The Road to Polisy, Part V

What I found most remarkable about Shakespeare’s perspective art was the unique spin he gave to multiperspective takes on perspective. There were multiplying mirrors, slatted two-sided paintings and slanted askew portraits in England. Indeed the writers Puttenham, Drayton, Heywood, Jonson and Chapman all referred to such anamorphic novelties (pp. 31-33). Yet none of these figures created anamorphic transforms to the degree and complexity that Shakespeare did, nor did they so skillfully layer various anamorphic methods in a single work or thematic series which combined to create emergent statements, shadow narratives that lay apart from the surface plane of the text. Shakespeare’s take on perspective art  was a complex, multifaceted approach otherwise found only in the anamorphic masterworks of long dead Renaissance maestros and these were in some cases so ingeniously designed that their secrets remained hidden for centuries.

In Part IV we looked at Shakepeare’s system of anamorphism and the way some methods he used dovetailed with those found in the painting Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh , an anonymous work that featured the Dinteville brothers and was found in the same house as The Ambassadors. Moses and Aaron (MAA) has to be the most egregiously campy example of the kind of cross cultural, mixed chronological fashioning of one figure in the guise of another that Shakespeare himself lampooned in the left flanking and keystones scenes in Much Ado About Nothing (MAAN). Elizabeth A.R. Brown by interpretatio was able analyze the way the layering of partial identifications in the painting built up an eloquent statement regarding the Dinteville brothers’ persecution by Francis I and his minions. Traveling the Seine Oxford could have had access to one resource that modern art historians would envy. It is possible that he was personally shown that painting by one of the Dinteville brothers’ children.

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I think this series has already demonstrated that those who promote an Isle-bound Bard cannot account for the most striking hallmark of his work, his masterful multiperspective take on perspective art. It was not enough for him to have observed simple anamorphic novelties in England or even to take a whirlwind tour of the continent as a page in a noble entourage. The complexity of Shakespeare’s approach suggests a more comprehensive education, tutoring by figures privy to esoteric traditions of European master painters.

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In fact multiperspective takes on perspective layered together in a single work was in itself extremely rare. Anamorphism saw its most brilliant fulmination in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo painted the glories of creation in close range distortion so that the groundlings would see it in see proper perspective from the cosmati tile diagram on the floor far below. So in a sense the entirety of creation was painted using anamorphic techniques. Yet he also used his God’s eye view in the Sistine sky to impart knowledge that revealed and concealed itself. While symbolism had long been used layer meaning in a painting, anamorphic techniques that lent stunning dimensionality to Renaissance art had expanded the range of methods that artists could use to encode information in a painting. Renaissance perspective art was not just limited to two mutually exclusive perspectives, the distorted portion only recoverable when viewed through an offset angle or by use of a mirror. Perhaps to surpass his  rival Leonardo da Vinci, who may have encoded a musical score in the position of bread rolls on the table in the Last Supper, Michelangelo used various methods to encode information in multiple dimensional points and even made use of an overall, holistic perception in places.V220px-Michelangelo-minos2

So in the Sistine Chapel he painted the papal master of ceremonies who insulted his work as the god of the underworld with donkey ears and a viper latched on in a rather unfortunate position, and all of this on public display in a well attended cathedral.

 

Centuries later those same murals would speak to a physician who saw that God and the motley crew of entities clustered under his cape in The Creation of Adam formed a representation of a bisected human brain, symbolizing not just the Supreme Creator’s transfer of the spark of life to Adam, but the gift of divine intellect that Michelangelo stressed in a sonnet was necessary for creation. . [1]

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Unsurprisingly it was a neurosurgeon and medical illustrator who recognized that the bulging deformation of God’s throat in The Separation of Light from Darkness represented the optic nerve and brain stem, with the spinal cord snaked down under the robe.[2] 

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Stressing the brain in acts of creation, of the optic nerve in “The Separation of Light from Darkness”, Michelangelo was imparting knowledge far in advance of what anyone would have dreamed possible in the late Renaissance. If this wasn’t enough to convince you that Michelangelo had learned some physiology while illegally studying dissected corpses under cover of darkness, he then spun God’s cape into the shape of a kidney in the Separation of Land and Water.

This encoded information had floated in the Sistine sky for centuries, a secret only accessible to those who had learned anatomy. Michelangelo incorporated a range of “curious perspectives” in the Sistine Chapel:

  1. A close range skew to correct for long range perspective
  2. The satiric depiction of a real life individual under the guise of a mythological, allegorical, historical or fictional figure
  3. Renderings whose parts combine to holistically produce another image
  4. Information, knowledge or topical references hidden or disguised in caches (in this case anatomical knowledge)
  5. A resonant theme and even an emergent statement in the work which lifts it beyond mere virtuosity. In the case of the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo’s “mute poetry” celebrated the brilliant art and design of the Creator – God, not to mention Michelangelo himself.

Michelangelo belonged in a master class of anamorphic ingenuity, the secrets of his multi-perspective masterwork only picked up on in the modern day. There is no evidence that Shakespeare was ever in Rome. The Bard never alluded to Michelangelo or his works as he did multiple times with Mantua’s Giulio Romano so it would be a stretch to suggest that it was in the Sistine Chapel that he experienced the racing heart and hyperkinetic connections of new comprehension firing in the mind.

