Saturday, June 13, 2009

Haiku for David

Do nothing you wouldn't
    want to be caught dead doing.
Memento mori.

John Carradine's advice: "Never do anything
you wouldn't be caught dead doing."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Another OBES

Ten years, five forums, fuckwits and fortune-tellers beyond count. Too many dicks, not enough brains.

Woody Allen famously remarked that he would never want to belong to a club that would have someone like him as a member. Not being quite that neurotic, I can't stay indefinitely in a club that doesn't want people like me as members.

British Museum: Reverse of a medal for Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) showing "a complicated allegory, adapted from a woodcut, parodying a medal made for the Duke of Mantua, one of his patrons. It shows Truth sitting on a rock, looking up at the reclining figure of Zeus, who holds a thunderbolt. On the right, Victory is crowning Truth, who rests her foot on a satyr. The legend, meaning 'Truth creates hatred', shows that the image is a metaphor for Aretino's writings. His satires reveal the truth about bad rulers, placing him above others, making him a target for hatred: the satyr (meaning 'satire'), is the servant of truth and the means by which Aretino, like Zeus, can strike his enemies."

5/19 P.S. In addition to Ross' comment it has been made clear that, despite my perception of an increasingly strident anti-intellectual sentiment at Tarot History, my participation is welcomed by Robert and Jean-Michel.

January 17, 2010 postscript:

Idiot Admonitions:

Never argue with an idiot: onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

Never argue with an idiot: the best you can hope for is winning an argument with an idiot.

Never argue with idiots: they drag you down to their level then beat you with experience.

July 6, 2010 postscript:

For those with no historical, cultural perspective, an enthroned woman with a polygonal halo, holding a sword and scales, is as open to free interpretation as the third star in Orion's belt; the arrangement of elements is just an accidental pattern. Those who say it represents a personification of Justice, and who cite centuries of art and literature to support that claim, are not persuasive, despite the endless evidence that may be adduced. A skeletal reaper has an arbitrarily large number of possible meanings, as many as you care to invent and none of them more salient than any other: it is as open for interpretation as debris at the bottom of a tea cup. No allegory is more appropriate than any other, according to this ideological dogma. If fortune-tellers, Postmodern relativists, and other New Age ninnies do know anything about the meaning of didactic art, then they are frauds who hide their knowledge well. They write as trolls, intentionally misleading the unwary and annoying those who are not deceived, for the entertainment value such sport provides. If they do not know anything, then they are merely idiots. The Tarot community calls them "historians".

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bellini's Allegories (2 of 3)

Bellini's so-called Pagan Allegory, subject of the previous post, is a relatively simple, clear, and direct expression of the pervasive Christian contemptu mundi sensibility, illustrating the idea of renunciation and reward.

Renunciation and Reward
"What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"

If a respected art historian and Bellini scholar like Rona Goffen can fail to grasp this straightforward allegorical subject, then it is not surprising that the more complex series of Allegories by Bellini has had a colorful history of poor interpretation. In this post I'll present some of the explanations that have been offered, in particular those of Goffen and Edgar Wind. Then, in the next post, an attempt will be made to improve upon those analyses. This exercise in iconography is very much like the challenge of interpreting the Tarot trumps, although lacking the fantasy world of occultism and fortune-telling which has dominated Tarot studies for over two hundred years.

Getting the Right Words

Previous Attempts. A couple weeks ago, Jean-Michel David posted a picture of one of the "Bellini Allegories" to the Tarot History Forum, calling it a winged Temperance [right]. (Keep that identification in mind in regard to Dürer's Nemesis and Vasari, below.) The image has a traditional context (four other allegorical images), and as a group they have attracted considerable interest from art historians. Most of what has been written about them is either false or speculative, including the iconographic conclusions. The overall work of art was not being properly translated into words—the essence was being missed.

The Goal. Iconography is basically a kind of ekphrasis, broadly defined as a description of a work of art. More narrowly defined, ekphrasis is the translation of an artwork from one medium to another. Even a verbal restatement of a pictorial composition can take different forms. It might be a parallel artistic work, for example, a poem based on a painting, perhaps reflecting the themes of the painting, perhaps commenting on it, etc. It might be an iconographic analysis ranging from a simple description of the visual elements (Panofsky’s first level of analysis), explication of the didactic structure (iconography per se), or an elaboration of the larger significance (which Panofsky referred to as iconology). In any of these senses, ekphrasis requires an understanding of the subject matter of the original work.

Difficulties. Even if the iconographic quest is limited to identifying the subject-matter of an image in an objective manner, describing the formal and conventional elements and adding some commentary on larger social context, iconography may be challenging on each of the three levels described by Panofsky. On the descriptive level, for example, a familiar object might be badly rendered, or poorly preserved, or the original might be lost or otherwise unavailable and reproduced in a poor or questionable manner. The image may depict an obscure object. On the level of iconographic analysis, there may be unfamiliar or unconventional symbolism. The wrong elements may be emphasized, or the image may have been intended to be read on several levels. In terms of iconology the possibilities for misunderstanding vary wildly from an iconic medieval Christian image which is instantly recognizable through Renaissance devices and obscure Neoplatonic allegories which may (or may not) be decipherable with effort, all the way to the most idiosyncratic and self-indulgent mnemonic and alchemical conceits which absolutely require an explanation by the author. The most formidable obstacles for iconographers, of course, are mistaken preconceptions.

The Test. An explanation and understanding that can be justified by the work itself—that is, an objective reading closely tied to the pictorial evidence—requires not just the consideration of pictorial elements in isolation but also in combination. How do the individual elements relate to each other in the panels, and how do the panels contribute to an overall composition? This approach, fitting each element into a coherent overall design, places constraints on the acceptable reading of the bits and pieces. In A Wicked Pack of Cards, Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett put it this way: “The test of whether a coded text has been correctly deciphered is that it allows a coherent message to be read.” The analysis needs to make sense of the work.

The Approach. There are various defensible ways to "read" most allegorical images, just as each clue of a riddle suggest various answers. The solution that does the least violence to the individual elements while making the most sense of them all together is correct. The oblique, metaphorical and partial descriptions (enigmatic reflections of the correct solution) that make up a riddle are intended to be collectively sufficient to unravel its solution; and the solution, once discovered, elucidates the previously cryptic clues. Thus, solving such a puzzle is necessarily an iterative process. “What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” or, as more commonly stated, what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs during the day, and three legs in the evening? Individually, those elements are vague, ambiguous, and mutually contradictory. Yet when taken together and given the proper reading, the various metaphorical figures become clear and the Riddle of the Sphinx is answered. With a riddle, the "test" is still whether the proposed solution "allows a coherent message to be read", but the reading is a bit tricky.

