Li Jun: Insights into the Art History


Li Jun: It is now my turn to tell the story, but I don’t know where to start. I want to tell four stories, or as a matter of fact four paintings. The theme of my story is “Insights into the art history.” But I will still start this topic with the most concrete painting. In fact, insight means sight. It is “sight in” in a reverse order. “Sight” is vision and seeing. “In” means looking into. Therefore, insight means looking into in the Western language. In Chinese, to gain insight, we must cross, like cross a cave, in order to see through things deeply.

For us, a discipline like art history is a vision and actually a feast of eyes. Of course, what behind eyes are human mind and the ideas. We actually have to reach the human mind and ideas through our eyes. We can start with some stories, let’s say the 18th-century French rococo painter. This man is called Jean Honore Fragonard, and his painting, though not large, is well-known.


It depicts a house that seems to be roughly built. There is a room in the house with a strong young man like a male servant inside. It seems that he is latching the door of this room. He is embracing a woman, a noble woman, whose appearance on such an occasion is quite unusual. Many things seem strange in this painting. It seems to depict adultery between a male servant and a hostess. It shows the moment when the servant induced the hostess into his room and latched the door. But we see peculiar things here. On the left side are huge curtains hanging down. These curtains are obviously unrealistic. It should not appear in the shabby dwelling of the male servant. Of course, I also see the bed and the sheets in a mess. What does the painting say? What will happen next? Or the painting itself tells us what has already happened.


In fact, we can see the left and right sides on the painting. On the surface, we see that an event happened in a scene according to the idea of realism, but as far as the painting art is concerned, it may not be that simple. In other words, such a painting seems to show a subject that is not very learned and refined. In the painting, however, another image is also expressed with its own language. This painting is the left half of the painting, namely the huge red curtains hanging down towards the bed. We can see legions of details here. There is light yellow silk, like a mattress, but if we take a closer look, it shows many female characteristics. It seems to be a woman’s gown. This knee seems to be identical with the one on the apparel worn by the noble woman next to it.

On closer inspection, we can also see a pillow-like matter in the depths of the bed. Two corners of this pillow bulges up. If we look carefully, it looks like a woman’s breast. Further up, we can see the red curtains which cracked like a pattern. This pattern seems like a virgina. If we look further to the side, we can see some strange images, like another curtain hanging down. It forms a column-like thing. If we look at it this way, we find that this curtain seems to express a painting that describes the future of this event – namely what will happen in the future – in a hidden language. When we look at some details, we find that this painting may have implied meaning, which is expressed in an esoteric way.

For example, in the foreground, on the left is a small pattern with an apple on it. As we know, in the Western culture, this apple refers to the story of Paradise Lost. Eve handed an apple, so-called forbidden fruit, to Adam. Such a story is not so simple. It seems to have a trace of rape nature between a male servant and a hostess. It may be a conspiracy, or perhaps an inducement. The thing about to happen in the painting is, in fact, clearly shown in the painting. This is an interesting phenomenon. We can see that while obviously expressing a plot, the painting may have another plot. This plot is actually clearly shown on the painting. This is an interesting part in classical paintings.


This is a story. We can show the theme we are going to talk about today in this way. This is the “hidden image”. Let’s look at another painting. It looks like a Renaissance painting, a realistic one. It is a religious painting by a fifteenth-century painter called Francesco del Cossa. The theme of his painting is commonplace, the so-called “Annunciation” we often see in religious paintings. One day, an archangel bearing a lily descended into the room of the girl Maria from the air. Then archangel suddenly said to her that God chose you, and the savior will be born in your body. It is such a story. This is actually a key doctrine called “incarnation” in Christianity, namely the God takes on the human body. The painting looks like depicting a story on the surface. The picture was portrayed in a dramatic space, like a stage, where the archangel Gabriel kneels in the foreground, with the Virgin in the middle ground on the right. There are also many strange areas in this painting. It seems very realistic, but in fact there are many secrets according to our analysis.


