The visual expression of emotion

Do we naturally show our emotions by facial expressions, or did we learn to? And if so, when did we learn, and did we learn through simulations (in this case, visual arts?)

You know how it is: you read a book, half-remember a quotation, and then can’t find it again. Well, I half remember Gombrich saying that artists only began to represent human facial expressions about 1300 AD. Before this, they used a highly stylised range of gestures which could be used to show emotions or the content of a situation. I can’t find the exact reference, so perhaps I’m wrong, but ‘The Story of Art’ certainly contains quite a few similar if less radical comments.

A typical gesture was that of blessing: the right hand raised, palm towards the recipient, with the thumb and two fingers (index and middle) straight and the other two fingers turned down. This is still used in churches today.

A volume of the Electa “Dizionari dell’Arte” (“Il gesto e l’espressione’) says that this gesture was originally used in classical art to denote that an orator was speaking – rather like children holding their hand up in class to ask if they can speak. It also acquired strange modifications – for instance the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) churches raise three fingers not two). But in whatever form, it dominates western religious art for centuries: even after facial expression had become the norm, this gesture remains a constant. It’s notable that later painters tend to interpret it a bit, to relax the rules from the early Byzantine formality, but you can still see the gesture. After all, we may have a face for happiness or anger etc., but we still don’t have a facial expression for ‘blessing’.

This made me wonder. (I’ll call this a ‘thought experiment’, because I’m not sure if I am advancing the idea seriously or not.) What if, up till 1300, real people did not use facial gestures either?

The artists who painted before 1300 were perfectly capable of reproducing faces with accuracy and great economy of line. They understood how a face works. So why were they apparently blind to such simple gestures as smiling, crying, shouting, etc? Why do both the blessed and the damned maintain the same impassive solemn vacuity in, say, the ‘Last Judgement’ mosaic in the Basilica at Torcello? Why don’t the damned, shown in alarmingly painful situations, look in pain, or the blessed look happy? Why does the man Christ is helping into the boat of salvation (a wonderfully Venetian image) not look relieved or grateful? After all, expression must have developed at some time in evolutionary history. Dogs don’t do it naturally. (I don’t know about wild monkeys: tame monkeys may have learned it from us of course.). Babies don’t smile until they have seen their mothers smiling at them over and over again. And there are some cases where expressions have developed differently: for instance in some places nodding your head from side to side, and up and down, have the opposite meanings to the ‘no’ and ‘yes’ they have in England.

This blog has speculated before on the way in which our simulations may come to influence our real perceptions or gestures or responses. (If we see it simulated this way often enough, after a while we learn this as a ‘natural’ reaction and come to do it that way ourselves, so even a bad simulation might become ‘reality’ eventually.) Could it be that painters not only represented gestures (before 1300) and facial expressions (after 1300) but also that we ourselves learned facial expressions from paintings?

1300 might have been a busy year.

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