crisis of imagination: vulcan in a smith’s apron

Andre Malraux and his Metamorphosis of the Gods…

…In a sense this produces a crisis of the imagination. The Middle Ages knew the supernatural only as reality. Angels were no more surprising than elephants; if anything, medieval people knew angels better and saw them more often. Angels and demons were not part of the earth, but they were part of Creation by the same token as elephants- and men. The medieval imagination was never concerned with things that could not exist, but with things that could exist only through God, or that existed in the lands where knights killed giants and dragons- the dragon,after all, might be only an elephant one had not yet seen. From Byzantium to the fourteenth century, fable and myth had never quite disappeared from the manuscripts.

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Mercury in the guise of a bishop, Apollo in the guise of a physician, turbaned Diana and Saturn with a sickle, mingled with Mars in a cart and Vulcan in a smith’s apron. Venus was painted in medieval books as planet or as chatelaine, in the zodiac or in the garden. But when she ceases to be a planet, demon, or allegorical figure, she becomes merely a character in an anecdote. In Les Echecs Amoureaux at the end of the fourteenth century, Venus appears in the Garden of Nature which strongly resemble a kitchen garden.

—Allegorie : Jardin de Deduit enluminure par Robinet Testard, pour le livre Echecs amoureux de Evrard de Conty,vers 1496-1498 coll. BNF-Paris (ms

Although the painter sees his goddesses as symbolizing the Modes of Life, he tries to represent Venus merely by painting a naked woman- and does not manage to identify his kitchen goddess except by hanging a label above her. Artistically speaking, she is the sister of Prosperine and Pluto who hold court in another scene of the same work; they are figures of strained, satirical allegory, suggesting that the painters of the period are no longer at ease in realms of fantasy. ( to be continued)…



Derek Allan: I should perhaps interpose here that there have been numerous cultures in which the term ‘art’, in anything approaching its modern Western signification, was quite unknown.11As Malraux writes in The Voices of Silence,
‘A major part of our art heritage has been bequeathed to us by men for whom the idea of art was not the same as our own, or by those for whom it did not even exist.’  For cultures like that of Byzantium in which a sense of the sacred played a central role, this comment is of particular relevance. Even for the European Middle Ages—relatively close to us in time, after all—painting, sculpture and architecture were not, Malraux contends, created to serve the cause of ‘art’ but to reveal
the features of God’s divine world, and the Middle Ages, he writes, ‘were as unaware of what we mean by the word “art” as were Greece or Egypt, who had no word for it.’ The absence in so many cultures of a term equivalent in meaning to our word art is, I might add, something that the discipline of aesthetics has only recently begun to treat with some degree of seriousness—though mostly, I would argue, to explain away rather than to explain. One of the many advantages of Malraux’s theory of art is that he treats this fact seriously and helps us understand why it is so.

In Byzantium, as in so many other cultures, he argues, the ‘other world’ that painting, sculpture and architecture strove to bring into being was first and foremost an Other World of the sacred. The 

on of art as know it—the art of art collections and art museums—was not only alien but in all probability quite unimaginable. At a certain stage in European history, however, a radical change was to occur and, for the first time, something called ‘art’—though not yet with the meaning we attach to the word today—was to come into being. For Malraux, this change began with Giotto.


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