A cycle like Bellini's Allegories or the Tarot trump cycle is not compared to a riddle as mere analogy. These things are a kind of visual riddle, and originally designed as such. They contained multiple layers of meaning, like an emblem in which motto, epigram, and illustration both clarify and expand on each other. Such allegorical inventions required clever design and conflated iconography, compromising conventional symbolism. They are challenging puzzles to resolve, but although it takes considerable exposition (to a contemporary audience) to explain the solution, once it is seen it makes sense of all the pieces and their combination. It is one thing to highlight themes and relationships within a pictorial cycle, rather like explaining why a joke is supposed to be funny. But to explain the meaning so that the reader actually "gets it" sometimes requires finding just the right words to convey the ideas... a proper ekphrasis. And first, you have to get the basic iconography right, which in the case of Bellini's Allegories (or the Tarot trump cycle) is not a trivial task.

Bellini's Allegories: Background

Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516) was a prolific and influential Venetian painter of the High Renaissance. The four (or five) figures in question are commonly known as Bellini's Allegories. Conflicting quotes from a number of sources will give an indication of the uncertainty involved while at the same time introducing historical and iconographic details. Roger Eliot Fry (Giovanni Bellini, 1901) will start things off.

A similar contrast between the intellectual conception and the artistic treatment is evident in Bellini's allegories in the Venice Academy, in which, in spite of the apparent classicism of the forms, Dr. Ludwig has recognised a traditional series of mediaeval allegories. It is evident that these were painted by Bellini in the slight and almost casual manner that would be natural to a great artist in executing a small decorative work as a relaxation in the midst of more serious studies; and it is a natural conjecture that they were the panels done by him for a cassone, mentioned in the will of his pupil Catena.

Fry refers to Gustav Ludwig, (as do most others discussing Bellini's Allegories), who was discussed in the first post of this series. (Among other things, Ludwig identified the fifth figure as Summa Virtus. It was supposed to combine the three Moral Virtues—Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance—in a single monstrous figure.) Note Fry's description of the figures as traditional medieval allegories and the "slight and almost casual manner" of their execution. In contrast, the great literary critic Northrop Frye referred to the images as "curiously modern" in a 1937 letter: "the little row of Giovanni Bellini allegories, for instance, were as near to intelligent sur-realism (if that isn't a contradiction) as I've seen...." So they have been deemed traditionally medieval, curiously modern, and more commonly, as the kind of obscure allegories characteristic of Renaissance humanism. Here is a more typical description, from Bruce Cole (Italian Art, 1250-1550, 1987).

Five small panels from about 1490, by the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, are parts of a now-fragmentary mirror frame. A sort of miniature version of the large-scale paintings that graced the walls of Renaissance homes, they illustrate complicated allegories set into landscapes of great calm and gentleness. The importance of this commission to Bellini can be measured in the high quality of the design and the care taken in the painting of the panels: the Renaissance did not necessarily consider the commission for a painted mirror frame as less important than a commission for an altarpiece. Bellini's masterful little panels help us see in what high esteem the Renaissance held the decoration of functional objects.

The contrast between interpretations, one writer identifying traditional medieval allegories while another sees complicated Renaissance allegories, one remarking on Bellini's casual execution while another sees masterful design, is entertaining and instructive. Here is another early writer, Mary Knight Potter (The Art of the Venice Academy, 1906).

There are in this room five little paintings by Bellini that are supposed to have been executed for the adornment of some marriage chest or other ornamental coffer. They are allegories, the subjects of which are disputed points. Until lately they have been supposed to represent Bacchus and Mars, Venus, Fortune, Truth, and Calumny. The figures are about eight inches high, painted apparently in tempera on wood. "In them", as one critic says, "can be seen the study of the antiques treasured in the museums of Venetian palaces", and they are full of "the spirit of Titian's later bacchanals". It is now thought that perhaps they are allegories of mediaeval subjects. Truth has been called Prudence, and Venus again, Fortune.

The labels here are those which Potter identifies as having been accepted "until lately", i.e., c.1906, and the pictures are ordered as she listed them. Although these individual identifications are either wrong or at least suspect in each case, it is interesting to note that Potter arranged the five paintings in a meaningful schema. (This may reflect the manner in which they were displayed.) The two images with men are at the outside, the women inside, and the harpy is in the middle. The right-facing images are to the left and the left-facing ones to the right. Thus, even though the meaning of the images is poorly understood, the formal and literal considerations reveal some sort of intended design. It might not be precisely this arrangement, but there is certainly a kind of pairing involved in the subjects and the compositions.

It should be obvious to anyone familiar with "traditional" "medieval" allegories, things like Love, Time, Fortune, and Death, that Ludwig was quite mistaken. These are Renaissance novelties. However, "Venus" is immediately recognizable as Fortune, with her boat and her sail-shaped dress, as well as subordinate figures both floundering and triumphant, and "Truth" is clearly Vanitas, with her mirror and death's head pedestal. But none of them is quite conventional. As Paul Joannides (Titian to 1518, 2002) observes, Bellini "had executed secular work of distinctly arcane nature, notably a suite of four opaque allegories (supplemented by a fifth by Andrea Previtali) painted for a chest which was later owned—rather than commissioned by—his pupil and Giorgione's friend, Vincenzo Catena." There are several points introduced in that quote, notably that the fifth painting is not by Bellini. A more recent identification of the artist is Previtali, a follower of Bellini, and a more recent (and more plausible) identification of the subject matter is Nemesis. (Robert Englekirk, Appreciating Italy, 2007.) In any case, these five figures are challenging, "arcane" and "opaque". Some elaboration on this subject matter and Bellini is provided by Hugh Honour (The Companion Guide to Venice, 1997).

In point of subject matter, they are among Bellini's most uncompromisingly Renaissance paintings, for they appear to illustrate the arcane philosophical ideas of some humanist. Yet the general effect is curiously Gothic. For, like the majority of Venetian painters, and unlike the Ferrarese and the Florentines, Bellini seems to have cared little for the intellectual ideas of the humanists. When, late in life, he was painting a mythological picture for Isabella d'Este he complained that he was working so slowly because he found the pagan subject so distasteful.

Here is a fairly straightforward description from the Web Gallery of Art. It offers some alternative readings for a couple of the images—e.g., a naked woman with a mirror might easily suggest either Prudence or Vanitas. "Falsehood" and "Virtus Sapientia" are far-fetched readings, but the others are reasonable.

The four panels with Allegories at the Accademia in Venice are often likened to the Sacred Allegory, but they belong instead to the artist's scanty secular production. They originally formed part of a small dressing-table with a mirror and a rack on which to hang objects, belonging to the painter Vincenzo Catena who, writing his will in 1530, left it to Antonio Marsili. The spread of this kind of furniture was so great that in 1489 the Venetian Senate prohibited its manufacture, limiting it to what was strictly necessary. Often, as in this instance, their decoration comprised symbolic representations of a moralistic character.

