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Variations on the Visibility of the Aura (Parol on line - luglio 1998)

by Aura Satz

No eye ever saw the sun without becoming sun-like

Plotinus, Enneads, I, 6, 9

The nimbus represents a unique juxtaposition of the notions of light, perception and, consequently, of the image itself. Light is at once visual experience and the very condition of sight, and it is due to this twofold nature that it has invariably been conceived as the symbolic representation, or, indeed, the very substance, of divinity. The aura, the nimbus, the aureole all incorporate both aspects in a single distinctive emblem, the epiphanic [from the Greek epi, to, phania, to show] sign of a reciprocity between supreme light (omniscient eye) and the illuminated (seen and seeing) body.

Interestingly, its varying materializations are in some ways parallel to the different tenets regarding the position of the sun throughout the ages. From a distant periphery, either as wrathful divinity or humble servant of an even greater omnipotent god, the sun was drawn to the centre; this was accomplished by Plato and the astronomical theories of his time, still firmly bound to a cosmic context. With the advent of Christianity Helios was eclipsed by the new god, the true lumen de lumine. Yet, although Christ frequently assumed solar traits, it was only after Galileo that a decisively heliocentric notion of the universe regained ground. Nevertheless, even this new order eventually proved only one of numerous similar systems. Accordingly, the nimbus too wavered between an unvisualized or veiled state; a visual circumscription in the flesh and image of man; and, lastly, an irreversible dispersion.

In Judaism YHWH (often pronounced as Yahweh) wholly transcends all theophanic manifestations, to the extent that his most sublime manner of revelation is through his very concealment: light, the foremost creation, illuminates all but its creator. YHWH's incandescent appearances are constantly associated to his withdrawal or the presence of a veil of some sort which filter his unsustainable sight to the God-fearing gaze. Such are the examples of the column of fire aside the column of cloud during Exodus [Exodus 13,21; 40,38; Numbers 9,15-22; etc.] , or Moses' vision of God's back rather than of his glorious face [Exodus 33,22-23], despite his privileged "face to face" relationship. The ambiguity is truly epitomized in the veil placed upon the prophet's radiant face, his subtle aura [Etymologically, the Latin term aura, 'breeze' or subtle emanation, recalls the Hebrew term ruah, which literally means 'wind' but frequently refers to the spirit of the Lord resting upon Israel's illustrious men. Moses was particularly endowed, to the extent that his spirit was generously shared with the seventy elders (Numbers 11,25), and passed on to his successor Joshua (Deuteronomy 34,9).] after his descent from Mount Sinai [Exodus 34,29-35], intended no doubt to preserve intact and distant all sacred manifestations in accord with the Jewish pure/impure prescriptions. This continuous oscillation between representable and "irrepresentable", not unlike the unpronounceable Name and its synonymous involucres [The tetragrammaton YHWH is an unutterable "buffer" for the divine name, similarly Ha-shem (the Name), Ha-makom (the Place), Memra (the Word), Adonai (my Lord), etc..], is latent in both the Jewish approach towards images and also in the Jewish artistic repertoire prior to the Middle Ages.

