Pastoral Conventions

by Michael Johnson

July 1, 2016

Raphael Sanzio. The Sistine Madonna, 1513; oil on canvas; 104 × 77 inches.

In the original version of the Sistine Madonna,[i] Raphael painted curtains onto the top corners of the canvas. Angels crowded the blue background, and the Madonna trundled her baby. The curtains are rendered as though they are physically present, drawn back to reveal the painting. The curtains’ sleight is daring and significant as it amplifies the dimensionality of the painting by making its pictorial space seem at once recessed and flat. Historian Hans Belting calls this master trope of Renaissance painting a “picture curtain” because the picture, like a window, is framed by the curtain which conforms to the “pane” of the picture. The painter thereby critiques the illusion of space while simultaneously adhering to it. Discussion of the picture curtain’s relationship to the cult of images concludes Belting’s book, Likeness and Presence. “The curtain,” he writes, “is drawn aside from an image that is in reality the idea of an image … and what was a curtain at that time, if not the curtain before a cult image, which can conceal or reveal it as a ritual apparition.”[ii] The practitioners of the cult of images, to which Belting refers implicitly in this quotation, believed that the curtain had a mystical property, which in order to reveal the truth of images, we only need to pull back.

If one were able to completely pull back the curtain in the Sistine Madonna without removing the illusion of space, one would experience an effect similar to that of cinema.[iii] The interior movement of the image makes the “window pane” of the picture seem clearer in the movies, despite having less of a material presence than painting. Presumably, this is because the audience is removed from the technology that projects the movie: the projector. In the Sistine Madonna by contrast, the “picture curtain” is presented directly to the audience, thereby foregrounding the material that reveals the image through the ritual function of the curtain. By projecting the image from behind the audience, rather than emphasizing the mysterious facility of the curtain, cinema conceals the susceptibility of the image to being covered up, thus minimizing the effect of the physical curtain, and consigning it to mere decoration. As well, the curtain is symbolic here, echoing the history of theatrical space. The “ritual apparition,” which is revealed or concealed before a “cult image” but is no longer articulated by the magical ritual of the curtain, is not ritualistic in the movies because the presence of the equipment needed to project the movie is removed from the foreground of the viewing experience.[iv] The projection process can be repeated until the power goes out, but the movie will not change unless damaged or altered.

When we go to the movies, everything outside this experience may seem to pause, as though the static condition of the movies has caused the suspension of everyday life. When we leave the theater, we may be startled to find that time has passed, that the world is not exactly as we left it. To our surprise, the sun has set, and it seems as though a war is being waged by the birds in the trees, but it affects us little if at all: everything is shot through with the feeling of the movie itself. We are not displeased. The moving image “window pane” has developed contours to fit the “panes” of everyday life. We are left with the impression of an immersive, cinematic experience, even where there is no cinema. Life on the outside seems to proceed frame-by-frame in sultry vignettes. Our peripheries seem to glow. The sensation is warm and effusive, if a little boring. The movie, if it is good, provides the audience with an enduring image: an image to contemplate and desire long after the movie ends.

Pastoral poetry, as Jane O. Newman, professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, writes, “is self-canceling in the sense that it reduces creativity to a moment of poetic stasis,” having more than words in common with cinema.[v]  In her book Pastoral Conventions, Newman describes The Order of Flowers, a collective of seventeenth century wartime poets in Nuremberg, Germany who “banded together in an academy-like endeavor, took shepherd names, chose flower emblems, and wrote massive collective texts at a time when the incredibly destructive Thirty Years War was raging across Europe. (ix)” Newman’s quasi-sociological study argues that, as distinct from Renaissance pastoral poets, the Order of the Flowers wrote in a pastoral vernacular in order to limit their references to the present condition of war in Europe.[vi] Pastoral is often characterized as a complementary genre, typically featuring shepherd’s enjoying a period of scheduled leisure, or otium, while a secondary narrative threatens to encroach upon their peace. In addition to writing poems in this genre, the poets of the Order of the Flowers adopted the otium of shepherd life. They wrote pastoral poetry in character while the war raged on in Europe. The Renaissance texts are not impressive on the surface; indeed, pastoral poetry can often be humorously boring. It was the imagination of the texts that had the biggest impact on the lives of the Order of the Flowers, both in the act of writing, and in its aftereffects. The act of writing in character allowed their texts to be and do the work of history.[vii] It engendered the lived experience of an alternative history, despite the war. Like movie-goers exiting the theater, these “shepherds” entered into a world in which possibility precedes necessity, come what may. The war was elsewhere in mind.