Yet Shakespeare’s works do exhibit all the hallmarks of a Maestro when it comes to use of “curious perspectives”. As we have seen in this series the author referenced various kinds of anamorphic techniques, including classical anamorphism, skewed or slatted pictures, a multiplying mirror. He shadowed real life contemporary figures in fictional, mythological and historical characters and exploited parallels between history and his own era. He even created characters that were thrice-worthy, shadowing three figures in one. Other tools that we have seen put to use include puns, paradoxes, hendiadys, bed tricks and other literary assists that could be employed to suggest an alternate perspective and at times to effect that change for the reader. He created literary trompe l’oeil or ‘fool the eye’ word pictures, making use of symbolic and multivalent language (as in Hank Whittemore’s conception of double image writing) to create emergent statements or concepts that could always be plausibly denied when called upon. Moreover he created a system of reference that by both formulaic and freestyle anamorphic prompts alerted clued in readers to anamorphic content. He connected caches of information via linking structures that ran within plays and sometimes crossed over multiple plays. Besides describing paintings through ekphrasis, art and even art related terms are an intrinsic part of this system. Gonzaga linked art and anecdotes were often given working roles as the hinges on which plots and audience perception turned, often leaving both transformed. Besides the Act V flags and their interior caches the author used chiasmus or mirroring of sides in his plays and cast lists. According to the study of James E. Ryan, each play folded in half along its thematic center is more or less symmetrical. The exploitation of that symmetry was another means of imbedding hidden content, and as we explored the author often included key transforms, clues of whose identity was being shadow played and informational caches in the central thematic “keystone” and “central flanking scenes” (as defined by James E. Ryan). Part 4 lays all of this out in the fullest survey to date of Shakespeare’s system of literary anamorphism.

Shakespeare exploited all of these methods with a rigor that was rumored to be true of the Jesuits who were known to instruct students via plays, formalized the doctrine of equivocation, employed coded symbolic vocabulary or shadow language to speak to Catholics in poems and plays, for instance fusing the infant Christ with the Eros figure of the “Burning Babe.” The most sensible way to explain this similarity of approach is to point out that Shakespeare, his playwright peers and the Jesuits were all on the front lines of a social, religious and cultural war that saw increased propagandizing and even the weaponization of communication for political and intelligence purposes, though there is also much evidence to paint the group of playwrights and patrons around Shakespeare as sympathetic to Catholics or at least promoting religious liberty of conscience.

Clued in insiders of the author’s day mined the linguistics but could also work through greater puzzle-like intricacies in the plays. For instance the markers of Act V Helene de la Tour references in a series of plays connected with anamorphic messengers of death/memento mori and these trail blazes led to informational caches in interior acts that were equally heavy or light of scenes – in the case of Hamlet inserting into an obsequious exchange “The Ambassadors”, “trail of Policy” (which translates to the French politique and is a homonym of Polisy, the paintings location) along with suggestions of having “found the head”.  We looked at 5 other plays that shared traces of an Act V flag which combined a “Helene” or a “Lady who died for love” with anamorphic memento mori or messengers of death, some of which linked to similar interior caches, and these were in fact part of a greater classification of plays that included Helen, Hero and/or Leander allusions and almost always contained tie-ins to the Gonzagas family, the latter an even larger subset of plays.

This is all crucially important because if you don’t grasp his system of anamorphism, if you think he was just being quirky or silly, pursuing quibbles the way crows go after shiny objects, then you miss the information that he was attempting to impart. You silence him again.

Though I highly recommend that you read Part IV, Shakespeare’s perspective art included:

  1. The shadowing of real life individuals in the guise of figures that ranged from the fictional to the mytho-historic, sometimes creating doubled and thrice-worthy representations in which two or more figures were represented in the same character.
  2. Giving art a very muscular working role in his plays, using ekphrasis or verbal descriptions of European artworks and formulaic and freestyle art related prompts which alert the audience to anamorphic content and act as the fulcrums that move plot and audience in an intended direction (the ekphrasis contributing to “transformations” in nearly every identifiable case linked to the Gonzagas of Mantua whose palazzos were filled with mind bending anamorphic murals.)
  3. Renderings that form a greater image when viewed holistically. In this case I would point to the Helen de la Tour or lady thought to have died for love/anamorphic memento mori allusional structures that extended over 6 plays via Act 5 flags, with parallel internal linking structures in some cases. The anamorphic caches in the six overlapping plays conceptually form a kind of daisy chain or hexagram.
  4. Information, knowledge or topical references hidden or disguised in caches in the interiors of those plays,  for instance he alludes to finding the head in The Ambassadors painting in Polisy and confirms that he knew that Helene/Helena really was the daughter of the Countess of Roussillon. These plays also contain instructional material on the Bard’s perspective art.
  5. A resonant theme that lifts the work beyond mere virtuosity as we will see was certainly the case in Hamlet (and the greater series it was a part of). Moreover when pulled together for the First Folio, it created an anamorphic monument within the moniment or collection of the author’s works, what is really a juggernaut of anamorphic memorials that revealed the author’s identity, his travels, acquaintances, enemies, opinions etc.

We can also work up an impressive list of anamorphic transforms from most of Shakespeare’s plays. We have already demonstrated how another painting at the chateau in Polisy– Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh – was quite instructive in understanding Shakespeare’s use of shadow playing real life figures through the use of partial analogies and the strange cross-cultural, mixed chronological fashioning that he lampooned in the left flanking and keystone scenes in MAAN. We can posit that the author was exposed to at least one work that combined different forms of anamorphism in a tour de force of versatility and since we have no suggestion that he saw or would even grasp the anamorphic anatomy floating in the Sistine sky, the evidence would again favor Polisy. Though a greater number of multi-perspective masterworks perhaps existed at that time we have no record for these.

