3 Art History Experts Explain Beyoncé’s Epic Grammys Performance

Is Beyoncé our greatest living artist? (Yes.)

Beyoncé's 2017 Grammy performance was a spellbinding, breathtaking interlude — an oasis in the awards show desert. In just over eight minutes, we had Beyoncé supine on a precariously suspended chair while pregnant with twins; an ocean of floral arrangements; and the poetry of Warsan Shire. Doreen St. Félix wrote at length about Beyoncé's gold-dipped celebration of the maternal and eternal, and her evocation of "the sort of spirituality that converges with aesthetics."

When it ended, we were in tears and hungry for more. We reached out to three experts in art history to further plumb the allusions and symbolism of the performance.

We also had to ask them one final question: Is Beyoncé the greatest living artist, yes or yes? Read on to find out.

Professor Cheryl Finley

Associate Professor and Director of Visual Studies, Cornell University

Beyoncé’s 2017 Grammy Awards performance relied heavily on visual references to the Yoruba river/love goddess Oshun, who is associated with sweetness, acts of kindness and generosity, calmness, and bountiful love. But her live/video projection/multilayered performance also referenced the African water goddess Mami Wata, the Hindu goddess Kali, and the Roman goddess Venus.

Oshun is one of the seven major Yoruba (from Nigeria) gods or deities incorporated into Santería, a creolized religion combining elements of Catholicism, brought to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade hundreds of years ago. Oshun bore twins to Shango, the thunder god, with whom she ruled from his expansive brass palace. Hence, the brassy/gold hue of Beyoncé’s elaborate crown and regal robe reference the wealth of brass objects — bracelets, fans, earrings, staffs, and swords — accumulated by Oshun as the mother of Yoruba twins. When she died, Oshun took these brass treasures with her to the bottom of the river — thus her association with both calm and coolness as well as a darker side, referencing on the one hand witchcraft, and on the other, masculine prowess in war, according to art historian Robert Farris Thompson.

Shrine of Oshun, Nigeria

Known for her powerful maternal instinct, Oshun is a fierce, loving goddess who is charged with protecting not only her children, but also her unborn children and, by extension, future generations. We see this in Beyoncé’s performance with the participation of her own mother, Tina Knowles, and then her daughter, Blue Ivy. Of course, we all know that she is pregnant with twins. The contemporary relevance and power of this transgenerational visual/spiritual reference is one that, to my mind, also references the political necessity of conscious musicians like Beyoncé, who have been charged with (or who have taken on) the responsibility of motivating, empowering, and mobilizing African-Americans through visual and aural reference to historical and contemporary shared experiences. This is especially evident in Lemonade — in its imagery and in the titles and lyrics of the songs — which seek to link African-American history with the contemporary moment. At times, the chorus of women dancers referenced Oshun’s watery, river goddess origins, and sometimes reflected the other goddesses that made up the multifaceted uber goddess enacted by Beyoncé, including the African river goddess Mami Wata and the multi-armed Hindu goddess Kali (when she’s wearing the beaded bikini and flowing drape), associated with love, death, and sexuality.

In addition to her association with maternity, power, and protection, Oshun’s connection to love and to the golden color of brass and its durable quality are also evident in Beyoncé’s performance from the radiating, flowered crown to the reflective, brass/yellow/golden robe to the oversized throne, which in its tilting motion faces toward the sun, again projecting her connection to the heavens, as a powerful goddess. The flowers onstage and in her hair send a shoutout the the Roman goddess Venus, the goddess of love, fertility, and beauty.

By now, it should be clear, too, that Oshun is associated with extreme beauty and that beauty — the beauty of black people, black women, men, girls, and boys — is a quality that Beyoncé not only exudes, but always has been keen on representing, projecting, and teaching to her own family and to her larger public family and fan base.

Is Beyoncé the greatest living artist, yes or yes? Yes.

Dr. Jo Livingstone

Staff Writer for Culture at The New Republic

There is a great deal that evokes medieval and Renaissance European Christian art in Beyoncé's Grammy performance. We might begin with the headdresses. Beyoncé herself wears a kind of crown that radiates spikes, while her dancers wear solid circular crowns. These strongly recall halos. In art history, we call the circular radius of a halo the nimbus; the dancers' solid nimbus halos are the traditional type of halo that an artist would give to a saint.

By contrast, Beyoncé wears what we call a radiant halo, because it looks like a starburst with rays coming out of it. We see these halos as early as the 10th century in Byzantine iconography, but they became popular in the early Renaissance in French painting. Initially they denoted a person who had been beatified but was not officially a saint yet. But they moved into more general use. You can see radiant halos nowadays in depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Meanwhile, Beyoncé's strange tilting chair at the end of a long table is very interesting to me. The first thing it makes me think of is a Renaissance depiction of the Last Supper. The table in Last Supper paintings is always long, like the one in the performance. Tintoretto's The Last Supper [above] even has radiant halos! Meanwhile, the roses strewn about on the floor recall Rococo painting (as I wrote about a little here) and, again, the Virgin of Guadalupe has a more kitschy syncretic tradition.

Is Beyoncé the greatest living artist, yes or yes? Duh.

Professor Cécile Fromont

Assistant Professor of Art History and the College, University of Chicago

The performance is a golden dreamscape of maternity figures and mythical women, from Hindu goddess in the first minutes, to Botticelli’s flowing-hair Venus from his Birth of Venus painting, to a Baroque apparition of the Virgin Mary gloriously floating on a cloud. The golden hues and halos of the many attendants also called to mind early Italian painters such as Simone Martini’s Maestà [below] of the Virgin surrounded by saints, also seen in Duccio or Giotto. The same artists are also well known for their paintings of last suppers, an imagery put to work in the choreography with the long table.

But the references also included strong calls to African visual culture, such as Fulani face paintings (and in particular the male face paintings, interestingly) with the long line in the middle of the face. Ethiopian icons, with their flat halos, and multiplication of faces also permeates throughout. The medallion on her stomach and regal attire also recall somewhat medieval Byzantine jewelry seen in mosaics and paintings.

Finally, the distinct Baroque character of the piece, with the gold, the rays around Beyoncé’s face, the carpet of roses, and the flowing robes bring to mind Latin American Baroque virgins and female saints, including perhaps Saint Rose of Lima, the first American woman to be beatified.

Is Beyoncé the greatest living artist, yes or yes? I am continually impressed! Such depth, such breadth…