Despite its common derivation, Christianity took a resolute step towards visibility and the resultant representability of the sacred. Christ, supreme eikon of the invisible Father [2 Corinthians 4,4; Colossians 1,15; cf. John 14,9], is conceived as divine Light Incarnate [John 1,9; 8,12; 12,36.46, etc.; cf. Hebrews 1,3. The notion of Christ as Light is accentuated by the miraculous healing of the blind in Mark 8,22-25; John 9,1-41; Acts of the Apostles 9,12-18], a sort of "nimbus personified". This is adequately illustrated by the miraculous acheiropoieta (images 'not made by human hands', often precisely of a haloed face) such as the Veronica or the Mandylion. These supernatural effigies, imprints of divine presence made matter, were to become the theological core of the Byzantine doctrine of the icon, which was revered as re-enactment of the Incarnation, as an intercessional-image and as a regal door situated between the faithful and the celestial hierarchy. The 'uplifting' or 'anagogical' neo-Platonic convictions of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (c. A.D. 500), particularly after the triumph of the iconophile position during the iconoclastic controversy, are central to the Eastern theory of the icon inasmuch as they allow for the transition from the material image to the immaterial spheres, i.e., from the visible to the invisible. Correspondingly, the auriferous emanation of the nimbus often absorbs the entire subject in its dematerialization of matter and transfigures the image into a golden mirror capturing the light. Moreover, the beholder is contained within the image which, in its constant candle-lit flickering, moves with, and according to, the devoted eye. This specular quality fortuitously coincides with the Pauline notion of vision through a mirror, by reflection, as opposed to perception through a veil [2 Corinthians 3,13-18. Paul interprets Moses' veiled face as symbol of Israel's spiritual blindness, whereas Christians, unveiled, reflect like mirrors the glory of the Lord. Nonetheless, the mirror can also have a negative connotation, as in 1 Corinthians 13,12.]. Gaze is thus directed beyond the object of vision; it does not rest upon the representation but is immediately propelled towards the reflected prototype.

However, in the Medieval West, the Christian image took quite a different route. The distance and unattainability of the God of the Jewish faith, translated by Oriental Christianity into a nearness solidly anchored to an invisible prototype, was exceeded by the desire to explore and palpate the proximity of a God Incarnate. Byzantium's concern with the bond between prototype and image was replaced by an emphasis on the relationship between image and emphatic spectator. So, although Gothic architecture achieved a somewhat 'anagogic' transfusion of light [Cf. Abbot Suger's intention of de materialibus ad immaterialia trasferendo in the church of Saint-Denis] and is known to have been fascinated with light metaphysics, generally speaking the image aimed at teaching, moving to compassion and offering an example of emulation [As expressed in the Libri Carolini, Charlemagne's response to Byzantine image worship] rather than localizing a sacred presence. All in all there reigned a growing taste for realism and tangible evidence of the sacred, for if the traces of the divinity had accentuated the matter into which they were imprinted, they had likewise generated the Doubting Thomas incredulity and curiosity to finger it. This was to culminate in the prospering of empirical science (especially optics), the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Eucharist, the promulgation of devotional images, the Mystery plays and so forth.

Consequently, the surface of the image was no longer a glimmering receptacle of the divine; instead, it precipitated in a transparency by which the representation was now through or within the painting, a frozen mirror denying not only the vertical reflection of divine light but also its viewer and his gaze. Indeed, with the waning of the Middle Ages a genuine "window on the world" was opened. Following Alberti's directions, in the framed istoria golden sheen was extinguished in order to settle into a dialectic of light and shadow subject to the laws of perspective. It was almost inevitable that the symbol of light would gradually become concrete reality: a crown of thorns bloodily celebrating the humiliation of flesh or a regal crown of Gothic form (the corona aureola of the saintly virgins, doctors and martyrs). Both the aureole and the image itself slowly metamorphosed from an entity emanating light to one subject to it.

Already in the year 1271, after the silk-route journey undertaken by Marco Polo, the West had come to acknowledge not only its geographic relativity but also the relativity of Christian history. From that moment on, in a domino effect, other dogmatic pilasters would similarly collapse, revealing the relativity of the world in relation to the sun, as also that of the sun in relation to the universe. All of a sudden, man found himself immersed in the incommensurable abyss of a plurality of worlds.

In its vitreous architecture of light Medieval scholasticism had refused to tolerate shadows in its interior; in other words, it had feared contradiction. Quite the contrary was upheld at the beginning of the XV century, when a thorough Christian philosopher pivoted his thought precisely upon the conciliation of opposites. In Nicholas of Cusa we are introduced to the concept of the infinity of the world which has its centre everywhere and its circumference nowhere; for God, who is everywhere and nowhere, is its circumference and centre [De docta ignorantia, II, 12, in Nicholas of Cusa on Learned Ignorance (tr. J. Hopkins; Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1981), p. 117.]. After Nicholas, Nicolaus Copernicus and Giordano Bruno, both the real and the symbolic sun were decentred by their pluralization in various suns. A multi-dimensional sense of reality was inaugurated by which everything could contract into everything, and the vision of the cosmos erupted in the vision of thousands of cosmoses.

A pertinent analogy is the Renaissance appreciation of the refractive properties of the colourless, that is to say, the diaphanous diamond which, in containing light, multiplies it through its various facets. Vertical vision, redirected up high towards the represented prototype (the anagogic mode, per speculum) and, in equal measure, the following horizontal vision in depth (the hole of perspective, the vanishing point), are both "prismatized", shattering the former linearity into millions of simultaneous visions. Biblical aniconism ultimately resulted in hyper-iconism, and a culture of pure visibility was to ensue, a drifting world of objects unanchored to the invisible. Likewise, the aura would follow the same itinerary, dispersed between its profane visibility and subsequent disappearance.

It is tempting to connect the above-mentioned to certain persisting post-Renaissance symptoms, mostly those which originated in the objectification of the human body and its vision. A distinct example of this desire to emulate the man-God is the proposing of oneself as prototype of a (decisively more mundane) acheiropoieta. Indeed, photography is the very prosthesis by which the seeing eye and the seen body are "object-ified". Yet, in its impulse to feign the sole celestial eye, the camera miserably offers a Cyclopic device through which the auratic gaze of objects [Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (1939; tr. H. Zohn and Q. Hoare; London: Verso, 1983); "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936; tr. H. Zohn; in Illuminations, London: Fontana, 1973), pp. 223] is atrophied. Modernity could thus be characterized as the repeated disappearance of a nearness (the Benjaminian definition of the aura being a "unique phenomenon of distance"); with a brisk gesture one shoots the effect of light upon a body, diametrically the opposite of the Byzantine body of light. The Russian art historian, mathematician, philosopher and theologian, Pavel Florenskii, similarly criticizes Renaissance perspective and its respective monocular "punto di vista". It, too, annihilated 'gaze' by denying the indispensable frontal view of the haloed individual, substituting it instead with a mask, a vision of its back, an abysmal hole ["... in the frontal vision energy is directed from the contour, in the vision of the back towards the contour. In the first case the face gives, in the second it absorbs. In the first case it reaches out beyond itself, in the second it conduces towards itself. Whereas the frontal vision is comparable to the sun, the vision of the back is a sort of abysmal hole in which the energy flow is stifled, similar to a black sun and a focus of extinction." My translation from the Italian version of Pavel Florenkii, Lo spazio e il tempo nell'Arte (1923-4; Milan: Adelphi, 1995), pp. 110-11; cf. Italian tr. Le Porte Regali (1922; tr. E. Zolla; Milan: Adelphi, 1995), pp. 42-52. The English translation of the latter is known under the title Iconostasis.].

Divine light materialized in image almost appears to have died out in its profane proximity, as though in its terrestrial abode it has been devoured by the shadows. One might infer that the aureole has become irrevocably more and more faint and imperceptible, or even voluntarily lost in order to be picked up by some needy poet:

-Eh! quoi! vous ici, mon cher? vous, dans un mauvais lieu! vous, le buveur de quintessences! vous, le mangeur d'ambroisie! En vérité, il y a là de quoi me surprendre.

-Mon cher, vous connaissez ma terreur des chevaux et des voitures. Tout à l'heure, comme je traversais le boulevard, en grande hâte, et que je sautillais dans la boue, à travers ce chaos mouvant où la mort arrive au galop de tous les côtés à la fois, mon auréole, dans un mouvement brusque, a glissé de ma tête dans la fange du macadam. Je n'ai pas eu le courage de la ramasser. J'ai jugé moins désagréable de perdre mes insignes que de me faire rompre les os. Et puis, me suis-je dit, à quelque chose malheur est bon. Je puis maintenant me promener incognito, faire des actions basses, et me livrer à la crapule, comme les simples mortels. Et me voici, tout semblable à vous, comme voyez!

