Are we having a tendency to overinterpret, I wonder.

#1
This is a quote from Debra in another thread:
viewtopic.php?f=12&t=248&start=30#p3381
The "Game of Prints" that OnePotato proposed (and that I hope is not over :) ) is great to reflect about how we interpret images.

I keep thinking about Debra's observation, so maybe it is better if I try and write about it!
My impression is that Debra is right, and we get lost in details, often missing the overall meaning of images. Things are often simpler than we think. It is fun to speculate on details, and possibly such speculation is necessary in order to "read" cards. But from the historical point of view, focussing on details looks a lot like "a tendency to overinterpret".

For instance, in "The devil stands on" thread
viewtopic.php?f=14&t=278
I was distracted by details, the "anvil" and the "antlers", while Fauvelus went for the overall structure of the Tarot de Marseille Devil card, and found an image that, in my opinion, tells 90% of what there is to tell about that Card.

The same happended in the "Sola Busca XXI" thread
viewtopic.php?f=14&t=277
were I asked for and welcomed diverse interpretations of the "globe". But Ross simply suggested that the Globe is the World (it is Trump XXI!) and the dragon is an obvious, biblical symbol of Babylon.

I keep doing this error again and again. Details are so attractive and so misleading!

What do you think?

Marco

Re: Are we having a tendency to overinterpret, I wonder.

#3
I don't think we can know whether or not we're overinterpreting (or "reading into" (eisegesis)) an image unless we first have an idea of what the overall meaning is, and maybe other details like the author and audience of a work, and then internal things like whether similar imagery is used in different contexts in the same work, perhaps suggesting narrative and symbolism.

In the case of the Sola Busca Nabochodonasor, I haven't got much of an idea for the whole trump series except that it seems to be pro-republic, anti-imperial. So even if we didn't know it was Venice, we'd have a clear idea from the choice of subjects that it originated in a strongly republican setting.

I think Nimrod's shattered column, with a globe on top, is supposed to sum up the general idea of idolatry being judged, with the globe perhaps symbolising dreams of empire (with maybe the same meaning in a more literal way in the last card) shattered. Since it's Nimrod, the pillar might also stand for the Tower of Babel.

But why isn't Nebuchadnezzar in such dire straits as Nimrod? What is the political message of this series anyway - is there a real political issue being alluded to here?

Ross
Image

Iconography for Dummies

#4
Hi Marco,

Thanks for opening this discussion.

The way I see it, there has to be a dialogue between the parts and the whole. We are exploring allegories here, and to put it in very dumb terms, most of the times an allegory is created by depicting a human figure whose attributes are semantically linked to the concept the image is allegorically alluding to. So, Justice is a woman, but she is a woman who carries scales and a sword, and those two elements are the ones who give that woman her identity as ‘Justice’. If you change the scales for two jars, or for a lion, then the same woman is not Justice anymore, but Temperance or Strength.

I know this sounds idiotic, but the thing is, if I have never seen a woman carrying a sword and two scales, and I want to know what does that woman represents, I can’t take apart the image and say: what do scales mean? what do swords mean? what do women mean? Free associating about scales, swords or women may be fun, but it is unlikely to get me anywhere. Instead of that I should ask myself: “Is there any other woman holding a sword and two scales in the history of pictorial representation?” “What does a woman holding a sword and two scales mean?”

Finding the answer to such a question is becoming increasingly easy in these times of Google and the Internet. So, if I have existed all my life in a vacuum and I have never seen the image of a woman holding a sword and two scales, I only have to search in books, or Goggle, and I will find plenty of images that are similar to the one depicted in card number Eight. Once I have defined that such figure is called ‘Justice’ I am done. Wondering about the kind of sword she is carrying, or about if she is holding it with three fingers, in a loose grip or a firm one, may not be of any consequence. Again, I am over-simplifying, but I think it is important not to loose the view of an image because of its details. More to the point, I believe it is important to acknowledge that these images don’t exist in a vacuum, but they belong within the history of Western pictorial representation and it is in there that we can find our answers.

I would say that the same emphasis we like to put in a micro-level of inquiry, looking for meaning in the smallest details of each card, we should also put in in the macro-level, looking for meaning in the series as a whole. This is usually neglected.

