142 – Getting carried away

Nicolas Poussin, The Ecstasy of St Paul, 1649-50. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

On the whole I try not to get carried away by things, although, as I’m sure most of you know, my enthusiasm does mean that I rarely have the discipline to edit my presentations adequately – hence my now standard length of an hour and five minutes… I will try and keep them within the promised sixty minutes in future. Honest. My next attempt will be an introduction to Poussin and the Dance, on Tuesday 7 December, an entirely delightful exhibition at the National Gallery in London which dispels so many of the preconceptions people have about this, the most worthy of French (?) Baroque (?) masters. Not only will I explain those two question marks, I will also cover the full range of material within the exhibition, looking at the apparently effortless complexity of some of Poussin’s compositions, which is shared by the remarkable disposition of limbs in today’s painting. After that, on Tuesday 14 December, we will follow Dürer’s Journeys, another superb offering from the National Gallery, a talk which will also include a nod to the beautiful drawing currently for sale at Agnews (see below…). And there are other talks: full details are listed in my diary. But now it is time for some of us – or, at least, St Paul – to get carried away.

Poussin, NicolasFrance, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, INV 7288 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010062554https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

A few years after his arrival in Rome in 1624, Poussin was commissioned to paint the Martyrdom of St Erasmus for St Peter’s, but this was to remain one of only a handful of church commissions. So few were they – and so out of tune was he with the Roman Baroque – that the entry on the website of the Met in New York goes so far as to says, ‘The large, theatrical saints in ecstasy and scenes of apotheosis so popular at the time clearly struck no responsive chord in Poussin,’ and yet it is precisely this sort of work – today’s painting, and an Assumption of the Virgin in the National Gallery of Art in Washington – which have always been among my favourites. They are completely airborne, not the earthbound, weighty things that his works, at their most stolid, can be – works which, I’m sure it goes without saying, do not include his elegant depictions of dance! We see St Paul raised aloft by three angels, his usual attributes of book and sword left behind, with the remarkable combination of legs, arms and wings (eight, eight and six of these respectively, although not all are visible) acting as a form of mandorla (Italian for ‘almond’), the shape in which the spiritual glow of an assumption or ascension is usually depicted.

The painting is an illustration of a passage from St Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where, in Chapter 12, verses 1-5, he reluctantly describes one of his own visions:

12 It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.

That this is St Paul is confirmed, as I have said, by the attributes left behind in the stark, classical portico. There is a sword, hilt resting on a doorstep, and blade sloping diagonally to the floor, crossing over, and just touching, the edge of a book. The shadow of the sword, going from left to right, cutting across floor and book, suggests that the light is coming from almost directly overhead – from Heaven – which in turn implies that the shadow which covers one end of the book and a fair proportion of the step must be that of the Saint and his accompanying angels. It is a two-edged sword, in both meaning and function. It stands for the way in which he, as Saul, persecuted the early Christians, but also represents his later martyrdom (in common belief, at least) by beheading. It is also, undoubtedly, a reference to his instruction, in Ephesians 6:10 to ‘Put on the whole armour of God,’ which culminates, in verse 17, with ‘the Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’. The ‘word of God‘ itself is lying on the floor beneath the sword: the bible. He often holds this book in recognition of the vital role his epistles play in church teaching, but also to represent his own tireless evangelising.

An additional confirmation of his identity is provided by the colours he wears – red and green – although these are not depicted with the same canonical regularity as St Peter’s yellow and blue.  I always take a while to work out what is going on in this extraordinary tumble of figures. It is almost as if the angel on the right, in blue, is leaning back while sitting on a cloud, with the angel in yellow – on the left – sitting on his right knee, and also leaning back. Their legs then alternate. Looking from left to right we see two right legs and two left, with the addition of the blue robe of the right-hand angel falling between the right and left legs, echoing their shape as if it were a fifth ankle, heel and foot, like a pointed blue shoe. As these two angels bear Paul upwards he appears to be resting on the hip of one and chest of the other, his right leg uppermost, supported by the yellow angel’s extended right hand. This dazzling display of legs is rendered all the more remarkable by the flashes of light and shadow which tends to break up their integrity, making them not only more difficult to decipher, but also, surprisingly perhaps, more real. The right wing of the left angel and the left wing of his companion on the right frame this remarkable display, as they look up, in light and shadow respectively, in the direction they are going. The left wing of the yellow angel can be seen pointing downwards at the back, and forms its own counterpoint with the ends of ivory and gold ribbon – something like an ecclesiastical stole – which flutter out behind it.

The topmost angel only serves to guide the way. He points upwards, to heaven, while delicately holding St Paul’s left hand. There is no real support here: he doesn’t seem to bear any weight – nor does he need to look in the direction of travel, but gazes out with an almost visionary fixation. His wings echo those of his companions beneath, whereas the bend of his right arm parallels the open, accepting gesture of the saint. Paul himself appears in his prime. Unlike St Peter, who is always shown with short grey hair and beard (whether as Christ’s first disciple, or more than thirty years later, at his own death) Paul is identified by dark hair and beard. However, his hair is often thinning, and the beard longer and straighter. Here they are thick, and full-bodied – lustrous even. Maybe this is Poussin taking on board the comment, in 2 Corinthians 12:2, that this rapture happened ‘above fourteen years ago’.

Seen as a whole I find the composition truly remarkable. Intricate, accurate, and almost apparently effortless. The whole grouping is surrounded by an even array of heads, wings, arms and legs radiating in all directions, into and out of the fictive space defined by the painting, in its form a sort of sacred sea urchin. And despite this complexity, the internal logic holds: the way in which they are arranged and support one another, the positions they occupy in space, indeed everything we see, is entirely coherent. St Paul, comfortably borne aloft, looks upwards towards the light. Just above him we can see the edge of a cloud which is outlined by highlights which look just a little like lightning – and this reminds me of another painting of St Paul seeing the light which Poussin must have known.

In Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul – painted for Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome in 1601, 23 years before Poussin arrived from Paris, and 48 years before his own masterpiece – it is the leg of the horse which defines the light coming down from heaven. Is it just me, or do the diagonals of the leg look almost exactly the same as the highlighting of the clouds? I wonder if Poussin was thinking of this? The gesture of the saint is not entirely different, after all, even if he is being carried towards the light, as opposed to being thrown back by it.

Poussin, NicolasFrance, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, INV 7288 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010062554https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

It was the second time Poussin had painted the subject. The first, dating from 1643, just a few years before, was for his friend – and patron – Paul Fréart de Chantelou. It was a direct response to a commission for a painting to hang with one of Chantelou’s prized possessions, Raphael’s equally astonishing Vision of Ezekiel. Poussin seems to have been worried that his painting would not stand up well to the comparison with the great renaissance master, and asked that the two paintings should never be shown together. He even went so far as to suggest that his work might serve as a cover for the Raphael, as a sort-of warm-up act, if you like. Today’s painting was the result of another commission, from writer Paul Scarron, who in 1643 had published A Collection of Some Burlesque Verses. Poussin hated Scarron’s work, and tried to put him off. However, the commission came via Chantelou, and so eventually the painter relented. At first Scarron was offered a bacchanalian subject, but, for whatever reason, this was not what he wanted, and the commission evolved into this inspirational image of the poet’s name saint, Paul. For his second essay on this theme Poussin developed a composition which came far closer to Raphael’s Ezekiel than the earlier version, perhaps because this time, there was no chance of a direct comparison.

Poussin’s compositional skills can not be denied, and he deployed them in equal measure when painting dancers – just one of the reasons why the exhibition Poussin and the Dance is such a delight. I do hope you can join me on Tuesday, and then, the following week, for Dürer’s Journeys. If there’s time in between I may blog about the charming drawing below, but it’s going to be a busy week (see the diary). However, I wanted to show it to you today, to give you a chance to see it in person. Having been bought at a clearance sale for $30 it has only recently been authenticated as an original, and is on display at Agnews (6 St James’s Place) from 10-6 Monday-Friday until 10 December. Do go and see it if you can get into London – just ring on the bell and ask to see the Dürer. I did earlier in the week, and it is a wonderful experience – they are most welcoming, and very generous with their time and expertise. It really is worthwhile spending the time with just one drawing – although there are also other treasures on show. While you’re there, if anyone has a spare $50 million…  


141 – a rose, By any other…

Allan Ramsay, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick: The Artist’s Wife, 1758-60. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

Context is everything. You’re a very sophisticated lot, and I’m fairly sure that most of you will have completed the above quotation from Romeo and Juliet, that tale of star-crossed lovers. It comes from Act 2, scene 2:

What's in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.

This is, of course, Juliet, lamenting that the boy she has just fallen in love with (and will later marry against her parents’ will) comes from the family of her own family’s sworn enemies. Be that as it may, I wasn’t planning to end the quotation with the word ‘name’. I do want to talk about a rose, though, the rose held between the thumb and forefinger of Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, who, as it happened, married artist Allan Ramsay against her parents’ will. It is so carefully and so delicately painted that I want to question if it could be ‘a rose, By any other’ artist? I suspect not, but we will have to look more closely at Allan Ramsay’s work to find out. However, it has been borrowed, and given back, by artist Alison Watt, whose work I will be looking at this Tuesday, 23 November at 6pm (details of this, and subsequent talks, can be found on the diary page of my website). The exhibition A Portrait Without Likeness is effectively a conversation between Alison Watt and Allan Ramsay, between his works and hers, and includes today’s painting as well as another portrait by Ramsay – of his first wife – not to mention Watt’s responses to, or meditations on, or conversations with these and other works by Ramsay. It is a beautiful, focussed exhibition, and I do hope you can join me to look at some of the best of contemporary painting, and the most technically accomplished of contemporary art. Meanwhile, back to the rose…

We see the artist’s second wife, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, as if caught in the act of arranging flowers. She holds a rose in her left hand, her left elbow apparently resting on the table which supports a large, ceramic vase containing the other flowers. Her right elbow may also be on the table, but the forearm is tucked away, and lost in the abundant lace of the cuff. She looks out towards us – or towards her husband – as if temporarily distracted from her task. The appearance is one of spontaneity, but, as everyone will tell you, it is anything but. She leans into the picture, with her face arriving just to the right of the midway point, one of the features of the composition which suggests her interest in what she is doing. The line of her body runs, more or less, along the diagonal of the painting, from bottom left to top right, and her left forearm – with the hand holding the rose – lies parallel to this. Her right arm lies parallel – again, more or less – to the other diagonal, and continues the line of shadow that comes in from the top left. This interest in geometry, with the zig-zag shape formed by the body and arms, creates a harmony within the painting, but is not too rigid to render it mechanical: it is still a human experience. The panelling, or open door – it is not entirely clear what this is – cuts down vertically, and is another feature that pushes her towards the flowers. It also means that her head is neatly framed – again, evenly, but not too rigidly – by the deep and dark space behind her, so that her face rings out, ensuring that it is the focus of the painting.

The floral arrangement stands out against the background too. There is a wonderful equivalence between face and flowers, as if Ramsay is saying (in the words of Heinrich Heine, set to music by Robert Schumann), ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ – ‘you are like a flower’. A dark gap at the top of the arrangement would be, I think, the ideal place for the last rose, and there it would have an equivalent position to the pink ribbon with which the sitter’s braids, one of which curves around and frames the back of the head, are tied. Even the colours of her face are drawn from exactly the same palette as those of the roses, with the highlight which defines the ridge of her nose, and the silvery lustre on her lower lip being just the same as the tones which model the petals of the flowers. The blue feather, on the other hand, matches the blue patterns on the vase, more flowers, and leaves, which climb around the white ceramic form – Chinese, maybe, or one of the many imitations of the popular imported vessels.

The arm and hand holding the rose were based on a drawing which is also in the exhibition. In the painting they are given prominence by a pool of light which falls onto the vase, neatly framing the hand and pushing it forward as a result of its similar tonal value, a halo against the shadowed section of the vase. This is counterintuitive, perhaps, and the opposite of the head, which is brought forward by the contrast with the dark background. Her lace shawl is remarkably freely painted, with dashes of white and grey defining its structure and allowing us to see the rose-coloured dress beneath, with small dots of black standing in for the shadows it casts. What we are looking at is perfectly clear, even though the painting is entirely evocative, rather than slavishly precise.

The same is true of the rose. It droops, and the stem appears to be broken, something which Watt comments on in the catalogue of the exhibition, noting that we will never know why. For her, ‘it has come to represent the mysteriousness of painting itself’. The part of the stem which Margaret holds remains undefined: a thin, edgy white line passes behind the tip of her middle finger, and then appears, slightly higher up, behind her thumb. However, there is no green here, almost as if this was where Ramsay was going to paint the stem, but, for whatever reason, didn’t. Maybe he realised that the idea was enough. Then beyond the leaves, which are thinly painted over the vase and hand, and faded a little with time, the stem, more fully realised, continues at a different angle, until it reaches the delicately painted and delicately coloured petals. I’m prepared to believe that a rose, by any other artist, wouldn’t look as delicate, or as fragile.

And, as we have returned to Juliet’s words, ‘What’s in a name?’ Here are two photographs I took in the exhibition last week. OK, so one of them is out of focus, but you should still be able to read it.

The first is a label which was attached to the frame at some point in the past, but not as far back as the 18th Century when the work was created. All we learn is that this is ‘The Artist’s Wife’, the name of the artist in question, and his dates. This woman is entirely defined by her husband, there is nothing else we can know about her. The second, even if blurred, is stencilled on the wall of the current exhibition, with her name, ‘Margaret Lindsay of Evelick’, and her dates. Thank goodness we live in more enlightened times: she has – or had – an independent existence after all. The words ‘of Evelick’ tell us that she was from the landed gentry. Her father, Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick, was a well-respected baronet, who presumably wanted ‘the best’ for his daughter. Presumably that would be what suited him best. Ramsay met Margaret on a return trip to Edinburgh in 1751 – his studio practice has been based in London since 1738, and his first wife, Anne Bayne, had died in childbirth in 1743. The couple fell rapidly in love. Knowing that her father would never approve, they eloped the following year, and were married in the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. Her father never forgave Ramsay, nor did he forgive his daughter for marrying beneath her, and against his will (but fortunately, unlike Romeo and Juliet, nobody died). Between 1754 and 1757 the couple travelled together in Italy, and in all probability this portrait was painted soon after their return, showing, as it does, Ramsay’s later, more delicate style.

It is currently on show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery as part of the exhibition A Portrait Without Likeness (this is a link to the exhibition itself), near to Ramsay’s portrait of Anne Bayne (his first wife), and separated by two paintings by Alison Watt – both of them variations on the theme of the rose. I do hope you can join me on Tuesday to have a closer look.


140 – A Blog about a Dog

William Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug, 1745. Tate Britain, London.

I’m not much of a dog person, but I have developed a fondness for William Hogarth’s pet pug, not least because rejoiced in the name of Trump (no relation). This portrait – if that’s what it is – features in the exhibition Hogarth and Europe, currently at Tate Britain in London, which I will be talking about this Tuesday, 16 November at 6pm GMT. By then I will know what I am doing for the rest of the year (and even, conceivably, the beginning of next), but I will certainly be talking about Alison Watt’s beautiful and luminous exhibition A Portrait Without Likeness the following Tuesday, 23 November. The exhibition – which I was very happy to see yesterday – is effectively a conversation between her paintings and portraits by the elegant 18th Century Scottish artist Allan Ramsay – who will, of course, feature heavily in the talk. But that’s the week after next – let’s get back to Trump.

The Painter and his Pug 1745 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1824 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00112

I questioned, above, whether this really is a portrait. It would seem so obvious that it is a self portrait that we don’t stop and question what genre of painting it actually is. After all, Hogarth is not presenting us with a direct image of himself, but shows us a painting within a painting. The image of Hogarth is, in itself, an object. The likeness of the artist is painted on an oval canvas, and rests, unframed, on a pile of three books. If you get in close, you can see light reflecting from the nails which pin the canvas to the oval stretcher. Next to the painting lies a palette resting on some fabric, and a red curtain hangs down from the top right corner, falling behind the dog. This is a collection of objects – canvas, books, palette, cloth: surely it is really a still life, with the dog featuring in the way that birds, insects, or even the occasional frog do in earlier still lives (see, for example, Picture of the Day 27). But then you could simply suggest that this is a portrait, pure and simple, of Trump, the proud and upright pug seen to the right. He is more real than the image of Hogarth, who, in this case, would have been included as one of the ‘attributes’ of the subject, Trump, telling us more about him: not just what our hairy hero looked like, but more about his background. For a dog, that would include the appearance of the owner, an aspect of the canine character that is usually omitted from the genre of pet portraiture. If this is indeed a portrait of a fully rounded hound, then we would expect the other objects to include further references to his occupations – nowadays, I suppose, that would include balls, mangled toys, and possibly even a dog chew or two. But no such luck – there is no other hint of animal husbandry. There are, however, books.

The Painter and his Pug 1745 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1824 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00112

It seems highly unlikely, judging by what little I know about dogs, that Trump could read, and even if he could, it would surely only be the cleverest canine that would enjoy Shakespeare, Swift and Milton (specifically Paradise Lost), the very words written in gold lettering on the spines of the books. These clearly relate more to the owner than the owned, and appear to be the influences or inspirations that Hogarth is claiming for himself. Indeed, as the painting rests upon the books it would seem to suggest that they are the very foundations of his art.

