Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 26, 2020
Walter S. Melion and James Clifton, eds. Through a Glass, Darkly: Allegory and Faith in Netherlandish Prints from Lucas van Leyden to Rembrandt Exh. cat. Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, 2019. 222 pp.; 103 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781928917083)
Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, August 31–December 1, 2019
Through a Glass, Darkly: Allegory and Faith in Netherlandish Prints from Lucas van Leyden to Rembrandt, installation view, Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, 2019 (photograph provided by Michael C. Carlos Museum)

The recent exhibition Through a Glass, Darkly at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum seeks, against the odds, to replicate the pleasure that the learned early modern viewer found in decoding complex religious allegorical prints. Cocurators James Clifton and Walter S. Melion admit that these joys can seem distant to us now. Clifton’s preface to the exhibition catalog opens with a quote from the BBC’s beloved art critic Sister Wendy Beckett, who conceded in one of her programs that “we don’t really like allegories” (6). Allegory can be challenging, as it inherently points away from its intended meaning, always signifying obliquely. The term’s own etymology betrays this: “allegory” derives from the Greek for “other speaking” (14). The show’s title, excerpted from a well-known scriptural passage (Corinthians 13:12), emphasizes the inevitable obscurity of religious knowledge, discernable only “darkly,” or enigmatically, like the hidden messages of allegory. Despite these innate difficulties, the exhibition succeeded in demonstrating the potential rewards of deciphering the allegorical print, as well as the high stakes of that act in the Low Countries during a time of religious debate.

The show presented ninety printed images, mostly etchings and engravings from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Low Countries. Spread across four rooms, the works were organized by their dominant allegorical function, either stilled, enacted, parabolic, emblematic, or heuristic. The exhibition catalog, in addition to a preface by Clifton and an in-depth essay by Melion, orders its entries in the same way. This system helpfully parses out the various modes of signification that are often subsumed under the single category of allegory. Stilled allegories, for example, include static figures presenting themselves to the beholder, while enacted ones communicate through “storied action” (27).The third type operates on the model of Christ’s parables, couching spiritual teachings in familiar narratives, such as that of the prodigal son. All of the functional categories intertwine and overlap, however. The fourth section on emblematic allegory refers to prints with a particular image-text relationship, but this does not preclude their designation as stilled allegories, for example. The curators define the fifth grouping as heuristic, that is, posing a problem to be solved, but this too could describe many of the ninety prints on display. The blurred nature of these divisions is acknowledged in the catalog, although Melion does contend that each type would have been “recognizable” to the early modern allegorists, if more as a mode of “allegorical usage” than a discrete class (36). This taxonomy does effectively illustrate the varied forms of allegory for today’s viewer.

The curators tend to prize the layered intricacies of iconography and hermeneutical process over the formal aspects of each print. Rembrandt’s iteration of the parable of the prodigal son does occasion some discussion of the etching process, and mention is made of figural quotations from the likes of Michelangelo and Giambologna (94). The galleries provided a rich visual display, with large engravings by Hendrick Goltzius and Lucas van Leyden, bound volumes of illustrated emblem books, and etched roundels by Hans Bol. Allegories appeared in their full diversity, picturing personifications, landscapes, biblical narratives, peasant scenes, and miraculous relics. However, the emphasis was tilted toward explanation, inviting what the curators called the “reader-viewer” to patiently consider each piece of a print’s hermeneutical puzzle.

Catalog entries describe each print in extensive detail, incorporating historical context and reception while prioritizing a careful clarification of allegorical meaning. The catalog also includes translations of the prints’ Latin phrases and labels as well as citations for each scriptural quotation. This will prove a useful tool for scholars, both in research and in advanced teaching. Through the layout of the galleries, the curators also sought to educate. Artworks were organized by type, with a wall text defining each of the five categories. Each print was dramatically illuminated against deeply hued red or purple walls, inviting the viewer to draw close. Magnifying glasses, provided in boxes mounted throughout the gallery, allowed for further scrutiny. The labels were unapologetically long—many reached three or four paragraphs in length. The exhibition viewers, like their early modern counterparts, were meant to spend time with each print, teasing out its complex messages.

