“Take all of your personal belongings with you” a phrase constantly repeated in all train announcements, spoken in the indignant tone of a teacher at the end of a long day. Like bored students, we commuters are irritated and indifferent. Apart from pedantic annoyance at the tautology: what is an impersonal belonging I wonder? This phrase prompts other thoughts: what is the nature of belonging anyway? The notion that we need to belong, to be a part of various forms of wider human association is a common one:
“All objectifying knowledge about our position in society, in a social class, in a cultural condition and in history is preceded by a relation of belonging upon which we can never entirely reflect. Before any critical distance, we belong to a history, to a class, to a nation to a culture, to one or several traditions”
Ricoeur, Paul. ‘Hermeneutics and The Human Sciences’, ed and trans by Thompson, JB. Cambridge University Press, 1981. Page 243
Belongings, personal or otherwise, define us and how we belong. The role of belongings as a means of thinking about who we might be and how we relate to each other and our future, spiritual or physical, is common in art, from Vanitas to Van Gogh’s twin paintings of chairs, to physical beds in galleries to pots with words and pictures on them.
This painting in the National Gallery brings some of these points together. I have been puzzled by it for a while. It is apparently by Paolo Veronese, yet it is small with a strong Mannerist style.
In the centre of painting a young woman in a light blue top showing a fair amount of chest and a mustard yellow, voluminous skirt, has collapsed to the ground. In her right hand is both, a broken necklace (or possibly a string of jewels wound from her hair) and the hand of the woman behind her, we can just see the other end of the necklace appearing on the right of her neck. She is being supported by that hand holding woman in red and green behind, who also manages to point at Christ at the same time. Christ is making some sort of blessing gesture, his right hand pointing downwards. Surrounding these three are large numbers of figures, most of them look towards the young woman.
The action seems to take place in a shallow pictorial space, a lobby with the fluting of large classical columns (Greek Doric) visible behind. There is an open portal to our left, a dog’s head and the back of a nude boy is framed in it and behind, columns (Ionic) appear to flank a circular opening, a figure is looking down, which makes the viewer suppose we are at least one storey high, a small crescent of sky can be seen.
The Subject: Belonging, Composition and Types of Perspective
There is some debate about which Biblical story we are looking at, and that is where the notion of belonging comes in I think. The collapsed figure is tended to by the woman beside her and, presumably, by Christ. The man with the book to her left and the man in green behind him look less keen. It is the breaking of the necklace, the losing, or indeed loosing, of her personal belongings, the string of jewels, that either sparks off this whole event (whatever it may be) or symbolises it. Although small, that jewellery is centre stage, and this is a very stage-like frieze of figures. We know that Veronese intended this to be so, by simple Early Renaissance devices. She is positioned exactly on the vertical axis. Look at the pavement on which the figures stand, follow the orthogonals (parallel lines that lead to a vanishing point) created by the darker pink bands leading into the pictorial space. At first sight, they appear inconsistent, although they all point to the necklace and more specifically to the broken section below the two clasping hands of the women. If you look at the orthogonals on the image below,
you will see that they appear to be reminiscent of a ‘herringbone’ pattern, in which the parallels meet symmetrically in mirror fashion on a descending vertical axis, rather than converging to a single vanishing point. Erwin Panoksky in the Introduction to ‘Early Netherlandish Painting’, and also in ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’ (Section II), describes the herringbone pattern (or vanishing axis perspective) as deriving, ultimately from, classical painting (Greek vases and Roman murals, usually for things like roof beams). It is also the mediaeval precursor to the fully fledged linear perspective discovered by Brunelleschi in the early 1420’s. The obvious question is this, why does a young, very proficient artist in the middle 16thCentury use such an archaic device? The answer must lie in the way that the artist directs the eye towards the string of jewels. The series of vanishing points continue the line and form of that broken string, a line that falls, deliberately, exactly on that vertical axis. It is like a big arrow: look this way.
Before its first showing at the National Gallery (1876) this painting was assumed to be ‘Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery’, when Christ asks the Pharisees who are about to stone a woman to death ‘He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone’. Once on public display it was then assumed to be ‘Mary Magdalene Laying Aside her Jewels’, although there is no biblical text for such an image. A recent article (By David Rossand in The Burlington Magazine: ‘Veronese’s Magdalene and Pietro Aretino’, June 2011) has again suggested that this is indeed the Magdalene, if so where are her other attributes, the jar of ointment perhaps? Is this where the nude boy, (who must refer to Cupid) and the dog (to fidelity?) fit in to the narrative?
Analysts in the 1990’s proposed the current title, the story of the sick woman (the issue of blood) grasping hold of Christ’s clothing in a crowded place, convinced that he can heal her, convinced of her faith, he does so. This is a painting by a young man, about 20 if the dates are right, young Veronese copied Parmigianino’s drawings which would explains the Mannerist style; the elongation of the figures and their serpentinata poses.
