The Case for Domestic Imagery

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Andrew Morrall, Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at the Bard Graduate Centre.  Andrew has expertise and has published widely in a variety of fields, including early modern Northern European fine and applied arts, the reformation and the arts, the history and theory of ornament and the early history of collecting. Here he reflects upon the field of domestic imagery, and its relationship to Collinson’s thesis.

This contribution to the After Iconophobia workshop consisted chiefly in suggesting a number of perceived blind spots with regard to Collinson’s theory of “creeping aesthetic totalitarianism” in the sphere of Protestant visual culture in later Elizabethan England, in the light of subsequent scholarship.[1] Collinson’s argument is that between the years c.1570 to c.1600, there occurred a definitive and radical shift from a visual to a logo-centric culture, during which the religious image was apparently so completely removed from the culture that it was worth the author positing the question of the generation that grew up within those years:

“What do we know of the capacity to form mental pictures of someone who has never seen an actual picture? What would our mind’s eye of Christ be if we had been totally isolated from the Christian iconographical tradition”? (p. 296).

Collinson presented a model of abrupt and radical cultural change in which vividness of verbal description replaced the actuality of visual depiction. One objection is that he based this theory too narrowly on the evidence of book illustrations, and did not consider the wider visual and material culture of the period. Though he was well aware of other forms of imagery, found, as he said, “in a secular, didactic context, decorative, ceremonial, and heraldic”, and against which he did not “intend any disparagement” (p. 295), he nonetheless chose to exclude them as historical evidence.

460bc376b7752db69d62270475dab024Two reasons were offered to explain Collinson’s apparent blindness to such evidence: first, the legacy of modernist art theory, evidently still widely accepted in 1985, and epitomized in the works of Nikolaus Pevsner, which tended to denigrate these forms of Elizabethan visual expression as aesthetically and culturally valueless – as epistemologically empty; second, Collinson is perhaps revealing himself party to a much broader, deep-seated logo-centrism that pervaded (and to an extent, still pervades) the discipline of History: an assumption that images, particularly the supposedly naïve and crudely executed, in media belonging to the applied or “minor” arts,  are less valuable, less active as cultural determinants, and less worthy of critical interrogation than texts. Collinson’s approach follows, in short, an iconoclastic current within modern European intellectual history, a view of art and images which, ironically, was itself the product of the Reformation and a symptom of precisely the problem Collinson, with characteristic originality, was addressing: of trying to identify and chart the conditions and processes of historical change.

The remainder of the presentation was dedicated to an examination of a number of image-bearing household objects of the 1580s and 1590s and beyond—works drawn from domestic culture, an arena conspicuously absent in Collinson’s account—to suggest that far from a radical break from a visual to a verbal culture, there were many and widespread continuities in the uses and appreciation of biblical images. The examples were drawn from Elizabethan metalwork and embroidery, whose imagery, it was argued, conformed to a continuing tradition of Erasmian humanism, which insisted on the use of biblical images and inscriptions as decoration within the home in order to instruct, to edify and to create an atmosphere of sanctity.[2]

Derendel - ExpulsionThe imagery was based on bible illustrations, in the first case on an influential picture bible, Claude Paradin’s Quadrins historiques de la Bible (Lyon, 1553) and its 1553 English edition, translated by Peter Derendel. The examples were chosen expressly to show how such printed illustrations continued to exert a strong influence as design sources for other media throughout the 1580s and 1590s.

They included a set of three embroidered bed valances of c. 1580 and an embroidered bible cover, c. 1645. The scenes on each were drawn from Genesis, showing the Fall and a version of the post-lapsarian world. In their programmatic nature, it was argued, they possessed a similar purpose as the images of the Fall in the frontispiece woodcuts of popular vernacular Bibles: they were providential and in a sense testamentary, intended to show man his redemptive destiny and, within the context of a pious household, to suggest the proper means of salvation, even the family’s sense of righteous election. The bible cover, moreover, made by a female non-professional embroiderer, contained on its reverse symbols of the Passion and Crucifixion, based on the imagery of a much earlier meditational tradition and suggestive of the continuation of a pre-Reformation practice of personal meditation upon the Passion. The examples thus provided material evidence (where perhaps the evidence of texts is lacking) for the survival, not only of the continuation of a rich visual culture, but also of the continuity of pre-Reformation forms of spiritual practice, suggesting an altogether more fluid, less orderly transition to a new set of beliefs and cultural practices than Collinson’s essay would suggest.[3]

A final point argued for a kind of “spiritualized aesthetic” attaching to the representation of the natural world in these furnishings: that the simple and stylized representation of flowers and plants contained within them a substrate of theological meaning or allusion that conveyed to their owners a sense of spiritual affect as well as continuing a tradition of aesthetic delight.

Andrew Morrall, Bard Graduate Center, New York

[1] See especially, Tara Hamling, Decorating the ‘Godly’ Household: Religious Art in Post Reformation Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[2] In The Booke Named the Governor (1531) Thomas Elyot was closely echoing Erasmus, when he advised the wise householder to paint ‘some monument of virtue’  on his walls:

wherby other men in beholdynge may be instructed, or at the lest wayes to vertue persuaded. In like wise his plate and vessaile wolde be ingraved with histories, fables, or quicke and wise sentences, comprehending good doctrine or counsailes: whereby one of these commodities may happen, either that they which do eate or drinke havying those wisedoms ever in sighte, shall happen with the meate to receive some of them: or by purposinge them at the table, may sussitate some disputation or reasonynge: whereby some parte of tyme shall be saved, whiche els by superflouse eating and drinkyng wolde be idely consumed. (Thomas Elyot, The Booke Named the Governor (London, 1531), O4r.

[3] For illustrations and further discussion of these examples, see Andrew Morrall, “Regaining Eden: Representations of Nature in Seventeenth-Century English Embroidery,” in Melinda Watt and Andrew Morrall eds., English Embroidery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700:`Twixt Art and Nature,’ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 79-98.

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One thought on “The Case for Domestic Imagery

  1. Pingback: After Iconophobia? | the many-headed monster

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