|•See also three Madonnas
By Michael E. Abrams
Cincinnati - It is Dec. 18, 2010, and ice and snow mark our
flight path from a humid 70 degree winter morning in Florida.
We have departed Florida for the scene of our mystery in Cincinnati
with a friend and former colleage, Prof. Gerald Grow, who kindly agreed
to join me for this reprise with permission from his wife Christ'l, who
happens to be an accomplished artist.
We want to look more closely at the 1530s Madonna and child,
painted by Antwerp master Joos van Cleve, subject
of my speculation about the counterfeit passion
flower and the surprising Hebrew script on her
garment. Dr. Grow, who denies being something of a 'renaissance
man,' has written about art and and is one of those special
sure-footed people around the humanities. You could look him up and see.
Gerald suggests I brace myself to the possibility that the Hebrew
script doesn't exist. He knows that paintings contain illusions, and
that people often see what they want to see in paintings.
I don't believe him. I've seen the Hebrew. I have been talking
about this discovery with
art historians. Only one has warned me that I could be wrong in the
interpretation - but he also sees the script as Hebrew.
Our good fortune is that Cincinnati Art Museum conservator Per Knutas
has agreed to put the painting under a lens to examine what from
six feet away has been read as Hebrew - and which some art historians
say looks a lot like Hebrew. A rabbi say the Hebrew reads "I am
the Lord Your God."
The big surprise
The lens apparatus is focused. I am eager to see. The blue light of the
Madonna's garment suffuses my eyes, my senses are sharpening.
Scratches. Hebrew? The letters seem to disappear in a higgledy-piggledy
of scratches. How can this be? How is it that one so surely sees, and
does not see?
Knutas believes that the Hebrew I saw was the artifact of "impainting"
or painting restoration. It looks as if scratches were under
repair. "Sometimes things are painted over," he says. "It is one
thing to see under strong light and another to see in the gallery."
I am back home, and have had a few weeks to think and to clear my mind.
Meanwhile, a photograph of a third rendering of the Madonna painting
has come to me from France.
This painting, darker than the others, is
the mentioned by art historian Burton L. Dunbar of Kansas City,
in The Collection of the
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: German and Netherlandish Paintings
the University of Washington Press,
The Kansas City museum holds Madonna number two. I discuss all three
Neither the Kansas City or the French museum paintings have Hebrew
script. But then again, neither alternative madonna holds a counterfeit
passion flower, as in the Cincinnati painting.
My friend Dr. Grow has pointed out to me the eyes specialize in
illusion. What we see is not often real. Scientists thought they
saw "canals" on the planet Mars.
As I search for explanation, I am aware from a distance, I see
the Hebrew. The photographs on the page about this madonna, with the
Hebrew, are as real as the one above, but the light is different, the
see what we see
James Elkins, in debunking much of what his fellow art historians find
nowadays in pictures as pretentious, wrote Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles: On the Modern
Origins of Pictorial Complexity (1999, Routledge, New York). He
addresses "hidden images" in paintings and
names them "cryptomorphs, anapmorphs and aleamorphs."
"On occasion" writes Elkins,
"it is possible to argue against a cryptomorph by noting the part
played by the medium, itself. Just as a sponge or rag soaked in paint
will produce certain characteristic forms that cannot be cleanly
controlled, so oil paint and other media are sometimes recalcitrant or
unpredictable, and the simple act of making an image will produce
unintended "hidden" images."
Elkins argues we live in a century of cryptomorphic
the search for complexity in art is accompanied by this cryptophile
bias, Elkins believes. The century is coincidentally the century
of the Rorschach method, where people find visual experience in ink
blots, he writes.
cryptomorph is usually a picture that can be seen only by someone who
sees a puzzle in a painting - perhaps a cloud resembling an ankh. My
friend Dr. Grow has suggested "homomorph" for words that
seem to appear and disappear.
But in arguing the point, we are perhaps missing something. The process
of restoration is a two-way street. Something is painted on, something
is covered up. In 500 years, according to conservator Knutas, any
such painting would have been restored, perhaps many times. Every
painting that age has a career of restoration.
