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 for political allegory and imagery that were begun in Part I. The final chapter, “Nuda Veritas,” is an essay about nudity in the Christian iconographic tradition. And an epilogue, “The Eyes of Tiresias,” provides a feminist argument on the entire question of the depiction of women.
We owe Marina Warner a debt of gratitude for recognizing in everyday objects connections of whose existence and meaning we were only marginally aware, particularly all the monumental objects and decorations of our cities. She shows, for example, the messages of Dalou’s sculptures in the Place de la Nation in Paris, and those of the expensively gilded statue of Athena which stands over my London club. After reading her book, the permanent population of city streets ceases to be a multitude of generals, statesmen, and explorers, and acquires an additional group of allegorical women, some of whom I look forward to seeing for the first time. Queen Victoria, whose statues and portraits I have all my life treated with disdain, now turns out to possess an army of stone and bronze ladies-in-waiting lodged on and around her monuments, each of them with something to say. Her statue in Piccadily, Manchester, for example, is backed by a charming, bare-breasted “Charity.” The streets of London and Manchester have already been transformed for me, and I look forward with Marina Warner’s help to seeing other cities in the same fresh way.
If she had decided to write a book about “sculpted representations of female allegorical subjects,” that would already have been a large subject, but not an impossible one. She could have organized her book the way Maurice Agulhon did in his imaginative and common-sensical Marianne Into Battle, which deals with the social and political history of representations of the “Republic” in the century following 1789.1 But Marina Warner did not have in mind anything so academic or so modest (though Maurice Agulhon himself thought his enterprise “very ambitious”). It is not clear what she did have in mind, and her attempt at a synopsis in the foreword doesn’t help much. The title, Monuments and Maidens, suggests that she is mainly concerned with allegorical statuary, but the foreword also says that the book “attempts to examine a recurrent motif in allegory, the female form as an expression of desiderata and virtues.” This extends her book beyond the visual arts to include literature, and widens the discussion to something that could be called “allegories of the female form in Western culture.” But even this does not seem to exhaust the author’s ambitions: mention of “strategies” or opportunities open to women suggests yet another preoccupation—a concern with the kind of metaphors that women ought to use, whether in literature or life, or perhaps with the kind of metaphors by which women ought to characterize their own femininity. From this point of view the book could be described as a feminist meditation on the history of Western culture.
This is, therefore, an ambitious book, but its aims outrun the author’s performance. If Marina Warner was to do what she set out to do, she had to have clear ideas not only about the relations between social structure, myth, and religion but also about the use of rhetorical concepts. But her grasp of ideas in both respects proves to be rather shaky, and the result is a rather uneven book in which there are long tracts of sticky, uncertainly handled material. This is particularly true of the chapters on Greek mythology, which form a substantial part of the book.
Warner’s thesis, for which there is much evidence, is that the goddess Athena, the patroness of war and of political life, represented a patrilinear social system, which in Greek life replaced an earlier, matrilinear system, in which the tribe’s life centered on the mother. The way in which societies collectively represent their social institutions through myth needs to be strongly argued. This Warner does not do. An illustration of her wobbly approach is the remark, “There is always a syncopated, erratic exchange between social developments and the mythological representation of them.” Since the relations between society and myth are among the main objects of her study, it is a pity she expects only a syncopated, erratic relationship to emerge. A book that attempts (whether unconsciously or not) to follow in the footsteps of Durkheim and the great social anthropologists owes the reader a more coherent account than that.
There is, in fact, already in existence a distinguished treatment of the Athena myth, written by someone who could be loosely termed an early feminist, the British classical scholar Jane Harrison Her Themis, published in 1912, treats the Athena myth as showing the change from matrilinear to patrilinear organization in much the same manner as Warner’s book; but Harrison discusses the subject against a background of Greek religion and society in a way that Marina Warner entirely fails to do.
