What is the art of seeing ... slowly?
with the big Del Cossa snail
The art of seeing slowly is learning to
see an image without prejudices,
without personal projections,
without external references,
see a table as it is ,
It is thanks to the presence of a detail of this scene, a snail, that I started to observe it slowly, it is the case to say it, then to come back again and again to finally sincerely love this work atypical.
Rare are the works which, in addition to their impeccable execution and their aesthetic quality, offer their viewers a journey, an invigorating vision, both for the pleasure of the eye and for the happiness of the soul. The masterpiece of the Italian painter Francesco Del COSSA is one of those works which have this singular characteristic of having marked me deeply even if I did not particularly appreciate its aesthetics. When I discovered this altarpiece, it seemed to me to be austere and boring. I had detailed it by pouting, although Marie's face is skilfully imbued with serenity and the angel Gabriel is completely graceful. But it was by taking the time to observe, to contemplate that a deep sense settled in me.
I propose here to discover how this painter of the Italian renaissance, Del COSSA, introduced visual elements that question the gaze, invite discernment, question our knowledge, suggest avenues of reflection to learn to see for yourself.
These elements are in the form of visual games, rules and techniques of composition to see oneself, rather than symbols which one must receive the direction by a third person.
Let us take the time to see and identify the curious or enigmatic elements of this altarpiece, which is well known for its large snail, which is partly its unusual celebrity but also too often its misunderstanding.
Francesco Del COSSA - Annunciation and Nativity - 1472 - Gemäldegalerie Dresden - photo guy Mauchamp
Indeed, the curiosity that escapes no one is this gargantuan gastropod at the bottom of the table. Strange presence that inevitably distracts from the meditation that one should find to meditate on the mystery of the Annunciation.
Each one will have noted the disproportionate size of the animal, compared to the foot or the hand of Gabriel. Admittedly, it is disproportionate and incongruous, but by observing it more finely, four characteristics can be read. Del Cossa deliberately slipped them there to guide his viewer in an art of seeing.
What is the context of this work?
The altarpiece by Del Cossa, was painted in 1472 in the midst of a very prolific artistic context, in the midst of the Italian Renaissance, in the region of the Po that saw it born. This altarpiece is composed of two parts: the largest presenting the Annunciation made to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel The lower part, a predella presents the Nativity of Jesus.
It is therefore a question of an act of divine order, the mysterious incarnation of the spirit in a body. An ineffable act for which the painter finds himself charged with an insoluble bet: to represent the invisible incarnation through the scene of the Annunciation. Here is all the challenge which presents itself to the painter: how to account by painting for this mystery of a divine incarnation?
As this snail seems to question us about the meaning of this work, I suggest you walk with what you see for yourself. And this unexpected mollusc leads us to raise the curious elements of the Del COSSA altarpiece
Let's try to see the elements that seem strange, incongruous, irrelevant, curious ...
- The architecture is overwhelming, heavy and imposing and curiously leaves little room for the great mystery of the Annunciation which is woven between God, Gabriel and Mary.
- The central column is surprisingly arranged, see illogical in the architecture of this building. Do Gabriel and Marie really see each other?
- The location of the scene is uncertain, we don't really know if the characters are inside or outside.
- The enclosed garden , the hortus conclusus, which traditionally symbolizes the virginity of Mary is usually very sober and bare. Here Del Cossa not only did not close it, but he loaded it, populated with characters, events.
- The animals are irrelevant: the biblical text only speaks of God, the angel Gabriel and Mary, but in no case of dog or snail, nor of dove either. Even if we know that the dove has become in Christian iconography a symbol of the breath of God or of the will of the holy spirit which descends in Mary.
- The size of God who is tiny in a corner of the sky, while he implements the miraculous act which founds the basis of the Christian religion.
- Gabriel's right hand is too large in relation to his face and his halo is curious, surprisingly fixed on his head, more like an extraordinary headdress rather than a symbol of holiness.
- The unusual presence of a woman and her child at her window. She looks in the direction the child points to in the street, rather than being attracted by the extraordinary presence of the angel right before his eyes.
- The two back characters behind the angel Gabriel are enigmatic. Usually Adam and Eve are represented chased from paradise, but here how to identify them?
Perhaps you have noticed other strange elements?
