medieval art history, navel gazing, horizon scanning
Thursday, April 12, 2012
Beauty, Fantasy, Difference
Bosch, Epiphany, 1500, the Prado
There are more papers, more events, more bureaucracies, more of everything that needs to be swept away for just a few minutes. Balthasar has been on my mind since Tuesday, when we entered the third theoretical framework of "Monsters and Marvels" - race and ethnicity. There is much brilliant work on this in history and literary criticism, but medieval art history still produces mostly catalogues of images of race (we debated in class what an image of race was vs. one of ethnicity). What I'm going to be arguing over the next few weeks is that what appears to be an absolute divide of race (black/white) is actually constantly negotiated across ethnic divides of costume, language, gesture, and religion. What propels the negotiation, the back and forth over identity, is, I think, desire. Desire both for the exoticism of Balthasar's beautiful blackness, and also a desire for that blackness to be taken up into a globalized white Christianity. Balthasar is at once visibly African but already (always already?) on European Christian terms. There are photocopied chapters of Desiring Whiteness; a Lacanian Analysis of Race by Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks on my desk that I'm dying to read (maybe, maybe tomorrow). In the meantime, there is this image of Balthasar with the other two Magi (and a funky Antichrist showing quite a bit of leg, but that's Bosch for you) approaching Christ. (Actually, the funky Antichrist bears much further examination and I've heard Leo Koerner speak on it at Chicago - wonder if it became "Bosch's Enmity" in Tributes in Honor of James H. Murrow. In any case, if Balthasar is black, the Antichrist is whiter than white, and that ghastly wound encased in a glass anklet makes the mind reel. The limit of interpretation with Bosch rears up pretty fast.)
Bosch, Epiphany, 1500, Prado, detail
And this beautiful face - and the viewer's response. The poise, the gesture, the simultaneous difference within and belonging to the scene. There is profound knowledge of this face - is it a portrait? It's not too early to ask, even with Bosch. To me, the beauty of this face is the intimate knowledge of it that the painter provides, that he gives the viewer. We would recognize this man if we saw him. And we are seeing him, he is very present. This high individuality is then materialized in his gesture around the jar of myrrh, that most African of aromatics (found in Yemen, Somalia, Eretria, and Ethiopia) that he brings to the occasion. There's always something "wrong" or at least difficult and uncomfortable about "images of race" because the minute you call them that, you are talking about images of (hierarchical) difference, and all the inequalities and oppressions therein. Then again, you can have celebratory images of difference: "It's like a religious Benetton ad," said a student of mine in explaining the racialization of the Magi in late medieval altarpieces. Painting around 1500, did Bosch revel in Balthasar's difference, or is the lavish beauty of Balthasar an aesthetic escape - from difference to beauty? I find these images hard to read.
Bosch, Epiphany, 1500, Prado, detail
I sometimes wonder about the desire solicited by the beauty of these images of Balthasar, or saint Maurice, or the Queen of Sheba. For these are beautiful bodies beautifully adorned. Let's be clear, as we muddy the waters: there are ugly, exaggerated images of Africans in medieval art, too - look to Debra Higgs Strickland's Saracens, Demons and Jews - but I can't just see those as "bad" and these as "good" images of Africans. I have to think of the work of difference that beautiful images initiate. I made the robes of Balthasar and his attendant big so you could really see them. It's in that monstrous border that I see work to be done on what I ultimately hope to argue is the ambiguous work of visualizing difference in the late Middle Ages: theirs are the only robes with hybrids monstrosities abounding, theirs the only robes with pearls, theirs the only garments with an excess of fabric that causes the adornment of an incredible sleeve to fall thickly upon the ground. Theirs, too, the only robes with the perfect illusion: the birds pecking at the pearls on the border do so as earnestly as the bird on Balthasar's jar pecks at the pearl on its lid. But now wait, is the bird on Balthasar's jar but a fantasy as well? (The jar itself is a fantasy of another gift, to a god far away? long ago?) And Balthasar? What do we do with this realization that Balthasar's difference is visualized in skin color and in fantasy? Balthasar is different because of his skin color, but also because of these illusions, these fantasy images of pearls, birds, monsters. What is a difference visualized in fantasy? The simultaneity of pleasure (my God, those pearls!) and wary fascination (what is the birdman saying to the birdwoman?) is taken up so wondrously by Michael Uebel in Ecstatic Transformations. That's tomorrow's reading and I'd best get to it. For tomorrow we meet Prester John for the first time - ultimately we will find his image (in Ethiopia) on maps, but tomorrow, he is still in India, and I think that I'll show European stones and gems as faint glimmers of the Indian gems that Prester John is imagined to rule with, live within, and even sleep upon. "Our bed is of sapphire," says he, "on account of the stone's virtue in chastity." Another difference, another fantasy.