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AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIÆVAL ART IV: Grisaille, or the Abstention from Color


Lent is observed for the 40 day leading up to Easter. The first day of lent is Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 5th this year. During the Lenten period, it is customary for Christians to purfy themselves by practicing austerity and abstaining from sensual pleasures in an effort to imitate and therefore identify with the suffering Christ endured in his Passion.

In the later Middle Ages, a taste emerged for images purged of color and rendered in a restricted grayscale palette. The modern term for this technique is grisaille. No contemporary descriptions of this mode survive, so its cultural valence can only be inferred from the works themselves. Modern discussions of the purpose or meaning of grisaille have focused on two issues: 1) the possibility of a metaphorical or symbolic value for grisaille, seeing the mode as a religiously-motivated negation or abstention from color and 2) on the relationship of painting and drawing to sculpture, grisaille being seen here as the painters attempt to imitate the effects of the more prestigious medium of sculpture in two dimensions.

The purpose of grisaille appears to be straightforward in some cases. In second half of the thirteenth century, the clerestory windows of the great gothic cathedrals began to be glazed with patterned grisaille glass, instead of the deeply-saturated, colored glass previously in favor. This decision was probably, in part, practical: grisaille glass admits more light (and heat) into the church interior and costs much less than colored or stained-glass windows. However, due to technical limitations, it was not possible at the time to make purely clear transparent glass, and grisaille glass was the closest to clear available and admitted the brightest light. The decision to glaze the upper or heavenly reaches of the church with the brightest light possible suggests that a symbolic interpretation of the choice is possible.

Perhaps the best-known example of the grisaille technique is the so-called Parement de Narbonne (c. 1375), a long silk textile with scenes from the Passion executed in black outline and shades of grey. Donated by Charles V to the cathedral of Narbonne, it probably functioned as kind of altarpiece or retable. This liturgical setting of the parement surely influenced the patron’s choice of grisaille. In the 14th century, that setting often included altar frontals of unpainted, relief sculpture, such as the group from the convent at Maubuisson . When placed in this context, the Parement invites the viewer to compare the illusion of three-dimensional relief effected by the two-dimensional, grisaille modeling of its figures, against sculptor’s ability to create depth. In doing so, the painter makes a conspicuous demonstration of his technical mastery of his medium, which can appropriate the representational capacities of another. This accomplishment is all the more striking because it is achieved not by the heaping of painterly effects, but by a reduction of visual effects. Voluntarily denying himself the use off color is the equivalent of a boxer tying his hand behind his back and still winning.

Jean Pucelle, the illuminator of the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (c. 1325), shows a similar awareness of relief sculpture. In images where he creates an illusion of three-dimensionality by setting exquisitely-modeled grisaille figures against deeply saturated red or blue pattern backgrounds, his work recalls high relief sculpture programs found in the interior of churches such as Nôtre-Dame, Paris. To further the church analogy, the illuminations are framed by gothic architectural forms. The interest displayed throughout the book in the rendering if interior spaces suggests that in some respects the prayer book places the experience of liturgical space of an ecclesiastical building in the hands of the patron, a spiritual exercise enabled indirectly by grisaille.

In the 15th century, several of there great Flemish altarpieces depict fictive statuary, painted in grisaille on their exterior. Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432) shows the husband and wife donors kneeling before their intercessor saints, who turn their heads back towards the donors while their bodies turned in the other direction, indicating their role as intermediaries between the secular realm of the donors and divine one above. This life-like postures of the saints, who seem to react in time to their surroundings is confounded by there fact that what we see are representations of statuary standing in gothic niches on plinths, with grisaille creating the impression of stone. The significance of this visual conundrum is further complicated by these facts: 1) the donors, executed in full color are also placed in sculptural niches 2) the Annunciation, seen above, takes place in a realistically-depicted, domestic interior, which includes color, but the divine actors are draped in stony, grisaille garments, whose folds resemble the “carved” folds of the saint statues below; 3) as Panofsky reminds us in Early Netherlandish Painting, medieval sculpture was always polychromed to appear life-like, so the only context in which stone sculpture could have been seen in its true, grey unpainted state would be the sculptor’s workshop.

Later in there 15th century, Hugo van der Goes would further complicate the issue on the exterior of the Portinari Altarpiece by representing the Archangel and Virgin Annunciate in grisaille, which we might initially read as fictive sculpture. However, the images appear to be in motion— Gabriel looks like he’s landing on a short runway and the dove of the holy spirit, also represented as stone, swoops in, talons spread as if it’s about to land in the Virgin’s hair. The anxiety and oddity of the two images aside, note how Hugo’s dove has no signs of a support and the figures do not stand on plinths as they do in the Ghent Altarpiece, so here we can assume the the artist is not raising sculpture as a topic, but using grisaille to represent figures that are otherwise naturalistic in their actions, volume and narrative engagement.

Flemish altarpieces were kept closed for most of the year, being opened only for the red-letter days of the liturgical calendar. It has been suggested that the use of grisaille on the exterior of these monuments, which would have been seen most of the year, had symbolic connotations—during Lent, one saw grisaille figures and statuary stripped of color, but on the triumphant feast of Easter, the wings would open to reveal a vision of the Last Judgement bathed in brilliant, saturated color. Similarly, the Parement de Narbonne, being an easily displayed and stored textile, may have functioned as a Lenten altarpiece, drained of color, which would be removed at Easter to reveal some other, now lost, altar decoration that was presumably polychromed or otherwise colored.

Whether or not people gave up color for Lent is open to debate. It is clear, however, that in the later Middle Ages, grey was the new black.