BY Jan Verwoert in Features | 01 NOV 10
Featured in
Issue 135

Heaven & Earth

The psychologically charged paintings of 16th-century artist Lorenzo Lotto explore hermeticism and the ‘pure profane’

BY Jan Verwoert in Features | 01 NOV 10

If freedom were to become a lived experience, how would you seek it? The secret of emancipation seems to lie in both realizing what to strive for and what to liberate yourself from. Certain Italian Renaissance paintings convey a sense of this two-fold struggle in the most acute and sensual way, evoking the new horizon of emancipation with the careful curiosity of lovers slowly exploring one another. Yet these images were created within the framework of the very narratives and power structures that they were seeking to break away from. Diplomacy is key here; relaying radical ideas via innuendo was a technique for survival under precarious circumstances. Although some patrons were strong supporters of progressive art and thinking, by the early 16th century the Vatican was taking systemic persecution and corruption to historically unprecedented levels. What to do when the same idea could make you famous and get you killed? To extricate itself from this pickle, Enlightenment thinking eventually cut its ties to the monster of the church and repudiated the passions of spirituality in favour of the sobriety of pure reason.

Churches remain power-mongers; a heartfelt dedication to emancipation still finds itself radically at odds with the growing nostalgia for religious submission. Arguably though, putting blind faith in reason created new monsters and hollowed out the experience of freedom (freedom for what?). How could the passions at the heart of criticality then be re-addressed? What does it in fact mean that in the Renaissance the passions of the soul were still embraced as the medium for the earthly pursuit of emancipation?

Firstly, it’s crucial to grasp the radicality of the idea that higher truths, justice and beauty could be sought (and found) in the material world. In conventional Christian terms this was unthinkable: you were meant to follow the tenets of your social position – only in the transition to the afterlife could your condition improve. The church held the monopoly on administrating access to this passage. The idea that you could rise – spiritually, artistically, intellectually and socially – on your own terms, in this life, threatened that monopoly.

The Creation (Magnum Chaos), 1524. Wood carving, 43 x 44 cm. Courtesy: Santa Maria Maggiore church, Bergamo. 

Mysticism provided two strong arguments for the claim to earthly emancipation. If this world emanated from a divine being, its signature must be imprinted in its creation, in the material form of plants, planets and organs as well as pictures and words.1 If ‘God created man in his own image’ then the spark of his creativity must glow in our souls too. Learning to activate the power of divine signatures is a way to kindle that spark; to grasp, for instance, what plants affect which organs empowers you to control your health. Inscribing these divine signatures into art works likewise adds to their force. Books teaching the practice of alchemy and reading hieroglyphs, such as the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream, 1499) by the Venetian Francesco Colonna began to circulate among artists and scholars around the turn of the 16th century. The Florentine humanist Marsilio Ficino had (in addition to Plato’s dialogues) also translated the Corpus Hermeticum – a compendium of Greek philosophy, Jewish mysticism and Egyptian lore from the third century – which is the key source for the occult tradition of hermeticism.

Parallel to this, the idea of compassion gained new significance – sharing pain and joy is a way to connect to the divine when it resides in the passions of everybody’s soul (Christ, after all, was human). Franciscan mystic Bartolomeo Cordoni, for instance, argued in Della Unione Spirituale di Dio con l’Anima (On the Spiritual Union Between God and the Soul, 1538) that the compassionate culture of common people could now be embraced as a home of the spirit in the material world. This was reflected in the publication of texts in vernacular Italian: popular ballads by the 13th-century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi, the laudi (songs in praise of the Lord), for example, were collected and reprinted in Florence in 1490.2 The potential ramifications were far-reaching: no institution can claim a monopoly on a sentiment that is ubiquitous. If people have the love that saves them, they don’t need a church to sell them sanctuary and when compassion is accepted as a pathway to truth, the psychological depiction of feelings became a way for art to evoke – and convey deep insights through – empathy.