In The Ambassadors Hans Holbein the Younger blatantly advertised anamorphic 2hamletholbeinskullcontent. That hideous mutation of bone matter took center stage but could only be recognized as a skull when viewed from a specific offset angle or through the use of a mirror. This is the example of anamorphism that scholars mention whenever they talk about Shakespeare’s perspective art, invariably comparing it to Yorick’s skull.

 

It is not just that these skulls have become iconic or because viewing the Holbein skull from an acute sidelong angle reminds us of Hamlet gazing at old Yorick, though the tradition of holding it at an angle like that required to draw the skull into focus in The Ambassadors may have sprung from the earliest portrayals.

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Both the Holbein skull and Yorick steal the scene from the “living” characters that surround them, both serve as memento mori, reminders of death, flagging that theme which permeates picture and play in every layer. For instance the Holbein tableau includes a skull pin on Jean de Dinteville’s chapeau and a crucifix partly covered by the curtain used as a backdrop. Christ crucified peers into the scene from behind the scene on a day that at least one scholar believes is meant to represent Good Friday. Death also pervades the play The Murder of Gonzago inserted in the play The Mousetrap within the play of Hamlet, while the death of Hamlet’s father – not to mention his ghost – haunts dreary Elsinore. Prince Hamlet indulges in a madcap anamorphic inspired rant over that skull tossed up by grave diggers who, as it turns out, are preparing a grave for his rejected Helene de la Tournon inspired fiancée (If the Gonzagas were the nobles who dominated the Po river running across Northern Italy, the Dintevilles and de Tournons were the noble anchors of the other two major rivers Oxford would have traveled on his return to Paris, the Rhone and the Seine. These two French families were recursively related and linked together most distinctively in the interconnected Act 5 flags found in Hamlet and All’s Well.)

All of this is good reason to connect painting and play but the most telling clue is the way that Holbein used an in-your-face anamorphism to draw attention to covert content imbedded throughout the painting because Shakespeare does the same repeatedly in his plays, flagging anamorphic content in a very deliberate way as we partly explored in Part 4 of this series. It is this constant need to tip us off to anamorphic content which gives rise to some of his most distinctive quirks as a writer, the laden emphasis on the difference between is and is not, seeming and being, on twins, hendiadys and other dualities. As Allison Thorne noted, “By the time Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida (c.1601-2), the epistemological conundrum – paradoxical, tautological and self-negating – of that which ‘is, and is not’ was already firmly associated in his work with anamorphic perspective.”[3]

For Shakespeare the anamorphic flag, whether an eyesore or incorporated organically into a play, can serve to alert the reader to anamorphic content prevalent through the entire play or it can indicate one passage in particular that paints a word picture quite apart from the surface meaning of the words.

In Richard II Shakespeare inserted a blatant anamorphism in the center of another perspective on optical perspective while shadowing real life figures throughout the play.

“Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,

Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;

For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,

Divides one thing entire to many objects;”

Scholars recognize that he is here using the analogy of a multiplying mirror, where one object is multiplied into many objects. Then he continues:

“Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon,

show nothing but confusion, (though) eyed awry,

distinguish form…”

Now he has switched to anamorphic perspective of the kind that Holbein inserted into the Ambassadors. We must eye the image awry or from the side in order to resolve it visually. Shakespeare lets us know that he has juxtaposed two different perspectives on optical perspective by adding a visual clue. Repeating the last lines:

“Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon,

show nothing but confusion, eyed awry,

distinguish form : so your sweet majesty,

Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,

Find shapes of grief, more than himself to wail;

Which lookt on as it is, is naught but shadows

Of what it is not…”

Eyed awry is juxtaposed with looking awry. The colon was positioned precisely in between, suggesting a mirroring or equivalency. It also served to demark the end of the inserted anamorphism and the resumption of the first perspective, returning to the “shapes of grief” and casted shadows of a multiplying mirror. Shakespeare stuck a singular anamorphism in the midst of a passage that references a multiplying mirror, in the same way that the skull is dropped smack in the middle of the Holbein composition.[4]

In the case of that king forced to abdicate his throne, Elizabeth said bitterly, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” which tells us that she was aware of the kind of refashioning that took place in the play. Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford who took Richard II’s throne, was rousingly called Hereford throughout when Marquis of Hereford was a minor title of the Earl of Essex who, like Bolingbroke, was a cousin of the monarch with broad populist support. The moment when “Hereford” told the monarch’s knavish advisers that he was “a prince by fortune of my birth, near to the king in blood, and near in love til you did make him misinterpret me,” and then ordered his henchman Northumberland to kill the trio must have sent a roar up among his followers, though Essex’s brother-in-law the Earl of Northumberland had the good sense not to show up for the rebellion the next morning.  Essex co-opted the play in support of his rebellion despite its warnings of the blood soaked turmoil that followed Bolingbroke overthrowing Richard II. In this case the author’s insistence on speaking truth to all sides through his art had backfired or at least was a contributing factor in a real world tragedy, though the understanding that he was always trying to work for the good of his country apparently saved him then as it ultimately does now.

Anamorphic references, shadow plays, quibbles are among the tools the author used in ingenious and masterful multi-perspective takes on perspective that hark back to the artists in our master class. Yet in a sense Shakespeare’s anamorphism can only be compared to the Polisy paintings. Specifically the two Polisy paintings examined in Part 4 and 5 of this series contained all of the visual or artistic equivalents of tools that we find in Shakespeare’s perspective art. Additionally only Shakespeare and Holbein used a blatant anamorphic transform to hint at the covert content buried at varying levels throughout the work. Both have been accused of using such novelties as mere demonstrations of virtuosity by experts who resisted probing the deeper dimensions of their works though other scholars have mined the similarities between those two skulls and the way they were used.

