Ambiguous Rapture: Saint Cecilia at the Norton Simon

11 Feb

Entrance to the Norton Simon

WiP has been working on an essay about Guido Reni’s Saint Cecilia, a painting which can be found at the Norton Simon museum. As the essay came about specifically because of numerous walking trips to the Simon, it seems appropriate to post at least the first two sections of the piece. The essay is still very much under construction; it’s a slow hike, but it’s moving forward resolutely.

Local Masterpieces

I’ve walked to the Norton Simon museum to read and drink a beer and spend a few minutes with Saint Cecilia, the early Baroque masterpiece by the Bolognese artist Guido Reni. The Norton Simon is of course flush with the usual suspects — van Gogh, Degas, Rembrandt, Picasso — artists that are, in a way, part of our general landscape. We know their works from textbooks and restaurant walls, from college campus print sales, from and, from screensavers and stickers and fridge magnets.

But suddenly there it is, up on a wall in front of you, an arm’s reach away, the shock of the actual. You could blindfold the guard; you could add the oils from your fingertips to the oils of the painting. If we’re lucky, we react to this punch of the thing-itself by rising to the challenge. We set aside, for a blessedly calm moment, the cacophonies of our own lives. We concentrate until we’re able to see through the scrim of the artist’s commodified packaging — until we can stand alone with the artist’s creation to discover a familiar masterpiece anew.

Sadly, I’m not usually that lucky. Usually a childish mantra repeats idiotically in my head — a van Gogh, a van Gogh, an actual van Gogh — and I walk away with a vapid feeling of accomplishment (another ballerina statuette by Degas — check); and my heart on these occasions, I’m sorry to admit, remains firmly unmoved and no more the wiser.

However, to claim now that Saint Cecilia’s power over me derives primarily from my previous ignorance of its existence would only complete the second half of a particularly shallow equation: familiar is boring; new is good. To follow this equation is to imagine a museum patron puppy–dog, sniffing out every new art-bone or -dropping, licking its surfaces, moving on happily, the universe reduced to one question only: what’s next? Certainly, Saint Cecilia was a thing that I noticed immediately, a new thing over which my eyes enjoyed lingering. But quickly an inverse proportion took shape, a proportion familiar to any fan or scholar: as the newness wore off, my interest only intensified.

For me, Reni’s creation offers glimpses of a distinct yet uncatchable presence underneath the artist’s meticulous mixtures of linseed and turpentine, a presence conjured mysteriously by nothing more mysterious than materials and technique. And so I keep coming back to Saint Cecilia — on every visit to the Norton Simon, without fail. Not a friend exactly — the anthropomorphism feels too sentimental a description — but Reni’s painting does manage to move me consistently and complexly and that’s hardly a small thing either in this world.

Saint Cecilia (1606), by Guido Reni



How to adequately describe Cecilia’s red dress, both its color and fabric sumptuous yet somehow also completely devoid of ostentation? Are we to live, marooned, on an island of adjectives? Would it help to mention the diaphanous band of fabric cinched loosely above the saint’s waist? And the varying shades of gold that unite the painting — how exactly to reassemble them here on the page with any sense of satisfaction? I could begin above the painting’s focal point — the saint’s eye’s, that ambiguous, arresting look on her face — where we would find a gold-embroidered headscarf with golden tassels. The relative brightness of these golds echoes the faint halo that disappears in all but the most pristine of reproductions. Further down, the gold trim of a chemise modestly negates any possibility of cleavage. (We needn’t know one word of the saint’s legend to guess at Cecilia’s chastity.) And in the lower half of the picture we discover that our heavenly golds have come under the influence of brown: Find the scarf wrapped around the white ruffled sleeve that covers Cecilia’s left arm; notice the light yellowing the wood of the violin. These lower-half golds are darker and more subdued — golds of the earth and of the natural, mortal world.

We might pause then for a moment to note the violin’s peculiar position. Is Cecilia merely about to begin playing or is there something more ritualistic in the strange angle of her fiddle and bow? Is she making to the Lord an offering of her instrument? Or perhaps there’s even a third possibility (or at least a third possibility): Please, God, take this gift of yours away. I’ve had enough, thank you very much. It’s an ambiguity that mirrors the ambiguity of Cecilia’s rapturous gaze, just as the violin’s position of dominance in the bottom half of the frame reflects the overall dominance of the saint’s heaven-locked eyes.

