An Advent Calendar – 7

‘The Floor’ –

Looking down, we see that the floor is in the same condition as the walls – in a chronic state of decay, and in desperate need of repair. It is part of the setting of this religious drama, and, like the rest of the scenery, it is symbolic of the old order which will make way for the new. Having said that, when it was first laid down it must have been a first-rate pavement, with square stone tiles, which were reasonably thick, in a number of different colours. Some of these were split across the diagonal, making up the square with two triangles, and in others a smaller square has been set at 45˚, with smaller triangles filling in the corners.

The tiles are chipped and cracked, some have come loose, and some seem to have gone missing altogether. It looks as though they were laid directly onto the bare earth, and plants have grown up between them, in the same way that they are growing from the tops of the walls. This one is a Field Eryngo (Eryngium campestre – thanks, as ever, to the Ecologist for the identification). As far as I know, it is not symbolic of anything in particular, but it does look rather spiky. It’s close relative, the Sea Eryngo, is also called ‘sea holly’, just to make the point – and I suspect that the spikes are related to the Fall. God warned Adam and Eve, after he had found them ashamed, and clad in fig leaves, ‘cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee’ (Genesis 3: 17-18) – so, it seems, there was nothing spiky before the fall, and this plant certainly looks prickly even if it wouldn’t do much harm.

On the other side of the painting there is White Dead-nettle (Lamium album), which again is probably not in itself symbolic. However, as it does look remarkably like a stinging nettle, it might again represent the potential dangers – or at least, inconveniences – of the natural world which resulted from the sin which Adam and Eve introduced into it – and so remind us of our need for redemption, and the Baby Jesus, who is present elsewhere in the painting.

As you can see especially clearly in this detail, it is not just the painted building that is in a state of decay: the painting itself is too. This is visible in the other detail, but it is more obvious here: some of the tiles have become transparent. What the artist appears to have done was to lay out the perspective of the floor – all the parallel lines which go towards the vanishing point, and those at right angles to them – and then to paint the tiles themselves. He may then have decided it just didn’t look enough of a mess, so he painted some more tiles on top. Over time, these have become see-through. What happens (here comes the science bit) is that the oil dries as the result of a process called concatenation: individual oil molecules bond together to form chains with other oil molecules. As they do this, the refractive index of the oil increases (the refractive index is a measure of the degree to which light is ‘bent’ as it passes from one transparent medium to another – think of a straw sticking out of a gin and tonic for example – though why you’d drink gin and tonic with a straw I don’t really know). The refractive index of some pigments – white, for example – is relatively low, and as concatenation increases the refractive index of the oil gets closer and closer to the refractive index of the pigment, so the light refracts less and less, and the paint gradually becomes transparent. It’s a sign of age, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. As a phenomenon it can be interesting, as it allows you to see where artists have changed their minds – ‘repented’ of what they had done before – but that’s just a way of explaining the Italian term for these visible changes: pentimenti. Sadly, even though Jesus has come to ‘rebuild’ the old order, returning this painting to how it looked when it was first made would presumably not be part of his brief.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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