Meyer Schapiro’s Mousetrap

Gabriel Josipovici

  • Late Antique, Early Christian and Medieval Art: Selected Papers, Vol. 3 by Meyer Schapiro
    Chatto, 414 pp, £20.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2514 4

I have always thought that there was a striking resemblance between Freud’s earliest case histories, which he published as Studies in Hysteria, and the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the Studies, as in Sherlock Holmes, we are presented with the man of wisdom to whom people bring their problems; who listens in silence; then asks a number of carefully considered questions; and who finally solves the mystery and restores things to the order they were in before tragedy struck – or at least unearths the culprit. There is even an episode in the Studies about the great doctor on holiday in a mountain resort. But a man like Freud and Holmes can, of course, never take a holiday: here, too, a mystery is brought to him to solve; naturally, he obliges.

The clarity and elegance of Freud’s accounts cannot hide the enormous amount of sheer knowledge that he brings to each case; that knowledge is never used to impress either the reader or the patient, yet it is there behind every decision and remark the doctor makes. Nor is it simply knowledge about his chosen field: rather, it is an awareness of Classical culture, literature and the humanities, which are never seen as mere fields of study but always as part of our lives as civilised human beings.

The same combination of extreme clarity of thought and lightly carried erudition is to be found in the great German-speaking art historians of this century. Panofsky’s essays in particular, like Freud’s, convey the excitement of a detective story together with that quite different excitement which comes from seeing great learning deployed for valuable ends. Quite often an essay begins with a particular problem to solve, produces evidence from some learned source which suddenly seems to resolve the difficulties, then points out that this raises a new kind of problem – and so the essay spirals in towards the centre, until not only has the specific question been answered, but the whole of a past epoch has grown meaningful for us.

Nevertheless, as with Freud, doubts creep in after a while. One senses that, behind the apparent catholicity of taste and the seemingly insatiable curiosity about the past, there lies a distinct pattern of prejudices. Gombrich has ably argued that Freud’s taste in artistic matters is very much that of the average late 19th-century Viennese bourgeois. But what are we to make of Gombrich’s own recent remark: ‘As one who still likes Beethoven symphonies and is likely to stay away when a modern work is announced...’? Does not the implied opposition smack a little too much of prejudice? Of course, it is possible to see the Warburg school’s high valuation of Renaissance and Classical art, and its distrust of what seems to be modern irrationality, in historical terms – as its reaction to the Nazi glorification of the primitive but I think the roots go deeper. Panofsky is really not very far from the average late-19th-century Viennese bourgeois when he writes, in his great book on Dürer: ‘But where a picture like the woodcut from Colard Mansion’s Ovide Moralise of 1484 strikes us as almost comical for want of expressiveness and dramatic concentration, Dürer’s drawing, executed only ten years later, has the force of a classic tragedy.’ I, on the other hand, find the woodcut utterly delightful and the Dürer a pompous bore.

Meyer Schapiro is blessedly free of the prejudices of Panofsky and Gombrich. He can, of course, do the classic art-historical thing as well as anyone, but even in the most purely scholarly and erudite essays in this volume[1] his warmth and catholicity shine through. Take the first essay, a study of the symbolism of the Mérode altarpiece, that beautiful late-medieval Flemish work now in New York. In a wing beside the Annunciation, an aged Joseph is seen in his carpenter’s workshop. It seems that he is making a mousetrap. What is the significance of that detail? Schapiro begins by explaining it in terms of the tradition of symbolism which saw Christ as the bait for the devil, who, in seizing him, brought about his own ruin. This helps to answer our question, but it is clearly not enough. Schapiro notes the importance of the objects in Mary’s room in the accompanying picture, remarking that ‘the mystery that takes place within the Virgin’s body is symbolised in the space of the house; the various objects, all so familiar and tangible... possess a hidden religious meaning, focused on the central human figure.’