This list of apparent blunders is neither errors nor approximations but rather a deliberate will which was widely shared by learned painters. They wanted to draw attention to deliver a specific message that would not have been readable if everything was painted "normally".
Del COSSA seems to have played with traditional conventions, but also with improbabilities.
Is it to sharpen the attention of its viewer?
There is a whole development to follow according to this list of details but which would fill too much space here, makes it a whole book. So I suggest that you only focus on our snail guide for the moment.
There is much to say about the symbol of the snail with its successive phases of apparent death and rebirth which recalls the rites of initiation. The first Christians put snail shells in sarcophagi as a symbol of the resurrection and the immortality of the soul.
There is also the rich symbolism of the spiral of its shell, spiral of the evolution of life.
But let's forget the references for a while and let it guide us by the visible characteristics of the Del COSSA snail guide.
The observation of our gastropod shows that it would have four attributes which can lead us on as many tracks.
- he is incongruous in this scene
- it is ambiguously placed
- it is excessive
- it has no shade.
- for the distraction it represents, we will study the concentration
- for its ambiguous place, we will locate what is its place
- for its excessive size, we will assess its size
- for its absence of shade we will see the interior light
We will see little by little that it is indeed a snail guide highlighted by the painter for his spectator.
The angel Gabriel is the divine guide of Mary , sent by God so that she understands and accepts the mystery of the incarnation.
The snail is a humble guide for the spectator , placed there by Del Cossa, with concrete elements, readable by everyone without intermediary, to enter into a personal approach to the message of the Annunciation.
First, note that the long list of enigmatic or curious elements plus the attributes of the snail constitute a real distraction from the concentration required to understand the unfathomable mystery of the divine incarnation.
Indeed, in the text of the Biblical Annunciation it is only a question of a relationship between God and Mary with the intermediary of the angel Gabriel. Marie is entirely at the announcement which is made to her, she has closed her book to concentrate, she is in no way distracted by irrelevant elements, like a huge snail. We can imagine the intensity of Mary's inner gaze to welcome in her the miracle of a divine birth.
Now Del Cossa has chosen to introduce not only his incredible gastropod but also a set of characters, a dog and completely distracting elements compared to the intense concentration that requires the understanding of an Annunciation. If we take care, our mind could wander in irrelevant subjects, daydreams, concepts.
Therefore, let's have this requirement of concentration and carefully observe the attributes of this snail guide, to focus on its place in the spatial representation of this altarpiece.
Among the four attributes of the snail, there is the disturbing location of this animal in the table.
Commentators have seen it in two ways, either located on the floor of the palace, or placed on the frame of the painting, as if outside the painted stage, as historian Daniel Arasse suggested (4).
A third possibility can be imagined: our guide-snail moves by browsing the format of this table. As if our guide invited us to explore not the wooden frame, which is of little interest, but the format of the altarpiece, that is to say, the framework of relationships that are formed within this Annunciation.
Does it cover the periphery of the format? he would then look at the horizontal width of the format of the work.
To visualize this, let's trace the harmonic composition grids (5) which are precisely set up from the format of the table:
The harmonic grid of third parties (in purple) in relation to God, Mary, the bookmark of the bible and the center of the shell of the snail.
The harmonic grid of thirds reveals a precise place for our guide-snail passing through the center of the spiral of its shell. This grid often symbolizes the trinity in religious paintings. Here she divides the scene into three distinct parts from top to bottom:
- The upper third is as if placed on the tip of the halo of God. Heavy architecture lets in sunlight and we had seen that the lines of shadow and light are very elaborate and "talking".
- The middle third dominated by the presence of God and his symbolic dove, seems to be that of action, with the double gestures of each. God with his breath and his open arms, then the sign of blessing and the words of Gabriel and finally the concentrated face and the gathered hands of Mary. The horizontal third line points to the index of Mary and the bookmark of the Bible.
- The lower third with the legs of Marie and Gabriel holding a white rose in hand, two animals; a stray dog against the current and our snail guide slowly walking on the ground. The vertical line of thirds points to the shell of the snail with its spiral symbol of evolution.
The famous Del Cossa snail seems to take on the appearance of a guide, and here would be a spiritual guide.
One of the four attributes of Del Cossa's snail is that it is imposing in size. Who hadn't noticed?
