Seeing dharma in three paintings

This is a follow up piece to the last entry which discussed the idea that painting can be considered a source of dharmic reflection. There I outlined some of the ways paintings can be approached, looked at and seen. This essay considers three actual paintings as examples and suggests some points of entry. I have been brief in both the historical context, greater detail is easily found on wikipedia, and on the discussion pointers, these are by their nature personal insights, think of them as introductions to meet and converse with paintings and their painters. After an introduction conversations tend to veer off in directions of personal interest. dharma is about human interactions and about being alive in the world. 

Poets and writers provide insights into dharma, I think painters can also offer opportunities for an unmediated exploration of these ideas. The great advantage of painting is, as a visual media, we are not presented with the distraction of language. There is no need to interpret another’s thoughts, we can converse directly with life as lived and revealed by another through the paintings they create.

The Sainsbury wing of the national gallery contains some of the finest paintings of the early renaissance. A period in painting history which is particularly interesting as it covers a revolution in western art just as dramatic, perhaps even more so, that the period from the mid 19th to 20th centuries which saw the evolution of modern art. Western art had for many centuries been held in something of a stranglehold by the dogma of how Christianity and Christian scenes should be portrayed. Artists were reliant on the catholic church, or if they were particularly talented and fortunate, on royal patronage. Both institutions insisted on a fairly rigorous adherence to appropriate representations of Christ and other religious figures. Representation was further constrained by the available painting technology. Fresco painting had to be done directly onto walls covered in wet plaster and completed before the plaster dried; limiting both time and transportability. Movable and therefore more sellable work was restricted by the medium of egg tempera often with gold leaf as a background, again limiting the time available to paint by the drying time of the egg base. As well as material constraints, experiments in representing three dimensions on two dimensional surfaces was also only slowly emerging with most characters still being portrayed as flat individuals existing in a flat world.

By 1400 things in art were beginning to change. Excuse the broad brush stroke summary but for the sake of brevity the changing role of painting can be explained by significant shifts in culture, finance and technology. Culturally there was great interest in the discoveries of ancient Roman and Greek texts including poetry, philosophy and mathematics as well as the reassessment of Roman architecture. Equally significant was the rise of the middle class professions including banking, merchants and guilds creating a new market for artists. For painters the invention of oil paint meant that not only could far more subtle and realistic images be created and more time could be spent on blending and layering colours, but by painting in oils on wood or canvas art became a transferable and tradable commodity. 

Thus overnight – a long night of a hundred years or so – artists had exciting new technologies to work with, a ready and prosperous market ready and eager to buy the new products and a wealth of new material to draw inspiration from and from which an endless supply of new product possibilities would emerge.

Three paintings by three great painters working in three different european regions with three different markets motivated by three different inspirations using three different techniques serve as examples of this emerging diversity. More than the dramatic individual creativity expressed in these three paintings though, it is the extraordinary depth and personal engagement with the viewer that they invite, that marks a change in dialogue from earlier more single minded works. Previously painting was primarily to be accepted, to be revered as embodied spirituality. As with images of Buddha, Shiva, and all totems of gods. Religious painting prior to the 15th century was pretty much a one way conversation, the painting speaks of god and you cower and listen. 

These three paintings present the opportunity for a different and far more more egalitarian conversation. A wordless dialogue involving the painter, his subject and the viewer. A dialogue that we can be drawn into and dwelt with, spend time experiencing without the need for interpretation or explanation once the scene and context has been laid out for us. We can enter the space created by the painter and the painting and dwell within it.

