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The Spirit of Secular Art

Chapter 5

Substance and sublimity

Robert Nelson

At first, the recent photographs of Vik Muniz, a Brazilian artist based in New York, look like drawings after old masters. Vistors to his exhibition in Chelsea1 quickly recognize famous pictures from art history, like Caravaggio’s Narcissus and Goya’s Saturn devouring his children. The brownish drawing has no detail in the lights and a rather spotty treatment of shadow. With closer inspection, the method of construction is revealed. The image is assembled from masses of junk on a factory floor and photographed from 10 metres above. You identify the moment of realization by the rush of adrenaline that it gives you. For an instant, the eye flickers duck-rabbit style between seeing the picture and seeing the junk. You either behold an image like Delacroix’s Medea or you descry a fridge, a suitcase, an automotive rear lens, a basket, a wheel, a fan, a lamp, some rope and heaps of old cans.

It is a fascinating encounter. The brain has to manage the gap as your consciousness oscillates between the image and the medium. You cannot apprehend both at the same time. Theoretically, the same would occur in a painting, where you are either aware of the illusionistic depiction or you see nothing but smears of colour on a canvas. But somehow the convention of painting takes care of the dichotomy and reconciles mark and image. The paint can either be a dab or a nose, and somehow your brain resolves their disparate nature in the instant of perception.

So there is something aesthetically dastardly about these giant pin-sharp prints of 2.3 x 1.8 metres. The photograph presupposes a performance, in which hundreds of pieces of industrial rubbish are placed on the luminous floor to make up the picture. The floor is treated as a canvas and the brush is made up of human arms and back, trolleys and crowbars. Watching the illusion give way to its components is an optical thrill. And it is paralleled by the freakish nature of the materials in relation to the image. The old masters are potentially desecrated by having their miraculous lineaments traced in industrial detritus; it is a kind of sacrilege to confound the perfect gestures with the dirty evidence of conspicuous waste.

But though apparently impious, the technique of Muniz also fulfills the grave and monitory character of the old masters. Whatever the illusion or fantasy, they are all turned to symbols of earthly failure and inevitable decrepitude. It is the same vanitas that haunts the prowess of the old masters. With optical and symbolic resonance on his side, Muniz has a heap of fun amid the garbage. The way he matches image and junk is wicked. In the Minotaur (from George Frederick Watts) Muniz manages to install a traffic light: stop/go. In Titian’s Sisyphus, he places some particularly heavy things in the load that the hero carries for his punishment, like a piano.

This witty agreement is inverted parodically in Titian’s Icarus, in which the artful new wings built by Daedalus are constituted from clapped-out heavy technologies like typewriters. For Rubens’ Bacchus astride a barrel, Muniz finds a Texaco drum, as if petrol is the key drug of dependency in western society. But nor does Muniz neglect to provide the carousing revellers with a fridge and a bin. In Cranach’s Apollo and Diana, the loin cloth looks as if a piece of fire-hose. And in the melancholy but virile Mars by Velazquez, Muniz garnishes the loins with a cloth drawn from Pepsi cans. The flank of the warrior-god is made from an automotive front-fender.

The jokes pile up with the junk. Every piece of visual notation is also an annotation, a conceptual footnote concerning the foibles of western culture, both high and low. You gaze at the field of trash like Oedipus solving the mortal riddle of the Sphinx. The rusty items that build the illusion were once the pride of progress and marketing; and now that their destiny is fulfilled in the scrap pile, they have life enough for just one further illusion. The refuse is destined for recycling. For their last photograph, the litter is organized to tell a story that transcends the cycle of production and obsolescence. As with the Australian performative works mentioned earlier, Muniz’s photography is more than an allegory. It has a sense of largeness, of what theologians call world,2 and which represents the fragility of our methods of generation. Both the energy and the somewhat morbid vision belong to the baroque. The sweeping perspectives, the triumphal and theatrical grasp of world, with its grand theatre of vigorous life, and its simultaneous deprecation are an element of baroque consciousness that prolifically produced the masterpieces of our museums. It entailed a remarkable spiritual evolution.

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From the epoch of allegory we come to the epoch of theatre; from circumscribed charms encrypted with humanist scholarship during the Renaissance we arrive at the sensational stage-plays of the baroque. It is impossible to speak generically of baroque in the singular, for the variety of manifestations is baffling. Numerous different ambitions were cultivated during the period with impressive energies. In all the arts, there were contending aspirations and, in the visual arts, the genres were discovered, so to speak, and opened up opportunities to the concentrated talents of specialists. Hence, there were landscapes as well as history paintings, still-lives as well as allegories, interiors as well as religious icons; and even older genres like portraiture reveal an extraordinary range, as with the Dutch group portrait. Nearly all paintings in the baroque are remarkable for their fluency, the excellence in drawing; and many are tours de force in the co-ordination of multi-figured compositions.

Like the theatre, the baroque has a different mood for every act. There are settled yards and interiors in Dutch genre; there are erotic palpitations in abundance with naked figures cavorting and embracing on Italian ceilings; there are sombre and majestic countenances in portraits; there are melancholy heroes and heroines who take their own lives; there are frightening violent encounters and muscular brawls; there are exotic Biblical stories of incest, adultery and foiled rape; there are lyrical allegories about poetic inspiration; there are idle lads in streets; there are beggars, roosters, kings, traders and gods. There are turbaned people in tatty clothes with sleeves rolled up; there are beauties in contemporary dress, in historical robes or, as noted, no clothes at all; there are old men and women with furrowed brow, looking upward intensely to overcome their difficulties of sight; there are mythological characters who step with infallible elasticity over clouds or upon their enemies or into someone else’s bed; there are children of all ages, some with the spry circumspection expected of a princess and some with the naughty conspiratorial air of potential thugs. Even the animals have the distinction of physiognomic difference, a wily nag, a haughty steed, a sagacious Labrador. The repertoire of types, actions, backgrounds, interior foregrounds, dress, historical trappings is daunting. But all of it was thoroughly visual. Painters mustered their artistic resources around their favourite periods and moods, choosing dramatis personae and scenes from an almost encyclopaedic range of options.

To call upon painters to observe the multifarious expressions and actions of all kinds of people in all sorts of spaces, new markets for art had developed.3 The capital of landed aristocracy—with their obsessive etiquette and constant need for flattery—would no longer monopolize patronage. Lesser gentry would also want to buy paintings; and the whole class of merchants and other bourgeois would be served by the production of small-scale works, probably of suitably modest iconographic ambitions. Seascapes, for example, might have been particularly desired among mariners or shipping merchants. But even the greatest of traditional patrons called for variety in the address of pictures.

