Medieval art and me


The virgin looks great, but who told the chancellor this haircut was a good idea?

I am afflicted with art attention drift. After years of loving 19th-century realism, suddenly, after a first visit to the cloisters in New York City, I’ve become enamored of Medieval art. And not the later stuff, when artists were working out the rules of perspective and the craft of realism and coming up with beautiful renditions of the Virgin and baby Jesus blessing some guy with a weird haircut.

No, I like the early work, the cartoony figures, the lack of perspective, and the patterns. Lots of patterns. Because if they couldn’t draw a figure worth a damn, at least they could make beautiful patterns, compulsively covering church walls and painted parchment with animals, people, flowers, leaves, stalks, and bibs and bobs and swirling loop de loops.

James Gurney says this is called Horror vacui, the fear of open space. I don’t know if folks in the middle ages were particularly fearful of open spaces; I’m thinking it might have been more a function of some rich guy saying, “hey, Duke Weligsburdof in the duchy next door has half a wall that’s got paintings all over it. Be cool to have one of those too. I’ve got an empty castle wall here, and the son of the serf in cottage #5 is a pretty good painter.  Let’s fill this wall with pictures so it’s even more chock-a-block full of weird creatures and lovely maidens than Weli’s wall. Then we’ll have a dinner party, and we can all look at it. That’ll make Weli green with envy.”

It was a sure-fire way to impress the guests. In those days, painted, carved, or cast images were rare; there was little to look at other than the pile of garbage outside the south castle window. And church services were no doubt interminably long with that guy with the funny haircut droning on and on and on in Latin. All those intricate portals and tapestries, the crenelated baptismal fonts, the fancy work and bible stories in stone must have been like television for the Medieval man or woman, entertaining their brains while fueling them with stories and propaganda.

Today we are awash with images. We’ve got so many images, so much clutter (in the 21st century, society at large is suffering from horror vacui) that it’s a sign of wealth to have spacious houses empty of all but some uncomfortable furniture and an ugly rug. But nearly every household in America has a television. Sometimes every room in an American house contains a television.

And I suppose, like the complicated designs of Medieval art, television fills a vacuum in folks’ lives.