Category Archives: Art History

Dark Pastorals: art and English identity

Brexit

The desolation of the new 10 pence coins.

It’s not much fun being British at the moment. Whereas, years ago, people used to fret against hooligans shouting “IN-GER-LAND”, going on about the 1966 football World Cup, the Dambusters and waving the flag of St George, the identity articulated these days is invariably British. It seems that “Britain” has become a cipher for English self-importance, exceptionalism, and punching above its weight. Britain First. For Britain. Brexit means Brexit – all of these are English above all else. Cultural identity is often expressed through a self-deprecating tweeness, embodied by the endlessly lauded but utterly dismal opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and a new set of ten pence coins. T for tea. Q for queuing. The E for England is wasted on English Breakfast (surely F for Full English would have been better?). The disdain we give to our fellow constituents in the UK epitomised by Scotland being represented by the Loch Ness Monster.

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Major events in the peopling of the British Isles, from “The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population”, Nature 519, 2015.

What is “British”? Technically, there is an archipelago off the north west of continental Europe known as the British Isles. This consists of a long island, Great Britain, a few smaller islands such as Man and Wight, and controversially includes the island of Ireland to its west. It has been settled by many peoples over the millennia, until the Kingdom of England was consolidated under the House of Wessex in the 10th century AD. There are now two countries that occupy these islands: the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (yes, that’s actually our county’s name) is made up of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their alliance as “Britain” has been precarious to say the least.

Wales and Ireland never had strong dynastic kingdoms in the Middle Ages. The Normans had a crack at both following the 1066 Conquest, but it was Edward I who subdued Wales into becoming a principality of England in 1282, and Oliver Cromwell brutally reconquered the island of Ireland in the 1650s: the subsequent confiscation of Catholic landowners’ property setting the scene for the division of the island in the 20th century. Scotland and England were of course, bitter rivals in the Middle Ages, but shared a monarch by the 17th century, formally joining together as the United Kingdom in the Act of Union of 1707.

Victoria_Disraeli_cartoon[1]In 1800, a second act of Union brought Ireland into the United Kingdom. The 19th century was when the idea of “Britishness” as we know it today was forged through the British Empire. The East India Company was dissolved in 1858 and India came under direct rule from the Crown, making Queen Victoria Empress of India. Britain also benefited greatly in the Scramble for Africa. This archipelago became a new Italy and London its the new Rome of an Empire that famously spanned the globe.

But all Empires rise to fall. The first half of the 20th century – not that we learn this in school – was the century of Britain’s worst atrocities as it grasped onto its declining Empire. The concentration camps in the Boer War. The Amritsar Massacre. The Bengal Famine. The Firebombing of Dresden. The Partition of India. The Maylan Emergency. Britain was first humiliated on the world stage by the Suez Crisis in 1952. When Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal – the artery of the Empire from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean – Britain threw a tizzy and invaded Egypt to win it back. They couldn’t.

Since then, we don’t seem to learn and still act like we’re super important. The Falklands (oh yeah, we won that one, great job Maggie). The Iraq War. The exit from the European Union. The current mudslinging reaction to the Skripal incident in Salisbury. The idea of “Britain” is so deeply toxic, symbolising entitlement, control, exceptionalism and dominion, I almost think it’s unsalvageable. It would be deeply significant if we acknowledged – and this is something that could have happened if the 2014 Scottish independence referendum has gone the other way – that England is a nation on an island, not an island nation.


Anyway, time for art. How does one cultivate an English identity? We of course need to acknowledge that all our art is greatly influenced by waves of immigration, not some unshakeable racial character. Next, we acknowledge our neighbours: the constituent countries of the UK, but also Europe. Then of course, we need to accept responsibility for the Empire. But first, we actually need to recognise our great works.

Watts, George Frederic, 1817-1904; Sower of the Systems

G.F. Watts, Sower of the Systems, 1902.