The argument now takes a new turn, typical of many of these essays. Schapiro relates the painting, not just to an iconographical tradition, but to the history and culture of the time. He quotes Chancellor Gerson’s moralised description of Joseph as humble, hardworking and thrifty, and points out the importance of the mousetrap in the painting as a domestic object as well as a theological symbol. This leads him to some very interesting general reflections. In the early Middle Ages, the notion that objects in the physical world were an allegory of the spiritual did not necessarily entail the representation of these objects as the signs of hidden truths. ‘The mousetrap, like other household objects, had first to be interesting as part of the extended visible world, before its theological significance could justify its presence in a religious picture.’ However, even as a piece of still-life, the mousetrap is more than an object in a home: ‘it takes its place beside the towel and the basin of water as an instrument of cleanliness or wholeness, and may therefore be regarded as an overt symbol of the Virgin’s purity.’ What Schapiro is doing here, by stressing the notion of an ‘overt symbol’, is to open our minds to the possibility that the alternatives are never simply either that objects are symbolic or that they are not: the very way the painter has brought them together makes objects in a naturalistic painting inevitably symbolic.

But Schapiro has not finished. He changes direction again, and reminds us that the picture also shows a beautiful young wife and an old husband busy making mousetraps. We do not need the learned gloss he provides to realise, once it is put like that, that the mousetrap also functions as a sexual symbol. Once again, he is concerned to save us from the false alternatives of either a religious meaning or no meaning at all. By presenting the picture in this way, as ‘a latent battlefield for the religious conceptions, the new secular values, and the underground wishes of men’, he can lead in to a superb compressed discussion of the Arnolfini portrait, where the overtly religious content has retreated to the tiny scenes of the life of Christ which encircle the mirror, that ‘beautiful, luminous, polished eye’, in which the artist himself is caught as he enters the room. And serene though these two great paintings may be, they contain the seeds of the terrifying and fantastic art of Bosch, where the humble mousetrap has turned into those ‘ubiquitous Boschian instruments in which the diabolical, the ingenious and the sinfully erotic are combined’.

Not all the essays are as rich and suggestive as the one on the Mérode altarpiece. However, Schapiro is always alive to the human element, whether he is dealing with Palestinian mosaics or Irish book illumination, with Italian flagellants or the struggle of the native and the Roman Church in the time of Bede. Like any art historian whose field is pre-Renaissance, his sympathy and understanding can never be for the purely aesthetic qualities of objects, for art was always an integral part of life. Discussing the famous Bird’s Head Haggada, an illustrated Hebrew manuscript of c. 1300, he points out that the book embodies a conception of history and of life: ‘Here a people recall their past and affirm a common faith.’ The haggada is not a book for the synagogue but for the assembled family at Seder, and as such it has no counterpart among the service books of medieval Christian ritual. The illustrations may give pleasure to all, but they were never designed to replace the written word, as the stained glass of the churches was supposed to do. ‘They were addressed... to the already instructed reader of the text, and re-enacted for his imagination both the historic and the present world referred to in the writing and, like the poetry and song in the same book, helped to save him from a merely intellectual grasp of a content steeped in feeling as well as thought.’

Though Schapiro rarely spends much time on general remarks, no reader of his work can fail to realise that he is, in his modest and quiet way, profoundly altering our views of the past. Like Peter Brown in his studies of late antiquity, he helps to free us from a Rome-centred view of the past, and allows us to recognise that the Eastern Mediterranean was the source of Western culture, and that the art of Ireland, Spain and Norway is as important for us as that of Italy or France. The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, was making the same point when, in a recent interview with Tony Rudolf, he stressed the kinship he felt with such poets as Seferis and Montale: for too long our geography and our history have made us look at things in the wrong way, and by doing so they have cut us off from an important part of ourselves. It is not just today that English painters are among the most highly respected in the world; the great age of English art was around the year 1000, and a number of the essays in this book analyse the extraordinary flowering of English art in the late Anglo-Saxon period, and its relations with Byzantine and Romanesque art.

Every art historian must be able to describe in words the works with which he is dealing, but Schapiro’s gifts are quite outstanding. Here he is writing about mosaic pavements in Israel:

No part of the surface is, strictly speaking, a neutral ground. From this uniformity of the tiny elements arises a typical texture and rhythm and a scale of proportions of parts to the whole. Many objects – a petal, an eye, a nostril – are represented by a single cube which becomes a measure throughout. By their equal density and common structure the cubes and joints help to unify an extended horizontal field which we cannot easily see as a whole but must grasp through successive views as we move around it. Important too are the characteristic hardness, and opacity of the slightly lustrous medium with its considerable range of stony and earthen tones; with the grayness of the joints they confer an aspect of the sober and subdued, a humble materiality that distinguishes the floor mosaics from the more colourful and luminous glass mosaics on the walls and vaults.

