Renaissance Dreamer

Deep sleep is ambiguous: it is interpreted either as a form of meditation or as a kind of lascivious abandonment. M.Seretti looked at its representations in Renaissance art and what they say about it.

(I) it was enough that, in my bed itself, my sleep was deep and completely relaxed my mind; then it released the map of the place where I had fallen asleep, and when I woke up in the middle of the night, as I did not know where I was, I did not even know at the first moment who I was.; I only had in its first simplicity the feeling of existence as it can quiver in the depths of an animal; I was more destitute than the caveman () (Marcel Proust, From Swann).

To qualify his sleep, the narrator of the Research use the adjective deepa sleep so deep that when he wakes up he no longer remembers his identity and finds a sort of primal state, that of an animal or a caveman.

This question of deep sleep is the subject of the work Asleep: deep sleep and its metaphors in Renaissance art, published by Marina Seretti at Presses du rel. The author reflects on the different ways in which the question of deep sleep could have been interpreted in the art, thought and literature of the Renaissance. Abundant, the book draws on the immense variety of images and conceptions of sleep during the Renaissance, religious or secular, Catholic or Protestant, medical or poetic, Italian or Northern European, pictorial or literary, and alternates between positive and negative vision of this dark third of our lives to use the author’s very beautiful expression.

Sleep, idleness, idleness, laziness

Deep sleep is not just any sleep. It is a sleep devoid of dreams, or at least during which potential dreams are too buried to be remembered. The dream prolongs waking life, it adds an active dimension to sleep, not on the physical level but on the psychological level. It also gives sleep a form of interest: even if the sleeper seems inanimate, the dream makes both the body and the psyche work. Deep sleep cannot claim this feat of reconciling formal passivity and true action. On the contrary, it would be a time when nothing happens, a time devoted to lazy people without dreams, without vision, even without meditation. A lost time, even a dead time, a logical description for those who remember that, in ancient mythology, Hypnos is the brother of Thanatos.

It is therefore a negative object at first sight that Marina Seretti took up in this research. Before qualifying this negative vision of deep sleep, it was necessary to do an archeology of it, starting by going back to the religious concept of Acadia which, originally, designates the demon of midday who overwhelms the hermit in the desert and inspires him with a deep hatred for himself, his fellow men and the place he inhabits (p. 39) and which materializes either through great agitation or, on the contrary, through deep sleep. It is between the XIIIe and the XVe century that this concept spread within secular society, quickly giving way there pigritia, the laziness. From the beginning of the book, and in a very useful way, the differences between these neighboring and yet rival notions of laziness, leisure, laziness or even melancholy (more ambiguous since it also carries within it the ferments of inspiration and creation) are made explicit. , all states which distract from vigilance as well as work. Not all of them visually give rise to sleeping figures, but they all have a negative dimension both on a moral and scientific level, which is reflected in the figure of the sleeper.

Brueghel, The Land of Plenty

This is why deep sleep is subject to strict limitations in time and space. Marina Seretti thus returns to religious and monastic regulation, but also to the moderation of sleep requested by the most famous medical treatises of the time (the Health DietTHE Tacuinum sanitatis). The only positive vision of sleep is found in what Marina Seretti calls utopian sleep, that of the land of Cocagne or the abbey of Thlme. But when utopia is overtaken by religion as in City of the Sun of Campagnola, sleep is once again associated with laziness and once again becomes a highly criticizable object.

When the apostles sleep

this sterile sleep is opposed to a sleep whose fertility is sometimes spiritual, sometimes sexual. Although perceived as an empty moment, sleep engages the sleeper's body. This is why Marina Seretti chose the form of lethargic withdrawal and its possible fertility as an object of study, analyzing more precisely certain sleepers that we find recurrently in two famous episodes of the Passion of Jesus, the Last Supper and the agony of Jesus in the garden of Gethsmani.

In numerous representations of the Last Supper, the apostle John is depicted as a sleeper and recognizable precisely by this state and by a withdrawn position. on the bosom of Jesus (John 13:23). John is, however, a much more ambiguous figure of a sleeper than the iconographic representations have wanted to make him appear since the Trecento and this ambiguity is perfectly raised by the author. This iconography is the consequence of a gap between the image and the text of the Gospel of John (13, 21-28). It is mentioned that at Peter's request, John leans towards Jesus to ask him the identity of the traitor. Marina Seretti proposes several non-contradictory hypotheses, all of which are based on scholarly references, which is one of the great qualities of the work. It is not possible in these lines to summarize a demonstration which unfolds over nearly thirty pages (p. 129 to 159). Let us nevertheless note how John's movement towards the chest of Jesus, caused by the apostle's desire to know the identity of the traitor, takes on a spiritual dimension.

