Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version

June 2002


Published in The Shape of Change: Essays in Early Modern Literature and La Fontaine in Honor of David Lee Rubin, edited by Anne L. Birberick and Russell Ganim. Rodopi: Amsterdam & New York, 2002. Pp. 53–89. Copyright © 2002 Editions Rodopi B.V. Used by permission.


The forty-four stained-glass windows (dating from 1540–44) that recount the mythological tale of Psyche in Chantilly’s Condé Museum present a unique semeiological challenge to scholars. Accompanied by lyric inscriptions of either four or eight lines, the panels reveal an image/text combination that represents a literal example of the Renaissance notion of ut pictura poesis. These seldom-discussed panels merit inquiry because they reflect certain historic, artistic, and literary trends that illustrate factional and intellectual movements crucial to understanding France of the early to mid-sixteenth century. In its examination of these issues, this essay asks three questions:
1) What is the political significance of the gallery?
2) Why are the panels important in terms of Renaissance aesthetics, and how do they enhance the viewer’s knowledge of image-text interaction? And
3) What examples can be given of how pictura and poesis, as they are uniquely presented in the gallery, enrich the narrative process depicted in these windows?
In answering the first question, I will argue that the windows represent a political allegory that alludes to the disgrace and exile of their patron, Anne de Montmorency (1493–1567), Francis I’s “Constable of France.” Montmorency’s choice of Psyche lies in the desire to illustrate his struggle via a character who will elicit sympathy in a profound, but discreet manner. Like Psyche, who incurs the wrath and envy of Venus, the Constable falls prey to a powerful woman, specifically, Francis’s mistress, Madame d’Etampes, whose jealousy forces Montmorency’s departure from the court. With the political statement comes aesthetic commentary as well. Specifically, the Psyche windows illustrate from a structural perspective the Renaissance idea that art deemed “religious” in nature may be considered not merely as a “receptacle of the holy” but as a work of independent, discriminating merit (Belting, Likeness and Presence 458). Within this new mentality, a “religious form” such as stained glass, need not necessarily depict a theme one would traditionally find in a church or cathedral. Changes in aesthetics and religion went hand in hand during this time, as Protestant, especially Calvinist, emphasis on the “Word” of God over His “Image” indirectly gave rise to a heightened presence of the word in art throughout the early to mid-sixteenth century. The presence of the lyric inscriptions in the Chantilly windows can be attributed at least in part to the emergence of the word in artistic expression at this time.
To understand the relationship between verba and imago as it exists in the panels themselves, this essay will draw on the literary criticism of W. J. T. Mitchell, the historical analysis of Hans Belting, and the translation theory of George Steiner, Roman Jakobson, and André Lefevere. What these theories have in common is the notion that a certain fluidity exists between sets of signs. In the case of the Psyche gallery, the “hermeneutic motion” (Steiner 296) that exists between word and picture allows for a dynamic exchange between the two principal narrative elements of the panel. Yet, the symmetry between word and image is often only partial, since these modes of discourse sometimes diverge as much as they converge. The poems and windows translate each other, but often only in translucent, semi-transparent ways. Consequently, the meaning word and image convey together is problematic and ambiguous almost as frequently as it is reciprocal. Accordingly, the viewer is required to mediate between pictura and poesis, rendering his/her role more active in determining the significance of the panels, and in shaping the critical debate over the interaction between these means of expression. However, the narrative related by the verba/imago relationship within the panels themselves cannot be fully appreciated without a more global understanding of the historical and critical circumstances in which the windows were created. These general conditions comprise a narrative of their own.