I went to the Louvre yesterday evening. Each time I’m in Paris, I take the opportunity of being here to go look at the French paintings there. If you didn’t happen to already know, I’m one of those people who falls down on her knees before Ingres. Last visit, I spent a large amount of time looking at eighteenth century paintings. This time, I decided to start at an earlier point.
According to the plaques on the wall, the French have not preserved as many of their early paintings as some other countries, so the French paintings really start in earnest around 1400. Among the first presented, if you follow the rooms of French paintings in chronological order, are several featuring the Pieta.When I was young, I really loved Medieval and early Renaissance paintings and I’ve always found them highly moving. When I was in Florence with my sister, tramping from Church to Church to Church like a pair of pilgrims, I joked that if I saw one more beautiful Madonna I was going to convert, and, indeed, that is exactly the effect they are intended to have. The reason those great works were commissioned by the Church in the first place, beyond simply the desire to impress the faithful with the power of the Church, was to inspire religious feelings.
In La Grand Pieta and, next to it, Le Christ de pitie soit tennu par Jean l’Evangelist en presence de la Vierge et de deux anges, both attributed to Jean Malouel, Christ’s flesh is pierced, his blood flowing. The pained sorrow of the onlookers. Who could fail to be moved? Are we moved by the suffering of a god, or only to the extent that we can relate to it as the suffering of a person. To what extent are we moved by the story, if we know it, the story as we can discern it if we do not know it, or by the plastic elements? If we are moved by the formal components, the how is that different from being moved by a work of abstract expressionism? In fact, isn’t that part of what abstract expressionism sets out to do?
However, unlike the abstract paintings, the medieval paintings do contain content and narrative. How did the people who believed these stories feel when looking at the paintings? Can I truly be said to appreciate them, no matter how moved I may feel, if I do not believe them?
Then I got a sinking sense of “What is it all worth.” Somehow, the paintings started making me feel very small and insignificant.