But how can we be sure of this impression of size, and above all, what can I get out of it?
Let us make a comparison, as Daniel ARASSE (1) had already proposed, between the size of the animal and the foot of Gabriel. We imagine then that the animal is excessive. But we only imagine then that the best is not to see it for yourself? Digital imagery allows me to visualize a normal-sized snail on the scale of the painting and to be able to compare it with its original.
The snail in its original size represented by Del Cossa
The snail brought back to scale with a normal size
With Del Cossa's snail (on the left) and its normal size (on the right), I saw how much our painter had insisted on the size of his troublemaker, not only with its prominent location, but also by this distortion unbelievable.
It is undeniable that our painter wanted to hold the attention of his spectator. Is it just for fun? This seems unlikely because the religious sponsors of this altarpiece would never have let pass such a heresy in relation to the sacred aspect of an Annunciation. Would it be to deliver a message, to tell something thoughtful, for the salvation of the spectator?
Let's see it slowly ...
This comparison between these two snails raises the idea of excess in opposition to that of measurement .
But to what extent are we talking about in this work?
Again, I suggest that you be specific and precise by measuring the size of this gastropod and then comparing it:
The yellow line under the snail represents its length without the horns. This dimension is found identically just above him with the Bible of Mary. On the other hand, this dimension is not that of God, contrary to what some commentators have suggested, without verifying it. However, concerning the idea of measurement, this God attracts attention by its small size in opposition to that of large size of the snail.
The size of a tiny God in the sky draws my attention a second time to the dimensions. This representation of a surprisingly discreet good bearded father who performs a grandiose act is surprising to say the least. It seems that the painter, being aware of the greatness of the divine act, sees as the only recourse to suggest the magnitude of this event to take an image opposite to that which one would have imagined. A tiny father god in a little corner of the sky is by his humility and modesty a good suggestion of the extreme dimension of his act of incarnation.
Del Cossa proposes with this tiny God to illustrate the idea of the immeasurable, even if this notion cannot be represented.
Three concepts therefore seem to be present in the altarpiece by Del COSSA: normal-sized characters, the too-large snail and God, who is difficult to grasp. Is :
- The excess
- The immeasurable
These notions have already been mentioned for this altarpiece by certain art historians.
There are two notions that our intellect can consider understanding: measurement and its opposite, excess. But there is the immeasurable notion which is located in a space that the intellect cannot approach, it is a dimension not perceived but experienced in itself, an a-perception which can only be experienced, as the wise philosopher Jean Klein (2) defined it.
However, our generous painter slipped a track to approach this immeasurable dimension. Del Cossa put our guide-snail in relation to the bible (and not with God in the sky).
These are the vertical edges of the book of Mary which, being extended in pink, point to the dimensions of this large gastropod. Note that the right line goes through a "marker" on Marie's blue dress, as if to underline the link of this animal with Marie's destiny.
The snail is thus in relation with the bible (and not with God), the book which over time will see a new chapter written starting from the birth of Jesus.
Excess in relation to the narrative perspective
Del Cossa wanted to specify certain qualities for this book in connection with the snail. Qualities which are revealed by extending this time the horizontal edges of the book.
A line points to a rose bud, two lines point to the edge of the format and a line is undetermined.
The rosebud pointed by the bible seems to be a metaphor for an upcoming flower, a bright future.
The edge of the pointed format is like a reminder of the route of the guide-snail which seems to follow the format of the table.
Another remark: these lines of flight from the book do not respect the rules of perspective. Our Ferrara painter uses here what I call "the narrative perspective" whose main interest is to tell something more with symbols and which make sense rather than respecting a technical rule on which the spectator could fall asleep.
This observation on the perspective of the book invites me to explore the general perspective of the painting.
Raising the question of perspective represented on a two-dimensional surface leads to the question of where is the location of the spectator intended by the painter. Where does he plan to place the skyline?
The vanishing lines on the ground all point to a vanishing point located in the center of the symbol column for Christ. This vanishing point defines a horizon line in green. And the vanishing lines (in pink) of the book point this horizon line to the edge of the frame.
The snail guide is therefore related to the book, which itself is linked to the earth horizon line. All this on the edge of the frame that our gastropod travels!
That's not all !
