All artists are storytellers. Sometimes the story is conceptual. Sometimes it’s revolutionary. Sometimes it’s personal. And sometimes the story is a retelling of a familiar tale. Medieval, Gothic, and Renaissance art is filled with creative and beautiful images recounting familiar stories from the bible and classical mythology.
Tour guides and art historians often point to the storytelling in church art, saying that the illiterate and semi-literate parishioners “read” essential religious texts in pictures. Join the art loving tourists at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome to see how Caravaggio told the story of Saint Matthew in three paintings. Or just go there and enjoy the art and let the story sneak inside you. Either way, it works for me.
In Barcelona—a city with many layers of history and art— I got caught up in the vivid and gruesome depictions of martyrdom in Medieval and Gothic art collections. Devils, dragons, and serpents drew me to the paintings, but it was the explicit scenes of torture that started to scare me. The cautionary tales illustrated by angels and demons weighing souls and dividing the dead were compelling. They practically shouted, “Don’t be a fool! Your immortal soul is at risk. Don’t let the devil lead you astray.”
But the gruesome exit scenes of saints weren’t warnings to be good. You could even read them as warnings NOT to become a saint. Was I overreacting? Is it possible to overreact to Saint Lucia praying as she is being set on fire? A man is using a bellows to fan the flames! Are we meant to admire the bravery, devotion, and superior nature of the saint? Yes, but…
What about the martyr being sawed in half? And the people sitting in a large caldron that are not sitting in a hot tub, relaxing after a long day. They are being cooked! That’s just plain scary.
In the 21st Century we live immersed in and surrounded by violent, provocative, gory, and disturbing images. We see so many that we worry about building a tolerance to violence, of losing our ability to be shocked or frightened. Well, I looked closely at the violent storytelling paintings from centuries ago and they sent a shiver down my spine. Imagine seeing them in a pre-film, pre-photography, pre-printing press world, in the twilight of dawn or dusk, by candlelight… Now that’s really scary!