Tag Archives: visual art

‘Libri idiotarum’ and the triumph of Christianity

It’s nice to find a Google query with more hits in Google Books than in Google itself.

Such is the case with “libri idiotarum,” 47 hits in Google [1] and 215 in Google Books[2] (see also the Google NGram view[3].)

Libri idiotarum” means “books of the ignorant” or “books for the illiterate” (idiot did not mean what it means today). The expression was first recorded in a letter by Pope Gregory I:

“For pictorial representation is made use of in Churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books.”[4]

Gregory refers to paintings, illustrations, sculpture and other visual representations used in Christian art to spread the the gospel in an era when only the clergy and the nobility were able to read.

For these unfortunate illiterate souls, the biblia pauperum (an illustrated bible) was also made.

But apart from being literate or illiterate, a picture is worth a thousand words.

N’est-ce pas?

Illustration: Triumph of Christianity

Before the ocean and the earth appeared

Magnum Chaos (c. 1524 ) by Lorenzo Lotto

“Before the ocean and the earth appeared— before the skies had overspread them all— the face of Nature in a vast expanse was naught but Chaos uniformly waste. It was a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight; and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap.” (trans.Brookes More)

490 years ago Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto produced the image above. The design is a representation of chaos and is entitled Magnum Chaos. It is an intarsia made for a church choir in Bergamo, North Italy. It feels very modern today.

It’s a nice example of the eye as independent body part, the eye carried forth by two legs and two feet and in control of both arms and hands.

It is also an example of a what we in Dutch call a ‘kopvoeter’ (lit. headfooter) or a ‘koppoter’ (lit. headlegger), a style of drawing made by children from about age three in which people are drawn without a body and with arms emerging directly from the head. (see Child_art#Pre-symbolismbelly face and body image.)

They are called bodyheads in English. See update.

Apparently, Rudolf Steiner says something about child art and ‘bodyheads’ in Allgemeine Menschenkunde als Grundlage der Pädagogik, 1919, but I have been unable to find out what.

The Magnum Chaos reminds me of the André Masson acéphale illustrations.

And other grotesques of course.

The image shown above is upside down from the original at Bergamo.

Update 20/2/14: A possible English translation of kopvoeter and koppoter is bodyhead, a neologism coined by English artist Paul Rumsey and given as the title to a number of prints.

A nude woman isn’t indecent

Via peeking into Art/Porn: A History of Seeing and Touching (mentioned in previous post[1]) come Diderot’s thoughts on the difference between decency and indecency, or, by extension, the difference between erotica and pornography. According to Diderot, “it is the difference between a woman who is seen and a woman who exhibits herself.”

Here are Diderot’s thoughts in full from an unidentified translation:

“A nude woman isn’t indecent. It’s the lavishly decked out woman who is. Imagine the Medici Venus is standing in front of you, and tell me if her nudity offends you. But shoe this Venus’ feet with two little embroidered slippers. Dress her in tight white stockings secured at the knee with rose-colored garters. Place a chic little hat on her head, and you’ll feel the difference between decent and indecent quite vividly. It’s the difference between a woman seen and a woman displaying herself. (translator unidentified[2], probably John Goodman)

French original:

“Une femme nue n’est point indécente. C’est une femme troussée qui l’est. Supposez devant vous la Vénus de Médicis, et dites-moi si sa nudité vous offensera. Mais chaussez les pieds de cette Vénus de deux petites mules brodées. Attachez sur son genou avec des jarretières couleur de rose un bas blanc bien tiré. Ajustez sur sa tête un bout de cornette, et vous sentirez fortement la différence du décent et de l’indécent. C’est la différence d’une femme qu’on voit et d’une femme qui se montre.”

Please do not take Diderot too seriously when it comes to eroticism, I’ve previously written on Diderot’s hypocrisy. In my view, if it isn’t indecent, it isn’t erotic. That is why I do not consider many pieces of erotic art, erotic at all since they do not provoke erotic arousal. Shame is the most powerful aphrodisiac.