A Foolish Virgin…we’ve all been there

Martin Schongauer, Foolish Virgin (engraving, 1480s)

For my first entry, I feel I should start with the image I have chosen as the header image for this blog – a copperplate engraving by the German painter-engraver Martin Schongauer, dating probably from the 1480s. We have no dates for any of Schongauer’s work except for one painting, the Virgin and Child in a Rosebower in the church of St Martin in Colmar, dated 1473. We know that he died in 1491, and his active years are usually given as 1470-1491; we don’t know when he was born. He was the son of a goldsmith, and would have learned in his father’s workshop to use the burin, the tool used by metalworkers for incising patterns into the objects they made. Schongauer was not the earliest printmaker to exploit this technique for pictorial ends, but he was the one who developed it into a sophisticated pictorial medium, thus exploiting the commercial as well as artistic value of the new medium of printmaking. He was a profound influence on Albrecht Dürer, the greatest printmaker of the next (or perhaps any!) generation. But more of him another time.

This print, measuring 143 x 108 millimetres, is unfinished; this is relatively obvious in the lower right hand portion, the girl’s left arm. Yet it loses none of its beauty, charm or sophistication through this, for me at least. It is not one of Schongauer’s most famous prints (he made around 110 all together – at least that is the number that has survived to us today), but it is one of my favourites. It stops me in my tracks every time I see it.

The girl is one of the Foolish Virgins from the biblical parable; her oil lamp is empty (she has turned it upside down to show this), and therefore she has missed her chance of salvation through not being prepared. She looks out at us sadly – but even in this single figure, with no setting, Schongauer manages to tell a story. The upturned oil lamp tells us that this refers to the biblical story (and assumes that the viewer already knows this story – read Matthew’s gospel, ch.25 if you don’t!); the sadness of her expression shows us her own feelings, but it also conveys more. She is not lost in her own inner thoughts, she connects directly – challengingly – with the viewer. She not only tells her own story, she involves us – are we ready? She is sad but knowing. This is the point of the parable – Jesus is telling his listeners that they too need to be ready. So with this linear engraving, Schongauer has conveyed a message that at the time was profoundly meaningful – this was an age when Christian faith was central to people’s understanding of the world and of their own lives. Works of religious art were primarily devotional objects, and this print was meant to make people think.

But for me, moving though all of that is, it is the way Schongauer conveys his story that always makes my heart skip a beat and forces me to stop and look. His mastery of line is endlessly fascinating. The story is told simply through the use of black lines on white paper. The dishevelled appearance of this girl contrasts with the engraver’s absolute control and compositional powers; he weights the image at the bottom left corner, takes us up the line of the girl’s arm to her face, and balances this by the weight of the headdress and hanging locks of hair at the top right. We don’t notice this at first; we are drawn in (and in my case transfixed) by the gaze of the girl, those beautiful, mournful, but slightly defiant eyes (defiant in the sense of asking us whether we are in a position to judge her), the pout of the lips, the depth of the expression.

Follow the lines of Schongauer’s shading. Start with those sharp folds of her sleeve at the bottom left, which point outwards but also upwards, through the horizontals of her upper sleeve to the shoulder, where the burin lines fan round to lead our eye up to her neck and then her face; then up to the swirled knot of her headdress, which creates a pivot – a central point that again fixes the composition, yet keeps our eye in movement at the same time, a figure of 8 that leads us to the right side of the image, and down through the locks of hair to the unfinished arm. This silhouette is held together and fleshed out by the horizontal curved lines of her bodice, the closer shading of her breast which conveys a sense of skin rather than fabric, and a body that is not quite natural in its proportions yet is detailed in terms of collarbone, folds of skin at the neck, shading around the eyes – those liquid eyes! Schongauer, like all German artists of this period, was steeped in the traditions of Netherlandish painting, where the development of oil to mix pigments had led to an extraordinary ability to convey textures and surfaces. Schongauer manages this in black and white lines, with his deft strokes and perfection of balance between minimalism and richness.

All the emotion of the piece is, for me, in those lines; and while the eyes are what draw me in and won’t let me go, it is that hanging loop of hair that breaks my heart. I know this girl; I know myself in her. There is both vulnerability and self-possession here, somehow conveyed through this alchemy of design.

When making an engraving, the image is drawn on the copper plate in reverse, of course, as when printed it comes out the other way round. Schongauer has put his initials at the bottom of the print, but has forgotten to reverse the S – this moment of imperfection adds to the emotional impact, inadvertently I am sure (I don’t for one minute think he would have seen it this way!) – it makes him vulnerable too.

I take liberties because for me, this is indeed an image to break the heart, to create a sense of longing, of melancholia, of taking responsibility when things go wrong. It is about loss and defiance – judge me if you will, but make sure you are beyond reproach if you choose to do that. I get lost in its lines, absorbed in and by them, and this small sheet of paper with some markings in black ink has the power to reach deep inside me and transform my thinking.

The art of living

I am relaunching my blog – apologies to those who have commented on previous posts, which have now disappeared (the posts and the comments). I want to use this space differently, to explore my own ideas about the way works of art help me – help us? – to connect with life, the world, the inner self. I have spent a lot of time encouraging students to be objective about works of art – now I want to break the taboo and think about art in a purely subjective way. Not a superficial way – I’m not interested in whether something looks pretty on the wall or not – but in a way that shows how works of art communicate and help us to understand life better or differently or more thoughtfully, even when viewed out of their cultural or historical context.  Understanding the original context should enrich our responses, but I’m interested in how great art continues to mean something to the individual.

The key is looking; we are surrounded by images in our society, in a way no society ever has been, and yet we have seemingly lost the ability to look and to understand visual language in the way of previous centuries.  As an art historian, I specialise in the Renaissance, and in particular the art of Northern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and it never ceases to amaze me how sophisticated the visual language of that period is, the visual relationship people had with works of art; there is virtually no writing about it, no language to describe it from the period itself, it is meant to be looked at and understood on a visual, nor a verbal, level.  Words force us to be rational, logical, clear, objective; the art of Northern Europe in the Renaissance is none of those things, and deliberately so.  It helps us to connect with the imaginative, the metaphysical, the surreal, the contradictory, the mysterious, the complexity of what it is to be human in the universe.  That’s why I love it so much.

So this is a blog about looking and finding personal meaning in what I look at, and trying to understand how works of art enrich my understanding of myself and the world around me.