A Closer Look: Topics in Western Art

When I visited Kansas City last spring on a college tour trip I also took a look at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I walked quickly through the art departments and I hardly looked at what was on the walls. I didn’t notice an alcove in the medieval section, which contained a Painting called, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”. A guard stopped me to point out the uniqueness of this painting by Jan Wellens De Cock, a Flemish painter. The fascinating part of the painting lies in the green reptilian like foot that peeks out from underneath a woman’s gown. I found myself suddenly interested in a painting that I disliked on every level. Despite the fact that I hate the style, this little foot made me look at the painting more closely, and I began to see all the implications that at first glance I had missed.

The painting is oil on a wood panel and the composition is very symmetrical. The viewer stands outside a city and looks upon a man and a woman who face each other from opposite sides of a circular entrance or gate to the city. The man is a representation of Saint Anthony. He is sitting on steps holding out his hands with a look of horror on his face. In his lap is a book, perhaps the bible. From the other side a young woman approaches him, holding out a golden chalice. With breasts exposed and feathers trailing behind her head, she is obviously trying to tempt Saint Anthony. The less than thrilling work is meant to illustrate a story. Saint Anthony, Abbot, suffered from hallucinations caused from isolation. During one of his hallucinations an incarnation of lust came in the form of a young woman to tempt him. This woman is holding out a chalice, offering it to him, which represents the temptation of carnal pleasures and worldly riches.

Although I dislike this style of painting I can still understand the amount of work it took to create such a detailed piece. The stones of the wall are very well defined and each brick has a sense of volume. In fact the artist has been so precise in his depiction that it seems too clear for reality. The contrast of light and shadow is too sharp for stone. There is a lot of gray in the work, and the walls and columns dominate the composition. The people are drawn realistically, but the proportions are off, which makes the figures look like characters rather than real humans. There is an attempt at one point perspective. The technique is successful in the stone wall and columns. Inside the round gateway we can see a small portion of the town. Here the lines of perspective are continued successfully, however there is a slight inconsistency that causes the whole drawing to look inaccurate. One of the buildings is at a slight angle. I know from experiences with box drawing that it is much easier to draw believable perspectives if all the boxes are 45-degree angles. Once a box is off of this grid pattern it becomes much more difficult to retain the illusion of receding space. This artist ran into the same drawing problem as I have with boxes. He was unable to make the building match the other angles, making it look as though it sits on another ground level or floats in space. This building and the mountain in the background are not as clinical or precise as the wall, figures and columns. The mountain in the background looks very fanciful and suggests some deeper meaning.

I dislike this painting because it lacks color. I enjoy large, bright, textural paintings that seem to move within the canvas. The painting, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” is the opposite of what I like. It is dark, gray, flat and static. I don’t identify with religious works of art, and therefore find nothing interesting about the subject matter. I don’t like cartoonist or character paintings that attempt to tell a story. To me painting is about the paint, the surface and the color. I can understand a person who takes painting to another level and includes a story and meaning in his/her work. However I dislike a painting that doesn’t even attempt to show the texture of the medium, but instead tries to hide it.

Six months have passed sense I first set eyes on, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” and my opinion of the work has changed in the time that has passed. I know that the value of a painting changes as a person’s view on art changes. In the next three months I am going to learn and study about art in much more detail than I ever have before. It will be interesting to see if I can learn to like a dark, boring, religious painting from the fifteen hundreds.

Information given by the museum identification tag:

  • (Attributed to: Jan Wellens de Cock, Flemish (Antwerp)
  • Active: 1506-1527
  • Title: the Temptation of Saint Anthony c. 1522/25
  • Material: Oil on wood panel

Image source: http://www.theinksociety.net/oil/?currentPage=3