Tag Archives: Personal Belongings

A young man is unhappy, as he speaks into his phone I gather that he has left his tent on the train; he is carrying two large rucksacks. He was expecting to sleep in the tent which must, by now, be half way to Ramsgate. It is late Friday afternoon on a small, rural station, the ticket office is closed. He had not obeyed the constant instruction:


Sympathy for the poor man without his weekend shelter prompts thoughts about our minimum requirements; what are the key elements of ‘home’? Do we always carry ‘home’ with us?

National Schools?

I have just come from a talk by the President of the Royal Academy to a group of schoolchildren. I had been about a National School of Art, a founding function of the Royal Academy. Afterwards a GCSE student asked the Pres about Tracey Emin, he was very appreciative of her time and commitment. He did not discuss whether she was, in fact, part of the new National School he was supposed to promote. Is such a collection possible or desirable in a complex, multicultural world? ‘National’ presumes a homogenous culture, a shared view of the land we share. We all share the same sky as the old posters used to say, appreciation of soft, British light might characterise those who struggle to represent its landscape.

National Characteristics: Light

It is grey and cold and drizzling on the platform, the light levels are low. Two girls are standing, half way along, towards the front. They face each other and bob slowly up and down in exact time, knees not quite touching. Just before the train arrives, the sun briefly appears on the horizon, it silhouettes the two gently rising and falling figures

What else might allow us to think of home as a set of shared national characteristics?

National Characteristics: Channelling your inner minor official

Time on public transport brings to mind that national inability to operate or cope with minor authority. Give any British man or woman a cap, a radio, a low level position of importance and we become instantly unbearable, we suppress individuality and joy in ourselves and others. That overwhelming British urge to stop someone enjoying themselves. Is that a recognisable icon on our national desktop?

This morning, on the bus, the new driver did not know the way. The driver made it as clear as he could that it was the passengers fault, we in turn did not help, did not show him where to go. He was lost and grumpy in charge of a double decker bus on winding country lanes; we were on a rudderless ship.

National Characteristics: Making it Big

As I watch the tent-less man, I can see another familiar theme on the pull down menu; sat on a bench is a young man on his mobile. He wears a vivid red and white shiny tracksuit and a crisp, purple New York Yankees baseball cap, the price ticket in dollars proudly displayed. His accent though is clearly local as he continues a monologue about his sexual successes. Could such a fidgety, awkward youth, blessed with such poor, pale skin expect his listeners to believe his spectacular history?

St Jerome

A small painting in the National Gallery shows a different conceptual desktop,

Antonello da Messina: 'St Jerome in his Study', 1475. oil on panel. 46 x 36 cm. National Gallery, London

it is ‘St Jerome in his Study’ by Antonello da Messina painted, probably about 1475. The saint is symmetrically framed by a stone portal, a frame within a frame. A peacock, a finch and a perfectly elliptical water bowl stand outside the illusory stone frame. The saint sits reading inside a Gothic nave, in profile, in a wooden carrel; a rather complicated piece of furniture centred on a desk. Shelves surround him with carefully placed significant objects (including a cat. Notice by the way, the saint’s attribute, the lion in the arcade on the right). We can see landscape through the clear windows (no stained glass) to his left and right and sky with birds in the windows above.

Georges Perec

As Georges Perec points out in ‘Species of Spaces and Other Pieces’ (Penguin Classics 2008, page 87)

“The whole space is organised around the piece of furniture (and the whole of the furniture is organised around the book). The glacial architecture of the church (the bareness of the tiling, the hostility of the piers) has been cancelled out. Its perspectives and its vertical lines have ceased to delimit the site simply of an ineffable faith; they are there solely to lend scale to the piece of furniture, to enable it to be inscribed. Surrounded by the uninhabitable, the study defines a domestic space inhabited with serenity by cats, books and men.”

Space within Space

Antonello da Messina: 'St Jerome in his Study', 1475. (Centre Detail) oil on panel. 46 x 36 cm. National Gallery, London

This painting features spaces within spaces within spaces, from the stone doorway, to the rectangular box shelves, the carrel itself with the stone box of the church, the tunnel of the arcading on the right and the different heights of the horizon through the two lower windows. An idealised landscape, the familiar notion of paradise in the types of Northern European art that had so clearly influenced this Southern European painter. Look for example at the view in Van Eyck’s ‘Madonna with Chancellor Rollin’.

Jan Van Eyck: 'The Madonna and Chancellor Rollin', 1437. 66 x 62 cm. Oil on Panel. Louvre, Paris.

 Antonello’s left hand landscape view does, coincidentally I presume, bear strong similarity to the methods that Poussin would later use to represent small towns, eg in ‘Landscape with a Snake’.

