Decorative Initial HAVING observed (perhaps unexpectedly) that Ruskin's allegorical interpretations of Turner prove valid, we shall find it no surprise that his similar readings of medieval and Renaissance painting, poetry, and architecture prove appropriate. His long acquaintance with the artist and his works, both public and private, surely account for much of his understanding of Turner, but the fact that they shared the same views both of allegorical art and the themes such art should portray contributes equally to his excellence as a critic of Turner. And, since his methods of interpretation and the habits of mind which produce them derive from older views of allegorical reading, both religious and secular, one should expect that the same sensitivity to detail, the same knowledge of poetic, mythological, and iconographical traditions, which aided in the understanding of a nineteenth-century painter, should become even more obviously useful in his critiques of earlier allegorical arts.

When examining Ruskin's conceptions of the Symbolical Grotesque, we have already seen how sympathetically, how astutely, he interprets Spenser. Raised on typological exegetics, Pilgrim's Progress, and Quarles's Emblems, Ruskin, one may expect, read Milton and Herbert with equal skill, and when one turns to his writings on medieval works the suitability of his critical methods appears even more evident. For after one has observed that Ruskin, who possesses an essentially medieval conception of the world, reads both scripture and nature-scripture allegorically, one correctly expects him to approach the painting and architecture of the Middle Ages with a sympathy and an attuned sensibility rare in a Victorian critic. His Bible of Amiens and the sections on Torcello, St. Mark's, and the Ducal Palace in The Stones of Venice provide examples of his fine readings of medieval iconography, while his interpretations of Tintoretto, Veronese, Dürer, and others throughout his works similarly exemplify his skillful exegesis of later art.

Since his allegorical and symbolical interpretations arise in typological readings of scripture, it is particularly interesting to observe the way he applies figuralism to medieval and Renaissance painting. In Giotto and His Works in Padua, for example, he employs his knowledge of scriptural types to suggest interpretations of the work of one of his favorite artists. Commenting on Giotto's depiction of Christ's expulsion of the money lenders from the Temple, he explains that Christ's "raising of the right hand . . . resembles the action afterwards adopted by Orcagna, and finally by Michael Angelo in his Last Judgment: and my belief is, that Giotto considered this act of Christ's as partly typical of the final judgment, the Pharisees being placed on the left hand, and the disciples on the right" (24.91). Briefly relating the pose to later works, Ruskin suggests, but does not insist upon, his own typological interpretations. This approach to Giotto's art also appears throughout Modern Painters. For instance, in the final volume he again explicates typological symbolism in art when discussing Veronese's Presentation of the Queen of Sheba. He mentions that one of the figures on the left side of the painting holds a white falcon "its wings spread, and brilliantly relieved against the purple robe of one of the elders. It touches with its wings one of the golden lions of the throne, on which the light also flashes strongly; thus forming, together with it, the lion and eagle symbol, which is the type [symbol, not figura] of Christ throughout mediaeval work. In order to show the meaning of this symbol, and that Solomon is typically [figurally] invested with the Christian royalty, one of the elders, by a bold anachronism, holds a jewel in his hand in the shape of a cross, with which he (by accident of gesture) points to Solomon" (7.293). Such evident delight in explicating symbolism (even after he had lost the faith which provided its basis) provides the necessary complement to his often remarkable ability to perceive the details, formal and iconographical, of a work of art.

These same procedures, which make Ruskin such an able critic of medieval and Renaissance symbolism, appear again in his figural reading of Tintoretto's Scuola San Rocco Annunciation. He first remarks that the painter has placed the Virgin "houseless, under the shelter of a palace vestibule ruined and abandoned"(4.264), and then calls attention to the carpenter's tools which lie amid the mass of scattered brickwork. Tintoretto, he points out, has composed his picture so that a narrow line of light, the edge of a carpenter's square, "connects these unused tools with an object at the top of the brickwork, a white stone, four square, the corner-stone of the old edifice, the base of its supporting column. This, I think, sufficiently explains the typical character of the whole. The ruined house is the Jewish dispensation; that obscurely arising in the dawning of the sky is the Christian; but the corner-stone of the old building remains, though the builders' tools lie idle beside it, and the stone which the builders refused is become the Headstone of the Corner [Psalms 118.22]"(4.265). These figural interpretations of Renaissance painting, which again show the effects of Ruskin's Evangelical upbringing upon his practice as art critic, display the same exegetical skill, the same attention to detail, and the same delight in elaborate pictorial symbolism apparent in his writings on Turner.

