On the possibility of picturing impossible things

What do Tolkien, Vitruvius, Alan of Lille, and Gothic gargoyles have in common? They all touch on the problem of representing impossible things. According to historian of modality Simo Knuuttila,

[Alan of Lille] found no difficulty in asserting the possibliity of picturing impossible things. People drawing or painting chimeras and other fancy objects actually illustrate such things… In his book on architecture written in the first century before Christ, Vitruvius had condemned the use of pictures of things which cannot be (De architectura VII, 5). In the twelfth century, strange figures were not unusual in the decoration of church buildings. It is not always easy to say whether they were meant to be pictures of real or of non-existent animals, but in both cases they were intended probably to demonstrate God’s power by showing the actual or possible plurality of what divine power could bring about. (Knuuttila, Modalities in Medieval Philosophy, 102)

As I have argued before, for Tolkien sub-creative fantasy ultimately serves much the same theological purpose as Knuuttila here attributes to fantastical medieval architectural forms, namely the artist’s participation in God’s own freedom from the “channels the creator is known to have used already,” thereby accomplishing “a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien no. 153). In a more Vitruvian moment, however, Tolkien cautions in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” that such fantasy is best achieved through literature than in the visual arts. In painting, for example, he says that “the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.” As he suggests later, in such cases “disbelief [has] not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.”


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