Powers of speech

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Paris 1650: Laurent de la Hyre, a successful artist in the current baroque style, paints seven canvases for Gedeon Tallemant, one of Louis XIII's advisers. The paintings show the Liberal Arts, essential elements in the education of well-bred youths: Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry and Astronomy. So popular are the subjects that de la Hyre, then at the height of his powers, creates other versions of them for other clients: this one, the Allegorical Figure of Grammar, is also to be found in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore.

In the painting above, from the National Gallery, London, Grammar is personified as a nurturing female who waters young primulas and anemones (spring flowers). As the contemporary author Ripa wrote, "Like tender plants, by means of cultivation young brains carry the fruits of exquisite doctrine for the common utility of the public". Grammar wears a ribbon inscribed: VOX LITTERATA ET ARTICULATA DEBITO MODO PRONUNCIATA ("a learned and articulate voice spoken in a correct manner").

Allegory, a form of extended metaphor in which a whole narrative is linked to a parallel symbolic metaphor, was a dominant artistic mode from 1200-1700. Allegory goes beyond simple personification of abstractions (such as the Muses or the Three Graces) to involve characters in moral actions. Christian writers aw the incarnation of Jesus as an allegory of God's love for the world, and the Old Testament as an allegory of the New. The supreme allegory in English literature would be Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress", written not long after de la Hyre's allegorical work. In "Pilgrim's Progress", the soul of a common man, Christian, progresses through the joys and temptations of this world to find salvation in the next. Although Bunyan's surface story at times breaks down under the gravity of the allegory, such characters as Lord Having-Greedy and Madam Bubble work well on both the spiritual and purely narrative level. Fables and parables such as those written by la Fontaine, shorter and more closely didactic forms of allegory, were also popular.

However, with the spreading of rational and humanistic ideas from the Enlightenment philosophers, allegory gave way to racier stories. In our own times, "Animal Farm" by George Orwell shows that allegory can still be an effective and popular means of transmitting a moral message.

In a world which has seemed to grow less morally certain, fictional characters have developed individual personalities instead of embodying abstract qualities. Grammar has lost her robes and watering-can to become once more a set of rules, though possibly no less useful for forming young minds.


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