Sunday, April 9, 2023

Linda Seidel's "Vincent's Arles"

Linda Seidel is Hanna Holborn Gray Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago. She is the author of several books, including Legend in Limestone, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, and Songs of Glory.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Vincent's Arles: As It Is and as It Was, and reported the following:
Page 99 develops a description (begun on the previous page) of the large, sculpted frieze running across the entry portal to Arles’s medieval cathedral. Diminutive figures of the blessed appear to the left of the main door, framed by a depiction of Adam and Eve at the outer end, while figures of the unredeemable, their feet covered with flames, appear on the right side. Together, the figures reinforce the theme of the portal as that of the final Judgment. Their portrayal, facing right, suggests movement in the direction of the ancient cemetery of the Alyscamps.

The page gives readers a poor idea of the whole book until (and unless) they recognize that the cover of the book shows one of Vincent’s depictions of the Alyscamps, alluded to in the book’s opening sentence. For those readers, the page reinforces the essential through line of the book: movement in and around the city’s sites at different moments in its history and the way that paintings, carvings, buildings, and ruins retain clues to, and memories of, those perambulations.

The book explores the history of Arles as a journey back into time, with moments and places from the past affecting the way in which we experience the present. That is the only way in which we come to know what has happened before us. It is also the way in which medieval pilgrims experienced devotional travel to the tombs of notable holy men such as the apostle St. James Major, whose tomb at Compostela in northwestern Spain emerged as a pre-eminent shrine in the twelfth century. Arles, the first stop on one of the roads leading to Compostela, is described in the Pilgrim’s Guide, a well-known document of the time that remains popular reading for travelers to the area today. With Arles currently being made into a shrine to the memory of Van Gogh, and ancient sites in the city being transformed as part of that process, it seemed appropriate for me to start an examination of the city’s venerable monuments with its modern-day holy man, following his footsteps through streets he regularly wandered and examining his thoughts about what he saw as recorded in the letters he wrote. A comment he made about the portal of the cathedral, and remarks about imagining figures from the past seeing some of the same things he saw, confirmed my sense of him as a vibrant guide to places that otherwise remain remote to us, his words enabling me to see things in ways I hadn’t imagined, something his paintings and drawings do for all of us.
Learn more about Vincent's Arles at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue