Symbolic meanings, and other specific associations of the subject-matter of pictures, are touched on only rarely and incidentally in this book. They form an interesting study in themselves, like that of the lives of painters. But these studies are very different in aim and method from the direct appreciation of pictorial form. If such associations, and the problem of tracing them out through religious and literary history, are kept too much in mind as one looks at a picture, one is apt to miss the more directly, universally enjoyable qualities of the form itself. To understand the symbolism, moreover, gives no basis for appraising the artistic merits of a picture. Artists good and bad use the same subject-matter and the same symbolism; the essential question from the artistic standpoint is how they treat their subject-matter, whatever it is, in distinctive forms of line, light and color.
If this is borne in mind, however, it may also be recognized that conveying certain associations is often an important aim in the mind of the artist, and a considerable source of interest to the spectator. They need not conflict with the enjoyment of form. In many analyses in this book mention is made of associations which are practically universalsuch as those of maternal sentiment, physical strength, natural landscape, war and humor. There are other associations which are more recondite, or arbitrarily fixed by convention, such as the symbol each saint carries of his peculiar martyrdom. As one cannot enjoy Dante’s poetry to the full without learning some of his basic hidden meanings, so an understanding of pictorial symbolism can be made to enrich one’s total enjoyment of pictures where it plays an important role.
Without attempting to explain the meanings of Bellini’s Allegory in detail, we may notice it as an example of how symbolism can be woven into design. The picture is said to illustrate a fourteenth century French religious poem, in which the poet travels like Dante to Purgatory. Every figure is made to express a religious idea: the Madonna praying for the souls, who are shown as children playing; the tree of the Song of Songs, and the leafless Tree of Knowledge; a bunch of grapes, symbolic of Christ, over the Madonna’s head; two saints (Job and Sebastian) interceding; a Centaur in the distance, standing for man’s lower nature; a man in oriental dress, the type of unbelievers; a hermit in a cave, showing the austere life which shortens one’s stay in Purgatory, and so on throughout the picture.
From the viewpoint of art, again, we must ask whether these meanings are well expressed in terms of painting, as Dante expressed his in melodious verse and graphic images. The same symbols could be mere dead hieroglyphics, but here they are built into a complex, visible world of solid forms in deep space, capable of giving, as one looks, the mystic illusion that one is actually present in that strange twilight limbo of waiting souls called Purgatory. How does Bellini do this in a way that earlier painters had not done and could not have done? Such mastery of deep space composition, combining natural perspective, clear intervals between objects, and intricate rhythms of plane and mass, was most advanced for his day. Masaccio had been dead only about sixty years, and Raphael was still an infant. Most important of all, deep space is for the first time filled, and every object bathed, in the glowing atmosphere of soft golden, ruddy light that became the glory of later Venetian painting. This not only makes the illusion of reality more compelling; it has a mystic effect of its own. Unnaturally clear and distinct, every figure stands motionless in a strange autumnal radiance unlike any actual sunlight, that seems to come out of the brown rocks themselves, and out of the phosphorescent blue-green sky and water.