Thursday, December 10, 2009


On his wonderful blog, The Lion and the Cardinal, Daniel Mitsui has republished an earlier post discussing medieval art. He begins by discussing the common modern prejudice against non-linear art perspectives. The linear perspective, an accomplishment of the Florentine Renaissance, is often thought of as being more realistic than other kinds of perspectives. But as he discusses in this post, the assumption that the linear art perspective is more realistic and so more truthful and more advanced many times is just that, an assumption.

"Some may argue that the resemblance of such a painting to a photograph is proof of its realism," he writes. "But this is circular; had we not already been accustomed to consider perspectival painting the standard of realism, we might never have accepted photography as realistic either. I can imagine an ancient Egyptian sage inventing a camera, and upon discovering that it did not always show the human figure in profile concluding that it did not work very well."

It hinges upon our understanding of what is realistic. A Cartesian may be quite content with a definition of realism as being a presentation of how things are seen to the naked eye. But from another perspective,  in many ways that we've come to underestimate, the linear perspective isn't realistic. I think the most important of these is its failure to take into account the life of the mind, symbolism, and a hierarchy of values. "It presents things as they are seen to be, rather than as they are known to be. It does not accommodate the vision of the mind's eye," he says.
In the mediaeval mind, hierarchy, rhythm and number are the fundamental laws of the universe. Art was painted and drawn and woven in the same manner that literature was written and the natural world was observed; symbolism was the animating principle. The literal is only one of four senses of reality; the allegorical, tropological and anagogical senses are equally real, and equally necessary to depict.
Medieval art was capable of expressing symbolism and narrative in a way that the linear perspective is incapable, and therefore can be considered more realistic.

He discusses much more than this and the entire post is really well worth the read.

1 comments:

claire said...

Interesting. Although, realism is wholly dependent on the manner in which one defines it. I do not think the lack of direct symbolism in, for example, photography makes it more or less realistic than medieval art. Rather, as both come from different perspectives, I do not believe that they can be fairly compared with one another.

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