The careful student of history knows that so much of what we think makes us unique or special in contemporary society has far more ancient origins than most of us realize. For example, human beings love a good story, particularly one about heroic deeds. People have been telling triumphal tales in many different ways for many centuries, and one such way is through the creation of images. Now, a newly restored masterpiece from 16th-century Austria gives us a chance to think about how these earlier efforts had a surprising, perhaps unexpected impact on our culture today.
In the past, among the most effective methods of describing adventures and victories was by the use of the tableaux or processional image, featuring an unfolding narrative told through a series of figures and scenes. Sometimes these efforts were truly massive in scale. Trajan’s Column in Rome, for example, depicts victories of the Emperor Trajan and his processing armies in a carved scroll rising nearly 100 feet high, while the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy is a 230-foot long cloth depicting the Norman conquest of Britain. Such was the case as well with the massive “Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I”, which has recently been restored and put on display at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.
Created for the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I between 1512-1519, the Triumphal Procession was originally more than 300 feet long, though today only a little more than half of it survives. It is a series of hand-colored, woodblock prints on parchment, which depict a procession of people, events, and symbols associated with the reign of Maximilian. The piece symbolized both the power of the crown and celebrated the triumphs of Maximilian’s momentous reign, but unfortunately the Emperor himself died before the project was fully completed.
The importance of Maximilian’s Triumphal Procession to our contemporary culture should not escape the reader’s notice, for in a sense it is both the first comic book, and possibly an early motion picture as well. The piece is composed of colored pictures which were bound together end to end, so that the story unfolds as one unrolls the parchments. Scholars believe that, given its state of preservation, it may have been unrolled in sections, to be read and admired sequentially. Interestingly, it may even have been attached to some sort of device which allowed it to turn onto a spool – which is the same basic, mechanical principle behind motion picture film projectors, for example.
Because these images were printed, rather than a one-off creation like a sculptural column or an embroidered tapestry, they could be re-produced again and again for as long as the original printing block lasted. This is why several different printings of the Triumphal Procession are known to still exist, in portions, in other European museums. Gradually, as printing technology improved and the cost of creating these images decreased, it became possible for a series of related images which tell a story to be created and bound together in sequence, and thereafter distributed relatively cheaply. Eventually, this led to all sorts of developments, including picture books and illustrated how-to manuals.
Admittedly, I am compressing enormous amounts of time, but we can see how the idea of using multiple, cheaply produced images to tell a story eventually led to the creation of characters like Superman (let alone my experience attempting to adopt his persona/appearance), who have had a tremendous influence on our popular culture. And with the creation of these popular figures, we later on get the work of artists fascinated by the stories told and the techniques used in the creation of these images, such as American Pop Art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein, and contemporary British portraitist and painter Julian Opie. Meanwhile in a separate, parallel development, the idea of a connected strip of images eventually led to the creation of motion pictures, television, and the like.
As stated at the outset, often we do not take the time to appreciate how many contemporary things are conceptually very ancient. Indeed, in one blog post I cannot touch on everything that led to that something which seems, at least at first glance, to be a modern idea. Its antecedents can be spotted not just in this important piece of Western art, but also in the art of many other cultures, from Japanese paneled screens to Egyptian tomb paintings.
Yet this single object reminds us that simply because something does not, at first glance, seem very relevant to today, does not mean it should be ignored. Take the time to be curious about the past, and ask yourself what such objects and concepts meant to people of their time. By taking the time to learn and study, and to be curious about the world around you, the long-gone Emperor Maximilian’s efforts to memorialize himself may have more relevance to you today, than it did even to the contemporaries of his own time.
Detail from “The Triumphal Procession” by various artists (c. 1512-1519)
Albertina Museum, Vienna