In our fetish for tea and queuing, we don’t celebrate our own art. I go on about how no one takes our medieval parish churches seriously as objects of knowledge, instead dismissing them as picturesque curiosities. It’s the same for our artists. It is only recently that the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers have become acceptable in “serious” art history, and great artists such a G.F. Watts and Edward Burne Jones are studied in the context of European symbolism rather than as eccentric wackos. But our orchestras only play a few select pieces and composers from the English tradition: especially bloody Elgar, making Nimrod from the Enigma Variations into some radio-friendly jingoistic hymn. Composers such as Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Granville Bantock, William Havergal Brian, York Bowen, George Butterworth, Arthur Butterworth are basically unknown (I don’t know why they all begin with B). Sullivan, Britten, Tippett and Walton also receive short shrift. The Hallé are about the only major orchestra who make an effort with English music: London orchestras play more Russians (Shostakovitch, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff) in a single concert than they do English composers in an entire season. Because money.

And yes, a lot of British culture is dangerously obsessed with money, including the art establishment. Probably the most famous living English artist is Damien Hurst, an artist absolutely orientated to the market, who thrives on capital, and is incapable of making any sort of statement to his audience except “ooh, isn’t it scary that we’ll die?” and “wow this looks expensive”. Bombastic shite from vacuous shills like Thomas Heatherwick and Anish Kapoor strives to be “iconic”, but is empty of meaning, let alone any culpability. The Garden Bridge went away: but only because it turned out to be unprofitable.

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Winchester Cathedral, N transept, 1080s.

England can do great things when it’s left to itself for a bit. But it needs ideas. It needs stimulation. And English art and culture has always benefited from moments where the floodgates to outside influence were opened. The Norman Conquest kick-started the great rebuilding of the country’s cathedrals and monasteries one of the most extraordinary feats of architecture, even compared to those of Antiquity.

 

 

Anglo-Norman Romanesque then developed in its own weird way. Chevron, beakhead – stuff that no one else did. Then just as it started to eat itself with self-referentiality, the floodgates opened again, to French Gothic. In the last quarter of the 12th century, Wells, Canterbury and Lincoln pioneered a new era of English architecture. It was all dogtooth and shaft-rings for a good 50 years when we were fighting with France on and off from 1202 to 1243.

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Parish church of St Mary, Kirkby Lonsdale (Cumbria), E counterfacade, first half of 13thc.

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Parish church of St Mary, Lawford (Essex), chancel S elevation, 2nd quarter of 14thc.

Then in come the waters again – bringing in France tracery which is a lightning bolt for Lincoln’s Angel Choir, Southwell chapter house, Lichfield and Exeter. Parisian microarchitecture in the 1280s inspired arguably our greatest period of art-marking: the Decorated Style of the early 14th century, Ely Lady Chapel, the surprising flourishes of exuberance found in unassuming parish churches such as Hawton, Irnham and Lawford.

Aggression really took hold again with France with the Hundred Years War, which went on till 1453, funnily enough, the greatest period of stagnation in England’s medieval architecture. I give a lot of flak to 15th-century “Perp” and rightly get a lot back from flint-fans, and while of course there are many interesting buildings, you can’t deny that it all gets a bit samey. Run-of-the-mill. Predictable. Sturdy. Self-important. British.

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E facade, parish church of St Mary, Lancaster (Lancaster Priory).

It was looking up at the end of the Wars of the Roses, when we start to let the continental Renaissance in, with “Fantastic Perp” such as Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, all of course scuppered when our megalomaniacal king pulled us out of the Catholic Church because he didn’t want to be told what to do. You can make your own comparisons there.

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Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey, London, 1503-9.


20180323_112646So we borrow ideas – but what defines what we do with them? Pevsner famously tried to characterise English art in The Englishness of English Art. He made a bit of balls of it, by most accounts. English art has line, sometimes it’s wavy and sometimes it’s a grid, I think is the general gist of it: crap, yeah. Any purely formal characterisation of art is going to fall on its arse pretty quickly as people say “but Herr Professor Doktor – don’t other countries use lines too?”. But one thing Pevsner was sensible with was making it not about race. It’s not about any sort of John Bull shit. It’s about the island itself.

A Hilly Scene c.1826-8 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, A Hilly Scene,
c.1826–8.

For me, the best English art is characterised by the dark pastoral. The most exceptional thing about the island we’re on is its landscape. In the United States, you can drive for days, and the landscape, can look exactly the bloody same. In England, I can drive for an hour in any direction (well, not west at the moment, because I’d fall in the sea) and see a dramatic transformation. However, the landscape is always characterised by a temperance, rather than sublimity. Despite the efforts late 18th century painters, our landscape is rarely sublime. We don’t have Matterhorns or Grand Canyons. It’s easy to slip into complacency, or worst, sentimentality. That’s where the meditative mode of the “dark pastoral” comes in. We indeed have a green and pleasant land, but we can’t deny the presence of its dark Satanic mills.

The 14th century Decorated draws on nature, but there is no imperial triumphalism, subduing it the control of man. Instead there’s a lingering menace in the twisted foliage, a strange instability in those nodding ogees, a dizzying intimidation in those complex vaults. The Pre-Raphaelites at their best are similar: on the surface idyllic, but not far below, an acknowledgement of the ills of society and the darkness of human nature.

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Luttrell monument, parish church of St Mary, Irnham (Lincolnshire), 1340s.

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John Piper – Dorchester Abbey, 1973.

Neo-Romanticism was the last art movement in England to fully embody this spirit of humbling awe. John Piper’s depictions of churches are not cosy watercolours, but expressive portraits of awesome places, not apart from nature and conflict, but entwined with it.

 

Ralph Vaughan Williams also embodies the spirit of loving our land but a twist of darkness, sadness and culpability throughout his work. Anyone who derides his work as “a cow looking over a gate” needs to sit down with Symphony No. 6 which, responding to the age of atomic bomb, is one of the most brutal and bleak things you’ll hear come out of musical instruments. Even his Pastoral Symphony of 1938-43 – has a very dark undercurrent, responding to the Second World War. I finish with his majestic Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for string orchestra as an example of dark pastoral, how its superficial beauty belies turmoil in its cyclic meditation on the melody written by Tallis in the 1560s for the lines “Why fumth in fight, the Gentiles spite” of Psalm 2. First performed at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival in the Cathedral of Gloucester, it mourns the needless Earthly squabbling which led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the destruction of our culture for money and power. Towards the end, a single viola emerges from the plodding organ-like grandeur of the string orchestra. It’s as if it’s responding to the echoing words of the psalm which continues:

The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
 and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.

It’s like one folk musician, among the stripping of the abbey of Gloucester, saying to the “kings of the Earth” that you don’t need to do this. Yet does anyone listen?

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One Nation Under Perp: Gothic architecture and the perils of nationalism

The humanities, even art history, should be responsible enough to challenge xenophobia and racism that might exist in their narratives and theoretical frameworks. But surely something as genteel as the study of English medieval architecture couldn’t be susceptible? However, an unquestioning use of the scholarship of the past can mean even we, pottering around with our Pevsners, could promote ideas of cultural difference that might be very dangerous indeed.

John Hooper Harvey in 1978

John Hooper Harvey (1911-1997), in his post-war career, established himself as one of the foremost historians in English medieval architecture. His bibliography contains a large amount of popular books with pretty much the same title, but within this he has a number of studies which made an important contribution to the scholarly picture, such as Henry Yevele: The Life of An English Architect (1941, 1943), The Perpendicular Style (1978) and English Medieval Architects: A Biographical Dictionary down to 1550 (1954, 1984, 1987).

61-5-wfpfcl-_sx335_bo1204203200_Harvey seemed to be obsessed about the “great men” in architecture. He longed for a Lives of the Artists of medieval England, and set out to be the Vasari of his nation. Of course, the thing is, England of the 14th and 15th century simply did not have the same culture as Italy, and its artists were not held in any higher esteem than an equally talented butcher, the baker or candlestick maker. This makes the whole idea of writing a “life” of even one of the highest-status masons such as Henry Yevele faintly ludicrous. Indeed, most his “Life of Yevele” is an account of the 14th century architecture that came before Yevele, because there is so little to say about his work and career, never mind his character.

