Sunday, November 29, 2009

Twisty Voice of God

What does the voice of God look like? "The Baptism of Christ" (late 15th century, by the Master of the St. Bartholomew Altar) depicts God's words using a banderole (speech scroll), the medieval equivalent of the comic book "speech balloon."

At this moment in Scripture, the Latin text (Vulgate Bible) describes a mysterious voice from the clouds ("ecce vox de nube, dicens" = lo! a voice out of the clouds, speaking). The painting transcribes the words of this voice on a curvy scroll unfurling from the sky: HIC EST FILIVS MEVS DILECTV[S] IN QUO MIHI BENE COMPLACVI = "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 17:5).

I'm intrigued by the curvy word scroll here; its shape forces you to read the twisting words "out of order." Does the sinuous scroll actually evoke the shape of nimbus clouds? Or do the twists and turns of the scroll evoke the ethereal sound of a cloudy voice from the heavens?

National Gallery of Art, November 2009.

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