Monday, September 20, 2010

Complex Moral Allegories

The Tarot trump cycle is a moral allegory. The hierarchy of trumps is divided into three sections: a ranks of mankind up to the Pope; a Fall of Princes allegorical narrative, culminating in Death, in the middle trumps; an eschatological epilogue including the final triumph over the Devil and death, via the Resurrection to Final Judgment. There are three categories of subject matter: representatives of mankind, the allegory per se, and the overriding Christian context. This makes it a complex moral allegory, but it is hardly unique because of that. These three elements define a very large family of works in art and literature that may be termed Triumphs of Death, in a broad sense. Genres within that expansive grouping include the Dance of Death, Three Living and Three Dead, Triumph of Death in a narrower sense, and so on. Each work includes the three elements, at least implicitly, and the allegory in each case includes a personification of Death. (Genres such as Vanitas, Ubi Sunt, and Memento Mori are closely related but usually more subtle and allusive, and most significantly they lack a personifiation of Death.) An elaborate but representative example is this spectacular Philip Galle print (after Maarten van Heemskerck), a Petrarchian Triumph of Death.

The Triumph of Death
Print by Philip Galle, c.1565

All mankind, from pope and monarchs on down, are trampled by the Grim Reaper, a cadaverous personification of Death standing on a coffin. In the background we can see the two afterlife destinations, a fiery Hellmouth and a radiant Glory. A Fountain of Life has pride of place, top-center in the composition, while lifeless trees stand in contrast below.

As an aside, this scene bears virtually no resemblance to the Trionfo della Morte of Petrarch, from which it nominally derives. It is more in the tradition of works like the 14th-century Triumph of Death at the Camposanto in Pisa. It is thought to have been painted by Buonamico Buffalmacco in the 1330s, which predates illustrated versions of Petrarch’s Trionfi by well over a half century. In fact, by including Heaven and Hell along with Death, the author has pre-empted Petrarch’s Triumph of Fame and Triumph of Eternity, making this composition a very different work than the Petrarchian Trionfo. On the other hand, Death riding a cart pulled by oxen or bulls is in the pictorial tradition that was created by Petrarch’s illustrators. Galle’s image combines that with the earlier pictorial tradition, simply ignoring Petrarch’s poem. The only way we know this is intended to represent Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte is from the context of five other prints representing the other five trionfi, and from the context of a long pictorial tradition of representing his cycle this way.

All of which is background to introduce another composition, one of my favorites. This drawing is not technically a Triumph of Death, although Death’s triumph is at the heart of it. Rather than a personified Death, this allegory has a personification of Life. Life is depicted as being ephemeral as a bubble, Homo Bulla. The Reaper and Homo Bulla are combined in various works of art, including funerary art, and in the so-called Dutch Tarot, Floskaartjes. Here, Homo Bulla takes the place of Death, making this a Vanitas rather than Triumph of Death, despite the floor being littered with bodies.

Mors Sceptra Ligonibus Æquat
Drawing by Jacob de Gheyn II, 1599

The title of the image, Mors Sceptra Ligonibus Aequat, is a traditional memento mori subject. Death knows no rank—Death equalizes the scepter and the spade, more or less. This is an ancient idea, and one that is embodied in the trump cycle as well as all other Triumph of Death works. It was discussed and illustrated in a series of posts in 2008. (Mors Omnia Aequat, Blunder and Bullshit, and A Pair of Emblems.) The examples included a 1st-century mosaic and a couple 17th-century emblems from Otto Vaenius’ wonderful book, Q. Horatii Flacci Emblemata.

The content of the drawing is comprehensive, from Genesis through Revelation. This is the actual scope of all the contemptu mundi works, although the biblical bookends are usually implicit. These works are all concerned with the triviality and enticements of the post-lapsarian world, which does little more than endanger one’s immortal soul. Why do we “remember death” or “remember the Last Things” (death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell)? Why do we meditate on Homo Bulla, the idea that mankind’s lot in this life is a fragile and transient as a soap bubble? The answer is because of the economy of salvation, which refers to the Fall as described in Genesis (introducing sin and its punishment, death), Redemption in the Gospels (the Crucifixion and Resurrection), and the End Times in Revelation (the final triumph over the Devil and death itself). This is what matters, and mortal life—life in this world as opposed to the next—is nothing in comparison. Hence, the requirement for a studied contempt toward this world and a continuing focus on the next.

This particular print explicitly includes all the elements of the story. In the upper-left medallion we see Adam and Eve being deceived by the Snake. In the upper-right we see the sacrifice of the Crucifixion. In the large panel under the canopy we see resurrection, the Last Judgment, and souls assigned to Heaven and Hell. This is the biblical context of such allegories, what makes them meaningful. In the lower half of the image we have the allegory per se. We see a monarch and a peasant flanking an enthroned Homo Bulla, with his traditional motto from the famous Hendrick Goltzius print, Quis Evadet? No one escapes death, as surely as no bubble remains unbroken. The two figures, who combine to illustrate all the ranks of mankind, are shown below as corpses. Assorted other vanitas symbols decorate the scene, such as an owl (symbolizing night and death), smoke, flowers, and the implements of the two men are shown broken and ruined (ubi sunt), under their dead bodies (memento mori). It is a rich constellation of conventional elements neatly arranged: a schematic of life, death, and the meaning of it all.

Finally, a third example is a 15th-century print by the so-called Master of the Banderoles. (You can see why he is called that in this print.) There is a Wheel of Fortune, with the crank tethered to Christ. The idea that Fortune was effectively an aspect of Providence was common view dating back at least to the time of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Judging from the positions of the figures on her wheel, blind Fortuna appears to be turning it counter-clockwise, and the fellow at the bottom seems about to fly into the grave. The Tree of Life is shown on the right, with its fruits constituting a well-populated ranks of mankind. This includes the pope, monarchs, and others, with the Dove of the Holy Spirit tending to them. The Tree is growing out of a boat, an unstable base, perhaps symbolizing this mutable world. We also see two animals (Dies and Nox, symbolizing Time) worrying the trunk. So everyone’s days (in this world) are numbered.

Fortune and Death
Master of the Banderoles, c.1450-1475

The first of these three works, the Petrarchian Triumph of Death, is reproduced in Andrea Vitali’s Tarocchi: Arte e Magia (1994) and Il Tarocchino di Bologna (2005), and in a couple places online. (The entire series of prints is striking, particularly in comparison with the more commonly reproduced illustrations of the Trionfi.) The other two works are not as well known. However, because of their combination of 1) a ranks of man, 2) a contemptu mundi moral allegory, and 3) the overarching Christian context, they are revealing analogies to the Tarot trump cycle... along with a great many other moral allegories in art and literature.

Of course, rather than being reasonably intelligible moral allegories, these could all be occult manifestos conveying Kabbalistic secrets, Neoplatonic mysticism, Gnostic initiations, Goetic magic, astrology, numerology, alchemy... they might contain predictions of a 2012 apocalypse or, better yet, they might be treasure maps revealing the secret resting place of the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Urim and Thummin. There are certainly plenty of details in each image that could be taken out of context and interpreted in a preferred direction. As usual, I’ll leave such exercises for others to pursue.

October 19, 2010 postscript:

This 1st-century Roman mosaic is one of the oldest and one of the best examples of the Mors Omnia Aequat concept in a complex pictorial allegory. The allegory refers to the highest and lowest members of society (via merism, the actual audience is Everyman), and the social leveling aspect of death, as well as containing allusions to Fortune and the fate of the Soul, depicted as a butterfly.

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