Meet Paolo Uccello’s spine-tingling painting The Hunt in Forest, with a mysterious vanishing point right at its very heart. It is an image which has fascinated poets, including Derek Mahon and John Burnside, who both wrote collections inspired by this 600 year old painting. John Burnside joins host Lucie Dawkins in this episode, to talk about why The Hunt in the Forest has gripped his imagination, and we also hear a reading of Derek Mahon’s poem.
What do you see when you stare into the place where everything vanishes?
Poems in this episode:
‘The Hunt in the Forest’ by John Burnside from The Hunt in the Forest (2009)
'The Hunt by Night’ by Derek Mahon from New Collected Poems (2011), reproduced by kind permission of the author’s Estate c/o The Gallery Press. www.gallerypress.com
Artwork in this episode:
The Hunt in the Forest View this online
If you want to take a closer look at the artwork mentioned in this episode, you can view it at the link above. Visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/objects-out-loud
Hosted by Lucie Dawkins, with John Burnside, featuring the voice of Damian Gildea. With poems by John Burnside and Derek Mahon.
The producer is Lucie Dawkins.
About Objects Out Loud: From a magician who inspired Shakespeare, and poems woven into Japanese prints, to manuscripts illuminated with the ancient love story of Layla and Majnun, this new podcast series will delve into the poetry and literature hidden in the collections at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Let’s imagine we are on a dark street in the middle of the night in the city of Florence. It’s the mid 1400s. Through a window a solitary candle burns. When we peer through the shutters, we can see an artist hunched over a wide, narrow painting. His name is Paolo di Dono.
When we peer through the shadows at the walls of the room, and we can see they are covered in paintings and drawings of birds, so lifelike that they seem to be about to take off. Paolo loves birds, and it’s because of this that his friends have given him the nickname ‘Paolo the bird-man’, or Paolo Uccello.
In the darkness behind him, his wife appears in the doorway, wearily encouraging to come to bed. Paolo barely looks up. Once again, he’s going to be awake all night, transfixed by his lifelong obsession: how to trick the viewer’s eye to make the flat surface of a painting look three dimensional. The painting in front of him looks like a window into another world, in which dogs and riders seem to dash away from us, disappearing into a dark forest, hot on the heels of an unseen prey.
We are watching him create one of the Ashmolean’s most famous treasures: The Hunt in The Forest.
This is Objects Out Loud, an audio adventure through the Ashmolean Museum, uncovering the stories and poetry hidden inside the objects. I’m your host Lucie Dawkins, and today we are taking a trip into the dark.
So why was Paolo Uccello working through the night on the problem of perspective? Today, this is something children learn to do in school - to place a vanishing point on a piece of paper, and use a ruler to draw lines converging towards it, creating the illusion that the image recedes in the distance. But in Uccello’s time, this kind of linear perspective was a brand new technique, and he was a pioneer of its use in European art.
Uccello lived right at the end of the medieval era. This was time when religious imagery populated the vast majority of art, and artists were in the habit of ordering subjects by size according to their spiritual significance. Huge figures of Christ with tiny believers at his feet, for example. It wasn’t that they didn’t have the tools to attempt to paint things naturalistically - the Romans had already made good headway with this over a millennium and half earlier. It seems to me that this was a deliberate stylistic choice, intended to communicate a religious experience rather than mundanity of real life. In fact, it was almost offensive to think of putting God, Christ, and the angels on a level with grubby and sinful humans.
However, at the turn of the 15th century, a group of artists in the city of Florence started to change the rules. Paolo Uccello was among them. They began trying to paint things as they actually were, and their first step was to apply mathematics to art, creating the illusion of three dimensional figures arranged in relation to a vanishing point.
At their very best, these paintings look like someone has smashed a hole in the wall, and that you are looking through it into a completely real and solid space on the other side. And this wasn’t just a neat trick - what amazes me is it amounts to a radical upheaval in philosophy, bringing Christ and the saints down to a human scale, so that they seem to stand in the same space as you. I think that the message of these paintings was no longer to impress on the viewer how small and insignificant you are in the face of God. Instead, I think create a deeply personal encounter between you and the divine, as if you yourself could step through the frame and into a scene from the Bible.
In short, Paolo Uccello and his friends had started a revolution - a revolution called the Renaissance.
