In 1909 there appeared a small book by Montgomery Carmichael modestly entitled Francia’s Masterpiece and dedicated to reconstructing the content, purpose and original setting of a single Renaissance altarpiece. It provided what is still the best account of the treatment of the Immaculate Conception in old Italian art. Carmichael deplored the limited outlook of the scholars of his day who were uninterested in the religious nature of the art they catalogued, and expressed his outrage at their complicity in the removal of ‘church pictures’ from ‘living use over altars and shrines to the chill fastnesses of meaningless museums and art galleries’ on the pretext of danger from the candles lit before them.
Whereas the museum and, still more, the domestic private collection, the auction house and the commercial gallery conspire to encourage the idea that old religious paintings are simply part of the ‘heritage’, or are there to be bought and sold, Carmichael was concerned to show that this is only the case if one thinks of a work of art as an ‘object’ – a term much favoured by museum people today, who are eager to display their antagonism to ideas. From his point of view, collectors and curators resemble those tribesmen who treasure wristwatches and become expert at detecting makes and styles, but have no idea how to tell the time and no interest in doing so.
The connoisseur defining the stylistic character of old paintings, and assessing the participation of the workshop in their production, persuades us we have entered the artist’s studio, even his head. How close such art seems – until Carmichael points out that we do not even know what it is that the painting represents. During the preparations for the recent Murillo exhibition at the Royal Academy, it was suggested that the public might wish to know what the Immaculate Conception was since it appeared in the title of so many of Murillo’s paintings. None of the available art historians knew. Things are changing, however, and much of the best art-historical research today is conducted along lines which Carmichael would have approved. Samuel Edgerton’s Pictures and Punishment is an extreme example of this trend.
Among Edgerton’s illustrations is an old photograph of a member of the Archconfraternity of San Giovanni Decollato in Rome wearing the style of hood now associated with the Ku Klux Klan and holding what appears to be a large Baroque painted ping-pong bat. Edgerton also illustrates a set of these bats which are still in the Archconfraternity’s possession and some which, without their handles, hang in the art gallery at Ravenna. They were designed to be held directly in front of the faces of condemned criminals, in the cell and on the way to execution, shielding them from the sight of the crowd and scaffold, and assisting their repentance by fixing their minds on the sufferings of the martyrs and the sacrifice of Christ.
Before he gets onto the subject of these bats, Edgerton explores a group of Italian paintings which, because they were only done out of doors, and perhaps also because there were many people eager to cover them up, have not survived at all. The subjects of these defamatory and insulting murals – pitture infamante, as they were called – were usually bankrupts and traitors who had eluded justice. The paintings were commissioned for the walls of public buildings by Italian urban governments, chiefly in the 14th and 15th centuries, often from the best available artists – among them, Castagno, Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto. Edgerton reproduces some remarkable preparatory drawings by del Sarto, studies for the most part of how clothes hang on a body that’s been suspended upside down. The drawings are surprisingly beautiful. There are, however, some shocks – fornicators dangling from their genitals, the devil stuffing sinners into his mouth while others emerge from his anus – among the illustrations to the earliest part of the book, where Edgerton discusses large late Medieval murals of the Last Judgment, designed, he explains, to give moral support to the secular dispensation of law and order which took place below them.
Edgerton’s book consists, essentially, of three long articles, but it was well worth bringing them together. There are connections: the methods of humiliation depicted in the Last Judgment murals relate to actual methods of punishment and to the modes of surrogate – painted – justice. When the treacherous mercenary commander Ridolfo Varano da Camerino was condemned in 1377 to be painted hanging upside down by one foot, gesturing obscenely with one hand at the Church and with the other at the Commune of Florence, he retaliated with a painting of himself squatting above his Florentine accusers, his faeces landing in their mouths. An understanding of the significance of various styles of capital punishment – being hanged upside down, not surprisingly, was more insulting than being hanged right way up – is also essential preparation for Edgerton’s discussion of the Christian consolation supplied on these occasions by the hooded brothers with their painted bats.
