Evocative Sights

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[13].”

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

Source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminated_manuscript

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Exhibitions: Masterpieces of European Painting

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1828, "Birchington-on-the-Sea" from the Museo de Arte de Ponce

Luis A. Ferre had a successful iron works business in 1950.   But, while in Europe in 1950, Ferre conceived the idea of bringing a healing force to landscapes in his native Puerto Rico that were  “scarred” by the works of man.  To “soften the scar,” Ferre brought European art  to Puerto Rico.  Over the next several years, Ferre collected an impressive collection of art from all over Europe that became the Museo de Arte de Ponce.

A selection from  Ferre’s Museo de Arte de Ponce is on exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee.  I’ve seen Renaissance-era paintings in books before, but never original paintings in the flesh, so to speak.  The power and beauty of these paintings overwhelmed me.

The first thing that hit me was how old the paintings were.  Many of the paintings were from the 1400’s through the mid-1800’s.   I could see the spider-web cracks in the centuries-old paint so it was clear what I was seeing was indeed old.  But, the subject matter, the color, the detail that defined each piece had the power of the immediate.  The colors – blues, reds, ochres – were as vivid as if they’d been painting just moments ago and the paint were still wet.   Many of the  pieces seemed to be lit from within.  With an almost photographic quality, I felt like if I’d dared reach out and touch the painting, I would have felt the rich fabric of draped robes, or the coldness of a golden chalice.

In the exhibit hall next to the Arte de Ponce exhibit was an equally astounding exhibit of ancient Greek artifacts that told the stories of mythical  Greek heroes.  To juxtapose these two exhibits is to create a stark contrast.  The rich, boisterous and fantastical Greek myths are illustrated with flat profiles in solid black or orange on terracotta.  There’s no expression on Odysseus’s face.  There’s no flirtatious aspect about Helen as she brings down a bloody war between Sparta and Athens.  These pieces — various kinds of vessels with traditional Greek decoration — speak so eloquently because of the history and the  stories behind them.

But, the art in the Ponce exhibit speaks to us because it is alive.  Painters of this era moved beyond flat 2-D images and brought forth  fully formed human figures capable of expressing complex emotions through the tilt of a head, the slope of a shoulder, or the drape of a robe.  Yet, the most amazing aspect to me was the vividness of color that has lasted for centuries.  The painters’ ability to light a figure from within brings the figures to life in a way that the Greeks might have mistaken for the work of gods and goddesses.