Since a number of Councils held in the later sixteenth century at Trent, the Church of Rome decided that images are useful in encouraging laity in their faith. They are most productive when accessible in content. In order to have widespread public appeal, painting would have to abandon some of its high-born intellectualism and cultivate certain sympathies with the class of people who habitually rolled their sleeves up to do their work. The humble figures in many otherwise illustrious themes were a part of this engagement. Today we would call it a marketing strategy. Of course, the almost comprehensive inclusiveness of low life only signals a general breaking down of the exclusivity of heroes, saints and patrons; it in no way implies a reassessment of the importance of these people. A change in status is not concomitant upon a change of subject matter. The baroque is not democratic in spirit, though it is properly catholic in its embrace of social background. The inclusion of lesser figures is often a means of seeing the whole world in order, with the great doing great things and the workers admiring them.

Artists undoubtedly underwent no humiliation in fulfilling the requirements of the Church in finding the means toward greater accessibility in their pictures. The new edicts would have prompted a wonderful new source of subject matter which assisted artists in their simultaneous interests in naturalism; for there is nothing more congruent with an illusionistic painting than a truthfully unideal protagonist candidly seized in unflattering dress or coarse action. Anyway, those artists who sought the exclusive domain of the courts and only wanted to paint in a classically elevated manner were free to find their niche among the privileged. The new propagandistic orientation of the Church only added to existing markets and did not diminish them or compromise developing markets.

The proliferation of types and scenes in baroque painting is matched by the sheer abundance of pictures. And big confident pictures, too! The century and a half from 1600 to 1750 is a most prolific period. The square metres in world galleries taken up by baroque works seem disproportionately high relative to earlier periods. Art during the baroque was in full vigour; and not till the development of film and television—whose theatricality, the baroque cultivated avant la lettre—did the visual have such a hold on the imagination. It is as if the whole energy of the period had a heightened visual expression; and no enthusiasm was left without its pictorial extrapolation.

Many seventeenth-century paintings are extraordinarily settled, like those of De Hooch and Vermeer; but the baroque distinguishes itself by also producing sculpture, architecture, furniture and pictures of memorable energy. There had never been buildings which take to swooning in voluptuous convulsions; there had never been tables which surge mightily with sculpted figures; there had never been ceilings which compositionally toss and roll around with the soaring and diving of figures; and so many baroque figures are realized in the strenuous climax of an action (even if a minor one) which picks up a muscular dynamic at its most climactic. All instincts of artists seem to have been honed to detect and translate the dramatic potential of gestures, sudden movements, the flickering of light and diagonal compositions, just as the instincts of designers were sharpened to invent the most powerful contrapposto of ornaments as they race and seethe in ebullience in the celebration of a supernatural cosmic energy.

In the previous chapter, the idea of High Renaissance magnificence was discussed, dwelling in particular on Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling. The greatness of Michelangelo’s conception and execution is not in question but his work seems simple and almost unambitious by baroque standards. Ceilings by baroque artists do not parade along stepwise with a series of independent tableaux, fragmented in their illusionistic space by frames and architectural borders. Such limits to the illusionistic empire of the ceiling were abandoned in works such as the Allegory of Providence by Pietro da Cortona in the Palazzo Barberini (sometimes known as the Apotheosis of the Barberini Family) or the Glory of St Ignatius by Padre Andrea Pozzo in Sant’ Ignazio.4 In both paintings, the major part of the ceiling is taken up with a single vista, proposing a single vanishing point which commands, so to speak, the logic of all architecture, humans and clouds which symbolize the heavenly universe. The action of each part is not contained but dynamically interacts with the whole.

The thrust of this energy is not manic but orchestrated. It is directed to demonstrating on a sensual level the authoritarian logic of glory. What makes for glory? Even if you think of the glorious as the naturally brilliant or sublime, it remains wholly unexplained. If you think of it as something from outside, as a kind of intervention, a visitation from an external world upon the tangible world, you have still avoided the question of what makes it glorious. Glory presupposes a structure, an almost political structure in the psyche. The glorious thing or person or event is superior and your experience is inferior. You even question the capacity of your experience to comprehend its own inferiority relative to the superiority of the glorious. Your apprehension of the glorious is always inadequate. The experience of glory is a reckoning, a coming to terms with your shortcomings.

The encounter with glory is awesome; for once having recognized glory you face a dilemma of potentially crushing consequences in either direction. You can stand firm and attempt to fathom the mysterious power that it has and, in the inevitable failure of your insights and the pathos of your exertions, you experience the depression of impotence. Or you can forget the exigencies of analysis and the identification of causes, resign yourself to the glorious and ecstatically absorb its superior force, experience the intensity of its elation and the worshipful thrill of being rapt by sublimity. But in the abandonment to these heady transports, you will be in no position to reckon self-reflexively, for you have foregone your responsibility to reason: you have relinquished those critical faculties by giving yourself over to a consuming spiritual narcotic which annihilates all critical consciousness. In a philosophical sense, you have become irresponsible.

In a cruder sense, things are considered glorious when there are people to admire them as stupendous. Not only does glory seem to be a guiding force in a great part of baroque production but the pictures themselves bear witness to the logic; for they are all structured around a relationship between a powerful core and a host of subsidiary motifs—often supplicating or stunned believers—who pay formal tribute to central commanding energies. Baroque paintings do not look horribly hieratic. They are spatially logical and there is an organic compositional flow which prevents them from having any iconic pomposity. But there is a deeper structural dynamic which is hieratic in a compelling way. In larger paintings at least, the lesser is always proffering support for the greater. There is often even a whole gallery of affirmative heads and forearms gesticulating in reverent amazement at the august constellation at the centre; there are angels for the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, vanquished giants for heroes, raucous urchins and labourers for saints, squirming sea-monsters for kings and queens, saints and prophets for Christ, frolicking sea nymphs for lovers, all minions and legions for God the father. One cannot simply paint a portrait of God but must represent his effect through all consciousness in heaven; and the same requirements flow to all glorious nobles and mythical personages. In this way, the wholehearted reception of glory is enacted within the painting itself. The deference and the giddy swoons are the enthused vernacular of glory, contributing iconographic zeal and compositional force which make for the internal collective bolstering of the picture. And, of course, the repeated structural reinforcements of such figures and the almost obsessive gestures of admiration are a cue, installed in the painting precisely to induce the same reaction of applause and support in the spectator.

There are allegories a-plenty in baroque painting (such as Simon Vouet’s Wealth in the Louvre); but, either by their style or directly by their allegorical content, baroque allegories are all about one concept: authority.5 Baroque allegories are unlike the semiotic inventions of the High Renaissance; they are seldom opaque and do not constitute mysteries in their own right. Their content is more consonant with their style, a single-minded determination to express the ineffable grandeur of authority, the majesty of providence which gives the world its authorities and the gracious benignity of the same authorities. Pietro da Cortona’s Allegory of Providence mentioned before on account of its compelling compositional energies is the example par excellence. The almost sexual fluxing of energies in the rhythms of baroque compositions are already a commitment to that message; for they surge and pulse with a single focus around which all the energy conspires. Baroque aesthetics are the enchanting of authority.