For starters, we see a pillar in the middle. The pillar in the middle seems to be a part of the building, but it is a strange pillar from appearance. If we look at the upper part of this painting, we can see that the pillar seems to cling to this building. We can count it. For example, there is a beam under the perspective. This beam has five rings or so, which are attached to the ends of the building’s wall. But if we look from below, this pillar seems to be in the middle of the painting. This pillar looks a bit weird. This perspective must be mistaken. Then, if the pillar sits in the middle, imagine that the angel cannot see the Virgin Maria. Of course, we call him an angel, so he has extraordinary vision and can penetrate the pillar. This is possible, but a little strange. This pillar is abnormal. When we look at it again, we find that there is a snail at the bottom in the foreground, and a big snail at that. Many Renaissance paintings in the fifteenth century depict some details, such as insects, snails or fruits, and the like. It will be located between the painting and the space outside.

We ask a simple question on the snail, where is this snail? We first see the shape of the snail. Why is it so big? This snail is compared to the foot of the angel next to it. It occupies almost two-thirds of the foot. It is not a snail, but a monster. Of course, some say that this snail is crawling in the house of the Virgin Mary. In the architectural space, it should be smaller in the perspective if he is in the house, shouldn’t it? But where is this snail? If it is inside the building, should it still be a huge snail? In fact there is no such snail. At this time, we may analyze and find that further up in the left of the angel, we can see a semicircular arch, sky further beyond, and a small person in the sky. On closer inspection, it is an old man seems to be making a gesture. Following the gesture of this old man, we see a dove below. This is the typical “Annunciation” scenario. This situation shows that the dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The old man is actually the God. From God to the Virgin, this is called incarnation, right?


We can draw a line to connect the old man and the dove. We find that this line just points to the belly of the girl Maria. This meaning is thus crystal-clear, indicating a regular type of incarnation. Why is there a snail in this painting? If we draw another line to connect the snail, we find that the line connecting God and the snail just passes through the middle pillar and the angel’s gesture. Then, if we look carefully, we find that the snail bears slight resemblance to God. If we feel this way, we may feel that this snail is not an ordinary snail. What is it? It is not a monster, but a godly thing. If we have such a feeling, we find that many things are hidden behind the painting. It looks like a realistic painting on the surface, but it hides plenty of thoughts and ideas.


If we draw another line, we find that the painting is actually a triptych, and below the main part of the painting is a narrow, long painting. When the pillar is connected downwards, we find that the scene below is Christmas. After Jesus was born, three kings came to worship. Following the feeling of the public, three kings in the east embarked on a trek, and arrived in Bethlehem, Israel to worship Jesus. If we connect it to the pillar in the middle, we find that it is Christmas, when Jesus was born. If we connect all the things we analyzed earlier, we might have a feeling of wild imagination. What it actually tells is how God was born. But if we connect the shapes of God, the old man and the snail, we might have a new understanding. What is it? There is no such big snail. It should only exist in the painting frame.

That is to say, the snail is actually drawn, but it actually implies that it exists outside the painting. If the proportion is proper, it is not that big. If it is outside the painting, and if we connect the old man and the Father, we might get a new feeling: it is a historical painting that describes what happened 1,500 years ago.

But what if we say the snail is the personification of the God? If we see it from the perspective of viewers, you will find there is a new feeling and a new taste to the implied meaning. What does it say? The god in the ancient world became the fetus in the stomach of the Virgin Mary, and entered the world we live in. Of course, the era of Cossa was in the fifteenth century, and it entered the Renaissance century in the fifteenth century. Today, we are going to view the painting at the art museum in Dresden. When we went to view the painting and realized the intent of the painter, we would think that he depicted incarnation. It was the time of the Renaissance 2000 years ago. Today, has becomes a concrete image in our era. Then such thinking is expressed in a subtle visual language.

If we summarize these two examples, we find that the painting has its own way of dealing with the meaning. For example, the true intention may not be clear to you. On the surface, it seems this is not the case. The truth is shown in the painting in a crystal-clear way, like a truth shifted in a scene of a detective story. This is the first point.

Second, we know that painting is a spacial art, but when it comes to the time, it probably began in the 18th century. When Western paintings began to express the time, they want to express a moment, which is concentrated in the various scenes. Various movements are being played out in a moment. For example, if the two armies are about to fight, such a moment expresses such a time, which is called a pregnant time. But we see that before the eighteenth century, the painters did not follow such a rule in showing the time. A painter could express different time in one painting.

In the first example, Fragonard’s painting depicts the relationship between the two characters and what is about to happen in this painting. He has two times: the present and the future. The future time is expressed via hidden images. In the second example, it is the same in Cossa’s painting. He tells an eternal story rather than a story in the first century AD, or a story of the Renaissance in the 15th century. Anyone who sees that painting becomes a painting in your time, and this time is enshrined in this painting.

