Friday, April 09, 2010

On the Philosopher- King

Master FVB, The Judgement of Solomon, engraving, c. 1490, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

"This was the intention of the divine Plato, that the king should be perfect in all three kinds of perfections which are truly perfect. They are as follows: [a] the perfection of the intellectual virtue governing practical affairs of nation and the states; [b] the perfection of contemplation of what comes afterwards, which is the object of his existence; [c] the perfection of the knowledge of the Torah, which provides everlasting good in this world and in the world to come."

Yohanan Alemanno, Hai ha-Olamim (Eternal Life), manuscript Mantua, 21. Translation by Abraham Melamed.

Alemanno was an Italian rebbe of the late 15th century, and famed as a teacher of Pico della Mirandola.


Blogger Daniel Kasman said...

Hi Alex,

I've always enjoyed your blog, and, being a neophyte to art history, was hoping you might recommend some books. I've read some Elie Faure, and, on Zach's recommendation, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, which I really enjoyed (the contextualization via contemporary culture and mercantile business was fascinating). Is there anywhere you think I should start?


10:29 AM  
Blogger Alex said...


The problem with the entire concept of art history is that modern art historians reject the underlying philosophy behind the art works and thus they don't understand what they're talking about.

For example, this print by Master FVB shows Solomon. The artist took the concept of the wise king seriously. We don't know who the Master FVB was, but in his time the concept of the wise king was an actually existing political ideal that was widely held. Using the subject of King Solomon (a wise king) is exploring and extrapolating on that political ideal.

The picture is essentially meaningless if the modern day art historian does not know Platonic, Aristotlean and medieval political philosophy well. If you reject the possibility of the philosopher-king, the print is essentially decoration, whereas the artist is displaying a critical point: for the viewer in 1490, this print likely reminds or reiterates that the philosopher-king is possible, that ancient philosophy and Christianity can be made one (Plato predicts the wise king and the wise king empirically existed in Solomon), that wise kings will (yes, that's WILL) come again (whether the Judaic Messiah or the second coming of Jesus Christ), etc.

Since the modern viewer doesn't understand the philosophy behind this print they cannot access what this print means. The modern viewer rejects the concept of kingship and thus is very unlikely to be able to feel what this print means. He will never be able to experience the true power of this subject to a viewer of 1490.

My overall point is that you can't understand the art if you don't understand the thought. The place to start is with Plato's Apology and the Torah. That's not a non-answer. That's the starting point for meaningful understanding.

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