Touched by an Angel
Not long ago, a distinguished novelist volunteered, in a panel in which I participated, a comparison between literary and visual art. The difference, he said, is that because novels are made of language, they express thought--whereas pictures are just pictures. This is hardly a judgment that can survive the experience of a work like the Holy Blood Altarpiece, if it is even possible to think of it as a "reflection on the nature of representation." The truth, which would be amazing if it were not so commonplace, is that visual artists express thoughts, and often very complex thoughts, by sensuous means so compelling that even the illiterate can grasp their meaning. In the eighteenth century, pictures and sculptures underwent transformation into aesthetic objects, to be addressed through a kind of disinterested contemplation. They were put on pedestals, so to speak, the way women once were, to be admired as decorative trophies. I have often thought that the aestheticization of images and of women was an ingenious response to the perceived danger of both. In any case, from my fellow symposiast's point of view, a visual artwork is simply something good to look at, perhaps an embodiment of beauty. But aestheticization was a defensive measure against the fear that images would penetrate consciousness and cast us into sin. Words, by contrast, were relatively harmless. "The whole direction of early Lutheran piety," Michael Baxandall writes, "was away from the image, indeed away from the altar, and towards the word and the pulpit."
Fortunately for us, Riemenschneider produced his great work before retables stopped being commissioned, leaving sculptors with no way to earn their livelihoods. Something like this happened, incidentally, in late medieval philosophy as well. It became more and more intricately architectonic--until, through Lutheranism, thinkers all at once lost interest in abstruse distinctions and ramified argumentation. "The wretched Luther has emptied the lecture halls," a sixteenth-century philosopher said. What philosophy and art would have been like had the Reformation never taken place is impossible to imagine.
There is no integral altarpiece in the Metropolitan exhibition, but there is a wall installation made up of six components--four figures from the predella and two carved door panels--from a magnificent retable, originally in the Church of Mary Magdalen in the town of Münnerstadt. The predella figures are the four evangelists, each holding the Gospel with which he is credited, and each represented in a posture of complete inwardness, as if reflecting on the meanings of the events he has narrated. They seem to represent four stages of writing. Matthew is looking upward, as if waiting for a revelation to transcribe in the book in his lap; Mark, with his lion, doglike on the floor beside him, is intensely reading what he has written; Luke has closed his book and is reflecting on its incredible narrative; John appears to be interpreting a difficult passage, perhaps for himself, holding up the fingers of his right hand like a scholarly explainer. Or perhaps he is editing. The four figures together form a frieze of intense intellectual concentration. They originally populated the lower zone of the Münnerstadt retable.
The middle zone reveals the ascension of the Magdalen, accompanied by angels and wearing a penitential garment. The doors show scenes from the Magdalen's life when she was still a harlot, paying tribute to Jesus in ways that may have occurred to a woman of her calling--laving Christ's feet with her luxuriant tresses in the house of Simon, reaching out to touch the resurrected Christ with one hand and holding her jar of ointment with the other, as if to comfort him in the only way she knows. Christ repulses the gesture, telling her not to touch him--Noli me tangere. The garments of both figures--and Christ's banner as well--seem whipped by a strong wind, to my mind always the emblem of invisible powers. In Counter-Reformation Rome, the furled, blown garment expresses the situation of celestial beings--saints, martyrs, angels--caught up in a world of fierce invisible forces. In an early Annunciation, which Riemenschneider carved in alabaster, the angel's robe is agitated as if the angel had been blown into the Virgin's presence. Interrupted by this astonishing occurrence, the Virgin looks calmly up from her book, but in contrast with the angel, her robe falls in deep, gentle curves to the floor. They belong to different orders of being.