Friday, June 8, 2007

Grail geometry and Baroque painting: Is there any "there" there?

An image from Robert A diCurcio's discussion of The Allegory of Painting at Vermeer's Riddle Revealed

This morning while checking the site stats for this blog, I saw that someone from Argentina found us via a Google search for "Baroque Painting Blog." That would be (partly) us, of course, so I went there as well to, yes, see how highly we rank (nicely, by the way, thanks for asking), but also to see if there are other like-minded blogs out there and link to them.

Anyway, that search also turned up an article from January of this year, "Stop the code conspiracies" by Martin Kemp. The title is a plea; as the article makes clear, no evidence has yet emerged that Renaissance and Baroque painters encoded secret messages into their works. We have, of course, The Da Vinci Code to thank for the recent uptick in this sort of thing; it also reminds me of Michael Drosnin's 1998 Holy-Writ-as-Seek-n-Find book, The Bible Code. This blog has also linked a couple of times to Robert A diCurcio's Vermeer's Riddle Revealed, which argues that Vermeer was a member of a Masonic guild and thus encoded grail geometry into many of his paintings.

My opinion on all this is that, even if these geometries are compositional elements in the paintings, what of it? What do they signify?

Not much, apparently.

Before going on, I will confess that Mr. diCurcio has obviously spent much more time on this than I will spend in offering friendly criticism of it, and I don't wish to be understood as saying that his efforts are entirely for naught. My real question is this: apart from speculation that is at the very least unprovable and certainly in part unfounded, what does all this reveal to us about the paintings and the man who painted them, apart from his, likely, fanatical attention to their composition?

At his website, diCurcio offers no explanation as to how he became interested in applying grail geometry to Vermeer, but it's fair to say that he doesn't appear to have stumbled onto his subject by chance. Consider, for example, this parenthetical aside in his discussion of The Allegory of Painting as he describes his search for a line that will lead to his finding what he calls the Tilted Triangle:

(If you're wondering how I know to do this right away -- let me say right away -- that I spent weeks doing trial-and-error lines before arriving at STEP 2 as I shall present it -- sparing you from going through all that!)
Well, thank you. But this--and, indeed, the tone of most of his site, is that of someone who, given a theory and the tools for applying it, goes off in search of a likely candidate to try them out on, and who better than someone mysterious like Vermeer? I will grant diCurcio this: his discussion of Lady Standing at a Virginal does indeed appear to have its origin in a peculiar feature of the painting--Cupid's bow appearing to grow out of the Lady's head. But once past a point like that, the theory and the geometry take over; the painting becomes something other than (as opposed to something besides) what it depicts.

Or, it just leads us, pretty much, to what is the pretty standard reading of the painting, as with this passage from diCurcio's discussion of The Allegory of Painting:
The intersection point of the diagonals A--N and M--O is the objective of the whole exercise. It is hard to say exactly what symbolism Vermeer had in mind for the 'X Marks the Spot' , which falls on the open book on the table. Since experts contend that the female model represents Clio, the Muse of History, and since Vermeer painted Clio looking down at that open book, we may speculate that his message is that the artist was making history by painting masterpieces that would bring credit to his native land -- and fame for himself. Note that he is shown at work on the crown of laurel leaves, symbolic of victory and fame. Holland at the time had emerged victorious in a struggle with Spain. This could well have been in Vermeer's mind -- and satisfactory it must have been to him, even though this and many other of his riddles would have to wait for centuries to be revealed. (emphases in the original)
Well, okay. But it seems that, apart from the reference to the Netherlands' defeat of Spain, all that is already available in the painting, without the projection of the lines and triangles and squares and such.

Like most of us, I'd also like to know more about Vermeer's life, and it would be interesting to know if he was a Mason. Interesting, but not vital. DiCurcio's study of the paintings leads him to make the claim that Vermeer was "most likely" a member of the Priory of Sion; as to how likely that is, read for yourself.

None of this is to say that diCurcio is mistaken about Vermeer's reliance on grail geometry. In fact, I'd be surprised to learn that Vermeer hadn't employed something like it as a compositional aid. Nor do I claim that secrets don't remain about Vermeer or other painters that are somehow revealed through their art. Personally, I've wondered about the level of Vermeer's commitment to Catholicism and whether that can be discerned through thinking about his paintings. Questions like that, though, will get answered, if they can be answered, through a combination of reading the historical record and looking at the paintings.


R. Sherman said...

I've never bought into all the weird "secret messages" in art, literture, etc. (Think "Paul's not wearing shoes on the Abbey Road album cover.)

In truth, there are certain geometrical designs which are inherently pleasing to the human eye. Good artists, whether by training or instinct, discover this and use it.

I'm still trying to catch up from two weeks away from the blogiverse.


John B. said...

A belated "I agree with you, Randall." It's like I said in the post: I'd be surprised if Vermeer didn't employ some geometry of the sort cited. But even diCurcio can't say what knowing this adds to our understanding of the paintings--it doesn't seem to be an interpretive aid, all this geometry, apart from his suggestions that it serves as a mute declaration to his fellow guildsmen that he's one of them, too. So, if that's the case, the painting is all but incidental to the geometry. So, yeah--I don't get it, either.

Robert said...

In my commissioned work I sometimes leave a message as to its conception and first ownership carefully hidden for the (optimistically) expert of the future to find.

I was intrigued to find that Degas had used all sorts of old paint brushes and things in his wax sculptures as armature showing up on x-rays. I do exactly the same sort of thing.

I don't believe leaving secret messages is only likely to happen if you are a member of some sort of secret society or you want someone in the future to know your ideas on a subject. Why do you write a diary? Why did Anne Frank write a diary, very dangerous?

If you wanted to put some sort of secret code in a painting, what would you do to insure the right person found it and wrong person didn’t?

Assuming I had a secret worth hiding in one of my works I would have to think all this through.

What however is true is that as an sculptor, I have thought about all this long before the Da Vinci code appeared on the scene. If I told you what I had done then of course it wouldn’t be secret.

The mysterious words of Don McLean’s song “Bye bye American pie” continue to give added value to a popular song of the seventies.

Speculation of this kind is added fun.

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