An unusual theme for Bellini, the panels represent respectively: Lust tempting the virtuous man or Perseverance (Bacchus who from a chariot offers a plate of fruit to a warrior); fickle Fortune (the woman on an unstable boat holding a sphere); Prudence (the naked woman pointing at a mirror); Falsehood (the man emerging from the shell). There are diverging opinions about the interpretation of the last two representations, such that they have been seen as: the Woman as Vanitas (on the basis of similar representations by Jacopo de' Barbari and Baldung Grien), and the Man in the shell as an allegory of Virtus Sapientia, since the shell might have a positive connotation as a generative principle.

It seems that every would-be exegete of these images mixes some sound readings with at least one howling blunder. Some writers despair of finding the correct identification of Bellini's subject matter, with or without the fifth image. Wilhelm Waetzoldt, discussing the Bellini's Allegories and Dürer's contemporaneous Nemesis (which Vasari termed Temperance) and Sea Monster, (Dürer and his Times, 1950) offers this excuse.

The understanding of pictures is circumscribed by the time factor, because the subject-matter of culture changes with time. The biblical knowledge of the modern man—compared with that of his forefathers—is already so slight that only the best-known biblical subjects can generally be understood without the aid of inscriptions or explanatory texts. And how much more rapidly has the allegorical subject-matter of the Renaissance sunk into oblivion!

Ronald Shaw-Kennedy (Venice Rediscovered, 1978) just shrugs: "Several unsuccessful attempts have been made to explain the subjects [of Bellini's Allegories] and it is better not to worry about them, but simply to admire the supremely delicate paintings." Ron is a wise man, but we will go on nonetheless.

Edgar Wind's Analysis

As noted in the first post of this series, one of the great lights of the Warburg School, Edgar Wind, offered an assessment of Bellini's Allegories as a footnote, (Bellini's Feast of the Gods, 1948).

Bellini was familiar with the belief that revelry should be acceptable as a reward for virtue. He himself had painted an allegory of Comus, a comes virtutis graciously offering the reward of pleasure, a Bacchus-like figure (for Comus was the son of Bacchus), comfortably riding on a chariot drawn by cupids and following on the heels of persevering Virtue: virtute duce, comite fortuna. As Comus is here to represent good fortune, he bears the attributes of Bonus Eventus.
[Footnote:] Bellini's allegory served, together with three others of equal size and a fifth slightly smaller panel, as decoration of a mirror. Cf. G. Ludwig, "Venezianischer Hausrat", Italienische Forschungen, 1906, I, p. 187ff. His reconstruction is, however, untenable: (1) it postulates a sixth panel, of which there is no trace, (2) it does not adequately account for the smaller size of one of the five panels, (3) it is based on an iconographical theory which is contradicted by the visual evidence. The blindfolded harpy with flying forelock cannot possibly be Summa Virtus, even though she is winged and carries the two jugs of Temperance. Nor is Prudentia ever represented with so repulsive a face or with an ugly mask in her mirror or attended by little drummers and trumpeters. While the woman in the boat has certainly the attributes of Fortuna, she does not look "inconstant". Her maternal affection for the little children might qualify her for a Caritas; in fact, the group is led by a jubilant Amor. From the symmetrical use of symbols in the four major panels, I would infer that the mirror was intended for a couple: As Comes Virtutis is the good fortune of man, so Fortuna Amoris or Caritatis is the good fortune of woman (cf. the juxtaposition of Bonus Eventus and Bona Fortuna, male and female allegories of good fortune, in Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXXVI, 23). These two images of well-deserved fortune are counterbalanced by two warning pictures of evil fame: Vana Gloria as the ill fame of woman and Servitudo Acediae as the ill fame of man. The symbolism of the snail corresponds to Pierio Valeriano, Hieroglyphica, 1575, p. 203 (bk. XXVIII, s.v. cochlea). The moral that the mirror can be used for good and for ill is summarized in the blindfolded figure of Nemesis, which is places with deliberate paradox above the glass. On her role as winged goddess of chance, retribution, and temperance cf. Gyraldus, "Syntagma XVI", Opera Omnia, I 1696, p. 465, and Alciati, Emblemata, 1531, fol. A7r, where both picture and text supply striking parallels to Bellini's image. For the combination of Nemesis with a mirror, see Alciati, Emblemata, 1542, no. LXXIX: "Illicitum non sperandum", also an engraving by the "master of 1515" (Van Marle, Iconographie de l'Art Profane, II, fig 216), where Nemesis herself holds a mirror. Iconographically, the picture of Nemesis belongs so unquestionably to Bellini's mirror and is so brilliant and original in its treatment of the theme that it seems difficult to accept R. Longhi's recent verdict: "nulla ha veramente in comune con la poetica del grande maistro" ("Viatico per la Mostra Venexiana dei Cinque Secoli", La Rassegna d'Italia, I, i, 1946, p. 70.

Wind interprets the program as contrasting "two images of well-deserved fortune" on the left against "two warning pictures of evil fame" on the right, with a male and female example of each, and Nemesis presiding overall. Fortuna Amoris (identified with Caritatis) is the good fortune of woman and Comes Virtutis is the good fortune of man. Vana Gloria is the shame of woman and Servitudo Acediae is the shame of man. At this point I will simply note that 1) Fortuna Amoris is a perverse reading, as Fortune's supposed "maternal affection" only extends to two of her children, whom she comforts, while ignoring the other two of her children—who are drowning! 2) Comes Virtutis and Servitudo Acediae are inadequate readings. 3) The Nemesis panel almost certainly belongs to a separate series. Therefore, Wind's overall thesis fails despite having attempted to explain the similarities, differences, and relationships of the cycle as a whole.

Rona Goffen's Analysis

Rona Goffen's 1989 Giovanni Bellini is the most detailed recent discussion of Bellini's Allegories that I found. As with the others writers mentioned, Goffen mixes good ideas with weak ones, and includes the seemingly requisite howler. Despite her iconographic blunders, she is a very good source for the historical information. For example, she casts doubt on key elements of the traditional historical narrative of the Allegories, hypothetical reconstructions which are usually presented as fact.

For a hundred years and more, these panels have been associated with the restello belonging to Vincenzo Catena and mentioned by him in his last will. G.B. Cavalcaselle first suggested this provenance, but technical and stylistic evidence suggests that the fifth panel does not belong with the first four. There is little reason to believe, moreover, that Bellini's Allegories once belonged to Catena, who may or may not have been the original owner of the restello cited in his will of 1525—but not in his testament written a dozen years earlier—and whose restello may or may not have been decorated with any of these pictures. Bellini had apparently painted a restello at the beginning of his career, of which the Pagan Allegory is all that remains, and perhaps others were graced with pictures by him. However attractive, the association of the Accademia panels with the restello mentioned in Catena's testament seems merely fortuitous.

Catena's reference to Bellini does not describe, nor even number, the pictures. However, the mere possibility that a connection exists enabled Cavalcaselle to speculate and thereby create an intriguing but hypothetical narrative. Because it is such a good story, it tends to be repeated generation after generation, and Goffen's more critical assessment is refreshing. She describes the panels in general before trying her own hand at their interpretation.

