Master of the Osservanza, Triptych of St. Anthony, c. 1430/1435, Tempera on poplar panel, 19 x 14 inches (each panel), The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
“Back to back, belly to belly
Well I don’t give a damn
‘Cause it doesn’t matter really. . .”
From Calypso song “Zombie Jamboree” by Conrad Eugene Mauge, Jr.
I have been looking at this early fifteenth century triptych by Master of the Osservanza or years, making it a special diversion whenever I herd my students through the National Gallery in Washington. Usually I am attracted to pictures that scramble brushstrokes with painterly aplomb. Why this fascination with a painting locked into late medieval tropes of narration? Why would a Jewish kid from 1940’s Baltimore feel a kinship with a medieval saint? Did the life journey of this monk remind me, in some small way, of my own, I ask myself? For me the crucial question hinges around why St. Anthony leaves the monastery in the first place; what, in his declining years, compels him to renounce the amenities of the monastic life and go it alone, hiking out with nothing more than a hobo’s bindle.
A partial explanation could be that comic books were the inspirational culture of my childhood. Stan Lee fully imagined his heroes in much the same way as Master of the Osservanza. He tells their epic stories and humanizes them at the same time. Peter Parker has to deal with the normal struggles of a teenager. You worry about a homeless St. Anthony waddling along in the desert.
The Triptych of St. Anthony consists of three panels of tempera on poplar that move in time from left to right, like a comic book, with St. Anthony as its superhero. The first panel describes St. Anthony as a young man in the monastery; the second, his leaving the monastery as an old man; and the third, his wandering about in the world.
Master of the Osservanza, Saint Anthony Distributing His Wealth to the Poor, c. 1430/1435, Tempera on poplar panel, 19 x 14 inches
At first St. Anthony is fully engaged in the routine of the monastery, distributing his wealth to the poor. Everything happens within a self-enclosed architecture. His back is to the inherent movement of the other panels; he is not going anywhere. The overall color of this first panel is red. The third and final panel of this painting depicts the world journey that St. Anthony takes as an old man, along a winding spiraling trail full of starts and stops, that begins in the airy clime of mountain heights and culminates with his meeting with the Anchorite St. Paul in the desert. It is discontinuous in its design and is green.
The color of the middle panel, however — the departure of St. Anthony from the monastery — is a composite of the first and third panels, mixing the colors of the interior world of the Church with his pilgrimage into the world. It operates as a kind of unifying principal, a fulcrum balancing the seesaw of the first and third panels, the before and after that makes narrativity simultaneous.
The pivotal center of the entire triptych —specifically the very door through which St. Anthony steps out alone into the landscape — is but a languid flat plane; indeed the only plane totally parallel to the picture plane. How bizarre is it that here, the absolute central moment of the entire narrative as depicted by these three panels, a fraught ambiguity exists where St. Anthony confronts the uncertainty of his first steps into the phenomenological world; that this doorway, in its primal, innocent and vulnerable neutrality (much like the stance of Gilles in a portrait by Watteau), should react to the crisis with such listless resignation?
Master of the Osservanza, Saint Anthony Leaving his Monastery, c. 1430/1435, Tempera on poplar panel, 19 x 14 inches
All else — steps, walls, and rooftops, even fragments of the outlying city itself — are wildly askew, in perspectival disarray. One would think otherwise: that the open door, making possible his exit from the confinement of the monastery, would break vehemently the claustrophobic exaction of the picture plane. But no, this quirky reversal of pictorial expectation is a disarming anomaly. The emphasis on the door as a neutral uninflected picture plane, as the central intermediary — the place where the interiority of St Anthony’s faith and spiritual calling, and the unfamiliar outside world, intersect — now acts as a foil to all the flying disarray of perspective ahead. This onslaught of empirical description becomes an active danger and an immediate threat at the very commencement of his journey. His first steps into the topsy-turvy world are imperiled by a wild and unseemly disorientation.
With just a backpack and cane, St. Anthony shuffles into a flagrantly uncharted and disheveled world, spiraling downward from mountaintop to forest, and finally to an ultimate clearing in the desert where he finds St. Paul the Hermit. Along the way, St. Anthony, stranded in the middle of nowhere, asks directions from a centaur. Out of what pasture of mythological origin does this cockamamie pagan creature appear? This is an odd epistemological glitch, a non sequitur in the medieval cosmos. St. Anthony is no longer protected by the infrastructure of Catholicism, the righteous exclusivity of its rhetoric. He is now vulnerable to a whole slew of heinous temptations, supernatural creatures and other egregious interlopers. Yet a dauntless and implacable St. Anthony soldiers on, like a Mr. Magoo on a metaphysical journey in an alien world.
All at once he vanishes into the thick entanglement of a forest (perhaps emblematic of some crisis, say, meeting with the devil, as legend has it, or suffering the proverbial dark night of the soul) only to surface into view again. Only then does he discover St. Paul the Hermit in the desert.
In this last and concluding scene, St. Anthony and St. Paul put down their canes and become one. Their separate egos are hereby erased when the two saints conjoin in an embrace, which echoes the cave behind them, a cosmic hug of sorts, clinching the final humanistic coda of this panel.
Amidst the conflicting doctrines of free will and predetermination, freedom is a narcissistic fabrication. The daily perplexity that pursues St. Anthony — all the pursuant doubts as he loses his way along a wilderness of tortuous footpaths — is the price of freedom. Yet his mission is nevertheless inevitable and fated: to find St. Paul is to find himself. St, Paul is St Anthony’s look-alike, a homeboy in priestly robes and beads, an older version of himself.
Master of the Osservanza, The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, c. 1430/1435, Tempera on poplar panel, 19 x 14 inches
Whatever solipsistic pretensions St. Anthony might have assumed about the specialness of his journey, the perfectible singularity of his personal conceits are hereby dissolved upon the realization that St. Paul has been there all along, the first hermit to establish the anchorite monastic order. St. Anthony confronts the sobering reality that there is nothing new in its present avatar. His mission began as proud loner of the clerisy, trudging along mountainous slopes with priestly entitlement, only to descend in a backward spiral to a miserable hole in the wall, the cave — a stark contrast to the monastery he left behind.
The two monks put aside their canes so that now support comes from an overarching embrace of each other, a gestural universal whose future accepts human limitation and its fractured commonality.
Upon a closer look at the iconic magnificence of this final image —the hulking kinship of these two saints — it is the isolated profile of St. Paul that dominates. St. Anthony is merely contributing as anonymous filler to the huddle; an acolyte subsumed into the clasping persona of St. Paul the Hermit. Here humility trumps vanity. By humbling himself to the dictates of the Anchorite Credo, St. Anthony Abbot both loses and finds himself. Could this boomeranging turnabout be the latent irony of the St. Anthony legend?
* * *
Just as the trajectory of history shows Napoleon repeating the conquests of a Roman emperor, or an aged Tolstoy, the journey of a St. Anthony, so my personal story as an artist picks up an uncanny vibration from the Master of the Osservanza Saga as well.
As a young artist I did giant Pop paintings of couples swiped from beer ads and porno mags. These tawdry paintings featured grinning guys with big chins and flirtatious gals with big cleavage, all modeled with lots of volume against a vacuous background, a vast refrigerated zone suggestive of the monstrous benumbed acreage of Middle America. The vulgar impact of these paintings struck the fancy of the big pop dealer in Manhattan who persuaded me to move to New York, promising me representation in a top gallery and a salary sufficient enough so that I would no longer have to teach. He helped me find an old loft in the Battery overlooking the East River and Brooklyn. He took me along to dinner parties, introducing me to important collectors of Pop Art. I was included in a traveling Anti-sensibility show and the signature Pop Art exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum. A fledgling in the New York art world, I felt “discovered”, fame and fortune just ahead.
However, as fate would have it, an unwelcome situation squashed my luck. The worst of the nightmare began when I became aware that this same fast-talking and cigar-puffing schmuck of a dealer was having an affair with my wife. My refusal to go along cost me my marriage and career. I disappeared into the dealer ‘s mantra “What I can’t control, doesn’t exist”. He put the kibosh on my work. No gallery would consider my billboard-like emojis of popular culture. Blacklisted, I was flushed out of the system.
I was angry and felt myself psychologically stymied. I needed a new beginning. Ambition faded into a kind of jaundiced bewilderment that prompted me to rebel against the whole Pop Art world, to take on the swagger of that grossly imperious establishment by going back to a retardataire, implausible, out of fashion dinosaur viewpoint — i.e., painting directly from nature.
