Saturday, February 20, 2010

Angel urine is not conducive to spiritual growth, or, How not to create devotional paintings, courtesy of Isaac D'Israeli

While Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature is more frequently witty and wry than straight-up funny, one entry that made me laugh out loud was "Religious Nouvellettes." D'Israeli opens the essay by describing an illustrated prayer book from the fifteenth century, entitled Hortulus Animae, cum Oratiunculis aliquibus, superadditis quae in prioribus Libris non habentur (which my Internet Latin tells me means roughly "A Little Garden of the Spirit, with added short speeches not found in previous books").

The book's author calls his work "A garden, which abounds with flowers for the pleasure of the soul"--but, writes D'Israeli,
[T]hey are full of poison. In spite of his fine promises, the chief part of these meditations are as puerile as they are superstitious.
He saves his real scorn, however, for the accompanying illustrations--which, in their insipid mix of eras and beliefs, remind him of some truly hilarious-sounding devotional paintings:
We have had many gross anachronisms in similar designs. There is a laughable picture in a village in Holland, in which Abraham appears ready to sacrifice his son Issac by a loaded blunderbuss; but his pious intention is entirely frustrated by an angel urining in the pan. . . . [A]nother happy invention, to be seen on an alltar-piece at Worms, is that in which the Virgin throws Jesus into the hopper of a mill, while from the other side he issues changed into little morsels of bread, with which the priests feed the people. Matthison, a modern traveller, describes a picture in a church in Constance, called the Conception of the Holy Virgin. An old man lies on a cloud, whence he darts out a vast beam, which passes through a dove hovering just below; at the end of the beam appears a large, transparent egg, in which is seen a child in swaddling clothes with a glory round it. Mary sits leaning in an arm chair, and opens her mouth to receive the egg.
Is it just me, or does this all call to mind some definitely unholy mix of prog rock album cover art and these overly literal (and certainly overly competitive) depictions of Jesus?

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