Carlo Crivelli 1430-1495: The Annunciation 1486

This is a huge painting that celebrates a significant event, the partial independence of the city of Ascoli Piceno from papal control. The painting was commissioned by the city authorities and as the preeminent painter of the city, the commission was given to Cravelli . Crevelli was not a native of Ascoli or indeed from the Italian region of Le Marche. He was born in Venice and only moved to Le Marche once his initial training was completed, but it was here that he produced most of his work. Le Marche was and remains a fairly remote region cut off from the rest of Italy by the imposing Apennine mountain range. The isolation from the major changes in art that were happening across the mountains in Tuscany and the north kept Le March in a conservative bubble, that with little competition Crivelli was happy to serve. Due no doubt in part to the  conservative tastes of his clientele Crivelli’s paintings retain many of the iconography and symbolic features of earlier periods and don’t fully embrace the mathematical perspective and realism that was all the rage in the artisistict hotspots of Florence, Rome, Milan, Siena and other more cosmopolitan cities. Lacking some of the progressve experimentation of his peers perhaps, but Crivelli knew his local clientele and he was never out of work and was well regarded and remunerated throughout his career. 

The painting is a scene of the city at three removes; there is the situation itself, the real city it was painted for and hung in, and which you would have walked through to see it, it is second a view of that city, and third the painting contains a model of the city held by the cardinal in the centre of the image. This painting is clearly about a city and while it includes a scene of the annunciation, this is overwhelmed by the real subject, a celebration of a city, this is primarily a secular painting. 

This though is not a painting whose aim is realistic representation of a city, the idea is not to impress with accurate architectural perspective, this is a painting of a city filled with symbolism and imagination. We are presented with the wealth and finery of a city self-confident and assured. Here is a city of grandeur and opulence, of wonder and wealth, a hyperreal vision almost hallucinogenic in its intensity and vibrancy. This is a city viewed through the eyes of one fully awake to its splendour. While full of the wonders that wealth can bring It is also a city with strange unearthly qualities. A city where the greatest of spiritual miracles happen, this is the annunciation after all, but also a city of ordinary human life, as the figures going about their daily lives oblivious to the visitation by the archangel, attest. 

Spending time with this painting we are drawn into a world not unlike the one we are familiar with but with qualities that are quite unfamiliar. Is this a vision of a world with a veil lifted to reveal an underlying truth, or has a patina of illusion been added to reality? Is the world revealed after long hours of meditation on a silent retreat true reality? What do we mean by true reality? Crivelli invites us to explore the city he has revealed for us, a city where we can spend time marveling at the splendour, wandering the streets with its curious citizens or wondering at the centre stage miracle. It is interesting to note how this engagement makes us feel, how we respond to the detail, the characters and the life that is the city itself and how this differs from the city we visited to see this painting of a city.

There is much to explore on many levels in Carlo Crevellie’s masterpiece and as well as an intriguing glimpse of a world viewed through the eyes of a technical wizard, it also serves as a model for a strand of painting known a s symbolism, that runs through the history of art both backwards and forwards through the likes of Odilion Redon, Paul Gauguin, William Blake, Richard Dadd, Freda Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe. 

Piero della Francesca 1415 – 1492: Baptism of Christ 1440?

In his day Francesca was considered an important mathematician as well as an artist. He wrote several treatises on the mathematics of perspective and geometry and we can see how this interest influenced his painting. While the baptism was painted well before the Crivelli, it was more revolutionary in terms of its composition. Not though in terms of medium; Francesca used the more traditional egg tempera paint, far less forgiving and more demanding than the recently invented oils. This painting is again quite large; it was commissioned as an altarpiece by a church local to Francesca’s hometown of Sansepolcro, which is probably depicted in the background, and was painted in the early stage of the artist’s career. The painting is quite startling for its time and represents a break with painterly conventions of the past while creating new and innovative compositional elements. There is much written about the mathematical composition and perspective elements of the painting and while fascinating from an art history point of view these formal aspects are perhaps less important when we consider the painting to be something we can see and listen to. Standing with the painting and noticing how the body and mind react, it is notable how many visitors report a sense of calm and quiet. Clearly the composition and rendering of the figures play a major role but it is worth spending time letting the eye explore the details of the context, the background and the supporting cast beyond the, very central, figure of Christ. We are in a landscape that contains a variety of subplots from John stretching up, balancing with arm and leg to reach high enough to pour the  water, to the figure next in line for baptism struggling to get his shirt over his head, to the parade of mysterious eastern figures behind him and of course the three bystanding angels engaged in playful and convivial conversation. Each of these scenes has an engaging, real life quality, a sense of a moment in time which contrasts with the formal set piece of the central motif. These moments offer us a way into the conversation, we can sympathise with the chap struggling out of his shirt, we have all been there, it would be fun to eavesdrop on the angels and to ogle at the strangers from the east, these are scenes and people we can relate to. 