Such a way of processing time is in fact the freedom of painting. What has it proved in the end? It proves that the art is autonomous. Art is not merely the reflection of reality, or a plot or a classic expression. It can enter the future time and space, and even the eternal future. For instance, if we paint with a symbol, we can see many French philosophers in the seventeenth century, who painted such paintings. This painting is actually quite simple. You can see such a symbol has meaning. For example, the pronunciation of tree refers to the tree outside. We all have the image of tree based on our experience. But why do we have to call it a tree? For example, tree is called arbre in French. Arbre is not the same as tree and “shu” in pronunciation. In fact, when a symbol expresses a concept and an object, we generally understand it from this perspective, but there is the other side we must remember. What is the other side? This symbol points to itself. We can see that this graph is subtle, with the X pointing to Y. X curls up, pointing to itself like an arrow. The symbol X can also express itself. It will be clear if we understand it with a painting. The returning arrow is the freedom of painting. It is an unshakable responsibility when the painting deals with a subject. You have to use your own way, and this indicates wisdom in painting. We can call it “the wisdom of image”.

I must admit that the two stories I just talked about are fantastic. But these two stories are made by a French art historian Daniel Arasse I really appreciate and love. He died at the age of 59 in 2003. I was still in France at the time, but I didn’t know him. This is a pity. Of course, I was attracted by him after I read his works. Two examples I said above are provided by him.


His books have also been published in Chinese, including three books published by Peking University Press. Now the fourth is being translated. One of them is translated by me.

But our story does not end here. What I said is the story of others. I think their stories are great. Others’ stories can be called “the experience of others”. Now I will talk about the experience of myself. This is my own work. Although I did not read Arasse’s book while doing this work, the way of gaining an insight may be similar.

In my first case, I talk about a painter who lived in the 18th to 19th century. He is also a Rococo painter. He is a good friend of Fragonard I just mentioned. They used to serve at the Louvre Management Committee. He is actually not as famous as Fragonard in the art history, but he is gaining attention now. On the surface he seems to be a realistic painter. This painting depicts a long gallery in the Louvre. In this painting, there is a perspective scene, with a corridor leading to the distance beyond. Some painters are imitating in this space. We know that this was a normal thing in the Louvre at that time and that artists were allowed to imitate the paintings. The painter’s name is Hubert Robert. He just lived in a house on one side. He spent time in the gallery days and nights, so such a scene is very realistic. However, the painter himself is not a realistic painter. He actually contains rich imagination or image wisdom in the painting.


Where is the wisdom of this image? If we look at this painting carefully, two painters seem to be imitating something in the foreground. According to the focus scenography, we know that the heads of the two painters are actually in the same point as the vanishing point of the painting in perspective. But the vanishing point is in the depths of the painting, and overlaps with the heads of the two painters in the foreground. If we look closely, we find that there is a strange aspect in this painting. What is this strange aspect? If we make it into a perspective analysis painting, we can find that the vanishing point of this painting overlaps with the heads of the painters in the foreground.

What are these two painters doing? What are they imitating? Everyone knows that in the paintings, some people are imitating and some are pointing at something, but they are referring to concrete objects. For the two painters, we analyze their perspective relationship and find that the two painters are very strange. What are they painting? They are facing the blank window. What is this space facing? Outside, there is the Seine. Actually, we can’t see anything. If they are really imitating something, they shall be close to something outside the window, such as a bird. In the middle of the painting, it is really not realistic to draw a thing outside the window so far away. What exactly are they painting? For so realistic a painting, how come there is such a plot and he is facing the blank?

We have a question here. This painting was painted from 1801 to 1805, after the French Revolution. Before the French Revolution in 1789, some important events took place in the Louvre. One of the events is related to our art history, and one of the ways to hang artworks in museums and galleries. Some suggest that paintings in the Louvre are not hung in a haphazard way. It must present logic, an order, and a story. The story is logical. Of course, what story did they tell? It is a story about art history. What do they want to show? When hanging the painting, they shall show the occurrence, development, climax, and finally decline of the art. Paintings should be hung in such a way. A French art dealer made this proposal, but his viewpoint actually came from an Austrian called Michelle. He worked at the art gallery in the Kingdom of Bavaria, Germany at the time. He proposed a practice that the way of hanging paintings in the gallery shall present an art history, but this art history must be visible. So, we call it a visible history of art.


