We all enjoy looking at old photographs and laughing or cringing at how much we and our family members or friends have changed over the years. Sometimes the changes are for the better but usually not. We grow older, greyer, balder, fatter, and wrinklier. We also grow wiser, but photos aren't too good at showing that. If all of this is true of individuals, the same is true of mankind in general. Of course I'm not talking about physical changes, though old photos tend to indicate we're now taller on the whole, and probably somewhat heavier than were our ancestors who didn't eat as well and no doubt worked harder. No, I'm talking about the role art, particularly painting, serves in illustrating how mankind has changed in the ways in which we think and act during the past seven or eight hundred years in which painting has developed and become an effective, plentiful form of art.
Recently I've been writing on the way art and religion have changed over this somewhat arbitrary period of time, particularly how our Christian worship has changed. Art has been a key element in illustrating and exemplifying these changes. But beyond that, it's also key to showing how people have changed. For example, there are few content areas of art that have simply disappeared over this time. History painting has practically died out (to be replaced by a more viable medium). I wrote on the painting of martyrs a short time ago which appears to be a lost art and, along the same line, no one paints paintings of miracles anymore either. There are probably a few others but let's stop there. Today when we use the word "miracle" we talk about medical miracles or miracle drugs and perhaps a miraculously lucky event or chain of events. But even so, few of us really believe in miracles as such without knowing in the back of our minds that these fortunate occurrences can mostly be explained by modern science and technology - or plain dumb luck - as opposed to divine intervention. And in any case, even when our most devout prayers appear to have been answered, painting a picture depicting it never once occurs to us. That's how much we've changed.
No one is saying miracles no longer occur (or at least that's not what I'm saying). But we are no longer so superstitious as to see them at every turn of events either, nor are we likely to pray for them, as did our ancestors. And in the realm of religious practice, we no longer think of them as being somehow "magical." Gentile da Fabriano's 1425 painting, St Nicholas of Bari Preventing a Shipwreck is a small scene from the predella of an altar in a Florentine church dedicated to the fourth century bishop. It depicts the heroic spirit of the deceased cleric swooping headfirst down from the sky like Superman, dressed in red, white, and blue robes, shrouded in a golden glow, saving a small sailing ship from destruction while in the water, a mermaid swims by. Despite its supposed religious significance, the whole scene seems rather comical to us today. This posthumous miracle of St Nicholas even rings up humorous associations with Santa Claus. We wonder where might be the reindeer. That's how much we've changed.
Gentile Bellini's solemn Procession in the Square of St Mark, painted in 1496, depicts a similar, though less dramatic, miracle. In fact, the miracle is so much less dramatic it might very easily be missed in the hundreds upon hundreds of ecclesiastical figures and bystanders and architectural minutiae the artist has so adroitly included in the scene. The event portrayed is that of a feast day procession of a relic of the true cross (which speaks volumes right there). The wooden splinter is housed in a gold reliquary carried beneath a flamboyant canopy while just behind it a red robed believer kneels in prayer for his son who has fallen and cracked his skull. Because of his father's prayers to the relic, his son (unseen in the painting) reportedly recovers. The pomp and circumstance, the belief in the miraculous power of relics, the almost infinitesimal detail in the painting - that's how much we've changed.
In the next century, Jacopo Tintoretto's reputation as an artist was largely made through his The Miracle of the Slave painted around 1548. The highly manneristic painting, based upon an episode from Golden Legend, depicts a slave being tortured for his disobedience in leaving on a pilgrimage to venerate the relics of St Mark. He's about to have his eyes poked out and his legs broken. In a grand entrance he must have learned from St Nicholas, St Mark swoops down headfirst from the sky to rescue the hapless pilgrim amidst the expected pandemonium such a "miracle" might have caused.
By the early seventeenth century, in the shadow of the Reformation, the church began to take this business of sainthood and miracles a lot more seriously. Paintings of miracles were even being used to promote claims of sainthood, as in Rubens' The Miracles of St. Ignatius Loyola. Here, in this enormous Baroque extravaganza, Rubens portrays the priest at an altar with his Jesuit companions (who stood to gain from his canonisation) to his right and a sampling of his purported miracles to the left, before him at his feet. Ignatius seems to have been big on the exorcism of demons. In any case, he was elevated to sainthood three years later. That's how much we've changed.
Each of these paintings is a snapshot. Each depicts a place, a time, and a unique insight into the way those living and painting at the time thought about art and life. We find amusing their clumsy attempts to depict the undepictable, to promote tourism through the veneration of relics, to foster hero worship, to hype the reputation of past leaders, and to impress the impressionable with their artistic virtuosity. But we dare not laugh too hard. Five hundred years from now, I'm sure art historians will find no small amount of amusement in the transparency of our own parochial thinking as seen in our use of the various art media today for similarly shallow purposes - consumerism as patriotism - for example.