Painting propaganda

Sep 2nd, 2009 | By | Category: Spirituality

We had a stupid argument in the Louvre.

“I don’t like anything before the 17th Century Dutch paintings”.

“So you write off the whole Renaissance just like that?”

“I didn’t say that”.

“You said you didn’t like Michelangelo and Leonardo”.

“I didn’t mean that; I meant the first stuff I like is the Dutch stuff”.

“What’s wrong with Renaissance painting?”

“I didn’t say there was anything wrong with it, I just said I liked Vermeer and the other Dutch painters”.


“Because I don’t like religious paintings”.

“That’s stupid”.

“OK, maybe it is, but capitalism in 17th Century Holland meant for the first time artists weren’t controlled by the church”.

“That doesn’t mean the Renaissance is not good”.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t, just that I prefer other stuff”.

Don’t argue with your daughter who loves Venice, Florence and Rome.

Vermeer seems to usher in the modern world.  Lives of comfort are possible for people other than the aristocracy and the church.  Books and literacy allowed the development of individual conscience and opinion.  Merchant wealth allowed the first shoots of a democratic society.  Maybe the life of the ordinary person was not much different in sternly Protestant Holland from what it was for the common folk of Catholic countries, but there was the possibility of thinking for oneself.  The invention of the telescope by Dutch merchants was a boon to commodity traders wishing to know what ships were to arrive in port; the development of the telescope by Galileo caused his prosecution by the Roman hierarchy who could not contemplate a vision of the universe at variance with their own.

Perhaps the difference in the paintings owes more to the patron than the painter.   The art favoured by the church mostly presents a passive, suffering Christ, an ideal model for a society one wishes to remain cowed and obedient.  Mary is presented as passive or as mourning mother in depiction after depiction.  There seem not many studies of the cleansing of the Temple or the Sermon on the Mount; nor of the society envisaged by Mary in the words of the Magnificat. The 17th Century Dutch painters reflect the prosperity and social standing of those paying for the work.  Street scenes are idealised and interiors are perfect; the subtle message is that sharing these values allows one to aspire to a similar lifestyle.

It is not the Renaissance paintings that are troublesome, it is the society from which they come.  Perhaps the Dutch works should also disturb, but, being an incurable Protestant, the prospect of individual conscience seems more attractive than the prospect of church authority.

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  1. The visual and literary art of the early medieval period, of course, often portrays a warrior-Christ who defeats the devil, the emphasis on suffering being a development of the 12th century onwards. I suppose the 12th century is indeed a period of renewed emphasis on centralised control (the ‘problem’ of married priests comes in for a good deal of attention in early Norman England, for example), but the focus on suffering is also to do with a theological and devotional shift.

    I must say I dislike all those goopy 16th C Italian pietas as well. I like the earlier stuff (Fra Angelico etc).

  2. It was one of those daft arguments where after making a sweeping statement, one feels compelled to defend the position taken!

    I do like Fra Angelico and I do like some religious work, Edward Burne Jones and Stanley Spencer spring immediately to mind (though they are modern painters.

    I think there is an inverse correlation between church power and artistic freedom.

  3. Oh you think too deeply. Go watch “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” and you’ll understand why she likes Vermeer. It’s an imaginary drama about Vermeer’s painting. Scarlett Johanssen and Colin Firth . .magic! (chick flick). We’ll argue another day about the virtues of Dutch impressionism . . .watch it . .go on . . .

  4. I went to see that. Not the film, the painting. It’s at the Mauritshuis in Den Haag. It was an absolutely scorching day in August 2003.

    We have a Vermeer in Dublin – a rare possession!

  5. Try reading the novel – Tracy Chevalier

  6. We have it – plus three other Chevalier novels – but they all looked a bit feminine for me! I was traumatised by being made to read Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ when I was 17 (it remains the most boring book I have ever read) and have avoided feminine looking books ever since 😉

  7. Try it, it’s not at all ‘feminine’ – it’s about art reflecting life

  8. Austen drew a perfect picture of a period and class from a gender perspective. The Chevalier portrays longing and desire.

  9. I have a couple of novels to read for our parish book club, maybe I’ll give it a try then.

  10. Austen might be a major writer in the English canon, but she was not the best choice for a seventeen year old boy!

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