Sassetta (approximately)

This post continues my Story Structure series.

What does it mean to tell a story?

I think one of the valid reasons that people often stress 3-act structure in screenplays is that it’s one way of making sure that we write stories that progress and unfold in time, rather than being static snapshots.

Still, some paintings are phenomenal in their ability to suggest stories. The following 3 paintings are by Sassetta, who lived during the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They’re part of a much larger series depicting the life of Saint Anthony.




Living in the time he did, Sassetta didn’t worry about breaking certain rules that hadn’t been invented yet. The first picture depicts how, as a young man, Saint Anthony gave away his money to the poor. Notice that he appears in the background bringing his money downstairs and he also appears in the foreground giving it away. The third painting tells the story of his journey, as an old man, to meet Saint Paul — and you can see him three times in it.

We might want to tell Sassetta it’s “illogical” for a person to be depicted more than once in a single painting. — But he might want to tell us that it’s “illogical” for us to do what we do on the internet, communicating instantaneously with people thousands of miles away.

If we told Sassetta that it’s “unrealistic” to have the Saint leaving a green monastery (in the middle painting) under a gold sky, I think he’d feel that we don’t really understand what his story’s about. And he’d be right.

And if we told him that people don’t “really” have halos, I imagine he’d think . . .

I don’t know that Henri Matisse‘s Icarus is really any different.


Matisse concentrates on the elements of the story that he feels it’s important to tell. The result is relatively more abstract than the Brueghel version I discussed in an earlier entry, but we don’t have any difficulty accepting it and appreciating the story. I’m not even completely positive I understand why this painting is “more abstract” than the “realistic” Pieter de Hooch painting discussed previously. They both “tell a story” in familiar senses.

Sassetta’s blithe disregard of storytelling logic foreshadows modernist paintings like Marc Chagall‘s I and the Village, which everyone enjoys perfectly well.


Where it gets really difficult is with the Malevich paintings that I showed in the Poetry in the Arts series. Here the paintings don’t attempt to represent real life events or stories.

Again, different explanations have been given:
* One answer is that — rather than being about some subject — it’s “about” the artist himself.
* A better answer is that it’s not “about” anything, but it “expresses” the artist.
* Another good answer is that it’s about a special realm of “the beautiful.”
* Again better is that it’s not “about” anything, but it “is” beautiful.

The answer I gave about the Malevich is expanded in my post about Manet — namely “My act of seeing [a painting] is a joint creation: partly [the artist’s] and partly my own.” What’s important is not that there be something represented, but that the artist struggle to create the canvas and I struggle to respond: as long as that happens, there’s a story.

Most paintings — and most stories and movies — are a balance between representational elements and abstract ones. Rather than pretending the abstract elements aren’t there, it would be better to recognize them and use them artistically.

Note: The Saint Anthony paintings presented above are ones I’ve been looking at, and loving, in the National Gallery of Art in Washington for many years. The tag next to them always attributed them to Sassetta. More recently, the tag has changed, and it now reads, “Master of the Osservanza.” It turns out to be complicated. If you go for such things, you can read the NGA’s own explanation.

For further posts in this series, see my Story Structure page.

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