As in mural painting and in other narrative cycles, in the four Allegories the direction of light is consistent, tying the group together and indicating the original placement of the panels. The direction of movement in each scene confirms this. The two compositions with male protagonists were originally pendants, with "Bacchus" on the left and the signature at the bottom of the "Snail" panel, IOANNES BELLINVS.P. The compositions of the remaining two paintings, with female protagonists, indicate that the water scene was to the left and the woman with the mirror to the right. These horizontal pairings form logical vertical pairings as well, corresponding to the direction of the action in each scene. When the four panels are rearranged in this way, male and female are juxtaposed. Bellini has also distinguished the figures according to their classicism, especially in the case of the female figures, contrasting the nude, a nonclassical northern type, with the classicizing woman in the boat. Each is paired with a male figure of comparable classicism or nonclassicism. Bellini further distinguished the figures morally, with one member of each sex embodying something virtuous and the other something invidious. Hence, virtue and vice seem to have been allocated equally between the two sexes and the two modes, classical and nonclassical. Suggestions regarding any of the panels obviously must be consistent both visually and symbolically for all four—they form a cycle—and it is worth remember that Bellini himself was capable of "fantastic inventions", as Pietro Bembo reminded Isabella d'Este. Perhaps these compositions have caused scholars so much iconographic confusion precisely because they were Bellini's personal fantasy, not a compilation of more readily recognizable symbols imposed by a patron.

Below is the arrangement Goffen suggests, named with the interpretations she subsequently provides. This arrangement is very similar to the two shown above, as listed in a 1906 source, (apparently representing 19th-century views, and probably reflecting the display of the items in the Venice Academy), and as pictured by Wind. The most striking difference is Goffen's omission of the Nemesis panel. In Goffen's arrangement, 1) left-facing allegories are placed on the right and vice versa; 2) same-gender allegories are paired horizontally; 3) the male allegories are placed on the bottom, so that the artist's signature appears at the bottom. This is, without doubt, the correct overall arrangement of the series. Moreover, this is fairly obvious without recourse to conclusions about style or assumptions about virtues and vices.

The idea that both vertical and horizontal pairing should be meaningful is key. This compositional arrangement provides additional information, beyond what is in the images individually. Unfortunately, Goffen failed to make good use of that insight, and her specific identifications of the allegories range from good (Self Restraint) to very bad (Melancholy).

The first scene represents Melancholy. The same attribute, the globe of Fortune, and the same characters, a woman and several infants, reappear in two paintings by Lucas Cranach representing Melancholia, the name inscribed on one of them. Similarly, Dürer depicted Melancolia I with a globe and a putto in his engraving of 1514. Bellini's Melancholy sails in a boat, but how it is propelled is unexplained: the mechanics of her progress are concealed by the cropping of the picture, perhaps to signify that her voyage is uncontrolled and unguided, aimless like her musings in the characterizations by Cranach and Dürer. Bellini further confirmed her identity as Melancholy by a remarkable detail, the expressive faces. The incisive characterizations of these features, all the more extraordinary given their small size, was anticipated in the early Pagan Allegory.

There is no excuse for Goffen's blunder here, unless she was rejecting the obvious just for the sake of novelty—like a Tarot enthusiast might. Bellini's woman in a boat, (which Goffen notes is rudderless, appropriate for Fortune), whose dress billows behind her like a sail, who holds a globe as Imperatrix Mundi, (which Goffen identifies as "the globe of Fortune"), who embraces some subordinates while others flounder, was correctly identified as Fortuna Inconstans at the turn of the previous century. Dürer's Melancholia I (above) has virtually nothing to recommend it as a cognate image. From more than two dozen distinct elements in Dürer's image, a sphere and a winged putti are singled out as defining characteristics of Melancholy. Such naive cherry-picking would be expected in an online Tarot forum, but is embarrassing from an art historian. Likewise, Cranach's allegories of Melancholy bear little resemblance to Bellini's Fortune. Cranach created at least four versions, dated 1528, 1532, 1533, and one usually dated online as 1553, the year he died. (It is dated 1532 by Le Musée d'Unterlinden de Colmar, which holds the painting, and it resembles the 1528 version.) They share a number of features. Each one has a red-haired woman in a red dress, seated indoors at the right edge of the image, whittling on a stick. Two of the women have wings. All four versions show children playing, and all four have a bizarre apocalyptic vision in the upper-left corner and a distant landscape. Three of them have a dog and a ball; two of them have a pair of birds, and other details vary as well. It is difficult to even guess at the details of the landscape or the fantastic visionary elements. The 1553 version (right) has the woman wearing a crown of thorns, tilted at a rakish angle. However, in each case a woman sits and whittles and stares into space while children play in front of her. The identification of the images as allegories of Melancholy implies that a bored mother of small children, isolated with her fantasies, aptly personifies that state. Identifying this vision of Melancholia with Bellini's Fortuna Inconstans ignores the several defining elements of the latter, including the winged trumpeter Fama at the bow of the boat, instead viewing Fortuna simply as a negligent mother, probably bored senseless.

Melancholy frowns and her little companions are woebegone, but the nude woman in the next panel smiles at us as she presents her attribute, a mirror with reflected image, and the accompanying children celebrate her with raucous, gleeful music. Mirrors were associated with self-knowledge in art and literature, and this seems consistent both with the action of Bellini's figure—naked, like all truth—and with her placement on a pedestal resembling an ancient altar. The nude is Self-Knowledge, which she commends to the beholder with her gesture of indication and admonition, as though to say, "Know thyself".

This is not only a mistaken conclusion, but some of Goffen's observations are blatantly false. The detail image above shows the "raucous, gleeful" music makers and the pedestal on which the woman with a mirror stands. They might have been raucous and gleeful the night before, assuming that their present state reflects a near-fatal hangover, but Goffen's description clearly falsifies their appearance. The pedestal does resemble an altar, one decorated with a festooned ox skull—symbolizing sacrificial animals. The woman is Vanitas, a memento mori, and her despondent entourage reflects that somber theme. A literal description of Vanity's subordinate figures would be "downcast"; a more figurative and interpretive description might be "lethargic" or "lifeless", appropriate to the theme of Death. Contrast those dejected musicians with the supposedly "woebegone" winged trumpeter from the first image (left), who stands upright, head held high, and whose inflated cheeks tell a very different story than the one offered by Goffen. Her readings are as perverse as Wind's assertion of "maternal affection", although she approaches the correct meaning. The ghastly gray image in the mirror does indeed reflect a kind of self-knowledge but, specifically, it is the awareness of one's mortality; rather than nosce te ipsum, the proper motto to accompany her gesture would be respica te, hominem te memento.

