Friday, August 21, 2009

Interview with Medieval Scholar Jesse Hurlbut

I am pleased to interview Jesse Hurlbut today about triptychs. My interview with him will help give historical context to this month's theme. I am a firm believer in the cross-pollination of art forms. In other words, I think photographers can gain much by looking at other forms of representation.

Jesse has been teaching French Medieval culture for 20 years at the University of Kentucky and at BYU. He received his PhD from Indiana University. In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Jesse is a longtime photo enthusiast. He specializes in landscapes, and his sense of color has been influenced by the sunsets of the Arizona desert, where he was raised. Southern Utah and Southern France are his two current favorite places to take his camera. Lately, he has been energetically exploring the capabilities of the Foveon sensor in his Sigma SD14.

I have to admit that I don't know a lot about the history of triptychs, and I'm guessing that I'm not alone. I have seen some Medieval religious triptychs, but I would love to know how this art form emerged. Is it linked to Christian doctrine of the Trinity in some way?

Medieval triptychs belong to the tradition of adorning the sacred altars in churches starting in the twelfth century. More than just decoration, these altarpieces provided a visual metaphor for the sacred ritual performed in front of them. Altarpieces were typically made of stone, metal, ivory, tapestry, or painted wood panels, often covered with jewels or precious metals. Many altarpieces consist of a single panel depicting a scene from religious history, typically from the life of Christ. In the later middle ages, wealthy patrons commissioned artists to produce small altarpieces that could be folded on hinges, convenient for personal devotions and for transporting. Diptychs consist of two panels, that close like a book. Triptychs have three panels and usually have two ½-size wing panels that fold over a full-size central panel. Each panel would contain a different scene. Indeed, the theological premise of the Trinity (three in one) is nicely represented in the triptych since it contains three images in a single, unified piece of art.

Diptych of Jean de Cellier

By the fifteenth century, huge hinged altarpieces are permanently installed above or behind the altar and could include a dozen or more panels with multiple wings. Even with more panels and wings, these elaborate constructions (called polyptychs) were still usually organized around a tripartite composition. The wings were painted on front and back, although the most spectacular paintings were reserved for the inside panels. It is thought that, in some cases, the wings were opened to reveal the inside only on special feast days. Since portability was no longer an issue, we can imagine that the frame divided into three sections persisted as a convenient way to present and to compartmentalize different scenes.

Polyptych, 1478

Is there a set method for "reading" a triptych or does it vary greatly from one to the next?

While there is plenty of variation in what to look for from one altarpiece to another, there was a fairly unified method of interpretation that medieval scholars applied not only to religious art, but also to every aspect of daily life. Called exegesis, the technique originally derived from the interpretation of scripture and involved four stages:

1) The historical approach looks for the literal meaning of the thing being studied. For example, the story of Noah’s Ark is about a prophet who saves his family by building a boat.

2) The allegorical approach looks for connections between literal and divine history. Noah’s flood might be viewed as an allegory for Christ’s baptism.

3) The tropological approach studies the moral lesson to be learned from a story. In the example of Noah, one lesson might be that those who obey God as Noah did will be preserved by God.

4) The fourth level of interpretation is the most mystical, requiring deep spiritual contemplation. This anagogical approach leads the soul upward from the materiality of this existence to the immateriality of spiritual understanding.

A triptych can easily incorporate each of these four levels. If the central panel depicts a story from the life of Christ; one of the wing panels might show the allegorical connection of that story to an Old Testament event; the other wing panel might show the donors of the painting contemplating the moral lessons of the two other scenes. The person participating in a sacred ritual at the altar may fulfill the fourth level of interpretation by means of their personal spiritual experience.

The Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin (in the Cloisters Museum in New York) is a straightforward example of what I have just described. In the central panel, Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of the Messiah. In the right panel, Joseph is making mousetraps in his workshop. Allegorically, this refers to the way Christ will ensnare the devil. In the left wing panel, we see the donors who commissioned the artwork peering at the two scenes through a door, as they contemplate the moral implications for themselves (tropological). It is interesting to note that through the windows of the central panel, we see only the sky, while in the two wing panels, we see the world at street level. This is a way of indicating the anagogical or spiritual significance of the central panel over the other two.