Del Cossa did not freeze his construction of perspective because he enriched it with a narrative method which transgresses the usual rules of perspective. To see it, you must draw with great precision the vanishing lines of the upper part of the architecture (in blue).
The top vanishing lines converge to another point which is lower than that of the ground vanishing lines!
There are therefore two vanishing points:
- a vanishing point for the ground, one could say for the earth (in green),
- and another for the top, you could say for the sky (in blue).
This process which I show in detail on the page "narrative perspective" is used by certain humanist painters of the Renaissance, in particular by Ucello, Raphael or Leonardo Da Vinci with his Annunciation of 1475.
This narrative technique of doubling the vanishing point seems to illustrate a recurring narrative mode in the Bible where names and actions are duplicated: God in the Annunciation, has two names, the action of the Annunciation is double, the attributes of God are double, etc ... we can note many other examples which underline the dual aspect of the creation resulting from divine unity.
Heaven and earth in this scene from the Annunciation are two distinct spaces but which here seem to connect, overlap and overlap on the central idea of the advent of Christ (the center of the column). A story must begin and then develop with the writing of a new word (the future new testament). Word that is welcomed in the Annunciation thanks to the interior light of Mary.
The golden measure of the snail
To close these observations on the measurement of the snail, I suggest you see another measurement, the one located between the center of the shell and the top of its shell. This measurement shown in yellow is identical to that between the two sky and earth vanishing points.
Now, this measurement is also that which is between the pupils of Mary's eyes and also the same as that of the thickness of Mary's book. This measure is one of the five reports of the golden fifth used by Del Cossa to punctuate his work with the divine golden ratio.
La lente promenade de notre guide-escargot au sujet de sa mesure est en relation avec un grand nombre de symboles :
le ciel et la terre qui sont séparés et attendent d'être à nouveau réunis,
la bible qui se développera d'un nouveau récit avec l'incarnation dans ce monde d'un envoyé de Dieu,
et la vision de cette perspective grandiose que Marie accueille en elle comme un ordre parfait de l'univers.
Regarding the progress of our guide , here is a proposal that I suggest:
the snail leaves no trace!
It is more an interpretation than an indisputable observation because it is difficult to decide on the fact that there is or no traces of mucus usually left behind the foot of each gastropod. A shiny mucus could be visible on the pavement of the palate. With the sense of detail taken to the extreme at Del Cossa, one would expect to see such traces.
I wondered about this fact and was attracted by a detail of the same order: Gabriel's left foot is shod with an immaculate sole. No trace of walking or wear as if this slipper had never been used to walk on the ground. This angel would also leave no trace on the palace tiles. One can obviously imagine that the messenger of God is traveling by air. It would then be logical for the ground to be immaculate.
This double observation put me on the track of the game of opposites dear to narrator painters: it was by observing in the direction opposite to the ground, that is to say in the sky, that I noticed a congruent detail.
The dove flies with golden tracks behind and in front of it.
While Kalil Gibran remarks that the birds do not leave traces in the sky, on the contrary the path of the divine dove is marked by golden lines (rays) symbolizing the purpose of God. The same goes for many other Annunciations using these precursory features of the idea of movement in the language of comics. The idea of a movement also speaks of the passage of time.
With this game of remarkable opposites: visible traces in the sky opposite to the absence of a trace on the ground, the same game is added, but in the temporal domain: a flow of time before God opposed to the absence of flow of the time on the ground with our guide-snail friend. Thus, God, or the eternal present, created before him his plan of terrestrial incarnation signified by the trace of the golden rays which guide the flight of his dove. God created the flow of time here.
Let us continue our journey with this chain of causes and effects: we imagine that the golden rays of the breath of God guide the dove in its path.
But where is this dove really guided? asked the interested student.
Finally let's see, everyone knows that the dove is moving towards the lap of Mary, towards the Blessed Virgin, she is the receptacle of the Annunciation. Why would this dove go elsewhere, I ask you? replies, incredulous, the professor.
To respond by experience, more than with soothing knowledge, let us use the operation of the first rule of composition again: extend a visible line beyond to see what it points to! The curious student holds his ruler on the golden ray starting from the mouth of God, then a second time, since the actions written in the bible are double, setting the ruler on the eye of God and the eye of the dove.
