Lent 9

The National Gallery website says that the tool in this detail is ‘a pick’. It is not a pick. It is an auger, used by carpenters to make holes in wood, and as there is a plank of wood in the detail that would make perfect sense. The line at the bottom is the frame of the painting, so the plank, or beam, enters the painting at a diagonal. It is resting on the ground some way below the painting itself – and you can tell that because the shadow of the plank (or beam) enters the painting just to the right. The plank and shadow will meet where the plank is resting on the ground. So, for whatever reason, this plank is being lifted off the ground in between the legs of whoever is reaching for the tool. It doesn’t augur well. He might have a nasty accident.

The carpenter’s legs are clad in red – presumably fairly tight-fitting hose, which are not exactly the same as tights, although a bit more like stockings, as each leg is separate. They were worn by men, and thickened at the feet, often with an in-built leather sole. You can certainly see a seam passing across his achilles tendon and then under the ankle. But then it gets a bit confused – the foot is foreshortened, and reaches all the way to the toe, but overlaps with some green fabric. It is not clear now whether the toe was supposed to be under the green drapery, or treading on it, but, as far as I can see, the foot was painted after the fabric. This suggestion might be confirmed by the fact that pink is more likely to fade than green. What we are looking at is a form of pentimento – the word used when an artist changes his (or her) mind (as if they have ‘repented’ of what they did before) and the change becomes visible when the painting ages. You could argue that this might not be a pentimento, as it might not be a change of mind. It could easily be bad planning. Having designed the image, and then transferred the drawing to the painting surface, the artist then might have got carried away with the green fabric and it spread too far, so that there was nowhere for this man to plant his feet. We’d have to have a look at the underdrawing to get a better idea, but as that is under the painted surface we would need an infrared reflectogram… but let’s not get too technical about it.

The position and angle of the plank is clearly designed to lead our eye into the painting, and the shadow does the same. It also enhances the sense that we are part of the same reality as what is beyond the frame: the light appears to enter the painting from our space, and casts a shadow of the plank on the imaginary floor. I would suggest that, whatever this painting is, and wherever it was originally intended to go, there would have been a window behind us, above and to the left of our left shoulders. It is another thing about the painting (after Lent 4) which makes me think of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck: the fall of light, and the casting of shadows – from the frame itself, apparently – in the Annunciation on the outside of the wings. Here is a detail, simply because, as I’ve said before, I love the details from the Closer to Van Eyck website. Maybe I should do another Van Eyck lecture (I know, I’ve done a few…). This is the hem of Gabriel’s skirts, on the left panel of the four that make up the Annunciation, and the shadow of the frame is in the bottom right-hand corner. It is far more diffuse than the shadow of the plank, but then there are several windows in the chapel for which the Ghent Altarpiece was painted, so light is coming from several slightly different directions.

Another similarity with the van Eyck is the use of perspective, not systematic or rigidly geometrical, but a visual approximation, which nevertheless has the required effect. In both cases, like the plank it leads our eye into the painting, and gives us the sense of entering a real space. All of this helps us to believe that the story the artist is telling is real. So tomorrow, we shall start with the story. But I’ll leave you with a couple of bonus pictures: a pen and ink drawing of a man using an auger by Albrecht Dürer from the end of the 15th Century, and a detail of painting by Georges de la Tour of The Carpenter St Joseph, also using an auger, from 1642 (and yes, that is Jesus with the candle). Notice how the hands are placed to turn them. These are not picks.


Lent 8

As well as grief, whatever is going on in our painting can also inspire derision. This man – a soldier, judging by his helmet – sticks out his tongue and points, the finger almost serving as a continuation of his tongue. There is something almost obscene about it. It reminds me of the very opening of Romeo and Juliet, after the chorus, Act 1, Scene 1: ‘Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?’ – it was a sign of disrespect. No thumb-biting here, admittedly, but the proximity of mouth and digit is nevertheless not good. The focus of the disrespect is demonstrated by the pointing finger, and enhanced by the soldier’s gaze, by the angle of the sharp peak of his helmet, and by the diagonal made by the rope. The soldier’s unpleasant character is emphasized by the way in which he shows his teeth, although something strange is going on here: there appears to be something circular emphasizing how pointed his teeth are, which might be damage to the painting, a knot in the wood, or a nail. I would have to ask a conservator, though, to find out what it is.

This detail is a wonderful demonstration of the ways in which an artist can abbreviate to create the illusion of reality. The curves of the helmet, and the seams running around its brim and up past the ear, are implied by brilliant white highlights painted on a basic black, for example, whereas the rope is a brown line (or maybe two – one lighter, one darker) with diagonal dashes of beige to create the twist. The mail sleeve of the man holding the rope is a dark grey, with lighter grey dashes creating the ‘weave’ of the fabric, and white dots added to create the highlights at the top. It’s not standard chain mail, though, as these are not circular links, but I’m sure that’s what it’s meant to be. Our eyes see the signs, and our brains accept what is supposed to be there, even if that is not what it looks like on closer examination.

If you look carefully, you will see that the rope was actually painted before this bit of sleeve: the lighter grey dashes, and the cream ones on the ‘gold’ hem, go over the rope. There are various layers visible: it is quite common, as paintings get older, for the paints to go slightly transparent. All across this man’s face and arms there are scrawly lines: this is the underdrawing, resulting from the transfer of the basic design of the image from a preparatory drawing to the picture surface. You can see traces in the tendons of his wrist (in the top detail), and marking the position of his chin(s) and the shape – slightly shifted – of his pointing finger. It would have been ‘sketched’ out on the prepared panel as a guideline. Once the painting was complete, it would have been covered, only to be revealed, gradually, as the paint aged. There is a single line that crosses the bridge of the nose and cheek, crossing to the lower brim of his helmet. I suspect that this is the underdrawing which helped to plan the position of the rope. Yes, it has moved somewhat, but the general position and direction is more or less the same. Tomorrow we will see further evidence of the artist’s planning, and of the way he changed his mind.


Lent 7

Our painting is one that can inspire grief. The woman who is the focus of today’s detail is weeping, although I suspect she is trying to do so silently, and to herself. Her brow is furrowed, and tears fall from her eyes, which are sparkling with fresh tears, and a little red. Her mouth is only a slightly open – no loud wailing, no grand display of lamentation here. She lifts a hand to her face, maybe to wipe the tears away with her fingers, or with her scarf, or maybe to hide her eyes. Given the proximity of that rope, and the sheathed sword running alongside her head, she probably doesn’t want to step out of line. Next to her is a child – I think it’s a child – with the most extraordinary headgear.

Of course, it is a child, but one of the features of this artist’s style is that he (or maybe she?) couldn’t do children. Or rather, it might be more art historically accurate to say that the artist painted children like small, gnarled adults (exactly like some babies, if we’re honest). It’s not that they ‘couldn’t do children’, but that they chose ‘to do children’ like this: we’re not in a position to hypothesize why. And as for the headgear – well, fashion is clearly important today. I’m not an expert on historical clothing, but it’s a fair guess to say that no one has ever worn anything like that child has on its head. This is just a hint that, as far as the artist is concerned, we are ‘elsewhere’, even ‘far away’.

The woman’s outfit does not seem so unusual, being familiar from many costume dramas on stage and screen, not to mention the occasional painting, of course. She wears what is called a reticulated headdress – i.e. her hair is caught up in a net. Have said that, it is made to look as if her hair is caught up in a net – that’s not her hair though, the headdress it is padded to look as if it is. As you can see, her own hair is tied into plaits which emerge on either side – although the plaits could, of course, be extensions. Now yesterday we were talking about court musicians in the early 16th Century, and the day before I said that I thought that parts of the palace dated to the same period. However, as far as I can tell, reticulated headdresses like this date to the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries. And that might not be a scarf, but an attachment to the hat – it does look to be more or less the same colour as the hat band. If it is, then it is a liripipe, an item of fashion that women adopted from the male chaperon at some time in the 1440s – still a long time before the 16th Century. The decorations – i.e. the tear-drop gold beads hanging from the gold band – are not a feature of European dress though. Basically, if this is an early 16th Century painting, as other indications suggest, then with these two hats the artist is saying, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ just like the opening of Star Wars. So maybe we should be looking for a young rebel from out in the sticks fighting against an evil empire…

Meanwhile, thank you to all those of you who came to Going for Gold 2 yesterday. Both talks were sold out (hoorah! thank you again!) and there are just a few tickets left for next Monday’s lectures. As well as those, I’ve just updated the diary page with other talks that are coming up over the next few weeks and months, in case you are interested.


Lent 6

Whatever is going on, it is clearly important – a trumpeter is heralding important news. Given the shadows on the slopes – and the blue remembered hills in the distance – he leans out from the very palace we saw yesterday. Stepping up onto a parapet with his left foot, he rests his left hand on his knee. His right arm stretches straight to support the long, single arc of his instrument, which, in a subtle, but charmingly artistic detail, echoes the curve of the track leading through the landscape beyond what must be the city wall. The musician looks over his right shoulder at something – or someone – just to our left, as his cheeks puff out to sound the trumpet. His dress is some way between exotic – with a striped scarf going round his left shoulder and tied under his right arm, and a bright yellow, full-sleeved tunic – and standard, however bright the broad-brimmed red hat.

Two weapons – a halberd and some form of spear – are held by people who must be in between us and the musician. Whatever the event, ceremonial or ‘actual’, it requires the presence of guards, but as the two weapons are different, and not held upright, I would think that this is not a formal occasion.

What most intrigues me about today’s detail is the fact that the artist has painted a black trumpeter. Given that there are so few people of colour represented in paintings in the National Gallery (so now you know where it is!) I am amazed that I only became aware of this man’s existence when I began looking at this work in preparation for this Lenten series. But then, that is the value of looking at anything without preconceptions. If you think you know what is there, as I thought I did, you only see what you expect. By taking the details out of context, as we are, you get more of a chance to see everything that is needed to make a painting work. As my PhD supervisor once advised me (it may have been the only advice I got), keep looking until you’ve seen everything, and can’t possibly see any more. And then look again.

As it happens, there were a number of black musicians in Western Europe in the 16th Century, one of the most notable being John Blanke, a trumpeter in the courts of Henry VII and VIII. He is the only black Tudor for whom we have an identifiable image, and we know enough about him to know that he was well-paid, and well-respected. In 1512 he successfully petitioned Henry VIII for a promotion, and his wage was doubled. In the same year he got married, and the king gave him a wedding present: a new suit of clothes, including a hat and a violet velvet gown. There are two images of him that survive, dating from 1511, in the Westminster Tournament Roll, held by the College of Arms.

If you want to know more about him, you can find almost everything there is from the Historic Royal Palaces website, on a page entitled John Blanke: A black musician at the Tudor court. Or, for that matter, you could read the entry on the same website by independent art historian Michael Ohajuru, on The Black Presence at the Tudor court.

The English Court wasn’t the only one to have black musicians. I’ll leave you for today with a tapestry illustrating a wrestling match during the infamous Field of the Cloth of Gold, a meeting between Henry VIII and François I of France, which took place in 1520. I can’t for the life of me work out who owns this tapestry now – it was sold at Sotheby’s in 2014, and may have passed through Christie’s four years later. However, it is due to feature in an exhibition at Hampton Court between 1 April and 5 September this year to mark the 501st anniversary of the event (yes, a year late because… well, you know). At the top left is another black trumpeter, with the fleur-de-lis on his banner, as if François I, watching the bout at the top right, was all-too conscious of the need to keep up with the Tudors. Maybe our musician is playing for yet another monarch…


Lent 5

It turns out we have a sizeable palace, built from stone, and decorated with architectural detailing and sculptures, all of which imply wealth and status. The arcade at the bottom right of the building is lofty and spacious, and the tall, thin windows at the top left suggest that there is a grand interior hall. Whoever this palace belongs to, they clearly want to impress.

The architecture itself is giving off different messages. The broadly-curving, round-topped arches look more Romanesque than Renaissance, and are reminiscent of the type of architecture that Northern European artists (by which I mean German, Flemish or Netherlandish generally) would use to imply ‘pre-Christian’. The sort of buildings, in fact, that we saw in Jan van Gossaert’s Adoration of the Magi (c. 1510-15), if you were around before Christmas, and following my Advent series. Above what appears to be the doorway, at the bottom left, the rounded arch is topped by an ogee arch – i.e. an arch made of two mirror-image ogees, s-shaped, curved sections of masonry, consisting of a concave and a convex element. In this case, each ogee is a cyma reversa, as the convex element (of stonework) is above the concave, relative to the inside of the arch. At the top of the arch is a capstone, which here is topped with a stylised lily. This, when combined with the undulating leaf forms which top the ogee, is common in Venetian architecture in the 15th Century, but does occur elsewhere as well. Meanwhile, down the side of the building there is a more regular structure, with large, rectangular windows, including one in the pointed gable. These upper stories project slightly from the lower levels, and this section of the building, to my eye, at least, has a more 16th Century feel.

The sculptures also give off different messages. The larger of the two presents a standing male figure in a long robe, wearing a cowl, and some form of hat – although not the sort that makes him appear monastic. Next to him is a figure in a rather undignified posture. Rather than the elegant, upright stance of his neighbour, he is all angles, the posture suggesting the character of the person represented. It doesn’t help, to be honest, that as he bends down his buttocks are turned towards us, and surprisingly (under any circumstance, but especially as the sculpture is at such a distance), there is more than a hint of testicle. The character depicted is clearly not one to be respected by right-minded people. With right arm bent and left fully extended, he could easily be an archer, although any bow, had it existed, is missing – but that would happen easily with any stone sculpture open to the elements. He would appear to be shooting directly at the other sculpture, though quite what he is aiming at I shall leave you to decide.

His bow and arrow may have gone, but he still has a sword and buckler – a circular shield, common in the medieval period. The sword does not appear to be European. It is curved in a broad arc, the end being cut across in a straight line leading to a sharp point: it is a scimitar. Originating in the 9th century in central Europe, scimitars were perhaps best known as the swords faced by the crusaders, wielded by ‘the Turk’, or members of the Ottoman Empire. It is another suggestion that this building is not Christian, however familiar most of the individual features might be. But to find out who it belongs to, we may have to wait several days, or even weeks…


Lent 4

Well, it’s not all bad! After yesterday’s lowering clouds, the bright blue sky couldn’t be more welcome. The sun is shining, casting shadows on the pale green grass – although I’m not entirely convinced they are being cast in the right direction, given that, judging by the light on the different facets of the buildings, the light should be coming from the left. Having said that, on closer inspection, the lines of shadow are modelling the undulation of the hillside. The leaves of the tree are pale green – so it could be spring, or early summer. But beware, flowers can appear at any time in a painting, and so can leaves. As we are potentially dealing with the illustration of a text in which several people come back from the dead, new life would be valued in all its forms, and could be symbolic rather than naturalistic. And while we’re looking at it, you can see from the horizontal fluctuations in intensity running through the branches and leaves, that the tree was painted on top of the broader brushstrokes of the sky.

We’re not in the countryside, as the three previous details might have suggested. There are some elements, at least, of the built environment, solidly painted, and showing clear signs of perspective, although whether this is a rigidly determined single vanishing point perspective, or something approximated by eye, would probably be impossible to determine from the fragmentary evidence here. Nevertheless, this is some form of linear perspective, describing the way in which objects get smaller the further away they get, and parallel lines, leading away from the picture plane, converge. Even if the artist did use single vanishing point perspectives, a single system wouldn’t apply to the two buildings which are just visible, because they are not lined up. The front face of the one on the right doesn’t appear to be parallel to the picture plane, although the one on the left, from the sliver we can see, does. So the orthogonals of the two buildings – the lines leading into the distance, which, in a ‘classic’ perspectival scheme, would be at right-angles to the picture plane – would recede to different points.

In addition to linear perspective, the painter also knows about aerial, or atmospheric perspective: the effect that the air, or atmosphere, has on the way we see things in the distance. They look paler, and slightly less distinct, as if the air itself, or any dust or mist in the air, were getting in the way. As well as being paler, and less distinct, the distant hills also look blue, almost as if the very sky has got in the way. It helps that, for most people, the colour blue tends to recede visually, so blue can, in itself, look more distant. Atmospheric perspective was known to the Romans, but none of the relevant murals had been discovered in time for the artists of the Early Renaissance to learn from them: they saw it themselves, looking at the world around them. Its first use is usually credited to Masaccio, painting in the Brancacci Chapel in the 1420s. However, in his relief of St George and the Dragon, carved almost a decade earlier, Donatello clearly shows his understanding of the phenomenon in the wispy depiction of the trees that appear as if sketched onto the marble in the background. And then, of course, van Eyck would employ it to magnificent effect, and with far greater refinement than Masaccio, in The Adoration of the Sacred Lamb from The Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432. I’m going to include a detail of it from one of my favourite websites, Closer to Van Eyck, simply because I can. Our painting can only have been completed after this.

Jan van Eyck, Detail from The Adoration of the Sacred Lamb, 1432. St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent.


Lent 3

Don’t know why
There’s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather
Since my man and I ain’t together
Keeps raining all the time

When Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler wrote Stormy Weather in 1933 they probably weren’t thinking about the Pathetic Fallacy. The idea that the weather, and nature as a whole, could share the same emotions as us, the human occupants of the planet, was, of course, particularly prevalent for the Romantics in the first half of the 19th Century, when it wasn’t uncommon for clouds to be lonely, especially given that, not so far away, daffodils were clearly so gregarious. The term itself, ‘the Pathetic Fallacy’, was coined by none other than John Ruskin, artist, author and all-round thinker. I’d call him a Renaissance Man if he hadn’t been such an advocate of the pre-Raphaelites (so, an ‘Early Renaissance Man’?), or for that matter, of the Neo-Gothic. ‘Gothic’ was, for him, the only truly Christian form of architecture. But I digress. I had started, though, so I’ll finish. Ruskin introduced the term in Volume 3 of his Modern Painters, published in 1856, which is, I suspect, a little late to be relevant to our Lent painting, given that I have already suggested that the naturalistic details and particular form of modelling in light and shade suggest that it is a work from the 15th or 16th Centuries.

Having said that, I can’t help thinking that these clouds look a little ominous – i.e. ‘giving the worrying impression that something bad is going to happen’ – from ‘omen’, of course. Now, when we say that clouds look ominous, I think we usually mean that it is going to rain. It is possible, though, that this particular meteorological phenomenon could portend some other ‘bad’ event. The Pathetic Fallacy wasn’t the exclusive reserve of the Romantics, after all, going back centuries and lasting – via 1933 and ‘Stormy Weather’ – up until the present day. Here is a completely unnecessary list of the Top Weather Songs of the 21st Century, just to prove the point. Or maybe, as far as our painting is concerned, this is just what the weather was like when the artist went to work.  


Lent 2

Three more plants today – and we shall ignore the delicate black slipper and the cloth of gold hem, although the scale at which they are depicted does suggest that we are not looking at a landscape painting, even if the landscape could still play a significant part.

On the left is a broad-leaf plantain, Plantago major, which became known among the Native American peoples as ‘the white man’s footprint,’ because it followed the puritan colonials wherever they went. It was one of the first invasive species to reach the Americas after that most invasive of species, the European. As ‘plantago’ means ‘sole of the foot’ the nickname is entirely apt. It thrives in disturbed soil, and will grow almost anywhere – but especially along roads and paths – and as a result it is symbolic of the ‘well-trodden path’ to Jesus. So a religious setting for our painting seem likely – although it could be just a naturalistic observation.

In the middle is a wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca). This is not especially accurate in its details, but the division of the leaf into three and the five white petals of the flower make this identification secure. Any mention of the number three will inevitably call to mind the Holy Trinity, and the strawberry is also noted for being sweet, but having no thorns or hard stone. As such it wasn’t affected by God’s warning to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit that, from that point on, the ground would be cursed: ‘Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee’ (Genesis 3:18). Somehow the strawberry missed out on this this curse, and so it is seen as a pre-lapsarian fruit (i.e. from before the fall), a symbol of purity and perfect righteousness.

The final plant is a violet, Viola odorata. Even if it isn’t in bloom, the heart-shaped leaves are a giveaway. And guess what? Violets also have a religious symbolism. The flowers appear to look down, as if they do not want to appear too bold: they are a symbol of humility, and specifically, the humility of the Virgin Mary. Not only did St Bernard of Clairvaux  (1090-1153) describe Mary as ‘the violet of humility’, but the colour of the flower is not dissimilar to the deep blue of the ultramarine in which she is so often dressed. You can see this colouristic echo in the detail below from The Wilton Diptych in which the verdant greenery and scattered flowers (accurately depicted, although not to scale) represent the heavenly paradise.

The Wilton Diptych is of course the subject of my next talk in the series Going for Gold, which picks up again on Monday (22 February) after a week’s break. There are still a few spaces left for the talk, which I will give twice, at 2pm and 6pm – follow any of the links for more information. In the meantime, it does look as if, for Lent, we do have a religious painting on our hands. However, as all three of these plants are still very common (in the right places), I’m still not 100% sure that this isn’t just naturalism being employed to draw us into some other type of story. We’ll see…



It is the first day of Lent, and this year I will be giving up abstinence. Well, I say, ‘this year’. To be honest, it’s a sacrifice I’ve been making for the past two decades at least, but there seems no reason to give up giving up now – so much has been given up this year already. Instead, I will perform an act of penance, which will be to write one or two paragraphs (but I hope no more!) about a single detail from a single painting every day of Lent. Inevitably this means that that your penance will be to get an email from me every day. Feel free to delete or ignore at will! As with Advent, I won’t say what it is. The painting is not as familiar, but still one I have enjoyed talking about in the past. If – and when – you recognise it, please do let me know. But try not to name it! Knowing me, it will become all too clear all too soon.

This is a columbine, or aquilegia – Aquilegia vulgaris, to give it its Latin name. It is a perennial herb from the family Ranunculaceae (the ‘buttercup’ family) which is found in the Northern hemisphere growing in meadows and woodlands. As a relatively common plant, it is regularly depicted in art: the artists painted what they knew, after all. Not only that, but it was the most common of plants which became symbolic. It was widely believed that God had made the world specifically for humans, and had also made everything in it to remind us of the fact – so there should be something to learn from everything we see. It could therefore be relevant that the two common names of this plant are both related to birds. ‘Aquilegia’ comes from ‘aquila’, or eagle, because the petals of the flowers were said to look like talons. At the other end of the ‘hawk/dove’ spectrum, ‘columbine’ means ‘dove’ – because the flower as a whole was said to look like five doves flying in formation. It is this aspect of the flower which is important: it is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

The naturalistic representation of flora and fauna in Western art became more common towards the end of the 14th Century, and is especially favoured in the 15th and early 16th Centuries (and later, of course, in still life painting), which gives us a (very) rough time frame for our painting. However, the leaves are subtly shaded, the tonal values giving us a good idea of their three-dimensional form. This degree of naturalism is seen little before the 1420s, although it does exist, but nevertheless, we should definitely be thinking about the 15th or 16th Centuries. As a reference point, Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432, has a plethora of spectacularly naturalistic plants. Given that the flower is symbolic of the Holy Spirit, then this could well be a religious painting (it is Lent, after all), but despite this, it could be a naturalistic detail in a portrait, or mythological painting, I suppose. Let’s face it, Titian included one in the bottom right-hand corner of Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-23), next to some horsetail (Equisetum arvense) and an iris (Iris graminea) – see below.  As for the other things we see in today’s detail (see above) – well, they don’t do well out of being removed from their context. We’ll come back to them some other time, I presume, and in future posts I’ll just ignore everything that doesn’t seem relevant!


123 – Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, c. 1660. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

After spending a lot of time – in my head, at least – in medieval Italy and 16th Century Europe as a whole, I am looking forward to a foray into the 17th Century, and one of my favourite artists: Johannes Vermeer. In fact, I will be talking about him twice over the next couple of months, a wonderful coincidence about which I am very happy. The first time will be this Wednesday, 17 February, at 6.00pm. I will focus on the paintings in which Vermeer depicts other paintings, and what we can learn from their inclusion. Entitled The Art within the Art, there is still time to book for the talk with Art History Abroad – click on the link for more details. The second will be on Vermeer’s relationship to music, and I’ll tell you more about it another day, if that becomes relevant. As The Milkmaid includes neither paintings nor music, I thought I would take this opportunity to reacquaint myself with what I find to be a disarmingly beautiful image.

I’ve edited the last sentence several times, because I can’t decide whether this painting is disarmingly beautiful. Maybe it’s beautifully disarming – and I’m sure there’s a difference. But why is it either (or both) of these things? I suppose because it is a painting that, for whatever reason, I do find very beautiful, and this always makes me try to analyse where that beauty lies – a process which can all-too-easily kill the simple pleasures of looking. It is disarming, I think, because at first glance it looks so simple, and yet it is hypnotically compelling. Vermeer paints everything with such apparent honesty and conviction that we remain convinced that there must be something more profound going on than the simple act of pouring milk. To try and work out if there is, I’m going to start at the top and work my way down.

I’ve always loved the way Vermeer paints walls. It’s never a case of getting out the roller and covering the whole surface with white matt. What we see is subtly modulated, with every square centimetre differentiated from every other. The setting – a corner of a room with a window on the left – was not his invention: it had already been used by artists for about 10 years by the time he picked up on it, it seems, and from then on he used it regularly, often returning to the same, or similar, corners. With the window a little way in from the back wall, the corner itself is left in shadow. The light passes through the glass at a diagonal, and illuminates the back wall away from the corner, the illumination getting ever brighter as we move to the right. Two nails are driven into the wall, and the higher of the two, further to the right, is in the light. It casts the sort of diffuse shadow that suggests this is large window, far higher than the part of it we can see in the painting. On the left a wicker basket – used for shopping, presumably – hangs from a similar nail, with a highly-polished copper pail hanging from another on the back wall. Above the basket we see what is probably a small picture: it’s too high to be a mirror. To the left of the nail from which the basket is hanging one of the panes of glass has been broken – there could easily be a a breeze coming through – and in the pane below this the glass is cracked, with the broken edge catching the light. If you go down one more pane, and two to the left, another of the small plates of glass threatens to fall into the room. The attention to detail is breathtaking.

The fall of light from left to right illuminates the maid’s face, showing its bold, simple forms: a down-to-earth presence, whose broad features would have been interpreted as indicative of her lowly status. The light also charts the very specific folds of her simple linen headdress, especially to the left of her face, where the sharp fold at the level of her forehead gradually opens out, so that, as it gets lower, less light falls on the fabric. As the hem curves forward the lower edge is left in shadow.

The light is one of the features which creates the attention-grabbing boldness of the central figure, and renders her monumental. Her right shoulder (on our left), the top of her right arm, and especially the back of her right hand – the one holding the handle of the jug – are brilliantly illuminated, making them stand out against the shadows on the wall. On our right, the shadow which forms the curve of her left shoulder, and the right side of her left arm, stand out against the brilliantly illuminated wall behind. Vermeer enhances this by painting the thinnest of white lines around the edge of the sleeve as it comes down from the shoulder. The reversed contrasts of light and shade push her towards us, making her more immediate, more entirely present. Not only that, but the perspective pulls our eyes towards her. The horizontals of the window frame and the leading which holds the glass in place form orthogonals receding towards a vanishing point, placed at the crook of the maid’s right arm. As the vanishing point is theoretically our point of view, this means that our attention is focussed on the action of holding the jug and pouring.  

The colour is also subtly vital. Her bodice is yellow, and she wears a blue apron. For me this is still a surprising colour for an apron (even given that I know nothing of the history of aprons), especially as Vermeer has used that most prized of pigments, ultramarine. The bodice uses lead-tin yellow, another good, traditional pigment, but nowhere near as expensive. For the sleeves – which are rolled up – he mixes the two to create green. It is almost a lesson in basic colour skills: yellow mixed with blue makes green – and in this case, the specific yellow of her bodice mixed with the distinctive blue of her apron makes this particular green.

The attention that the maid gives to the act of pouring also demands our attention: if she takes it this seriously, then so should we. This is not a haphazard act, but a careful, determined action, the support given to the milk jug by her left hand helping to make sure the liquid flows at precisely the right speed.

The measured flow of the milk has made people think that she is doing something specific, and one suggestion is that she is preparing a bread pudding. There is plenty of bread on the table, after all, and some of the pieces next to her bowl appear to have been broken. You have to put in exactly the right amount of milk, apparently, or the pudding would either be too soggy, or the bread would dry out and become too hard and crunchy. This is simple fare, made from wholesome ingredients with good honest labour. Again the light plays a major part, showing us the deep, sculptural folds in the sleeves and apron, and the form and textures of the bread and basket – and yet it does not do so with the highly focussed detail of a fijnschilder – or ‘fine painter’ – the name for artists like Gerrit Dou whose every surface is an almost microscopic exploration of precise surface textures, and yet not a single brushstroke is visible. As if he were a precursor of Seurat and the divisionists, Vermeer builds these objects up through a myriad of dots and dabs of paint. You don’t believe me? Look at this.

When talking about Vermeer it is hard to get away from the theories which try to explain his peculiarly focussed vision by suggesting that he used a camera obscura – basically a form of pinhole camera that projects an image onto a surface and allows you to trace the outlines. However, this would only provide the outlines, and not the colours or textures. Admittedly, the images a camera obscura produces can sometimes include some of the effects he uses – the bright, blurred highlights, for example. Although, if you think about it, you only get bright highlights on shiny objects, not on matt loaves of bread. This may well be the sort of effect you could see with a camera obscura, and that may be where he got the idea – but he would never have seen the particular highlights painted here. They are part of the magic of the image, and create the wonder – and some of the texture – of this fresh bread, the bounty of this work-a-day basket. As it happens, the construction of the perspective also suggests that he didn’t use a camera obscura: it isn’t traced, but drawn. Technical examination has revealed a pin hole in the canvas itself, at the crook of her right arm – the vanishing point. Vermeer would have inserted a pin, and tied a piece of thread to it. This could be covered in something like charcoal dust, pulled taut, and then snapped against the canvas to ‘draw’ lines onto it. It was a common way of working out perspective, as the lines drawn inevitably lead to the vanishing point.

When we get down to the bottom of the painting the lesson in colour continues. Under the apron the maid’s skirt is red – so she is wearing muted versions of the three primary colours, yellow, blue and red. This particular shade also harmonises well with the brick-red floor, and the ceramic pot, one of the truly revealing details in this painting. It is part of a footwarmer – a wooden box, with a perforated top – and the pot would have held hot coals. A practical object perhaps, given that we are presumably in a cold kitchen, ideal for keeping and using dairy products, although it is very small compared to the size of the room. In any case, footwarmers were used when seated. Behind it is the wainscoting, made of Delft tiles – local produce, of course, as it was in Delft that Vermeer lived and worked. Three tiles are visible, and the imagery of two of them can be read. On the left is cupid, wings to the left, firing his bow and arrow to the right, and to the right of the footwarmer, there is a man with a walking stick. Are these relevant? Probably. Have a look at this picture from the Sinnepoppen, an emblem book published by Roemer Visscher in 1614.

Any emblem has three elements, ‘pictura’, ‘inscriptio’ and ‘subscriptio’ – or picture, heading, and explanation. For the title of his book, Visscher invented a new word – where ‘sinne’ means the ‘sense’ of the emblem, and ‘poppe’ means the image. By creating a word that combines two elements from which we can determine the meaning, he is echoing the function of an emblem precisely. Neither the pictura nor the inscriptio gives the full sense on its own – they have to be considered together. The relationship between them – what, together, they mean – is explained in the subscriptio. In the example above, ‘Mignon des Dames’ means “the ladies’ favourite” – as in sweetheart, or lover. The subscriptio goes on to explain that modern ladies love nothing so much as a foot warmer, as it provides them with constant warmth. Any man who wanted to pay her court would find himself playing second fiddle to this household object. They can be seen often in Dutch 17th Century genre paintings, but even Visscher’s explanation doesn’t fully account for their presence. That is because Visscher wants you to be as clever and inventive as himself, and is always expecting you to make connections and take the meaning further. Think about it: when seated, the hot coals would fill the user’s skirts with warmth. Presumably, any potential lover would have prove as reliable if he wanted any degree of success. Combined with the image of cupid shooting an arrow towards the source of heat, the implications are that our maid could easily be the subject of inappropriate attentions, welcome or otherwise. It’s worthwhile bearing in mind that it was usually assumed that milkmaids were sexually forthcoming.

Having said all that, from this point on you can make up your own mind. And that’s not because I don’t want to tell you what is going on here, or because I don’t know what is going on here, but because Vermeer’s great genius includes the ability to leave things open. Is it coincidence, for example, that her skirt plays with the same tonalities as the earthy floor and the glowing coals, which we can imagine but not see? Does it imply a heat within? Or does the fact that she is standing, at work, rather than sitting down enjoying the welcome updraft, suggest that she is a figure of virtue, rather than potential quarry, worthy of pursuit? It’s possible that the very title of this painting is incorrect, as it happens. A milkmaid would work outside, with the cows, milking. The woman in the painting is really a kitchen maid (although in some households they did double up, apparently). But then, kitchen maids often had the same reputation. I cannot get away from the care with which she pours, and I suspect that Vermeer is questioning the assumptions we make about the people, and objects, depicted by his contemporaries. The first assumption is that milkmaids – or kitchen maids, for that matter – were bound to be ‘up for it’. After all, in this case, she seems entirely focussed on her work. The tile with cupid and the footwarmer might imply sexual impropriety – but do either have any effect here? In other hands the jug itself might seem suggestive. Artists like Jan Steen regularly show women holding vessels with open apertures towards men who reciprocate with any number of phallic equivalents, from bulging bagpipes to pistols cocked. And yet here the act of spilling – which could be a sign of incontinence – of sexual incontinence, that is – is entirely controlled, and measured. If our maid represents anything, then maybe, for Vermeer, she could be a modern-day Temperance. Compare her with this print by Jan Saenredam, made in Haarlem in 1593, based on a design by Hendrick Goltzius.

This is the most common representation of Temperance – although not that we saw painted by Giotto, who has her sheathing her sword (see Day 59 – Virtues vs Vices), or for that matter, the version painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in his Allegory of Good Government, in which she watches the first known image of an hour glass. In Saenredam’s personification she carefully pours liquid from one vessel to another – usually interpreted as watering down the wine, a true sign of Temperance, as opposed to complete abstinence. This careful, measured pouring is precisely what our maid is doing. And if she is Temperance, then maybe we could interpret another of Vermeer’s paintings, Woman Holding a Balance, as a personification of Justice. The comparison here is also from the series designed by Goltzius in 1593, but this time executed by different student, Jacob Matham. I don’t have time to say more about this painting now, unfortunately, but I will discuss it on Wednesday when I explore The Art with the Art.

Before then, though, what conclusions can I draw about The Milkmaid? Is she awaiting an assignation, or, conversely, distracting herself from temptation by concentrating on her work? Is she a figure of virtue, expounding the positive values of honest labour? Could she be a personification of Temperance? Vermeer’s focus, his attention to detail, the care with which he has structured the composition, combined colours, balanced tones, and modulated light, not to mention the dignity he gives to his subject, an apparently commonplace maid made monumental, suggests that there must be more than meets the eye. What is this painting about? What is going on? Well, there is a woman pouring milk. What more do you need?


122 – Justice for Venice

Jacobello del Fiore, Justice enthroned between the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, 1421. Gallerie Accademia, Venice.

Great news! The Accademia in Venice, which houses today’s painting, is reopening on Monday 8 February, and the Vatican museums are already open – so things are looking up. Soon we will be able to get back and see things in the flesh, but for now, we will still be online. I’m really looking forward to my new, independent venture, which, like the Accademia, ‘opens’ on Monday: thank you so much to all of you who have already signed up. It is still possible to book for Monday’s talk, or for all three talks at the reduced rate, and will be until around noon on Monday, I suppose. Just click on Going for Gold for more details. Meanwhile, another glorious painting featuring a brilliant use of gold to get us in the mood.

This has long been my first stopping point whenever I visit the Accademia in Venice, whether I’m taking a group or heading in on my own. It is at the top of the stairs as you enter, and all too easy to miss, because it is behind you on the wall as you sweep into the vast hall, which is a surviving element of the Scuola della Misericordia – the Confraternity of Mercy – which was converted into the city’s art gallery under the aegis of Napoleon. The painting itself comes from the Doge’s Palace, and was painted for the one of the judicial offices. It is both signed and dated to the left of Justice’s sword: ‘Jacobellus de Fiore pinxit 1421’– although, as you’ll see from the next image, when the painting was restored a few years back it turned out that this version of the signature had been repainted. The original name and date were still there, though, underneath the repainting. According to myth, Venice was founded on the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) in the year 421, which implies that this painting was commissioned to celebrate the first millennium of the maritime republic’s existence. It is a triptych, of sorts, although not an altarpiece. The secular virtue of Justice, one of the four cardinal virtues (see Day 59 – Virtues vs Vices), and the one most valued by Venice, is flanked by two angels.

In this painting Jacobello shows himself to be one of the great exponents of the ‘International Style’ of painting, which swept, as its name suggest, across the whole of Europe in the last quarter of the 14th century and first quarter of the 15th. Elements of the style include a rich use of material – and we see that in the elaborate carving and colouring of the frame, not to mention the apparent encrustations of gold – and the depiction of rich materials – the wonderful red and blue fabrics, for example. Although it can include naturalistic details (the lions aren’t bad for the 15th century), overall the effect is more decorative, and there is often a fascination, as there is here, with hems forming elaborately scrolling lines, which pattern the surface rather than describe the naturalistic fall of the fabric. They are often called ‘calligraphic’ lines, as they are so much like some of the forms of decorative handwriting, or calligraphy. Even the scrolls show this format, although I won’t bother you with the translations (which means… I haven’t been able to track them down). Justice carries her standard attributes of scales and sword, and, although she is ‘enthroned’ no seat is visible. She may well be perched on the backs of the lions. Their presence is the first hint that all is not as it seems in this apparently straightforward painting. Lions are commonplace in Venice, you might say, but you are thinking of the winged lion of St Mark: these have no wings (but you’re not entirely wrong – the echo of St Mark’s beast can never be entirely forgotten in Venice). The lion is also one of the symbols often used by another cardinal virtue – Fortitude. This could also be relevant. But they are also indicative of the Throne of Solomon, known as the sedes sapientiae – the Throne of Wisdom – one of the titles given to the Virgin Mary. And if we remember that Venice was founded on the Feast of the Annunciation, maybe we should bear that in mind. Or am I getting ahead of myself? As we look at the painting, on the right is the archangel Gabriel, and on the left, Michael. Let’s have a look at him first.

Michael is the divine representation of Justice. He is supposed to weigh the souls at the Last Judgement, and holds the same attributes as Lady Justice: the sword and the scales. He also holds a scroll in supplication to the virtue to ‘reward and punish according to merit and to commend the purged souls to the benign scales’ (that was the one I found). At his feet cowers a rather glorious dragon. We have a tendency to understand that, in the battle with the rebel angels, St Michael defeated Lucifer – which would be correct – however, the Book of Revelation (12:7-9) says,

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

The text makes it clear that the dragon – or serpent – was the devil. Hence the dragon in this painting, and others, although elsewhere it can look a lot more human. It also explains the frequent confusion between Sts Michael and George, although it’s easy to tell the difference: Michael has wings, George doesn’t.

OK, so this isn’t the best photo, but it does give a far better sense of St Michael’s glorious armour. Like many other elements in the painting – the hilt of Justice’s sword, her breastplate, and the beam of her scales, for example – Jacobello is using a technique called pastiglio, the intention of which was to make it look like the objects were solid gold. Like the Duccio I was talking about earlier in the week (121 – A golden girl goes missing), this was painted on wooden panel, and prepared with gesso. Although the gesso is usually smoothed to a marble-like surface, it can also be modelled in three dimensions: it is effectively plaster, after all. This is what is done with pastiglio work. We think of paintings as being two dimensional, while sculptures occupy the full three dimensions. However, most paintings occupy depth as well, even if that is only because of the frame. For Jacobello, in this work, a lot of the surface of the painting, including all of St Michael’s armour, with the skirt and epaulettes, the front edges of his wings, and his halo, is in fact an elaborate relief sculpture.

Even given the brilliance of the gold, Jacobello manages to balance the bling with an original colour palette. Michael’s cloak, which wraps around his left wrist in full International Style splendour, is olive green, lined with a red lake. Somehow he manages to harmonize this with the graduation of the feathers on the wings, which move from cream, through mushroom and a greenish beige to salmon, vermillion and burgundy.

Rather gloriously, this is exactly the same palette as the dragon’s diaphanous, frayed, vegetal wings – or it would be, if only I could find better photos! The benighted creature flails helplessly with two of its clawed feet, hissing through its long snout, all too proud of its fine set of teeth. Like the gilded crest, they are built up in pastiglio – a rare example where the sculptural element is not gold, almost as if Jacobello had imbedded real teeth into the surface of the painting. And just in case we weren’t sure – and in case the dragon needed to know – the words ‘St Michael’ are painted just below the fluttering cape. So far, so good. Unless you’re a dragon.

Now compare these two images. I have already mentioned that Justice was highly valued in Venice, and indeed, it was the most highly valued of the seven common contenders. So it is reassuring to see another, very similar representation attached to the Doge’s Palace. OK, so she doesn’t have the scales, but as she’s having to hold her own scroll, we shouldn’t hold that against her. The carving is attributed to Filippo Calendario, said to be the architect of the palace itself, and dated to the 1340s. There’s only one small problem. On either side of the figure’s head, you may be able to read the word ‘Venecia’. This is not Justice – this is a personification of Venice. Or rather, Venice is the personification of Justice. As for the scroll, the inscription translates as, ‘Strong and just, enthroned I put the furies of the sea beneath my feet’. If you want to be sure about ‘the furies of the sea,’ I should to show you the whole relief.

You can see the waves rolling underneath the throne – above the head of yet another lion – and left and right are two of the ‘furies’ – the anger of the sea and an enemy of the state – both of which have been trampled underfoot. The inscriptions behind her head and on the scroll tell us that this is ‘Venice’, and that she is ‘just’. Maybe, rather than simply calling our painting ‘Justice’, we should call it ‘Justice/Venice’? But, as she is ‘strong and just’, and given that lions are often an attribute of Fortitude, I suppose ‘Justice/Venice/Fortitude’ might be a better fit. Oh, and then there was that reference to the sedes sapientiae – although ‘Justice/Venice/Fortitude/Wisdom’ does seem to be pushing it. Maybe we should move rapidly on to Gabriel, with whom we are probably all more familiar.

This is truly one of the most luscious images of the archangel I know. He moves (unusually) from right to left, cloak and skirts fluttering in the breeze, the pale outside of the cloak – a faded pink, I suspect – echoing the tautological scrolling of the scroll, and contrasting strongly with the vermillion lining, to emphasize the calligraphic hemline. The scroll and cloak are also echoing the form of the wings above, curving up and then down to a point, while the wings themselves heighten the colours of Gabriel’s garb: the yellow is ‘lifted’ to gold, and the vermillion taken down to a burgundy similar to that seen on St Michael. And at the very top, the suggestion that these are peacock’s wings.

How do we know this is Gabriel? Well, he holds the lily, the sign of Mary’s purity, and speaks as he would to the Annunciate herself. Indeed, if we didn’t know that that he was announcing something to Justice, and if this was the only part of the painting to survive, we would assume this it came from a depiction of The Annunciation. If it were, his scroll would say ‘Ave grazia plena: Dominus tecum’ (Luke 1:28, in the Vulgate) – ‘Hail, though are art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee’, according to the King James Version. However, what it actually says is, ‘My word announces the virgin birth of peace among men’ (I got a bit obsessed and finally managed to track this down). It is a deliberate allusion to the Annunciation.

And remember, Justice is sitting on the sedes sapientiae, the Throne of Solomon, flanked by two lions, just as the Virgin Mary does in the National Gallery’s earliest painting, Margarito d’Arezzo’s Virgin and Child Enthroned, dating to the 1260s. Venice was founded, according to the myth I mentioned earlier, on the Feast of the Annunciation, in the year 421. One thousand years later, this painting recalls the event, eliding it with the Annunciation, and interprets the foundation of Venice as the foundation of peace among men. The Venetian myth continues: Venice was never invaded – it was inviolate – and so it was a virgin state. So I’m afraid it is not as simple as saying that this image represents ‘Justice/Venice/Fortitude/Wisdom’, as it also represents the Virgin Mary. Let this be a lesson to anyone asking about symbols. ‘What does that mean’ is one of the most frequently asked questions about objects in medieval and renaissance art, and rightly so. ‘Does it mean (a) or (b)?’ would be the next question. Well, sometimes it means (a) and (b) – although sometimes it means neither. The object just fits in, making the image more believable, and more real: it is purely observation to enhance the naturalism. However, in this case, it means (a) and (b) and (c) and (d) and (e). And some – we haven’t mentioned the ‘Peace’ of La Serenissima yet…

There is another way of thinking about it, though. We could see it as a representation of ‘Justice/Venice/Fortitude/Wisdom/Mary’, as all of these elements are included. Or, we could see it as the locals would have done: this is a representation of ‘Venice’. The qualities which are wrapped up into this one personification are all the things that Venice was supposed to be, and all of the qualities that are displayed in the buildings around the Piazzetta and the multiple functions of the Doge’s Palace: Justice/Venice/Fortitude/Wisdom/Mary could be seen as equivalent to Courts/Council Chambers/Prison/Library/St Mark’s. As it happens, I’ve said this before, but in a different way, illustrating the ideas with a painting by Canaletto: head to Day 65 – Venice if you want to see how that works. And if it’s all too much to cope with, just enjoy the rich colours, the elaborate folds, and above all, the gold – look at the sun on Justice’s breastplate, shedding light onto the world, for example. That’s one of the attributes of ‘Truth’, by the way…

The Venetian Republic was truly remarkable, and clearly thought very highly of itself. Of course, Venice is still remarkable, and let us hope it longs continues to be so. I’m really looking forward to Jane da Mosto’s lecture for my friends at Art History Abroad this Wednesday, Caring for Venice – sadly I can’t watch it live, but they (unlike me) record their talks, so I’ll watch it later. If you’re interested in what is happening to save this, the most remarkable of cities, it would be an ideal opportunity to do so. Not only that, but a percentage of the ticket price will be heading towards the charity with which Jane (wife of Francesco da Mosto, Venetian architect and T.V. presenter) is involved: ‘We are here Venice’ (I think the name loses something in translation). But before then we launch Going for Gold: I hope to see you on Monday!


121 – A golden girl goes missing

Duccio, The Virgin and Child with Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea, and Patriarchs and Prophets, about 1312-15 (?). National Gallery, London.

First thing’s first – I’m giving my own talks! Rather than sheltering under the umbrella of another institution or organisation I’m doing my own thing. More of that after Duccio, but if you can’t wait that long, head to the diary page of my website for news of my series of lectures Going for Gold – which, as you will see, has determined my choice of painting for today. I was lecturing about Ambrogio Lorenzetti last week, and someone suggested a lecture on Duccio, and although I’m not quite going that far, I did want another look at this glorious triptych. It is a small devotional panel that could have been kept in pride of place in a bedroom, study or cell, or, for that matter, given the right members of staff, carried from place to place. On arrival at your destination, miles away from those you knew and loved, you could put it on a table, open it up, and, looking at the picture in front of you, speak to someone a long way away. As video artist Bill Viola pointed out some years ago, this is not unlike turning up to a hotel room, getting out your laptop, opening it up, and skyping your nearest and dearest. To be honest, I don’t think he said ‘skype’ as I don’t think that had been invented back then. And in any case it’s more like zoom. We’re clearly on Active Speaker view, with the Madonna and Child holding court, and thumbnails of patriarchs and prophets, also present at the meeting, lined up above. OK, so the saints on either side don’t quite fit this layout (it’s more like ‘gallery view’ with a limited number of participants) but you get the idea. This painting is about communication, and allowing the viewer to communicate with characters in whom they would have believed 100%, and who they would have believed were actively present and listening intently.

Duccio, The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea, about 1312-15 (?). Egg tempera on wood, 61.4 x 39.3 cm Bought, 1857 NG566 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG566

That doesn’t get away from the fact that it is a luxury object of the highest order. It would first require a carpenter to create the panels. There are three here – one in the centre, and two attached by hinges (these are not the originals, though). The panels would have been made, smoothed down, and the framing elements attached before painting began. The vertical and horizontal elements are carved out of wood, while the curving arch is modelled from gesso (see below): you can read the full details of the painting’s construction in Dillian Gordon’s admirable catalogue entry, which the National Gallery has posted online. Duccio’s workshop would then have prepared the panel with size, an animal-based glue, to stop the paint soaking into the wood, and it was common practice to cover the panel with canvas as well. This was then painted with gesso, made of gypsum (calcium sulphate), a bit like plastering a wall to make it nice and smooth (in the north of Europe chalk – calcium carbonate – was used, the choice of material being related to availability). Many layers of increasingly fine gesso would be added, and sanded down, before getting round to the painting. And even before that, any areas to be gilded – and there are many – would also need to be prepared by painting bole – a red, clay-based paint, often containing some form of glue – onto the gesso. This would show through the translucent gold leaf to make it look even richer. And finally the painting. Don’t worry about the expense of the gold – that’s very thin – the blue itself would have been more expensive, as it is the finest ultramarine. Derived from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, which, at the time, was only known in one source (modern-day Afghanistan) it was imported along the silk route and then over the Mediterranean – hence the name ultramarine: ‘from over the sea’. However, this is not what you would see of the triptych (a three-panelled painting) most of the time, as most of the time it would have been shut. I’ve never seen what this looks like, but the Museum of Fine Art in Boston has a triptych with exactly the same structure, and it looks like this.

The arched gable at the top is an additional panel, stuck over the panel bearing the main image, to make sure that, when the wings are shut, the painting as a whole is more or less flat. As a result, even when shut, the painting on the gable is still visible. The Boston example shows Christ in a mandorla, possibly representing the Ascension of Christ (or the Second Coming?). The central image is of the Crucifixion, meaning that the scene in the gable follows that seen when the wings are opened. In London, though, the order is different.

The figures gathered around the top are the ‘Patriarchs and Prophets’ of the modern title. There are seven of them, six of whom have scrolls. This in itself is usually enough to tell you that they are prophets, as anyone from the New Testament is far more likely to hold more modern technology, the codex (i.e. a book with pages you can turn), as opposed to an old-fashioned scroll (a book with one page that gradually unrolls).  The first reference to a codex occurs in the 1st century, and by the 4th there were as many codices as scrolls. This development is associated with the growth of Christianity, and so the symbolic division of scroll and codex between old and new testaments is entirely apt. What are the prophets prophesying? Well, the Virgin Birth, and the arrival of the Messiah on earth, naturally enough: prophesies which are realised by opening the wings. This is an interactive work of art, and the act of opening it up fulfils the promise of the exterior. The central image is King David – the crown tells us as much, but then so does the fact that his name is written next to him (or was, at least – some of it has worn away). Notice that he wears the same gilded blue and red as Mary: in the bible Joseph is of the House of David, and, according to the Golden Legend, so is Mary.

When you approach a set of double doors, do you ever hesitate, wondering which one might open first? Clearly the owners of this triptych had a similar problem.

Reverse of: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea‘ Bought, 1857 NG566 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG566

This may seem an odd statement, but both the Boston and London paintings have the same cunning ‘device’ – although in London (at least) this may not have been original, as early in its history the outside of the triptych was extensively repainted, possibly at the behest of the second owners of the painting. Nevertheless, above you can see the ‘back’ of the London painting when it is open. Each wing is decorated with geometrical patterns, five versions of more-or-less the same motif, a single large lozenge with four more small ones, one at each corner. At first glance each panel looks the same – but look closer.

Do you notice that the lozenges on the right are interlinked, but those on the left are separate? Well, if you want to open the triptych, you have to start with the wing where the lozenges are apart, and if you want to close it, you would start with the one where they are together. There is a rebate on the right-hand wing (as seen from the back), over which an equivalent rebate on the left-hand wing will shut, thus keeping the triptych closed.

Once open, this is the glory you see: Mary, as Queen of Heaven, in heavenly blue, and as ‘Star of the Sea’ (Maris Stella) – in ultramarine – with stars on her shoulder and forehead. There is a naturalness in the interaction of mother and child, a humanity of emotion, which is not common in earlier art – even if the appearance is anything but naturalistic. We are in a world of elegance and delicacy: her long, slim fingers are rendered longer and slimmer than is humanly possible, devoid of skeleton and articulation, as these would only get in the way of the decorative line. Mother and Child look into each other’s eyes, joined by their mutual gaze, and linked by Mary’s white veil. Jesus holds one end in his left hand, and grasps the hem, higher up, with his right, the crook of his arm echoing the flow of the fabric. He wears an almost-transparent tunic – we need to see that this is God made flesh – with a pale-Imperial-purple cloth wrapped around it, hems picked out by the thinnest line of sinuous gold – as are the hems of Mary’s blue cloak.

The Virgin may look a little off colour. The green faces of trecento Madonnas are well known, but are not what the artists intended (trecento means ‘three hundred’, and is the Italian word for the 14th century – the ‘thirteen hundreds’, to use the ugly modern form). Flesh areas were underpainted with a pigment called terra verde – ‘green earth’ – so that, when the flesh tones were painted on top they would have depth and life. Unfortunately, though, the pinks of the flesh tones have a tendency to fade – thus revealing the green underneath. Nevertheless, it has its own familiar charm – for me, at least. On either side we see angels, looking on in adoration. One prays, one holds his hands over his chest, but two seem to hold objects. Time has worn them away, but originally they would have held thuribles – the metal censers on chains that are swung to create clouds of ethereal odour during worship. The problem here is that, although it is possible to paint on top of gold leaf, the paint doesn’t always stick. This could have been a problem with the identification of the saints on either side.

One is well known, the other quite obscure. On the left we see St Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers – or Dominicans – wearing the habit of the order – a white robe and tabard, with a black hooded cloak on top. He holds a book in his left hand, to which he gestures with his right: these are the scriptures, which are to be correctly understood. St Dominic was particularly concerned with orthodoxy – the right belief – and so, with the defeat of heresy. The small, red, starred circle just to the right of his head is a reference to his godmother, who, when he was baptised, saw a star on his forehead which appeared to illuminate the entire world. It is a common attribute of the saint, and it is not unusual to see paintings of St Dominic with this star still firmly in place on his forehead. As for his companion – well, a female saint holding a cross is hardly specific…

It is just as well that Duccio painted the names of both saints onto the background. Even though that of St Dominic has all but worn away, his habit and the star tells us who he is. The other saint’s name has gone entirely. However, in this case the paint does seem to have stuck, and when it was brushed off, however that happened, it took the gold with it. What we can see, therefore, is a gap in the gold, revealing the orange bole underneath, and the letters ‘Au’, which, as if by some Divine Revelation, is the chemical symbol for gold. The very absence tells you what has gone. This is no mere coincidence, for this is St Aurea, the golden girl of Ostia, the port of ancient Rome. Because she was a Christian she was exiled there from the nearby capital of the Empire in the middle of the third century. When she refused to worship pagan idols a stone was tied round her neck and she was thrown into the sea. Inevitably she became the patron saint of Ostia, with a church dedicated to her. In 1981 excavations nearby discovered an ancient inscription reading CHRYSE HIC DORMIT – ‘Chryse sleeps here’ – chrysós being the Greek word for ‘gold’.

In 1303 a Dominican, called Niccolò da Prato, was installed as the Cardinal Bishop of Ostia. It therefore seems possible – as both St Dominic (Niccolò was a Dominican) and Saint Aurea (the patron of Ostia) are in this painting – that he commissioned this triptych. Another of Niccolò’s titular churches was dedicated to St Clement, and as the Boston triptych shows St Nicholas (his name saint) and St Clement on either side of the Crucifixion, it seems likely that he owned that painting too. With the infant Christ in one, and the Crucifixion in the other, they could have been used during different celebrations in the church’s calendar. Niccolò’s will, which was written in 1321, the year of his death, specifes that ‘three painted panels to be put on altars’ should be left to the Church of San Domenico in his home town of Prato. These could have been two of them (I’ll leave you to look up the Boston triptych yourselves).

Whatever the origins of this painting, there is no denying its beauty, nor the refinement of the application and decoration of the gold. But I’ll talk more about that during my first lecture, First Light, on 8 February. I was going to put more details here – but why not just look at the details I’ve already put on the diary page! I do hope you can make it.


120 – The Colour of Virtue

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Maestà, c. 1335. Museo di Arte Sacra, Massa Marittima.

I’m giving a talk for ARTscapades on Wednesday afternoon (at 2pm) entitled Good and Bad Government, which would be fine, apart from the fact that it has a subtitle The Lorenzetti Brothers in Siena. What was I thinking? I will have plenty of time to talk about Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, one of the world’s most remarkable secular fresco cycles, but not much more. So I was hugely relieved to read that the introduction will be ‘brief’ – indeed, it will be very brief – I don’t want to miss the opportunity to talk about the fresco cycle properly. To make up for that, I’m going to have a look at another of Ambrogio’s paintings today. Unfair, perhaps to miss out on older brother Pietro, but I’ll just have to come back to him another day. However, evidence is scarce. Both brothers were, in all probability, born in Siena (Pietro around 1280, and Ambrogio about a decade later), and it seems most likely that they both trained with Duccio. Ambrogio spent some time in Florence, as did Pietro, who also worked in Assisi, Pistoia and Cortona. It may well have been in Florence that they became familiar with the work of Giotto, whose naturalism and solid humanity influenced both brothers, although neither ever let go of the lyricism inherent in Sienese practice. They worked alongside one another on the façade of the Hospital opposite Siena Cathedral (although sadly these frescoes have not survived), and each painted an altarpiece for the cathedral as part of the elaboration of the themes of Duccio’s Maestà.  As there is no mention of either brother after 1347 it seems likely that both died during the Black Death. Today, I would like to look at the Maestà which Ambrogio painted for one of the churches in Massa Marittima, famous enough to have been mentioned by Vasari, but lost for centuries. It turned up in 1867 in the attic of the Convent of Sant’Agostino, where it had been split into 5 sections, and, although some of the altarpiece has probably been lost, to look at it today you would never know that for a while the panels were used as a bin used to clear ashes from a fireplace.

Maestà means, quite simply, ‘Majesty’, and as the title for a painting it implies the full majesty and splendour of the Madonna and Child enthroned in the Court of Heaven. Ambrogio pulls out all the stops, packing the firmament with more saints than you will ever have seen, and, for that matter, more than you could identify, or even count. They are arranged in three ranks, although precisely how this works physically is by no means clear. It could simply be that all the saints at the bottom are really short, although there could be three platforms on which they stand. However, apart from the six angelic musicians – three on either side – who are clearly kneeling, or the three figures sitting on the steps, it is not at all obvious what is supporting any of these people. But then, they are souls in heaven, so the question is immaterial, in more senses than one. You can see the front row of each of the ‘ranks’ of saints quite clearly, and this disguises the number of people who are present – until you look closer.

You might start to see that the halos overlap like waves, each ‘rank’ of saints being three or four deep. You might also realise that there is, actually, no throne. The steps are the only solid element. The cushion on which Mary is seated is actually supported by a pair of angels, whose inner wings are raised. The stone-grey feathers suggest the back of a throne – but there is nothing there. It is a matter of faith: you know there must be a throne, and so you believe it. At the very top, another pair of angels is preparing to scatter flowers in celebration of the Virgin, who is herself associated with so many different flowers, although the splendour and majesty is subtly undermined by the oh-so-human affection demonstrated by mother and child. They bump noses, slightly cross-eyed, and yet maintain what is, under the circumstances, an almost comical gravity. This is God made Man in a very real sense, and a detail to the left suggests that Jesus has only just been born. As yet, nothing has happened to write about.

John the Evangelist stands in the position of honour at the right hand of the throne (that is, on our left – although on the right of this detail). He is poised to write the opening of his gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ –  but as yet the page is blank. His quill is held delicately between thumb and forefinger, all of the feathery bits removed as was the practice at the time. There is a beautiful and elaborate illumination made up of scrolling leaf-like forms reaching down the left hand side of the left hand page of the otherwise empty spread, looking for all the world like the sort of decorated paper you can still buy in Tuscany today. Standing next to him is St Peter, with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and then St Paul, sword held informally over his shoulder. Although the halos are gold leaf (would it be possible to count them?) his sword was silver, but it has tarnished to black. Behind and below these three most of the saints cannot be seen, let alone identified, but at the bottom left is St Catherine of Alexandria (see the full painting above for her wheel), and next to her, St Francis, in the brown Franciscan habit.

In the foreground, and forming the foundations and support of the spiritual throne, are three steps, each of which is a different colour, with a figure dressed in the same colour sitting on it. The white, green and red steps are labelled ‘FIDES’, ‘SPES’, and ‘CARITAS’ respectively – Faith, Hope and Charity. The three figures are personifications of the three ‘Theological Virtues’ which I first discussed back in April (see Day 42 – Some Virtues and Day 45 – Virtues, again…) The relevant biblical text is, of course, the first epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 13, which ends with verse 13:

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Faith sit on the lowest step and holds her left hand to her chest while looking at a painting – or a decorated shield, perhaps? – on which we can see two faces looking left and right, both bearded, the former with a shorter beard. What we can’t see, hovering above the heads, is a dove – the Holy Spirit – but technical analysis must confirm that it was there, as this is identified as an image of the Holy Trinity, the very thing in which Faith believes. She wears a gorgeously fashionable, beautiful painted semi-transparent wimple, held in place with a crown. She also has gold work on her bodice for which the gold leaf was applied, then tooled (circular ‘punches’ of different sizes have been pressed, or tapped, onto the gold leaf to create indentations) and then, in part, painted. A pair of wings spreads out behind her, crossing the top, red step, which is delicately decorated. This is another way of using gold. In this case the leaf was applied to the panel, and the red painted over it. Much of the decoration you can see – including the ‘TAS’ of ‘CARITAS’ – was revealed by scratching away the red paint to reveal the gold underneath, a technique known as sgraffito – which, like modern-day ‘graffiti’, means ‘scratched’ (even if today graffiti is applied with a spray can).