The French art dealer we just mentioned, proposed that the Louvre should imitate this. In this case, the Louvre’s paintings were hung according to the statement of the two persons. In the early 19th century, the first curator of the museum at that time was Denon. The Louvre has a Denon pavilion in the exhibition hall. He said when accompanying Napoleon in the visit to the gallery, he told the emperor that you will see a history of painting if you walk through this corridor. What does this mean? The paintings at this time were hung in the way we just said.

This is Hubert Robert, a Rococo painter. On the surface the painting is very realistic. He recorded the process of gallery transformation. Let’s say, we see a painting like this. How to transform it? Transformation is actually very simple. The corridor in his painting is same as the corridor in reality. But he built a tall column between two windows in his painting. On the column is an ancient sculpture. What is the purpose of such a setting? It is to differentiate the art development. I divide the corridor into many spaces, which are expressed by columns on both sides of windows. This is in line with the concept of the French art dealer Michelle we just said about how to express the development clues of art history in the space. The simplest way is to put different schools of painting and different time in different space. Isn’t the art history clear at a glance by such a way? This is the concept of so-called  visible history of art.



The painting you see describes the completion of the visible history of art. As we see, the pillars in these two compartments also exist in the foreground, but the corridors on both sides are covered with paintings. Because the painting is in the foreground, some paintings in the painting mirror the real situation of hanging artworks in the space at that time. What does this painting show? In front of a pillar on the right side of the painting is a huge painting. In fact, we can restore it. It is in the Louvre. The French King commissioned the painting from Raphael in the 16th century. It shows the Holy Family, the Virgin and his husband St. Joseph and the Son. The mother of the Virgin is Saint Anne. The painting was painted by Raphael and collected by the Louvre in the early sixteenth century.


Look at it again, we can see below the painting is a square painting, and the middle painting is round. This painting is made by a Florentine painter. This painter was actually greatly influenced by Raphael, and the subject matter of this painting is the same – the Holy Family. We can see that there is a relationship between these two paintings, and this painter had been to the Louvre. This painting was produced in the Louvre. If we make an analysis, what can we find? These two paintings have a relationship of inheritance, but it changed in composition. The painting below was painted by that Florentine painter. As a matter of fact, it was a revision of Raphael’s painting. Raphael’s painting is rectangular in composition, while this painting is composed circularly, and the characters are compressed. But regarding the color of the clothes worn by the Virgin and the posture of Joseph, it is a three-quarter side in Raphael’s painting, but it becomes the front side in the painting below. As it is composed circularly, there will be some changes.

We see from the corner of the painting that this part, namely the part outside the painting, is largely invisible. It may stand for the unit of Raphael. Fortunately, we can also see similar situations in some prints produced in the same period. This is probably news painting in 1810. News painting is actually a print. Because there was no photography at that time, prints were used to produce news reports. Napoleon was married to the princess of Austria named Maria. Napoleon visited the Gallery. We can see the milling crowd below. Napoleon and his empresses walked through the gallery. We saw the background of the painting is a wall, which is basically covered with Raphael’s paintings, as well as paintings by Raphael’s teacher, Pietro Perugino.




We can see the famous painting in the middle. Housed at St. Peter's Basilica Church in the Vatican, it is called “The Transfiguration of Jesus”. It can be seen that the original painting overlaps with the image of the print. Nearby, we can see Raphael’s painting below it on the left. Raphael’s painting is called “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”. On the right is Raphael’s painting, which depicts a religious scene. This painting characterizes Raphael’s early style. The painting consists of two parts, with a group of characters each in the upper and the lower part. This style is inherited from his teacher Pietro Perugino. We can see from above that in the middle is Raphael’s painting, with his paintings below the left and right sides. His two paintings above are produced by his teacher Perugino. If we think of this scene, this scene can reveal the hidden part in the painting of Hubert Robert. We can complement this part. In all likelihood, this part expresses the unit of Raphael.


In this painting, we find that this unit tells a story of time in the form of spatial arrangement, namely the development of art history. For example, Perugino influenced Raphael. The painting in the middle by Raphael reached his acme in the later years. His late works influenced another Florentine painter. We can see a clue to the development of history, the competition between master and disciple, and the connection of different painting schools.