For baroque artists raised for the vocation of representing glory, nothing could be more natural than faith. They are painters of faith, whether sacred or secular; for nobility beyond the cloth was granted a divine entitlement anyway and artists could demonstrate their skills by imputing glory to nobles and showing faith in their patrons. The same can be said for mythological subjects in which, of course, no one seriously believed. But to do an Apollo and Daphne or Acis and Galatea would be a great test of the artist’s poetic and rhetorical prowess, just by virtue of the fact that belief in the theme was artificial and commitment to it a poetic contrivance. To ‘produce’ faith in a story in which nobody believed is in itself a miracle. The governing order of Christian faith would admit this extension, for it showed off what St Paul calls the fruits of faith, the faculty of vision which had already been exercised in that wonderfully wanton direction in the age before the Inquisition. However, the baroque exploitations of the Humanist convention add something. It is an emphasis on the glory of the mythological figures, their status as icons of immortality; for the prestige of the ancient names celebrated in Renaissance literature and now conflated with baroque glory would make an easy metaphor to express the natural authority of contemporary nobles.6

To stand in front of many large baroque masterpieces means developing a relationship with something glorious. You may not trust the authority who is credited with such glory but you cannot avoid recognizing the conviction with which the artist has projected the authority as glorious; and, owing to the excellence of technique and the integrity of the style and subject matter, you would probably not deny that the work is glorious in its own right. What works for us on a rarefied aesthetic plane would have worked on a spiritual plane with bewildering intensity among seventeenth-century spectators. The reasons touch on new relations between the aesthetic and the sacramental. The apprehension of glory is deeply sacramental. Not only does it in essence involve the presence of God—albeit once removed—but it deals with a humbling, a recognition of one’s insignificance alongside an ineffable eminence. The rejoicing in this glory is your way of sharing it, as if God will dispense some part of it if you identify wholeheartedly with that majesty which you will never own.

This encounter with an unapproachable glory is also eminently ritualistic. The ritual is art. You cannot ascend to the contemplation of glory without the intermediary of an aesthetic representation, whether linguistic, musical or visual; and, once you enter a space whose aesthetic convincingly claims glory on behalf of divinity, you know that a kind of rendition of grace has been staged to afford the reciprocal awe in your reception of it. There is no difference in this sense between a painting—which is staged once and remains on the ceiling forever—and a musical performance which has to be rehearsed each time. The experience of hearing music is probably less repeatable than the experience of seeing pictures; but both are a symbolic miniature encounter with a superior spirit, a sublime crisis in which you subject yourself to the awareness of your inferiority and resign your critical independence in exchange for a joyful spiritual yoking to the almighty. The subservience of the intellect to an emotional paternal order is carried out in the performance. As you partake of the glorious representation, you develop a sense of devotion and happily sacrifice your spiritual autonomy; you submit yourself to be transported by the heady and passionate triumphal airs of glory. You lose the dignity of an independent subject, able to look at the world with objectivity, and become subsumed within the infinitely greater dignity of the glorious.

As a sacramental ritual, this process stands somewhere between the eucharist and ordination; for it is both about a sacrifice and a dedication. But clearly it is neither: it is art and has the great spiritual flexibility of the aesthetic. The sacramental absorption of glory has a wider metaphoric ambit than the traditional sacraments and readily allows its benedictions to be transferred from spiritual to temporal authority. What a marvellous commodity for the arrogant nobles of Europe! If ever there was a time to be deified by subtle implication, this was it: the baroque had a new sacrament powerfully rooted in the divine but available for secular distribution among exclusive authorities.

All the structures of mighty rulers and subservient fans would not have succeeded in expressing glory in the absence of an equally glorious technique. Critics and art historians of a connoisseurish variety have often bestowed upon the seventeenth century the distinction of being the high point of oil painting. The skills, ambition, confidence and poetic gifts of baroque masters excelled all before and have never been rivalled since. A technique as beautiful and luminous as Titian’s was mastered by artists of the second order (though of course lacking Titian’s peculiar vision) while artists of the first rank, such as the Carracci, Caravaggio, Guercino, Reni, Ribera and Velázquez, made enormous individual contributions to the history of technique and subject matter. Apparently all baroque painters mastered the art of drawing with consummate ease and were able to add to their perceptual clarity the habit of chromatic modelling which intensified and demonstrated their understanding of the drawn volumes. Some artists, such as Velázquez, Hals and Rembrandt achieved distinction with the summariness with which they could evoke a form in its exactness, seemingly dashing the paint down spontaneously and expressing the nature of paint as they did so.7

These qualities of stylistic perspicacity and perceptual power, as magic as they are, do not in themselves constitute a sacrament. But, as with the Venetians, they lend themselves to the expression of the carnal which has sacramental potential. To the habit of chromatic modelling and combinations of muscular scumbling and luminous glazing—both of which were developed in flesh painting of the sixteenth century—the baroque masters added the evocation of air surrounding the skin. It is an indefinable illusionistic charm, a final and exquisite stage of perceptual understanding of the way in which the surfaces of flesh, depending on their orientation relative to the viewer, reveal themselves with clarity or opacity according to their engagement with air.

It may be imprudent to hazard an empirical explanation of such a fugitive phenomenon and it is easy to imagine many painting teachers in the past articulating in vain the magic of atmospheric evocation in the old masters and being judged quite mad for attempting it. The magic cannot be given a merely technical piecemeal explanation; but insofar as it can, the ability to evoke the atmospheric engagement of skin has to do with edges. The outer contours of an arm, for example, are not always crisp. You cannot draw or paint the arm with a uniformly hard edge; for the trained eye in examining the contour will detect that parts of the arm vanish from sight with less suddenness than other parts. There is a pattern for the degree of crispness of edges. An edge is harder when the skin works its way around the volume in a rapid turn; the edge is softer if the skin works its way around the volume in a gradual curve, so that the tangent reaching your eye seems to touch on a larger expanse of flesh.

