Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Medieval Art: 1000 Years Of Bad Ideas

(Third in a series)
The highlights of art history, as usually taught, go:

1. Egypt
2. Greece and Rome
3. the Renaissance
4. the mainline of Western painting (Caravaggio, Rembrandt, etc)
5. Modernism

This offers a pretty easy-to-follow story: from humble beginnings, realism steadily increases until (around 5) photography is invented, history ends, art explodes with Picasso-shaped fireworks, and here we are now and we can just watch movies instead.

It's also taught this way for another reason: the cultures involved represent a simple history of improving ideas. Egypt is a tyranny, but it is undoubtedly a civilization--it has laws and stuff, it's well-documented and explicable. Then we have Greece and Rome where we have democracy (occasionally) and individuality and philosophy and all that. Then the Renaissance with humanism, and then the Enlightenment, which leads (via a familiar paper-trail) to the wonderful now. It's not that all of history was great, but it was at least necessary. This is a very complacent philosophy: Everything's fine now, right? It's that way because of millennia of refinement.
Meaux Cathedral gargoyle
Seen this way it's pretty clear why you'd leave the Middle Ages out: in this story they can only be seen as a terrible thousand-year-long detour on the way from stateless barbarism to equality, science, and safety.
Gargoyles are so distinctive a form that even though
they're just carved images of demons, in D&D & other games they're actually
their own class of monster
And I would submit that this is why we like them so much. Nothing is so much fun to play in as a ruin. And the more sophisticated the culture that produced the building in the first place, the more fun it is to fuck around in the fucked-up shell of it. This is why we find post-apocalypses fascinating to play in, too. Games offer the imagination all of the exoticism and none of the consequences. This is why the Renaissance Fair always ends up skewing Medieval.
Case in point: This isn't Medieval at all. The flowing lines and naturalistic ear give this away
as being, like many famous gargoyles,  a product of
the 19th century Gothic Revival. The Gothic keeps getting revived for
a reason.

Unlike the oldest eras, The Middle Ages have a great many markers of civilization in abundance: writing, fortresses, machines, churches, philosophies, domesticated animals, politics, steel, towns, cities. But unlike the Renaissance, they're using them all wrong. And that's amazing.
This is the Moneymusk Reliquary. That tracery lets you know its
from Scotland or Ireland. Reliquaries are special expensive boxes
to keep the body parts of saints in. This is a dumb idea.
Since this isn't my first D&D blogging rodeo I will now pause to acknowledge the amateur and professional historians in the first row with their hands in the air straining to point out two things:

1. There was actually a great deal of intellectual and technological progress made in the Middle Ages,
2. Several of the tropes we associate with D&D and the traditional "fantasy" era are actually more Renaissance or Age of Exploration than strictly Medieval.
Another dumb reliquary.

Well that doesn't matter: we're talking about how people view history, not how it is. And in our minds we associate the Middle Ages with warfare and superstition. And warfare and superstition is fighters and magic-users. And those things are fun.

Lindisfarne Gospels.
Some Irish monk spent all this time painting ("illuminating")
this one page of a copy of the bible. Like as if they had
nothing better to do.

If we view the history of art as a history of philosophy (that is: a search for truth) then the Middle Ages are meaningless. If we view the history of art as a history of the imagination (that is: a history of human emotions and inventions) then the Middle Ages are absolutely essential to who we are today. Few people in any walk of life even now go longer than a week without using words like "king" or "knight" or "witch" or "wizard" or "demon" and the very linguistically convenient concepts these words encapsulate.
Painting in the Middle Ages raised the pattern established in ancient art of
"animals drawn well and lots of ways, people drawn poorly and always the same"
to the level of a fetish.
Even today, the stupidest members of the RPG community think of art as serving philosophy--likely due to not knowing what imagination is.
The entrance to Hell (dumb idea) was frequently depicted as
being a big mouth called…a 'hellmouth'.
And, yes, it says 'penis'.
Nothing guarantees tourism like a castle or a cathedral--and yet few buildings incarnate such stupid ideas. You don't need a castle unless you've created a social order based around petty tyrants living in constant fear of each other--and you don't need a cathedral unless you decided to waste all your stone and cash and several generations of your able-bodied men building a stylish antenna to talk to a ghost. These are awful, beautiful things. These are Fleurs Du Mal.
Classic Greek column capitals are divided into three orders:
Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. All of which are a subset of
the Not As Cool As These order.

