The Head of a Moor: The Effect Context Has On Meaning

by Matthew Richter

I’ve been writing a lot about the way context and one’s perspective of context affect how we make meaning of the world around us. The impact to training and development is explicitly tied to how we interpret the content of a program via the activities that facilitate us toward some pre-determined objective. As an instructional designer, I often wonder how the objective I stipulate is what participants actually walk away internalizing—even if my final debrief discussion about what was learned specifically states those goals. Alternatively, I also wonder how often my conclusion that a specific problem in the business exists is accurate and really requires a training solution. In other words, the context of the training work we do can potentially lead to solutions and interventions that yield no positive effect.

Context makes up the scenario through which we see the world. It contains the values, the culture, the people, and the accumulated knowledge we have which then filters what we see and experience into our perspective, or interpretation. In other words, context is the raw material through which meaning is derived.

Like most with grand ideas we then use to fit into square pegs, this past weekend I unknowingly assumed I was imperious to the effects my context had on my misunderstandings of the world I was momentarily occupying. In fact, I thought myself above the potential failure to interpret an object, or lesson, or experience differently from what was actually in front of me. The ultimate hubris.

With a friend, I went to the Hyde House in Glens Falls, NY. The Hyde House was the residence of the premier family in town for much of the early part of the 20th century. The Hydes owned the paper mill and collected a wide variety of art from all eras, including many from the great masters. There is a Rembrandt, several Renoirs, Picassos, and the one that got me into trouble… a wonderful work called The Head of a Moor, by Peter Paul Rubens.

The painting is upstairs in the parlor. It is one of the largest rooms in the house. The first thing I noticed walking into it wasn't the plethora of art, but the gorgeous Steinway, from the early 1900s. The rest of the room is filled with paintings, sculptures, and tapestries. Every work has a religious theme, biblical in nature. This should have been the first indicator that any assumptions I’d make would be wrong. When it comes to biblical knowledge, I am a complete ignoramus. I should also point out, that with regard to art, I am even more so.

Ignorance, however, is no excuse for feeling superior or cocksure, In fact, often our very ignorance mixed with unfailing confidence can lead to some of our greatest misinterpretations.

From the perspective of where we walked into the room, in the far, left corner there was a collection of paintings that caught my eye. All of the paintings seemed to reflect in some part the birth of Christ, but one. If you are familiar with Rubens, or you are familiar with art representing Christ’s birth, you are in a better assumptive place than I was. I knew nothing. But, I knew a lot… about completely unrelated topics that would inform the  interpretation of what I saw.

The piece that caught my eye was this one… (We don't have the rights to republish a photo of the painting, so use the following link and check it out.)

Click here to see the Head of a Moorby Peter Paul Rubens.

As I mentioned, it is surrounded by works from the same time period, the 1600s and earlier. No other Rubens’ pieces are present. The other works lacked the realism this one has. The work is titled, “The Head of a Moor.” Other than the name of the painter, the title, the date painted, the date acquired, no other information is presented.

I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Because of the title and because of Rubens’ era, I immediately drew some conclusions.

I have some vague memories of Moorish history, and that many Moors were persecuted during the Inquisition. I also knew that the painting was from a period much later than the Inquisition. I also knew I wasn’t sure of my Inquisition history and might be attributing falsely what I thought happened to this poor man, but I figured I knew enough to grasp the context.

Also, the more I stared at it, the more I saw the pain in the man’s eyes. His left eye, the one closest to me, looks swollen, like he has been beaten. It’s hard to tell from the photo shown on the website linked above, but the hues in the top right of the painting are very red. Blood red. His downcast glaze is one of surrender. The different shades of color on his face could be bruises, further reinforcing my interpretation of torture. This is a beaten man.

I looked around again at the other works. Why was this painting mixed in with the other Christ related works? Yes… I could make some story connected to his islamic blasphemy, But that was probably stretching it. Oh well, in most of the rooms we saw, there was at least one piece that didn’t seem to fit thematically. That was actually pretty cool of the Hydes. In fact, the more I thought about it the more I created a complete narrative for how this head of a Moor ended up as a conversation piece juxtaposed with the other, more conservatively Christian pieces in the room.

Feeling superior. Feeling utterly brilliant and captivated by my own deductive capabilities, I felt the urge to show off. It was one of those moments of great pride, where I would demonstrate to the tour guide that I got it. Opportunity was knocking. (By the way, this is another piece of the context that informs the perspective—my superbly, hugely dangerous ego.)

So, I shared my insights with the tour guide and several of my fellow tourers. But, rather than get the anticipated “oohs and ahhs,” the tour guide said, “Many people ask a similar question as to why the Rubens is in this room.” Huh? I wasn’t original? “And, if you know the whole story, the piece truly belongs. Let me tell it to you.”

By the way, I should point out, the tour guide was wonderful. Full of great stories and anecdotes about the artists, the Hydes, and the paintings themselves. She was great. And, she brought us to the corner of the room where the Rubens’ hung along with another piece kitty corner to it. The piece showed Mary with a baby Christ, and the three wise men, or Magi. In the painting, we see Balthasar represented as a Moor, which was the custom or Northern European representations at the time. Our guide then told us the Moor in my painting was indeed Balthasar. So, the Rubens’ painting was not of an enslaved Moor. He was Balthasar. Oops. I got that one wrong. Secondly, she pointed out the red hues in the work. The light above Balthasar’s head radiating down below his gaze toward the baby Jesus. Not blood. Oops, again. The downward gaze was respect and a form of bowing down. Not pain and suffering. This was a close-up, a very realistic close-up, of a deeply religious story of a happy and extremely meaningful moment.

My context completely filtered the situation differently than the more accurate history of the work.

There are so many fascinating aspects to my experience with regard to understanding the interrelationship between context and perspective. First, my confidence that I understood what I saw drove me to act. Fortunately, my actions had no consequences, but in other cases of ignorance driving meaning, one can certainly see how poor choices could have be made. Second, my complete misreading of the painting, led me to draw conclusions and meaning that were not accurate. In literary theory, this is probably not such a bad thing. Authorial intent is not so relevant when we consider literature or art. In fact, we can more often derive cooler, more pertinent interpretations of art when we remove the painters’ intentions because we can focus on our own filters and our own contexts. But, when we consider public policy decisions, business decisions, or misunderstandings with regard to learning objectives, failure to understand accurately the context, the data, the information presented can lead to catastrophic endings.

I read The Head of a Moor from a 21st Century perch, a liberal perspective on race, and an ignorant understanding of religious context. I drew conclusions from my filter that any rendering of a black man in the 1600s by a European artist had to be racist and tortured. My assumptions were simplistic and missing critical data, but even knowing somewhat consciously that was true, didn’t stop me from being utterly confident that my reading was the right one to have. Not only that, I have a very limited knowledge of that time period and what little I do know is filled with gaps. That didn’t stop me from filling in those gaps with fiction and jumping to conclusions.

It struck me that I probably jump to wrong conclusions often. And as I am confident in my work, I probably let my assumptions lead me down the wrong path quite often. It is certainly easy to see when others do, but I am less likely to see it when I do. As trainers, as educators, as instructional designers, how do our assumptions and the rest of our contexts inform the choices we make incorrectly? What decisions do we make because we misread a situation? What actions do we take because we assume a particular training problem exists when the scenario is completely based on incorrect interpretations?

Context and perspective. I haven’t discussed the effects of Time, the third factor I have also been considering quite a bit, lately. But, Time in this story, is really my 21st century perspective reading a 17th century painting. The four century gap and all its accouterments shade and alter the context of 17th century Flanders and Rubens’ more contemporary reading of Balthasar.

Our goals as educators need to include the mitigation of our own context in how we interpret situations. Our ignorance is a major component of our context and can’t be dismissed as guiding us down the path to poor decisions.

Finally, if you can get to the Hyde House, do so… the variety of the over 3000 works on display is spectacular.