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Grey Matters 03

Sight and Belief (or Seeing is believing)

Stone becomes warm flesh, flesh in turn resembles sculpture. In Renaissance artistic circles, however, “scarce-modeled, uncouth” sculpture would not always be easily forgiven. In a story recounted by the poet Antonio Tebaldeo about Andrea Mantegna, the painter called for an exceptionally beautiful statue he had heard spoken of to be brought to him while he was gravely ill. Both Mantegna and those at his bedside feared that he would die as the object was brought to him. Upon touching it, he was cured. The object was not merely lifelike; it was life-granting. As Tebaldeo exclaims:

O wonderful hand of the maker, which not only gives this stone life,
but gives it the power to give life. Your stones must yield, Deucalion!
They were given life, these ones, given life, are life-giving too. [20]

Illustrating quite the opposite effect is Vasari’s no less colorful – and most likely fictional – account of the sculptor Nanni Grosso, “Big John,” in the Vite.[21] Lying in a hospital and like Mantegna seemingly close to death, Nanni demanded a crucifix by Donatello yet was brought a poorly carved crucifix instead. His vigor suddenly restored, the indignant Nanni immediately insisted that a new one be brought to him, as he could not suffer to look upon such a crude deformity in his final hour. The common thread in both clever inversions of the Deucalion legend is that of sculpture reanimating its beholder, both by sight as well as touch.

Fig. 14 Michelangelo, Crucifix, ca. 1536, wood, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Continuing in the Christian tradition, the German Dominican friar Henry Suso (Heinrich Seuse, also called Amandus, 1295–1366) had a different account to tell, attesting instead to sculpture’s power to overwhelm and even end life. While at one point he writes of a Dominican monk who, after finding himself unable to meditate effectively on the Passion, was roused to deliver a series of veniae (brief prayers of petition) after gazing at a crucifix, Suso tragically also describes his own mother being so affected by a wooden carving of the Deposition that she assumed Mary’s pain as her own – and died from heartbreak.[22] As exemplified by the writings of the German theologian, philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart (1260–1328), God the Father himself was envisioned as a master sculptor, with the human soul likened to a figure hidden within the outer husk of unworked of wood or stone – the latter conception a common theme in Michelangelo’s sonnets, in which spiritual matter is repeatedly set in tension with outer form (fig. 14). Embracing a religious philosophy of seeing God in all matter, Eckhart elaborates: “If a master craftsman makes figures out of wood or stone, he does not introduce the figure into the wood, but he cuts away the fragments that had hidden and concealed the figure; he gives nothing to the wood, rather he takes away from it, cutting away its surface and removing the rough covering, and then what had lain hidden beneath shines out.” [23] The paring away of the rugged surface thus serves as a clear sacred metaphor for both sculptures and mortals – and the latter’s mystical union with the divine.




Fig. 15 Hieronymus Bosch, Creation of the Earth, outside wings of the Garden of Early Delights, ca. 1504-10, inv. P002823. Museo del Prado, Madrid

Eckhart also believed fervently in the divinity of man. While the figure of Deucalion may best be likened to Noah in the Genesis account of the Flood (Genesis 6:11–9:19), also chosen for his blameless piety, Deucalion and Pyrrha’s roles as the progenitors of humankind find their biblical parallel in Adam and Eve.[24] And so, from the first primordial notes of Ovid’s “one continuous song” (I:4) of polyphonic narration in the Metamorphoses, we now turn to biblical beginnings. The First Chapter of Genesis begins with God creating heaven and earth in his own celestial artistry: “And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1–2). In his extraordinary grisaille adorning the outside wings of the Garden of Earth Delights, Hieronymus Bosch has sought to paint the unpaintable, imagining the birth of the earth as a translucent, crystal-like orb, revealing within it a still-submerged antediluvian world in the act of becoming. The third day of Creation, begetting the rising lands and earliest vegetation, appears to be turning to the fourth, as the “lights in the firmament of the heaven [now gives] light upon the earth” (fig. 15).[25] And it was on the sixth day of Creation, after the demiurge populated all the elements and regions of the earth with living creatures, that He “created man in his own image …; male and female created he them.” And God blessed them and bid them to be fruitful and multiply, to replenish the earth and subdue it, with dominion of every living thing that moved upon the earth.[26]

Fig. 16 Lucas van Leyden, Adam and Eve after the Expulsion, 1510, engraving, inv. 32.771. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1932

Succumbing to temptation by eating of the forbidden fruit – “your eyes shall be opened,” the serpent promises, “and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”– Adam and Eve are in turn humbled, their eminence in the animal kingdom brought low (fig. 16).[27] The bitterness of God’s punishment is worth quoting in full:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.

Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.

Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.

And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.[28]

Fig. 17 Jacopo da Pontormo, detail of Adam, Labors of Adam and Eve, with Cain and Abel, ca. 1515-18, oil on canvas, Private Collection, United States

Upon their expulsion from Eden, Eve conceived Cain and Abel, one a harvester of the earth, the other a keeper of sheep.[29] God favored Abel’s sacrifice of the fattest of his flock and, out of jealousy, Cain rose up against his brother and slew him. God cursed humankind anew, bestowing the prophecy to Cain that when he tills the ground, now soaked with his brother’s blood, “it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth” (fig. 17).[30]

With time, the human race began to multiply. But just as in Ovid’s tale of creation, the wickedness of mortals led to their destruction in a great flood. Only one man was chosen to survive and to replenish his kind (and every species of beast), a blameless man who, like Deucalion, walked with God. Thus begins the Genesis story of Noah, a direct descendant of Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth – and of humankind’s annihilation and rebirth.[31]

Less than three decades after Pontormo’s death, the Paduan apothecary Camilla Erculiani published the controversial Letters on Natural Philosophy (1584), an astonishing scientific text infused with religious belief.[32] In it, Erculiani describes the Flood as both punishment and necessary corrective: a human-wrought ecological disaster instigated by our degradation of the earth’s natural environment. It is not only human action but, more specifically, human bodies – sinfulness being inherent in all mortals since the Fall of Adam and Eve, the writer explains – that exhausted the earth’s resources, throwing nature off balance and thus bringing about the cleansing deluge. Yet the damning cataclysm was not the end but rather a return, a natural part of an eternal cycle of death and, as bespoken by God’s covenant with Noah, regeneration and renewal.[33]

Notes 20 – 33
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Grey Matters 04

Pontormo’s progenitors

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