If you hold out your arm with bent elbow so that the forearm runs across your gaze, its outline will be crisp. But if you straighten your elbow, so that the forearm runs along your gaze, its outline will be fuzzier. When the arm is perpendicular to your gaze, the skin toward the edge very rapidly turns around the cylindrical shape and suddenly passes from view, hence the crisp outline. But if the arm is pointed away from your eyes and you therefore see it with a degree of foreshortening, a large expanse of skin is involved in conducting the arm from full sight to invisibility. The turning is thus very gradual. To use a mathematical term, the ‘normal’ to your sight-line is not a point but a whole expanse of skin open to the air. And because you are sighting along a whole lot of skin rather than just a brief passage, the engagement of so much skin makes the transition harder to judge. You are not quite sure which part of the arm really does the disappearing; there is a moment of indistinction where the definition of the edge is further dissipated by any unevenness in the skin, any hairs, for example, which interrupt the sight-line across the edge in a cumulative manner over the greater distance. Never mind the hairs. All skin is slightly irregular. It somehow has humid Lilliputian crevasses into which the air seeps or ridges around which the air is forced to spill. In this way the skin seems to entertain the air, taking it in and pushing it away. It follows that when a great deal of skin is seen intercepting the air across your sight-line, this organic interaction with the air will compound and deny the edge an exact definition. Photographs do not always register this ‘fusion’ of volume and atmosphere but the eye can sense it.

Seventeenth-century painters could control their edges with the greatest subtlety, making them crisp when the skin moves away rapidly and letting them linger when the skin lies flatter against the sight-line. Skilled seventeenth-century painters never give their outlines a general fuzziness but modulate the degree of interaction of volume and background to suggest the presence of the skin in its relationship both to the spectator’s viewpoint and the almost imperceptible interpenetration of air and the fabric of the skin itself, multiplied by the obliqueness of the skin relative to the spectator’s viewpoint. Baroque painters did not merely discover a geometric verity but a perceptual insight—admittedly logical in the highest degree—which enabled them to spell out certain sensual metaphors of the organic flesh. In their illusions, the body seems convincingly wrapped in air, not merely painted sharply or fuzzily on a canvas with perspectival accuracy. You seem intelligently to follow the skin around a form at its very edge, as if your eyes were the element of air, caressing the luminous and humid flesh and penetrating its texture at that point where its vapours, so to speak, are assumed into air.

Baroque poetry provides ample evidence of parallel interests. The sonneteering tradition already furnished baroque poets with a language of sighs (how many sospiri in Italian poetry, oimé!), breezes and erotic desire (or, as they say with shameless hyperbole, martyrdom). But baroque prosody relishes the sighing with an added sense of palpitation, the internal fluttering of an imminent grasp envisaged in arduous expectation, and would extend the breathiness to the sensation of one lover hungrily respiring over the other. The master of such heated breathing is Giovan Battista Marino, whose highly figured metaphoric sensuality engendered a brilliant following whom Italians call the Marinisti. The primacy of sexual feeling and the sometimes giddy convolution of metaphor cause the Marinisti to be opposed in literary history to ‘the classicists’; but, in their heady fondness for the phenomenology of flesh and breath—indeed, for the organic carnality of experience and its extrapolation to higher levels of consciousness—the Marinisti form an essential libretto for the styles of baroque painting.8 It is an irony, for while the classicists provided the subject matter in its learned subscription to antique authorities, the Marinisti provide us with a picture of the consciousness which underlies the genius of baroque technique.

Although prolifically enjoying sexual appetite in his verse, Marino is no pornographer and has an elevated interest in the phenomenology of atmosphere in all its manifestations. He is often evoking air, breath, the breeze and sighing, in conjunction with other sensory phenomena, especially light and colour, sparkle, radiance, glowing; his resources for such matters are immense. For Marino, the visual garnishes the tactile and the tactile is an ornament of the visual. His verse delights in the complication of going into a metaphor and coming out of it again in order to point up its artificiality and make jokesy argutezze; but this slightly wanton confounding of reality and metaphor allegorizes the great pregnancy of both his subject matter and his language. Marino has often been reproached, from De Sanctis onward, for being self-consciously ingenious rather than urgently moral (as Shakespeare seems to be) but the recrimination of artificiality ignores the wider allegorical potential of the poetic ruses. Of course there is a certain vanity and danger in oblique poetry; but to damn it for amorality denies a whole ritual zone of poetry. In particular, it imprudently forecloses on the fuller uses of metaphor, the wilful transposition of matter and spirit, that artful slipping between an object and its symbolic extensions which ultimately afford a sacramental function and signal an inspired and mystical access to divinity.

Poetic quicksilver throughout Europe replaced the stately humanist tradition. Throughout the baroque there is a clear enthusiasm for metamorphosis, for the interchange between one body and another. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for that reason, enjoyed spectacular interest among painters; and the idea of transformation also partly accounts for the love of dramatic moments in narrative painting, the spectacle of immediacy in the change of a person’s countenance and gestures in suddenly coming into awareness of a tragic or painful circumstance. The same quicksilver is installed in the very fabric of the paint, its attention to the spatial and atmospheric ‘volatility’ of the outline of the skin, expressing its access of humours to the open air.

The consciousness of a seventeenth-century painter would have been steeped in poetic metaphors. Just as a mouth can hardly be painted but that it be capable of sighing; so each feature would want to fulfil its imaginative destiny of embodying a further kind of animation. The world was not to be looked on as an opaque and immovable given but as a transparent jewel which yields to suitably harmonious colours projected through it. The whole of nature was exoticized by metaphor. As a painter, you would have been more deeply moved by much of the poetic imagery than the poets were themselves. In baroque culture, all visibilia was held poetic hostage, to be forced potentially to dance with the narratives of desire; and the game of matching bizarre comparisons with a happy consonance would have enriched their vision with unimaginable interest.

When a baroque painter represented skin, it may not have been directly informed by any analogy which the latest published poems had hatched; but the habit of seeing all kinds of richness in the visible was probably the basis for the extraordinary faculties of perception in seventeenth-century painting. Painters looked into the flesh with heightened knowledge to find those parts which look more opaque, those which look more transparent, the parts where there is bone or gristle and the parts (as with the breasts) which are yielding. The drawing and the palette would be scrupulously modulated to register every sensual inflexion; for each nuance was not only beheld and recognized but matched with a whole thesaurus of metaphoric associations which enlarged their meaning and let them admit levels of poetic or spiritual charm. The painter saw all things in their symbolic sensual pregnancy, but especially the body and its details such as the face, the mouth and the eyes. Baroque poetry offers the cue to see in all features a peculiar adorable resonance.

Corporal, witty and adroit, the Marinisti are soul mates of baroque painters. However, it would be misleading to represent them as the only key to the styles of baroque painting, just as it would be misleading to construct their extravagant confluence of metaphor and reality as the only poetic transcendence of the age. There are other forms of spirituality which emerge from poetic style; and these proceed almost exclusively from the classicists, especially those in France.