Giorgio Vasari, another Florentine artist who wrote Paulo Uccello’s biography, said that he took his pursuit of mathematics to such an extreme that he started to stifle his own creativity, and he stopped catering to the tastes of his clients. Vasari says that towards the end of his life he lost all his trade, and died in poverty surrounded by cupboards full of his mathematical drawings. He also gives us details like the fact that Uccello’s wife found it difficult to get him to stop working on perspective and come to bed.
However, we ought to take this romantic portrait of an impoverished obsessive with a pinch of salt, given that Vasari liked to embellish his biographies of artists to make them into good potboilers. He tended to throw in titillating details like feuds and murder plots that never actually happened, and had loose grasp on fact, like the date of Uccello’s death, which he gets wrong by a good 43 years.
Despite Vasari’s decorative additions, two things seem to me to ring true - Uccello was consumed with with exploring the new realm of linear perspective, and he was one of the great radicals of the Renaissance.
And this is particularly clear in one of the masterpieces he left behind. The Hunt in The Forest, which now hangs in the Ashmolean.
It’s a painting which I find both compelling, and unsettling.
It’s a very surprising shape - a narrow rectangle, nearly two meters long, so that when you stand in front of it it fills the very corners of your vision. This is because it’s a spalliera, or shoulder-painting, a long panel designed to run at eye height, probably around the edge of a room in a fashionable Florentine home. The hunters and dogs are speeding into a gloomy forest, towards a vanishing point right in the middle of the picture. The dogs furthest away from us are tiny, just glimmers of white and brown between the trees. The riders are decked out in vibrant scarlet with traces of gold, their harnesses decorated with little crescent moons, the symbol of Diana, goddess of the hunt.
We know from analysing the panel that Uccello mapped out a grid under the paint, creating a mathematical composition.
Everywhere in the picture, he is literally pointing out the location of the vanishing point. Several of the hunters’ spears create arrows towards it, and on the right, an unnaturally straight river gleams through the trees, pointing at the spot on the horizon, right in the heart of the forest.
When we follow all these lines to the place that all the horses, hunters, and hounds are racing towards, instead of finding a point, we find darkness. At the vanishing point, the figures actually… vanish. It’s as if they are all hurtling headlong into oblivion. And this becomes all the more spine-tingling when we realise that Uccello has composed the picture to make us feel like we are part of it. Because it fills your whole view, it draws you in and feels as if you are right in the middle of the pack, with the horses are thundering past on either side of you. You get the strange feeling that if you turned round, you would see more hunters cantering towards you. I think that it’s the nearest Renaissance art gets to an IMAX movie. It’s as if you are running with them towards a black hole.
So what is going on here? Well, in the Renaissance, hunting had all sorts of symbolic associations. It often appeared in poetry as a parallel for love, with the lover in pursuit and the beloved as prey. Is Uccello suggesting that love is somehow dangerous, a journey which you might lose yourself? In religious literature, the hunt for love was also a symbol for a soul seeking salvation - so perhaps Uccello is suggesting that at the heart of life is a great, undefinable mystery.
And this is why I think Uccello is so astonishing. It was remarkable enough that he mastered the use of a vanishing point when it hardly just been invented. But in this painting, he goes even further. He takes a mathematical technique and transforms it into a metaphor. It is as if he is looking back at us, and asking us what we see in the place where everything vanishes.
Like all good art, it is open to your interpretation. By arranging the painting around you perspective as the viewer, it feels like Uccello is inviting your imagination in.
Perhaps this is what makes the Hunt in the Forest so magnetic. Over the years, many people have taken Paolo Uccello up on his invitation to add in the ingredients of your imaginings, not least the poet John Burnside, whose book, The Hunt in the Forest, takes its title, and central poem, from this painting. Here he is, to tell us more.
