June 8th, 2013

The second picture that caught my eye in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid recently (I discussed the first here) was this small grisaille diptych by Jan Van Eyck, a portable desktop prop for a rich man’s or woman’s devotions.
What is going on here? This is a real bleg not a rhetorical question. It’s not an image of the Annunciation, but an image of statues of the Annunciation. At the time, SFIK real devotional statues were polychrome; so the statues are not only imaginary but deliberately unrealistic. At the same time, they are gem-quality perfect simulacra. Why the layered distancing, almost as complex as the White Knight’s?
It’s possible that Van Eyck was simply showing off his technical mastery, pronking if you like. (“Look, rivals, I can paint an imaginary statue that’s more lifelike than your direct image”). His motto, reproduced on some of his paintings, was Als ik kan (“As I can”), which does not suggest false modesty. But it’s hard to believe that’s the whole story. Jan Van Eyck was court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, He was so famous that he managed to secure a salary, and therefore had more freedom than a painter on piecework commission; but particularly for a devotional piece, he would still be working to a commission from the Duke, a lesser nobleman or a rich merchant like Jan Arnolfini (he of the pregnant wife and lapdog). There’s a religious or philosophical point, as with Piero della Francesca’s puzzling Flagellation. What is it?

According to Huizinga, the great Dutch cultural historian of the period, the late mediaeval mind was literal and visual. Our ancestors then loved relics, pageants, and public executions. One devotional technique recommended by the Devotio Moderna was to project yourself into a Biblical scene like Gethsemane, and imagine taking part in a dialogue with the heroes and villains of the story. So you would expect 15th-century Flemings to want the utmost, illusionary realism in their religious art, combined with anachronism to bridge the gap of time. That’s what they got from van Eyck in the great public altarpiece in Ghent, the Adoration of the Lamb.

Grisaille does the opposite. It makes for anti-icons. Instead of a theophanic claim to put the pious Christian into contact with the object of veneration, it seems to say: I’m only an image; all I can do to bring you a place in your mind where you can start the hard work of opening yourself to the transcendent.

If this is right, these paintings mark the rediscovery of irony: a double message, a planned cognitive discord. Irony was important in Greek theatre – it’s the spring of the tragedy of Oedipus and the comedy of Lysistrata. The bitter Tacitus uses it to great effect in the speech of Calgacus before his battle with Agricola: “They make a desert and they call it peace”. It was revived in the Renaissance; Mark has (as I recall) claimed here that Machiavelli’s Prince is an exercise in irony – Macchiavelli, tortured for the Florentine Republic, actually despised Cesare Borgia and his ilk. The Ghirlandaio portrait of Giovanna Tortabuoni works through tragic irony- a beautiful and vital girl (look at her clothes), doomed to die in childbirth (look at the black background). Shakespeare gives us hundred-proof dramatic irony in Mark Antony’s speech over Caesar’s body: we thrill to it along with the Roman mob, at the same time as we recognise the cynical manipulation.

We don’t think of the Middle Ages as congenial to irony. But consider the Canterbury Tales, only a few decades earlier than our picture. Chaucer was an English gent and diplomat. His masterpiece combines affection for the common people with a snobbish mockery. The Prioress:

And frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

This Stratford is far from Shakespeare’s bucolic Avon. It’s the grotty part of London’s East End where they built the Olympic stadium: proletarian then as now, guvnor. The salutation is of course ironic; class mockery goes two ways.

9 Responses to “The name of the saint is called “Haddocks’ Eyes””

  1. karl says:

    You mention the Ghent Altarpiece as a colorful, realistic devotional work — yet it also shows grisaille figures when closed. I’m far (very far) from knowledgeable about these things, but Van Eyck and his contemporaries seem to be following a visual device used decades earlier in illuminated manuscripts. Now, why grisaille was employed in books of hours and the like I have no idea, but irony would seem a bit out of place. Van Eyck, on the other hand, did have what I think of as a touch of whimsy now and then — see the central figures (one a possible self-portrait) on the parapet in his Chancellor Rolin with Virgin and Child.

