I am not ashamed to admit that I have used the writings of Anna Jameson, a now neglected nineteenth century English writer on Renaissance art, in my studies of Giorgione and Titian. First of all, I love the vivacity of her style. Here she is deploring the varied attempts to depict Mary Magdalen.
We have Magdalenes who look as if they never could have sinned, and others who look as if they never could have repented; we have Venetian Magdalenes with the air of courtesans, and Florentine Magdalenes with the air of Ariadnes; and Bolognese Magdalenes like sentimental Niobes; and French Magdalenes, moitie galantes, moitie devotes; and Dutch Magdalenes, who wring their hands like repentant washerwomen. The Magdalenes of Rubens remind us of the ‘unfortunate Miss Bailey;’ and the Magdalenes of Vandyck are fine ladies who have turned Methodists.*
This passage also illustrates the depth and breadth of her knowledge. Mrs. Jameson was an Englishwoman whose life resembled that of a character from a Jane Austen novel. Her father was an educated man but of no great means. She made a bad marriage that quickly fell apart, and had to turn to writing to support herself. She had a great interest in the art of the Renaissance and fortunately somehow managed to travel extensively on the Continent.
A reading of her two major works, “Sacred and Legendary Art,” and “Legends of the Madonna,” makes it clear that she saw an extraordinary number of paintings on her travels, and that she managed in an age before digital cameras and laptops to retain an incredible amount of knowledge. From her writings it is clear that she had a keen eye for observation; an encyclopedic knowledge of the legends and stories that formed the basis of most Renaissance art; and a great flair for descriptive writing. Here is her description of a Giorgione masterpiece that is now known as “The Three Philosophers.”
“I must mention a picture by Giorgione in the Belvedere Gallery, well known as one of the few undoubted productions of that rare and fascinating painter, and often referred to because of its beauty. Its significance has hitherto escaped all writers on art, as far as I am acquainted with them, and has been dismissed as one of his enigmatical allegories. It is called in German, Die Feldmasser (the Land Surveyors), and sometimes styled in English the Geometricians, or the Philosophers, or the Astrologers. …I have myself no doubt that this beautiful picture represents the “three wise men of the East,” watching on the Chaldean hills the appearance of the miraculous star…” (332)
Her interpretation, which is shared by some prominent art historians today, shows not only her knowledge and appreciation of Giorgione and his work but also her familiarity with the ancient stories and legends so popular during the Renaissance. Even in her time these legends had been largely forgotten. In her introduction to “Sacred and Legendary Art” she wrote,
It is curious, this general ignorance with regard to the subjects of Medieval Art, more particularly now that it has become a reigning fashion among us. We find no such ignorance with regard to the subjects of classical Art, because the associations connected with them form a part of every liberal education….(8)
In the old times the painters of these legendary scenes and subjects could always reckon on certain associations and certain sympathies in the minds of the spectators. We have outgrown these associations, we repudiate these sympathies. We have taken these works from their consecrated localities, in which they once held their dedicated place, and we have hung them in our drawing-rooms and our dressing-rooms, over our pianos and our sideboards—and now what do they say to us?...can they speak to us of nothing save flowing lines and correct drawing and gorgeous color? (9)
It was only in her work that I was able to find the story of the encounter of the Holy Family with robbers on the flight into Egypt. This story formed the basis for my interpretation of a lost Giorgione that scholars today still persist in calling the “Discovery of Paris.”
Jameson attributed this scholarly blindness to the prejudice engendered by the Reformation. Speaking of the legends of the Medieval church she wrote,
This form of hero-worship has become, since the Reformation, strange to us—as far removed from our sympathies and associations as if it were antecedent to the fall of Babylon and related to the religion of Zoroaster, instead of being left but two or three centuries behind us, and closely connected with the faith of our forefathers and the history of civilization and Christianity. (1)
Our puritanical ancestors chopped off the heads of Madonnas and Saints, and paid vagabonds to smash the storied windows of our cathedrals;--now, are these rejected and outraged shapes of beauty coming back to us, or are we not rather going back to them? (6)
She insisted that the legends were “an intense expression of the inner life of the Middle Ages”…”and that the art of the renaissance could not be properly understood without them.” (2) She bemoaned the prejudice of her own time.
It is about a hundred years since the passion, or the fashion, for collecting works of Art began to be generally diffused among the rich and noble of this land; and it is amusing to look back and to consider the perversions and affectations of the would-be connoisseurship during this period;…any inquiry into the true spirit and significance of works of Art, as connected with the history of Religion and Civilization, would have appeared ridiculous—or perhaps dangerous; we should have had another cry of “No Popery,” and Acts of Parliament forbidding the importation of Saints and Madonnas….(7)
She also criticized the art dealers and collectors of her time, and, I suppose, our time.
The very manner in which the names of the painters were pedantically used instead of the name of the subject is indicative of this factitious feeling; the only question at issue was, whether such a picture was a genuine “Raphael”? such another a genuine “Titian”? The spirit of the work—whether that was genuine; how far it was influenced by the faith and the condition of the age which produced it; whether the conception was properly characteristic, and of what it was characteristic—of the subject? or of the school? or of the time?—whether the treatment corresponded to the idea within our own souls, or was modified by the individuality of the artist, or by the received conventionalisms of all kinds? –these are questions which had not then occurred to any one; and I am not sure that we are much wiser even now; yet,… how can we do common justice to the artist, unless we can bring his work to the test of truth? And how can we do this, unless we know what to look for, what was intended as to incident, expression, character?
Today most scholars are unaware of Mrs. Jameson and her work, or think it is hopelessly outdated. As a result most graduate students have never heard her name. Fortunately, I believe that online versions are now available. A reader has informed me that reprints of her books can be found here.
*Anna Brownell Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art. V. 1, Boston, 1895, pp. 352-3. Unless otherwise noted all references are to this volume with page numbers in parentheses.