Renting a studio in the boonies of Port Jervis, I started tramping through fields of muck, flies and cowpies, with my French easel strapped to my shoulder, in search for new vistas. I began knocking out countless plein-air sketches, sometimes five in an afternoon, in a furious commitment to the absurdity of painting landscapes in the 20th century. Most of these sketches I left unfinished. I wanted to find a personal truth, something authentic to my sensibility without it being glossed over, imposed upon or cosmeticized.
I found that the real landscape I was exploring was myself. To this end, I began a series of self-portraits— an incessant search for a genuine identity amidst the shifting flux of selves.
Because of the ever-changing light and mood of landscape, one is always in a rush to capture the raw sensations from the prism of nature. I found my instincts better suited to alla prima painting. To try to correct the image or make of it a perfect thing would be to overwork it and lose its freshness. When I was a Pop artist, my paintings took a long time to complete. Appropriating images from media adverts, my painting hand was somewhat procrustean and mechanical. Now that I was in this new phase of painterly painting it was too dispiriting to copy from photographs. The brushstrokes made from the actual observing of something became more engaging and opened up to spontaneity, accident and surprise.
I started to attend weekly meetings at an alliance on the Lower East Side, a gathering of strident and disaffected figurative artists whose careers were somewhat eviscerated by the power punch of Abstract Expressionism. I made friends with some artists a generation older than myself who became my mentors. I am thankful for the benefaction of these apostles of aesthetic creed: the whirring analytical thought and insight of Louis Finkelstein; the good eye and impeccable taste of Paul Resika; and the lengthy conversations about Romanticism and the artist’s ego with Jon Schueler.
On my sabbatical to Europe, I made copies of old masters in the Louvre and, in Antwerp’s Musee des Beaux Arts, paintings by Rubens. I came to understand tradition first hand, that past and contemporary paintings could overlap to mutually extend the awareness of each of their meanings, the present informing the past and vice versa. Velazquez could be thought to be looking forward to Rothko in painting the gowns of his Infantas, gowns that hover and glow, in the space before his canvases, like clouds of glorious color.
Over the years, my paintings seem to accumulate farther from the hype and trends of the celebrity artworld. I enjoy painting portraits of friends, industrial harbor scenes, and still lives of dead fish gathered from the stalls of Baltimore’s Lexington Market, but also countless allegories, leftovers from my Pop days, spoofing Greek myths and biblical hoopla. The body of my work, painterly and expressionistic, is an avid search for a personal idiom that expresses my basic temperament, my scribble-scrabble Kilroy on the backyard fence.
* * *
Great myths and legends are like the shuffling of a loaded deck. It was destined all along that St. Anthony’s schlep would lead to St. Paul the Hermit. The shape of the cave at the bottom of the panel repeats the mountain shape at the top. Time is reversed and incongruent spaces harmonize into one work of art.
Although the Sienese artist Master of the Osservanza (active 1420s-1440s) lived during the onset of the Renaissance, he did not avail himself of all the newfangled advances of optical know-how. He still had one foot in the Middle Ages, preferring to paint in an archaic decorative gothic style. St Anthony appears no less than three times in the scope of the third panel: first, as a tiny character roaming the steep slopes of the mountain; then, in his encounter with the stark frontality of the centaur who flashes him; and finally, merging into that colossal pyramid of collegiality at the end. In a primitive attempt at the illusion of space, increasing the size of St. Anthony on each occasion of his reappearance actualizes depth of field.
Unlike science, art does not advance as an improvement on what went before, disposing of its former truths as inapplicable throwaways. There is no expiration date on great paintings. Each work of art is rather an invention specific to its moment, yet always universal in the fabric of time. This masterpiece by Master of the Osservanza can be thought of as a dialectical construct between disjunction and harmony. This telling of the story of St. Anthony transcends mundane description and, in a spell of magical synchronicity, illuminates the fraught moment between inner and outer worlds —casting light on my own aesthetic quest.
Raoul Middleman, Actaeon, 1996, Oil on canvas, 42 x 72 inches
Raoul Middleman is recently retired after 58 years of teaching at MICA, allowing him to wake up everyday early enough to paint the sunrise over the Baltimore Harbor, and then go back to bed.