Marino had some influence in France—indeed lived there—but the indigenous verse forms in French favoured something more directly argumentative, something more discursive and conducted in short sentences which fit neatly inside rapid rhyming couplets, each fairly discrete and preferably not beginning with the word ‘and’. French literature in the seventeenth century aspired to the rigours of the ancient genres and was somehow more classical than antiquity. The height of French literary scrupulosity was reached in the rediscovery of tragedy, an art first revived by Italians like Trissino in the sixteenth century; but the zenith of the genre is achieved in the grand siècle in Paris.9

English literature may have the distinction of the greatest poet—Shakespeare—but the copyright for tragedy passed, as it were, directly from ancient Greece to the French and rather bypassed England. English literature, especially through Shakespeare, makes better drama, better poetic metaphor, finer sensuality, greater emotional range, better acknowledgement of social difference, better individual psychology, greater freedom with sources and rules, greater spontaneity and better vocabulary. By many criteria, French theatre is stuffy and hidebound, concerned with aristocratic virtue, ancestral honour and strenuous patriotism. But the purity of French tragedy—especially in the plays of Corneille and Racine—allows an almost archaeological recovery of the purpose and power of ancient tragedy. In plot and expression, they are sublime.

French tragedy only admits on stage protagonists of nobility and virtue. The contention in the drama is not usually between a good person and a bad person but two people of comparable virtue. They may, of course, have a fatal flaw; but they are not fundamentally evil (as is a King Claudius or a Lady Macbeth) and are often too virtuous for their own good. The genius of the plot is to contrive a catastrophic clash of two people holding different values—both good values in themselves—without a reconciliation being possible; for a compromise is inherently prevented according to their respective commitment to the values from which they cannot resile without dishonour. The protagonists also have to be intelligent, brave, sensitive and adroit. The sophistication of the Parisian court would have ridiculed any dramaturge for bringing on stage a person with a manifest psychological shortcoming, a sign of stupidity, excessive vanity, bloody-mindedness or pig-headedness. The axiom of nobility required that the calamitous tension must be forged within the mechanics of the plot rather than any defects in the nature of the heroes. Conflicting values had to be found.

Very demanding expectations attended the drama, unlike in England or Spain where a good novella from Bandello—with all its colourful tricksters, accorti, sciocchi and crooks—would provide instructive entertainment. France produced the most austere dramatic literature ever: the constraints concerning the morality of protagonists were matched by the forbearance in matters of stagecraft. The play was to be entirely free of set changes: following Aristotle’s prescription of the three unities in tragedy (unity of time, place and action), the story could not exceed a day in the lives of the heroes, it all had to happen in one place and no extraneous stories could be told alongside it by way of leavening. The baroque in Italy, revelling in mutability of poetic conceits, slipperiness of metaphors, transformations of operatic sets, melodramas concerning metamorphoses of gods and humans into beasts and vegetation, was banished from the tragic stage in Paris. A play could be performed with nothing in the theatre but the walls of an august room and a single chair on stage.

The discipline of French drama extended to the language. Nothing but a chastened vocabulary was acceptable. Words needed to have a classical pedigree. A thought could not be conveyed with undue extravagance. Too many adjectives or adverbs would not be permitted. But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this poetic regime is its inspirational integrity. The poetry is exquisite, even though not terribly rich in texture; for the circumscribed possibilities of the language perfectly match the concentration on moral principle and the austere renunciation of dramatic variety.

Finally, the discipline of French drama was embedded in the verse form. The rhyming Alexandrines are no harder to write than many another form and a lot easier than terza rima or ottava rima which respectively required the poet to find two or three rhymes rather than just one. The pattern is very simple, aa, bb, cc, dd… and so on. The rapidity with which rhymes are encountered and then passed over creates a somewhat business-like pace. The form is suitable for parcelling thoughts in direct succession. It is not particularly geared to feint echoes of nuanced metaphors interweaving their way with one another but rather to clear communication. The numbers discourage ornament and figures. French tragic poetry is apt to seem rather dry on account of this. But its richness is strangely sacramental. It makes for a pious chanting, emphatic in its repetition and stately in a kind of stoic ceremonial discipline.

In the context of tragedy, these qualities take on a special value. In their favoured indigenous verse form, the French discovered the lyricism of downfall. The cadence of the verse—that is, the falling of the tones—has a powerful sense of delivering something final, ending, as it always does, on a note whose rhyme clinches the meaning of a preceding thought. In all cases where the poetry seeks to develop an argument, rhyming verse is the language of immanence: it sets up a phrase which is due to be met with a rhyming answer in the following line. When you get to it, you are reminded, somehow, that it was prefigured. The second line contains a rhyme which must have been foreseen in the laying down of the original line.

Technical matters like prosody seem ‘merely technical’ or merely formalist and for that reason are seldom taught or even discussed in today’s academies. But this is the mistake of a non-sacramental age in unimaginatively judging a sacramental age. The verse form in essence is not merely formalist but is highly symbolic. It is an allegory of necessity, a kind of artifice which enshrines the inevitability of logical consequences, a reflection of divine guarantees that what must be will follow what must precede it; for the rhyme will be fulfilled in the exact number of syllables, as was prefigured in the line before. In its regularity and certainty, the verse form steps out the holy pace of providence, as if the lines have fortune built into them.

In the process of prefiguration by which the poets construct their rhymes, an almost inverted nemesis is automatically constructed. Nemesis as the force of downfall has its ideal counterpoint in the provident verse, because the necessary and correct succession of rhymes in advancing a linear argument relates the ‘rightness of telling’; it figuratively acts out the confirmation of each thought and adds to each the sense of a fateful musical authority.

Perhaps because of this authority, the rhyming alexandrines are not only suited to tragedy—which concerns sacrifice—but are also suited to satire, which identifies vanities. Satire is not a pre-eminently sacramental genre; it is deeply skeptical and has a vein of humour which, while often employed benignly, takes its strength from a destructive potential. Satire is remote from rehearsing any kind of mythical killing, if not the victim of its own powers of demolition; but the best satire does not kill a person but a conceit, one presumably worthy of being debunked. The agent is human reason, not divinity, and the victim has no great sacrificial virtue. Nevertheless, some spirit of the times enabled French poets of the seventeenth century to engage the rhyming alexandrines in the ways that suit it best, for both satire and tragedy. The satires of Boileau in one sense read very similarly to the dramatic verse of Racine—eloquent, economical, fatefully accurate—because both reach for new levels of authority.10 Both genres take up the powerful verse form to emphasize the ceremony of poetic thought. The one has strongly sacramental overtones and the other is purely secular. In the sophistication surrounding the French court, the two were transferable.

Of course verse is not necessarily holy. There have always been drinking songs and so on which are thoroughly debauched. Nor can you say that such-and-such a rhyme scheme has to signify holiness, because anyone can take a sacred form and make facetious nonsense out of it. But as a ritual structure, verse has a deeper integrity, undoubtedly arising from a grave ceremonial function, to tell of gods and the enchantment of the spiritual order to which they belong. The numbers in prosody are for a hallowed undertaking. The language of divinity is measured; the stresses do not fall randomly but have a cosmic order about them. They need to embody the ineluctable, to enact the stern determination of the world, to link the inner instructions of the world, as if by a knitting of Cartesian monads. Metred speech is a rhythmic symbol of destiny; and the poet is a kind of priest whose inspired vocation is to listen to the spiritual pregnancy of received stories and to find the measured language to express their rightness. Prosody is the sacramental stewardship of language.

