115 – Role Models

Correggio, The Madonna of the Basket, about 1524, National Gallery, London.

Hello again! And before we get to Correggio, an apology – for those of you who are able to come to The Scrovegni Chapel from top to bottom I got the timings wrong on the last blog: the talks are from 14.00 – 15.00 UK time. At least they were right on the diary page, and if you got as far as booking with ARTscapades you would have seen the right times there: thanks to those of you who noticed the mistake!

So now to Correggio, and a charming painting I referred to when answering a question during a National Gallery talk recently, but didn’t have an image to hand. The question was about the Madonna breastfeeding – an issue I covered not so long back when discussing Artemisia, and Mary. One of the reasons for its representation was to show the Virgin as a good role model – and in today’s painting Joseph joins her. And before you get all 21st Century on me (or 20th Century, for that matter, but some people are still catching up) I know that gender roles have changed – as have our ideas about gender itself – but this is a painting from the 16th Century. It will be just one of many works I will include in the short course I am giving for the Wallace Collection (most of them from the Wallace itself) on 2 and 3 December from 11.00 – 13.00 (and yes, I’ve got the time right, I just checked!) on The Childhood of Christ in Art.

Correggio The Madonna of the Basket about 1524 Oil on wood, 33.7 x 25.1 cm Bought from C. J. Nieuwenhuys collection, 1825 NG23 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG23

At first glance this might appear to be any other image of the Madonna and Child, an image which does not encapsulate any specific part of the biblical narrative, but is a devotional abstraction, on the whole, meant to illustrate the nature of the relationship and to emphasize the respect due to the Son of God and his mother. However, this is not an iconic Madonna and Child Enthroned, let alone a Maestà, in which the full ‘majesty’ of Mary, and the respect due to her as Queen of Heaven, is shown through the use of symbolic props (e.g. a crown), furniture (a throne) and supporting cast (the heavenly host, assembled in serried ranks). No, she is sitting on the ground, in all humility. The word in itself is related to sitting on the ground, as it has the same root as humus, meaning earth. She is seated at the foot of a tree, which takes up the top left hand corner of the picture, and I can’t help thinking that the two trunks – one broader, on the left, and another narrower, on the right, are in some way related to the figures of Mary and Jesus, who appear to have the same relative age, width and position as the two trunks: they represent strength, and our future growth. The ground is green, growing with lush vegetation, which adds to the sense of pleasant harmony created by the apparently smiling mother holding her son, still too young to be fully coordinated, who is sitting on her lap. She wears her traditional colours – a red robe, albeit seen here as a powdery pink, with a blue cloak, just visible on the left of the painting beneath her elbow. Jesus’s gesture, with his arms reaching out in both directions, forms a diagonal that is continued by the grassy slope on which they are seated, alongside which is a path, with a low stone wall on the other side, leading to a rough wooden fence.

Beyond the fence we see the carpenter Joseph at work, using a plane to smooth a post, or something similar. Correggio’s control of atmospheric perspective (the way in which the air, or atmosphere, affects the way we see distant objects) is superb, and Joseph is painted almost in monochrome, as if the air were misty, or full of dust.  He appears to be marginalised, a subsidiary part of the painting: this would have been Correggio’s intention. Poor Joseph, he is excluded from the verdant garden in which Mary and Jesus share such an intimate relationship. But then, when you remember that the word ‘paradise’ is derived from an Old Iranian word meaning ‘walled enclosure’ – or effectively, ‘garden’ – not only is the garden, but also the wall, explained. Jesus, as Son of God, is already – and is always – in paradise, even if temporarily with us on Earth. Mary, free of sin (see Picture Of The Day 71 and POTD 72 – The Immaculate Conception), would never have to suffer the penalty of expulsion. Joseph, on the other hand, as a descendant of Adam and Eve, is excluded from paradise until Christ’s sacrifice redeems him. Not only that, but, unlike Mary, he is not physically related to Jesus – he may be Christ’s stepfather, and an honourable man, but he has no exemption from damnation should Christ’s mission fail. Which, admittedly, we know it won’t.

As for Jesus’s brief period, ‘temporarily with us on Earth’, what exactly was he? God? Or man? The answer, settled as early as 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, was that Jesus was both God and man – he had two ‘natures’ – but as mere humans, this is difficult for us to reconcile. Even if we accept he was the Son of God, and for that matter, as part of the Holy Trinity, God himself, how could he be like any other man while down on Earth? Well, it helps to show him naked, so that we can see that he was like any other man, which is why there are so many images of the Baby Jesus inadequately clad. By the time the Counter Reformation came along, the theology seems to have been secure, but the nudity of Our Lord, even at this tender age of innocence, was deemed, in contemporary parlance, ‘inappropriate’ – and so nappies were introduced, or skirts lengthened.

Behind Joseph – and so you could argue, even further from paradise – there are a whole array of ruins. Steps lead up from him past the base of a half-column, attached to stone pier, behind which are the remains of a rough stone wall, the lower part of which is still covered in plaster. Further back still is a collection of columns topped by a sloping roof (a memory of the unstable stable in Bethlehem, perhaps?) then another, more massive, ruined wall, and the base of yet another column. In Nativity scenes the symbolism is quite specific: it relates to at least two texts in the bible, and early Christian theology. During the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17) Jesus says, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil,’ and in John 2:19 he also says, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ In St Augustine’s The City of God, written in the early 5th Century, the author suggests that as Christianity continued to grow, the Roman Empire would fall. All three of these ideas add up to the same thing – Jesus hadn’t come to destroy the old order, whether that be Judaism or Rome, but to rebuild it – and that is the idea that the ruins represent. Notice that Joseph is hard at work, part of the process of rebuilding.

So Joseph, marginalised as he is, is a good role model, working hard to support wife and family, while also furthering God’s purpose. Mary, too is a good mother. In the bottom left hand corner is the basket which gives the painting its name, beautifully woven, and, for that matter, beautifully painted. In it are a pair of shears, or scissors, a ball of thread and some cloth. Mary’s skills as a seamstress are not mentioned in the bible, but the implication is that, like all good mothers, she must have stayed at home and made clothes for her son. One of the many stories about her – in the apocryphal 2nd Century Protoevangelium – relates to her activities in the temple as a child. After she was presented to the temple (POTD 73 – Mary), and before she found a suitable husband (POTD 31 – The Suitors Praying), she spent her time with the other virgins spinning thread and weaving the veil of the temple. Lots were drawn to see who would spin which colour, and Mary was chosen to spin the purple – the colour associated with royalty – which, as she would become Queen of Heaven, was entirely apt.

In this 12th Century mosaic Annunciation from ‘La Martorana’ in Palermo we see Mary, wearing the imperial purple, in the process of putting down the thread she has been spinning as Gabriel approaches. We might not see this as purple, but the meaning of the word itself was not fully defined for centuries, and could refer to almost anything between red and blue. This thread needs to be distinguishable from her own clothing, but also to look rich – and it works on both counts.

When we look back to Correggio’s painting, we can see what Mary has been making – a coat in Correggio’s typically muted colour range, but definitely purple: this is the boy born to be king, after all. So far he has only managed to put his right arm into its sleeve, and as his little hand emerges, it seems to be blessing. But also, with both arms extended, and that right arm going upwards from the shoulder, it seems clear that Jesus already knows when his arm will find that position again. Which might make us question what it is that the carpenter Joseph is actually working on? And is Mary really smiling – or has Jesus’s gesture temporarily stopped her in her tracks, as she bows her head and takes a breath, aware of the implications? In order to rebuild this tiny temple, it would first have to grow to adulthood, only to be destroyed: one day in the future this baby will be nailed to the cross. All of the family know this. It is part of the process of rebuilding.


114 – Giotto in Assisi

Giotto, The Institution of the Crib at Greccio, 1297-1300, Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi.

I’m thinking about Giotto again for a number of different reasons. The first is that Giotto is, quite simply, always worth thinking about. The second is that I am about to embark on a short course, a series of three lectures entitled The Scrovegni Chapel from top to bottom, which is the first project of a new venture, ARTscapades, which aims to raise money for museums and galleries – and you can contribute simply by booking tickets for their events. If you click on the title above it will take you to the page for the first of the talks, which is on Tuesday 17 November between 2pm and 3pm UK time. The 2nd and 3rd talks will be on the following Tuesdays at the same time (these and other upcoming events are listed in my diary). Another reason to think about Giotto is that I was delighted to receive a copy of Laura Jacobus’s Giotto and the Arena Chapel as an early Christmas present from my wonderful sister… thank you! Just in the nick of time, you could say. I might even have time to read it before Tuesday!

But for today I want to move away from Padua, and head to Assisi, the town in which St Francis was born, and where he died. There is a sequence of 28 frescoes in the Upper Church of San Francesco devoted to the life of the saint which run along the bottom of the walls, just above the fictive tapestries. At least 25 are believed to have been painted by Giotto himself – although not everyone is convinced, with some art historians identifying the hands of at least three different anonymous masters, the Master of the Legend of St Francis, the Master of the Obsequies of St Francis, and the Cecilia Master. Having said that, there are those who believe that they were all designed by Giotto, even if he didn’t paint them himself. It’s one of those art historical problems which may never be resolved – so let’s not worry about it too much, and look at the painting instead.

I’ve chosen this image as I have often used it to illustrate the way in which medieval churches ‘functioned’. You should always be careful about using paintings as source material, though, because the artist is trying to tell a story, and not to explain the nature of ecclesiastical architecture. However, for someone like Giotto, who may himself had a hand in the design of the Scrovegni Chapel, such details were important – and the more the viewers believed that the building depicted was real, the more they were likely to believe the story that was being told. This particular narrative takes place in a church, and we find ourselves in the chancel, with the high altar to our right. It is surrounded by four columns which support a canopy. The most famous example of this type of structure is Bernini’s baldachino in St Peter’s, with its twisted Solomonic columns, so called because it was believed that the temple of Solomon had columns like this – indeed, it was believed that St Peter’s had one of the originals. However, for most medieval churches standard cylindrical columns sufficed. The structure as a whole is called a ciborium – the same name that is given to the covered cup used to contain the host during the Eucharist. The baldachino is a ciborium, as it happens, but gets this name from its canopy, which imitates the fabric that all good baldachins should have. As well as ‘crowning’ the altar, a ciborium is there to frame it, and enhance its status. Like the covered cup, it effectively protects and ‘contains’ the host.

To the left of the altar we see a lectern, or reading desk, surrounded by a number of singing Franciscans. We know they are singing, as all of their mouths are open at the same time, and it seems unlikely that so many Franciscans would be so unruly as to talk at the same time as their brothers. Lecterns such as this would often be used for hymnals, with the music being as large as possible – with all books being written by hand there would only be one for the whole choir, although they would not all read it from a distance. Much of the music would have been learnt by heart, and a choirmaster could indicate the flow of the music through appropriate gestures. Gathered around the altar are a number of clerics – the officiating Priest, for example, who turns away from the altar to look down at a haloed cleric – St Francis – who has taken a baby – also with a halo – from a wooden box. Next to the box are two animals – a goat and a diminutive cow, it seems – and nearby are a number of laymen, who appear to be well-dressed: aristocrats and successful merchants, presumably. Behind these people is a wall, and peering through a hole in the wall are a group of women.

The nature of this ‘wall’ is made clear by the features which top it, most importantly a cross, leaning away from us, and hanging from a simple support – a vertical post, held up by two diagonals, with a chain, or rope, attached from its apex to the heart of the cross. The brown colour, and the shape of the batons, tell us that this is wood, and that we are looking at the back of a painted crucifix, the medieval English name for which was the Rood. Having identified this, we realise (if we hadn’t before) that this ‘wall’ is what in Britain would be called a ‘Rood Screen’ – or choir screen. You might assume that the space beyond the screen – the choir, or chancel – was only accessible to the clergy. But no, the screen was more ‘porous’, and certain people were granted privileged access. However, it is only men who are allowed beyond the screen – the women are excluded, which is why they are left peering through the door. The same situation prevails to this day in much of the Orthodox Church, which continues the use of a ‘screen’, called an iconostasis (‘stand for icons’) to enclose the Holy of Holies. If you want to know what the crucifix looks like from the front, it was almost certainly meant to resemble Giotto’s own painting in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, which probably dates from the same decade as the fresco. I’d love to show you a photo of the back of this painting, to show you that the wooden support was put together in the same way, but I cannot find an image online… Why is the back of a painting not interesting enough to warrant this? It was interesting enough for Giotto to paint in his fresco, after all!

At the top left of the fresco is a pulpit, the idea being that the clergy could preach to the congregation without leaving the chancel. There is a staircase leading up to it, visible above the heads of the men on the far left. The word ‘pulpit’ is derived from its location, coming from the word pulpitum, meaning a scaffold, or platform – a raised structure from which to speak (I discuss all the elements of church ‘furniture’ in my book The Secret Language of Churches and Cathedrals, by the way – I’ve just edited the link to go to the new bookshop.org – supporting local bookshops rather than corporate internationals). Now, although Giotto’s intention is to tell a particular story, part of his storytelling technique is to give the narrative a convincing location, and Italian churches really did look like this. Indeed, the Scrovegni Chapel originally had such a screen cutting across what now appears as a continuous nave, and this had a pulpit with a staircase leading up to it. However, do you remember ever seeing a choir screen, or rood screen, in an Italian church? Run through all the ones you’ve visited in your mind’s eye! I can only think of one, off the top of my head, and that is in the Frari in Venice. The fact is that most choir screens in Italian churches were removed as a result of the Counter Reformation, enabling the congregation to participate more fully, as they would have greater access to the liturgy. As a result, when new churches were built, starting with Palladio’s glorious Redentore (also, coincidentally, in Venice), the choir was constructed behind the altar, so that it wouldn’t be in the way. In several churches the choir, which was originally in front of the altar, was moved behind, after an extension had been built at the back of the church. I’ve never known why the choir in the Frari was not destroyed. It is a fantastic choir, though, and maybe that was reason enough.

You may be wondering what the curious structure between the back of the crucifix and the pulpit is. Quite simply, it is part of the church, the base of a corbel supporting one of the overlying structures. Of course, you may also be wondering what exactly is going on in this fresco.

The story dates back to Christmas 1223, and was first told in Thomas of Celano’s Life of St Francis. The Order of Friars Minor (‘Franciscans’) was founded by St Francis in 1209, and Thomas joined six years later: he would have known Francis, although probably not well. His ‘Life’ was commissioned by Pope Gregory IX in 1228, the year in which Francis was canonised. This was only two years after his death, a mark of the high regard with which he was held (by means of a contrast, although St Dominic died five years before St Francis, he was not canonised until six years after). Thomas completed his first version of the biography within a year, and wrote a second, fuller version, some 17 years later. Here is a link to a 1926 translation of the relevant section, Chapter 30, of the first text. However, it seems likely that Giotto relied on the Life of St Francis written in 1260 by St Bonaventure – also a Franciscan, but too young to have known the founder (the link is to a translation from 1904).

According to Bonaventure, “It happened in the third year before his death [i.e. 1223], that in order to excite the inhabitants of Greccio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, St. Francis determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed.” From this it is quite clear that we are not talking about a conventional Christmas Crib – these are real animals, not models. Back to Bonaventure: “The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise” – and indeed, we can see all the Franciscans singing.

The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem…

A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Greccio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.”

At this point, everything becomes hypothesis. Thomas of Celano mentions ‘a lifeless child’ – but not a doll – and both say that Francis acted as if to rouse him from sleep. This is not unlike a number of Renaissance paintings in which it is clear that the sleeping child is a premonition of the future dead Christ – and in the same way that sleep is followed by waking, Christ’s death is followed by his resurrection. The message is clear. By recreating the situation of the Nativity in all its humility, Francis enabled his followers to believe in the story – and to believe in it so entirely that they could see the Christ Child himself there among them. What Giotto is doing is essentially the same: painting the narrative with as much naturalism as he could muster, to make the miraculous appearance of the divine infant entirely natural. Such is the power of art.


113 – Artemisia, and Mary.

Hello! It’s been a while… over a month, bizarrely enough, although I can’t tell whether time is going quickly or slowly. The time has been filled with numerous adventures, I’m glad to say, including two trips to Venice, one working, one holiday, and both a joy! I’ve also managed to take in a number of exhibitions, including a return visit to Titian at the National Gallery, and a first encounter with the NG’s glorious Artemisia, the inspiration for today’s musings. I continue to make plans for the future, plans which, as you will realise, are constantly subject to change. Among the most exciting is A Flash Trip to Stockholm, 2 – 5 November – and if you’re free and want to get away while we still can, please do join us. For a reminder of just one of the things we will see, have a look back to Picture Of The Day 36 – St George. More of the plans later on – let’s concentrate on Artemisia.

She truly was a remarkably woman, and a great artist. I’ve already written about her twice (POTD 17 and POTD 69), but she is always worth coming back to, and if you haven’t managed to make it to the exhibition, it really is worthwhile. Her strength of character is well known, and frequently discussed, and the fortitude and determination of the women she paints is also rightly celebrated, notably in a number of images of Judith and Holofernes. But amidst the focus on her personal life and misfortunes, on her strength and on the strength of her subjects, and on her genuine understanding of the plight of women which was born of personal experience (something which no male artist could possibly have had, of course), I can’t help thinking that today’s painting has not received the attention it deserves. Apart from anything else, I think it is a wonderfully beautiful image, its delicacy, and the affection it depicts, matched by a beautifully conceived composition.

The Madonna fills the full space of the painting, bringing her closer to us, and making the subjects more immediate, more ‘present’. The Christ Child sits on her lap in a position more sophisticated than we would expect for a toddler – but then, this is the Son of God.

She sits on a low chair, and in order to prevent her son from slipping off her lap, her feet are tucked to one side, so her right thigh remains horizontal. Her left knee is not so strongly bent, allowing the child to lean on her left thigh, which is slightly higher. The overlapping zig-zags of her legs – one in dark shadow, and another in brilliant light (the chiaroscuro developed by the recently-deceased Caravaggio being used to full advantage) is then echoed by the ‘v’ of her blue cloak, lying over the seat of the chair, swept back by her leg, and curving out and around, a fuller expression of the folds seen in the pink robe. She is seated on this cloak, and we see it again tucked around her right arm, framing the leg in the dark shadows, and enclosing the form of the child. Her left arm supports him, but doesn’t hold him – almost as if she is wary of the touch, and the gap between her thumb and forefinger opens up toreveals a deeply shadowed hollow, allowing the brilliant white fabric loosely held around Jesus – a hint of the shroud to come, perhaps? – to shine out.

There is another deep void between them, a dark shadow that makes them look entirely sculptural, and seems to represent the gap in their respective experience – she would have been little more than a girl, whereas he is the Son of God. And it is he who bridges the divide, his left arm reaching up to touch her neck with delicacy and with concern, as he looks into her eyes with ineffable love. There is a sense of divine understanding in this look, and in this gesture, which, like the elegant way in which he reclines, is far beyond his human years. Mary looks down with humility, as she offers her breast between her middle- and forefingers. The thin, white hem of her chemise, seen again at her wrist, create another link to him, as this hint of whiteness echoes the white fabric which enfolds him.

The dark space between them forms a diagonal which reaches to the top right corner of the painting. Their torsos and her legs are roughly parallel to this line, while his arm, and the gaze between the two, follow an opposing diagonal. That this was a hard-won composition can be seen from the numerous pentimenti – or changes – which are now visible: a phantom elbow and some transparent drapery curving out from her waist can be seen against the back of the simple chair, and the dark background around their heads appears to be filled with other ghostly presences, almost as if adding to their sanctity, which is defined by their haloes, hers almost solid, his, an undefinable glow.

Hard-won, yes, but not entirely original, as it happens. Ultimately it is derived from a print attributed to the School of Marcantonio Raimondi, the first engraver to base his works on other people’s paintings, and usually, on Raphael’s. It shouldn’t surprise us that Artemisia was inspired by a print. The painting is dated ‘About 1613-14’ in the catalogue of the National Gallery’s exhibition, although some authorities date it earlier – around 1609 – when Artemisia would have been 16. I don’t doubt the catalogue’s later date. Apparently, X-Rays of this painting suggest that, as well as the Raimondi engraving, a later painting which she would have seen in Florence was probably another source for this image, and she didn’t get to Florence until late 1612 or early 1613. But something that is worth bearing in mind is that, as a woman, she would not have been able to move freely through the city, and certainly, as a girl, should would not have been allowed out on her own. So her first knowledge of art would have come directly from her father, Orazio, who trained her, and from small, portable works of art – such as prints – which could have been owned, or borrowed, by the family. But she has not simply copied the print. Apart from the obvious omission of Joseph, she extends the reach of the child to touch his mother’s neck, tucks his right elbow within her enfolding arm, and ensures that they look at each other. Artemisia alone is responsible for the intimacy, and for the love between mother and son, that are such important features of the composition.

Why these changes? Should we read something about Artemisia’s own life from them, as people tend to with so many of her paintings? Probably not. Dating from her early years in Florence, shortly after she married and moved away from Rome, her experience as a mother at this stage was short-lived and harsh. She had five children, but only two of them survived infancy, and only one reached adulthood. The first, Giovanni Battista, was born in September 1613, but lived little more than a week. The second, Agnola, arrived in December of the following year, but died before she could be baptised. This means that by the time the Madonna was painted, Artemisia would have had next to no personal knowledge of breastfeeding. Of love, and of loss, on the other hand, she was only too aware.

The subject itself is more common than you might realise: the Madonna Lactans – the Madonna breastfeeding, or about to feed. It was popular in medieval times, and survived into the 16th Century for a number of reasons. One, which seems oddly contemporary, is that some were aware of the benefits of maternal breastfeeding, and were concerned that aristocratic women were all too willing to hand their babies over to wet nurses. But that is probably irrelevant here. The genre is one of the ways in which Mary could be shown as a good role model for all women: a good mother, not only pure, but also willing to stay at home and look after her baby. However, feeding the infant Christ can also be seen as the source of some of her influence. Recently I’ve become particularly interested in a rather unusual painting attributed to Lorenzo Monaco (I have no doubts about the attribution – I can’t imagine who else it would be by) which is currently in the Cloisters in New York, but which was originally painted for Florence Cathedral.

The painting shows the Holy Trinity, with God the Father at top centre, gesturing towards God the Son at bottom left, the Holy Spirit flying between, as if released from the Father’s right hand. Christ gestures to the wound in his chest, while indicating his mother, who holds something in her left hand, and gestures to a group of diminutive individuals kneeling in prayer before Jesus. The gestures tell us they are interceding with the Father, asking him to be merciful to us mere mortals. Jesus asks him something, referring to the wound, and to his mother, in support of his request, while Mary’s concern is for the people. The text, written onto the background, makes everything clear.

“My Father, let those be saved for whom you wished me to suffer the Passion,” says Jesus, as Mary addresses him: “Dearest son, because of the milk that I gave you, have mercy on them.” Even from the detail above it might not be entirely obvious that Mary is displaying her right breast. For one thing, accuracy with human anatomy was never Lorenzo’s concern, and for another, it is not something you would expect to see in a church. But what the painting really makes clear is that Mary’s physical nourishment of Jesus with the milk from her breast was seen as an equivalent of the way in which Jesus nourishes us spiritually with the blood and water that flowed mingled down from the wound in his chest. She shares his role in our redemption, and as such, was given a wonderful title, Co-Redemptrix, which went out of fashion in the 16th Century. I’m not at all sure that Artemisia would have been aware of any of this as she painted her Madonna. For her, and for her audience, the intimacy between mother and son, and the devotional nature of the image, would have been its chief charms. More abstruse elements of theology are all very well and good in a church, but wouldn’t make art sellable to the great and the good of 17th Century Florence, Artemisia’s target audience. Nevertheless, the theology of the Madonna Lactans hovers somewhere in the background of this beautiful image.

I discussed these ideas at length recently in my short course for the National Gallery, inspired by their exhibition Sin: the art of transgression. If you missed that, I will be reshaping the highlights into an online talk for Art History Abroad on 2 December. It’s not on their website yet, but as soon as it is I will put a link on my diary page. I am also starting to think about a short course looking at the ways in which Jesus is represented in the Wallace Collection, which should happen at about the same time – the beginning of Advent. More details of this, and of the National Gallery’s Stories of Art: Module 3 – on the 16th Century – when I have them, although Stories of Art will start on Wednesday 6 January for 6 weeks. In the meantime, do come to Stockholm if you’re free. If not, then until the next time, farewell!


112 …and so, ‘Farewell’…

Giotto, The Scrovegni Chapel, c. 1305, Padua.

This is it, the very last ‘Scrovegni Saturday’. When I started out on this strand I had no idea what was coming, but I feel I understand Giotto’s decoration far better than I did before – and inevitably I also have far more questions about it than previously! I am enormously indebted to Ingrid Wassenaar who kicked the whole project off, simply because of her interest in the Virtues and Vices. Only gradually did I realise why. As I mentioned (Picture Of The Day 45), they were known to Proust, and Ingrid just happens to be an authority on Proust, whereas I know nothing. Nevertheless, it triggered this exploration of the entire fresco cycle, which I for one do not consider to be lost time.

The next thing is to learn something more about it. I confess that I have never read a book on the subject – I tend to glean, picking up scraps here and there, and learn most by looking. As with all of this blogging, a lot of what I have said about the chapel is my personal opinion, based on years of experience, and, with these frescoes, easy access online to the bible and the Golden Legend. But I am bound to have made some mistakes – indeed, I know I have: my brief foray into the British Library told me as much! So I wanted to share a couple more things with you, to give you my suggestions for further reading, and then to try and synthesize the whole thing (which I have been trying to do all the way through).

Three books, all of which seem to be rather good, were published in the space of a couple of years just over a decade ago. They would all be worth reading, I think. I’ll give you a link to Amazon, too, in case you want a closer look, although you might prefer to order them from your local book dealer. Come to think of it, you might prefer to go to your nearest library…

Laura Jacobus, Giotto and the Arena Chapel: Art, architecture and experience, Harvey Miller, 2008.

Of the three, this is the one I think I will start with when I next have the chance to get to the British Library (I’ll do that because I’ve just checked Amazon – sadly the book is out of print, but there is a copy selling for £250!!!). It is a thorough investigation of everything relating to the Chapel, from its history, its architecture and it setting through to Giotto’s decorations – which is the only aspect of the site that I have talked about. There is so much more to know about the building itself, and the patron. But also there is more to know about the lived experience of the chapel – of which, there is a little hint below. The illustrations in the body of the text are mainly black and white, and there is a section with the paintings in narrative order. I was a bit surprised to see that none of the books discuss the frescoes in this way, but that is surely because they are so interlinked that it could be more valuable to explore the themes and relationships between the separate images. However, I do think it helps to have an understanding of the flow of the narrative. One of the reasons I want to read this first is quite simple: I met Laura once when I was doing my PhD research, and she was both generous with her time, and spot on with her advice – so she’s clearly a good person! And, of course, she is one of the acknowledged authorities on Giotto and on Enrico Scrovegni.

Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, The usurer’s heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008.

This is a rather academic book, I suspect (my brief visit to the British Library only allowed enough time to flick through the three books, so I can’t vouch for every aspect of the text – although they are clearly all first rate). It deals very specifically with Scrovegni himself and the reasons behind his commission. In the process the authors explore the history of usury and the Church’s attitude towards it. Although it has the largest format of the three books, the illustrations are mainly black and white as before. There is a sequential arrangement of paintings at the end (although not all are included) and it has some wonderful fold-out ‘panoramic’ views, helping you to understand the layout of the decorations as a whole. The book’s title comes from one of the miracles of St Anthony of Padua, a miracle which in some ways seems to combine the reputation of Scrovegni’s father as a usurer (even though he lived after St Anthony) with the reputation of Padua as one of the few places where human anatomy was studied. Legend has it that an autopsy was carried out on a recently-dead miser, who was found to have no heart. St Anthony predicted that it would be found with whatever he loved the most, and inevitably it turned up in his treasure chest. Below is a photograph of Donatello’s relief illustrating the miracle, which was part of the elaborate bronze altarpiece he made for the Church of St Anthony – know universally as Il Santo, ‘The Saint’ – between 1447 and 1450. The miser is in the centre, his rib-cage cut open, while the treasure chest is on the far left, the very heart-shaped heart being lifted out at the end of a long, ribbed artery by a bearded man surrounded by what could be a group of bemused-looking students.

Donatello, The Miracle of the Miser’s Heart, 1447-50, Il Santo, Padua.

Andrew Ladis, Giotto’s O: narrative, figuration, and pictorial ingenuity in the Arena Chapel, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009.

Andrew Ladis sadly died while this book was being edited, so it might be missing some of its polish. Nevertheless, as he starts from the premise that every single image in the chapel is placed in relationship to everything around it for very specific reasons, then we must be on the same wavelength. All of the illustrations here are in colour, which always adds to the joy of the world, given that all are of high quality. This would be my second choice – although both this and the previous volume are selling for around £69.00… Libraries have always been inviting, but this makes them more so (though if anyone was wondering what I wanted for Christmas…)

And I have two specific points – one I have never fully considered, and another I have always misunderstood. I really don’t know why. As it happens, they are at either end of the chapel, directly opposite one another.

When introducing Enrico Scrovegni himself (POTD 38) I said that he was presenting a model of the chapel to three angels. I was wrong. My excuse, and I’m sure it’s a feeble one, is that there is so much going on in the vast fresco of The Last Judgement that I have never had time to stop and look at every detail properly. The three people are clearly holy as they all have halos, but they have no wings. Now, not every painted angel has wings, but nevertheless, they are not angels. They appear to be wearing white, red and green, which are the colours related to the three Theological Virtues, Faith, Charity and Hope respectively – but that could be a coincidence, as all three are saints, and there is, in any case, some evidence that the colours have changed. Authors dispute the identity of these figures, but about the central one there is no doubt: it is the Virgin Mary. This may come as a surprise, as anyone versed in Italian religious painting will assume she wears blue – but this was not always the case. The connection with Charity is not a coincidence, as it happens: the chapel was dedicated to Santa Maria della Carità – St Mary of Charity, or St Mary of Love, or even, St Mary of Mercy. The hope was that she would be charitable – even merciful – towards Enrico Scrovegni’s father, and intercede on his behalf with her son. But who are the other two? There is some debate, and some would go so far as to suggest that the other two figures are different embodiments of the Virgin. I cannot agree with that. The one on the left does not have any form of hair dressing, hat, or even head covering, so must be male. The logical conclusion would be St John the Evangelist. Although I haven’t talked about them at all, aside from a brief mention, there are two side altars in the chapel. They are dedicated to St John the Evangelist and St Catherine of Alexandria. I have remarked before that a lot of Giotto’s inspiration came from the Gospel of St John and, if I am right, this would be why. The third person, wearing a crown, must be St Catherine (who was supposed to be a princess). Given that the chapel is dedicated to Mary, John and Catherine, it is surprising that there has been any debate about the identity of these figures – their presence here effectively maps out the dedication of the chapel. I’m only surprised that I hadn’t stopped to think about it more. I was probably too caught up with all the torments of hell – and every other detail in the enormous fresco – to pay it enough heed. Nevertheless, consider my wrist slapped!

At the other end, above the Chancel Arch, there is an image of God the Father painted on a wooden panel. I don’t know how I got the idea that this was a door (POTD 80). There comes a point, when one has been talking about something for over twenty years (and my first visit to the chapel with a group of students was in 1999), when you realise that you don’t know where your information came from. There were, as I mentioned, regular staged performances of a dramatized version of The Annunciation associated with the chapel. Indeed, on the feast day itself, 25 March, there was more than one performance which took place in different locations in Padua. But this wooden panel has no connection to them. It replaces a stained glass window which is presumed to have depicted God the Father. The light which entered here would have been partly practical, but mainly symbolic, representing Jesus, the Light of the World, coming into the world. I’m just sorry I didn’t know this until now, and look forward to reading more about it.

The dedication of the chapel to St Mary of Charity – or Love, or even Mercy – is embodied in the detail we saw above from the enormous Last Judgement which takes up the whole of the ecclesiastical West wall of the chapel. Christ is enthroned beneath another window – the light of truth, perhaps, shining down on his judgement – with the blessed gathered under his right hand (on our left) and the damned, with all the torments of hell, under his left (on our right).

Directly opposite this is another vision of heaven, with God the Father – initially in a window, so actually made of light, but now on a wooden panel – surrounded by some of the angelic host. Directly opposite hell we see Judas receiving the thirty pieces of silver, his fee for betraying Jesus, whereas opposite the blessed, who are approaching heaven, we see the Annunciate Virgin, wearing the same red as in the dedication, and below her, The Visitation, with Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth. This story includes the first recognition of Jesus, even though unborn, as Saviour. The two side altars, dedicated to Sts John the Evangelist and Catherine of Alexandria, are clearly visible at the bottom right and left of this photograph.

Stretching from hell to Judas, along the bottom of the ‘North’ wall, are the seven Vices. On the other side, we see the seven Virtues. As we approach the High Altar, we should remember that Christ sits in Judgement behind us – and, like him, the Virtues are on our right hand, the Vices on our left – we have the capacity to choose right from wrong, and to be more like Mary than Judas. The story of Salvation is told within this overlying framework.

The Virtues are at the bottom – the High Altar, and the Visitation, are to the left, and the Last Judgement, with the blessed entering heaven, to the right

On the ‘South’ wall, spread around the windows, we see the Story of Joachim and Anna at the top, starting with Joachim’s rejection from the temple and ending with him being welcomed at the Golden Gate by his loving wife. Below this, we see the childhood of Jesus, from his Nativity, to the Massacre of the Innocents – he is born to save us, and they die to save him. At the bottom, closest to us as it is most important, we move from the Last Supper to The Mocking of Christ – Jesus moves from authority to humility. He institutes the Eucharist, the communion with God which could ultimately save us, near the altar, only to be brought gradually lower as the frescoes approach the scene of the Last Judgement. With no little irony, the injustice of his betrayal takes place above the depiction of the personification of Justice. And wow! I’ve just noticed something new, while proofreading the blog just before clicking ‘publish’! Directly above Justice we see Jesus, betrayed by Judas. To the left of Justice is Temperance, and again, Jesus is directly above, washing Peter’s feet – but only his feet. To the right is Faith, directly underneath Jesus in Christ before the Caiaphas and Charity is below him in The Mocking of Christ. These scenes do not line up vertically because of the space taken up by the windows, but Giotto still contrives to associate the evenly spaced Virtues with Jesus himself, by designing the composition of the narratives so that Jesus is directly above them: Genius. I keep being astonished by this remarkable man, and the amount of planning that must have preceded the execution of these frescoes.

Here the Vices are at the bottom, with the torments of hell to the left, and Judas receiving the 30 pieces of silver on the chancel arch to the right

On the ‘North’ wall, at the top, we see the birth and betrothal of the Virgin, ending with a procession – not unlike the processions that led to the chapel on the Feast of the Annunciation – which leads to the chancel arch, and to The Annunciation itself. In the lower two tiers, slightly separated from the top one, the narrative scenes are framed by the same decorative strips as above, but they also contain pictorial typological references to the Old Testament, which both illuminate the New Testament story, and make the whole decoration resonate with even greater depth.  The mission of Christ is in the centre, starting with his debate with the doctors in the temple, to which he returns on the far right to expel the money lenders. At the bottom, leading us away from the picture of hell – and away from hell itself – Christ takes his cross and is crucified. His victory over death is paralleled by the repentance of Mary Magdalene, and although he has been brought as low as is possible, he now rises, and then ascends to heaven. The Church is left to the apostles, now empowered by the Holy Spirit. They could, if it were possible, step out of the painting and preside over Mass at the altar which is just to the right of this image.

And so, ‘Farewell’ to the Scrovegni Chapel. Virtually, at least – all that remains is to go and see it in person. Sadly, when you book your ticket you will only get 15 or 20 minutes inside, but if you go in prepared I hope you can breathe it all in at once, resonating as it does with the whole history of salvation!

That’s not the end of the blog, though. I shall carry on, I hope once a week, maybe more if I can, talking about anything that grabs my fancy – or anything you might suggest. It may also evolve into something of a newsletter to let you know what I am up to, and to tell you about any events, online or in person, that you can attend. I will try and update the diary page regularly (do nag me if I don’t!), but for now there still isn’t much. However, if you happen to be free the week after next there are still a couple of places available on our spontaneous escape, A Flash Trip to Venice, organised by Art History Abroad from 21-24 September!

So, until the next time, Addio! But before I go, one last thing – a phenomenon, and one that I knew nothing about until the other week. This is a picture I took from Laura Jacobus’s book. The original photographs were taken by Hans-Michael Thomas, and show the path taken by a shaft of sunlight falling across the fresco of The Last Judgement one 25 March – the Feast of the Annunciation, the day on which the chapel was dedicated. This, in itself, is a miracle. And one that, like everything else, Giotto must have planned. As I said above: Genius.


111 – Full circle

Giotto, Pentecost, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

One last image for Scrovegni Saturday before a final summing up next week: Pentecost, in which God hands over responsibility to man, and Giotto remains entirely human, and entirely poetic. I have covered the story before – twice, in fact: on the day itself, with Plautilla Nelli’s little known version in Perugia (Picture of the Day 74), and the following day, with El Greco’s visionary telling of the story now in the Prado (POTD 75) – so do re-read them if you want more background to the story itself.

Giotto gives us a calm and straightforward rendition which, unlike either of the paintings we have seen before, does not appear to be a drama performed for our eyes. On the contrary, there is evidence that we are entirely incidental. But before we look at the painting, let me remind you what the bible says on the subject, in Acts 2:1-4:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

The text doesn’t say how many of them ‘they’ were, but Giotto simplifies to twelve. The apostles sit in an enclosed room, one of the very few identifiably ‘gothic’ buildings that Giotto depicts in the Scrovegni Chapel. It is at a slight angle, and oddly, has no visible door. It’s not at all clear how they managed to get in there, short of clambering through the arcade and over the benches, on which they now sit. Their bottoms spread across the hard wood as they do in the Last Supper, and their feet are visible in the shadows under the seat. In another echo of the Last Supper, those with their backs to us appear to sit with their halos in front of their faces. We don’t actually see the Holy Spirit, but the tongues of fire which reach towards the apostles suggest that the dove must be hovering some way above the roof. This is the point in the biblical narrative when the people gathered outside the room could understand the apostles as if they were speaking in their own language, although Giotto does not include any of these witnesses – but then neither did Nelli or El Greco. However, he doesn’t include Mary either – unlike most other depictions of the story. More on that below.

Matthias was appointed to replace Judas at the very end of Chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles, so he should be present here. If we compare this image to others in the cycle, the only ‘type’ who hasn’t been seen before is the person on the far right, a young man with a short – or at least thin – dark beard. This must be Matthias, at the far end of the table from Peter. He is wearing yellow, as Judas used to, almost as if he has taken over the same position on the ‘team’. Six apostles sit along the back of the room, and four along the front. John the Evangelist sits next to Peter, a little further back, and one of the columns of the arcade cuts across his face. This is the evidence I mentioned that suggests that we are incidental – Giotto is not pretending that the apostles have arranged themselves so that we can see them clearly. Despite the column, though, we can still identify him: young, beardless, and wearing the same blue and pink he has elsewhere.  Further along, though, another of the apostles is completely hidden by the architecture, a nod to naturalism which we would see as almost photographic. Perhaps it is even a tacit acknowledgement by Giotto that we would probably not be able to work out who this was anyway. The others are equally difficult to identify, as far as I am concerned, with the exception of St Andrew, just to the right of centre with his back to us, sporting the long, curly grey hair, and green toga over a red robe that we have seen before (e.g. 105). Next to St Andrew, chatting away to the newcomer Matthias, is St Bartholomew in his flashy patterned fabric.

I said above that this image is poetic, and yet initially it might seem rather mundane: there is apparently nothing remarkable about it. The first thing to suggest otherwise is the overtly Gothic architecture. Despite their ‘Roman’ clothing, the apostles are seated in what was for Giotto a contemporary building – and this is entirely apt. This is the point in the biblical narrative at which the apostles can be understood by all the nations of the world, thus enabling them to head out and evangelise. In other words, this is the point at which they take over from Jesus, and become his vicars – his representatives on earth: the priesthood is born. There are no women present – Mary would have been out of place in this particular version – and the reason why becomes clearer if we remind ourselves where we are in the chapel.

We are at the bottom right of this image, at the end of the story, and close to the high altar. From here, you can almost imagine the apostles stepping out of the fresco to officiate over the mass. Their role, Giotto says, is the same as that of the contemporary priest, who is effectively their successor, and of course, when this was painted, the idea of a female priest was unthinkable (as for some it still is today) – hence Mary’s absence. And, if they are like the contemporary priest, it makes sense that they would be in a gothic building.

It is not irrelevant that the scene directly above Pentecost is The Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple (see 102), in which Jesus effectively cleanses his Father’s house. The temple itself is depicted with round-topped arches. This comparison of architectural styles is quite common in Northern European paintings of the Nativity, and represents an idea of progress. The round arches, like those used in classical Roman and subsequent Romanesque architecture, represent the old order – as embodied here by Solomon’s temple. On the other hand, pointed Gothic arches were seen as ‘modern’, and so stand for the new order – the Church. Above these two paintings, Mary processes towards her parents’ house, and, in terms of the Scrovegni Chapel, towards the Annunciation, effectively a mystical marriage between herself and God. When she becomes pregnant, she is effectively, like Temple and Church, the house of God. In much medieval theology there was a direct equivalence between Mary and Ecclesia, the personification of the Church. Thus in the column of three images close to the altar we have different representations of the church, the temple and the church again, one on top of another.

In this view of the chancel arch Pentecost can be seen, at an angle, at the far end of the wall on the left: its proximity to the High Altar is, I hope, clear. Almost directly opposite, just this side of the window at the far end of the wall on the right, is The Last Supper, the painting to which it is most obviously related in terms of composition and setting. We have come full circle. On the right Jesus presides over the Last Supper, as he institutes the Eucharist. His passion, death and resurrection lead us away from the altar and back again, until with Pentecost the apostles are once more next to the altar, and are ready to continue Christ’s mission on earth.

So much is similar between these two images. Peter and John still occupy places at the ‘head’ of the table – although in the Pentecost they are facing towards the high altar in the chapel. Indeed, Peter is either looking at us, or at the altar itself, which lies on the diagonal in which he is looking. Andrew and Bartholomew are sitting next to each other again, although, without Jesus, the latter has turned to talk to Matthias. The gothic arcade creates more of an enclosed space, perhaps, but we still have access to the scene, in the same way that we would if looking through the rood screen in an Anglican church (although I’m afraid this is not entirely relevant to Giotto’s Italian experience). As previously mentioned, the apostles have the same weight in both, with their bodies pressing down on the bench and their shadowy legs visible below. And while those with their backs to us still have halos apparently in their faces, those halos are notable different. In The Last Supper they were silver, although this has tarnished to black. By the time we get to Pentecost they have been ‘promoted’, and all rejoice in the same gold halos previously only given to Jesus. They are now his representatives on earth, and should be seen as such. It is a minor difference, perhaps, but poetic genius nonetheless.


110 – The Ascension

Giotto, The Ascension of Christ, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Welcome back to Scrovegni Saturday – and I mean the Saturday bit specifically! Having said that, I think there are only two more to go. One next week (or the week after, to be honest), to look at the final image, and a ‘coda’ to sum things up. On Tuesday I went to a library for the first time since we went into lockdown – the British Library, no less – and I can recommend the experience. They have put all sorts of systems in place which meant that I felt totally secure – a one-way route, allocated desks, allotted times… Unfortunately, given the way things fell out, I could only stay for an hour. I had ordered three books on the Scrovegni Chapel (what else?!), and oh, how useful they would have been for this endeavour! I only had time to skim through them, to look at the way they are organised, and illustrated, but I will give you a brief summary in a couple of weeks should you be interested in ‘further reading’. And maybe by then I will have had the chance to go back and read them properly!

Today, though, I want to think about The Ascension of Christ, a subject which I discussed on the feast day itself, which this year fell on 21 May. The picture was by Pietro Perugino, painting at his poised and elegant best. Do look it up (Picture Of The Day 64) to remind yourself about the narrative and its source in the bible.

Giotto has painted Jesus at the very top of the image – so far up, in fact, that his fingers are hidden behind the inner green frame of the nearly-square field. This is a standard ploy to convey the sense of movement – indeed, in many medieval versions of the Ascension all that remain to be seen are his feet. The upward motion is conveyed in other ways too – the fact that all the figures kneeling on the ground are looking up, for one thing. The two angels occupying the central space are looking down to this ‘audience’, and point upwards, not only indicating Jesus’s direction of travel, but also directing the kneeling figures – and us – to look up towards him. I’m fairly sure Perugino would have known this image: he certainly uses the same technique, with angels pointing the way. This wouldn’t be his only quotation from the Scrovegni Chapel.

On either side of Jesus are more figures, whose gestures of prayer and praise add to the swooping, upward movement. All of the figures have haloes, and those in the lower row also have wings – they are angels. However, those in the upper row are not – no wings – so they must be souls of the formerly ‘mortal’ already in heaven. The only ones I would want to identify (this is where those books might have come in useful!) are the two closest to Jesus. My guess would be (and that’s all it is) that these are John the Baptist (on our left) and Adam. After all, Jesus would have seen them – and freed them from their bonds – during the Harrowing of Hell, a scene which is notably absent from the Scrovegni Chapel (but see POTD 24 and POTD 25).

Down below we see the apostles and Mary. Unlike Perugino, who seemed to include a couple of excess apostles, Giotto sticks to what I would think is the logical number – eleven. Judas is dead, having hung himself with guilt (he can be seen hanging among the damned in hell in the Last Judgement as it happens), and Matthias has not yet been appointed to take his place. Mary is slightly separated from the other figures, and more central: both of these features help to emphasize her status. She is also, if Jesus were to face forward, at her son’s right hand, always the position of honour. Immediately behind her (to our left) is Peter, in his mustard yellow cloak, his left hand raised to shield his eyes as he follows Jesus’s progression heavenwards. Next to him is John the Evangelist, and behind him, in the foreground, St Andrew, who has been a prominent figure throughout the frescoes of the lower two tiers. The only other apostle I would identify with any security is St Bartholomew, who, for reasons I have never fathomed, often has the most elaborately patterned clothing. Now that I’ve said that you will see him straight away!

Not only is Jesus heading up towards heaven, but he is moving from left to right – the direction of the narrative in almost all of the images in this cycle. As a result, he looks not a little like Hope, one of the three theological virtues we saw in POTD 45. As so often, this echo is deliberate, and profound. The virtue of Hope is an ambivalent one. With true Faith, you might assume that hope was not necessary – but ‘hoping for’ in this context would effectively mean ‘waiting in full expectation of’. I’ve cropped the fresco here, but Hope is reaching up towards a crown being held by an angel in the top right of the field: it is the crown awarded to the blessed on arrival in heaven. And, positioned as it is on the South wall, the figure reaches towards the image of heaven on the West wall. Jesus, likewise, is heading towards heaven – not just in terms of the narrative, but physically, in the chapel. There are two images of heaven, one at either end. Above the chancel arch God the Father sits enthroned in a section of the painting which is on a wooden support (POTD 80 – but more about that in a couple of weeks).

If you can see The Ascension towards the bottom right of this image, you will see that Jesus’s direction of travel will take him towards the top of the chancel arch, which would be directly to our right when looking at this wall. Jesus is about to enter heaven, and Hope lives in expectation of the same.

This particular image also reminds us that, on the North wall, there are decorative panels between the vertically arranged pictures, and in the lower two tiers (dealing with the life of Christ), these contain vignettes relating to a typological interpretation of the bible – I’ve discussed some of these already in POTD 100. They always refer to the picture which follows, the one which is just to the right of them. They don’t seem to be discussed very often, probably because they are so small, but they are significant. I can’t even find an image of the one to the left of the Crucifixion, but it shows Moses with the brazen serpent. While the Israelites were on their long journey in search of the promised land, they were attacked by a plague of serpents, which threatened to kill them all. God advised Moses to erect a sculpture of a serpent made of bronze (hence ‘brazen’), promising that anyone who saw it would be cured. Given that the serpents were threatening death, from which you could only be saved by looking at something raised up above ground level, it seemed fairly obvious to early Christian theologians that this was in some way related to the Crucifixion, when Christ was raised up on the cross. After all, anyone who looked on him would be saved from serpent-related sin. The brazen serpent was therefore identified as a ‘type’ of Christ at the Crucifixion. This is ‘type’, as in ‘typeface’ – the shape or form that would ‘print’ the proper image.

In this image we can see the vignettes which precede The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, The Resurrection, and, even though the scene itself isn’t included, The Ascension. However, they are rather small – so here they are on their own:

In between The Crucifixion and The Lamentation we can see an enormous fish swallowing a person. This is Jonah, who, according to the eponymous book, was swallowed by a ‘great fish’. It was not a whale. That was Pinocchio. However, regardless of species, genus or even class, Jonah was thrown overboard and was swallowed, ‘And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights’ (Jonah 1:17), after which he delivered God’s message to the people of Nineveh and they were saved. According to the Apostles’ Creed, as translated in the Book of Common Prayer (1662), Jesus,

Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven…

The similarity between Jonah’s ‘three days and three nights’ and Jesus rising on ‘The third day’ is striking. Having been eaten by a fish, Jonah should surely have died, but he was regurgitated as if resurrected. So Jonah’s experience was a type for the death and resurrection of Christ. Here we see just the death – disappearing into the fish – preceding the image in which we see Jesus dead. So what is represented before the resurrection? Well, it’s a lion (it has a mane), which appears to be roaring at three cubs. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, said that lion cubs were born unformed, and that their mothers had to lick them into shape. However, the medieval mind had a different point of view, which might have evolved from Pliny, or, from the same animal behaviour (cleaning the newly born cubs, whose eyes are closed) which Pliny had misinterpreted. It was widely believed that lion cubs were born dead, and that after three days their father breathed life into them – which is what he is doing here. One of the cubs is apparently still ‘dead’, while another looks more alert. The third, on the right, is actually looking quite perky. It’s a bit like an animation. The connection to the resurrection of Christ, on the third day, through the agency of God the Father, is clear, telling us that it is not just elements of the Hebrew scriptures that can be ‘types’ but the whole of God’s creation. In the third example, which precedes the Ascension, there is another, more traditional type. In 2 Kings 2:11, Elijah had been preparing Elisha for his departure, when the following happened:

11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

Elijah was only the second person to get to heaven without dying (the first being Enoch – although the bible is not entirely clear whether he was taken by God dead or alive), but Elijah and the Chariot of Fire are a fairly obvious type for the ascension of Christ, and Giotto makes the angle of departure similar for both. Elisha’s face can just be seen, as can his hand reaching up for Elijah’s mantle, ‘which fell from him’.

These details may be small, but they are significant, and add so much depth to the interpretation of the chapel – I could so easily finish here. But in the same way that I ended with what I called ‘the story of Mary Magdalene’ last week, this week I’d like to finish with a ‘story of Jesus’. It’s just a small part of the narrative, obviously – two whole tiers of the decoration are concerned with the life, death and afterlife of Jesus, after all – but like last week’s ‘triptych’, this one episode is beautifully and poetically represented using body language and composition alone. Even without the other people present in each image, I think the narrative would be clear.

In The Lamentation Jesus is dead. He lies at the bottom of the image, on the far left. In The Resurrection he is standing, his feet now on the ground, his head higher than that of the kneeling Mary Magdalene, and some way to the right of her. As Jesus said, ‘I am not yet ascended to my Father’ (John 20:17) – but his elbow is hidden by the frame, he is on his way out. In The Ascension, mother Mary kneels as her namesake did before, and again Jesus is higher and to the right – although this time, at a far steeper angle. Jesus has left the ground, and his fingers are behind the frame. Like the lion cubs we have something like an animation, an animation of resurrection and ascension.

I love the fact that these two elements of the narrative overlap. When seen on the wall of the chapel, as in the illustration above, a line drawn between Mary Magdalene’s face and Jesus’s hand in the Resurrection continues to the face of Christ in the Ascension: Mary’s repentance means that she is looking towards heaven. There is an insistent upward movement along most of this wall, from the slope of the hill in the Lamentation and Mary’s gaze in the Resurrection to the direction of travel in both the Elijah vignette and the Ascension. And, while we’re there, have another look at the position of the Ascension on the wall: Jesus’s entry into heaven is immediately underneath his entry into Jerusalem. He could so easily leave this picture and enter through the same gate.

There is one more image to go – but I’m afraid it will have to wait for a while. Next week – and I really can’t quite believe this – I will be in Italy. I’ll let you know how it goes – and get back to you as soon as I can!


109 – Death and Resurrection

Giotto, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ and The Resurrection, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

I know – the whole idea of ‘Scrovegni Saturday’ was blown apart weeks back when I first failed to hit the deadline, but never before have I been early. So welcome to the first, and presumably only, ‘Scrovegni Friday’. I’m off to Norfolk later, and suspect I might not have the necessary bandwidth to post this tomorrow! Two more images today, and two more wonders, inevitably. But, to understand how and why they go together, here they are with the preceding image, The Crucifixion.

The death and resurrection of Christ are inevitably tied together – in the Christian message one is not possible without the other. However, while the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are both part of the biblical narrative, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ is not. It is part of church tradition, and, as such, it is as much a part of the pictorial tradition as any of the other scenes which are represented in the chapel. Giotto includes it to give us a chance to stop and meditate on the implications of Jesus’s death. The Crucifixion is presented as the Ultimate Sacrifice, with Christ lifted high above the gathered witnesses, but in The Lamentation he has been brought low. The angels continue their own lamentations, flying through the sky in their almost inexpressible grief, and below them Jesus is surrounded by the mourning figures of family and friends. The Crucifixion appears almost like an exclamation mark, something which exists on its own, symmetrical, with Jesus fully centred, whereas in The Lamentation over the Dead Christ he is at the bottom left of the image, the left always marking the beginning of a journey. When seen together, we can see that the landscape, as often before, is a part of the narrative. A hill leads our eyes upwards from Christ’s head, at the bottom left of the Lamentation, towards the right of the image. In The Resurrection it reaches its summit, and then leads downwards, taking us towards the Risen Christ on the right hand side. It is almost as if the hill expresses the unseen exertion that Jesus went through when he ‘descended into hell’, the very exertion that Donatello depicts so powerfully in the relief we saw back on Easter Sunday (Picture Of The Day 25).

This hill is such a profound metaphor, and Jesus, as we have said, is at the very bottom. He is surrounded by women – Holy Women, presumably, although only four of them have halos. Of these, two can be identified with ease: Mary, his mother, cradling him in her arms, wearing her traditional blue, and Mary Magdalene, at his feet as she was in the Crucifixion, with her long red hair, and her green-lined red cloak. Oddly, neither of the other two haloed women is wearing the yellow worn by the person I assumed last week was Mary’s sister, Mary Cleophas – although there is a woman wearing precisely that colour who is supporting Jesus’s head. My suggestion would be that this is the same woman – Mary Cleophas, if I was right last week – and that Giotto chose not to include her halo here as it would get in the way. He would not be the only artist to make that choice. So who are the other two? This is from Matthew 27:55-56:

55 And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: 56 Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedees children.

The ‘many women’ are certainly there – there are at least 8 standing around the haloed figure, who must be a young woman as her hair is not covered. Mark 15:40 also mentions ‘many other women’, as well as ‘Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome’, while Luke, who does not name any of the women present at the Crucifixion, says later (24:10) that, on Easter Sunday, the tomb was visited by ‘Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James’. So we should have little doubt that one of these haloed women is Mary the Mother of James, who in medieval tradition was Mary Cleophas. Likewise, in medieval tradition, the ‘Salome’ mentioned here was known as Mary Salome, and like Mary Cleophas was also one of the half-sisters of the Virgin Mary (long story short: according to the Golden Legend, St Anne’s husband Joachim died, and she remarried. The second husband also died, and she remarried again. With each husband she had a daughter called Mary: there were three half-sisters with the same name). It was also assumed that Mary Salome married a man called Zebedee, which would make her the woman mentioned by Matthew. Confused? I’m not surprised. I must talk about a painting of the Holy Kindred one day. Still, if Mary Cleophas is the woman in yellow with her back to us, one of the two haloed women – one above Jesus’s head and the other holding his hands – must be Mary Salome. The other is possibly Joanna, who was one of the women who, according to Luke 8:3, ‘ministered unto [Jesus] of their substance’ – i.e. helped to provide for him.

And then there are the men. Fortunately they are far easier to identify. All three have halos, and could be characterised as young, old, and middle aged, going from left to right. The young man, with no beard and short hair, is John the Evangelist, his arms flung backwards in his despair and disbelief. Giotto shows he is important by making him stand out clearly – and he does that by placing him on his own, and against the rising hill. The other two are both mentioned in John 19:38-39 (and elsewhere…): Joseph of Arimathea, who ‘took the body of Jesus’, and Nicodemus, who ‘brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes’ which will be used immediately after the Lamentation when they wind Jesus’s body in the shroud, which Joseph currently has slung around his shoulders. At the top of the hill is a tree. At first glance, it is devoid of leaves – but look again: there are leaves, but they are tiny, just breaking out of the bud – the promise of new life. This would suggest that we should move straight on to The Resurrection, but before we do, I want to look back, in order to point out one of Giotto’s most subtle, but most moving echoes.

I’m comparing Jesus’s first appearance in the Scrovegni chapel – in chronological terms – with his last, or rather, what would be the last were Jesus not the Son of God. These are the moments of Jesus’s greatest humanity: his birth and his death. In the first – The Nativity – he is handed to the Virgin Mary by a midwife, and in the last – The Lamentation over the Dead Christ – he lies equally helpless in his mother’s arms, but for altogether different reasons. To make the parallels clearer, have a look at these details.

In both, Mary wears blue (although the surface has worn in The Nativity), and leans over her son. Her right arm goes behind his back, to support him, her left reaches across. The angle of her body, the angle of her head, and the direction of her gaze are the same. It is the emotion that is different. At his birth we see awe, at his death, profound grief – but the motherly love which provokes both echoes across the chapel, making the space resonate with a depth of profound feeling. Giotto makes this echo resound more fully by providing a witness to each emotion, a supporting figure helping Mary to hold her helpless son, her hands delicately touching the swaddling clothes, or the back of his lifeless head.

If we now move on to The Resurrection, we might realise that the burial of Christ has not been represented. It is hinted at in the decorative panel in between these two scenes, but there is so much to talk about today that I will have to come back to that next week. As so often, Giotto subtly elides different parts of the story. It is Easter Sunday, and Christ has risen – but the soldiers are still fast asleep. No hint here, as in many other versions, that they might actually have awoken and witnessed the resurrection themselves. The hill keeps us moving towards Jesus, who is on the verge of leaving the story altogether – indeed, his left elbow is already behind the frame. He reaches down towards Mary Magdalene, keeping her at bay, and although his mouth is clearly shut, the words that would be spoken at this point are ‘Noli me tangere’– ‘Don’t touch me’ – the part of the story we saw depicted by Fede Galizia just a few weeks ago (104). There too the two angels were present, although looking more like a couple of toddlers than the men in white we see here, who are sitting – or almost floating – on the edge of the tomb, and pointing towards the saviour. But for Fede – and most artists who depict the Noli me tangere – the soldiers are nowhere to be seen. They have usually cleared off by the time Mary Magdalene gets to the tomb. Their presence here helps to evoke the resurrection itself, filling in that moment of the story by reminding us of its pictorial tradition. Jesus is now dressed entirely in white, although he does not appear to be wearing the shroud as a toga as he does in some paintings. Both robe cloak have gold hems, a heavenly garb like that of the two angels. He carries the Cross of Christ Triumphant – the red cross on a white background, his suffering and his purity – which we have seen before (e.g. POTD 25 and POTD 50).

To understand this image fully, it is really important to know where it is in the chapel – and I’m very glad that a good image of this section of the wall is available!

The Resurrection of Christ is directly below The Resurrection of Lazarus – and if that’s not a stroke of genius, I don’t know what is. We saw in POTD 100 that the decorative strip which precedes Lazarus includes an image of the Creation of Adam: God gave Adam life, but Adam sinned, and the wages of sin, according to Christian theology, are death. But Jesus gives us new life – as he demonstrates with Lazarus. And how do we have new life through Jesus? Well, through his sacrifice on the cross, and his triumph over death, witnessed by The Resurrection. Notice how the death and resurrection of Christ are linked to the resurrection of Lazarus by the landscape. The hill may rise and fall from one scene to another on the bottom tier, but the hill in The Lamentation can also be seen as continuing upward in The Resurrection of Lazarus: they are part of the same message. Notice how Lazarus wears his white shroud in the middle tier, and the Risen Christ wears white more-or-less directly below. Notice also how Mary Magdalene kneels to Jesus, wearing her red cloak, in both. And now, notice how Mary Magdalene, forming a red triangle at the bottom of the wall, is kneeling directly below the kneeling priest – forming a very similar red triangle – at the very top. In that scene, one of the very first from the Scrovegni that I discussed (POTD 31), the suitors are waiting for a sign, a message from God. At the bottom, Mary Magdalene is the first witness to a different sign, which would be counted as God’s greatest – a sign which speaks of the promise of new life: the resurrection. I have previously described the painting at the top right of this image as a dramatic pause – nothing is happening. The closest equivalent would probably be The Lamentation over the Dead Christ – which earlier today I suggested represents a moment for reflection, and not, strictly speaking, part of the biblical narrative – they are not directly linked vertically, but the resonance is there. But can we find these connections between the other paintings here? Is there a connection between The Wedding at Cana and The Lamentation, for example? I’m not sure. You could argue that, after The Baptism, Christ’s mission has started – turning water into wine was his first miracle, whereas The Lamentation represents Christ’s last appearance as ‘merely’ human (although he is believed to have been entirely human and entirely God throughout his time on earth). So you could say that they represent ‘first and last’. And how about the placing of the rods on the altar in the top tier? Well, they are planning a wedding – the suitors are seeking the hand of the Virgin Mary in marriage – and a wedding takes place below. But these are not as convincing as the more obvious connections, which are remarkable enough. Given the needs of the narrative it would be impossible for this to work in all directions, like sudoku! However, there is one last idea that I want to consider this week – and it is one of the things I find most beautiful, and most poetic, in the entire chapel. It is the story of Mary Magdalene.

Look at her appearance in these three images. And if it’s not clear what I mean, look at these three details.

At the Crucifixion her long red hair, with which, according to tradition, she had washed Christ’s feet with her tears and with precious ointment, flows freely down her back. It reaches to waist level, and spreads out around her, beautifully displayed. Her red cloak has fallen to the ground, lying around her knees and ankles. Next, while lamenting over the dead Christ, her hair has been dressed – wound around her head, restricted in some way, and only reaching as far as her chest – and her cloak has been brought up around her waist, covering her legs more fully. And finally, at the resurrection, as she reaches in longing towards Jesus, the cloak has been pulled up over her head. Her hair and her body – the tools of her trade – are completely enveloped, hidden from view. I do not know of a more moving expression of the penitence of the Magdalene than this.


108 – The Crucifixion

Giotto, The Road to Calvary and The Crucifixion, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

And so we begin the final chapter in the epic that is the Scrovegni Chapel, and to give you a better sense of where we are, I have found an image of the whole of the North Wall – clearly taken from a double spread in a book, as there is a fold down the central decorative strip.

We see the stories of the Birth and Betrothal of the Virgin running along the top (Picture Of The Day 73 and POTD 31), and the Mission of Christ (POTD 93, 100, 102) in the middle. Along the bottom we can see the trompe l’oeil marble wainscoting, with seven imaginary niches, each containing a fictive sculpture of one of the seven Vices (POTD 52 and POTD 59). These connect the West Wall, with its image of the torments of hell, with the depiction of the Temptation of Judas on the North side of the chancel arch (102). Today we are starting the journey along the bottom tier, with The Road to Calvary leading directly to The Crucifixion. The first thing to notice is that Jesus is walking out of the city of Jerusalem as if he were walking away from the image of hell on the West Wall. Although his whole life and mission so far have been leading up to this moment through the implacable left-to-right movement of all of the narrative scenes, he is now approaching the point at which he will truly give up everything to free mankind from the implications of sin. Working one the level of metaphor, his actions here allow others, like him, to walk away from hell.

The way is led by the two thieves, who are just about to exit the picture field on the right. It might not be obvious who they are, but they can be identified by looking back at pictorial tradition: the two thieves regular precede Jesus in the procession to Calvary, almost as if they are an ‘introduction’, while he is the ‘star attraction’, left until last. The thief on the right carries something over his shoulder – the base of his cross, most of which was painted a secco and has been lost. Much of the surface of this particular image has gone, probably the result of the destruction of the Scrovegni Palace, which, as you may remember, was originally on the other side of this wall. The destructino of teh palace in the 19th Century rendered the North Wall of the chapel more susceptible to the adverse effects of weathering. The thief on the right has darker clothes and hair than his companion, who is turning round and looking back. My guess would be that the man on the right is the Bad Thief, whereas the blonder one (with hair more like Jesus), who repents – and looks back to Jesus – would be the Good Thief. Including them here means that Giotto doesn’t need to depict them in the Crucifixion itself, thus enabling him to focus on Jesus, who stands out all the more clearly in both images thanks to the space all around him. Despite the soldier who reaches out to push him on, no other figure touches him or overlaps him. He is surrounded by clear blue sky, and looks over his shoulder, enabling us to see his face clearly. He is already more than halfway across the picture, driving the action forward and leading us inexorably on to the next image. Indeed, he is just about to arrive at the foot of the hill – Golgotha – on which he will be crucified: the ground has started to rise under the feet of the thieves.

But before we get there, there are other things to notice. What will be the horizontal of the cross forms a diagonal in this image. Not only does this add to the forward movement of the narrative, leading our eyes to the right, but it also leads upwards, and ultimately, to heaven, as the Crucifixion could eventually lead the faithful to Heaven. A group of soldiers are gathered at its lower end, almost as if they are weighing it down, their ghost-like spears being one of the losses to the image, as are their silver leaf helmets. There are also priests, and other figures, including a man who tries to make the Virgin Mary turn back, her face distorted in her grief. This marks her reappearance in the narrative – if you look back to the scenes on the lower tier of the South Wall, she does not appear at all. Another element that is not so obvious, is that Jesus appears to be leaving the City by the same gate through which he had entered only five days previously. If it is the same gate we have crossed the road, and if not, it is at least of the same type, flanked by two octagonal towers. The triumph of Palm Sunday (102) has been replaced by the bitterness and shame – as it would have been seen – of Crucifixion.

The Crucifixion itself is presented entirely formally. Jesus is central, and raised up on the cross. It is the same structure that he carried in the previous scene – more a ‘T’ than a ‘cross’, but now the titulus has been attached. The titulus is the panel at the top of the cross which here bears the inscription ‘Iesus Nazarenus Rex Judeorum’ – Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews. According to the Bible (John 19:20), this ‘was written in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Latin’, although often we only see the abbreviation, I.N.R.I. The angels fly around Jesus in paroxysms of grief, wringing their hands, throwing them up in despair, gathering the precious blood from the wounds in his hands and chest, and tearing their clothes – and this happens directly opposite the scene in which the High Priest also ‘rent his clothes’ (107). Below, the gathered assembly is divided much as it is in the Last Judgement on the end wall (POTD 38), with the good under Jesus’s right hand and the bad under his left. At the bottom left of the image we see Mary, who has fainted as a result of her grief, supported by John the Evangelist and one of the holy women. Presumably this is one of the people mentioned in John 19:25 who were present at the Crucifixion, who is described as Jesus’s ‘mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Cleophas’ (John 19:25). Mary Magdalene, her red hair streaming down her back, kneels at the foot of the cross, with all her attention directed towards Christ’s feet, which she had previously washed with precious ointment using the hair which is so prominent in this depiction.

Although we saw the foot of the hill just outside the city gates in the last image, there is little hint of it here – but that is because we are at the summit, apparently consisting of a plateau, with a small central mound into which the cross is buried. At its foot is a skull, and other bones – explained by the fact that Golgotha means ‘the place of the skull’. However, the Bible does not explain is how the hill got this name. According to the Legend of the True Cross, one of the stories told in the Golden Legend, the skull which we see belonged to none other than Adam: part of God’s ineffable plan meant that Jesus was crucified in the self-same place where Adam had been buried.

On our right – under Jesus’s left hand – are those who will be condemned to hell. A mass of soldiers are gathered in the background, their tarnished silver leaf halos forming an ill-defined black area above the more visible faces. In the foreground an argument is taking place. Two men hold a red robe – this belongs to Jesus – and they pull at its shoulders. The man on the right wields a knife – it could be used to threaten his opponent, and to prevent any violence a third man grasps his wrist. It could also be used to cut the garment into sections. It is a seamless robe, which cannot be unstitched, which would have allowed the men to share the precious material between them. In the end they will neither fight over it, nor cut it up. Instead, they will gamble for it. Often paintings of the crucifixion show them rolling dice, or drawing straws, in fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. This is what it says in John 19:23-24, immediately after the mention of the titulus, and just before the presence of John and the three Maries is noted:

23 Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. 24 They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.

In the King James Version, this prophesy is found in Psalm 22:18:

18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.

However, one figure stands out on this ‘bad’ side – how could he not? He has a halo, after all. He gestures up to Jesus, and looks towards the priest standing to his left. The unusual form of his helmet, with two pointed ‘ears’, suggests he is no normal soldier. It is not a standard ‘western’ form – the implication is that he was somehow foreign – he appears to be marked out as an outsider. However, his halo tells us he was a Christian. This suggest he could be a recent convert, and indeed, he has only just had this revelation. He is the centurion mentioned in Mark 15:29:

39 And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.

As with so much of the painting in this Chapel, the attention to detail seen in every one of the images is only enhanced when we look at the relationships between the different elements of the narrative. Here, for example, are the first two scenes on all three tiers of the North Wall, with the decorative panels in between omitted (we will return to them next week – or soon after).

At the top left, we see the Birth of the Virgin – this is, for obvious reasons, Mary’s first appearance in the narrative. Directly below, in Christ Among the Doctors, she enters the scene from the left, having temporarily lost Jesus – he had been left behind in Jerusalem. We see her again, directly below the depiction in the middle tier, as she follows the procession from the city gate. The physical position in the image is the same, but the emotional one could hardly be more different – having found what was lost in the middle tier, she is about to lose her son to death. If the top tier marks her first appearance in the narrative, the lower two both represent her return: ‘Enter Mary, Stage Right’. She was not present in the Massacre of the Innocents, which is opposite Christ Among the Doctors, nor in the whole of the lower tier of the South Wall.

Jesus is not yet present in the top tier, but starts his ‘mission’ by debating with the doctors in the middle tier, his bright red robe making him the most prominent figure in the room. This red is also what makes him stand out against the blue sky in the lowest tier, where he is enacting God’s plan, surely the subject of the discussion taking place in Christ Among the Doctors, which is painted directly above..

There is always more of a connection between the lower two tiers – indeed, there is an additional decorative frieze which separates the story of Mary from the central tier. Nevertheless, The Presentation of Mary to the Temple, where she is received by the priesthood, and her status is effectively acknowledged, sits above The Baptism of Christ, where God the Father acknowledges his Son. The connection between The Baptism, and The Crucifixion below it, is especially profound. Both are more or less symmetrical, with Jesus in the centre, facing front. In both Jesus is presented as entirely humble, and entirely human, naked in The Baptism and all but naked in The Crucifixion. On the left of The Baptism two angels hold Jesus’s clothes – the blue cloak and the red robe, which hang limply from their hands. In The Crucifixion the same red robe hangs down from the hands of the soldiers on the right, but where is the blue cloak? There is apparently no sign of it, but it is evoked: Mary, in her typical blue, hangs limply from the arms of Mary Cleophas and John the Evangelist much as the blue cloak hangs from the arms of the angel above. And look below the red robe held by the angel. Even if Jesus’s robe has been taken to the ‘bad’ side, by the soldiers, another red item has been let drop: Mary Magdalene’s cloak, which lies on the ground around her knees. This cloak will take on more significance in the next week or so… but until then… keep looking!


107 – Jesus in Custody

Giotto, Christ before Caiaphas and The Mocking of Christ, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

OK – so – Scrovegni Monday. Apologies… However, I will cover two pictures today – I will, I will, I will… They are the scenes which lead directly up to the Crucifixion of Christ, and as such form a cliff-hanger in the chapel: what will happen next? Obviously, we know, because we know the story and we’ve seen the pictures, but in the chapel itself it is worth point out that this focus on the bad deeds leads us directly to the depiction of heaven at the end wall – without Christ’s sacrifice, it says, there is no hope of getting there.

In both cases we are in an enclosed room. Like Christ among the Doctors, on the opposite wall (Picture Of The Day 87 – you may remember that I put it on the wrong wall for a week, apologies again…), the room itself takes up most of the picture – the cutaway walls form a double frame to the left and right, leaving a slice of blue sky at the top – despite the fact that it is after sunset, as it was for the Arrest of Christ last week (106). This is acknowledged in two different ways in these two pictures. On the left, Christ before Caiaphas, the servant in brown (third from the right) holds a flaming torch – this was painted a secco in its entirety. Although the torchbearer himself is solid and clear, the torch he is holding appears to have worn away, and the flame is, even for a flame, rather immaterial. However, it does light up the back wall of the room, leaving the ghostly flame slightly darker than the wall, the pool of light gradually darkening to the sides. The shutters of the windows are closed, as they might well be at night, although what are apparently shutters on the left wall are open. However, this is probably the door through which people have entered.  In The Mocking of Christ by contrast, there are no shutters – just bars across the windows (this is, after all, some form of prison) – and we can see the dark night sky through them, even though, at the top of the painting, we see the normal daylight blue. Giotto does everything to maintain unity within the chapel as a whole – we see it all by daylight, after all, even if the settings tells us that some scenes take place at night. Whereas in the first image everyone is comfortably within the room, and safely contained, in the second some people are in front of the slim columns which mark the end of the walls. The action has been pushed forward, making it more intense, and more immediate.

The cycle moves rapidly from the Last Supper and the Washing of the Feet (103 and 105) via The Arrest (106) to Christ before Caiaphas, and several scenes are omitted, as I have mentioned before. The Agony in the Garden is just one of these. John’s Gospel mentions that Jesus is taken from one authority figure to another. The first is Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, and then Annas ‘sent him bound unto Caiaphas’. From thence Jesus was taken to the ‘hall of judgement’, which is where he encounters Pilate. The meeting with Caiaphas is the only one of the three which is represented: Giotto is presumably abbreviating the story to fit this complex part of the narrative into one ‘chapter’, i.e. just one wall of the chapel. However, it is worthwhile remembering the other episodes: so much took place between Thursday night and Friday morning. Having said that, Giotto appears to be combining the first two meetings into one picture. The two priests seated on the right hand side could easily be Caiaphas, in green, and his father-in-law Annas, seated beside him in red. I would take the longer hair and beard as a sign of greater age, for one thing. Also, the figure on the right can be identified as Caiaphas, because of his action, tearing at his clothes. Matthew 26:65 and Mark 14:63 both mention that the High Priest ‘rent his clothes’ in his anger at Jesus’s perceived blasphemy. Although Giotto has him do this without much energy – his elbows are neatly tucked in – the fabric has parted and gapes wide, revealing a slightly hollow chest and just a hint of paunch. Jesus’s hands are bound, as John says they were when Annas sent him to Caiaphas, but the soldier in red and gold has raised his right hand to hit him. This comes from John 18:22, ‘one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand’ – and this happens before he is sent over to Caiaphas. Jesus looks out – though not directly towards us. He gazes off to our right, deep in thought, contemplating what is to come. This allows us to see his face clearly, perfectly framed by the circular halo as it is, and bears witness to his long-suffering patience, calmly enduring all of these sacrifices for the salvation of mankind.

The image of The Mocking of Christ is a similar combination of different ideas. Given that the accounts in the four gospels are sufficiently varied, this almost always happens. There are actually two points in the narrative when Jesus is mocked. According to the synoptic gospels, on the Thursday evening, he is blindfolded, then beaten and spat at. The following morning, he is taken to Pilate – John’s gospel also suggests that he is taken to Pilate early on Good Friday. There is then a second ‘mocking’, when Jesus is dressed as a king, and taunted. Matthew suggests he was dressed in scarlet, whereas Mark and John both go for purple, but little should be read into this. Both colours denote royalty, after all, and, in any case, the term ‘purple’ was not fully defined for centuries. Luke, on the other hand, says that Jesus was dressed in ‘a gorgeous robe’, and this is the option Giotto chooses. He makes it white, with an elaborate gold pattern, combining a sense of royalty with one of purity. The crown of thorns is thrust onto his head, and he is given a reed as a sceptre, which they then take to beat him with. Giotto shows some of them pulling his hair, and preparing to hit him, while another kneels in mock homage.

Pilate himself is curiously side-lined in this cycle. He is there though – standing on the right of the scene, dressed from head to foot in red, a regal band around his head, not unlike the crown of thorns in appearance. He gestures towards Jesus, as do members of the priesthood: a debate is clearly taking place about Christ’s future. This could easily be an illustration of Luke 23:4-5:

Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this man. And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.

Yet more elements of the biblical narrative are missed out – there is no flagellation, no debate over the freeing of Barabbas, and Herod doesn’t even seem to get a look in (however, see below…). Jesus’s fate is sealed though, and we know what is to come. It is not just that Giotto feels free to edit at will, he is obliged to do so: there is no more space on the wall.

Having completed this penultimate chapter, I shall stop and think about the placement of these scenes in relationship to those above, as I asked you to two weeks ago. Whereas for the first two pairs, I think the relationship is one of similarity, for the remaining three, we are dealing with opposition. In the first pairing, the Nativity is above the Last Supper, with Jesus at the far left of each, closest to the altar of the chapel: he is seen in relationship to the bread of the Mass, the Body of Christ. In the second pairing, the eldest Magus kneels to Jesus, whereas below it is Jesus who kneels to Peter. Although this reads like an opposition, it still speaks of essential good – the recognition of Christ as King, and the recognition Jesus himself suggests we award one other.

However, things change in the last three pairings – although I should make clear that I am hypothesising here. It could be that the placement of the stories occurs through necessity, although it might help to explain which of the various elements of the narrative were chosen for the lower scenes. Above the Arrest of Christ is the Presentation in the Temple. In the earlier story Jesus is given, in the later one, he is taken. Both involve identification – the High Priest recognises Jesus as the Messiah, whereas Judas betrays him as Judea’s ‘most wanted’. In the next pairing the Flight into Egypt is above Christ before Caiaphas. The upper story is one of escape, while the lower focuses on Jesus’s captivity. And finally, the Massacre of the Innocents is paired with the Mocking of Christ. The upper scene is unusual in the narrative of the Childhood of Christ, as it is the only one in that chapter in which Jesus himself does not appear. The Innocents suffer and die, thus saving Jesus: it was widely believed that, as a result, their souls went straight to Heaven. The lower scene is another violent one, with the cruelty finally directed towards Jesus – the delay in his death is finally coming to an end. Both stories should include ‘King Herod’ – although, historically speaking, this is not the same character. To be honest, it is quite difficult to pin down the Herods. Herod the Great, who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, married at least ten times and among his descendants were three sons, a grandson and a great grandson, all of whom were called Herod. Two of the sons married a woman called Herodias, which doesn’t help. It was one of these last two, Herod Antipas, the older half-brother and second husband of Herodias, who ordered the death of John the Baptist. He also wanted Jesus killed, some 33 years after his father had failed to achieve the same end. In the upper scene Herod the Great points down from his balcony, ordering the massacre (a common feature in the iconography of this story, even though he would have been nowhere near Bethlehem at the time). He appears in profile, looking down to the right, wearing a white robe and a red cloak. Notice how, in the lower scene, over Pilate’s outstretched arm, is a man with a similar profile, similarly dressed. If Herod Junior (i.e. Herod Antipas) is included in this scene, this must be him. This would mean that Herod Senior is effectively pointing to his son. However, as I say, these connections could be coincidental. If you can see any other links, though, please do let me know – I’d love to know more! Next week – or for that matter, later this week – we shall start the final chapter.


106 – The Arrest of Christ

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Happy Saturday! If you’re new to the blog, (a) Welcome! And (b) this is just one in a long series about Giotto’s decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua: at the bottom of this page you will find a link labelled ‘Scrovegni’ Chapel’, which will bring you up to date!

We are halfway along the lower tier of the South Wall of the Scrovegni Chapel, so halfway through the penultimate chapter of this story. The Arrest of Christ follows on directly from Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples (105). As we shall see next week, at this point in the narrative certain episodes are omitted, so that Giotto can end this chapter – let’s call it ‘The Beginning of the End’ – on the South Wall, and start the next chapter – ‘The End and a New Beginning’ – on the North. Last week we discussed the reasons why Giotto swapped The Last Supper with the washing of the feet, and the first thing I’d point out is that he hasn’t included the Agony in the Garden: in most Passion cycles, Christ heads out to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, and prays for deliverance from the suffering that will follow. He is usually accompanied by three of the apostles, Peter, James and John, and, in the background, you can often see Judas arriving with the soldiers, ready for the arrest. However, Giotto cuts to the chase. Only, of course there is no chase: Jesus gives himself up almost willingly, and in the Gospel of St John he even identifies himself. This is John, 18: 3-5:

Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them.

As I pointed out last week, John’s Gospel is the source for much of the material in the Scrovegni Chapel, and it does not include the narrative of the Agony in the Garden, which might be why Giotto doesn’t paint it here. John does not include what is potentially the bitterest detail of the betrayal, though – that Judas identified Jesus with a kiss. For this we have to look to the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Giotto somehow manages to make the kiss particularly repellent.

It’s the way that Judas is puckering his lips, I think, that puts me off. He has thrown his arms around Jesus, enveloping him in his yellow cloak, and goes straight in, looking more as if he is going to head-butt him than kiss him. The kiss, a gesture of mutual friendship, acceptance, tenderness and intimacy is used here for violent ends – the act itself is betrayed. Jesus remains impassive, long-suffering, and looks straight ahead, knowing what is to come. His golden halo shines out from the dark mass of helmets, such a crowd of soldiers to arrest one peaceful man, the silver leaf of their helmets – like the halos of the apostles in the Last Supper – now tarnished to black.

Seeing the full image you realise how fully Jesus is engulfed by Judas’s poisonous presence, the yellow ringing out loud and clear in the centre of the image. The dark aura created by the helmets, together with the porcupine-like array of clubs, batons and torches, focus our eyes on the lighter, placid, Jesus.

The ‘lanterns and torches and weapons’ are specified in the text, but they are also there for another reason. The sky is blue, as it is in every other image in the chapel, but it is after the Last Supper, and, although not depicted, after the Agony in the Garden. By this point it must be night. However, a black sky would have been unprecedented at the time. The first nocturnal scene in Western Art is always said to be in Santa Croce in Florence, and painted some 30 years after the Scrovegni Chapel. In any case, a black sky would have looked unbalanced here, in the context of the whole. But why else hold flaming torches, unless it were night? Quite simply put, the torches tell us that it is. I think this was probably quite a common ploy in painting, and it was also a tool used later by Shakespeare, whose plays were performed, on the whole, in the open air in daylight. For example, in Act 5, Scene 3 of Romeo and Juliet – the very last scene – almost every character mentions artificial lighting in some way. The lines include, ‘Give me thy torch, boy’ (Paris), ‘Give me the light’ (Romeo), ‘What torch is yond…?’ (Friar Lawrence) and ‘There, where the torch doth burn’ (Page) – and these are just some of the examples. They are effectively stage directions, constantly reminding the actors that it is night time and that they are in a dark place, so they should remember to do ‘dark’ acting. But, of course, the lines also serve as a reminder to the audience that it is night time. Indeed, Shakespeare was so aware of this convention that he could even make fun of it. At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the mechanicals include the character of ‘Moonshine’ in their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, to tell the court that it is night. Not only that, but when Pyramus (played by Bottom) enters, his first lines are:

O grim-looked night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night, O night, alack, alack, alack…

…so there should be no excuse for not knowing the time of day. For Giotto, the torches and lanterns perform the same function, but with far greater subtlety. On the right of the image there are yet more soldiers, with yet more weapons – spears and halberds (the ones that look like spears with axes attached) – and some wonderful character studies.

In the foreground, in pink and gold (implying some connection to the ruling classes, perhaps), with his head covered, is presumably one of the chief priests that Luke mentions. He is clearly an authority figure, given his secure stance, and the commanding gesture, which orders the arrest. Above his out-stretched arm we see a young man, one of the torch bearers, an intense look created by a slightly lowered chin and raised, dark eyebrow – I’m hoping this boy has realised he would rather not be there. Behind him, and in contrast to his full head of hair and healthy good looks, is a scrawny looking man, with receding hairline, pointed nose and open mouth, his chin has dropped in astonishment – he’s almost more of a caricature. Meanwhile, there is a lot going on on the other side of the picture.

All four gospels mention the fact that one of the servants of the high priest had his ear cut off – you can see it quite clearly detached, falling down, in this detail. Luke adds that Jesus went on to touch this man’s ear, and heal it, whereas John tells us it was Peter who did this, and that, ‘The servant’s name was Malchus’. Above Malchus’s head a young man holds a club aloft, on the verge of striking Jesus – both he and Malchus face to the right in profile. Above Peter’s arm, another figure faces to the left – someone’s head, behind Peter’s halo, is covered in a pink cloth (someone not wanting to be seen in the presence of the arrested man, perhaps?) and underneath Peter’s outstretched hand, clasping the silver leaf knife, is another arm reaching out to the left. All of this mayhem relates to details reported in the bible. Once Jesus had been arrested Matthew adds, ‘Then all the disciples forsook him, and fled’. Mark also mentions this – and adds another detail. This is Mark 14:50-52:

50 And they all forsook him, and fled. 51 And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: 52 And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.

Now, Giotto doesn’t have anyone running away naked – it would be inappropriate in a chapel, perhaps, unless you were one of the sinful souls in hell (POTD 38). However, in the foreground, and so very prominent, there is another ‘soldier’ with his back to us. I say ‘soldier’, as he is not the most official-looking person. He doesn’t seem to be wearing any armour, but has a dark cloak and hood, and an equally dark skirt. He has baggy brown leggings and boots. His is the arm reaching in the opposite direction to Peter’s, and he holds a pink cloak – although we can’t see its owner. It could belong to the ‘certain young man’ who is currently outside the frame, about to abandon this cloth and flee naked. A second apostle, identified as such by a halo, appears over Peter’s shoulder – the man in profile above Peter’s hand is presumably trying to grab him – while the head covered in pink could be yet another apostle about to flee. The small gap between Peter’s head and the heads of the soldiers speaks of this separation. Do you notice how Peter and the second apostle now have gold halos? It’s almost as if they’ve had a promotion since the Last Supper, when their halos were silver – though here I suspect it is as much to distinguish them from the silver helmets of the soldiers.

Oh dear! As so often I had hoped to cover more – three of the images – but as so often I got distracted… so the homework I set you last week will have to wait until next! Just as a warning, I will be on holiday – but I’ll try and get writing before I go! Have a great week. And don’t go hugging and kissing people – especially if your intention is dishonorable.


105 – Wash one another’s feet

Giotto,  Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

After a socially distanced Jesus and Mary Magdalene, we arrive at the issue of washing our hands, something I know that, by now, we are all more than used to. Not that we didn’t do it before, of course. I imagine relatively few of us would have had our hands washed by others, though, and I’m sure I can exclude the feet, too. And yet that is the subject of today’s picture.

We are in exactly the same room as we were last week (103), a simple, rectangular room, cut away on two sides so that we can see in, with two windows on each remaining wall, those most clearly visible open to the same degree in each picture. The roof has terracotta tiles, and the eaves are decorated with carved friezes, pinnacles and two stone birds, as well as mosaic elements bracketing the supports and hanging down in the centre. The walls are lightly patterned in the same way in each image (I’ll show you them together below) with geometric motifs, mainly circles. The main difference, then, is the action – the dining table has been cleared away (one advantage of such open walls), as has the bench at the front. Or rather, as we’ll find out, they haven’t yet been moved in. The benches at the back and left walls remain, and there is a new seat at the front left, on which St Andrew sits fastening his left sandal. Opposite him, on the far right, on another ‘new’ chair, is St Peter, looking grumpy (again) and looking at Jesus, who kneels before him, holding one of his legs. Two younger apostles stand behind Jesus, one of whom holds a large jug of water, with seven more apostles seated around the benches against the walls.

As so often in the Scrovegni Chapel the details are drawn mainly from the Gospel of St John – this is 13:4-5:

4 He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. 5 After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.

You can see in this detail that he has ‘laid aside’ his blue cloak (not that it’s visible anywhere in the picture), and is just wearing the red robe that we usually see underneath, and is ‘girded’ with a white towel around his waist. The ‘bason’ – or basin – was applied, like the haloes, with silver leaf, and, like them, has now tarnished. Peter has removed his sandals – one lies just beneath his left foot, and the other is tucked behind the ‘bason’ (I’m quoting the King James Version as always) in a lovely example of naturalistic depiction. Also rather lovely is the delicate way with which Jesus holds Peter’s leg, and some more naturalistic observation – the precise fall of light and shade on Peter’s calf. Giotto then starts to play: the apostle behind has removed his sandals, has one foot up on his knee, and is scratching between the toes. His other foot remains on the ground, with the toes poking out just under Peter’s right foot – in the same way that Jesus’s fingers do a little further up. Jesus’s blessing hand is neatly framed by this apostle’s knee. Peter lifts up his worn blue robe with his left hand to keep it dry, and scratches his head with his right – he is clearly confused. Indeed, in John 13:6 he asks Jesus, ‘Lord, dost thou wash my feet?’ – the confusion which leads to the gesture. A few verse on it continues:

8 Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. 9 Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.

There is more that is relevant both before and after these verses, of course, but I have always loved this particular part of the exchange. The character of St Peter is so clearly defined in the Gospels as entirely human, and this is one of the best examples. First he says ‘Thou shalt never wash my feet’ but as soon as Jesus says, ‘If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me’, he jumps straight in with, ‘Well, do everything then’ – he is so impulsive, so desperate to be part of Jesus’s life.

As in The Last Supper the corner pillar clearly caused Giotto some problems. By the looks of it, it was probably painted a secco after everything else, so he could paint Peter and be secure about his position without the pillar getting in his way. Whatever the reason, it has now gone, and has left some gaps in the halos. Either it has flaked less from the halos, or it has affected the way in which they have tarnished. It creates a certain amount of confusion, which is only compounded by Giotto’s rather sophisticated layering of forms. The apostle over Peter’s shoulder has part of his profile hidden by Peter’s halo, and the next apostle back has his entire face eclipsed by the halo of the second apostle – you can just see his hair, framed by his own halo, appearing behind it.

St Andrew, on the far left, can be identified by his clothes and hair, and from his appearance in earlier paintings in the cycle, as he was last week (103). This is such a brilliant piece of painting, I think, with Andrew sat in profile, bending over as his lifts his left foot over his right knee to attach his sandals, his long, wavy white hair and beard tumbling down, the stool he is sitting on carefully depicted in three dimensions. I also love St Bartholomew’s manspreading pose – he sits there in his white robe and patterned cloak with both hands planted on his thighs, one holding a scroll, the other wrapped in his cloak. Three apostles sit against the end wall, in between Andrew and Bartholomew. If you look at their three halos, they are not all the same – those left and right have radiating lines, with a clear, crisp circular edge. The one in the middle has an aura which is dark and nebulous – not tarnished silver leaf like the others. There is just a hint of yellow above Andrew’s halo, and he has a rather large nose. This is Judas, portrayed as he was at the Last Supper. And, if you think about it, it is rather surprising that he should be there, after the Last Supper…

This is how the two images appear on the wall, albeit with a window in between. And, if you think about it some more, they really shouldn’t be in this order at all. Today I have quoted John 13:4-9. Last week, I quoted John 13:23. The events depicted in the picture on the left happened after the events depicted on the right. Jesus washes the disciples’ feet before the Last Supper itself, with its revelation that one of the number will betray him, prompting Judas’s departure. So why has Giotto painted them this way round? Surely, he can’t have got it wrong? No! Of course not! This is Giotto, remember. And this is where the image I showed you last week is really useful… so here it is again.

As I said last week, the altar in the chapel is to our left. Giotto deliberately painted the Institution of the Eucharist – the Last Supper – as close to the altar as he possibly could. Seen from this point of view, when approaching the altar, the Washing of the Feet precedes the Last Supper and reminds the congregation of the need to be pure before partaking in communion, thus relating the Washing of the Feet to the Sacrament of Confession. Just above the Last Supper is the Nativity, and I remember suggesting when we looked at that (POTD 87) that it was as if the body of Christ had been taken from the altar in the chapel. And above that, Joachim is turned away from the altar in the Temple (POTD 66). These three scenes are all included at the far left of the wall not only because that is where the narrative flow would have them, but also because they have a direct relationship to the sacramental nature of the real altar in the chapel to our left. And, actually, the ‘narrative flow’ would not have the Last Supper just here, as it has been swapped with the Washing of the Feet. But there is another, truly brilliant justification of this swap, and one that I have only just noticed. Look at what is above the Washing of the Feet:

OK, so I’ve cut out the window, but this is how the first scenes at the left of the south wall fit together. The Nativity is above the Last Supper, as we have already discussed, but like this it is more clear that the Christ Child is directly above the adult Jesus, and that both are as close to the altar as they can be. And I can’t help but notice that Mary’s loving gaze gives her the same angle of the head, and profile, as that of the sleeping St John, the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved‘. In the next pair, Jesus is directly below the eldest Magus – and both are kneeling. In the Adoration of the Magi the wise men recognise Jesus as the Boy Born to be King – and fulfil the prophecy in Psalms 72:10-11:

10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. 11 Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.

It was because of these verses that the Magi – the Wise Men – were promoted to the status of Kings – the Nativity story doesn’t mention kings at all. Well, these verses and others in Isaiah, including Isaiah 60:3: ‘And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising‘. However, Jesus turns all this on its head in John 13:14-15:

14 If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.

Giotto finds the perfect expression for this idea by placing the King kneeling before the infant Christ above Christ kneeling in front of Peter. So here’s your homework for the week: what are the connections between the bottom tier and the middle tier that we will see next week? You’ll need to look at the photo of the South wall above – which is admittedly small. I’m not guaranteeing that there are any, but I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll find something!


104 – Don’t touch!

Fede Galizia, Noli mi tangere, 1616, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Great news this week, which I know some of you will have heard already. But just in case you haven’t, I’m glad to let you know that the National Gallery has managed to completely re-schedule the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition. And not only that, but they will be allowing it a full 3 ½ months, from 3 October – 24 January: click on her name for more information. To celebrate, I should really talk about one of her paintings – but instead, I’m going to suggest you look back to my earlier blogs about Judith and Holofernes (Picture Of The Day 17) or the Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (POTD 69). I thought this would be a good time to talk about another 17th Century woman, though: Fede Galizia. She too was supposed to have an exhibition dedicated to her work this year, but, after research through a number of contradictory websites, I’ve just emailed the Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento and they got back to me 20 minutes later to say that it has been postponed until next summer. I’ll try and remember to remind you nearer the time! I’m still going to look at this painting, though!