These scholars are for the main part stuck in a paradigm where Shakespeare is a man from Stratford-on-Avon who could not have seen let alone been tutored by artworks owned by Gonzagas and Dintevilles, yet this only makes their observations of affinities with frescos in the Gonzaga’s Troiano del Sala or in a painting hung in the Dinteville’s great hall even more telling. In Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning he observed of the Holbein skull, “To see the large death’s-head requires a still more radical abandonment of what we take to be ‘normal’ vision; we must throw the entire painting out of perspective in order to bring into perspective what our usual mode of perception cannot comprehend” (p. 19).

Andrew Sofer argues that this conception is important to understanding Yorick and the theatrical skulls that thereafter began appearing in stage dramas:

“It is just this anamorphic shift we must make in order to ‘read’ skulls on the Renaissance stage, for it is only by conceiving them as objects which take on ‘life’ in the act of performance that they can properly be understood. Marjorie Garber makes the link between Holbein’s anamorphosis and the ‘double take’ of Shakespeare’s ‘pictorial irony’, whereby the viewer outside the frame (the audience) sees what those inside the frame (Hamlet, Gertrude) do not, in a sort of ‘tragic relief’ (p. 5)”.

Sofer adds that “the point of anamorphosis, however, is its either/or-ness. We can choose to see ambassadors or skull, but we cannot see both at once…” He argues, “Thus, in the graveyard scene of Hamlet we cannot simultaneously hold Hamlet and Yorick in focus; to “see” Yorick properly we must search for his theatrical traces- his properties- in and through the text in which he lies embedded.”[5]

This is an important insight in itself but also suggests the mental flexibility necessary to understanding Shakespeare’s perspective art. The surface story lies along one dimensional plane but the anamorphic blaze or flag marks the entryway to an alternative perspective — a shadow narrative running alongside and apart from the surface plane of the story. Like the mark on a panel that hides a secret passage, these invite one to the discover and explore the deeper dimensional content of the work which is what the Holbein skull does or *should do* for the art lover.

Now this doesn’t necessarily forge a link between the work of Shakespeare and Holbein. It more certaintly, either way, speaks of traditions handed down and the continuity between the artists and thinkers of their times. Reminiscent of Horace’s trope “as a painting, so a poem”, when Plutarch quoted the observation of Simonides that “painting is mute poetry, poetry a speaking picture” it is significant that he saw the “underlying end and aim” of poet and artist as “one and the same” which was to act as historians animating the past for contemporary edification.[6] From the beginning to the end of the Renaissance they were tutored by ancient Greeks and Romans. It has always been dangerous to deliver “the abstract and brief chronicle of the time” as Hamlet’s actors did. In times of great oppression those who would speak truth had to be crafty and even resort to covert means of speech and it was these pressures that produced the genius of Shakespeare and Holbein, far more so than any other factor.

As Jonson described his task as a playwright:

I will scourge those apes
And to these courteous eyes oppose a mirror
As large as is the stage whereon we act,
Where they shall see the time’s DEFORMITY
Anatomized in every nerve and sinew
With constant courage and contempt of fear

These anamorphic whimsies and their authors were forged in a world where freedom of speech, religion and the press existed only when seized upon by discrete, ulterior means. For both Shakespeare and Jonson the trick was to set up the anamorphic mirroring of the “time’s DEFORMITY“ onstage, to “catch the conscience” of the audience as much as their attention. Shakespeare was the maestro of incorporating what Catherine Belsey called “an uncanny phrase or figure (that) disrupts our seamless mastery of the text, takes it in an unpredicted direction, or leaves us undecided between possible interpretations. It invites us suddenly to read from another position, and thus draws attention to the subject as precisely positioned…” [7] Such transformational encounters are pervasive in Shakespeare’s work, which “refigures what was commonly thought to be true, for his characters and his audience.”[8] He was not just manipulating words but the audience as well, shaping them in a way that, again, we see happens in a close viewing experience of the Ambassadors. Yet at some point while recognizing the way that Holbein and Shakespeare both used skulls to so uncannily effect this transformation one must place the writer in front of the painting, even if only as a theory to try to rule out.

In Part IV we saw that the Stratfordian Sophie Chiari and AntiStratfordian David Gontar both asserted that Shakespeare saw Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors without offering any supporting evidence.  In Shakespeare Cinema and Desire: Adaptation and Other Futures of Shakespeare’s Language Simon Rile seemed to assume that the painting had never left England. “In the late sixteenth century Holbein’s painting was almost certainly exhibited in Whitehall,” he stated despite its removal from the Isle in Henry VIII’s time and lack of mention in any English record. The fact that a Roman Catholic Shakespere could have gone overseas will increasingly and due to the pressures of Oxfordian scholarship result in the conviction that he must have traveled in Europe. It is perhaps this newer understanding that led James Calderwood to insist that Shakespeare “may or may not have seen Holbein’s painting”, before quoting Ned Lukacher who thinks that “it is very likely that he saw the anamorphic painting of Edward VI by a Holbein follower, one William Scrots…” [9] Holbein’s successor as court painter in England created an anamorphic rendering of Edward VI which was re-exhibited at Whitehall Palace over the winter holiday of 1591-92 but this is just a slightly skewed portrait displaying a single perspective throughout.

