Levels of interpretation

We are so accustomed to seeing something in something else, to discern metaphor, allegory and other figures of substitution in artistic works around us, literature or visual arts, that we forget that things have not always been like this. The road towards metaphor has been long, beautiful but long.

I was having a conversation with a classicist friend the other day who pointed out that classical literature doesn’t preserve a single discussion of metaphor in the context of the visual arts. No classical author is known to have claimed that one thing stands for something else. It is the merit of medieval exegesis and its arts of interpretation to see the invisible in the visible, not necessarily the heavenly in the physical, but the hidden meaning in what’s out there, before our eyes.

We know we are the heirs of the medievals, the children of those thinkers and theologians who developed the subtle art of hermeneutics capable of balancing the three, sometimes four, levels of interpretation: the literal, the allegorical, the moral and anagogical meaning of a statement or image, of any work of art, any uttering and, ultimately, any sign. No level has more claim to truth than another, but they are all needed for a full picture of ‘what something means’. The literal meaning looks at the historicity, how the event/image is grounded in history and time. The allegorical (or tropological) level goes beyond the immediate historical context and seeks to typologize. A controversial statue, for instance, is not just a sculpted piece of stone by someone sometime somewhere, but it is a repository of meaning which makes the object stand for something else. The moral level join allegory but it is not neutral since it attaches itself to ethical categories. The anagogical level belongs mostly to what we may call a religious reading of an image and seeks to make mystical associations. Through anagoge, the spirit detects the meaning of a text or image in its relation to a spiritual ascent – it is the extreme end of allegory and substitution, the farthest removed from the here and now.


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