In his writing, Perec has organised the species of spaces so that each section works outwards starting from ‘The Page’ and ending with ‘Space’. Reminiscent of that schoolboy address that starts “If this book should dare to roam/ box it’s ears and send it home” and each further line moves from continent to hemisphere to planet to near space and ends with: The Universe. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with Perec that the ineffable faith is delimited. Look at the painting starting from the picture plane, the stone portal emphasises the world of the viewer on this side of that plane.  Go through the doorway and you enter the world of the spiritual mind (a series of interlocking themes and spaces within the overall temporal space of ‘The Church’); ineffable faith inscribed throughout each piece of iconography and the very way that the spaces are organised. Finally look through the windows; a release, a timeless space.

Note that the light from the windows has a different source to that (ordinary human space) which for example casts the shadow of the peacock.

Antonello da Messina: 'St Jerome in his Study', 1475. (Detail) oil on panel. 46 x 36 cm. National Gallery, London


Penny Jolly has pointed out (Antonello da Messina’s ‘St Jerome in his Study’ : An Iconographic Analysis The Art Bulletin, Vol 65 No 2 (Jun 1983 pp 238-253) that each of the painted objects fit into a complex ‘iconographical program’ as characteristic of Flemish art as his use of painting media (traditionally Antonello was the first Italian artist to introduce oil paint to the South, although this is now disputed).  The iconographic references tend towards associations with the Virgin Mary, as Jolly points out the composition and arrangement of St Jerome owes something to paintings of the annunciation. The towel (although used), the bowl of water, the trees referring to walled gardens and so on; all these are, or could be, disguised Mariological symbolism.

Jolly assets that the right hand landscape is the uninhabited wilderness Jerome lived in as a hermit, and the left hand view, with it’s proximity to the cat, (sexual temptation/ erotic associations etc) shows a view of the city associated by Jerome with wordliness.

Antonello da Messina: 'St Jerome in his Study', 1475. (Centre Detail) oil on panel. 46 x 36 cm. National Gallery, London

Close examination doesn’t quite prove this, the city could of course be Jerusalem: “Do you keep your windows open on the side where light may enter and you may see the City of God” as Jerome said in Epistle 22. 

And, the right hand side looks closer to the sort of organised agrarian landscape you can see in the right side of for example, the effects of Good and Bad Government in the Town Hall in Sienna.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti: 'The Legend of Good and Bad Government (Good Government in the Country)1337-9, Fresco, Sienna.

Painted Space

Like most art historians, Jolly concentrates on de-coding iconography and says little about the composition of pictorial space, usually a figurative artist’s overriding concern.    A carefully placed series of spaces, containing other spaces, the pictorial logic holds throughout; it is convincing, rational, planimetric. The Carrel and its contents, including the saint are parallel to the picture plane. It has for example, none of the oddities of later Florentine Mannerism,

Jacopo Pontormo: 'Joseph with Jacob in Egypt', 1518, oil on panel, 96 x 109 cm. National Gallery, London

try looking at ‘Joseph with Jacob in Egypt’ by Pontormo (expressing perhaps something of the nature of dreams fundamental to the story, certainly of the mysteries of death fundamental to the parts of the story shown here and the style.,

Lorenzo Monaco: 'Coronation of the Virgin', 1414, egg tempera on panel. national Gallery, London

Or the absolute rigidity, pictorial and ideological, of early Renaissance images such as Lorenzo Monaco’s ‘Coronation of the Virgin’. The way each painted area interacts with another is as much part of the meaning as the precise signification of the peacock (“symbol of celestial immortality and incorruptibility” Jolly p 240).

Perec as, I suppose, a Twentieth Century Modernist sees Jerome driving his desk into infinite space, as it were. Doesn’t the composition, with its sequence of steps and arrangement of layers, work the other way?

Antonello da Messina: 'St Jerome in his Study', 1475. oil on panel. 46 x 36 cm. National Gallery, London

Like Jerome, we have to start at the door outside the box, a box we might call home. Note that he has come from outside, he has taken off his hat, his own cap of office, minor officialdom plays no part here. And , we know that he is now on holy ground because, in common with so many other Flemish paintings, he has taken off his shoes. Grasp hold of the significance of these wordly goods, and there are many of them around him, to arrive at the calm centre. We have to examine the objects that make up our ‘home’, study their relationships guided by a key text, before we can look out of the window to paradise.

I try to do this on the train home, but the image of the poor young man, still trying to track down his tent as the batteries fade on his phone, and the monotonous insistence of the red suited would-be sexual athlete who boards the train with me, make looking out of the window in a contemplative mood, difficult.

“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.

Paolo Veronese: ‘Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?’, 1548, oil on canvas 117 x 163 cm National Gallery, London

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.

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood' detail of Fallen 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,

Paolo Veronese: Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?', 1548 oil on canvas. 117 x 163 cm with orthogonals

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.

Belonging to?

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?

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood' String of Jewels detail

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.

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood' Detail of Inner Space

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.

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?', 1548, oil on canvas 117 x 163 cm National Gallery, London

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.

Paolo Veronese: 'The Family of Darius before Alexander', 1565-7. oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London

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.