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Feb 6: Schoengeur’s artful St. Anthony


One of the challenges of making a work of art is deciding exactly what it’s about, focusing on what is relevant, and excluding everything else. Below we have two groups of figures in which different objectives determine how the surrounding space should affect the group.

In the Rembrandt, the group is only part of the action. The surroundings–dark clouds with a beam of light shining from on high–are integral to the message: heaven, the angel, the grand spiritual dimension of the incident depicted.

Goya has a different objective. His point is simply that these characters are wacky. A specific context–a landscape, some specific interior–whatever–would only confine the message. So his background is a flat middle tone. This sets off the gesticulations of the group without introducing any thematic complications.

Goya "It's Time" c.1798 [w'ped]
Goya “It’s Time” c.1798 [w’ped]
Rembrandt "Abraham's sacrifice" 1655 [w'ped]
Rembrandt “Abraham’s sacrifice” 1655 [w’ped]
















And then we come to the engraving of “The Bedeviling of St. Anthony” by Martin Schoengeur (1440-1491). His formal problem is closer to Goya’s than to Rembrandt’s: the action is within a tightly intertwined group. He has to place it in the sky, because that’s part of the story, but all we need to know about the sky is that it’s not the ground. The less said about sky, the better.

He can’t use a tone like Goya’s. Engraving doesn’t do tones, and in any case the intricacy of his detail depends on lively contrast.

His solution is wonderfully direct. His first move is to fill the space right out to the edges so the eye isn’t wandering around to see what else might be out there. Then at the bottom corner he puts a descriptive triangle of ground to establish that the action is happening above it in space. But then–and this is the bold part–he treats the sky above as a purely abstract and rather clunky patter of dashes. There is nothing representational about this—no suggestion of clouds, for example, or distant landscape. The dashes press in and down on the group, enough to keep the action looking and feeling focused and pressurized without describing anything, or being interesting enough in themselves to compete for attention.

St. Anthony [w'ped]
St. Anthony [w’ped]

Simple and bold: very artful. How artful can be seen by comparing the engraving to the copy below by Michelangelo, which he did at the age of about twelve. This reverses all of Schoengeur’s essential decisions. No doubt the exercise was a positive experience for the youngster, but the result, a pileup of watery figures, overdeveloped rocks, and irrelevant landscape, is a complete muddle.


For another take on the importance of the selection of information in an effective image (including the issue of irrelevant landscape), > archive > December 5: Peanuts gone wrong.