Images, Imagination, Procreation, and Immersion
Looking at Images Looking at Us
Premodern assumptions about the weaker and impressionable nature of women suggest that the decoration of domestic interiors, and bed chambers in particular, must have been considered critical to the generation of healthy children. Renaissance domestic decorations frequently include Cassone, chests historiated with tales of virtue, but leave little room to determine traces of Jacob’s husbandry practised on consenting wives. In some case, however, we know what men were made to see during sexual intercourse.
Working for his father-in-law for nothing (or perhaps, for the love he bore towards Laban’s second daughter, Rachel), Jacob persuaded Laban that in lieu of wages he should be allowed to keep all the lambs and goats in Laban’s flocks born with piebald coats. Then, through an exercise in what might be called ‘sympathetic magic’, Jacob gave the livestock something to look at in the form of spotted and striped wooden rods which in turn has a direct physical effect on them. Strong and speckled offspring in abundance were his reward.
Like Jacob’s rods, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, initially known as La Bella, was visible during the act of procreation as it hung in an aristocratic bed chamber. The identity of the reclining figure, who may have been called Aurora for her rosy fingers, matters less than her expected effect on male imagination through a convocation of olfactive, tactile, and optical engagement.
In the present, context her assertive gaze is a reminder that premodern doctrines and theories about the weakness and impressionability of women are ‘man-made’ pseudo-scientific fabulation. Yet the sitter also stands out as evidence of the ability of images to interact actively with sensation and thought.
Bayer, Andrea. 2008. ‘From Cassone to Poesia: Paintings of Love and Marriage’, in Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, ed. by Andrea Bayer (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 230–32
Goffen, Rona. 1997. ‘Sex, Space, and Social History in Titian’s Venus of Urbino’, in Titian’s Venus of Urbino, ed. by Rona Goffen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 63–90
From Concept to Immersion
Sol LeWitt began his Wall Drawings in 1968 and continued the series throughout his life. Though he began the series in black and white, he later began to include colour, as in this work.
Bartolomé Murillo’s ‘Jacob series’ (elsewhere in this exhibition) meant to immerse spectators in idyllic landscapes, with their monumental dimensions reminiscent of highway advertisements. LeWitt’s Wall Drawings share a similar immersive purpose. This is accomplished, however, through the impact of non-figurative shapes on the mind and the senses.
Furthermore, in a way that invites comparison with Jacob’s husbandry method (in which what is shown to the animals indicates to them what their own ‘productions’ should look like), the Wall Drawings are primarily sets of instructions. Indeed, as works of conceptual art, the Wall Drawings can be reproduced by anyone carefully following the artist’s directives, and LeWitt himself acknowledged the range of variations produced as part of the work itself. By setting dotted rods intended to trigger ovine imagination and affect their offspring, Jacob was in some way inaugurating this conceptual practice.
In modern and contemporary art, however, the lines, colours, and patterns overwhelm the viewer, triggering questions about the nature of space, art, and its ability to penetrate and move humans.
Carlin, John. 1982. ‘Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings: 1968–1981’, Art Journal, 42.1: 62–64 <https://doi.org/10.2307/776500>
Roberts, Veronica. 2012. ‘“Like a Musical Score”: Variability and Multiplicity in Sol LeWitt’s 1970s Wall Drawings’, Master Drawings, 50.2: 193–210
Ewes Drinking Paint and Immersed Viewers
In various ancient traditions, the belief that images could affect generation led to their introduction in husbandry. Isidore of Seville's Etymologies (12.1.58–60), after quoting the example of ewes watching the reflection in water of handsome rams mounting them, mentions mares being shown images of stallions, and doves surrounded by depictions of the most beautiful specimens of their kind.
According to Bartolomé Murillo’s first biographer, the picture of Jacob Laying Peeled Rods before the Flock of Laban was part of a five-work cycle representing the story of Jacob, along with The Blessing of Jacob, The Dream of the Ladder, The Search for the Idols, and Jacob Meeting Rachel.
These last four subjects feature frequently in Jacob cycles, but the episode of the peeling of the rods is rarely illustrated. A mosaic at Santa Maria Maggiore, two Byzantine manuscripts, one Bible Historiale (c.1400–25), as well as one set of early sixteenth-century tapestries attributed to Barend van Orley, comprise more or less all known earlier representations. Nothing in Murillo’s painting suggests awareness of these distant antecedents, and the personal relevance of the Jacob story to members of the Manrique-Santiago family, who commissioned the cycle, is unclear.
Unlike earlier artists who situated the flock horizontally across the width of the composition, Murillo has arranged the animals in the borders of the image. And Jacob’s rods—dotted or striped in appearance after his partial peeling of them—line the bottom of the composition. Water is placed between them and the viewer.
Murillo has depicted the rods in two aspects, when dry, and when immersed. As the eye moves from right to left, the rods lose their defined shape as they enter the ‘runnels’ (v.38) and become instead floating dots of irregular brushstrokes, mimicking the visual distortion of objects in water. It becomes as though the animals are looking at, and drinking, the painting itself.
One distinctive feature of Murillo’s ‘Jacob cycle’ is its large size, which is comparable to that of a tapestry. Old Testament subjects in seventeenth-century Seville were frequently depicted as landscapes-with-figures (indeed, this picture has often been praised as a ‘mere’ landscape). This green and lush universe—totally unrelated to the dry and rocky landscape of Andalusia—thus offers an immersive experience; one in which the spectator mirrors the animals on the other side of the water—drinking in the transformative power of painting.
