Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Foolishness of Interpreting Medieval Art as Realistic

The image below shows the Italian hill city of San Gimignano as though it rested on a platter being held by a giant man (who happens to be Gimignano, the town's patron saint):

There are at least two possible ways we could interpret this painting:

1) The painter and the residents of San Gimignano literally thought that there was a giant man holding their town aloft. They failed to notice that when they exited the town in one direction, they did not bump into his flowing white shirt. They failed to notice that when they looked over the town wall in the other direction, there was not a gigantic abyss, broken only by four enormous, white-gloved fingers. Somehow, even though they thought they were held aloft on a platter, they were still able to go work their fields!

2) The painting is only meant to be taken as a metaphor for the idea that San Gimignano is watching over the city.

Pretty obviously the second is the right interpretation.

So when the painters of this time painted God or angels or the devil or hell, we should remember that what they tried to capture on canvas were visual metaphors. When they showed a king four times the size of his courtiers, it is not because they were bad painters: what was of interest to them was to show the importance of the king in the scene, not his "real" size.

They were not artistic realists!


  1. Gene, I daresay that if you asked the average person living at the time, they would say that the painting of Sam Gimignano was not literally true, but that the paintings depicting angels, Satan, the afterlife, etc. were quite accurate. More broadly, I think while there have been philosophers throughout history who have a sophisticated metaphorical understanding of religious scripture, it's hard to deny that literalism has been popular among common people throughout history.

    Full disclosure: I subscribe to a fairly literal interpretation of Hindu scripture.

    1. Keshav, I daresay that this is no way to do history! We don't just guess what people might have thought; we do *research*! Could you imagine doing physics this way: I daresay neutrinos must have some mass or other.

      So I don't know, without research, what the average peasant thought on these topics, or say, did he think the earth was flat. I haven't researched it.

      But the moderately educated knew the earth was round. And they would have known that it was plumb line standard Catholic doctrine that God was not literally an old man with a beard, did not literally have eyes, did not have a finger with which he could touch Adam, did not have a height, etc. So at least the *painters* (more educated) would have known this, even if the peasants had not.

    2. Gene, certainly the moderately educated would have known that God was formless, but don't you think that if you showed a moderately educated person a painting of an angel with wings, they would agree that angels really did have wings? And more broadly, don't you think they would have believed that Noah's flood covered the Earth, that for the most part Genesis was an accurate literal account of creation, etc.?

      I'm not saying that Thomas Aquinas believed these things, but I daresay (there's that word again) that that moderately educated people did. And I agree, history by supposition is a terrible way to investigate the past.

    3. Well, Keshav, I don't know what peasant's believed. But again, it was a plumb-line standard point of Catholic doctrine that angels are immaterial, and thus did not really have wings, or any other body parts. Educated people would have known this.



"If your approach to mathematics is mechanical not mystical, you're not going to go anywhere." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb