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Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Four Apostles, Part 1 (and a Note on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

I'd like to tell you about my favorite work of art, Albrecht Dürer's The Four Apostles (1526).


There is probably a lot about this painting on two panels that is really impressive from a technical perspective that I can't describe, because I'm not a painter.  All I can say about that is that I love the statuesque realism, the depth, the balance, the color, and the drapery—I mean, seriously, how does anyone paint clothes like that?

But I'm writing to talk about what the painting represents (part one of two).

The apostles are, in order from left to right, John, Peter, Mark, and Paul.  At one level, they represent the four classical temperaments.

The theory of the four temperaments dates from ancient Greece and was still highly current in medieval Europe when Dürer painted his masterwork.  The four temperaments in turn come from the theory of the four "humors" or bodily fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.  Ancient doctors believed that an imbalance of these fluids was related to sickness, a belief that took a long time to die.  For example, do you remember hearing about folks as recently as the Founding Fathers ca. 1800 being bled out by leeches to lower their fevers?  That's because the doctors believed that the patients had too much blood.

Anyway, classical theorists linked the four humors with the four seasons and the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire), assigning one humor to each, but they also believed that a chronic imbalance of the four humors was what caused people to have different personalities.  So a sanguine (literally "bloody") was outgoing, courageous, and amorous.  His opposite, a melancholic (black bile), was prone to despondency and introspection.  A choleric ([yellow] bile) was aggressive and easily angered, and his opposite, the phlegmatic (phlegm) was calm and apathetic.  If your humors were properly balanced but with some tilt towards the blood, then you would be happy and easy to get along with—in short, you would be "in good humor."  Even though medically the four humors concept has been thoroughly discredited, its influence on personality theory continues to this day in a number of modern four-part models.

Now if we look at The Four Apostles, we see that John (left front) is wearing a bold red robe; this "disciple whom Jesus loved" is the sanguine.  Across from him (right rear), Mark wears a black robe and stares into the distance as if he is meditating on a truth no one else can see.  He is the melancholic.  Then in the left rear, Peter, portrayed as the oldest, bows his head and retreats as the phlegmatic.  His opposite, Paul (right front), identified by the sword he bears as in traditional iconography, gives the viewer a frighteningly realistic "don't mess with me" look.  He is the choleric.

(I should note that art critics pretty much uniformly call Mark the choleric and Paul the melancholic.  I think they don't understand the theory of the four temperaments.  Black [Mark's color] always identifies the melancholic, which to fit the model must be positioned opposite of the sanguine [John].  And if that isn't a choleric look that Paul is giving us, I don't know what is.)

Next time I'll talk about the theological symbolism of the painting.  But first, a bonus note on the four temperaments for fans of C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia.  I am convinced that the four Pevensie children represent the four temperaments—Peter the choleric (weighted toward the good quality of fearless leadership in difficulty), Susan the phlegmatic, Edmund the melancholy, and Lucy the sanguine. You see hints of it in their royal epithets at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—Peter the Magnificent, Susan the Gentle, Edmund the Just (thoughtful introspection), Lucy the Valiant.  You would expect this from a renowned scholar of medieval literature, as Lewis was.

Now if this is true, then it explains why I (and maybe you too) felt like the characterization of the children in the recent Disney version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was way off.  Temperamentally, Peter and Susan basically switched places, and Lucy wasn't nearly bubbly enough.  But it also means (in the book) that Edmund, the melancholic, is the stand-in for Lewis himself, who shared that temperament.  Lewis is telling us that the story of Edmund, the resentful, wicked traitor ransomed by the death of Aslan, is his own story—and yours and mine.

1 comment:

  1. You can learn more about Albrecht Dürer and his works at this great page on Artsy: