“I was struck by how these little wooden boxes full of pieces of paper that nobody ever cares about all of a sudden, in this one moment, became the most sacred objects of the American republic,” Christopher Nygren, a professor of Renaissance and Baroque art at the University of Pittsburgh, says of seeing the Douliery image after a violent mob stormed the building.
In any other election, in any other, more stable time, such a picture wouldn’t feel so consequential. But for Nygren, the photograph called to mind medieval and Renaissance representations of the Ark of the Covenant.
“By looking at an analogous image of an important object being carried,” he says, “you realize at the end of the day, the Ark of the Covenant was lost.”
Over the past four years, there has been no shortage of public political drama — from the long sagas of the Russia inquiry and impeachment to the everyday plot twists: the firings, the executive orders, the unexpected tweets. And at home, the pressures of pandemic life have produced mini-dramas: the wrath of the coffee pot, the oath of the chores list, the tyranny of the pizza boxes.
In private and public spaces, we face chaos. It’s “unprecedented,” as they say. But if our world seems to lack precedent, perhaps we aren’t looking back far enough. Perhaps the most cogent way of understanding it is as Nygren does — through paintings. Maybe we’ll find our own disheveled homes in those of Dutch Golden Age painter Jan Steen, or clues to our twisted political landscape in Peter Paul Rubens’s high-intensity biblical imagery.
Or maybe even online — on a popular Reddit page called “Accidental Renaissance,” where nearly 800,000 armchair art historians discuss contemporary photographs that look like classical paintings. In 2014, Alexis Smith, known by her username, “openmindedskeptic,” created the page after an image of a brawl in the Ukrainian parliament earned comparisons to Renaissance paintings.
These comparisons, while often funny, also come across as shockingly honest. They push aside the veneer of the present and the sense that what we are experiencing is unique to the time we live in. What’s left are raw emotions, echoing through centuries.
An online forum with thousands of communities, termed “subreddits,” Reddit is known as much for ramblings about niche philosophical topics as it is for bizarre groups such as people who pretend life is a video game. It is a place where odd juxtapositions reign.
Behind the scenes on “Accidental Renaissance,” Barb, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of privacy concerns, helps moderate the subreddit. An Artemisia Gentileschi fan with a penchant for falling down “Internet wormholes,” she sorts through sometimes hundreds of images a day, assessing their artistic merits according to such metrics as composition, lighting and subject — and teaching herself art history along the way. It’s a laborious process — especially around major news events when the site is flooded with submissions — and it takes a very specific kind of person.
“Most people with both the acumen and eye to discern Renaissance from whatever are doing much more interesting things with their art degree/interest,” she joked in an email.
Outside Reddit, the term “accidental Renaissance” has become a colloquialism — shorthand for a digital image that stirs the sensation of looking at a well-composed painting. At the very least, the phrase is useful in signaling that an image deserves more than the scrolling glance you’d give to a garden-variety Instagram photo.
But the fact that the term has wiggled its way into common parlance also speaks to the times. Art historians like Nygren will tell you that the “Renaissance” part is a misnomer. Many of the images deemed “accidental Renaissance” feature stark contrasts (chiaroscuro) of bold colors and strong diagonals. They fit more into the Baroque period, when exploring human emotion became European painters’ utmost priority.
In Baroque, Nygren says, everything is “turned up to an 11.” We might say the same of the world in 2021.
Through the lens of “Accidental Renaissance,” current events become windows into long visual histories. Before a wide table, in a room clogged with pensive onlookers, James B. Comey testifying evokes the tensions of “The Last Supper.” Flanked by lawyers, framed by a halo-like clock just above her head, Christine Blasey Ford becomes a saintly image fit for a Raphael painting. And Sen. Ted Cruz — head raised, a luminescent glow behind him — is reimagined as “Passion of the Cruz.”
Their likeness to high art may not be intentional, but it is no accident that images coming out of this moment lend themselves to religious comparisons. Political polarization has made the contrast between opposing parties as intense as lights and darks in a Caravaggio painting. And the high stakes — of an ongoing pandemic, of rampant inequality, of democracy on the brink — have led us to divide ourselves and our leaders into a tableau of sinners and saints.
What also unites so many of the images termed “accidental Renaissance,” Nygren says, is a sense of a narrative. Social media has exposed much of the political arena; we know the story lines, and we’re invested in the characters. And so, when presented with an image of two collapsed Trump supporters crying with the emotionality of El Greco’s “Disrobing of Christ,” or a woman standing before a line of police officers with the bravery of Jacques-Louis David’s “Intervention of the Sabine Women,” a story line emerges. Sometimes saved, sometimes scorned, we — like pious viewers of biblical imagery — are implicated in what we see.
But it’s not all so serious. This is Reddit, after all.
Sure, “accidental Renaissance” captures our political environment — where passions run so high that you may as well be watching David slaying Goliath live on cable news. But it also gets at the absurdity of life stuck inside — where conquering the dishes and navigating a debris-littered floor can start to feel like your own personal Odyssey.
Those who frequent the “Accidental Renaissance” page are as attentive to a figure wrapped head to toe in a blanket that evokes a sculpture of a veiled Jesus in Naples as they are to the latest scene at the White House. Here, a woman staring at her computer is “Girl Reading an Email at an Open Window by Vermeer.” “Pandemic Dad,” an image of a weary-looking man with three children perched around him, brings comparisons to “Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons.”
For Nygren, the term “accidental Renaissance” can be boiled down to a skillful depiction of emotion.
“Renaissance painters have this economy of style and scale and human bodies where they can convey to you the plenitude of human emotions in just a few square feet of canvas,” he says. “What we’re looking at in ‘accidental Renaissance’ pictures is something approaching that — it’s a few square inches of pixels that get at something that is deeply human.”
In a recent “accidental Renaissance” image, taken at an event in the Oval Office, President Trump is staring vacantly into the distance as former wrestler Dan Gable gestures like a Roman orator and a small boy lies foreshortened on the floor, like a cherub fallen from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
You can practically feel how over it he is. The theatrics. The drama. The pretensions. Over it.
When the image went viral, news sites identified the child as Gable’s grandson. But, really, after the events of recent weeks, he could be any of us. He could be all of us.