Saint John the Baptist in the desert
by Grard de Saint-Jean (1480-95)

John, according to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, does not lean into the breast of Jesus but enters and abandons himself In the bosom of Jesus, in the integrity of the heart and soul of his master to access the paschal mystery (p. 141). Thus the sleep of John, which we find in Andrea del Castagno Tintoretto, can also be analyzed as a representation of a visionary rest (p. 148). The author punctuates her text with several case studies like this one. Sleeping figures are very numerous in Renaissance art and culture and these moments where the analysis takes its time and focuses on one of them are welcome.

John is not the only one of the apostles who sleeps. He is present, with Pierre and his older brother Jacques Gethsmani, to watch and pray alongside Christ before his arrest. As with John's sleep during the Last Supper, we must go beyond the traditional interpretation of the apostles' sleep as a metaphor for laziness and fall to detect instead a sadness. The author manages to make us understand how great the gap is between the vision that a spectator can have of these sleeping apostles, the negative dimension that these bodies at rest immediately project and the message that they carry in reality. It is a sleep of withdrawal, a moment of withdrawal necessary to share religious revelation or mourn the suffering of the body of Christ.

Lethargic eroticism

After spiritual fertility comes temporal and erotic fertility and religious developments are followed by an analysis of several secular iconographies. The connection from the religious to the secular and from the theses of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to those of Marsilio Ficino is undoubtedly done a little too abruptly. The study of the philosophy of love developed by the Florentine humanist, but also of his critiques and transgressions offers necessary pages to establish the context of creation and reception of certain works analyzed subsequently but perhaps a little too far from the question of sleep. The object here is no longer the sleeper but the spectator's roasting gaze towards the sleeping female body. Aesthetic pleasure is coupled with a fascination which has its roots in what Ficino calls the bad docchio, a sort of poisoning by the look. The situation which leads a spectator to see, even more to look, a sleeping body is charged with an erotic potential, which we perceive in the Venus of Dresden by Giorgione and Titian in the lascivi from the Carracci to the engravings which adorn Poliphile's Dream (Hypnerotomachia Poliphili), illustrated Italian novel printed in Venice in 1499 and immense literary success of the Renaissance.

M.Seretti shows several times that the erotic and lascivious dimension of the sleeping figure is coupled with a disturbing character. The sleeping body is also a defenseless, powerless body, a body subject to voyeurs and attackers. Sometimes for the worse: think of the satyrs' attacks on Psych or the sleeping Venus or the betrayal of Delilah taking advantage of Samson's sleep to cut his hair; sometimes for the better, when Judith takes advantage of Holofernes' alcoholic sleep to slit his throat.

Botticelli, The discovery of the corpse of Holofernes

Hypnos and Thanatos

Hypnos and ros therefore follow Hypnos and Thanatos and a study of death perceived as the last sleep. It is necessary above all to go back to the sources of this analogy of sleep and death before highlighting its variations during the Renaissance. It is even more surprising to note the resumption of this analogy in the theory of art. Alberti or Leonardo da Vinci indeed return in their works to the physical proximity between the sleeping body and the dead body, while Cennino Cennini, Giorgio Vasari or Gian Paolo Lomazzo reflect on the most appropriate color, position or detail allowing the spectator to not not take the dead for sleeping, and vice versa.

The similarity between sleep and death also innervates all religious thought and iconography until XVIIIe century. The multiplication of representations of the Virgin with Christ as a sleeping child, particularly in northern Italy in XVe century, consecrates the parallel between the sleep of the child and the death of the adult but also, implicitly, between awakening and resurrection. conversely, the sleep of the soul is the Lutheran conception of an absolutely deep sleep which allows the German theologian to establish a break radical between the world of the living and that of the dead: dreamless sleep makes the intermediate state of the soul, between individual death and the Last Judgment, an interval of ignorance and insensitivity closed on itself (p. 324).

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Human Stages
by Jerome Bosch (c. 1500)

Ragged sleeps

Marina Seretti does not just study the best-known works but strives to discover numerous images and numerous texts. Such a profusion of subjects necessarily implies choices that could have been better defended. It is sometimes complex to understand the exact reasons behind the organization of parts or certain chapters. Likewise, certain figures analyzed go beyond, or at least seemed to us to go outside, the framework posed by the author, namely deep sleep as defined in the introduction. However, the author does not claim exhaustiveness and assumes the heterogeneous and kalidoscopic dimension of her research. By finishing reading, we understand that what links all these conceptions of sleep is undoubtedly their eloquent dimension. Where sleep seems at first sight to be marked by silence, emptiness and vacancy, where the sleeping person seems to be withdrawn, independent of reality, the author makes it quite clear that this is not the case. Far from being content with a monolithic and negative vision of deep sleep, Marina Seretti offers us a much richer and, above all, more nuanced reading of it.