The Painter and his Pug 1745 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1824 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00112

Another way of looking at it is that his painting, on top of Milton, Swift and Shakespeare as it is, represents the very apogee of artistic achievement. But why does he limit his own appearance to a painting, while showing us the ‘real’ Trump? Maybe he wants to say that he is his art – this is not just what he looks like, but his very essence, as if to say, ‘we are what we do’. The palette says the same, in a subtler and more sophisticated way. This is not, it would seem, the palette of a working artist – there is no paint on it (even though he included grey-scale daubs in an engraved version), nor are there any brushes (although technical analysis shows that once there were, stuck through the thumb hole of the palette). Instead there is an inscription: ‘The LINE of BEAUTY’, after which comes, in fainter script, ‘And GRACE’. Further to the right is his signature – or at least his initials – and the date, ‘W.H. 1745’. This is as much the painting of a theoretician as of a practical painter. In 1753, eight years after the completion of this work, he would publish The Analysis of Beauty, a summation of his thoughts on art, expressed in essence by the Line of Beauty – the S-shaped curve we see on the palette. It implies not only a sense of flow in any depicted form, which he says is more interesting and varied than rigid, straight lines would be, but also gives a sense of liveliness and movement to a painting. It also, he believed, echoed the way in which our eyes look around an image.

The Painter and his Pug 1745 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1824 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00112

As ever, things are never that simple. He was still formulating his ideas when this self portrait was completed in 1745, and painted out the words ‘And GRACE’ – only for them to be revealed again as the overpainting gradually became transparent. Even the line itself is not as simple as it may appear. An S-shape, yes, but one that casts a shadow on the palette. It is, in the world of the painting, a three-dimensional object, like a gold wire floating impossibly above the palette, resting with the lightest touch at either end. It is, in a way, a statement of the power of art to create things we do not know, or which can not exist within our physical world. In his book he would describe the line of beauty as being two dimensional, whereas the line of grace was three-dimensional – suggesting that this is the latter. However, it seems that he hadn’t settled on this distinction by the time painting was completed, and so tried to cover ‘And GRACE’. This still leaves us with Trump. Why is he here? And why is he ‘more real’ than Hogarth himself, given that the artist is ‘relegated’ to a painted image?

X-ray analysis tells us that Hogarth had initially planned a more formal portrait to feature in this ‘still life’. In all probability it was more like the miniature by André Rouquet, which is included in the exhibition I will be talking about on Tuesday. However, that formality – fully bewigged and dressed with cravat, waistcoat and jacket – was relaxed to show the artist in his cap and house coat, the way you would meet him ‘at home’, rather than dressed to the nines in performative fashion when out in Society. This is the man himself. And he was, of course, a man who loved dogs. He had a succession of pugs – Pugg, Trump and Crab are known by name, but Trump was the favourite, and gained the most renown. Apparently Hogarth often remarked how similar they were, and in this painting the proud pooch becomes an emblem of Hogarth’s pugnacious nature. The scar on the artist’s forehead, of which he was rather proud, might even imply that he (like Trump?) was a bit of a bruiser, although as it happens it was the result of an accident in his youth, rather than the trophy of a fight.

Trump himself became a well-known character. He may well appear in four other paintings, and nowadays he even has his own Wikipedia page, if you want to see what they are. Not only that, but he was modelled in terracotta by the great French sculptor, and friend of Hogarth, Louis François Roubiliac – whose terracotta bust of the artist (which, like the miniature above, belongs to the National Portrait Gallery) is also in the exhibition. Sadly the original Trump has been lost. Wedgwood made a version in black basalt based on a cast he got from a plaster shop owned by a man called Richard Parker. That doesn’t seem to have survived either: I certainly can’t track down a photograph. However, the Chelsea Porcelain Factory also released a white version, probably based on a similar, commercially available, plaster cast.  So here is Roubiliac’s Trump in a version by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory, now in the V&A. That’s what I call celebrity.

One question remains: in the exhibition Hogarth and Europe, how does our painting relate to the rest of the continent? Presenting the artist as a typical British Bulldog (or rather, Pug), and resting on three of the great British authors, there wouldn’t seem to be anything ‘European’ about it, until you realise that The Line of Beauty – that sinuous S-shaped curve – is, in itself, one of the founding compositional principals of Rococo art and design. As so often, Hogarth may have expressed disdain for everything ‘overseas’, but he was a great lover of its art. But is that even what Tate Britain’s exhibition is about? That in itself is a complex issue, so let’s think about it on Tuesday.

The Painter and his Pug 1745 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1824 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00112

Revisiting Vermeer

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

I am currently in Dresden, where yesterday I saw one of the most perfect exhibitions – Vermeer: On Reflection – at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: thoughtful, thorough, purposeful, explaining everything you would want to know through a remarkable collection of truly superb works of art. As I am lucky enough to come back here next week, bringing a group with me, and in between will be giving a talk about the exhibition (a room by room introduction of the ideas it covers and the paintings it includes), I’m afraid I find myself a bit short of time, so I am revisiting a blog from February this year, in which I talked about the Dutch master’s Milkmaid – which is always worth a second look. And after that, a third, and a fourth, and so on. The exhibition was planned as a result of the exciting new discoveries about one of the Gemäldegalerie’s own paintings, A Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, and places it even more firmly within Vermeer’s oeuvre, showing, room by room, how it connects not just with the artist’s own development but also with the concerns of his contemporaries. It also traces the source of the imagery, and does as much as it can to explain the inexplicable: the remarkable allure of this most focussed of artists. If you would like to know more, then please do join me on Tuesday, 2 November at 6pm GMT (remember that, in the UK at least, the clocks go back on Sunday!). In subsequent weeks (all Tuesdays for the rest of the year) I will talk about exhibitions in England and Scotland – Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain on Tuesday 16 November, and Alison Watt: A Portrait Without Likeness (Scottish National Portrait Gallery) on Tuesday 23. A couple more will follow. But for now, as The Milkmaid is not in the Dresden exhibition, let us look at it again.

The last time I posted this blog I was having trouble deciding whether I find this painting disarmingly beautiful or beautifully disarming – I’m sure there’s a difference. But also, I was wondering, if it is one, or other, or even or both of these things, what is it that creates this impression? 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 to 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, as it is in the Dresden exhibition, I will include it in Tuesday’s talk, Vermeer: On Reflection.

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?


139 – Cavalier attitudes

Judith Leyster, The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), c. 1629. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.

Famously, Frans Hals’ painting, The Laughing Cavalier, is neither laughing, nor a cavalier – I will talk about what he is and who he might be this coming Monday, 25 October at 6pm in the context of the Wallace Collection’s small (but perfectly formed) exhibition Frans Hals: The Male Portrait. In subsequent weeks in November I will talk about more exhibitions – Vermeer: On Reflection (in Dresden) on Tuesday 2, Hogarth and Europe (Tate Britain) on Tuesday 16, and Alison Watt: A Portrait without Likeness (Scottish National Portrait Gallery) on Tuesday 23 – all of these are now on sale. But for now, I’d like to talk about another painting which does not show a cavalier, by someone who could be considered one of Hals’ greatest rivals – although she was also one of his admirers – Judith Leyster. It seems only fair to look at the work of a woman, as the Wallace’s exhibition has an almost ‘dare to be square’ attitude – which is acknowledged by the director of the museum in his preface to the catalogue – given that it focuses on paintings of white men by a white man, with no suggestion that there might be any other type of person in the world. You could argue, I suppose, that as the curator of the exhibition is a woman, that the male bias is actually OK. But as far as I know, no one has suggested that it isn’t! Anyway, it’s a good excuse to talk about Judith Leyster – not that she needs an excuse. She was a great artist – we should talk about her more often.

Today’s picture is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and their online catalogue calls it by the title, or titles, that I have used above: The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier). It’s worth remembering that neither of these would have been used by Leyster herself. Apart from the fact that she was Dutch (and so anything she called the painting would have been in Dutch), artists simply didn’t give paintings titles back then – it was more common to describe what was depicted – ‘two drunk men with a skeleton’, for example. I have talked about the issue of names before – way back at the beginning of the blog, I think, with paintings like The Fighting Temeraire (which is actually just part of Turner’s title). So many paintings – The Laughing Cavalier included – have been given nicknames relatively recently (by which I mean the late 19th or early 20th Centuries), and even though they often have little or nothing to do with the subject of the painting, they have stuck irrevocably. I don’t know when today’s picture got the two titles it now has, but only the first is accurate. None of the people represented is dressed as a cavalier – although you could argue that the skeleton might have been one when alive. However, The Last Drop is entirely to the point.

Clearly, The Last Drop doesn’t only refer to this particular drink, even if the seated man on the left is on the verge of draining his stoneware tankard dry. This is also the last drop he will ever drink. There may be a small reserve of liquid in the very bulbous body of the vessel, but short of tipping it up vertically, there is not much more he could do to finish it off. It doesn’t really matter, though, as Death is watching eagerly to see if is time to finish him. The skeleton itself is an unmistakable Memento Mori ­(literally: ‘remember death’) – but it (or is it he? I’m going for ‘he’) is also holding other symbolic objects. Held aloft in his right hand is an hour glass, with the last few grains of sand trickling through. Time is nearly up, and the skeleton smiles gleefully as he displays the hour glass as evidence that soon it will be time for him pounce. As if a skeleton on its own wasn’t enough, he has a second skull in his right hand, clutching a lit candle with it, as he bends over to check that the drink – and so, it seems, the man’s life – is finally done. When it is, the candle will presumably be snuffed out, and the drinker, too, will ‘snuff it’, if I can use that most disrespectful of terms for death. Meanwhile, the candle sheds an unnatural glare around the profile of the drinker. Apart from that harsh light, the man is already in the shadows. Almost inevitably it reminds me of ‘the Scottish Play’ (and, if you can get a return, try and get to see the production at the Almeida Theatre, which is on until 27 November – tickets for the last set of performances go on sale today, 21 October). Here is ‘the’ speech from Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The hourglass tells us that the man on the left is at the last hour of his recorded time, and that the brief candle will soon be out. But this man has not drunk alone.

His standing companion has clearly had more than one too many, judging by the garish expression on his face – not to mention his all-too-evident teeth, which are rarely, if ever, seen in paintings of respectable people. Here too the expression is enhanced by the harsh lighting, and neatly framed by the brilliant highlights around the rim of his hat, and also by the bravura painting of the turned up trim of his collar. The sleeve is wonderfully handled too, with free, slashing brushstrokes of barely-mixed lighter and darker reds modelling the folds in the odd, baggy garment. Rather than the skeleton’s hourglass, this chap holds a smoking pipe aloft – another symbol, like excessive drinking, of a dissolute lifestyle, and also, of death. Like life, smoke is insubstantial, fleeting, and is gone before you know it.

That we are near the end is confirmed by the fact that this drink too (like the fun) is finished. Nothing remains in the upturned tankard, every last drop is drained. And as for the costume, it is extraordinary. Such a large, voluminous jacket, which is worn over a dark blue unbuttoned doublet. Underneath that is a white blouse, also unbuttoned, revealing far more of the reveller himself than the strict rules of 17th Century Holland would have allowed.

The tankard is maybe too brilliantly lit for an object which is at that distance from a candle, but I’m sure that this is a choice by the artist to make the whole painting seem more garish and more glaring, thus emphasizing what is important, and what is at stake. But it is also done to catch your eye – it draws your attention for more reasons than one. In 1903 this painting was attributed to Frans Hals, who was, after all, the master of the freely handled brushstroke. However, in that year someone noticed the letters ‘JL’ written on the mug – the signature of Judith Leyster (1609-60) – just to the left of the handle, where it joins the body of the vessel and is so brilliantly illuminated. If people had seen it before, they had failed to identify it, probably because until 1893 (just ten years before) she had fallen into obscurity, only to be rediscovered when her signature was identified on a different painting. The ‘JL’ is usually followed by a star, as her name, Leyster, means ‘Lodestar’ – another name for the pole star, the one used by sailors as a fixed point for navigation. She was famous in her lifetime, and even praised, punningly, as the ‘leading star’ in art. In 1633 she was the first woman to join the Haarlem artists’ guild – indeed, she was the first woman in Western Europe to be admitted to any painters’ guild. It was probably to celebrate this that she painted the wonderful self portrait which I wrote about during lockdown 1, on Day 34 of ‘Picture of the Day’. Leyster probably trained with Frans Hals, although there is no firm evidence for that. However, she did witness the baptism of one of his children in 1631: they were clearly (at that stage) on very good terms. Her status as a ‘Master’ meant that she was allowed to teach, and in 1635 she took on three pupils, although one of them subsequently left her to work under Hals. She sued the older master, and although the student’s mother paid Leyster punitive damages (but only half of what she asked for) and Hals also paid a penalty, Leyster too was fined by the guild for not having registered the student in the first place… But, as the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity, and work picked up… at least until the following year, when she married fellow artist Jan Miense Molenaer. There are hardly any works by her dated after 1636, the year in which she married. It could have been that, as a mother of five, she simply didn’t have the time to paint. Although it could also have been that, as a man, Molenaer was in a better position to sell the paintings, and so she worked as one of his assistants – a member of the workshop, but not its leader. It’s not that he was taking credit for her work, but that it was financially expedient for her to work this way. But back to the painting: why is the standing reveller dressed in this unusual manner?

His unusual garb ties the painting inextricably to another by Leyster, the Merry Company, now in a private collection, which was sold by Christie’s in 2018 for a little shy of two million pounds. They are of a similar size, and although the Merry Company is a little smaller, it has probably been cut down.  Seen next to each other like this, the similarities are clear. The two revellers in our painting are seen at a later stage of merriment – the plumed hat has been lost, and the man in red is now wearing the blue hat of his companion. He has also lost his blue belt, allowing his jacket to fall open – and the blue doublet has also been unbuttoned. He also seems to have grabbed a different tankard, while the seated figure drinks from the same vessel he had earlier. Their drinking started in daylight, and has continued well into the night – they have lost their more soberly dressed companion, but their debauchery has summoned Death. The moral is clear: it’s all very well to have some fun – but don’t take it too far. The baggy costumes – so unlike the closely tailored fashions of the 17th Century – are derived from Italian theatre, the Commedia dell’Arte, and had been adopted as carnival costumes by the 16th Century. So this could be vastenavond – the Dutch word for the night before Lent (literally ‘the evening before fasting’) – or, in other words, Carnival.

The Merry Company must have been significant for Leyster, as she quoted from it in her Self portrait. Surely there were reasons for this choice: technical analysis has shown that originally a female figure was depicted on the canvas, which Leyster covered with the fiddle player later on. It could be that she wanted to show that she was the master of at least two different genres – portraiture and the one annoyingly known as genre painting (i.e. normal people doing normal things). She was the only woman to paint genre scenes, after all. However, the reason for this choice might be more sophisticated. In Het Schilder-Boeck – ‘The Book of Painters’ – written by Karel van Mander in 1604, the author refers to a Dutch proverb, stating that ‘the more a painter he becomes, the wilder he gets’. By including the wild fiddler from The Merry Company, Leyster could be replacing ‘he’ with ‘she’.

I’d love to know what happened to the red hat with its oversized plume, though. It must have been lost somewhere along the way. Maybe it was picked up by Frans Hals, or taken by the wayward student, as Hals painted a young man wearing a very similar hat – and holding a skull – in one of his works in the National Gallery. If you want to see what I mean, click on that link, as it’s not a portrait, so I probably won’t be talking about it on Monday.


138 – Transfigured

Apse Mosaic, c. 549. Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.

This coming Tuesday, at 6pm, I will be Revealing Ravenna – or at least, talking about the remarkable mosaics, putting them in their historical and religious context, and explaining why the best Byzantine art is in Italy, rather than in Istanbul. And the following week I will be lucky enough to visit them in person. But seeing as I know not all of you can come with me, and not all of you will be free on Tuesday, I thought I would write about one of the mosaics today – particularly as this one will not really get much of a look in, because it’s not really in Ravenna. In subsequent weeks I will start what is effectively a new ‘series’, talking about the increasing number of exhibitions which are opening in museums in London, across Britain, and even Europe-wide. Once more I’m doing this because I know that not all of you will be able to get to all of them – but also, in case you are able to go, to serve as an introduction. So far only one of them is on sale – Frans Hals: The Male Portrait, inspired by the exhibition at the Wallace Collection. That talk will be on Monday 25 October. Gradually, once I’ve been able to check everything out, I will release tickets for Vermeer: On Reflection (2 November), Hogarth and Europe (16 November), and Alison Watt (23 November). These will all be on Tuesdays, because I will be teaching a course for the National Gallery on Mondays – but more about that when that too is confirmed. There will be details about everything on the diary page, of course. Meanwhile, back to Ravenna.

I have not often visited the church of St Apollinare in Classe for the simple reason that it is a little out of the way – although maybe not as far as I used to think. Although it is one of the suburbs of Ravenna today, Classe (two syllables, clas-sé) was originally the port of the Roman city, its name coming from the Latin for ‘fleet’ – classis ­– and it was about 4km away. Each time I go, I am struck by the simple majesty of the building, although this is the result of complex historical processes which turn out not to be not simple at all. The church itself has a standard ‘basilica’ structure, with a central nave and two side aisles, separated by arcades, which lead to three apsidal endings. Originally the walls of the nave would have been covered with mosaics, but these have been lost. They were replaced with frescoes in the 18th Century, of which only the roundels with portraits of the bishops of Ravenna have survived, just above the arcades. The upper part of the walls, and the walls of the side aisles, have been stripped back to bare brick – wonderfully evocative, but decidedly modern in ethos. But at least they do not distract from the central apse, which is the true treasure of the church.

The church was dedicated to St Apollinare (five syllables – A-pol-lin-ar-é) in 549 – which gives us the approximate date for the mosaic within the apse. It was founded by Ursicinus, bishop from 533-536, and was dedicated by Maximian, who had also managed to get a promotion, being Archbishop from 546-556. Apollinare himself was said to have been the first bishop, having been converted to Christianity by none other than St Peter, although the ‘life’ which reports his deeds and martyrdom was, in all probability, written by Maurus, Archbishop from 642-71. There is no concrete historical evidence that Apollinare ever existed, if we’re honest, and Maurus almost certainly wrote his ‘life’ to make the diocese of Ravenna look more important, and to emphasize its apostolic origin. Indeed, one of the major subjects of the mosaics is the apostolic succession.

In the semi-dome of the apse we see Apollinare, dressed as a bishop, and with his arms raised. This is the attitude taken by an orant – someone at prayer – a common image in early Christian art. Walking towards him are a number of sheep: six on each side, making twelve in total, like Jesus’s apostles. But why are they sheep? Well, the earliest images of Jesus show him as ‘the Good Shepherd’, and indeed, priests and vicars today still refer to their congregation as their ‘flock’. Here Apollinare’s flock is the same size as Jesus’s. Apollinare therefore stands in for Jesus. If not Christ’s vicar on Earth, he is at least Christ’s vicar in Ravenna – and this is precisely what the apostolic succession is all about. In John, Chapter 21 Jesus appears to his followers after the Crucifixion and asks Peter the same question three times. The third time is in John 21:17,

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

He has already, in Matthew 16:18-19, told Peter that he will give him the keys of heaven:

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Either of these quotations, taken separately, would serve to affirm Peter’s position as the first leader of the church after Jesus. Together, the message is reinforced. Peter takes Jesus’s place, and then, according to the belief current in Ravenna, Peter both converted Apollinare and appointed him bishop: so Apollinare takes Peter’s place, in Ravenna at least. In the mosaic he leads 12 sheep as Jesus led the 12 apostles. Above his head is a blue circle, set with stars and a jewelled cross. Three more sheep stand on the ground, two people appear in the golden sky, and a hand appears from the clouds. But I’ll come back to these details later.

About 120 years after its dedication, the church was partially remodelled, and additions were made to the mosaics above the arch of the apse. We see Christ blessing in the centre, surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. On the left the eagle stands for St John, the angel is the symbol of St Matthew, and the lion – as anyone familiar with Venice will know – is St Mark. This leaves the ox to represent St Luke. The most handy mnemonic to remember these is that plant which makes such good hand cream – the ALOE. If the letters stand for Angel, Lion, Ox and Eagle they are in the right order for the canonical arrangement of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Below these symbolic beasts, and once more against a golden sky, twelve sheep have left the gates of two jewelled cities – Bethlehem and Jerusalem – processing towards Jesus in the same way that their equivalents do towards Apollinare just below.

And further down again, below Apollinare, there are four figures depicted in the mosaics between the windows. They are all bishops, all of whom were Apollinare’s successors. In traditional accounts, he was the first Bishop of Ravenna, his episcopacy lasting until his martyrdom in 79 CE. From left to right the first of the chosen few is Ecclesius, the 24th Bishop, in position from 522-532, who founded the church of San Vitale (home to some of the glorious mosaics I will discuss on Tuesday). He is followed by St Severus (c. 308-c. 348), the 12th bishop; Bishop Lacuna (dates unclear); and Ursicinus (533-536), 25th Bishop and the founder of this particular church. OK, so there never was a Bishop Lacuna, it’s just that I can’t get a good enough detail to be able to read his name and tell you who he is. These four bishops show us, in abbreviated form, how the apostolic succession continues – Jesus appointed Peter, Peter appointed Apollinare, and he is followed by a number of successors in turn, down to the present incumbent. But what exactly is going on above Apollinare’s head?

Most striking is the jewelled cross in the blue circle. In the apse mosaic of San Vitale, Jesus sits atop a similar blue circle: it can be seen to embody the cosmos, over which he rules. The cross needs no explanation, although the jewels with which it is embossed express its value, as they do for the cities seen on either side of the mosaic in the additions. There are twenty of them in the cross: four on either arm (reminding us, perhaps, of the four evangelists), leaving 12 going from top to bottom – a reference, perhaps, to the 12 sheep, and so to the apostles. In the very centre we see, as an apparently minute depiction, the face of Christ. To the left and right of the cross are the letters alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of the Greek alphabet, as God proclaims more than once in the Book of Revelation. This is chapter 1 verse 8:

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

Underneath the cross are the words SALVS MVNDI – ‘the health of the world’ – or, to put it more explicitly, ‘salvation’ – and above we see (although not very clearly) ἸΧΘΥϹ – ‘ichthys’, the Greek word for ‘fish’. The fish was one of the earliest symbols for Jesus, and is derived from an acronym. The letters stand for the Greek words meaning ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’. Nowhere in this image is Jesus explicitly named, nor, with the exception of the tiny image of his face, is he visible. But what of the three sheep, and the two people in the sky? Should we see the sheep as three of the apostles, by comparison with the others below? And if so, who are they? They are not named. However, the two half figures in the sky are. The one top left is labelled ‘Moyses’ – or Moses. The top right inscription is harder to read, but it is Elijah. The presence of these two Old Testament prophets is the key to the understanding of the mosaic. Here is Matthew 17:1-3 (and helps to know that ‘Elias’ is just another version of ‘Elijah’):

And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.

This is The Transfiguration, itself transfigured. The three sheep represent Peter, James and John. Matthew says that ‘his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light’, but in this mosaic Jesus is transfigured into pure symbol, whether as the cross, or as the words: ‘alpha and omega, salus mundi’, ‘ichthus’. Too perfect to represent, Jesus becomes entirely transcendent. Later on (17;5) Matthew tells us that, ‘a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’. The disembodied hand is that of God himself, and is the visual equivalent of the ‘voice out of the cloud’. And how better to represent ‘a bright cloud’ than with the light reflecting from a gold mosaic?

In the context of the church the meaning of the mosaic becomes clear. At the top, Jesus is seen as if in Heaven, blessing the congregation. His word is conveyed by the four evangelists beside him, and preached by the twelve apostles who process towards him – albeit in ovine form – from Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Below, in the apse – on Earth – he is transfigured. Seen in the presence of Moses and Elijah, and witnessed by Peter, James and John, this is the Son of God. In a direct line below him, Apollinare takes his place, having been appointed by St Peter, where, praying, he leads his own flock. His role is then taken by successive Bishops and Archbishops, whose throne would originally have been in the apse, directly behind where we now see the relatively modern altar (the same was true for all churches, although the only English cathedral to have its cathedra in this original position is in Norwich). Everything – the mosaics, the architecture and the original fixtures and fittings – would have combined to say that the apostolic succession continues to this day.

The steps leading up to the altar date from the restructuring of the church in the 670s. By raising the floor a crypt could created beneath the high altar for the display of the relics of Sant’Apollinare, allowing pilgrims to pay homage without disturbing the celebration of the mass. In the mosaic Apollinare appears directly above his own relics, as well as directly above the modern-day Bishop, who would be, in a more worldly and less symbolic way, presiding over his own flock. There should be no doubt as to the authority of this man – it descends from Christ, is justified by his suffering on the cross, and has been passed down from the first Bishop, himself installed by St Peter.

By the 9th Century the harbour silted up and the importance of Classe diminished. Not only that: pirates patrolled the nearby coast, and they would not be cowed even by the direct display of God’s authority. To protect Apollinare’s relics from the raids, they were moved to a church in the centre of Ravenna. Built as the chapel of the palace of King Theoderic, and dedicated to Christ the Redeemer in 504, in around 540 it was re-dedicated to St Martin and then, in 856, it was re-dedicated a second time, to Sant’Apollinare. Today it is known as ‘the New Sant’Apollinare’, or Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. The changes of dedication are reflected in subtle changes to the mosaics, which take on an added complexity. But I’ll be talking about all that on Tuesday.


137 – The little Lord Jesus, Asleep…

Cosmé Tura, Virgin and Child, 1480s. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

Having spent a fair amount of time in my youth in Ferrara, when I was researching my PhD about the sculptures there, I grew inordinately fond of the idiosyncratic school of painting that flourished alongside my far scarcer sculptures. The paintings themselves are remarkably sculptural, we know that some of the painters designed three-dimensional works. I have always thought that at least two of them may also have carved, or at least modelled, themselves. They are Cosmé Tura – the great genius of the 15th Century Ferrarese school, about one of whose works I will write today, and Francesco del Cossa, who softened Tura’s style, and then moved on to Bologna – quite possibly because he didn’t like the way he was treated in Ferrara. It is one of his paintings – an Annunciation – which is the inspiration for my talk on Monday at 6pm, How to wear your halo – and the Significance of the Snail. Details of this are (a) on this link and (b) listed alongside details of everything I’m up to on the diary page of my website. Apart from the fact that it is a Ferrarese painting, the main reason for my choice today is the nature of Jesus’s halo, given that the ‘History of the Halo’ will form a considerable segment of Monday’s talk…

For obvious reasons, when I am taking people around the Accademia in Venice, home to this gem, I focus on the Venetian paintings. It is the strong point of the collection, after all, and I always assume that that is precisely what visitors will want to see. However, it does mean that I rarely get to talk about this image, for which I have a particular soft spot – a Ferrarese Madonna and Child in its original frame. Little is known about its origins, and nothing is known about the patron or the location for which it was intended. Before it was purchased by the Italian State for the Accademia in 1896, the painting’s history is a blank – so we have to rely on the evidence before our eyes. Stylistically it would appear to date from the 1480s, but to explain that would entail a book-length discussion of the work of Cosmé Tura. Let’s just go with his dates – which the National Gallery in London gives as ‘before 1431 – 1495’ – making this a fairly late work. By 1460 he had a salary from the Ferrarese Court (under Marchese, later Duke, Borso d’Este) making him, effectively, the unofficial ‘court’ artist. It has been suggested that the unusual stylisation of his work, with its angular twists, turns and sharp inflections, relates to the complex line of thought followed by the Ferrarese scholars – although, to be honest, Borso was far more interested in partying that listening to erudite conversation. That was more the concern of his predecessor, half-brother Leonello d’Este.

There might be some clue as to the original patron, and/or intended location, from the section of the painting at the top. The frame is a piece of miniature architecture. Two pilasters, decorated with what are referred to as candelabra, are topped by classically inspired capitals, sitting somewhere between Ionic and Corinthian – but this is an early renaissance form, as the full ‘classical language’ of architecture had not yet been fully formulated by renaissance architects. Nevertheless, the two pilasters support a full entablature, made up of an architrave (the ‘beam’ at the bottom), a frieze (decorated with stylised leaves, some of which seem almost anthropomorphic) and a cornice – the three flat strips at the top. In its turn, the entablature supports a segmental pediment, with rosettes sitting to the left and right and at the summit. The pediment itself is also painted with two angels in red holding onto a sun-like symbol. This is the ‘Name of Jesus’, a monogram formulated by the ardent 15th Century Franciscan preacher St Bernardino of Siena. As seen here it looks like ‘yhs’ – with a line through the ‘h’ – but ‘ihs’ would be a more usual formation, being derived from the first three letters of ‘JESUS’ in Greek (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ). The line through the ‘h’ tells us that the monogram is an abbreviation, but also, conveniently, forms a cross with the vertical of the ‘h’. Taking the idea from the biblical text, ‘At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow’ (Philippians 2:10, cue communal hymn singing), Bernardino used this sign to unite warring factions, and to inspire devotion. It would therefore make sense if this painting had been commissioned for a Franciscan church – and there is indeed a San Francesco in Ferrara, and there was from as early as 1232. But then, there was also a church – and convent – dedicated to San Bernardino himself. It is not there anymore, though – it was destroyed in 1825. At one point (1509) the convent was acquired by none other than Lucrezia Borgia (who was, among other things, the second wife of Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara) as a gift for her niece, who eventually, in 1543, became the abbess – but that’s another story.

Looking down to the main image – as indeed the two angels in the pediment are – we can see what, at first glance, could be a standard depiction of the Madonna and Child. However, that first glance would have to be a very quick one. The original gilt frame holds a separate wooden panel which has its own trompe-l’oeil frame painted in pink, a bit like a window frame looking out into the countryside (more of that below). Mary is seated on the window sill, her left knee bent, with her shin lying across the sill and her foot hidden behind the frame to our left. Her blue cloak falls over the frame, linking our space to hers, making the image more immediate. The weight of the Christ Child rests on her knee, with one of his feet planted on the cloak where it lies on the window sill – his foot is therefore protected from what could be cold, and potentially dirty, Verona marble. The other foot floats, almost unnaturally, in the air. He is completely naked – a common feature in 14th and 15th century images, although it went out of fashion with the strictures of the Counter Reformation in second half of the 16th Century. His nudity stressed not only his humanity, but his masculinity – he was both God and Man… Nevertheless, for the time being he is fast asleep, his right hand resting on his left shoulder, and his head almost weightlessly resting on that hand. The left hand hangs down limply, almost as it would in a Pietà. Mary looks down at him with tender affection, holding onto him gently with her left hand, and resting the fingers of her right hand even more gently on his shoulder.

When we look closer, we can see more details of the painted frame – the light is coming from the left, lighting up the inside of the right hand frame, but leaving the underside of the top section in shadow. However, you can’t see the inside of the frame on the left. This implies that, in its original location, when the painting was first seen, we would have been standing to the left of it, looking over towards it on our right. Tura seems to have taken the words of Leon Battista Alberti to heart. When writing down an explanation of how to do perspective, Alberti said, ‘I draw a rectangle which is considered to be a window through which I see what I want to paint’. He didn’t actually say ‘paint a window frame’, but more than one artist decided to play this game – Tura, in this instance, was one of them. It’s impossible to pinpoint the vanishing point with just one orthogonal (a line in a perspective scheme that is supposed to be at right angles to the picture plane) but, judging by the diagonal at the top right of the fictive frame, the vanishing point, and therefore our view point, would appear to be – roughly speaking – at the bottom left corner of the painting. This implies that not only would the painting have been to our right, but also quite high up. Mary’s halo barely fits in between her head and the painted frame, which of course begs the question, ‘What, exactly, is a halo?’ – just one of the questions I want to try and answer on Monday. Well, in this case, it seems to be a thin, flat sheet of gold which reflects some elements of Mary’s headdress. Jesus’s halo certainly appears to be solid – Mary’s veil rests on it, with several folds bunching together, wrinkling over the top, and falling over the other side. But if they are sheets of gold, how do they stay up? I’m not going to answer that question today.

Behind Mary’s head a vine has been strung up behind the window frame – or just happens to be growing there – with a bunch of grapes hanging from it on either side. Grapes make wine, of course, and Jesus will offer wine to his apostles at the Last Supper, saying ‘Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’ (Matthew 26:27-28). This eucharistic reference strengthens the echo of the Pietà which we have already seen. But then, so does the goldfinch at the top right, which is a symbol of the passion of Christ. It looks down towards Jesus, echoing Mary’s gaze. The bird at the top left might also add to this meaning – but no one is really sure what it is doing there. The Accademia website says that it is another goldfinch, but it isn’t. It’s rather like a treecreeper, but with a red flash on its wing. In fact, it’s a wallcreeper – or Tichodroma muraria. As for its symbolism – well, I have no idea, although as it clings on hard, it could, like ivy, stand for steadfastness and fidelity.

Further down the painting an intriguing image comes into focus. Apart from the blissful sleep of the child, and his mother’s delicate touch, not to mention the curious folds of the veil going over the solid halo, there are gold patterns surrounding the Virgin’s shoulder. Sadly these have worn away a little – but I hope you can make out the image of a woman in the sky, her head tilted towards the baby much as Mary’s and the goldfinch’s are. This is the astrological sign Virgo – the Virgin. Apt, you would agree, but unusual. Throughout history the Church has had an ambivalent attitude towards astrology. Even when it was indistinguishable from astronomy there were those who thought that, even though God had placed the stars in the sky, the stars themselves could not govern our fates: astrology was superstition and should be discouraged. However, there were also those who thought that God had deliberately placed the stars in the sky as yet another way of communicating his message – which would mean that astrology had a certain validity. Above right of Virgo are also Sagittarius, Pisces and Aquarius, apparently (I can’t make them out here, to be honest), although these are not in the right configuration, and their combined significance has yet to be deciphered. It should be said that he court of Ferrara was especially interested in astrology. One of the city’s great treasures is the Room of the Months, each of which is governed by the appropriate astrological sign – not to mention the three relevant Decans, really obscure personifications – but more of them, briefly, on Monday!