What influence do you think the triptych has had on other art forms?

One of the qualities of the triptych is that it juxtaposes images that share something in common, but the thing they have in common may not be apparent until they are placed side by side. Other art forms that exploit this same technique include cinema, where a director may create an association between two otherwise unrelated scenes by placing them one right after the other. This is called montage, and it has become such a strong convention that we often don’t even notice how different the scenes are, because our imagination is so well trained to fill in the gaps.

Another art form that exploits sequential images and the gaps between them are comics. We usually think of comics as telling a story in a chronological sequence that moves from one panel to the next, but the relationships between panels—typically separated by literal gaps—can express much more than progress through time. Scott McCloud, comic book artist and theorist, uses the term closure to talk about how our imagination fills in the spaces between panels. In his analytical comic book, Understanding Comics, he has proposed a short list of some of the possible connections between scenes.

(I’ll quote from an on-line summary, but the fully-illustrated version in his book is worth a look.)

1. Moment-to-moment

The same subject is displayed in adjacent instants, like a movie running jerkily on a slow computer. Very little closure is required.

2. Action-to-action

The focus remains on a single subject, but this time, two separate, consecutive actions are displayed (for example, the first panel might contain a car speeding along, the 2nd the car smashing into a tree).

3. Subject-to-subject

Both panels are within the same scene or idea, but each portrays a different subject. ("John: What more could go wrong? || Catherine: Well, at least Jerry never called! || Telephone: R-ring")

4. Scene-to-Scene

Just what it sounds like: great leaps in time or space. ("Detective: He can't outrun us forever. || Image of darkened house with caption: Ten years later...") Lots o' closure -- deductive reasoning, even -- is often required to link the panels into a single narrative.

5. Aspect to aspect

"Bypasses time for the most part and sets a wandering eye on different aspects of a place, mood, or idea."

6. Non-Sequitur

Panels with no logical relationship. (McCloud argues, though, that any panels placed side by side will inevitably generate the impression of some sort of relationship in the reader's mind. "--alchemy at work in the space between panels which can help us find meaning or resonance in even the most jarring of combinations."

Since we are trying to do photographic triptychs this month at Take-out Photo, I wonder if you could comment on what a photographer might glean from the tradition of triptychs. Any ideas or inspiration for my readers?

I think it’s most important to think about the relationship between the images you put together. What brings these pictures together? Is it shape, line, color, light, or texture? Is it some symbolic connection? Three siblings? Three fruits? Three animals? Perhaps the relationship is one of difference, as in an example of the three states of water: a river, an ice cube, and steam.

My second suggestion is related to the first, but has to do with order. Do you want your images to be read from left to right (as with a comic book) or do you want the outside photos to provide a symbolic frame for the center photo (as with a religious triptych)? What visual clues can you give your audience to make sure they correctly perceive the order?

Third, just as composition is important for individual photographs, the overall composition of the combined triptych is essential to consider. Will all three photos be the same size and shape? How does my eye travel from one image to the next? Symmetry is easy with three, but perhaps an overall asymmetrical composition fits your subject better.

To see more triptychs, search the online collection of the Web Gallery of Art.


Susan said...

Posted like a true professor!

That's a lot to take in.

michelle said...

This is interesting. I especially enjoyed the idea of how our imagination fills in the gaps and the more modern examples in cinema and comics.

michaela said...

great idea, Marc, to interview Jesse. and the information is super interesting.

AllMine@YoursToo said...

Not sure I agree with the premise that a 'cross pollination' isn't just the same old snarf and grab an idea that formerly plagued the truer of arts...just plain old DESIGNERLY constructors of elements for chortler.

That's all.

Tee-hee... Loved the funny lil fortune cookie entice thang... Though thinking myself that it's more alure would be to say "WHEN two wrongs don't make a right..."

Oh yah...Jesse. The terrific blend of mind over chatter.