03 Dec

Perfectibility: are we there yet?

On every visit to the National Gallery, I’m always drawn to the early Italian paintings. They are in room 51 in the Sainsbury Wing. I was in there for an hour and a half yesterday.

As the 14th century ends and we come into the 15th, it is hard not to notice a change in the style of these paintings. Whereas Giotto and his contemporaries express theology in their creations, the later masters begin to be interested in something like personality. In one of the earlier paintings, we see the crucifix growing out of Mary’s womb. This is neither surrealism nor pornography, but the doctrines of the Incarnation and the means of our redemption in one vision. This is typical of these earlier paintings. They express dogmas by means of pictorial analogies in much the same way as the contemporary Dante expressed dogmas by means of poetic analogies in The Divine Comedy.

Of course, there is theology in the later paintings too but, over a period of about a hundred years, there is much less symbolism and much more naturalism and the beginnings of humanism. And so the dogma of Original Sin comes to be replaced by something approaching the idea of man’s perfectibility: not the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, but the human form divine. T.E. Hulme put the matter exactly:

“You get the first hint of it in the beginnings of the Renaissance itself, in a person like Pico Della Mirandola. You get there the hint of an idea of something which finally culminates in a doctrine which is the opposite of the doctrine of Original Sin: the belief that man as a part of nature was after all something satisfactory. You get a change from a certain profundity and intensity to that flat and insipid optimism which, passing through its first stage of decay in Rousseau, has finally culminated in the state of slush in which we now have the misfortune to live.”