whether or not humans are the subject or are included in the painting, I think there is something to the idea that the particular “facet of the nature of the animal” that is being represented would be affected by the presence of humans. In Frans Snyder’s piece, the dogs are doing all the work, and it’s exciting, tiring work too. They’re flipped on their backs, they’re leaping, and they’re even wearing armor into battle (I love the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s placard comment, “the dog on the far right may be wearing a protective cloak because he was particularly prized by his owner.”) When we use the rule of thirds, the boar’s face is in one power point, but dogs are along all the lines, pointing towards the action. In the Phoebus, the hunters and the horses are along one line. Like in the Snyders, the boar is on a power point, but the dogs are scattered about. The human elements require their space, so the dogs are left out of the spotlight.