Certain thoughts and feelings have occurred to me on occasions of exploring the major collections housed in European art galleries. The most recent incident was last week, as I ruminated around the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The thoughts and feelings are based around the viewing of any significant gathering of Medieval Art and can be summed up as a kind of inspired melancholy that something was lost in Art after that period, albeit a loss which was for many more than partially compensated for in gains. Yet a part of me loves that which was lost over anything which replaced it.
The Nationalmuseum's Medieval galleries are the finest I've yet encountered. It holds room after room of paintings, wood sculpture, ivory carvings, bronzes and tapestries from the Middle Ages, stretching from the 9th to 14th centuries. The vast majority of this work is Christian and represents stories and characters from the Bible or the lives of Saints. The bulk of the collection is German in origin and Gothic in style, concentrating on the years 1250 to 1530. As I explored the many rooms, I was moved (as I have always and many times been, when I've encountered Art from this period) by the directness of communication that the artists achieve.
One of the pieces which caught my attention here was a painting on wood, dated approx. 1335, from a Viennese Altarpiece, showing Christ Before Pilate. The figures are arranged in a line; beginning (from left to right) with two soldiers, then Christ, then a bearded accuser, the two young noblemen and finally, at the far right, Pilate himself sitting on a canopied wooden throne. Each of the figures has his own specific character – one of the soldiers hangs back, knock-kneed, trying not to be too involved whilst the other shoves his arm up in the air for attention; the bearded accuser points at Christ whilst talking straight at Pilate; one of the young men points out his tongue whilst the other looks stern and serious. Christ himself, taller than the rest, stands calmly and passively with his head bowed but his gaze very much on Pilate; Pilate sits with a finger in the air and the most curious, vacillating, weak and confused expression on his face. The power in the scene is Christ's. With a small bow of the head, he accepts his fate yet his gaze is full of sorrow for the man of supposed power it looks at; it is clear that Pilate is quite befuddled by the whole scene and the man before him.
The impact of the painting has everything to do with its concentration on character within drama. Each of the figures is playing a particular role in the scene and the viewer can immediately identify these roles. The artist shows one man of strength in submission – Christ – and another of power and weakness – Pilate. The viewer is encouraged to put all of their meditations into the implications of this scene; what do we make of Christ, Pilate and the rest here? What is the import of this scene? Who does one admire? Who does one wish to emulate? Who does one really pity? Who would one prefer to be? What is human nobility?
Of course, for a fourteenth century viewer all of these questions would be mediated by their cultural relationship with Christianity and the Church. But surely they would also be affected by one's actual life experience? There is a subversive element to the work, to do with the weakness of the man on the throne and the inner strength Christ's portrayal might potentially inspire in anyone brought before such a power. Yes, these images were used ideologically by the Church to corral and control their congregations but there is something about the drama and characterisations in the scene which transcend ideology and bring us to the realm of story and myth, a realm which encourages each individual to consider his or her place within the relationships portrayed. Although I have no evidence for believing this (other than the paintings themselves), I speculate that the greatest artists of the Gothic period (and the architects) plied their trade in tension with the churchmen who commissioned them, not merely in thrall to them. Truly visionary artists have always had a conflicted relationship between those with the power to pay them and the best have created potent work which transcends the requirements of the commissioner and speaks frankly to the individual in the audience. This is as true of the Art commissioned by commissioned or supported by the contemporary UK Arts Council or Hollywood as it is of the Art of Medieval times. My suspicion is that there are less artists willing to rise above the demands of their commissioners these days than there were in Europe in the Middle Ages.
The walk through these galleries and through the less extensive Medieval ones at the Alte Pinakothek were thrilling experiences. I was again and again arrested by an image and plunged by the artist into dramatic, ethical and spiritual situations which, despite the intervening centuries, were immediately relevant to aspects of my life. The reason for this long-lasting immediacy is the lack in the Art of those times of the very things people usually criticize it for lacking – perspective, ornamentation, historical realism or indeed realism of any other kind, except what I can only describe as a realism of character and dramatic encounter, which are intensely real. In both collections I wandered through the paintings chronologically and was struck, on entering the Renaissance rooms, not on the gains made by the introduction of those lacking things but rather on the loss of dramatic immediacy. Suddenly bodies bulk out, clothing becomes ornately and extravagantly realised, aestheticized beauty replaces sublime simplicity, perspective becomes something to be striven for; these effects later reach their zenith in the Baroque Art of Rubens, whose pictures are all about flesh and its ornamentation and which rarely communicate much drama to this viewer (except a kind of self-dramatizing need to impress).
It is no coincidence that the rise of the Renaissance saw both an opening up of subject matter to include both Greek and Roman mythology and the portraits of nobles and notables. Greek and Roman society was based around a very intense ideological definition of class nobility and the Emperors, Kings, Princes (sacred and profane) and Electors of the Renaissance saw these tales as much more capable of emphasizing and aggrandizing themselves and their power than Biblical stories. These latter remained in Art but in a less forceful form, sometimes with the profanity of the commissioner's face replacing that of the Saint on the Canvas. More important than the art of direct communication of the story to the viewer had develop into the Art of flattering the wealthy and powerful; the beginnings of a bourgeois Art. Art became (as Blake accused Milton and Shakespeare of being) "curb'd by the general malady and infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the sword." No coincidence again that colonization and the beginning of Empire rear their ugly heads at this juncture of European history. Go into a major collection like this and you can see it all happening up there on the walls.
I don't mean to be Philistine and reject everything from the Renaissance onwards as a loss. But "Everybody must give something back / For something they get" and European Art gave up something very precious at this time. The best Art of the Renaissance (Caravaggio) combines the new techniques with the old directness of drama; artists and movements since – the counter-reformation works of El Greco, Blake, the Pre-Raphaelites – have made extraordinary attempts at regaining the dramatic impact of Gothic Art.
The most important thing is that large collections of early European Art do exist and we can experience it anew, not as mere historical oddity but as it always was, as direct communication of stories that are of vital importance to the whole being of the person who encounters it. Any of us working in the Arts today can glean something very valuable from it.