How to Look At Art – Geometric Composition

Here is another example of geometric composition. It is also by Raphael and is painted on one of the walls in the same room that the Disputes decorates. But, while the latter’s geometric plan was very noticeable, this one is more disguised and the whole design has a much greater appearance of freedom. It is recognised by artists as one of Raphael’s most beautiful compositions, and one of the finest examples of space decoration in existence.

But before we examine the plan on which the decoration of this space has been built up, let us study the subject. It is usually called Jurisprudence, that is to say the principle of Law both the making and the administering of laws. In the Disputes the subject,’ as you remember, was Religion; in two of the other panels in this same room Raphael has represented Philosophy and Poetry. Here he set himself to represent the idea of Law. The idea, you observe. In all these four panels, it is an idea, not an event or incident, that is represented; but an idea—something that has existence only in the mind. For all the subjects represent abstract ideas; ideas,that is to say, abstracted or removed from the experience of the senses. We cannot, for example, see religion or Law; nor touch, taste, smell, nor hear them. We can see the policeman on his beat, or the judge in court, or the members of the legislature—the men who, respectively, maintain, administer, and make the laws; and we can see the record of the laws in books. But the idea or principle of Law which has caused men to construct all this machinery for the making and enforcing of the laws, exists only in the mind.

Therefore, when Raphael was asked to paint the subject of Jurisprudence or Law, something that no one has ever seen or will see, what did he do? He asked himself the question: When people have a respect for Law, how does it show itself in their acts? In the first place they are very careful in the making of the laws; they found them upon the experience of the past and shape them to fit the needs of the future; they exhibit PRUDENCE. Secondly, in the enforcing of the laws, they exhibit two qualities : FIRMNESS and MODERATION. Though they firmly uphold the law, they remember that

“for earthly power cloth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice.”

Raphael, then, determined to represent the idea of law, by representing three of its qualities: Prudence, Firmness and Moderation. These three again are abstract ideas, No one has ever seen them or will see them ; we can only see the results of them, the acts which they influence man to do. So if Prudence, Firmness and Moderation have no visible shape, how could he represent them to the eye ? He probably took a hint from a form of a stage play that was popular in his day. At any rate he did what the authors of these ” Moralities ” or ” Allegories” were in the habit of doing. For they introduced as characters in their plays the Vices and Virtues; making an actor, for example, personify Gluttony or embody in his own person the idea of Gluttony. Thus, a fat man would be chosen for the part, and he would pad himself so as to look still fatter; he would make his face shining and greasy, and perhaps cover the front of his coat with grease, to suggest what a greedy and dirty feeder he was. He would come on the stage eating, and anything he had to say or do would help the audience to realise that the only thing he lived for was to stuff himself with food. This was called an embodiment or personification of Gluttony; for the idea of Gluttony was suggested in the person of the actor by the peculiarities of his body and behaviour. While the personifications of the Vices were for the most part comic, those of the virtues were beautiful or heroic, so that these Moralities or Allegories were as popular with the crowd as with people of taste. Sometimes the allegory was represented, not with figures moving about the stage, speaking and acting, but as a stationary group, in which the figures were raised on steps, so that a very imposing composition or tableau was presented. And no doubt, when these were given on a grand scale artists often arranged the spectacle.

On the other hand, the artists were not slow to adopt the same idea in their pictures. The great altarpieces and large decorations, painted by the Italian artists of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries are to all intents and purposes allegories. Such certainly is this Jurisprudence of Raphael’s. He has personified the three virtues of Prudence, Firmness and Moderation. To Prudence he has given two faces. One is old, for it gazes back over the long past; the other has the freshness of youth, as it peers into the future. It is looking at itself in a mirror. Why ? For everything in these allegories is intended to convey a meaning to the minds of the spectators. Perhaps there are two reasons. The face is gazing at the reflection of itself, as it now is; for Prudence, besides taking note of the past and looking toward the future, must know the present. Again, since a mirror reflects what is in front of it and shows us our face as others see it, it was used by the artists as an emblem of Truth. And to know the truth is wisdom, and to act according to truth and wisdom is prudence. So, when you see a figure holding the emblem of the mirror, you may be sure the artist is personifying the idea of Truth, or Wisdom, or Prudence, or all three combined.

