Vanity and Witness – Temporality in the Plastic Arts, Part II

While I am sure that many a Part I’s have been written without a mate ever being supplied (pastors and ministers are notorious for this in my experience), I would really like to transfer my Part II from haunting the back of mind onto (proverbial) paper.

The reason for my writing this post in two parts in the first place is due to two different ways in which temporality is manifested in the plastic arts, although I suspect that they are in fact difficult to disentangle. The first is a temporal experience on the part of the viewer arising out of his or her engagement with a piece. Arvo Part, for example, experienced the blurring of time and eternity through the sculpture Marsyas. The second is a more intentional temporality inscribed in the piece by its maker. I will discuss this in two examples.


The first is a genre of still-life paintings known as the Vanitas paintings. The name originates from Ecclesiastes, in which the phrase “vanity, vanity, everything is vanity” is repeated a number of times. These paintings consist of a number of objects, one of which is always a skull, representing death. Other common objects representing transience might include a wilting flower or a soap bubble. Among these representations of death the artist also paints objects representing earthly treasure, success, knowledge, beauty etc. There is a Vanitas painting in the Ashmolean museum that is particularly interesting because it depicts a mask and a skull facing and almost touching one another. The implication of these paintings, from Ecclesiastes, is clear. The inevitability of death makes all the treasures, success and knowledge of the world but vanity.

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life with the Spinario, Rijksmuseum

Particularly interesting about this genre is the juxtaposition between the medium and the message. One could say that the paintings seek to represent the passing of time, yet time is here represented in the most motionless way possible: through a still-life, and what’s more, a still-life that does not have anything living in it (other than the occasional wilting flower). Inanimate objects might undergo decay, but they cannot experience time. A further irony is the hidden implication that while the beauty, knowledge, life and success of the owner of the painting will all come to an end, the painting itself will far out-live the owner. I also wonder about the common use of musical instruments in the vanitas paintings. They may represent gaiety and dancing, but they might also be thought to represent the passing of time in music and the rhythm of life (also in Ecclesiastes – a time to laugh, a time to cry, a time to dance, a time to mourn etc.). This is all speculation, but the painting does seem to represent a certain intersection of time and timelessness, as does Ecclesiastes itself. There is both the linear passing of time in which all things come to an end, but there is also the recurring rhythms of time in which events, fame, knowledge etc. continually ebb and flow, such that ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’

Medieval Composition and Participation

Second, Mary Carruthers has fairly convincingly demonstrated that medieval reading and exegesis was a very different practice from what it is today. In The Craft of Thought1 she discusses how the practice of memorizing texts was really an act of composition. The purpose was to make something out of one’s store of knowledge. In this process, mental images were used as gathering places for texts and ideas. However, these images were not static, but interactive. The reader would compose mental images that contained spaces between rooms or buildings in order to avoid the crowding of concepts. Recollection involved mental walking or moving from one location to another. Thus it involved a temporal interaction with one’s mental composition. Furthermore, the gathering of these texts and concepts into an image was not the result of a survey of texts from a point outside of time and place. The purpose, rather, was to bring the text, through composition, to bear on one’s situation. It was a making present of the past (one of the metaphors used to describe the composer was that of ‘conjurer,’ someone who could juggle past, present and future). The purpose of these mental compositions was most often rhetorical. They were used to construct persuasive speeches in order to present evidence. The aim here was to make one’s speech as vivid as possible, to make an event present in time so as to transform listeners into witnesses. Imagination, implicated in all dimensions of rationality was therefore the most valuable skill in reading, composing and speaking. Mental composition in reading was therefore inherently temporal. It was the making present of the past in order to witness an event in real time.

We might ask whether this temporality was ever concretized in images external to the mind. There are several examples of paintings or pictures in books in which the patron of the pictures is him or herself depicted. While it was previously always thought that this was an attempt on the part of the painter to secure the good-will of his benefactor, Carruthers understands these pictures differently in light of her research. Consider, for example Hours of Mary of Burgundy:

Hours of Mary Burgundy, 1480.

Mary of Burgundy is here reading scripture, the words of which lead her to witness the Virgin and child through her mind’s eye, depicted by the window. Even more involved is the painting Christ as the Gardener (of which I could not find a picture), in which Charles VIII of France is actually participating in the story! These sorts of paintings lead Carruthers to believe that belief was understood to come not from mere hearing and comprehension but from temporal participation in the story of scripture through the making of mental images.

Even more helpful, for my purposes, is the fact that Carruthers suggests that all of the art-forms which we now distinguish into genres actually overlapped far more in medieval thought. All composition involved the artisan practice of composing off of an image. In particular, she suggests that the distinction between rhetoric and poetry was not made prior to the 17th century. The sound of words was therefore very important in these making-present speeches. Words were meant to be heard, not read. Therefore, meaning was not something independent of the rhythm of words, but inherent to that rhythm itself, as in poetry.

Carruthers is therefore able to demonstrate the relationship in rhetoric between image, rhythm, and temporality. The painting of a vivid image through the rhythm and poetry of one’s words initiates the hearer into participation in a past event as witness. This temporal relationship has then been manifested in several paintings. This brings us to an observation that I made in passing at the beginning of this post; the temporality inherent to an image and the incidental temporal experiences that one might participate in through an image are in fact difficult to separate.


1Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images 400-1200, (Cambrdige, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998). While most of this information can be found in her book, I am basing my synopsis of her research on a the Speaker’s Lectures in Biblical Studies given at Oxford University, on January 23rd, January 25th, and February 6th entitledAesthetics, Rhetoric, and Reading the Medieval Bible.


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