The golden lines starting from the breath and from the eye of God guide the dove towards the bible, precisely towards two corners of the cover. By the way, the breath line is relayed by Gabriel's middle finger (i.e. the 1st rule of composition) then comes to stay in the right corner of the format, where our guide-snail seems to be making its way.
So Del Cossa chose to direct the dove towards the bible rather than Marie.
This intention seems to indicate that our painter anticipates the Annunciation as being the great project of a revelation to write in a book open to all. The incarnation and birth of Jesus would thus be the first chapters of a new testament to come.
Finally, here is the fourth and last attribute: our guide-snail not having a shadow cast on the ground, I wondered about the validity of this observation. I then added a shadow cast on the ground to see by comparison if it is indeed a relevant observation.
L'escargot original sans ombre portée sur le sol
L'escargot avec une ombre rajoutée et projetée au sol suivant la lumière générale.
With its added shadow and projected onto the tiles, this animal blends much more into the scene. The absence of shade draws attention to the question of light. And knowing that Del Cossa is an erudite and meticulous painter, it is hardly conceivable that it is a simple oversight. On the contrary, the numerous observations concerning the light and the shadow of this work show that these are games intended to favor an observation with a philosophical scope.
Indeed, the light of this altarpiece is particularly interesting to study closely!
As iconographic tradition recommends in this type of religious painting, sunlight comes from the top and from the left . It would be possible to fall asleep on this reassuring academic observation but would have missed a wealth of information that Del COSSA has generously slipped into the lights and shadows.
Yes, I wrote "THE lights" because different sources of light are to be discovered in this work.
Let us first detail the ceiling of the building, since an Annunciation is read from top to bottom. Several shadows are cast on the walls. Light pierces everywhere, visible on beams, arches, walls. The painter seems to have placed his characters and his spectator in a heavy and thick protective building but this construction is open to the sky!
There is no roof, even above Marie's room. The concepts of interior and exterior are undermined.
The general light comes from the top left between the beams without roofing and draws four shadow lines on the walls.
See the interior light
The windows of the building on the left are lit from the inside by the same rays of sunshine, as if there were no roof or wall at the back of this building. As if these apparent constructions were only theatrical sets without thickness.
The ambiguity is reinforced by the absence of a clear border between interior and exterior.
Below, let us detail the lighting effects on the angel Gabriel and on Marie. The academic light comes from the left on Gabriel. But how is it that his face and his hand are also lit by the right?
The same goes for Mary's hands which are lit by the sun but also by the right.
The explanation that I see is that this secondary light emanates from Mary herself. More precisely, it emanates from its lap. The virgin subtly radiates her inner light from her lap. The angels of the lectern, the bible, the column, Gabriel are subtly lit by this soft interior light.
The academic notion of a single source of sunlight is here enriched by the suggestion of a second invisible source of light, of a very different nature, an interior light.
Understanding light and shadow
The fact that our mollusk has no shade on the ground made me think of the game of opposites often used by painters, either to distract or to instruct their spectator. So I raised my eyes to the sky of this table in the direction of the sun (luminous star for which besides there is never any shade, because from its central point of view, there is only light all over).
It is precisely by establishing this link; absence of snail / sun shade in the sky, which I came back to the shadows cast on the walls at the top of the palace. Now, a shadow on a wall draws a straight line, and among painters a line must point to a signifying element of a character (1). So I reproduced this gesture of bond of the painters with a string stretched over the leftmost shadow. This shadow line joins with great precision the thumb of God, then it passes over the index and middle finger of Gabriel and ends on the tip of Marie's foot.
The first shadow line on the left continues with the 1st rule of composition by pointing the thumb of God (his will) and the foot of Mary (his step)
This first shadow line, on the side of God and Gabriel, is related to the theme of the Annunciation because it takes up the biblical text of the Holy Spirit descending from heaven, announced by the angel Gabriel and which will descend towards Married.
With the second shadow line on the same wall I also draw the extension of its direction to see what it points to:
The second shadow line points to the left eye of God, the eye of his dove, the index finger of Gabriel, and the bookmark of Mary's bible. (four significant dots on the same line = no room for chance)
These first two shadow lines on the side of God and Gabriel seem to sum up the immeasurable act of God, the divine project of the Annunciation. They link the will and the project of God, the dove (the holy spirit), Gabriel the messenger of God, and Mary who will be the bearer of a great plan, the wonderful and tragic life of Jesus. And finally the bookmark of the bible which can suggest the future writing of the new testament.