If we turn to Marina Warner’s treatment of allegory, we find a similar uncertainty. Allegory is a rhetorical device, and this is ultimately a book about rhetoric which must float or founder according to its success in clarifying rhetorical concepts. An allegory is the attribution of sensible characteristics to an insensible original: the figure may be an abstract quality, like victory or salvation, or a process, like victory conferring fame or the soul’s pilgrimage to salvation, as in Pilgrim’s Progress. Allegory is a transfer of meaning consciously intended by its author; it is deliberately encoded in the expectation that those who read or see it will be able to decipher the figure. In this respect it differs from symbols. The reason why in the Divine Comedy the Four Virtues (mentioned by Warner) could tell Dante in Purgatory that “here we are nymphs and in heaven we are stars” was that Dante not only knew but insisted that the changing allegories were only “figures of speech and rhetorical coloring.”
An allegory is not the same as a symbol, and Marina Warner creates confusion by using the two terms as though they were interchangeable. She knows the distinction, but does not always apply it, and sometimes she seems to think of the figures that women symbolize as in some sense real. In this mood she sounds like a rebellious symbolist who objects to the act of intellectual abstraction that is necessary to allegory. When she says that the poet Susan Griffin in her books Pornography and Silence and Woman and Nature “travels past the outward appearance into the mysterious interior which allegorical imagery denies,” she appears to assume that the symbol corresponds to an ulterior reality. When she implies that symbolic female figures ought to portray “the body as person,” or talks about “the widening divergence between the use of the female form as symbol and woman as person,” she is disregarding the primary condition of allegory, that something is prescribed by the author to stand for something else. An allegorical figure may represent a person, like Joan of Arc or Saint Catherine of Alexandria; the primary meaning of the figure, however, is not personal but conceptual—saintly patriotism or heroic devotion. The same is true of personifications; as Johnson remarked: “Fame tells a tale or Victory hovers over a general or perches on a standard; but Fame and Victory can do no more.” For this reason a large part of the book is off course: it is really a book about feminine figures used as symbols.
Marina Warner has used a method rather similar to that of her earlier book, about the cult of the Virgin Mary, Alone of All Her Sex;2 that is to say, Monuments and Maidens is a series of loosely linked essays anchored to two or three central chapters that try to explain the origins of a problem. In the present case she seems also to have fallen victim to a prevailing fashion of dealing with a subject involving a series of metaphors by discussing one metaphor after another in turn. This tends further to weaken the book’s logical structure.
Image as Insight is in some ways similar in outlook to the work of Marina Warner (whose Alone of All Her Sex Margaret Miles quotes and discusses), and there are some points of resemblance in the structure of the text, but there is a very sharp difference of tone. Margaret Miles is outspokenly didactic and reformist. Her thesis is that received history of ideas and received Church history are both overwhelmingly elitist in method and approach, and that both, mistakenly, insist on the absolute primacy of written texts as evidence, in preference to that provided by visual images. To illustrate her argument she gives three examples of the kind of historical inquiry whose method she prefers, one drawn from the decoration of Roman churches in the fourth century AD, one from the ways in which women are represented in fourteenth-century Tuscan painting, and one from the contrasting visual systems of Protestant and Catholic churches during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In each case she has an interpretation of what the images reveal to us, often a questionable one. She sustains the somewhat unlikely thesis that fourteenth-century men commissioned religious paintings of women so as to ward off their fears of real women. The book ends with two sternly hortatory chapters, urging us to severe self-examination in the ways in which we ingest “our daily fare of images.”