Hope sits on the middle, green step. Unfortunately her robe has discoloured, and looks more brown than green now. Usually we would expect her to look up towards heaven, hands joined in prayer, but here she supports a tower, representing the Church. The image of the Virtues in this painting is derived from a 12th Century French theologian called Peter the Chanter.  Faith forms the foundation of the Church, Hope lifts it towards Heaven, and Charity, which St Paul says is ‘the greatest of these’, sits at the top, expressing the burning passion of the unqualified love of – and for – God.

An ethereal pink, rather than the richer vermillion of the step, Charity has a more spiritual feel than the other two, partly because she is all but monochrome, and partly because she lacks the naturalistic, contemporary dress of her companions. In her right hand she holds an arrow, or dart – more like the pagan Cupid, perhaps – and in her left, a heart, just as Giotto’s Charity does in the Scrovegni chapel (See Day 45) .

Colour symbolism is notoriously unreliable in art, but the common understanding that white, green and red stand for Faith, Hope and Charity is given its fullest and clearest exposition in this painting. It was this symbolism which led the colour combination to be so widely used – by the Medici in Florence, the Gonzaga in Mantua and the Este in Ferrara, for example. Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II (in the National Gallery) also uses precisely these colours: so many virtuous people. As for modern Italy – well, the tricolore was inspired by the French tricolore (different pronunciation!) Apparently the Italian press (or equivalent) had mis-reported the French Revolutionary colours as red, white and green (rather than blue), and the Italian nationalists adopted these instead – and stuck with them. Subsequently they have become associated with the Theological Virtues, although that was not the original intention. However it would have been driven home by reference to the Divine Comedy, for centuries the second most widely-read book in Italy. When Dante first encounters the semi-divine Beatrice, to him the paragon of virtue, towards the end of the Purgatory (Canto XXX, 28-33), she wears precisely these colours:

within a cloud of flowers which rose from the angels’ hands within and without, a lady appeared to me, girt with olive over a white veil, clothed, under a green mantle, with the colour of living flame’.

I can’t help thinking that, in Ambrogio’s Maestà, Charity looks like a ‘living flame’ – and that the angels at the very top of the painting scatter flowers in much the manner that Dante describes. Between Dante and Peter the Chanter, much of the imagery of this altarpiece can be explained. But how much of this would Lorenzetti have known? In 1347 he appeared before the Council of Siena and  impressed them ‘with his words of wisdom’. So he must have been learned, a reputation which lasted long enough for Vasari to mention it in the 16th Century. But someone else must have suggested the elements to be included – and in particular, precisely which saints he should paint – although by no means all of them would ever have been identified. As yet, we do not know who that was. I shall leave you with one more saint, though, as it is one you have probably never seen before – and may never encounter again.

On the far right of the painting is a bishop in black. It is San Cerbone, the patron saint of Massa Marittima, and dedicatee of their cathedral: he is believed to have been the bishop in the middle of the sixth century. Once appointed to the diocese, his flock were soon disappointed because he always said mass at daybreak, which was far too early for most. After a while he was summoned to Rome to explain his behaviour to the Pope, and on the way he tamed a gaggle of wild geese with the sign of the cross. They followed him all the way to Rome, only flying off again when he made the sign of the cross a second time. He may have to do it again, as they have just rushed into the bottom right-hand corner of the painting. That’s how we know who this is.


119 – Beyond Christmas (a coda)

The Adoration of the Kings from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, f. 24v, 963-984. British Museum, London.

Last week, when I was talking about a 6th Century mosaic showing the procession of the Magi (118 – Epiphany in Ravenna) I said that it was only several centuries later that the Magi began to be seen as Kings (if you want to know why the ‘wise men’ were promoted, why not head back to the Advent Calendar, and specifically day 15?) and that maybe I would come back to that idea fairly soon. So here we are: today’s image is a fantastic example. It comes from the 10th Century, which is when the ‘Kings’ first appear in art, and can be found in a richly illuminated manuscript in the British Museum, The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, which has been fully digitised – so you can flick through the pages yourself in the privacy of your own cell, just as Æthelwold, the man who commissioned it, might have done. He was bishop of Winchester from 963-984, which gives us the dates for the image – a two-decade span, admittedly, but that’s quite narrow given that it was over a millennium ago. The status of these supplicants cannot be doubted: whatever fashions they wear, the crowns tell us that they are kings, although they process much as their predecessors the Magi from Ravenna did, some three centuries before, towards the enthroned Madonna and Child.

On the opposite page, f. 25r, we see the Baptism of Christ (‘f’ stands for folio, or ‘leaf’ – implying page – which, in a manuscript, is only numbered on one side, the recto, or ‘front’. The other side is called the verso, or ‘back’, hence 24v for the Adoration and 25r for the Baptism). These two images come together because, in the early days of the church, the Adoration of the Magi and the Baptism of Christ were both celebrated on 6 January, two of the three ‘Epiphanies’ remembered on that day – the third being the Wedding at Cana. The Benedictional is effectively a calendar of blessings to be said during church services throughout the ecclesiastical year.

Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart), The Adoration of the Kings, 1510-15. Oil on oak, 179.8 × 163.2 cm. NG2790 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2790

I was also saying (last week) that I wanted to come back to Gossaert’s Adoration of the Kings, because of a number of very astute comments, observations, and questions from you. Thank you! I’m always keen to learn more, and both comments and questions help with this – as do corrections – so feel free to point out any mistakes too, please! I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the best academic writing about the painting is Lorne Campbell’s entry in his catalogue of The Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings in the National Gallery. These catalogues are all fantastic, and Lorne’s are among the best – but they are also fantastically priced. However, this particular entry is online for all to read for free: just click on the link in the catalogue title.

There was a lot of discussion about this painting in the press in December, and somebody wondered if the journalists had been reading my blog. Alas no! They were responding to a special exhibition, Sensing the Unseen, which opened when the Gallery came out of lockdown briefly in December. I hadn’t heard about it before I started the Calendar, but it allows you to see the painting in most remarkable detail. It is free, which is great, but you have to be patient, given that the exhibition can only cope with three people at a time, and there is no booking system. However, this is all academic at the moment as the Gallery is closed, but if we do come out of ‘Lockdown 3’ before 28 February (when the display is due to finish) it is well worth the effort. They have examined the painting with far higher resolution than I was able to muster from the NG website, and the details are exquisite. In connection with this, poet Theresa Lola will be discussing how Gossaert’s altarpiece inspired her poem Look at the Revival on Thursday 21 January at 4pm GMT. It’s a free talk, which you can book via the Gallery’s website (again, click on the link in the title).

I was very glad to read that someone was ‘struck by the contrast between the servant’s snobby facial expression and bombastically bulging stomach and the more dignified look of the king’s face’. It’s so true – but it also reminded me that stomachs were ‘in’ in the sixteenth century, and that they did reach bombastic proportions. Compare Balthazar’s ‘servant’, or attendant (left), with Melchior (right: we know he dresses in the height of fashion, as he wears red tights), both of whom appear to have padded stomachs. And then compare them with a contemporary suit of German armour (dated c. 1500-1510) from the Wallace Collection (for whom I will be giving a short a course on the Passion of Christ in March. This armour will probably feature, thanks to the inscription on its chest).

Armour was often made to match contemporary fashion, and, given that the armour is made of inflexible steel, the waist is not created by a tightening of the belt. The full, rounded stomach implies there would be a padded doublet underneath – or, at least, it is made in emulation of a padded doublet, which in all three cases is rounded to include the chest: those are not pot bellies! The same is true of other elements of the armour. Have a look at the square toes of the sabatons (the equivalent of shoes): they are the same shape as Jean de Dinteville’s slippers in Holbein’s Ambassadors. They are far more practical than the sabatons of the 14th and 15th century which were absurdly pointy, just like the contemporary shoes. Fun for banquets, perhaps, but hardly practical in battle – unless you got within kicking distance, I suppose, but kicking isn’t easy in full body armour.

I was also asked if Balthazar (centre) had maybe brought his son along with him. It’s a good point – he and his courtier (left) do look remarkably similar – and certainly have the same nose. However, while Balthazar’s face looks like it was studied from life, the courtier’s looks more generic. Gossaert could be making up a face based on those he has seen. We know he admired Dürer’s work, as we saw how he quoted a dog from one of the German artist’s prints – and I wonder if he ever had a chance to see this wonderful drawing by Dürer, dated 1508, which is now in the Albertina in Vienna. It is certainly based on first-hand observation, although sadly we don’t know the identity of the model.

Balthazar is holding his gift with a stole around his neck, and two of you pointed out the similarity between the stole and the humeral veil – thank you! I rarely attend church services these days (or didn’t, in the days when one could), and know relatively little about how the contemporary church functions. But the humeral veil is a form of stole used in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as some Anglican and Lutheran Churches, in order to hold something which should not be touched – such as a ciborium or monstrance – as a sign of respect for the sanctity of the object. I’m comparing Balthazar here with an image from a contemporary website for the purchase of vestments. It’s appropriate, as the priest is shown holding a monstrance, which is used to display the consecrated host – and I ended up comparing both Balthazar and Melchior’s gifts (or at least the ‘containers’ they came in) to monstrances.

I was also intrigued to notice that both Balthazar and Melchior were wearing hats and crowns. The reason why became clear when it was pointed out that Caspar’s crown resembles a cap of maintenance. Here’s the crown next to Wikipedia’s drawing of a cap of maintenance.

The cap is often used in heraldry, something with which I’m afraid to say I’ve never got to grips. However, it denotes a special respect or status – aristocratic or even royal. The Oxford English Dictionary says that both Henry VII and Henry VIII were granted one by the pope, for example. The origin of the name is obscure, but it could simply relate to the idea that the cap can be used to ‘maintain’ the crown on the head, by making it fit more easily. It would also stop the hard metal from scratching the head of an all-too-sensitive monarch. Like the drawing, Caspar’s ‘crown’ appears to be made of red velvet lined with ermine – but that’s not the crown. That’s just the cap of maintenance. The crown is what appears to be the hat band, which I described as ‘made of elaborate gold links with black tynes’ – i.e. the pointy bits. Seen like this, it is clear that both Balthazar and Melchior are wearing crowns over caps of maintenance, but that Gossaert has adapted the caps to make them look more ‘foreign’ – as those wearing them have travelled from afar. Melchior’s (on the right) is closer to the standard idea, with a peak and a turned up brim.

In heraldic terms, the cap would be worn with the trailing peak at the back – but that is not how Melchior wears his (nor, I suspect, would Casper). There is a stylistic resemblance to the medieval bycocket – modelled for us by the Empress Helena, below, in a detail from Agnolo Gaddi’s fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross in Santa Croce in Florence (c. 1380). However, if you look carefully, she is also wearing a crown over it, although the crown is only just sketched in, possibly a secco. It may have been Gaddi’s intention to gild it, thus making her look truly regal – but that never happened. It’s also worthwhile having a look at our own Queen’s crown – the Crown of St Edward, made in 1661 for the coronation of Charles II.  The ermine trim at the bottom and the purple velvet inside are adaptations of the cap of maintenance.

Thank you all so much for your contributions – I have enjoyed stretching my understanding of Gossaert’s endlessly fascinating painting even further! But now I feel it is time to move on. Any thoughts on what should be next?


118 – Epiphany in Ravenna

The Adoration of the Magi, c. 504/560 and later. Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.

It’s Epiphany – a moment of sudden and great revelation – and today celebrates the moment at which the wise men recognised Jesus as the Boy Born to be King, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh usually interpreted as gifts suitable for a king, and more specifically, relevant to his royalty, his deity and to his inevitable death, respectively. But if you read the Advent Calendar, you’ll know all that already. If you didn’t but want to, you can start from the top if you click on this link: An Advent Calendar – 1. I still have things to say about the Gossaert painting, matters arising from observations you made and questions you asked (for which, much thanks), but I’ll get back to that soon, I hope. First, I’d like to talk about this mosaic. I discussed it briefly in a talk about The Adoration of the Magi just a few days before Christmas, and it will feature, even more briefly, in a talk I am giving tomorrow. It will be ‘briefly’ as, believe it or not, its splendour is all but outshone by many other marvels in Ravenna. There is still time to sign up, if you’re free tomorrow evening (7 January at 6:00 GMT), and are interested in Revealing Ravenna – just click on the link. For now, I just want to talk about part of one wall in one of the city’s churches.

The Magi are shown in the way that Romans would have shown barbarians paying tribute to the Emperor. They wear Phrygian caps, which the Greeks had associated with non-Greek-speaking peoples – i.e. barbarians. The Romans adopted this idea, along with so many others, from the Greeks, and as the Magi were seen as coming from ‘elsewhere’ it made sense for them to wear them too. In the earliest representations of the Magi, dating from the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, this is how they were dressed. However, in Republican Rome there was another hat, the pileus, which was soft, and made of felt. It was given to freed slaves. In the 18th Century the association of the pileus with the Republic, and with freedom, was revived – only they seem to have confused hats (maybe someone picked up the wrong one from the cloakroom), and the Phrygian Cap became associated with the Republic, and with freedom. That is why it becomes the symbol of Liberty during the French Revolution. But back to Ravenna.

The church in which this mosaic can still be seen was built and decorated for King Theoderic the Ostrogoth, who was King of Italy, and nominally ruling on behalf of the Emperor in Constantinople. He was Christian, but an Arian – a doctrine associated with Arius, a priest from Alexandria – and believed that Jesus was indeed the son of God, begotten of God the Father, but that he had not always existed – he was created by God the Father, and so was subordinate to him, and therefore not ‘of the same substance’. Although Arianism had been deemed heretical at the first ever ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, it had a fairly long life – and was especially associated with Germanic tribes like the Goths and Vandals. And if Theoderic was an Arian, then the church, when it was dedicated to Christ the Redeemer in 504, was an Arian church.

The Magi are about to present their gifts to the Madonna and Child, who are enthroned near the altar. They are on the north wall, so the altar is to our right, and the Magi are approaching the altar every bit as much as they are approaching Jesus: theologically they are equivalent. The Virgin wears the Imperial Purple – at the time this mosaic was made, Ravenna was the capital of the Roman Empire in the West – and an association between the Empire and God was highly desirable. They are flanked by two pairs of angels, but Joseph is nowhere to be seen. Oddly, given that this was originally an Arian church, the humanity of Christ is not being stressed. You will notice that there is a marked change in background in between the angels and the magi: this mosaic has been altered. This occurred some time around 560, by which time Constantinople had ‘liberated’ Ravenna from the Arian rulers. Emperor Justinian’s general Belisarius had recaptured Ravenna in 540, and, with the death of the Archbishop Maximian in 557, Justinian seems to have thought it was a good idea, under the new Archbishop Agnellus, to finally remove any threat from the Goths and to eliminate Arian worship – thus ending over 60 years of successful ‘convivencia’, to use the Spanish term. Between 557 and 565 nine churches were ‘reconciled’ with Orthodox Christianity – meaning that they were re-dedicated to the Catholic rite. This happened to Christ the Redeemer, which was rededicated as St Martin – who just happened to be an arch anti-Arian. Three centuries later – in 856, to be precise – the relics of an early bishop, Apollinare, were brought from a basilica in nearby Classis and installed in San Martino and the church was re-dedicated again as Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. It has been known as ‘the New Sant’Apollinare’ for over a thousand years, now, which doesn’t make it seem that ‘new’.

In the process of the first re-dedication, the mosaics were altered. The upper two tiers – showing the life of Christ, and a series of saints and prophets – were left as they were, and would have been completed some time around 504 when the church was dedicated (whether or not they were finished in time for the dedication is not clear).  Below them, we see the Magi approaching the Virgin and Child, leading a procession of 21 virgin martyrs. Scholars do not agree on the date of this procession. Some see it as essentially the original mosaic from around 504, whereas others see the almost-identical, if not monotonous, depiction of the saints as indicative of a later date, in this case about 560 – or whenever it was that the re-dedication to St Martin occurred.

The procession is led by St Eufemia. However, the pole position was originally taken by Queen Audefleda, sister of Clovis, King of the Franks, and wife of King Theoderic, who was a master of the diplomatic marriage. Theoderic himself was depicted opposite his wife leading a procession of male (but potentially still virgin) martyrs: his figure was repurposed as St Martin (the arch anti-Arian), whereas she became St Eufemia. They might have changed the whole figure, or maybe just the head. Or even, just the name… As a saint, Eufemia may not seem very prominent these days, but the choice was deliberate. She came from Chalcedon, where in 451 a council affirmed the heretical nature of Arianism by asserting that the Son was of one substance with the Father – and so not created by him – and also, that he had two natures – human and divine – in one person. Eufemia’s relics were still in Chalcedon in 560 (later they were moved to Constantinople), and so her inclusion at the head of the procession affirms the primacy of orthodox beliefs over heretical.

The magi, and presumably the saints as well, have processed from the port of Classis (now Classe) – the name is set above the gateway on the right. The port was part of ‘greater Ravenna’, and was one of the secrets of its success. It had a harbour larger in area than Ravenna itself, inland but very close to the sea: the possibilities for trade were endless, and secure. When the mosaic was first made, members of the royal court – and probably Queen Audefleda herself – were standing in front of the golden walls of Classis. Once Theoderic, the Ostrogoth and Arian, was gone, his presence was no longer required, and nor was anything else associated with him. The figures were chipped out, and replaced with more golden stones – bright and shiny, perhaps, but a little uninteresting compared to the rest of the mosaic. The ‘restorers’ were not entirely thorough, though, and they left four pairs of feet behind, which can still be seen in early photographs. However, in the early 20th Century a later set of restorers decided to finish the job, and removed the errant feet – which I think is a great shame, let alone an act of cultural vandalism: allow the work its history, even if it is untidy. And don’t let the Vandals loose on Ostrogoth feet.

We see three ships in the harbour. I would love to think that this is how the wise men arrived, as in the traditional carol ‘I saw three ships come sailing in’, but that seems unlikely! Potential origins for that carol apparently include the coat of arms of Wenceslaus II of Bohemia (r. 1278-1305), which had three ships on it, or the ships that took the relics of the wise men up the Rhine to Cologne after Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ ‘liberated’ them from Milan in 1164. However, in the carol the magi weren’t even in the ships. Who was in those ships all three? Joseph and his Fair Lady. Which implies that they could only have been camels, the ships of the desert, as Bethlehem is some 129 km from the sea. But, as so often, that’s another story.

If restorers were still tinkering with these mosaics in the early 20th Century, what are we to make of the Magi? Sadly, the north wall was badly damaged. It’s hardly surprising. An 8th century earthquake caused the collapse of the apse, which was just to the right of this section of the mosaic. The ruins were still visible in the following century, when the historian Agnellus (no relation of the archbishop above), transcribed the inscriptions from the apse mosaics as he saw them, still lying where they had fallen – which implies that the church had been open to the elements for a hundred years or so. However, he also described the three wise men and what they were wearing, and this description was used by restorers in the 19th Century. It is to them that we owe the current appearance of this section of the mosaic. The calligraphy of the names is far too ‘modern’ for a 6th century mosaic, I suspect, and even the spelling is too close to the modern variants. The faces and gifts are also a little too naturalistic, perhaps. The costume is every bit as fantastic as it would have been, though. The most fanciful bit of design, to my mind, are the tights – which should surely inspire every nativity play in the realm – and they are original. With such magnificence it is hardly surprising that the wise men were soon to be called kings – although that didn’t happen for another couple of centuries. Maybe I’ll come back to it when I come back to the Gossaert. But until then, here’s wishing you a Happy New Lockdown. Sorry, I think I meant ‘Year’.


117 – St Thomas Becket

St Thomas Becket, c. 1178-89. Monreale Cathedral, Sicily.

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered on 29 December 1170 – eight hundred and fifty years ago. I wanted to mark the occasion. I’m not going to talk much about him, or about his relationship with King Henry II, the man who has always been blamed for his death, but I wanted to look at one of the many images that resulted from his murder. Some would say ‘his martyrdom’, as he died as a result of his attempts to defend The Church. Among other problems, he resisted the king’s attempts to weaken the Church’s ties to Rome, and to give the king more authority over its affairs – exactly what Henry VIII would achieve three and a half centuries later. Whatever the precise nature of their disagreement(s), and whatever ensued, Thomas was canonised in February 1173, little more than two years after his death. Clearly the church wanted Thomas: canonisation would have acted as a warning to Christian monarchs not to get above themselves, as they would certainly never get above God.

