Starnina, Gherardo (attrib): Thebaid (1410)

It is an all-round embarrassing fact that the art of the past often only speaks to us by being misunderstood. It seems to communicate so clearly, but it does this because we've made a mistake. We've imagined that it's talking a language that it couldn't possibly be talking. And knowing that leaves us with a dilemma. Should we give up our delusory delight in old art? Or persist in the delusion, aware that's what it is?

There is a popular subject in 15th-century painting called the Thebaid. The Thebaid was the area of Egypt around its ancient capital, Thebes – and Thebaid pictures concern the stories of certain early Christian monks and hermits who went off into this desert, the most famous being St Anthony. The desert fathers lived and prayed in lonely dwellings. Solitude and privation were what they went into the wilderness for. They were often tempted and attacked by devils in monstrous or seductive form. They also went on journeys and met up with other hermits.

Thebaids generally don't focus on a single story. They widen their view to encompass many stories and many individuals. This Thebaid picture, for example, attributed to Gherardo Starnina, is a panoramic landscape filled with hills, mountains, ground, water, churches, houses, boats, people and animals (some of whom are actually devils). Its landscape is continuous, but in a series of spaced-out details it illustrates episodes from the careers of several hermits. A pious viewer could have singled out the various stories for attention. And a proper account of this painting would itemise these details and try to identify them, producing a numbered key to the whole scene.

But what a modern viewer sees in this Thebaid, and delights in, is something else. You could love the picture without knowing anything about the particular legends, or understanding what its strange title means. What it offers to us is a vision of the world.

For a start, there is the sheer wideness of the image. It is actually about twice as wide as it's shown here. Much of the view has been cropped, at the left and the right – if not, the picture would just be a narrow strip across the top of the page. In other words, it's a scene that is too panoramic to take in at a glance. It must be scanned from side to side.

And it isn't staged as a view. It's a kind of pictorial map. The landscape is shown in a tipped-up, stacked-up arrangement. Everything, though apparently receding, is the same distance away, and the terrain just spreads across without any focal point. So it's a scene with no privileged positions available: no foreground, no centre-stage. Everything is pictorially equal.

There is the strong feeling of happy multiplicity, of orderly diversity. The world doesn't coalesce into general masses and ensembles. It's made up of many small bits. They're both visually distinct and solidly tangible. The eye can pick them out and the hand could pick them up. Individuals are what matter here.

But the way they're composed matters, too. These individual bits are laid out in an almost regular, all-over arrangement. Our first impression of the picture is as a kind of chequered pattern of lights and darks, pinks and greys. Its fragmented elements are linked together in a loose network formation.

Closer up, you notice other things – such as that the scale in this world is all out. Humans are too big compared with buildings and trees and boats, which are themselves too big compared with the mountains. Narrative values are what count and determine size here; stories are about humans, and the scene is full of stories.

There's a great feeling of simultaneity, of lots of different things happening at once. There is solitary activity, there are encounters, there are journeys by land and water, there is ritual. These things are all going on independently.

But again, because they are evenly distributed across the landscape, and not very widely separated, there's a sense of interaction and coordination among them, too. They're like the pieces of a board game, going through their moves around a predetermined sequence of stopping points.

All this adds up to a vision – a vision of human life on Earth. We see an overview of the surface of the world. A multitude of people and actions are shown in a state of equality. In their lives there's both diversity and pattern, independence and co-operation. Numerous individuals are proceeding on their individual paths, but also acting together, in mutually adjusting and non-conflicting ways.

Starnina's Thebaid presents an economy or ecology at work. You can see it as an early Renaissance version of one of those "symphony of a city" films, or a metaphor for a biosystem, or for any kind of undesigned, non-hierarchical, self-sustaining order. That's its joy.

At which point, a person with a little historical sense may want to clear a throat and raise a finger. All very imaginative – but would a 15th-century painter have been likely to subscribe to values such as equality, individuality, diversity, ecology? And even if he did, no 15th-century paintings were seen in terms of offering a "vision of the world".

The picture might offer this joyful vision if it had been made in the 20th century. But since it wasn't... please return to the top of the article.

The artist

Gherardo Starnina (c1354-1413) is a guess. Not much is known about this very late Gothic or very early Renaissance master. He was possibly one of the most important artists in Florence of his time. He may have authored many frescoes. He travelled and worked in Spain. Pictures in a range of styles are attributed to him, and the Thebaid is at one far end of this range, in terms of its sense of space and the clipped solidity of its pieces. An alternative attribution to the much more famous Fra Angelico (c1400-55) has also been suggested, which is a bit odd date-wise, but then all dates at this period are approximate – and the intimacy and gentleness with which the Thebaid treats its human figures may remind you of Angelico. Of course, there is no need for pictures to have a credit. "Anonymous" is always an option. Or, in this case, Florentine master.

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