****Spoilers. Just many, many spoilers for Season 6, Episode 2 of Game of Thrones.****
In last night's Game of Thrones episode, many shots seemed to be direct art historical references, so I sent a few texts as it went along that I was thinking of cooking it up into this blog post.
Well, not quite this blog post. Earlier today, a friend sent me a Slate article that went through the resurrection scene shot by shot and COMPARED IT TO A REMBRANDT PAINTING, a comparison that had honestly never crossed my mind. This Rembrandt painting:
I can't speak to the technical film elements of that writer's analysis, but his point about the staging in the scene where Jon Snow is resurrected is certainly spot-on. He writes: "the blocking resembles what you’d see in a play rather than a film—or really any medium where the audience’s point of view can’t move around the room freely. Like, for instance, a painting." This is a frequent point of commentary where these group portraits are concerned (and, despite its mimicry of action, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp is absolutely a group portrait designed to commemorate the membership and activities of Amsterdam's Guild of Surgeons). These group portraits balance the logistical concerns of portraying that large number of people in one space and needing to clearly show their actual faces, but also cultivating dramatic action for the viewer understand their commitment to their profession.
From a historical standpoint, it's also worth noting that many European cultures were suspicious of medical professionals and especially surgeons until the nineteenth century. Regular, god-fearing people feared the consequences of probing the seemingly mystical internal workings of the body, so dissections were a dicey proposition. Surgeons were often accused of being resurrectionists à la Victor Frankenstein, meaning that they were accused of robbing graves to obtain the human bodies necessary for performing their "nefarious" experiments.
Anyway. That is an expert comparison from that Slate author, for more reasons than I suspect he knows, and yet that was not the art historical comparison I was thinking about as the episode progressed.
Most of the shots of Jon Snow's body from the moment it is brought indoors through the moment he wakes up look something like this:
They are raking shots from low angles. They look from his head down to his feet and from his feet back up to his head. They zoom in to show the dead corpse of the Lord Commander Jon Snow in its specificity (for example, the ribs in the shot above) from a harrowing perspective even beyond that afforded to the actors who share the scene. In many cases, the shots excise living actors, reminding the viewer of the abandonment of the body in death. The shots are frequently so close that there can be no question about who and what we are seeing. These tactics are sad, abject, deliberate, and intimate--they provoke a particular cocktail of emotions that fuels the efficacy of the resurrection in the final moments in the episode.
In this, Jon Snow's body is preceded by two art historical corpses in two very different eras and contexts. They are:
I was first reminded of Manet's Dead Toreador because of the Night Watch's black garb and the pooled blood. My mind leapt to Mantegna's Dead Christ when these raking shots continued during the resurrection ritual. These two paintings are frequently tied together for clear reasons related to artistic virtuosity. There is some certainty that Manet knew of Mantegna's work, and both artists would have reveled in the chance to demonstrate their expertise at employing such a difficult perspective. Mantegna worked in tempera, a medium that does not usually lend itself to such extreme detail. Similarly, Manet's painting demonstrates his expertise at shading in blacks, a concept that will have resonance for anyone who has ever tried to watch a lowly lit Game of Thrones episode on a laptop.
But more than that, these paintings confront the viewer with the death of a presumedly beloved character in its clear, chilling truth. With the Dead Christ, a viewer can see the skin turning back around the holes where the nails were driven into his skin; the painting itself enacts certain tenets of faith that suggest the faithful must try to understand the particular pain of the crucifixion. Manet's Dead Toreador was cut from a larger painting that showed the full arena; this figure was deliberate excised by Manet from a scene that included living toreadors, an audience, and, notably, the animal that killed him. In that image, the dead body would have filled the foreground. The National Gallery's website puts the effect of this change the best: "The fallen matador is no longer part of a narrative but is instead an icon, an isolated and compelling figure of sudden and violent death."
As if we, as viewers, needed to feel the horror Jon Snow's sudden death any more acutely, the show drives home its violence and the uncertainty it leaves behind by using this iconography. Before we are given our resurrected savior (or is he...?), we must be cued visually to grieve his loss. We must understand his pain, feel certain that he has died, and give up, as Melisandre did, before he can be returned.