malraux: venus as rival of the virgin

The end of feudalism, the waning of intense religious fervor,  and the beginning of the bourgeois values and cycles of consumerism changed everything. Andre Malraux and his Metamorphosis of the Gods. Its not hard to follow the slippery slope from the sacred, to idolatry to the cult of celebrity…

…It is impossible for a painter to introduce Venus into the plastic universe of Van Eyck, “just as it would have been impossible for a sculptor to introduce her into the assembly of saints on the portals of Chartres…The world of Flemish painting can accept her only as a woman, because it knows only what exists…Van Eyck paints his lost ‘Hunters,’ like the ‘Arnolfini Wedding,’ because they exist; he paints Eve, the Virgin, and the saints because they exist even more so. But Italy is about to paint Venus because she does not exist.”

—Botticelli, la Naissance de Vénus et le Printemps. Un voyage magique dans le cheminement de l’âme d’après Botticelli, l’ami des philosophes platoniciens de Florence. Une interprétation novatrice et passionnante pour découvrir des aspects insoupçonnés de ces tableaux fort connus.—Read More:

The famous Botticelli Venus “brings with her a quality that Christian art had never known: the unreal.” It is no longer the subdued babbling of the fairy tale, but “the domain in which the Christian for the first time dares to set up the images of his dreams in rivalry to the images of the world of God.” Italy has discovered the pictorial domain in which “Venus could become the rival of the Virgin, the nymph rival of the angel, and the unreal rival of the City of God.”


Derek Allan:Giotto, Malraux argues, represents the first clear break with this dualism—a first step in man’s reconciliation with God. The crucial development was not, as is so often said, a sudden interest in ‘naturalism’ or ‘illusionism’, although this played a necessary part. Giotto’s discovery, Malraux argues, was a new power in painting unknown to Byzantium. No longer a hieratic vision of otherworldliness, Giotto’s frescos depicted sacred scenes that are at the same time ‘scenes of the life of Jesus’ —events that once did take place on earth. Thus, Malraux writes, [Giotto] discovered a power of painting previously unknown in Christian art: the power of locating without sacrilege a sacred scene in a world resembling that of everyday life… For the first time sacred scenes related no less to the world of man than to the world of God.

—The picture’s purpose, then, seems to have been to record and sanctify this marriage. Although this has been the traditional interpretation of this image, some scholars recently have taken issue with this reading, suggesting that Arnolfini is conferring legal privileges on his wife to conduct business in his absence. Despite the lingering questions about the precise purpose of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride, the painting provides viewers today with great insight into both van Eyck’s remarkable skill and Flemish life in the fifteenth century.—Read More:

Giotto thus opened up a new world of what Malraux terms ‘pictorial fiction’ or ‘the imaginary’. Though his painting was still very much in the service of a strong Christian faith, Malraux writes, he ‘[brought] the divine on to a plane nearer that of man’ by replacing the hieratic forms of Byzantine art with ‘[a] sublime expression of the Christian drama.’ A degree of naturalism or illusionism played a necessary part because the drama took place in ‘a world resembling that of
everyday life’. The essential point, however, was not ‘nature imitation’—the mere mimicry of the world of appearances. Once again, as always, the aim was the creation of another world, but this time one that ‘related no less to the world of man than to the world of God.’ Developments from this point onwards reveal an enthusiastic exploration of the possibilities Giotto had opened up. ‘It was not that religious feelings were submerged’, Malraux writes, but these were supplemented by the thrill of discovering an imaginary realm revealed by a power of the artist that differed from his power of representing scriptural scenes, in that it no longer called forth veneration, but … admiration.

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