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Master of Arts

Words and Pictures: On the literal and the symbolic in the illustration of a text

by Meyer Schapiro
Mouton (The Hague), 108, 34 illustrations pp., 24 guilders

Meyer Schapiro, who could plausibly claim to be the most interesting art historian today, has not yet written a book. This is part of the legend that surrounds him, as well as one of the reasons why he is still a controversial figure. It is not, however, strictly true. In 1964 he published a short monograph on a Romanesque manuscript, The Parma Idelfonso,1 and earlier, in 1950 and 1952, books on Van Gogh2 and CĂŠzanne;3 but excellent as they are and influential as they have been, these last are essentially long essays with notes to the plates. The new little volume under review will not change the situation: for many people, especially envious colleagues, Schapiro will still be the famous art historian who never wrote a book.

Not that he is unproductive. A man of bewildering intelligence, with a formidable memory, the widest culture, and an inexhaustible curiosity, he has since the mid-1920s regularly written articles that range from the most technical subjects to the most general, from Greek art to current movies. His two principal fields of scholarship are astonishingly far apart: nineteenth-century French painting, and the early Middle Ages from Irish and Carolingian manuscripts to Romanesque sculpture; he has also contributed much to the criticism of modern art. His mind is basically a critical one; characteristically, many of his contributions are book reviews, sometimes harsh and devastating ones, but always illuminating the subject.

The underlying principle of his criticism, in this new book as in his other work, is that a single observation can always be interpreted in different ways. Only a variety of observations and arguments can prepare the way for a relatively definite conclusion about a work of art. For Schapiro all possible clues have to be followed up; he draws on a range of knowledge well beyond the usual equipment of art historians and uses it with all the sophistication of traditional philology. “I see that you know very little about the history of dirigibles,” he is supposed to have said, sadly but kindly, to a student who had guessed wrong the date of a painting where such a machine appeared.

Are these philological investigations only a game? Or do they bear upon our understanding of art? For some critics art should speak for itself without learned interference; like Malraux, they bring all works into a universal present. Others, more historically minded, claim that we can understand the art of the past only by a scholarly reconstruction of the original circumstances of its creation and the contemporary attitudes to it. They want to carry us back into the past. The first position may appear as a brutal manipulation of the work, an appropriation of it. It severs the work from the intentions of the artist and from the conditions of its appearance, makes it available only for consumption. The second, however, is reactionary escapism. One recalls, for instance, the attitude of Dietrich von Bothmer at a particularly unfortunate moment during the controversy over the Metropolitan Museum’s new vase: Why can’t we transport ourselves back to fifth-century Athens? (In other words, why can’t we forget about the present mess?)

Both views try to abolish historic distance: one attempts to erase the past; the other wishes to forget the present. Schapiro is acutely aware of this problem of historic distance: his views on it are complex, not to say reticent. He insists on the value of the innocent eye, the direct encounter with the work of art, and does not believe that an uninformed experience is illegitimate or inferior, or even that knowledge always changes or improves our appreciation. But he also knows that information and study can, at times, contribute to aesthetic understanding, and even improve our actual perception. In Schapiro’s work we also sense the pure enjoyment of scholarship and argument, the pleasure in Talmudic dispute, of a man assertively attached to his Jewish culture and tradition.

It is hardly new to say that art has several kinds of meaning, but Schapiro is the art historian who has taken this polysemic nature of art most seriously, approaching it from many different and unexpected angles. Not only a master of iconography and formal criticism, the traditional tools of art history, he is extraordinarily well versed in a variety of other disciplines. In the prewar years, when some of his most interesting work appeared in The Marxist Quarterly and Partisan Review, his concerns were heavily social and political; in the 1950s he concentrated on applying modern psychology to the artist and his work; more recently he has been particularly concerned with the semiotics of art: its functioning as a language, or system of signs. But none of these interests has excluded the others. If one approach may be more useful in revealing a particular aspect of a work of art, or a particular kind or period of art, it is never exhaustive.

We can perhaps understand why Schapiro has not written a major book: he is reluctant to neglect or renounce anything related to our understanding and enjoyment of art. A book, conceived as a grand encompassing whole, is impossible to write without the kind of sacrifice Schapiro is not prepared to make.

Short as it is, Words and Pictures: On the literal and the symbolic in the illustration of a text has a large subject and a wide range of examples, and it is more complex than most works on art history. Its main theme is the relation of picture to text in scriptural illustrations during the Middle Ages. Schapiro is concerned above all with the different possibilities that exist for the illustrator as well as with the constraints that are imposed on him. He wants to do justice both to the power of the image to reach the innocent eye and to the power of scholarship as an instrument that can elicit meaning.