-Vous devriez au moins faire afficher cette auréole, ou la faire réclamer par le commissaire.

-Ma foi! non. Je me trouve bien ici. Vous seul, vous m'avez reconnu. D'ailleurs la dignité m'ennuie. Ensuite je pense avec joie que quelque mauvais poëte la ramassera et s'en coiffera impudemment. Faire un heureux, quelle jouissance! et surtout un heureux que me fera rire! Pensez à X, ou à Z! Hein! comme ce sera drôle!

(Baudelaire, Perte d'auréole)

Shipwrecked in the multiple landscape of infinity, beyond the horizon where the sun seemed to set, the death (or eclipse) of God was proclaimed, and, in due course, also the end of the art which was intended to depict him (so confusing figurative absence with decease?). It was only natural that the plurality of "suns" was to provoke a certain hesitancy regarding their effective uniqueness and authenticity. The death of light, the loss of the centre, a new disharmony, dissymmetry, a fragmentation and general decadence were chorally announced; in short, a sort of aesthetic apocalypse by which the image became increasingly more obscure in reflecting or transparently disclosing the divine, the inaccessible distance of ritual, the aura. Hans Sedlmeyr, author of those nostalgic laments regarding the Loss of the Centre and the Death of Light [Verlust der Mitte (Salzburg: Otto Müller Verlag, 1948; Der Tod des Lichts (1951; Salzburg: Otto Müller Verlag, 1964); Das Licht in seinen künstlerischen Manifestationen (Mittenwald: Mäander Verlag, 1979)] (which already to judge by the titles preclude any possible "nimbic" survival), described recent evidence of a luminous abundance, interpreting this "thirst for light" as the reaction to a spiritual privation. As such he cites Impressionistic painting en plein air, the light of the "crystal palaces", photography, the cult of sun bathing, the transformation of night into day through the discovery of new sources of light rivalling the sun; and to these we should add audiovisual media -animated projections of light- , the illuminated screens of computers; etc..

Yet, rather than a detriment, this is possibly the inevitable consequence of a light incarnated to the point of becoming the very substance of its representation. Light no longer inhabits the space between representation and beholder (as is the case of icons, where light emanates towards the spectator, comprising him), nor is it embodied in the space within the representation (which absorbs inwardly and thus excludes the spectator). Light has gradually come to coagulate in the dense profundity of texture and matter. In the conscious effort to re-transform surface into surface (as opposed to a fictitious representation of an object beyond itself), the "aura/nimbus/aureole", which by now we designate as such for lack of an alternative term, is moulded into a light which does not dazzle, does not reflect nor transverse but, in a similar manner to the foam of a wave, becomes epidermis and venation.

An extensive season of humanity struggled to liberate the soul from sensible matter, only to eventually realize that light too may be at once everywhere and nowhere. The notion of a separate and transcendental life-light [John 1,4] inspired within the flesh, has now been transmuted to a body in which the life-light is inherent in every part of its very materiality; the topical example of cloning is a valid attestation, as each cellular fragment is entirely capable of re-creating itself.

In the present, rather abbreviated, survey we have encountered the veiled aura, inarticulate in its supreme transcendency; the epiphanic nimbus, derived by way of lumen de lumine; the semi-profane aureole in penumbra; and now its full adjacency to reality. Junichiro Tanizaki appropriately observed how, in its desire for progress, the West has passed from candle to petrol to gas to electricity, pursuing a brightness capable of absorbing each and every last particle of shadow [In Praise of Shadows (1935; tr. T. H. Harper; London: Cape, 1991)]. In an overexposure to light the Western eye has become, in part, desensitized but, at the same time, it conserves imprinted in its retina a brightness (or, depending on one's viewpoint, glare), thus creating a unique amalgam of eye and vision, both firmly bound to the same reality. To quote Roland Barthes' photographic example:

A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed. [Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (tr. R. Howard; New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), p. 81]


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