Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Worth a Thousand Words: The Beheading of John the Baptist

Rogier van der Weyden, in his Beheading of John the Baptist (c. 1455-60),
transforms a horrific act into a scene of
elegance, subtle feeling and beauty-in-depth. (Paul Johnson)
This selection and the appreciation below are from Paul Johnson's Art: A New History which I have been enjoying very much as an unusual window into history. This does not show us history as much as help to understand what the artist was trying to get across. It certainly helps me to understand why so many artists portrayed historical scenes with contemporary clothing and details.

If this seems like too much text to bother with, be sure at least to read the last couple of sentences. It is the essence of the thing and also may pique your interest for the rest.
... Rogier introduced many cunning innovations in presenting his work—shifting the angles, moving the main figures closer to the viewer, then pushing them back, framing them in architectural fantasies, windows and painted surrounds, devices which then become standard in northern art.

But in one respect, Rogier was faithful to his tradition. He loved detail, and it was always contemporary detail. Of his many large-scale works, the one which brings this out best is his Scenes from the Life of John the Baptist in Berlin. These three pictures convey an enormous amount of detail. Salome has certainly not been performing a dance. She is dressed in the height of Brussels fashion, c. 1450, and holds the dish to receive the severed head disdainfully, as though she was not accustomed to handling platters of any description. Every detail of her presentation is perfect. The executioner must have been done from life at a ceremonial chopping, of which there were many the artist could have witnessed. The way the man has stripped himself of most of his garments to get a perfect swing to his sword, itself rendered in fearsome detail, is unforgettable. Behind the pair and the ghoulish head, which glows with recently dead pallor, is a passageway, closely guarded, which opens in to the banquet scene itself, in the far distance but lovingly rendered so that we have a good idea of what was being eaten before the head made its entrance. The story of the head, which never failed to arouse interest anywhere in Europe for a thousand years—it was still going strong in the days of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley—is here used as an excuse for a piece of dramatised genre painting. The details told the viewers two things. First, "All this is true," and secondly, "Take note of these events,they are part of your life also."

No comments:

Post a Comment