Barney, Stephen A., W.J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, et al. (trans.). 2006. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
‘The Index of Medieval Art’ <https://theindex.princeton.edu/> [accessed 15 March 2022]
Mulcahy, Rosemarie. 1993.‘“The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel”: Murillo’s “Jacob” Cycle Complete’, The Burlington Magazine 135.1079: 73–80
Palomino de Castro y Velasco, Antonio, and Nina A. Mallory. 1987. Lives of the Eminent Spanish Painters and Sculptors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Venus of Urbino, c.1534 , Oil on canvas
Sol LeWitt :
Wall Drawing #1144, Broken Bands of Color in Four Directions, 2004 , Acrylic on wall
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo :
Jacob Laying Peeled Rods before the Flocks of Laban , 1665 , Oil on canvas
From Biblical Husbandry to Conceptual Art
In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great established the core Church doctrine according to which religious images are signs of the divinity who is to be honoured but have neither life nor power of their own.
A very different approach emerges from the episode in Genesis 30:37–40, wherein Jacob obtained spotted sheep by making ewes drink and mate in front of spotted patterns.
Jewish and Christian commentators identified in Genesis 30 the joint power of sight and imagination. The Glossa Ordinaria speaks of the power of imagination (vis imaginativa) to affect the human body. Midrash Tanhuma (Nasso 7.9), an approximately eighth–ninth-century compilation of Jewish non-legalistic interpretations of the Scripture, locates the story of Laban’s flock within the context of marital relations and sexual female purity. As a largely pedagogical and moralising genre, the midrashic text warns against potential sexual transgressions that could be committed by women, and so evokes the aesthetic–ethical consequences of looking upon specific objects and images. The text elaborates on the idea of adultery that may result from a woman’s gaze cast in various circumstances upon any man who is not her husband: since such an image can be brought to the woman’s mind during intercourse, it could bring legal consequences upon her as much as on the couple’s offspring conceived during the intercourse.
As its narrative prooftext, the Tanhuma points both to the fate of Laban’s flock of Genesis 30:39 and to a story probably modelled on Heliodore’s late antique novel the Aethiopica. According to the latter account, a Black royal couple produced a white child as a consequence of the queen casting her gaze upon the image of a white person displayed in her household. In the rabbinic view, only modest and proper conduct—that is, within the purview of the rabbinic legal tradition—can effect righteous offspring: ‘when any woman is alone with her husband in holiness, in the end he produces righteous children from her’ (Midrash Tanhuma, Nasso 13.1).
Since humans shared with animals the sensitive soul where imagination was thought to be located, the impact of images on human reproduction was considered a natural phenomenon that explained the birth of odd or abnormal children—especially in view of what was then assumed to be the passive and impressionable nature of women. By the sixteenth century the list of cases, of which Genesis 30 and Heliodore’s Aethiopica were the textual starting points, extended to medical theory wherein imagination affected not only the colour but also the shape of the offspring. Thus, the physician and surgeon Ambroise Paré (c.1510–90), under the heading of ‘Monsters generated by imagination’, lists a hairy child born from a lady who observed the picture of St John the Baptist (usually depicted as hairy and wearing animal fur) during conception, alongside a case of a frog-faced child delivered by a woman who held a frog in her hand (at the time considered a cure for headache) for an entire day on which she had intercourse with her husband—a case of tactile transmission of images (Paré 1598: 1022).
Modern science has entirely discarded the biological foundation of these ideas, but modern art and art installations from the twentieth century onwards have developed strategies for immersing audiences and penetrating the personal and inner space of their viewers, and have thus reclaimed the assumed ability of images, abstract or figurative, to affect human interiority.
The three selected art works in this exhibition expand on these aspects. Bartolomé Murillo’s version engages the viewer in the most extensive and immersive retelling of the episode. Titian’s Venus shares with Jacob’s rods the fact that it was destined to be seen during the multi-sensory context of procreation. It is also an image that looks at us, with an assertiveness that is both evidence of the forward movement of images towards the viewer and a plain contradiction of premodern beliefs about female passivity. With Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings, carefully planned lines, colours, and patterns surround the viewer in installations extending over 200 metres and literally transform her outer and inner space.
Rarely quoted and seldom illustrated, this episode points to common beliefs about the power of images upon body and mind. It presents an example of an immersive multi-sensory approach to optical perception and exposes a system of beliefs in which images are not only passive objects of visual perception but are things which also penetrate the body-mind in the process of looking.
Townsend, John T. (ed.). 1989. Midrash Tanḥuma: S. Buber Recension (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav)
Paré, Ambroise. 1598. Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré, ... Divisées En 29 Livres... Reveuës et Augmentées par l’autheur peu avant son décès. 5e Édition, available at <https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8602944f> [accessed 15 March 2022]
Reeve, M. D. 1989. ‘Conceptions’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 35.215: 81–112
Walahfrid Strabo, Anselm, Guilielmus Brito, Jerome, Pablo, et al. (eds). 1498. Biblia Latina: Cum Glossa Ordinaria Walafridi Strabonisaliorumque et Interlineari Anselmi Laudunensis ; et Cum Postillis Ac Moralitatibus Nicolai de Lyra et Expositionibus Guillelmi Britonis in Omnes Prologos S. Hieronymi et Additionibus Pauli Burgensis Replicisque Matthiae Doering (Basel: Johann Froben and Johann Petri de Langendorff)