If we understand in this way, we find that the big gallery, where Hubert Robert’s paintings are housed, was arranged in this way. When we are informed of such a context, we will be thinking why the two painters under Hubert Robert draw the blank outside the window? What does the blank mean? This blank is a place with light. Imagine that the paintings are hung according to the order of history and the schools of paintings in the gallery. As we just showed you, it seems that everything is in good order. Everyone is arranged along a chain in a complete whole.

This large gallery is a monument to eminent artists, and the monument is arranged in chronological order. In this case, we find that there is actually no blank space in this area, as each space is occupied. When we take a closer look again, we will have a new feeling. In this painting, the two painters in the foreground seem to be in a realistic scene, and we get another feeling at this time. Their heads just links to the vanishing point. If we have the experience of painting, even those with photography experience know that the vanishing point actually corresponds to our monocular perspective. We can see that this vanishing point is very low. What does it mean? It means that this painter’s perspective is very low. Where does Hubert Robert paint? Of course, there is no problem with this point outside the painting. I believe we can restore it. He was sitting on a small stool while painting and his viewpoint shall be consistent with the vanishing point. If his viewpoint is consistent with the vanishing point, the position he actually stands actually overlaps with the position of the two painters in his painting. This is a relationship of parallel vision. These two painters do not necessarily produce realistic paintings. It probably stands for the direct reflection of self-image of the painters.


Why do the two painters paint in front of a blank space? We think that it is maybe the problem proposed by Hubert Robert himself. Why do I draw in front of the blank space? At this time we find that Hubert Robert painted a good deal of paintings at the gallery. For example, this is an imagined painting, not a real scene. For example, skylight in the Louvre shows the light from the top. He first came up with this idea. Such a scene is shown with this image. We note that the blank space on both sides of the big gallery—where there are high windows—are filled solid in this painting. We can see that there are some sculptures in this position, like a niche. The gaps in the window are blocked, but there is a skylight leading to nature. The daylight and clouds enter the gallery in such a way.


We can also see that Hubert Robert also produced more bizarre paintings. These were in good condition in the Louvre, but he imagined these abandoned in the Louvre. There is no skylight on the dome of the Louvre. It is broken and destroyed, exposing the heaven. We can see that this big gallery was ruined. Many painters below are still imitating the paintings. Of course there are many beggars or persons of unclear identity walking there.

Inside is a Greek sculpture. Apollo Belvedere still points to a direction. Of course this shows historical sentiments. We can say that Hubert Robert is highly imaginative. What do the ruins here mean? Because this person is a painter, this man is nicknamed Robert des ruines in France. He especially likes to paint ruins. He also imagined whole buildings as incomplete things. If we say this gallery is an art history and a visual art history, both sides of the gallery were occupied by the masters. Imagine what if Hubert Robert wants to enter this gallery? He seems to have no place on both sides. There may be a position of course. There is blank space near the window. If I uphold eclecticism between the two schools of painting, absorbing something from each school and meeting each other half way, I can become a new painter. This is like drawing in front of the blank space. But this kind of blank is also easily filled, and eclecticism is limited. What should I do?

As Hubert Robert lived in this gallery, he was clear about the display of the gallery as a whole. If we think of this painting, there is something strange in this painting. The two painters overlap with the vanishing point. This vanishing point also overlaps with the viewpoint of Hubert Robert. These two painters probably represent the ideas of Hubert Robert. What are his ideas? His ideas mean that if the gallery is to develop, you have to break and develop the gallery. We can see that the vanishing point and the heads of painters overlap. What does this mean? Where is your future? Your future lies ahead and lies in breaking the gallery.

We can find that this is the logic of the development of modern art history, since the logic of the development of modern art is not the persistent innovation by the people. What is the precondition of innovation? A host of old things and great things lie ahead of you. There is no place for you, so you must move on and innovate. We sometimes feel that people can continue to innovate. But the logic of innovation is imagined. The ancients did not make innovation all day long. The ancients wanted to imitate, and this is even more so for the ancient Chinese. A lot of paintings were produced by imitation. The painters were never ashamed but proud of this. Right?

Production innovation turns into a requirement and a source of pressure. It started at the end of the eighteenth century. We can see that this painting actually mirrors the anxiety of a big gallery and the concern of artists. What are the concerns of the artists? If it is a classical painting, it actually means that we have to break it. Hubert Robert passed through the ruins to some degree. He probably died in 1808. In the early 19th century, we know that romanticism basically emerged in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany and France, but Hubert Robert used his way to presage the birth of romanticism. That is to say, it leads to nature, the wilderness, and the non-classical things. When I saw this painting, it showed the wisdom of the image. We can see that realistic painters are actually thinkers, so the image is a space or a battlefield for showing the wisdom. You have to occupy it.