This approach plays upon a central tension in the show—namely, that between aporia and decipherment. Allegories, we learn, were often intentionally complex and overdetermined. While the exhibition’s didactic categories and extensive labels sought to clarify, this project of explanation must contend with the purposeful opacity of this type of artwork. The visitor was taught to see, but only “darkly.” Part of the work of the exhibition was to demonstrate that such interpretative challenges are precisely the point: one found spiritual and intellectual satisfaction through attempts to resolve them.

Allegory has, of course, a lengthy history, steeped in traditions of classical rhetoric and biblical exegesis. The curators focused, however, on how allegory informed post-Reformation spirituality. These objects could guide prayer, give moral guidance, or illuminate religious principles. Allegory provided a model for understanding the very mysteries of the Christian faith, themselves only perceptible through signs and deferred meanings. The shifting confessional connotations of allegorical prints can be seen in works like The Triumph of Truth, a “stilled” engraving published in 1593. The version on exhibit was altered, with the vaguely Lutheran sentiments of the original replaced with staunchly Catholic ones. The screeching allegorical figure of Envy is now labeled “Rebellion,” and the snakes spawning behind her become “various heretics,” transparent references to Protestant reformers (56). Some parables might be seen to argue for a Roman Catholic belief in the salvific power of good works, such as that of the rich man and Lazarus (134), while others, like the parable of the prodigal son, were simply interpreted differently by Catholics and Protestants (122). The latent instability of allegorical meaning allowed printmakers to eschew deliberate confessional references. Instead, we often find more subtle allusions: Jan Saenredam’s series Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins is vaguely Calvinist in sentiment (147), while another print, when put to pressure, seems to critique Christian sectarianism (72). 

The exhibition was especially successful in expressing the urgency of allegorical thinking, revealing a more serious side to its intellectual and meditative games. To the early modern viewer, the catalog argues, these prints could operate as earnest weapons against heresy and as tools for spiritual edification. The religious solemnity of the genre is convincingly elucidated in Melion’s introductory essay, where he explores, among other things, Dirck Volckertsz. Coornhert’s passioned defense of allegory in a 1585 treatise (18–22). Coornhert expounds upon the dangers of its misuse as well as its great rewards, reminding the reader that Christ himself was an allegorist. In addition to erudite diversion, the decoding of these images had real spiritual outcomes. As stated in another treatise, emblems were meant to delight those readers “wearied by serious reading and graver occupation,” but, ultimately, these pleasurable games should lead them “toward the true and requisite imitation of Christ” (138).

For all its vivid demonstration of the exigencies of allegorical thinking, the exhibition did not delve deeply into the question of how, and in what contexts, such prints were used in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Low Countries, though wider historical and confessional viewpoints were treated at length. Meanwhile, however, little was said regarding the use of allegory in seminary education after the Council of Trent or in festival culture, not to mention in the expanding project of evangelization. Perhaps in part because of this, the exhibition tended to collapse material distinctions between book illustrations, smaller meditative prints, and impressive artistic engravings intended for display. Greater attention to the myriad functions of these works in the post-Reformation landscape of Northern Europe might have historically anchored some of the discussions for the uninitiated visitor, as many of the exhibition’s themes—allegorical thinking in scripture, allegory as meditation, allegory as exegesis—have corollaries in earlier times and places (and in previous exhibitions, such as the 2009 Scripture for the Eyes show, also curated by Clifton and Melion, at the Carlos Museum and Museum of Biblical Art, New York).

Although surely not every visitor left having experienced the joys of deciphering heuristic riddles and layered parables, Through a Glass, Darkly convincingly demonstrated the centrality of such modes of thinking in early modern Netherlandish visual culture. The subject matter of the exhibition is not an easy one to tackle. However, the curators made an excellent case for the excitement of allegory. In visiting the galleries, one could appreciate the struggles and rewards of allegorical interpretation and the severity of its spiritual consequences. Through the curators’ eyes, the early modern passion for peering into the corners of printed images and unraveling elusive meanings became palpable.

Grace Harpster
Assistant Professor, Department of Art & Design, Georgia State University