Turning pictures or slatted portraits that can be likened to two pictures painted on opposite sides of vertical blinds such as an example that showed Mary Queen of Scots from one approach and a grim reaper from the other have also been suggested as the kind of picture that may have been viewed by Shakespeare. Yet while “Shakespeare is clearly thinking of this device in the famous ‘natural perspective’ of Twelfth Night… as well as the alternating figures of Mars and a Gorgon in Anthony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet’s anamorphic swan and crow” we don’t need to eye the MQS/Reaper portrait from “awry” to “distinguish form”. It exhibits two perspectives but contains only one kind of anamorphism. [10] It does not explain the multiperspective take on perspective woven throughout the plays nor does it account for how the author hit all of the anamorphic hallmarks of maestros like Michelangelo and Holbein.

So let’s look at The Ambassadors with an eye toward how the artist and the author would have understood the symbolism. Though it was likely painted at Jean de Dinteville’s residence in England, the floor on which he, a friend and that skull were triangulated is thought to be an imago mundi or tiled representation of the cosmos laid before the altar at Westminster Cathedral. This quincunx pattern in real life bore the inscription of “the eternal pattern of the universe”. A similar Cosmati imago mundi pavement (sans inscription) can be found in the Sistine Chapel directly under The Creation of Adam it should be noted. However in Holbein’s painted version a hexagram or Seal of Solomon has instead been added to the center. [11] The adding of a hexagram to the Quincunx pattern in the Holbein painting reminds me of the 6 Shakespearean plays carrying Act 5 flags comprised of a lady who died for love paired with an anamorphic memento mori or messenger of death (and one of those being anamorphic Yorick) but that’s probably not significant.

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Larger sizes and detailed views @ Wiki Commons 

Between the two men are shelves, the upper containing instruments that measure (and thereby divide) space and time, including the celestial globe, a quadrant used for measuring angles, a sundial in the shape of a polyhedron. On the lower shelf, a carpenter’s square separates or divides the pages of a book. Inherent in that right triangle is a 90 degree angle or aspect, a division of the zodiac circle that is unharmonious, signifying conflict or cross purposes. The half visible page of the math text was headed with dividert, the German word for division and displays a medieval method of mathematical division that was based on the principle of halving numbers, the fraction ½ easily visible on the page in the painting so this part emphasized dividing in half. [12]  Other items on the shelf included an incomplete (or divided up) case of various sized flutes and a lute with a broken or divided string crowding a Lutheran book of hymns which by association could also be considered another example of inharmonious division. Behind these symbols of discord one can discern divided calipers aka a compass lying in shadow which paired with the toppled globe that was also recessed on the shelf also suggested a sense of lost direction. The redundancy of keywords in the painting and the mirroring of meaning from left to right provided internal confirmation of a world “turned up-so down” and riven with the inharmonious division of – you really can’t mistake the part of the message underlined above – Lutheranism. (Missing source)

By 1533, the date tagged in the painting, sixteen years had passed since Luther’s supporters began their media war to challenge the church, making use of the newly available technology of the printing to spread his message throughout Europe. Reform was necessary as many humanist intellectuals agreed, including Holbein’s earlier prominent sponsors, Erasmus and Thomas Moore. Corruption riddled their institutions. Yet while these eminent humanists chose to stay with the church, following Luther’s excommunication the schismatic movement gathered momentum becoming a social, political and religious revolution that would affect all of Europe to some degree. Holbein’s religious commissioned works were smashed by iconoclasts and he himself required to publicly testify to his own “right thinking” in religion by reformers in Basil where he trained as an artist.

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As a German who spent stretches in Switzerland and France before and after this period he could have visited with Dinteville many times, but the two men certainly came into contact when Jean de Dinteville was the French Ambassador in England. Dinteville was using delicate discretion on the eve of England’s break from the church. The Ambassador’s good friend and partner in the picture was a Catholic Bishop who had devoted himself to the cause of bringing the protestors or “Protestants” back to the Church but he was there secretly. Like the painting, the visit of George de Selve, Bishop of LaVaur was never mentioned in any English record. De Selve had delivered an address in Germany on behalf of the Holy See for instance, making an appeal to the countrymen of Holbein and Luther to return to the Catholic Church. While the Bishop obtained the requisite permission from the French King for his visit to the isle that spring, it was stressed in one of Dinteville’s letters to his brother Francois, the Bishop of Auxerre, that his friend’s visit was to not to be mentioned to their kinsman the Constable of France Anne de Montmorency. Since that powerful and at times treacherous cousin was himself a former Ambassador to England who maintained close ties with Henry VIII’s court after returning home to France, de Selves may have avoided the English court entirely.[13]

It must be mentioned that the word anamorphosis in and of itself contains a paradox.

“In classical Greek, anamorphosis literally translates as ‘distortion’ which in modern Greek ana– functions both as the English prefixes dis-, as in ‘distortion’, and re-, as in ‘reformation.’ Anamorphosis can thus be understood as ‘that which lacks a proper shape’ and as simultaneously signifying the ‘restoring of what has been out of shape’.” [14] 

In fact the Greek word anamorphosis is given as reformation in a modern book of translations.[15] The words anamorphosis, distortion, deformation, restoration and reformation are in this sense interchangeable: they all devolve back to the same roots in Greek.  The Reformation signified the renewal or improvement of the Roman Catholic Church when Luther first used the term though soon they were prepared to bypass the Roman church altogether, harking back to the original Christianity. Translated back into the original Greek the word also carried the paradoxical sense of a distortion or a deformation and this was closer to how the new movement was viewed by those churchmen who remained within the fold of the Roman Catholic Church. Though the word anamorphosis had not yet been coined in western art, the highly educated, like Oxford and Jonson, were familiar with Greek and eminently capable of making such connections and this may be why there was an anamorphic stress on deformations by both writers. Certainly Holbein’s use of a distorted, deformed image was a particularly appropriate means to convey the pressured contortions the world was undergoing during the Reformation. If one were to give that painting the alternative name ‘The Anamorphosis’ it would aptly convey the pressurized contortions or deformations that created both the Reformation and the Holbein skull. Thus the anamorphic skull in the Holbein painting perfectly announces its subject: the Reformation.

