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November 13, 2011 7:36 AM   Subscribe

Signs & Symbols: Decoding Mediaeval & Renaissance Iconography. An online exhibition from the Dunedin Public Library. Does what is implied on the tin, if you have a grounding in the history of tin-decoration.
posted by Horace Rumpole (10 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Ooooh, I love a good excuse to go make happy noises at pages of illumination. Thanks for this.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 7:44 AM on November 13, 2011

Very nice. I think the tin implied a little more decoding than is actually on offer, but that's not a problem.
posted by Segundus at 7:54 AM on November 13, 2011

Thanks, Rumpole. I'll be back in three days, or I'll write.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 7:57 AM on November 13, 2011

Very cool.
posted by pised at 8:00 AM on November 13, 2011

What a coincidence, I was just wondering yesterday why so many cultures from the mid-East to east Asia depicted their portraits of illuminated people with halos and aureolas.

Of course the modern 'decoding' is that it symbolizes 'illumination' (and not literal clouds of light around people's heads). But then, if so, what are we to make of the halos getting smaller, thinner, more transparent as time goes by - they were becoming lesser illuminati? Rising cost of paint? Increased willingness to detail backgrounds? Are such widespread similarities (and differences; aureolas seem more common in Asia) the result of travelling fads? More- or less substantial degrees of illumination? Nods to the 'laurels' of auld?

Enquiring minds want to know! Alas, no answers on the exhibition's page. And of course it's just silly to suggest that such depictions had some basis in, say, actual glowing heads. Maybe.
posted by Twang at 8:43 AM on November 13, 2011

The exhibition catalog can be downloaded as a PDF. Fantastic find, thanks.
posted by immlass at 9:17 AM on November 13, 2011

My trusty copy of Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, by George Ferguson, has Halos listed in section XI, "Radiances, Letters, Colors, and Numbers." After discussing Aureoles, and Mandorlas, we come to the Halo, or Nimbus. It's defined as a zone of light, generally represented as a circle, square, or triangle.

If I remember correctly, the depiction of the halo started with medieval love of flat, elaborate patterning that, as things got back into the classical mode of three-dimensional roundedness and realistic observation, got fainter and fainter until some artists dropped it entirely. But that's a progression that doesn't follow a strict linear timeline - changing tastes and the desires of the person commissioning the work have something to do with it as well.
posted by PussKillian at 1:10 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the flat dinner-plate type halo shows up in the 15th century with Masaccio, closely tied to Italian experiments with linear perspective and that trend's descendants. If you're shooting for a 'realistic' effect, that sort of gold leaf nimbus doesn't play real nice with the illusion. The classical halos that spring to mind (thinking of a handful of images of Sol Invictus that spring to memory) are also pretty darn flat and planar, as are the ones in early Buddhist art.

Nice O.P.!
posted by Capybara at 3:06 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Medieval Christianity saw the Jewish Bible as an allegory to the future coming of Christ and his life. Medieval Christians believed the Old Testament had been God's way of preparing people for the coming of Christ, sort of like children's books prepare us for adulthood. So in Medieval art you see Old testament stories allegorically re-told as events in Christs life. It's pretty arcane to us today, but cool when you get into the details, there's a system with codes and keys that when revealed can mirror a religious experience in that "ah hah!" moment. The art can be intensely detailed and difficult to decipher. I'm not sure we have anything like it in the modern world, maybe semiotics, but that's not allegorical. I'm not at all religious but medieval art is a world that's really interesting and complex, probably more than most people give it credit (dark ages and all).
posted by stbalbach at 6:13 PM on November 13, 2011

You know that for a while square halos (as opposed to the round ones for saints) were used for people who were distinguished but secular?
posted by Segundus at 3:24 AM on November 14, 2011

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