Mother of God Santa Francesca, Rome 3rd-4th century Encaustic icon
A recent customer shared with me the memories and feelings that one of my collages evoked for her. It got me thinking about the feelings triggered by things we see. We’ve all seen people who so resemble someone else that we are compelled to call that person and tell them we’ve spotted their doppelgänger. A glimpse of something similar to something else evokes memories that may feel good or terrible.
The way the brain processes information when we read is a good example of how we processes what we see. A veteran reader reads faster than a new reader because, through her experience, she’s looked at so many letters, words, sentences, and patterns that her eye doesn’t have to register every single letter. Instead, her eyes take in chunks and her brain fills in the rest using its own complicated system of probability. What are the chances, our brain might say, that “a_d” is anything other than “and” . (A gross oversimplification, but you get the idea.)
But what about when visual images evoke connections and emotions that don’t relate to any memory we’re conscious of? For example, recently I’ve been looking at medieval art – in particular icons – in preparation for teaching medieval history next year. The images have taken my breath away.
French historiated initial with men slaying a monster, from a theological manuscript. 1110-1115
Until recently, I don’t think I’ve known how to appreciate art. Until I began doing art myself, I don’t think I knew what to look for or how to feel about art. So, it is as if a new dimension has opened up for me – an entire new way in which to view the world. For a girl who has always dreamed in words rather than images, this is a big deal.
Mary Magdalen announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles, St Albans Psalter, English, 1120-1145.
I know that these centuries-old icons are not touching me because I’m particularly religious, so it isn’t so much the subject matter that moves me. Nothing in my past is sparked by seeing these images. I’ve tried to figure out what it is that I “like” about the images I’ve been viewing, and the first thing that came to me was the color. The vividness of the colors – blues, ochre, reds–give me a palpable rush of pleasure.
Romanesque interlace, "inhabited" with figures, England, 1190-1200.
But, why does a color make me feel good? I started to research how colors affect our moods, but it didn’t hold my interest for long. All I could thing of was how an old neighbor of ours was convinced that our son’s bright red nursery would emotionally cripple him for life. Articles about “color trends” have always struck me as kind of superfluous, and anything I could have written in that vein would have been pulp.
So, I contemplated the colors and the feelings some more. The vivid colors created an immediacy to the image. It was real, in-your-face intensity. And I wondered, how did those vivid colors survive all these centuries? What power did those brushstrokes have to leap across centuries to reach out and touch me? My husband suggested it was lead paint and all kinds of other terrible stuff that can’t be used anymore. (see note below) Maybe. Probably. But I prefer to think of it as something more elegant. I love reading history books, but I could read all day long and not experience the visceral feeling I do when I look at one medieval icon or illuminated page. I’m not creating new historical insights or anything like that. It’s just an emotion. It’s just the feeling that we are connected throughout the centuries and across the globe by the humanity and passion of artists.
NOTE: I did find some info on the make-up of paints used by medieval artists on wikipedia:
“The medieval artist’s palette was surprisingly broad. In addition to the substances listed below, unlikely-sounding substances such as urine and earwax were used to prepare pigments.”
Red: Mercuric sulfide (HgS), often called cinnabar or vermilion, in its natural mineral form or synthesized; “red lead” or minium (Pb3O4); insect-based colours such as cochineal, kermes and lac; rust (iron oxide, Fe2O3) or iron oxide-rich earth compounds
Yellow: Plant-based colours, such as Weld, turmeric or saffron; yellow earth colours (ochre); orpiment (arsenic sulfide, As2S3)
Green: Plant-based compounds such as buckthorn berries; copper compounds such as verdigris and malachite
Blue: Ultramarine (made from the rock lapis lazuli) or azurite; smalt; plant-based substances such as woad, indigo, and folium or turnsole
White: Lead white (also called “flake white”, basic lead carbonate (PbCO3)); chalk
Black: Carbon, from sources such as lampblack, charcoal, or burnt bones or ivory; sepia; iron and gall
Gold: Gold, in leaf form (hammered extremely thin) or powdered and bound in gum arabic or egg (called “shell gold”)
Silver: Silver, either silver leaf or powdered, as with gold; tin leaf