Finally, I would like to share the fourth story. It is also my own research. This story occurred earlier, in the 13th and 14th centuries or the late Middle Ages. This church is well-known, situated in a small city called Assisi in the Umbria region, Italy. Very small in size, the city was originally little known. It became famous for a saint called San Francis di Assisi in the Middle Ages. He is a central and the most important figure in the late Middle Ages. He was created a saint. The Pope had a church built for him in his city. This church is called Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.

This church is a bit weird. My story starts from what is strange. Why is it strange? We know that medieval Gothic churches are basically westwards. Why? As the source of the Gothic churches is the north of the Alps in France, Germany, and Belgium. Italy was influenced by the Gothic style in the north of the Alps. This church is an embodiment of the early Italian Gothic style. However, it is generally westwards. The façade often depicts the image of the final judgment, at a time everyone visits the Notre Dame. We know that the best time to watch is the evening. The setting sun illuminates all the sculptures on the west side of the façade. All the patterns are crystal-clear. This is clear at the time of God’s final judgment.

Such a design has its meaning. At that time, the populace was illiterate, but could see the image. The end of the world is coming, and you have to prepare quickly. Repentance and atonement have to be made. Otherwise it would be too late. Thus, it faces west, but this church faces east. Why east? It can be pretty clear if we look at the two images.

This photo was taken in the morning. The façade in the morning is very clear. This photo was taken in the evening. We can see that the sun is behind it, so it faces east. Why does it face east? It has its reason of course, because this place is in western Assisi. This place was a graveyard. San Francis was called the second Christ in the Middle Ages because he imitated Christ. Christ was crucified in Golgotha, Jerusalem. He said that I would also imitate Jesus. I would be buried in that graveyard in the west. The Pope later had him buried in this place, but the façade of the church faced east in the direction of a city. In fact, facing eastwards has another layer of meaning. Back at that time, San Francis was understood as an angel rising from the east. According to a fable in the last part of the New Testament in the Bible, he was regarded as an angel rising in the east. So, it faces east.



But the church was built in the first half of the thirteenth century, and the inside was decorated in the second half of the thirteenth century, about 1288. We can see the job by the famous Renaissance painter Giotto and his disciples. The most important scene in this church is the life of San Francis, or the saint. If we look at the anatomical plan of the church’s nave, we find the design of this church very interesting. Its south and north walls are at the upper level. For example, the first and second layers of its northern wall depict the story of the Old Testament. It is the story of the early Jewish era. The first and second layers of its southern wall depict the story of the New Testament and the story of Jesus’ life. The third layer closest to our eyes depicts the life of San Francis, with a total of 28 paintings. The design of such an image is innovative. If we compare the Old Testament to the New Testament, there is another layer below. There seems to be a three-layer concept. Francis became the third layer. At the time, when Giotto painted these paintings, another Florentine painter Cimabue also painted in this church. He painted the painting of the lower church.



The painting in the church was influenced by unorthodox at that time. This kind of unorthodox is simplicity itself. It wants to divide the world, time, and history into three stages. I can tell this story in simple language. For example, Christianity has a trinity concept, namely the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But how do we construe the Trinity in history? Is the Trinity a spatial relationship or a temporal relationship? The jury is still out. From the second half of the twelfth century to the early thirteenth century, an Italian theologian called Joachim gave a new interpretation of the Trinity doctrine. He said that the Trinity is a temporal relationship. Why? This is easy to understand. The Old Testament is originally the bible of the Jewish. The Gods in the Old Testament were all white-bearded old men, who are grumpy and majestic. That is the Old Testament.

The year 2019 is the 2019th anniversary of the birth of Jesus. After the birth of Jesus, New Testament emerged. God has a new testament with human beings. They believe Jesus could save them. It is a new era. If the Old Testament corresponds to the Father, and New Testament corresponds to the Son, what about the Holy Spirit? We say that Joachim lived from the second half of the 12th century to the early 13th century. At that time, it was more than one thousand years from Jesus. Is there meaning for our lives?

