What a wonderful discipline art history is!
It can turn one into a connoisseur of birds’ Latin cries while suggesting a link with a rousing 80s disco song.
It shows the way to fortitude amidst a sea of troubles.
It can send one on a hunt for a caged crow through deserted museum rooms.
Let me explain.
Hope as a Crow Clinging to Pandora’s Box.
When despairing of current world affairs, what better consolation than a book about the iconological metamorphoses of Pandora’s box? (1)
That box out of which all evil escaped …. before Pandora could put on the lid again …. But what remained, clinging like a bird to the edge? Hope! Hope for a better tomorrow faithfully stayed with a hapless humanity. And which bird sparks hope, speaking of tomorrow, because it cannot speak of today? (2)
The crow - with its croaky cry “ Cras! Cras!” – which in Latin means “Tomorrow! Tomorrow!”
In a later age, Grace Jones would also vigorously sing: "Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love you tomorrow. Tomorrow is only a day away!”
Allegory of Hope (“SPES”) as Industry & Good Husbandry
About hope the Old Masters, too, were never wrong. How well they understood it’s always best to just stubbornly plough along when all else goes wrong. As in Bruegel’s picture “Spes” / “Hope” (3)
Shovel, Scythe, Beehive --- the tools of the industrious worker are the symbols of hope. Hope standing calmly in “a sea of troubles” with around her “men suffering all manner of catastrophe, loss, and misery”.
IVCVNDISSIMA EST SPEI PERSVASIO, ET VITAE IMPRIMIS NECESSARIA, INTER TOT AERVMNAS PENQ INTOLERABILES
The assurance that hope gives us is most pleasant and most essential to an existence amid so many nearly insupportable woes. (3)
Hope , again, and now with all attributes.
Panofsky shows another picture as a metamorphosis of Pandora and Hope (4)
Beehive, Scythe, Ship (with all sails set for SPES) - this must mean hope! And yes, there is Pandora's faithful bird, too. The caged bird, assuring that hope is here to stay with us.
The legend under the picture reads “ L’espérance, vitrail de 1519. Bruxelles, Musée du Cinquantenaire” (Hope, Stained Glass Window, Brussels Cinquantenaire Museum)
Hey, that’s here in Brussels.
So of course I rushed off to the Museum to find Hope!
Apparently nobody else had - neither tourists (not particularly wanting to be in a Brussels these days), nor Belgians (who probably all went to the seaside).
So I wandered alone through deserted museum rooms … finding Byzantine- Greek icons and swaying Northern Madonna’s lovingly cradling their child. Finding a sweeping Roman Victory (alas beheaded) and ponderous Roman heads (without bodies). Finding Syrian mosaics , lavish Flemish Brussels tapestries, and much more…
I did not find my “Hope with the Caged Bird”. But what more could one hope for than finding calm and light washing through still rooms preserving humanity’s artefacts throughout the ages.
When I left the museum I heard a crow crying, I looked around but didn't see any hopping bird. Looking up , all I saw was an angel with fluttering wings, arms outstretched towards the sky.
Opening a box of notes
- Dora & Erwin Panofsky: « La boîte de Pandore » "Pandora's Box"
- « Mais pourquoi [demande-t-on à l’Espérance] t’assies-tu sur un tonneau oisive ? » « Toute seule ie fus [répond-elle], qui demeuray restive sur le bord du tonneau alors que les malheurs voloient de tous costez avecques mille peurs. » « Mais qui est cet oiseau ? » « La corbeille fidelle, ne pouvant entonner ‘il est’ , dit ‘il sera’ « (Alciata, Emblemata – as cited in Panofsky’s Boîte de Pandore)
- H. Arthur Klein, Graphic Worlds of Pieter Bruegel The Elder
- « La boîte de Pandore », p28