Over at his join Rod praises commenter Glaivester, so it’s only right that I step in to offer criticism, so that nobody gets a big head. In a comment on my post on Auden and artistic depictions of biblical events, Glaivester writes,
Of course, part of the issue might have been that during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, most people were not historians and so did not really understand the cultural context of things that happened in the past. Therefore, it did not occur to them that Bethlehem would not look exactly like the village they lived in, or that Mary and Joseph would have a different form of dress then they did.
But no. The great artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were immensely sophisticated men who, through reading, travel, and encounters with travelers from other cultures, understood cultural variation as well as we do. Look at something like the Cestello Annunciation (above): Botticelli didn’t think that first-century Palestine looked like the view from that window, nor did he think that Palestinian interiors looked like that, or that Jewish maidens dressed like that. The great painters of that era, and even earlier, knew exactly what they were doing: the historical distortions Botticelli introduces into that painting are just as intentional and meaning-filled as his use of varying shades of red; or his placement of the right edge of the window frame precisely in the middle of the painting, where it lines up precisely with the angel’s hand as he begins to intrude into Mary’s half of the painting; or his seemingly odd yet deeply significant introduction of a half-finished bridge into the background. You just have to look at the composition and design of that painting to see that the painter didn’t suffer from historical naïvete, or any other kind of naïvete.
This is true even if you go farther back. Consider for instance the greatest achievement of the Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev, the icon often called “The Holy Trinity” but more accurately called “The Hospitality of Abraham” (from Genesis 18).
Calling it “The Holy Trinity” simplifies this immensely complex image too much: it is an image of the three angels (or “men”) who visit Abraham but also and somewhat indirectly invokes the Trinity. As Rowan Williams explains in his beautiful little book on icons,
Yet Rublev and others [who painted this scene] give one unmistakable signal that the arrangement of the figures is significant. Here the central angel wears a tunic of dark red or mulberry colour and a blue mantle; over his right shoulder is what was originally one of the vertical stripes which decorated an under-tunic in Roman times, but which has something of the appearance of a deacon’s stole. In short, the central angel is dressed exactly as Christ is (almost invariably) dressed throughout the centuries of Eastern Christian art. While we can accept all the proper cautions about not treating the figures as simple depictions of the trinitarian persons, there is certainly a convention which understands that the icon is to be ‘read’ from left to right as pointing to the Father, the Son and the Spirit; more significantly, the evocation in the central figure of the normal representation of Christ seems to be telling us that the central or pivotal thing in our understanding of the Trinity must be Jesus Christ incarnate.
The dress of the central figure, the tree (surely the Tree of Life) inclining towards him, the complex interaction of the Genesis narrative and the theological meanings it prefigures — all this suggests a tremendously sophisticated artistic intelligence. We know some things the great figures of the past didn’t know, just as they knew some things we have forgotten. We understand and appreciate them better if we assume that they were at least as sophisticated as we are.