The second picture that caught my eye in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid recently (I discussed the first here) was this small grisaille diptych by Jan Van Eyck, a portable desktop prop for a rich man’s or woman’s devotions.
What is going on here? This is a real bleg not a rhetorical question. It’s not an image of the Annunciation, but an image of statues of the Annunciation. At the time, SFIK real devotional statues were polychrome; so the statues are not only imaginary but deliberately unrealistic. At the same time, they are gem-quality perfect simulacra. Why the layered distancing, almost as complex as the White Knight’s?
It’s possible that Van Eyck was simply showing off his technical mastery, pronking if you like. (“Look, rivals, I can paint an imaginary statue that’s more lifelike than your direct image”). His motto, reproduced on some of his paintings, was Als ik kan (“As I can”), which does not suggest false modesty. But it’s hard to believe that’s the whole story. Jan Van Eyck was court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He was so famous that he managed to secure a salary, and therefore had more freedom than a painter on piecework commission; but particularly for a devotional piece, he would still be working to a commission from the Duke, a lesser nobleman or a rich merchant like Jan Arnolfini (he of the pregnant wife and lapdog). There’s a religious or philosophical point, as with Piero della Francesca’s puzzling Flagellation. What is it?
According to Huizinga, the great Dutch cultural historian of the period, the late mediaeval mind was literal and visual. Our ancestors then loved relics, pageants, and public executions. One devotional technique recommended by the Devotio Moderna was to project yourself into a Biblical scene like Gethsemane, and imagine taking part in a dialogue with the heroes and villains of the story. So you would expect 15th-century Flemings to want the utmost, illusionary realism in their religious art, combined with anachronism to bridge the gap of time. That’s what they got from van Eyck in the great public altarpiece in Ghent, the Adoration of the Lamb.
Grisaille does the opposite. It makes for anti-icons. Instead of a theophanic claim to put the pious Christian into contact with the object of veneration, it seems to say: I’m only an image; all I can do to bring you a place in your mind where you can start the hard work of opening yourself to the transcendent.
If this is right, these paintings mark the rediscovery of irony: a double message, a planned cognitive discord. Irony was important in Greek theatre – it’s the spring of the tragedy of Oedipus and the comedy of Lysistrata. The bitter Tacitus uses it to great effect in the speech of Calgacus before his battle with Agricola: “They make a desert and they call it peace”. It was revived in the Renaissance; Mark has (as I recall) claimed here that Machiavelli’s Prince is an exercise in irony – Macchiavelli, tortured for the Florentine Republic, actually despised Cesare Borgia and his ilk. The Ghirlandaio portrait of Giovanna Tortabuoni works through tragic irony- a beautiful and vital girl (look at her clothes), doomed to die in childbirth (look at the black background). Shakespeare gives us hundred-proof dramatic irony in Mark Antony’s speech over Caesar’s body: we thrill to it along with the Roman mob, at the same time as we recognise the cynical manipulation.
We don’t think of the Middle Ages as congenial to irony. But consider the Canterbury Tales, only a few decades earlier than our picture. Chaucer was an English gent and diplomat. His masterpiece combines affection for the common people with a snobbish mockery. The Prioress:
And frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.
This Stratford is far from Shakespeare’s bucolic Avon. It’s the grotty part of London’s East End where they built the Olympic stadium: proletarian then as now, guvnor. The salutation is of course ironic; class mockery goes two ways.