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Saturday morning quotes 6.16: Music & Art

September 3, 2016

athos28eA primary source of information that informs our modern-day interpretations of music from the 16th century is visual art; representations of musicians depicted performing for one another, before an audience, or in private, whether in real or fanciful situations. Literary descriptions invariably tend toward the latter with fawning flattery or exaggerated imagery, but visual depictions of instrumentalists plying their trade constitute the closest thing we have to photographs from a very distant past.

Lutenist and luthier Alfonso Marin has assembled a large collection of historical paintings depicting lutes and other plucked strings, and luthier David Van Edwards has made a very particular study of the topic and publishes an ongoing series that includes an insightful and detailed description of a different painting in each issue of the Lute News, published by the Lute Society.

The physical evidence available to us for examination may answer many questions that have to do with how a particular instrument was held, and how instruments may have been used in ensemble.  Or not.  From the illustration above, are we to believe that a lute (played by a left-handed lutenist) was played outdoors with a consort of fiddle, trumpet, and a cow-horn?  Was a lute the deciding factor in bringing down the walls of Jericho?

Of course we have to use our intelligence when interpreting real or fanciful depictions of instruments found in old paintings and sculpture.  There are probably just as many cases of virtual impossibilities as there are genuine representative examples of instruments and instrumental technique to be found in historical art. But the crux of the matter lies in a well-informed interpretation, which is really a matter of judgement based on years of experience and an understanding of the difference between the real, the fantastical, and the contrived.

We like to hammer home the point that without a contextual understanding of early music, interpretations simply lack depth and dimension.  The same is true of our interpretations of visual art: It is entirely too easy to interpret historical symbolism in a way that fits our modern ideas and our modern agendas.  Our quotes are from an article “This ‘Sistine code’ theory is daft. Michelangelo is not a feminist hero” by art critic Jonathan Jones.

“It’s a lovely thought. Up in the heights of the very chapel where the all-male cardinals of the Catholic church meet in conclave to elect popes, there is a 500-year-old feminist code that mocks the misogyny of the Christian religion. A code so well-hidden and so subversive that only now can its shattering satire on Catholic patriarchy be revealed.”

“So claims Dr Deivis de Campos…Using their 21st-century medical knowledge, De Campos and his collaborators can discern uncannily accurate renderings of the human uterus, ovaries and Fallopian tubes hidden in the shapes of curly-horned ram’s skulls that Michelangelo included among the dizzying illusory architecture, colossal male nudes, and scenes from the Bible that he painted right along the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. These allusions to the female reproductive system are a concealed attack on Catholic misogyny, suggest the scientists, by an artist who thought Christianity could learn a lot from the more matriarchal traditions of Judaism and the pagan world.”

“This was not Catholic dogma. The scientists have got it completely backwards: Christian art in Michelangelo’s time was full of strong, beautiful, holy women. Nor did anyone force Michelangelo to paint this misogynist image of the Fall. He had huge artistic freedom.”

“We cannot just transpose our own ideals and values on to the past.”

The same concept applies to our interpretations of historical music.  If we truly care about interpreting the music of Josquin, we have to make an effort to understand the important role liturgical and devotional music played in daily life during the 15th and 16th centuries.  The very first piece in the very first published music for lute, Francesco Spinacino’s Intabolatura de lauto libro primo (1507) is an intabulation of a setting of Ave Maria by Josquin: This was not a random choice.


  1. It’s quite astonishing what you can read from historical depictions, if you only have a few well-informed clues you are looking for, know which symbols were used and what they meant at that time. I once had the pleasure to attend a weekly seminar in art history at university, involving the interpretation of paintings and sculpture from this and other periods as well as ars sacra and ornamenta ecclesiae. That did increase the awareness and understanding of hidden hints one may find. Especially in the Renaissance era, the composition of visual art in itself (not even regarding the depicted persons and objects) reveals so much about the historical context comparable to the inherent structure of music and poetry, as you showed last week. By the way, Jones’ refutation of the ’Sistine code’ theory is delicious.

    • Thanks, J. What a wonderful opportunity to study the symbolism in historical art in situ. We have an embarrassment of riches here – things plundered from European houses and churches to sate the ornamental appetite of the robber barons of the last century. Umberto Eco wrote about this phenomenon of wealthy Americans purchasing a connection with an invented past in his essay, “Il costume di casa”, later translated as “Travels in Hyperreality”.

      Yes, there is so much transferable symbolism in historical literature, visual art and music, and we are seriously influenced by the plethora of paintings that depict lute and voice in scenes of domestic entertainment.

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