Take Temperance, for example. A woman who pours water from one jar to another one is a classical allegory of Temperance. Now, in the Tarot de Marseille Temperance has wings. I can now try to find more cognates with a winged Temperance, but only if that adds to my understanding of how Temperance fits into the whole series of images I am studying. These wings are particular and unique, so, after noticing that there are many wingless renderings of Temperance I may see that it makes sense to inquire on the significance of such wings. But then again, taking the wings as an isolated symbolic element, or to try to find meaning in them as separate symbols may be as useless as trying to define the exact bird specie these wings resemble the most. These wings may help us explain why, in the Tarot de Marseille, Temperance comes after Death. By the same token, wondering if the little blades of grass around Temperance’s feet are giving us a numerological message may be useless, no matter how fun it is.

An extreme example of this would be the take of certain author on La Lune. In this author’s view, two of the wavy lines in the water are creating the shape of a fish that swims toward the center of the card, as a ‘clear’ allusion of Jesus wanting to impregnate Mary Magdalene. Is that really useful for us to undestand why is a Moon there, or even two dogs and a crawfish?

Anything that helps us understand the use of a specific allegory within the whole context of the series us useful. Anything that lead us to assume that a detail in a card functions out of context, in an independent way from the whole design of the series may be a waste of time, in my opinion.


Best,


EE
What’s honeymoon salad? Lettuce alone
Don’t look now, mayonnaise is dressing!

Re: Are we having a tendency to overinterpret, I wonder.

#6
Ross G. R. Caldwell wrote:I don't think we can know whether or not we're overinterpreting (or "reading into" (eisegesis)) an image unless we first have an idea of what the overall meaning is, and maybe other details like the author and audience of a work, and then internal things like whether similar imagery is used in different contexts in the same work, perhaps suggesting narrative and symbolism.

In the case of the Sola Busca Nabochodonasor, I haven't got much of an idea for the whole trump series except that it seems to be pro-republic, anti-imperial. So even if we didn't know it was Venice, we'd have a clear idea from the choice of subjects that it originated in a strongly republican setting.
Actually, the same sphere that floats on Nabochodonasor is held in Alexander's hand:
http://www.tarotpedia.com/wiki/Image:S14_Sola_Busca.jpg
An example of "similar imagery used in different contexts in the same work"? :)
Ross G. R. Caldwell wrote:But why isn't Nebuchadnezzar in such dire straits as Nimrod? What is the political message of this series anyway - is there a real political issue being alluded to here?
In the case of Sola Busca, having too much concern for the details is a more serious errors than for other decks, that have been more studied and are better understood. It seems clear that, in order to find answers to those questions, a study of the deck as a whole is the most appropriate approach. Currently, I don't have any clear idea on this subject. I doubt I could ever be able to understand the references to XV century politics that could be present in the deck :)

Marco

Re: Are we having a tendency to overinterpret, I wonder.

#7
marco wrote: Actually, the same sphere that floats on Nabochodonasor is held in Alexander's hand:
http://www.tarotpedia.com/wiki/Image:S14_Sola_Busca.jpg
An example of "similar imagery used in different contexts in the same work"? :)
Thanks for pointing that out. I would suggest it is a clear allusion to Alexander's conquest of "the world". He's got the whole world in his hand.

So... is Nebuchadnezzar only dreaming or imagining world domination? I don't see how he was any less successful than Alexander, for his time, since the Babylonian Empire was at its height under him. There must be some other message, perhaps the Biblical caricature, here.
In the case of Sola Busca, having too much concern for the details is a more serious errors than for other decks, that have been more studied and are better understood. It seems clear that, in order to find answers to those questions, a study of the deck as a whole is the most appropriate approach. Currently, I don't have any clear idea on this subject. I doubt I could ever be able to understand the references to XV century politics that could be present in the deck :)

Marco
I don't know - I think you could master the relevant socio-political contextual details if the precise setting of the pack could be known. They may or may not help, but it certainly seems to be saying something fairly specific.

Ross
Image

Re: Iconography for Dummies

#8
EnriqueEnriquez wrote:if I have never seen a woman carrying a sword and two scales, and I want to know what does that woman represents, I can’t take apart the image and say: what do scales mean? what do swords mean? what do women mean? Free associating about scales, swords or women may be fun, but it is unlikely to get me anywhere. Instead of that I should ask myself: “Is there any other woman holding a sword and two scales in the history of pictorial representation?” “What does a woman holding a sword and two scales mean?”
Hello Enrique,
I agree with your comments.
I think the last two questions you propose are two rather different ways of finding an answer:

A. “Is there any other woman holding a sword and two scales in the history of pictorial representation?” I think this is the best approach. It is easier and gives reliable results. When I see an image very similar to the Visconti-Sforza papesse with “Fides” written next to it, I feel that at least that particular papesse was related to Faith. The capital posted by Fauvelus gave me that same feeling of soundness: it is so similar to Tarot de Marseille devil cards that I feel convinced that the little devils are damned souls.