A painter whose work highlights this often-perplexing mix of inquiry, alchemy and empathy is Lorenzo Lotto (1480–1556). Magical codes are tangibly at play in the construction of his paintings yet are almost indistinguishable from his acute and lively representation of psychological states. The hermetic and emotive are visibly treated as two modes in which the signature of divine power may reveal itself; the joy of looking at Lotto’s work lies not least in feeling the intensity of his struggle to interpret God’s signatures and render them tangible in his motifs. The results are never too balanced, which makes them engagingly unpredictable. Lotto can veer from sublime complexity to cartoonish simplification; he never fully subsumes the forces he taps into a simple formula. There is tension in his paintings – and a very particular sense of humour.

Much of this could describe Caravaggio’s approach to painting and Lotto has been described as his precursor – in spirit, if not style. Although Lotto’s work is charged with mystery and its subtext is often twisted and dark, its overall tone is surprisingly fresh and warm – light, even. He is not yet under the spell of what was to become the visual armature of the counter-reformation: the hazy clouds and the allure of gravity and guilt that draws you into the arms of Catholicism. Rather, Lotto’s paintings are full of compositional clarity; they radiate the Renaissance faith in the capacity of human beings to observe the world and transform it, to seize the day and make new beginnings. Through their clear and open compositions, they put trust in the viewers’ powers to understand his point of view and to empathise. They respect you as a thinking, feeling being.

Lotto’s biography differs notably from many of his contemporaries in that he never set up shop in one place for long. Born in Venice in 1480 he left for Treviso in 1503, moved to Recanti in 1506 and then to Rome, where he worked on the Vatican frescoes from 1508, but left three years later when Raphael took control of them (and Lotto’s contributions were over-painted). He may have briefly lived in Florence before moving to Bergamo in 1513 for a longer period. In 1525 he returned to Venice where, it is speculated, the territorial Titian made things difficult for him. Lotto finally joined the community at Santa Casa in Loreto as a lay brother in 1552 where he died in 1556. His initiation to hermetic thought must have begun early, in Treviso where his patron the bishop Bernado de Rossi had spearheaded a reform movement called rinnovatio (renewal) with the scholar, cardinal and diplomat Gasparo Contarini, and Pietro Lippomano, Bishop of Bergamo, who was to become another of Lotto’s patrons. Like Martin Luther, these clerics were at odds with the Vatican and sought to transform Catholicism from within by shifting the emphasis away from institutional power towards the spiritual passions exemplified by Christ’s humanity.3

Lorenzo Lotto treats the hermetic and emotive as two modes in which the signature of divine power may reveal itself.

Such passion is the pulse that runs through Lotto’s work, yet it defies dogma and conventional morality. In his painting Saint Michael and Lucifer (1555), for instance, Lotto depicts Lucifer tumbling from a cloud below the archangel who has his hand ambiguously outstretched. However, not only does Lucifer look angelic, his features mirror Michael’s. With the latter gesturing down and the former, in falling, gesturing up along the same diagonal, their bodies are held in inverse symmetry. They could almost rotate positions, like hands on a clock – so much for the eternal difference between sinners and saints.4

An earlier painting, Venus and Cupid (1540), is an even more startling example of Lotto’s renegotiation of values. Most likely commissioned as a wedding present for a marital bedroom, it depicts a peculiarly erotic exchange between Venus and Cupid. Reclining on a blue cloth, the naked Venus directly looks out at the viewer with an ambiguous smile, a crown of laurels dangling from her right hand on a ribbon; a plump Cupid grabs the laurels, and, with an expression of focused indulgence, urinates through the crown onto her body. Surprisingly, Venus’ divinity does not appear compromised by this profane act. On the contrary, she supports it with her smile. How can this be?

Giorgio Agamben addresses this paradox by proposing the concept of the ‘pure profane’.5 In ancient ritual, he writes, part of the offering to the gods (an animal, for example) was, in the act of its dedication, profanated through touch and thereby designated something the community was free to consume. As this food had, however, momentarily entered the divine sphere before its re-distribution, it would not be fully restored to the mundane sphere, but preserved as pure and profane. In Lotto’s painting, Cupid embodies this in-between status. It might just be banderols attached to his quiver, but look closely and it appears that Lotto gave him a second set of wings. It makes sense: a go-between two worlds should have two pairs of wings to go hunting high and low for a love that is purely profane, i.e. heavenly physical and viscerally sublime.