In the upper left corner of the painting, nailed on a cross to the wall, Christ was half-covered by the curtain used as a backdrop in the painting. By then reformist iconoclasts had destroyed crucifixes and other pieces of religious iconography throughout northern Europe including Basil Switzerland where Holbein first achieved prominence taking religious consignments and producing his rakish dance of death woodcuts. Remembering the emphasis on division in this painting, with the savior bisected by the curtain one could even say that the body of Christ was divided. Since the church congregation was traditionally known as “The Body of Christ” the curtain cutting off half of the crucifix may have referred to the schism or the division of “the body of the church”. However the sliver of picture that extends beyond the backdrop is the part of the picture that is out of square, and since the square represents the material world born out of the triune creation what lies beyond is the realm of the spiritual or immaterial world. This may suggest a division in the “Body of Christ” – the church.

vcrucifix2

Mending the division of the church had become Selve’s life work. As an ambassador for the Roman Church in one address he called for peace between reformers and adherents to the church. They “should not attempt to vanquish each other by disputes and arguments, but they should vanquish themselves” by seeing their reflections “in the ‘mirror of Jesus Christ’” which is in itself a nice anamorphic conception. In sharing Christ and the sacraments, he elsewhere stressed, “we are unified with Him, and we are unified amongst ourselves. We become a part of the mystical body of Christ.”[16]

This wish to draw the Protestants back to the church may have been the point of the picture. After all it was Luther’s shortened version of the Ten Commandments that was on display in the prayer book but this was the simplified one intended for children. Like the Roman Catholic commandments, it omitted the proscription against graven images, though the artist may have simply intended that as an admonishment of the iconoclastic mobs that were destroying the secular and religious art of Europe. Yet perhaps the point in using the more Catholic of the Lutheran Ten Commandments was to support the goal that consumed de Selve: reuniting a divided church.

The year 1533 is explicitly marked on the painting by the notated ages of the sitters. Since even in Europe then the year did not start until March, Holbein was not referring to the private marriage of Henry VIII to a visibly pregnant Anne Boleyn at Whitehall chapel on January 25th, which according to the chronicler Hall was to formalize another secret wedding which presumably happened before the baby was conceived. However this failed to confer legitimacy since the King still had a wife and child, Catherine of Aragon and their daughter Mary. Though the marriage had been “set aside” the Pope had refused an annulment and Catherine and Mary still retained the status of queen and princess. The Ambassadors represented the period of crisis that began after the March 25 “Lady Day” New Year as Henry VIII began to severely pressure his church, council and Parliament to come up with a solution to the “King’s Great Matter”.  While the King had not officially announced his new marriage in public nor legally severed the old one, there was still hope that an outright breach could be avoided.

More specifically John North in The Ambassador’s Secret determined that the date signified was Good Friday which is supported by the fact that death lurks throughout the work as represented by skull imagery (the anamorphic memento mori and a skull pin on Jean de Dinteville’s hat). This view is also supported by the figure of Christ on the cross bisected by a curtain “inadvertently” left open. Good Friday was a memorial of that day when the Romans crucified Christ for sedition at Golgotha, the place of the skull. It was also the pivot or turning point in the crisis.

On Good Friday, 1533, Henry VIII made it clear that he did not intend to back down on his intent to publicly proclaim his marriage to Anne Boleyn and hail her as Queen in church which occurred on the very next day. The instruments in the picture as analyzed by North all generally centered around representations of the hour of 4:00 in the afternoon on Good Friday 1533, as measured from the vantage point in Rome. Although they were unlikely to calculate the difference so precisely, like Paris, Rome was one hour ahead of the time in England so it would be 3pm in England. Since it was believed that Jesus was crucified in 33 AD at age 33 and that he died at 3pm on that first Good Friday, the young ambassadors were depicted standing witness to the crucifixion a precise millennium and a half after the event was believed to have taken place as North understands this tableau. As John North points out it is as if they were not only marking what was believed to be the 1500 year anniversary of Christ’s death but also standing witness to the “Body of Christ” at the time when it was symbolically divided by Henry VIII of England.

Just Good Friday Christ had been unhooked from the crucifixes all over England and laid in coffins for the Good Friday ceremony of “Creeping to the Cross” when the faithful would crawl on hands and knees to weep over a slain Christ in his coffin.  On the next day, Saturday, Easter Eve day, April 12th 1533, Anne Boleyn appeared officially in public as queen for the first time in history. It was symbolically 1500 years and a day after the crucifixion and England had just taken their first step toward separation from the Roman Church. Still married to Katherine of Aragon, Henry had proclaimed his bigamy before the world and paraded his pregnant mistress in the church, forcing the priests and the people to offer prayers and blessings to her as Queen. The Holy Roman Emperor, whose aunt had been shunted aside without regard for law or tradition, would receive a report about the service from his Ambassador in England: “All the world is astonished at it for it looks like a dream, and even those who take her (Anne Boleyn’s) part know not whether to laugh or to cry.” [17] On May 23rd in a special court session the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer judged that the marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid because she had previously been widowed by Henry VIII’s older brother Prince Arthur. The Pope had erred in issuing special permission for the marriage in the first place, Cranmer determined. Henry’s only child born in wedlock, Mary, was made illegitimate and demoted to a mere noble at the age of sixteen.

