The Secret History of Art just returned from teaching a course at American University of Rome (AUR) entitled “Mystery Paintings.” The course was taught over three consecutive days, for a total of 13 hours, in an unusual format that AUR kindly allows me to employ in order to teach regularly but also incorporate frequent travels during the semester. The course is a preview of a book that is in the works. The question of why so many great paintings are intentionally created to be visual puzzles is the subject of the course and the future book. Here is the outline of the course. Feel free to write in with your recommendations of great “mystery paintings” that should be considered for the book.
The history of art is full of unsolved mysteries, coded messages, and hidden meanings. Art historians have spent centuries trying to decipher paintings whose exact meanings have been lost to Modern man. Before the Modern period, educated men understood a visual language of symbol and allegory which is no longer used today. There was a finite canon of sources from which the educated would draw their knowledge in an age when reading was a great privilege—therefore potential points of reference were limited, with sources such as the Bible and its apocrypha, The Golden Legend, Greek and Roman mythology, Ovid and Virgil, and the writings of early Church fathers presenting a specific source group of images and ideas which constitute 90% of Western art history from the Medieval through the Early Modern periods. Learning this visual vocabulary of allegory and symbol allows us to interpret and decode these masterpieces, which are renowned for their beauty and skill, but the true meaning of which has remained elusive.
As conspiracy theory fiction likes to note, real art history is full of ciphers and secrets. The excitement during the Humanist Renaissance at the rediscovery of ancient pagan texts, whose science and philosophy made sense but was in direct contradiction to Church dogma, was transposed into works of art to disseminate and preserve these heretical ideas in a way which sympathetic parties could understand, but which would remain opaque to enemies of those ideas.
But even more resonant than the sum of the secrets they hold, great works of art speak in universal truths about the human condition, about love, fear, death, jealousy, and faith. Though these masterpieces were created centuries ago, human beings have changed remarkably little—only modern man has lost the ability to read the mysterious and beautiful language of symbols that are the key to understanding art history’s mysteries.
This course will introduce students to this phenomenon of “mystery paintings” and, in the process it will explain why the mysteries are present to begin with, and what this tells us about ourselves.
Art presents us with two sets of mysteries, one over and the other covert. At their surface, artworks contain visual mysteries of the sort just mentioned: arcane symbols, hidden heresies, allegories and disguised meanings. These are puzzles on the skin, paintings which were always intended as riddles punctuated with disguised symbolism and laced with secret messages, with which the viewer must engage to “solve”. These are the mystery paintings of this book’s title.
But there is a second, covert mystery to address, and that is this: why does great art move us? What is it about art that makes it “great,” and how does it cast its spell upon us, awing centuries of viewers the world round? What is the science behind art? Since our ancestors created paintings in the caves of Chauvet some 32,000 years ago, humans have been drawn to, and fascinated by, art. Why is this so? The reasons may be explained in terms of psychology, sociology, art history, archaeology, and even neurology.
There is a mysticism to art which sets it apart from science, although science can certainly inform our understanding of it. The renowned scholar Walter Benjamin was at a loss to describe why we love art. He wrote that great art has an “aura” that is inexplicable to humans—and for that very reason, it draws us in. At a subconscious level, it immerses us in the mystery of the indefinable. If we could define and rationalize why art moves us, then it would be easier to dismiss, and less powerful. The mystique is in the mystery. This book will explore that “aura” of which Benjamin wrote, from the subconscious “gut-instinct” level by which art addresses universal human traits, to the puzzles that inhabit the surface of great paintings, inviting us to step into the mystery and solve it, provoking a phenomenon which we will call The Treasure-Hunt Instinct.
1. Great Mystery Paintings
To explore the aforementioned themes, we will focus on four paintings, each from a different period and country, which have long confounded scholars for the puzzles contained within them. Bringing in other examples, these four works will provide the core of the course.
1. Caravaggio Saint Matthew Cycle
2. Velazquez Las Meninas
3. Bronzino Allegory of Love and Lust
4. Van Eyck The Ghent Altarpiece
Other works referred to may include: Leonardo The Last Supper, Giorgione The Tempest, Gruenwald The Isenheim Altarpiece, Van Eyck The Marriage Contract, Titian Venus of Urbino, Magritte Son of Man, Bellini Sacred Allegory, Petrus Christus Our Lady of the Dry Tree, Holbein The Ambassadors, Carpaccio Young Knight in a Landscape, Piero della Francesca Dream of Saint Jerome
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