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Alberti's Window

Interesting post! I especially to how you connected this idea to be both within and outside the art historical discipline.

On a related note, I experienced some of the secretive/conspiratorial approach to art history just last week. In one of my lectures, a student spoke up who strongly believes that the inclusion of a compass in a Renaissance work of art is directly related to the Masons. This student is definitely entitled to her opinion, but I also tried to explain how the compass was a symbol for the arts (and the liberal arts) at the time. Anyhow, I immediately wondered if Dan Brown novels had preconditioned this student to have such a response.

I look forward to your forthcoming hermetic posts.

David Packwood

Hi Monica,

Yes, I've had similar experiences in my teaching. I definitely think the Dan Brown explosion has weighted interpretation towards the hermetic, esoteric, at least for some.


Oh, I just love the part where Steiner says "Occult investigation finds that..." - I must remember that line for my next conference paper, I'm sure it'll come in handy ;-)

@ Monica: The episode you describe sounds vaguely familiar. I remember something similar happening back when I myself was an undergraduate student which, however, was several years before Dan Brown even wrote the Da Vinci Code. (Man, I feel old now...) So I guess that, to a certain extent, Masonic and other esoteric interpretations have always been popular. Then again, I believe it's quite plausible that due to the Da Vinci Code phenomenon things have gotten worse in recent years....

Francis DeStefano

I guess the spirit of John the Baptist didn't imbue the young Raphael with ascetism. It's also interesting that John's untimely death made him unaware of subsequent events in the life of Christ but not of Paul. Perhaps they were both members of the Compagnie della Decapitati.

Seriously, in a 2003 Botticelli exhibition catalog Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel noted that "the spread of practices of individual devotion to be carried out primarily in the home…" led to the emergence of a new trend that "tended to identify the mystery of the Incarnation with the Redemption itself, focusing on the Passion with much less fervour than in the past: whence the growing popularity of ‘incarnational’ iconographies celebrating the word made flesh, such as pictures of the Infant Jesus in his mother’s arms…while the demand for images with Christ on the Cross, very common in the fourteenth century was drastically reduced.”

David Packwood

Thanks pen and needle. I like the idea of appealing to the occult during a conference!

Frank- That's really fascinating. That narrative would give a rationale for the frequent appearance of the mother/child image as opposed to stark crucifixion imagery. The intimacy and maternal quality of these images might be explained by Kroegel's point. I find that more plausible than the Secret History's appeal to Gnostic texts in which Mary sees a child that she mistakes for Christ, the double supposedly being the Baptist, who has both connections to the quattrocento and the hermetic.

H Niyazi

Interesting post David, and thanks for the mention! One aspect that should be mentioned perhaps is that certain elements of knowledge and investigation shift in perception and category with time.

What may have be looked down on as mysticism now would have been more acceptable in a previous era as a valid scientific pursuit. The historical obsession with alchemy is a nice example of this, represented in the many paintings in Francesco I de' Medici's studiolo for example, and a topic obsessed over by the likes of Newton.

I cant say I fully subscribe to Steiner's insights into reincarnation, but sometimes even sources one is least agreeable with offers some interesting tidbits! Why indeed did Raphael not paint those subjects? Were they increasingly unpopular, or something else? What resonated in me when reading that is that I have yet to find a Raphael image that depicts wrought emotion and anguish in a convincing way. Even 'Fire in the Borgo', as intersting as it is, does not have the emotional power of something by Michelangelo, or later artists such as Tintoretto or Caravaggio. Raphael's depiction of *positive* emotions are far more convincing.

Whether this is related to something biographical, or a factor of Raphael's training is hard to say definitively - though it is important to point out, and very much an example of the need to consider the internal + external factors contributing to an artists output - which is the essence of what a jargony term like "psychosocial" is driving at.

As for Dan Brown, I am far less bothered by his work now than previously as I have had so many readers of 3PP say they first became interested in art history because of his books, and "wanted to know the real story." They then track down non fiction texts, and seek websites likes this one, and sometimes even enrol in a course! Mass media has the power to generate a spark of interest in a topic - and for that it is useful.

Kind Regards

David Packwood

Good insights H

On science and mysticism. Yes, I agree. Alchemy is a good reference point; e.g, Paracelsus who gave instructions to make "copies of himself" from his spermatozoa- hinting at early cloning. I'll probably do a post on alchemy some time.

Obviously there aren't many pyschosocial or similar approaches in renaissance studies, hence the value of Steiner's observations. In relating mind and body to artistic works, there's always going to be a block, mainly because of Freud whose pyschobiography of Leonardo, which has been mocked by art historians. Damisch does interesting things with it, but I think the French are more open to unorthodox thinking.

I have no beef with Dan Brown. I'm glad that students are being drawn to art history because of him. From a literary/stylistic point of view I just don't think he's very good.




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