The Big Little Book
August 21, 2010 § 1 Comment
I have never seen a book as little as this one, that is as big as it is. Its littleness – in length and breadth, where it is only slightly bigger than an iPhone – is adequately made up for by its extraordinary thickness: it contains 974 pages of glossy goodness. This combination gives the book an awkward, lopsided look, like an obese dwarf or a muscular child; but once I opened it, I found that the contents were extremely easy on the eye, and on the mind.
True myth, as Robert Graves noted in the introduction to his Greek Myths (reviewed here by me), is a reduction to narrative shorthard. A set of mythological stories is a system of coded symbols that exists in the shared memory of a society and forges a common understanding of life, with its emotional conflicts, insecurities, secret shames and public scandals. Man understood psychology and morality through the medium of myth, centuries before they were identified as subjects of study. But myths in turn need media, too, in order to propagate across geography and generations. Epic poems and story-telling are the most powerful mechanisms harnessed in this endeavor, for repeated retelling can ensure that a story travels thousands of miles in a generation or two. Narrative art, in comparison, reaches fewer people – only those who come to see it – but can invoke very strong emotions in those who see it, as attested to by the famous adage comparing a picture with a thousand words.
In the fifteenth century, Medieval Europe rediscovered the Greco-Roman roots of its civilization in a burst of Neoplatonic ancestor love that eventually spawned the Renaissance. Christianity, which had for a millennium attempted to airbrush out its pagan past, suddenly found an ability to reconcile its monotheism with classical mythology, and the art studios of Florence and Rome, and Flanders and elsewhere, exploded into colorful and masterful rendition of the myths that had never died out in the intervening millennium, having merely gone underground and waited for more propitious times.
Two slightly contradictory themes emerge from the book. One revolves around how a myth can be encoded into a very small number of symbolic elements, which are uniformly used by every artist depicting the story, and which, when viewed, instantly recall an entire complicated story in the mind of the viewer. A woman on a bull swimming through water recalls the abduction of Europa by Zeus; a chained man being bitten by a vulture is always Prometheus (punished by Zeus for having stolen fire from the gods); a lady with snakes in her hair is obviously Medusa; a single wooden horse is enough to bring to one’s mind the final year of the Trojan War. This, of course, is true not only for Greek myth: Christian hagiography is replete with such symbology as well, and a man with a couple of arrows protruding from him is always St. Sebastian, and if a figure is not carrying a griddle, it cannot be St. Lawrence.
The second concurrent theme is even more curious. Despite this necessary uniformity of symbols, artists have always managed to express their individuality and original vision while depicting the stories, and the differences dutifully reflect the essential ambiguity that shrouds all human matters. Guido Reni’s ‘Abduction of Helen’ makes it all look fairly consensual, while Giovanni Piazzetta’s painting of the same event shows the woman being lugged kicking and screaming into the unknown. Michelangelo’s Bacchus is handsome and heroic, Caravaggio’s is effeminate and introspective, Diego Velasquez’ Bacchus manages to look crafty and yet cherubic, and his friend Peter Paul Rubens’ version is fat, flabby, Falstaffian and utterly drunk (perhaps something to do with a Calvinist disapproval of the depravity induced by alcohol?) Yet they are all unmistakeably, Bacchus, and that is precisely the charm of narrative art.
Hundreds of images have been lovingly categorized and reproduced in the book, interspersed with textual commentary that sets context, clarifies and compares, and it also has a helpful glossary of mythological characters at the end for those who can’t easily tell their Aegisthus from their Aegyptus (i.e., most of us). Lovers of Renaissance art or of classical mythology should definitely give this book a go.