On the weekend in addition to a fine session of Vampire: The Masquerade I managed to get my philistine arse down to the Tokyo National Art Center for an exhibition of paintings from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. I went with a Japanese friend, and while my friend was oohing and aahing at all the cool artwork, I was remembering my trip to Venice and imagining Drew smashing her culture chip and killing the Pope.
And so then I stumbled on this picture, which I think summarizes everything Drew was getting at when she got angry with the skeezy old men leering at the virgin Mary. I think this picture, which is called St. Jerome in Penitence and the Virgin and Child Appearing in Glory, contains a kind of potted summary of everything that is wrong with Christianity’s strange and tortured attitude towards sex. It features an old semi-naked man (Jerome) punishing himself for thinking lascivious thoughts, while staring at a small statue of a young man who was tortured to death by his father because everyone keeps thinking about sex, and all of this being stared at approvingly by the spirit of Mary, whose sole reason for being able to judge anyone for thinking sexy thoughts is that god made her pregnant against her will but she stayed pure. In this one picture we have sin, guilt, death, and purity, all deeply entangled with sexuality and heavily leavened with judgment. It’s hard to see on the internet version, but we also in the bottom left hand corner have a kind of terrified looking lion, nature subjugated – another core Christian ideal. It really is the Renaissance version of one of those tweets that people subsequently delete that tells you everything you need to know about their inner life, and wish you didn’t.
In addition to this picture of a skeezy old man punishing himself for being skeezy, the exhibition had a whole bunch of pictures of Mary being told that she was going to have a baby against her will. Impregnating someone against their will is now considered to be a pretty shifty form of abuse (even if it isn’t rape; it’s easy to find stories of abusive partners fiddling with contraception to try and get their partners pregnant), but it’s a central theme of Renaissance art (or at least it was in this exhibition). Mary looks pretty unhappy in most of the pictures where she’s being told this, but it’s hard to say that she really is – my friend said she looked like she was about to say “why me?” but in reality almost every person in almost every picture looked unhappy. I guess the Renaissance wasn’t a happy time, which is why all the models had Resting Bitch Face. But she certainly looked shocked, and the narrative accompanying some of the pictures made clear that she is supposed to be shocked.
As you would be.
But anyway as a consequence of giving birth to this damned child who grew up to be killed by his own father, she gets to hang out in heaven with another baby (the same baby? Seems to be the implication of the title of the picture – is heaven a kind of Groundhog day where she is constantly pregnant but never gets laid?) and cast judgment on all the men who are secretly dreaming about doing God’s work inside her. And this is the only payoff any of these pictures offer – the chance to judge others. Sure, there’s one picture of heaven, but it makes heaven look like the bottom 10% of that Iron Maiden Number of the Beast poster, where everyone is screaming and dying or fucking, only in the Renaissance version there’s no fucking. Renaissance paradise looked a lot more like hell than I think they intended, but that’s apparently the reward for a life of Resting Bitch Face and self-flagellation. Which I guess is why Bassano produced this monstrous visual rendition of his tortured inner soul.
Just to be clear for all the doubters and whingers, I’m not saying the picture is bad or shouldn’t be held in esteem or whatever. I didn’t like it, but I’m no critic and I don’t think I can separate my appreciation of the art from the nastiness of the content, so I couldn’t really appreciate it, but if people say it was influential and important then I’m happy to believe them. My point is merely that it says so much in one dense little package about the origins of so many of our modern problems with sex and sexuality. In that respect it is a thing of (horrid) beauty.
Two other random thoughts I had while wandering the gallery:
- I wonder if these artists, all male, had actually seen many babies or any naked women? I don’t mean this facetiously, I really wonder. If raising babies was women’s work perhaps they didn’t see many, which might explain why the babies are all a) the wrong size and b) horribly ugly and c) painted like miniature adults. Perhaps they didn’t see much of their children? In the same vein I noticed that their men were much better drawn than their women and I wondered if perhaps they had never seen an adult woman who wasn’t their wife? I then started wondering – a lot of the women in the pictures look more like teenage girls, in particular their breasts are kind of half-formed and not mature. It made me think – could it be that the only people they could find as life models for female subjects were the children of poor families, and the reason that their women are so badly drawn and strange looking is that they were extrapolating from the budding female bodies of local 12- or 13-year old milkmaids?
- The same day I went to see this I had read an article about terrifying new findings of highly antibiotic resistant bacteria in chickens and pork, accompanied by more warnings about the dire threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Of course the Renaissance was a time before both antibiotics and the contraceptive pill, not to mention advanced cancer treatments, and it’s likely that most of the older people in the pictures are suffering from various ailments that we just can’t imagine being an issue for the kind of rich people depicted in the scenes – tooth decay, chronic pain, chronic headaches due to poor eyesight, that sort of thing. Maybe Mary looked unhappy in all those paintings because she had a chronic UTI? If so, anyone who doubts the threat of AMR for our future quality of life should check out a hall of Renaissance paintings and ask themselves – do I want to go back to that??
This exhibition really impressed upon me that I don’t like this kind of art. Of course I find it interesting and I engage with the exhibition, even if in this case my random speculations may seem a bit facetious. But ultimately it doesn’t seem like good art to me, and the messages it contains are quite horrible. As a document of our past it’s fine, of course we should respect it and view it etc., but when I look at art like this I always leave overwhelmed by all the horrible ideas behind it, and I really think that to properly present this art to a modern audience some kind of sensitivity to or discussion of these issues would make for a better viewing experience. In this case the majority of the audience were Japanese, so it’s probably just a curiosity to them, but for westerners looking at this art it is really rich in themes that we may not be able to express clearly in words but which I think hit us anyway, and a bit more engagement with how those themes affect modern audiences might help them to react a little less viscerally to some of the denser, nastier stuff. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an exhibition of this skeezy ancient art that has made any attempt to engage with these more controversial aspects, and I expect I never will. But I think it would be nice. And I think until we do begin to engage with these underlying archaic values consistently and clearly, we’ll never really see them swept away.
Which is what I want to see. I want to see this creepy undercurrent of death and guilt and dirt washed out of our sexual substrate, so that we can get on with the business of being sexual unencumbered by our necromantic origins.