Art Thoughts, Week 5 – "Unidentified" & Questions

(above, not very close to the one somewhat the same...and from the right century and continent! Gothic 15th c. France...artist named Gonsalves?))

Three Apostles with Stick, Key and Axe, unidentified artist, Northern European, possibly 15th century; oil and gold on panel, BF 845.

Facing a work of art should raise questions. And it’s only natural: unless the art was made by someone just like you, with your exact context, at least one question should emerge. (I would add, too, that if an artwork does not cause a few questions, then either the work has failed in one of its prime directives, or you the viewer have not been faithful in your visual education.)

Occasionally, though, a work of art crosses the threshold of personal questions, and jumps back even farther, so that one then needs to ask, how did the original viewers see this? That is, questions not primarily about what we’re seeing, but what others saw. Hopefully by finding some tentative answers to the first questions, contemporary ones might be answered. The painting I looked at this week, Three Apostles with Stick, Key and Axe, by an unidentified 15th century German artist, is one of these works.

This type of painting is often described as didactic; that is, it was installed in a church or chapel to either (or both) educate the congregants about those who had “gone on before”, or inspire them to emulate the devotion and passion of the church’s best. Still, this did not necessarily answer my initial question, being, how did people approach this painting? What, for example, was their first thought when they saw it with new eyes, so many centuries ago? Another way to ask the same question is: did they work? I asked this because the Barnes Foundation owns three other paintings like this one – with groupings strange to modern eyes; each with three non-contemporaneous saints, holding their objects like horribly inappropriate gifts for the viewer, and looking like somewhat awkward family-photo shoots in their arrangement. So – were the faithful indeed spurred on to greater works of sacrifice and charity?

I’ll describe the painting briefly before I continue. There are three saints in a snug composition, showing no background between them; above is a heavily-worn gilded space incised by subtle halos, showing red bole through (gilding undercoat). This creates a weirdly conflagratory space behind them. Their feet rest angled sharply on a mustard plank. (The environment is clearly not the most important feature). The figure to the left is standing with his body facing the viewer, but his head is bowed contemplatively towards the other two saints, who are more actively moving to the left, heads resolute. By far the most arresting thing about the picture is the colors of their clothing – scarlet; lemon yellow; rose; salmon and turquoise; grey and forest green. This alone would have caught many an eye, pulling them in to then focus on other aspects of the painting; namely, the personages and their objects, and what they symbolize.

I don’t have space to answer all questions. My first was, however: who are these? After brief research combined with my existing hagiographic knowledge (small!), I decided that the figures were (or might be): St. James the Greater (his symbol a “cockle” or scallop shell and pilgrim’s staff); St. Peter (holding the ornate Key to the Kingdom); and St. Boniface of Tarsus with his broad-axe and book. And, dealing with an earlier question, it is my guess that when combined originally with the other three panels, this painting would have served as an inspiration to viewers; perhaps as an interactive space where information and spiritual heritage would pass generationally and congregationally. There doesn’t seem to be much other original purpose for it – and by 1928 or so, Dr. Barnes had latched on to its aesthetic qualities, creating a new 20th century relevance. Appropriately enough, though, Dr. Barnes would return this painting and many other centuries-old pieces to a didactic use, through the lenses of science and aesthetics. In good works of art, questions don’t diminish as the piece ages; in fact, the opposite might be true.

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