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

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Most Heroic Knight

Yesterday I pointed out a number of ways in which cowardly knights who can scarcely face down an unarmed snail are the antithesis of the heroic Hercules who defeated the Nemean lion. Even more mythically heroic is the magnificent Knight of Christ in Albrecht Dürer's copper engraving, The Knight, Death, and the Devil. Rather than being plagued by inconsequential gnats like the Leber-Rouen Fool, or even a bulletproof lion like Hercules, this knight's adversaries are mankind's two greatest foes. This description from The British Museum is directly to the point.

‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil' (Psalm 23), could be a caption for this engraving. The horseman is the 'knight of Christ', a phrase that Dürer was to use of his contemporary Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had written a Handbook of the Christian Soldier in 1501. Death is at the horse's feet in the form of a skull, beside the plaque with Dürer's monogram. Death is also the ghastly corpse without nose or lips, who holds a hourglass up to the knight as a reminder that his time on earth is limited. The knight rides on, looking neither to the right, left, nor backwards, where the Devil, with an ingratiating grin, seems powerless while ignored. High above this dark forest rises a safe stronghold, apparently the destination of the knight's journey.

The Metropolitan Museum Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History amplifies that description, (as do endless other commentaries on this print).

Called simply the Reuter (Rider) by Dürer, Knight, Death, and the Devil embodies the state of moral virtue. The artist may have based his depiction of the "Christian Knight" on an address from Erasmus's Instructions for the Christian Soldier (Enchiridion militis Christiani), published in 1504: "In order that you may not be deterred from the path of virtue because it seems rough and dreary … and because you must constantly fight three unfair enemies—the flesh, the devil, and the world—this third rule shall be proposed to you: all of those spooks and phantoms which come upon you as if you were in the very gorges of Hades must be deemed for naught after the example of Virgil's Aeneas … Look not behind thee." Riding steadfastly through a dark Nordic gorge, Dürer's knight rides past Death on a Pale Horse, who holds out an hourglass as a reminder of life's brevity, and is followed closely behind by a pig-snouted Devil. As the embodiment of moral virtue, the rider—modeled on the tradition of heroic equestrian portraits with which Dürer was familiar from Italy—is undistracted and true to his mission.

This virtuous Christian Stoicism is also the ideal being put forth in the Tarot trump cycle. Worldly temptations of Love and Triumph, both of which confer dominion (husband over wife, victor over vanquished) must be moderated with Justice, giving to each their due. The inevitable reversals of Time and Fortune must be met with Fortitude. Ultimately, Betrayal and Death can only be overcome by the mixture of water and wine, the sacraments alluded to in Temperance. Temperance, like the sacraments, is an act of faith in the hope of resurrection. St. Paul combines these ideas in 1-Corinthians 15:29-32.

Otherwise what shall they do that are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not again at all? Why are they then baptized for them? Why also are we in danger every hour? I die daily, I protest by your glory, brethren, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord. If (according to man) I fought with beasts at Ephesus, what doth it profit me, if the dead rise not again? Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die.

As an aside, it is worth noting that Paul fought a lion in Ephesus, not a snail. But his point is that we are temperate, rather than eating and drinking to excess, for the same reason we honor the sacraments—because tomorrow we shall die and such virtue is our only hope for resurrection to glory.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Witless Warrior

The previous post on the Leber-Rouen Tarot deck looked at the trumps and court cards. Most of the elements of most of the cards in the Leber-Rouen Tarot are easily understood. The Fool card also exists, and the image is a unique one. It is clearly communicating a kind of Folly and clearly classicized, but some details are elusive. The Fool is portrayed as a Roman warrior with armor, two shields, and a half-dozen weapons. He wears a Roman plumed helmet, but it is depicted as a giant snail whose extended body mimics the fool's extended tongue, goatee, and the serpentine handle on one of his several swords. About his head swarm a dozen nearly-identical g-shaped whatzits, one of which he seems to be attempting to catch with his tongue. The motto of the Fool is Velim fundam dari mihi, the proper translation of which is not immediately clear.

The Leber-Rouen Fool Card

Sorting Out the Obvious

As always, the best approach is to work from the known, or fairly obvious, to the unknown. In interpreting this figure, given his function as a classicized fool, what defines him as a fool? There are five inescapably ludicrous elements. First, replacing the warrior's helmet with the helmet-shaped snail is inherently foolish. That is, even taken out of context, and regardless of any further significance it might have, it's just silly. Likewise, his prodigal weaponry is an unmanageable and clumsy burden, another sight gag that requires little thought to be appreciated. The pike and halberd in his left hand, the rondel dagger in his right, a shield on his back and another at his left hip, the several swords he is wearing and the one he has dropped, combine to constitute an absurdity. Third, the g-shaped whatzits harassing the Fool are a kind of annoyance and indignity that is appropriate to the depiction of a fool. Fourth, we have the exposed genitals of the Leber-Rouen Fool and, last but not least, his uncontrolled urination (streaming onto the sword he has fumbled) as he strides along.

With that quick, simple, and superficial examination, we understand the gist of the Leber-Rouen Fool card: the subject is classicized by making him a Roman soldier, and the details are used to make a mockery of him—a fool. There is significantly more, most obviously the motto, but we already understand how this card fits into the deck described in the previous post. What else is reasonably clear, or even obvious?

The elements mentioned above are foolish even in isolation, but what is the larger point? The uncontrolled urination is a simple sight gag, but there is an obvious meaning beyond the public shamelessness. Given that this is a warrior brandishing weapons, pissing freely as he advances also suggests that fear of battle has resulted in loss of control. In a word, this is cowardice. Because this is more than a simple absurdity layered on the figure, and because fear-induced incontinence is such a well-known phenomenon, we can be certain that this is an element of the intended meaning of the image.

By far the most significant such intended meaning relies on the incongruity of being so heavily armed and yet helpless in the face of attack. In a word, this is impotence. None of his weapons is useful for fending off the onslaught of whatzits, so he is reduced to dueling his diminutive adversaries with his tongue. The Leber-Rouen Fool is a ridiculous Roman soldier with fearsome weaponry but cowardly and impotent. This is folly on several levels. He has the wrong tools for the job. He is massively yet inadequately prepared for battle. There is the overkill aspect of "using a sledgehammer to swat a fly". The tongue of a fool is a feeble weapon even against so feeble an adversary. These are some of the morals one might attach to this tableau, but there is one ancient and overriding parallel: Aesop's fable of The Gnat and the Lion. This is an archetypal parable of great power and futility.

Aesop’s The Gnat and the Lion

In some of the collections attributed to Aesop, we find a gnat who took on a lion, mocked the lion's weapons, and challenged him to a contest. In the ensuing battle the lion mauled itself trying to fight off the biting insect, and the gnat prevailed. (Today we call this topos asymmetric warfare, and examples include the King of the Jungle being defeated by presumptuous gnats like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Folly indeed.) A longer version of this story was told by the 2nd-century Achilles Tatius (Leucippe and Clitophon). The obnoxious slave Conops (whose name is punned derisively as Gnat-man) tells a story of an elephant terrified of a gnat. Satyrus responds to this veiled threat with the story of the Lion and the Gnat, which ends with the gnat being caught in a spider's web. Here is the Aesop version in a 1692 translation by Sir Roger L'Estrange, from Laura Gibbs excellent Aesopica site.

As a Lion was Blustering in the Forrest, up comes a Gnat to his very Beard, and enters into an Expostulation with him upon the Points of Honour and Courage. What do I Value your Teeth or your Claws, says the Gnat, that are but the Arms of every Bedlam Slut? As to the Matter of Resolution; I defy ye to put that Point immediately to an Issue. So the Trumpet Sounded, and the Combatants enter’d the Lists. The Gnat charg’d into the Nostrils of the Lion, and there Twing’d him, till he made him Tear himself with his own Paws, and in the Conclusion he Master’d the Lion. Upon this, a Retreat was Sounded, and the Gnat flew his way: but by Ill-hap afterward, in his Flight, he struck into a Cobweb, where the Victor fell Prey to a Spider. This Disgrace went to the Heart of him, after he had got the Better of a Lion, to be Worsted by an Insect.

THE MORAL. ‘Tis the Power of Fortune to Humble the Pride of the Mighty, even by the most Despicable Means, and to make a Gnat Triumph over a Lion: Wherefore let no Creature, how Great or Little soever, Presume on the One side, or Despair on the Other.

Translating the Motto

The Leber-Rouen Fool has been classicized as a Roman soldier, and the Roman soldier has been made foolish in a number of ways. The central aspect of this is parallel to the fable of the Gnat and the Lion, and that explains most of the design: the solder is extravagantly well-armed and yet unable to fight off his relatively inconsequential adversaries. Knowing that makes it possible to decide on a proper translation of the ambiguous motto.

The motto, VELIM FUNDAM DARI MIHI, might be translated in various ways. Words, like images, mean what we use them to mean. The same word in a different sentence, or a different paragraph, or as a motto for a different picture, may take on diverse meanings. That is why most words have multiple definitions in the dictionary. The Leber-Rouen Fool's design, analogous to Aesop's tale of the Gnat and the Lion, is pretty clear and effectively contextualizes the motto. Ross posted this translation a couple years ago:

"Funda" can mean a sling, a net, a pocket, a purse - i.e. something holding and catching things. ... the Fool is a soldier burdened with too many weapons. But all of his weapons are useless against the "8"'s buzzing around him - butterflies? bees? Whatever they are, I think the message is that he wants the one weapon he doesn't have - a net to catch those things. So the better translation (for what it's worth) is "I wish that a net would be given to me."

Last week he added, "More colloquially, 'I wish somebody'd gimme a net!'" That fits neatly with the main point of the image, making the overall intent of the Fool image almost as clear and direct as the examples in the previous post. At this point a wise man might stop, having adequately explained the card.

Interpretation and Overinterpretation

It is crucial to recognize what has already been accomplished in this analysis and how little remains. Having ascertained the gist of the image and its motto and the way that contributes to the design of the deck, we know everything required to explain this card. We're essentially done. However, historical examples may suggest an artistic ambiguity that enriches our understanding of the design. In that regard, we may find documented meanings beyond what is necessary and sufficient to explain the design. But any such ancillary connotations cannot change the fundamental meaning, and their plausibility as intended allusions is to be evaluated by their congruence with the primary meanings already established. In that light, there are at least three questions which come to mind from the oddities in this picture: 1) Is there some significance to the many phallic representations (the extended snail body, the extended tongue, goatee, serpentine sword handles, and the half-dozen weapons), beyond what has already been noted? 2) Do the g-shaped whatzits flying about his head have some significance, beyond being annoying insects? 3) Does the snail have any particular significance beyond being a silly helmet?

Fools are sometimes depicted with exposed genitals, adding to their indignity and characteristic low status. As mentioned above, the Leber-Rouen Fool appears both exposed and incontinent, pissing as he walks. His many phallic weapons and their snake-like handles combine in that context of the Leber-Rouen Fool into an exaggerated jumble of phallic symbolism. (Even the rams-head knee guards may be included.) Although displaying all these literal and figurative signs of potency, the Fool is still reduced to sticking out his tongue to counter the swarm. Impotence, already mentioned, is a reasonable reading. More than anything else, however, the many phallic symbols draw attention to the Fool's own phallus, which reveals his panic. That is, the Fool's implied cowardice, also already noted. Rather than armed and dangerous, the swaggering coward is over-armed and ludicrous.

Fools are sometimes depicted with flies. However, there seems to be no convention in this regard, and each such image depicts a unique tableau. Moreover, there is no certainty that the g-shaped whatzits harassing the Leber-Rouen Fool are musca, flies or gnats. No compelling suggestions have been offered regarding the nature of the whatzits, nor explaining their g-shaped representation, other than a generic nuisance. No cognate has yet been identified for these g-gnats in any other works, except the present comparison with the biting fly of Aesop's fable. They might symbolize some contemporary social or political nuisance beginning with the letter "g". Considering that the engraved images were intended to be further decorated after printing, it may be that the g-shaped whatzits were merely wings, and that a line or daub was supposed to be added in metallic paint or foil as the bodies. They have also been identified as the number "8", as well as various insects including bees and butterflies. None of these are well supported; none explain the peculiar representation; and none add any meaning to the overall composition.

A 16th-century image (right) of an open-mouthed fool swarmed by insects and armed with a harp or lyre, by Hans Sebald Beham, was posted to Aeclectic. (It is from a deck of cards, and as such it also depicts the suit sign, a parrot.) The figure appears foolish largely because of his uncomprehending stare and his gaping pie-hole, into which the unfortunate bugs may fly. This illustrates a proverbial (Spanish and Italian) saying about keeping one's mouth shut: no flies enter a closed mouth. A modern version might be, better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. In any case, this mouth-breather and his aerial cohort appear unrelated to either the Leber-Rouen Fool card or to any convention about fools and flies. Another 16th-century fool (above-left) is depicted with flies, engraved by Anton Möller. He is shown entertaining, balanced on one foot with the other foot tucked behind his head, despite being pestered by flies and a dog. Unlike the Beham fool, this fellow appears to be a very clever and talented performer, and the picture honors his skill and concentration.

Perhaps the most appealing elaboration on the insect swarm comes from the modern English saying, "there are no flies on him". This means precisely that "he is no fool", and the converse is that someone with flies on them is a fool. This usage seems to date from the middle of the 19th century, but perhaps it has an antique origin, in one language or another. In any case, the idea that a slow (literally slow-moving; figuratively slow-witted) person may gather flies while a quick person does not is appealing and unforced. In lieu of earlier documentation for that saying, and in light of the juxtaposition of a heavily armed warrior with the swarm of pestering whatzits, the fable of the Gnat and the Lion appears to be not merely an adequate explanatory parallel but the only one yet offered. The exact identity of the g-shaped whatzits remains uncertain.

Then there is the snail...

The Trail of the Snail

Snails and warriors are a commonplace. There are many examples of medieval manuscripts being decorated with a knight and a snail. Articles and even a book have taken it as their subject. Marginalia is a narrow subject, so to speak. Whether monstrous or droll, in serious texts such images were associated with exempla, proverbs, and the kind of subject matter that might find its way into genre pictures. Whimsical elements of the Leber-Rouen Fool are similar in appearance and therefore, presumably, in origins and significance. Michael Camille's book on border illumination, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, has a section titled "Significance and the Snail". It begins with a quote dismissing such images.

The ornamentation of a manuscript must have been regarded as a work having no connection whatever with the character of the book itself. Its details amused or aroused the admiration of the beholder, who in his amusement or admiration took no thought whether the text was sacred or profane. A tradition of ornament had in the course of generations been established, and no-one, not even probably a person of exemplary piety, sustained any shock to his feelings when he performed his devotions from a prayerbook whose margins were made the playground for the antics of monkeys or bears and impossible monsters, or afforded room for caricatures reflecting upon the ministers of religion.
This pronouncement by a Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum on the non-meaning of marginal art is the clearest expression of a nineteenth-century attitude, a fear of the proliferation of perversities, that blinded generations of scholars, from M.R. James to Margaret Rickert, to the significance of marginal visual play....
The notion, however, that marginal art is full of 'meaning' also has a long history. In the middle of the last century the Comte de Bastard, bibliophile and publisher of the first facsimiles of illuminated manuscripts, wrote an article in which he interpreted the common marginal image of the snail, an example of which he had encountered in the margins of a French Book of Hours. Because he found it adjacent to a picture of the Raising of Lazarus, he thought the creature emerging from its shell was a symbol of the Resurrection....

This is the kind of simple and intelligible symbolism that could have become conventional... if it had appeared in a seminal manuscript, and therefore been copied again and again, and perhaps even spread to other works and media. But that didn't happen. While that snail may have signified "resurrection" to the illuminator, that is not an obvious reading, nor did it become conventional. Instead, like the disparate examples of flies discussed above, each image is a unique depiction relying on alternative associations, radically different compositions, and varied surrounding context to make different points. The snail, although sometimes used in such idiosyncratic manner, also tended toward a conventional meaning. The harmless and fearful snail was associated with cowardice in the same way that the fearsome and courageous lion was associated with fortitude.

There have been many interpretations of the ubiquitous knight and snail motif since.... Lilian Randall argued that in 29 different manuscripts made between 1290 and 1320 the knighting the snail was associated with a particular ethnic group in medieval society—the cowardly Lombards, who not only bore the stigma of being turncoats but who, along with the Jews, were Europe's bankers. The snail has been resurrected again in the broader context of folklore studies as a shifting sign for various groups in society. In some places it is an object of terror for knights, in others it is attacked by peasants, tailors and other 'low' groups. The snail emerging from its shell was associated with the social climber; its shape and size linked it to the genitals of women and hermaphrodites.

So there are varied examples and meanings for the snail. As with most symbols, it means different things in different contexts. Context counts. That is why it is crucial to work from the known to the unknown, to establish that context, tethering our view before venturing into the muddy waters of speculation. Camille illustrates some of these variations with more examples.

A marginal image of a knight dropping his sword at the sight of a snail perched on the tendrils of a minute Flemish Psalter suggests in this instance an erotic encounter [by] being juxtaposed with the drooping drone of the testicular bagpipe above, and a woman's 'basket' being attacked by a ram on the right page.

Note that it is a failed erotic encounter being depicted. The bagpipe drone, usually upright over the shoulder, is depicted as ludicrously limp, the knight's sword is dropped, and the ram's attack is successfully thwarted. These all reflect impotence, a theme already observed in the Leber-Rouen Fool.

But the same motif cannot have the same playful association with genitalia when found at the edges of a royal charter bearing the seal of Edward III of England. Nor is it a saucy snail that slithers across the choir screen or jube that once separated the nave from the choir at Chartres Cathedral. Here, in the corner of an animal panel in low relief, a knight drops his armor and flees from the gigantic gastropod in the top-right corner. Also carved on the west front of the cathedrals of Paris and Amiens, the subject here suggests the vice of cowardice seen as a sin against God. The appearance of such animal exempla within the sacred precincts of the Cathedral itself, alongside more standard bestiary symbols, such as the lion, indicates how common proverbial expressions like 'to flee a snail' (fuit pour ly lymaiche) were also visualized as part of the Cathedral's 'Bible in stone'.

Cowardice is the most common recurrent theme of the snail, and is a theme already observed in the Leber-Rouen Fool's incontinence.

.... Just as the proverb has no single divine authority, but is spoken in response to specific situations, marginal imagery likewise lacks the iconographic stability of a religious narrative or icon. The knight and snail motif is drawn in the pattern-book (c.1230) of Villard d'Honnecourt ready to be placed into a variety of contexts, where it will work in different ways and mean different things.

Yet another example is described in Camille's Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England. He describes a "stupendous, slimy snail",

... linked to the phrase at the bottom of the page, following the fish-filled line-ending—'lumine vultus tui' (the light of thy face_—by its shining body which, outlined in pure white, has even left a sticky, luminous trail around it. Whereas snails are common in Gothic marginal art, often shown in combat with cowardly knights and representing everything from Lombards to the devil, here it is the artist's interest in the snail's naturalistic appearance and shiny surface that forms the associative link with the psalm text.... Yet another level on which the snail might have been 'read' is reflected in a contemporary sermon which, discussing the horns of oxen and snails, compares it to 'a patient and humble person, when he is touched by his superior through fatherly corrections, bows his head and withdraws his horns of pride and impatience'. Wordplay that might have produced a particular pictorial association for the artist making the image might not always have been understood by the reader, who made his or her own association. The snail in all its polyvalence never means just one thing in a community of interpreters, where one person might 'get' the verbal association, another notice its pairing with the bull opposite and another enjoy it for what it is: a slimy creature crawling across the page in the wrong direction.

Wordplay and visual punning are naturally appropriate to depiction of cards for a game. Another mention of the virtue of Humility as a reading of the snail comes from Norman Douglas (Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology, 1927), who pointed out that "Crates of Thebes wishes to regulate his life according to the 'humility of the snail and the economy of the ant'". Ross has translated a passage from Louis Charbonneau-Lassay (Le bestiaire du Christ: la mystérieuse emblématique de Jésus-Christ, 1940) with some negative meanings.

In profane symbolism, the simple garden snail (escargot) symbolized inability because of the awkwardness of its movements and the futility of its actions. Worse still, to the extreme slowness of its progress it owes being the symbol of the demon of Sloth: when Goltzius wanted to personify this vice, he did it under the aspect of a languorous woman accompanied by an ass and carrying a slug (limaçon) crawling on her hand (16th century).
Christian symbolism also made of the slug the emblem of those souls which clung too closely to the things of this world; in this interpretation it was followed by noble heraldry, which the pen of old La Colombière explained thusly: "All of the interpreters of Holy Scripture understand by the slug, the spirit which is too attached to worldly affections; the poet Hesiod names this animal house-carrier because he is so attached to his things, that he carries them everywhere with him."
Otherwise, the tiny and charming snail (escargot) of the woods, so delightfully filled with black and brown swirls against a background of yellow or white, came to be demonised. From ancient beliefs it borrowed unnatural associations with the "serpents" and was given to Satan under the names of "slug of the asp" (Poitou, Touraine, Anjou), and, elsewhere, "slug of the devil" (Guyenne). It was held that the handling of this mollusk brought on frenzy and epilepsy....

Sloth, worldly, devilish... nasty bugger. Finally, it is worth considering an implication of the fact that while the Fool has many "arms", a snail is without arms, literally unarmed. In the context of the Fool, the snail on his head precisely matches the proverbial joke: In a battle of wits, he's unarmed. As with the expression, "no flies on him", this is a modern saying, but one which expresses an intelligible and perfectly appropriate reading of the Leber-Rouen Fool.

Wealth You Can't Spend

To recap some of the examples documented above, the snail appears LAZY, slow, and awkward, and symbolizes the vice of sloth. However, this same slowness appears PATIENT. The snail is HELPLESS, literally "unarmed" albeit armored, and is a standard menu item. The snail appears FEARFUL, retreating into its shell at first touch. However, this same timidity appears HUMBLE. Related to its harmless and fearful characteristics, the snail became a symbol of COWARDICE, being commonly shown as the ironic nemesis of cowardly knights. The snail is ARMORED in its shell, with an obvious visual similarity to a helmet—the sight gag which may be the most strikingly farcical element of the whole silly picture. The snail has various SEXUAL analogies: male genitalia are suggested by the extension of the body from the rounded base; female genitalia are also suggested, and when paired with a cowardly knight there is an implication of impotence. The snail was considered by some to be SERPENTINE, "slug of the asp", and its diabolical touch might causes fits. The snail was DEGRADED, lowly, slimy, inhabiting damp places, crawling on its belly. However, the slime also appears LUMINOUS. The snail appears WORLDLY, overly attached to possessions, carrying his house with him wherever he goes. However, coming out of that same house seemed to some a symbol of RESURRECTION. And as Randall has documented, the snail became a symbol of LOMBARDS, a secondary meaning based on the primary meaning of cowardice, with the disparaging connotations that were transferred to other groups of low status.

The assortment of associations cataloged above does not exhaust the subject, merely my patience. It is sufficient to serve as an example. Collecting or, more commonly, simply rummaging through collections of "possibilities" is what generally passes for "historical research" in the online Tarot community. However, in lieu of a reasoned analysis connecting one or more of these associations directly to a particular Tarot card, this is little more than babbling. Some analysis is required: What makes sense of a pictorial element in the overall composition of the card, in the context of a particular deck, and the larger context of the social milieu of the deck's provenance? One may casually note that most of the snail associations are negative, and therefore may be applied to a fool, but that is only slightly more informative that the naked listing of attributes.

The most significant "meaning" of the snail on the Leber-Rouen Fool card is the one most obvious, noted in the very first observation of this post: It looks like a helmet and yet is absurdly silly as a helmet. It is a ridiculous visual pun, a sight gag. That doesn't change, regardless of additional "possibilities", "connotations", or "what a 16th-century card-player might have thought" upon seeing the image. Second, although most of the meanings discussed above seem to be of limited application, there does appear to be a conventional reading of a snail and knight, which might pertain to our snail on a soldier's head. In that regard, the snail was (literally) "unarmed", and only the most cowardly of adversaries would "flee from a snail". As such, the snail was a symbol of harmlessness and cowardice.

In this regard, the snail is analogous to the lion. Both have a variety of meanings in various contexts, but also a most typical or characteristic meaning, and those two primary meanings of the lion and snail are opposite. The lion is strong, heavily armed and dangerous, intimidating (lions eat people), fearless (roars and attacks), and to fight a lion was symbolic of enormous strength/courage—both moral and physical. The snail is weak, "unarmed" and helpless, silly (people eat snails), cowardly (retreats into its shell when bothered), and to flee from a snail was a sign of enormous weakness/cowardice—both moral and physical. Cowardly knights and cowardly Lombards were conventionally depicted with snails. Just as Hercules was often depicted wearing the Nemean lion skin, the Leber-Rouen Fool wears the snail. The Fool's incontinence tends to support this secondary reading. Another point of opposition with Hercules concerns the gnats. One aspect of Hercules was Hercules Apomyios or Muscarius, (derived from Zeus Apomyios), who drove flies away. The Leber-Rouen Fool appears to attract flies rather than disperse them. In these various ways, the Fool is depicted as the opposite of the archetypal hero whose only weapon was a club.

Of course, any number of additional, tertiary readings of the snail may be adduced. As discussed above, these readings are neither obvious nor conventional (i.e., they are not necessary), and they account for no details that are not adequately explained without them. However, such gratuitous readings are in keeping with Camille's observation:

The snail in all its polyvalence never means just one thing in a community of interpreters, where one person might 'get' the verbal association, another notice its pairing with the bull opposite and another enjoy it for what it is: a slimy creature crawling across the page in the wrong direction.

Our concern here, however, is not what a snail might mean to a community of interpreters, but what meaning explains the design of the composition on the Leber-Rouen Fool card. Not surprisingly, the exploration of obscure elements like the assorted phallic symbols, the g-shaped whatzits, and the snail helmet is fun and can go on indefinitely. However, it is also essentially fruitless in terms of adding to 1) the obvious elements, 2) the comparison with Aesop's fable of the Gnat and Lion, and 3) Ross' translation of the motto. The figure is a Roman soldier, travestied in various ways and depicted as helpless and fearful despite his showy display of weapons.