The picture, produced between 1530 and 1540, very likely depicts a town in central sixteenth–century Germany. On the level of the street wide open halls dominate, arches are inserted here and there. The picture frame too, is structured according to the column-arch-schema. Above the upper arch there are plant ornaments. A roof of leaves, reminiscences of the hut, of primordial times! The characters’ activities within the open hall in the foreground are all characterized by the new Renaissance ideal. Various artists are shown busy at work, there is an organist on the right, a wood carver on the left. In the centre of the picture, a group of figures dominate, these are evidently scientists, busy with chemical and astronomical experiments.
At the top of the picture, there is a representation of what strikes us as quite grotesque nowadays. Nobody today would expect in, for instance, the arcades of the old city of Berne, a classical celestial chariot carrying the Roman god Mercury: these arches have, to us, become ideologically empty. They all look strangely out of place, these clouds, the chariot drawn by the cocks, this proud god of trade, dressed in the Renaissance style and decorated with the symbol of power in the form of two snakes, they are all at best mysterious, magical, and irrational. But there does exist a very plausible explanation for this weird depiction. Its immanent structure is still caught up in the architectonically given >ontological proportion<. The Christian ontology has disappeared, new ontological values of classical antiquity have been introduced, but the principle of ontological proportion still survives. The bottom part is enlarged, has become perspective and extensively narrative. New representatives have replaced the Evangelists. Scientists and artists are now founding the new principle of this world, they too are depicted at work. The town has become the "study". The transcendental too, is still present, but it is no longer interpreted in Christian terms, but in classical ones: the Roman god Mercury who, almost like a ghost, flutters around the small–town tympanum in his ‘sky–mobile’ together with his winged creatures. Evidently the medieval code was still present at the time, today it is lost, and therefore the picture appears mysterious to our eyes. The only code still legible are the perspectively depicted clouds. And, of course, the written dedication to >Mercury<.
With the following picture (fig. 36) we again immerse ourselves into the Christian ontology, as assimilated by the Renaissance period. The picture is particularly interesting because it is an example of the representation of a diachronic situation, in this case, the birth of Christ. The tectonical element regresses to the rural and primitive. There is a brick arch, a well, above that Christ, the holy child, naked, placed on a bundle of straw in an elementary nest (primordial tectonics!). Golden rays radiate all around, marking the sacred place. The milieu, the elementary environmental concepts, the source of water, the bridge and arch, primordial times of the sacred together with the elementary bed, surrounded by a holy space in the sense of a grove, the stable for the holy animals, two projecting rocks forming a narrow passage which reversely show the pragmatic world beyond. The poles are reversed, the transcendence depicted is worldly, but marked by a domed cathedral at the threshold of heaven and earth. Vertically above, thus in a polar relation, there are two winged angels, like a pair guarding the door to the holy place, the holy child, the holy nest. The onlooker views the past of the present, the 'conditio sine qua non' of everyday Christian world. Evidently this too is a regress into medieval spatial concepts related to sources and topographical thresholds in the landscape. Concerning the two angels: the art historian would describe them in terms of the "hovering effect". But evidently they are there because, in spite of the perspective and meagre clouds, they were - at least in the eyes of the contemporary onlooker - still supported by the tectonically provided code of >ontological proportion< strongly emphasized in the Middle Ages.
The picture shows the ascension of the saint. A mysterious fetish <18> of bundled palm leaves - the symbol of martyrdom - indicates that she has transcended the ordinary values of life. Note that the primitive object is placed at the centre of the scene and in a vertical axis to the church. In a spatial and temporal sense, this fetish is the key to the whole painting.
Thematically, three different notions have been interwoven.
The picture has already been analyzed in the first volume of this research series. Here, we supply a more detailed analysis according to the following schema (Fig. 37). We distinguish four bipolarly structured orders (1)-(4) and deal with them in the following as >ontological proportions<.
The centralized Renaissance church indicates the frame of the picture, the constructive order of the fetish is its nucleus (1).The natural order of heaven and earth form the open background with mountains and castles, valley and huts. The onlooker’s view of this natural system is secondary. It is obstructed by several elements. Evidently, the whole composition is - in correspondence with the ascension theme - vertically organized as an >axis mundi< (Eliade).
Now, using the term >ontological proportion< proposed above, the vertical path of the holy woman, as Carpaggio constructs it, can be clearly read anew. The picture represents an evolutionary theory of the interaction of architecture and spatial perception.
As mentioned before, the primitive order (1), the fetish, defines the primary nucleus, the centre of the image. With its top and bottom boundaries it circumscribes a horizontal rectangle filled with a crowd of people. At the front there are mainly women, focused on the event in the axis. Humans and the sacred marker are of an equal size. The polar structure of the fetish clearly is in dialogue with the festive clothes and decorations of the people surrounding it. Evidently, the north Italian Renaissance society was not so keen on abstract Platonism as Wittkower thinks. Many Renaissance paintings clearly show that the urban culture of the time was quite familiar with rural cults and festivals and with traditions obviously rooted in prehistory. What is crucial is that even sacredness is attributed to the rural fetish. How otherwise could it be positioned at the centre of the church and its clearly pictured >axis mundi
The rectangle circumscribed by the sacred marker is not absolutely defined, it forms part of yet another rectangle, which is outlined by two cantilevering pilasters (2). Note that in terms of architectural evolution these pilasters, as descendants of the classical column, are closely related to the fetish in the centre. Thus they too must be proportioned 'ontologically'. Carpaggio uses this aspect quite plainly: the upper decorated part of the pilasters outline the spatial area reserved for the saint as transitional domain, which is superior to the bodily human, but does not yet correspond to the absolute dimension of heaven. In terms of architectural history, this is the ontologically proportioned space of Near Eastern, Egyptian and Greek antiquity.