B. “What does a woman holding a sword and two scales mean?” This is much more difficult, and when we don't get results with question A, we must try and build a meaning by considering the single elements. Here we run into the risk of considering the wrong details, or the details of the details: why that particular kind of sword? How is the woman holding the scales?

I am pretty sure that A is the best approach, but even with google it is not easy to find the image we are looking for. Isn't it difficult to find the capital posted by Fauvelus without having been to Issoire?

Marco

Re: Are we having a tendency to overinterpret, I wonder.

#9
I think one of the greatest introduction to the interpretation to the interpretation of iconography (particularly useful for uncommon or obscure iconography) is Erwin Panofsky's Studies in Iconology.

The preface where he defines his analysis protocol is a very useful safeguard against fanciful interpretations :
summary by wikipedia wrote: In his 1939 work Studies in Iconology, (also published in various later redactions) Panofsky details his idea of three levels of art-historical understanding :

Primary or Natural Subject Matter: The most basic level of understanding, this stratum consists of perception of the work’s pure form. Take, for example, a painting of The Last Supper. If we stopped at this first stratum, such a picture could only be perceived as a painting of 13 men seated at a table. This first level is the most basic understanding of a work, devoid of any added cultural knowledge.

Secondary or Conventional subject matter (Iconography): This stratum goes a step further and brings to the equation cultural and iconographic knowledge. For example, a western viewer would understand that the painting of 13 men around a table would represent The Last Supper. Similarly, seeing a representation of a haloed man with a lion could be interpreted as a depiction of St. Jerome.

Intrinsic Meaning or Content (Iconology): This level takes into account personal, technical, and cultural history into the understanding of a work. It looks at art not as an isolated incident, but as the product of a historical environment. Working in this stratum, the art historian can ask questions like “why did the artist choose to represent The Last Supper in this way?” or “Why was St. Jerome such an important saint to the patron of this work?” Essentially, this last stratum is a synthesis; it is the art historian asking "what does it all mean?"
Another great book about ill-considered (although sometime authoritative !) interpretations of medieval iconographic sources is L'âne à la lyre : sottisier d'iconographie médiévale by François Garnier, Paris, ed. Le léopard d'or, 1988.

Re: Are we having a tendency to overinterpret, I wonder.

#10
I find art and symbolism to be much like poetry: One man's interpretation is another's "Oh for crying out loud, what a bunch of hooey!"

I also think that humans have days fraught with meaning and details, and others where they like the peace of taking things at face value. I do odd little associative studies with cards and books, some that work out, and some that are kind of goofy. It's an ad hoc thing, for the moment, if you feel like squinching out all those details and making random associations and pulling art references together, go ahead.

Just don't fight to the death if others don't believe that your conclusions are the absolute truth of the Universe.

One thing I keep in my mind from a long ago read of a Wayne Dyer book, was his retelling of a story about his University days. He had to analyze a poem for an English professor, and he got a very poor mark on it with notations about his interpretation being wrong. So the ever assertive Wayne found the actual poet, who was still living, and wrote or saw him in person to explain his essay and the poor mark he received. The poet wrote a note in support of Wayne's interpretation, saying that this is exactly what he meant. Dyer showed it to his professor and the man dismissed it completely, saying the poet didn't know what he really meant.

Logic can be twisted into interesting patterns, but remember Mr. Spock: "Logic is a little tweeting bird chirping in a meadow. Logic is a wreath of pretty flowers which smell bad."

When in doubt, a nifty supportive statement from Star Trek with some pertinent screen shots should explain any contrary or misleading symbolism. The fact that Star Trek didn't exist in 15th century Italy will not interfere with your using it for interpretation. You can make pictures of Temperance saying "Beam me up Scotty" and relate it to Aquarius, and the Disputation of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Federico Zuccaro.

Throw in a shot of Dr. McCoy with some putti flying around his head while he's saying "I'm a doctor Jim, not Cesar Ripa!" and you have the start of a complete and satisfying study.

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