My blog on Moreau has generated an interesting post and discussion over at Three Pipe Problem. In a discussion of the biographical and art history, under the umbrella of the psychosocial, TPP asks an interesting question about Raphael’s focus on images of children and mothers, wondering if it reflects a personal quality of Raphael. Perhaps, but this exchange coincided with me reading about the Theosophist Rudolf Steiner, in a book given to me recently. The person who gave me this tome must have thought it was an art history book as The Secret History of the World: As Laid Down by the Secret Societies is lavishly illustrated with many images from art history. This work is by no means conventional itself; it claims to tell the secret history of the world with such ideas as religion as astral, an occult history of art and the symbol- well, you get the gist. The Sceptic should have dismissed it instantly, but the Art Historian was intrigued by the very interesting images, so I decided to read the book, which seems to be heavily dependent on the ideas of the theosophist, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was, in fact, a great admirer of renaissance artists, especially Raphael. Steiner had a novel theory about Raphael’s consistent use of the mother and child image, and no, it wasn’t Freudian, or dependent on an obvious psychoanalytic model. It might be called incarnational, because Steiner believed that Raphael was the incarnation of John the Baptist, who was the incarnation of Elijah etc. Raphael painted the mother and child image frequently because it usually featured John the Baptist, his previous self. I found this cool site on Raphael’s School of Athens, which has an extract from a lecture on the painter that Steiner gave in 1912.
“Raphael both heralded and established a new impulse in Christianity although, to begin with he was not understood. Occult investigation finds that the same Individuality who once worked in Elijah and later in John the Baptist, lived again on earth in Raphael. This helps us to understand how the forces develop in the same soul from life to life, and to discern the effects of earlier causes. The Baptist was beheaded; his work came to light again in the achievements of his great successor. The new proclamation of the Baptist in the Raphael life was for long ages forgotten. It came to life again in what Spiritual Science teaches concerning the Christ-Impulse. What a light shines in our understanding when we gather up the threads leading through the single personalities, and in what vivid perspective the single personality stands there before us!”
Of course this is nonsense, but Steiner seems to be deadly serious about this theory: he went on to explain that the incarnation of John the Baptist in Raphael was why certain subjects such as the Crucifixion and the Mount of Olives didn’t figure in his output because John didn’t live through them as he had been beheaded.
“What is it that Raphael did not paint? He painted no scene on the Mount of Olives, no Crucifixion. True, he painted a “Bearing of the Cross,” but it was a very poor picture and gives the impression of having been done to order. Neither did he paint any of the scenes leading directly to the Crucifixion. His creative genius begins to reveal itself again only when he portrays the figure of the great successor of John — the figure of Paul in “The School of Athens”; or when, passing over the other events in the life of Christ, he paints “The Transfiguration.” What Raphael has not painted helps us to understand that it was alien to him to portray those events on Earth (not events in the spiritual world) which took place after he was beheaded in his previous life. We realise why it was that Raphael painted fewer pictures of these particular events. When we look at the pictures, we feel that all those which portray events subsequent to the Beheading of John the Baptist, are not, like the others, born of earlier remembrances.” Note, Steiner doesn’t accept that it is Plato in the School of Athens- he thinks it’s St Paul.
I first came into contact with Steiner when doing my Phd on Poussin. The Poussin (and Raphael) scholar Konrad Oberhuber had curated an exhibition at Fort Worth in 1988, and I was obliged to read his catalogue of that event. Oberhuber was a lifelong devotee of Steiner, and that had inspired him to formulate a model of Poussin’s stylistic evolution based on Steiner’s ideas of space and rhythm. Nothing to do with the occult this time, but Steiner’s research on biorhythms, which seem to be an essential part of his philosophy. I’ll say more about that another time, but briefly, Oberhuber used Steiner’s schema based on evolution theory and theories of child psychology to explain Poussin’s development within a seven year arc. I thought it was an interesting approach, but the Poussin inquisition got to hear about it, and intent on stamping out this new heresy, turned their thumbscrews on Oberhuber. I was “advised” not to read Oberhuber, and he chose to avoid the auto da fe by abandoning Poussin studies forever. I’m not as familiar with his work on Raphael as I should be, so I don’t know if he used Steiner’s ideas there. I’d be interested in seeing it done though.
As for Steiner’s secret history of Raphael? Well, I’d want more evidence of reincarnation, or a more scientific approach to such claims. Still, I am intrigued by this overlap of art history and the occult. On my Moreau post I did compare interpretation of images to a kind of initiation into secrets. The most famous example of linking initiation with art history is Edgar Wind’s discussion of ancient mystery religious ceremonies in the context of renaissance paintings.
“Iconography, is always, as Focillon observed with regret, un detour, an unavoidable round-about approach to art. Its reward, in the study of Renaissance mysteries, is that it may help to remove the veil of obscurity which not only distance in time (although in itself sufficient for that purpose) but a deliberate obliqueness in the use of metaphor has spread over some of the greatest Renaissance paintings. They were designed for initiates; hence they require an initiation.”
(Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, p. 15).
Towards the end of the Secret History of the World, the author (Mark Booth or Jonathan Black) refers to an unnamed, mysterious art historian interested in the esoteric; and it does strike me that there are parallels between being in a secret society and practicing some aspects of art history. Somebody looking in at art history from the outside could be forgiven for regarding it as arcane, or the conversation of mystics, especially renaissance art history, which as Wind suggests entails a kind of initiation. The public see the pop side of this with the Dan Brown Da Vinci code phenomenon, conspiracy theory of religions; but there’s an even more hidden thread running through history from Leonardo to Steiner, if the Secret History of the World is to be credited. I’ll probably share some of this hermetic art history on future posts. I’m not saying I believe it- I baulk when I read that Veronese’s incarnation was known to “Hidden Masters”, and this stuff seems really “out-there” at times, the sort of erudite occultism that Umberto Eco sent up mercilessly in Foucault’s Pendulum, which I heartily recommend. Still, it strikes me that the Secret History of the World is relevant because it shows how closely art history and the occult are connected, in the minds of some people, both outside and inside the profession.