I should have talked about this subject earlier, as it really is an ideal painting for lockdown (it turns out there are so many). The title, Noli mi tangere, translates as ‘Don’t touch me’, and even if we are not as locked down as we were, it still seems wise not to go around touching other people unnecessarily, particularly when you don’t initially know who they are. The story comes from John 20:13-17. It is Easter Sunday, and Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb and found it empty. She tells Peter and John, who go straight to the empty tomb to see if Mary is talking sense, and, once they have reassured themselves that she was right, they return home. At this point, Mary, in tears as so often, looks back into the tomb to see two angels:

13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. 14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. 17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

I’ve always thought that ‘Don’t touch me’ was an unusual request, and somewhat understated under the circumstances, but the explanation, ‘for I am not yet ascended to my Father’ would seem to make sense. Jesus is in neither one place nor the other, and, as both God and Man, having triumphed over death, there must still have been an uncertain sense of transition. Nevertheless, a little further down the chapter – verse 25 to be precise – he does issue Thomas with the instruction, ‘Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side’. I’m sure this issue has been explored extensively by theologians, but I have not found a justification why Thomas could touch Jesus but Mary Magdalene could not – unless, within Jewish law at the time, the female touch was considered unclean. And, while we are on the edges of the potential misogyny involved, it is worthwhile noting that we are also at the centre of one of the most significant moments which is conveniently ignored by some members of the church: Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the Resurrection, and was instructed by Jesus, ‘…go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father…’. Not only did she see the resurrected Christ before anyone else, but she was also told by Jesus to tell the others what was going on. So I really don’t understand the objection to the ordination of women. Having said that, and despite the fact that this is painted by a woman, that’s not what this particular picture is about, of course.

We see Jesus standing on the right. Galizia gives us no explanation for Mary’s confusion – there is no hat, no hoe, nothing whatsoever which would suggest that Jesus could be a gardener, so why the mistake? We will have to assume that she was blinded by her tears. Jesus wears the shroud as a toga (as he does often at the Resurrection, POTD 25), his head glowing with sanctity around his beautiful and notably blonde hair. Both hands are held out towards the Magdalene so as to keep her at a distance, but also to display the wounds, which are also clearly visible in his chest and feet. Mary kneels beside him, richly dressed in a pink robe, with a white chemise underneath, and a golden-yellow brocaded cloak that is lined with a deep blue. Her hair – as blonde as Jesus’s but many times longer – is elaborately plaited around her head, and flows freely down her back and under her left arm. It is pointedly not covered: she shows every sign of being a well-to-do courtesan, and one who has not, as yet, entirely repented of the vanities of human life (POTD 100).

On the left we see the opening to the tomb, at roughly the same height as Jesus’s head – I’m sure this is deliberate, as it serves to emphasize that he has triumphed over the darkness within. Two cherubs stand within the sarcophagus, not exactly the ‘two angels in white’ one would imagine from John 20:12, nor are they still sitting. The one on the left appears to be kneeling in prayer, while his companion points towards Jesus – or to the stone which has been moved out of the way, perhaps. Above Jesus’s right hand we see a garden gate, reminiscent of the type that is depicted in Northern Renaissance images of the Garden of Gethsemane – you can just about see one in Riemenschneider’s relief on the right of the Holy Blood Altarpiece (POTD 22). Beyond that is Jerusalem. We are still ‘without a city wall’ (the far away ‘green hill’ is at the top right of the painting), and the city gate can be seen at the end of a curving road. Within the city are a couple of details which remind us that this was part of the Roman Empire – a column, like that of Trajan, topped by an indistinct golden statue, and a form of obelisk. There is also a large circular building, the Temple of Solomon, the image of which was derived from the Dome of the Rock, which, during the middle ages, people mistook for the Temple itself. On the far left we see some of the wonderful botanical details Galizia included, and I am indebted to the Ecologist for their correct identification.

They include an iris (Iris x germanica) at the top, with a great mullein, or Aaron’s rod (Verbascum thapsus) to the right of it, with a spike of yellow flowers, and large leaves below. Down to the left is lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) with its white, bell-like flowers, and the delicate blue flowers are perhaps spring squills (Scilla verna). In this detail we can also see the brilliance of Galizia’s depiction of fabrics, with the transparent veil around the Magdalene’s shoulders, the embroidered hem of the robe, and laced edging of the chemise, as well as a deep blue ribbon, matching the lining of her cloak, which is wound around the plaits in her hair.

Under Mary’s left elbow we see deep blue columbine, or aquilegia (Aquilegia vulgaris), and double hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) – notice how, colouristically, they are perfectly matched with the pink robe and deep blue lining.

At the very bottom of the painting are some snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) and what in all probability are buttercups (Ranunculus sp.) – the shape and colour of the flowers is certainly indicative, as is the shine on the petals. However, without the leaves it is impossible to tell which species of buttercup this is, and none of the leaves visible here would appear to belong to these flowers, anyway. Here too Galizia has been careful to match the colours – the buttercups are related not only to the rich brocade of the cloak, but also to the Magdalene’s signature jar of ointment, apparently ceramic with a slightly crazed glad. According to Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:1 the holy women took spices to the tomb: it makes sense, therefore, that Mary has this jar with her.

There are some narcissi to the left of the Magdalene, just where the long strands of wavy hair seem to evaporate, and some anemones at the bottom left, under her toes. On the far right are some tulips of different colours, just below a pair of slightly sulky rabbits. Below Christ’s left foot, which is delicately poised on a stone, is a small piece of paper bearing Fede Galizia’s name, and the date – 1616.

It is not at all clear whether these flowers are symbolic or not. Some of them have appeared in paintings from the Renaissance onwards. The iris is related to the Virgin Mary’s suffering, while the buttercup has connections with sin. The columbine, its name deriving from a word for ‘dove’, is associated with the Holy Spirit. But some of them are just there for the ride – if Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for the gardener, maybe this is the evidence. After all, several of these plants are not the wild varieties. The double hollyhock is definitely a cultivar, and the snapdragons are also a garden variety. Tulips were famously cultivated, and their bulbs would be traded at over-inflated prices in the Netherlands a few years after the Noli mi tangere was painted. They are certainly not all spring flowers, even if the narcissi, tulips and squills are.

It is the context of the garden which is most important, I think, and, added to that, perhaps, the fact that Fede Galizia was famed as a painter of Still Life. She had made it her speciality to paint things in intricate, naturalistic detail, and is not wasting an opportunity here. Like many other women artists, she had been trained by her father, Nunzio, who was born in Trento – which is why they will be hosting an exhibition. Fede herself was born in Milan, though, sometime around 1578. In 1590, when she must have been at least 12, though possibly a bit more, the artist and author Paolo Lomazzo, wrote his Idea of the Temple of Art, in which he said that ‘this girl dedicates herself to imitating the best exponents of our art’. As it happens, he was a friend of Nunzio, but this wasn’t just a favour for a friend – she clearly had talent and her career took off. She was much in demand as a portrait painter, perhaps as a result of her attention to detail, but also received several commissions from churches: today’s picture was painted for the High Altar of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Milan, which was destroyed after the Napoleonic suppressions of 1798.

The flora in this painting works in a number of ways – some of the flowers definitely remind us of Spring, and so Easter, and refer to the Resurrection. Others have a more ‘generic’ religious relevance, referring to the Virgin’s suffering (a major part of which was seeing her son crucified), or to sin, as a result of which Christ’s sacrifice was necessary.  But how about the fauna? Well, rabbits, and their ability to reproduce, are associated with new life, and fecundity – but they also refer to the Resurrection.

Meanwhile, at the top of the painting, a pair of swallows are flying through the sky. They live with us throughout the Summer, but then disappear – only to come back in the Spring. It was thought that they lived in the mud during the winter (well, medieval observers couldn’t track their migrations), as if they were being buried and then coming back to life. Inevitably, therefore, they are also a symbol of the Resurrection. And, just in case we’d missed the point, at the top right of the painting we see that green hill far away, with two of the three crosses still visible and still standing. The reminder of Christ’s death is there, in the background, and it would be as well not to forget it. Although he is clearly once more in rude health, it would be wise not to get too close. Please remember that as you head back out into the world!


103 – The Last Supper

Giotto, The Last Supper, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

I know, it’s supposed to be Scrovegni Saturday, not Scrovegni Sunday, but it’s been one of those weeks. Apart from anything else, this is the first thing I’m typing on a new laptop, the old one having gradually wound down throughout lockdown. I’ve spent the last 3 months without a ‘z’ or an ‘x’ – can you imagine what it’s been like writing about Velázquez?! Still, I don’t have that problem now, and even accents seem more accessible. But you don’t need to know any of this… and Giotto never had those problems in the first place.

Giotto’s Last Supper is an entirely original composition, I think, although to be honest I don’t know many which precede it. However, last week I said that Giotto’s images in the Scrovegni Chapel did a lot to establish what would be the standard iconographic formulae for a number of stories – but this is clearly not the case with the Last Supper. You will know what to expect – I would post an image of Leonardo’s version, but I imagine it is more or less seared onto your retinas already. As it happens, Leonardo was himself drawing on one of the very well established formulae – but one which had a very specific context. Most images of the Last Supper were painted in the Refectories of monasteries – the room in which the monks, or nuns, would eat. If you imagine a large, medieval dining hall, with rows of tables leading along it – actually, don’t imagine, just look at this photograph of the dining hall of the monastic institution I spent a decade at, Clare College, Cambridge.

Three rows of tables lead the full length of the room, and then, up a step, is the high table, at right angles to the others, where the Master and Fellows sit. Now, if this were still a monastic institution, as it was in its origins, then it would have been the Abbot, or Prior who sat in the centre of the High Table, with other senior monks seated on either side of him. The wall at the back is panelled in wood, inset with an oval portrait of Lady Clare, founder of the college. Imagine that, instead of this, there were a painting of the Last Supper. Jesus and the Apostles would be sitting at a table even Higher than the one physically present. It is an arrangement that not only emphasizes the hierarchy of the Church and of the monastery itself, but which also reminds everyone present, while they are eating, of that most important of meals.

This is, therefore, the context of Leonardo’s version (yes, I ended up posting it anyway…) and although he introduced a number of innovations, the function of the painting is basically the same as all those that came before, with the exception, of course, of the one we are looking at today. But then Giotto’s version is not an independent painting in a refectory, it is part of a narrative cycle. And rather than being on the end wall of the room, it is at the side. The equivalent ‘end wall’ here would be the ecclesiastical East end of the chapel, where the High Altar is located.

Giotto’s Last Supper is at the left of the South wall. I’ve only just found this image – and it’s worth having a quick look. At the top we see the Story of Joachim and Anna (Picture Of The Day 66), taking up six fields, with decorative panels in between, including images of saints and prophets – this is very much the rhythm of the North Wall opposite. Underneath this, in the middle tier, we have The Childhood of Christ (POTD 87), with five fields, framed by the six windows, and, at the bottom, is The Passion of Christ. We are starting with The Last Supper at the bottom left, between the two windows. The High Altar of the chapel is to our left as we look at this wall.

What this means is that the altar is to the left here too, and Jesus, at the far left of the image, is seated at a part of the table which is in line with – or at least parallel to – the altar. In effect, he institutes the Eucharist as if he were seated behind the altar. He is also seated in the position that the Prior would in a monastic setting, given just one table and only 12 monks. So the orientation of the image is essentially the same as other examples you might know – although it doesn’t have that unnerving sense that the group has booked a table for 26 but only sat on one side. This turns out to be one of the rather glorious things about Giotto’s painting. We see the five apostles on the far side of the table perfectly clearly, but we only see the backs of those on ‘our’ side. However, when you think about it, it’s not ‘just’ the backs. We see their bottoms spreading across the wooden bench with a very human weight, and we see their legs, in shadow, under the bench and a little further away: Giotto continues to show his brilliance in the depiction of space and in his awareness of the humanity of the situation. However, it does create an interesting problem – that of the halo. A halo, as I’m sure I’ve said before, is meant to represent the glow of sanctity, and using metal leaf allows real light to be reflected, creating a glow around the head.  However, whereas the apostles on the far side have their haloes in the ‘traditional’ location, as if floating above their heads, the nearer ones sit their with what look like black plates floating in front of the faces.  Why are they black? Well, Giotto is implying that they do not have the same status as Jesus, whose halo is made of gold leaf: theirs are fashioned from silver. And whereas gold does not tarnish – it is pure and unchanging, just like God – silver does, and what were silver haloes are now black. But why the odd placement? Well, if he’d placed the haloes like plates behind their heads, we wouldn’t have seen them at all – we would seen a row of bodies and haloes, whereas, when silver, this would have created the glow around their heads. It was clearly important that we should see their heads, even if not their full faces. If you look at the apostles at the far right of the table, the one at the back can be seen in profile, with the corner post of the ‘cut-away’ room passing across his face. But his companion on our side of the table has clearly been repainted – and the post disappears. The church was clearly not happy with having part of his face obscured – even if both he and the chap to his left are both seen in a rather brilliantly depicted profil perdu.

As so often it is probably impossible to identify each of the apostles – generically we could name all twelve, and Giotto may well have known which was which, but we are given few clues. Traditionally Jesus would sit with Peter at his right hand and John at his left – this is one of the things that Leonardo changes – and so does Giotto. Peter is facing us, at the back of the table at the far left. As so often, he can be identified from the short grey hair and beard, and the yellow cloak over a blue robe (although, as in the rest of the cycle, much of the blue has worn off). I would hesitate to identify the remaining four figures at the back. Likewise, I couldn’t say who the two at the front right are – although the other three are more obvious. In the centre, with his back to us, wearing a cloak that is white and elaborately patterned, is St Bartholomew. I don’t know where this comes from, but he was often shown with a patterned cloak such as this. To the left of him is St Andrew, with long, curly, grey hair, wearing a red robe and a green cloak. He can be identified from his appearance at the Baptism and the Wedding at Cana (POTD 93)

There is a fascinating grouping of characters at the head of the table. Jesus is, of course, in the centre, and has (or had) an apostle sitting on either side of him. I say ‘had’ because one has keeled over with apparent exhaustion, and is fast asleep on his chest – it is a wonderful image of untroubled sleep. This is a direct reference to the Gospel according to St John, 13:23, ‘Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved’. Now, it doesn’t actually say he was asleep, but that is how he is usually shown, and it also doesn’t say who it was – although it is always assumed to have been St John the Evangelist himself, the youngest of the apostles. Jesus has just announced that he will be betrayed, and Peter has asked who it would be. Peter isn’t actually visible in this detail – as we have seen he is seated at the back, on the left – although his right shoulder just creeps into this detail, in blue. He is sitting around the corner from John (if the latter would sit up). As I’ve said, he would usually be sitting at Jesus’s right hand, but in his place we have someone else I would hesitate to identify. I suspect Peter has been moved to give him a greater visibility from our point of view. The only person who remains to be identified is the man in yellow at the front left – the man who has his hand on the table, next to Jesus’s. It is, of course, Judas, and while this gesture could be a reference to the ‘sop’ which Jesus gave to Judas in John 13:26, I think it is more likely to be drawn from Luke 22:21: ‘But, behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table’. Judas is often shown in yellow – both robe and cloak – and here has an odd shadowy presence. My suspicion is that he was painted without a halo, and some later restorer, not knowing any better, tried to add one on. Or maybe Giotto deliberately wanted to give him a dark aura by painting this shadow around his head – this is something I must look into! When the other haloes were silver, it would have been really obvious – either as an absence of light, or as an excess of dark.

Enough for now! Next week we will consider why, in order to move the story forward, Giotto resorted to a flashback.


102 – Jesus… and Judas

Giotto, The Entry into Jerusalem, The Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple and The Betrayal of Judas, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Welcome back to Scrovegni Saturday! We are, in some ways, approaching the beginning of the end, as we head towards the end of the sequence of Jesus’s life in the middle of the walls, and soon will start on the sequence of the Passion. We’re already at Palm Sunday, which we covered on the day itself with the beautifully detailed panel by Tilman Riemenschneider (Picture Of The Day 18) – and if you want to have another look at that you can just click on the link in the brackets.

Giotto’s painting shares many features in common with Riemenschneider’s relief carved some two centuries later. But then, the way in which important biblical stories were depicted – the iconography – had often been developed some long time before Giotto. Nevertheless, Giotto’s examples did much to establish these formulae, and acted as important precedents for many subsequent artists. Rather than sitting on a triumphant horse as he approaches one of the gates of the city, Jesus sits upon a donkey, thus showing his humility. People climb trees in the background to get a better view, and to tear down branches. One boy in a butterscotch-coloured robe waving his branch among the crowd on the right, while others take off their robes to spread them in the path of the donkey. People seem to be pouring out of the city gate to see what is going on, creating a diagonal paralleled by the line of a hill which leads up from the forehead of the donkey, leading us ever onward from left to right, and up to the gate.  Much of this imagery is taken from the account in the Gospel of St John, and takes place just after Jesus has eaten with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It is clear that many people were there because of the ‘celebrity’ Jesus had gained by bringing Lazarus back from the dead – and, according to verse 9, Lazarus was likewise a ‘draw’. However, for the sake of brevity, I am only quoting John 12:12-14 and 17-18:

12 On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. 14 And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon… 17 The people therefore that was with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead, bare record. 18 For this cause the people also met him, for that they heard that he had done this miracle.

Christ is followed by his apostles – I can only see 10 haloes, but the other two, one of whom would arguably not have a halo, can be imagined as ‘offstage’ at the moment, and just about to enter. One of the features which Giotto includes, which we did not see in the Riemenschneider, is a second animal, small, and sketchy. I presume it was painted a secco, and may have been an afterthought. It could have been a member of the church who wanted to tie the different biblical accounts together. This creature is mentioned in Matthew 21:1-2:

1 And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, 2 Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me.

The accounts are similar in Mark 11 and Luke 19, but they only mention one of the beasts. Another feature that isn’t included in John’s account is the spreading of garments – which is included in the three synoptic gospels. This is Matthew 21: 6-8:

6 And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7 And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. 8 And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.

You can see that the ass has clothes spread over it as a saddle – this looks like St Peter’s yellow cloak, and Peter himself is resting his left hand on it, looking decidedly grumpy. But then, his clothes are in a rather poor state of repair – the a secco blue has worn really badly in this part of the fresco.

So far only one person has put his cloak down, just in time for the ass to tread on it, but it is significant that this particular fabric was painted red in true fresco, with ultramarine added a secco – just like Jesus’s own blue cloak. This implies that it was an expensive garment, and that Jesus was not only worthy of practical respect, but a respect that was also given a financial value. If we wanted to be picky, we would point out that, unlike pigments, blue fabrics were not as expensive as red ones – but as Giotto is expressing his ideas through paint, he is not concerned with such practicalities. The practicalities that do interest him include how you remove garments in order to be able to spread them. Just behind the boy laying his ultramarine cloak on the ground is another who is bending over, having pulled his green robe over his head. Behind this second boy a man is pulling at his left sleeve with his right hand – you can see that his left arm, visible in the sleeve, is almost withdrawn, with the elbow more or less next to his waist. He leans slightly, but is not as bent as the boy in front, and certainly not prostrate like the boy with the ultramarine. Between them they form a step-by-step guide to removing and spreading your garment, a form of animation, if you like.

This image is a good example of the way that Giotto did not cut corners. Although we have seen examples of him repeating forms and ideas – buildings reoccur from one painting to another, for example – they are never exactly repeated. The image of Jesus is very similar in The Raising of Lazarus (left) and The Entry into Jerusalem (right) – but there are subtle variations. In both cases Jesus appears solemn, upright and authoritative, driving the narrative forward. The position of his hands is similar in each, although the angles are slightly different. It’s not unusual for an artist to re-use his cartoons – the large-scale drawings made in preparation – but, if Giotto did, he has subtly adjusted the composition while painting.

Likewise, the ass on which he rides into Jerusalem (right) is related in some way to the donkey on which, 33 years before, he had fled into Egypt. But again – it is not the same. Although they look similarly proud of their role in Jesus’s story, the earlier donkey has perkier ears, for one thing – but then, he is saving Jesus’s life, unlike his younger relative, who bears Jesus onward to his death.

The first thing Jesus does on his arrival is to chase the money-changers from the temple, as we saw in El Greco’s painting from the National Gallery (POTD 19). It is always worthwhile remembering, when looking at Giotto’s buildings, that a systematic way of painting in perspective wasn’t developed until the 15th Century. Even so, more than a century before that, Giotto could give us a real sense of solidity and space. He has painted a portico in front of the temple, or in the temple courtyard, and because it is at an angle, the individual piers which support the arches, framed by green half columns, stand in front of the three doors in the more shadowed inner wall of the portico: we can tell that we are not directly in front of this building.

This ability with spatial representation is shown most brilliantly in the cages that were previously used for animals – the man shying away from Jesus carries one, and there is another sitting on the ground. Jesus’s actions seem relatively calm – even measured – and the response of the money-changers is nothing like the chaos which ensues in El Greco’s later painting, but it is enough to cause the sheep to try and escape. It is also enough to scare the children. 

This is an entirely charming detail, I think, and one I haven’t seen elsewhere. One of the apostles is comforting a child, clearly upset by the unprecedented drama in the temple precinct.

The Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple brings us to the end of another chapter in the Scrovegni story, which could be entitled Christ’s Mission – although, as ever, Giotto keeps the story going by taking us round the corner. And the sheep seem to lead the way…

They leap round the corner, and straight into the devil, who looms over the shoulder of Judas, persuading him to take the bag containing the thirty pieces of silver, his fee for betraying Jesus. The priest in red holds his hands close to Judas’s – that touching gesture of that says, ‘I understand your concerns, but it really won’t be a problem’. And to the right, two more priests discuss the fact that the problem will be sorted – as the one in green points towards this untoward transaction with his thumb. We’ve actually seen this painting before, back in POTD 80, but I didn’t tell you what it was. 

With Judas in yellow and the priest in red, they mirror Anne and Mary on the other side of the chancel arch in The Visitation. As 2 July used to be the Feast of the Visitation (up until 1969, since when it has been celebrated on 31 May) this would seem apt – we’ve only missed it by a couple of days. The handmaids also echo the two priests, in paler versions of their clothes, while Anne’s servant is opposite to the devil.

What is the theological connection between the two? It is one of opposites. On the right Jesus is on his way into the world, and the unborn John the Baptist’s movement in the womb acknowledges the fact, whereas on the left, Judas’s betrayal seeks to take Jesus out of the world. Anne recognises Jesus will come, Judas guarantees that he will go. And remember, along the base of the wall running along the right hand side, below Anne, are the seven Virtues, while on the left hand side, under Judas, are the seven Vices, connecting all the way to heaven and to hell in the last Judgement on the wall behind us. Judas grasps the moneybag which is also held by Envy – one of the seven Vices (POTD 52) – as well as by several of the damned in hell (POTD 38). Thus Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is connected to the life of the patron’s own father. As I’m sure you will remember, Enrico Scrovegni commissioned the decoration of the chapel partly to atone for his father’s sin of usury (again, see POTD 38). This is, as I’m sure I’ve said before, the most coherent decorative scheme I know. And there’s plenty more to come! But for now, it’s worth noting that the planning it must have taken to get to the right point in the story so that Judas’s acceptance of the thirty pieces of silver was placed in this significant position in the chapel must have been remarkable. It allows Giotto to start the next chapter with The Last Supper, on the bottom tier of the right wall between the furthest two windows – and that is where we will start net week.


101 – Spinning a Yarn

Diego Velázquez, ‘Las Hilanderas’, 1655-60, The Prado, Madrid.

Had Picture Of The Day not ended on a Saturday, then this would have been POTD 100 – for reasons which should eventually become clear. But I couldn’t shift Scrovegni Saturday, now, could I? And had I got my skates on during the Velázquez lecture (thank you to all those who could make it), this should have been the last painting I discussed, but, as you may have noticed, I tend to go on a bit. Anyway, here we are, a few days later, with ‘No. 101’.

This painting is, I suspect, almost as complex in its ambitions and implications as the far more famous Las Meninas. Like it’s illustrious predecessor (this is probably one of the last paintings that Velázquez completed) it is very much about the nature and power of art. I’m using the Spanish title, simply because Las Hilanderas sounds so much better than ‘The Spinners’ – and also doesn’t put me in mind of a 1960s folk group. There is another title – The Fable of Arachne – but neither really explains what is going on, nor is either entirely accurate. There is, after all, only one person spinning: the old woman at the front left. 

As it happens, Velázquez has illustrated three stages in the production of thread. The woman in the centre, wearing the red skirt, is reaching down to the ground for a ‘clump’ of wool. In her left hand is a carder – not unlike the working end of a broom, but with metal spikes. Carding wool is the process of separating the fibres, and lining them up.  Once done, the carded wool would be handed to the woman on the left, who attaches it to her distaff, leaning against her left shoulder. She is pulling out separate fibres with her left hand, and feeding them onto a thread on the spinning wheel, spinning them together to create an even, strong yarn, which will then be wound onto a reel. The woman on the right is then winding the spun yarn from a reel, or skeiner, onto a ball. It’s not clear what the girl on the far right is doing – possibly taking the balls elsewhere, or bringing the wool for the start of the process.  The woman on the far left is pulling back a curtain. At first glance it is not clear why – but I shall come back to her later! There is also a cat, playing with one of the balls of wool, probably because that is one of the essential functions of a ball of wool – to be played with by a cat (I think that’s what’s called a circular argument). 

Being brilliant, Velázquez manages to show us these stages in wool production while also creating a wonderfully balanced composition – with an old woman weaving on the left facing front, and a young woman winding on the right facing back. They are framed by younger women leaning in on either side, and in their turn, they frame the woman facing towards us, about to start carding the wool, in the centre. Even for Velázquez’ late style this central woman is remarkably freely painted, her face little more than a blur or blob. It’s intriguing to realise that one Spanish word for blob, blot, stain, or mark is borrón, whereas borra can be the sort of rough wool you would use as stuffing. As borrón can be used for the very painterly brushstrokes that Velázquez uses I would love to think – as several scholars have – that this is a deliberate pun.

Meanwhile, in the background, we have moved from raw material to finished product. The wool has been woven into tapestries, which hang on the walls of a brightly lit adjoining room, up a couple of steps almost as if it is a stage. The scalloped edges at the top confirm that these images are fabric, hanging from the walls, and tell us that they are attached in the corners of the room, and half way across the walls. As many tapestries do, they have decorative borders and a pictorial centre. There are five people in this room, who in some way seem to echo the five women in the foreground.

The two who frame the group on the left and right look into and out of this subsidiary scene respectively, with the woman on the far right apparently aware of our presence: she looks out at us as we look in at her past the women in the foreground. She is rather like Alberti’s ‘chorus’ figure who we have seen several times before (e.g. POTD 37), inviting us in, or warning us off. A woman in a blue dress and red shawl has her back to us, while the woman in the centre faces front. She is standing with her back to the tapestry, gesturing to a person wearing armour – a helmet and breastplate – and holding a shield. This is Minerva – Goddess of War and Wisdom – or Athena, if you prefer the Greek names. But as this is a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I will stick with the Latin. In her role as Goddess of Wisdom, Minerva was also inspiratrix of the arts, and, as it happens, a dab hand at weaving. But then, so was Arachne – the woman gesturing towards her. In fact, Arachne was so good that she even boasted that she was probably better than Minerva – she certainly claimed all the credit for herself, and denied that she owed anything to the goddess. Minerva was clearly not going to be happy about this, and, disguising herself as an old woman, came down from Olympus and challenged Arachne to a competition. They both wove tapestries. Minerva’s showed the twelve Olympian gods enthroned in their palace, with examples of the Gods’ punishment of overreaching mortals as a warning to the presumptuous Arachne in the corners. Arachne, on the other hand, wove the loves of the Gods – notably the many examples of Jupiter’s infidelities and dalliances with mortals. This angered Minerva, but she could not fault the craftsmanship – while she appreciated Arachne’s work, she was also envious of her talent. She was, as people might say nowadays, conflicted. And this made her even more angry – she shredded the tapestry and attacked Arachne with her shuttle. The poor girl couldn’t cope with this, took a rope, tied it into a noose and tried to hang herself. But Minerva prevented her – she grabbed the rope, with Arachne hanging from it, and transformed her into a spider – an arachnid, of course – hanging from its thread, destined to spin forever.

It has been suggested that the two most important characters in the foreground – the old woman spinning and the young woman winding – are in fact Minerva and Arachne. However, I don’t think that this is necessarily the case – they could easily be contemporary workers whose activities are effectively ennobled by comparison with ancient myth. Nevertheless, the links between the foreground and background are clear, and Velázquez cleverly charts the development from fluffy lumps of wool (or was that blots, or blobs of paint?) through carding, spinning and winding, to the end product, a glorious, faultless work of art, both appreciated and abhorred by none other than Minerva. The process of moving from craft to concept, from technical skill to intellectual complexity, was one of the major developments in art during the Italian Renaissance. However, in Spain, artists had never really had the same respect. As with Las Meninas, Velázquez is making great claims for his art, the art of painting, in this particular work. From mere blobs of paint he can tell a tale – or, to put it another way, spin a yarn – which shows how dangerous art can be. It can rouse great emotions, it can teach us who we are and what we are capable of, it can stop us being complacent – which is why so many regimes have sought to bend it to their own will. I will leave you to contemplate our present government, and its current dealings with the arts.

But, of course, there is more to it than that. There’s a girl pulling back a curtain, for a start. I can’t see that the curtain has any real function in this space, so what is she doing it for? I’m sure it relates to the tale, told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, about the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, to determine who was the best painter. The rules were simple – each paints a painting, and then they decide which one is better. Once the works were completed, they went first to Zeuxis’ studio, where his painting was displayed behind a curtain. He had painted some grapes, and they were so good that when the curtain was drawn back birds flew down to peck at them – what could Parrhasius do that would be better than that? They headed off to Parrhasius’ studio, and he invited Zeuxis to go over and have a look. So Zeuxis went over to draw back the curtain, only to find out that it was a painting of a curtain. Zeuxis may have fooled the birds, but Parrhasius had fooled a person – and an artist at that. And Velázquez has done the same to us. Why is the girl pulling back the curtain? Well, she isn’t. There is no curtain. There is no girl, for that matter, it’s just a painting. But he’s so good that we end up talking about these things as if they are real. Did he know the story? Oh yes. All artists did by the 17th Century. I can’t help thinking that by pulling back the curtain, the girl is referring to the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius in order to reveal the story of another competition, the one between Minerva and Arachne – so are we to assume that Velázquez was also in competition with someone? Before I answer that question, let’s stick with the fabric. Surely there is also a comparison between the plain fabric of the curtain, and the elaborately pictorial fabric of the tapestries. And, if we wanted to take it even further, we could even stop and think about the fabric on which this is all painted – the canvas – but we won’t.

In another section of the Natural History Pliny praises a work by the artist Antiphilus called,  ‘the Spinning-room, in which women are working with great speed at their duties.’ You could argue that it was this painting that Velázquez was trying to recreate with Las Hilanderas – he is putting himself into competition with Antiphilus. Pliny was making the point that it takes great skill to recreate the sensation of movement in paint – he also refers to a painting of a four-horse chariot by Aristides, in which the horses were running. Inevitably, although Pliny doesn’t mention the fact, the wheels would have been spinning – and this is undoubtedly the effect that Velázquez is trying to achieve with the spinning wheel in his own work, the blurred, concentric lines creating the sensation of movement. By including the references to Pliny, and illustrating one of Ovid’s tales, Velázquez places his own work, in terms of craft and of concept, in relationship to the art of the ancients – but would he, like Arachne, be daring enough to challenge the gods? I’m just going to quote eight lines of the wonderful 18th Century translation of the Metamorphoses which I referred to when talking about Boucher’s Pygmalion (POTD 79) – and here is a link there to a contemporary translation as well. We are a little way into Book VI, where Ovid describes Arachne’s tapestry:

Arachne drew the fam'd intrigues of Jove, 
Chang'd to a bull to gratify his love; 
How thro' the briny tide all foaming hoar, 
Lovely Europa on his back he bore. 
The sea seem'd waving, and the trembling maid 
Shrunk up her tender feet, as if afraid; 
And, looking back on the forsaken strand, 
To her companions wafts her distant hand. 