This image, in mosaic, comes from the Cathedral of Monreale, just outside Palermo, in Sicily. Although plans for this grandiose building, high on a hill overlooking the Sicilian capital, might have been afoot as early as 1166, construction probably didn’t get going until 1174, and was completed – along with the majority of the interior decoration – by 1189. As this detail comes from the apse, behind the high altar, it would have presumably have been one of the first parts of the decoration to be completed – it would be safe to date it to the late 1170s or early 1180s in any case, and possibly within a decade of the Saint’s canonisation. This seems remarkably quick, given the distance between Canterbury and Palermo – but the cult of St Thomas spread for many reasons, not least of which were the multitude of miracles performed in his name. In this detail we see him with his right hand held in one of several gestures of blessing, holding a book in his left hand. It has a gold cover, and is encrusted with jewels. He certainly owned such books, and insisted on taking a particularly special one with him when he went into exile. A recent hypothesis attempts to identify it among the manuscripts in the library of a Cambridge college – you can read about that here (thanks to my sister Jane Wickenden for bringing this to my attention).

Thomas is bearded and has taken the tonsure: to prevent worldly vanity, the crown of the head was shaved – it was a sign of humility, and of obedience to the church, and was done to mark entry into certain religious orders. As a practice it continued as late as 1973, when it was abolished by Pope Paul VI. His name is inscribed on either side of his head: ‘THO’ to the left, and ‘MAS’ to the right. The ‘SCS’ is short for ‘Sanctus’ – Saint – whereas the ‘CANTVR~’, is an abbreviation for ‘Canterbury’ in Latin – the ‘Civitate Cantuariae’, or ‘City of Canterbury’, according to The Domesday Book of 1080, a century before the mosaic was made.

This mosaic is no mere detail – it is a full length image of the saint. There is no suggestion that this is anything like a ‘portrait’, though. It is a ‘representation’, giving people a visual image as a focus for their devotions, especially if they should wish to ask this man to intercede on their behalf. But why would anyone in Sicily want to do that? Surely there were enough local saints to go round?

To understand the reasons behind his inclusion, we need to know a bit more about the cathedral itself, and its patron. It was built for William II of Sicily, who ruled from 1166-1189. He had effectively been planning the building since his coronation, and it was sufficiently completed by the time of his death for him to be buried there. He was only 12 when he succeeded his father, and reached his majority in 1171, following the regency of his mother. He married in 1177 – at the age of 23 – to the eleven-year-old Joan of England, sister of Richard I, ‘the Lionheart’, thus becoming the son-in-law of the villain of the piece, Henry II. Not only does this show William’s standing within European politics, but it also explains the presence of an English saint in a Sicilian cathedral. Who better to ask for a hand in getting God’s forgiveness for his father-in-law’s sins, than the man best placed to forgive him? Perhaps the inclusion of St Thomas shows that William was aware of Henry II’s faults, but knew that, with the right approach, he would not be found guilty by association. In actual fact, the connection is more direct, and the mosaic helped to get William out of an awkward bind: he was friends with both sides. When Thomas fled England in 1164 to avoid the wrath of the King (taking his book with him), some of his family and friends also thought it would be safer to keep out of the way – and ended up in Palermo at the court of King William II. Both kings were Norman, after all, so there were bound to be connections. Subsequently Thomas wrote to the Palermitan court in gratitude for the hospitality shown to his kin. The marriage had been planned before the murder, but delayed, first because Joan was too young, and then because of the murder. Only after 1174, when Henry II was forced to do penance at Thomas’s tomb – already one of the great pilgrimage destinations of Europe – was the royal match back on the cards.

St Thomas is in good company. He stands in between St Sylvester – Pope when the Old St Peter’s was founded in Rome (later elaborations, extent by the time of the mosaic, suggest that he cured the Emperor Constantine of leprosy, and was given the rule of Rome in return) – and St Lawrence, an early church deacon, martyred in 258: later images would never show him without his grill. Just round the corner is St Nicholas – who later morphs into Father Christmas. It could so easily be a seasonal selection of saints: Silvester’s feast day is 31 December (nearly there…), and Thomas’s is today. St Nicholas doesn’t quite fit in, though – he is celebrated on 6 December – early for Christmas, although not for Advent. However, St Lawrence proves that this isn’t a calendar, as such: his feast day falls on 10 August.

Not only is Thomas in good company, but he is in a remarkably prominent position: in the apse behind the High Altar. You can see Sylvester and Thomas just to the right of the window. At the top of we see the Pantocrator – the ‘ruler over all’ – or ‘almighty’ – with Jesus holding an open bible in his left hand and blessing with his right, just as Thomas does below (and while we’re here, note the early appearance of the pointed arch – this is an influence from Islamic culture: Sicily was refreshingly multi-cultural). Directly below the Pantocrator, the Virgin Mary sits enthroned, wearing the Imperial purple. The colour makes the connection to Byzantium clear, and, if you could see them, the inscriptions confirm this. Unlike the saints around Thomas, they are in Greek, rather than Latin. The Christ Child is enthroned, in his turn, upon Mary’s lap, and the pair are flanked by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. On either side of them stand Sts Peter and Paul – the two heads of the Church after Christ: St Thomas stands directly underneath St Paul. The mosaic emphasizes the nature of the Apostolic Succession – authority passes from Jesus, via Peter, to the later Popes.

I could keep pulling back from here, showing you more and more gold, and more and more splendour – apparently something like 2,200 kg of gold was used for the mosaics which, with the exception of the high wainscoting, cover every wall in the cathedral. However, I’ll just leave you with one last view of the chancel, with Thomas still clearly visible (once you know where he is) just above the High Altar (wherever church liturgy has decided it should be). I for one am looking forward to the British Museum’s exhibition Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint which will open, after some delay, on 22 April. It will have many beautiful things – but, for obvious reasons, not this mosaic. You’ll just have to go to Sicily to see it. There are many other reasons why I’m looking forward to 2021 – and I’ve just updated the diary page if you want to see what they are. Meanwhile I shall wish you a continued Happy Christmas. We’re only on day five after all, and there are a few more than five gold rings in this mosaic. Just try and count the haloes.


An Advent Calendar – 24

‘Myrrh’ –

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Brings a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing,
Bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Once more John Henry Hopkins Jr. proves his knowledge of Origen. To complete the quotation that has built up over the last two days, ‘gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.’ (Origen of Alexandria, Contra Celsus, c. 248). So myrrh is a symbol for one who will die – it could hardly be otherwise, as one of its most common uses was in the process of embalming the dead. But Hopkins really rachets up the emotional key. I’ve always thought of We Three Kings as a stolid, but somehow jolly, Christmas carol – but this verse is entirely bleak, without the possibility, it would seem, of any respite from its ‘gathering gloom‘.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Balthasar should look entirely serious. Not only that, but he holds the gift with the reverence due to a ciborium, the name of the vessel used to preserve the consecrated host – in Catholic belief the actual body of Christ. Notice that he does not touch it, but holds it with the white, ceremonial stole around his shoulders, the one which his servant – or, at least, chief attendant – is adjusting. However, as it would traditionally be a priest that would wear such a stole, we must ask if Gossaert is suggesting that the Magi were, in some way, priests?

The ends of the stole are beautifully fringed, and also embroidered, bearing the inscription SALV[E]/ REGINA/ MIS[ERICORDIAE]/ V:IT[A DULCEDO ET SPES NOSTRA] (‘Hail, Queen of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope’). The missing letters and words can be filled in as these are the opening lines of the 11th Century antiphon Salve Regina Misericordia, traditionally attributed to Hermann of Reichenau, although most scholars now doubt this (the link will take you to a YouTube recording, illustrated with a lovely detail from a painting by Signorelli – apologies again for any ads). This detail also shows us the remarkable diligence with which Gossaert painted Balthazar’s cloth of gold brocade, and the lynx fur which lines his cloak.

Yesterday I said Melchior’s container for the frankincense was like a reliquary – and then, perversely, illustrated the idea with a monstrance, an object designed to exhibit not a relic, but the consecrated host. I should really have said ‘monstrance’ in the first place, it would have been a better comparison, not just in appearance, but in function. If ‘incense owns a Deity nigh’, then what better way to show a deity, than with a monstrance? The wonderfully wrought vessel which Balthazar holds is every bit as impressive.

Once more it is made from gold, and, despite being held with two hands, it still appears to be suspiciously light – but then, any stress or strain in Balthazar’s hands would take away from the solemnity of the moment. As well as gold, at least one other material is used, and, in the same way that Casper’s gift was contained in a vessel with visual imagery, there are figures here too.

On the left, you can see the very top of Balthazar’s gift, with a miniature column flanked by two seated children. On top of the column there is a third figure, on his feet, stepping forward, and offering a gift. It is entirely self-reflexive: this object was made as a gift to be given. The detail on the right shows the central section. The red elements are part of the lid of the vessel. Just below them, behind the elaborate scrolling leaves, you can see a dark line which rings the object: it marks the join between the cup and its lid, which is ‘disguised’ by the stylised leaves. The gold is inset with a number of cut stones, polished to a shine, and the highlights suggest that they are carved into a series of niches under the gold gothic canopies. The mottled lighter and darker reds make me think that they are supposed to be porphyry, a substance associated with both royalty and death: the Byzantine emperors were buried in porphyry tombs, the name being equivalent to purple, the colour of their robes. So this is another reminder of Christ’s status as King, and of his destiny: to die on our behalf.

So, Myrrh – an omen of death – in a vessel decorated with porphyry – associated with death. There is no getting away from this – the Boy Born to be King was also born to die. We have seen this already. The image of The Sacrifice of Isaac carved on the capital atop the shiny red column is the image of an Old Testament patriarch prepared to sacrifice his only son, a foretelling, in the Christian context, of God the Father prepared to sacrifice his only son. The column itself would undoubtedly have reminded the devout of the column to which Jesus was tied for the flagellation. It is, bizarrely to our modern-day sensibilities, precisely this preparation for suffering and death that Christmas is all about. You can see it in the material values of the painting itself.

If not in the very background, then at least at the back of the foreground section, we can see the shepherds leaning on a wooden fence, the slats broken, or missing, a knot hole visible to emphasize its material nature. The wooden fence closes off a gap in the brick walls, the bricks being down to earth (like the shepherds) as they are little more than baked clay. Closer to us Joseph emerges from a gap in the stone walls: stone is more valuable, and potentially more enduring. It is solid, and reliable, just like Joseph. And if we keep moving forward we get to the gold – here it contains myrrh, elsewhere gold, elsewhere frankincense. All pretty valuable, all fit for a king, someone both god and man, eternal, yet born to die. And closer still – closer than the gold? What is the most valuable thing? From wood to brick, brick to stone, stone to gold – well, the most valuable thing would be Jesus himself. Now there’s a gift. He is embodied in the gift of gold, as the coins are just like wafers, the consecrated host, the body of Christ, gathered in the ciborium-like cup, ready to distribute to the faithful in front of the altar, in front of this painting.

And the carol? Well, the author was a rector, remember, he knew what he was talking about. Balthazar’s verse is entirely without hope, it seems, but it is only the fourth verse of five. There is one to go, and one which draws together the preceding three – all three of the gifts, and their meanings. And it goes that one step further, because, curiously, this carol is not about Christmas, in the end. It is about Easter.

Glorious now behold Him arise,
Heaven sings Hallelujah:
Hallelujah the earth replies.

And of these words, the most important is surely ‘arise’.


An Advent Calendar – 23

‘Frankincense’ –

Frankincense to offer have I, 
Incense owns a Deity nigh:
Prayer and praising
All men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

We Three Kings was originally written to be sung by three men, each one representing a magus, and each verse was sung as a solo, explaining the choice of gift. The first and last verses were to be sung together. John Henry Hopkins, Jr., who wrote both words and music, was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Westport, Pennsylvania,  but he wrote the song for a Christmas pageant which was performed in New York in 1857. So it wasn’t originally intended for church services – or carolling – but nevertheless, as you will know, it has become enormously successful. Maybe that is because it is so entirely appropriate – and Hopkins clearly knew his Origen (or any one of the subsequent authors who took up his interpretation of the gifts). In the same way that the most common interpretation of gold – that it is a gift entirely suitable for a king – goes back to Origen at the very latest, so does the association between frankincense and godhead. Quoting from Contra Celsus (c. 248) again, ‘gold, as to a king… and incense, as to a God’.

If the gift of gold was proffered in a container that outclasses the gift itself, the frankincense outclasses that too. This must be a heavy object, if it really is gold – and only the fact that Melchior can hold it effortlessly on his outstretched hand would lead us to think otherwise. He appears to have superhuman strength. Either that, or it is weightless: maybe its spirituality outweighs its physical heft. While the cup for the gold has a six-fold symmetry, here the symmetry is four-fold. The base is a scalloped square, and a third of the way up, at the ‘hip’ of the cup, there are four circular plates, like shields, each set with a red gemstone. Above this is a lid of some sort, although it looks more like the spire of a church, with openwork inspired by the tracery of gothic windows, topped by an elaborate crown. Rather than a cup, it is more like a reliquary, fashioned of precious materials to contain an even more valuable fragment of a Saint’s earthly remains. Compare it to the Belém Monstrance, made in 1506 in Portugal, for example:

Unlike yesterday’s gold, school children can offer little in the way of alternative interpretations for the Frankincense, I’m afraid, although they frequently call it Frankenstein by mistake (and even that will be a mistake, as, like most people, they will be thinking of the eponymous anti-hero’s monster). But the more down to earth of adult contributors have argued that Frankincense was simply a practical gift, particularly given that the stable probably smelt. Indeed, in the centuries on either side of the birth of Christ it was used to improve on personal odours – given that most people were a couple of millennia away from running water, let alone bathrooms. More recently its health benefits have been subject to scientific investigation, and it has been found to reduce the symptoms of arthritis, for example, and other forms of inflammation, as well as having some impact on immune response. Back in the first century, though, it would have been the smell that counted, and when it was burnt the smoke was seen as rising to god – whichever god you followed – hence its association with ‘a Deity nigh’.


An Advent Calendar – 22

‘Gold’ –

Born a King on Bethlehem plain, 
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever
Ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

We know what the gifts are – it tells us in the bible. That is how we know there were gifts in the first place. They are in Matthew 2:11, which I quoted from when we met our first magus, but here is the whole verse:

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

Notice that it doesn’t mention Joseph – and indeed, the earliest images of the Adoration of the Magi show them approaching Mary, with the Child seated on her lap, and Joseph is nowhere to be seen. Luke, however, does mention him, when the shepherds arrive: ‘And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger’ (Luke 2:16) – which just goes to prove that the Oxford comma is vital, or it would have had to be a very large manger. Maybe Matthew’s failure to mention Joseph explains why he is in the doorway in this painting – he might have been in the ‘back room’ when the Kings arrived… But I digress (and not for the first time).

So they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. But why these gifts? They are hardly suitable for a baby. Well, the first is fairly obvious. Earlier in Matthew (2:1-2) it says,

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

So they were looking for ‘he that is born King of the Jews’. And gold is one of the main symbols of Kingship. This is an interpretation which probably goes back as far as the gospel itself, but it was certainly written down in the third century. Origen of Alexandria wrote Contra Celsum around 248, after Celsus had written an excoriating criticism of Christianity. He was worried that it was taking people away from the established religion, and that its continued growth would inevitably lead to a collapse in moral values. Plus ça change – it seems that people have always been worried about that. Anyway, in his defence of Christianity Against Celsus, Origen says that the Magi brought ‘gold, as to a king’. And people have stuck with that interpretation ever since – it is certainly the version we are familiar with from the Christmas carol quoted above. Admittedly it was also suggested, and not without reason, that the gift of gold was entirely practical – after all, there was no room in the inn. With that much gold, they would be able to afford far better lodgings.

But neither is my favourite theory. Gossaert has shown the gift as made up of gold coins, one of which we can see held between the thumb and forefinger of the new-born babe. This precocious ability to co-ordinate his movements should not surprise us: this is the Son of God, after all. At one point, not long after the Magi would have headed home, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (written, in all probability, in the first half of the seventh century) has Jesus say, ‘do not consider me to be a little child; for I am and always have been perfect’ – so holding a coin shouldn’t be a problem. However, surely the gold coins are only part of the gift – the ‘gift wrap’ is fairly impressive too! We saw the ‘label’ the other day – the lid of the cup, which is decorated with Casper‘s name. The cup itself must be made of more gold than the coins it contains, and is another wonderful example of the goldsmith’s craft. When set down it would rest on a hexagonal base, a small gold sheep projecting from each corner (just part of the future flock?), and in between there is a series of medallions appropriately decorated with images of Kings.

Anyway, the image of the Christ Child holding a gold coin once led a school group visiting the National Gallery – not one I was with, sadly – to interpret the painting based on their own personal experience. It’s what we all do. This was probably just as mobile phones were starting to take off, but certainly weren’t at all common. So what would happen if Jesus had wanted to phone home? Clearly the coins could be used for a phone box. After all, heaven is quite some long way away, and the rates must be exorbitant. Indeed, there is some evidence that he has already run up a rather worrying bill. What else would the angels you can see below be holding? And why else would they be looking so anxious? Not so much ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ as ‘How much?’ It’s perfect Art History. Look at the details, develop a theory, test it against the available evidence. These schoolchildren did all three – and I for one rather wish their theory had passed the test. Clearly the ‘looking’ is the most important part for the appreciation of art, although admittedly it won’t always glean accurate results for the histories of theology and technology. I’m sorry, I may have digressed again…


An Advent Calendar – 21

‘Mary’ –

Before I start, some breaking news: I will be giving an online lecture this evening (Monday 21 December) entitled The Adoration of the Magi – I’m covering for my dear friend Nick Ross who, alas, is not well. Here’s wishing him a speedy recovery, and if you just happen to be free from 5.45 for a 6pm lecture (GMT), click on the link above. There are so many versions of the Adoration that I will make it my aim not to talk about this one! Enough said, back to the Calendar, and today, we have Mary.

This image is standard across Western European art – a young, blonde, white woman, with a perfect complexion, dressed in blue. She wears blue for so many different reasons. The Catholic Church sees her as Queen of Heaven, and the skies are blue, for example. But also, there was a Marian hymn, dating from the 8th Century, called Ave Maris Stella – ‘Hail Star of the Sea’ (this link takes you to a recording by the Westminster Cathedral Choir – apologies for any adverts that precede it!) In the same way that sailors use stars to guide their way, Mary was seen as out guiding star through life. ‘Maris’, meaning ‘of the sea’, is a pun on ‘Maria’ – and the sea is also blue. And finally, as is well known, blue was the most expensive pigment, so it was a sign of the respect due to Mary that money was being spent on her depiction. However, this is not ultramarine, the most expensive blue, derived from lapis lazuli, but azurite, a naturally occurring basic copper carbonate. It was sometimes called ‘German blue’ as it was more readily available in the North of Europe, which is probably why Gossaert used it. It was still fairly pricey, but nowhere near as expensive as ultramarine. Curiously, the is no difference between the paint used for her cloak and that on the robe. However, the cloak was painted directly onto the white ground, whereas the robe was painted over a layer of grey – so on the surface the former looks lighter than the latter, even though the paint is the same colour: it’s the background showing through which makes the difference.

Blue is by no means universal. For the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin she often wears white, and whereas in Italy she regularly wears a blue cloak over a red robe, in the North of Europe this is usually reversed – a red cloak over a blue robe. Or sometimes, just red one red. Red is associated with royalty, so again affirms her status as Queen of Heaven, and is ultimately derived from Byzantine paintings (which evolve into Orthodox icons), in which Mary wears the Imperial purple.

As this was painted in Northern Europe, the fact that she is blonde should not surprise us – Gossaert is painting for a local audience, and they want something that they can understand, something that is familiar. This is one of the features of the painting that helps it to communicate. Even in Italy, where the majority of the population are dark haired, Mary is blonde, more often than not – and there are numerous reasons for that. Just one was St Bridget’s vision of the Nativity, in which she saw the Virgin, ‘with her beautiful golden hair falling loosely down her shoulders’. St Bridget was from Sweden, so it is hardly surprising that she had this image of Mary in her mind, even if she was in Bethlehem at the time. Her vision was widely promoted, because as a whole it supports the idea of the Virgin Birth – but this really isn’t the place to go into all of that.

Not only does Mary have a perfect complexion, but she is the epitome of beauty for the time. Here is a quotation from ‘Le Testament’, by François Villon (1431-63?), which you can find in The Penguin Book of French Verse, I.  A fifteenth century poem, admittedly, but it still seems entirely apt for the early 16th:  

…that smooth forehead,
that fair hair,
those arched eyebrows,
those well-spaced eyes,

… that fine straight nose,
neither large nor small,
those dainty little ears,
that dimpled chin,
the curve of those bright cheeks,
and those beautiful red lips.

Her beauty, and the perfection of her complexion, express the idea that Mary was free of sin. Although I couldn’t say if either Gossaert, or the patron of the painting, believed in the Immaculate Conception, by the early 16th Century most Christians would have believed that Mary was free of sin, whatever the divine mechanism that allowed this. And as I’ve already written about it extensively, I’m just going to direct you back to Day 71 – The Immaculate Conception and Day 72 – The Immaculate Conception 2.