Further magic is added when such ritual language is applied to tragedy. As with epic poetry, the verse supplies an incantational inevitability which supports the sense of mythical destinies; but in tragic poetry, it also supports the sacramental rhythm of events in that awesome steady progress of the story toward the killing. And in this sense it is a partner of Nemesis; it moves like a dirge and helps deliver the blow of the execution with the same sense of pace that guides the footsteps up to the altar. It may be that this ritual poignancy of verse belongs to remote antiquity when the myths entered poetic stagecraft in an active religious ceremony; but its echoes are felt powerfully in the rebirth of tragedy in the baroque. The rhythmic sonorous imperatives of tragedy are well recognized and strongly reinforce the sacred horror of the plot. It is probably the reason why comedy has long been considered best in prose. Comedy can be done in verse but prudence has suggested otherwise, following Aretino, Macchiavelli and many others in the Italian sixteenth century.

The naturalness of a tragic ethos to Catholic France should not be overstated. When the eminent dramatists stage their ritual undoings, the rehearsal of sacrifice is an artifice. It adds to the detachment of the genre that no one in the seventeenth century would have imputed to the play by Racine the sacramental qualities of the blessed eucharist or to consider the tragic sentiment efficacious beyond the purgative processes recognized by Aristotle. Parisian courtiers would have recognized that tragedy, when so well conceived, reaches new definitions of virtue (and nearly all secular virtues at that). Beyond this almost pedagogical agenda, our imaginary gentleman in the audience—rejoicing in suede, velvet, thin shoes, lace and stockings—would have taken delight in the grand machine, the ‘engineering’ of the script, the author’s ability to throw around the stage the superb weight of greatness that comes with the fame of his characters, only coming unstuck through greater majesty and not really from any simple shortcoming or pusillanimity. And the quality that would have been admired most of all is the poetic manifestation of gloire, the legendary glory of each protagonist as they strive for every occasion to demonstrate it and savour it in their own speeches.11

Glory in France is not spread around a ceiling with gay extroversion but the stoic sense of containment and discipline of tragic heroes. Their verse is glorious but in an attenuated way, an argumentative, at times almost legalistic, exposition of state and personal justification. This is the context of sublimity that explains the grave spirit of Poussin, a painter of great poetic gifts whose sentimental range was also typically baroque, extending freely to the erotic (Acis and Galatea), the comastic (Triumph of Pan), revelry in the dance (Kingdom of Flora), the lofty abstractions of Parnassus (Inspiration of the Poet), the passionately ethereal (Diana and Endymion), the love of a vespertine nature (Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion), the adoration of antiquity (Et in Arcadia Ego), the passionate lyricism (Tancred and Erminia), melancholy (Echo and Narcissus) and stoic piety (Landscape with Funeral of Phocion).12 Poussin is a painter who obviously loved indulgence but loved academic discipline even more. His Seven Sacraments are evidence enough of the profundity of his feeling for worship.13 And like most painters of his age, he found the occasions to induce upon his secular subject matter the glorious inflexions of his own style which derived from his ready access to the sacred.

It seems that even the quietest secular corner of the baroque is invested with a sacred demeanour and even, some have argued, content. So the still lives of Sanchez-Cotán have been interpreted as allegories of Christ’s suffering, interpretations which are perhaps more reasonable in principle than in exact detail.14 As in previous art, baroque painting is invested with an inimitable seriousness. Still lives are no different: they all work their way across your gaze with a concerted compositional gravity, opening up objects to the light as if offering up their living substance on a supernatural plane. Often they must also be credited with the sense of stagecraft that belongs to narrative pictures; their passive objects seem like players caught at their most vulnerable in the denouement.

Interiors, too, take on an exaggerated sense of the deliberateness of all things. The genre resolves itself with astonishing autonomy in artists like Vermeer, also a thoroughly baroque master in his technique and fondness for a sublimated theatricality which he shares with Rembrandt. In Vermeer’s interiors there is always something going on. He repeatedly paints the same room or similar room, with the map, the tiles, the light, the beamed ceiling and the window which you can recognize in a number of his pictures; but he places characters in this interior to make each one available to a narrative interpretation. Here there is a woman looking out of a window; here is another reading a letter with the map behind her; here are a couple who have interrupted their music-making to converse by the virginal. You can weave any number of scenarios around these judiciously silent works; and Vermeer himself seems to justify the urge to offer allegorical interpretations, by painting allegories-in-progress, that is, the painting of the process of painting, as in the famous Art of Painting and the lesser known Allegory of the Faith, both of which show a staged woman posing in the conspicuously contemporary Dutch domestic studio for a further pompous allegorical depiction.15 With these and other precedents, the urge to conjecture is justified. It is not wrong to interpret; but neither is it wrong to desist. His pictures are enigmatic not because the content is intentionally overloaded with cryptic symbols but because the very will to symbolize is uncertain: all the incentives for us, as interpreters, to insinuate a narrative upon the scene are ambiguous. In the context of such deliberate picture-making, the open-endedness of the cues is tantalizing.

In one work, A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, there is a woman dressed in an impressive whitish and blue garment who looks up from toying with the keyboard.16 She is caught fingering the surfaces of the clavichord without sitting down at the instrument to play it properly. She is disengaged. She stands without awkwardness looking to us. The light strikes her from a window behind, making her face slightly cool and retiring. It is impossible to look at her and not wish to penetrate her intentions. There is no clue, other than the fact that she stands beneath a large almost overbearing picture of Eros on the far wall, so much brighter and warmer than anything in the foreground. It makes naughty innuendo at the woman’s sexual feelings. She stands in passive remoteness; but there is a sense of seething eroticism beneath the cool exterior.

Is this picture allegorical? Not really, for if it were, it would only allegorize this person in this situation and would not credibly pretend to the proverbial universality of allegory. But nor is it anecdotal. It does not relate the grope in the public house, the case of a misinterpreted pass or the offering of a token for sex. There is no incident, much less a garrulous contention. The painting takes the potential for an anecdote but holds it in abeyance for the greater self-sufficiency of the painting. The painting is about the visuality of the moment, not the moment itself. There is an emotional and moral context for the glance; the sense of narrative creates an undeniable suspense and invites speculation; but it does so with purposeful ambiguity, cutting off the narrative where it would be seized by flagrant desire. The painting is suspended from closure; the narrative declines to go forward and remains implicit but fugitive.