There is more to Goffen's interpretation of this image, and her comments on the other two allegories are less flagrantly mistaken, but having failed so badly on the first two there is no need to go further into her interpretations. Goffen began with a virtue-vice hypothesis, and then forced the allegories to fit that mistaken model. It was not a bad hypothesis a priori, but it turned out to be wrong. This is demonstrated by 1) readings that are clearly false (Melancholy) or partial (Self Knowledge, Envy), and 2) the failure to make compelling sense of that overall arrangement. If the four allegories can be identified more clearly, that information can be used to find a more appropriate conceptual model, and that model can then be used to refine the initial reading of the individual allegories. If it still doesn't make good sense, at least more will have been learned about the images and the cycle, and another attempt can be made. Given the manifest inadequacy of what has been published, the discussion should have moved forward a bit. This iterative, generate-and-test methodology is the approach required by the Tarot trump cycle.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bellini's so-called Pagan Allegory

In the previous post I mentioned Giovanni Bellini's so-called Pagan Allegory. It seems useful to spend some time with this early work (c.1460) as background before further discussion of the later (c.1490) series of allegories. There don't appear to be many images of it online, although it can be found via Google Books in Rona Goffen's 1989 Giovanni Bellini. In describing this painting she also describes the kind of setting in which Bellini's later series of Allegories would have been found. In the image below I've given it a false golden frame, as I did with the previous picture of Bellini's Allegories, to provide some indication of the richness of the original setting.

Bellini's Allegory of Renunciation and Reward

Venetian Restelli

Bellini's so-called Pagan Allegory, dating from the late 1450s or early 1460s, is among the first known Venetian representations of [humanist allegory]. And this early Venetian picture of a classical subject was part of a decorative object—not an 'easel' or large-scale mural painting; until the turn of the sixteenth century in Venice, such objects were evidently banished to the intimate and secondary territory of personal furnishings.
Bellini's small panel surely formed part of a larger whole. Almost identical in size to his later Allegories in the Accademia, this picture probably served the same purpose as they seem to have done, namely, to decorate a restello. Bellini's early Blood of the Redeemer [above-right] was evidently also intended to adorn such an object—in this case, a tabernacle of the host. Restelli were luxurious secular objects, elaborate and costly mirrors enframed with carved and gilded wood, and surrounded by small paintings, the ostensible practical purpose of all this being the convenient storage (and the true purpose, the display) of toilet articles that were themselves luxurious, such as decorated combs, and to clean them, long brushes of horsehair with elegant fittings. The first mention of a restello seems to occur in an inventory of 1457 of a Murano household: if Bellini's Allegory was made for such an object, then it has the distinction of having been among the first of its kind, as well as one of the first such objects in Venetian art.

Restelli were apparently unique to Venice, and few have survived. Much of what is known about them comes from Gustav Ludwig's reconstruction, based on documentary evidence. Frida Schottmüller's 1921 book, Furniture and Interior Decoration of the Italian Renaissance, has this to say about restelli.

The clothes-rack (attaccapanno or capellinaro) was occasionally provided with a carved ornamental top, or it was of a shield shape with cartouche ornaments. Sometimes it was combined with a shelf, and with thus in Venice a peculiar small ornamented object of furniture was created known as restello di camera, to which a mirror was often added. Its pegs, however were not intended for suspending clothes, but small articles of wear.

It must not be forgotten that mirrors made of glass at that time were held as precious objects and therefore their framing worthy of every adornment; florid decorations which with paintings and reliefs would have diverted the attention from the chief object, were here in their right place. The earliest mirrors were round like bulls' eyes and often deeply set in their frames which were likewise round; the transition to oblong forms was brought about by adding ornamented wedges. The frames were sometimes so broad and elaborate, especially in the restello, that the mirror itself was relegated to a secondary place, the decoration being the chief thing.

G. Ludwig, in the above cited work gives full details as to the restello, and also mentions the restello di scrittura, serving for letters and writing materials. He derives the word from restellus (a small rack). The restello must not be confused with the restelliera or lanziera which was a large rack for holding weapons, lances, and banners.

Goffen also discusses the banning of restelli in Venice, which took place at about the same time that the Academy Allegories were produced.

If Bellini was a law-abiding citizen of the Republic, however, then he would not have painted a restello for Catena or indeed for anyone else after 1489, for that December the Senate decreed that such objects should not be made, bought, or sold. "For some time", the indignant senators declaimed, "it has been the custom to make new expenditures that are entirely vain and superfluous, ...that is, restelli and gilded chests [chasse], very sumptuous and of [monetary] value. And now, let it be decreed that all the said restelli and gilded chests be de facto prohibited and forbidden, so that from now on they cannot be used or possessed in any manner, under all penalties and strictures contained in the legislation of ornaments of rooms; this applies to those who desire to possess them, as to masters who work on them." The senators then forbade expensive wedding cakes and women's fur pieces. These so-called sumptuary laws, meant to curb frivolous spending, were frequently and conspicuously flouted by many Venetians. In the same year, the Senate felt compelled to reiterate its opposition to marzipan, which had already been declared a controlled substance in 1476 and 1483. In any case, the date of the law pertaining to restelli is consistent with the style of at least the first four Allegories; perhaps the restello was legal after all, if just under the wire.

Renunciation and Reward

Painted in gold on a black ground, Bellini's picture is like a gilded drawing or manuscript illumination; it is almost jewel-like, and the object that it once adorned must have been splendid. In technique, the panel resembles the handling of the cherubim surrounding Saint Vincent Ferrer, [above-right] also painted in gold striations on black, or the fictive reliefs on the parapet in the Blood of the Redeemer, which are related in their antique subject matter as well. With a fine brush, Bellini applied the gold sometimes in long striations, sometimes in shorter strokes that bend back on themselves, and sometimes in cross-hatching. The strokes almost merge to suggest highlight, whereas their absence, the absence of gold, leaves the black as shadow, including cast shadows. It is a tour de force of a drawing technique that becomes coloristic painting.
The subject of the Pagan Allegory, which remains an enigma, was probably always intended to be arcane—like the Hypnerotomachia, to take a frustrating literary parallel—but perhaps more readily understood in relation to the other panels that must have accompanied it. Surely he is a ruler or a god, seated on a block that resembles an ancient altar, he wears a diadem and a tunic with a mantle. The other figure, more modestly dressed, kneels to offer a palm branch and an orb. The way in which the orb is decorated with leaves (possibly myrtle) recalls the bands of precious metal and/or gems that adorn the orbs of Christian rulers, but now turned sideways rather than upright. The palm frond, too, is familiar in the context of Christian imagery—martyrs hold palm branches, and Christ's path is covered with fronds in the Entry into Jerusalem—but here the palm frond has been restored to its ancient usage as a sign or offering of Peace. Yet the supplicant's demeanor is not one of defeat; his sensitive and animated face suggest an intellectual or cultural offering to his prince. The idiosyncratic refinement of his features and the relationship between the two men may suggest an association like that of Octavian and Virgil, a ruler who is patron and recipient of the offerings of art and culture, in the frontispiece of Virgil's works published in Venice in 1508. In Bellini's composition, the two appear to address each other, and whatever the subject of their discourse, the artist has endowed it with considerable energy.

This is a poor iconographic analysis of a fairly simple image. All the elements are noted, but Goffen makes assumptions, (that it is a purely Pagan theme and that the palm is offered to the Lord rather than to the Supplicant), which hinder her interpretation.

