Alright, you may be wondering why Fernando has branched into forging 17th century paintings when his comics career appears to be going better than ever. And you’d be right to think that was madness but today I’m going to use ol’ Vermeer’s masterpiece to make a point about myth.
Today we’re going to be looking at a strategy for looking at myths / stories / events that helps to show how they can be used in our daily lives and on a societal level.
Up Close And Detailed
In order to give a brief demonstration of the process I want to talk about, please join me as we make a slight detour into 17th century painting before looping back to our beloved myths.
I think (or ‘hope’, please don’t let me be the only one) that, at one point in our lives, we’ve all stepped absurdly close to a painting so that a masterpiece becomes just a blurred cross-weave of mad brushstrokes. It’s fun to distort brilliance in this way but it can actually reveal some pretty fascinating things about the art too.
Take, for instance, The Girl With The Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. A painting I’ve never been all that keen on, to be honest, but before all you Vermeer fanatics try to rip my throat out on Twitter, thanks to this ‘Zooming Out’ technique I’ve come to quite like it. Let me explain.
The eponymous Pearl is obviously the most prominent part of the painting and for good reason. It’s magnificent. But if you look closely enough you can see that, according to some scholars, this shining orb was actually created with just one brushstroke!
To put that in context, the great Belgian master Jan van Eyck managed to create a dazzling pearl with just three brushstrokes around a century earlier! An incredible feat in its own right and somehow Vermeer managed to top it!
Zoom Out … To The Whole Picture
Now that we’ve learned something about the painting at the level of detail, let’s get a slightly broader perspective.
Stepping back, we can now see that the pearl adorns the ear of a (presumably) Dutch girl wearing an exotic turban on her head, which was not exactly typical dress in the small Dutch town of Delft at the time.
However, both the pearl and the turban reveal something about society and Vermeer’s own life. As a result of wars and diplomatic relations with the Ottomans, turbans came to fascinate people of 17th century Europe and they appeared in many works of art from that period, from Rembrandt to Francesco del Cairo.
Both the turban and the pearl, for its ancient associations with luxury and distant maritime adventures, became symbols of far-off lands of exoticism. Something many art scholars have contrasted with Vermeer’s own life since he lived and died in his home town. These same scholars equate this exotic woman’s confinement in a dark canvas to Vermeer’s own imprisonment in Delft and poverty.
Zoom Out … For The Even Bigger Picture
Despite 19th century avant-garde artists championing his paintings, Vermeer died in obscurity and it wasn’t until he was unwittingly involved in a modern-day crime that he was propelled to real international fame.
Hans van Meegeren was an unknown and frustrated Dutch painter who painted a number of fake Vermeer paintings and sold them to the Nazi Field-Marshall Herman Goering. Goering was, if you can imagine it, in a bit of a contest with Adolf Hitler to see who could create the best collection of stolen and (usually forcefully) purchased art.
After the war, however, Hans van Meegeren was tried in Dutch court for ‘collaborating with the enemy’. He only avoided the death penalty by revealing that the paintings he sold Goering were fake and he sold them not for money but for a collection of real Dutch paintings. Therefore, he not only duped the fat Field-Marshall, it also (uncomfortably for the judge) made him a national hero.
After re-making one of his fakes under strict police observation, van Meegeren received just 1 year in prison (rather than the maximum 2-year sentence) for forgery.
Since everyone was fooled by Van Meegeren’s forgeries, the crime forced the art world to rethink how it depended on experts alone to authenticate art. It also gave the world an exercise in thinking about the nuance of crime itself. After all, to collaborate with the Nazis was as much a crime as forgery (though, admittedly, with a much stricter sentence) but to commit a crime to screw over the Nazis complicates the matter somewhat.
Hard-line crime-haters might say ‘a crime is a crime’ and even see van Meegeren’s rationale that he was saving real Dutch paintings as a lie he told to get out of the noose. But the important fact is, without van Megeeren’s crime the Dutch paintings (like a lot of other art the Nazis stole) might never have been recovered.
