Practicing Art History
Oscar Wilde said, "Life imitates art." George Bernard Shaw observed: “You use a glass mirror to see your face. You use works of art to see your soul." So what is art history? Nothing less than a humanistic branch of biology, the study of life, and of philosophy or theology, the study of the transcendental. Necessarily subjective, it yet demands scientific rigor in analysis and utmost precision in its translation into words. No one better exemplified these qualities than my Princeton mentors John Rupert Martin and Irving Lavin, who for me established the application of Occam's Razor to art history: reduce the visual evidence to the clearest explanation. At a time when obscurity was valued over clarity, complexity over simplicity, I now conclude that my most valuable preparation for art history was freshman physics, which taught that the proof of a scientific theorem, its claim to truth, lies in the beauty of economy: explaining the most data in the least complicated way. Mies got it right: “Less is more.” Or as Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
My first foray into art history happened a year before I took a course in it. I was writing a paper for English analyzing a poem, “In Santa Maria del Popolo” by Thom Gunn, Princeton’s poet in residence my freshman year. As I wrote, my father suddenly appeared with an art book. “Maybe you’d like to see the painting the poem is about.” It became my all-time favorite, Caravaggio’s Conversion of Paul. The figure lies prostrate, eyes closed: everything happens within, as Saul is converted into the apostle Paul. His gesture is the sole sign of his state of soul, the poet’s “large gesture of solitary man / Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.”
If in this first instance a timely illustration illuminated a poem, the relationship between text and image was soon reversed. More often the act of writing itself leads to questions and, if I’m lucky, to answers I am unaware of before putting pen to paper. It’s what my father called “the heuristic power of writing.” He explained: “Ideas are like suitcases—hard to pick up unless one uses the handle. It is the writer’s task to provide that handle for the reader.”
Not surprisingly, the painting I studied in greatest depth was also by Caravaggio, his stupendous Supper at Emmaus in London. The great Berenson described this youthful, beardless Christ as a ‘boy preacher startling the yokels out of their wits.’ Though much noted, and criticized, no one had asked the simple question ‘why?’—Why did Caravaggio paint the recognition of the resurrected Jesus at supper in this way? Guided by Irving Lavin, who always probed to the heart of the matter, I found the answer as simple as obvious: visually explaining why the disciples had failed to recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Caravaggio both rationalized and sacramentalized that divine revelation in the Eucharistic ‘breaking of the bread’. The gestures say it all. Convinced that Caravaggio was here, as elsewhere, faithful to scripture in his dramatic reinterpretations, I found in Mark’s Gospel the obscure if key passage: that Christ had appeared after the Resurrection to two disciples in another guise, or visage, ‘in alia effigie’—the future title of my article. In this miracle of recognition Caravaggio literally drew upon three key precedents for his unexpected Christ, youthful and beardless: the Early Christian type (as in the Junius Bassus sarcophagus), a Leonardesque Salvator Mundi (by Marco d’Oggiono, in the Borghese), and most famously the transfigured Christ by Michelangelo in the Second Coming which his appearance at Emmaus prefigures.
My sophomore introduction to art history through Early Christian and medieval art hooked me on iconography, a hallowed tradition of Princeton’s department. But by the next year, as a newly minted major, I was seduced by the Baroque, thanks to my future advisor and Rubens mentor John Rupert Martin. For my senior thesis I chose Rubens’s Triumph of the Eucharist, his grandest tapestry cycle and most complex program of sacred decoration. Martin warned me that no one had figured out where or how the tapestries were designed to be hung in Madrid’s royal convent, the Descalzas Reales—a sacramental epic woven with threads of gold, yet with no agreed upon ordering of the scenes. My father happened to pop by my room that fall term in 1972 as I was going mad rearranging Xeroxes on the floor, trying to decide which of the five proposed linear sequences around the convent cloister was the most likely. Then I tried something new—the architecturally obvious: arranging them in two tiers, the elaborate Solomonic columns over the plain Doric. Eureka—it worked. (My dad loved to note that ‘the obvious is these days often overlooked’.)
With this key to the puzzle, my mother and I flew to Madrid to visit the convent and confirm my theory that Rubens had designed the tapestries to hang as ‘sacred architecture’ within the chapel, transforming it into the new Holy of Holies. That eureka moment, I now realize with half a century of hindsight, is what prompted me to stay on at Princeton as a grad student in the department. My thesis was digested into a paper for the College Art Association two years later—my first article for the Art Bulletin—before expanding into a dissertation and my first book. (Perhaps growing up in a publishing family encouraged such green recycling.) But it took me another forty years to figure out exactly where each tapestry must have been designed to hang—thanks to the magnificent Prado and Getty exhibition Spectacular Rubens. Its catalogue featured a reconstruction that I considered implausible. So armed with a laptop and photoshop, I finally found a way to fit all the pieces of the puzzle within the chapel with both iconographic and illusionistic consistency and then issued a new paperback edition of my long out-of-print monograph with an epilogue modestly titled ‘The Solution’.
My mentors at Princeton, Martin and Lavin, continued to inspire me long after I'd left academe. Right after my monograph on Rubens for Abrams’ Masters of Art series Lavin encouraged me to add the first book on a sculptor to the series—Bernini (of course). Fast forward to the new millennium and the discovery in Rome of Bernini’s last, long-lost sculpture, the Salvator Mundi. I called Irving and asked whether it had been painful to revise his earlier attribution of the cruder version in the Chrysler Museum in favor of this new stunning bust. His response? “That's the way the cookie crumbles!”
Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Lavin and Martin never settled for the bug. I had to revise my paperback edition of Bernini after Irving’s authentication of the new bust in Rome. As I struggled to find the right words for the new entry a question popped up: What is the primary, simplest meaning of Christ’s ambiguous gesture?
The playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote, “Die Tiefe muß man verstecken. Wo? An der Oberfläche.” Depth must be concealed. Where? On the surface. Bernini’s surface always makes dramatic sense. His son Domenico, who was present at the creation, described the gesture “as if in the act of blessing.” If we take him at his word, then–in the spirit of Occam’s Razor--the answer is obvious: Bernini captured in stone the act of blessing. He left as his parting tour de force the Savior caught at the moment he is about to complete the horizontal sweep of the cruciform blessing, a gesture familiar to any Catholic. In the end, it’s all about movement, Bernini’s hallmark.
My final heuristic moment came while composing a long-postponed article on Bernini’s Cristo Vivo crucifix, which I had given to Princeton to honor Jack Martin four decades ago. Once again, in the midst of writing, I asked myself: Why did he make it? Why, a year after the Cristo Morto, the Dead Christ, did he decide to design a second version, the Living Christ, for the remaining altars at St Peter’s?
As I was describing Bernini’s stylistically related sculpture of Daniel, the piece fell into place: Daniel in the lions’ den was a traditional prefiguration of the Resurrected Christ, triumphant over the jaws of death just as the prophet had survived the lions. Bernini’s revised crucifix expresses not only the sacrificial figure in extremis on the cross, but also—proleptically—the Resurrected Christ. He wanted to conclude his sequence of twenty-five altar crucifixes for St Peter’s not in b-minor, but B-Major.
The practice of art history, I submit, owes as much to the discipline of writing as of looking. The written word is itself a medium of chiaroscuro—drawing shadows into light. When I look back at my beloved professors and mentors I'm reminded of what Henry Adams said about a teacher never knowing where his influence ends. "A teacher," Adams wrote, "affects eternity."
Princeton University, 11 November 2021