The figure wearing a diadem is enthroned on an altar-like seat, itself on a higher plane than the kneeling figure. These major compositional elements are general rather than specific, but they make the general point very strongly. Based on those elements, the generic descriptive identifications "Lord" and "Supplicant" seem more like observations than interpretations. The superior's eyes are lowered, looking toward the meeting of right-hands; the inferior is looking up and appears to be making an earnest appeal. If that much is a given, then the salient questions involve the orb and palm. Who is giving what to whom, and what do these items symbolize?

Detail of Bellini's Pagan Allegory

With regard to the exchange, Goffen says that the orb and palm are offered to the Lord by the Supplicant, but this is simply assumed rather than being defended. Clearly the Supplicant is not offering the palm frond: his arm is not extended, whereas the Lord's arm is, indicating the source of the action. The Lord may be taking or giving, but in either case the extended arm illustrates his action. Enrique Enriquez pointed out that the curvature of the branch suggests it has moved from our left to our right, confirming the interpretation of action from Lord to Supplicant. Although the Supplicant is offering up the orb with his left hand, it is not being handed to the Lord, whose right hand is occupied with the palm and whose left hand is resting on his knee. (We can imagine a "next frame" of this scene in which the Lord's right hand might then accept the orb from the Supplicant; but the impression is that the orb is being ignored, despite being literally front and center.) As for the symbolism of the items, the palm, as Goffen noted, is a classical symbol of victory and a Christian symbol of martyrdom. The T-O globe (based on the common T-O mappa mundi design and reflected in countless images of orbs as symbols of sovereignty, most commonly the globus cruciger, ), is an obvious symbol of worldly power. These are extraordinarily ordinary, conventional rather than arcane. As for the species of plant depicted wreathing the world, there is no way to judge that without some additional information, so that determination can wait.

If those direct interpretations of the dynamic interaction, the palm, and the orb are correct, then a very simple explanation of the allegory exists: Bellini's so-called Pagan Allegory depicts a supplicant giving up the world in exchange for a victory (of some sort), acknowledged by his lord. It is difficult to state that without instantly going further, including the inescapable Christian implications of that reading. The supposedly "enigmatic" Pagan Allegory is in fact a straightforward allegory of Christian contemptu mundi and salvation, renunciation and reward. The Supplicant forsakes the World, either as an ascetic or martyr, and receives the palm of victory from the Lord. The world is prominently displayed, almost as if the Supplicant is showing it to the viewer, but it is also ignored by both figures, thereby placing equal emphasis on "mundi" and "contemptu". The moral may be phrased in different ways, and one can identify the figures variously, but the overriding idea is both simple and clear:

"I'd trade the world for victory over death."

This is the Martyrdom Clause of Jesus' teachings, and the Gospels put this idea very strongly. Here is Chapter 8, Verses 34-37, from the Douay-Rheims translation of the earliest Gospel, Mark:

And calling the multitude together with his disciples, he said to them: If any man will follow me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel, shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

Similar passages appear in Matthew and Luke. Other interesting passages include John 16:33, 18:36, James 4:4, 1-John 2:15-17, and 5:4-5.

Returning to the species of the foliage wreathing the orb, that is still uncertain. Goffen suggests myrtle, but in light of the interpretation above the intent might well have been olive. Olive leaves are consistent with the depiction, and in Genesis 8:11 the olive leaf symbolizes the peace God made with men after the Flood. A dove with an olive twig in its beak has long been used in funerary art [right] to indicate that the soul of the dead enjoys the peace of God, i.e., "Rest in Peace". The globe encircled with an olive branch seems to be a reasonable reading of the world being surrendered back to its maker.

That interpretation of the foliage surrounding the orb remains uncertain, as do other details. It is easy to offer more specific readings of the two figures than "Lord" and "Supplicant", just as it is possible to argue that the palm indicates martyrdom rather than mere asceticism. However, regardless of what one might think regarding these open questions, the basic contemptu mundi meaning of the allegory seems relatively simple and certain. Our goal, as usual, is an explanation and understanding that can be justified by the work itself, rather than an endlessly detailed but speculative elaboration about what it might have meant. Although that usually leaves some questions unanswered, we may sometimes improve on what was explained and understood before.

Pagan Themes in Bellini's Oeuvre

Goffen explains the relative dearth of classical subjects in Bellini's output as a function of working in Venice, rather than as any personal aversion to such material.

Mythological subjects and allegories, sacred and secular, concerned Bellini and his patrons primarily during the later part of his career. For this reason, and because Bellini is so closely associated in our minds with sacred subjects, his secular allegories and mythologies seem anomalous—though not in ways that have been assumed. What is remarkable about these works by Bellini is not that he painted them in spite of a presumed personal reluctance to do so but rather that he painted them at all, given the Venetian attitude toward humanistic studies.

Regarding the Pagan Allegory, Goffen writes:

The near-certainty that this work was once accompanied by others like it, and the classicizing reliefs of the Blood of the Redeemer, painted at approximately the same time, demonstrate Bellini's willingness to depict antique themes and his ability to do so with considerable sympathy and skill. Even such details as the cameo-like clasp of one angel's garment in the Rimini Pietà [above-right] or the reliefs on the throne of the Sacred Allegory [below-right] confirm Bellini's familiarity with ancient art. Looking at his father's drawings, Bellini would have found further encouragement, were it needed, for his interest in antiquity.
Giovanni Bellini and his brothers owned antiquities—Gentile had a Venus, Giovanni and Nicolo a bust of Plato that they hawked to Isabella d'Este. Among Bellini's patrons were at least two humanist scholars, Raffaele Zovenzoni, who memorialized the antique Venus in an epigram, and Leonico Tomeo, professor at Padua. Among his friends, Bellini counted such men of learning as Pietro Bembo and Pandolpho Collenuccio of Pesaro. It seems clear that the artist lacked neither knowledge nor inclination but rather opportunity to treat classical themes. What he painted—or did not—is explained by the needs and desires of his patrons, and not by any lack of interest or expertise.
Bellini's next surviving works of this sort—independent images representing classicizing themes—are the five Allegories in the Accademia, painted in the late 1480s and early 1490s. When they were produced, the master was occupied with his far more demanding and prestigious work in the Ducal Palace, to say nothing of such major private commissions as the Barbarigo votive picture and the Frari triptych. Moreover, Bellini could certainly reject or avoid commissions when he wished. By their very existence, the Allegories may be considered an illustration of Bellini's interest in such subjects.

We'll return to those Allegories at the Venice Academy in the next post, but an important point here is that even Renaissance humanist works depicting mythological or allegorical subjects, even classical illustrations of classical themes, were often illustrating a Christian subtext. The artists and patrons were Italian Roman-Catholics, not Greco-Roman Pagans.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bellini's Allegories (1 of 3)

A few days ago, Jean-Michel David posted a picture of one of the "Bellini Allegories" to the Tarot History Forum. The image was so bizarre that I immediately asked if it came from a series of some sort, or had some other context to explain it. It turns out that it is from a series, and that they constitute a famous iconographic puzzle. This post is just a brief introduction to the Allegories of Giovanni Bellini, (held at the Gallerie dell’Accademia Venezia, the Venice Academy), using some quotes from Giles Robertson's 1968 Giovanni Bellini.