Per Knutas stands by.
Close up, what looks like
Hebrew appears as scratches. Photo Gerald Grow
From a distance the
letters resolve themselves
. Photo M. Abrams
impainting obscured original message?
What if the process of impainting someone with good intentions affected
the clarity of the message? Suppose an artisan who thought to restore
the painting did not recognize the Hebrew script and began to paint
over it? The missing first letter of the message, the letter
Aleph, may have been painted over. This possibility raises
The prism of history
As days go by, my own thoughts turn toward what still, somehow, seems a
Hebrew message. The mind travels to old Antwerp, where Joos van Cleve,
a master of the guild, worked with his assistants to put his paintings
up for sale in the new thriving art markets in the 1530s. Merchants
from around the world flocked to bring spices and cloth and rare metals
and silks to the second largest port on the continent. Sailing for a
different reason from Lisbon to London to Antwerp were refugees from
the Inquisition. These were Jews who had been forced to renounce
their heritage and convert to Christianity under penalty of death.
Thousands fled Spain and Portugal. The new
visitors, known as the Portuguese Nation, were sometimes harassed
and extorted by the ruling class, and usually freed from prison when
arrested – upon paying a ransom or bribe. All of this is documented in
a groundbreaking book about early Jewish presence in Antwerp by Aron di
Leone Leoni, The Hebrew Portuguese
Nations in Antwerp and London and the time of Charles V and Henry VIII:
New Documents and Interpretations (2005, KTAV Publishing
House, Jersey City, N.J.) As in an underground railroad, many were
smuggled to Italy in a terrifying journey over the Alps, through threat
of ambush and arrest, where Ferrara was an open city for them. It was
one of the few that welcomed the Portuguese and allowed them the
freedom once more to practice their religion.
The Mind's Eye - Fantasy or
In my mind's eye I envision this van Cleve painting adorning the
foyer of a safe house, where Portuguese refugees found thick, warm
blankets. The painting has been artfully altered. The safe house is a
place of the Sign of the Madonna. Outwardly the house is a holy place
to the Spanish officials and others, with signs of the most holy
Church, Surreptitiously, it contains a note of sublime irony and
brings divine comfort. Here was a painting that could be reverenced by
the Church. For the cleric, the passion flower with its whips and
wounds and crown of thorns drew attention away from the area containing
the patina of Hebrew lettering, fixed in a clear medium. It was
tattooed onto the painting by a very clever artisan, who knew the trick
of translucence. The words were painted for the Jews who could
witness the symbolism. "I am the Lord thy God who has brought thee out
of the land of Egypt." A clever intrigue and a most dangerous game in
which the password was recognition of the text. A shibboleth.
I cannot argue with the disappearance of the
text under modern lighting and modern lens. But does it not seem
strange that this very script would appear at a distance under certain
lighting conditions. Does it not seem possible that an artist ot the
time would know how to work with translucent paints, as with an egg
white, to superimpose a patina upon this Madonna, a patina that still
exists today even after restoration?
Science tells me that I am taking the wrong path, but my naive and
perhaps unschooled senses tell me I am right. Despite the
evidence, it's difficult to accept the scenario of scratches
culminating in a
diagram that resembles Hebrew letters and words. Too many
coincidentals exist. The scratches and impainting could have
thousands of other forms. The fact that the letters appear, even under
specific conditions, seems to reflect an intelligent design. A
clock must have a designer as a painting must have an artist. It cannot
assemble itself in a thousand years, as a thousand chimpanzees with
typewriters will never be able to write a poem.
Feel free to choose the path most consonant with your own perceptions.
Better yet, visit the Cincinnati Museum of Art and see the mystery for
yourself. Perhaps you will see the Hebrew letters. Perhaps you
will see scratches.
The mystery is solved, yet unsolved.
An answer exists. An answer does not exist.
One must say, the long journey, at least, has been worthwhile.
Michael E. Abrams is a
of journalism at Florida A&M University.
He may be reached at