Joachim felt that the times he lives in were meaningful, saying that we might have a holy mission in this era. What is this holy mission? We may want God to give us a new testament, namely the Holy Spirit directly falls. When the Holy Spirit falls? According to his doctrine, the Holy Spirit fell in 1260. In the middle of the 13th century, he died in 1202. His doctrine had a big impact. We said that Franciscans and Dominican Order were influenced by them. The main influence of their doctrine is that they saw the leaders of these two orders. The two leaders were regarded as the mentor and guide in the third era. Their orders became an important institution to bear the historical mission of the third era. 

We just said that the paintings by Cimabue in the lower church reflect this kind of thinking, which is diametrical and extreme, and it is clear even at a glance. In the era of Giotto, this trend was suppressed. The trend in these three eras is actually a concept of historical progress. In the third era, the church was in the New Testament era, and abandoned. The Holy Spirit could directly fall on the monks. This is actually a concept of historical progress. The theory of historical progress stems partly from the idea that the future is better than the present, and the present is better than the past. This is the theory of historical progress. This doctrine is clearly mirrored in the church in Assisi. But in the second half of the 13th century or in 1288, and in the second phase of renovation in about 1305, this trend was suppressed. This concept that nakedly expresses the historical mission is a taboo.


But we find that the composition by Giotto I just said does have such a characteristic. For example, the north wall is the Old Testament, the south wall is the New Testament, and the third layer is the story of Francis. As Francis is regarded as the person who bears the mission of the future, he seems to reveal the arrival of the third era. But I think such understanding is a little far-fetched, because we can’t see how the images are linked. For example, how do the second era and the third era connected? On the surface he seems to be a saint of the church, and there is nothing wrong with his saint story. I think this is my own research. My job is to connect the specific stages and restore it. What is the purpose of restoration? Outside is the façade that faces east. The east wall is the scene we see now. You can see a rose window and a door below. There are paintings on both sides. This east wall is a central point on the image, but it does not seem so on the surface. It looks like two layers of images.

If we look carefully, we find that the east wall is a special image. What is the reason? Jesus said that after I leave, you are my body when you are united. It means that the church is everyone’s reunion. After that, Jesus ascended to the sky on a cloud. In the painting, cloud sends Jesus to the heaven, followed by an angel. Of course, this painting is damaged, and other parts are basically hazy.

The second painting, namely the last painting in this series, depicts another scene. This is a story in the New Testament. On the Jewish Passover, or the Pentecost in Christianity, the Virgin and the disciples gathered in a building. All of a sudden, the Holy Spirit descended. We can see that a dove in this painting broke through the clouds and descended on the Virgin Mary and the disciples in the frame of the building, and then on the Acts of the Apostles. According to the New Testament, fire fell on them, and then suddenly there was inspiration. These disciples suddenly spoke the language of the Gentiles. What did they say? They could suddenly speak a foreign language without learning. This day was regarded as the birth of the church. Later, these disciples preached the religion all over the world.


You can see that the last scene in the second New Testament story is the fall of the Holy Spirit. We can see that in this painting, Jesus is ascending to the heaven, and a piece of cloud separates Jesus from the earth. The painting next shows the dove breaking through the clouds and falling on the Virgin and the disciples. The story seems to end here. If we look further down, this painting is connected to the space below. If we look at the space below, there are two scenes in the story of Francis. Usually, the two scenes have no special features. What do the scenes say? One shows Francis leading his disciples to the mountain. They were very unbearably hungry and thirsty as they did not bring water.  A countrymen said he was thirsty as well, and Francis knelt down to pray. He knelt on the bare rock and prayed to the heaven. The miracle happened at this moment. The spring water just gushed out. This is called “the miracle of spring water”, and is a story in life.


The next scene is symmetrical and called “Preaches to the Birds”. Francis is a compassionate man. He wrote poems, sometimes the poems in praise of the Sun and the Moon. The disciples once saw him preaching to the birds. A flock of birds landed on the ground, quietly listening to Francis preaching. These two stories depict two separate scenes, two of the 28 scenes. But if we link it to the space of the entire east wall, we find that the space of the east wall is a whole. The stages of the east wall space show the specifically connected mysteries. This is a wet mural. As we know, wet mural requires foundation. It is wetted using whitewash. Then the painter paints when the whitewash is still not dry. The image is painted. Revision is impossible once it is dry. It is quite demanding for the painters.

The layers on the entire east wall mean that they were designed at the same time. The painting has a horizontal development sequence and also a vertical development sequence, because composition is made all at once. The technical process also determines that the painting should be a whole. If it is an entirety, a question ensues. The Holy Spirit, in the last painting of the second stage, broke through the clouds and descended on the Virgin and the disciples. The falling discontinued. Further fall is just another breakthrough in the architectural framework.

If he descends, where will he descend on? On the left is Francis who prayed on the ground. Then we can see that in the painting on his right, Francis seems to learn the language of birds, as he preaches to the birds. One prays to the heaven, and another stands up and preaches downwards. Such a gesture and the corresponding painting above are last two scenes in the New Testament. One is Jesus who ascends to the sky on the clouds, and the other is the Holy Spirit breaking through the clouds. We connect them and see this very clearly. Francis prayed to God, and a miracle happened, but at the same time, the Holy Spirit descended to the third stage and on Francis. A miracle occurred after the descent of the Holy Spirit. According to the Acts of the Apostles, he suddenly speaks a foreign language. Of course, foreign languages also contain the language of animals, including the language of birds. The plot is designed seamlessly and is precisely connected.

Such a painting is connected to the whole space. In 2007, I conducted a study. I did not read the works of Arasse when I conducted this research. No one raised this point in the international academic community. We later found that such an approach is not an isolated case, but examples abound. I cite two examples below. Before giving examples, let’s have a review. We found that the so-called expression of image wisdom is crystal-clear.



For example, the first painting on the north wall is the Father. God created everything and created Adam. Thus, the first painting is the God like the Sun. The first painting on the south wall on the opposite side is “Annunciation” we just said. The angel told the young Maria that God descended on her. The north wall is the theme of the Holy Father, and a theme of the Old Testament. The south wall is the theme of the Son, because the Holy Spirit was incarnated in the stomach of Maria according to the Annunciation. This is the theme of the Son.

We can find that in the last painting of the second stage is a dove, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit fell on the Virgin and the disciples, but he continued to descend and finally descended on Francis who prayed to the heaven. Francis saw a miracle, and could speak the language of birds. He was able to preach to the birds. In addition to people, he also preached to the sun, the moon, and animals. He became an extraordinary figure. Therefore, the three are intimately intertwined, but the whole language is hidden. It is different from the opposite relationship in the church.



Later, Giotto’s school of painting painted some paintings after about twenty years. This approach was repeated in the dome of the church. We see Francis sitting on the throne, clothed in gold illuminating clothes. What can we see when we look further up? On the top, we see a dove, the Holy Spirit. With wings spread out, it seems to descend, and there is a flag below. There are seven stars, the Big Dipper, on the flag. We can see that the Big Dipper is giving off light, which may come from the Holy Spirit. Let’s look further down. Francis above the throne is also shining throughout his body. We see, where does the light shone by Francis come from? It came from the Holy Spirit and penetrated the Big Dipper to reach Francis. Another 20 years later, the story is expressed in a concealed way using a similar formal language in the church. 



About forty years later, in the middle of the 14th century, we see the composition we just saw in another church for another order in Florence. The wisdom of such an image is repeated, but this time in another order. This order is also a saint in the painting. The saint in black sat on the throne. We can see a four-part dome. What we see on the top of such a triangular space? We see a familiar scene. A falling dove. We see a familiar scene below. It is a building, where the Virgin stays together with the disciples. If we connect this line again, we clearly see that this Holy Spirit descends on the Virgin and the disciples. Then it continued to descend on another disciple. This is not the Dominican Order, but Thomas Aquinas. This man is one of the greatest philosophers in the Middle Ages. This person has unrivalled intelligence. A book held by Aquinas is a book of wisdom. Where did he get the wisdom? It is the annunciation of the Holy Spirit. In such a scene, we find that he repeats again. Probably half a century ago, the story happened twice in Assisi, and this is the wisdom of such an image.

We find that it is not an isolated case, but a tradition and a routine of image. Our discovery of such a routine, as well as the cause and effect, constitutes special memory of this discipline. Finally, I want to say that as I have mentioned it at the beginning, to gain insight, you have to look at it and understand it. Insight in Chinese means seeing through the image. What do you see through? It is to see through the wisdom of the image. The wisdom of the image is equivalent to the insights into the painting, and the insights of the painter.

Finally, what do we want to say? What is the history of art? To sum up the work of art history with one sentence: it is an insight on insights. Thank you.