A work in which Lotto unfolds the enigma of the pure profane in the most captivating way is a series of 36 intarsias which he designed for the apse choir of the Santa Maria Maggiore church in Bergamo between 1524 and 1532. Created by the congenial woodcarver Giovanni Francesco Capoferri, the majority of the panels are placed inside the choir; only four face outwards to the nave. The intarsias were divided into two groups. One set was inserted into the walls, while the second set served as cover plates for the first series, fitting on top of them like lids.6 While the plates of the first set depict stories from the Old Testament, the cover plates are inlaid with carefully constructed allegories that Lotto called imprese (undertakings). Removing the covers involves inserting a key that literally unlocks the allegorical plates; it’s a unique experience.7 The biblical motifs revealed beneath are carved in delicate detail and reveal Lotto’s irony towards – and love for – the divine profanities of human existence. Little soldiers shit and pee in the background as Judith decapitates Holofernes; Samson rests with a prostitute after slaying 1,000 philistines with the jawbone of an ass; a drunken Noah has passed out, unaware that his tunic has ridden up and his genitals are exposed.

Of the cover panels, the most demonic is probably the one designed to embody the story of Genesis. A strange being – two hands and feet conjoined around a single eye – appears, upside down, at the centre of ten expanding circles surrounded by 40 flames. ‘Magnum’ is inscribed at the top of the image and ‘Chaos’ below. Kabbalist numerology associates the number of circles with the ten emanations of God (in Genesis, ‘God said’ is repeated ten times) and that of the flames with the 40 weeks of pregnancy and the 40 days Isaiah and Jesus spent in the desert. This is a cipher for the mysteries of creation and incubation. Yet, its power lies less in its symbolic meaning than in its specific form: magic meets speech act theory (some words do what they say). You cannot do a dry run on a magic spell; it does what it does when you utter it. If we look at Lotto’s imprese as pure profane imprints of the spiritual, then they do not represent, they perform what they articulate by affecting you in the process. Consciously so: Lotto’s meditation on the power of images to leave imprints on their viewers’ souls is evident in the care he takes in codifying his compositions.

If we combine the mystery of the transformative force with the psychology of the spiritual pursuit we arrive at the figure of Saint Jerome, who was responsible for the Vulgate, the fourth century Latin translation of the Bible that eventually became the officially approved version. Yet Jerome also fought for the idea that after baptism there was a second way to save the soul: by changing your life. He is therefore mostly depicted in a transformative moment, in the desert, studying or repenting. During the Renaissance the subject of Jerome spawned a genre that allowed artists to meditate on the life of the creative intellectual – Lotto painted him many times. One of his most powerful versions is in the Prado in Madrid: Penitent Saint Jerome (1546). It depicts the saint on his knees, arms raised in prayer, by himself in the wilderness – but he’s not really alone, because the animated rendering of his passion almost puts you in the picture with him. On the ground before him are a bible, a cross and a lizard, gazing back at him. The same creature reappears in Portrait of a Gentleman (1556); where it sits on the edge of a desk next to an open folio, peering at a young man clad in black who, looking up from his reading, seems adrift in a universe of thought. As a symbol – or signature – the lizard embodies mystical vision (out in the heat, it gazes at the sun) and the power of rejuvenation (if severed, its tail grows back). Both of these paintings are designed to make you empathize with the passions at play in the pursuit of emancipation; in the struggle to free your mind and change your ways. Emancipation is portrayed as an equally spiritual and earthly endeavour. In both examples the lizard is the signature of that go-between dimension – the pure profane element – at the heart of the double, both spiritual and material pursuit of transformation. (It is no coincidence that, in the Rider-Waite tarot deck, a lizard escorts the King of Wands, master of change.)

In a way, lizards are all about vision and motion. They can be so still they’re almost invisible, and you need to be equally still to observe them. I’m not superstitious, but a tiny lizard crossed my path just before I entered Santa Maria Maggiore. It looked up, gazed at me quietly and then wriggled into a crack in the pavement. Perhaps someone was sending a message – one that bore a particular signature. The smallest thing can suddenly spiritually activate the material world. It was very Lotto.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.