Monday, May 18, 2009

Narrowing the Eyes

Met JMS and RDM at the Cloisters yesterday, my third visit to the Met's medieval collection. If I feel heroic and imperial in the Classical sculpture court in the Met main building, I always feel monkish and stooped as I pace round the four cloisters here. The religious iconography is oppressive, only occasionally relieved by unexpected figures of monkeys, cocks, and unicorns. 

The Merode altarpiece, despite its large significance for Western painting, as explained by JMS, is a cramped and cramping allegory. So, the mousetrap--worked on by Joseph--represents Christ, God's bait for the devil (a metaphor from Augustine), the lilies represent the Virgin's purity, the sixteen sides of the table represent the sixteen major prophets of the Bible, so on and on. But I am no longer moved by such dry correspondences.

The smallness of the books, of the ivory and wood carvings, adds to my feeling of a dark, confined space. The detail is spectacular, and the line, as in a tiny torso of an armless Christ on the cross, is sometimes sensuous and sensitive, but the devotional objects demand a narrowing of the eyes, and not an expansion of vision. The stuff I like best, like the Standing Virgin and Child (ca. 1470, attributed to Nikolaus Gerhaert von Leiden) are usually late in the period, closer to the Renaissance than the Middle Ages. 

1 comment:

Harry said...

Nicely put, and though my usual instinct is to defend the medieval, I do know what you mean.