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Life to Likeness: Painting and Spectacle au vif in the Burgundian State

Noa Turel [University of California, Santa Barbara]
Robert H. and Clarice Smith Fellow, 2011 – 2012

Entering Arras on a winter day in 1455, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (1396 – 1467) was greeted with a curious spectacle: on the market square, set on stages, was “toute la vie de Gédéon en personnages de gents en vie, lesquels ne parloient point; ains ne faisoient que les signes de ladicte mistère, quy estoit la plus riche chose que on avoit veu piéça, et moult bien faict au vif” (the entire Life of Gideon in characters by living people, who did not speak, but rather made only the gestures of the said play, which was the most sumptuous thing that has been seen for a long while, and very well done in live action). Such “living pictures” reflect a trend of incorporating pageantry into civic ceremonies that originated in fourteenth-century Paris and peaked in the fifteenth-century Burgundian Netherlands, a trajectory that closely parallels that of another late medieval artistic novelty: naturalistic painting. This correlation is far from a coincidence; in the fifteenth century, prominent painters were the primary designers of stages, and live and lifelike images also shared both key patrons and a formal and critical vocabulary. In my dissertation I focus on the orbit of the influential Burgundian ducal court in the period 1420 – 1478 to show that these connections reflect a cohesive visual culture in which the operative metaphor for realism was animation.

My CASVA fellowship enabled me to pursue the broader implications of these findings and advance the argument that this discourse of animation points to a distinct fifteenth-century paradigm of pictorial realism. Having observed that the ubiquitous Middle French terms for realism — après le vif and au vif — were applied to both artifacts and stages, I discovered that their denotation changed over the course of the sixteenth century. It has long been known that by 1600 “painted au vif” meant painted from life. Scholars have thus rightly located, in the term’s deployment in early modern prints, the rise of the modern paradigm of pictorial naturalism, a paradigm anchored in an epistemological anxiety about the causal connection of the image to its referent (indexicality). However, well into the 1550s, as the description of the Life of Gideon, “moult bien faict au vif,” may attest, artists and viewers understood au vif very differently. To them, what we now term naturalism was figurative animation; numerous written sources show that these artists thought of their paintings not as from or after life but as alive-like: painted to life.

Anchoring my analysis in the connections between the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) and a 1420 Passion staging, in the first chapter I trace the animation metaphor that governed the production and reception of early naturalistic paintings. For instance, the first extant description of the Ghent Altarpiece, dating to 1495, concludes with the accolades: “... videntur que omnes imagines vive.... O quam mirande sunt effigies Ade et Eve: videntur omnia esse viva” (and all these images seem alive.... O what a wonder are the figures of Adam and Eve! They all seem alive). This viewer may well have received his ekphrastic cues from the painter; several iterations of the resuscitation-by-paint trope are discernible in this seminal polyptych. The Annunciation, for instance, is perpetually suspended, in muted hues, between life and stone; and the uncertain state of the donors’ souls, caught between redemption above and the hell scene in the now-lost predella, is pictorially articulated as an ontological ambiguity: inhabiting niches usually reserved for more petrified figures, they are differentiated by color alone from the two “sculpted” figures of Saint John. This metaphor substantively connects, as I discovered, not merely quasi-grisaille painting and resuscitated-sculpture stages, but similarly new fads ranging from effigy mannequins to pharmaceutical alchemy. The resuscitation trope is the operative metaphor for mimetic ingenuity in the long fifteenth century.

The second chapter is focused on the documented involvement of Netherlandish painters in spectacle production. Focusing on an extraordinary accounting register currently at the Archives générales du Royaume in Brussels (B 1795), I was able to establish not only that painters were indeed the primary designers of spectacles, but also that period patrons actually thought of pageantry production as painting. This indistinction is indicative of a broader phenomenon: in the fifteenth century, painting was not yet conceptualized as an essentially two-dimensional medium, and encoded into imagery of any dimension was a projected viewing experience that is essentially immersive and somatic. Ontological equivalence, not a secure connection to any earthly referent, was the conceptual horizon of fifteenth-century naturalistic images.

Decoupling some of the earliest paintings in the modern canon from the rise of the modern paradigm of naturalism, in the dissertation I discredit the long-held assumption that naturalism emerged as a consequence of a budding sensibility for the empiricist rigor considered inherent in the process of drawing from life. In the third and final chapter I focus on an iterative process of visual quotation running between Netherlandish Nativity-cycle paintings and Christological enactments, to show that the truth claims of fifteenth-century images were anchored in rhetoric and performativity rather than the modern notions of immediacy and objectivity.


Center 32 (includes image not shown here)