On the bosom of Prudence is a winged head; perhaps intended for the head of Medusa, which turned to stone every one who looked at it. If so, it is an emblem here of the terribleness of Prudence, when offended. She is gentle in herself, but a terror to evil doers. At her side a baby form holds a torch. This was used as the emblem of that which enlightens the world—Learning; and suggests here that Prudence is illuminated by learning, perhaps also, that truth and wisdom and prudence are themselves lights which lighten the darkness of the world.

The figure to the right of the Torch-bearer offers Prudence a bit and reins. It is with these that men control horses; so they were adopted by painters as an emblem of control; and, knowing this, we recognise that the woman who holds them is intended to personify Moderation. Her whole bearing suggests modesty, which is a form of moderation, for both words imply that a person has the sense to know how far it is right to go, and where it is fit to stop.

But, note the figure of the woman on the right. She is of powerful build, seated in a positive sort of attitude that has nothing of the gentle retiring character of the other figures. She is a personification of Firmness, armed for defense, with helmet, cuirass, and greaves. But, though she carries no weapon of offense; she holds in leash one of those pumas with which the ancients used to hunt big game. She will, if necessary, pursue and pull down the law’s transgressors. Meanwhile she bears an oak branch, the emblem of strength and victory in civil life, as opposed to the laurel of war; for her victories are those of peace. The little Cupids, or Amorini, as the Italians call them, except the two who carry the mirror and torch, are put in simply to increase the beauty of the composition.

I have dwelt first upon the subject of this decoration, because it is a key to so many of the old paintings and to many modern ones as well. Their subjects represent abstract ideas personified, embodied in human form; the particular idea being shown by the emblems which accompany each figure. People had come to recognise that such and such an emblem indicated such and such an idea, and, whenever a painter wished to suggest that idea, he represented a figure with the familiar emblem.

Now, too, that we have grasped the meaning of this allegory of Raphael’s we can better enter into his manner of representing it. Since the idea is an abstract one, he has expressed it in an abstract way. That is to say, he has not attempted to represent real life, or the figures as doing any real thing. It is true they are life-like and their actions are quite natural; but the positions in which they have been placed were chosen in order that the arrangement of their limbs and bodies might produce an effect of beautiful rhythmic balance. Perhaps this was Raphael’s only thought, for he was above everything an artist, whose work in life it is to create forms of beauty. Yet he had a mind so ready to receive all kinds of impressions that, living as he did in a very lawless age, when men were guided more by self than justice, he may have realised how beautiful would be a reign of law and order.

Anyhow, this decoration in a wonderful way possesses just those characteristics that would belong to a state of society in which justice or justness were the natural habit and not merely a thing enforced by law. How simple life would be if every man did to others what he would have them do to him, and instead of rivalry and suspicion, what a harmony there would be ! It is harmony and simplicity that are the chief characteristics of this decoration.

The simplicity is very marked. There are three principal figures. I believe, if there were nothing else but these, the balance of the composition would be complete, and certainly the allegory would be explained. But balance is not necessarily harmony. In a school debate, for instance, ten of you on the right of the room may say ” aye,” and ten on the left may say ” no,” to a subject which is being discussed between you. There is a balance—ten on one side, opposed to ten on the other.

But in this decoration there is harmony. You have only to look at the picture to be sure of it. You cannot detect any rivalry between the three figures, although one of them is so much more massive than either of the other two. All of them seem drawn together into one chord of feeling, the leading note of which is the head of Prudence, lifted above the heads of her companions and seen alone against the open space of the sky and in the place of chief importance—the center of the arc of space. Please remind me presently to say a word about the placing of this head, for just now I do not wish to interrupt the subject that we are considering-the harmony of the composition.

This is brought about particularly by the Amorini that, as it were, bind the three figures into a garland of festoons. Note, first, the two which are on the extreme right and left. The wing and arm of the former and the inclination of the latter’s whole body suggest diagonal lines. These cut across the angles of the space, or as they say in geometry, subtend the angles ; tying their two arms together and also offering a strong contrast to their direction. The baby figures also keep the composition from running away to nothing at the corners, for they serve the purpose of making the pattern curl up at each end. Or suppose we think of the pattern of the composition, as if it were partly made up of a wreath, such as we use at Christmas time to festoon our houses. Imagine a nail driven into the wall where the head of the baby on the left hand is. Attach the wreath to it. Now drive another nail into the puma’s head and between this one and the first nail, let a loop of the wreath hang down so that it follows the direction of the baby’s body and a bit of the oak stem. This direction, if you look at the picture, suggests a festoon. Now continue to make festoons—first along the arm of Firmness up to the hand of the Cupid; now another from that point along the line on the Cupid’s wing and arm and up the arm of the next little figure; another from the top of the mirror, following the curve of the arm of Prudence up to her head. So far, on the left side of the painting we have four small festoons. But I wonder if you can make out another one a long one, the ends of which are fastened to the head of Prudence and that of the baby in the left corner. It follows the slope of the figure of Prudence until it reaches her foot, the direction of which starts it across the gap between her and Firmness, where the line reappears, following the folds of the latter’s drapery, at first along the floor and then above her greave up to the baby’s head.