This first time I went to the Ashmolean, actually, many, many years ago, I was completely transfixed by the painting. I didn’t know much about Uccello at the time, because I was actually quite young, but this painting immediately captured me. They are going into this intense forest darkness, and there was something about that that drew me in, the way that everybody in the painting is moving towards this dark heart, as it were. So I was drawn into it imaginatively, and almost physically. I wanted to fall into the picture and follow the dogs and the horsemen into that darkness. I was always very interested in hunting and the history of hunting anyway. What is the hunt for, and why are they going in there? That hunt seemed to me a metaphor for something immense, really. The image of the painting stayed in my head for a long, long time, and I would often go to the museum and look at it again, but I didn’t come to write the poem until many years later. The central theme of the book was hunting and the idea of pursuit, of trying to find something, something mysterious, something that was there in the darkness that we couldn’t see but sensed. Of course immediately, that image came back to me, and the famous image of the Breughel painting of the hunters coming home in the snow, that famous one, also was there. There is something about a medieval hunt which is different from a modern hunt. There is more risk involved. I mean, in those days you went into the forest with a spear or something, and you hunted wild boar. Again, it’s the sense of the darkness, of something there in the darkness, and one of the constant themes of my writing has been that sense of some kind of non-human presence in the world around us, in the dark, or in the fog, or even in the light, the light that is so blinding that you can’t actually see in it. Sometimes that presence is a kind of animal presence, sometimes it’s a kind of divine presence or an angelic presence. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if its angelic, or bestial as it were. I think we sometimes under-estimate the psychological, analytical abilities of medieval thinkers. You know, we think, we’re so modern, we’ve got Freud and Jung. They knew that stuff, they just expressed it in a different way. I would like to know how he would have talked about it, and what the darkness meant to him, what that mystery in the forest was for him.
And here’s the poem.
The Hunt in the Forest
How children think of death is how the shadows
gather between the trees: a hiding place
for everything the grown-ups cannot name,
Nevertheless, they hurry to keep their appointment
far in the woods, at the meeting or parallel lines,
where everything is altered by its own
momentum - altered, though we say transformed -
greyhound to roebuck, laughter to skin and bone;
and no-one survives the hunt: though the men return
in threes and fours, their faces blank with cold,
they never quite arrive at what they seem,
leaving a turn of phrase or a song from childhood
deep in the forest, bent to the juddering kill,
and waiting, while their knives slip through the blood
like butter, or silk, until the heart is still.
Thank you to John, for sharing his extraordinary poem. The line ‘a hiding place for everything the grown-ups cannot name’ always echoes in my head when I look into the darkness in this painting. And John Burnside is not the only person who has been fascinated by The Hunt in the Forest. We are travelling now from Scotland to Ireland, and the poet Derek Mahon, who sadly passed away last year. He also wrote a volume poetry inspired by Uccello’s painting, called The Hunt by Night, which probes humanity’s fascination with violence. In this following poem, he drew a line between the cave paintings of pre-historic hunter-gathers and our painting here in the Ashmolean, and questions whether we have really become so civilised after all.
Here is Derek Mahon’s 'The Hunt by Night'
Stick figures, lithe game,
Swift flights of bison in a cave
Where man the maker killed to live;
But neolithic bush became
The midnight woods
Of nursery walls,
The ancient fears mutated
To play, horses to rocking-horses
Tamed and framed to courtly uses,
Crazed no more by foetid
But rampant to
The pageantry they share
And echoes of the hunting horn
At once peremptory and forlorn.
The mild herbaceous air
The glade aglow
With pleasant mysteries,
Diuretic depots, pungent prey;
And midnight hints at break of day
Where, among sombre trees,
The slim dogs go
Wild with suspense
Leaping to left and right,
Their cries receding to a point
Masked by obscurities of paint--
As if our hunt by night,
So very tense,
So long pursued,
In what dark cave begun
And not yet done, were not the great
Adventure we suppose but some elaborate
Spectacle put on for fun
And not for food.
So John Burnside and Derek Mahon have both looked into this shadowy forest, into the ‘obscurities of paint' and seen a universe of ideas which probe the edges of the great mystery of what it is to be human. And that’s pretty remarkable for a painting made 600 years ago. The Ashmolean is still closed because of the pandemic, but when we are open again, you too can come and stand in front of the forest, in Gallery 43, and peer into the dark. In the meantime, you can find a link to the painting in the podcast notes. I invite you to take a good long look into the vanishing point. Who knows what you will see there.
Thanks you for listening to this today’s episode of Object’s Out Loud. Join us next week for the last poetry adventure in this series, with the ancient love story of Layla and Majnun. If you are enjoying the series, please do rate, review, and share, Until then, stay well.