Let's see the other shadow lines on the right, those on Marie's side.
The third shadow line does not point anything visible in the table. Its relationship takes place in the field of invisible composition, the earth horizon line (there is also a sky horizon line which is not shown here).
This shadow line on Marie's side works in the invisible because it does not point anything visible, apart from Marie's halo but not specifically. This line is precisely related to the horizon line of the ground perspective (in green), this on the edge of the format that seems to run the snail. One could read there the object of an invisible incarnation in the visible world, terrestrial and human.
The fourth shadow line also plays with the invisible composition:
The 4th shadow line is also linked to the invisible composition, here with the lines of the gesture and breath of God.
This fourth shadow line is still linked to a construction of invisible composition. It is framed on the edge of the format by two lines (in red) of the gesture and the breath of God.
This composition seems to illustrate the miraculous double act of the Annunciation: according to the apocryphal text of the bible there is the act of the Holy Spirit and the act coming from the Most High. In the composition of Del Cossa, the act of the Holy Spirit would be illustrated by the breath of God who thus sends his dove, and the act of the Most High would be illustrated by the two indexes of God which form a line passing through the mouth of God and framing on the format the fourth shadow line.
The vertical of this double divine act points down the end of Gabriel's wing, a fabric marker (4) and the corner of the format.
And finally, not to forget our guide-snail, a line starting from the mouth of God at 45 ° points the center of the spiral of the shell. We must certainly see this spiral as a symbol of evolution illustrating the divine will to create a new event with the birth of Jesus which is visible in the predella of this altarpiece.
Birth of the divine child that we will find with the fifth shadow line:
The last shadow line, always related to the invisible, is linked to the median of the format which points to the navel of Jesus in the predella.
This last line between light and shadow above the virgin's room is related to the harmonic grid of the medians, again on the edge of the format.
This grid of medians depicts three fundamental elements: Mary pointed by her left eye, the axis of the column as a late iconographic symbol of Christ (1) and finally in the predella, the navel of the infant Jesus, before passing through the eye of a cherub. In our search for inner light, everything seems to converge towards the divine purpose of this Annunciation.
Another element of composition put in place by Del Cossa allows you to visualize a shortcut that is both congruent and dizzying:
the parallel composition technique is wedged with the shadow lines. She points to the two tables no less than five points congruent with the theme of the altarpiece.
This element of composition is a parallel (5) to the shadow lines visible on the upper walls.
This parallel line points with extreme precision to five elements that are congruent with the theme of the Annunciation, so there is no possibility of chance or personal projection. This line crosses the open mouth of Gabriel that we imagine speaking the biblical words. Then further down, this parallel passes precisely through the two eyes of our snail guide. At the level of the predella this line is extended to link two wise men and further on it points to a dead tree trunk. You should know that a dead tree or a broken branch not far from Jesus is a late iconographic symbol of his fatal future.
This line establishes a vertiginous shortening of speed between the word of Gabriel announcing the conception of the divine child, the coming of the wise men celebrating the birth of Jesus and the sacrifice of the life of Christ, all this under the eyes of our guide- snail!
1: See D. Arasse, "The look of the snail" in On y voir rien, Denoël, 2000.
2: columna est humanitas Christi is a sitation of H. Maur in Allegoriae in Sanctam Scripturam - 9th century - which, it would seem, would be the starting point of the Christian iconography of the column symbolically representing Christ.
3: Transmitting light - Jean Klein - Edition du Relié - 2013
4: you have recognized the 1st rule of composition: a straight line must point by extending a point signifying a character, an object or an element of the composition in a manner congruent with the theme of the painting.
5: To understand the use of these composition grids, refer to the chapter "1st TECHNIQUE: HARMONIC GRIDS".
6: see the page on the technique of narrative lines, parallel obliques.
Do not hesitate to leave your comment, your questions at the bottom of the page, my pleasure is to be able to discuss the pictorial composition. Thank you.
Work protected by a copyright © guymauchamp U79J1B9 and a Legal deposit at the SGDL Paris.