Saturday, August 6, 2011

Stories and Premises in Medieval Art

On August 20 the small class of classically trained teens that I teach screenwriting to, will accompany me to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) for a lesson in visual story telling by the masters -- centuries before photography and cinema. But the stories, along with their physical and moral premises, are nonetheless poignant and relative even for today. (all photos via my iPhone, today)

For those of you outside of Detroit, the DIA is perhaps best known for Rivera's Court, where Diego Rivera's renoun frescoes tell the unblemished story of the industrial revolution, and the moral struggle involved in balancing the values of labor, capital, product, and economy. The Rivera Court is particularly attractive because of the bold, bright skylight that illuminates the work of the controversial Mexican artist.
But on the day we visit we'll not spend but a few minutes in Rivera's Court. Instead, we'll head for the galleries either side of it. To the Southwest are the European: Medieval and Renaissance galleries, and to the  Northwest is one particular room in the American collection.

The roots of Western Civilization (e.g. American civilization) came from Medieval Europe, that  culturally was dominated by Roman Catholicism. It was the Catholic institution that saved literature, fostered agriculture, established education, embraced parts of the Renaissance that didn't threaten it's teachings,  encouraged scientific discovery(*), and promoted the arts. This was during a time when the populace could not read, and if they could there were no books.  It was through the visual arts (as movies principally are) that the Church and its constituents communicated stories. Among the hundreds of artifacts on display at the DIA, we'll see how visual story telling hasn't really changed that much in hundreds of years.

TWO CLASS ASSIGNMENTS are below -- my students should keep reading.

"In much of the 15th-century Europe, saints were an integral part of everyday life. People imitated them, honored them, and called upon them in times of need. Churches, guilds, cities, and nations all had patron saints.

"At the time, believers often felt unworthy to appeal to God directly and prayed to saints to intercede with God for them.

"The Catholic church recognizes as saints virtuous people to whom miracles are attributed.

"The mother of Jesus has a special role. Many Christians hold Mary in special regard, above even the saints. Believers consider her, as the mother of Jesus, the closest to God and the most important assistance in communicating their prayers." (to Jesus and God.) 

"This room is filled with sculpted and painted images of saints and Mary that helped 15th-century Christians in prayer. A believer might have lit a candle or laid flowers in front of an image in respect and honor."


"In this gallery you will find works of art created in Western Europe during the latter Middle Ages. You will see some of the materials and artistic techniques prized during the period: ivory carving, enameled metalwork, tempera painting, and stained glass." (At right: Diptych with Scenes of the Lives of Christ and the Virgin, about 1320. Carved from Ivory by an unknown Parisian artist.)

"Most of these objects have religious themes, reflecting the importance of prayer and devotion in the daily life of a medieval Christian. Many objects performed a particular function, whether it was a chalice to hold during during Mass or a sculpture of a revered religious figure to adorn a church altar.

"The medieval collection of the DIA is one of the most important of the country, notable for the excellent quality of the objects."


THE FIRST ASSIGNMENT for my class during our visit.

Take an hour to wander through the 10 galleries of the Medieval and Renaissance collection.  Note that EACH work of art features the elements of drama that we've been studying present in motion pictures, yet at at no time are words used. (The best cinema still uses very little dialogue. SHOW don't TELL is the rule, even in contemporary novels.) Considering principally the elements of a log line  (i.e. a protagonist, a verb, an antagonist, a goal, and stakes) select TWO works of art and for each list the following:

A. Name of the work.
B. Artist's name.
C. Type of media.
D. Year of it's creation.
E. The protagonist.
F. The battling verb.
G. The antagonist.
H. The protagonist's goal.
I. The stakes.
J. The virtue at work in the story.
K. The vice at work in the story.
L. The moral premise of the work.
M. The most striking emotional element of the work. (That is, what tugs at your heart and pulls you into the work emotionally?)

You'll obviously have to use your knowledge about some stories apart from the exhibit, just as the Christians of the period listened to sermons and teachings that explained what the works were about.

Try not to select the same work that others select. Let's get a good variety.  After we're done we will let each of you take us to one of the works you selected and describe your observations to us as a class. (typically the DIA is not busy on Saturday so we don't be disturbing anyone.)

As a group we will take our stools (provided by the DIA) and enter one of the American collection galleries, and sit before American Rembrandt Peale's 12-ft by 24-ft oil-on canvas painting "The Court of Death," which he completed in 1820.

It's the big screen of the 19th century, and like movies today it carries a powerful moral premise about virtue and vice and their physical consequences as one approaches death.

The painting depicts eight principal characters and a number of minor characters, not including Death who sits on a central throne...holding court. (There's a webpage dedicated to this painting. HERE.)

When my class arrives in this gallery we will cast lots and match up each of the students with one of the principal characters in the painting.  Then we will sit on our stools before the painting and write a short and dramatic life story of the character we've been assigned. The ending of our story will place them in Peale's painting. Taken altogether we will have a powerful piece of explicit story telling that the painter intended for us to imagine.

Needless to say, bring a good pad of paper (your journal will do if you have pages left) and some good writing instruments.

I will post links here to the results, after they are edited.  (Thanks WB for the suggestion.)


(*) Story telling is much like scientific discovery in one respect. They are both based on the assumption that there is a natural law of rationally ordered cause and effect. In scientific discovery the cause and effect are both physical. In storytelling, while there is the same physical cause and effect relationship as in science, there is also, and more importantly, a cause and effect between the psychological (cause) and the physical (effect, or consequence) as described in my book, The Moral Premise.

The success of story telling is much the result of most religions' assumption (and science's fundamental assumption) that the universe is ordered and not random

Thus, the Church was principally (although indirectly) responsible for the scientific discoveries of the Renaissance. Catholic teaching assumes that the natural laws of the universe are ordered, structured predictable through rational investigation. The scientific method (1. observation 2. hypothesis. 3. Test. 4. Law) is dependent upon a observation that can predict cause and effect based on order that is a benefit to man's existence. If physical phenomenon were based on random events, or some set of laws that did not have mankind's survival as it's primary purpose, the scientific method would be useless -- and a box of dice might be as good as anything.  Thus, it was, that many of the great discoveries in science were made by devout Catholic men...including Galileo. And thus, it was, that almost all of the great artists of the time, who could have been movie directors if alive today, were devout Catholics as well. And, you'll discover, that not a few of Hollywood's best directors have Catholic backgrounds and understanding.


WB said...

I just returned from a visit to the DIA and quickly went to the internet to search for more information regarding the various pieces that I enjoyed the most. I came across this blog regarding Rembrandt Peale's "The Court of Death".
My first reaction to the painting was to its sheer size, but the placard in front of it at the DIA describing the characters really got me thinking.
The assignment you created sounds very intriguing and I would be most interested in reading the results.

Asmaa Abada said...

I don't understand what the moral lesson is..

Stanley D. Williams said...


The paintings like movies are stories.
That successful stories contain moral lessons that reinforce the natural laws of cause and effect.

Study of the paintings reveals that in a single image a painter can tell the story of a man's life and even reveal his future in accordance with Natural Law.