Whatever the implications of these details, the overall symbolism of the painting is clarified when we look at the sill on which Mary is resting. Our attention is drawn towards it by the rich flashes of the deep blue cloak falling over it, and it would in any case have been more immediately present, as it would have been roughly at our eyelevel. It bears an inscription which reads

Sviglia el tuo figlio dolce madre pia
per far infin felice l’alma mia

‘Wake your son, sweet holy mother, so that my soul will finally be happy’

Now, as I’m sure you know, when visiting a mother with a young baby, it is always a bit disappointing if the baby is asleep, as it means that you can’t play with it and have a cuddle. But for the mother, it is a godsend, as her child is finally quiet. However Mary is on the verge of waking her child just for us – her right hand is poised to touch his right shoulder ever so gently, and wake him up without alarm. His little left hand, hanging for all the world as if he is dead, will come to life, and so will he. And our souls will finally be happy, because this reminds us that, in roughly thirty-three years’ time, the dead Christ, lying in a not entirely dissimilar way on his Mother’s lap, will also come back to life. The sleeping Baby Jesus is a symbol both of the death and of the resurrection of Christ – and this applies to any painting in which you see Jesus asleep.

The solidity of the halo is a mystery, though. Surely a halo is just a visual embodiment of the light of God, and the glow of sanctity? Or does this very solidity imply that the light and the sanctity are real? That, however spiritual, they are both solid and dependable? I don’t know the answer – but it is a possibility. The talk on Monday may provide alternative explanations…


136 – At Home with Uncle Gianni

Bernardo Bellotto, Venice: Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal facing Santa Croce, about 1738. National Gallery, London.

This Monday, 20 September, I will be putting the National Gallery’s small but perfectly formed exhibition Bellotto: The Königstein Views Reunited into context with a lecture I have entitled Bellotto – The Journey to Dresden, so today I thought I would have a look at one of his earliest views, painted before that journey had even begun. However, I’m having a bit of trouble focussing… I was lucky enough to get home from Rome on Sunday (and I really mean that – I was very lucky to go, I know, but it was so complicated getting out of that country and back into this, that I count myself lucky to be here!). Subsequently my dear friends at Art History Abroad have invited me to go to Portugal the week after next with next to no preparation, which has thrown me into a bit of a flurry. Yes, I should have been in Stockholm now, but I’m not, so I’ll go to Portugal instead. If anyone fancies a spontaneous trip to Porto and the Douro Valley click on the link and have a look. This means that I will not be giving a talk on Monday 4 October (not that I said I would), although the following Tuesday, 12 October (I don’t know where I’ll be on the Monday) I will repeat my talk about The Mosaics of Ravenna. You may have heard it already when I did it for AHA, but as I am finally off to Ravenna the following week (where is the year going?) it seems like a good idea. It will be more or less the same talk, though (if a bit more focussed) so please don’t come along if you want something new! Before then, though, I will talk about the Ferrarese artist Francesco del Cossa – not to mention halos and snails – on Monday 27 September (How to wear you halo – and the Significance of the Snail), and before that, Bellotto. So today, before the The Journey to Dresden, let’s think about Bernardo Bellotto at home with his uncle Giovanni Antonio Canal, or Gianantonio Canal, or simply, Canaletto. And no, I don’t really think he was called Uncle Gianni…

Bernardo Bellotto Venice: The Grand Canal facing Santa Croce about 1738 Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 92.1 cm Salting Bequest, 1910 NG2514 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2514

Personally, I think this is a lovely painting. It’s unassuming enough, I suppose, and perhaps there isn’t really much to distinguish it from so many of the views of Venice which now enrich the walls of museums across the world, but it was the only Bellotto that the National Gallery had until its purchase of The Fortress of Königstein from the North just four years ago. Which is strange, perhaps, given that Bellotto was every bit as good as his uncle, and the National Gallery owns at least 14 of his paintings. Why did the British value Bellotto so far below his uncle? Who can say? But it is worthwhile remembering that, while Canaletto spent most of his time working in his native city – the haunt of many a Grand Tourist – Bellotto did not. And the little time Uncle Gianni was out of the country, he was in England – hence his pre-eminence here, perhaps. Not only that, but we do have a tendency to narrow our gaze. You want a view of Venice? You want Canaletto! He’s the main man, he’s the famous one, get the best. Only I’m not convinced that he always was the best: I’d rather have a Bellotto – or a Guardi.

So, what do I like about this painting? Well, it’s charming, it’s clear, well painted, well composed, and it sparkles with light, and with the life of Venice. As with so many of the vedute – or ‘views’ – it appears to assume an impossible point of viewing. We seem to be at the same height as the people on the bridge we can see on the right of the canal – only we also seem to be in the middle of the Grand Canal, and there is not, nor there never was, a bridge just here – although there is, admittedly, a kink in the canal. More of that later. We face the church of Santa Croce directly (it’s on the right), with its simple, apparently neo-classical façade. Now, however often you have been to Venice, I can guarantee that you have not been to this church. How can I be so sure? Well, it was destroyed in 1810: a communal garden now takes its place (see the photograph below). We can see gondoliers on the water, and people walking along the fondamenta – the canal-side path. A be-wigged aristocrat in red stands in the shadows at the foot of the steps to the church, and a hooded figure emerges from the left-hand door. Further back two people cross the bridge, and beyond that we can see the dome of San Simeon Piccolo, completed by architect Gianantonio Scalfarotto in 1738 as a neo-classical echo to Longhena’s baroque Santa Maria della Salute at the other end of the Grand Canal. The date of this church gives us a clue to the date of the painting. In the distance is the campanile (bell tower) of San Geremia – St Jeremiah. In the western church it is not usual to call an old testament prophet ‘Saint’, although it is in the orthodox church. The name of this, and other, Venetian churches reminds us of Venice’s connections with Byzantium. The view – with the exception of the absent church – is not altogether different today.

On the other side are three – or, arguably, four – more churches, only one of which survives.

From left to right they are the convent of Corpus Domini, which is more-or-less hidden by the surrounding wall. Further back it the taller renaissance façade of the Scuola dei Nobili – strictly speaking, a confraternity, although, as they all did, the complex would have included a consecrated chapel. This is followed by Santa Lucia, and finally, Santa Maria di Nazareth, known universally as the Scalzi, being the home of the Discalced (or ‘barefoot’) Carmelites. Its late-baroque façade was designed by Giuseppe Sardi and completed in 1680. This is the only surviving church from those on the left of the painting. Nowadays it is a familiar view, as it is, after San Simeon Piccolo, the second church you would see when emerging from the railway station. And if you have been to Venice by train, you may remember that the station is called Venezia Santa Lucia – which is the main reason why the buildings have changed so much here. In 1861 the Austrian overlords destroyed Santa Lucia (the church) to build the first railway station, at the end of a new land bridge. This was then re-built between 1936 and 1952 (the war slowed things down, of course) to a final design by Paolo Perilli.

This is the best photograph I can find of Bellotto’s view now – with the station on the left, the Scalzi covered in scaffolding, and the campanile – and dome – of San Geremia in the distance. But this is telling – hardly hint of the right bank of the canal, and only a glimpse of the portico of San Simeon. The vedutisti ­– the artists who painted the vedute – were experts at combining viewpoints, and this was something that Bellotto would have learnt as an essential part of his training. What we see in the images may look real, but we would have to look from side to side to see it all in one go.

Just visible in the background of this photograph – crossing in front of the brightly-lit palazzo – is a relatively ‘new’ bridge, built by the Austrians across the Grand Canal. This helped to connect the station to the city, and facilitated the movement of troops, who were needed to control the revolting Venetians. In 1848 there had indeed been a revolt, when the locals briefly took control of their own city. It didn’t last long: the Hapsburgs took back command the following year, and remained so until 1866 when Venice joined the newly-united (or, at least, uniting) Italy – even if most of them still don’t believe they really are the same as other Italians. Perhaps the best way to understand our painting is to look the other way. Here is a comparison with a painting by Canaletto, which also in the collection of the National Gallery: The Grand Canal with S. Simeone Piccolo painted shortly after the Bellotto, in around 1740. In case you were worried, the final ‘e’ of ‘Simeone’ is not a typo – nor is its absence above: the ‘e’ is Italian, but not Venetian, like ‘Canal’, Gianantonio’s family name. It was because he was the son of another Canal – Bernardo – that he was called ‘little Canal’, i.e. ‘Canaletto’.

Canaletto Venice: The Grand Canal with S. Simeone Piccolo about 1740 Oil on canvas, 124.5 x 204.6 cm Bequeathed by Lord Farnborough, 1838 NG163 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG163

We can see some of the same buildings – San Simeon is on the left, with the far simpler bulk of Santa Croce in the distance, just before the kink in the canal which means that the fondamenta curves round to our right – providing the viewpoint for Bellotto’s painting. Then on the right we can see the baroque façade of the Scalzi, and the projecting mass of Santa Lucia. Compare that with the view today – at least of the right-hand side of the canal, from more or less this point of view (where now the really is a bridge).

Enough said.

Apart from the skill, and the beauty of the painting, I love the historical content of Bellotto’s work – the documentation of the life and fabric of the city. I have little doubt that both of these paintings were created – in part, at least – to document one of the city’s latest landmarks – San Simeon Piccolo. The Bellotto is also interesting because he would have been young at the time it was painted. Born in 1722, he was the third child of asset manager Lorenzo Antonio Bellotto and Fiorenza Domenica Canal. He was named after his maternal grandfather, Bernardo Canal, a theatrical scene painter. He trained, of course, with his uncle, Canaletto (Fiorenza’s brother), and already by the age of 16 he was registered as a member of the Fraglia dei Pittori – the Venetian painters’ guild. It was around this time – 1738 – that our veduta was painted. He was sixteen. How could he have got to this level so quickly? Well, manual skill can easily be learnt with enough application and an early start, but the conceptual skill? He had help. His painting was based on his own preparatory drawing, now in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt. Sadly, I can’t find an image of it – but not to worry, as Bellotto’s own drawing was actually based on one by his uncle, which is now in the Royal Collection. Compare and contrast:

The composition is almost exactly the same, of course, plus or minus the odd gondola, although Bellotto makes the distant campanile slightly more prominent. This is how you learn – by copying the master. You study his original sketches, see how he combines them into a coherent composition, and copy that compositional drawing, just to make sure that it has all sunk in. I would like to see Bellotto’s version of the drawing, though, as I’d like to see how he sketches the sky. I have no doubt that both artists were right handed. Apart from the obvious fact that most people are, and always were, and, if they weren’t, were often made to be, in Canaletto’s sky the lines go from top right to bottom left – the default direction for right handed people sketching. For Canaletto, this is not a regular angle, though, with the lines varying from 45˚ to the horizontal at the top right and left, and varying across the centre to something more like 25˚. You get a similar variety of brushstrokes in the skies of Canaletto’s paintings. However, one of the stylistic features of Bellotto – to my mind, at least, I’ve never heard anyone else mention it – is that the brushstrokes in the blue of the sky are often an almost obsessive 45˚- which I hope you can see in this detail. It looks as if there is an almost imperceptible rain.

The detail also shows the thickness of the paint in the clouds. This three dimensional ‘paste’ is given the Italian name impasto, and is one of the ways in which Bellotto’s paintings differ from those of Canaletto, who does not use impasto to the same degree. Other differences include larger canvasses, more magisterial views, and a cooler, more silvery palette – but these are the sorts of things I will be talking about on Monday, when I discuss Bellotto’s development after the early years in Venice, not to mention his journeys through Europe which led him to Dresden, and beyond, and then back again… I do hope you can join me then! As for everything else – well, as ever, it should be on the diary page.


135 – Say it with flowers

Carl Larsson, Azalea, 1906. Thielska Gallery, Stockholm.

On Monday (6 September) I will be lecturing about two great Swedish artists from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson, both of whom (and I know I’ve said this before) deserve to be better known. Aside from their enormous technical skill, the rich use of colour and original compositions are combined in what are, quite simply, wonderful paintings, easy on the eye and a pleasure to behold. On the whole, they communicate a sense of ease and well-being which was not necessarily that of their humble origins. Because of their outlook on life, and their interests in both tradition and innovation, I have called the talk How it was and how it could be – although you’ll find it listed on Tixoom (where you can book tickets) as Two Swedish Masters. But more about them on Monday at 6pm – today I want to talk about Mrs Larsson, although, perversely perhaps, I will do so by looking a painting by her husband, Carl.

According to that well-worn phrase, ‘Behind every great man is a great woman.’ I can’t help finding the motto a little tired. We now know that often the women weren’t behind the men. Often they were alongside, or even up in front – it’s just that the other men failed to notice them, and as some of those same men did much of the communicating (writing books, lecturing, etc, etc) even the other women didn’t get to know about the Great Women who were supposedly backing up the supposedly Great Men. You might, at first glance, assume this is the case with Mrs Larsson, who is half hidden in this work behind an Azalea – the star of the show. Like many a star of stage and screen, this plant has found its place in the spotlight, close to the audience in the middle of the stage – or, in theatrical terms, downstage centre. But then, the Azalea is what this painting is all about, surely? The title tells us as much, doesn’t it?

Azaleas are actually a type of Rhodedendron – a surprisingly broad genus – and, as such, it should really be a more sprawling bush. However, this would appear to be a ‘standard’ variety, with the attractively-grouped blooms growing from a tall slim stem. It could have been pruned, or even grafted, to make it look like this. A little further back, and to our right, we see Mrs Larsson wielding a pair of shears: maybe she is responsible for its current form. It is not entirely clear, given the scale, whether she is looking out towards us, or at the plant itself – I suspect it’s the latter, though, as her irises are in the far corner of her eyes – she is looking to her right, and a little downwards. Maybe she has just finished tending to it, and, and having walked away, she has looked back, over her shoulder, to check that its appearance is satisfactory. The light floods in to the back of the room through the expansive window, placing her, as the French say, contre jour, ‘against the daylight’, a bravura display of skill from Carl Larsson, using the luminosity of the watercolour medium to full effect. The light filters around one side of her face, leaving the other in shadow. It plays similar across the blooms, with those at the top catching the light, the translucency of the petals making them glow. The lower flowers are more in shadow, allowing Larsson to show off a range of pinks, from the palest tint to almost red. In this light – literally and metaphorically – his wife’s face appears another in the collection of blossoms. She has tended to the flowers, making sure they appear perfect, and he places her perfectly among them.

But is that how he saw her? One of the beautiful things in life, and nothing more? Merely part of the decoration? After all, she’s not front and centre – that position is given to the plant. Admittedly I haven’t helped by calling her ‘Mrs Larsson’ because, of course, she did have her own personality. Mr Larsson was more than aware of the fact. Ultimately, I think that is what this painting is about. Carl had been born into abject poverty (more of that on Monday), but, despite this, his artistic talent was recognised at an early age, enabling him to train at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. After a period working as an illustrator (an experience which was to prove invaluable throughout his career), he headed off to Paris, and settled in a Scandinavian artists’ colony just outside the city a few years later. It was there that he met Karin Bergöö, a more recent graduate from the Academy. Previously she had studied at the Swedish Craft School, and came from a wealthy and progressive family: she had lived independently in Stockholm, with an allowance, from the age of 14. A year after Karin and Carl met, they returned to Stockholm and married. Following a couple more sojourns in France, they settled in Sundborn, near the town where her father, a successful businessman, had been born. He gave them a small, almost derelict cottage, called Lilla Hyttnäs – which, roughly translated, means ‘the small cabin on the isthmus’. They already had two children, and went on to have six more. Most women’s careers would have foundered at this stage, and, according to the standards imposed by the traditional rigours of the ‘fine arts’ – which insist on the primacy of oil on canvas – Karin’s did. She did not become a professional artist, unlike her husband. As a mother, she was all but restricted to the domestic sphere: it was this which became her ‘canvas’. She designed furniture, and interiors; she wove and embroidered; and she made her own and her children’s clothing. The pinafores she is often seen wearing in Carl’s paintings (she was also his chief model) were her own design, practical and comfortable. To this day they are known as karinförkläde – ‘Karin’s aprons’ – by the women of Sundborn. And, I believe, even much further afield.

On the left of the painting, behind the Azalea, we can see a loom set up with a partially woven textile. The curving lines in bold colours – blue, white, pink and red – framed by a similarly brightly coloured border of rectangles, is typical of Karin’s work. It is not dissimilar to the panel underneath the window of the dining room of Lilla Hyttnäs, their home, now a museum celebrating their work and their life together. Indeed, it might even be Carl’s interpretation of that particular work in progress. The loom itself is delicately depicted, with its bench outlined clearly beside it. In the background we also see a printing press, for the production of engravings. Or am I seeing it this way because I want to see this as the home of an artistic couple? Maybe it’s a sewing machine, and maybe one of you can tell me! Either way, it is part of the artistry.

Karin’s creativity is central to this painting. Although she, as a figure, is to the right of the composition and in the middle ground, she is certainly not marginalised: figuratively she is absolutely central to the composition, in the same way that she was at the centre of Carl’s life and work. She created the environment in which they lived together, and she nurtured the children – in the same way that she nurtures the plants. She was not ‘behind’ him, but beside him, inspiring him, enabling him, and encouraging him on – a sounding board and a critic. She made the family and home what they were, and these in turn became his core subjects, as we will see on Monday. The Azalea in this painting is not just a plant, it is a symbol of their life together, well-ordered, perfectly structured, luminous, and, ultimately, beautiful. Carl acknowledges here that this is the fruit of Karin’s particular genius. We cannot see witness this act of creation: Carl, sitting at his easel, is not in view. But while he holds his paint brush, and she, her shears, I can imagine their eyes meeting across the blooms.


