Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.


March 6, 2010

6-3-10 Entertaining Angels

Yesterday’s entry prompted me to take a bit of noetry – I may preserve that affectation for my writing that’s probably not poetry and clearly not prose but which I’ve at least bothered to note down* – from an email to an Appleworks file and then to a dump-folder of these pieces lodged on an external drive.

That in turn ended up in a couple of hours retrieving older ones from a format I can only open now with NeoOffice and transferring them to easy-to-get-at Appleworks notepaper. There are stacks; I’d forgotten a lot of them.

*noetry, n.:see definition above. I plant my expeditionary flag here, you heard it here first; when noetry becomes an industry standard category, OED please note.

This one was a note of an exhibition of Tiepolo sketches and cartoons in their original sense – the sketches used to prick out outlines for paintings; the throwaway preparatory work – at Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett, the gallery for a huge archive of graphic work in its broadest sense.

It stuck in my mind because in the gallery’s vitrines under carefully regulated light, the preserved drawings were plainly the functional preparation for grander altar pieces and murals, very likely to show clients.

They looked like catalogue items from which a commissioning cleric or aristo could decide whether an attendant angel in his Annunciation would spread its arms thus, or unfurl a scroll thus (‘your message here’); whether his Madonna would raise her hands in supplication or lower her palms in a benediction, press them together centrally in prayer or meekly to one side, presumably to allow for the downward glance of adoration.

There were sketches of rough hands grasping staffs – humble shepherds’ crooks or anachronistic bishops’ croziers – and several with two fingertips raised in blessing or index fingers pointed heavenwards typically involving a tricky bit of life-drawing convention, a slight twist to the wrist to indicate that the saint or angel merely draws your attention to Heaven, because of course it would be rude to point at God. Unless of course you’re Moses, in which case you return from the mountain with heavy slabs of Maker’s Instructions to discover the mass breakout of naughtiness amongst your frivolling people, when it’s perfectly acceptable to quite forcefully point out who’s watching.

There were misc. wings (adult and children’s sizes) and drapery samples – clingy wetfold-work to describe the limbs beneath and opulent robe-cloth swags – but there was something oddly familiar about this inventory of gesture that only struck me halfway round. My moment of connection was the recognition of the graphic and functional similarity to the kind of style-sheets I’d get from US comic publishers, showing the costume and proportions of characters from their respective pantheons. The Tiepolo sketches certainly aimed to draw attention to his standard of technical know-how and achievement as presiding Master and mentor to his staff, but these too were style-sheets, displaying the house-style. Your chapel diptych will look like this.

Whenever I look at finished paintings in this tradition – conventions preserved 200 years after the High Renaissance – my eye scans for hidden geometries. Circles are for perfection; single points and those pointed fingers indicate The One True…; twos, the sacred and profane, the celestial and the carnal; triangles, The Trinity of course; squares, in the words of the song, for The Gospel Makers. After that it becomes more difficult to decide whether you’re trying to imagine lines of composition in.

These geometric subtexts nowadays appear esoteric because they’ve fallen out of use, but as a gallery viewer spotting them is a throwback to the puzzle-books of my childhood: find seven rabbits concealed in the branches of this tree.

As a child I enjoyed these puzzles, in particular those that didn’t make it easy for you. Even then it struck me, I’d now say ‘as a model of learning’, that these were one-use puzzles. However long it seemed to take you to count off the concealed objects at first sight, once you’d registered them you couldn’t afterwards ‘unsee’ the bunnies in the tree, even as you flicked past to get to another page.

Anyway, this was a written snapshot from a Sunday in Berlin and a little salute to an exceptional craftsman’s some-old same-old day at his trade.

The pencil point laid down searches for the eloquent line

Its scuff of graphite, caught in the tooth of the surface

A particle-trace of a neutrino moment, a bombardment

Of moments that can last for hours. Conjuring with chaos,

You need some science on your side.

The Renaissance, Islam, and the Hassidim

Have much to say of pattern as a handprint:

A Voyager plaque offered to whomever would read.

Be it so simple that Tiepolo, considering

A routine cartoon of the Madonna took due care

That the forehead and the hands, spread in supplication

Were equilaterally spaced: the Trinity of course.

The palms pierced as it were, prefiguring

The Crucifixion: that final hammer-blow

To aspiration, on another axis.

The centre of the aureole, a locus

Above her head, which holds a herald beckoning –

with finger’s tip precisely twice the distance

of the apex to the base:

Heaven and Earth in equilibrium

Joined at her brow where her eyebrows steeple

For her son to be, and all the walking stillborn.

Understood, it can be said in the displacement of four


Classical anatomy also fortuitously betrays

Divine geometry, those other equilaterals:

Outer brow to nasal septum;

Nose to outer jaw;

Jaw to pit of neck;

Neck to nipples;

Nipples to navel;

Navel to hips

And hips to pubis.

Seven times three devolves to the Trinity immutable.

These are not mysteries but standard trade


  1. Room I thought for a footnote. I remember a diptych, in the National
    I think, in which a Royal in the left panel meets and greets a Madonna and Christ-child with retinue of Saints and Angels on the right.
    The infant Saviour makes just such a cryptic hand-gesture indicating the Monarch’s role, temporal and spiritual, raising two fingers. The effect is slightly de-reverenced by the altered significance in the intervening centuries of the two-fingered gesture presented knuckles-out.
    American readers note that this is the Brit equivalent of their eloquent proctological single-finger.

    Comment by admin — March 7, 2010 @ 9:37 am

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