One of the main troubles with Image as Insight is the shrillness with which it clamors for an open door to be unlocked. It repeatedly refers to allegedly monolithic bodies of opinion that hold rigid views, and are depicted as though they can be clearly seen in the academic marketplace. So “the history of ideas…claims the universality of the history it explores,” and, going a step backward, “traditional hermeneutics [claims] that the history of ideas is universal history.” Unfortunately Miles gives no idea how either “the history of ideas” or “traditional hermeneutics” are to be identified. Nor does she show that these are coherent bodies of opinion which can be said to “claim” anything. What is clear to me, on the contrary, is that for the past century many scholars have worked diligently and devotedly on the archaeology, the liturgy, and the art history of the Christian church, in a manner which gives full value to the nonliterary as opposed to the literary sources. Why Margaret Miles chooses to write as though the great dictionaries of Christian archaeology and liturgy, and the huge fields of study that lie around them, never existed, is a mystery. Plenty of students of the history of Christian art and archaeology may wonder what they have been doing all their lives until now.
One hesitates to offer a Harvard professor a reading list, but it would be interesting to know what Margaret Miles thinks of the utility of the fifteen volumes of the Cabrol-Leclerq–Marrou Dictionaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, and still more interesting to know what she thinks of the enormous modern literature on Christian iconographic themes. It may well be true that in certain fields of Church history people have insisted too vigorously on the texts at the expense of other forms of historical evidence, and to that extent her protests may be corrective. But the efforts of others don’t occupy a prominent place in Margaret Miles’s thoughts, or so it seems from the passage announcing her intentions in the book:
This book offers a preliminary contribution to the responsible evaluation of images in relation to texts. I analyze what is needed and provide historical examples [my italics].
In one respect Margaret Miles pursues a theme that commands one’s sympathy, and that has been dear to populist historians ever since Jules Michelet: that of the social experience of people who were, by comparison with the small educated class, inarticulate. Michelet wrote in 1842 that the historian “is neither Caesar nor Claudius, but often in his dreams he sees a crowd which weeps and laments its condition, the crowd of those who have not yet died, who would like to live again.” The historian, in other words, has a duty to speak for those who could never speak for themselves. That seems to me a noble aim in spite of the obvious difficulties; it is an implied theme of Elsa Morante’s great novel, History, and one of the achievements of John Bossy’s recent Christianity in the West is to deal with what he calls the “social miracle” accomplished by the people of God no matter what their sex, or social class, or whether they were literate. 3 Miles similarly insists on the social unity of the people of God in Image as Insight, though her redundant references to people of past times as “historical people” are irritating; one wonders if it has occurred to Margaret Miles that with respect to their past lives all living people are “historical people.”
Both Margaret Miles’s and Marina Warner’s books suffer from a tendency, in their anxiety to look at things from a fresh viewpoint, to beg enormous questions. That in the Western tradition woman stands for nature and man for culture, as Marina Warner says, is a large assertion, a fascinating one, but one to which she does not devote coherent argument or sufficient evidence. “Woman” is not necessarily Acrasia in her Bower of Bliss, which Guyon as Spenser’s “Temperance” destroys. Nor in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is she Alcina by whom Ruggiero is enticed but not for long deceived. And even if she were, it would be necessary to prove that these Circe figures stood for nature. Spenser, in fact, proclaims Acrasia the enemy of nature. Figures like the medieval wild man and the good savage of the eighteenth century suggest, on the contrary, a male figure of the wild.
The question has to remain open. And the idea of disposing of the dichotomy between nature and culture, which is one of the great shaping categories of the social sciences, in a couple of paragraphs and with the help of a short quote from Adorno, is not far from ludicrous. The history of ideas cannot be treated like that. The obiter dicta of Margaret Miles are even more sweeping: for example, she writes in an aside that “art without religion is in danger of triviality, superficiality, or subservience to commercial or political interests.” If this is so, how are we to interpret the art of the last two centuries?
