Posted by: episystechpubs | October 8, 2013

Editor’s Corner: A little language lesson and art history

As I was enjoying my day off yesterday, I worked on knitting a small sweater for my friend’s dog and watched a lecture on European art. (Yes, we word nerds know how to party in our free time.) As I watched, I learned a few things that I thought I’d share with you about our language and some of the terms the professor discussed.

The first was the term hierarchical proportion. This is a technique used in art (in this case it was Italian sculpture and painting during the Gothic period) in which the artist uses unnatural proportions to represent the importance of the figures in the artwork. For example, in one sculpture of the nativity, Mary was considerably larger than the rest of the characters, the baby Jesus was as big as a grown man, and the wise men, visitors, and animals were all much smaller in comparison. (And as a side note, the professor mentioned that the people were generally more stylized, while the animals were shaped more realistically.) Here is a painting using hierarchical proportion, by an Italian painter, Duccio.

Apparently, Egyptians also used this technique often, which brings us to the professor’s first tangent and another vocabulary word: sarcophagus. In this case, most of us know what it is (a stone coffin), but what about the word sarcophagus? This is where it gets nasty! The Greeks named this thing a lithos sarkophagos (λίθος σαρκοφάγος), which translates as “flesh-eating stone.”

lithos (stone): The rumor is that they used a special kind of limestone which helped bodies decay faster.

sarco (flesh)

phagos (to eat): You know that Greek yogurt, FAGE (fage)? Yep, same root word, but no flesh involved.

The last term I want to cover today is flamboyant. This was originally a term to describe a specific feature in Gothic architecture. The term is from Old French (flambe—to flame). The architecture contains s-shaped details that look like waves of fire. (See the photo of the cathedral in Rouen for a great example of flamboyant architecture.)

The Rouen Cathedral (flying buttresses on either side, flamboyant decoration on windows and facade)

Here’s an interesting note: though we might associate Gothic with darkness today, features like the flamboyant windows and flying buttresses used in Gothic architecture were designed to provide more light in the churches and cathedrals. The fire-like design of the window tracings allowed for maximum amounts of light to enter the buildings; the flying buttresses supported walls from the outside so the buildings could be built higher and closer to the sky.

Kara Church

Senior Technical Editor


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