The artist who illustrates a text cannot render all the ideas expressed in it and is often forced to add circumstances that do not appear in the text. For example in the story of Cain and Abel, the artist must show the murder weapon, which is not mentioned in the Bible. He either can give a strict pictorial equivalent of the text or render it with a symbolic interpretation. The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac can be represented simply for its narrative value, or the artist can bring into the picture references to the Christian view of the story as prefiguring the sacrifice of Christ. In this case, the pattern of a cross in the wood carried by Isaac can make the symbolic interpretation explicit.

Schapiro deals at length with one example: the illustration of a text from Exodus, the story of the battle against Amalek, especially the verses,

  1. And when Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.

  2. But Moses’ hands were heavy. So they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands on both sides. And his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.

Schapiro first shows us that under the Carolingian empire a new image was used for this episode: a frontal presentation of Moses with his arms propped up by Aaron and Hur, a design suggesting the figure of the Cross. He then discusses the later development and eventual abandonment of this image. His concern is with the ways in which historic conditions, the choice of a particular symbolic interpretation, and the artistic means used to convey it are all related.

The only known early Christian representation of this subject (Rome, Sta Maria Maggiore) dates from the fifth century. Moses stands as a praying figure with both arms raised but unsupported, making the sign of the Cross. It is not consistent with the text, but it satisfied the demands both of Christian symbolism and the classical stylistic norm of a free-standing heroic figure that still prevailed at the time.

The new medieval image in which Moses’ arms are supported by Aaron and Hur appears around 880. It cannot be explained simply by a fresh reading of the text. Innovation was not a simple matter in the Middle Ages; for a new image to establish itself required not only a change in aesthetics and outlook, but also appropriate historical circumstances. Here Schapiro discovers a link with the new structure of power in the Carolingian empire; he shows us images in which the emperor’s arms are similarly supported and where the artist was probably making a reference to Moses. (On the other hand, it is curious to see that in a Jewish manuscript the repellent symbolism of the Cross is rejected.)

Both the frontal view of Moses and the symbolism of the Cross it carried with it were later abandoned. Schapiro relates this change to a general shift in art in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when static representations were replaced by more animated ones that favored the profile or semiprofile. This change, he writes, is characterized by a “heightened interest in action, whether in religious or secular scenes, as an objective engagement.” Eventually, the battle against Amalek was sometimes represented merely for its interest as an epic, with Moses in the background or even left out altogether. And Schapiro finds comparable changes in biblical exegesis at the time.

The significance of the frontal view of Moses suggests the general problem of “frontal and profile as symbolic forms,” which Schapiro deals with in his final chapter. Schapiro treats the frontal and profile positions as an opposed pair that can assume a variety of meanings. In the Middle Ages the fullface expresses the hieratic or the stately (used for God or Christ) while the profile is often reserved for the evil and the outcast (Judas in the Last Supper). But this is not always true during the medieval period, and at other times the meaning can be completely different. Schapiro mentions, for instance, a Greek vase where a mother and her child are shown in profile while the servant who carries the child is in fullface. Profile and fullface do not have a stable established meaning: “The contrast as such is more essential than a fixed value of each term in the pair; what counts is the distinction of rank by a different relation to the viewer.”

Such a statement suggests that the meaning of art is conventional or arbitrary—i.e., that there is nothing “inherent” or “natural” in the meaning we give such positions—and it points to a consideration of art as a language, justifying the place of Schapiro’s essay in a series called Approaches to Semiotics. Schapiro had already explored the study of art as a system of signs in a fundamental essay, “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Art: Field and Vehicle in Image Signs.”4 There he called attention to certain basic elements of art which often go unnoticed, like the smooth surface of the picture, the limits of the picture field, the frame, the opposition of right and left parts of the field and of the upper and lower ones. He showed how such elements first appear as innovations, become adopted as part of artistic practice, and can carry a variety of meanings (e.g., right is good, left is bad).

  1. 1

    The Parma Idelfonso: A Romanesque Illuminated Manuscript and Related Works (New York, 1964).

  2. 2

    Vincent van Gogh (Abrams, 1950).

  3. 3

    Paul Cézanne (Abrams, 1952).

  4. 4

    Semiotica, I (1969), pp. 223-242.

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