Ludwig explained the woman in the boat as Inconstance, the nude with the mirror as Prudence, the 'Bacchus and Mars' as Perseverance, the man emerging from the shell as Calumny, and the 'Harpy' as Summa Virtus with bandaged eyes for Justice, the jugs for Temperance, the claws for Fortitude. A hypothetical sixth panel was to have represented the crowning of the 'Tugendhelder' [Virtuous Hero].

Gustav Ludwig (1852-1905) was a German-English art critic/historian. Today he is almost completely forgotten, but he was a notable figure in turn-of-the-century Italian art-history studies. Ludwig was apparently responsible for some of the earliest pronouncements on the subject matter of Bellini's allegories, and for explaining their function on a restello. Rona Goffen explains:

Restelli were luxurious secular objects, elaborate and costly mirrors enframed with carved and gilded wood, and surrounded by small paintings, the ostensible practical purpose of all this being the convenient storage (and the true purpose, the display) of toilet articles that were themselves luxurious, such as decorated combs, and to clean them, long brushes of horsehair with elegant fittings.

It was essentially a mirrored vanity, in both senses of the word. They were such a sumptuous luxury item that the were prohibited in Venice, at about the same time that Bellini is thought to have painted these Allegories. Edgar Wind proposed the following arrangement of the five paintings around a central mirror.

Wind suggests Fortuna Amoris for the woman in the boat, pairing with Vana Gloria, the nude with the mirror, the pair symbolizing woman's good fortune and her ill fame; Comes Virtutis for Bacchus paired with Servitudo Acediae, the man in the shell, the pair showing Man's good fortune and his ill fame; the whole surmounted by Nemesis, the Goddess of Chance, Retribution, and Temperance.

Various others have offered explanations as well.

Hartlaub has more recently [1942] proposed another series of identifications, but his interpretation is marred by starting off from Ludwig's faulty reconstruction. For him the woman in the boat is Vanity, the figure with the mirror Truth (showing a highly unflattering reflection), 'Bacchus and Mars' Abstemiousness, the man in the shell Illusion or False Prophecy, and the 'Harpy' Fortune, the hypothetical missing sixth panel representing Truth and Self-knowledge.

It seems that the current consensus is that only four of the five images traditionally grouped as Bellini's Allegories are actually related as a unified iconographic program. There also appears to be some agreement about their relative horizontal and vertical arrangement, (the same as that used by Wind). Using just those four paintings and the proper arrangement, grouped around a small central mirror, this gives some indication of the original layout.

Naturally the illustration above is false. This is merely an imaginary gilded frame. (The convex mirror, approx. 12" diameter with a round frame, mimics the one held by the Vanitas allegory in the top-right panel, and to a lesser extent the sphere held by the Fortuna allegory in the top-left.) However, the essential elements -- a small, round mirror, with the four paintings flanking it, set in an elaborate gilded frame -- is at least suggestive of the four images' original setting. (Given the size of the paintings, about 13.4" x 8.7", this reconstruction would be a little under five feet wide at the base.) The Web Gallery of Art has reproductions of the four paintings themselves, (listed clockwise from top-left).

Four Allegories: Fortune (or Melancholy)

Four Allegories: Prudence (or Vanity)

Four Allegories: Falsehood (or Wisdom)

Four Allegories: Lust (or Perseverance)

The Aiwaz site has significantly larger images of the four pictures. Just enter "harpy" as a search term and they come up, (although the painting with the harpy isn't included!)

Virtual Art Gallery

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Complex Wheel of Fortune

Here is a 15th-century Wheel of Fortune with a very complex design. The following description is from Mitchell B. Merback's 1999 The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel.

Reynard the Fox as Pope and Antichrist
Colored woodcut, German (c.1470-80)

Visually anchored by an allegorical wheel held by a Lady Fortune who doubles as a personfication of Patience (Gedultikeyt), the woodcut also includes personifications of Virtues and Vices, and animal imagery derived from the legends of Reinecke Fuchs (a.k.a. Reynard the Fox), Isengrim the Wolf and Braun the Bear. Here Reynard, the medieval trickster and folk hero, plays the role of Pope and Antichrist and is seated in mock majesty at the apex of Fortune's wheel; he is flanked by a treacherous 'Dominican wolf' and a 'Franciscan bear', who are in turn flanked by personifications of Arrogance and Envy on horseback. Counselling patience in the face of Rome's oppression -- equated with the Antichrist's reign -- and promising a 'Secret Revelation' (Geheimen Offenbarung) that will overthrow it, the broadsheet uses the rota to explode the vain pretensions of universal papal power, showing that its days are numbered. 'Constancy' (Stetikeit) plays the role of the vanquished, sprawled out upon the lower rim of the wheel and clutching at its spoke. Although we know that Fortune's wheel will eventually turn to overthrow Vice and redeem Virtue, the body of Constancy, overwhelmed by the monstrous device, is distorted, emaciated and weakened to the point of death. The message of patience and hope addressed to the viewer must therefore struggle against the undeniable concreteness of the body's vertical subjection. Will this wheel ever turn at all? Oddly, it has no mechanical axis, but is supported entirely by the figures of Patience (Fortune), Love and Humility (personified as a Samaritan monk and a Beguine). While the two kneeling figures attempt to effect its rotation, Fortune herself, blindfolded and aloof, grasps the upper spokes with two hands and stands motionless. In fact, she strikes the same pose as the medieval executioner who brings the torture-wheel down on a supine, immobilized body!

In terms of Tarot, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this broadsheet is the way in which multiple meanings were layered across a conventional foundation, in this case, the Wheel of Fortune. Also noteworthy is the pre-Reformation use of the papal tiara to create an anti-Catholic allegory.

Merback's book is a useful antidote for those Tarot enthusiasts who insist that the Hanged Man is some sort of charming New Age "reversal of one's worldview" or other anachronistic nonsense. Prolonged, public, and unimaginably painful forms of execution, including the so-called Jewish Execution and the Visconti inverted hanging for traitors, were relatively common. Breaking on the Wheel was probably the most characteristic, but other practices, such as gibbiting, were sometimes used. Merback's descriptions of death by the cross and the wheel are indicative of what the Hanged Man card actually depicted, the slow and horrific execution of a traitor.

For the analysis of Reynard's Wheel, Merback cites Wolfgang Harms, "Reinhart Fuchs als Papst und Antichrist auf dem Rad der Fortuna," (Fruhmittelalterliche Studien 6, 1972, 418-440). Harms may have been the first scholar to address this pictorial branch of Reynard's history.