The figure of the saint is depicted very statically on top of the fetish, where, in fact, there is no place for standing. There is nothing to be perceived which might provide support, neither stone column nor anything else. Ursula is "hovering". Evidently, Carpaggio knows about the physical structure of the bundle and integrates it "metaphysically" into the picture. This is an ingenious idea for it is only because of our knowledge of the bundle's structure that we are aware of the "hovering effect". In a primary stage, the saint 'transcends' the popular and primitive reality by standing on something, on which, physically, standing is impossible.
The narrow background surrounding the holy figure likewise originates from this fetish’s upper boundary.There is an artificial heaven characterized by celestial categories: a vertical surface of gleaming light, circumscribed by a fluffy garland of clouds. The "hovering" is indicated by cherubs flapping around the saint with their tiny wings. Their main attributes are bows and celestial bands, their task being to bind together the heavenly and the earthly. The elegantly shaped flags too, are at their right place (access-place-scheme)! Two kneeling women hold the flags in their hands, moving them in this semisacred, semihuman space. The symmetrically curved surfaces of the flags form a physical limit between the celestial nucleus and the natural background <19>.
Above this rectangle of pilasters, tremendous arches define the architectural heaven (3). Formal dynamism, proportion! Christian painting follows the 'ontological' code defined by architecture and transfers God from the upper universe to the area below the vault. The architecturally defined heaven legitimates the painter's furnishing of God, the absolute spirit, with bodily characteristics: head, chest and coat, arms spread out to bless the human community, no body, no feet. That this is intended in a cosmic sense is demonstrated by the horizontal circle hovering parallel to the uppermost architectonic ring and defining a circular area of heavenly attributes (gleaming light etc.). Note that the red cherub's heads, grouped into units of three and spread along the cloudy circle around God, are similar to those cherub's heads holding together the fetish bundle. Below the circle enveloping God, two cherubs keep the heavenly crown "hovering" in a central axis above the head of the saint - this too, represents a categorially polar spatial threshold.
The articulation between the upper section of the arch and the lower rectangle is emphasized. The dark blue grooves at the top of the pilasters suggest a strongly articulated bipartition of the pictorial unity. Note that head and breast of the saint, similar to the upper parts of the flags and the golden crosses, project into the heavenly sphere defined by the arch. In terms of architectural history, the arch and vaults with the uppermost opening are primarily related to Roman classicism, later to the styles of Byzantine and Renaissance periods.
The four vaults of the central church support a sharply defined stone circle at the top, which provides an opening towards the 'natural' sky and forms the connection between the space of the church and the universe. There too, at this fourth threshold of ontological proportion, plant materials seem to be of importance. Cherubs, depicted in quite realist physical terms, amuse themselves with mischievously picking to pieces the freshly plaited garland and letting the branches and leaves fall down on the sacred event. Departure into new spaces! On this higher level (4), where the "celestial building" is connected with the new cosmological dimensions, the whole picture again is structured categorially polar, is ontologically proportioned. The entire material part of Carpaggio's painting is an expression of the earth, which is opposed to the new infinite dimensions of the cosmos.
This fourth dimension is the one belonging to the dawning modern times. It finds an early expression in Petrarca's cosmic raptures and becomes more and more important with the discoveries of the closing fifteenth (in 1492 Columbus embarked on his first expedition, the same year Carpaggio painted the picture) and the sixteenth century and is finally concretized in Baroque architecture.
Carpaggio's system encapsulating four different stages of polar space organization (perception and conception), is not only an ingenious composition, it is also clearly differentiated according to temporal categories: the primitive - the classical - the Renaissance - the early modern. It thus shows an evolution of a distinct complex which closely relates architecture, space, and world view (ontology). If we consider form and space as essential categories of culture, and if we are structurally familiar with the ontological values of the four stages, then Carpaggio's picture becomes nothing less than a theory of cultural evolution. To put it in other words: the picture unites in one spatial and temporal axis as many modern disciplines as >prehistory<, >history<, >folklore/ ethnology<, >religion<, >art<, >architecture<, and >philosophy<. In brief, it unites four different stages of ontology. <20>
Theoretically, we are nowadays living in a fifth dimension of homogenous space. The four primary stages have disappeared, at least in practice. But we still do possess some understanding of the fourth level. And though the others may have disappeared, their orders continue to be present in today's pre–modern architecture. Surprisingly, we do not loath it or look upon it as old junk. On the contrary, it forms an important part of our educational journeys. And not only because it represents history, but also because we are attracted by its beauty. Eventually, >ontological proportion< is still stored in our collective subconsciousness. We are no longer able to read it consciously, but subconsciously it conveys the impression that the banality of modern architecture reduced to geometry and function, is a great spiritual loss.