    That said, your original thesis (showing off) seems very likely — the man certainly knew his own worth and wasn’t ashamed to show it. Also, there certainly were painted devotional statues at the time, bit I don’t know if all such sculpture was colored; I’d be surprised if smaller, ivory carvings were — and as this piece is about 16 inches high… Just throwing some guesses out the window here.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Here’s the detail I think you mean:

    • James Wimberley says:

      I discovered the two grisaille figures in the Adoration of the Lamb late in writing the post. They count against my irony suggestion, but not conclusively. Even limiting it to the outer panels, only two out of eight figures are in grisaille; and the devotional focus is clearly the inner panels, all in polychrome. The diptych only has the two grisaille figures; they have to stand by themselves. How could the patron use them in prayer?

  2. Bloix says:

    The notion that Chaucer is ridiculing the Prioress as a proletarian is almost certainly wrong. The Stratford atte Bow was the location of a Benedictine nunnery and the Prioress would have been its head. There’s no reason to think that the nuns or their mistress were of working class origin.

    The reference to the French she speaks is not a comment on pronunciation by common people. The French that William the Conqueror and his nobles brought to England was not the medieval French of Paris, which is the ancestor of modern French. It was Norman French, a different dialect altogether. Norman French is the language that merged with Anglo-Saxon to become Middle English. (Many of the differences in spelling and pronunciation of modern English words that are derived from French existed in Norman French – e.g., William vs. Guillaume, Henry vs. Henri, hospital vs. hopital).

    In France today, Norman French persists among a very few speakers, and dialects descended from it survive in the Channel Islands.

    In the three hundred years between William and Chaucer, Norman French in England developed into a language of law and administration known today as Anglo-French, which contributed to Middle English before going extinct. By Chaucer’s time, Middle English had mostly replaced Anglo-French (although it survived for a long time as “law French”). T

    he Prioress would have been fluent in Anglo-French as the language of church administration. Chaucer himself, who was a diplomat, would have known the French of the French court. What he is saying about the Prioress is that she speaks Anglo-French but not Parisian French. This might be gentle ridicule for being old-fashioned or untraveled, but he’s not mocking her for being lower class.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Sadly, I can confirm that Norman French no longer survives in Jersey, and I assume Guernsey and Sark, as a language of daily communication. I still occasionally heard it on the bus coming home from school as a boy; the last time was as an undergraduate in the late 1960s, when I went to the dinner of the St. Mary’s Parish Rifle Club after its annual meet (target shooting is a major sport, inherited from the Victorian militias). The second language of Jersey is now the Madeiran Portuguese of 10,000 immigrants.

      Duc Guillaume certainly spoke and introduced Norman-French. His court poet was the Jerseyman Wace, who made up in productivity what he lacked in poetic gifts: “Jo vo dirai que jo suis /Wace de l’ile de Jersui”. The problem with your theory is that the Plantagenet kings after Stephen of Blois (1135-1154) were from Anjou and spoke a French much closer to Parisian. Chaucer’s line doesn’t make sense except as a snobbish joke at the expense of the Prioress. I concede that Stratford was a village outside London in 1400, so it’s not at the expense of Cockney proles. I think it’s at the expense of self-taught provincials with funny accents.

      The line is very interesting as it’s exactly at this time that English re-emerges as the language of the √©lite, after 250 years of varieties of French. Chaucer is a key figure in this revolution, but he didn’t do it by himself. Henry Bolingbroke, who usurped the throne in 1399, was the first King of England since Harold whose native tongue was English. I wonder: was the shift driven in some part by a growing anxiety that the French of England was rustic and second-rate compared to “proper” Parisian French?

  3. Bloix says:

    I had no idea of your personal connection with Norman French, and I’m very happy to learn about it from you. But the point about the Prioress isn’t my theory. This is from the Fordham University Medieval Studies website:

    [In the 14th and 15th C, Anglo-French] was not usually the first language of those who spoke it, but it was a frequently taught second language and an important language of record…

    For scholars of language and literature, Anglo-Norman increasingly refers to the variety of the French language used in England from the Norman Conquest to the fifteenth century (some scholars still use “Anglo-French” for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries)…

    [T]he earliest extant manuscript of the Chanson de Roland, the classic French epic, was actually written in England, and its language contains many regional variations specific to the French of England. Should the Chanson de Roland — or this manuscript, at least — be counted among Anglo-Norman literary works? Similarly, since Anglo-Norman was used as a language of devotional, poetic, and educational literature well into the fifteenth century, can the historical term Anglo-Norman really be limited to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries?