Anne Boleyn was ceremonially crowned on June 1, 1533 at Westminster with the French Ambassador Jean de Dinteville walking beside Lord Chancellor Cromwell in the procession. The day was Pentecost, known as Whitsunday in England, and this church holiday was also symbolized in The Ambassadors. Though they were not actually juxtaposed in the real life hymnal, in the painting the open pages displayed the Lutheran translation of the Ten Commandments and the hymn Veni Sanctus Spiritus. This was not to be mistaken for the sequence Veni Creator Spiritus that inspired Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, although they contained similarities and were both used in rites of Pentecost. Veni Sanctus Spiritus begins “Come Holy Spirit” and entreats the divine spirit to in a slightly paraphrased translation “cleanse what is unclean, water what is dry, heal the wounded, bend the inflexible, fire that which is chilled and correct what goes astray” – in other words to  reform what is wrong. As in Veni Creator Spiritus the divine spirit is stressed as possessing “the sevenfold gifts” as well as being the “giver of gifts”, “light of the heart” and a great “comforter” of the faithful.

The objects on the shelves collectively represent the Seven Liberal Arts: the four numerate arts, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, and three verbal arts, grammar, dialectic and rhetoric but the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit were wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord, and these too made an appearance in the painting via their inclusion in the depicted hymn. Yet the white S that was prominently woven into the tapestry rug that lines the shelf underneath the scientific instruments may remind us of the Sanctus Spiritus or Holy Spirit as well. Finely patterned “Turky” carpets as they called them back then contained geometric shapes which conveyed meaning just as every flower or gesture in a European Renaissance painting carried attributions. According to the Turkish custom these rugs, now referred to as “Holbein Carpets” for their prominent appearance in his paintings, were woven with a S shape in the corners that represented both the stylized form of an ear and the human voice. The Pentacostal chant sequence in Veni Creator Spiritus (inspiration for Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel) included a reference to the divine spirit endowing Adam’s tongue with the power of speech. Veni Sanctus Spiritus, the Pentacostal psalm featured in the open Lutheran hymn book in The Ambassadors does not contain a reference to speech, but the holiday itself commemorates an event where the great rushing wind of the Holy Spirit descended over the apostles as they celebrated the Jewish Festival of Weeks and they began uttering in different languages or speaking in tongues. The Feast of Weeks celebrated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, so the juxtaposition of this psalm associated with the Pentecost next to the commandments of Moses erroneously yet strategically placed on the facing page supports this emphasis. The speaking of tongues and the release of a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, are both associated with Pentecostal celebrations and some consider the original visitation to mark the birth of the Christian church.

So note that both Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel contained image mundi Cosmati tiled pavements and were linked with Pentacostal chants or psalms and the Holy Spirit. Yet as noted while the psalm that inspired Michelangelo’s great work was associated with the Holy spirit or Spiritus Sanctus endowing men’s tongue with the power of speech, the Pentacostal chant sequence Holbein selected emphasized the reformation of what was wrong. It is apparent that Holbein is either responding to Michelangelo’s great work or possibly to a tradition of great works which play on similar themes with his own powerful contribution. I highlight this because it would be very interesting to look for any of these elements in Hamlet or elsewhere in the canon.

So for all these reasons if John North is correct that Good Friday of 1533 was intended we might extend the signified period to Pentecost of that year. Pentecost itself means “the fiftieth day” and fell on the 49th day after Easter Sunday. It can also refer to the 50 day period between Easter and Pentecost but since it began on Good Friday the Holbein painting would actually cover 52 days (the number of weeks in the year which was also fitting for a period that stretched from Good Friday to the spiritual birth of the church on Pentecost during the Feast of Weeks). We might suspect that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had also made this connection to events on the church calendar and this was why she was crowned on Whitsunday or Pentecost, England’s official act of defiance against the Roman church occurring on the day that marked the birth of the Christian church, so that this day also marked the birth of the independent Church of England.

Outside of this tableaux that memorialized the Ambassadors standing witness to this extraordinary period of transition, Elizabeth I was born on July 9th. Two days later, three months to the day after that fateful Good Friday, the Pope finally officially excommunicated her father and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Elizabeth was illegitimate in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a position that, unlike Galileo’s condemnation, they would never reverse, setting the stage for the religious conflict of Shakespeare’s day. The Northern Rising and a Papal Bull declaring her a heretic and “pretend queen” led to perpetual assassination threats answered with increasingly severe penalties against English Catholics and at an extreme point resulting in Elizabethan Englishmen being hung, cut down, disemboweled alive and then decapitated and quartered for the crime of being a priest.

Those grueling ordeals of torture and dismemberment in the name of religion lay in the distant past and not so far in the future when Oxford would have viewed the painting in spring, 1576.  As the first royal ward of Queen Elizabeth, raised with painstaking rigor at Cecil House, the home of her exacting Lord Treasurer William Cecil, Oxford understood the grinding pressures that the monarchy could bring to bear on the nobility of England for the very fact that he never could conform to what was expected. A product of that cataclysm that left their society riven with division, a man whose heart had already been torn between his sovereign Queen and his kinsman, the Duke of Norfolk, executed for his intent to marry the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, Oxford had gone so far as to rent a boat in the vain hope of rescuing his cousin from prison, had even married the Lord Treasurer’s daughter though the Duke was soon executed anyway. Just as certainly as it was Oxford who had been robbed and stripped naked on his return from Europe like Hamlet and who had a tormented relationship with the daughter of the old double hearted precept spouting chief aide of the monarch, I believe that it was Oxford who put in Hamlet’s mouth the lines “The time is out of joint/ O cursed spite, that I was ever born to set it right” and “the play’s the thing to catch the conscience of a king.”

