Reading a Painting
In the past, painters drew images and codes from a vast repertoire of symbols that their predecessors had used. These symbols were understood by their contemporaries, but we modern viewers no long know how to interpret them. Symbols and icons are an integral part of the artwork’s structure. If we cannot decode symbols we cannot comprehend the story or message the artists wanted to convey, the equivalent of reading in an unknown language.
The conquering Spanish reorganized the major symbolic codes of the indigenous into a a clear dichotomy between the principles of good and evil, according to the Church. Principle figures were assigned their proper place: Christ, the Virgin, angels and saints on the one hand, the devil and his minions on the other. Colonial era Mexican art is rich in symbols drawn from the indigenous past, some immediately accessible to our contemporary minds while others have become inscrutable with the passing of time.
For example, until pointed out to me by the Director of Tourism for Guanajuato, I hadn’t realized certain church paintings are displayed in a way as to guide the indigenous viewer’s eye line up with the arrival of sunrise’s rays from a nearby window. Lighting the way how good deeds, like those done by saints, will literally lead one up into Heaven with Jesus and his mother.
The symbolic images of the 15th and 16th centuries were profoundly influenced by Spain and their own invasions by the Moors. During the 17th century much of the iconographic repertory was collected in a series of treatises and dictionaries the artists used to help them give clear and efficient expressions to the illiterate masses.
For example, St. Nicholas is always displayed next to three nude little boys he saved from a serial-killing butcher. See a man by three little boys and you, the viewer, instantly knew you were looking at St. Nicholas.
Over the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, however, artists began to apply these codes in an almost mechanical fashion forcing images emptied of their deeper meanings and turned into simple didactic icons.
For example, few foreigner viewers can grasp exactly who everyone is on display on the front of the temple to St. Francis here in town as few grasp their icons, much less the deeper meanings on constant display.
The visionary paintings of the mid-20th century brought together figures and meaning drawn from the artist’s imagination and the unconscious like in the works of Frida Kahlo.
Being able to read hidden messages and decipher icons unlocks the complexity of individual works making them far more enjoyable to the viewer. Understanding a Diego Rivera mural or the three parts to a retablo, offers the viewer the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of this fascinating world, so rich in exciting surprises!