[Ruskin's reading of Tintoretto's Annunciation, as I have shown in my later works, provided one of the basic inspirations for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for it provided the young painters with a means of combining hard-edge, near-photographic realism with serious, uplifting themes. For discussions of this Ruskinian influence and its wide effects, see "The Influence of John Ruskin" in William Holman Hunt and Typological Simbolism (Yale UP, 1979) and Typology and the Visual Arts" in Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows (Routledge, 1980).]

In addition, Evangelical typology not only contributed heavily to Ruskin's practice as interpretive critic — by providing him both with a thorough knowledge of conventional types and with the attitudes requisite for complex symbolic readings — but also influenced his art theory. Most importantly, the attitudes which Ruskin derived from Evangelical readings of scripture led him to formulate an artistic program for Victorian painting, one, he believed, more suited to the needs of the age than the genre scenes and domestic narratives so popular at the Academy. His pleasure in allegory, which characterizes much of his response to art after the first volume of Modern Painters, marks a change from his earlier views, for he had not always voiced such sympathy toward allegory in painting. In an essay which he contributed to Loudon's Architectural Magazine in 1838, five years before the beginning of Modern Painters, Ruskin voices attitudes much different from those apparent in his frequent later praise of this symbolic mode. Holding that allegory cannot be combined with a realistic style, he obviously believes that a work in this mode must set itself apart, clearly and definitely, from the world of fact: "All allegory must be perfect in itself, or it is absurd; therefore, allegory cannot be combined with nature" (1.256). His other remarks about the "mechanical" (1.256) nature of allegory, which suggest that he believes it requires rigid symmetry, reveal that at this point he had a far more restricted view of pictorial symbolism than he later evolved. In fact, when thus commenting upon allegorical art in 1838, he seems to limit it to emblems of fame which float over the heads of victorious generals. Nonetheless, despite these views, he tentatively allowed in a note that "if the surrounding features could be made a part of the allegory, their combination might be proper." Therefore: "where the allegorical images are representations of truth, bearing a hidden signification, it is sometimes possible to make nature a part of the allegory" (l.256n). This realization that the artist might endow a realistically painted scene with allegorical meanings became the basis for his conceptions of the allegorical grotesque, and his hesitant acceptance of this notion of symbolism in 1838 evolved more than a decade later into the assertion that he awaits "the dawn of a new era of art, in a true unison of the grotesque with the realistic power" (5.137).

The evolution of his habits of scriptural exegesis into a program for contemporary painting was characteristically complex. First of all, his Italian journeys in preparation for the second volume of Modern Painters, and his reading of Lindsay and Rio, had convinced him of the major value of medieval and Renaissance art, and, realizing that this art, rather than that of landscape, formed the central tradition of Western art, he increasingly granted it reverence and praise. Captivated by the work of Florence, Rome, and Venice, he turned to it, rather than to the creations of Turner, for his examples of beauty and imagination in the second volume, and then, having apparently led himself and his reader far from their proposed critical itinerary, he saw the need in the third volume to set the art of Turner within a larger context. Thus, he had now first to explain the rise of interest in landscape, something of an anomaly in the history of art, and second he had to explain how he could praise medieval works which did not seem to fit the criteria of his opening volume. In the course of detailing the history of landscape and the art devoted to it, Ruskin pointed out that the painting of Christian times falls "into two great masses — Symbolic and Imitative" (5.262), and that the criteria for one do not fit the other. Afterwards he consistently maintained this distinction, explaining in his commentaries on Giotto, for instance, that the "abstract and symbolical suggestion will always appeal to one order of minds, the dramatic completeness to another. Unquestionably, the last is the greater achievement of intellect, but the manner and habit of thought are perhaps loftier in Giotto [than in later painters]. Veronese leads us to perceive the reality of the act, and Giotto to understand its intention"(24.101).