No matter what was actually going on in the hearts and days of the millions of Europeans that lived and died after the influence of Rome abated and before the Renaissance reached them, what we see in the art--in the best of it anyway--is bad ideas. Bad ideas made beautiful and touching and compelling by effort, by intensity of belief, by invention.
The Roettgen Pieta
…and by the (stupid) idea that things needed to be artified--to glorify a god or a duke. Any object was a possible site of aestheticization. The craft ethic has probably never reached a greater height in Western civilization than in the Middle Ages--not only because it was the last time there wasn't much division between high art and useful craft, but also because being crafty was one of the few ways to avoid dying face down in a pig ditch before you lost all your baby teeth.
Ivory chess pieces from different sets.
And--by no coincidence at all--the category of "the fantastic" is about bad ideas. Otherwise the ideas wouldn't be called "fantastic" they'd be called "true". Fantasy is literally all about received ideas that we, by definition, no longer believe and threw out. There is no magic, there is nothing special about kings or clerics, the world isn't made of four elements, people aren't made of four humours, there's no such thing as a whole race being evil, Jews don't have horns. Signing up for the "the fantastic" is putting a sign on the door saying "Everything you're about to hear is bullshit". So policing the implications of fantasy is stupid: every idea in fantasy is awful.  Anyone mistaking any of it for philosophy is in desperate need of a parent or a psychiatrist.
I've told this story on the blog before:
The first time I saw this in the Met it was labeled "St George
Chesspiece". I asked, in an essay, "if St George is
your knight, what the hell does the rest
of the chess set look like? Is it all saints? Is your
king Jesus? It's either not St George or not a
chess piece." My teacher worked in the Met.
The next time I saw it, it was re-labeled.
Here's an interesting thing about Medieval art and our modern concept of The Fantastic:

We know for a fact that, for example, Dante Alighieri was genuinely a religious man. He would likely feel really bad--blasphemous, in fact--if he got the details of what Hell was like wrong. And Jesus fuck he had a lotta details.
Again: Monsters done well. People done poorly.
So what did he go on? Research? So far as we know: not really. He was something of a numerologist, but basically there are details of stuff in there that are obviously original to Dante. So was he like "Fuck it, I'll make something up, God won't notice. It's not like he sees all and knows all, right?"?
This is Scandinavian knotwork on this staff-end,
it's chunkier than Celtic tracery
Viking chest

No: here's what he and thousands of Medieval Christian artists probably thought "If I'm having this idea, it's probably because God gave it to me". Which is marvellous, as terrible ideas go: If you get an art idea, it's because you should get it.
Hey guys, lets make folding Marys!
God tell you to do that?
Alright. On it.
This is the world your players' D&D characters live in--even moreso than genuine Medieval people because your party has daily totally incontrovertible evidence of divine power in the form of the party cleric.

Everything, even a new thing, belongs. Something higher has ordained it. Mallory, Wagner and Tolkien mined the echoes of this idea very hard: everything, even the pettiest handicraft, even the pies and mutton, is mythic. Everything is, was and always will be basically this way. The only "future" (conceived as a time when things in general look different than they do now) is apocalyptic.
This is a strange psychoaesthetic trick: portraying the Middle Ages--which is actually a very distinct moment in the development of politics and technology on a very specific continent--as a sort of platonic eternal. It seems very natural to us, but it takes a certain kind of sleight of hand to look at something as complex and specific and historical as, say, a crossbow, and read it as a weapon in a mythic conflict. You couldn't imagine a fairy tale with an arquebus in it.
We don't know whether people back
then thought this guy looked funny.
But they might've: Chess is less
important than God, so the
chess piece carvers had a
freer hand. 
If the Lord meant for me to not Hobo and thence to Murder why would he put the idea in my head?

More Irish graphomania--
The Book of Kells
Hey let's keep water in a lion!
These shaped jugs are called "aquamaniles"
Often these unimportant domestic objects are
the most interesting. Art historians hate that.
The Tara Brooch. More insane Irish intricacy. This was before
whiskey had come to the Isles.
Bishop's grave


  1. Tedious prophet, quoting from the Book of Cyril: 'There shall, in that time, be rumours of things going astray, erm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things... with the sort of raffia work base that has an attachment. At this time, a friend shall lose his friend's hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o'clock.'

