Sunday, June 4, 2017

Assumptions and Closed Minded Prejudices

This past week I was reading something related to a stone monument which is supposed to mark the grave of a certain Boethius, who was bishop of Carpentras, a town in southern France, from 583 to 604. According to what I read, "the sculptor was ignorant of Greek, and no doubt all language, because he has placed the cross in reverse, with the 'Omega' before the 'Alpha'".

The plaque reads, "stone tomb of  Boethius, bishop of
Carpentras and Vasque from 583-604"
Picture from Wikipedia

The French Wikipedia says that this stone was originally ornamented with semi-precious stones and glass, (presumably in the little squares within the cross, for example). It does not say so, but from what I know of artwork at this time, and bishop's tombs, it would have been covered in gold foil or gilded as well. This is also only part of the original tomb.

The thing I take issue with, here, is the idea that people automatically assume that the artist was "illiterate". For the past couple of weeks I have been reading The History of the Franks, written by Gregory of Tours in the late 6th century. He speaks a lot of the goings on in France at the end of the 6th century, and even mentions this Boethius by name. He obviously did not mention his death or tomb, because Boethius died about 13 years after Gregory did, but one does not get the impression from reading his work that artists of his day were ignorant or uneducated. In fact, the remarkable thing one gleans from reading this work is how much life seems to go on, in his mind, as it always had. He sees himself, and the people of France as the natural extension of the "Gauls" of the Roman period, and mentions nothing about a "fall" of the Empire. In fact, he refers many times, in his work, to the "emperor" (Justinian, who's portrait can still be found in two basilicas in Ravena). The only thing out of the ordinary which he mentions are many unnatural phenomena such as a couple meteor strikes, and other wild natural disasters, and the Franks seemingly incessant penchant for violence against one another. 

Because we are so programmed to think that this period was the deepest of the "Dark Ages" whenever we see an anomaly like this, the automatic assumption is that the person involved was ignorant. We do not even stop for a second to contemplate whether or not there could be another explanation. This is proof positive of our viewpoint, and therefore there is not need to give another second's worth of consideration. I could not disagree more strongly!

While it might be possible that the artist was in fact illiterate, this is "proof" of nothing. Artists worked from models, other works, or pictures in books. Might it be possible that this was not originally the tomb stone, but a stone mould for casting a bronze plaque for the tomb? (if it was a mould, the cast piece would not be reversed) It might also be possible that what this artist had as an example was a mould for a cross and he forgot to reverse it. How many times have modern people done the same thing? I know I have several times, such as when I wanted to carve a stamp for my monogram. I guess I must be illiterate as well.

Matrices for embossing metal. These are for embossing so the image
would look the same in the stamped metal. I have an image of a fragment
of a carved stone from Cluny which was used as a mould but cannot
seem to find where I filed the picture. A casting makes a reverse
image of what is carved.

If anyone getting something backwards is an automatic indication of illiteracy, then what does that say about the curators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York? I noticed this fragment on the wall when I visited last summer. You see, we cannot assume just because someone did something other that the way it is "supposed to be" that they are automatically illiterate or ignorant.

Which is a sign of worse illiteracy, backwards or upside down?
A stone slab displayed in the met with the "Alpha and Omega" upside-down 
 Perhaps there is another excuse, and in the case of the MET, we would naturally give that assumption. In this case, if the Alpha and Omega are right side up, then "Chi Ro" symbol for Christ (the X with another vertical line and and half loop which is an R) would be upside down. So perhaps here is another example of another "illiterate". If we can give a modern person the benefit of doubt and possible human error, why not for the anonymous 7th century mason as well? 

Videre Scire

1 comment:

  1. Well said. We have a long, difficult road fighting modern ignorance. There has been so much facile, misinformation published and repeated about the Middle Ages -- let alone the "Dark" Ages -- for far too long. Hope you'll keep up the good fight.