The storm raged on for ten minutes or so, then, as abruptly as it had come, it went. The traders pushed out their barrows, the pigeons flew down from their perches, and the well-to-do tourists emerged from Florians and began to mill around once more in the bright sunshine. We emerged from such meagre shelter as we had been able to find.
“You know what?” I said. “Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony suddenly makes sense!”
My wife, who is used to taking no notice of my more pretentious pontifications, just sighed, but I persisted.
“You see, that storm in the fourth movement has never convinced me. It's more Fantasia than meteorology. All those merrymaking peasants dancing about, that sudden roll of thunder and the storm, then, suddenly, sunshine, birdsong, and that lovely tune just right for shepherds and shepherdesses to gambol to. Thunderstorms just don’t work like that.”
they don’t in England.
thunderstorms take a whole afternoon to build up, rumble on for a while,
and then gradually fade away in miserable drizzle that can last for hours.
Thunderstorms in Venice don’t do that; and Austria, where Beethoven
wrote that symphony, isn’t that far away.
I love art galleries. When I can’t get to them, I’m happy to
scour the Internet for pictures or pull one of the (far too many) art
books off my groaning shelves. But for a lot of art, these ways of looking
at it lack something – context. This is particularly true of religious
art. As Roy Strong puts it in A Little History of the English Country
Church, 'Artefacts (in museums) have been removed from the context of
faith and become exhibits in the history of art'.
Of course, not all paintings need
the sort of context I’m going to talk about in this study. A Dutch
landscape or a picture of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol work fine
anywhere. Sometimes a good part of the context can be supplied in the
annotation – who painted it and for whom, where it came from, and so on.
But however good the annotation is, it cannot let us see the artwork as it
was intended to be seen.
This Annunciation by Duccio (National Gallery, London) is a small panel
from the great Maesta, originally painted for the Duomo in Siena. My study
of this extraordinary masterpiece can be found here.
In the early eighteenth century the Maesta was broken up, with the intention of redistributing it around the church. At this time a number of the component panels went missing; some are now in art galleries around the world, some have disappeared entirely. In my study I have used a reconstruction of what the entire Maesta looked like (minus the missing panels), in an attempt to provide a context. But when the component parts are scattered, as has happened to so many altarpieces, getting a feel for what the original artwork looked like is very difficult.
It's not just about context within the artwork. An important aspect is where it was located, and what its function was. Go to Siena now and you can see the remaining part of Duccio's altarpiece in the Duomo museum. The right city, but a museum nevertheless. In its original location, the front (with a large image of the Virgin) had a devotional function, while the rear (the story of the life and passion of Christ) had a didactic function. A broader context is a historical one; the Virgin was sacred to the city.
So, even for complete works of art, context can be multi-layered and complex: devotional, political, locational, functional, theological. Even when a work of art is exactly where it was, and how it was, there is another missing context - the mindset of those for whom it was painted.
In the Strozzi chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, is Nado di Cioni’s fresco of Hell, painted in 1350 as Florence struggled to recover from the Black Death. I have discussed this as part of a study on the Magi here. In the twenty-first century, inured to such images by watching horror films, viewers may regard this fresco as slightly comic; how different then. Here's Roy Strong again:
‘In order to comprehend the importance of images we need to understand the medieval mindset. Today we take reading, writing and visual stimulation for granted. We encounter more images in a day than a medieval villager would have seen in a lifetime. Yet virtually the only images he or she ever saw were displayed in the parish church. The impact of this visual world on the many worshippers who were unable to read or write must have been overwhelming: spelled out before their eyes was the story of creation and salvation – and their own place within it.’
So where are the great works of art that we will look at, the ones that are where they were, and as they were? A few obvious candidates come to mind; Leonardo's Last Supper, the Sistine Chapel, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, the monastery of San Marco and the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. But I'm not going to start in Italy. Just to be different (or out of sheer perversity) I'm going to take my cue from Roy Strong and start with locations in England. As you'll see, I'll still be able to squeeze in some Giotto.