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“Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”…

Harvey’s biographical dictionary is even more ridiculous. Harvey scoured all the documentation he could to work out careers of individual masons. What he mostly ends up with a big list of individuals were often probably contractors or the equivalent of company payroll managers. As a side note, it is funny, that despite that the main pictorial art of medieval Europe was figures of saints from diverse backgrounds with their names underneath, that England had absolutely no imagination when it came to male Christian names. In fact, nearly everyone was called John, Thomas, Robert or Richard. But mostly, probably to Harvey’s delight: John. If you’ve studied late medieval English history, it will ring true that seemingly, practically every man in England was called John. Not only did Johns call their first sons John, they named many of their other sons John too. There are literally hundreds of Johns in Harvey’s dictionary,  but only seven Michaels. And not one single female, even though Agnes Ramsey who took over her father William Ramsey’s business after his death in the 1349 plague is just as worthy as some of the mostly anonymous Johns who get an entry.

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The West Front of York Minster, c.1331 (ready for glazing 1338). Towers added 1432-1450s.

While the biographical dictionary is fascinating and tempting to see as a Vasari for medieval England, it needs to be approached extremely carefully. For instance, Harvey is responsible for uncovering the attribution to Ivo de Raghton for York Minster’s west front and famous “heart of Yorkshire” window. It’s fairly likely since “Ivo the mason” is mentioned in the fabric rolls of the cathedral in 1331, Ivo is a very rare name, and Ivo de Raghton was a very wealthy mason living in York around the same time. But then of course he makes him into the central character of Yorkshire Decorated Gothic, declaring he either designed or influenced just about every major 2nd quarter of the 14th century work from Carlisle to Southwell. All because “Ivo” appears in a medieval receipt book. Just about every “fact” Harvey states must always be scrupulously researched before it’s used in reputable scholarship: his unwavering positivism means he always prefers a building if you can associate a name with it. He will always take documentary evidence over material evidence. In fact some of his attributions are so bizarre and stretch associations to quite ludicrous degrees you wonder whether he was actually even looking at buildings anymore by this point.

61AB0XdMQxL._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_[1]The Perpendicular Style is probably taken most seriously of all Harvey’s books for his narrative of 15th century architecture. But it is damaged throughout by an implicit refusal to acknowledge the influence of foreign styles of the formation of Perp, such as the French Rayonnant. He also omits the architecture of the Tudors – which most sensible people would see as a revitalisation of English architecture with the tremendous fan and pendant vaults of Windsor Chapel, Henry VII’s Lady Chapel at Westminster by the brothers Vertue and the New Building at Peterborough and King’s College Cambridge by John Wastell – as too contaminated by foreign motifs. Although the book is extremely useful, his value judgements of what’s good and what isn’t can seem perplexing to most readers. But it becomes clearer if we delve into his past.

518n+Ahj0ML._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_[1]His 1947 book Gothic England: A Survey of National Culture, 1330-1550 is Harvey’s most eccentric book, and the closest he comes to letting the mask slip post-war. Although most scholars now appreciate the explosion of exuberance in the 14th century Decorated Style, Harvey finds its sinuous ogees rather feminine and debased. He is also not terribly fond of the eccentricity of Early English Gothic in the early 13th century, probably because it’s a period bereft of craftsmen’s names and identities. Although that didn’t stop him later declaring that Wells Cathedral was the “first truly Gothic cathedral” a few times (Take that France!). But what he loved, above all else, was the monumental and rigid Perpendicular Style of that emerged in the 14th century and dominated the whole of the 15th century. He never claimed that it was intrinsically superior to any other architecture – indeed he displayed an interest in other countries and eras – but he saw Perp as the ultimate display of the character of “his” nation.

P1270003Harvey saw England, after its move away from the Norman yoke, entering the 15th century as the most racially pure and static of the European nations: his diagrams of which look a little bit racialist today. His claims in Gothic England that the royalty of Northern Europe and thus the house of Plantagenet had close “ties of blood” to the “ancient cultures of the East” sound suspiciously close to the irreligious policy of Nazi Germany in which the Aryan Race was the civilising force in Europe. But this is because Harvey was more than an eccentric patriot. He was a bona-fide blood and soil nationalist and a rabid anti-Semite. I mean, it’s easy these days to throw around the accusation of being a Nazi if someone so much as tells you off for misplacing an apostrophe, but when you were a member of a party that had this as their flag…

 

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Flag of the Imperial Fascist League (active 1928-1939)

Uhh, yeah.