What sort of community, what sort of belonging are we being shown? What does the book, so lightly held by the white cloaked man, contain? What? Rules? Or the names of transgressors? Christ’s New Testament?
That string, look at the shape it makes, firstly that shape resembles the arrangement of key figures around the fallen girl and Christ a swirling open form, close to a spiral. Secondly, although it is probably a coincidence, the shape of the string is a question mark. Apparently the forms of punctuation didn’t really settle down until the full acceptance of printing; about the beginning of the 16th century. So we cannot assume a common usage of the question mark in 1548, but as a means of highlighting our, contemporary difficulties with the narrative, that question mark is perfect, her ‘personal belongings’ falling across her chest point exactly to the heart and the uncertainties of the story
This is a woman who is either losing her place, her ‘relation of belonging’ as Ricoeur put it, to a particular community. Or, she is being welcomed into it by the central charismatic figure, against the misgivings of others perhaps because of past transgressions. There is enough evidence to support either supposition. But, I would favour the latter, the spiral of figures around her and Christ is not dissimilar to the disordered and broken circle the fallen woman holds in her hand. That similarity surely indicates parallel ‘relations of belonging’
The Space within the Space
There is more evidence in the formal arrangements, in the composition of the work. Behind, through the opening, is a presumed architectural circle, a perfect form.
As always a separate space within the pictorial space of a painting (often a window, in this case the brightly lit circular architectural form on the left) has a narrative and a formal function. Formally, it relieves the claustrophobia of the foreground; it allows Veronese to make a scene that is dark, crowded and intense, without making it overpowering and awkward. Put your hand over the lit inner space and the other forms become incoherent and overheated; frantically boiling melodramatic emotion. Add the calmness of pale circular forms, receding verticals and the tiny crescent sliver of blue gently echoing the curves beneath it, and you have an ordered space of reason (perfect geometric forms like the circle) and light.
In narrative terms, we must assume that the lighting and simplicity of this inner architectural space relate to Christ, i.e. a temple. He is after all, the only clearly identifiable figure in the work and as such is nearest to the opening. (“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14.2). This fictive architecture seems a mix of Bramante and Palladio, there is something of the ambulatory of The Redentore in Venice, or the first floor of the cloisters at Santa Maria della Pace in Rome about the arrangement. Not much though, the cloisters are rectangular, Corinthian and Veronese had not been to Rome and didn’t work in Venice until 1551. Nonetheless, as Nicholas Penny points out in the National Gallery Catalogue (Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings Volume II) he came from a family of masons and had worked with Michele Sanmichele, the great Veronese architect and to whom this section might relate. Despite Penny’s point about the closeness of the intercolumniation in the lobby, Veronese was a man who therefore knew his high level architecture and putative meanings. This little painted fragment shows classically inspired architecture of order and rationality, note that it is Ionic, the next step up the Architectural Orders from the Doric of the lobby area; that inner space is a sanctum, a temple, a spiritual destination. Stick with the man in the halo and that is where you will get to. This is the destination of that clustered community around him, that group of people belonging to each other, as opposed to disapproving and disorder to the right of the painting.
Veronese knew what he was doing
I think we come to the supposition that, if Veronese had wanted to specifically and clearly identify the fallen woman, he would have done so. He knew, or would come to know, exactly how to play with notions of identity in paintings.
Look at his vast painting of the ‘Introduction of the Family of Darius to Alexander’ 1565-7 with the famous misidentification by Darius’ mother, Sisigambis when she mistakes Hephaeston for Alexander. Veronese made this sort of thing one of his key themes. Had he wanted us to know who was who in this smaller, earlier painting he would have done so. I suspect though, rather than setting up complex puzzles for later art historians, it was an ambitious young artist widening his opportunities. The wider the field of identifiable characters, the greater possibilities for future commissions.
Back to the train gang
Sadly though, in my case travelling on a packed afternoon train, wedged into a narrow seat by a large man steadily eating a reeking and noisy packet of crisps, there is no possibility of rescue to a glorious inner sanctum, not even to the empty First Class seats. Opposite me, a man in a black leisure wear sporting a black baseball cap, with BENCH printed asymmetrically across it, has been trying to buy a double garage over the phone. He is having trouble explaining what he wants, no matter how many times he repeats himself (7 metres by 5 metres with double doors and a shingle roof) whoever takes his calls cannot help. Does a garage come under the heading of a temple, a place of calmness and rational order: that’s a shed isn’t it? A shed is where you put all those ‘personal; belongings’ that have no obvious place to be, but you can’t bear to part with, unless of course you have left them on the train.