If we turn our attention to the main man though there is something about him that is also very familiar. The colour of his skin is not straightforward. There are blues and mauves as well as pinks and whites. The tones and variations in hue are subtle and draw us in; it looks like a warm day, it is certainly very bright light, but his skin looks like it has never seen the sun; it has a translucent, cold quality. The painting offers the viewer many ways in; opportunities to take part in the conversation and to consider the painter himself, a young man who was at turns breaking and creating traditions. 

Much of all western painting that follows Francesca adopts the realism of the perspective and the geometry of composition that he pioneered, indeed until the mid 19th century these elements became the bedrock of western painting. Despite our familiarity now with the techniques used; the fresh, open and inviting personalities of Francesca’s Baptism along with its calm and quiet compositional elements offer us an opportunity to converse with a delightful creative young mind that died 500 years ago.

Jan van Eyck 1390-1441: the Arnolfini marriage 1434

The earliest of our three paintings was probably painted in Bruges in the Netherlands and was perhaps the most revolutionary as it is one of the first of all known paintings to use oil paint in a realistic portrait. Unlike the previous examples the religious iconography here is very much secondary to the secular; here we have a scene of two real people in their real home. They are wealthy individuals certainly but they are not sacred nor royal and in that sense they are like us. There is a huge amount of scholarly work surrounding this painting, its iconography, meaning, characters, perspective, technique, lighting, and potential use of optical devices in its production have produced a plethora of scholarly articles and scientific experiments but as with the other paintings it is the experience of being with the painting which will be the focus of this investigation.

Van Eyck has constructed a room and invites us to view an intimate scene, possibly a marriage vow, with him. There is little space in the room for us so we stand quietly and respectfully at the door as guests. The scene is formal and we hope we are dressed appropriately; this is a celebration that has been carefully and expensively organised. We are entranced by the couple; they are obviously taking this very seriously; there is solemnity in their expression and delacy in their gestures and touch. But we can also luxuriate in the splendour of the surrounding and costumes. What wonderful garments and so well designed, the fabrics are of such high quality we can’t help but be impressed. The whole scene in fact resembles those special occasions where we are invited to something out of the ordinary. Here now we have the opportunity to reflect on what those moments feel like, what makes a wedding, funeral, church service, anniversary, graduation, special? Out of the ordinary? The couple are like us but this is their special day and we are here to help them celebrate, it would not be the same without us, someone to share their happiness with. We can feel a reflection of what it means to us to be in convivial company, what it means to be part of a group with shared values and aspirations. Feeling that perhaps for a moment a softening the ego, individual and self in us and release a sense of being part of a collective, a society, a broader life.

Stepping back from the intimacy of the scene and spending a little time with the painter exposes us to other considerations and emotions. If we look around at the detail he has created we can stand beside him with his brush and pallet in hand. He is a highly skilled craftsman as well as an artist, indeed he seems to be a conjurer. On this sheet of wood armed only with a box of oil based pigment he is making a whole world appear as if by magic. We are so used to seeing three dimensional scenes represented in two dimensional images that we have forgotten how astonishing a feat this was. No photography and with little grasp of formal perspective, van Eyck was working many years before Francesca published his treatise on how to do it. Van Eyck manages to create a whole new world for us. Is this all done as a job? Is financial reward his only motivation? Why then go to all the effort of painting details that only forensic investigation will reveal? We sense that there is pride and enjoyment in this work and we can smile and marvel as we perhaps sense vicariously, emotions of an artist seeming entirely at one with his life and work.

All three paintings are on show in rooms quite close together and so they are easily taken in on one visit to the National Gallery and while popular, due to their size the Crivelli and Francesca are easily seen, the van Eyck is more problematic to spend a lot of time in front of as it is the most popular of the three and as it is quite small there is little room to stand in front of it. The best move is to get in early and look at this one first.

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