Psyching myself up

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid, 1753, National Gallery, London.

I was going to write a new post today, but it turns out I’m still in acting mode. After two weeks in Sidmouth playing three different roles in the four playlets that make up Neil Simon’s California Suite we have half a week at the New Theatre Peterborough. Thank you so much to those of you who joined us on the South Coast – and if anybody would like to see the show in Peterborough, it is only 50 minutes from London on the train (and there is a matinee at 2.30 on Saturday…). Then I will psyche myself up to get back into lecturing mode for Tuesday evening (31 August), when I will be telling the story of Cupid and Psyche, illustrated with art from across the ages (most notably, of course, the decoration of the Villa Farnesina by the workshop of Raphael). Then the following week, on Monday 6th September at 6pm I will be talking about Two Swedish Masters – Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson – both of whom deserve to be better known. Those of you who were with me during lockdown 1 will have read my lengthy musings on the story of Psyche – but as an introduction (and while I’m still trying to get my head in gear) – I thought I’d repeat a post from April 30th last year… So here is Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid by Fragonard. 

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1732 – 1806 Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid 1753 Oil on canvas, 168.3 x 192.4 cm Bought, 1978 NG6445 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6445

The story of Psyche is a wonderful one, and sufficiently long to be shared over a couple of days…  It is peppered across Greek and Roman myth, but the version that is best known isn’t myth at all, but part of a late Roman novella, The Golden Ass, written by Apuleius in the second half of the second century AD. It tells of a man, Lucius, who, as the result of a freak magic-related accident, is turned into a donkey (if you think you’ve heard this before, yes, this is probably the origin of the Bottom sub-plot in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). He wanders the world trying to regain human form, and on his journeys hears various stories, which are recounted as part of the novella. The longest and most thoroughly told tale is the story of Cupid and Psyche, which became a particular favourite in the Renaissance. It is illustrated in full by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Te in Mantua, and Raphael started a cycle in the Farnesina in Rome, although sadly it was never completed. I will come back to both, though, as well as throwing in other interpretations as the mood takes me!

Luca Giordano, Psyche Honoured by the People c.1695-7, Royal Collection Trust.

Psyche was a mere mortal, but as a girl, was said to be more beautiful than Venus herself, the Goddess of Beauty. She was so beautiful, in fact, that people started worshipping her instead of Venus. Gods never like a threat to their status, and Venus was no exception. 

Workshop of Raphael, Venus and Cupid, 1518, Farnesina Palace, Rome.

She sent her son Cupid to make Psyche very unhappy, by making her fall in love with a monster (another feature of the story which is echoed in the Dream, perhaps?), but when he saw her he understood what all the fuss was about. Leaning closer to get a better look, he accidentally pricked himself with one of his own arrows, and fell madly in love with her. Knowing that his mother would have been furious, he knew he had to get her out of the way, so he got his good friend Zephyr, the wind (who we have already seen in Picture Of The Day 8 and POTD 37) to pick her up and carry her off to his castle. Once there, she was brought food by invisible servants, played music by invisible musicians, and showered with gifts from who knows where. He came to her at night, in the dark… and the earth moved. Clearly she was happy to be there, and he told her that she could stay, on condition that she never tried to find out his name or see what he looked like. This suited Psyche, although she was a bit concerned that her sisters might be worried about where she’d got to, so she persuaded Cupid, much against his better judgement, to get Zephyr to bring them to the castle so they could see that she was alright.

On arrival she shows them all the gifts she has been given – some of these are scattered on the ground: a basket of roses, tipped up for inspection by the sister in red, and in front of that an elaborate golden bowl, with turquoise fabric lying in and around it. There is a pipe and a tambourine – evidence of the magical music, perhaps – and leaning against the frame of Fragonard’s painting is another frame, an oval one, with a blue ribbon tied onto the loops at the back so that it can be hung. We will never know what this is – a mirror, perhaps? Or a painting? Also lying on the ground is a quiver full of arrows – this should be a clue. Psyche is not the sort to go out hunting (unlike Diana and her virgin nymphs), so these must belong to Cupid. If only she had noticed them, and stopped to think what they were doing there!

She seems to have been given a vast amount of fabric. One sister, blonde, who is facing us, holds up a length that is a very pale lemon yellow and white, with a sky blue border, while the redhead with her back to us in shadow clasps what appears to be cloth of gold. The fabric pours across the floor and over the step on which this woman is kneeling. As this woman is in the left foreground, and in shadow against a lighter background, she should really be a repoussoir, encouraging us to look further into the image, but she looks off to her left, and directs our attention away from Psyche, the focus of the story. I can only imagine that Fragonard is implying that these bolts of brocade are spread far across the floor, way beyond the edge of the painting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1732 – 1806 Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid 1753 Oil on canvas, 168.3 x 192.4 cm Bought, 1978 NG6445 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6445

Fine fabrics would appear to be the stuff of the sisters’ dreams, they are so well attired themselves. The primrose yellow of the standing blonde woman is one of my favourite colours in any painting – don’t ask me why – but Fragonard makes it ring out by surrounding it with different yellows and turquoises. Despite this, there is no doubt that Psyche is the most important person here. Her brilliant white drapery – it could hardly be called it a robe, as it barely covers her, despite its length and breadth – shines out between the shimmering yellow and the deep red. She is the only person seated, her feet resting on a splendid cylindrical cushion, in turquoise velvet, with gold tassels. Her hair is being coiffed by one of her more attentive sisters, who looks over her shoulder to see a swarm of amoretti  – ‘little loves’ – bringing yet more jewelry and roses. It is almost as if they are embodiments of the rich perfumes emanating from the large, gold censer on the far right. 

Her chair is elaborately carved and gilded, and next to the cherub’s head at the end of the arm is a cushion in delicate pink, with feathery gold embroidery appliqued freely and plentifully as if it were the cherub’s wings. All this appears to be taking place in a fantasy setting – well it is rather fantastic! A stage set, perhaps, or the courtyard of a grand palace, with a terrace that has been strewn with rich materials for a tête-à-tête – en plein air – as it were. Fragonard has himself changed his mind about how it is represented, as there is a ghost-like vase hovering above right of the two standing sisters. This is what is known as a pentimento – or change of mind – which has, through the aging of the paint, become visible again.

What do Psyche’s sisters feel about all the attention she has been getting? Well, flying through the sky is a woman with snakes in her left hand and a flaming torch in her right, looking down at the two standing sisters. This is Eris, the Goddess of Discord – the Goddess of Arguments. I’ve always assumed that she has the snakes to freak people out, and the torch to heat up the arguments. Of course, the sisters were jealous! They wanted to know who he was, this wonderful lover, and what did he look like? Psyche couldn’t answer. As he only came at night, she had never seen him. When they pointed out to her that he could be a monster, she lost the calm that she is so clearly enjoying in this painting, and got into an argument (Eris always gets her way in the end). She then told Zephyr to take them away again. But what should she do next? Well – you can look up the ‘Psyche’ archive, or join me for the talk on Tuesday!


134 – Displaced Angels

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna, 1512-14. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

I am constantly reminded of something that, when I first heard it, was attributed to Mark Twain: ‘I am sorry to have written such a long letter: I didn’t have time to write a short one’. Since then I have heard it attributed to any number of other authors, and really, I don’t have the time to research a short conclusion – so I shan’t. I was reminded of this during my lecture last week. Having tried to cover the life of short-lived artist Caravaggio in three talks, I thought four would be ideal for Raphael, who lived one year less (he died at 37, unlike Caravaggio, who lived to the ripe old age of 38). And yet, and yet… there is always more to say. So today I want to think about one of the glorious paintings which I just haven’t had time to include in the lectures. Why so busy? Well, that’s enough about me. There are two more talks in the Raphael series, though. Tomorrow, Monday 19 July, at 6pm I have re-named Telling Tales and Spinning Yarns, and then next Monday, 26 July, I will discuss the last phase of his prodigious career in the talk Competition and Collaboration. And then no more talks for at least a month. It’s not a holiday, but a break from art for acting. So if you like theatre, and find yourself on the South Devon Coast (Sidmouth, to be precise) or near Peterborough, I will be appearing in three of the four one-act plays which make up Neil Simon’s California Suite. But for now, back to Raphael.

You are aware of the concept of fallen angels, I presume, but have maybe not come across a displaced angel… but these two have certainly been cut adrift. You can find them in almost any large Italian town, staring up from the pavement and accompanied by an assorted array of different posters of varying standards and sensibilities. However, should the police appear, they will be whisked away, caught up in the sheet on which they have been reclining. Perhaps they serve a function as the guardian angels of street vendors, alerting them to the imminent arrival of rain or sun, thus explaining the supernatural ability of these outcast men (they are always men) to appear beside you with an umbrella or an array of sun glasses within seconds of the downpour or subsequent brilliant glare. And yet, despite their ubiquity, these angels are far from home: far from their original home, that is, and even further from their current place of residence. They are seen completely out of context, and few people – from among those likely take them home – would be able to tell you what they are and where they really live. And that is because no one on their holidays in Italy would have seen them: they too are on holiday, from Dresden. I should say that I do find them entirely charming, both leaning on the window sill, it seems (although as often as not, as here, that has been cropped out of the image), looking up at we know not what, one with his chin on his crossed arms, the other resting his head on his hand, that typical gesture of thought. Both are on the verge of boredom, it seems, and yet they still hold the possibility of being entertained. What is it that they are contemplating? And is their interest sustained by the possibility that things will get better or worse? Well, let’s put them into context.

They come from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, which he completed in 1514, a painting which is now one of the highlights (if not the highlight) of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. Despite the name, it was not painted for the Sistine Chapel, nor was it painted for Pope Sixtus IV, after whom the chapel is named, as he died in 1484, the year after Raphael was born. However, it was painted for his nephew, Julius II, the Pope who commissioned Raphael to paint his Rooms in the Vatican Palace, and commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine ceiling. The ensuing disputes between the two great artists will feature in next week’s talk. Julius died the year after he commissioned the painting, and the year before it was completed, during the papacy of Leo X, the Pope who asked Raphael to design him a nice set of tapestries (the subject of tomorrow’s talk). However, the painting never had a home in Rome: it was commissioned for the Church of St Sixtus in Piacenza. More of that later, though, let’s have a look at the painting.

We see the Madonna standing on the clouds in a form of contrapposto – her weight on her right leg, the left leg bent, with the heel lifting off the ground, for all the world as if she is walking towards us, carrying her child – or, in theological terms, as if she is carrying her child towards us for the salvation of all the world. Her blue cloak is blowing to the right and the golden veil billowing as a result of a breeze. Two saints, male and female, kneel at her feet, the man looking up at her while gesturing to us, the woman exchanging glances with the angel on our left. The heavenly vision has been revealed to us thanks to a pair of green curtains, which have been drawn back to frame the Virgin on either side of the painting.

Tied visibly on our right, and behind the frame on the left, the bunching of the curtains means that the rings with which they are hung are unevenly spaced – a touch naturalism to help us believe the supernatural. The slim rod bows from the weight, revealing more sky at the top of the painting, suffused with ethereal members of the heavenly host – pale blue cherubim and seraphim merging with the clouds. Both Mother and Child look out at us – or do they look just past us? – wide-eyed, even concerned. Jesus sits cross-legged, like the monarchs of medieval manuscript illumination, preparing to judge us – to condemn, or have mercy. The motif of the curtain is also medieval in origin. In Matthew’s account of the crucifixion – Chapter 27:50-51 to be precise – we read:

50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent…

This event – the rending of the curtain – is interpreted as the revelation of divine truth, and here too, in this painting, the truth is revealed, as Mary presents us with her child, our saviour. Note how the curtains are at a level to frame the standing Virgin, but would not necessarily hang low enough to cover the saints. Like us, they are witnesses to this vision, this revelation, not part of it.

On the left is St Sixtus, who, as Pope Sixtus II, was the Bishop of Rome from 257-258, at which point he was martyred under the Emperor Valerian along with the better known St Lawrence. He puts his left hand on his chest, and gestures towards us with his right hand. On the right is St Barbara, a saint whose life spanned the late third and early fourth centuries. Like St Sixtus, she also puts her left hand on her chest and, given the implied symmetry, not to mention the turn of her body, may well be using her right hand to indicate her attribute, the model of the tower in which she was imprisoned by her pagan father. This can be seen over her shoulder at the bottom of the visible section of the curtain. She is dressed in a complex, but elegant, fashion, with overlapping yellow and blue puffed sleeves, and a blue/violet cloak with a green lining. The diagonal of the green continues up through the flicking cloak of the Virgin, leading our eye towards the Christ child’s left foot – which is notably at the eyeline of both martyrs. They are ideally placed to kiss it, a sign of their humility and obeisance.

But then, if the painting were in place on an altar, the Virgin’s own feet, so delicately poised on the weight-bearing clouds, would be at the right height for us to do the same. Sixtus’s cope, the hem of which is subtly embroidered with saints seated in shell-topped niches, hangs down below him, linking us to the more heavenly realm. He has placed his triple tiara – the headgear worn by popes up until the 1960s (when they also tried, unsuccessfully, to remove St Barbara from the Canon of Saints) – on the same ledge on which the cherubs lean. Their gaze, with its melancholy (which, like the startled look of Madonna and Child, probably results from the inevitability of Christ’s death, combined with a subtle hint of the awe that his revelation entails) leads our eye back up to the top of the painting.

Visually, this is a masterpiece in direction and redirection. The angels, closest to us, look up towards St Barbara, and she gestures back to her tower. Rising from this, the curtain takes us up to the Virgin. The green lining of Barbara’s cloak takes our eyes to Christ’s foot, at the same level as her head and that of St Sixtus. He looks up to the Madonna and Child while she looks down, a different form of contrapposto which Raphael uses to keep us attentive, and to keep our eyes exploring, travelling across the surface of the painting, discovering every detail. Sixtus is interceding on our behalf, looking up to Jesus, begging him for mercy for us, miserable sinners – and pointing back towards us, making us reflect on our own existence, and reminding us that we too should pray. His cope hangs down close to us, we could even reach out and touch the hem of this garment, just as the woman with ‘an issue of blood’ did in Luke 8:43-48 when she thought Jesus wasn’t looking. The golden cope catches our eyes, and leads our attention back up to Sixtus’s face, and so back to Mary and Jesus. Its red lining echoes the visible section of Mary’s dress, both forming curved arrows which, like so much else, point up towards Jesus: there is constant upward motion. If you join the heads of the saints to Mary’s head, and the hands of the saints to Christ’s foot, you will have two parallel arrows pointing upwards, framed by the hanging curtains, echoed at the bottom by the angels – all leading us up towards the un-depicted God the Father, imagined as looking down from heaven. This upward motion is part of the inspiration for this painting.

On the left is a late 15th Century drawing by one of the followers of Perugino, part of the collection of the Albertina in Vienna. It shows us what the fresco Perugino painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel looked like. The chapel is dedicated (not that you’d know it now) to the Assumption of the Virgin, and this image was painted in fresco as an altarpiece, only to be destroyed when Michelangelo created his Last Judgement.

At the bottom of the drawing we see Sixtus IV kneeling with his triple tiara sitting on the ground, much as it does in Raphael’s painting. He is confirmed as St Peter’s successor by the man himself, who places his left hand on his head, and taps him on the shoulder with one of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, almost as if knighting him from behind. At the bottom of the mandorla – or almond-shaped glory – surrounding the Virgin Mary are three winged cherubim heads, looking up in much the same way that Raphael’s two angels do. St Paul stands on the right, resting one hand on his sword, and looking out towards us. It is all but impossible that Raphael did not know the original painting.

As a Franciscan, Sixtus IV – born Francesco della Rovere – had a strong belief in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (for which, see Day 71 and Day 72). In 1473 he made the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which had previously been a purely private affair, into a fully public, official celebration. Six years later he dedicated the chapel which bears his name on the Feast of the Assumption (which is a logical outcome of the Immaculate Conception), that is, on 15 August, 1483 – hence the subject of Perugino’s fresco. But why didn’t he become Pope Francis? Why did he choose a different name? St Francis was a worthy model, after all, and according to his followers, alter Christi – ‘another Christ’. Admittedly, most cardinals, on being elected to the Papacy, do choose a new name as a sign of their new life. The Conclave of 1471, at which he was elected, started on 6 August, which just happens to be the Feast of St Sixtus – hence his chosen name. But that doesn’t explain why his nephew, Julius II, commissioned this painting for a distant city. However, in 1512 the warrior Pope had captured the city of Piacenza and absorbed it into the Papal States. This made up in some way for the loss, the previous year, of Bologna, an the event which he mourned by refusing to shave. That’s how he got the beard with which we are familiar from Raphael’s innovative and influential portrait. Indeed, he looked more than a little like Raphael’s image of the 3rd Century martyr St Sixtus, who is indicating us. But then, that figure could feasibly also represent Julius II, the donor, showing Jesus the new city he has captured for God… It is also relevant that Piacenza had a church dedicated to St Sixtus, which boasted relics of the man himself, as well as some of St Barbara, which is why they are the saints featured in the painting. And as if this wasn’t enough, Julius was all too aware that he owed everything to his uncle, and did everything he could to commemorate him, and thus, the della Rovere family from which they both came.