Such admission of a second major category of imaginative work in no way violates Ruskin's theories of art, for as he previously explained both in The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters, Volume III, the imagination produces both the Symbolical Grotesque and the higher, Turnerian mode of landscape. In other words, whereas Turner's natural scenes embody the reaction of imagination in the presence of the visible truths of landscape, allegorical painting embodies the reaction of the imagination in the presence of abstract truths: great landscape painting is the art of the visual faculty, great allegory the art of the visionary one. The greatest imaginative art, however, must combine both, using realistic technique to portray the Symbolical Grotesque; and according to Ruskin, this wedding of modern realism with visionary subject should be the aim and continual enterprise of the contemporary artist. The "modern painter of mythology," for example, must "place, at the service of former imagination, the art which it had not — and to realize for us, with a truth then impossible, the visions described by the wisest of men . . . bringing the resources of accomplished art to unveil the hidden splendour of old imagination" (33.296). This goal, which Ruskin believes aptly describes the arts of men as different in thought and style as Turner, Hunt, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones, appears to him the only way Victorian painting could rise above the trivial and the merely entertaining.

In the last of his commentaries on Giotto, written the same year as his allegorical readings of Turner, Ruskin contrasts the effects of much contemporary art with that of the earlier painter: "The worst characters of modern work result from its constant appeal to our desire of change, and pathetic excitement; while the best features of the elder art appealed to love of contemplation. It would appear to be the object of the truest artists to give permanence to images such as we should always desire to behold, and might behold without agitation; while the inferior branches of design are concerned with the acuter passions which depend on the turn of a narrative, or the course of an emotion" (24.109). This comparison of the repose of Giotto with the emphasis upon story and emotionalism he finds in Victorian painting emphasizes what he finds wrong with Academy painting. Seven years later he analyzed its flaws in more detail and offered a corrective in his brilliant lecture "Modern Art," which a century after its composition remains one of the finest, most perceptive descriptions of the character of Victorian art. He first points out how even its good qualities, in particular its compassionateness, produce narrowness, triviality, and false emotionalism. The compassionateness of contemporary art, he explains, leads artists to portray by choice the poor instead of the noble, the peasant instead of the king, and as a result painters inevitably reduce the scope and value of their art. Furthermore, the work of his contemporaries, even the better work by men such as Wilkie and Leslie, allows "human sympathy" to warp it "away from its own proper sources of power . . . turning the muse of painting into a sister of Charity" (19.198). The resultant sentimentality destroys the value of a painting as art, however much it may make it an effective tract for the times. Deriving his theories of didacticism and beauty from older notions of moral sympathy, Ruskin yet insists that, though the theoretic faculty may rely on sympathetic perception of emotion, the successful in art must avoid playing directly with feelings of artist and audience alike. According to Ruskin, only beauty and symbolism properly exercise the feelings of the spectator, and the art which tries to take short cuts to pleasure or moral value must inevitably go astray.

Secondly, nineteenth-century painting is marked and marred by a characteristic "Domesticity" and concomitant narrowness, superficiality, and complacency. "All previous art," Ruskin asserts, "contemplated men in their public aspect, and expressed only their public Thought. But our art paints their home aspect, and reveals their home thoughts. Old art waited reverently in the Forum. Ours plays happily in the Nursery" (19.200). Thus, whereas the art of past times served the cause of state and religion, Victorian painting greatly limits its subject and potential for good by concentrating on the interests, events, and emotions of home. From this domesticity derive in turn the third and fourth qualities of contemporary work — its "shallowness" and "sanctified littleness" (19.20l). As Ruskin explains, a "great part of the virtue of Home is actually dependent on Narrowness of thought. To be quite comfortable in your nest, you must not care too much about what is going on outside" (19.20l). The nation which takes its chief artistic delight in domestic scenes could only do so by turning its back on the unpleasantness, troubles, and turmoil of public life. Furthermore, neglecting the broad areas of social, political, and religious concern which had nourished previous great painting, this "Art of the Nest" (19.200) inevitably separates itself from the intellectual and spiritual needs of the age. "And thus while the pictures of the Middle Ages are full of intellectual matter and meaning — schools of philosophy and theology, and solemn exponents of the faiths and fears of earnest religion — we may pass furlongs of exhibition wall without receiving any idea or sentiment, other than that home-made ginger is hot in the mouth, and that it is pleasant to be out on the lawn in fine weather" (19.201). Such art is safe, but it is trivial: it may not disturb the minds of its audience, but the very avoidance of important subject matter which makes it acceptable prevents it from either edifying or providing major pleasure. Although Ruskin clearly dislikes much about contemporary taste, he does not attack the audience for its preferences, he does not attack the age for its art. When he made these criticisms he had lost faith in the truths of religion and himself doubted the public "truths" of contemporary politics and economics; and well aware that the art of his contemporaries portrayed private affairs because public ones were in such doubt, he gently, if accurately, points to the emptiness in English art.

