Issue 210, Fall 2014
Did you know that in the thousand years or so between antiquity and the Renaissance there was no still life painting in the West? Can you imagine? Such a natural thing, you’d think. A thousand years. No pictures of nonsubservient things all by themselves. Through all that time such things are lost to us as self-sufficient facts. Those things the ancients loved to depict as if to touch, as if to have as they adorned their private houses with mosaic and painted pictures of the sorts of party favors, food, and trinkets given to guests—Look what there is for you, the pictures from Pompeii and Herculaneum seem to say, look what there is to have, for a while at least, here in this dangerous world. One’s thoughts are poised above these things—the fish, the pomegranates, writing implements, little piles of coins—like one of those coin-operated mechanical claws above the tray of prizes. Yet all that is taken away. Things by themselves fall out of favor. For a thousand years or so, those simple objects of experience that happen to appear in sacred pictures (on and on, the sacred pictures) have been cleansed of mundane qualities. Removed from us and placed in higher service. You can’t have them. Can’t desire them even, really. For to do so was a moral and a philosophical error. Mundane objects in themselves had slipped beyond our contemplation. Theologically, philosophically (practically, too, don’t you imagine, in those dark, precarious ages, as the interval between the acquisition and the consumption of potential subject matter shrank below some critical point), things by themselves fell into doubt. The particular world was an unintelligible emanation from the mind of God. Things merely in themselves, Saint Augustine tells us (and Aquinas, too, though later and more gently, more forgiving of the body), are not understood directly. Our minds cannot seize the object. Cannot fully know the thing itself. How poor and cold to have it settle out like that, as I suppose it must have done to some extent, into the ordinary life. To have one’s love glance off the object of desire. To lose acquaintance, in some fundamental way, with grapes and lemons and dead rabbits. I remember reading Robin Hood—the Junior Deluxe edition so beautifully written and illustrated by Howard Pyle—receiving, as I imagined, such a powerful and physical impression of medieval life I carry it with me still. But that’s not it. That can’t be how it really was. So clear, meticulous, and carefully observed. Each tree with roots. Each pie and goblet on each table drawn to reveal itself as just its worldly qualities within the worldly moment:
So the ale was brought and given to Little John. Then, blowing the froth a little away to make room for his lips, he tilted the bottom of the pot higher and higher, till it pointed to the sky, and he had to shut his eyes to keep the dazzle of the sunshine out of them. Then he took the pot away, for there was nothing in it, and heaved a full deep sigh, looking at the others with moist eyes and shaking his head solemnly.
Yet in fact Little John would never have achieved, in the late twelfth century, where this version places him, quite so bright and deep an understanding of his pot of ale in the sunlight.