The painting stayed in its intended location in Piacenza until 1754, when it was bought by Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony (also known as Augustus III of Poland) – the avid collector who amassed new fewer than 157 pastels by Rosalba Carriera – from which point on it became, for the Germans, the most perfect painting ever created. Among others, it was praised by Winckelmann, Goethe, Nietsche and Thomas Mann. And there is a whole subsequent history to go into, not to mention the peculiar presence of the charmed and charming angels all over Italy – but I really don’t have time to go into all of that right now. However, looking at that drawing again has made me realise that I will have to add another slide (or two) to tomorrow’s talk. I’m sorry, I won’t have time to write a short one.


133 – Cleanliness next to Godliness

Luciano Laurana, La Facciata dei Torricini, 1464-72. Palazzo Ducale, Urbino.

It’s a long time since I’ve talked about a building, but as today’s façade has a brief mention in the first of my new series of talks about Raphael, (A Boy from Urbino, this Monday 5 July at 6pm) – I thought I’d look at what a sophisticated piece of design it is. Monday’s a busy day, as it happens. I will also start a new course for the National Gallery – Women Artists – which covers women in Western European Art from medieval to modern, focussing especially on those whose work is included in the Gallery’s own collection. It will fill the gap between coffee and lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays for three weeks – there are more details in the link above. But today we will talk about architecture. The Palazzo Ducale in Urbino is sometimes described as the greatest Renaissance palace. It was built for Federigo da Montefeltro, Lord of Urbino from 1444, who was promoted to Duke in 1474. There is a lot of discussion still about who was responsible for the design of different sections of the palace: Luciano Laurana incorporated a slightly earlier building, but did not complete the palace by the time he left Urbino in 1472. However, I won’t be discussing the whole building: it is simply too large and too complex for one post. Instead, I will just look at one side, known as the Facciata dei Torricini – the ‘Façade of the Little Towers’ – which most authorities seem to be happy to attribute to Laurana himself.

Most of the palace is far grander and more austere in appearance. The palace is undoubtedly the largest structure in the city – with the exception of the encompassing defensive walls, I suppose – and most of it is far grander and more austere than this façade – both more simple and imposing. This section is more elaborate as a result of its function – or functions – as the apartments of the Duke himself. The façade looks out over the countryside, rather than in towards the city, and so is designed to demonstrate Federigo’s wealth and good taste to anyone approaching from this direction. But it also expresses, subtly, a whole system of beliefs and convictions concerning the character of a good ruler. The façade is elaborated by a vertical series of three arches. The bottom two are labelled with the letters ‘F’ and ‘C’, standing for Federico Comes – ‘Count Federigo’ in Latin –  reminding us that this structure was completed before he became Duke in 1474.

The top two arches are supported by marble columns, and are also faced in marble – implying the high status of the rooms which are behind them. The lowest is framed by brickwork – it is more down to earth, like the palace as a whole. By picking out these details in marble, it becomes clear that this part of the palace must the Duke’s (or Count’s) personal domain. Both of the upper two arches have two doorways leading from the balconies, whereas the lowest has only one. Nevertheless, in all three cases, the balconies allowed Federico to survey his realm. Access from one to another was via the spiral staircase in the torricino to the left. In between this and the upper balcony is a window which illuminates Federico’s famed studiolo – or ‘little study’ – decorated with paintings of ‘famous men’ by Justus of Ghent and Pedro Berruguete. Some – those in colour – are still in situ, whereas the remainder, represented by the reproductions in black and white, have been scattered around the world.

More famous, perhaps, is the intarsia work by Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano, showing off their skill with perspective and other forms of illusionistic representation, using intricate inlaid woods. The imagery displays Federico’s military prowess and artistic interests, including music and the arts, science, weaponry, a display of his honours (among others he held the Orders of the Ermine, the Golden Fleece, and the Garter – the last of these bestowed by Edward IV of England), not to mention personifications the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity, which we must assume Federigo was supposed to embody.

From the next balcony down the two doors lead into two small rooms, known as the Chapel of Absolution, and the Temple of the Muses. The entrance to the two is topped by a couplet in Latin, which translates as,

You see a pair of chapels, joined together with a small separation:
the one part is sacred to the Muses, the other sacred to God.

It has been suggested that Piero della Francesca’s painting of The Flagellation once stood on the altar of the Chapel of Absolution – although this is by no means certain. However, we do know that the Temple was decorated with paintings of the nine muses by none other than Giovanni Santi. Now, this name might not be familiar to you, but don’t worry, he wasn’t the most famous of artists. However, he did create some rather charming works, and did two things for which he has been considered especially important. For one thing, he wrote a rhyming epic in honour of his patron Federigo. This isn’t in itself remarkable, but Giovanni followed the encomium with a list of 27 recent and living artists who he considered to be important, praising their work and explaining what he thought were their chief qualities – one of the first and one of very few such statements from the Renaissance, and therefore an invaluable measure of how people in the 15th Century actually talked about art. Perhaps more important than this, though, he was the father of Raphael (one of those artists we tend to refer to by one name only, thus effectively denying his parentage any relevance). Even though he died when Raphael was only eleven, it seems likely that Giovanni had already taught his young son most of the technique he would need for a successful career.

This beautifully delicate drawing in the Royal Collection was used by Giovanni as the model for various works, but most directly for Clio, the Muse of History. The painting itself is one of several surviving Muses (not all nine have been preserved), and is probably the one in the best condition.

So Federigo’s apartments – including his bedroom, the antechambers, and audience rooms – and most specifically, his study – are above a Christian chapel and a humanistic temple to the Muses. What would be the function of the rooms down below? In moving from the study to the chapel and temple, we have moved down from head to heart, suggesting that the lowest level of the three could be related to the rest of the body, or, perhaps, to more lowly functions. And indeed, behind the lowest balcony are Federigo’s bathrooms, across the corridor from the stables. I would imagine that this allowed him, on getting home from one of his military campaigns (he earned much of his fame and wealth as a Condottiero, a leader of mercenary soldiers) to wash off the cares of the world before returning to the cares of the court, and having cleansed his body he could head up the spiral staircase to cleanse his soul, thanking God for his safe return and praying for forgiveness for any misdeeds. He could also consult the Muses for inspiration before heading up to his private study and other apartments.

When seen from above, we realise that one of the walls does not shelter a room, but acts as a screen for a ‘hanging garden’, which sits on the roof directly above the stables. There used to be a walkway above this wall, which led directly from Federigo’s apartments to those of his wife, the beautiful Battista Sforza. Sadly, she died in childbirth at the age of 26, but was immortalised posthumously by Piero della Francesco as one of the paired portraits in the Uffizi.

Piero della Francesca, Battista Sforza and Federigo da Montefeltro, about 1473-75. Uffizi, Florence.

The Duke had everything at hand. His own rooms, on a level, and within easy reach of his wife along a short corridor (passing between garden and countryside), worked along a horizontal axis, while, on the vertical axis, his study was supported by a foundation of God and the arts – the health of his soul and his mind. These in turn were supported by the wellbeing of his body in the bathrooms below (not to mention the kitchens, which are on the same level). This clarity of thought and the elegant disposition of spaces are just a couple of the features which mark the sophistication of the court to which Raphael belonged: this is where he grew up, and where he made his first steps in the world of art. It was undoubtedly an important foundation for the future development of his career, which is precisely why it seems an ideal place to start the series on Monday. I look forward to talking to some of you then.


132 – Giant, or Giant Slayer?

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-4. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

I was blogging about Bernini two weeks ago, and I had meant to write a post about Caravaggio’s St Francis last week, as we still have one more talk about Caravaggio to go (this Monday at 2pm and 6pm), before I start a new series of four talks called The Raphaels in One Room. However, I moved house instead, so St Francis will have to wait. I’m currently surrounded by boxes, and piles of detritus, and it’s very hard to focus! I’ll get back to the early Caravaggio another day, although a ‘late’ work will make a guest appearance later on, much as a ‘mature’ painting did two weeks ago. That post covered a recently re-discovered work by Bernini (see 131 – Memento Mori), although I wrote about two of his most famous sculptures – The Ecstasy of St Theresa (Day 63) and Apollo and Daphne (Day 56) – way back in the days of Lockdown 1. Today I want to look at his David, which he carved at the same time as the Apollo – or rather, in a break in the latter’s execution (having said that, he didn’t carve all of the Apollo and Daphne himself, but I don’t often mention the fact: for some reason it tends to upset people). Today’s sculpture, like its contemporary, is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, so people naturally assume that it was commissioned by Cardinal Scipio Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. However, it seems likely that it was originally conceived for the garden of a villa at Montalto, on the edge of Rome, and for a different cardinal: Alessandro Peretti, nephew of Pope Sixtus V. Peretti had planned a theatrical setting for the work which might explain the composition of the David. However, the patron died in 1623, shortly after the sculpture had been commissioned, and Bernini was probably worried he that would not get paid. Nevertheless, there was apparently no difficulty in persuading Scipio Borghese to take on the commission. Although he already had Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone, and was looking forward to Apollo and Daphne – which was was already well underway – a biblical subject could have been enticing. If nothing else, it might help to allay any criticisms that the Cardinal was too caught up with pagan myth – and if so, then this subject was ideal, given that it celebrates the death of the infidel.

We see David in the act of throwing the stone that will slay Goliath. According to the biblical account, after he had taken up the Philistine’s challenge, Saul thought it wise that he should wear armour. But this is how David responded, according to 1 Samuel 17:38-39:

And Saul armed David with his armour, and he put an helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail.
And David girded his sword upon his armour, and he assayed to go; for he had not proved it. And David said unto Saul, I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them. And David put them off him.

The text basically says that David didn’t want to wear the armour because he wasn’t used to it, so he took it off. It does not say ‘and so David went to fight Goliath naked’ – which is how both Donatello and Michelangelo show him. Although David is not entirely naked here, there is only a swathe of drapery to preserve his dignity, and even that is a tease, coming so close to falling off his thigh, and revealing just enough to be provocative.  Entirely naked may well have been less sensual. Bernini’s predecessors make no reference to the rejected armour, but it sits here behind the figure of David at the back of the base. There is also a lyre lying on the ground, a reminder of David’s musicality (he has traditional been identified as the author of the Psalms).

The sculpture has no hint of the staff which is mentioned in 1 Samuel 17:40, but Bernini does include other details:

And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.

One of the five stones has been put into the sling, and David is holding it in his left hand, with the end of the sling is in his right. The shepherd’s bag,or scrip – apparently made from the skin of one of the flock – is slung over his right shoulder. He twists around to increase the momentum of the shot, concentrating so hard that he frowns, and bites his lip, as he looks up towards the giant, judging his aim. From the direction of his gaze we get a good sense of how tall Goliath must have been. His height is even mentioned in the biblical account: according to 1 Samuel 17:4 David’s foe was ‘a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.’ Or, to put in in other terms, just 3cm off 3m – or 9’9”. While we’re talking about height, it’s worthwhile pointing out that Michelangelo’s David measure 5.17m: 2.2m taller than the biblical Goliath – and has also been known as Il Gigante: ‘the Giant’.

The subject of David is familiar, and is one that sculptors – especially Florentine sculptors – had excelled at long before Bernini was born. You could even say that some of the giants of the field had created examples that Bernini would doubtless want to emulate and even surpass. Donatello created at least two, an early version in marble, and a mature – and rather bizarre – work in bronze. This was followed by Verrocchio’s bronze, which I happen to think is one of the best. Not only is it superb in terms of its execution, but it also fits the biblical description of the young shepherd boy more than any others. He shows David with the head of Goliath at his feet, as all other artists depicting the young man had done before. The boy’s challenge has been fulfilled successfully, and the young hero is at peace, with all the balance, and charm, that the Early Renaissance could muster. In all of the early images the head is vital as David’s attribute – the symbol which tells us who this young murderer is: God’s chosen victor.

Michelangelo’s innovation was to show David before he had slain Goliath – he was the first artist to do so. This introduces the psychological tension so typical of works of the Renaissance, not to mention the angst which Michelangelo loved to portray physically, although here it is limited to the strong turn of the head. David looks out for his enemy, anxious, his brow slightly furrowed, but calm in the knowledge that God is his strength. However, although this was new for a depiction of David, it did have a precedent: Donatello had earlier shown St George prior to slaying the dragon, alert, on the front foot, and seeking out his foe across the streets of Florence. HOwever brilliant it is, though, you could argue that there is a fundamental problem with the way in which Il Gigante is conceived – apart from the fact that it is, in itself, a giant: he appears to be looking for someone at the same level as himself, someone who must, therefore, be the same height. As a contrast, Bernini’s David looks up, and we can tell instantly that he is aiming at someone far taller than himself. Bernini also does that typically Baroque thing of showing us the moment of greatest drama. Not ‘it’s over, and we are at peace’ like Verrocchio, or ‘oh no, will he do it?’ like Michelangelo, but ‘IT’S HAPPENING NOW!’ – something he could easily have learnt this from the paintings of an artist of the previous generation: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The energy and drama he has depicted means that the sculpture looks good from almost every point of view.

From the side (on the left), the shoulders are turned towards us, and so this could arguably be considered the ‘front’ – even if the hero turns and looks away from us. His arms frame the body, and make the composition look ‘contained’, even if the angle of the right leg below the knee shows us how much David is leaning into his task. If we hadn’t understood this before, this lack of balance we see here should make us realise the extent to which the armour is there to anchor the body, and to support its weight. When seen from the front left corner (on the right), the drapery and the strap of the scrip are seen to be parallel, enhancing the harmony of the composition, and are counteracted by the line of the left arm. It is also clear from this angle that none of the weight of this block of marble can be supported by the left leg, as only the ball of the foot seems to be touching the ground.

The front view balances the extension of the left leg with the reach of the left arm – with the right leg halfway between the two. The armour reads as a separate unit, but is the only central element at ‘ground level’ – the extreme asymmetry of the composition is one of the things that generates the sense of energy, motion and momentum. Even viewed from behind the overlapping diagonals are interesting, even though, if you look at the armour itself, you can see that the sculpture was never meant to be seen from this side.

Some of the detailing has not been carved, and, like the base at the back, it is relatively un-worked. We can also see that the left foot, poised so delicately on the toes when seen from the front, is blockier than you would expect. This is a standard sculptors trick. In the setting for which the sculpture was originally intended – Cardinal Peretti’s garden – it was presumably meant to be set against some form of wall, with vegetation on either side to create an appropriately theatrical setting, and prevent us from going behind. In a domestic interior, which is what it was given – simply placing it against a wall would suffice.

The way in which Bernini imagines David is remarkable not only because it fits the story so well, but also because he was adapting a two-dimensional image, and one which, as he himself must have realised, subverted the idea of fighting a giant. The composition was based on a painting of the giant Polyphemus, by Caravaggio’s contemporary – and rival – Annibale Carracci, which was painted in fresco in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome in 1605.

Not only is Polyphemus a giant, but he is a giant throwing stones – at the fleeing Acis and Galatea. The choice of Polyphemus is not the only way that Bernini is playing with giants. I mentioned earlier that ‘some of the giants of the field’ had made sculptures of David. And Bernini – not yet 25 – was aiming to slay them. He particularly wanted to surpass Michelangelo himself, who completed his David at the age of 29. As a 19-year-old, Bernini had used Michelangelo’s Risen Christ – who is carrying the cross – as the model for his own Aeneas carrying Anchises. The intellectual leap required to replace the cross with the hero’s father is quite remarkable, I think. But apart from this, is there any reason why I should think that Bernini was putting himself in the position of David, wanting to slay the giant Michelangelo? Well, look at these two faces:

This is a self portrait, painted around 1623, when Bernini was carving this sculpture. David is Bernini, it’s that simple, it is another self portrait. And as a young man – not yet 25 – who else would be the one giant that he would want to overthrow, if not Michelangelo? All of this means that Bernini, at the beginning of his life, saw himself in a very different light to Caravaggio, at the end of his. I’ve always enjoyed the contrast between two Davids, both in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, one by Bernini (1623-24) and the other by Caravaggio (1610). This is the image I will end Monday’s lecture with. Although the focus of the talk will be the Salome in the National Gallery, if you are thinking about the last years of Caravaggio’s short life, the David says it all really.

