Expanded Text of Alexander Nagel Interview

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Alexander Nagel, 44, is best known for an award-winning book on Michelangelo, and for research into Renaissance concepts of history that he conducted during a two-year stint as Andrew Mellon Professor at the National Gallery's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Art. This fall, he was appointed Professor of Renaissance Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York -- art history's CalTech.

This is quite a complex painting.

On the one hand, there seems to be an emphasis on a single moment, and on the other hand an emphasis on things enduring through time.

There is the sense that John's head has just looked up, that Christ's head has just turned, that the Virgin has come to attention, and that all of them are magnetized for a second by the cross that Christ has grasped. At the same time, it's hard to imagine it as a moment in any obvious sequential drama: the whole thing seems poised and static.

And that contrast seems to me to be reflected in the composition of the picture. In how the figures represent a highly dynamic group distributed in space and involving quite a bit of twisting and turning, and yet they also create a kind of flat, orderly hexagon on the surface.

GOPNIK: The tondo form does seem to allow a special awareness of a flat disc, yet also of an opening into depth.

NAGEL: And the painting's round shape, you could also say, is constantly in movement and yet also seems highly stable.

So in both the treatment of the narrative moment and the structure of the composition, a great deal of motion and complexity is reconciled with something very stable and unchanging.

This duality in the painting also produces a particular kind of theological emphasis. It advances the notion that the contingent, the earthly, the episodic, is also part of a larger, timeless plan. All the separate little episodes of history -- a child dandled by his mother in a meadow, for instance, as she puts down her book -- look to us like they've happened in an almost accidental way, but this painting reveals that they're all part of God's supratemporal plan.

GOPNIK: After all, why is there a cross in this scene, so many years before Christ's Crucifixion? The object is almost a toy, two flimsy reeds lashed together by a little shepherd boy named John. Yet even as Jesus reaches for that toy, the part above his fingers assumes the proportions of the crossed beams he will be nailed to -- at that moment, the reeds become the cross of the crucifixion.

NAGEL: Yes, The cross here can exist as a symbol of the Crucifixion before the actual event of the Crucifixion because the divine plan cuts through mere chronology.

This relationship between history and the divine scheme is a persistent, profound issue in Christian theology. And in this painting a new set of artistic problems -- which have to do with balancing a detailed description of nature and human bodies with a larger sense of compositional and structural order -- have created new insights into it. After all, this is a religious picture, and it does its job very well.

But here's a further, crucial step in my reading: I find it hard to believe that Raphael would place such emphasis on the question of historical contingency in relation to the unchanging, and not reflect on how all this parallels his own historical position as a painter.

Raphael is coming out of a century of volatile changes in art. Everyone knew that in the previous 100 years, painting had gone from Byzantine-style gold-ground painting, to perspectival painting, to extreme explorations of realism in figures and settings -- all leading up to Raphael's moment. Looking back from Raphael's vantage point, art looks unstable. It is "secular," in the fully theological sense: it changes with the times, it is bound to the "saeculum," as theologians call the earthly world of ups and downs and human history.

So Raphael is aware that he is coming out of a history of change, and yet wants to make pictures that no longer seem subject to this history -- he wants to find some kind of artistic resolution that would resist that change. He wants to give pictures back some of the stable authority they seemed to have had in earlier times.

And this task, assumed by Raphael as a painter, also relates to the content of his picture. As painting reflects on its own history, and struggles to overcome the sense of flux and mutability that comes with having a history -- as painting struggles to seem stable and permanent and not part of that flux -- that goal is reflected in, and worked out through, the Christian framework of a painting like this. The challenge of simply expressing the religious content, that is, also helps Raphael resolve the problem of how to overcome the problem of drift, of being time-bound, in the making of art.

It's right to describe the artistic solutions in this picture as helping to express and work out the theological issues. But you could equally say that Raphael works out his artistic problems through a theological framework.

That's not surprising: Theology, after all, is at this time the most powerful model for thinking about time and humanity, history and the larger meaning of life.

But here's the final twist in the significance of this painting: When theology is used as a model in this way -- as a model for something as secular as painting -- a conception of art emerges that will prove compelling and solid enough to create a new basis for artmaking independent of religion.

In Raphael's youth, the fundamental activity of painting was still in fact tied to the religious activity -- painting was essentially religious, even if you could have occasional offshoots. Painting as an art didn't have a kind of independent basis and justification and self-definition. But by the end of the 16th century, after and because of Raphael and his peers, we see the arrival of this overarching category called "painting." When Caravaggio or any other early 17th-century painter was working, they already knew that they were operating in this larger arena of activity. The different commissions come, whether secular or sacred, but there is now an independent base of operations called "painting" that didn't exist before Raphael.

GOPNIK: Does that happen because Raphael and his peers did this amazing job of making paintings that "work," as theological statements, but also on their own, as a new thing called "art" or "painting -- that work in those "modern" categories that we now take for granted, that seem stable and obvious to us?

This is in fact one of the first pictures, almost in all of Western art, that to me feels modern. Does that mean that Raphael's attempt to get out of the cycle of history has been in a sense successful? There's a feeling that Raphael has pulled the Alba Madonna out of the history of taste, and created something that weirdly we still read as "normal," and historically stable, and just what painting "is". It's not a medieval painting, it's not even necessarily a Renaissance painting -- it's just "painting," doing its normal stuff. We can still read it as an archetype for what a painting can be.

NAGEL: Well, that's certainly what Raphael wanted us to do.

GOPNIK: Sure -- it's a bill of goods. But we've bought it. And to make a bill of goods that can be bought by 500 years of art lovers is a pretty amazing thing.

Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Blake Gopnik.

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