The first of Jupiter’s exploits mentioned by Ovid is the Rape of Europa, and if we look at the tapestry as painted by Velázquez, the version that Arachne has woven is the one painted by Titian for Philip II. The Titian, now owned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, and currently in the exhibition just about to re-open at the National Gallery, was copied by Rubens: Rubens’s version is displayed next to Las Hilanderas in the Prado, just to make the point. Rubens’s own painting of The Fable of Arachne – in which he too quoted Titian’s Rape of Europa – can be seen in the shadows on the back wall in Las Meninas – with the added justification that a copy of it, by Velázquez’ son-in-law Mazo, was actually in the room in which Las Meninas is set.

Not only can Velázquez chart the development from raw material to finished product, from unformed wool to refined tapestry – using blobs of paint to spin his yarn – but he can also acknowledge and recreate the works of the classical masters, while putting himself in the same tradition as Titian and Rubens – his own ‘gods’ of painting. Like Arachne, he challenges the gods, but unlike Arachne, he wins. From a purely personal point of view, I now relish the fact that the work that he quoted is a painting by Titian which I saw just a few days before lockdown, one of the last paintings that I saw – and it will be one of the first that I see when the National Gallery re-opens this week. It was, as you may recall, Picture Of The Day 1.

Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1562, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.


Day 100 – A New Life

Giotto, The Raising of Lazarus, c. 1305 Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

We looked at The Raising of Lazarus a few days ago, in the dark and mysterious painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner in the Musée d’Orsay (Picture Of The Day 95). Admittedly his work is titled ‘Resurrection’ rather than ‘Raising’, but that might be a result of translation from the French – the story is the same, whatever, and the names of specific events, like the titles of certain paintings, tend to get fixed within the language. 

It’s interesting to note that Giotto does not spend too much time on Christ’s adult life – his teaching, and many miracles, are passed by, abbreviated along one wall into the most significant events. So far on this wall we have Christ Among the Doctors, The Baptism and The Wedding at Cana (POTD 87 & 93) – just a hint at his early life (the end of childhood?), the start of his mission and his first miracle. We then jump to the most significant miracle, perhaps: the promise of new life.

With the implacable movement of the Scrovegni narratives, Jesus arrives from the left of the pictorial field followed by some of the apostles – I can see four haloes, but there could well be others behind them, out of the frame. Two have already sprung into action – the one with yellow and blue is St Peter, but the other I would hesitate to identify. Jesus raises his hand in blessing, clear against the clear blue sky, in the middle of the space between himself and the crowd of onlookers. John 11:38 describes the nature of the grave: ‘It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it’. Giotto creates a hill for this cave, and as always, the landscape comments on the action. The hill leads up to the right, driving forward the narrative and lifting our eyes, a metaphor for the raising of Lazarus. Christ instructs them, ‘Take ye away the stone’ – which they have, with two rather small workmen holding the stone at an angle equivalent to the slop of the hill in the bottom right corner. However, just after this instruction (and before it is carried out), ‘Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.

As I said the other day, Giotto makes this ‘stink’ visible – the woman on the far right covers her face with her blue cloak, and the apostle to the right of Lazarus has wrapped his cloak around his face. According to John 11:33-34, Jesus cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go’. And this is how we see Lazarus – although the napkin has already been loosed allowing us to see Lazarus’ deathly pallor. The crowd to the left throw their hands up in amazement.

Before I talk about the two women prostrate at Jesus’s feet I’d just like to point out a technical detail. As we have seen before, in The Nativity for example (POTD 87), Jesus’s robe was painted red in true fresco, with the ultramarine blue painted a secco – meaning that it much of it has worn way. On the right of this detail you can see Peter’s robe, which was not painted at all when wet, and only has a blue a secco layer. Originally, when all the paint was still there, Jesus’s robe would have looked far richer in colour, with the red showing through to make the blue look deeper, even purple, while Peter’s would have been a less intense blue. Not only would this have helped to emphasize their relative status, but it would also have drawn our attention to Jesus – while still making Peter look important.

And after some painting technique, I’d like to get technical with the bible. Who are the two women prostrate at Jesus’s feet? At first glance, it would seem to be straightforward: Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus. According to John 11:5, ‘Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus’ – they were friends. They lived in Bethany, and, according to verse 2, which is entirely in brackets in the King James Version, ‘It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick’. This particular verse ties in with others, in Luke’s Gospel, 7:37-38:

And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

The chapter ends at verse 50, with Jesus’s statement of forgiveness ‘And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace’. Almost immediately after this, in the second verse of the next chapter, Mary Magdalene is mentioned for the first time, ‘Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils’ – we are not told any more about this, but Mary appears regularly thereafter as one of Jesus’s followers, being present at the Crucifixion, and being the first witness to his Resurrection. After the entombment of Christ, Luke 23:55-56 and 24:1 says 

And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment. Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared…

The ointment with which the ‘woman… which was a sinner’ washes Christ’s feet, this ointment in Luke 23, and the ointment in John 11:2 were all linked together. So were the statements that Luke’s sinner was ‘stood… behind him weeping’, that Mary (sister of Martha) was ‘weeping‘ in John 11:33, and the later statement in John 20:11 saying ‘Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping’, to suggest that Luke’s sinner, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the sister of Martha, were all one and the same woman, often to be seen weeping with a jar of ointment. This isn’t a new idea by any means – it was Pope Gregory the Great who connected the three women in a sermon back in 591. And that is how the Catholic church continued to see Mary Magdalene right up until 1969 when Pope Paul VI recognised them as three separate people. The Orthodox Church had always seen them as separate, and many Protestants rejected the connection as well: Calvin certainly did, although Luther continued to believe in the composite identity. Nevertheless, as almost every image of ‘Mary Magdalene’ that you will see from Western Europe, from medieval to baroque and beyond is the product of the Catholic Church, it is the penitent prostitute that is depicted.

It helps us to separate the two women here, even though we cannot see either of them clearly. The woman in the foreground, with her head covered, is Martha, and behind her, hair still visible and wearing red, is her sister Mary, assumed to be Mary Magdalene, the ‘scarlet woman’ (sorry, younger generation, I can’t explain).

That got a bit technical I know, and I’m going to do the same again, although not quite in so much detail. I mentioned on Wednesday (POTD 97) that Hercules was a ‘type’ of Christ, and realised that, although I’ve hinted at this form of interpretation, I had never thoroughly explained it. It relates to the setting of the Wedding at Cana which we saw last week (POTD 93).

The picture is framed by two decorative strips, which look like inlaid marble, with a scene in the centre of each. I suggested that you might recognise one of them.

Here they are on a larger scale. On the left is Moses bringing forth Water from the Rock and on the right, The Creation of Adam – it’s not entirely unlike Michelangelo’s more famous version painted some two centuries later.

And this is how it relates to The Raising of Lazarus. The message is quite straightforward – God gave Adam life, and Jesus gives Lazarus new life. This is why the story of Lazarus is so important – it isn’t just Lazarus who has new life: the Christian message is that everyone has new life in Jesus. We are ‘born again’, to use the evangelical catchphrase. In the earlier example, Moses provided water, while Jesus turns it into wine – and later, wine becomes his blood. In both cases we are seeing typological interpretations of the Jewish scriptures. For Christian theologians it was vital that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, so they combed through every verse of the Old Testament to find any potential relevance to Christianity – and even things which were not prophecies were seen as predicting something in the New Testament. So Moses as a whole was the type of Jesus. The word comes from printing – think of movable type. A metal letter ‘t’, say, is covered with ink and printed – and a ‘t’ appears on the page. It is something which creates the image of itself. So Moses, leader of his people, who gave them the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, is a precursor of Jesus, the leader of his people, who gave the Sermon on the Mount. In both, the ‘Mount’ is important. But it wasn’t just the Old Testament to which this form of interpretation could be applied. It was assumed that the classical civilisations had partially misheard God’s message and got it wrong. Nevertheless, they thought, Aristotle’s Prime Mover was bound to be the Christian God (POTD 98), and for that matter, Jupiter, King of all the Gods, must have been a misunderstanding for God the Father, while Juno, Queen of the Heavens, could easily be a foretelling of Mary, Queen of Heaven – or so they reasoned. The fact that Giotto uses small details to include this form of interpretation, giving greater depth to the meaning of the chapel as a whole, is a sign of his genius. I’m sure it’s not entirely his idea – Enrico Scrovegni would have had a suitable theologian on hand to tell Giotto what to paint – but Giotto was the one who decided what it would look like, and precisely how it would all fit in. These are the details which are all too easy to miss – but which, like salt, bring out the full flavour. And there are many more…

But for today, enough, already. And enough for a while, I’m afraid. This marks the end of Picture Of The Day, but clearly not of pictures… I will continue to blog from time to time – after all, we’re not even two thirds of the way around the stories of the Scrovegni Chapel – so Scrovegni Saturday will keep going. This website will function as a mailing list, as well, and I’m going to try to be more conscientious about updating the ‘diary’ page – I’ll let you know when I do! In the meantime, thank you all for your interest, for your support, and for all of your kind comments. And, like Lazarus, I’m wishing a great new life for all of us after lockdown. He and his sisters all ended up in the South of France, as it happens, but that’s another story. There are always many more.


Day 99 – Paradise

Giovanni di Paolo, Paradise, 1445, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Since yesterday, nothing drastic has happened – and so I give you a vision of Paradise, the rabbits, more numerous since the days of Adam and Eve, still nibbling peaceably at the grass. I don’t know about you, but back in the middle of March I can remember the last couple of friends I bumped into, or arranged to meet, in London, and not knowing how to greet them. There were a couple of awkward, slightly distanced hugs, and then a couple of bows… and then I was whisked away to Durham, and I’ve been here more or less ever since. Soon the demands of work will drag me back down to London, and soon we will be able to meet up with friends again. I know we can meet some, at a distance, already. But when will we start making physical contact? When will we shake hands, or hug, or kiss, and will it be one cheek or two? And will it look anything like Giovanni di Paolo’s Paradise?

Here we are at the end of time, and the resurrection of the body has brought these people together for the first time in centuries, if not millennia – for who knows when it will be? The people are spread across the surface like a medieval tapestry, with a screen of golden trees against a clear blue sky defining the limit of the garden, which is verdant, and growing with over-sized flowers. People meet in couples, or, in one case, a threesome, dressed to the nines, or with the humility of monastic orders. A large number of the men wear black and white, the habit of the Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans – which is the first clue about this painting: it was probably made for a Dominican church.

Some of the characters can even be identified. The two Dominicans greeting each other in the middle here – they’ve gone for the slightly distanced embrace – are none other than St Dominic himself, founder of the order, and St Peter Martyr. It’s a tiny detail, but there is a splash of red – blood – on the head of the man on the right. St Peter, a friend and follower of St Dominic, was killed when heretics attacked him in the woods outside Milan, hacking into his head with a knife. To the right we have St Anthony Abbot and two Dominican nuns. Now, you must forgive me if I can’t help thinking that Giovanni di Paolo, the strange and original genius of the Sienese Renaissance, wasn’t always being entirely straight laced. After all, what exactly are these three doing? It looks to me as if St Anthony is actually pushing the middle nun away – and that her companion is trying to hold her back. Seeing as one of the stories in which artists could exercise most fantasy was The Temptation of St Anthony, would I be wrong in suggesting that here temptation has been offered yet again, and, as ever, the good Saint has sailed through the test with flying colours (to mix my transport metaphors). To the left of the detail, we have the fashionable youth of the afterlife – men in their must-have red tights (like Tobias, in Picture Of The Day 4), including one with a chaperon (the fashionable headgear often seen in paintings by van Eyck), and two women in the same dress (houppelandes) – though fortunately, not the same colour. Imagine the embarrassment – all eternity in the same outfit! What becomes apparent quite quickly, though, is that Paradise is not for the poor.

There are more identifiable figures in the arc of characters spanning the middle of the painting. The Dominican on the left, who has a little bird whispering in his ear, was, in his life, inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is something that would usually identify St Gregory the Great, but he was a Pope – so this can’t be Gregory. As a Dominican it must be the Blessed Ambrogio Sansedoni, revered in Siena, even though he never made it into the canon of the Saints. There is clearly a good team dealing with hospitality in Paradise, as no one is left to themselves. Anyone who might have been more – heremitic, shall we say? – during their life has been greeted by an angel. Sansedoni certainly is, and so is the Pope, further to the right (sadly we don’t know which one this is). The two angels frame St Augustine, who is meeting his mother, St Monica, for the first time since she passed away in Ostia, as they were heading off to Africa. I hesitate to discuss the relationship between the cardinal, in his scarlet robes, and the extremely fashionable blonde boy in his spotless white hose, in case I say something that is entirely irrelevant to the painting.

The deer wandering into the garden at the top left tells us that the man in white is St Giles – it ran to him while being hunted, and the poor Saint was rewarded with an arrow in the leg. But it was a sign that St Giles was, during his lifetime, already closer to Paradise than the rest of us, as the animals were not afraid of him. It is for the same reason that the rabbits sit so peacefully, and do not scamper away: in Paradise everything is at peace. It is only the sinful they need fear. The other anonymous couples greet with differing degrees of intimacy, from holding wrists at arm’s length to full on hugging. There are even two – a monk and a merchant I’d say, towards the top right – whose greeting would now be interpreted as ‘namaste’ – with the hands joined in prayer, and a slight nod. I tried it a couple of times, but I’m not sure it was me. And then, in the top right corner, a young man and an angel, hand in hand, are going for a walk beyond the frame. But don’t be fooled – they are not leaving the picture, it’s just that the picture has left them. A golden glow emanates from behind the angel’s head and in front of the hem of his skirt. It emerges from behind the black cloak and white robe of another Dominican, who has been cut off, ultimately, if not in his prime. Although this now looks like the edge of the painting, it wasn’t: the panel was cut down at some point, and the golden frame painted all round the surviving section to disguise the fact. 

Originally these two panels – yesterday’s and today’s – belonged together, and would have been adjacent like this. I don’t have access to the full conservation history, so I don’t know if they were originally on the same plank of wood, or on separate sections. Nevertheless, the conception of ‘Paradise’ is the same in each, a flowery meadow screened off from the blue sky by a row of golden trees. In the second panel Paradise is more extensive, because there is nothing else to show – there is no need to include the four rivers, or, for that matter, the rest of the cosmos. It does make the trees look further away. They are smaller, after all, although on the whole Giovanni isn’t too worried about perspective: the people at the top are more or less the same size as the people at the bottom, one of the features that gives the ‘tapestry-like’ appearance. The trees are also painted in the same way, with gold leaf applied over the paint, much of which has worn off in the Paradise panel. But even together, this was not the full extent of the painting.

This is a reconstruction of the known remaining elements of the Guelfi Altarpiece, painted for the Church of San Domenico in Siena. The main panels have found their way to the Uffizi in Florence, and are signed and dated 1445. In the centre, as so often in Italy, are the Madonna and Child. They are flanked by Sts Peter and Paul, with Sts Dominic and Thomas Aquinas (another Dominican) on the outside. As it happens, the name is inaccurate – the polyptych was originally painted for a chapel dedicated to St Dominic, hence his inclusion in the main part of the altarpiece. Only later was it moved to the Guelfi Chapel, which was dedicated to St Anthony. If you want to know more about its origins, the Met catalogue entry is available online. The altarpiece was still intact, and already in the Guelfi Chapel, in 1649, when it was described in detail. The structure is a common one, with the upper elements of the altarpiece supported by a wooden box, which helps to stabilise the heavy wooden panels on which the Saints are painted. But, as an extra surface, this box could also decorated with a strip of paintings, known as the predella. The 1649 account described the predella as illustrating the Last Judgement, the Flood, and the Creation of the World. You might think that the last of these is the only bit that survives, but Paradise was originally part of the Last Judgement – however, for whatever reason (wet rot, dry rot, woodworm, theft or fire – there are always candles on an altar), most of it has been lost. However, we are lucky that Giovanni di Paolo regularly repeated compositions with which he was happy. Here is another predella panel, now in the Pinacoteca in Siena, which he painted for an unidentified polyptych.

The depiction of Paradise on the left is similar, if broader, to today’s picture – and you can see that the top right of it does lead into the golden light of heaven, as the glow behind the hand-holding angel suggests it would. We also see the resurrection of the body in the centre, with souls being ushered into Paradise on the left (at Jesus’s right hand, POTD 38), and thrust into hell on the right. Given that our painting should have been accompanied by The Flood, we must assume that this missing scene would have been on the far right, balancing The Expulsion from Paradise. Thematically they are linked: Adam and Eve are created, but fall, and are expelled. As a result mankind is sinful – so bad in fact that God decides to scrap the human race and start again, with Noah and Mrs Noah (POTD 37) as the new Adam and Eve. It’s such a pity that this does not survive – but at least we have these two gems. And, I suspect, because they have been separated from their original setting, they actually get far more attention than they would have done as part of a larger ensemble – they work almost better on their own. I’m sure that’s not true of all of us though – and I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible in person soon!


Day 98 – Out of Eden

Giovanni di Paolo, The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, 1445, Metropolitain Museum of Art, New York.

I alluded yesterday (Picture Of The Day 97) to the medieval conception of the Universe, in relation to the tapestries across the top of the walls in the tower of The Lady of Shalott – so what better than to clarify that idea. And the best way to do that would seem to be by considering the way we have been thrown out of our usually comfortable worlds, and are now looking forward to an expected return, and the chance, finally, to meet and greet old friends. However, as I don’t know what lifestyle all of you used to live, I’m just going to assume that, compared to the worse aspects of lockdown, it was paradise. And that is where I shall assume we will return – although that return will come tomorrow.

Over two days I will look at two small paintings which were part of a larger whole. Today, we have a panel which shows The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise. On the left we have the entire cosmos, constructed like a multi-coloured onion in concentric layers, with God on the outside. His hand is pointing into the sky. It’s not uncommon to see this from our point of view, with the ‘Hand of God’ poking out of the blue – a good example would be Giotto’s Sacrifice of Joachim (POTD 66). In this case he is presumably creating something or other – possibly the plants, as I can definitely see some trees, but no birds or animals, which would make this Day 3 of creation. On the right of the painting we cut to ‘some time later’ – Adam and Eve have been created and tempted and are now being expelled from the Garden of Eden, pushed out by an angel past a row of trees bearing golden apples. Beneath them are four dark streaks – the four rivers of Eden, as mentioned in Genesis 2:10-14, where they are named as Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel and Euphrates. Although the third of these is usually interpreted as the Tigris, neither of the first two has been identified, although Gihon is recognised by some as the Abay River, or Blue Nile.

This is the detail which most fascinates me – the structure of the universe. I am comparing it with a diagram from Andrew Borde’s The First Book of the Introduction of Knowledge, published in 1542, as it is relatively clear. It expounds medieval cosmology, but it is based on the Ptolomaic world view, dating to c. 150 CE, which in itself goes back to Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Giovanni di Paolo had definitely seen a very similar diagram! At the centre we have the Earth, which contains two of the ‘four elements’, earth and water. The Earth is surrounded by the two remaining elements, ‘aer’ and ‘fyre’, as Borde spells them, equivalent to the pale blue and bright vermillion rings in Giovanni’s painting. Next comes ‘the Mone’ – or Moon – the planets Mercury and Venus, and the Sun. Giovanni paints their spheres pale blue, darker blue, a blue half way between the two, and a very pale yellow, with a rather worn representation of the Sun at the top of the relevant circle. The grey ring in the painting is occupied by Mars, followed by Jupiter and Saturn with two more blue circles. Outside these, occupying a far thicker and darker band, we see the signs of the zodiac – this is the sphere of the fixed stars, which I mentioned yesterday.  Finally there is a thin, dark blue ring. This is the ninth sphere, named by Borde as ‘the Crystalline Heaven’. He then adds two more which are not in the painting – ‘the First Moveable’ and ‘The Empyreal, Heaven, The Abitation of the Blessed’. There was some debate about the outer limits of the known cosmos (as there is today), and not everyone split the ‘ninth’ sphere into three as Borde does, referring to the single ninth sphere as the Primum Mobile or Prime Mover – or, as Borde has it, ‘the First Moveable’. Aristotle said that it was this which gave the movement to the inner spheres (he had as many as 55), which resonate in harmony – the Music of the Spheres. It wasn’t hard for Christian theologians to make the leap and suggest that Aristotle’s Prime Mover was in fact God, the source of all life, and to point out that we don’t hear the Music of the Spheres because the sin which Adam and Eve introduced into the world has created discord, and put everything off kilter. 

So, the Earth is made up of the four elements, and outside these were the seven ‘wanderers’ (‘planet’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘wanderer’, and would have included the five ‘planets’ known to the ancients together with the Sun and the Moon). These seven were set into the first seven crystalline spheres, and the fixed stars (including the signs of the zodiac) were in the eighth. I suspect that originally the painting would have had an image of each of the planets on the appropriate sphere, but that the gold leaf has worn off – only the Sun and zodiac have lasted, presumably because they were bigger. The ninth sphere – the Prime Mover – effectively marks the edge of the cosmos, with Heaven on the outside, and that is where God can be found in this painting. Given that there were nine spheres, and, it was believed, nine choirs of angels, it made sense that each sphere would be moved by a different choir of angels – which is why, in the tapestry at the top of the wall in The Lady of Shalott yesterday, each planet is held by a figure with a halo. 

God himself is everything we would expect him to be – long grey hair, long grey beard, flying effortlessly through the sky. He wears a blue robe – which makes more sense than ever up above the sky. He also has a pale cloak, with touches of pink and blue – I suspect it used to be a purplish colour, but has faded. He is surrounded by blue heads with long blue wings, streamlined away from the direction of travel – these are the highest choir of angles, the Seraphim. We have met them before, I know, but I can’t for the life of me remember when! The ‘Empyrium’ which God inhabits is painted a glowing yellow, enhanced by the gold leaf of the halo, and by the golden beams of light radiating in all directions – he is like another Sun, being the source of all energy. The apples and leaves of the trees in Paradise are similarly gilded. 

The yellow is focussed around God’s head, and gradually fades into blue, becoming the blue of the sky on the other side of the painting. Thus, although God is shown in the act of creation, outside the cosmos, he is also looking across the sky to the sinful Adam and Eve, pointing to the world and telling them where to go – out of Eden. This explains his slightly grumpy look, I think, which is not consistent with his general demeanour during creation, when he regularly saw ‘that it was good’.

The angel also has gilded wings and a halo – which would not, in itself, be surprising, were it not for that fact that that is all he has. It could be the only naked angel I know – before Michelangelo’s far more manly ignudi, at least. The standard interpretation is that he is showing his compassion for Adam and Eve, but I don’t really buy that. I think this shows that he was in a state of grace, so had no shame, so wouldn’t have worried about clothes anyway. But then Adam and Eve don’t seem that bothered either, if we’re honest. They are looking back the way they’ve come, but without a huge amount of longing or regret. If anything, they seem a bit clueless, a bit like those people who you meet on your daily walk (I’m assuming you’ve been going on daily walks) who are apparently completely unaware that there’s a pandemic going on, strolling along without a care in the world, happily chatting away to each other, getting in your way, and failing on every level to comprehend the need for social distancing. They have been thrown out of Eden without their fig-leaf clothes (Adam and Eve, that is, not the people on your walk) although fortuitous leaves protect their very modest modesty. The same is true for the angel, who is blessed with a strawberry flower. This truly is Paradise – a word derived from Old Iranian, meaning ‘garden’ – and all of the flowers could be seen as symbolic in different ways. The strawberry, for example, doesn’t have a hard stone or thorns – and as such it is seen as a pre-lapsarian fruit, i.e. dating from before the fall. It was only at this point, according to the Bible, that thorns developed, to get in our way and make life tougher. Consequently the strawberry is, in itself, a symbol of Paradise. The lily to the right of the angel represents Mary’s virtue, and the rose (between Adam and Eve) represents her love. Mary herself was referred to as ‘a rose without thorns’ as she was free from Original Sin.  The carnations left and right are also symbols of love, but also give a nod to the idea of incarnation – which, with Mary, and thanks to Adam and Eve, will now be needed. The rabbits continue to nibble at the grass, unconcerned with all that is going on around them, and they will stay there, in Paradise, until we return… which, unless something drastic happens, will be tomorrow.


Day 97 – The Mirror Crack’d

William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, 1886-1905, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford CT.

Finally, after 97 days, I’ve found the perfect expression of the lockdown. I’m beginning to understand how this Lady feels. I suspect we’ve all been going through this for a while now – “I am half sick of shadows,” said the Lady of Shalott. I mean, imagine it, stuck at home on your own for you don’t know how long, faced with an undefined threat, and the only experience you have of the outside world is the luminous image on a single surface. It could be the television, I suppose, or your computer screen. Or it could just be a mirror. At least we know what the threat is, and why we might be socially distanced, or self isolating. The Lady of Shalott did not. I am certainly half sick of shadows, but yesterday the news came that, somehow, museums and art galleries will be able to re-open in a week and a half, and we will be able to see the real things, again, rather than looking at pictures of the pictures…

William Holman Hunt, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, kept going in a similar vein for the rest of his life, his paintings paying close attention to naturalistic detail, and drawing their inspiration from good literature. Among the Pre-Raphaelite ‘heroes’ were the Bible, Dante, William Shakespeare, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, and their interest in the romance of the medieval past springs to a considerable degree from his. The Lady of Shalott is a case in point. Like several of Hunt’s later works it took years to complete, had a complex evolution, and exists in more than one version. I am showing you the example in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, as I prefer its symbolism to that of the painting in the Manchester City Art Gallery – I also prefer the richer, deeper, brooding colours.

For his poem Tennyson adapted the Arthurian legend of Elaine de Astolat, written in Italian in the 13th Century as La Damigella di Scalot. Shalott, as it happens, is on the way to Camelot, which proves invaluable for the rhyme scheme, and there, in a tower on an island, a mysterious lady dwells, the victim of an undefined curse.

There she weaves by night and day 
A magic web with colours gay. 
She has heard a whisper say, 
A curse is on her if she stay 
          To look down to Camelot. 
She knows not what the curse may be, 
And so she weaveth steadily, 
And little other care hath she, 
          The Lady of Shalott. 

Basically, she is not allowed to look out of her window towards Camelot, and so she spends all her time weaving, her only knowledge of the outside world coming from a mirror, reflecting the world outside. And she weaves what she sees:

But in her web she still delights 
To weave the mirror's magic sights,  
For often thro' the silent nights  
A funeral, with plumes and lights
          And music, went to Camelot:  
Or when the moon was overhead,  
Came two young lovers lately wed:  
"I am half sick of shadows," said 
          The Lady of Shalott.

By this stage Tennyson has already told us that, ‘She hath no loyal knight and true’, so the sight of newly married lovers must have been particularly galling – and she no longer wanted to live her life vicariously, seeing a reflection of what was going on in the world outside. I suppose we at least have rested safe in the knowledge that there was precious little going on out there anyway. But even for the Lady things were going well, or well enough, until Sir Lancelot passed by on his way to Camelot, the perfect example of knighthood and of manhood – and she could no longer live by shadows, she had to see him, the real thing, and not some pale reflection:

She left the web, she left the loom, 
She made three paces thro' the room, 
She saw the water-lily bloom, 
She saw the helmet and the plume, 
          She look'd down to Camelot. 
Out flew the web and floated wide; 
The mirror crack'd from side to side; 
"The curse is come upon me," cried 
          The Lady of Shalott. 

…and this is the moment that William Holman Hunt depicts, the moment at which the unknown curse is unleashed. If you don’t know what happens next, I shan’t tell you, although one day I might show you a painting. However, you can read it for yourself. Tennyson wrote two versions – I’ve been quoting from the second version, published in 1842, but I’ll also give you a link to the first version of 1832, both curtesy of the Poetry Foundation. Feel free to compare and contrast.

We see the chaos that ensues when the curse is enacted. The Lady is tied up, wrapped around by the thread which now seems to have a life of its own. She appears almost trapped in her loom, a curious structure, with a circular frame resting on a series of elaborate legs, more like an unconventional museum railing to keep you away from a sculpture. The floor is paved in a geometric pattern fitting these legs – the whole room is defined by the curse, and the Lady has lived her life through its mysterious logic. I do not know how many legs there are, but I’m sure there must be twelve, the weaving governing every hour of her days and nights like a clock face. She is barefoot, but there are overshoes – or pattens – on the floor. Together with the circular mirror in the background, reflecting an unseen presence behind us, these are an unmistakable reference to Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, a major influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from its foundation four decades before this painting was started. There are also irises, used in Christian art as a symbol of Mary’s suffering, their meaning coming from the old name ‘Sword Lily’, and the prophesy, to Mary, that ‘a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also’ (Luke 2:35). Two doves are flying away – they were the mythical birds of Venus, Goddess of Love, and I suspect that this is why Hunt included them. For Noah the Dove represented hope for the new world after the flood, and in the New Testament, the dove represents the Holy Spirit (POTD 89), but I am fairly sure that the dove did not become a symbol of peace until the 20th Century (if you can trust Wikipedia, which I often do, it dates to 1949, and a drawing by Picasso – which I can believe). If they are Venus’s doves, I think that, rather than love being freed, it is put to flight – but read the poem yourself and see! There is also a curious silver lamp. At its base you might be able to make out a crouching monkey – and we have already seen the monkey as a symbol of human baseness and ignorance in POTD 91. At the top of the detail, the lamp has a series of owls – sorry, they are hard to see, but I haven’t been able to find a high-resolution image. The owls represent the wisdom of enlightenment, embodied by the lamp, away from the darkness and ignorance symbolised but the monkeys at the base. Sunlight falls across the floor of the room, and over the weaving, which seems to unravel in front of our eyes. The shafts of light which fall onto the image – the art that the Lady has made from her isolated experience – are significant. To the left of her legs, we see a maiden in profile, and the back of a knight, moving away – surely our heroine and Sir Lancelot. And on the right, a figure bowing next to a golden cup – presumably the Holy Grail, the goal of the Arthurian quest.

At the top of the painting we see that the room has been decorated with the Lady’s work. The semi-circular section beneath the vaulting is decorated as a stylised sky, with a blue background and the heavenly bodies – the sun, moon and planets, as well as a globe with sparkling dots representing the crystalline sphere of the fixed stars. All of this reflects the medieval understanding of the structure of the universe, in which each of the heavenly bodies was governed by one of the nine choirs of angels, including one which moves the fixed stars on their daily rotations (fixed, as opposed to the wanderers, or ‘planets’ that is). This stylised reality is contrasted with nature itself – a blue sky with clouds seen through an opening at the top of the wall, through which it is just possible to see two doves flying – possibly the same doves at a later stage of their flight, or maybe two others. But all this just avoids the obvious – the most glorious Pre-Raphaelite hair in the most extravagant disarray. It flies out around her as if she is experiencing some form of whiplash, the power and energy of the curse electrifying every extremity of her body. It is wild, and unnatural, and fantastic – in both the contemporary and original sense of the word – and becomes a fabric in its own right.