    Another difficult question is the status of Anglo-Norman in relation to continental French. Many scholars, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, assumed that Anglo-Norman was simply an inferior version of continental French, and that those who used it were trying to speak or write in continental French and failing…

    Scholars of language have often supported their view of “irregular” Anglo-Norman with the famous passage from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales about the hypocritical Prioress who spoke French “after the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe for Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe.” More recent scholarship, however, has questioned this perspective. Today, many historians and literary scholars agree, and they approach study of the French of England as a language of insular culture of no less value, though often different from, its continental equivalents. French developed and changed in medieval England according to local linguistic habits, necessarily influenced by the important and continuing linguistic substratum that was the English language, not a factor on the Continent. But the view that French in medieval Britain was a defective, low-status vehicle in comparison with other versions of medieval French no longer retains intellectual validity.


    • James Wimberley says:

      So it’s now politiquement incorrecte to look down on Norman or Plantagenet French? Well, well. (Though my first wife Pat had to read Wace for her French degree at Oxford, and she reported that he’s as bad as the sample, which I quote from memory from a proud inscription in the Jersey Public Library.) But the point at issue was what Chaucer thought, and he wasn’t PC at all.

  4. Bloix says:

    No, of course he wasn’t PC. But he would have been fully conversant in Anglo French, which was the language of law and administration during his era. As I said above, he might have been mildly belittling her for not knowing the French of courtly manners, but he wasn’t calling her lower class. There’s a tendency to think of the languages that are the ancestors of the winning modern languages as real languages, while the competing languages of the past become mere dialects or patois. But at the time, the languages were not viewed the same way. And the language of England in Chaucer’s time was particularly chaotic: Anglo-Saxon (the “English” of Harold) was dead, Middle English had multiple variants, none of them “standard” (compare Chaucer to Sir Gawain), and the Norman French of the Conquerer had evolved into a English “French” but it was losing out as a first language to Middle English, although it stubbornly held on as a language of administration; and over all floated Latin, the language of the highest scholars and clerks.

    Chaucer would have spoken at least four of these languages: Middle English, Anglo-French, Parisian French, and Latin. GIven that Anglo-French was the language of the law courts, the civil administration, and church administration (Chaucer was a lawyer as well as a courtier and a diplomat), it would very odd for him to have viewed Anglo-French as defective or ridiculous.

    • James Wimberley says:

      But it was London Middle English he chose to write in, and a poet’s choice of language is not a matter of taste but compelled by the Muse. (An extreme example is Paul Celan, born in Bessarabia, then politically part of Romania, to German-speaking Jewish parents. He could speak and write any number of languages fluently, including Romanian and French. But the language of his poetry is German: the language of his mother, the language of his mother’s killers.) His use of English for poetry is completely confident and not in the least apologetic, but his choice was against French as well as for English. I stand by my commonsense reading that he is laughing at the Prioress’ Essex French.

      Your Fordham scholars do protest too much. The supposed author of the Chanson de Roland, Turold, is thought to have been Norman – from mainland Normandy, where the whole population spoke French, as in Wace’s Jersey. In England it was just the occupying class, at most one in ten of a not very large population, cut off from literary interchange with their Saxon serfs and their bards and traditions, and dependent on the odd visitor from France for secular cultural nourishment. It’s not surprising that their literary achievements are insignificant compared to those in law and government, where their very insecurity bred creativity. Can you name one piece of literature written in Anglo-Norman French in England in 250 years that’s worth our time today? From the middle of the period, we do remember the radical political tract The Song of Lewes (here, esp. 116), stylish and hard-hitting : but it’s in Latin, not French. Given the large proportion of the population in some sort of holy orders, Latin was probably a better bet for reaching the literate, particularity those of Saxon origin.

      Contrast the early vitality of Middle English, rooted in the mass of the people: of the first three substantial works to surface in the second half of the fourteenth century, Piers Plowman and the Canterbury Tales are clearly the real thing, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has its defenders.

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