Comprehensive coverage

The riddle of the bee and the bat

Deciphering paintings, among others by the painter Rubens, in which we were flooded with defiant messages for intellectuals who knew a secret

The painting by Rubens which was painted in 1625-1623 against the background of the 30 years war in Europe, and the image of the bee and the bat in it. Photo: Courtesy of the Alta Pincotec Museum, Munich.
The painting by Rubens which was painted in 1625-1623 against the background of the 30 years war in Europe, and the image of the bee and the bat in it. Photo: Courtesy of the Alta Pincotec Museum, Munich.

To understand the art and culture of the early modern period, one must become familiar with the emblem - an enigmatic literary genre that consists of three parts: an image (visual image), a title (motto) and a short poem or text (an epigram that expands knowledge about the image and title), according to its narrow definition. In its more extended definition, it is a form of thought: a riddle that has no answer, at least not a single one.

What is the question?

How did painters assimilate and observe an enigmatic literary genre in visual works of art?

From 1531, with the publication of the first book of emblems, until the 18th century, emblems were the trend: an educational tool and a social game for an elite group of insiders - artists, writers, scholars and courtiers; Deciphering the emblems became a popular occupation and they were found everywhere: in emblem books (which were universal bestsellers, which were translated, copied or re-edited and presented to the educated reader who could decipher them), and also in architectural decorations, interior design of houses, documentation books and more. They appeared all over Europe (including England, Germany, Italy, France, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, Spain and Portugal) and abroad (from America to Africa).

"Between the three parts of the emblem there is an open connection, which leaves room for interpretation; That is, the text (the epigram and the title) did not always explain the image, and vice versa. Thus the emblem made the reader or viewer very active: he is the one who is required to put the elements together according to personal interpretation. And this is exciting to me because it indicates a new way of thinking," says Dr. Tamar Cholkman, art historian and head of the art history department at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Cholkman specializes in Renaissance and Baroque art in Northern Europe and America and focuses on emblems.

Most of the emblems were written in Latin (and later also in the local languages) and included religious, social or political morals. The authors of the texts were usually writers and the artist painters illustrated the image. And those who connected the texts with the images and printed the emblems and distributed them were usually the publishers. According to estimates, over 6,500 emblem books were printed that included more than 100,000 individual emblems - an almost universal phenomenon in the early modern period.

According to Dr. Cholkman, "the fact that the emblems were created so that they could be interpreted in different ways, that each reader creates a new emblem in the interpretation he gives to it, indicates a skeptical and critical thinking. Thus they reflected the change in the accepted, closed form of thought, which strives for a single answer. They provided a multiplicity of voices and truths and reflected the instability of the world whose truths were shaken; Geographical and historical destabilization, from the discovery of the New World, through the loosening of the religious world with the Catholic Reformation to the loosening of the visible world with scientific developments and inventions (such as the invention of the telescope). The image of the known world has completely changed."

A well-known emblem is the one created by Andrea Alciato (1550-1492) - an Italian jurist and author who also published the first book of emblems. Its title was "Hurry slowly" and the original image in it was a dolphin (symbol of speed) wrapped around an anchor (symbol of slowness). "Fundamentally, this emblem deals with perseverance and the need to act with reason and thought. But artists created different images for it, for example they left the title but drew a turtle with a ship's mast resting on it or Cupid pointing to a hare and a turtle, and thus additional interpretations were created for it," explains Dr. Cholkman.

In her latest research, which won a grant from the National Science Foundation, the researcher focused on the role of artists in emblems, who were part of the intellectual (educated) circles that dealt with them, created and analyzed them. "I believe that the painters not only illustrated emblems in books or decorated buildings and tools with them and did not use them only as symbolic images in their works, but also invented new emblems. This is from collaborations with authors and with the book publishers they worked with. They also created silent emblems, without text," says Dr. Cholkman.

The bat and the bee. From the painting by Rubens
The bat and the bee. From the painting by Rubens

The researcher focused on the role of the artists in the emblems, who were part of the intellectual circles - the educated - who dealt with them, created and analyzed them.

One of the main paintings that the researcher analyzed for her research is by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1640-1577), which was painted in 1625-1623 against the background of the 30 Years War in Europe. It is an altar painting measuring more than five meters which is currently displayed in the Alta Pincotech Museum in Munich, Germany. He describes the victory image of the end of days (Johanan's vision, New Testament, chapter XNUMX), in which Mary ascends to heaven surrounded by angels, steps on a snake (which symbolizes Satan), and the angel Michael subdues him and his breasts. At the bottom of the painting, very small, are drawn a bee and a bat from which it escapes. This painting is an example of how painters combined emblematic motifs in their paintings and invented silent emblems - without text - with only a visual image. The bat and the bee

"This research refers for the first time to the bee and the bat in the painting, which I discovered by chance. I arrived at the museum in Munich for prior research and then I entered the hall dedicated to Rubens' paintings. I quickly passed the painting and since it was taken down from its original position, the bat and the bee came down to eye level and caught me," says Dr. Cholkman.

According to her, "In my opinion, the bee and the bat are a silent emblem that Rubens invented for the painting. A bat is an animal that lives at night, so its meaning is negative. On the other hand, the bee produces honey and sustains a productive society that is based on the values ​​of morality and justice, according to the concept that was accepted at the time. In this painting it is a new combination of them, which creates a little drama: the bee is in danger because the bat is chasing her and fleeing for her life. This is how she expresses the threat that exists here and now due to the war in the background. This is in contrast to the upper part of the painting, which expresses the ultimate victory of good over evil, which will happen at the end of days. There are emblematic relationships here - between the main subject drawn above and the image drawn below. I call it a 'visual footnote', which changes the understanding of the entire painting; A skeptical statement about reality, concern about the surrounding threat, and the need to act like bees so that the image of victory will be possible in the future."

The researcher also claims that such an emblematic strategy contributes to drawing additional values ​​that can expand its interpretation, and perhaps even change its initial meaning. "There is an encrypted message here that is aimed only at the educated, who belong to intellectual circles, who know a secret, who have extensive training and knowledge of emblems. Most people could not notice such a tiny image at the bottom of a huge painting and understand its meaning. But Rubens, like many other artists, was part of the intellectual circles and knew their language. That's why he and other artists I research assimilated the emblematic thought into art that is only visual."

Life itself:

Dr. Tamar Cholkman, Born in Uruguay, lives in Herzliya. She feels great satisfaction from her occupation ("I am lucky. My dream to practice art has come true. I really like my job, also the pedagogical part and the relationship with the students. To train them and hear their ideas is a huge privilege").

More of the topic in Hayadan: