Retrograde and The Temptation of St. Anthony

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Matthias Grünewald, The Visit of St Anthony to St Paul and Temptation of St Anthony, 1515



One of the most interesting features of the Northern Renaissance was its push towards permutation, not only of different artistic styles but also of different attitudes. Religious paintings became increasingly secular in aim and focus, while more secular works took on a transcendental/religious quality. Of the works that exemplify this shift, Grünewald's The Visit of St. Anthony and Temptation of St. Anthony shows just how gorgeous this permutation can be.

The painting itself is religious almost to a fault. The two scenes depicted show St. Anthony in various phases of his life, showcasing not only his permanence, but also his challenges as he attempted to bring his fiery rhetoric to non-believers. This sentiment, of austerity and boldness, is contrasted brilliantly by the languid and overgrown.

Enter James Blake.

James Blake's 2012 album Overgrown is largely an album of unrequited romances and failed ambitions. Nowhere on the album is that stated more boldly than the title track where Blake states, "I don't want to be a star/but a stone on the shore/a lone doorframe in a wall when everything's overgrown." Blake's production matches his sentiment, blending modern electronic beat programming and bass with a saturated piano line and elegiac pop strings. This idea of permanence, and having a message that lasts beyond your lifetime and into infinity, is at the root of St. Anthony's portrayal here.

Grünewald's presentation here is quite telling--not only are the colors somewhat darkened and disconnected, but the characters also exhibit a disconnection from their location in time. St. Paul, who lived way before St. Anthony, casually has a conversation with Anthony as if his anachronistic placement is nothing more than a slight misstep. The temptation has a similarly timeless quality, its monsters taken straight from a Bosch or Dali painting. All of this alludes to a divorce from notions of time and impermanence that Blake captures perfectly in "Overgrown."

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