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Ghiberti and the Story of Jacob and Esau


Ghiberti, "Gates of Paradise," east doors of the Florence Baptistery: Lorenzo Ghiberti, “Gates of Paradise,” East Doors of the Florence Baptistery, bronze, 1425-52. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

See video at 7:15 where Dr. Steven Zucker states:
"This is a pretty complicated story and yet the artist has been able to delineate it quite clearly".

There is an assumption given in this statement that Ghiberti’s relief is capable of telling a story. Is it true the relationships between the characters in the panel can be decoded as suggested by Zucker’s presentation in the video? Without any reference to the account of Jacob and Esau in Genesis how is it possible the events represented in the panel be arranged in time to delineate the biblical story? Surely only those with knowledge of the biblical account, in addition to knowledge of approaches to pre- and early-Renaissance art for representing space and time, in addition to awareness of the details of Ghiberti’s contract for the doors of the baptistry in Florence, would it be possible to recognise the characters as presented in the panel. For anyone else without a specific awareness of Christian literature and the history of western art the aesthetic quality of the composition and materials would surely take precedent over any association with Jacob or Esau.

This is a good example of how narrative gets used in language about art without any grounding in how techniques in art can, or cannot, produce stories.

See Paul Barolsky’s account of the same work where the distinction between the continuous narrative of a text and the spatial arrangement of a visual composition are clearly distinctive. Barolsky’s view, which appears agreeable, is that the work is not a narrative in the same way as a text is since it cannot follow an explicit order of events. The visual artwork is driven by decisions based visual principles of composition and space within the frame rather than being determined by the temporal order of the story as it is known from the bible. Even if one was aware of the significance of each of the scenes, and recognized their position in the original biblical plot, there is no understandable order to the events in Ghiberti’s panel comparative to the sequence in the bible. Barolsky’s point is that while there is a spatial rationale to placing Rebecca’s conversation with God in the top right hand corner of the composition there is no apparent narrative rationale.
Barolsky’s paper can be accessed online here as a PDF document from Fall 2010, Vol. 18.2 of Arion – A Journal of Humanities and the Classics.

Narrative in Art Practice (NIAP)

The definition of narrative art in Wikipedia is largely taken to be a genre of art and is derived from examples in art history. It does not attempt to deal with narrative outside of art history as demonstrated by the selected examples and therefore excludes contemporary practice. By and large the entry refuses any support that might be available from literary history as a  comparative, and highly debated, approach to narrative in verbal, visual (albeit, mainly narrative in film), and hybrid  media (such as graphic novels which mix visual and verbal media).

To a large extend therefore the term Narrative Art as it is used here would largely account for art that is understood as having a dominant narrative constituent – even though individual properties of this constituent are not enumerated. Narrative in this approach is largely taken for granted as a criteria for identifying a particular type of history painting and sculpture. It does not account for narratemes signified in the discourse, that is, specific narrative elements  identifiable within the material visual work. In a novel, for example, there are kinds of discourse such as descriptive as well as narrative discourse. So when there is a certain threshold of narrative discourse, a suitable level of narratemes present it becomes possible to consider the work as a whole ‘narrative’.

The  definition of Narrative Art here is therefore applicable only to whole works that can be considered as ‘narrative art’ works. The bluntness of the definition exposes it easily to challenge by those, such as Noel Carroll, who insist on multiple events, or multiple states of affairs at least, as a minimum necessary condition for narrative. So while the relief carved on Column of Trajan – a cast of which can be studied in the V&A Museum – qualifies under the multiple events criteria, the monophase or monochronic  paintings of William Hogarth must be excluded. The complexity of this debate is found in many writings, mainly from the 1980s forward, and the depiction or representation of multiple events is just one dimension of it.

The key issue here is that this approach to discussing narrative in art serves the discipline of art history in a way that is largely inapplicable to much contemporary art practice. Most abstract art of the 20th century can not be considered narrative on the grounds identified by the explanation provided in Wikipedia in a similar way to the manner in which philosophers on art, such as Noel Carroll or Werner Wolf, will  exclude monophase paintings objects that can independently support narrative. Since contemporary practice is not part of the frame then we must use another phrase or term to name what it is we are dealing with when we talk about narrative in contemporary. By neglecting to properly name what is being discussed we run the risk of being rebutted by inappropriate arguments.

The name ‘Narrative Art’ has gained traction through its use in discussions by those such as Wendy Steiner, and the way historians have dealt with post-renaissance art – particularly that within 18th and 19th century Neoclassical, Realist and Romantic genres. As such  we need a new term that isolates narrative in the discussion of art which includes contemporary visual art, but also works that involve interaction and audience participation. Whatever debates emerge around the discussion of narrative in contemporary practice we should take heed from the positions taken up over the last decade in the study of games, whereby ludology and narrative were mistakenly pitted against each on the basis of false premises. There is enough data available now across many fields and discourses which should enable us to bypass  obtuse binary positions that cast works in narrative and non-narrative terms. Some consideration should be given to what this new terminology should be but for the moment I  choose to use narrative in art practice (NIAP) as a way to discourage any misconception that I am attempting to define the works I discuss as ‘narrative art’. If NIAP is to be compared to the study of narrative in any field it inherits from a variety of disciplines such as social anthropology and architecture as much as it does from literary narratology or narrative art.

Narrative art – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.