Which brings me to one of my favourite myths about crime …
Hermes The Thief
To find the brushstrokes of myths we have to look the history of words. The name ‘Hermes’ has a confusing etymology. Some scholars believe it means nothing other than a ‘collection/heap of stones’, i.e. a cairn.
Other scholars connect Hermes with the Vedic Sarama. Sarama was the ‘female dog of the gods’ and she was the one who not only found the divine cows stolen by demons but also, in doing so, revealed nourishing milk to humanity.
Hermes also discovered and retrieved some divine cattle but his story is a little more complex.
Zoom Out … To The Whole Story
When Hermes was born, neither he nor his mother were part of the Olympian Pantheon.
He was a precocious child who already knew that he and his mother were in for a life of struggle unless he could join the Pantheon. So, the naughty little baby stole Apollo’s divine cattle.
When Apollo and Zeus confronted the baby, Hermes lied and laughed the accusation off. The gods were unrelenting, though, since they knew Hermes was guilty. Eventually, Hermes admitted that he stole the cattle and agreed to return them … all except one.
Apollo was furious at this but he calmed when he heard the instrument Hermes had invented by putting strings on a turtle shell. Hermes was playing this lyre as they talked and Apollo, the god of music, fell in love with it. Hermes offered Apollo the lyre as a gift and Apollo agreed to let Hermes look after the divine cattle.
It turns out that the one cow Hermes couldn’t return was one he sacrificed to himself and his mother, being careful not to eat the ‘human’ part (i.e. the meat) and only receive the ‘divine’ portion of the sacrifice. Only Olympians received sacrifices so … he had found a loophole into the Pantheon.
Zoom Out … To The EVEN Bigger Picture: The Good Thief
Up close, Hermes seems to be a ‘unifier’. His name refers to a collection / unification of a cairn of rocks and he is associated with the unification of the divine herd in Vedic mythology.
Hard-liners might look at the whole story and see only a child willing to steal, blackmail and trick his ‘superiors’. These same hard-liners might have thrown Hermes into Tartarus and forgotten about the devious little shit.
However, Zeus ‘The Godhead’ was not always a hard-liner. He found Hermes’ trick funny.
After all, Hermes did steal and lie but the result of that behaviour was the creation of the greatest instrument ever invented and its placement in the hands of the god of music. This was, ultimately, a gift to humanity far greater than the sacrifice he took for himself.
What’s more, he didn’t just trick his way into the Pantheon for himself. He did so for his mother, too. An act of divine forethought far exceeding your everyday miscreant.
There’s another aspect of Hermes as the ‘Good Thief’ too and that’s evident in the form of rituals that happened at his altars. At some of these altars, especially those on roads outside the city, people were encouraged to leave donations and also steal those same donations. Some scholars have suggested this to be an act of mischievous charity, since those people who stole were unable to leave any donation of their own.
It’s not the most imaginative title for this process but there is clarity in simplicity and that’s our goal in this process.
A myth is a myth just as much as theft and forgery are bad and that’s that. Or is it?
Basically, the point of this whole process is to realise that things / crimes / stories are rarely so black and white. We can learn a lot by using different perspectives because different information is visible at different ‘altitudes’ but all are important and useful.
In a time when the world is fighting about meaning and dull-headed discrimination, moral relativism is more important than ever. Zooming out reveals not just the potential morality of a given event but also that event’s place in the wider, sociological world we live in.
Every myth is a campfire tale to delight or horrify but it is also an example of humans finding their place in the world and of describing the world itself.
Just like we can appreciate the brushstrokes of a painting or its place in society centuries later. ‘Zooming Out’ allows us to see all of the facets of these stories. In this way, we can become impervious to fundamentalism and extremism, and instead, we find the opportunity to practise thoughtful empathy that could result in real good for humanity as a whole.
Just like being a criminal and swapping fake paintings for real masterpieces and screwing over a fat, murderous bastard in the process, for example.
Well, that’s what I think, anyway. What do you think? Send us your thoughts and comments at the link below.