What kind of an art is this? It is as if the narrative interest is set up only to be disappointed and leave the spectator dissatisfied. But precisely at the point of default, the art steps forward and offers a sublimated consummation: the unresolved desire communicated in the image is diffused within the stylistic seduction of the formal and perceptual qualities in the painting. You initially look at the beautiful woman, notice her idleness, the absent-minded engagement of her hands, the potential for a playful and hot encounter behind the cool shades of her countenance; and, seeing the blessing of Cupid above, you know that something should happen in the silent room, broken by the incidental vibration of the keys. The erotic shiver goes nowhere; but as you look around for something to answer it, you find an extraordinary interest in the tiles, the warm and cool shadows spiling on the wall, the richness of the light on all surfaces, the resonance of the hollows, the fineness of edges, the infallible definition of the spaces. The painting is bristling with sensory information, so skilfully translated in aesthetically sanctioned mixtures of lyricism and objectivity. Nothing ever looks fiddly, nothing is overworked, nothing is too thin or too heavy, no part of the drawing is disconnected from the overall coherence of the space; in a word it is perfection, with a heady sensuality emerging from the evocation of all substances and the light that animates them.

In this transfer of sublimated erotic potential to the sensuality of the painting technique, a new kind of internalized allegory is invented. Vermeer’s pictures allegorize the resignation of the sexual figure to a kind of artistic prestige, an aesthetically abducted libido, quiet and thrilling at the same time, which simultaneously trades off the woman’s desire and transcends her identity. The subject matter is not irrelevant but its teleology is hijacked by the artistic fondness for all things which reflect and harbour light. Vermeer’s women do not have a destiny to fulfil; they do not have a sacred or glorious vocation beyond the domestic walls and the street outside. They are accorded all tenderness but no future, for they are resolutely secular and have no symbolic aspirations, much less sacred aspirations. The aim of eternity which they lack as figures in art is transferred to the painting. The painting is an immortal celebration of its own resources, the perceptual understanding of space and light; and, above all, it is an immortal celebration of the symbolic potency of this formalist and perceptual sensuality, for it sublimates the ordinary erotic energies of the painted human object.

It is not far-fetched to claim sacramental status for Vermeer’s paintings. It seems unlike any sacramental condition encountered before, as it does not appear to relate to divinity, not even by the most indirect metaphor. There is no insistent mythical background, very little portent, no apparent economy of propitiation and no piggy-backing on the aesthetic gravity of ancestral faith. Vermeer’s paintings seem extraordinarily ‘clean’. Historical references are to be found but they seem rather marginal alongside the dominant formalist and perceptual preoccupations. This purity gives the pictures the air of a secular sanctuary, hermetically quarantined from the spiritually tainted ritual languages of earlier and contemporaneous art. And in this very purity, Vermeer’s pictures seems to prefigure modern art, similarly detached from the imposing spiritual order of the past, depreciating the symbolic terms of its subject matter and devoted to the purity of its own visuality.

But is this good logic? Just because Vermeer appears removed from the ancestral links with ancient altars, can we really say that the randy frolicking of naked gods on Italian ceilings are more sacred than the paintings of Vermeer?

Vermeer is certainly pivotal in the later renegotiation of art and the symbolic order. In fact much of the sacramental calibre ascribed to Italian baroque masters can be extended to Vermeer. For example, the intense carnality of his faces is breathtaking. Consider the three close-up portraits, the haunting Girl with a pearl earring, the Girl with a flute and the Girl with the Red Hat.17 No one but Marino could have had an equal fascination with the flesh behind the teeth. The young women all have their lips parted and our gaze enters their mouths to discover a partially hidden sparkle, a damp redness of the gum with connotations of humid breath and the desire to kiss. They are tasteful works but ravishingly sensual in not merely acknowledging the outer form but almost obscenely promising to penetrate the inner body of palpitations and blood. Furthermore, Vermeer’s technique of scumbling and glazing is as luminous and as theatrically carnal as that of any Italian coeval.18

But something about Vermeer’s art also discourages us from over-emphasizing such arguments. The special sacramental status of his pictures lies in the very purity which seems to disqualify them from an ancestral sacramental connexion. In dramatizing the erotic visuality of his scintillating youthful models—not beautiful by classical stereotypes but very Dutch—but stripping them of a narrative continuum which would grant them an ongoing identity for posterity, Vermeer stages an abstracted sacrifice which will become one of the hallmarks of modernity: an aesthetic regime which puts people on an exalted altar of bourgeois taste which is characterized by haunting contradictions. The aesthetic brings to the sitter and his or her surroundings an impressive ‘thereness’, a quality of occupying space and absorbing or reflecting light, which gives the illusion a kind of palpable charm. At the same time, the figure is psychologically unapproachable; for he or she has few specific referents which define the mood or even explain the reason for being in a painting at all.

When humans first entered art without a narrative role or symbolic stature, they slipped in almost unnoticed through genre, especially the painting of domestic scenes. Initially, such figures also had a ‘role’ in that they represented the low life of a picturesque kind. With Vermeer, however, the figures are not exotic curiosities, with an inconsequential presence or jocular quaintness. They are demure, dignified, monumental and, without any dramatic exertions, they command the spectator’s attention with the airs of enigma and serious contemplation. The spectator does not confront them so much as enters their world; and this entry occurs without the processes of recognition which were normal in the history of art. The pleasure of seeing is not one of fitting the character into a secular taxonomy; it is to muse on their inaccessibility and to become seduced by your own conjecture. Your interest in them is a mystery.

The painting is not pre-eminently about mystery, has no programmatic content or overt symbolic argument; yet the absence of a symbolic code paradoxically makes the work doubly indecipherable. In order to penetrate it, you work from the visual givens; but these ultimately yield only perceptual information and do not reveal a great deal about the psychological or moral condition of the depicted person nor any of the narrative contingencies which would make an interpretation possible. With Vermeer, art becomes its own mystery, a feat of conjuring presences which have never been envisaged before because they are too ordinary; but the feat is to have ‘seen’ that such presences are also intensely seductive, quietly bewitching when framed by an excellent perceptual technique. The spectator perceives sublimity where there was nothing before, no God, no myth, no altar. But through this solemnly abstracted theatre, the spectator also witnesses the vulnerable delicacy of an undistinguished moment.19

Everything in Vermeer is secular; but there is also a condition of piety, for the spectator’s breath is held in sympathy with the frozen action; and the perfect resolution of the pictorial treatment encourages a deference before a greater order. Piety is a form of admiration balanced between melancholy and awe; you acknowledge someone’s stature with deference but feel sympathy for his or her mortality. The sadness may not be expressed but it lurks as an unconscious backdrop behind your esteem for a human. Piety is not the same as reverence: it is not about the worship of one infinitely greater. Piety is a form of affection felt for a greater person but in the context of a perishable contact. It is a religious feeling but in a secular framework. With the works of Vermeer, the western mind discovers an exalted spirituality which lies beyond the institutional mystique of the sacred.


1     Vik Muniz, Pictures of junk, Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York, September – October 2006. Some of the paragraphs below are grafted from my review of this exhibition, “Manhattan’s trashy treasures” in The Age (Nelson 2006).

2     Leis and D’Amato (2005): “La humanidad vive en dos realidades: en una más permanente, la del planeta Tierra, y en otra más transitoria, la que resulta de la acción humana y que convencionalmente llamamos Mundo”.

3     See the studies from the perspectives of economic and social history collected in North and Ormrod (1998), particularly the overview of historical trends in western Europe as given in the editors’ “Introduction: Art and Its Markets,” 1–6.

4     Pietro Berrettini da Cortona, Allegory of Providence, 1632–1639, fresco, Gran Salone, Palazzo Barberini, Rome; Andrea Pozzo, Glory of St Ignatius, 1688–1694, fresco, Sant’Ignazio di Loyola, Rome. For background on such projects, and a study of allegorical meanings in relation to patronage, see Beldon Scott (1991).

5     Simon Vouet, Allegory of Wealth, ca. 1640, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris. Mérot (1995) richly contextualizes the work and influence of Vouet in the broader history of French baroque painting.

6     See Posner (1999), on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century discourse—and myths—of nobility aestheticized, and represented according to the topos of the theatre.

7     See, for instance, the account of Velázquez’s technical skill and economy given in Brown and Garrido (1998).

8     See Pieri (1995), and the essay on the literary history and status of the Marinisti given in Pieri’s “Introduzione,” ix–xxvi.

9     See Ferroni (1980, 111–138), on Trissino and the ‘restoration’ of classical tragedy as a theatrical model in the Rome of Leo X.

10    See Pocock (1980) on neo-classical doctrine and the two authoritative functions ascribed to poetry; those of giving pleasure and instruction.

11    See Auchincloss (1996) on the ideal of gloire in its relationship to a heroic patriotism formed in the image of the Roman Empire.

12    Nicolas Poussin, Acis and Galatea, ca. 1630, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin; Triumph of Pan, ca. 1635, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London; Kingdom of Flora, 1631, oil on canvas, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden; Inspiration of the Poet, ca. 1630, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris; Diana and Endymion, ca. 1630, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit; Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, 1648, oil on canvas, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; Et in Arcadia Ego, ca. 1638, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris; Tancred and Erminia, 1630s, oil on canvas, Hermitage, St Petersburg; Echo and Narcissus, ca. 1630, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris; Landscape with Funeral of Phocion, 1648, oil on canvas, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. See Olson (2002), who considers the discipline of Poussin’s work as it was particularly addressed to a clientele from France’s educated, political élite, the noblesse de robe under Bourbon rule.

13    Nicolas Poussin painted two series of paintings of the seven sacraments of the Roman Church. Usually dated 1636–1642, the first set was undertaken for Cassiano del Pozzo, and is now somewhat dispersed: Marriage; Ordination; Extreme Unction; Eucharist, and Confirmation, oil on canvas, Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire; Baptism, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Also associated with this first series is St John Baptizing in the River Jordan, 1630s, oil on canvas, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The second set, dated 1642–1648, was painted for Paul de Chantelou, and remains intact: Marriage; Ordination; Extreme Unction; Penitence; Eucharist; Confirmation; Baptism, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, on loan from the Duke of Sutherland. See Green (2000).

14    See Denny (1972), in which Christ’s Passion is imputed as the theme of still lifes such as Sánchez Cotán’s famous painting Cardoon and Parsnips, ca. 1604, oil on canvas, Museo de Bella Artes, Granada. See the catalogue entry on this work in Jordan (1985, 63).

15    Johannes Vermeer van Delft, The Art of Painting (The Artist’s Studio) ca. 1665–1666, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Allegory of the Faith, ca. 1670, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

16    Johannes Vermeer van Delft, A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, ca. 1670, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.

17    Johannes Vermeer van Delft, Girl with a Pearl Earring, ca. 1665, oil on canvas, Mauritshuis, The Hague; Girl with a Flute, probably 1665–1670, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Girl with the Red Hat, ca. 1665–1666, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

18    See Wheelock, Jr. (1995) who details Vermeer’s techniques and materials as an aspect of his artistic process.

19    See Boyd White (2001).


Auchincloss, L. 1996. La Gloire: The Roman Empire of Corneille and Racine. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.

Beldon Scott, J. 1991. Images of Nepotism: The Painted Ceilings of Palazzo Barberini. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Boyd White, J. 2001. “The Depth of Meaning in Vermeer”. In The Edge of Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 257–288.

Brown, J.; Garrido, C. 1998. Velázquez: The Technique of Genius. New Haven: Yale University Press

Denny, D. 1972. “Sánchez Cotán, ‘Still Life with Carrots and Cardoon’”. Pantheon 30: 48–53.

Ferroni, G. 1980. “La ‘Sofonisba’: Un Classicismo senza Conflitto”. In Convegno di Studi su Giangorgio Trissino, edited by Pozza, N. Vicenza: Accademia Olimpica. 111–138.

Green, T. 2000. Nicolas Poussin Paints the Seven Sacraments Twice: An Interpretation of Figures, Symbols and Hieroglyphs, Together with a Running Commentary on the Paintings, the Drawings and the Artist’s Letters. Watchet: Paravail.

Jordan, W. B. 1985. Spanish Still Life in the Golden Age 1600–1650. (Fort Worth, Texas: Kyoto. [Exhibition catalogue.]

Leis, H.; D’Amato, J. L. 2005. “Para una teoría de las prácticas del ambientalismo”. Theomai, First semester, no. 11.

Mérot, A. 1995. French Painting in the Seventeenth Century, translated by Beamish, C. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nelson, R. 2006. “Manhattan’s Trashy Treasures”. The Age. 4 October, p. 24.

North, M.; Ormrod, D., eds. 1998. Art Markets in Europe 1400–1800. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Olson, T. P. 2002. Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism and the Politics of Style. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pieri, M., ed. 1995. Il Barocco. Marino e la Poesia del Seicento, Cento Libri per Mille Anni. Rome: Ist. Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato-Archivi di Stato.

Pocock, G. 1980. Boileau and the Nature of Neo-Classicism, Major European Authors Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Posner, D. M. 1999. The Performance of Nobility in Early Modern European Literature, Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 33. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wheelock, A. K., Jr. 1995. Vermeer and the Art of Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cite this chapter as: Nelson, Robert. 2007. ‘Substance and sublimity’. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 5.15.18.

The Spirit of Secular Art

   by Robert Nelson