Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture
Marina Warner has written an interesting but discursive book, which shows the great difficulty she had in imposing order on its enormous subject matter. The guiding idea of the book is the use of female figures to stand for other things. Warner’s point of departure is the Statue of Liberty, which is a woman standing for freedom; from this she goes on to other monuments, such as the figure of Britannia and the allegorical statues of female figures in the Paris streets. The form of metaphor which these monuments portray is culturally rooted not only in artistic tradition but in language and in myth. So the book deals with very complex subjects. The question that presses on the reader is whether the complexity arises from the nature of the subject, or whether some of it is due to the confused way that Marina Warner approaches it.
The first part of the book, “The Female Presence Today,” is by far the liveliest, and the most coherent. It deals with political metaphor in the monumental sculpture of New York, Paris, and London, and it contains an entertaining digression on Mrs. Thatcher as an armed female victor, “arousing the vim of sexual energy but channelling it to proper use.” The second section is called “The Figure in Myth”; possibly the “figure” intended is the female one, but the title also suggests metaphors (“figures”) based on females. The section begins with a discussion of the linguistic traditions in which abstract virtues and qualities are commonly feminine in gender, so that, for example, “faith,” “hope,” “charity,” and “justice” are feminine in the Romance tongues. To illustrate the social context of this usage Warner uses certain gods and goddesses of Greek mythology and the personifications derived from them. Night, the virgin mother, and Eris, strife, begin the catalog, but discussion turns to Metis, the Titan wife whom Zeus swallowed, allowing his daughter Athena to be born from the head of her father instead of from the womb of her mother. The motherless Athena turns out to be the pivot of the argument, and she is discussed at very great length. Two more chapters, pendants to the Athena myth, discuss images of fame and their sculpted representations, and traditional effigies of justice executed by a woman’s hand. The chapter “Lady Wisdom” has no very obvious connection with what goes before; it is largely a digression on the kinds of imagery used by certain female writers in the Middle Ages (with a mysterious addendum about the eighteenth-century painter Angelica Kauffmann).
In Part III, “The Body in Allegory,” Warner discusses the Pandora and Pygmalion figures in myth, art, and literature, and how mysteriously “created” female types (not excluding Eve) are related to ideas of artistic creation. “The Sieve of Tuccia” deals with ideas and representations of the female body as a perfect and whole container for the virtues, notably those of sexual virtue or chastity. A third chapter, “The Slipped Chiton,” extends the arguments about female subjects …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.