One of the best ways of fleeing the greyness of a cold winter’s day in Canada (without, moreover, having to deal with the hassles of travel) is to gaze upon beautiful and often strange works of art. This recent article by regular BBC website contributor Kelly Grovier highlights ‘eight odd details hidden in masterpieces’, drawn from her new book A New Way of Seeing: The History of Art in 57 Works. Three of these masterpieces are from the Renaissance and early modern period.
The Birth of Venus: This is perhaps the most famous painting hanging in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. My experience a while ago of viewing this neo-Platonic allegory by Sandro Botticelli in 1482-85 was somewhat marred by the prolific phone cameras and tablets held up in front of the physical object (because clearly, a photo taken on one’s mobile of an artwork is far more interesting and valuable than, say, looking at it with one’s own eyes or downloading a high-resolution image from the internet). The painting depicts the goddess’s birth off the coast of Cyprus, which I visited some years ago during a conference: on being informed that wading into the regenerative waters whence the Goddess of Love arose would take twenty years off my age, I made a point of staying on dry land (I was certainly not going back to that stage of my life).
Grovier focuses on the ‘spiral of golden hair’ around Venus’s right shoulder, which as she points out is a ‘perfect logarithmic curl’, i.e., the Bernouilli sequence (as it would be later called) found in such natural shapes as nautilus shells. The seventeenth-century Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernouilli ‘would eventually christen the curl spira mirabilis, or “marvellous spiral”’. The sequence of prime numbers underlying this spiral evokes natural and mathematical harmony and elegance in Botticelli’s painting. Surely this is a ‘hair-raising’ surprise for spectators of this ‘divinely-inspiralled’ artwork, who might well be ‘shell-shocked’ to learn of the mathematical ratios underlying Venus’s birth.
The Garden of Earthly Delights: Hieronymous Bosch’s 1505-10 triptych depicts a panoply of fantastic, surreal images in three sections: Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden with Christ; a profusion of human nudes and animals, all of different colours, shapes, and sizes, frolicking in a garden around a lake; and a terrifying and grotesque vision of the Last Judgement, featuring a hell-scape populated by damned human beings in various states of torture and destruction, a giant tree-man, musical instruments protruding out of anuses, a giant pair of ears armed with a sword, a pig dressed as a nun, and other common features of daily life in this period.
Grovier hones in on the very centre of the painting, in which a gleaming white egg is perched on the heads of rambling nudes, among whom one is carrying a very large fish and riding what appears to be a puma. She suggests that the egg is a symbol of the entire triptych: the outer wings (pictured above) show a fragile orb floating in space, and so he may have ‘conceived his painting as a kind of egg endlessly to be cracked and uncracked every time we engage with the complex work’. Like the Garden of Eden itself, the egg is a beginning and perhaps the end. If she’s right, then Bosch’s ‘trippy’ triptych presents us with an egg-static vision of creation and destruction which is not to be ‘ovoided’: from the o-void we came, and to the o-void we return. The unrepentant (guilty of poaching and other mortal sins) will be fried or hard- or soft-boiled, but for some Christians by the ‘grease’ of God, there is a sunny side-up–though the path to salvation seems scrambled and not over-easy.
Girl with a Pearl Earring: The enigmatic c. 1665 portrait of a girl ‘endlessly turning towards or away from us’ by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer has given rise to a host of mysteries, such as why one would bother making a boring, imbecilic film about the painting featuring Scarlett Johansson as a perpetually vacant girl with a pearl earring. Grovier, however, posits that the greater mystery is the pearl earring itself: upon closer examination, she argues, ‘there is no loop that links the ornament to her ear. Its very sphericity is a hoax.’ She concludes that ‘Vermeer’s precious gem is an opulent optical illusion, one that reflects back on our own illusory presence in the world.’ If so, then the painter has clearly thrown the viewer in a ‘loop’ with a ‘Vermeer-age’ that pops the ‘bauble’ of our assumptions. Indeed, could Vermeer be suggesting that the girl is thus suffering from a serious ailment, namely, ‘earring loss’?
Early Modern Times will return on Jan. 26-27, as I’ll be attending the 7th Annual Conference of the Early Modern next weekend, which begins with a keynote lecture by Prof. Marguerite Deslauriers, McGill University, on ‘Patriarchy as Tyranny in Seventeenth-Century Venice’ on Fri. Jan. 18 at 7:30 pm in the KTS Room. All are welcome!
Director, Early Modern Artfelt Sentiments Studies Program