The Medieval Approach to Narrative Structure:
A 1966 Lecture at UCLA
What does Sue Thompson have to do with today, Friday, October 14? Sue had a popular song "Norman" and today is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. The song obviously ties in with contemporary culture, but where does it tie in with art? The events of the Norman conquest are recorded in sequential form on the Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1073-83.
Recording a story in narrative sequence is a typically medieval approach to structure. The tradition of this goes back to ancient book illustration. The Egyptians used papyrus scrolls to write on, for paper had not been invented yet--a problem for technological history. The Greeks learned writing from them, and key documents in this regard came from the deciphering of Linear B, the Rosetta Stone which contains hieroglyphs as well as script (demotic writing), and also some early written Greek. The same text appears in three really different methods of writing or languages which were keys to deciphering the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt.
We become interested in this historically, for in the Renaissance there was a revived interest in Egyptian civilization. In fact, in many of Poussin's paintings, Egyptian elements are present. Our interest here is how the writings tie up with historical representation.
To use a scroll effectively, subject matter had to be compartmentalized or put into sequences. With the appearance of the codex, a type of bound book made out of parchment or vellum, the relation between illustration and text changes. The codex has a set sequence of pages; hence, it is compartmentalized to a greater degree. The conventions that provided a given order of illustrations for a particular text, technically a recension, can be of interest to us now. The Book of Genesis in the Bible has various recensions from different times and different parts of the world that can relate to various works of art. The art on the porch to St. Marks in Venice and that in a cathedral in Sicily show remarkable continuity. Originality has been submerged to continuity or a set Pattern. Originality, creativity, and innovation have a much lesser importance than do sequential and compartmentalized treatment of subject matter. We cannot assume however, that aesthetic qualities are less important, for great works of art are still sought after at this time.
Why is the Renaissance treated as a completely new period? We are not interested in drawing firm dividing lines, and why we are not should be a recurring problem to the student.
Different attitudes to history
Petrarch gives his historical viewpoint when he talks about the "middle ages" or the ''dark ages" in his poem "Africa" c. 1338. Why does Petrarch consider them dark ages in contrast to the bright, golden age of classical antiquity? He holds Greece and Rome up as ideals revealing an entirely new attitude towards antiquity. The attitude can first be detected in the literature of the 1300's, for poems were written in Latin and a basic understanding of Latin composition was a major objective. We also see the appearance of antiquarians. An antiquarian can be compared to an archeologist or an art historian. The antiquarian has a love of the relics of the past for their romantic associations and not necessarily for their intrinsic, aesthetic value. The archeologist values past material as a means to enable him to reconstruct what life and culture might have been like. The art historian makes a critical judgement. He functions as an archeologist in some ways; however, he is not only interested in ancient or dead civilizations. There is an archeology of the Renaissance or even of the early 20th century. The art historian is concerned first and foremost with the works of art. Quality is very important to him as it is a very important part of his criticism. Art historians are generally in agreement about "greatness" in a work of art. The facts are there in the work of art, and facts are not worth arguing.
Petrarch identified the dark age as a gulf separating his time from another--a juxtaposition of time but not space. This ties in with nationalist sentiments and the use of the Italian language in literature, a particular reaction against Dante. The classicists used Latin and Dante used the common tongue. This reasoning is also reflected in Mussolini's Italy. He wanted to build a new Rome, and in doing so he made conscious and deliberate aesthetic judgements in architecture in order to relate his empire to Rome. He used classical forms such as the half rounded arches to produce the desired effect. We should not put his architecture down automatically because of its political affiliations, for it had fine aesthetic qualities and good proportions; in short, it was positive architecture.
In the 15th century, the interest in antiquity carries over to the visual arts. In the early 1400's, Ghiberti did a statue, a free standing figure of St. Matthew. This was one of the first visual conceptions of the human form relating to classical antiquity in that it is life size and free standing. The importance of Ghiberti to our study now is that he wrote a book entitled Commentaries, one of the first books of art history. In it, he reveals the same attitude for antiquity that was earlier set down by Petrarch.
Giorgio Vasari studied art history in terms of biographies of the lives of the most famous painters and sculptors. He treats art history as a sequence ending with Michelangelo, for it is his biography that appears last in the book, The Lives of the Artists. Vico wrote in Naples in the 1600's and treats history not as strict sequence, but in terms of cultural relativism.
Creation was always a logical problem to those writing history. The position of the artist has also been a problem. Is he a creator? The definition of what the artist is and what he does is conditioned by material- what he works with and the work of art itself. With Goethe, we get the first clear statement about the artist being a creator.
There have been other references to the problem of creativity , and the artist as a creator.
Macrobius, in the Saturnalia (c. 449 A.D.), showed connections between the structure of Virgil's Aeneid and that of the cosmos. He considers the act of creating the Aeneid as being parallel to God's creation of the universe. A definite statement of the artist as creator. Longinus wrote On the Sublime in which he makes references to creativity and to the artist as creator.
These ideas are the exception rather than the rule, and it is not until the late 18th century that the ideas begin to take hold. Kant wrote A Critique of Judgement around 1790. In it, he says that a work of art is a world complete unto itself with its own laws that have no necessary relation to the world around us and to the laws there. This is the intellectual basis for abstract art. A work of art does not have to have a reference to the outside world, it acts individually outside of any other context but that it is a work of art. This idea is very modern in terms of art itself, for it took well over a hundred years for the implications of Kant's theories to be realized in the work of art. It was not until the early 1900's that the first completely non-objective painting appeared, a painting with no point of reference to something in the real world.
With the Renaissance, we see a revival or re-birth of ancient art. There has to be a death or decline in order for there to be a re-birth. Here we find a fundamental paradox. Petrarch was a devout Christian as were many Renaissance men. Yet, he considered the birth of Christianity as the beginning of the dark ages, after the decline of Rome. We came out of the dark ages in the Renaissance, the means being the rediscovery of the pagan literature of the pagan, classical civilization. The Renaissance was a pagan period in many ways. Neo-Platonisn--the relation of the individual to the group and the cosmos-- became a popular philosophy. However, it was difficult to reconcile Neo-Platonism and Christianity, the problem being embodied in Michelangelo for one. In his sonnets and his art, we find statements for both attitudes- a dichotomy that plagued him throughout his life. Perhaps it is this conflict revealed in his art that contributes to its "greatness."
This material was recorded in a set of class notes taken for Class Art 1C, Lecture 5 by Kurt von Meier in 1966 at the University of California, Los Angeles.