The tension in her body as she tries to free herself from the thread is remarkable, like some sort of tarantella – a dance supposed to cure you of the bite of a tarantula. Remembering how spiders weave, and trap their prey, what could be more relevant? And remembering how Arachne wove, before Minerva turned her into a spider, another layer of significance is added. Both wrists bend back, the fingers curl, the arms held in front and behind, I cannot think she is doing anything else but dancing to free herself. Notice how the flashes of sunlight just catch the fingers looping the thread. Her body and face are in shadow – far more brilliant is the reflection in the mirror behind her. The Lady’s tower appears to be modelled on a Venetian 15th Century Palazzo, not unlike the Doge’s Palace, or the Ca’ d’Oro – or at least, the window is. In the mirror we see the window with its wide open spaces, and just inside the room we can see, reflected, the lamp, the loom and the weaving, with the light falling across it. And outside, in brilliant sunlight, Sir Lancelot, a Knight in Shining Armour, his sword raised, heading off into the distance, through the landscape described in the first stanza of Tennyson’s poem: 

On either side the river lie 
Long fields of barley and of rye, 
That clothe the wold and meet the sky; 
And thro' the field the road runs by 
          To many-tower'd Camelot; 

The mirror is framed in a similar way to the two images on either side – more of the Lady’s work – drawing the connection we have made before today about the relationship between mirrors and art: both are forms of imagery, the implication being that a great artist will make work that mirrors the world around us. And I suspect that the Lady of Shalott was a great artist, depicting her world with the honesty of long-suffering experience. However, here Hunt has chosen to represent things she would not have seen in the mirror – they are her own personal reflections. On the left, the image is easy to understand – the Madonna and Child, white against a blue background, with the baby Jesus lying on the grass – it could almost be a glazed terracotta relief by Luca della Robbia, popular, and copied, in Victorian England. On the other side the image is not so obvious – a naked man with a halo reaching up to take an apple. This is not Adam though, there are three women asleep at the foot of the tree. To the left of this youthful, muscular man we see a lion’s head: it is Hercules, with the skin of the Nemean Lion, taking the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides (the sleeping women). But why the halo? Well, Hercules was seen as a type of Jesus (bother – I haven’t talked about typology yet) – let’s just say that he was seen as prefiguring Jesus, in that he was a hero who carried out a number of labours that involved good triumphing over evil. It’s not quite that simple, but let’s not worry about that right now. And of course, being a work of art, it will never be that simple. Even if he is a symbol for Jesus, there are also, inevitably, parallels with the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the forbidden fruit, and the idea of temptation to which the Lady has just succumbed – particularly as this Hercules is such a fit, and handsome, and, let’s face it, naked young man, who just happens to be looking towards the Lady of Shalott as he takes the apple.

In between the images of the infant Jesus and the triumphing hero, we see the far more brilliantly illuminated mirror, reflecting the reality of the world, and the departure of Sir Lancelot. And we see the threads, creating their tracery through the room like a spider’s web. And we see other lines, as if etched across the reflecting surface, signalling the triggering of the curse: 

Out flew the web and floated wide; 
The mirror crack'd from side to side; 
"The curse is come upon me," cried 
          The Lady of Shalott. 

Soon, we will be freer to go out into the world to see real things. Please be careful. 

Oh, and, if you’re free this evening at 6.00 and are not half sick of shadows, there is still time to sign up for my talk Reflecting on the Power of Art about Diego Velázquez.


Day 96 – Clara Peeters

Clara Peeters, Stil Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, c. 1615, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

There’s just time for a couple more reflections on art/in art before tomorrow evening. So far we’ve thought about mirrors as a symbol of both Vanity and Prudence (Picture Of The Day 92), and for their ability to create an image, which, like a painting, can both fascinate and enchant (POTD 94). Even though Narcissus’s name has become synonymous with vanity, in Ovid’s tale he was at first unaware that he was looking at himself – he just saw another person, conjured up as real and worthy of his love – which in its own way witnesses to the power of art . In today’s picture we can see several more ‘values’ attached to mirrors, or at least to reflections: they are used to create a greater degree of naturalism, and also function as a type of ‘certification’ – a guarantee that something has been witnessed – and even, as a form of self-validation.

Clara Peeters, Stilleven met kazen, brood en drinkgerei, c.1615 Paneel, 34,5 x 49 cm

This Still Life painting was created by an expert, there can be no doubt about that. Every surface is perfect, and seems to represent every object more accurately than any photograph could. It is also subtly, but brilliantly composed. I would say it’s highly realistic, but how often would you put your butter on your cheese? Or leave a table quite so crowded, with your valuable Chinese porcelain sticking over the edge? Everything has been manipulated, everything has been very deliberately arranged, to show off its qualities, and to show the artist’s skill. There are three different cheeses on a pewter dish, and on top of these is the butter. Some pretzels line up with the front edge of the table, and to their right a knife is sticking out, next to a porcelain dish with almonds, dried figs and dates – with other almonds and dates scattered on the table. A Venetian glass stands in front of a bread roll, part of which is cast in shadow, and next to this there is an earthenware jug with a pewter lid. The background is dark and featureless, so that the foreground objects seem to glow, almost mysterious and magical.

On the far left we can see that the pewter dish is shiny enough to reflect the largest cheese, with another reflection on the rim at the right. A darker cheese sits in front, and casts a shadow – the light is coming from the left – onto the larger one. Both are – or were – round, and the larger one has a smaller, rectangular cheese sitting on top. All three have rinds, and all three have been hacked into with a sizeable knife, the different surfaces giving a sense of their different textures. Yet another texture is visible in the scrapings of butter which sit on an earthenware dish atop the smallest cheese – they have been cut from the pat with a serrated implement, and curl over each other in a mound of golden goodness. In a wealth of detail, the most brilliant piece of observation must be the plug that has been taken out of the largest cheese with a circular gouge, the result of the cheese inspector taking a sample to check that the produce comes up to the standards required by the Cheesemakers’ Guild. A cylindrical hole emerges from the cut surface, although the ‘plug’, with its circular section of rind, has been reinserted. The right-hand edge of this cheese is in shadow, contrasting with the light shining onto the earthenware jug behind it, pushing the cheese forward, and pulling our eye back to the jug.

Both the dish and the knife are expensive objects. The former, in its delicate blue and white, with subtly scalloped edges, was a highly prized import. It would have been made in China towards the end of the Ming dynasty, during the reign of the emperor Wanli (1573–1620 – so contemporary with this painting). Wanli (or Wan-Li) porcelain became highly fashionable in the Dutch Republic, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Delft Porcelain Manufactory – still producing the familiar blue and white Delftware today. It fetched enormous prices at auction: one feature of this painting is that it contrasts everyday foods (cheese) with luxurious objects. Here it contains dried figs, dates and almonds – which, like the dish itself would have been imported, and considered a luxury. Like the cheeses, each has been displayed to show it off to its best advantage, and to show the artist’s ability with form, texture, and even, I think, density. 

The knife is also an expensive item, but it would have been produced locally. Known as a bridal knife, because they were made to be given at weddings, it is decorated with personifications of some of the virtues of the bride herself: these two are ones we have already met (POTD 42, 45 & 59). To our right (so nearer the end) is a woman carrying a cross – which would identify her as Faith even without the Latin word Fides inscribed underneath. Closer to the blade is another woman, pouring liquid from one jug into another, the standard representation of Temperance – she is watering down the wine. The inscription below only has space for the first four letters, Temp, as in English. But most importantly, surely, it also bears the name of the artist – Clara Peeters. This is her signature. She has put her name on the most prominent object, on the edge of the table and sticking out into our space, almost as if she is inviting us to pick it up and inspect it, a trick played by artists since the earliest days of trompe l’oeil painting.

We know very little about Clara Peeters – there are almost no documents that mention her – so most evidence comes from her work. About forty paintings can be identified, all of which are Still Lives, at a time when the genre was only just coming into its own – so she was one of the innovators. One of the few documents in which she is mentioned says that she came from Antwerp, and although she never became a member of the artists’ guild there, at least six of the panels she used were certified in Antwerp (like the cheese, everything was subject to guild regulations – unless you worked for a Royal Court). Even some of the knives in her paintings have the hallmark – and name – of the City of Antwerp on their blades. Some have suggested that putting her name on a bridal knife implies she was married, but there’s nothing else to support that – or, for that matter, to say that she wasn’t. Nor is there any evidence of when she was born or died – apart from the dates on eleven of her paintings, which range from 1607 – 1621. Presumably, if she was working in 1607, she can’t have been born much after 1590 – the latest date suggested for her birth. The Mauritshuis, which bought this painting in 2012, suggests ‘1580/90’, whereas the Prado, which owns four of her works, and hosted a monographic exhibition in 2017, is more specific, with ‘1588-90’. Both have to content themselves with ‘after 1621’ for the date of her death. 

There is another, really expensive import, on the right of the painting: a Venetian glass. Peeters has perfected the depiction of every different technique used by the Murano masters – there must be names for these, but I know next to nothing about glassware. It is beaded and stippled, though, and has gold incorporated into the glass in various places. This is where we see the importance of reflection for naturalistic depiction, as each reflection is slightly different according to whether the glass is plain or patterned, clear or golden, concave or convex. The light also catches the meniscus of the wine, and reflects from the back of the glass. There is a rhombus of light, the reflection from a window, which is presumably behind our right shoulder – so not the window from which the majority of light falls onto the objects in the painting. I can’t help thinking that there is something in between the window and the glass, though, as there is a shadow in the middle of the reflection. These highlights contrast with those on the earthenware jug, a local product but, given the lowly material, still of superb craftsmanship, notably in the stylised faun’s head on the vessel’s neck. The pewter lid is also depicted in all its intricacy, and has an even more important reflection – or even two.

A third of the way from right to left of the pewter lid, just emerging from the shadow, is a face, with a second, more distorted version, in the rim underneath. This is the artist herself, and these tiny, reflected self portraits were one of her ‘hallmarks’. I suspect that the shadow in the reflection of the window is her too. She was not the first artist to do this. Ever since the two figures were seen in the mirror of the Arnolfini portrait, it has been assumed that Jan van Eyck was one of them– although there is absolutely no way we can be sure. However, in his Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele painted at more or less the same time, there is a standing figure reflected in the shield of St George, which is more likely to be the artist. However, we still can’t be certain it’s him. So why should we think this is Clara Peeters? Well, because she puts herself into quite a few of her own paintings, and the image is similar in each, given the limitations of representation – not only are the reflections small, but they are reflected on less-than-perfect surfaces.

Not only that, but in some paintings, the reflected figure is holding a palette and paintbrushes. The detail on the right comes from the painting on the left – the gilt goblet towards the back on the right has at least six self portraits, one in each of the raised circles. Not only does the inclusion of these images vouch for her powers of observation, and her skill at reproducing what she sees, but it also asserts her position as at the artist – another type of signature – and her position as a female artist at that. Given that her paintings were included in collections across Europe, as far afield as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Madrid, it also suggests that she was a successful one. And that is hardly surprising – she was brilliant. She should be better known!


Day 95 – Lazarus

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Resurrection of Lazarus, 1896, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

We last saw Henry Ossawa Tanner painting a genre scene, The Banjo Lesson, in Picture Of The Day 81. Painted in 1893 during one of his few returns to the States after he had settled in France in 1891, he took it back with him to Paris, where it was accepted for exhibition at the annual Salon of 1894. This marked the beginning of his success, although, as yet, he was effectively unknown. The following year, two more genre paintings were accepted, but it was with Daniel in the Lion’s Den, painted in 1895 and exhibited the following year, that he really made his mark: Daniel was awarded an honourable mention by the jury.

That year, 1896, he painted The Resurrection of Lazarus, which, yet again, was exhibited the following year, as was the fashion. The Salon jury awarded it a third-class medal, and it was purchased by the French government for the Musée de Luxembourg, which, at the time, was the national collection of modern art: it is now in the Musée d’Orsay. Tanner had arrived. He was effectively the most successful American artist of his time in Paris.

The story of the resurrection of Lazarus is told in John 11:1-44 – I’ll just quote 38-44 below. He was the brother of Martha and Mary, friends of Jesus, and when he was sick, they sent for their friend. However, by the time Jesus got there Lazarus was already dead. Martha went out to meet him first, followed by Mary, who, when she saw him, ‘fell down at his feet’. Jesus asked, ‘Where have ye laid him?’ and was taken to the grave: 

It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days. Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God? Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.

When we look at Tanner’s depiction of the story, it does not worry too much about the details of the text, apart from taking place in ‘a cave’. Jesus stands looking over the grave, which is dug into the ground and lined with white material, in excess of any standard shroud. Rather than ‘coming forth’, Lazarus is just managing to sit up, his left arm tense, the fingers and wrist arched, resting on the side of the grave, while his right rests on his chest. He eyes are open, but his facial expression is fixed, staring forward – what else would you do under the circumstances? He is tended to by an old man, who could easily be a hermit, presumably one of the people Jesus instructed to ‘Loose him, and let him go’ – in which case, the ‘napkin’ around his face has already been removed. 

The roof of the cave is propped up by a number of posts – there is one behind the ‘hermit’, and another two on the left of the painting, which frame our view. At the base of these two posts are what could be the stones ‘laying upon’ the tomb – although in the background, behind the right of the two posts, and above the heads of the crowd who have followed Jesus, Mary and Martha into the tomb, we can see light coming from the mouth of the cave, the sort of opening that could have had a stone rolled in front of it. Jesus’s gesture is not grand, or dramatic, but contains its own humility – the arms held slightly out, the hands almost pointing, almost ready to accept Lazarus, as he looks down towards him. 

Mary and Martha kneel on either side of Jesus. My guess is that the figure on our right is Martha, looking up towards him, calm and dutiful, whereas the grief-stricken figure, head in hands, is Mary. Both have ‘fallen down at his feet’, although the text only suggests that Mary did this – but that was before they had got to the tomb anyway. However, it was at that point that ‘Jesus saw her weeping’. Mary weeps often in the New Testament – it is one of the things that defines her. And if anyone who knows either of the Magdalene Colleges (Oxford or Cambridge, although I’m sure there are others) and wonders why they are pronounced Maudlin, it is the same word. ‘Maudlin’, meaning miserable comes from the medieval French version of ‘Magdalene’ – it’s not so far from Madeleine – and derives from images of the Magdalene weeping. Plus there is the hair, which is scrunched up on either side of her head, between her hands, in Tanner’s image, but we should talk about the Magdalene’s hair another day. There is no sign of the smell, something which many artists were careful to portray. As we shall see on Saturday, Giotto makes it quite visible.

All these thing aside, this is a very unconventional portrayal of the subject, and very different from the version we will see on Saturday. But then Tanner’s upbringing didn’t incline him to ‘traditional’ religious art. His father, Benjamin Tanner, was a minister, and then a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and had wanted his son Henry to go into the ministry. Having realised that this would not happen, he welcomed the change in direction of his son’s career as an artist, from painting genre scenes, to biblical narratives, as he was fully aware of the power of art.  As he himself said, 

By the presentation of visible objects to the eye, divine truths may be most vividly photographed upon the soul… In representation man does not, like the great Originator, create his own fiat, his world of mental objects. What he reproduces or constructs anew is in some way dependent upon what he has personally experienced.

If Henry did not want to preach, he could still minister through his art. Henry himself was dubious about the quality of much religious painting, if not downright damning:

It has very often seemed to me that many painters of religious subjects (in our time) seem to forget that their pictures should be as much works of art (regardless of the subject) as are other paintings with less holy subject… There is more ‘bogus’ sentiment in poor pictures – pictures in which the artist has tried to convince the world that nothing else was necessary – because he has nothing else to give. Religious art has come to mean an uninteresting, inartistic production. Who is to blame that this is true? The large number of painters of very mediocre attainment… have painted religious pictures because they have found that the selection of such subjects has enabled them to draw more attention to themselves than would their mediocre rendering of any other subject.

Some more cynical critics have suggested that Tanner had done just that. The genre paintings that were accepted in the Salons of 1894 and 1895 did not get him known: ‘History Painting’ – i.e. the depiction of important narratives – was how you made your mark, and it was how he made his. Although his father may have welcomed the development, not everyone did. Members of the black community regretted his decision to move away from African American subject matter, as seen in paintings like The Banjo Player (POTD 81). However, his approach was more subtle. In some way’s Tanner’s interpretation of Lazarus is not so very far from some of Michelangelo’s ideas on the tomb of Julius II, not that I think this was necessarily Tanner’s intention. It is interesting, but probably coincidental, that the Louvre, in Paris (where Tanner spent most of his adult life) is home to Michelangelo’s Dying and Rebellious Slaves. One interpretation of these is that they represent the human soul, enslaved to the body. For Tanner, Lazarus has been a slave to death – and now he is free. As a result, some critics relate Tanner’s interest in the story of the Resurrection of Lazarus to the end of slavery in the United States (the Emancipation Proclamation took place in 1863) . Others suggest it has a more personal significance – that Tanner himself was effectively returning to Jesus, he was ‘born again’ if you like, like Lazarus – and indeed, he wrote a letter to his parents in 1896 expressing his guilt abut his distance from the church.

But had he really moved so far from the idea of genre painting, one description of which would be ‘normal people doing normal things’? I’m not so sure. His biblical paintings are framed as if they are totally normal – no grandiloquent gestures, no superhuman, idealised people – just normal people doing normal things. Not the blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus you might see in so much Western art, but someone who could so easily be from the Middle East.

And if we look among the crowd, it is a remarkably mixed group, a black man prominent among them. It suggests he is interested in a more universal, multicultural message. This would certainly fit in with his father’s own preaching, a good case in point being Bishop Tanner’s interpretation of the famous passage in Isaiah 11:6:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

In one of his sermons, Bishop Tanner suggested that this statement prophesied a time when, ‘men of all races, nations, and communities shall show how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’. This crowd, unified in it’s astonishment, would seem to embody this very idea.

The one mysterious feature of the painting, not immediately apparent as such, is the lighting. If the mouth of the cave is in the far background, where is all the light in the foreground coming from? If you look at the way all of the people in the crowd are lit, you can only come to one conclusion: it is coming from the grave itself. This miraculous glow, a creamy light in the darkness, is a key feature in the palette of one very particular western European artist, whose chromatic and tonal range stretches from creams, through gold to the deepest browns and black: Rembrandt van Rijn.

Indeed, it is a painting by Rembrandt which is closest to Tanner’s conception of the work. Painted around 1630-32, it is relatively early, and so does not use the archetypal Rembrandt palette. It is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but I’d love to know where it was in 1896, because the man who bequeathed it to LACMA hadn’t been born then. I don’t know if Tanner knew it.  But with Lazarus just managing to sit up, Christ standing above him, the apex of a pyramid formed with the two sisters on either side, it is remarkably similar.  One day soon the libraries will open, and I might be able to find out.


Day 94 – Narcissus

Claude, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo, 1644, National Gallery, London.

I last talked about Claude, one of the great innovators of landscape painting, when we were exploring the story of Psyche, and if you want to more about him, and why I think this artist who produced all his work in Italy was not really French, you might want to read (or re-read) Picture Of The Day 46. Today, I am adding to a mini-series on reflections, in preparation for my talk on Velázquez this coming Wednesday – although I doubt that this painting will make it into the talk!

Claude, 1604/5?-1682, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo, 1644, Oil on canvas, 94.6 x 118.7 cm https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG19

The story of Narcissus and Echo is told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, although the version I shall tell you is very much my own, honed by a couple of decades telling it to school groups in the National Gallery. Claude’s telling of the story might seem almost incidental. After all, the four characters depicted in the foreground take up relatively little space on the surface of the painting. The composition is typical Claude: dark trees take up the upper left-hand corner, with a shorter, lighter tree on the far right of the painting, still dark against the sky. These trees, growing in the middle distance, frame a view of the distant landscape, itself composed in a similar way, with a castle, darker than the luminous sky on the left, and a mountain, not as high, on the right. The foreground is the darkest part, getting gradually lighter as our eyes move towards the horizon. We are almost compelled to look to the distance, drawn towards the light. However, as so often with Claude, the sun is far higher than you might expect, above the castle, about a third of the way across the painting from the left.

Even if we get in closer the figures are not exactly prominent – we have to seek them out amidst the gloom. It is almost easier to see the port on the shoreline, two ships out to sea, with smaller vessels gathered around. A bridge crosses the mouth of the river, just to the left of what could be a castle. Closer to us a shepherd, following his flock, is about to cross another bridge going over a gully (on the far right of this detail). The river presumably winds its way as far as the foreground of the painting, although its route is lost behind hills and vegetation. The woman lying naked at the bottom of the picture rests her right arm on a jug pouring water – she is the source of this stream, and so the goddess of the river which flows down to the sea. Without her we would not have the pond with its mirror-like surface. Curiously X–rays have shown that Claude did not paint her naked – she has been subsequently undressed, her naked body painted over Claude’s clothes. Why not remove her? Well, the X–rays cannot specify how much of the original clothing remains, and were the nude removed, there might be precious little underneath – and by now she is part of the history of this painting. 

Above the River Goddess, in the foliage, there are two women looking down. The higher of the two seems content to look, holding back the branches to get a better view. The lower of the two lifts her left hand to call out.

They have come to see this man, leaning on one arm, peering down to look at the pond, his left hand raised – looking in awe at his own reflection. This is Narcissus, one of those people who was so unbelievably beautiful that absolutely everybody fell in love with him. But, of course, just because you look good on the outside doesn’t mean that you are good on the inside – and he was incredibly vain. Girls would go up to him and declare their love, at which he would just look down his nose at them, and say, ‘But you’re not good enough for me’. And before long this little corner of the Ancient World was literally littered with love-sick maidens. The gods and goddesses got together and decided to teach Narcissus a lesson, sending Cupid to make him fall in love with someone who would make him very unhappy. Cupid did as he was told, and shot him with one of his best golden arrows, so that Narcissus would fall in love with the next person he saw. Inevitably, because he was so incredibly vain, the next person he saw was his own reflection. Bewitched, he had no idea what was going on, and fell instantly and desperately in love. He said ‘Hello’. He said ‘You’re beautiful’. He even got as far as ‘I love you’ before realising that there was no reply. The beautiful boy was silent. So he tried ‘Why don’t you talk to me?’ but still got no response. So he reached out – and instantly knew he was onto a good thing, because as he reached out to his new-found love, the love reached out to him. In his enthusiasm Narcissus went to grab him, but a strange thing happened – he realised he was wet, in a pond, and the boy had vanished. This was not one of the side effects of love that he had been warned about. Still, he pulled himself together, climbed out, sat down, dried off… and when he looked back, the boy had returned. This time he was more cautious, reached out slowly – and the boy reached slowly back. He was clearly very timid, though: just as they touched, he disappeared. He must have run away. ‘I’ll wait till he comes back’, thought Narcissus. And then when he did, he just looked down, lifted his hand to hear the boy speak (in case he was very quiet) but he didn’t want to scare him away again so he stayed very still. He just… looked. And… waited… And…

Meanwhile, one of those girls who had fallen in love with him decided to take matters into her own hands, and headed out into the countryside to find him. Not only that, but she took one of her friends along for moral support – you know, the way girls do. Maybe the ‘my friend really fancies you’ approach would work. But in the end, she couldn’t wait, and called out to him herself. There was only one problem with that – she couldn’t speak. Or rather, she couldn’t speak any more. She used to speak a lot. You probably know one of these people – they seem to be able to talk constantly without drawing breath, and certainly without listening to a word that you ever say. She made the mistake of doing this to Juno once, when the Queen of All the Gods was on her way to stop Jupiter from indulging in one of his affairs, and Juno got so angry that she cast a spell on her. She could no longer speak – unless someone spoke to her first. And even then, she could only repeat what she had just heard. So you’d go up to her and say ‘Good Morning’ – ‘Morning, morning’ would be her reply. This was Echo. So here she is, desperately in love with Narcissus, who has already rejected her, and she wants to shout out to him – but she hasn’t heard anything so she can’t. And he’s not paying her any attention. I mean, even the River Goddess has taken off all her clothes, and he’s not paying her the blindest bit of attention either. He’s only interested in himself. What a Narcissist! Still – he says ‘Hello’.

So Echo replies ‘Hello! Hello!’. 

‘You’re beautiful’

‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’

‘I love you’

‘Love you – love you!’

‘Why don’t you talk to me?’

‘Talk to me! Talk to me!’ 

And there they were – stuck in the forest, she was transfixed, he was transfixed, though gradually with the dawning realisation that this was his own reflection, and it could never love him back. And the gods realised that, even if they had taught him a lesson, their plan had backfired. They didn’t want the countryside littered with the lovelorn, so they decided to make them fit in – and changed them – transformed them – metamorphosed them into something that did. Narcissus became… a narcissus. Next Spring, when the daffodils come back out, just have a look at them – they really do look as if they are looking down at their own reflections going ‘you’re gorgeous’. And in the detail above, on our side of the pond, just to the right of the River Goddess’s feet, Claude has painted some narcissi. And Echo? What happened to her? Well, she was so much in love that she simply pined away. She faded, and became invisible, and now she hangs out with the wind in all the sad and lonely places – caves and tunnels mainly – and whenever you call out to her, she will call back to you.

Claude, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo, 1644 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG19

As I said before, the elements of this story seem tiny compared to the painting as a whole. You could cover Narcissus and his reflection with one hand, and it would turn into Landscape with nude and two women peering – no narrative at all.  And yet, as in The Enchanted Castle (POTD 46), the whole painting exudes the same bitter-sweet sadness, the same melancholy as the story. That was Claude’s great skill.

He does this with the placement of the sun, up in the sky, behind one of the smaller branches of one of the larger trees. It lights the clouds across the sky from the left, and the ones just above the castle, from above. Even in the detail of Narcissus, we see it lighting his left shoulder and leg, and even the side of his right arm, with which he props himself up. It is this Autumnal light which unifies the whole painting, and casts the melancholy mood. Narcissus might be small within the painting, but the whole painting tells his story. 

And the moral of the tale? It seems a little simplistic to settle on ‘don’t be vain and don’t talk too much’. This story speaks very powerfully about the power of speech – and the magic of art. We can fall in love with an image, but shouldn’t we get to know what is beneath the surface? If art is the mirror of nature, should we be wary of falling for its spell? Is the artist really reflecting what he sees, or creating a world of the imagination? And is what he creates any more ‘real’ than the reflection in a mirror? I think the answers to these questions will be different for each of us, depending on what we want art to be. I’ll leave it up to you.


Day 93 – A Baptism and a Wedding

Giotto, The Baptism and The Wedding at Cana, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Bother. Oh bother. I hate it when I get things wrong. Last week I said that we would start today with The Baptism of Christ, saying that it was opposite Christ among the Doctors. But it isn’t, it’s next to it.  Here is the opened-up scale model of the chapel which I first showed you for Picture Of The Day 45 – it was made for an exhibition in Australia, apparently.


There are six paintings in The Story of Joachim and Anna (POTD 66 & 73) at the top of the South wall (on the left of this photo – you can only see the last two scenes of the six), but only five in The Childhood of Jesus (POTD 87) because of the windows. And I tried to include six. Well, that’s what comes of trying to rush… I mean, covering six images in one blog, what was I thinking? I’ll add some dodgy edits to last week’s entry. Anyway, The Childhood of Christ ends with The Massacre of the Innocents, more-or-less opposite which, on the North Wall, is Christ among the Doctors – even as a boy he had started his Mission. So, the first three scenes in the middle tier of the North wall should look like this:

We have Christ Among the DoctorsThe Baptism of Christ, and The Wedding at Cana. The first was discussed last week, and the Baptism is fairly straightforward – nothing compared to the Baroque complexities of Juan de Pareja’s version (POTD 89), although it’s more complicated than it might appear at first glance.

Jesus stands in the centre of the image, up to his elbows in the River Jordan, and completely naked. This was not unusual in Medieval painting, although Giotto is not exactly explicit. It was not unusual for Jesus’s genitalia to be visible, because this would emphasize the theological point that he was both God and man. But Giotto doesn’t feel compelled to drive the point home – there is so much humanity in his painting anyway. There is more interest, I would say, in the swirling water, and, just in case we didn’t realise that it is water, there is a fish swimming beside Jesus’s calves. God the Father appears on high with quite surprising foreshortening – yes we’ve seen Uccello do this upside down (POTD 37), but that wasn’t until 140 years after after Giotto was painting. A glow of white light radiates all around – but there are clear signs that paint has been lost. The blue sky, painted a secco, is not in a great condition, and the Holy Spirit has vanished completely – but I can’t imagine that he wasn’t originally there. Last week, and even the week before, we saw how important the ‘landscape’ can be for the narrative, and here is no exception. The rocks on either side, effectively forming a valley through which the Jordan flows, focus our attention down towards Jesus. They also act as a background for the secondary characters, whereas the protagonists – John the Baptist and God, in the persons of the Holy Trinity (even if we can’t see the Spirit) – appear against the sky.

The Baptist wears his traditional camel skin and pink cloak, and reaches over to Jesus from the shore, while angles stand on the other side of the river, holding onto Christ’s blue robe and red cloak. If you remember, Pareja had added a third angel, but here, Giotto has two additional figures standing in the background, one only visible because of a hint of a halo and a slice of his neck. John the Baptist also has two attendants, one of whom is a Saint, the other isn’t. For their identity we must see what happened after the account of the baptising of the multitudes in the Gospel according to John 1: 35-37 & 40:

Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God! And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus… One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.

St Andrew is the one with the halo. Giotto depicts him as he is often seen in Italian art, with a long white beard and white hair, wearing green. He is considered to be St Peter’s older brother. In the other Gospels St Peter is considered to be the first disciple, whereas John makes it quite clear that Andrew was the first, which makes the Scots happy. Andrew also makes his way into The Wedding at Cana

This isn’t entirely surprising, as the John’s Gospel – the source for Andrew’s presence at the Baptism – is the only one of the four to recount this particular miracle, always seen as Jesus’s first. The young man in between Jesus and St Andrew could be the second of John the Baptist’s followers, who is not named in the quotation above, and who did not end up following Jesus – hence the lack of halo. But then that begs the question as to what he is doing at the wedding. Andrew’s glance seems to suggest that he too is curious. The account of the wedding takes up about a third of a chapter, but I’m going to quote it in full – John 2: 1-10:

1 And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there:

2 And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.

3 And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine.

4 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.

5 His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.

6 And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece.

7 Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim.

8 And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it.

9 When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom,

10 And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.

It’s intriguing that Mary was there, and is mentioned first, but was not named – and also that Jesus’s disciples were also ‘called to the marriage’ – even though Giotto only shows St Andrew (well, there is limited space, I suppose, in these paintings). It is also interesting how Mary tries to take charge, only for Jesus to be downright rude to her, even if he does end up doing what she wants anyway.

On the left Jesus is giving very clear instruction to one of the servants, whose body language is not good. Crossed arms – and the facial expression – clearly indicate that he (I’m going for ‘he’) is not open to Jesus’s suggestion. But Mary (who clearly has some clout) has said ‘do whatever he saith unto you’ – and so the servant is listening attentively.

John recounts, ‘there were six waterpots of stone’ – and Giotto has painted all six. On the far right, a servant pours water into one of the pots (her – I’m going for her – face is turned away from us, a very delicate profil perdu), while the Governor of the Feast (I think we’d say Master of Ceremonies – or MC) has already drawn some of the wine, in a silver flagon – which has tarnished and now looks black. Mary raises her hand – as if to instruct him, maybe, or to find out how it is going. Her halo is gold – but it is also built up with a technique known as pastiglio. The wall is plastered, and for true fresco, painted while still wet. But you can add more layers of plaster to make a sculptural effect. In this photograph the fresco is lit (artificially) from below, and Mary’s three-dimensional halo casts a shadow on the wall above. From the floor of the Chapel it makes the halo look like solid light. 

The MC is one of my favourite characters in the entire chapel – a man who knows good wine because he has clearly sampled a lot of it – his belly is every bit as round as the waterpots which his form so clearly echoes. I’m also glad that he has brought his son along to help, and, in the fullness of time, I’m sure he would want him to take over the family business. Both have the same snub nose, narrow eyes, square forehead, rounded jawbone and protruding upper lip. The lad hasn’t developed the paunch yet, though.

This is not a great picture, I know, but it gives us a reminder of where we are, looking at the North Wall of the Scrovegni Chapel. At the top tier we see The Birth of the VirginThe Presentation of the Virgin to the Temple, and The Suitors bringing the Rods (POTD 73 & 31), and then below, Christ Among the DoctorsThe Baptism and The Wedding at Cana. Whereas the South Wall has windows, the North Wall does not – leaving space for decorative panels in between the different scenes. Notice how the top tier is decorated in a different way to the lower two, and elements of the decoration keep it quite separate. That is because the top tier involves Mary, and the material is not biblical. The middle and bottom tiers are drawn directly from the bible, though, and concern Jesus himself. Of the decorative strips, those in between the biblical scenes contain important references. Here are the details which occur between the first three scenes in the middle tier.

