Quick! Grab a stopwatch. Find an art historian. Ask them about Renaissance sculpture.
Within the first ten seconds, they will have mentioned this word: contrapposto.
What is contrapposto and why is it important?
There are many aspects to the evolution of art, and one of the most discussed is the pose of human figures. Art historians like to focus on the 3D world of sculpture, but of course the same principles apply to painting and drawing. To understand the importance of the contrapposto pose, we must first look at what came before.
Exemplary for the Archaic period is the Greek kouros-type, which was in many ways similar to Egyptian statues.
The poses are formulaic and stiff. The figures exist almost entirely in the same plane, with only the forward stride breaking the line. Both legs are stiff, with the weight apparently resting equally on both, and the arms are stretched along the body. This style matches the use and intentions of these sculptures; they were not meant to depict naturalistic scenes. Kouros sculptures were often used like tombstones, marking the grave of the deceased. They were supposed to have this transcendent, timeless property, like eternal guardians.
This changed when the Greeks introduced contrapposto, which the Britannica defines as follows:
Contrapposto, (Italian: “opposite”), in the visual arts, a sculptural scheme, originated by the ancient Greeks, in which the standing human figure is poised such that the weight rests on one leg (called the engaged leg), freeing the other leg, which is bent at the knee. With the weight shift, the hips, shoulders, and head tilt, suggesting relaxation with the subtle internal organic movement that denotes life. Contrapposto may be used for draped as well as nude figures. The Greeks invented this formula in the early 5th century BC as an alternative to the stiffly static pose—in which the weight is distributed equally on both legs—that had dominated Greek figure sculpture in earlier periods.
There are countless examples, like the famous Hermes and the infant Dionysus, traditionally attributed to Praxiteles and dated to the 4th century BCE.
One leg is straight, the knee locked, supporting the weight. The other leg is free, allowing it to bend at the knee, as if the figure might take a step at any moment. This is a very natural pose, and people actually stand like this. When you stand up for a while, like when taking a shower or standing in line, you will automatically lock the knee in one leg, allowing the other leg to rest, and switch supporting legs once in a while. It is as if we observe the figure in an everyday, casual moment (even though the body and face are still idealized). Typically, the hips are tilted, relaxing on the side of the bent leg. This causes the typical S-curve in the body when observed from the front or back.
In the Middle Ages, artists’ interest shifted again. Some overviews of art history will say that contrapposto was “forgotten”, but this is probably not the best way to describe what happened. In Europe, art was generally supposed to support a Greater Purpose, tell a story, teach a lesson, and the goal was no longer to capture the natural beauty of the idealized human body. Nobody cares about St Cuthbert’s musculature while he discovers a piece of timber.
The statues at the Western (Royal) Portal at Chartres Cathedral (ca. 1145) are an important example of a return to a more symbolic form; the figures are stiff, vertically elongated, appear to rise from the ground, and complement the architecture for which they are designed.
Finally, the Renaissance saw a renewed interest in lifelike representations of the human body, and love for the contrapposto pose. An early example is Donatello’s bronze David (1440’s).
Why am I writing about contrapposto?
In earlier blog posts, I noticed something strange about the poses of the human figures in the Voynich manuscript (traditionally called “nymphs”). The overwhelming majority of nymphs who are standing up, support their weight on one leg, resulting in a variety of contrapposto-like poses. Since the majority of the over 500 figures are standing, we are talking of hundreds of figures in (pseudo?) contrapposto in a, early 15th century manuscript.
Now, in medieval manuscripts, especially those with one or more unclothed figures, you will also encounter contrapposto. But this pose – if it occurs at all – is generally only part of the repertoire and nowhere near as prominent as in the VM. Consider these examples from two copies of the Balneis Puteolanis, one from Cod. Bodmer 135 (second half of the 14th century) and one from Morgan MS G.74 (ca. 1400).
In the older MS (top), leg poses are all over the place. Some figures awkwardly bend both legs, others stretch both legs like stilts. However, in the Morgan MS (bottom), bathers assume a more natural pose that looks like it may be inspired by classical nudes. I added a nymph whose pose closely resembles that of the leftmost bather. It was only after I added this image here that I learned that the Morgan Balneis was finished by a later artist (late 15th century?) and this is one of his additions. The renaissance influence is clear.
In short, if you look through medieval manuscripts, you will certainly encounter examples of contrapposto. These will, however, almost certainly be surrounded by figures in stiff or less natural poses. Why does the VM rely so heavily on something resembling the Classical and Renaissance favorite? Is it a coincidence? Does the pose indicate something else?
Rather than defend one solution, I will present a number of arguments pro and con-trapposto. Let’s start with the counterarguments.
Con: maybe they are just walking
Part of the appeal of contrapposto is its dynamic potential: because the weight rests on one leg, the other leg looks like it is moving or may start moving at any moment. Therefore, it is possible that the VM artist(s) created a bunch of figures in “accidental contrapposto”, aiming for a walking pose without being inspired by classical or renaissance examples. This certainly appears to be the case in the Zodiac roundels, where the nymphs look like they are ever marching on, just like the stars they hold keep turning in their apparent orbit around the world.
Here, thematically and intuitively (though intuition may be wrong) I guess one would see the nymphs as walking rather than posing in the way of the Greco-Roman nude. However, this hypothesis is harder to maintain in Q13, where nymphs are standing in pools, in “buckets”, on pedestals, facing each other and holding hands, still while resting their weight on one leg.
Even if the figures around the Zodiac emblems are intended to be walking (which is not unlikely) then still it is remarkable that they do so in a contrapposto-like pose. In medieval imagery, it is more common for figures to walk with both legs similarly, not with one straight supporting leg like in the VM. Some poses are typical for the late Medieval period; for example, it is common to see a figure “striding” with both legs stretched and the weight apparently supported equally on both.
A different pose is common in the richly illuminated MS The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11, which was made in Paris, 1457, presumably later and with more prestigious ambitions than the VM. The following image is a favorite with Voynich researchers because of certain resemblances to the Zodiac section. Notice how these figures tend to rest their weight either on both legs or on the bent leg, in some kind of reverse contrapposto. Walking or standing like this is unnatural and tiring, yet the pose should look familiar to those used to medieval imagery.
And in this round dance from the same MS, both legs of the figures are engaged, emphasizing the dynamics of the scene. This is different in the VM, where the leg closest to the viewer is more consistently positioned like a pillar under the body.
Still, it is entirely possible that the Zodiac section’s nymphs are meant to portray a cycle like this, ever going round and round, and just do so in a stance that resembles contrapposto.
Con: strange anatomy
There is a discrepancy between the VM’s apparent love for the pose of the idealized Classical nude on the one hand, and its general mistreatment of human anatomy on the other. Those artists who understand the virtues of contrapposto, whether ancient Greeks or Renaissance Italians, generally also strive to depict the ideal human body. Greek artists like Polykleitos introduced methods for calculating the desired measurements for each part of the body in relation to the rest.
Moreover, contrapposto is ideal for displaying one’s understanding of the mechanics of the human body. The asymmetrical position of the legs influences everything else: the hips tilt one way, the shoulders another, the torso is compressed on one side and stretched on the other. Using contrapposto generally goes hand in hand with a desire to show off the beauty of the human body and the artist’s understanding of it.
Not so in the Voynich manuscript. Let’s start with proportions; The nymphs are on average 4 heads tall, while the average human is 7.5 heads tall. In idealizing art forms, this ratio can increase to 8 or 9 heads. The combination of Western art history’s most praised pose and stunted proportions is strange.
The proportions issue is not only limited to the head/body ratio. For example, this guy’s arm is so long he could easily touch his ankles without bending over.
Additionally, the VM sometimes displays a remarkable view on the way various parts of the body connect to each other. Consider the nymph on the right, who stands in a beautiful contrapposto, but whose far arm connects to the torso much lower than the near arm does. Nymph on the right for comparison.
And what about examples like the one below? The position of the legs is fine, but try doing what she does with her arms and you will need medical care (don’t try it).
Is it just that they chose one method of drawing the legs (for hundreds of figures) and just varied the arms, including implausible feats of flexibility?
Pro: more than just the legs
There is something about the arms as well, with some poses being much more popular than others. Many nymphs “hook” one arm, usually the one closest to the viewer. The far arm can appear in a wider range of positions. Here are a few examples, look at the arm that is closest to you.
Creating angles by placing a hand on the hip or holding a loose garment is, again, a favorite in Classical and Renaissance art (though certainly not as ubiquitous as contrapposto). It makes the pose more relaxed, natural and confident, and is overall more pleasing – just ask fashion models.
It may even be that part of the nymphs’ curves are intended to represent contrapposto’s famous s-curve in the VM’s awkward three-quarters perspective. See Pisanello’s study of a man for example; the hips jut out to the side of the supporting leg, where the torso is compressed. The torso bends towards the side of the free leg.
In a thread on the Voynich.ninja forum, Davidsch linked to an interesting page about nudes in medieval art. It includes the story of Joel ben Simeon, a Jewish scribe who moved from Germany to Italy. In 1455, he depicted this naked woman in the Murphy Haggadah. The author suggests that Joel may have seen a Greco-Roman statue of Venus, or a drawing of one, and took it as the basis for this woman. This connection explains why she is standing on a pedestal, in a pose very reminiscent of the classical Venus. And Voynich nymphs.
On the other side of the Alps, around the same time, the aforementioned MS The Hague MMW, 10 A 11 was made. This also included a large number of “Greco-Roman” nudes on pedestals, but the poses are medieval.
As you may know, Q13 also includes a number of nudes on architectural pedestals. Their poses bring to mind classical sculpture and shoulder pain.
Of course this only applies to a relatively small number of nymphs (not those in the Zodiac section and Q13b) and the “bases” tend to hold a top filled with water.
What does it mean?
I don’t know, but I needed to write about this to get it off my mind. To me, it feels like someone told the VM artist(s) some basic rules about Classical art and then ran away. They then applied these rules overly consistently, messing up every other aspect of human anatomy. Is it the examples they used? The teachers they had? The message they wanted to express? Or all just a coincidence? In the context of Renaissance art, the VM’s carbon dating is relatively early (1404–1438), so the answer to these questions may be relevant, but I don’t have them. Anyone know a good art historian?