Fifty years ago we were told that the subjects of pictures were of no importance; all that mattered was the form (then called 'significant form') and the colour. This was a curious aberration of criticism, because all artists, from the cave painters onwards, had attached great importance to their subject matter; Giotto, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Michelangelo, Poussin or Rembrandt would have thought it incredible that so absurd a doctrine could have gained currency.In the 1930s, the tide began to turn. In art history the pioneer of this change was a man of original genius named Aby Warburg, and although he himself, for various reasons, left only fragments of his prodigious learning, his influence produced a group of scholars who discovered, in the subjects of mediaeval and renaissance art, layer upon layer of meaning that had been almost completely overlooked by the 'formalist' critics of the preceding generation.One of them, Erwin Panofsky, was unquestionably the greatest art historian of his time.
Meanwhile the average man had become progressively less able to recognize the subjects or understand the meaning of the works of art of the past. Fewer people had read the classics of Greek and Roman literature, and relatively few people read the Bible with the same diligence that their parents had done.It comes as a shock to an elderly man to find how many biblical references have become completely incomprehensible to the present generation. As for the more esoteric sources of pictorial motives, very few people have read the Golden Legend or the Apocryphal Gospels, although without them the full meaning of such supreme works of art as (for example) Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel, cannot be grasped.
Although we are all grateful for the ingenious elucidations of the Warburg Institute or the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Princeton, what the ordinary traveller with an interest in art and a modicum of curiosity requires is a book which will tell him the meaning of subjects which every amateur would have recognized from the middle ages down to the late eighteenth century.The identification of these themes will add greatly to his pleasure in looking at sculpture or painting as 'works of art'. The old painters took their subjects seriously.It is true that they often followed traditional models, but they always wished the spectator to believe that the incidents they depicted had really happened and were still worth remembering. Composition, design, even colour, were used to make these subjects more vivid and comprehensible. If we do not know what a picture . . .