For the next four years Oxford would privately self-identify as a Roman Catholic and during that time would support the proposed marriage of Elizabeth to the French king’s brother the Duke of Alencon. This suitor was a Politique, a Catholic who embraced a policy of religious toleration, a position that I believe Oxford arrived at by the time he returned to England and which was more certainly held by the other royal wards who passed through Cecil House – Essex, Southampton and by association Rutland and Bedford.

Oxford and Southampton, Shakespeare’s only dedicatee and the suspected Fair Youth of the Sonnets, were the only Cecil House wards who assuredly had a mixed religious background. They would in particular occupy a position that Gillian Rose termed “the broken middle”, a space Isobel Armstrong in The Radical Aesthetic envisioned as “the point of contradiction, where opposites fail to transform one another”, where “intellectual struggle is at its most perilous and stressful, and where a painful restructuring of relationships comes about at the site of the middle…” This was the forge that produced the phenomenon that was Shakespeare, as well as the intensely protective bond that all in the group of royal wards felt toward their youngest and most at risk foster brother, Southampton.

Even after Oxford wept publicly at the foot of throne, abjuring the “Romayn” faith in a time of ratcheting tensions matters of religion and politics would never be simple for him and his peers. If one had to save Catholics from the Queen, his foster mother, one also had to save her from Catholic assassins. Ultimately the author expressed himself in works where “two opposed value-judgments are subsumed, and … both are valid”, as A.P. Rossiter perceived it and the “whole is only fully experienced when both opposites are held and included in a ‘two-eyed’ view.” When it comes to Shakespeare, Rossiter tells us, “all ‘one-eyed’ simplifications are not only falsifications; they amount to a denial of some part of the mystery of things.” [18]

 

I believe that the author did view The Ambassadors in Polisy, and returned with the goal of using art to mend the division of his countrymen.  His “speaking pictures” reflected the later progress of the Re-formation just as surely as the “mute poetry” of Holbein’s painting represented its start. He would become Shake-speare and more than any painter, he was Holbein’s heir. By giving space to the authorship question we allow these figures the freedom of speech and conscience that was denied in their lifetimes. The bard remains on the verge of speaking to us and to our time today. If we can allow ourselves to listen, he may speak to us with the lucidity of a Michaelangelo in the Sistine sky, and allow us to uncover new wonders in the canon.

 

[1] An Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy, Frank Lynn Meshberger, MD, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 264, No. 14, Oct 10, 1990, article reprint accessed at

http://anatomiaitaliana.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/MichelangeloCreationBrain.pdf

[2] Michelangelo’s Secret Message in the Sistine Chapel, Douglas Fields, Huffington Post, 5/26/2010, citing Concealed Neuroanatomy in Michelangelo’s Separation of Light from Darkness in the Sistine Chapel, Suk, Ian BSc, BMC; Tamargo, Rafael J., MD, FACS, Neurosurgery, Vol. 66, Issue 5, May 2010;.

[3] Thorne, Alison. Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare: Looking through Language. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, p. 135

[4] Shickman, Allan. The “Perspective Glass” in Shakespeare’s Richard II, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900

Vol. 18, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1978), pp. 217-228;  Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories: Anglo-Italian Transactions, Professor Michele Marrapodi, pp. 34, 225

[5] https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/74409/j.1475-6757.1998.tb01118.x.pdf;sequence=1

[6]  Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures, Leonard Barkan, Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 28-29; The Glory of Athens, Plutarch, Loeb Classical Library edition, Vol. IV, 1936.

[7] English Studies in Postmodern Condition, Catherine Belsey, p. 134-135, cited in Platt, n6.

[8] Shakespeare and the Culture of Paradox, Peter G. Platt, Ashgate Publishing, 2009, p. 3

[9] Calderwood, James. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Anamorphism and Theseus’ Dream, William Shakespeare’s a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ed. Harold Bloom, p. 78. Quoting Lukacher, Ned, Anamorphic Stuff: Shakespeare, Catharsis, Lacan, South Atlantic Quarterly, 88 [1989], 863-98

[10] Time-Fetishes: The Secret History of Eternal Recurrence, Ned Lukacher, Duke University Press, 1998, p 74-75.

[11] http://beyondborders-medievalblog.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-appropriation-of-cosmati-and.html

[12] For a clear reproduction of the page from Apian’s Merchant’s Arithmetic that Holbein incorporated into The Ambassadors see the plate following p. 224 of Holbein’s “Ambassadors”, Mary F. S. Hervey , George Bell and Sons, London, 1900. For an explanation of medieval division and multiplication based on halving and duplation see Number, The Language of Science, Tobias Dantzig, Pi Press, New York, 1930, 2005, p. 26

[13] Hervey, p. 76

[14] The Rhetoric of Perspective, Hanneke Grootenboer, p 101, cited in Platt, Introduction, n5

[15] Greek Words, Athanase (Tom) Tzouchas, Trafford Publishing, 2014, p. 66

[16] Selve Folio 55, 65B, courtesy SUNY-Oneonta, employees.oneonta.edu, Holbein’s the Ambassadors and Renaissance Ideas of Knowledge: “Gratiae invisibilis visibilia signa”, link through reference to Veni Sancte Spiritus.

[17] Letters & Papers, vi  531

[18] Platt, p1-2, N3 (citing A.P. Rossiter, “Ambivalence: The Dialectic of the Histories” in Angel with Horns, p. 51)

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