On the left, we have Circumcision, and on the right, Moses bringing forth Water from the Rock. Both relate to the Jewish scriptures – the Old Testament – and both imply that, as a result of Christianity, the old order has changed. Circumcision is followed immediately by The Baptism – and the implication is that, for men to enter into the Jewish faith they had to be circumcised, seen as an act of ‘making clean’, whereas in Christianity, this ritual has been replaced by Baptism. Circumcision is represented as a symbolic act, rather than using an Old Testament narrative, whereas the small scene showing Moses comes from Numbers 20:11. The Israelites were in the wilderness heading for the Promised Land, but had no water. Moses was instructed by God to strike a rock with his staff, and water sprang forth, thus providing for his people. In the Old Testament, Moses provides water for physical sustenance. In the New, Jesus not only turns that water into wine, but also, later, tells us that the wine is his blood – thus providing spiritual sustenance. And not only that – as the account tells us, he has kept ‘the good wine until now’ – a phrase which theologians interpreted as referring to Jesus himself. The Wedding at Cana is not only Jesus’s first miracle, but it also hints at the events of the Last Supper.

When seen next to each other it should be clear how the interpretation of The Wedding at Cana is enhanced by the image of Circumcision which precedes it: the new order has replaced the old. You will see that there is another decorative panel on the right, and you might be able to see what that is. If not… well, I’ll tell you net week. In the meantime, it’s worthwhile remembering the Jesus was not advocating abstinence. Christian teetotalism is a myth. Cheers!


Day 92 – Vanity vs Prudence

attributed to Ginevra Cantofoli, Vanity, n.d., Private Collection.

Occasionally I like a bit of a challenge, and today’s painting certainly qualifies. It was sold on the art market in 2009 (I think) as an undated work by the 17th Century Bolognese artist Ginevra Cantofoli, about whom there is almost no information available, and is now in a private collection. However, the main authority on women artists in Bologna in the 17th Century, Babette Bohn, is dubious about the attribution. But I’ve never let anything like that get in the way of a good story… So why do I want to look at it? Well, it’s a rather beautiful painting, I think, and deserves some attention, whoever it is by. I’m also interested in any artist I’ve never heard of before. I came across it because I’m also getting interested in mirrors: I’ll be delivering a Zoom talk about Velázquez and his interest in reflections this coming Wednesday evening (contact Art History Abroad if you’re interested!).  

We see a woman in a delicate lavender dress, belted at the waist, with a low cut neckline that has a richly embroidered border. A form of cape, made from the same lavender material, is pinned to her shoulder, and wraps around her waist in copious spiralling folds. A dark blue headdress, decorated with gold, is just visible as it touches her forehead, curving over her hairline, and holding down a plait which circles her head. Her blonde hair falls down the side of her face in waves, with a few strands lying on her pale flesh. This is not the strictly controlled coiffeur of the plait, but seems freer. Her left shoulder is brought forward, as if she were previously looking at the mirror, but she has now turned towards us, creating an interesting twist through the body – the turn of her head counteracts the reach of her left arm.

It is not entirely clear whether she is holding the mirror up, or resting her hand on it – the lower edge seems to rest on a shelf, implying that she could be twisting it towards us, allowing us to see an alternative view of her face, in profile, from a slightly low angle as a result of the position of the mirror. She looks at us, with an almost sphinx-like expression, challenging us, perhaps – or simply inviting us – to make up our own minds about what we see.,

Her left hand reaches across her body, fingers open and palm downwards. Underneath are a few golden elements, two of which look like jewelled pins – my guess would be that they are hair pins she has just taken out, and has dropped onto the table – which would explain why the curls to the left of her head flow more freely. 

Mirrors function in different ways in paintings, and are a good example of the complexities of symbolism. It is not always possible to pin down a single meaning for an individual object: context is everything. We’ve come across mirrors before. One was held by Prudence, one of the four Cardinal Virtues, at the lowest level of the decorations of the Scrovegni Chapel (Picture Of The Day 59). Prudence – the ability to make wise decisions based on experience – is often seen as relying on self knowledge, and hence the need for self reflection. Here is another example, in a painting by Elisabetta Sirani.

Elisabetta Sirani, Caritas, Fortitudo, Prudentia, Private Collection, Modena.

Not only do we have two women artists today, but in this painting we have three Virtues – it being an Allegory of Charity, Justice and Prudence. Giotto’s Justice was also discussed in POTD 59, whereas his Charity, one of the three Theological Virtues, appeared in POTD 45.  In all three cases Sirani’s choices for the Virtues are more traditional than Giotto’s, but that is undoubtedly because there had been more time for ‘tradition’ to develop. Charity, or ‘Love’, is shown with three children, one clambering over her shoulder, one breast-feeding, and another reaching up to play with the baby. I have often thought that ‘Charity’ in these cases should be re-named ‘Long Suffering’ – but it is undoubtedly Love! The central Virtue of the painting (in more ways than one) is Justice, holding her sword aloft in her right hand, with the scales of Justice put to one side in the other. She looks out to her left, into the middle distance, as if contemplating a judgement, whereas the other two both look towards her – as if to say, be charitable in your judgements, and make the right choice. Prudence points to her mirror with her right hand, and rests her left, which is holding the mirror firmly, on a sizeable tome – presumably containing all the knowledge needed to make a wise and cautious decision.

As I said when discussing Elisabetta Sirani (POTD 62 ), the study of her work is enormously enhanced by the log book that she herself kept, which lists around 200 different works (by comparison Artemisia Gentileschi, a far more famous 17th Century artist, was not as productive: about 120 works are known). In it, she lets us know that this Allegory was commissioned by Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, one of her most important patrons. Apparently he was so happy with it that he gave her a cross, studded with 56 diamonds, as a reward. These three virtues were chosen as being those especially exemplified by the Medici family, who in the 17th Century were the Grand Dukes of Tuscany (you will notice that Modesty was not one of the Virtues that they claimed). Sirani signed the painting – rather presumptuously perhaps – on the hem of Justice’s bodice.

As well as being a very productive artist, and keeping good records of her works, Sirani was also important as a teacher. According to contemporaries, her most gifted student was Ginevra Cantofoli.  A couple of decades older than Sirani, her family had no previous connection to painting (unlike Sirani herself, who had learnt from her father). One of our main sources of information about her is Carlo Cesare Malvasia, the 17th Century version of Vasari in Bologna, who published his Lives of the Bolognese Painters in 1678. He heaps special praise on the women: not only does Bologna have great artists, he says, but has more talented female painters than anywhere else. He lists a number of paintings by Cantofoli, some of which are still in the churches for which they were painted. However, he does not always heap praise on her in particular. She may have been the best of Sirani’s pupils, but Malvasia describes at least one of her paintings as cattiva – i.e. ‘bad’ – and suggests that Sirani would often design and then correct Cantofoli’s work, citing at least three examples that he knew of.  If the Vanity is by Cantofoli, it would rank among her best works, and Babette Bohn is not convinced it is by the same hand as the verifiable paintings. 

It might be worthwhile comparing it to a self portrait in the Brera, the main art gallery in Milan. This is Cantofili painting a copy of what, in Bologna, was an especially famous painting, the Madonna di San Luca – a 12th Century work which, for a very long time was believed to have been painted by none other than St Luke himself (who, as you may have noticed, was not alive during the 12th Century). The composition of the two paintings is not entirely dissimilar – with the main character’s head tilted in one direction, balanced by another face on the other side of the picture, which, in both cases, is an image – one a reflection, the other a painting. Each also has an arm crossing the foreground. The faces are not entirely dissimilar either, sharing a sweet simplicity, a quality also apparent in the lack of articulation of the hands in the foreground of each. However – and this is tricky as the Brera painting is clearly in need of a clean, and a better photograph – the self portrait does not come across as being equally elegant, or for that matter refined. The subtle shifts in tone and colour in the Vanity are unmatched in the relatively drab draperies of the Self Portrait. I’m really not an expert, though – but as Bohn is not convinced, I would also hesitate to accept the attribution. 

Whoever painted it, though, it is a rather glorious image – but why is it Vanity rather than Prudence? Both have a mirror, after all. There are two things, at least, which sway the balance. First, there is nothing to say that this woman is about to make a decision based on knowledge or experience – no book, as in Sirani’s version, no desk, as in Giotto’s. And secondly, she is beautifully attired, with fine clothes and jewellery, some of which she appears to be discarding, as if she has realised that her focus on physical appearance and finery is ‘vanity’. In this respect, we are more likely to understand the concept in terms of Vanitas rather than ‘vanity’. As a modern concept, ‘vanity’ is about excessive pride and interest in one’s own appearance. In its origins, though, this was seen as ‘vain’ because it wouldn’t last. This is the way we use the word in the phrase ‘all that attention to your looks will be in vain’ – because we can’t always stay as we were when we were young (no, not you, of course, I know you are eternally youthful). As such ‘vanity’ refers to the vanities of worldly existence, all of which will pass away (in Christian terms). We should be relying on eternal values, rather than fleeting, superficial ones.

This then creates a problem, especially for a female artist. ‘Vanity’, in Italian, is a feminine noun – La Vanità – and so the personification is specifically a woman with a mirror. If any woman were to want to paint herself, she would have to look into a mirror to do so – and so the act of self-portraiture, for women, implies that they are embodying Vanity. Not only that, though: women were supposed to be meek, modest, and mild, keeping themselves to themselves and always averting their eyes. The female gaze had always been seen as a threat to men – but for an artist it was essential. This attitude was just one of the things that held women back: if they weren’t allowed to look at things, how could they possibly paint them? And even though Justice and Prudence are also represented by women – La Giustizia and La Prudenza – both of these qualities, in society, were part of a man’s realm. 

However, if you were really clever, as a woman, you could represent yourself as La Pittura – Painting – which Artemisia, of course, did (POTD 69). She uses a mirror in order to see herself – so for self-knowledge, and not for vanity. After all, art is seen as a mirror onto the world around us… which is what I will be thinking about this coming Wednesday. It is a symbolism used both by Jan van Eyck in his Arnolfini Portrait, and also by Velázquez in Las Meninas. As it happens, the latter was probably influenced by the former, as the Arnolfini Portrait was part of the Spanish Royal Collection in the 17th Century. But more of that on Wednesday (although no more about the Arnolfini – I’ve said enough about them already!)

Of course, the mirror does something else in the painting by Cantofili (?). As well as identifying the woman as ‘Vanity’, it also allows the artist to show us one woman from two points of view: full face, and in profile. This is a ploy sometimes used for portraits, allowing us to see more of the sitter. This painting could even be a self-portrait. It also confronts the nature of painting, a framed image of the world, just like the reflection in the mirror. We can see that it is a mirror, because the image is so much like the woman herself. But that, in itself, lends credence to the full-faced image, which is, in a different sense, a ‘mirror’ onto nature, a true reflection of someone’s appearance. I don’t know what the frame of this painting looks like, which is a pity. I would love it to be framed in the same style as the painted mirror, though.


Day 91 – Another Flight

Workshop of Goossen van der Weyden, The Flight into Egypt, about 1516, National Gallery, London.

I am so sorry about yesterday. I was expecting it to happen at some point, but I didn’t know when. Basically other things just got in the way, and I was in no position to write – especially as I was doing the Cummings Commute, from work in London to lockdown in Durham. I’m sure this will happen again, but I’m going to carry on (as if yesterday didn’t happen), until I get to Picture Of The Day 100. After that, I will keep going as and when I can. I will probably write a few times a week, but we’ll see! Meanwhile, let’s get back to the art, and a third Flight into Egypt, following on from Picture Of The Day 85 and 87. During the former I said that the source for these images was biblical – Matthew 2:13-14 – but that there could also be additional outside sources. This painting from the National Gallery is a good example, as it includes two stories that were not in Juan de Pareja’s version – although there is no guardian angel, included by both Pareja and Giotto.

Workshop of Goossen van der Weyden, The Flight into Egypt, about 1516 Oil on oak, 80.2 × 69.7 cm https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1084

The focus of the painting is the Virgin Mary, feeding the Christ Child and sitting on a gloriously hirsute donkey. They are passing in front of a dark wood, travelling along a path which leads along a shallow diagonal to the bottom left-hand corner of the painting. Mary’s dark blue clothes stand out clearly from the grey of the donkey, and, together with the dark green of the trees, the blue helps to focus our attention on her face, which is pale and flawless, and on her breast. Mary has already played her part in our salvation by bearing Jesus, but continues to do so by nourishing him. His tiny head – the same size as the breast – and the white cloth in which he is wrapped (perhaps a precursor of the shroud) makes his image shine out from the darkness.

The donkey is placid and dutiful, it needs no leading. Although Joseph is a few steps ahead, and holds a rope tied around the donkey’s head as a halter, there is no tension – he is guiding, but not compelling. He holds the rope in his left hand, which is held behind his back – this means that we can see his hand, and can tell that he is in control. The loop of the rope also echoes the folds of his red robe, and the shape of the gourd, which has been hollowed out as a water flask – one of his most common attributes, or symbols. Others include a flowering rod, or staff, a reference to the story of the betrothal of the Virgin, but that is not included here (for the story, see POTD 31). In this painting he is a walking stick, another of his attributes, as is the bag slung over it. They have come to a sharp bend in the path, and Joseph is already round the corner. In between his feet and the donkey’s is a small water trough, with water flowing out to form a stream crossing the path. This is undoubtedly a reference to Jesus as the water of life, and to the idea of Baptism – the washing away of sin. The turn in the path is a clever compositional device – not only does it make the painting more interesting to look at, it also enhances the sense of movement and directs our attention to the two scenes which play out in the background. 

Soldiers emerge from one of the gates of the city – Jerusalem – heading towards a small village – Bethlehem. One group is crossing the bridge which leads out of the city, while another has already made some headway. The latter group, closest to Joseph’s nose (on the picture surface, at least), has a leader on a white horse, others hold spears, and a few have flaming torches. At the point where the buildings emerge from behind the trees, flames are visible: they have set fire to the village.  On the green a woman stands with her arms in the air, a soldier attacks another woman to the left, while on the right a third woman runs away from another soldier. This is the massacre of the Innocents: Herod’s soldiers have come to find Jesus and to kill him, and so as not to be outwitted, they kill all the children under the age of 2 (Matthew 2:16). Pareja included this story in the background of his painting, although it was far too small to be seen with any clarity, whereas Giotto dedicated an entire painting to it. 

Closer to us is a ripe field of grain, unusual for January, you might think, particularly as we would appear to be in Northern Europe rather than the Holy Land. The crops are being harvested by a man with a scythe, who is addressed in a somewhat operatic fashion by a soldier, fully clad in 16th Century armour, who gestures towards the right of the picture. This story, which grew up during the middle ages, and is included in the background of more than one National Gallery painting, is written down in a text called La Vie de Nostre Benoit Sauveur Ihesuscrist – ‘The Life of Our Blessed Saviour Jesus Christ’ – which was written some time around 1400. One of the episodes it relates tells how, when the Holy Family were fleeing Bethlehem, they passed a man sowing his crops. Jesus (who was, remember, less than a month old) took a handful of the seeds and scattered them, whereupon they grew to head height. When one of Herod’s soldiers asked the farmer if he had seen a family passing by, he replied, ‘yes, when I was sowing seed’ – but as the crop was already fully grown, and ripe, the soldier calculated that it must have been some long time before, so it couldn’t have been the Holy Family. 

On the far right of the painting, in a dead tree, is a monkey (in the dark at he top right of this detail). There are several references here! One is the old idea that ‘art is the ape of nature’ – although in this context the monkey is unlikely to be a comment about the nature of picture making. It is more likely to represent man at his most animalistic, his most uncivilised: a monkey is like a man but without the manners, and so could be a symbol of the sinners that Jesus has come to save, washing them clean with the water of life. And the dead tree? Quite possibly a reference to Ezekiel 17:24: 

And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord… have made the dry tree to flourish…

This can be interpreted in more than one way – either as a symbol of Mary’s virginity (Mary is the ‘dry tree’ which ‘flourishes’ with Christ’s birth), or as a prophesy of the Crucifixion (the Cross is sometimes described as a tree, and Jesus as the fruit of the tree) – or, for that matter, both. Both is almost always possible when interpreting symbols! However, the main reason why I chose to talk about this painting this week, given that we have already seen two flights into Egypt, is the detail to the left of the dead tree.

A column rises from a hollow cubic base, and at the top stand two legs and a pair of buttocks. Tumbling down is a torso with an arm, and on the ground are a head, a hand, and a commander’s baton, a symbol of worldly authority. This illustrates another anecdote from La Vie de Nostre Benoit Sauveur Ihesuscrist, which tells us that, as Jesus entered into Egypt, the pagan idols all crumbled, and fell to the ground: the triumph of Christianity is acknowledged by the end of pagan statuary. At some point in history a statue was erected to someone who, given his staff of office, was some sort of figure of authority, but to God this was an idol, it represented someone unworthy of respect, and he has toppled it. Statues have always been toppled. It is part of the history of mankind.


Day 90 – Sofonisba, too

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait, 1556, Łańcut Castle, Poland.

I promised you more about Sofonisba Anguissola, and so today I bring you several of her paintings – I am only focussing on this particular self portrait because it makes the perfect companion to both the double portrait of Bernardino Campi painting her, which she painted (Picture Of The Day 77), and the self portrait by Caterina van Hemessen (POTD 28). The latter was the first self portrait that is known of an artist at their easel, and, as far as I know, this is the second.

I am fairly sure that Hemessen’s self portrait shows her painting her own self portrait, whereas Anguissola is painting a Madonna and Child. Apart from that difference, and the position of the palettes, the works are rather similar. We see the artist seated on the right side of the image, looking towards us, paintbrush in their right hand, and mahl stick in their left.  Sofonisba holds hers with a refined elegance, resting it on the unpainted edge of her canvas, and using it to support her right wrist, poised to continue painting the Christ child’s left arm – which, to my mind, looks finished anyway. We again have to ask, as we did with her before, who is she looking at and why? She can’t be looking at Mary and Jesus, for obvious reasons, and it is unlikely she would be looking at a model (this painting is more likely to have been based on drawings). It seems likely that she is just looking to us, so that we can acknowledge her skill. Her choice of a religious image is interesting, as all of her surviving works are portraits. But here she is showing us that she is available to fulfil religious commissions as well, painting in a subdued, mannerist style. The long right arm of Jesus, curving round his right flank, and the strong twist of his head is reminiscent of paintings by Bronzino, who was at the height of his powers when Sofonisba was painting this self portrait. Setting the holy characters in front of the base of a classical column also shows that she was au fait with the work of her contemporaries. 

Unlike the other female artists we have seen, Sofonisba was not the daughter of a painter. Her father, Amilcare, was a nobleman from Cremona, although not an especially wealthy one. He seems to have been strongly influenced by Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, which, as well as discussing the character of the ideal courtier (male), implies that women should also receive an all-round education. Amilcare made sure that this is precisely what his six daughters got. 

Sofonisba was the eldest of seven children, and in 1546, when she was 14, both she and Elena, the second daughter, were effectively apprenticed to Bernardino Campi (who we saw in the double portrait, POTD 77), living with him for three years, and only leaving because he moved to Milan. Elena gave up painting when she became a nun, but Sofonisba continued to study with Bernardino Gatti, a student of Correggio, and became sufficiently adept that she ended up teaching three more of her sisters – Lucia, Europa and Anna Maria. Lucia died around the age of 30, but some of her paintings survive, while the other two gave up on marrying.

In 1554 Sofonisba headed down to Rome, where the story goes that she was introduced to Michelangelo. She is supposed to have shown the elderly master a drawing of a girl laughing, which he admired, but then challenged her to draw someone crying, which is supposedly more difficult.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Asdrubale bitten by a Crayfish, c. 1554, Capodimonte, Naples.

The drawing shows her one brother, Asdrubale, being bitten by a crayfish. Michelangelo apparently recognised her talent, and offered her more advice, even informal tuition. However, I really need to look into this incident – Michelangelo was a notorious old grump, and the idea that he would be interested in the work of a young woman seems inherently unlikely. However, if it turns out to be true, then how much more remarkable a man he was! Whatever the origins of this fragile drawing, though, it is significant that it shows members of Sofonisba’s own family. Her most famous works show that however good her education, and whatever her talent, as a woman she was, as often as not, restricted to the domestic sphere. In her self portrait of 1556 she may have shown herself painting a Madonna and Child, and a rather fine painting it would be if she actually executed it, but most of her paintings are portraits, and a substantial number are of her own family, or herself.

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Game of Chess, 1555, National Museum, Poznan.

Here are three of her sisters, for example, in a charming group portrait which is signed and dated 1555 – an inscription runs around the edge of the chess board:

Sofonisba Anguissola virgin daughter of Amilcare painted these three sisters and a maid from life 

Clearly the education was paying off! I still can’t get my head around chess (but then, it might help if I actually wanted to…) From from left to right we see Lucia, Europa and Minerva, the 3rd, 5th and 4th daughters respectively. Minerva appears again, and very well dressed, in another family portrait, painted about 3 years later.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of the Artist’s Family, 1558-9, The Nivaagaard Collection, Copenhagen.

This is the only surviving portrait of Sofonisba’s father Amilcare. As befits the head of the family he is seated between his son and daughter. He looks out towards us, acknowledging Asdrubale with a protective gesture, his left hand on his back.  Asdrubale himself is standing by his father’s side and ready to take over the responsibilities of the family – however young he might be. He looks up to Dad (in more ways than one, I suspect) holding his father’s right hand, which rest on his lap, with his own, thus communicating the continuation of the dynasty. He is a little gentleman, and as such has the right to bear arms – the hilt of his sword projects from under his left wrist. 

Despite the family setting, Sofonisba’s reputation grew, and grew quite remarkably. In 1559 she was invited to Madrid by Philip II, to act as an attendant to the Infanta, and lady-in-waiting to Philip’s third wife, Elizabeth de Valois, whom she also taught to paint. She adapted her style to the more formal requirements of the Court, although tragically much of the work she carried out in Spain was destroyed by the devastating fire of 1734 which led to the complete rebuilding of the Alcázar – now the Palacio Real. In 1579 Sofonisba returned to Italy, and would have settled back in Cremona had she not met the captain of the ship – a Genoese nobleman – and married him (as it happens she was already widowed, Philip II having provided the dowry for her first marriage to a Sicilian nobleman). In 1624 she was visited by the young Anthony van Dyck, who found her mind to be very sharp – she was 92 at the time. He sketched her in his notebook, and wrote down her advice. He had arrived just in time, as she died the following year.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait, 1610, Gottfried Keller-Stiftung, Winterthur, Switzerland.

Fourteen years before van Dyck’s visit, at the age of 78, she painted this remarkable self portrait. She was clearly one of those artists whose work just kept getting better. Vasari, whose second edition of ‘The Lives’ was published while she was in Spain, was clearly impressed:

Sofonisba worked with deeper study and greater grace than any woman of our times at problems of design, for not only has she learned to draw, paint, and copy from nature, and reproduce most skillfully works by other artists, but she has on her own painted some most rare and beautiful paintings.


Day 88 – Juan de Pareja

Diego Velázquez, Juan de Pareja, 1650, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I used this portrait as an illustration last week when I talked about Juan de Pareja’s own painting of The Flight into Egypt (Picture Of The Day 85), but I wanted to look at in its own right, because it is rather wonderful – and also because it gives a good opportunity to talk about both artist and sitter.

It was painted in 1650 in Rome, when Velázquez was visiting Italy for the second time. He was there at the behest of King Philip IV of Spain, and he had been sent to acquire paintings and sculptures for the Alcázar in Madrid. He was accompanied by Juan de Pareja, who had been in his service since the early 1630s. They sailed from Málaga to Genoa, and then travelled through Milan to Venice. There he bought paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese – all of which seem to have influenced Pareja’s own work, although they were, in any case, already in plentiful supply back in Spain. From there they headed to the Este Court in Modena, and thence to Rome. While there he was commissioned to paint Giovanni Battista Pamphili, better known as Pope Innocent X. ‘In order to get his hand in’ (as Jennifer Montagu phrased it in an article in the Burlington Magazine of November 1983) he practiced by painting ‘a head’ of his assistant. This was the term used by Antonio Palomino, who wrote one of the first biographies of Velázquez, published in 1724. From our point of view this masterful painting is far more than just a head – it is a fully finished portrait – but that was the term they used. Indeed, Palomino went on to say that it was included in an exhibition held in the portico of the Pantheon on 19 March 1650, and that, “it was generally applauded by all the painters from different countries, who said that the other pictures in the show were art but this one alone was ‘truth’.” 

The comment speaks for itself in many ways, although it does include much ‘art’. It is a herald of Velázquez’ late style, which contemporary Spaniards called the maniera abreviada , the ‘abbreviated style’. When you look closely, there is the most remarkable freedom in the handling of the paint, however detailed it may appear from a distance.

All of the details are there, we know how every item of clothing fits, where and how it is attached – and yet it is nothing but a mass of paint. Velázquez’ style had been developing a greater freedom ever since his earliest days of minutely detailed precision (POTD 20), but added to that we might be seeing a way of making a virtue out of necessity. You don’t always get long with a Pope, and Velázquez needed to be sure that he would be able to paint him quickly, and from life, rather than relying on a pre-existing model (a very common practice for ‘state’ portraits) – hence the need to practice on Pareja. However, the challenges were very different, but even here he might have been rehearsing. 

Apparently the Pope had quite a high, reddish, complexion – but was also to be shown wearing his scarlet beretta and mozzetta – the hat and cape – while seated on a red throne against a red curtain.  Although completely different in appearance, Pareja was also portrayed with a limited palette, but this time of mid- to dark-browns. It is a far subtler portrait, as a result, and I think a far more beautiful one, however brilliant Innocent X may appear – although of course I’m more than happy for you to disagree!

The gentle highlights on the forehead, nose and cheeks give us a real sense of form, while a softness around the mouth and eyes – and especially the double catch-lights that make the eyes seem so moist – create a sense of inner sadness, which may be projection on my part. Pareja may have been very happy at this point. 

He was born in Antequera, not so far from Málaga, in 1606, just three years before the Moors were expelled. His mother, Zulema, was mixed race, and in part of African descent, while his father (after whom Juan was named) was a white Spaniard. Pareja came to Madrid in the early 1630s, probably entering Velázquez’ service soon after the latter returned from his first visit to Italy in January 1631.

In Velázquez’ service he must have learnt how to paint, although Palomino says that the master wouldn’t allow him to do so because of his status, adding that in the Classical world only free men were allowed access to such sophisticated practices. However, he goes on to say that Pareja did paint in secret, and arranged for one of his own paintings to be in the master’s studio one day when King Philip IV visited. The King was so impressed that his insisted he should be freed, and allowed to practice in his own right. Sadly, this charming story is manifestly not true. A document in the archives in Rome, dated 23 November 1650 – published by Jennifer Montague in the article cited above – is a notarial act granting Pareja his freedom, ‘In view of the good and faithful service the slave has given him and considering that nothing could be more pleasing to the slave than the gift of liberty’ – provided that he stayed in Velázquez’ service for a further four years. This was quite a common clause, apparently, as was the ‘ownership’ of slaves by artists (and, I assume, other members of Spanish society).  Francesco Pacheco, Murillo and Alonso Cano all had enslaved assistants, for example.

Pareja’s earliest dated painting is The Rest on the Flight to Egypt which we saw on Thursday (POTD 85), and that was not painted until 1658 – four years after his ‘freedom’. It could be that other, earlier paintings have been lost – only ten survive, as far as we know – or it could be that he really didn’t start painting on his own until he was free. But however much he might have relished his liberty, he did not go far, as I said last week. He continued to work as Velázquez’ assistant until the master died in 1660. He then became the assistant to Juan Bautista del Mazo, Velázquez’ son-in-law, and remained part of that household until his own death in 1670, even though Mazo himself had died three years earlier. I hope to look at another of his paintings tomorrow.


Day 87 – The Childhood of Christ

Giotto, The Childhood of Christ, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

So, as we continue to explore the Scrovegni Chapel we hit the middle tier of frescoes on the side walls. With the Last Judgement at the West End (Picture Of The Day 38), and the Annunciation and Visitation at the East, spanning the chancel arch (POTD 80), we start near the altar on the South Wall with the Nativity – the birth of Christ. If each tier on each wall represents a chapter, then this is the third chapter, after the story of Joachim and Anna, and the Birth and Betrothal of the Virgin.

We start Jesus’s story as he is handed into the scene by a midwife. If we remember that the altar is to the left of this painting, and that during Mass the bread becomes the body of Christ, it is almost as if she could have taken the child, newly ‘born’, from the altar. With the help of a reclining Mary, the midwife places the child into the manger. The word comes from the French manger, ‘to eat’, which takes us back to the Mass – with Christ’s body on the altar, to be eaten by all the communicants. A ‘manger’ is a food bowl, after all, which could be why the ox and ass look a little perturbed. Joseph sleeps. Well, he had had a long walk to Bethlehem, leading the donkey, and anyway, for Giotto, he definitely was an old codger (POTD 31 & 85). Meanwhile the angels somersault over the roof of the stable, eventually telling the shepherds the glad tidings of great joy.

Notice how one, large rock forms the background for the stable, while another, cut off on the right, defines the space of the shepherds (one of whom has had the elbow of his tunic patched…). The gap in between, where we see the blue sky, helps to suggest that they are really some way off, and allows space for an angel to fly down to speak to them.

Mary is lying down. It wasn’t until the early 15th Century that we see Mary kneeling in adoration of her newly born son, an image derived from the visions of St Bridget of Sweden. Up until that point the Nativity was painted, almost with out fail, with Mary and Jesus lying alongside one another. I’m not surprised, as I have always imagined childbirth to be extremely exhausting. I also wanted to point out a technical detail: Mary’s blue cloak is in a bad way. Artists loved to use ultramarine, extracted from lapis lazuli, because of the intensity of its blue – and patrons loved them to use it too, as it was enormously expensive – more so than gold, even – and it showed their wealth. That was fine when painting in egg tempera (or, for that matter, oil), but for true fresco the pigments were mixed with limewater before being painted onto the wet plaster. However, ultramarine reacts with limewater, so you cannot paint it in true fresco. Consequently, ultramarine could not be used until the plaster was dry, and painting a secco like this meant that the paint did not bond with the wall, and was likely to flake off. Giotto painted Mary’s cloak red in true fresco first, because, with the blue painted on top, it would give it a slightly more royal purple tinge. However, as the blue has worn away, the red has been revealed. And before we move on, look at the way that the ox is looking up at Mary!

The angels above the stable are also a delight: they are torn between worshipping God in Heaven (1st, 2nd and 4th from the left), worshipping the Christ Child (3rd), and getting on with announcing to the shepherds (5th) – the effect, as I suggested before, is that they appear to be having the best time, looping the loop above the stable in celebration of the birth of our saviour. The upward swoop of the two on the left matches the hill behind them, and, as I pointed out earlier, the fifth angel fits nicely into the gap between the hills. The blue of the sky has suffered the same fate as Mary’s cloak, painted a secco with ultramarine, and much of it has now gone.

In the next image it is almost as if the camera has panned to the left as the Wise Men arrive – the stable is more or less at the same angle, although it is now at the right of the image, and the bed, stable, ox and ass have been removed, and replaced by a stepped throne on which Mary sits, Jesus, still swaddled, on her lap.

The Holy family are joined by two angels, one of whom bears the gift of gold.  The eldest Magus, who brought it, kisses Christ’s foot, having placed his crown at the foot of the throne, a sign of his humility. The three magi represent the three ages of man – old, middle aged and young, as shown by grey beard, brown beard and beardless – but not the three continents (I alluded to this briefly in POTD 70): they are all white. The black king does not appear until the early 15th Century – but more of that another day perhaps. The star is looking more than usually like a comet, as opposed to the camels, which look less than usually like camels… but then, I don’t suppose Giotto had ever seen one.

The third scene is the Presentation at the Temple, described in Luke 2: 21-38. Luke described many of the features that Giotto includes – the offering of two turtle doves, the High Priest Simeon, and the prophetess Anna. It had been predicted that Simeon would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and here he receives him, recognising him with the words, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation‘ (Luke 2:29-30) – the words of the Nunc Dimittis in the Anglican Evensong.

