I’ve lately been reading ‘A Short History of the Shadow’ by Victor I. Stoichita which begins by explaining how the art of painting and sculpture first came into being (at least in the minds of men like Pliny and Athenagoras, before the cave painters of Lascaux, for example, were discovered) through the tracing of shadows. In his Natural History (xxxv, 43) Pliny says:
“Enough and more than enough has now been said about painting. It may be suitable to append to these remarks something about the plastic art. It was through the service of that same earth that modelling portraits from clay was first invented by Butades, a potter of Sicyon, at Corinth. He did this owing to his daughter, who was in love with a young man; and she, when he was going abroad, drew in outline on the wall the shadow of his face thrown by the lamp. Her father pressed clay on this and made a relief, which he hardened by exposure to fire with the rest of his pottery; and it is said that this likeness was preserved in the Shrine of the Nymphs…”
Athenagoras recounts the same story as follows:
“The manufacture of dolls was inspired by a young woman: very much enamoured of a man, she drew his shadow on the wall as he slept; then her father, charmed by the extraordinary likeness – he worked with clay – sculpted the image by filling the contours with earth.”
As Stoichita writes: “What is fairly apparent from both texts is that the primary purpose of basing a representation on the shadow was possibly that of turning it into a mnemonic aid; of making the absent become present. In this case the shadow’s resemblance (similitudo) to the original plays a crucial role… The constantly changing real shadow of the beloved man will escort him on his travels, while the image of his shadow, captured on the wall, will remain a memento opposed to the movement of the journey and will therefore have a propitiatory value. The real shadow accompanies the one who is leaving, while his outline, captured once and for all on the wall immortalizes a presence in the form of an image, captures an instant and makes it last.”
The verticalizing of the shadow – the projection of it onto a wall – and its likeness to the person from whom its being projected are both, according to Stoichita, “vital functions of this surrogate image… The lapidary details pertaining to the mechanism of verticalization are extremely important, since Pliny would certainly have been aware – as more than one passage from his work indicates – of a whole early metaphysics on the shadow (particularly on the shadow recumbent on the earth) and of its links with death. On close examination the text reveals its hidden meaning: on the eve of her beloved’s departure, Butades’ daughter ‘captured’, so to speak, the image of her lover in a verticality meant to last forever. Thus she exorcised the threat of death, and his image – making up for his absence – kept him forever upright, i.e. ‘alive’.”
Returning for a moment to the story of the lovers, Stoichita argues that this story appears incomplete, “Pliny has eliminated an important episode located somewhere between the young woman creating the silhouette and the final likeness being installed in the temple. This episode, without which the meaning of the extract is greatly diminished, is the death of the beloved.” Stoichita goes on to suggest that the story should actually read as follows:
1) The girl crates a surrogate image, which has a dual purpose: it must remind her of the face of the lover who is leaving (to go to war) and must exorcise the danger he is in.
2) The young man dies (probably heroically, probably on the battlefield).
3) (Because the beloved dies) the father creates a semblance whose function is to duplicate the one who has disappeared. This double has a ‘soul’ (in the form of a shadow) and a ‘body’ (in the form of the receptacle of this soul).
4) The clay semblance becomes a cult object in the temple at Corinth.
This semblance made by the girl’s father becomes therefore a funereal figure, an object “which ensures the young warrior – who, in the prime of life, falls on the battlefield – everlasting glory by immortalizing what he was in the eyes of subsequent generations: his name, his exploits, his career, the heroic end that establishes him once and for all as a man of excellence, one of the noble dead.”
I found this version of the story particularly interesting, as it ties in with the work I’ve been doing on World War I, during which of course millions of men left loved their ones, never to return. One can imagine each of their shadows drawn in outlines on wall right across the world, merging to become a single amorphous shadow blanketing the ground.
Stoichita also makes an interesting distinction between shadows cast in the day and at night. “Once the image is captured on the wall, time stands still… a shadow in sunlight denotes a moment in time and no more than that, but a nocturnal shadow is removed from the natural order of time, it halts the flow of progress.”