Edgerton’s subject is a large one, though his investigation is confined to a few specific types of painting in a few centres in Italy. Images of Man and Death, by the late Philippe Ariès, is a book of far greater scope, a sort of visual supplement to his celebrated L’Homme devant la Mort, surveying the whole of Western civilisation (which, viewed in detail, turns out, more often than not, to be French civilisation). Ariès is engagingly colloquial, occasionally superficial, but both intelligently ingenious and highly serious. His great knack is to discern unacknowledged attitudes and unofficial beliefs in material which we have never looked at or thought about – it may be the plan of a primitive burial ground or a 19th-century photograph of a dead infant. And, like Edgerton, he shows us how things which are familiar to us as art were shaped by a faith which is unfamiliar even to today’s believers.
As we approach this century, more and more of the art considered by Ariès is cheap and nasty: perhaps because many of art’s traditional functions – commemoration of the deceased, consolation of the survivors, the provision of devotional aids and of moral admonition – are alien to modern conceptions of fine art. This is something which preoccupies Edgerton, whose book re-creates a world in which artists possessed powers, or at least served vital practical purposes, unknown to them today. His claim is that this changed because art came more and more to be cherished for its own sake. This is no doubt correct, but his generalisations need the sort of qualification which would come from considering more evidence.
Something which Edgerton touches on (and which would surely repay systematic study) is the way in which early Italian paintings in fresco and on panel were attacked by the pious, who scratched out Judas’s face or the eyes of executioners. Whatever distress this practice may have caused the artist, it cannot have been discouraged with much official zeal. Vasari records such assaults with regret as the actions of simple-minded people and, after his time, scratching does not occur on important altarpieces or fresco cycles. This may, as Edgerton claims, represent a change of attitude. However, Vasari also records, though without disdain, numerous stories of people reacting to images as if they represented live people; and the impulse to kiss or simply to touch pictures only came to be considered simple-minded in the last century or so.
Edgerton suggests that the decline in the practice of commissioning artists to abuse disloyal mercenaries, or traitors, may be connected with increased public awareness of the skill of artistic performance, so that Andrea del Sarto’s hanged men excited admiration among early 16th-century Florentines when they were meant to make them sneer and shudder. It’s unlikely, however, that the two attitudes were as exclusive as Edgerton supposes. Nor would one use this argument to explain the simultaneous decline (noted by Edgerton) in the practice of honouring local mercenaries by means of equestrian statues – which soon after this date became the monopoly of rulers.
The power of devotional paintings can’t be returned to them. Those old bats could hardly be re-employed even if public executions were revived. Carmichael, it’s true, was able to get candles burning again in front of his favourite altarpiece by Francia, but it would be naive to suppose that the devout of today could have the same feelings about the painting as Francia’s contemporaries had. It is also worth considering whether loss of obvious religious function may not sometimes entail a gain not only in aesthetic value but in religious meaning. Fra Angelico, no longer used as a devotional aid, now excites awe as the relic of an Age of Faith. In À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Marcel reflects that he would hardly have been as fascinated by the Princesse de Parme had she been, like her ancestors, a real sovereign: ‘the political influence of the Popes has enormously increased since they ceased to possess either an Army or the Papal States; our Cathedrals meant far less to a devout Catholic of the 17th century than they mean to an atheist of the 20th.’
Certainly there is a desperate pursuit of the ‘spiritual’ involved in some of today’s art collecting which has no match in the motives of the patrons of old altarpieces. Consider, for example, the preface which Arthur Sackler provided for the scholarly, sumptuous and unmanageably large catalogue of his collection of terracottas – a collection built up in recent years by London dealers from European suppliers and eyed eagerly by the great American museums. Mr Sackler was in a taxi in St James’s when ‘an inner voice – which some may call intuition and I prefer to think of as the unconscious integration of stimuli constantly taking place in that massive network of neurones we so lightly and simply call the brain – that inner voice bade me stop the taxi, enter the gallery, and ask: “Do you have any terracottas?” ’ Mr Sackler tells us that he was ‘seeking for something which perhaps I had not even fully articulated in my own mind’.
Andrew Ciechanowiecki of the Heim Gallery sensed the object of Sackler’s ‘search’, and did a great deal to help him with his shopping – which Sackler depicts as a pilgrimage to achieve ‘free and full aesthetic communication’ and ‘spiritual intimacy’ with some fundamental creative forces in Western civilisation.