After such a description, which is itself already a response to what is before him, Schapiro has no difficulty in showing that the marvellous mosaic of the sacrifice of Isaac, if it owes nothing to Classical models, is very far from being ‘primitive’ either. Like the work of Paul Zumthor in the field of medieval literature, Schapiro’s essays help us to see the inadequacy of notions of artistic norms derived from the Renaissance. ‘The standard of nature is an obstacle to critical insight,’ he remarks at one point in his characteristically quiet tone, and he proceeds to demonstrate the truth of this in his analyses of the extraordinary exuberance of medieval English art or of the wonderful Beatus apocalypse from Spain.[2] ‘The Beatus manuscripts,’ he says, ‘make us realise how limited is our present conception of the artistic process, and how much it depends on the values of art and social life today.’ He goes on: ‘we are able, however, precisely through our own art and point of view, to appreciate these long-ignored medieval works as few observers could do during the last centuries before our time... I do not think that I am fanciful in seeing in certain of Léger’s works, painted during his stay in New York in the 1940s, the effects of his enthusiasm for this Spanish manuscript.’

Schapiro is right not to try to be polemical.[3] It is enough that we recognise that the great artists of the present have helped us to see what we had for so long been blind to. Pierre Daix’s exciting recent book on Picasso’s cubist years makes the point repeatedly: to go forward, one has to go back, just as to be able to go back one has to go forward. And it is not simply a matter of art and art history. The uncanny sympathy with animals exhibited by Kafka is something which others have perhaps felt, though few can have felt it as strongly, but which culture somehow didn’t allow them to articulate.

It was of Kafka that I particularly thought as I read what is perhaps the finest essay in this book, a mere two-page review of Lilian Randall’s Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts. ‘Though scattered capriciously in the margins,’ says Schapiro, ‘they are done with the same precision of detail and calligraphic finesse as the richly framed religious imagery on the same page. They are a convincing evidence of the artist’s liberty, his unconstrained possession of the space, which confounds the view of medieval art as a model of systematic order and piety. There is also in these images a sweetness and charm which seem to arise from the truly miniature scale – a scale that is not just a consequence of the small format of the book made for private reading and prayer; it is a quality of the objects represented.’ Only a writer with his eye firmly on the object and the expressive ability to convey what he sees could nowadays risk a phrase like ‘sweetness and charm’. But Schapiro, one feels, always knows what he is doing, always says what he means, and he has first-hand experience of such a wide range of art that his analogies are always illuminating. Here, for example, he goes on to suggest that for sureness of touch in their depiction of hares, apes, mice, cats, birds, snails, insects and flowers these painters are equalled only by their contemporaries in the Far East.

But this is not all. By reducing man to the scale of these creatures, by

a hybrid mingling of bodies which form together an undemountable dwarf, a monstricule, the artist strips man of his privilege and supremacy; we see him in these strange re-embodiments as a being among the others in nature, and sharing in his movements and passions the instinctive mobility of the animal world... It is a process of desublimation through which the distance between the natural and the civilised is abolished. No other art in history offers so abundant an imagery of the naked and clothed body as a physical engine. Free from classic norms, the artist experiments with the human frame as the most flexible, ductile, indefatigably protean self-deforming system in nature.

This is art history at its best, a truly humanistic activity, since it helps to give man back to himself and his possibilities, both by pointing out what lay before our eyes but which we had missed seeing for so long, and by its own inimitable example.

[1] ‘The third of four volumes, two of which, Modern Art and Romanesque Art, have already been published by Chatto and Windus.

[2] It is a great pity that this otherwise beautifully produced book does not runs to coloured illustrations. A good deal of Schapiro’s analysis of the Beatus apocalypse will thus be lost on the reader, since that work depends to a large extent on its strikingly bold colouring. But he can make up for this by purchasing another Chatto volume in their series of manuscript illuminations, Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination by John Williams.

[3] His remarks here need to be filled out by reading his superb essays on Van Gogh, Picasso and Mondrian in Modern Art.