11/22/09 P.S. (revised 4/5/10)
A closely related image comes from a 14th-century French manuscript of Jacquemart Gielée's Renart le Nouvel. It is listed as Français 1581 in the BNF Département des Manuscrits, Division occidentale. Patricia M. Gathercole, ("Illustrations for the 'Roman de Renart': Manuscripts BN fr. 1581 and BN fr. 12584", Gesta, 10:1, 1971, 39-44), described the illustration as follows:

The famous Wheel of Fortune is given an original portrayal on folio 57 of MS fr. 1581. On this manuscript Lady Fortune, wearing a long orange gown stands behind the wheel and turns it with her hands. Three representations of the fox are at the top: they are dominated by a Renart, who with cape and crown presides in glory. Human figures, straddling the sides, attempt to stay on the wheel. One slides down, the other rises; they represent the specific qualities of justice and industry. The four figures placed around the wheel form a coherent conceptual whole. In the lower left-hand corner is seated a woman who holds a cross. This is Charity (Caritas) as the inscription states, and as is indicated by her gesture of releasing coins recalling the Roman personification of Largitas. In the lower right-hand corner sits Humilitas, a figure concealed by coverings. Riding horseback in the two upper corners are the opposing sins of Pride (a man) and greed (a woman).

Reynard on the Wheel of Fortune
Renart le Nouvel, French (c.1290-1300)

The later German design is obviously based upon this precise tradition. Also note how the naked figure at the bottom of the Wheel, holding the scales of Justice, is opposed to Reynard enthroned at the top; social injustice is at the center of this Wheel of Fortune. The following explanation of Reynard, being crowned by Fortuna, is from Kenneth Varty's 2000 Reynard the Fox: Social Engagement and Cultural Metamorphoses in the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present.

In the second half of the thirteenth century, in the Couronnement de Renart, the fox will be proclaimed king with the approval of the dying king, Nobel, carried off by Pride, Envy, and Renardie (=cunning), a symbolic fable like Branch XI and Reinhart Fuchs because it depicts what could happen at the court of Flanders if law and order were not restored; a fable that castigates a world where the old virtues are dead, where egoistic ambition, treachery and hypocrisy triumph, and where the author, a moralist like Heinrich stands up in accordance with a well-established tradition against the vices of the century. And at the end of this same century, in Renart le Nouvel, Renart dreams of killing the king in order to mount his throne (lines 2,278-87), and Noble separates himself from God by forming an alliance with Renart; and then leaves his place to Renart who is crowned by Fortuna. Renart le Nouvel is a fable in which Jacquemart Gielée shows how the fox succeeds by his cunning in dominating the world: it is a cry of alarm, as was Reinhart Fuchs, to rouse the world to beware of the evil that corrupts the times.

3/31/10 P.S.
Two other complex Wheels of Fortune can be related to the above designs. The first is much earlier and simpler than the image from Merback, but relatively close in provenance to the Renart le Nouvel illustration. It is from a 1323 Festal Missal, (Amiens, France), and contains the core elements of the more complex designs. Two wheels are shown, one with Reynard in four guises and a matching one with human figures. The human wheel indicates the estates of man in the same fashion as the two wheels above. That is, the topmost figure is crowned, the cleric holds a cup, and the peasant holds a sickle.

Mmm... Marginalia: Wheel of Reynard

The second example is from two centuries later, about 1525, and although it contains some of the same elements, (including Reynard and the Wheel of Fortune, a ranks of man, and a disparaging view of authority figures), the overall design is much different.

The design is attributed to Dürer (although his monogram is absent), but based on an earlier tapestry, and the prints are referred to as the Michelfeld(t) Tapestry or the Allegory of Social Injustice. The wheel, turned by Time (Zeit) and Reynard (Fuchs), is the first of six images across three woodcuts. The last image, Eternal Providence, also carries a cyclic message, loosely translated as "what goes around, comes around", thematically connecting back to the Wheel.

  1. The Wheel of Fortune w/birds, turned by Time and Cunning/Deceit
  2. The Ranks of Mankind
  3. Justice, Truth, and Reason in stocks
  4. Fraud/Deceit enthroned and Piety bound in cradle
  5. Schoolmaster and Cleric learning from Deceit
  6. Eternal Providence warns about karma

On the first print, the Wheel of Fortune is being turned by Time (who traditionally turns Fortune's Wheel, cf. Ripa), and a fox (a deceitful trickster, namely Reynard), who symbolizes the characteristic injustice of the outcome. A peacock stands before the 6-spoked wheel, perhaps representing the most noble of birds at the bottom flanked by eagle and falcon. Clockwise from lower left, an eagle, jay, magpie, pheasant, and falcon are on the wheel, with the obnoxious magpie as king. The five figures to the right include a peasant, craftsman, ermine-caped noble, merchant, and knight.

On the second print, Deceit is enthroned with the infant Piety bound and asleep at his feet. Between the ranks of man and Deceit are three women in stocks: Justice, Truth (with a padlock on her lips), and Reason. On the third print a schoolmaster and a cleric are approaching Deceit. The schoolman's ribbon says, "Lord, we are listening to your oration, we crave to attend your school". The fat cleric, carrying a girdle book/Bible, looks back at the final figure, a bearded man with flaming eyes, who is identified as Eternal Providence. (His fiery eyes are reminiscent of Dürer works such as Sol Iustitiae and the Apocalyptic Christ, whose "eyes were as a flame of fire".) Providence has a looped ribbon over his head, and his arms are folded in a similar Möbius-like fashion. The message reads, "Everything that goes out now re-enters the source from which it flowed. I am Eternal Providence."

Like the earlier examples of Reynard and the Wheel of Fortune, we see an explicit reference to all classes of society being corrupt, and we see assorted other allegorical figures being merged into a novel design. Older conventional motifs are reworked and combined into more complex allegories. In this case, although not as neatly hierarchical as the Tarot trump cycle, we do see the same three categories of subject matter: representatives of man, allegorical figures per se, and an unusual but clearly Christian dénouement. Another example of Divine Providence triumphing over Fortune is shown in a postscript to the A Florentine Allegory of the Lord's Mercy post, taken from Jehan Cousin's 1568 emblem book, The Book of Fortune. Rather than Providence being a male figure with the fiery eyes of the Apocalyptic Christ, it was depicted via a female figure with papal tiara.

Eternal Providence
“What Goes Around, Comes Around”

Proverb: “What goes around, comes around.”
1. The status eventually returns to its original value after completing some sort of cycle.
(Cf. "history repeats itself".)
2. A person's actions, whether good or bad, will often have consequences for that person.
(Cf. karma.)

Some sources for the Michelfeldt Tapestry images and translations include the Catalogue of Early German and Flemish Woodcuts (1903); Dover's The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer (1963); Dürer and His Culture (1998), Chapter 4. "The Michelfeldt Tapestry and Contemporary European Literature: Moral Lessons on the Rule of Deceit"; and Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art (2008), as well as the Tapisserie von Michelfeld page at