And if ambiguity can be seen as a kind of positive multiplicity — an accretion of possible meanings that work together to express the mysterious complexity of being — then Reni’s brushwork itself could be said to travel an ambiguous, branching pathway. The halo’s perfect arc, as if compass-drawn, is a gesture toward an ideal, heavenly form. But this purity of line contrasts with the majority of the painting’s style. Reni’s brush strokes often provide crisp edges and meticulous detailing to the painting’s objects and yet always manage to maintain an overall flowing and entirely organic feel. Cecilia’s headdress, for example, exhibits, in addition to its delicate tassel work, the meticulous gold leaf details that are visible most clearly above the saint’s forehead, a last mortal stop between Cecilia’s gaze and the heavens. And yet, overall, the headdress is a twisting, almost living presence. It begins wrapped around Cecilia’s hair in a practical, workaday way — unfussy and modest. Does it disappear then just beyond Cecilia’s right eye only to reappear in a more somber-colored gold? Or is the scarf wrapped around the saint’s left arm a separate piece of accessorizing? In either case, the carefully constructed diagonal from right brow to left shoulder links the point of disappearance and the point of reemergence and allows a viewer to easily imagine the unseen line of fabric. This linkage heightens the organic quality of the headdress/scarf, which comes to rest finally by winding itself around Cecilia’s arm — a kind of pet serpent, tamed, perhaps even neutered, and yet still a serpent nonetheless. Even for a saint, temptation can never be fully extinguished. (Though whether Reni meant this winding scarf as a full-throated allusion, I’m not sure. Perhaps the painter was purposely riffing on images of The Fall that he had seen. After all, Eve’s left side is often illustrated as the side nearest to temptation: she picks the apple with her left hand; nearby, also to Eve’s left, the serpent hovers. But other paintings arrange the biblical scene differently — including Reni’s own Adam and Eve in Paradise, painted more than a decade after Saint Cecilia — and so it seems more appropriate to say that Reni was an artist of his time and, as such, must have absorbed the Genesis story deeply and through a variety of sources. This absorption then expresses itself — purposely or not — as Reni works on Saint Cecilia.)

And finally — finally being an operative word now — it seems necessary to mention the rich black nothingness that fills nearly half the canvas — not quite a warning this black, but certainly at least a reminder. Only the shadowy form of a pipe organ — a symbol of the recently uncatholicized Catholic Church — interrupts the background black. (To perceive a Catholic painting from the Baroque and Counter-Reformation eras involves an appreciation of the fiercely propagandistic framework under which the Church expected all of its artists to operate.) This uniformly black background was indeed common in Baroque portraiture, but Reni’s reminding-darkness achieves a more intense metaphorical power by insinuating itself into the material world of the painting: the bow’s strings blacken; the violin’s f-cut sound openings offer a glimpse of the instrument’s interior lightlessness; the instrument’s leather “comfort” strap becomes a snug curve of darkness around Cecilia’s left shoulder. And though, upon close inspection, the diaphanous band of fabric above Cecilia’s waist as well as the neck ribbon supporting a gold broach are actually a lively blue, this color proves to be yet another shifting ambiguity of the painting. Viewed at a distance of more than six or seven feet, the overwhelming blackness of the background subsumes the blue until all that remains is a subtle, dark shimmering. At even this modest distance, our finally washes in from its eternal void to occupy the diaphanous belt and the broach’s neck ribbon, which, along with various shadows and dark folds, work to balance out the gold costuming accents and give shape and meaning — both historical and figurative — to Cecilia’s clothing.

For me, the world of ekphrasis is a clumsy but loving world — loving in the way that a portion of love is a fine regarding, a close attention. Ekphrasis is the all-too-human attempt to transcribe visual into linguistic — which, in its wider sense, is what we always do with language. We subject the world to our description of it (to paraphrase nearly every philosopher who’s ever lived). But here in the stricter sense of the term — in the sense of an “intense pictorial description of … [an] art-object,” as The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines it — ekphrasis contains more than a measure of the devotional within it. And what, after all — think again of love, think again of faith — inspires devotion if not a mystery, an ambiguity, a presence that we feel keenly — distinctly and clearly even — and yet so often, time after time, stumble to explain?


2 Responses to “Ambiguous Rapture: Saint Cecilia at the Norton Simon”

  1. Sharon Hoffman November 15, 2016 at 8:47 am #

    That Reni painting has always reminded me the Baroque penchant for depicting the beheading of Holofernes. The vertical orientation of the instrument, the slice of the bow just beneath it. Is she not Judith exacting a horrible revenge on an enemy? The fingers gripping the neck of the violin are a quote of her bloodied hand threaded through the hair of his severed head.

    • walkinginpasadena November 15, 2016 at 10:21 am #

      That’s interesting. I never really got that feeling from the painting. She looks so pained to me.

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