Mary’s perfect beauty is brought into focus by the comparison with Jasper/Casper, the eldest magus – comparing their faces enhances the suspicion that his is a portrait, whereas hers, an ideal. And she is ideal. She is also, as it happens, the only female in the painting. I don’t know what contemporary teaching on angels is (although some of you have tried to enlighten me), but back then they would all have been considered male, an extension of the priesthood, which was all male. Now, if you’d excuse me, I have to prepare a lecture! More tomorrow…


An Advent Calendar – 20

‘Joseph’ –

Oh, Joseph! Poor Joseph! Always off to one side, half in the shadows, but with so much responsibility. Of course, the bible says next to nothing about him – apart from the fact that he was of the house of David, and was thought to be Jesus’s father. So almost everything we know must come from elsewhere. This is how Gossaert chooses to depict him:

An old man, with his left hand resting on a staff, his right against the wall, as he keeps out of the way, half-hidden in the doorway. Half-hidden, yes, but clear for all to see, as he is in such a bright red robe. On the whole bright colours were associated with wealth (we have already seen the shepherds in their dull, monochrome clothing), but here we need to know he is important, so he must stand out. Hence the bright red. However, this is not an excessive display – only one colour, after all, and, unlike the kings and their entourage, no patterns, no elaboration, no jewellery – no accessorizing. A functional belt, yes, and some pattens – outdoor overshoes – but that’s all.

Why so old? Well, apocryphal texts say as much. In the Protoevangelium of St James, dating to the second half of the second century, it says that when Mary was 12, they decided to find a husband for her. Long story short, according to verse 9, ‘And the priest said to Joseph, You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl.’ In Chapter 8 of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, probably written in the first half of the seventh century (and certainly no later than the ninth), this ‘lottery’ happened when Mary was fourteen. When told that he had been chosen, ‘Joseph began bashfully to address them, saying: I am an old man, and have children; why do you hand over to me this infant, who is younger than my grandsons?’ This inevitably fed through to the Golden Legend, put together in the 1260s, where, in the description of The Nativity of Our Blessed Lady, we read that, ‘Joseph, of the house of David, was there among the others, and him seemd to be a thing unconvenable, a man of so old age as he was to have so tender a maid.’ This last quotation is from William Caxton’s translation of 1483 – ‘unconvenable’ means ‘inappropriate’. It was probably the Golden Legend which was Giotto’s source when he came to illustrate the Betrothal of the Virgin in the Scrovegni Chapel. If you’d like to read more about the story, and the nature of the ‘lottery’, see Day 31 – The Suitors Praying. Given the insistence in all three of these texts that Joseph was an old man – indeed, one even says he had grandchildren older than Mary – we should not be surprised to see him like this in the paintings.

And why so retiring? Well, he accepted his role as a guardian thanks to the intervention of an angel. According to the Protoevangelium, having become betrothed to Mary, Joseph had travel for work. He returned after about six months, before their marriage had been consummated, only to find her pregnant.  The Gospel of Matthew (1:19-21) takes over from there (or rather, the Protoevangelium filled in before this point):

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.

Joseph, as we know, takes this responsibility on board: he looks after Mary, he cares for Jesus, he keeps them both safe. However, at no point is he warned, at the birth of his stepson, which will, for reasons beyond his control, take place in the vicinity of a manger, that they would be visited by angels, shepherds and an undefined number of wise men/kings, not to mention their various retinues. I can’t help thinking that he’s keeping out of the way until everyone has gone away again, and things get back to normal. Which, of course, they never will. And, of course, it’s not just the characters in the painting. We are there too, looking in, and Joseph knows that. He must do, he is looking out at us, just like the hidden angel, who is further to the right. In many ways Joseph is the most human, the most approachable person in the story – he is the one most like us – and so it is hardly surprising that he should be the person whose glance brings us into the circle of those gathered around the new-born child. And to me it is hardly surprising that he should be the person who would like us all to go back home.


An Advent Calendar – 19

The First Magus’ –

I know – I’ve already talked about two magi, so why is this the First Magus? Well, because I’ve talked about them in reverse order of seniority. Balthazar has a thin, straggly, beard, and I suggested at the time that he was probably the youngest. What I didn’t mention yesterday, when talking about Melchior, is that he had a fine, full beard – and so must be, effectively, the ‘middle aged’ magus. Finally, we get to Casper – who, just to be perverse, doesn’t have a beard at all here: in most paintings his is the longest and whitest. That doesn’t stop him being the most senior – compare and contrast:

Seen next to Melchior, Balthazar’s beard is only the thinnest of whisps, whereas Melchior’s is not only thick, but dark, and lustrous. And Casper? Well, he doesn’t need a beard to show his age – the unmistakeable grey of the hair does that, as does the thinning, not to mention the wrinkles, the bags under the eyes, and other signs of sagging. He may not have a beard, but he does have stubble, a rather wonderful five o’clock shadow, picked out with the lightest specks of paint in different greys.

He even sports a hairy mole, a detail of such striking naturalism that it has often led to the suggestion that this is a portrait. The only contender for the subject would be the man who paid for the painting – the donor – for whom there are suggestions, but let’s not worry about that here. As a portrait, it would also explain why he doesn’t have Casper’s traditional long white beard.

He kneels in obeisance before the Boy Born to be King, the Son of God, and his crown and sceptre have been laid on the ground as a sign of deference. He is the first to do this because he is the most senior, although only Melchior’s servant has followed him in doffing his hat (you can see it here behind Casper’s back). The king is wearing a cloak made of a wonderful, burgundy-coloured, velvet brocade, lined with the softest, thickest fur (look at the rosette of hairs that fans out at his shoulder). He does look entirely European – but then, to my mind, so does Melchior. Perhaps I should say Caucasian, but if we are trying to decide whether Gossaert was following the idea that the kings came from Europe, Africa and Asia, it would be hard to pick which of the two matches the first and the last of these. He is not the only artist to fail to make this distinction: despite the number of different ethnic types available, artists rarely showed a magus who was recognisably Asian. However, the ‘three continents’ idea was not the only theory. As before, to make things simpler, I will quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica: ‘According to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India’. (The spelling differences in the names are common – as are variations in the allocations of ages and origins.) Our Balthazar could conceivably be Ethiopian, but neither of the others would be recognisable as either Persian or Indian. But then, that was not necessarily relevant to the people who originally saw the painting.

I would be hard pressed to recognise this as a crown – although as a hat it is extraordinarily plush. It is a royal hat, certainly, as it is lined with ermine, visible clearly on the upturned brim (which I would assume would be at the back). The hat itself is red velvet, with a band made of elaborate gold links with black tynes. It is topped with an elaborate gold tassel, and the brim is ringed by gold embroidery and pearls. The sceptre is a fantastically elaborate piece of contemporary goldsmithery, as is the object behind the hat, which just happens to be the lid of his gift, which has already been delivered.

Like Balthazar’s hat, it has an inscription, in this case ‘[L]E ROII IASPAR’ – King Jaspar – which is, oddly, another variant of the name Casper. I’ve often been disappointed to think that on the other side of this lid there is not nearly enough space to include the words ‘To Baby Jesus, Happy Christmas, with love from…’ But we’ll get to the gifts in a couple of days.


An Advent Calendar – 18

‘Another Magus’ –

This is Melchior. I know this, because we have met Balthazar already, and tomorrow we will meet Casper – both of their names are included on the painting. Melchior’s is not, but by a process of elimination… He is arguably the most stylishly dressed of the three, but I make that assertion purely on the basis of one item of clothing: red tights. I consider these to have been the must-have fashion item for the well-dressed man in the late 15th/early 16th Centuries, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned the fact before (see Day 4 – Tobias and the Angel).

Like Balthazar, Melchior has two courtiers by his side, each of whom wears dark blue, edging on the darkest turquoise, and the same light olive green worn by Balthazar’s servant. Maybe green and dark blue are Melchior’s colours. Of the two, the one on the right is the more servile (would that be the right word for ‘the most obviously like a servant’?), as he holds the hilt of a very elaborate sword – presumably Melchior’s – and a pink cloak, which is presumably his own. He wears a matching pink hat, which, to my mind, qualifies for the description ‘jaunty’. He is also sporting quite wonderful light blue and white striped tights, which are only just visible. To our left of Melchior the other courtier wears plain white tights, with a green garter, the same colour as the crown of his hat, which is then surrounded by a turban-like brim made of flouncy white fabric, just like the sleeves of his shirt. Melchior wears a long sleeved cloak in cloth of gold, the sleeves reaching almost to the ground, cut to allow him to use his arms, and then tied with black laces at the elbow, below the hands, and at a level with his shins. It is lined with ermine – another clue that he is royalty.

His jacket is quite fabulous. Panels of green fabric lie on top of pink, with the hem of each panel trimmed with pearls. The bottom hem drips with gold ornaments, into each of which is set another pearl. They didn’t have lycra back then, so the knees of the tights are slightly baggy, but not too much – nothing undignified here.

Like Balthazar, Melchior wears a hat and a crown. The hat is red, conical, and topped with a gold tassel. It has a broad brim at the front and at the back, where it is turned up to reveal a blue lining. The brim is decorated in a similar way to the hem of the jacket, with smaller gold pendants and plenty more pearls. Like Balthazar’s, the crown is a gold ring, although more elaborately wrought, but with equivalent tynes set with jewels. His courtiers seem distracted – they pay little attention to the Baby Jesus, if anything looking the wrong way completely. This could be due to overcrowding – and the two faces on the far right, one fairly swarthy, but partly hidden, and another, just the edge of a profile, imply that there is a crush of people trying to get closer (the right side of this detail is the very edge of the painting). The servant in the pink hat could easily be the brother of Balthazar’s servant – although not quite so blonde, and with less lustrous and less curly hair. His attention is presumably taken up by the man in profile, who has rested his hand lightly on his shoulder. The turbaned man on horseback holds what appears to be a war hammer – there are several of these in the Wallace Collection (click on the link if you’d like to see what they look like), and I suppose you’d need to be on your guard making such a long journey. Maybe this is a body guard, or equivalent. I’m intrigued that his horse is one of only three beings in the painting who appear to be aware of our presence – it is definitely looking at us – the others being the hidden angel, and someone we haven’t met yet. I doubt this has any significance, but it does help to keep us involved.

If we are to judge by appearances, I don’t know where Melchior is supposed to be from – but let’s think about that tomorrow when we meet Casper. Have a great day – it’s only a week until Christmas!


An Advent Calendar – 17

…and his servants‘ –

Every good king should have his retinue, but how many followers do you need? ‘What need you five and twenty, ten, or five?’ argues Goneril in Act 2, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Her sister Regan goes further, ‘What need one?’, to which Lear’s response is straightforward: ‘O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars/ Are in the poorest thing superfluous.’ By Lear’s standards, Balthazar might appear an entirely modest king, as his retinue could be as little as two, but it is hard to tell. Is the turbaned figure hugging the column part of his train? The turban certainly conveys the idea of ‘come from afar’. There are also any number of people gathered on the other side of the painting, and it is not easy to tell which king they follow, nor, besides those who are closest to Balthazar, who from the gathered assembly might owe him fealty.

The two closest men do, I’m sure. The one on the left holds his cloak, and adjusts the scarf with which he holds his gift. He is, in some way, a servant – his presence telling us that the man he serves is important – and I have always loved the fact that the black king has a white servant, and one with the blondest of curly hair. This servant is also one of the best dressed men in the painting – another sign of Balthazar’s wealth and status. Very often servants would be dressed in their master’s colours – making Balthazar’s blue and green. While we can’t confirm this, there is certainly a clear harmony with the green swag which serves as a tie for the king’s red cloak.

Unlike the shepherds we have seen before, who tend to wear one plain colour, the servant is dressed in a variety of rich colours – and not only are the colours rich, but the fabrics are patterned, which adds to the impression of wealth. The servants also have accessories – in this case, an elaborately fashioned bag, made of embroidered yellow fabric, with pink piping, a pink tassel on either side and black laces with silver tips in the centre. It has its own belt to attach it around his waist. On the flap is a small blue panel which harmonises with the blue of his skirted doublet, decorated with a pale, geometric logo. The pinks and yellows of the bag echo the red and gold brocade which trim the cuffs at his elbows, and the burgundy colour of his sleeves. It is all remarkable tasteful. The blue panels of the doublet are brocaded with a large repeat of stylised flowers and leaves, while the green panels have thick stitches of gold running horizontally. For a servant, this is an impressive get up.

In between the servant and Balthazar we see a second man of colour. He could be another servant, although he may equally be a higher ranking courtier. He wears a full and elaborate – if somewhat fanciful – turban, and a silver necklet with golden filigree work, from which hangs a small pendant. Apart from this, we can’t see much of him. His face is not as detailed as that of the king, but then, he is not as close. It is, however, the filigree work which is most interesting.

It forms letters which spell out ‘IENNIN GOSS…’ – before becoming illegible as they go around his neck. This is the second signature that Jean Gossart/Jan Gossaert included in the painting: he must have been inordinately proud of it. Not every artist signs their work, but every so often one will get carried away and put their name on more than once, for reasons that vary from vanity to carelessness. What is intriguing about the two signatures on this painting is that each is associated with one of the two black men in the painting. Leslie Primo has suggested that that courtier’s necklet might effectively be a slave collar – a sign of ownership – and that Gossaert put his name on these men because he owned them. You can hear more about this idea on the BP2 podcast, to which I also contributed. And if you’re shocked at the idea of an artist owning slaves, it was not unknown: among other artists, Velázquez also owned a slave (see Day 88 – Juan de Pareja), who worked as his assistant, whom he freed, and who became an artist in his own right (see Day 85 – The Flight into Egypt). If Leslie is right, then it could explain the remarkable detail we see on Balthazar’s face: he had all the time in the world to sit for his portrait.


An Advent Calendar – 16

‘…his hat…’ –

A magus should have a hat, I suppose, and any good king should have a crown. This, I would say, is the latter – or, maybe, both. A crown, in this context, is defined as ‘A circular ornamental headdress worn by a monarch as a symbol of authority, usually made of or decorated with precious metals and jewels’. And this is certainly that – although I am fairly sure that it is a crown placed over a hat. The former is indeed ‘a circular ornamental headdress’, with stylised leafy tynes (the pointy bits), with black pearls at the top of each, and white pearls on either side. The circular band is richly decorated, set with brooch-like elements beneath the tynes, each of which is inset with a ruby. In between these are enamel roses, which look grey and white, but if you can get really close, are actually a deep turquoise and white, with a pearl set in the centre of each.

The hat, over which the crown has been place, is conical. There is a red band top and bottom. At the top a pinnacle is created by short strings of pearls, linked with gold, and pearls also hang from golds ornaments around the band at the bottom. The central section is made of a deep black fabric, embroidered, or in some way appliqued, with filigree gold decorations. The amount of gold from which the headdress as a whole has been wrought is quite staggering, and speaks to the wealth – and therefore the standing – of the king who wears it. But each red band is also embroidered – or appliqued – with an inscription, both of which are informative.

The top one reads, quite simply, ‘BALTAZAR’. This is, of course, the king’s name. At this scale, we can see how brilliantly it has been painted, the basic form in a butterscotch colour, highlighted with cream where it catches the light. This seems to flare slightly at the brightest points – as do the thicker blobs of paint which form highlights on the embossed rings which frame the inscription. From a distance this simply glows, and makes it look like gold.

Each of the three kings has a name, of course – Casper, Melchior and Balthasar – and once upon a time I knew where the names came from. But now I know more, I realise that it is not so obvious, so to makes things simple I’m going to go with the explanation from the Encyclopedia Britannica (online), which states that, ‘In about the 8th century the names of three Magi—Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa—appear in a chronicle known as the Excerpta latina barbari. They have become known most commonly as Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar (or Casper).’ However, different traditions have different names – the churches in Syria, Ethiopia and Armenia have three completely different sets. And even within the Western Church there is no entirely fixed way to distribute the names – although most commonly Balthasar was seen as the youngest, and was supposed to have come from Ethiopia.

The inscription which runs along the bottom of the hat tells us something altogether different. It reads, ‘IENNI*GOSSART:DEMABV…’ before becoming indecipherable under the crown (which is why I think this is a crown placed over a hat). This inscription tells us something which I think many of you knew already: the painting is by Jan Gossaert. This is his signature. Like many artists he has a nickname, although it is not one in common use nowadays – ‘Mabuse’, after his birthplace, Maubeuge (hence ‘DEMABV’), in French-speaking Hainault. This now straddles the French-Belgian border – so no, it is not east of London on the Central Line. Gossaert did not come from Essex. But if he was born in French-speaking Hainault, why was he called ‘Gossaert’? Well, he wasn’t. That’s not how he signed his name. He signed himself ‘Jenni Gossart’, as you can see from the painting, which we would interpret as ‘Jean Gossart’ – entirely French. However, according to Lorne Campbell’s superb catalogue entry, to which I am entirely indebted, and which is online in it entirety, ‘the Dutch translation ‘Jan Gossaert’ gradually gained currency during the second half of the 19th century and became standard during the 20th century.’  The 19th Century has so much to answer for. However, now we know the name of this king (or magus), and of the artist, what more is there to say? Well, plenty: we haven’t even finished with Balthasar yet…


An Advent Calendar – 14

More Shepherds

So, the Shepherds who were in the foreground yesterday are in the middle ground today – and those in the background seem even further away. Everything is relative. And further forward, we see four more shepherds. We also see the red column supporting the capital carved with the relief of Abraham and Isaac and the back of the ass. Two of the shepherds are tucked into a gap in the ruins, one of whom, in a faded pink cloak, rests his right hand on his chest and tilts his head t,hat unmistakable ‘devotion and awe’ stance which echoes that of the hidden angel on the other side of the painting.

Further forward two more shepherds come into sharper focus, and more intense colour. The careful attention to surface detail allows us to see the shape of their heads with utter clarity, every inflection of the surface, the rugged features, the stubble, the sagging of the skin, the receding hair. These are normal, down-to-earth people, wearing plain, pattern-less clothing similar to that which we saw yesterday. OK, so today there is a hint of colour – the faded pink (it could be the paint that has faded, rather than the fabric – pink paints often do), and the green. But it’s nothing flashy. Yesterday I said there were no accessories, and, yes, there are hats (one in the foreground, one in the middle), but again, nothing special, and the one in the foreground is made of straw – so a cheap, practical item, even if well made – and beautifully painted!

Again, I should ask, how do I know they are shepherds? It is simply that they are ‘poor’, relatively speaking (compared to the people we haven’t seen yet), and that they are down-to-earth. And also, the fact that they are there. Although ox and ass were added in to the biblical account, not to mention dogs, ruins and plants in this case, artists were not in the habit of adding to the ‘normal’ people who turned up (although Mary’s midwives do feature in some paintings) – the shepherds were enough. Not only that, but they are musicians, and there was a minor tradition of shepherds playing music at the Nativity.

The one in green holds a pipe, while the other, who is closer, is grasping a houlette, described as ‘a trowel-like implement used in herding sheep’, proof, if any were needed, that they are shepherds. I used to think that it was the handle of an early stringed instrument – ah well. Nevertheless, there is a small horn hanging round his neck – probably also used for herding. But the pipe is most relevant, as it was piping for which the shepherds were known. The tradition survived into the 19th Century at least, as the pfifferi, as they were called, can even be found in paintings by Turner – although they are not widely reported.

And last, but not least (for today): I know you’ve all been waiting to hear about yesterday’s ‘second thing’. The first was that the shepherds in the distance appear to be looking at the star, rather than any of the angels.

And the second? Well, Luke says that, ‘there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night’ (Luke 2:8). They were ‘in the same country’– which is why they got to Jesus first. Having said that, Luke 2:15 does go on to say,

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

That is, they didn’t leave the field until ‘angels were gone away from them’ – and we know the angels are still here. Or rather, they are here, now, in the foreground, not there… not above the field, which could be another reason why the shepherds might not be looking at them. And remember, that was 12 days ago…

When I worked more regularly at the National Gallery, I used to ask school groups why they thought the shepherds were at the back (even the ones in the ‘foreground’ of today’s detail are), and sadly, they always said, ‘because they are not very important’. It’s just not the case. They were very important. They were the first to get there. The entitled people turned up late and pushed their way to the front – it always happens. Or, to look at it another way, the shepherds had been there for 12 days already, so they didn’t mind stepping back so that someone else could get a closer look. Either way you interpret it, the shepherds come out well.

And there is one more thing, which is really the ‘second thing’: they were ‘in the same country’. They were locals, and as a result they came to represent the Jews who converted to Christianity. Those coming from distant lands – the Magi – were associated with the Gentiles, and we’ll start on them tomorrow.