The thing is, that it wasn’t until Graham Macklin, a scholar working on English fascism, published “The Two Lives of John Hooper Harvey” in the journal Patterns of Prejudice in 2008 (that most of the below information has come from, so please consider it as essential further reading) that it was revealed he was a fully-blown goddamn Nazi in the 1930s. It was always known there were slightly dodgy bits in his best-selling school textbook The Plantagenets  (which we will come to shortly), but most people did not realise the sheer enormity of his past politics which underwrote his scholarship. You see, although he had extensive bibliographies and obituaries published at his death, they failed to include all the pieces he’d penned in journals such as The Fascist as, in the pre-digital age, they weren’t going to crop up in Google searches. But Macklin’s research has shown that he was a racist and anti-Semite of deepest dye.

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A characteristically unsubtle cartoon from The Fascist, the monthly newsletter/journal/Jew-hate rag of the Imperial Fascist League, 1937 (via archive.org)

The thing is, you could forgive someone, in the tumult of the 1930s, without the benefit of hindsight, for falling under the spell of extreme politics. But Harvey wasn’t just sympathetic to Oswald Mosley’s rhetoric and the British Union of Fascists. He joined rabid anti-Semite Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League, which found Italian fascism a bit too airy-fairy and instead met with the Nazi party and adopted ideas of Aryan supremacy, removal of citizenship for Jews and put a fucking swastika on their logo. While the British Union of Fascists allegedly hit a high of 50,000 members, the Imperial Fascist League only ever mustered a few hundred. Harvey was not in good company. This wasn’t just right-wing, it was full-on National Socialism with all of the biological racism that went with it. He seemed to see World War II as an opportunity:

“If Britain defeat Hitler it is a victory for Jews all over the world, if Britain is defeated by Hitler it is a defeat for the Jews and Britain would have a chance to put herself on the map again.”

Of course the war was pretty much the end of a party sympathetic to the regime of the enemy, and during the war, Harvey was investigated by the authorities for his associations.

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Some proud (so proud they blacked out their faces after taking this obviously hurried wonky photo) British racists who put some naff plastic flowers at the former shrine of Little St Hugh at Lincoln Cathedral in 2015. The flag they have draped on the shrine is the “Sunwheel” of the British National Socialist Movement.

The reason Harvey loved late medieval England so much is that he was convinced its national character was improved by the expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I, a character that was greatly damaged by Oliver Cromwell readmitting them in 1655. One passage in his popular history book The Plantagenets (1948), praising Edward I’s statesmanship in removing the “exotic mass” of the Jewish community which in turn “united the national body”. Additionally he attempted convince his readers of the veracity of the most infamous case of Blood Libel: the accusation in 1255 of the Jewish community of Lincoln ritually crucifying a young boy called Hugh (later given a kind of informal local canonisation as Little St Hugh of Lincoln) upon the discovery of his body in a well. In his most disturbing show of unwavering positivism he claimed that because he’d read the original chancery rolls, the medieval court’s judgement on the case was “unassailable”. After repeated complaints from Jewish groups and even the Catholic Church in England, his publishers gave him a chance in 1984 to amend the text. He refused, and the book, which had been a mainstay of sixth-form history classes, went out of print.

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Possible crypto-portrait of Edward I (dubbed “the Great” by Harvey for his expulsion of the Jews from his kingdom), sedilia, Westminster Abbey, c.1307.

So really, Harvey’s adoration of strong, masculine identities of his nation’s kings and craftsmen is built on a bedrock of “Gothic” being interchangeable with “Aryan”. His admiration of Perpendicular architecture, in its rigidity, seems allied to revival of stark classicism by Albert Speer in Nazi Germany. For Harvey, it really was One Nation Under Perp.