Caravaggio, David with the head of Goliath, 1610. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

The regret in David’s eyes is astonishing: no triumph, no victory… The richly coloured palette of the youthful works has gradually faded away, and darkness seeps in from every shadow. David looks down at the conquered hero with compassion, while the severed head, which still seems to be conscious, appears to be confused, and tired, as much as anything. But compare these two faces:

Caravaggio is Goliath, it’s that simple. He seems to say, ‘I am a giant, and you have killed me’ to the public who failed to understand him. Of course, that was not the story at all. Caravaggio was a star, his works were popular, highly praised, and in demand, while he was famous across Europe. The was no problem with the art, it was the artist – the man himself, who was the problem. His behaviour was erratic and unpredictable, and he grew increasingly argumentative, and, it would seem, insecure. We will explore these final years, and the dark, evocative, profoundly moving works he produced this Monday, 21 June at 2pm or 6pm. And following Caravaggio, I will move on – if back in time – to another short-lived genius: Raphael. This series will include four talks inspired by the images in one room of the Pinacoteca Vatican – the Papal picture gallery – in a similar way to our exploration of the work of Caravaggio. You can find more details about this series, The Raphaels in One Room, on the diary page of my website. I look forward to speaking to you then, and even before, for the last of Caravaggio. And having renewed my admiration for this wonderful sculpture by Bernini, maybe I should do a series on him one day – although any other suggestions you have are always welcome.


131 – Memento Mori

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Skull, 1655.

It seems like it’s been a while since I wrote anything, but as I’m getting ready to talk again on Monday – the continuation of the series Caravaggio: A life in three paintings – I suppose it’s about time I got my brain in gear. It would make sense to focus on Caravaggio, I know, but I’ve been slightly distracted by a recently discovered sculpture by Bernini. Now, that doesn’t happen very often (I can’t remember it happening before), which is precisely why it was distracting. However, before you get too excited, I should warn you that it’s not his most dramatic work (and there are plenty to choose from), although it is brilliantly carved. It also appears to be entirely ‘autograph’ – i.e. he carved it himself. The question of originality is complex, but somehow we now have the feeling that artists should make all of their own work (this was not always the case with Rodin, for example, whose work I will discuss this coming Wednesday – for more details, see the diary). However, it would not have been possible for Bernini to execute all of the projects commissioned from him. These included sculpture, yes, but also architecture, and even, occasionally, painting. As a result he had a large workshop to help him out. Even the notoriously solitary Michelangelo had people helping him from time to time, but there were never that many – he rarely trusted others to get things right – and that is just one of the reasons why so many of his works remained unfinished. The fact is, in these cases, the artist knows exactly what the work should look like, and it is the assistant’s job to make sure that they recreate the master’s intentions with precision. But, as it happens, that is not the case today. For personal and political reasons, it seems likely that Bernini carved the work himself.

Die Sonderausstellung Bernini, der Papst und der Tod am 28.05.2021 in der Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister von Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Dresden. Foto: Oliver Killig

Now, if I didn’t know that this was carved out of the best carrara marble, and given that we are looking at a photograph, rather than the original, I think I would assume that this was not a sculpture, but a real skull. But then, I’m am art historian, not an anatomist. Indeed, it is probably because it is such a careful, naturalistic rendition – with no obvious stylistic traits, or period ‘flare’ – that it disappeared under the radar in the first place. The skull is currently being exhibited at the Ge,mäldegalerie Alte Meister – the ‘Old Master Painting Gallery’ – in Dresden, as part of an exhibition entitled ‘Bernini, the Pope, and Death,’ and it will be there until 5 September. Sadly I won’t get to Dresden until after the exhibition has ended, so I will miss the skull. Until now it has lived (if that word is appropriate) at Schloss Pillnitz, on the Elbe. Once out in the countryside, Dresden has expanded, and the Schloss now finds itself on the edge of the city, and easily accessible by public transport in about 50 minutes, so maybe I’ll try and make my way over there. The sculpture has been on display for years but nobody knew what it was. It had been included in the archaeological collection, where none of the curators would be likely to guess at its origins. However, when looking for illustrative material for an exhibition on Caravaggio, the art historians took over. Seeing the skull out of its display case made them realise precisely how impressive a piece of carving it was – and they decided to try and track down its provenance. They worked out that it had been part of the Chigi collection, which was acquired in 1728 by the Elector of Saxony, and King of Poland, Augustus the Strong, one of the world’s most impressive collectors. Apart from anything else, some of you may remember that he had no less than 157 pastels by Rosalba Carriera, all of which were exhibited in one room. Given that the collection, as bought, included 164 classical sculptures and a mere four from the Baroque, it is not surprising that the skull did not, for some long time, receive the recognition it deserved. When planning the Caravaggio exhibition, one of the curatorial team even joked, when they had found out that it came from Rome, that it could have been carved by Bernini. But you can’t just pull names out of a hat, and in order to find out who the true author really was – and, from my experience, with no expectation of ever finding out – they started scouring the archives. Among the correspondence which preceded the sale of the collection they found the phrase, ‘Una celebra testa di morto, opera del Cavalier Bernini’ – ‘A famous death’s head, the work of the Knight Bernini’.

The Chigi collection had remained with the family, having been put together by one of the nephews of Pope Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi). Further research revealed that the pope had commissioned the skull directly from Bernini in 1655, shortly after he was elected. Bernini worked under eight different popes, but not all of them were great patrons of the arts – or for that matter, interested in his work. Alexander VII’s predecessor, Innocent X (Giovanni Battista Pamphilj) had not been a great fan, and consequently, with a commission from the new pontiff, Bernini jumped to it and carved the skull himself, rather than handing a model to one of the assistants and letting them get on with the hard graft: it would be good to make the right impression. This choice paid off: Alexander VII turned out to be one of Bernini’s most ardent admirer’s and forthcoming patrons. It was not just the skull that Alexander commissioned in 1655 – there was also a life-size sarcophagus. The latter sat under the Pope’s desk, the former on top of it, both constant reminders that death comes to us all. Morbid, you might think, but given that, following the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, the Pope is St Peter’s successor, he is nominally in charge of the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. It was in his best interests to remember – and to remind us – that our actions will determine where we go after death. It was also relevant that, shortly after his election, there was an outbreak of the plague in Rome, and death visited every street. Alexander was quick off the mark – he insisted people wear masks, he introduced systems of self-isolation, and made sure people were quarantined. You know the drill. He might even have been painted holding this sculpture.

Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, Pope Alexander VII. with Bernini’s Skull, 1655/56. Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Rome.

This portrait is by a student of Bernini, Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, and is also featured in the Dresden exhibition. The publicity confidently asserts that the Pope is resting his hand on Bernini’s skull. I haven’t read the catalogue, but I can only assume that it would point out the most obvious difference: the skull in the painting has, as far as we can see from this viewpoint, all of its teeth, whereas the sculpture does not – and I’m fairly sure that that would be clear from any angle. The skull also looks considerably happier than the pontiff himself, but that’s beside the point. I’m not convinced that you can be sure which skull is in the painting, but as I’m also not convinced that Abbatini was an especially observant artist (not that I know his work, I’m only judging by this painting), I don’t suppose there’s any reason to argue that it isn’t the sculpture. However, it could be any skull. After all, people in the 17th Century were wont to hold skulls. Look at Hamlet (1599-1601, first performed 1609). Look at St Jerome (in this case, c. 1605-6).

Caravaggio, St Jerome Writing, c. 1605-6. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

As a scholar, Jerome is associated with the idea of melancholy, just one aspect of his relationship to the skull. In this, one of the most densely packed, and deceptively simple, of Caravaggio’s mature works, that is just one of the ways in which it functions. Another implication is that, after death – as represented by the skull – the soul is free to contemplate higher things, which is precisely what Jerome is doing. It is a reminder that we only have a limited time – and so we (like Jerome) should get on with our work. Or ‘seize the day’, it could work both ways. The skull is also, of course, the seat of the intellect. In the painting we see Jerome hard at work, deep in thought, translating the bible from its original languages into a consistent Latin – the version now known as the Vulgate. There is a wonderful contrast between the dry cranium and the saint’s bald pate, both reflecting the light (representing divine inspiration). One is… well, dry… while the other, slightly oily.  The brilliant light illuminating the aged man’s chest makes his shadowed, arthritic hand, grasping the pages of the original text, stand out clearly, while the other hand holds a quill, hovering over a page nearer the skull, ready to write. The reach of Jerome’s arm, slightly bent at the elbow, echoes the open halves of the book. I have always been in awe of this ineffable metaphor, an embodiment (quite literally) of the act of translation – the writing arm following the form of the original volume, making the old new, and creating a parallel equivalent. The angle of the elbow and book is then inverted by the red fabric behind them, part of the cardinal’s robes in which St Jerome is loosely wrapped. The book lies above the right leg of the table, the skull above its left, and while Jerome, alive, is clad in red, it is a lifeless white fabric that flows down beneath the skull. With its poetry and pathos, naturalistic making and symbolic meaning, contrasts and echoes, rich colour and deep shadows, this painting ranks for me as one of the all-time greats. Sadly I will only have time for a quick nod to it when I return to Caravaggio: A life in three paintings, this Monday, 7 June at 2pm and 6pm – but then, in recompense, I will be spending more time with The Supper at Emmaus which is also up there with the best. And as for Bernini – well, I suspect he always had an eye on the works of the older painter, and in a couple of weeks I will compare them again, although when I do, it will be more directly.

A view of Bernini, The Pope, and Death, in Dresden until 5 September.


130 – Sofonisba and Michelangelo

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

I have talked about Sofonisba before (see Day 77 – Sofonisba Anguissola and Day 90 – Sofonisba, too) but I am being drawn back again – drawn by a drawing, as it happens – because I want to examine a myth and ponder an influence. The myth is about the relationship between the first internationally famous woman of Italian Renaissance art, and the great genius Michelangelo. Almost anything you read about her will say something like ‘In 1554 Sofonisba headed down to Rome, where the story goes that she was introduced to Michelangelo.’ I know that, because that is precisely what I said on Day 90 of Lockdown 1. I also said, in the same post, ‘However, I really need to look into this incident – Michelangelo was a notorious old grump, and the idea that he would be interested in the work of a young woman seems inherently unlikely. However, if it turns out to be true, then how much more remarkable a man he was!’ That was on 16 June last year, and, nearly a year later, I’ve finally got round to it. If you want a reminder, I discussed Sofonisba’s background and her training as an artist back then – I won’t go into it here. I also included this drawing as an illustration, but said relatively little about it. Subsequently I have found a new, post-restoration image which is far clearer, and shows the drawing to be far more delicate, than the photograph I posted last year suggested.

We see a small boy crying. His mouth is open with the lips pulled back, and his cheeks look slightly puffed from the tension. His eyes are screwed up: the emotion is unmistakeable. Drawing this is not as straightforward you might think: it is all too easy to make someone crying look as if they are laughing – and vice versa. Film and T.V. often play on this potential confusion, creating double-takes, where you think you are seeing one emotion, and then are shown that it is the other. But here, we definitely see crying, it is clear from the face, and also from the gestures: the tension in the boy’s right hand, flicked back at the wrist, is one more sign. The left hand seems relaxed by comparison. He has short curly hair, and wears a 16th Century doublet. It has a slashed trim at the shoulders, and wrist-length sleeves which are slightly drawn back to reveal the cuffs of an undershirt, also seen in a modest collar. An older girl has her right arm around his shoulder, and looks at the boy with concern – and a hint of something else. A smile, maybe? Or perhaps she is impressed by the volume of sound this small human can create. Her hair is pulled back from her forehead, above her ears, and is held in place by a plait fixed around the crown of her head. She wears a chemise under a fairly low-cut bodice, with sleeves attached just below the shoulder, and holds something in her left hand.

If we look closer, we can see that it is a small basket. Her index finger stretches along the woven handle, and the basket itself, presumably wicker, or similar, can be seen vaguely below. The boy’s left hand hovers above hers, the back of it horizontal, with the thumb and one of the fingers – the ring finger, as far as I can see – hanging down. And from this bent ring finger hangs the crayfish which gives the drawing its title: Asdrubale bitten by a Crayfish. Now, Asdrubale Barca fought in the Second Punic War, and was the younger brother of the more famous Hannibal. They were both sons of Amilcare Barca. But we’re not dealing with classical history here. Even so, after the Carthaginians had crossed the alps with their elephants, one of the notable battles was near modern-day Cremona, where the 16th Century nobleman Amilcare Anguissola lived. He was presumably named after the warrior, and passed on the tradition by naming his only son after the younger of the brothers – Asdrubale – and by naming his eldest daughter (the eldest of six) after the tragic Carthaginian heroine Sofonisba. So the drawing shows us the artist’s brother – and, presumably, one of her five sisters, usually identified as Europa, the youngest.

One of the reasons why the drawing seems more than a little vague in parts is because it is not in a particularly good condition – large areas of the original paper on which it was drawn have been lost. The ground itself is a light, creamy brown. In order to strengthen it, the remains of the drawing have been mounted on another piece of paper, which is paler in appearance, and looks mottled. If you can distinguish these two background colours, then you will see that everything beneath Asdrubale’s right elbow is missing, as are half of the skirts of his doublet. The original paper ends just above the crown of his head, and cuts across the top of his sister’s, with some of her hair undoubtedly missing. There is also a lacuna between their heads, which goes very close to her right eye. Some of the basket is missing, too. This is a great shame, but given the high proportion of 16th Century drawings which must have been destroyed in their entirety, it is still a remarkable survival – and in all probability it had travelled widely, making that survival even more remarkable.

The story goes – as I was saying – that after her initial training with two ‘Bernardini’ – Campi and Gatti, probably from 1546-49 and 1551-53 respectively – she headed down to Rome, where she was lucky enough to receive instruction from none other than Michelangelo. It seems too good to be true, and is exactly the sort of anecdote that was made up just to make an artist look better, and more interesting. However, in this case it was, in some way, true – although the interaction may have been through correspondence. Letters from dad – Amilcare Anguissola – survive in the Buonarroti archives in Florence. I am quoting them here from an article written by Charles de Tolnay, the chief Michelangelo scholar of his day, back in 1941. So this is old news, it’s just not mentioned much now. On May 7, 1557, Amilcare wrote,

‘…we are much obliged to have perceived the honourable and affable affection that you have and show for Sofonisba; I speak of my daughter, the one whom I caused to begin to practice the most honourable virtue or painting… I beg of you that since, by your innate courtesy and goodness, you deigned by your advice in the past to introduce her (to art), that you will condescend sometime in the future to guide her again… that you will see fit to send her one of your drawings that she may colour it in oil, with the obligation to return it to you faithfully finished by her own hand… I dedicate Sofonisba (to you) both as a servant and daughter…’

A second letter, written just over a year later (15 May 1558), includes the following:

‘…I place among the first of so many obligations that I owe to God, that I am alive during the lifetime of so many of my children and that such an excellent gentleman, the most virtuous above all others, deigns to praise and judge the painting done by my daughter Sofonisba.’

So there we have it – I was entirely wrong: Michelangelo had not only seen Sofonisba’s work, but also praised it. How happy I am to know that! It doesn’t change my opinion that Michelangelo was, undoubtedly, ‘a notorious old grump’ – from time to time – but he was also, undoubtedly, generous with his time and advice – as de Tolnay goes on to say: ‘The correspondence between Amilcare Anguissola and Michelangelo… presents new evidence for the generous character of the artist’.

But does the correspondence have any bearing on this particular drawing? Well, yes, it does. Indeed, in some respects, it was well known for a drawing of its time. There is a reference to it in a letter from Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the young nobleman with whom Michelangelo seems to have fallen helplessly in love some 30 years before. On 20 January, 1562, Tommaso sent two drawings to Cosimo de’ Medici, who at that point was Duke of Florence (he would become Grand Duke of Tuscany seven years later). One of the drawings was a Cleopatra by Michelangelo, and the other – well, in a letter accompanying the two drawings he wrote,

‘since I have one drawing done by the hand of a noblewoman of Cremona, named Sofonisba Angosciosa [sic], today a lady of the Spanish court, I send it to you with this one and I believe that it may stand comparison with many other drawings, for it is not simply beautiful, but also exhibits considerable invention. And this is that the divine Michelangelo having seen a drawing done by her hand of a smiling girl, he said that he would have liked to see a weeping boy, as a subject more difficult to draw. After he wrote to her about it, she sent to him this drawing which was a portrait of her brother, whom she has intentionally shown as weeping. Now, I send them such as they are, and I beg your excellency to consider me as a servant, which, in truth, I am.’

What a wonderful combination of drawings! A pairing of people being bitten, moving from the mundane to the mythic. It seems that Sofonisba’s family name – Anguissola – was difficult even then, and I find it rather charming that Cavallieri’s spelling implies that she was ‘anguished’ – the literal translation of Angosciosa. His comment that the drawing shows ‘considerable invention’ was high praise indeed. No one doubted a woman’s ability to copy someone else’s ideas: it was the ability to come up with your own that would be respected, and so his use of the word ‘invention’ was a recognition of Sofonisba’s artistic talent. Cavalieri’s letter is not the only mention of the drawing. Vasari was also knew it, describing it as, ‘a little girl laughing at a boy who cries, because, she having placed a basket full of crayfish in front of him, one of them bites his finger; and there is nothing more graceful to be seen than that drawing, nor more true to nature.’ These comments were included in the second edition of the Lives of the Artist in 1568, as an addition to the ‘Life’ of Properzia De’ Rossi, the only woman to get her own ‘life’ in the first edition of 1550. Vasari goes on to say that he has a copy of the drawing in his own collection – so he must have thought highly of it.