An Advent Calendar – 13

Shepherds’ –

This is the first of two days of Shepherds. Today I’m not interested in the two in the foreground – well, the foreground of this detail, anyway, they are quite a way back in the painting. Leaning over the wooden fence, we can tell they are shepherds because they are poorly dressed, with dull, plain fabrics, no patterns, no accessories. But further back there are more shepherds, ‘keeping watch over their flock’.  They are the ones of interest today. The fence the foreground pair peer over, like the rest of the building, is in a poor state of repair, and only a few of the vertical slats have lasted above the horizontal plank to which they are attached. One, just in from the left, still has its original sharp point, which seems, probably intentionally, to be pointing to a shepherd, ‘seated on the ground’.

I am, of course, quoting from two separate sources. The second comes from the well-known Christmas carol:

While shepherds watch'd their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.

Fair enough, but not all of these shepherds are seated on the ground. We have seen one that is, although he leans back on his left arm, his right raised to shade his eyes from the glare of the glory. This has presumably only just shone round about them, as, in the process of leaning back, his right leg, knee bent, has lifted off the ground and his foot is suspended in mid-air. There are clear signs of bright illumination on the upper sides of his legs, arms, torso and head, however minute the detail must be. So he is seated, but just to the left another shepherd stands, legs apart, leaning on a staff, and looking up – but more towards their companion on the adjacent hill, rather than up into the heavens. At the top of a small escarpment, where we can see four sheep precariously poised, is a third shepherd waving both arms in the air, with both legs bent and a flap of drapery blowing out behind. From what I can see of his face, he is looking directly upwards, his head tilted as far back as possible. The two shepherds on the ‘plain’ have more sheep with them, at the bottom of the escarpment, and two alert, upright forms, which are probably dogs. These three are the very shepherds mentioned in Luke 2:8-9:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

I’m not entirely convinced that all three are ‘sore afraid’ – the one standing is certainly only vaguely interested, as far as I can see, but the other two look more perturbed. The sheep are also entirely indifferent. Sheep often are. I’m also not entirely convinced that it is night time – however, here the artist has a problem, as we have to be able to see what is in the foreground of the painting. Also, he has another problem, given that, in the same way that yesterday’s detail was some time in the future, this is some time in the past. The angels appeared to the shepherds on Christmas – Christmas night, to be precise – whereas we already know (I have already implied) the Wise Men have already arrived here, so most of the painting is happening on 6 January – this detail happened is 12 days ago. It may have been night then, but now it is day. Nevertheless, I think there is an uncanny sense of nocturnal illumination in the background of today’s detail, given the way that the shepherds and their flock glow against the dark landscape. This technique – putting more that one part of the story into the same painting – is known as ‘continuous narrative’ and was very common.

There are two other things to consider when reading this text, and looking at this detail. The first is that, in the context of the whole painting, none of the shepherds ‘abiding in the field’ appear to be looking at any of the nine angels flying in the sky – and certainly not the hidden angel in the ruins. Rather, they appear to be looking at the star. So let us return to this star, and see what the Golden Legend says about it (the Golden Legend is the name given to a collection of stories of the lives of the Saints which was gathered together by the Franciscan Jacopo da Voragine in the 1260s, and became one of the most important sources for artists):

And ye ought to know that there be three opinions of this star, which Remigius the doctor putteth, saying that: Some say that it was the Holy Ghost which appeared to the three kings in the form of a star, which after appeared upon the head of Jesu Christ in the likeness of a dove. Others say, like to S. John Chrysostom, that it was an angel that appeared to the shepherds, and after appeared to the kings… in form of… a star. Others say more reasonably and more veritably that it was a star new created, and made of God.

My feeling would be that the artist – or maybe even the patron – or more probably, the patron’s ecclesiastical advisor, if he wasn’t ecclesiastical himself – knew this passage well, and wanted to include all three possibilities. One: ‘it was the Holy Ghost’, later to appear as a dove. Maybe that’s why the dove appears just below the star. Two: ‘an angel… in [the] form of a star’. This would be why the shepherds are looking at it. Three: ‘a star new created’. Well, it looks like no other star, and shines more brightly than the sun, as the Legend itself goes on to say. It could be any one of these three interpretations, or, for that matter, all three. We’ll come back to the ‘second thing’ tomorrow!


An Advent Calendar – 12

‘Herod’s Men?’ –

We’re quite a long way away here, looking off into the distance where the perspective makes things appear far smaller. Well, the linear perspective does. The aerial, or atmospheric, perspective makes things appear paler. The dust and mist in the air – and the air itself – knocks the light out of line, and it doesn’t all reach us, so colours shift, intensity is muted, and nothing is quite so clear. And one of the things that is not entirely clear is what these people are up to: they are probably up to no good.

However pale they may be, and however muted, they do not look peaceable. OK, so one horse has stopped, and looks to our left in profile, its rider not even visible beyond the edge of the painting. But just next to it is a horse that is clearly over-animated. It appears in an extreme horsey-contrapposto, the weight on its left foreleg, the right foreleg lifted high, while it looks over what I can only assume is its right shoulder (apologies, my knowledge of equine anatomy is limited) against the movement of the foreleg. It could have been drawn by Michelangelo, and is in danger of pre-empting mannerism. To follow this through, the rear legs are in ‘contrapposto’ with those at the front – they would have to be, or it would fall over. Meanwhile its turbaned (?) rider waves a sword above his head. Further along the track another horse rears up, and at least three – maybe four – riders can be seen, with a number of flags (at least two) and spears (maybe three). Beyond the brow of the hill (down to the left) the cavalcade continues.

These can’t be the Kings, envisaged a while back on their way to Bethlehem, their progress would surely have been more sedate. The speed is immaterial, it is the dignity that counts, and these horsemen lack dignity, they lack control, they presage strife through their energetic, extreme, and potentially unbalanced movement. I can only assume that they are Herod’s soldiers, who are coming for Jesus. But what are they doing here? They don’t even know where he is yet, and they also don’t know that the Kings are not going to tell them where he is. The Kings don’t know that themselves yet, because (spoiler alert – but you already knew) they have only just arrived, and they haven’t had time to be ‘warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod’ (Matthew 2:12), so they would depart ‘into their own country another way’. No wonder, then, that we can’t see these soldiers clearly – we are looking into the future. How far into the future is not clear, either, as the bible doesn’t specify, but it could be two years. After all, this is what it says in Matthew 2:16:

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

Precisely how you interpret this is open to question, but at the very most, from the time at which the Wise Men saw the star until the point when the children were slain would have been two years. Somehow I can’t imagine Herod sitting around patiently for two whole years waiting for the wise men to come back, and given that google maps tells me it only takes two hours and eighteen minutes to walk from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (I know, I’m just picking a point at random) to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (not so random), I can’t see why he would wait more than a couple of weeks.

That’s beside the point though. After all, we don’t actually know when the Wise Men got to Bethlehem… although the Church in the West settled on 6 January (or the evening of the 5th) long ago. One early text said they got there two years after the birth – but it might have misunderstood Matthew. The point is that, unlike a Greek tragedy, a painting is not constrained by the unities of time and place, and is free to show other parts of the story. What we are looking at today is what is going to happen at some point in the future – the chronicle of innocent deaths foretold – by which time the Wise Men will have headed home another way, and the donkey will have been pressed into service for a quick escape to Egypt. And having looked at the future today, tomorrow we will see something that happened 12 – or 13 – days ago.


An Advent Calendar – 11

‘A Hidden Angel’ –

For years I told people that this person peering through a doorway – or, at least, a gap in the wall – was a self portrait (I was going to type ‘a self portrait of the artist’ – but of whom else could it be a self portrait?) I said this, because that is what I had been told, and because the high-resolution photography which enables us to get in this close was not publicly available when I started working at the National Gallery. I certainly wasn’t ‘online’ back then, and I don’t know when the Gallery launched its first website. Now, though, every painting has its own ‘zoom’ function, and you can get in far closer to see the details than public access and the paintings’ safety can allow. It’s a great thing, but it will never beat seeing them ‘in the flesh’.

There are at least three problems with the hypothesis that this is a self portrait. The first is that we do not know what the artist looked like. There are no known portraits of him. The second is that this face is just not specific enough to be a portrait (and several faces in the painting are, although no positive identifications have been forthcoming). And the third is that, above the head of this curious creature, clearly picked out however dim the half-light, is the unmistakable profile of a wing. As far as I am aware, no artists have been winged, and I can’t think of any who have shown themselves as if they were (although Orazio Gentileschi did talk about lending a pair to Caravaggio).

This is not a self portrait – it’s not even a portrait. This is an angel who has landed on earth, and has crept as close as he dares, without getting in the way or causing a stir, to peer out on the saviour-made-flesh, right hand on his chest as a sign of devotion, and of awe. And he’s looking at you – yes, you – to see your response to this miracle. All of this is hypothesis, too, mind you, as nobody really knows why he is there. There is a theory that the nine angels flying in the sky represent the nine different choirs of their hierarchy, but with a tenth down on earth this doesn’t ring true. And in any case, the nine are not distinguished in any way to separate cherub from seraph, throne from power, angel from archangel, etc. They represent a number of the heavenly host, and the number that looks right for the sky in this painting. At times, the concerns are purely aesthetic. There is meaning, but there is also art, and this is something in which we participate. Which is why the angel is looking at you.


An Advent Calendar – 10

The Ass’ –

Surely, I can hear you saying, surely there is biblical authority for the ass in a painting of Christ’s birth? It’s always there! How else would they have got to Bethlehem when, ‘there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed’ (Luke 2:10)? Well, it doesn’t say. OK, so the baby was laid in a manger (from the French, manger, ‘to eat’, but I think I’ve said that before), and asses eat at mangers, but that doesn’t mean that an ass was definitely there. And there’s also no mention of how they got to Egypt, apart from the fact that they went by night, and, although it is described as a ‘flight’ they were definitely not on a plane. It’s just that it’s so obvious that there was an ass at the nativity, that it makes most sense to travel with it. That, and the knowledge that that’s how they travelled back then. But there is no mention of it in the bible. So what is this, and what is it doing here?

Well, you’re right, we’re all right, it is a donkey. And yes, a donkey and an ass are exactly the same thing. And it’s here, busily minding its own business, fulfilling a prophesy from the Jewish scriptures – the Old Testament. It’s not even a prophesy really, just an observation, but early Christian theologians saw it as a prophesy. Isaiah started his book lamenting the fact that none of the people were following God’s word, even though the beasts of the field knew what was what: ‘The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider’ (Isaiah 1:3). The parallel of ‘crib’ and ‘manger’ must have been particularly compelling: no room in the inn, so he was laid in a manger, where oxen and asses were likely to eat – so what more fitting than the very creatures that Isaiah mentioned being there at the birth?

It still doesn’t quite help to make the leap to include them in the paintings. However, the bible may be a good book, the Good Book many people would say, but it wasn’t the only book, and in the same way that we tell and retell stories over and over again, the bible stories were subject to constant reinterpretation, particularly as there are so many gaps, so much that was not explained. To communicate better with the people, and to give them something that is easier to grasp, why not tell the stories with a fuller narrative? Many texts never made it into the ‘Bible’ we know today – a number of apocryphal gospels, for example. One of them, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, was probably written in the first half of the 7th century (although some people think it dates to the 8th, or even 9th century) and so it is a relative latecomer, drawing on two texts from the 2nd Century, the Protoevangelium and the Infancy Gospel of Luke. Nevertheless, it was around from the 9th Century at the very latest, and even if bits were added in and taken out along the way, it would have been there for the artists to read. It includes 42 chapters (probably not the reason that Douglas Adams thought that 42 was the answer to life, the universe and everything), and this is most of Chapter 14:

And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib. The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him.

So there they are, the ox and the ass, and the precise reason why they were there – to fulfil ‘that which was said by Isaiah the prophet’. And there they will remain, incessantly adoring him. Incessantly. OK, so the ass has taken a break to munch on a bottle of hay, but where is the ox? Well, off to the left, emerging from a doorway, possibly where its stall is located.

I’m intrigued by this ox, having the seen the original painting for the first time in ages yesterday, as it seems to have two left horns. Either that, or the foreshortening of a left horn at this angle, and emerging from a doorway, would be rather difficult. Or there is another ox lurking out of sight… although that seems unlikely. But here it is, and there is the ass, and, given breaks for refreshment, they will be there, incessantly adoring him, in all the nativity scenes you will see. And, never happy with one single interpretation, when there could be multiple layers, the ox came to represent the Jews who converted to Christianity, while the ass represents the Gentiles. But that, I presume, is another story.


An Advent Calendar – 9

‘A Dove’ –

Not just any dove, of course, it is the Holy Spirit. And this is a remarkably rare sighting of it in the Nativity. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of another example, although apparently there are a few, particularly in paintings from Antwerp in the early 16th Century. It flies aloft, directly above the Christ Child, and has golden beams of light descending around it – these are a continuation of the glow of the star, which is just above the wooden beam which frames the top of this detail.

This leads to the suggestion that the star might, in some way, represent God the Father, given that God the Son is down on earth, and God the Holy Spirit flies in between. However, there is nothing in the bible, or in any text I am aware of, that suggests God was present in the star – so this would be a unique instance of this symbolism, and, consequently, we might assume that no one would have understood it in this way – although the light from heaven might have made it clear.

The dove does fit in remarkably well amid the panoply of wings belonging to just a few of the heavenly host, companions of the angels we saw the other day, and they in their turn fly comfortably among the ruins. I love the way in which the wing on the left echoes the curve of the bracket which supports the beam at the top of the detail, carved from a naturally curving branch, I assume. I’m also impressed by the way in which the artist has thought about the pegs which hold it in place – they are flush with the beam, unlike the equivalents on the right, which project, casting visible shadows.

The flight of the Holy Spirit looks almost heraldic, the wings lifted more or less symmetrically, its head turned to our left, and the legs projecting down in front of the fanned tail behind. It has the air of presiding over events at a suitable distance. It may well be practicing for a future Epiphany. Its first appearance as a dove occurs during the Baptism of Christ, which is recounted in all the three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. The accounts are similar in each, but I’m going to quote from Luke, as the relevant part is condensed into just one verse. Immediately after the Baptism Luke says that, ‘the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased’ (Luke 3:22). In one verse of the bible (it’s two in Matthew and Mark) the whole doctrine of the Holy Trinity is embodied. It may well be worthwhile pointing out that the Baptism of Christ also counts as an Epiphany – a moment of great revelation. For the Wise Men it was seeing the Boy Born to be King. At the Baptism, it was the public revelation that Jesus was the Son of God.  Many years ago, both Epiphanies were celebrated on the same day.

This is a detail from the 10th Century Liber Sacramentorum Fulda, a ‘Book of Sacraments’, with the liturgies – and illustrations – of the feasts that should be celebrated on each day. The Adoration of the Magi is illustrated top left, and The Baptism of Christ stretches across the bottom (apologies, it is unsuitably cropped, but see below). Top right is The Wedding at Cana, Jesus’s first miracle, and so another Epiphany, which was also celebrated on 6 January. Gradually the church spread them out, so each could be the focus of a separate day. Cropped as it is, the descent of the Holy Spirit is clearly visible: the shared celebration of the Adoration of the Magi and the Baptism of Christ could, possibly, explain the presence of the Holy Spirit in this painting. Either that, or the patron was more than especially keen to get as much theology into the painting as possible.

Adoration of the Magi, Marriage at Cana and Baptism of Christ
from Liber Sacramentorum Fulda, 10th century. Seminary Library, Udine.


An Advent Calendar – 8

‘Dogs’ –

Nowhere in the bible does it mention the presence of dogs at the birth of Jesus, and, as far as I am aware, they are not mentioned in any of the apocryphal sources either – but as I haven’t read them all, I could easily be wrong. They are here as an assumption, the assumption being that wealthy people – such as kings – will travel with their dogs. This was, indeed, commonly the case. When Pope Innocent III summoned bishops to the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, he pointed out that their retinues should not include birds and hunting dogs – it was simply not appropriate. When Borso d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, went to Rome to visit the Pope some 555 years later, he travelled with 700 men, 120 of whom were on horseback, and they took their dogs and cheetahs. But then, he wasn’t a bishop on the way to reform the church. And he came away with a promotion, returning home as the first Duke of Ferrara. The Three Kings in Gentile da Fabriano’s Strozzi Altarpiece (1423) – the main panel of which illustrates the Adoration of the Magi – do travel with dogs and cheetahs, as do the Magi in Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the chapel of the Medici Palace in Florence painted three decades later. In our painting we only have two dogs – no cheetahs – so maybe it’s not so grand. However, although I’m not a dog person by any stretch of the imagination, I am fairly sure this is not a sheep dog.

It’s probably a hunting dog, and, true to its doggy instincts, it’s having a go at a bone. It could be a symbol of Fidelity – dogs often are – but here it doesn’t need to be. It is half-way in between the two plants we saw yesterday and is included for at least two reasons – maybe three: 1) to enhance the status of the people in the painting we haven’t seen yet 2) to communicate the idea of ‘Faith’ – although I doubt this dog’s name is ‘Fido’ (Latin for ‘I trust/believe/confide in’) and 3) to tell us that the man who painted it knows about art. Why would I think no. 3) is the case? Well, because it is not his dog – it is a dog he has borrowed from somebody else – namely Martin Schongauer. Compare and contrast:

Yes, they are facing the opposite way, which is odd. It is something you would expect if the print were made from the painting, but the print dates from around 1470-75, roughly forty years before the painting, so maybe our artist is just playing a game. If he is, it is quite a sophisticated one, something along the lines of ‘This dog is taken from a print, which reverses the imagery, so when Schongauer engraved the plate, this is what he would have seen’. It’s quite a leap of the imagination. Of course, it may have been swapped round simply because it looks better in the composition this way. The other difference is that our painted dog has a bone. As with so many other things in this painting, it might be symbolic – looking forward to Easter, and Christ’s death, as Christmas inevitably does – but it might just be a dog doing what dogs do. This is the image that Schongauer’s dog comes from, an Adoration of the Magi:

Martin Schongauer, The Adoration of the Magi, 1470-75. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YOrk.

I don’t know whether our artist wasn’t very good at dogs, or didn’t have any dogs to hand to use as models – or was just particularly keen to showcase his knowledge of the work of the men who had inspired him most – but the other dog is taken from a print as well. Compare and contrast these two:

The orientation is the same – it is just the tail that is different – and both dogs occupy similar positions in their respective images. This one is by Albrecht Dürer, and is taken from his St Eustace:

Albrecht Dürer, St Eustace, c. 1501. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

St Eustace was out hunting – or rather, the Roman general Placidus was out hunting – when he saw a crucifix between a stag’s antlers. The stag spoke to him – with Jesus’s voice – and this inspired the general to convert to Christianity, and to be baptised, taking the name of Eustace. It’s Dürer’s largest print, and was hugely influential: the inclusion of one of the dogs in our painting is just one example of that.

As well as reasons 1) – 3) above, we can add reason 4) for the inclusion of this sheepish looking dog – it allows the artist to show yet more textures and shapes to the painting, and so keeps us looking at it more, thus keeping us involved and helping to convey its message. And there are plenty more materials, textures and forms to look at before we get to Jesus.


An Advent Calendar – 7

‘The Floor’ –

Looking down, we see that the floor is in the same condition as the walls – in a chronic state of decay, and in desperate need of repair. It is part of the setting of this religious drama, and, like the rest of the scenery, it is symbolic of the old order which will make way for the new. Having said that, when it was first laid down it must have been a first-rate pavement, with square stone tiles, which were reasonably thick, in a number of different colours. Some of these were split across the diagonal, making up the square with two triangles, and in others a smaller square has been set at 45˚, with smaller triangles filling in the corners.

The tiles are chipped and cracked, some have come loose, and some seem to have gone missing altogether. It looks as though they were laid directly onto the bare earth, and plants have grown up between them, in the same way that they are growing from the tops of the walls. This one is a Field Eryngo (Eryngium campestre – thanks, as ever, to the Ecologist for the identification). As far as I know, it is not symbolic of anything in particular, but it does look rather spiky. It’s close relative, the Sea Eryngo, is also called ‘sea holly’, just to make the point – and I suspect that the spikes are related to the Fall. God warned Adam and Eve, after he had found them ashamed, and clad in fig leaves, ‘cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee’ (Genesis 3: 17-18) – so, it seems, there was nothing spiky before the fall, and this plant certainly looks prickly even if it wouldn’t do much harm.

On the other side of the painting there is White Dead-nettle (Lamium album), which again is probably not in itself symbolic. However, as it does look remarkably like a stinging nettle, it might again represent the potential dangers – or at least, inconveniences – of the natural world which resulted from the sin which Adam and Eve introduced into it – and so remind us of our need for redemption, and the Baby Jesus, who is present elsewhere in the painting.

