y theology teacher, Father Dave, used to say that God is in the details. It was not until many decades later that I learned that it is more usual—certainly among members of the legal profession—to say that the Devil is.
guess it depends on what you’re looking for or hoping to find. I like Father Dave’s version better. It always recalls me to a day in my teenage years when I spent several hours looking in wonder at a room full of paintings from the Middle Ages.
hey were the first I had ever seen. By then, I knew something about the guys who worked on big canvases with big brushes and in oils, and in the course of this particular class field trip, I had made a point of checking out an adjacent gallery full of Renoir nudes. They were, as advertised, glorious. Shimmeringly vibrant in Auguste Renoir’s china painter’s palette of rosy pinks and verdant greens and candy yellows. Joyous confections of flesh and sunlight from the master Impressionist.
ut those tiny medieval images, none bigger than a sheet of typing paper, each one lined on wood in egg tempera using brushes little bigger than a single hair, were a revelation of a very different sort. A few years later, in my junior year in college, an inspired history teacher would give me a more solid understanding of the world that their makers had sought to record. But when I first saw those paintings, they were like postcards from a place as unknown as someone else’s dreams.
hey had the naïve quality of an artistic tradition innocent of the principles that I was only then learning—perspective, foreshortening, proportion. Houses and castles looked like toys on a toy landscape, one in which a man pushing a plow might be drawn as tall as the trees that overhung the field he worked. And every detail had been filled in; every leaf on a tree was delineated, every stone in a castle wall outlined, the embroidery on a knight’s tunic carefully, precisely inscribed. The effect was almost hallucinogenic, an obsessive, unrelenting attempt to render every minute detail, however trivial.
y younger self marveled at the sheer patience of those medieval artists who had lived at a time when the average lifespan was around 30 years. I was wrestling then with my own vision of the world as it collided with my burgeoning itch to put images on paper and canvas. I would learn much later that even Renoir, coming to the end of his life, would insist that he had never really learned to paint.
ut those mostly nameless artists had labored away, on wood and parchment, with a meticulous, single-minded certainty that had yielded what seemed to me an utterly charming fairy tale world, one populated by people and creatures of myth and romantic legend. Yet one of the most profound realities of that world is what drove them to produce what was in fact an utterly ironic result.
he spiritual and social glue that held Medieval Europe together, through war, plague, famine and political upheaval, was the all-pervading Roman Church. An odd notion to really grasp for someone who lives, as I do now, in a town of fewer than a 1000, within which there are around eight assorted churches, none of them Catholic. I occasionally get flyers in the mail that advertise upcoming services and hint that my prospects of eternal bliss will be greatly enhanced if I show up.
ut there wasn’t much in anyone’s life that the medieval church did not by some means control, whether through direct patronage or indirect influence. So, bowing to the Church’s claim to a monopoly on truth, and its insistence on the doctrinal correctness of artistic realism, my medieval counterparts produced a record of their world that was both delightful and absurd. For in attempting to picture the world, God’s world, exactly as it was, they pictured instead a world that did not exist—not, at least, this side of Alice in Wonderland or a stout hit of acid.
y various art teachers would more than occasionally make the point with me that any attempt to render the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but could only fail because human sensibilities, however fine, are necessarily limited, individual, and hedged in by personality. The lesson would have other applications; serious writers also wrestle considerably with the truth, coming most often to an uneasy truce.
hat the perils and possibilities of freedom are perhaps equal is an understanding that’s awkward even when uninformed by fear of a brush with the Inquisition. But choice is everything, perhaps especially when seeking either God or the Devil. And I’ve learned that it’s sometimes pretty hard to know exactly who it is I’m looking for–or who it is I’ve found.–LMJ 9.15.15
(Note: the letter graphics that I have used are from Dover’s copyright free CD-ROM and book of Medieval Ornament. The images were selected from 19th century reprints of assorted medieval manuscripts.)