An Advent Calendar – 6

‘A Relief‘ –

Today’s window opens up to reveal a relief carving, which functions as part of a frieze that continues around the corner of one of the walls. On the 3rd, one of the elements of the ruins was a very tall, round-topped arch – we can see that arch springing from the base of the frieze on the right of the detail. And yesterday, we saw a capital, which is on the other side of the tall arch from this relief – they occupy a similar position within the painting, and must, therefore, be equivalent in some way. Whereas the capital was on top of a red, highly polished, cylindrical column (of circular cross-section), this relief supports the two grey stone bases of two square, red marble columns. I’m not sure what the significance of this parallel is, but it might simply reflect the way in which buildings were constructed. Certainly, in England, cathedrals such as Salisbury and Durham have similar architectural details picked out in dark, fossiliferous limestones (rather than red) – Purbeck and Frosterley respectively, in these cases.

The relief itself, on the side facing us, shows a stylised plant – some sort of vine – and three boys dancing. In Italy they would be called putti. A putto is, quite simply, a ‘boy’, from the Latin putus (an alternative to the more familiar puer, I believe). They are not cherubs – they do not have wings – so there is nothing to suggest that this relief is supposed to be religious in and of itself. The lack of ‘religiosity’ is perhaps enhanced by the dancing itself, which is a little grotesque. Looking at them up close they really reminding me of something – a late-15th/early-16th century drawing of boys – or possibly cherubs – dancing, probably from Germany, but I can’t quite place it. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know! However, they do remind me of Erasmus Grasser’s wonderful Morris Dancers, carved for Munich Town Hall in 1480. Compare these two with today’s relief, for example (OK, I cheated a little, and flipped the one on the left – I couldn’t find a photo taken from the other side).

I must write a full blog about them one day. I’ve always liked the sound of Grasser: they tried to stop him from becoming a member of the guild, describing him as a ‘disruptive, promiscuous and disingenuous knave’. And yes, you’re right, Morris Dancing in Germany! It clearly isn’t as English as we thought it was: the word itself is derived from ‘Moorish’ after all – more cultural influence from elsewhere…

As for the vine – well, I confess that I was expecting it to look more like a grape vine when I was picking out the detail, but not because of the sacramental significance. However, having said that, the reference could be entirely relevant. Have a look at this mosaic, for example.

It can be found in Rome – or rather, just outside the city walls (but well within the 20th Century suburbs) – and it shows a grape harvest. Surely a display of Bacchic revelry? Well no, it comes from the 4th Century Mausoleum of Costanza, next to the church of St Agnes ‘outside the walls’ – and so it is an early Christian mosaic. The fact is, when Christianity was legalised in 313 and Christians were finally allowed to build public places of worship and to decorate them, they had very little experience of doing so – and based their building designs, and their decorations, on the prevalent Roman styles. So this could easily be read as a celebration of Bacchus, the God of Wine, or it could also celebrate the Blood of Christ, and, for that matter, the Christian community as being at one with Jesus (as in Christ’s statement in John 15:5, ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches’). The meaning of the mosaic could vary according to its context, if it weren’t for the fact that, in this case, its context is fixed by its location within a church. Not so with today’s detail. Like yesterday’s capital, it is there to remind us that the old order – in this case the Roman Empire – will pass away. But it can also be read as evidence that the new order – Christianity – will continue. And it may well be for this reason that the whole frieze is in such good condition, and is supporting the two square columns. For this relief, much thanks…

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “An Advent Calendar – 6

  1. Those German Morris dancers are an amazingly close match for the stances of the putti. That carving suggests that peasant dancing with raised knees and thighs existed in Germany and throughout Europe. I’m seeing lots of raised knees and thighs in depictions of peasants dancing the Salterello and the Tarantello — and in satyrs on Greek vases. I’m enjoying your Advent calendar.

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