Damnable sprinkling

Reading at the moment some mediaeval treatises on tempera painting (Cennino Cennini, &c), I become self-conscious.  The mediaeval mind criticizes the modern mind, though without getting personal. This is because the writers (and illuminators) had no idea what the modern world would be like. They could not make specific accusations. But they had a way to anticipate it, and in their visions of hell-scapes and dreadful afflictions, they could preview.

Curiously, when we look back, we search for exemplary unpleasantness in the past realm, in a more personal way, since, coming later, we read a history full of names. But the Middle Ages were largely free of names (and nominalism). In art, especially, they were full of anonymity. They are vividly presented in little survivals of their works, which the modern mind neglects — for like American tourists we are only interested in the plumbing. The modern mind is ugly and looking for ugliness, except when it recovers mediaeval habits. But these orphaned objects are beautiful beyond words. (The same could be said for the high cultures of Persia, Hind, Sinica, Nihon: look back to see only things that are disappearing.)

I was alerted by the terms Ingenium, Intellectus, and Ratio. While there was nothing surprising in these concepts, the (pre-modern) master conceives the possibility that they might be used in error. They could be “sprinkled on the top” of a composition, like candied violets. His purpose was, in contrast, to integrate these creative dimensions on the parchment or the panel: a distinctly ivory ground. Instead of departing from our harsh whites, he was a gentleman, rising through colour to gilding.

He was not a neurotic. He did not fidget, or correct, like a painter in slow-drying oil. Accustomed to “unforgiving” media (vide tempera) which expose truth and falsehood, he was trained to get things right in the first place.