Both books can also be casual in the use of evidence. Baudelaire’s “Dorothée,” for example, has nothing to do with the images of republican Liberty which Marina Warner attributes to her: she is an enfranchised Creole woman who sells herself to get money to enfranchise her sister, still a slave. And do the Doukhobors of Canada really have to be solemnly cited to proclaim a “rhetorical equivalence between nakedness and nature,” especially when the naturalist movement of the present century is not even mentioned? Margaret Miles cites secondary sources rather freely and without always checking the exact nature of the reference. For example, “Fr. Bartomomea Ricci,” from whose text a banal quotation about Saint Ignatius Loyola has been lifted by way of someone’s article, is Bartolomeo Ricci, the Jesuit envoy to China. His Considerationi sopra tutta la Vita di n.s. Giesu Christo, which is cited in passing, is one of the key books of Jesuit piety for the laity, because its pictures are carefully keyed in with a facing devotional text. This book would seem to be central to Margaret Miles’s argument about the importance of imagery in religious life, but although she mentions it she does not appear to have taken account of it.
Both these books are largely about art history and it is worth asking whether they increase our understanding of the arts. Marina Warner’s book certainly does. On the statuary of Paris she is at her liveliest. She gives a guided tour from Place de Palais-Bourbon across the Pont Alexandre III to the Louvre, which brings to life the frenzied profusion of the decoration of the late nineteenth century. But she is also well worth reading on the Winged Victory of Samothrace. A long passage in the chapter “The Sieve of Tuccia” on softness in the “female containing envelope” and the ways in which sculptors can suggest hardness and invulnerability when they come to portray it, seemed to me a memorable piece of art criticism. She is interesting, but not revelatory in the same way, on Delacroix.
On art that deals with art she is also interesting but not entirely convincing. In Vermeer’s Art of Painting the main direction of the picture is not, as Marina Warner thinks, to emphasize that the model for the allegorical figure of fame is indeed a model, but to emphasize the descriptive powers of the painter, especially as revealed by his depiction of the map placed behind the model. That, at all events, is how I understand Svetlana Alpers’s argument on the picture,4 though Marina Warner understands her differently. The problem here as elsewhere is Warner’s version of symbolism as the representation of something real. Models are women but they are not “woman,” any more than male models are “man.”
Margaret Miles has a much less attentive eye than Marina Warner, and the claims of theory come rather too often between her and the picture she describes. But she can be stimulating, for example when she sees in Giotto’s Massacre of the Innocents in the Arena Chapel at Padua a life-and-death tug of war between men and women rather than a depiction of slaughtered infants. As a good Church historian Margaret Miles emphasizes the central place of enacted ritual in Church art, and the vanity of considering as mere art objects the things in the great Roman churches that were meant to be experienced by the worshiping crowd. However, her view of post-Tridentine Church art is sketchy. It is not true, as she says, that there was no destruction of images in Catholic churches after the Council of Trent: there was a huge purge in Italy, perhaps carried out more according to canons of contemporary taste than of contemporary doctrine. There has been much debate among historians about the way in which Tridentine rules actually influenced artists and patrons.5 Margaret Miles ignores these arguments to the detriment of her own. Her acceptance of the conventional idea of a monolithic Catholic reform which dictated artistic taste and practice does scant justice to the complexity of what actually happened.
Both these books contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the arts; perhaps Marina Warner, by huffing and puffing rather less, contributes rather more. I must admit that I think a little nostalgically of the way in which Jane Harrison handled similar subjects when she took part in the first attempt to apply Durkheim’s social-science theories to classical archaeology some eighty years ago. That book’s clarity of ideas and its determination to examine the evidence rigorously in the light of new intellectual categories are not to be found in the two books under review.
April 10, 1986
Cambridge University Press, 1981. ↩
Random House/Vintage, 1983. ↩
History: A Novel (Knopf, 1977; Random House/Vintage, 1984); Christianity in the West, 1400–1700 (Oxford University Press, 1985). ↩
In The Art of Describing (University of Chicago Press, 1983). ↩
The basic paper is that of P. Prodi, “Ricerche sulla teorica delle arti figurative nella Riforma cattolica” (Rome, 1965). E. Battisti’s paper given at the S. Carlo Borromeo Conference at Modena in 1984 dealt with the fate of images in the Italian churches after Trent. ↩