And now for the right hand side of the painting. In the first place there is a repetition of the long festoon. This one is suspended from the head of Prudence to the top of the wing of the Cupid in the right hand corner. It dips down along the curve of the torch, down through the folds of Moderation’s drapery to her feet and then rises up and passes round the back of the child. But hanging above this main festoon are two rows of smaller ones. Firstly we find a very shallow festoon from the head of Prudence to the hand which holds the bit; an-other from this point to the top of the head of Moderation. Below this, however, is again a festoon from the bit, along the droop of the reins to the hand which holds them, from which point there is ‘ still another along the arm up to the head.

Now, I do not for a moment wish you to think that Raphael chose points in his composition and then arranged that the lines of the limbs and draperies should form festoons between them. In examining his work, I am trying not to tell you how. he did it, but to explain what has been done. And. here, clearly visible, are what I have called, festoons. We might describe them by some other name—as ripples of movement. For as the water in some shallow brook ripples over and between the stones dancing in the sunshine, so these curves of movement, now in light and now in shadow, flow between these figures and flow over them, until the whole composition is a woven mass of rhythmic undulations. Rhythmic ? Yes, it is just because these ripples or festoons present such a beautiful example of rhythm, that I have dwelt upon them. In fact it is the rhythmic movement of the composition that gives to this painting its greatest charm.

In the following chapter I shall have more to say about the rhythmic movements of the figures. Let us conclude this one with a few words about the geometric plan on which the composition of the ” Jurisprudence ” is based. As I have said, it is not nearly so apparent as that of the Disputa. The Tatter’s plan looks as if it might have been laid out with straight edge and compasses. It was, as I have told you, adapted from a composition by Raphael’s master, Perugino, and he, very possibly, may have adapted it from some one else’s plan; for in those days, artists did not see any harm in starting with another man’s design, and altering it a little, or perhaps making it more elaborate to suit their own purpose for the moment. But in the short time that elapsed between the painting of the Disputa and the Jurisprudence the pupil had made great strides. He had found his own strength and was working in the glory of it. Therefore the Jurisprudence exhibits a freedom of design, which so disguises the ground plan, that it is difficult to be sure of what it is, although one still feels that it is geometrical.

The first thing we note is that the artist has strengthened the bottom line of the lunette by repetition. He has carried a stone bench along the en-tire width, which also serves as a seat for the figures. Do you see the advantage of making the figures seated ? If Raphael had represented them in a standing position, he would have had to make them smaller in order to get them entirely into the space ; and this would have lessened the feeling of bigness in the composition. So he invented a device by which he could represent them seated. Further, he has raised the bench in the center by the addition of another step, so as to lift the composition naturally in the part where the space to be decorated is highest.

Thus from the corners, or angles of the lunette there is on each side a gradual rise up to the head of Prudence, that suggests a pyramid or a triangle within the curved space. The same triangular effect is repeated in the pattern, made by the figures of Prudence and the Cupid who holds the torch. The curve of the torch is so arranged as to balance the slope of the woman’s legs. So the geometric plan may be the repetition of a smaller, inside a larger triangle, contrasted with the curve of the lunette. On the other hand, if you look at the painting again, you notice that the Cupid with the torch is balanced by the one who holds the mirror. Their bodies have a vertical or upright direction, and then the tops of the torch and the mirror supply points which the eye seems to join by a horizontal line, so that a rectangle occupies the center of the composition as it does in the Disputa. This strong contrast of a rectangular form to the curve of the lunette, and then again the contrast of the diagonal lines, formed by the Cupids’ figures across the angles of the space, may be the simple geometric elements out of which this composition grew.