With similar perception of underlying causes, Ruskin describes that "eccentricity" (19.202) which characterizes contemporary painting. The quest for novelty which produces eccentricity derives from the need of artist and audience alike to find solace and diversion in private matters. In other words, the eccentricity, like the domesticity, of Victorian painting signifies that the center of nineteenth-century life has not held, that common concerns, traditions, and beliefs have been so weakened by doubt and disagreement that the sources of strength in earlier art have vanished:

The difficulty of consistent teaching multiplies with our multitudes, and the sense of every word we utter is lost in the hubbub of voices. Hence we have of late learned the little we could, each of us by our own weary gleaning or collision with contingent teachers, none of whom we recognize as wise, or listen to with any honest reverence. If we like what they say, we adopt it and over-act it; if we dislike, we refuse and contradict it. And therefore our art is a chaos of small personal powers and preferences, of originality corrupted by isolation or of borrowed merit appropriated by autograph of private folly. It is full of impertinent insistence upon contrary aims and competitive display of diverse dexterities, most of them ignorant, all of them partial, pitifully excellent, and deplorably admirable. (19.202)

Modern art arises, then, the result of modern individualism — not the individualism of the hero working for his fellows but that of each man who exists, lost and alone, a discrete unit in a formless, competitive society. This "fury" for originality, for novelty, for eccentricity, "though partly the result of everything being made a matter of trade, is yet more the consequence of our thirst for dramatic instead of classic work" (19.209). This "fatal . . . desire of dramatic excitement" (19.203), the sixth and last attribute of contemporary painting, embodies its other unfortunate characteristics. First of all, its emphasis upon action, frequently trivial action, signifies that art has lost its traditional subjects. Since men no longer share major belief, since the artist no longer knows what to say to his audience, he says little; and since, like his audience, he cannot receive pleasure from depictions of religious truths, he paints insignificant, uncontroversial scenes from parlor and nursery. The emphasis upon "dramatic excitement," which reveals how earlier painting's central themes have become inaccessible, also betrays a loss of belief in essential truths, in that which remains constant and unchanging. To this dramatic, changeful painting Ruskin compares the constant art of the great ages: "Constant art represents beautiful things, or creatures, for the sake of their own worthiness only; they are in perfect repose, and are there only to be looked at. They are doing nothing. It is what they are, not what they are doing, which is to interest you" (19.203). Perugino's St. Michael, the Parthenon Theseus, the Venus of Melos stand forth, embodying something as essence — a belief or a beauty — which we regard with pleasure. "Dramatic art, on the other hand, represents an action in some way; the personages of it may be as noble or beautiful as those of the classic school, but they must be doing or suffering something.... Leonardo's Cena, Michael Angelo's Last Judgment, and Raphael's Cartoons are received examples of dramatic art" (19.203). One may of course combine the two modes to produce such great works as Tintoretto's Scuola San Rocco Christ Before Pilate or Titian's Assumption.

According to Ruskin, the finest painters usually employ the dramatic element in painting with great reserve. "In vulgar art, on the contrary, the drama or story become principal; the spectator does not care whether the figures are beautiful or rightly executed, he only cares about what is going on"(19.204). One reason, says Ruskin, that this dramatic art frequently becomes vulgarized is that

vulgar people can enjoy a story though they cannot judge of perfect form or character.... The lower people of course like it, and inferior painters can produce it. For one man who can paint a beautiful form ten can tell a pleasant story, and ten times ten can tell an unpleasant story (19.204).

Ruskin sorrowfully perceived that in his own time the danger always potential in narrative painting had become actual: painting had been sacrificed to narrative, and telling a story in paint, which always risks neglecting the most essential aspects of pictorial art, had in fact produced an art catering to those who could not appreciate the beauties of form and color. Narrative, dramatic, and genre painting had all too frequently resulted in vulgarized art for those unable to appreciate a higher one. Such a condition in painting had perverted the notion that it was a sister to literature, for pictorial art had become, not an analogue or honored rival to poetry, but a mere appendage. Ruskin offers several reasons for the conditions he found in contemporary art: the undeveloped taste of the new middle-class audience, the role of the art market, the loss of important themes and common belief.