Notice also how Giotto uses the same ciborium in most of his representations of the temple – Joachim had been thrown out, Mary accepted in, and now we are back. The twisted, Solomonic columns (also known as barley-sugar columns) were associated with the temple of Jerusalem, and the Vatican is supposed to have some of the originals: Giotto would have been aware of this, having designed a mosaic for St Peter’s at the end of the 13th Century. This is a different part of the temple, I have assumed, from the inner altar where the bachelors waited to see who would be chosen to marry Mary, but the altar cloth is the same. When looking around the chapel, these echoes may not be immediately obvious, but inevitably they will add to the sense that the paintings are somehow familiar: memories of the images we have already seen must linger in the back of our mind somewhere.

There is no stopping the story – the Holy Family must leave, after Joseph’s dream warning him that Herod was coming for Jesus. Unlike Pareja’s version of The Flight into Egypt (POTD 85) Joseph leads the way on foot, although the Guardian Angel is here, flying above, watching over them and pointing the way. This time they are accompanied by two midwives (we only saw one briefly at the Nativity) and two servants (previously unseen).  

Mary sits side-saddle on the donkey, who is looking inordinately proud to be carrying her. I would even say it was smiling. The ultramarine blue of Mary’s cloak has almost completely worn off here. Rather than the red underpainting we saw in the Nativity, the colour left behind is a pale pink (the red is her robe, under the cloak). Originally, therefore, it would not have looked as rich as in the Nativity – a reminder that this is not as significant an event as the birth of the Son of God. See how – as so often – the landscape expresses the drama of the event, the rocks forming a background for Mary and Jesus, and enhancing the momentum towards the right of the painting. The Holy Family were fleeing, of course, to avoid Herod and his men, who, as we mentioned on Thursday, ‘slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under’ (Matthew 2:16). 

The grief of the mothers is almost unbearable – all sense of decorum is lost as their hair becomes uncovered. They reach for their children, grabbed by the soldiers, killed, and piled in an undignified heap on the floor. One, in green at the top left, seems to imagine holding her baby once again with her now functionless hands. Tears streak their faces – Giotto used some unconventional technique here to make the flowing tears almost three dimensional, apparently – and their faces crumple in sorrow. On the right a soldier lifts his hand above his shoulder, but apart from some black marks it is hard to see why. Although the hilt of his sword looks gold, the blade would have been made of silver leaf, and sadly, as we shall see again, silver tarnishes. Not only has most of it come off, but what little remains is now completely black.

To end this chapter we must jump twelve years, to the point at which Joseph and Mary lose Jesus in Jerusalem, only to find him in debate with the Doctors in the the temple. Many weeks ago we saw how Pinturicchio set this discussion outside the building (POTD 40), but for Giotto they are securely seated inside, with Joseph and Mary arriving from the left. This is how the event is described in Luke 2:41-47: 

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?

What I find astonishing about Giotto’s depiction is that the building takes up almost the entire picture space – we see cut away walls and roof, leaving just a sliver of sky at the top, and the projecting walls of the side aisles on the outside – but basically the ‘fourth wall’ of the temple is as close as is possible to the frame of the picture itself. Jesus is ‘sitting in the midst of the doctors’ – right in the very centre – and his gesture implies that he is deeply involved in the discourse. 

In this chapter of the Scrovegni story, we started with the Baby Jesus being handed in to the scene of the Nativity – pictorially being ‘delivered’ – and we end with him finding his place in the centre of the image, firm and secure about his Father’s business. From here we will have to jump another 18 years or so, when he will begin his Mission in earnest. Directly opposite this painting, we will see Jesus in the centre of the image once more, but standing upright in the River Jordan at his Baptism. But that will be next week.


Day 86 – Ethiopia

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Ethiopia, 1921, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC.

Today we make it into the 20th Century – so far I’ve deliberately avoided it, to be honest, for reasons of copyright, but that is the only reason… I’m assuming nothing will happen on this occasion, though. However, despite what I suggested a couple of days ago, I have decided not to confront the angst I thought I might try and deal with – the French press once labelled today’s artist ‘the delicate sculptor of horrors’ – because I wanted to end this mini-survey (to which I will return) with something more positive.

There are various versions of this piece, entitled either Ethiopia or Ethiopia Awakens – or other variations of these terms. You will also find it given a number of different dates, the result of an error in a book from 1940, which dated it to 1914, an error that has often been repeated. A publication from 1943 even said it was created in 1889, which is remarkably unlikely, as Meta Vaux Warrick would have been 12 years old! I am sticking to the date 1921: the work was commissioned for the America’s Making Exposition which took place that year in New York.

Meta Vaux Warrick was the daughter of prominent members of the African-American community in Philadelphia – they were friends with Henry Ossawa Tanner (Picture Of The Day 81), who was to be a great support when she got to Paris in 1899. Her father was a barber and caterer, her mother a wig-maker and beautician for wealthy white women. These included the woman after whom their daughter was named, Meta (pronounced the same as ‘metre’), the daughter of Senator Richard Vaux. By the time Warrick arrived in Paris she was a graduate of the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Arts. Once in Europe, she continued her studies at the Académie Colarossi, well known as one of the first places to accept female students, and at the École des Beaux-Arts. She visited Rodin in his studio at Meudon, and he is supposed to have told her, ‘My child, you are a sculptor; you have the sense of form in your fingers’. To be honest, this is such a ‘typical’ thing for him to have said, I’m not entirely sure that it’s true, although he is known to have been very supportive. Some of her work at the time was very much in his style, as was the work of Camille Claudel, Rodin’s student – and lover: he had that sort of charisma that would knock people off their feet, it seems. Warrick was lucky enough to be exhibited by Siegfried Bing, whose gallery, the ‘House of New Art’, or Maison de L’Art Nouveau, which opened in 1895, gave the movement its name. This really put her name firmly on the Parisian map, and her work was also accepted for exhibition in the Salon of 1903, the year in which she returned to Philadelphia. Her last name – Fuller – comes from her marriage, in 1909, to one of the first black psychiatrists in the United States, Solomon Carter Fuller.

Things did not always go smoothly for her, though. Even on arrival in Paris she was denied access to the American Women’s Club, even though she had already booked a room, because she was black: it was Henry Ossawa Tanner who helped her find lodgings. Back in the States a fire in her studio in 1910 destroyed 16 years worth of work, a disaster which is just one of the reasons why her name is perhaps not as well known as it should be. As her work developed she introduced biblical themes. She was a regular church-goer, but stopped attending when she was faced with discrimination. Nevertheless – and despite its appearance – it was the bible that inspired today’s sculpture.

One of the first people she met in Paris, the author W.E.B. Du Bois, had always been one of her greatest advocates: it was he who came up with the idea for this particular work. The America’s Making Exposition was intended to celebrate the artistic and industrial creativity of the immigrant communities of the United States, and Du Bois was an executive committee member of the section entitled ‘Americans of Negro Lineage’ – Fuller’s sculpture was to feature prominently in the exhibition’s catalogue.

Although Du Bois had more or less described the sculpture he wanted, Fuller developed her own ideas, which are both subtly elegiac and profound. For both of them, however, it was the place that Ethiopia had in the African-American philosophy of the time, particularly in relationship to the church, which gave the sculpture its meaning. The inspiration came from the Book of Psalms, 68:31:

Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.

This text was regularly cited within African-American churches as prophesying their eventual liberation. As Renée Ator explains in a superb article in American Art (Autumn 2003 – I was hoping to include a link, but sadly that’s not possible), ‘Ethiopia ultimately served two seemingly contradictory purposes. It filled a need for African Americans to formulate an authentic racial identity by looking to the grand achievements of Egyptian history while also supporting the romantic ideal of Christian Ethiopia as a symbol of black liberation’. Fuller herself explained in a letter to a friend,

Here was a group (Negro) who had once made history and now after a long sleep was awaking, gradually unwinding the bandage of its mummified past and looking out on life again, expectant but unafraid and with at least a graceful gesture. Why you may ask the Egyptian motif? The answer, the most brilliant period, perhaps of Egyptian history was the period of the Negro kings.

For African American theorists, the dominance of the Egyptian kingdoms was important, and served as a historical precedent for their own cultural aspirations. Supporters of slavery looked to Egypt as part of a continuum of culture that led through Greece and Rome to modern Europe and thence to the United States, and saw the Egyptian use of slaves as the inevitable domination of one race by another, and therefore, inevitably, a precursor to their own denial of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, ‘that all men are created equal’. For the African American community, if the Egyptians were seen as a noble race of Black Africans then the argument that had so incensed Edward Mitchell Bannister (POTD 84), that ‘the negro has an appreciation for art while being manifestly unable to produce it’, was manifestly untrue: like the Egyptians they had a culture of their own. We have already seen the importance of Egypt at the time in Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra (POTD 82), who, like Ethiopia, wears the nemes ­ – the headdress usually worn by Egyptian kings. 

The version of Ethiopia I have shown you so far is made of plaster, painted to look like bronze (Fuller often couldn’t afford to have her sculptures cast), but in a maquette preparatory for the finished work, she uses colour to pick out some of the details, which can make the piece easier to read.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Maquette for Ethiopia, Danforth Art Museum, Framlingham, MA.

I think it is far easier to see that the bands of the mummified form are starting to unravel, and that the figure holds one end of the bandage against her heart. The legs are still firmly bound, rigid, incapable of movement, but the torso has become more flexible. Both hands can move – the ‘graceful gesture’ of her left hand, and the act of self-liberation embodied by her right. The head also twists at the neck, no longer fixed, staring straightforward, but now able to look around and find a new place in the world. The sense of awakening was important. The Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery may have happened in 1863, but there was still not true freedom, and certainly no equality. Fuller had been a firm supporter of the Equal Suffrage Movement, hoping to get the vote for women, until she found out that black women were not included. However, culturally, things were changing, and, as Fuller hoped, a race which had lived out centuries in mummified subservience was taking hold of its own destiny. Ethiopia effectively serves as a fanfare announcing the birth of the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of art, music and literature centred in the eponymous New York neighbourhood during the 1920s. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was one of the most significant women in this movement, and one of its most important sculptors – I should really talk about it another time. 


Day 85 – The Flight into Egypt

Juan de Pareja, The Flight into Egypt, 1658, The Ringling, Sarasota, FL.

Ah, look, you say – back in our comfort zone. A Spanish artist, a familiar subject. Yesterday I said Europe, I said 20thCentury, I said America – well, two out of three ain’t bad. It’s a European painting alright, in an American collection, but it was painted in the middle of the 17th Century. And just in case you thought I’d shifted away from what I said would be this week’s theme – think again! Juan de Pareja was born a slave, and was owned by Diego Velázquez.

The Flight into Egypt is a common subject in Western European painting, drawing its imagery both from the Bible and from popular retellings of the story. According to Matthew 2:13-14, after the Wise Men had departed, 

 ‘…behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt’

Joseph has several dreams in the gospels, which explains why he is regularly shown nodding off in medieval and renaissance paintings. It’s not just that he was considered to be old (Picture Of The Day 31), although I have already got to the age where I regularly nod off… And in this case, if you actually look at the painting, he isn’t old at all.

With reddish hair and beard, and an unlined face, I could easily imagine him to be in his 30s. This is a feature of Spanish 17th Century painting – and it is partly the result of the visions of St Theresa of Avila (POTD 63). According to Catholic belief, after their marriage Mary and Joseph continued to live a life of chastity – and therefore, both remained virgins. The medieval mindset couldn’t understand how Joseph could live with the most perfect woman ever, and not sleep with her (I’m not convinced that the outlook of some men has changed…). The only explanation they could come up with was that Joseph was, to put it bluntly, past it – and with the account in the Golden Legend that he too considered himself to be old, it’s hardly surprising that that is how he was depicted. In a number of medieval mystery plays he was even treated as a cuckold. Although he was married to a woman having someone else’s baby, that would, of course, have implied that Mary was having an affair with God – so it’s surprising that the church let the actors get away with it. St Bernardino of Siena, the 15th Century Franciscan preacher who first advocated the bonfires of the vanities, was appalled that Joseph should be considered a figure of fun – but it was really St Theresa who called a halt to it all… at least in Spain, where far from being an old codger, he starts to appear as a younger, and more virile man, a suitable step father, capable of working, and of caring for both Mother and Child. 

In between the calm and clearly delineated faces of Mary and Joseph is a distant crowd of soldiers: they have come to look for Jesus and kill him. In the end, as they could not be sure which of the children he was, the ‘slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under’ (Matthew 2:16). Mary and Joseph have a curious glow over their heads, Pareja’s version of a halo, a holy emanation, whereas Jesus simply glows – it is not unlike the light you would find around the head of Tintoretto’s holy figures. Indeed, the Venetian influence in this painting is strong, probably the result of the number of Titians in the Spanish Royal Collection. 

Having said that, Joseph reminds of the Christ in Altobello Melone’s Road to Emmaus in the National Gallery – do look it up, but I suspect this is purely chance: both wear similar clothes. With his sturdy leggings, coat and hat, Joseph is dressed far more like a contemporary (17th C.) traveller than a 1st Century carpenter. Mary wears her timeless combination of red and blue, plus a rather jaunty 17th Century hat. And the angel – well, the angel is dressed how the Spanish liked to dress their angels, a pseudo-classical skirt and peep-toe boots, blue and red scarves, plenty of gold and a resplendent pair of wings. The angel is not part of the biblical narrative, but became a common presence in depictions of this story, derived from the messenger who appears to Joseph in his dream, promising to return. He becomes a guardian angel pointing the way, and leading them in safety to Egypt. Joseph effectively becomes the rear-guard – having led the donkey bearing Mary to Bethlehem, he is happy now to be the faithful follower. 

The classical temple on the hillside reminds us that these things came to pass during the reign of Caesar Augustus. And, like the Guardian Angel, the cherubs flying above the Holy Family watch over their progress. However, if I’m not mistaken (and sadly the reproductions I can find are very poor) two of them appear to be holding an apple. This is not something nutritious for the baby, but a reminder that Jesus has come to take original sin upon himself. The branches held by a couple of the cherubs could presage much the same: as palms of martyrdom they are, like the apple, a reminder that this tiny child has come to die. 

And yet, they do look like the amoretti Titian painted in the sky of The Rape of Europa – the subject of the very first POTD. But then again, as this was painted for Philip II, grandfather of the King alive in Pareja’s lifetime, that is not impossible. It is, however, surprising, that Pareja should be so strongly influenced by Venetian art given that he had been Velázquez’ assistant for nearly 30 years by the time he painted this. He became a free man in 1654, but even after this he continued to work for Velázquez until the master died – at which point he assisted Juan Bautista del Mazo, Velázquez’ son-in-law. I am entirely indebted to my sister, Jane Wickenden, for bringing him to my attention. I was aware of his name, and of the portrait that Velázquez painted of him, but not that he was, himself, an artist. I will tell you more about him another time, when I tell you about this truly glorious portrait.

Diego Velázquez, Juan de Pareja, 1650, The Met, New York.

I will look at more of his work in the future – although only ten of his paintings are known – and I will of course be talking about Diego Velázquez for Art History Abroad at 6pm (UK time) on Wednesday 24 June (yep, if you looked it up, I got the date wrong last time I mentioned it – sorry!).


Day 84 – Boston Street Scene

Edward Mitchell Bannister, Boston Street Scene (Boston Common), 1898-99, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

Another landscape today, very different in style to yesterday’s, but, in some very subtle way, connected by a common mindset. Edward Mitchell Bannister’s work contains even less reference to social status or racial issues than paintings by Robert S. Duncanson, but, like Duncanson, he creates a world in which liberty and calm seem to dominate, creating a sense of being at ease in a world where nature is essential benevolent.

Having said that, today’s Picture is not typical of his work, as it is a cityscape. Also, unlike most of his more ‘solidly’ painted works, inspired by stretches of barely populated countryside, it is in an avowedly Impressionist style. Like most national schools of Impressionism outside of France, the Americans were late to the party. Whereas the series of eight exhibitions held by the French stretched between 1874 and 1886, it wasn’t until then – 1886, and the end of ‘official’ Impressionism – that William Merritt Chase’s views of New York parks kick-started the American movement. Another of the great American Impressionists, Childe Hassam, had made his name in Boston between 1882-86 painting in a Realist style, before heading to France. It was there that he took on board the lessons of Impressionism, and took them home with him in 1889. By the time that Bannister was painting in 1899 American Impressionism was a fait accompli, but nevertheless, for him this was a new development in a long and successful career. He had been living in Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 30 years, and was visiting Boston when he painted this work. However, what might have been a new direction for his art stopped short: Bannister died two years later, and this was one of his last works.

As it happens, he was not American by birth. He was born in St Andrews, New Brunswick – in Canada – in 1828: he was just seven years younger than Robert Duncanson. His father was a native of Barbados, his mother’s heritage remains unknown. Orphaned at the age of 16, he was fostered by a white family, and destined for a life at sea, like most of the male population of St Andrews. However, he settled in Boston in 1848, and worked as a barber, supplementing his income by hand-colouring photographs – which was also Sorolla’s route into painting, as it happens. Although he had started painting and attending classes in the 1850s and 60s he became determined to become a successful artist through anger, having read an article in the New York Herald which stated, with the assurance typical of the ill-informed, that ‘the negro has an appreciation for art while being manifestly unable to produce it’. Less than ten years later he was awarded the bronze medal for painting (the first prize) at the Philadelphia Centennial – the very same exhibition at which Edmonia Lewis exhibited The Death of Cleopatra (POTD 82). I would show you the painting itself, but sadly Under the Oaks has not been seen since the beginning of the last century. Fantastic, you think, he won the bronze medal. But when the judges found out he was black they decided they had come to the wrong decision. Fortunately, Bannister’s white ‘competitors’ wouldn’t accept this, and the judges were forced to uphold their original choice. A substantial and successful career followed – in 1880 he was one of the seven founders of the Providence Art Club, which is still active today, for example. He was a prolific painter, and, despite his name being forgotten after his death, as those of so many artists of colour were, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, home to both The Death of Cleopatra (POTD 82) and Landscape with Rainbow (POTD 83) owns 122 of his works. 

Edward Mitchell Bannister, Driving Home the Cows, 1881, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

The majority of Bannister’s output – including the 1881 painting Driving Home the Cows – is associated with Tonalism, a predominantly American movement inspired by one of the predecessors of Impressionism – the Barbizon School: think Corot, Millet and Daubigny. His direct source was probably one of the Boston-based Tonalists, William Morris Hunt, as, unlike other successful African-American artists in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, he never travelled to Europe.

I wanted to include this painting, though, because it is unlike anything else of his I have seen. The looser brushwork and lighter, pastel colours had gradually developed through the later 1880s and 1890s, but not quite to this extent. It is, as all good Impressionist paintings are (and there are one or two bad ones!), beautifully composed. The skill of such art is not just painting what you see when you see it, but choosing the right thing to look at in the first place, and the right way of looking at it. The authenticity of plein air painting in front of the motif (i.e. painting outside while looking at the subject – let’s cut to the chase!) has often been questioned. Were they really outside, for one thing? Many of the works were, of course, ‘improved’ back in the studio (but there’s nothing wrong with that). And were they really painting exactly what they saw? Well, no, of course not. They were artists! The main aim was to capture the ‘feel’ of being there. Well, one of the main aims, anyway. And in this case, the painting is dated ‘1898-99’, so even if he had been outside, he wouldn’t have been there all that time. Maybe he, just like Degas – and for that matter, Henry Ossawa Tanner – had recourse to photographs (The Banjo Lesson, POTD 81, was based on pictures that Tanner had taken). 

All that aside, we are probably heading along Tremont Street in Boston, with the Common to our right, and buildings – none of which survive, as far as I can tell – on our left. The street cuts in on a diagonal from the bottom left, with the line of the kerb starting in the corner, a favourite compositional device to lead the viewer’s eye into the painting. Here, it takes us to a stroller (yes, this is America) pushed by one of two ladies.

Bannister is using colour to unite the two, rather than painting what he saw, I suspect. The woman on the left, further back, has a brown top, the same colour as the skirt of the woman on the right. The latter’s top is pink – and uses the same colour as the dashes which describe the baby in the pushchair. There is a wonderful freedom in the handling of paint, wet-on-wet, almost scratchy in places, and a real ability to conjure up a sense of time and place. There is so little traffic – unlike late 19th Century Paris – with one horse and carriage coming towards us on the far left, and another heading away in the middle distance on the right – with a few more in the background.

The clear sky is built up from flecks of different blues, laid on top of brush strokes going in all directions. Surrounding the leaves, and what looks to me like blossom, it reminds me of some of van Gogh’s cherry trees. However, as the Dutch artist wasn’t exhibited in America until 1913, and, as I have said, Bannister did not travel to Europe, this is probably coincidental. There is such a delicate touch – the tall pink building is almost sketched in with the thinnest of horizontal and vertical lines building up its form – and across the painting, every window, windowsill and roof, however free, is still surprisingly secure. It is beautifully painted, I think, and I will certainly seek out more. Meanwhile, before tomorrow, we will have to leave the apparent calm of Boston at the end of the 19th Century, and head off to a more angst-laden 20th Century Europe. Although we may find that I’ve had to return immediately to America. 


Day 83 – Landscape with Rainbow

Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape with Rainbow, 1859, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

One of the problems with learning is that you keep finding out how much you don’t know. And this week I’m finding out the full extent of my ignorance. I should probably come clean: American art has never been one of my main areas of study, although I know enough about it to know that it didn’t start with the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s. As the ‘Story of Modern Art’ used to be told, New York became the centre of the Art World after the Second World War – almost as if nothing had happened there before. I do understand the compulsion to pin down one ‘Story of Art’, but nothing is ever as simple as you think. Having said that, when, exactly, did ‘American Art’ get going? Benjamin West, the 2nd President of the Royal Academy, was born in Pennsylvania in 1738: was he an ‘American Artist’? Given that the War of Independence was fought between 1775-83 you could argue that he was not. But at what point did art from the North American continent stop being Colonial and become its own thing? I am, of course, talking about art evolving from the Western European tradition. I know there are whole areas of Native American Art that should be brought into discussion, but as, in this case, my ignorance is complete, I wouldn’t dare to discuss it. 

Some would argue that the first truly American artistic movement was the Hudson River School, a group of landscape artists influenced by Romanticism, and thoroughly in awe of the geography of the North American Continent – particularly, as the name suggests, the area surrounding the Hudson River in the State of New York. However, until the exhibition American Sublime at Tate Britain in 2002 I was completely unaware of it – and have subsequently seen very little: relatively few 19thCentury American paintings are held in British collections, and I don’t think I’ve been to the States since 2004…

One of the key paintings of the Hudson River School is Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara – capturing the full scope and scale of the waterfall. It was enormously successful when first exhibited in 1857, and, at the time, it was suggested that no one would paint a landscape as grandiose again. However, that is precisely what Robert S. Duncanson attempted to do in his Landscape with Rainbow just two years later.

But who was Duncanson, and why have I never heard of him before? As my knowledge of Church’s work is limited, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but judging by the title of a Smithsonian Magazine article published in 2011, I am not alone: America’s Forgotten Landscape Painter. I will give you a link at the end of the blog. What becomes clear is that however successful Duncanson had been, his name disappeared from the singular ‘Story’ of art shortly after his death in 1872. In his day he had been big – very big. And not just in the States – in Canada he was seen as one of earliest ‘cultivators of the fine arts’, and on a visit to London he was declared a master of landscape painting. 

Robert S. Duncanson, Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861, The Royal Collections, Stockholm.

On one occasion he even visited Alfred, Lord Tennyson at his home on the Isle of Wight, taking with him what is now seen as his masterwork, Land of the Lotus Eaters – inspired by the Poet Laureate’s similarly-titled poem. Given that it measures 225 x 134 cm – not quite as wide, but bigger overall than Church’s magisterial Niagara – that must have taken some doing. He was a determined man. The effort certainly paid off, as Tennyson reassured him that, “Your landscape is a land in which one loves to wander and linger.”

Art Historians argue about the extent that issues of race were important in the work of the man who is arguably the first successful African-American artist. In a letter to his son, Duncanson himself said,  “I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint.” However, in Land of the Lotus Eaters the ease and comfort enjoyed by the lucky few – inevitably white – is only possible because they have black servants. In other paintings there are similar references: painting the world around him, they would have been impossible to avoid. But Duncanson’s main concern was to be an artist, which, under the circumstances, was statement enough.

Race is not, it would seem, the ‘subject’ of Landscape with Rainbow: there are only two people, and both are white. Given their clothes – his trousers are rolled up, her skirt is lifted, revealing a petticoat, I would assume they are children, perhaps put in charge of the herd of cows which wander along the road. He carries a stick, and gestures towards the rainbow.

Duncanson leaves no doubt that this is the main focus of the landscape. It burns through the sky, almost more like a multi-coloured meteor. Each of the seven colours appear, even though they fade in and out as is so often the case when seen for real, with sporadic rain, and uncertain light. In addition to its brilliance, we are directed towards it by other elements of the composition. Not only does the boy point to it, but the track on which the children stand, along which the lowing herd winds slowly, is leading towards it. There are also flashes of sunlight, one illuminating the foreground directly under the children, another catching some rocks and plants below the right-hand trio of cows, which together form a virtual path of light towards the rainbow’s mythic golden end. 

Is it a coincidence, therefore, that more or less at the end of the rainbow there is a house? I really wouldn’t think so. An artist chooses what to paint and where to paint it – he must have had a reason to include the house. Sometimes choices are governed by style, or ethos, the decision to replicate what can actually be seen, and sometimes, by the will to summon up a world that is pure imagination. Unlike Church’s Niagara, inspiring awe by encompassing the grandeur and sheer scale of geological fact, Duncanson wanted to create a mood, by sharing an idea: there’s no place like home.

The fact is, if this is a real place, the both light and weather have gone awry. For one thing, you only get a rainbow when there is both sun and rain, and I can’t see that there is enough cloud. That could be something to do with the photographic reproduction, I suppose, but I doubt it. And where, precisely, is the sun? When talking about Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral (POTD 47) I explained precisely why you could never see a rainbow as Constable had depicted it. And I suspect the same is true here.  It’s such a masterful painting, that I can’t actually tell where the light is supposed to be coming from. The mood is crepuscular – the purple distant hills, the sense of plodding homeward, the gradual darkening of the sky, and above all, the brilliant yellow light on the distant horizon, suggesting it is sunset. But if the sun is in the distance, there is no way we could see a rainbow here, nor could there be a rainbow here. And we couldn’t we see a rainbow in the same place as the children do, they are too far away. But this is art, and the meteorological incongruities do not matter. This is a magical, enchanted place – every cloud is lit from a different direction, to make each look real, rather than actually being real. What Duncanson has painted is an ineffable sense of calm.  The cows head home, the children follow them, all will be well. And that is, of course, the standard symbolism for the rainbow – all will be well – as defined by God’s covenant with Noah (POTD 37).

Robert S. Duncanson, View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky, about 1851, Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio.

Robert S. Duncanson was an African-American artist painting this landscape in 1859, two years before the outbreak of the Civil War. The Southern Confederate States, who continued to support Slavery, would fight the Northern Unionists. An earlier painting, dating from around 1851, is entitled View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky. Of all of Duncanson’s landscapes, this is – potentially – the most overtly political. The Ohio River, which separates Cincinnati and Covington, was one of the boundaries between North and South.  Duncanson – born free in 1821 in Fayette, New York – spent much of his life in Cincinnati, also in the ‘free’ North. It can be seen in the background of the painting, populous and thriving. In the foreground, in Covington, black slaves are labouring on the plantations under the watchful eye of the white owners. When Landscape with Rainbow was painted some eight years later, the war was still two years away, but tensions were rising. Nevertheless, the painting gives the sense that there might yet be the possibility of peace. It hints that there might just be somewhere idyllic, calm – Arcadian, even – where people could live in peace and harmony. Somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps?

If you would like to know more about this wonderful artist, I really recommend the article I mentioned above, America’s Forgotten Landscape Painter.

And on a completely different note, Art History Abroad has just announced my next online lecture, at 6pm on Wednesday 24 June: Reflecting on the Power of Art – Diego Velázquez.


Day 82 – The Death of Cleopatra

Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, 1876, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Today I’m finding it hard to say who or what had the most unusual history – the artist or their art, the subject or the sculpture – and given the fame of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt that’s really saying something.  But Edmonia Lewis was a remarkable woman, and, if anything, her history is further shrouded by the mists of time, and by whims of the imagination, than that of her famous subject. So let’s start with the sculpture. Cleopatra is seated on her throne, her left arm hanging down, her right hand resting on her thigh, her head tilted to one side, for all the world as if she has just nodded off. But as we know from the title, carved on the base of the sculpture, this is the sleep of death. Rarely has it been portrayed so calmly.

Intricately carved, you may yet be struggling to focus on some of the details: the sculpture is badly worn, the result of an unconventional history. Cleopatra wears an approximation to the headgear of Egyptian pharaohs, a combination of the nemes – the striped head cloth, with its two lappets hanging down behind the ears (familiar to us today from the mask of Tutankhamun) – with a form of pinnacle, perhaps derived from the hedjet – the white crown of Upper Egypt. The stylised leaf decoration on the back of the throne creates a foil to the crisply-carved folds of the dress, making the figure stand out from its background. The half-length sleeves are caught up twice into bunches, and the dress is gathered at a high waist, so that there is a counterpoint between the freely-hanging, more deeply carved drapery and broader areas where the cloth clings to the underlying anatomy. One breast is defined by fabric and folds, the other revealed. Her right hand, apparently relaxed, still holds the asp that killed her.

The queen wears two necklaces, both beaded, and the lower also has a pendant, possibly representing a bucranium– the skull of an ox – although, given the lack of detail, this is not certain. The full skirt flares out behind her hips, and hangs over the arm of the throne, which is carved along the sides with mock hieroglyphs.

The two heads on the arms of the throne, also wearing the nemes, represent the twin sons of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. Whether the ring she wears on the fourth finger of her left hand represents her relationship with him, or is merely decorative, is not clear. She wears wonderfully inventive sandals, the large loops revealing her delicately carved toes, the smallest of which is slightly lifted. The skirt of the dress hangs down from her knees, wrapping round her left shin, with the hem to revealing her feet. From there, it trails down to the right, falling over the edge of the sculpture. A rose has dropped onto the foot of the throne, and lies there, resting on the dress, the fallen bloom symbolic of the subject’s death. 

On one side, as we have seen, the arm of the throne is covered by drapery. The other is decorated with a leaping griffin holding a leaf in its front paw, and surrounded by other, stylised leaves. From this angle, the tail of the asp can be seen lying across Cleopatra’s right leg.

The Death of Cleopatra was first exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadephia in 1876, but it had been shipped from Rome. Edmonia Lewis had settled there a decade before, having travelled from Boston via London and Paris. However, it is only the middle of her life that can be documented with any certainty. She was probably born in 1844 in the State of New York, to an Afro-Haitian father and a mother of mixed heritage, African American and Chippewa: as an adult Lewis would claim an affinity with Hiawatha. Both parents had died by the time she was nine, when she was brought up by her maternal aunts. As she said of her own childhood,

Until I was twelve years old I led this wandering life, fishing and swimming … and making moccasins. I was then sent to school for three years… but was declared to be wild – they could do nothing with me.

Apart from this it is hard to pin down her childhood. Like so many artists she became the master of her own history, and like Andy Warhol or Tracey Emin, was arguably her own greatest creation, drawing on different parts of her heritage according to the public she was addressing. She was good at marketing, it would seem, even if not financially secure. Her half-brother had made enough money in the Gold Rush, though, to send her to Oberlin College, which accepted both female and black students. Nevertheless, as part of a tiny minority she was subject to continual racism, and forced to leave after unfounded accusations that she had poisoned two fellow students and stolen from the College itself. She moved to Boston (again, supported financially by her brother), where the sculptor Edward Beckett acted as a mentor and helped her to set up her own studio. Her work was supported by a number of prominent abolitionists and advocates of Native American rights, of whom she modelled portrait medallions in clay and plaster