Do you want the allegory?

Charles Hope

  • Piero della Francesca’s ‘Baptism of Christ’ by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin
    Yale, 182 pp, £19.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 300 02619 6
  • Indagini su Piero by Carlo Ginzburg
    Einaudi, 110 pp
  • Gentile da Fabriano by Keith Christiansen
    Chatto, 193 pp, £35.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 7011 2468 7

A friend of mine recently went to see Pisanello’s fresco of St George and the Princess in the Church of Sant’ Anastasia in Verona. She was soon accosted by the sacristan, who was eager to tell her the story. When he realised that she already knew it, he asked, ‘Do you want the allegory?’ and proceeded to explain that St George symbolised the Pope, the Princess was the Church, the dragon Heresy, and so on. Pisanello himself would surely have been surprised by this interpretation. After all, if he had meant to show such an allegory, he could simply have painted a Pope with the standard personifications of the Church and Heresy, rather than the familiar legend of a popular saint. It was not until the Counter-Reformation, a century later, when the historical status of St George began to be doubted, that allegorical readings of his ‘life’ were first proposed. The sacristan’s explanation, in fact, sounds like one of those fanciful elaborations which become attached to pictures over the centuries and which guides everywhere love to relate. But it also resembles the interpretations of Renaissance works of art now proposed by many scholars.

The fashion, which seems to have started about thirty years ago, was initially associated with early Netherlandish painting. The most influential figure here was Erwin Panofsky, who popularised the notion of disguised symbolism: the idea that the seemingly realistic details which abound in Flemish pictures are theologically meaningful. That painters in Flanders did sometimes intend elements in their work to be read symbolically is not in doubt. Thus when Jan van Eyck showed a Virgin of superhuman scale, almost touching the roof of a lofty church, he was obviously drawing the familiar parallel between Mary and the Church itself. Again, when the room of the Virgin Annunciate was decorated with statues of Moses and Isaiah, these figures were included for a specific reason: Moses was a famous type or prefiguration of Christ, while Isaiah prophesied: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive.’ But Panofsky also argued, for example, that a group of three windows in an Annunciation scene was meant as a reference to the Trinity, and that everyday objects such as fruit, basins and ewers in paintings of the Virgin and Child alluded to the Fall and to particular qualities of Mary. Sometimes he provided religious texts to justify his readings, but often he did not.

Implicit here is the assumption that patrons and artists of the period thought that works of art should have a rich symbolic content, but it is by no means self-evident that this was the case. The traditional justification for religious images is that they are the Bible of the unlettered, that they instruct and remind the faithful about their beliefs. This need not exclude symbolism of a simple, familiar kind. Indeed, in certain contexts, such as pictures for a monastery, an artist might quite appropriately allude to relatively sophisticated theological ideas. But in most instances it is difficult to see the purpose in disguising symbolic references, let alone in doing this so effectively that they can be deciphered only by a professor from New York or Princeton. On the face of it, the old idea that Flemish paintings are full of naturalistic details because these gave pleasure to the artists and their public seems rather more plausible.

The belief that Italian artists of the Renaissance were interested in representing the visible world for its own sake has also been a commonplace at least since the 16th century. But this, too, has recently been challenged. Many scholars have argued, for instance, that even the lucid and spacious paintings of Piero della Francesca conceal a wealth of esoteric symbolism. None of them, however, seem to have gone quite as far as Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, who has devoted an entire book to explaining a picture which at first sight appears entirely straightforward.

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[*] Lorenzo Ghiberti by Richard Krautheimer. Princeton University Press (new edition), 460 pp., £73 and £16.80, January, 0 691 00336 X.

[†] Topos and Topicality in Renaissance Art. Society for Renaissance Studies, London 1975.