Reading in a room with a view? Rather, disturbed while reading in a room with a view! (2)
One moment you’re ensconced in your book, enveloped in the soft light and the peaceful sounds pouring in from the open window...
And the next moment a winged creature in fluttering robe bursts in, looking intently at you and pointing at the ceiling (3). Perhaps announcing something?
Suppose someone would not be acquainted with the Gospel-stories and would be unfamiliar with Western art history, could he or she then still come under the spell of this panel?
What prior knowledge does one need to be moved by that half open shutter, the tangible feel of atmosphere in the shaded corner behind it?
Does one need to be an art historian or devout catholic to peer curiously into the landscape outside, lovingly noting the winding brook (or is it a road- peering even closer now), the trees, the farmhouse, the castle on the bluish-shimmering horizon.
One might be puzzled of course by the prominence of the blazing red canopy bed. And what’s this circle with a dove in it? Strange place, too, to hang a mirror ( but who cares about that when you’re in thrall of the mirror’s reflections). And that lovely white flower in a vase, why is it standing there in front of the scene?
Now, what about the two characters in this scene? The winged creature looks benevolent enough, so those must be good tidings it (is this creature a he or a she or someone in between? ) is bringing (4).
The woman, on the other hand, does look slightly bemused, but composed all the same : full of grace indeed ... Speaking of gracefulness: do follow the sinuous golden edging (5) of her richly folded blue robe. In any case, whatever the nature of the tidings, she has her book to hold on to. Lovely book too, what would she be reading?
To go by all the 15th/16thetc Century Flemish panels with women-reading-in-a-room (often even blissfully undisturbed by winged or other creatures) this must have been a culture placing a very high value on both books and learned women!
This (wishful or true?) appraisal (6) may well be one of the prime reasons (7) of my deep fondness for these panels ...
And I’m definitely not alone in that affection – how many times, when wandering about in a museum room, did I not see some other visitor all of a sudden perk up with full attention, a smile spreading over her face, sighing and then happily exclaiming (for instance (8)):
"oh look! a Saint Barbara reading!"
Notes on Meaning in the Visual Arts
(1) Ok, I am going to be ironical here – but not really, or at least not completely, since meaning in the visual arts is always bound up with so much genuine affection. In any case, in Panofky's analytical framework, there are three layers of ‘signifying’
a. Natural subject matter, subdivided into factual and expressional: ie the purely descriptive, primary qualities of a painting
b. Conventional subject matter: eg that winged creature is the angel Gabriel announcing (The Annunciation) to Mary her immaculate conception (cornerstone of Christian theology!) = object of iconography
c. Intrinsic meaning or content: revelatory of deeply rooted attitudes, of ‘zeitgeist’, of the essence of a culture – better known as “ something else” – the elusive synthetical intuition remaining after all details have been scrupulously analysed and explained = object of iconology
(2) A specimen of one of the many lovely 15th&16th(&etc) century Flemish paintings depicting the Annunciation: the middle panel of a triptych by the Master of the Legend of Saint Magdalen – an anonymous early 16th C ‘minor master’ emulating Rogier van der Weyden
(3) “Il désigne le ciel d’un geste extatique dont de nombreuses générations se souviendront ». In his "Les Primitifs Flamands" Erwin Panofsky enthusiastically follows the evolution of this angelic pointing gesture in miniatures by (amongst others ) Pucelle and Jacquemart de Hesdin, dated around 1325-1375
(4) A pity there’s not a scroll twisting from his/her mouth, giving away the words of the message. A very handy early tradition, these wordy scrolls, one that has alas been lost over time, to be revived however in the text-balloons of comic books
(5) A vertiginous experience, once you start really concentrating on following that meandering golden edging - as fascinating as Duccio's best designs.
(6) Cynics could argue that these panels only promote the image of devout women whose reading range is limited to the bible. However, one should not underestimate the favourable impact of a pictorial tradition paying visible respect to women reading. What a relief, indeed, these images, for any thinking girl or woman. Especially when contrasted with other presently thriving cultural traditions, which either show women as mere lust objects or deny them visibility altogether.
(7) Alongside the sensual atmospheric qualities of these paintings – the way light filters in these rooms ...
(8) Scene witnessed in the Prado on Sept 19thth 1996 -confirmed by the entry-ticket stuck in the catalogue at exactly the page with the Master of Flémalle’ s (or a follower’s) “Saint Barbara reading” ( so I discovered with pleasure when checking out this catalogue, just for this post)
9) Credits: post inspired by a comment on a blogpost by LH...