Television viewers today are enamored of “reality shows.” Offerings of this type purport to give the audience a taste of reality. However, as in professional wrestling, the viewer must become complicit in self-delusion or suspend his dis-belief for the experience to be satisfying. Combining the need inherent in those who worship the American “cult of celebrity” with the ironic need for an escape from reality, Donald Trump’s The Apprentice helped complete the double illusion and thus helped the viewer enter more deeply into P-B.
In thirteenth century Italy, there was also a viewing audience with a similar need to escape P-B which was also alive and well back then or at least alive. The audience was illiterate which was why they needed a medium that didn’t involve the printed word. The foundation of the narrative in which they were contained was the Bible, but they were not allowed to read it even if they could—that was the job of the priest. And the priest relied on the frescoes on the wall of the church to bring the story of the Bible to life—to make it more vivid.
Along comes the Franciscan Roger Bacon (c. 1214-94) who communicated in a letter to the Pope that those frescoes were failing in their function and that they were in effect a fresco wasteland. “Bacon felt that, in his day, images had failed in their function as aids to understanding. They were not vivid and evocative enough. Instead of presenting the content of Scripture in so palpable a way that its literal and its allegorical, moral and mystical meanings were clear, he asserted, images were deceitful both in sum and in detail. Bacon blamed the theologians, since they commissioned works and designed programs of their contents. They had no notion of geometry, perspective and optics [reality], he said—though if they consulted Euclid’s Elements and other available books on geometry using images to clarify and make vivid the truth and meaning of the Word, all would be clear. Divine wisdom would be apparent to all, he believed, if only the things mentioned in Scripture were set before human kind in palpable form. Biblical tales would seem present reality; one might see Solomon’s Temple, and indeed the New Jerusalem, with one’s own eyes!”
The priests had the task of mesmerizing the faithful so that they could be controlled, to make sure that P-B remained the reality that contained them. It is no wonder that the clergy felt overtaxed and privately wished for more eloquent pictures. The artists that Roger Bacon called for did not disappoint them. “Compared with the [old] frescos in the nave of the Lower Church at Assisi, the martyrdoms portrayed at Santa Sanctorum might as well be eye-witness accounts. The space has real depth. The figures do not look as if they can simply be moved to right or left like cut-outs, but seem able to move to and fro, to exist in space, to act, see and communicate.” The artists of the Renaissance began to rise to the task of bringing the narrative of the Bible to life and strengthening the control that the Church was to have over the hearts and minds of the faithful.
Today, some 800 years later, the art of the fresco has been supplanted by myriad forms of communication as we employ art in all its richness and variety to both feed and anesthetize the soul. But alas, we remain stupefied, gaping at images that purport to reveal to us an uplifting story and a glorious identity and deliver only meaningless images, shadows on a wall, while within each person, beyond the stiff and stilted zombies parading before us, lies the unknown Eden.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.