Harvey is an extreme case, but he shows that scholarship should be very careful not to blindly embrace standard narratives of the “progress” of “civilisation”. An understanding art and architecture filtered through multitude of factors is essential: economical, material and climatic. A proper study of English architecture should move away from the masculine power structures of genius artists and admit the influence of learned clergy , women, the art of North Africa and the Middle East flowing into Christendom, and, God forbid, even the French. Harvey is an illustrative case of how promoting cultural difference can lie above very dangerous world-views. So many of the world’s current problems, in the most extreme case the reprehensible ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, stem from an inflexible nationalism and xenophobia. Even scholars of Gothic should be challenging the foundations of toxic national identity in the age of Brexit and America First.

What is this medieval saint doing raising the heavy metal horns?

There’s a curious painting in Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, St John the Baptist Enthroned. It depicts the precursor of Christ, J the B, in his trademark camel skin cloak, but rather than chilling in the desert, he sits on a magnificent marble throne with delicate Gothic canopies with finials and pinnacles with a luscious red robe draped over him. In his left hand, he holds his usual staff and a scroll which reads “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi”, essentially the saint’s catchphrase: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold He that takes away the sins of the world”. But his other hand, instead of pointing to the Saviour of mankind, is held in a very unexpected gesture. Perhaps appropriate for his rather bushy light-brunette mullet, he extends his first and little finger upwards, his second and third fingers curled into his palm with his thumb hidden behind.

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Close Follower of the Master of Saint Cecilia – John the Baptist Enthroned, first or second decade of the fourteenth century, 101 x 59.5 cm (Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford)

Someone who has grown up in the pop culture of the last thirty years can only read this gesture as one thing. ROCK.

The picture was of course painted long before Blue Cheer even turned up the gain on “Summertime Blues”. It was painted in Italy, in the early 14th century: what art historians call the Trecento. It is characteristic of how artists of the time experimented with space and volume, away from the flat character of Byzantine icons. John is impressively bulkly and architectonic, something emphasised by the canting sides of his throne with foreshortened Gothic trefoil arches. The painting is first documented in the sacristy (a common dumping ground in Italian churches for old medieval paintings) of the church of Santa Maria degli Ughi in Florence. Around 1834 it was given to the library at Christ Church College Oxford: an unusually early interest in such a “primitive” painting. In 1857 it was exhibited at the great Manchester Art Treasures exhibition under the name Buffalmacco, a 14th-century painter famous from Georgio Vasari’s 16th-century Lives of the Artists as a great prankster, although he has no surviving signed works. Richard Offner’s Corpus of Florentine Painting now gives the artist as “Close Following of the Saint Cecilia Master”. Essentially, the painting looks very close to 1300, when the great Giotto was making a name for himself in Rome and Padua with the revolutionary plastic style of the Florentine School.

So why did the anonymous artist of this panel paint the Baptist seemingly showing us how metal he was? The connection to the modern meaning is actually closer than you might think.

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fiorino d’oro coin, 1484 (wikimedia commons, (cc) sailko)

John the Baptist was especially important in Florence: he was the patron saint of the city. The art historian Robin Simon, who wrote his MA dissertation at The Courtauld Institute on this panel, noted that the gesture first appeared on the florin financed by the Arte di Calimala, the Florentine guild of clothmakers, in 1252. The fiorino d’oro stayed essentially the same in metal and design, with fleur-de-lys on the obverse and the city’s patron on the reverse until the end of the republic of Florence in 1533. While some mintings are too indistinct to see what John is doing with his right hand, and others do have him doing the usual finger-pointing-at-unseen-Saviour thing, many, like this fifteenth-century example clearly show him extending first and fourth finger like a laidback metalhead.