  2. "You couldn't imagine a fairy tale with an arquebus in it."

    You just, in the preceding paragraph, mentioned Tolkien.

    1. Farmer Giles of Ham isn't a fairy tale.
      It's a fairy-tale-like story by Tolkien.
      It feels as much like a fairy tale as a story could…but then there's a gun in it and it is something else.

    2. Hahaha! Cheater.

      Anyway, I was only pointing out Tolkien. If you reject that, you still can't reasonably reject collected folktales (see especially the note by Wratislaw at the end). I like your theory (I am, in fact, quite sick of theories of unlimited progress), but that single point is wrong. The folk tale-tellers incorporate whatever is an established part of their environment.

      I actually rather like the way that the Dreamlands supplement incorporated the idea, though the precise, systematic method involved (any type of object that has existed in the waking world for 500 years has an analog in the dream world, or whatever the precise number of years was) might be a little much.

    3. Actually: I do reject the folktales.

      No matter what the _actual_ people do in telling the stories, I think they definitively lose a certain aesthetic quality when ideas that are very modern creep in.

      We're not talking about "what can the pedant dig up". We're talking about "what does and doesn't seem jarring to an audience".

      You can see tribal shadow-puppet stories with bombings and Richard Nixon faces in them to this day. They're still jarring.

      So: no. You're wrong. You've misunderstood what we're talking about here.

    4. For example: Paul Bunyan stories don't feel like fairy tales at all--because they have so many markers of modernity.

      They feel like something else.

    5. I think you're drawing a line between what are folk tales and fairy tales. Folk tales were told by folk and that means that sometimes the Devil has a pocket watch. Fairy tales are collections of folk tales designed to titillate people who know better. They aren't living tales and as such are colored by the collector's need to parse the authentic ones.

  3. I would have posted sooner, but had to look it up. Dante based a lot of his Divine Comedy on the Apocalypse of Peter, a book that didn't make the cut for the New Testament. It was extremely popular well into the Renaissance, but kind of faded out during the Protestant movement and the Reformation. But, it is kind of weird that he would make a pre-christian Roman poet his guide to Heaven and Hell.

    And, just to clear things up, apocalypse is Greek for "revealing writing". In other words, a non fiction book.

    As for religion and imagination, a lot of the people that become religious leaders lack it. They got to the position they held, by memorizing stuff better that others, and being strict in adhering to that stuff. They didn't like it when others had imagination, because the things they made up might not fit in with the stuff they have memorized. So, they made up rules that said you can't make up things about certain things. As you said in the previous post, those rules applied to the depiction of people, because people were made in the image of God, and you were not suppose to depict God. That, of course was not what the Bible actually meant, but it took imagination to actually understand what it really said, so the people at the top misunderstood it.

    Of course, many of the same religious leaders were also a bit insane. Insane, with no imagination, except when it came to rules against things that require imagination, which they were paranoid about. Sounds like a lot of leaders today.

    1. "a lot" but not all. There are tons of divine comedy details that didn't even exist during Peter's time. Like all the Italian political stuff.

    2. I've seen it said before, by whom I do not recall, that The Divine Comedy was Dante's self-insert Bible fanfic.

  4. i always thought Egypt obsessed over compared to iraq as it is mentioned in bible and Greeks and Romans existed so post Egypt imperial era they were never a threat - they had romantic ideas about Egypt while Iraq and Persia were a constant threat who ideas stolen from there had to be claimed as greek - our bookshops and library histories continue this bias - French and Germans teach more Iraq history in schools - - Persia outlasted Greece and Rome in various form yet where are the penguin classics printing their literature?

  5. Let's not forget knights vs. snails:

  6. "if St George is
    your knight, what the hell does the rest
    of the chess set look like? Is it all saints? Is your
    king Jesus?"

    To which the answer is and always should be
    "You're GOD-DAMN right, he is. Mary is the Queen. The Vatican is the rooks.
    The black pieces are the fucking Devil."
    If this is not the case, I do not understand the point of making chess pieces.

  7. As one of the professional medievalists in the front row, I was ready to be irritated. I wasn't. This is a great post.

  8. So Northern Ren is like the Warhammer to Southern Ren's Marvel Superheroes.