Unpredictable: Human Nature Through Art

Over the weekend, I watched a documentary on the life of Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales (1594-1612), the eldest son of James VI of Scotland and I of England; Henry would have succeeded to the British throne had he not predeceased his father. Although presented by a scholar, it wasn’t a formal history lecture, but rather an accessible presentation designed for a general audience, complete with cozy chats in pubs and mock fighting in suits of armor. As informative entertainment, it was perfectly fine, but at the conclusion of the program, the presenter made a rather eyebrow-raising argument: if Henry had not died, and his younger brother Charles had not become king, then the English Civil War would never have happened.

hfs.jpgThat seems something of a stretch given the sectarian tensions of the time, and, quite frankly, I’ve always thought that Henry was something of a jerk. Full of himself, disrespectful toward his family (he once threatened to beat his father with a cane), and virulently anti-Catholic, he might have prevented full-scale war, but as Henry IX it’s just as possible that he might have been an all-too-worthy successor to Henry VIII. We simply don’t know and can’t possibly predict what would have happened, as historical circumstances and indeed his own personal character evolved.

To illustrate this point, let’s turn to some art dating (roughly) to the era in which Henry lived, and see what lessons we can glean from their collective example.

Take a look at the two images below, both of which depict familiar scenes from the Christmas Story. The first shows the Adoration of the Magi, and was painted between 1565 and 1567, about the time that Henry’s father was born. The second shows the Adoration of the Shepherds, and was painted between 1612 and 1614, right about the time that Henry himself died.



In the first picture, which sadly is in a poor state of preservation, we can see that the encounter between the Three Kings and the Holy Family is taking place amidst the ruins of a Classical building in a wild landscape, complete with marble Corinthian columns, vaulting, and a shallow dome with an oculus like that of the Pantheon in Rome. The figures are elegantly dressed, gesticulate in a formal, courtly fashion, and the highly choreographed composition recalls many Northern Italian (particularly Venetian) examples from the High Renaissance. It’s the work of an artist who hasn’t quite got the knack for depicting both believable figures and believable space simultaneously – if the Virgin Mary stood up, the top of her head would be at the same height as the top of the capital nearest her – but it’s still an agreeable, if very specific to its era, presentation of a familiar Biblical subject.

In the second picture, by contrast, there isn’t any real attempt to create a believable space occupied by the participants, who all appear to be at different angles to ourselves. There’s a suggestion of some sort of a ruin in the background, with an arched opening through a wall, but it’s nothing like the grand, Roman architecture that we see in the first picture. Whereas the Holy Family and their visitors in the first painting were dressed in fashionable, luxurious garments, in the second no one – not even the angels – is wearing anything approaching that level of style: indeed, no one in the second picture is even wearing shoes, never mind things like the red silk stockings and slippers, or highly polished silver boots, that we see in the first. The figures seem to be overcome with deeply-felt emotion at the Birth of Christ, rather than restraining themselves in a sort of regal, staged setting.

Moreover, whereas the first painting is something that we can easily pinpoint to sometime around the Renaissance, the second painting is almost devoid of any detail that could tell us when it was created – apart, perhaps, from the central figure of the kneeling man in the orange tunic with the high, turned up collar characteristic of the 17th century. That aside, if we were told that this piece was painted by an Expressionist or Abstract painter in the 20th century, we probably wouldn’t be surprised. It has a swirling, floating, timeless unreality about it, markedly different from the first picture’s attempt to depict solid, grounded reality at a specific place and time.

As it happens, both of these pictures are by Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), the artist better known as “El Greco” (meaning “The Greek”, in Spanish.) If that surprises you, then good: I’ve made my point. There’s simply no reasonable basis on which we could have concluded that the style of work which he produced in his 20’s, as exemplified by the “Adoration of the Magi”, when he was newly-arrived in Italy from Crete, and trying to shed his background as a provincial painter of Byzantine icons, would be anything like the almost Modern-looking “Adoration of the Shepherds” that he painted in Spain when he was in his 70’s. In the nearly fifty years that passed between painting the first picture and painting the second, the world had changed, art had changed, and more importantly El Greco, the man, had changed.

It’s foolish to suggest that, whatever his (arguable) virtues were at 18, Henry would have kept England from going to war with itself had he ascended to the throne. To do so buys into the hagiography published about him at the time and after his death, that he was some sort of Calvinist Second Coming of Christ. It’s certainly possible that he might have prevented the strife that came about under the reign of Charles I, given Charles’ embrace of absolutism and his comparative friendliness to Catholicism (or at least, to the importance of liturgy.) It’s also just as possible that Henry would have tried to wipe out both the Catholics and High Church Anglicans, turning himself into the all-powerful monarch that Charles envisioned himself as, but never managed to actually become.

Human beings are not static creatures. We grow and change over time, and while some aspects of our personalities, opinions, and interests remain the same throughout our lives, others fall by the wayside, or evolve into something else entirely. While it’s certainly an interesting intellectual exercise to speculate on the question of “what might have been” when it comes to history in general, art history in particular provides the most obvious, visual indicator that the past is but prelude, as the saying goes, and it’s ultimately impossible to predict with any real accuracy what will happen next.

I think you’ll agree, gentle reader, that this is why the study of art is so interesting. It’s not simply an exercise for more fully debating questions of taste or style, or merely admiring on a more informed basis what we perceive on the surface of things. Studying art gives us a deeper, visually-based insight into human nature, and in particular, the very changeable quality of that nature, the more we observe and learn and think about an artist’s work.

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