Thursday, January 28, 2010

Different Ages of the Image

I came across the following last night in a marvelous book titled A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel (Viking, 1996, p. 105):
In October 1461, after being released from prison by the chance passing of King Louis XI through the town of Meung-sur-Loire, the poet François Villon composed a long poetic medley which he called his Testament. One of the pieces, a prayer to the Virgin Mary written (so he tells us) at his mother’s request, put in his mother’s mouth these words:
     I am a woman poor and aged,
     I know nothing at all; letters I never read;
     At my parish monastery I saw
     A painted Paradise with harps and lutes,
     And also Hell wherein the damned are boiled:
     One gave me fright; the other, joyfulness.
The French is also wonderfully archaic to my eyes:
     Femme je suis povrette et ancienne,
     Ne rien ne scay; concques lettre ne leuz;
     Au monstier voy, dont suis parroissienne,
     Paradis painct, ou sont harpes et luz,
     Et ung enfer ou damnez sont boulluz:
     L’ung une faict paour; l’autre, joye et liesse.
Villon, a fifteenth century poet, had been jailed for thievery. His most famous line—I’ve known it for at least fifty years but only today realized who’d written it—is “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” Where are the snows of yesteryear? Phrases like that echo and reverberate, return year after year, wonderfully hold a feeling fast that, otherwise, is difficult to render—and this phrase has been echoing like that (if in me) in countless chests for about 450 years. But this post is not about words. It’s about images.

Manguel’s chapter in which this piece appears is titled “Picture Reading” and deals with picture books used in medieval times to convey the contents of the Old and New Testaments to an unlettered public. To make his point sharper, Manguel contrasts that age of the image with this one, and shows a picture of one of those magical ads for Absolut Vodka all of us, presumably, have seen an admired. After finishing the chapter and turning off the lights, I lay there for a while pondering a time when the great majority of people had no letters and absorbed the higher levels of culture by means of painted images or images formed of colored glass seen from the inside of monastery chapels, churches, and cathedrals. And we call ours the Age of the Image. And it is. In a quite different way.


  1. Beautiful and most interesting. A fitting post to appear the day after Apple launched its new iPad, the newest of the tech tools, in this case an image-rich-reader!

    And, in another small coincidence, here's a bit of the introduction to yesterday's Talk of the Nation radio broadcast (a very interesting one, I might add):

    "Temple Grandin sees the world in pictures rather than in words. And that ability, she says, allows her to experience the world in some of the same ways that animals do..."

    And here's a link to the transcript of that show that I highly recomment.

    The magnificent human brain and its many, many ways of helpign us interact in this world.

  2. Very interesting program--very interesting person, Temple Grandin. I am reminded of Helen Keller, of course. How our tools (the brain) work to show and hide things: vast subject, barely explored...