Christopher Wood’s Lenten lecture, “Temporalities of the Cult Image,” began with a tomb. He did not go there to rest but to sing something to the surface, a beloved perhaps, however weary. His words made the stones to weep, the skies to darken. So rise she did, threatening to harrow the art-hell around us, not that it needs it.
Ideas about Augsburg and the 15th century never remain in Augsburg or the 15th century. They cross the sea, sinking impasse after impasse. Dr. Wood’s thoughts passed through Belgium and an infinite Calais to our own darkened streets, flirting, pollinating.
The Gothic cathedrals stand at the edge of the Renaissance, something anonymous and endlessly vexing, unseemly in their vitality. If we can resurrect enough of their conceptual underpinning, we think, something vigorous might rise in our own time. As Dr. Wood acknowledged, however, the tools to excavate a different age are art-historical, themselves products of the Renaissance. Perhaps our assumptions merely press upon their own, obscuring more than illuminating.
Such an imposition, nonetheless, may be kin to their spirit. So he began the lecture with an early Renaissance tomb in Augsburg. St. Simpert, a local saint, died in the 9th century; his bones soon vanished. When they unearthed an unknown sarcophagus a half-millennium later they quickly attributed the remains to St. Simpert. Order was reestablished; pilgrimages could begin. They commissioned a new tomb, with a sculpture on top bearing the “likeness” of the lost saint, a likeness based on no portrait or description. But the justification for such an obvious lie might have been more than economic. Here Dr. Wood extended his claws.
Few believed the bones were St. Simpert’s, he claimed, or that the sculpture resembled him. Such facts were beside the point. Resemblance and authenticity are contingencies of the world. It little mattered to them whose bones they were or how his face actually looked. The new saint was simply St. Simpert, although it wasn’t. Truth to them was eternal, non-temporal; the world was fallen, whatever obtained in it deceitful and erroneous.
The sculpture reflected a certain conception of arts and the artist. Creation was not mimesis, a place to mirror nature and reproduce her forms, but rather an opportunity to improve upon an error, to return life to lost saints. Art was another avenue by which grace conveyed itself into the world.
The artist was a creator. As a creator he could mimic the Creator and not bother with the particulars of a broken creation. He can resurrect kings and overcome the fallen order, reestablish that which has passed into oblivion, restore something of beauty and good, in this case the face of a worn saint. The medieval craftsman’s artistic vitality, still unfathomable, attests to the force of such a method. Pilgrims arrived, miracles shone in the cornice, visions descended on the town; the kindness of god was never-ending.
Contemporary art strays somewhat into this field, however accidentally, often seeking to restore inarticulate truths by adhering neither to fact nor account- by this indicating, however weakly, the substance of something else. Something better left unsaid, in fact, to evade manipulation. Icons of medieval art never reflected natural reality. Memories of this erupt in the abstract movements of the twentieth century, passing through Malevich and others. Nothing seems lost, only complicated.
Even museums preserve the medieval ideal. The modern wings attest to its presence. Alongside the conception of art as something which bases its meaning in an accessible historical moment, there is a lingering appeal to an eternal world of forms. Most works include a placard with the artist’s name, nationality, and life-span. These help us to fix a piece in time, to savor its historical associations. Wagons circle Paul Klee on the prairie: he was in the Bauhaus in 1922? Art history is most comfortable with a meaning that comes of such temporal designations. There is work to be done here, not metaphysics. Since the Renaissance, paintings signify in time. Dr. Wood’s work on anachronism has sought to loosen the discipline from its historical basis, or at least engage it.
An oak is how it grew, how it fell, all its days, but much else as well. In Tim Hyde’s Video panorama of New York during which the camera fails to distinguish the city from a snowstorm, the city, a floating geometry of lost outlines, abandons its natural reality in a chaos of snow, assisted also by the peculiar whims of the camera. Six monitors hang side by side in a white room, each relaying an asynchronous loop of an aspect of New York in a blizzard. The buildings dissolve to some indissoluble essence, gray and powerful, occasionally crossed by a dark gull.
El Lissitzky assembles similar economies of floating geometry. His paintings and collages turn too against the world but in the service of a Revolution which hopes to found a workman’s Platonic paradise. And what of Kurt Schwitters, his merz-assemblages and merz-barns, cathedrals built of physical trash and intellectual ephemera?
One more anecdote. The Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso, commissioned to sculpt the likeness of a boy, found instead a face that eluded him, drifting wrong in every stone he touched. Only when Rosso had a vision of the boy peering through a silk curtain could he complete the bust. He saw in this moment a likeness which more closely resembled the boy’s features than a mimetic reproduction of actual appearance ever could. In Ecce Puer the child undulates in a supple current of red stone. And so the eternal persists, if just in the corner of a still, on a joint in a wooden frame or amongst other residua.