To improve the art of England Ruskin proposes that painters should strive to emulate the older constant art. Citing Turner's Apollo and Python as an example of modern art which properly combines the constant and dramatic, the iconic and the narrative, Ruskin holds that such a revival of great art had already been attempted by Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites (19.206). Allegory, it is clear, must provide a major source of strength for this artistic program, for it not only enables the painter to present truths otherwise beyond the grasp of his medium, but also permits him to avoid the dangers of overconcentration upon narrative. Returning to the Apollo and Python, one observes that, according to Ruskin, this painting embodies the great conflicts of men's lives — the battles of memory with forgetfulness, life with death, and purity with sin — but it does so in a curiously distant way. Almost the entire painting is static, iconic, a permanent image of a permanent truth. In fact, the only action that occurs in the picture is the fall of a huge rock, which, says Ruskin elsewhere, has been loosened by Python's death pangs. The only action, in other words, is movement of natural objects, and one may say that Ruskin, who has high praise for such Turnerian renderings of nature's power and motion as the Snow Storms, believed that the motion of nature, though not of man, could be the subject of high art. Just as Ruskin believed the painter should depict trees and rocks in more detail than the form of the human body, he also thought the actions of nature more suitable than man's to the greatest art. For Ruskin, violent human action, such as Apollo's battle, must occur offstage, deducible from the picture but not present in it. Thus, the emphasis upon a calm, classicistic beauty so evident in his aesthetic theories appears again in his conceptions of ideal art, and in each allegory plays a significant role: the fact that changeful aesthetic emotions figure forth unchanging divine qualities both makes beauty morally and spiritually valuable and enables it to partake of the eternal; the fact that the highest art usually employs allegory, God's way of communicating wisdom to the limited capacities of men, similarly both makes it a vehicle for essential, unchanging truths and enables it to incorporate iconic, emblematic imagery, thus avoiding the dangers of too much concentration upon the changeful in pictorial narrative. The delight in repose, balance, and moderation which marks Ruskin's theories of beauty also expectedly colors his conceptions of ideal art, and his notions of allegory and symbolism permit him to argue for these desired qualities; in theories of both art and aesthetics the characteristic ability of allegory to partake of essences lying outside human space and time enable it to create a calm, classicistic beauty and a style of painting appropriate to such an aesthetic.

Before Ruskin completed Modern Painters he lost the original faith which had engendered his conceptions of both beauty and interpretation. This loss of religion severely weakened the value of his aesthetic theory as a defense of the arts, for as long as he firmly believed that the beautiful signified God, he could rest assured that "these visionary pleasures" are "cause for thankfulness, ground for hope, anchor for faith, more than . . . all the other manifold gifts and guidances, wherewith God crowns the years, and hedges the paths of Men" (4.145). The art which conveys theological beauty thus is a spiritual force, the perception of beauty a spiritual act. Once, however, the foundations of this aesthetic weakened, Ruskin had to find another major explanation of man's need for art.

Even though this loss of belief did not affect his theory of Vital Beauty, which emphasized moral sympathy and the exercise of the moral faculties, as seriously as it did his more elaborate theological aesthetic, he still needed another chief defense of the moral and spiritual worth of painting and her sisters. Hence it seems quite possible that his increasing emphasis upon allegory, which occupies the center of Modern Painters, Volume V, provided Ruskin with such an argument: as he lost faith in the capacity of the visionary pleasures of beauty to provide spiritual value for the arts, he turned to the visionary pleasures of the Symbolical Grotesque. Since, however, the opening volume of Modern Painters had announced that a later section of the work would discuss meaning in the arts, such a change of emphasis, though actual, well fit into his original plan and did not distort the overall organization of his study. Nonetheless, his major concern with the Symbolical Grotesque in The Stones of Venice and succeeding volumes, and his later emphasis upon allegorically conceived myth clearly show his growing reliance on allegory as a source of value for the arts. Therefore, whether or not one accepts that the fifth volume of Modern Painters consciously replaced his earlier defense of painting, it remains clear that such argument from allegory both increasingly occupied his attention and shaped his program for an ideal Victorian art.


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Last modified 27 July 2005