For me, the question became how could I analyze these highly stylized texts and the pastoral phenomenon of the order as ‘history’ without referring explicitly to the political, social and military context in and out of which they developed and which they must, on some level, represent. (x)

Newman’s “answer” is to present the pastoral genre as an institution capable of improving life. In an etiological account of pastoral poetics, Newman references Theocritus’s Idyll 7 to suggest that pastoral poets proceed by “imitating the bees.” (195) The passage to which she refers is an allusion to Comatas, a goatherd who was a slave and a wonderful singer. After Comatas has been locked away in a wooden chest[viii] by his master for stealing a sheep, a swarm of bees funnel into the chest, feeding him honey to keep him alive, so that he might continue to sing. By the same token, The Order of Flowers continue to “sing” as long as the “honey” is flowing, and by singing, the poets will cause the “honey” to flow. The “honey” of the Order of the Flowers was their ability to create turbulence in the linear progress of history, and provide historians with a clear account of the way in which texts can “be and do” the work of history. The “imitation of the bees” is a mimetic act through which the telos of imitation and survival was capable of improving the quality of life for The Order of Flowers, proverbially “locked away” in wartime. Although they were not an anonymous group, the archive of pastoral poetry gave the order a secret way out of the reactionary environment of war. They produced texts that performed the role of history, changing it as they wrote.

When texts claim to function in this way,” writes Newman, “–as both productive of history and creative body–they may be interpreted as textual institutions, as texts that do instituting and institutionalizing work. The texts of the Nuremberg Order of Flowers … exemplify this institutional identity. (xi)

The text as institution has the propensity to engender history from without. In Newman’s understanding, the origins or “first causes” of an institution begin to erode the moment when the original imperatives of the institution are idealized in textual form. The moment we idealize something, it’s origins become obscure to us, and pastoral is always an “ideal.” Pastoral poetry is a form that originates with the Idylls, a book of poems whose namesake shares its root with the word “ideal.”[ix] The origins of pastoral poetry, which is “among the most institutionalized of texts,” idealizes the events leading up to the creation of the text simply by virtue of being pastoral. (193) The genre promotes an idealistic, laissez-faire world-view. This characteristic of the pastoral erodes the origins of the writing as the genre comes into being. Pastoral poetry thereby seem to emerge without a past just as in the movies, the picture seems to emerge without a source, even though we know the source is behind (or above) us. Through this seeming sourcelessness, the poets of Nuremberg were able to reimagine the first causes of the war-torn historical moment by creating their own textual history. Through a progressively mimetic dialogue with the imagined origins of pastoral poetry, symbolized by the bees in Idyll 7, the Nurembergian update to traditional Renaissance imitatio thereby “transforms the people and events that they [the Nuremberg poets] capture in textual form into better versions of themselves ‘on the outside.’” (191)

“That the Nuremberg pastorals may have also contributed to the creation of a new class of learned bourgeois poets … by articulating a self-legitimizing ideology … comes as no surprise, since as textual institutions they were capable of doing the work of providing the origins of both literary histories and literal events.” (18)

By formalizing a sequence of “self-legitimizing” ideological goals through which the origin of their textual practice was made to appear present on the surface of their writing, speech, and actions, the Order of Flowers combined the idealism of pastoral textuality with the reality of pastoral sociology. If the erosion of the “first causes” in the institution of pastoral “self-legitimizing” occurs simultaneously with the creation of a pastoral society, then the practice of writing pastoral poetry is like going to the movies, and the other way around. The window of the genre effuses the features of an idyllic present, while the historical past idles harmlessly nearby. The past seems to develop the contours of an ideal present. Their origins are obscured because they’re idealized and preserved through a progressively mimetic dialogue with the past. In Belting’s terms, the “idea” of the artist is preserved through the image of the Madonna in Raphael’s Dream.[x] Whether or not Raphael or the Order of the Flowers would recognize themselves at the local cinema, I would argue that we see them whenever we leave.


[i] Raphael, oil on canvas, ca. 1513.

[ii] Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. 484. Art as the Mis-en-scene of the Image at the Time of the Counter-Reformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

[iii] Thanks to Jane Tylus for reminding me that the clarity of cinematic experience is often the subject of an opposing critique, by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard, who use film to point to the very aspects of life that film does not allow us to see. I hope to address this in a later essay.

[iv] Walter Benjamin, noticing this, famously writes that film penetrates so deeply into our reality that it “frees the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual,” and creates “an equipment-free aspect of reality.” Illuminations – Benjamin, Walter, and Hannah Arendt. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

[v] All citations will refer to this source unless noted otherwise.  Pastoral Conventions – Newman, Jane O. “Some Versions of Pastoral.” In Pastoral Conventions: Poetry, Language, and Thought in Seventeenth-century Nuremberg. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

[vi] Newman associates the limitation of reference to an element of Georgic poetry: “The production of … protection and the pastoral leisure of the Eclogues … depends, ultimately, on a kind of self-protective ‘georgic’ labor. (189)”

[vii] I have borrowed this formulation from Newman, page 12.

[viii] Idylls, Theocritus: “The Harvest-Festival,” lines 78-89.

[ix] The root word is eidos, which means “the thing that strikes the eye.” The ordinary use is such that the eidos is the visible surface of a thing that allows one to see what the true nature of the thing is.

[x] Franz and Johannes Riepenhausen, oil on canvas, 1821.

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