Monday, December 5, 2016

Held in Place: Conflicting Symbolism of the Northern Reformation

The Northern Reformation overthrew religious art. 17th-century Dutch artists replaced this with genre paintings.

Genre paintings depicted the … history paintings, still lifes, landscapes, genre paintings, and music paintings. Particularly 17th-century Dutch artists weaved messages about licentiousness and prostitution within their paintings. There were few artists-- with Johannes Vermeer as an exception-- who still portrayed the religious in their art.

Art historians agree that 17th-century Dutch artists use symbols in some shape or form, most of their paintings imbued naturalistic scenes with symbolic images. However, it is questionable if the symbolism behind the images was always intentional or whether the iconic images were simply emulating life.

Particularly this iconism is questionable in relation to portrayals of music, hand gestures, and pillars. Some music paintings portray harmony, particularly the stable relationship between a husband and a wife while other music paintings indicate the earthliness of humankind which often resulted in sin and lechery. The lute in particular was seen as both a symbol of lust and a symbol of temperance.

Similarly, hand gestures were used in a variety of ways. Hand gestures can be a powerful tool of expression, but at the same time, hand gestures do not always indicate hidden meaning.

Correspondingly, pillars have multiple meanings. Pillars often were a symbol of stability. However, some pillars were used as an evocation of enslavement.

The Northern Renaissance painting combined the language of this imagery. Looking back at its images, it is difficult to interpret them. Were these images were intentionally symbolic, and if so, which meanings behind the iconic images were intended?

Gabriel Metsu, A Musical Party, 1659, Oil on canvas, 91.26.11.

Metsu was a skilled copy-artist who mimicked other 17th-century Dutch music painters’ style and content throughout his life. In this painting, Metsu portrays a naturalistic scene embedded with hidden symbols: the lute, hand gestures, and the pillar. However, if these images within this painting are all symbolic, then the meaning of these images conflict. Either only some of these images are symbolic, none of them are symbolic, or there are multiple meanings within these iconic symbols which has yet to be discovered. Is this painting about harmony or is it about our humanity which is enchained by sinful desires? Is this painting about balance or is it about discord?

Sixtus Rauchwolff, Lute, 1596, Rosewood, ivory, wood, ebony, 89.2.157.

Lutes are the instruments that are most often painted in 17th-century Dutch painting. This lute originally held seven or eight pairs of strings: the same number as the lute in A Musical Party.
Typically, lutes symbolized temperance; however they also symbolized sexual desire.  It is difficult to understand why these conflicting meanings emerged around the same time in art. Perhaps this is because when the lute is played, this instrument could create beautiful harmony. This could arouse the listener with sexual feelings or perhaps elevate the listener above their embodiment.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Lute, ca. 1662-63, Painting, 25.110.24.

In Woman with a Lute, Johannes Vermeer, portrays a quiet scene of a woman with a lute. Johannes Vermeer was a 17th-century Dutch painter and Catholic who contradicted the typical content of paintings in the Northern Renaissance. Instead, he often painted portrayals about his faith. In this quiet scene, the figure in this painting seems to waits for a partner to fill the empty chair and join her in a duet. Unlike Metsu’s Musical Party, this painting seems to be about faith. Rather than being a symbol of sinfulness, the lute here seems to be a symbol of temperance. Even though Metsu mimicked the style and content of Vermeer, his symbolism in his art seems to convey different meaning than Vermeer.

Unknown, Royal Hand, ca 1353-1336 BC, limestone, paint, 1985.328.1.

This relief in limestone from the Amarna period portrays a particular hand gesture. In the Amarna period, it was not unusual to portray casualness and intimacy in detail. This seems to capture the moment when King Akhenaten dropped something onto an altar. Though this hand is now disembodied, we still understand the meaning because of its specificity. Although hand gestures vary from culture to culture, they are also universal symbols which we interpret through the muscular tightness or looseness. Moreover, when hands are placed in proximity to specific objects, such as in A Musical Party and unlike in Royal Hand, it is simpler for us to interpret the meaning behind them.

Jan Steen, The Dissolute Household, ca. 1663-1664, Oil on canvas, 1982.60.31.

The chaos and the diverse characters in this portrayal of the seven deadly sins warns the viewer of the effects of sin. The figures lean into one another. Their hand gestures draw the viewer through the composition; moreover these hand gestures are very specific and show the viewer specific characteristics of the figures. Metsu imitated Steen, and the chaos of this scene as well as its specific imagery (the lute and the outspread book) seem to directly influence Metsu’s A Musical Party.  

Vincenzo (Restored by Pacetti), Statue of Dionysos leaning on a female figure (“Hope Dionysos”), 27 BC - AD 60, 1990.247.

Statues were often used for support. It is unknown whether the original bronze statue of Dionysus this imitated included the female figure or whether the female figure was crafted into the composition to support the weight of the marble. It is interesting that the female figure-- who is thought to represent Hope-- never stood alone. The woman in this statue is merely supportive, similar to the statue in A Musical Party, Dionysos, the male figure, could not stand without her. Through history, woman statues similar to this symbolized enchainment to sexual desires. Whereas both this female statue and Metsu’s statue are used in supportive roles, the female statue in A Musical Party seems to be evocative and provoking sexual desire whereas Hope seems to be in a totally utilitarian position.

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