As you can see especially clearly in this detail, it is not just the painted building that is in a state of decay: the painting itself is too. This is visible in the other detail, but it is more obvious here: some of the tiles have become transparent. What the artist appears to have done was to lay out the perspective of the floor – all the parallel lines which go towards the vanishing point, and those at right angles to them – and then to paint the tiles themselves. He may then have decided it just didn’t look enough of a mess, so he painted some more tiles on top. Over time, these have become see-through. What happens (here comes the science bit) is that the oil dries as the result of a process called concatenation: individual oil molecules bond together to form chains with other oil molecules. As they do this, the refractive index of the oil increases (the refractive index is a measure of the degree to which light is ‘bent’ as it passes from one transparent medium to another – think of a straw sticking out of a gin and tonic for example – though why you’d drink gin and tonic with a straw I don’t really know). The refractive index of some pigments – white, for example – is relatively low, and as concatenation increases the refractive index of the oil gets closer and closer to the refractive index of the pigment, so the light refracts less and less, and the paint gradually becomes transparent. It’s a sign of age, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. As a phenomenon it can be interesting, as it allows you to see where artists have changed their minds – ‘repented’ of what they had done before – but that’s just a way of explaining the Italian term for these visible changes: pentimenti. Sadly, even though Jesus has come to ‘rebuild’ the old order, returning this painting to how it looked when it was first made would presumably not be part of his brief.


An Advent Calendar – 6

‘A Relief‘ –

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

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

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

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

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


An Advent Calendar – 5

A Capital

Today we are looking at another column, and like the one yesterday, it might be made from Rosso di Verona, although seeing it like this, I doubt it. It’s a deeper red, for one thing, and it has dark, almost black veins in it. Not only that: it has a very high shine, and Rosso di Verona cannot be polished so finely. The light reflecting off the column appears as vertical white lines, and, apart from the degree of polish, the highlights tell us that, miraculously, the column is not worn or eroded. Despite the change and decay we see all around, it is perfectly smooth and shiny, and, judging by the way in which the artist has painted the reflections, almost perfectly cylindrical.

But that’s not what interests me today, apart from the fact that it implies that there is something special about this column: why has it survived so well? Why is our attention drawn towards it? I’m assuming the intention is, in turn, to draw our attention towards the grey capital at the top. This capital is historiated – by which I mean it is decorated with figures that are significant in some way, rather than being purely, well, decorative. Four figures are visible. Directly above the brightest highlight on the column is a kneeling person, facing to the right with their hands raised in prayer. Behind them (to our left) and directly above the less prominent highlight on the column is a standing figure with its legs far apart. One hand – the left – is on the kneeling person’s shoulder, and the other is raised in the air. A slightly curved line is carved just below the top of the capital – a sword, which the standing figure is holding. But the raised arm is grasped firmly by the hand of a third figure, round to the left, and in the shadows. This figure seems surprisingly high up, and its legs curve round underneath it, rather than touching the ground. Sketched in at the very top left you might just be able to decipher a wing: it is an angel. And then, at the base of the capital, on the far right, is a small creature. Again, it is above one of the highlights on the column, a sign that the column – and the light reflecting off it – are there to draw our attention to these figures. This is the story of Abraham and Isaac, told in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 22:1-13:

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

For Christians, this story, telling of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice his ‘only son Isaac’ because of his love for God, was seen as a pre-figuring God the Father’s decision to sacrifice his only begotten son, Jesus, because of his love for humankind. The interpretation gains strength from the phrase, ‘God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering’, as Jesus was greeted by John the Baptist with the words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). The inclusion of this relief sculpture, with Isaac kneeling in prayer, Abraham’s arm raised and ready to strike, the angel preventing him, and the ram, caught in a thicket (or so we must imagine), to the right, reminds us that Jesus, the little baby depicted at the base of the column, was born to die; that he was the Messiah prophesied in the Jewish scriptures; and that we are now at the beginning of the ‘new order’. It’s a lot of weight for a small carving to bear, but that is what makes this column so special: its weight-bearing capacity – whether that is physical or allegorical.


An Advent Calendar – 4

Architecture as History

This is a window – but it’s not just a window, it’s a biforate window – which means that it’s a window with two openings (from the Latin bi- for ‘two’ and foratus, meaning pierced). There might be quite a few words today. For example, this biforate window uses stilted arches. The central division is made up of a column – you can just see the very top of it, a warm orangey-red, at the bottom of the detail. The shaft of this column is topped by a capital (from the Latin caput, meaning ‘head’), carved with stylised leaves (though not the acanthus of the classical Corinthian order [or ‘style’]). Above the capital is a square slab, known as the impost. Now, above the impost there is a vertical, square, cylindrical element before the arches on either side start to curve out towards the edges of the window. The point where an arch starts to curve, is the point where the arch is said to spring. A stilted arch is one which springs some distance above the impost. Effectively, it is an arch on a stilt.

All very well and good, you might say, but so what? Well, the nature of the arch can tell us the age of the building, and the types of buildings used in a painting can tell us more about where it was made – and when. In Italian Renaissance paintings the ruins (see yesterday) depicted in paintings of the Nativity tend to be ruins of classical architecture. They are saying that the birth of Jesus means that the Roman Empire is destined to fail… although they are also saying that the artists really admired classical architecture. Indeed, their contemporaries who were architects were trying to emulate, and even surpass it. Modern buildings, for the Italians, had round-topped arches, just like the ones they saw in ancient Roman ruins.

However, in the North of Europe the artists – and architects (although I should probably say ‘builders’ – precisely when ‘architects’ take over is not entirely clear) – had different interests. Buildings were still being constructed with pointed ‘Gothic’ arches way into the 16th Century. So modern buildings had pointed arches, whereas old buildings had round ones. But these were not classical buildings – they were Romanesque, with full, broad, round arches, with rounded edges, a bit like classical architecture, but after Christmas when they’ve eaten and drunk too much and could do with going on a diet and doing a bit of exercise. In the UK we might call it Norman, as it was the Normans who really introduced the Romanesque to Britain, in cathedrals such as Durham and Canterbury and Rochester and Lincoln and Winchester and Ely and Peterborough and… so on. But stilted arches are arguably ­Pre-Romanesque, with examples going back to the 9th century – although they do continue through to the 12th, in some cases. So the painting shows us not just an old building, but a very old building, as far as the Gothic-loving audience would have been concerned. The ruined state of it might suggest as much, but the architectural style confirms it. No wonder Jesus has come to rebuild!

However, it is clearly loved. You may be familiar with the notion of tree huggers – but how many of you have ever hugged a column? I have been known to, in moments of architectural excitement, and it’s a useful thing to do as a group if you want to work out how large some particularly impressive classical examples are. But whether the man you can see below is hugging the column because of his admiration for Pre-Romanesque architecture, or because he loves what could be Rosso di Verona – a wonderful, orangey-red stone rich in the fossils of ammonites, and transported all the way from the eponymous Italian city – so well out of the way either of Bethlehem or the original home of this painting – or, maybe, because he wants to squeeze through the biforate window to get a better view of the Christ Child, I’ll let you decide.


An Advent Calendar – 3


Rest assured, ruins are not mentioned in any biblical account of Christmas – but nevertheless, they are a common feature in paintings. I’ve written about them recently, as it happens, long after Christmas, when Jesus, Mary and Joseph had already returned from their flight into Egypt, and were settling down to what could have been normal family life (115 – Role Models).

But if ruins weren’t mentioned, what are they doing there? After all, we know full well that Jesus was born in a stable, don’t we? We do, but we’re wrong – at least as far as the bible is concerned. There’s no mention of a building at all – apart from the building where Christmas didn’t take place (‘the inn’). Early apocryphal gospels suggest that the holy birth took place in a cave, and there are plenty of paintings which show that, mainly from the 13th and 14th centuries, although the idea does survive into the Renaissance in a few examples. All the bible says is that Mary ‘…brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.’ (Luke 2:7) The fact that a manger is a food bowl (from the French, manger, ‘to eat’) tells you what a remarkable story this is, even if you don’t believe it. Let’s face it, the Son of God, who is God (it’s a mystery) becomes a human baby and they put him in an animal’s feeding trough – what greater humility could there be? Anyway, the assumption must have been, because the ox and the ass were there as well (more of them another day), that this manger must have been in a stable. But no – here the birth has taken place amidst ruins.

There are several reasons for this. And now I’m going to quote from myself to save time (apologies if you’ve just read 115, I’m repeating myself): ‘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.’ Not only that – ever since the fall, when Adam and Eve had failed to resist temptation, the world had been in a state of decay. We grow old and die, and buildings crumble into dust.

They are quite splendid ruins. We see the edge of a stone structure on the far left, and, leading away from that, the remains of a brick wall with a doorway in it. A stone lintel was set in place to support the wall above it, but that has cracked in any case, and only a few courses of bricks survive. The rest of the wall fell away long enough ago for plants to have sprouted all the way along the top. This wall seems to be an addition to the one further back, as the bricks are not meshed with those of the far wall – and we can see that other alterations have taken place. There is a bricked up window, for example: both the bricks and mortar are paler in colour, less weathered. The corner of this wall is made up of stones, larger and on the whole greyer than the bricks, and these have cracked, chipped and broken away. The cornice above has survived better, and continues beyond the monumental semi-circular arch beyond. The rounded arch is significant, but we’ll find out why tomorrow!

What it comes down to is that in this painting, as in the bible, there is something old and something new – the building is old, and represents the old order. Jesus is new, and has come to rebuild, to put the world to rights.


An Advent Calendar – 2


Angels have just as much as a right as the star to be present at the Nativity. They are mentioned in all four gospels, as it happens, although Mark only mentions them when Jesus is tempted by the devil, and John has one stirring the waters of the pool of Bethesda, and more appearing at the resurrection. It’s only in Matthew and Luke, then, that they are connected with Christmas.

For Matthew, the angel (which one is not specified) is tasked with communicating with Joseph. When the recently espoused old man found out that his young wife was pregnant, and knew, in the way that you would, that the child was not his, ‘Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.’ (Matthew 1:19-20). Then after Jesus was born, the angel – or an angel – returns: ‘…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.’ (Matthew 2:13). A third visitation followed some years later: ‘But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.’ (Matthew 2:19-20). However, what is sometimes assumed to be a fourth visit was not necessarily from an angel. Having been told to return to Israel, there is an intervention to tell him, effectively, that he was going the wrong way… he had already been worried: ‘But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee’ (Matthew 2:22). While we’re at it, it was not necessarily an angel that told the Magi to avoid Herod, as Matthew again says they were ‘warned of God in a dream‘ (Matthew 2:20). Direct intervention is a posibility.

Notice that Joseph had as many as four dreams. This is surely one of the reasons why he is painted asleep so often – he would have to be, to receive all these divine revelations. And apart from that, he was very old. It doesn’t say so in the bible, but it does in the Golden Legend, written in the 1260s (see Day 31 – The Suitors Praying), and that idea probably came from the Protevangelium, a second century text that didn’t make the final cut, as far as the bible was concerned.

However, Matthew does not mention angels at the Nativity – that is down to Luke. Not only does Luke talk about the angel’s appearance at the Annunciation – nine months before Christmas when the whole thing started – but he is also very specific about the angels at the Nativity, in this passage which you probably know very well, Luke 2: 8-14:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Today’s angels are just two of the ‘multitude of the heavenly host’. People usually get the number of angels in this painting wrong, as it happens, and draw conclusions from their miscounting – I’ve done it myself – but more of that another day.

How would an artist know what to paint? We should assume that none of them had ever seen a real angel, after all (I could be wrong, of course). Like most angels painted in the North of Europe in the early 16th Century, it is likely that these were inspired by carved, wooden angels (see, for example, Day 70 – The Annunciation, again). Certainly, the way their long robes fly around them suggests the crisp lines and taut folds that can be created by a skillful chisel, and held up by the tensile strength of wood, rather than flowing fabric fluttering in the wind. While we’re at it, these robes were clearly designed to be flown in: they would be completely impractical for the solid ground. You’d trip over the hems before you’d even taken one step.

The colours are a delight – slightly misty as they are flying at some distance: the artist clearly had an awareness of atmospheric perspective. I particularly like the combination of blue and rose-pink in this detail. Why does everyone think that angels should be in plain white from top to bottom these days? It’s a relatively recent development (sorry, I haven’t researched this one – if you know when ‘white’ became the new ‘glorious’ for angels, please let me know – my guess would be the 19th Century), and I far prefer the rainbow colours of old. Their gestures are also wonderfully expressive – one is in prayer, hands joined at the fingertips, and the other is astonished, hands out in awe at the wonder of the incarnation. God has become a little baby. How beautiful.


An Advent Calendar – 1

It’s been a long time since I had my own advent calendar, so I thought this year I would make one, and send it to you. Each day I will send you a detail of a painting. They will all be from the same painting, but I won’t tell you what it is until we get to Christmas. I’m sure many of you will recognise it though (sorry, no prizes for getting it right!). Some days I might even expand the ‘window’ it into a full blog entry, in the way that sometimes there are bigger pictures, but that’ll be a surprise (for you and me alike!) if it happens. I’m starting with

The Star

The star is one of the first signs of Christmas, and to those who didn’t know Mary and Joseph, the first sign that something remarkable was going to happen, so it makes sense to start here. It is also one of the relatively few things we associate with Christmas, and with images of the Nativity, that is actually mentioned the bible – although only in the Gospel According to St Matthew. When the wise men get to Herod’s court, they ask him ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.’ (Matthew 2:2). However, perturbed he was, Herod told them that his men suggested that the ‘new king’ might be found in Bethlehem, and the Magi took this advice: ‘When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.’ (Matthew 2:9) – or, in the words of ‘The First Noel’,

This star drew nigh to the northwest,
o'er Bethlehem it took its rest;
and there it did both stop and stay, 
right over the place where Jesus lay.

There has been a lot of conjecture about what this ‘star’ might have been – Giotto paints it to look remarkably like a comet (see Day 87 – The Childhood of Christ), and it is widely believed that this reflects the apparition of Halley’s comet in 1301. As it happens, Halley’s Comet was also visible in 11BC, and there was another very bright one seen in 5BC – and it does seem possible for other historical reasons that Jesus may well have been born 4 or 5 years before himself (the calendar probably wasn’t set up that accurately – there’s no ‘year 0’ for a start…). Alternatively there was a bright nova – a new star – recorded in 4BC. Here’s a link to an article about The Astronomical Explanations written by Victoria Gill for the BBC back in 2012.

This star certainly isn’t a comet. It radiates the most brilliantly from an undefinable centre, beams of light spreading in all directions, and causing faint, circular haloes as it passes through drops of water vapour. It bursts through the clouds, illuminating their inner edges, and in some cases stretching beyond them. It is unlike any star that has ever been seen – but then, Jesus was only born the once.


116 – Typical!

Typical! You take a subject as sensitive and emotive as the penitence of Mary Magdalene, a woman struck with remorse at her sinful past, an existence spent earning money from the debauchery of the flesh, and you turn it into an excuse for men to stare at a display of the very flesh that has caused her downfall, a voluptuous, sensuous image that contradicts the very nature of the profound changes in this woman’s life, and that goes as far as to question the title of the painting itself. In short you objectify her. Typical indeed, and only to be expected from a paternalistic society in which men paint for men, for their own private pleasure. But before you get too outraged, there is just one small problem with this attitude…

Elisabetta Sirani, The Penitent Magdalene, 1663. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon.

The problem is, that it was painted by a woman – Elisabetta Sirani. It questions the notion that art might be gendered – or, to put it another way, that women might paint women in a different way than men would. It is one of the paintings I’ll include in my online talk this Wednesday evening, 2 December – Purity, Temptation, Sin and Repentance: Four Women on the Path to Redemption – there’s plenty of time to sign up if you’re around. I’m not saying that painting isn’t gendered, by the way, but… well, it’s complicated.

Sirani was a very successful artist. I have talked about her before, back in May, with Picture Of The Day 62 – Portia, but, in case you don’t have time to read up about her there, here’s a brief reminder. She was born in 1638 in Bologna – and that was where she seems to have spent her entire life. It’s quite possible she never left the city. I say entire life, but she died, tragically young and under unexplained circumstances, at the age of 27, leaving behind over 200 paintings. Like her older contemporary, Artemisia Gentileschi, she was trained by her father, who was an artist, and like Artemisia her earliest surviving work was painted when she was 17. By 20 Elisabetta was already enormously successful, and soon after she founded an academy for women artists. Her early death was mourned by artists and intelligentsia alike, and she was buried in great pomp in San Petronio, Bologna’s most important church, alongside the city’s most famous artistic son, Guido Reni, who had trained her father.

If we can believe what we see in this painting, having repented and mended her ways, Mary Magdalene has retreated to a cave to read the bible and contemplate Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, while meditating on death, and mortifying the flesh. This should not be in doubt. The bible stands open at the left of the painting on a ledge which also supports a candle stick. We can just see the base of the candle, though not the flame itself, which illuminates the scene with a supernatural brilliance.

The precise fall of this light is beautifully traced across the painting, while a second light source, the moon, silvers the edges of the cave, and can just be glimpsed in the sky outside. Within, the candle illuminates the underside of the right arm of the delicately carved and coloured crucifix, against the base of which the bible is leaning. The wound in Christ’s chest is lit, revealing a dash of red blood, as are the side of his face around the eye socket, and his halo. The light even flicks across the edges of the titulus attached to the top of the cross, on which the letters I.N.R.I. (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) are summarily sketched. It also casts a shadow from the surprisingly low-slung loincloth, and defines the firm thigh muscles of the saviour’s tautly bent right leg. It’s not just the Magdalene who is sensuously depicted. The candle illuminates Mary’s chest and neck, models the contours of her face with delicate sensitivity, and casts a shadow onto the wall of the cave behind her. Her golden hair glows around her face, falling copiously over both shoulders.

A strand of hair crosses her chest, and lies between her breasts, while another wraps around her left arm, and under the knotted cat o’ nine tails. She holds the whip in her right hand, the end of its handle resting provocatively close to her left nipple (the other nipple is caressed by a shadow from her pink robe, which frames, but doesn’t clothe, her torso). Her left hand is poised on top of a skull, the symbol of her meditations upon death and of the transience of flesh, which sits almost too comfortably in her lap.

To understand the extreme sensuality of this painting, surely it would be useful to know more about the life of Mary Magdalene? The problem is that none of it is in the bible. What we are looking at is a fiction, but one that was believed for well over a millennium. If we do go as far as to read the bible, we will find the first mention of the Magdalene in Luke’s Gospel, at the beginning of Chapter 8. Here are the first two verses:

And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, [including] Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils…

Immediately before this, in chapter 7, Jesus was at dinner with the Pharisee Simon, when the following episode occurred – I’ll give you verses 37 and 38, and the very last verse of the chapter, verse 50:

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…. And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.

Of course, there is no connection between this episode, and the fact that, immediately afterwards, in the next chapter, Mary Magdalene is mentioned for the first time. Or is there? Well, if you keep reading, and presuming you’ve already read Matthew and Mark, after Luke you would get to the Gospel According to St John. And this is what you would read in Chapter 11, verses 1 & 2:

Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.)

Now, Luke doesn’t say that his ‘woman… which was a sinner’ was called Mary, but she has done exactly the same thing – so maybe she was called Mary, and maybe indeed she was the sister of Lazarus and Martha. However, in the next chapter (12), in the first three verses, John tells us:

Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.

So, is John’s mention of the event in Chapter 11 referring to what would happen later in Chapter 12, or what we might already have read in Luke 7? Mary would certainly become associated with precious ointment. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 16, verse 1, tells us that after the Crucifixion,

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

And this is why Mary always has a jar with her after she has visited Jesus’s tomb in paintings of the Noli me tangere, which is recounted in John 20 – have a look back to the version by another of Italy’s great 17th Century women, Galizia Fede: 104 – Don’t touch!

Basically, we are discussing the identities of three people: (1) Luke’s ‘woman… which was a sinner’ from Chapter 7; (2) ‘Mary, called Magdalene’ from Luke, Chapter 8, and (3) Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, from John, Chapters 11 & 12. However, way back in 591, the year after he became Pope, Gregory the Great delivered a homily for Easter in which he conflated these three women, and Mary Magdalene was identified as the sister of Martha, a former sinner who had repented, only to became one of Christ’s most ardent followers. It wasn’t until 1969, under Pope Paul VI, that the Roman Catholic Church finally recognised them as three separate people. But for the History of Art that is almost irrelevant: from 591 – 1969, as far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned, Mary Magdalene was a repentant sinner. And for most people, that meant a repentant prostitute. That effectively includes the whole of European art since the fall of the Western Roman Empire (less a century or so), which includes everything in the National Gallery in London, for example. For that matter, it also includes today’s painting from the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon. But why would a woman like Elisabetta Sirani, who knew all too well the problems that women faced, choose to paint the Magdalene like this?  Well, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to think about that. People are more complex than we might expect. I’ll talk about just some of the complexities this Wednesday, 2 December, at 6.00pm UK time: Purity, Temptation, Sin and Repentance: Four Women on the Path to Redemption – I look forward to seeing you there, or somewhere else, sometime soon!


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