Ken Kelly – cover art for Love Gun LP (1977)

Gestures are extremely important in medieval art and visual culture. They can also vary in cultural meaning, and the so-called “mano cornuto” is no exception. You can look at the Wikipedia page yourself, I’m sure, to see how it can be used to taunt a cuckold or support the University of Texas longhorns. But if the symbol fluctuates, the sign is rigid: horns. To understand why this saint is raising something so aggressive, it may help to look at the history of its current preeminent meaning in Western culture. A number of rock musicians used the sign of the horns in the early 1970s as a devilish symbol that resonated with heavy music’s use of the occult for counter-cultural shock value. For example, on the cover of the KISS album Love Gun, entrepreneur and sometimes-bass guitarist Gene Simmons, in his trademark make-up as the character “The Demon”,  emphasises his devilish nature with a horned fist. But the gesture became solidified in music culture by that much-missed and truly iconic vocalist of heavy metal music, the great Ronnie James Dio.

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Dio and fans showing the “metal horns”, at Black Sabbath show supporting the Mob Rules album, HemisFair Arena, San Antonio, TX, 13 May 1982 (Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns)

Ronald James Padavona (1942 – 2010) had an extraordinary musical career beginning in New York state during the late 1950s, but coming to international prominence in 1975 when he and his band Elf were taken over by all-round British sociopath and Deep Purple’s guitar genius Ritchie Blackmore to be in his new band Rainbow. After he inevitably fell out with Blackmore, Dio joined Birmingham’s heavy-metal pioneers Black Sabbath in 1979 to write and record the Heaven and Hell album, the subsequent tour of which he popularised the sign of the horns during concerts. This was the first time a musician had really pulled the horns in a manner to encourage imitation in the audience (see the brilliant archive photo above). It came at just the right time: when Dio formed his own eponymous band in 1982, heavy metal was consolidating as a distinct genre rather than just a derogatory label for particularly heavy rock music. This gesture was just the sort of thing the burgeoning sub-culture required. However, the traditional roots of Dio’s use of the gesture are subtly different from the way someone like Gene Simmons had used it as an attribute of mock-Satanism.

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Ronnie James Dio, c. 2004

Dio often told the story of his adoption of the horns, which takes us back to the part of the world this medieval painting came from. His parents were Italian immigrants who came to New York probably some time in the 1920s (it is hard to research because Ronnie was a very private person, allowing the notion to circulate that he was a decade younger than he actually was). He recounts how his Italian-born grandmother taught him the gesture to ward off someone giving you the “evil eye” (malocchio). In this sense the gesture is apotropaic: an image or symbol that has the power to ward off evil. And that’s what our 14th-century Florentine John the Baptist is doing. On the coins and the Oxford painting, he’s fulfilling his special role as protector of the City of Florence by exhorting them to stay hard as iron to scare away the devil and the malocchio of any other jealous city states through the use of a vernacular superstition.

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Grimacing pointy-eared face from the centre of the Tomb of Christ / Sacrament Shrine at Hawton (Nottinghamshire), late 1330s.

So any initial surprise you might have at a medieval saint apparently giving the sign of the devil actually says a lot about art and culture. Dio’s lyrics show a fascination with the concept of evil. From his “Holy Diver”, facing the apparitions in the midnight sea to the night terrors that lurk in your own mind in “Dream Evil”. Of course, they are adolescent fantasy that pervades much of heavy metal, but not that far removed from the Middle Ages. As everyone knows, medieval artists put monsters everywhere, as apotropaic symbols but also acknowledgement and morbid curiosity in the darker side of existence. Church water spouts were in the shape of grimacing gargoyles who vomited down the rain onto the churchyard. The margins of rich people’s prayerbooks were full of bizarre creatures. The statues of saints on altarpieces were held aloft by all sorts of profanities we find difficult to understand. This is because the Church embraced everything: both the divine and the human fascination with the grotesque.

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Headstop between chancel sedilia and piscina, St Mary in the Marsh (Kent), probably last quarter of the 13th century: the spitting image of Iron Maiden mascot, Eddie.

It reminds us that art should only be obsessed with virtue, but also explore notions of vice to understand the human condition. I often say it’s curious that the two genres of music I love to listen to that basically sound like white noise unless you sit down with the lyrics and concentrate are sacred polyphony (Josquin Desprez, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Palestrina) and death metal (Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse, Gorguts, Necrophagist). In some twisted way, this painting encapsulates that for me.

On and on and on, it’s Heaven and Hell!