Sunday, 23 February 2014

Eyes of Gods: The Interiority of Sculpture

Reconstruction of Zeus
These notes continue on from the lecture on idols. The boundaries between gods and idols are rather blurred; both have a persuasive presence and share the same kind of sacred space. They are not just representations, but for the people who worship them, they are real. This reality demonstrated in the art of the sculptor through application of colour, surface articulation, movement etc. This is the art of hidden depths (real or implied). All idol elements, dressing them etc, are at one level designed to create an inner life/have inner power for the statue. They are containers of something non-physical. 

This inner power is conveyed through their 'voice' as well as through the eyes. The Egyptian Colossi of Memnon started to make a noise after being damaged by an earthquake. They became famous because they realised the possibility of an interior voice. The skill of a sculptor is to make a figure look like it is on verge of speaking, making them articulate in both physical and spiritual form.

Eyes are crucial in leading you into the interior; 'windows into the soul'. Eyes ensure dramatic effect when they are seen in detail. For example 'the Calf bearer' statue, was coloured and the eyes of the man hollowed out for emphasis, however the animal's eyes weren't. Unlike animals, humans have an interiority. For gods this is particularly important, eg the Zeus, his eyes are detailed and his movement is articulated through the surface. 

Godliness is also characterised through scale and gold. Phidias was famously employed to produce a Zeus and has been plausibly reconstructed. The god was as large as the temple itself. This playing with scale captures the manifestation of divinity. If he happened to stand up, he would have lifted the roof off the temple. Similarly the reconstruction of Athena Nike in Athens would have had a terrifying presence. These massive chryselephantine statues were built on a frame, like the renaissance virgins with real clothes. They rolled out the ivory, adding gold and glass. This was a highly successful technical procedure. Their divinity was manifest in space. 

The Romans took inspiration from the Greeks. Claudius as Jupiter - 'Gods' become a costume for the emperors. There is also a Flavian lady with a costume of Venus Aphrodite. By putting on a costume from classical world, they channelled power and signified Roman dominion. The Greek classical language was transferred as a classical costume to give them presence. After the fall of Rome, many statues were transferred to Constantinople where the political heart was still dominated by classical culture. Many large scale pieces are collected and denatured and 'become' works of art. This included the colossal statue of Zeus. Christianity was initially not entirely against these works but treated them as works of art. 

As more negative views took hold, statues were exorcised, baptised or mutilated. They realised the power of sculpture and the notion that it contains something, which has to be removed. In a cathedral in southern France Christian 'safe' non three dimensional relief work reused classical marble deliberately, which negated the pagan divinity. And by hiding it, this god would be forgotten. One Master Gregorius in 'De mirabiliis urbis Romae' spoke of a pagan statue, probably a Venus. He accused the statue of possessing magical powers as he returned to look at her three times. He mentions her blushing nakedness and the flow of her blood. Perhaps a reader of Ovid?

Christianity and 3D sculpture

The c9th saw the first large scale monumental Christ and saints, the 'Enghausen Crucifix', (polychromed wood, c890-900). These wooden figures contained relics from the associated saint. As I discovered in last term's lectures, there are only a few relics associated with Christ - cross, burial garments, foreskin. Not only do these statues and relics connect you directly with the holy personage, they are fully 3D as they contain relics/pieces of the actual body. 

Aside from their excellent demonstration of the inevitability of history repeating itself, that is to say echoing the gradual evolution of the pre-classical to classical ideas, these Christian miseries do not interest me at all. I find them revoltingly manipulative and exploitative of an ignorant congregation. However, I try to preserve an art historical perspective... One of these later carvings from 1300 lovingly depict wounds, the interior body visible under ripped skin, real string veins. Christ is not superhuman in robustness but in suffering. These were all over Europe and very popular. By identifying with his body, people could empathise with his pain and sacrifice. They use the classical sculptural ideas of multilayering, colour, motion...But to very different effect. 

Although the scale is deliberately human as they are generally life size, the viewer is conscious of the interior life or 'experience' of the sculpture, Christ's eyes is open. His open mouth echoes his side wound. Contemporary writings stress the importance of becoming one with Christ and entering, spiritually (I presume) through this wound. His flesh was woven by the Virgin Mary so if you open up the 'cloth', you see inside Christ. The sculpted then carefully created wounds on his body so that people could pray directly to them. By rediscovering classical techniques and combining it with this miserable, suffering Christianity, you could achieve something quite remarkable and persuasive.

By 1300 they started taking classical inspiration directly from the source. Nichola Pisano's work can be directly compared with classical pieces. He quotes classical statues and borrows then, first he classicised the nude in a Christian context and then Hercules of Pisa is then used to represent Christ. Therefore there is a moving away from the medieval suffering and a suggestion that the classical body is as effective at communicating an interior life.

Dr Dent concludes that there are two languages running in parallel; the language of sorrows continues as a Christian obsession but the classical is finally embraced as an appropriate Christian art form. 

No comments:

Post a Comment