Somebody else seems to have been impressed by this drawing – or at least, by the idea of it – and this is what reminded me to look into the story of Michelangelo and Sofonisba. Compare these two images:

The Boy Bitten by a Lizard will, of course, be the starting point of Caravaggio: A life in three pictures this Monday, 24 May at 2pm and 6pm. It bears a remarkable similarity – in some details – to Sofonisba’s drawing. The precise cause of the pain may be different, perhaps, although both boys have been bitten. A lizard, hiding among the cherries, has bitten the boy reaching for the fruit. The expression of pain, the flexing of one wrist and the bent finger of the other hand – held on an equivalent horizontal – are remarkably similar, even if the hands are reversed. There is only one problem with that. In the 17th Century Sofonisba’s drawing could still have been in the Medici collection in Florence. I have read different ideas about how the drawing got from the Medici collection to that of the Farnese, but there is no evidence that Caravaggio had been to Florence. However, it could have been in the collection of Fulvio Orsini in Rome in the 1590s. But even if Caravaggio hadn’t seen the original drawing, that is not necessarily a problem. One theory has it that the painter was surprisingly literate, and that he often attempted to reproduce images of which he had only read descriptions but never seen (more about that on Monday). In this case, he would have read about the drawing in Vasari’s Lives. However, the response to the pain seen in the two hands and wrists is so similar, it does seem likely that he had seen some visual evidence of it. If Vasari had a copy of the drawing (OK, so some people think that he had the original), maybe there were more in circulation. There are, as it happens, several painted versions of Sofonisba’s composition around: as I say, it was a well-known drawing. It has been suggested that one of the versions – drawn or painted – found its way into the studio of the Cavaliere d’Arpino, one of the first artists with whom Caravaggio worked in Rome. It seems unlikely that we will ever find out precisely what the connection between the two is – or indeed, if there really is one. Maybe this similarity is a coincidence. Maybe this is simply how boys behave when they’re bitten when they’re young – or when they forget the conventions that suggest that ‘real men don’t cry’. But that opens up a whole new topic of conversation better suited to a different forum, and I’m certainly not going to go into it now. So, until I come back to the young Caravaggio on Monday, have a great weekend – and don’t play with your food. Some of it bites.


129 – The Calm before the Storm

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

One more painting from the 18th Century before I head back to the Baroque – my next series of lectures is called Caravaggio: A life in three paintings, and will start on Monday 24 May (at 2pm and 6pm, as before) with the following talks on 7 and 21 June. Full details are on the diary page… and while you’re there, you can also find the updated details for trips to Rome, Stockholm, Ravenna and Dresden. But more of Caravaggio later – let’s get back to the 18th Century.

This is one of the great paintings of Western Europe, and it’s worth going to Brussels just to see it. It was painted by Jacques-Louis David – the High Priest of Neo-Classical painting – just as things were rapidly going from bad to worse with the French Revolution. Although it is not immediately apparent, we are looking at a man lying in a bath. This is Jean-Paul Marat, journalist, political thinker, and revolutionary, who suffered from a skin disease, and spent hours working in his bath as this was the only place where his symptoms were mitigated. However, true to the ideals of ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ on which Neo-Classicism was founded, David does not show us the effects of this illness: it would distract from the gravity of the scene, and the dignity of its protagonist.

The bath is surrounded by white sheets, and a board, just visible near Marat’s chest, rests on its sides, with a green, fringed rug lying over it. This functions as a desk, with the addition of a rough, wooden box on which are placed an inkwell, a quill pen and some papers. Marat, dying, if not already dead, holds a blood-stained piece of paper in his left hand. His right arm has fallen, and another quill is held in his right hand, as if he is about to write on the floor. To the left of his hand lies a bloodied knife.

The writing on the paper is clear enough to read:

du 13. Juillet, 1793. Marie anne Charlotte Corday au citoyen Marat. Il Suffit que je sois bien malheureuse pour avoir Droit a votre benveillance.

13 July, 1793. Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday to citizen Marat. Because I am so unhappy I have a right to your help’.

With this letter, Charlotte Corday gained access to Marat, who was at work in his bath, and then she stabbed him. They were both revolutionaries – although they were members of different factions. He was one of the Montagnards – one of its leaders, even – whereas she was a Girondin (although some believe she was an out-and-out monarchist). The difference between the factions was in approach. The former were hard liners, they wanted a Republic, and they wanted the king dead. The latter also wanted a Republic, but did not vote for the death of the king, and balked at the extreme tactics of the Montagnards. We are on the brink of the Reign of Terror, when the Girondins would be put to death, and then, soon after, the Montagnards would turn on their own. As a journalist and pamphleteer, Marat published his own writings, and was one of those most responsible for communicating the aims – and the propaganda – of the revolutionaries, and also for denouncing the Girondins. He might also have been the man chiefly responsible for the September Massacre of 1792, when over a thousand prisoners were put to death for fear that they might join the Royalist army in defeating the Revolution. Of this number, there were admittedly 200 Swiss soldiers, but the majority of those killed had no real interest in, or connection to, the politics of the day. It was because Corday believed Marat was responsible for this excess that she wanted him dead, and used her letter to get access to him, claiming that she knew about a counter-revolutionary plot amongst the Girondins. It was this, she claimed, that made her ‘so unhappy’.

David’s painted may be naturalistic, but it is not a realistic portrayal of events. This is not how things happened. Corday stabbed Marat, yes, but she left the knife in his chest. Here we see it lying on the floor, blade and handle both bloodied. The quill sits upright between Marat’s fingers, almost as if planted in the ground. He was working for the Revolution when he died – and that was the message David wanted to communicate: he was a good man, working for you. An ardent believer in the Revolution, David had voted for the King’s death. He also voted to close the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture – but that might have been a personal vendetta, as they had never been his greatest allies. He dedicated the painting ‘to Marat’ and added the date L’AN DEUX – ‘Year Two’. The monarchy had been abolished in 1792, and a Republic declared: this was year two of that Republic.

Stepping back we might – if we know the story – see another ‘edit’. Charlotte Corday stabbed Marat, left the knife in his chest, and waited by the bath until she was arrested. She did not leave. And yet David has focussed on Marat: there must be no distraction. The wooden box acts almost as a tomb stone, a bold statement of this man’s name, and witnesses how little time he had had to achieve his aims – it is only year two, after all. With the knife on the floor, we can see the wound in his chest, blood trickling down towards the white sheet. It might remind you of someone else whose chest was pierced.

The similarity to Christ in Caravaggio’s Entombment is not coincidental. David, as the Revolution’s chief artist during the brief Republic, not only knew the power of painting, but also wanted to find new martyrs to inspire the people, and to reaffirm their faith in the machinations of political change. Marat was that martyr, and portraying him on this canvas, alone and at work, was a powerful and easily comprehensible masterstroke. Caravaggio echoes the fall of Christ’s arm with the tumbling shroud, and David echoes the shroud with the sheet in Marat’s bath.

The fact that Caravaggio’s Christ depended from Michelangelo’s Pietà is also not a coincidence. As Mary shows us her dead son, David shows us the Revolution’s dead saviour. Marat did not have the time to fall from grace and be murdered by his own, unlike Robespierre soon after. How much more, David asks, not knowing what would follow, could he have achieved? For Michelangelo the pathos lies with Mary: no mother should see her son die before her. For David, it is the bath. The bath cradles him. Murdering a sick man in his bath can only be seen as an act of cowardice.

The light, entering from top left (much as Caravaggio’s light often does), enhances the ideal, sculptural form of Marat’s body, and imbues it with an ethereal glow. There is even the suggestion of a halo in the white headdress. But no angels fly down with a palm of martyrdom, as one does in Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St Matthew, for example. Heaven is empty now, and the cool, grey background adds an oppressive solemnity to the scene, insistently focussing our attention on the inert body of this idealised man, on the white sheets sullied with his blood, on the sheet of paper, sullied with Corday’s lies, and on the fallen quill, Marat’s weapon of choice, which can no longer issue its compelling ‘truth’.

Such, it would seem, was the intention. Odd then that, once the Revolution had wrung itself dry, David should become court painter to the Emperor Napoleon. As a Revolutionary, though, and then a Son of Empire, it was not surprising that he should choose to go into exile after the Restoration of the Monarchy – even though he granted an amnesty, and offered the position of court painter to the new regime. He spent his last years – although less than a decade – in Brussels, dying there in 1825.

The Death of Marat was supposed to be one of three ‘Modern Martyrs’ – a second was destroyed in 1794, and the third was never completed. David reclaimed Marat in 1795, two years after it was painted. After Robespierre’s execution it didn’t have the same impact. The painting was still with his family as late as 1886, which is when they decided to give it to the city which had welcomed the great artist – if complex personality – as an honoured guest. That is why it is in Brussels to this day. I enjoyed seeing it last February, as rumours started to reach us of troubles in Italy – and a curious phenomenon called ‘lockdown’ – and I will certainly seek it out again. Whatever the reasons for its making, it communicates a profound sense of calm. Its echoes of Caravaggio have also inspired my next talks: I am looking forward to investigating the life of this remarkable artist through the National Gallery’s three paintings, each one representative of a different phase in his short life. I will probably also be blogging around the subject – Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti – over the next couple of weeks. But that remains to be seen.


128 – Unfinished Business

Johann Zoffany, The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72. Royal Collection Trust.

Two weeks ago I talked about Mary Moser, one of the two women who, in 1768, were founder members of the Royal Academy. Today I would like to talk about a portrait of her, which hangs next to another, which depicts her fellow founder Angelica Kauffman (who will be the last of my Three Women in the 18th Century this Monday (10 May) at 2pm and 6pm). They are not ‘real’ portraits, but details from a larger painting by Johann Zoffany, which is the nominal subject of this post. Angelica Kauffman is on the left – the rectangular canvas – with Mary Moser on the right, in an oval. The two still life paintings I discussed before (126 – Mary Moser) were also oval: I wonder if that is why the same format is used here? She was, as you may remember, famed for her flower paintings, which certainly explains why she has a large, yellow bloom attached to her bodice in Zoffany’s imagined portrait. In both, the bust-length image appears against a plain background. It might have become more elaborate: neither portrait has been completed. Today we are dealing with unfinished business.

Despite the fact that both paintings are ‘works in progress’, we can see that the two women are fashionably dressed, and elaborately coiffed. If I knew more about the history of hair I would probably go into raptures about the complexities of the crimping, curling, combing and powdering, and of the ribbons and bows with which they are bedecked, but I don’t – so just look for yourselves. Their barnets alone are a work of art (from Barnet Fair – hair), and could be a credit to one of the greater sculptors of the newly founded Royal Academy of Art, which is where they are supposed to be. For years it was assumed that what follows is a depiction of the Life-drawing Room in the first home of the Academy, Somerset House (now the home of the Courtauld Institute), but it is, in all probability, the invention of the artist, who was simply imagining a space suitable for such an august gathering.

Founded by George III in 1768, the Royal Academy of Art was the first British art school to receive the royal seal of approval. The idea was to promote the arts, and to train artists to be worthy of its status. Rather than just portraits of the great and the good, and of their land (i.e. landscapes), several of the Academicians, and especially its first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, wanted British Art to aspire to the heights achieved by that of other nations. To realise their ambitions, not only should artists show an awareness of the work of others but they should also paint the highest category of painting – ‘History’. This was a narrative work, which could be based on history (usually classical), but which was more often inspired by myth (always classical), the bible, or the lives of the saints. And if what was commissioned didn’t match up to these exalted standards, the artists would just have to make sure that it did. Reynolds often based his portraits on the works of others, dressing sitters like mythological heroes, or theological virtues, for example. Zoffany does something similar here, basing the composition of his group portrait on one of the greatest works by one of the most famous renaissance artists.

Raphael’s The School of Athens (1509-11) in the Vatican Palace shows the major philosophers of the ancient world gathered together in one space, with Plato and Aristotle at the very centre, framed by the distant arch, wearing red and blue cloaks respectively. The other thinkers are arranged in a broad arc, a c-shape traced out on the floor, or a circle left open at the front to encourage us to look in. The image is flanked by two enormous sculptures of Apollo and Minerva, both inspirers of the arts, at top left and right, with smaller, square reliefs below.  Zoffany likewise arranges his academicians in an arc, although he doesn’t pull them so tightly together in the foreground. Almost all of the founder members are here, the most notable absence being Thomas Gainsborough. Zoffany also displays a number of casts of classical and renaissance sculptures on shelves and hanging from the walls at the back. In addition, there is an écorché figure – a sculpture of the human body with the skin removed to show the muscle structure – in the back right corner of the room: it stands against the wall with one arm raised.

Whereas for Raphael the incomplete building (not unlike the ‘new’ St Peter’s, under construction at the time) allows daylight to flood in, for Zoffany there is a single chandelier – or rather, a multiple oil lamp – hanging from the ceiling. Using a single light source like this serves to illuminate the models who are preparing for the life drawing class, while also casting deep shadows on the other side, thus enhancing their sculptural forms.

At the centre, in the place of Plato and Aristotle, on either side of a rectangular relief not unlike those in The School of Athens, are Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Academy, and William Hunter, who was not actually an artist. He was physician to Queen Charlotte, and served as the professor of anatomy at the Academy from 1678-82. He is also connected to the history of art through his own personal collection – which was, admittedly, mainly in the field of Natural Sciences – which he eventually bequeathed to the University of Glasgow where he had studied (he was born in East Kilbride, just 8 or 9 miles away). This collection forms the nucleus of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Reynolds wears sober black and ostentatiously lifts his ear trumpet. He had spent two years in Rome in the middle of the century, and while there suffered from a severe cold, which left him partially deaf. Nevertheless, the more cynical suspected him of using the trumpet to draw attention to himself. I can only hope that Zoffany chose Reynolds and Hunter deliberately to stand in for Plato and Aristotle. Quite apart from the fact that they were the ‘leading lights’ of the Academy, Reynolds was always seeking out the ideal, and dressing his portraits in the guise of an unseen image which existed elsewhere, while Hunter, as an anatomist, was totally involved in the evidence before his eyes. This is the implication of the gestures that Raphael gives the ancients: Plato points up to a higher plane, while Aristotle’s level hand gestures to what we see down here on Earth.

Johann Zoffany, the German-born artist who, after ten years in Rome, arrived in England in 1760 at the age of 27, shows himself in the left foreground, palette in hand, looking out towards us. In some ways he takes the place of Pythagoras, kneeling, tablet in hand, in the left foreground of The School of Athens. Just above him, his left knee raised, while he simultaneously looks over his right shoulder, is Benjamin West, who would become the second President of the Royal Academy (we saw him ‘enthroned’ in the centre of Henry Singleton’s painting two weeks ago). He is leaning against a curving desk, which arcs around the back of the room, and which would have been used by the students when they came to draw. His complex pose is ultimately derived from the Michelangelesque exaggeration of contrapposto which Raphael gives to the philosopher sometimes identified as Parmenides, thought by some to be a ‘hidden’ portrait of Leonardo da Vinci as well. Behind West – with his head just to the right of West’s wig – is Tan-Che-Qua, a Cantonese sculptor who just happened to be in London when Zoffany was painting, and whose image was not to be missed.

On the other side of Zoffany’s work we can see what is taking up most people’s attention: two naked – or nearly naked – men. A life drawing class is being set up, even if precious few of the Academicians seem prepared to participate. Sitting with his legs extended on the left of this detail, Charles Catton the Elder, a painter (no, I hadn’t heard of him either) echoes Diogenes, sprawled across the floor to the right of centre in The School of Athens. The academicians all look towards the model raising his right arm while someone hooks it into a sling – so that the model can keep his arm up for the duration of the drawing exercise. That ‘someone’ just happens to be George Michael Moser, father of Mary – although I’m afraid to say I have beheaded him in this detail. The model who is ‘next up’ is sitting a little closer, and looks out towards us as he takes off his left stocking. His shoes and clothes lie abandoned on the floor next to him. Holding one ankle as it rests on the opposite knee, he adopts the pose of the Spinario, a classical Roman bronze of a boy taking a thorn from his foot.

The painting tells us everything that the Royal Academy thought that a good artistic training – in whatever discipline – should include: a knowledge of the classical past – seen in the plaster casts, and embodied in the pose of the Spinario; a knowledge of the works of the Old Masters (not only is the composition based on The School of Athens, but the figure standing on one leg in the centre of the back wall is a version of the Mercury by Giambologna); the use of sculptures to draw from, as a starting point – suggested first by Alberti in On Painting, written in the 1430s; a good knowledge of human anatomy, expressed through the presence of William Hunter, and of the écorché figure in the back corner; and, ultimately, life drawing. Without an understanding of the male physique, gained by careful observation, how could any promising artist master History painting, and its depictions of the righteous battles and noble acts of mythological and Christian heroes? But if life drawing was essential to become a great artist, what chance did women stand? How appropriate would it be for a woman to be present while such an exercise was takiing place? While it may have been acceptable for men to draw naked women, the women in question were usually little better than prostitutes, or actresses. But for a respectable woman to behold a naked man? Clearly this was not on. The attitude that this apparent regard for female decorum represents is embodied, I think, in the action of miniaturist Richard Cosway, who stands in the right foreground, proudly erect, his gaze directed firmly over his right shoulder and his right arm extended, with the hand resting on his walking stick… which is firmly planted on the truncated and supine bust of a classical female nude. Am I mistaken in seeing this as profoundly disrespectful?

The women are side-lined. They cannot be present at the life drawing class, so they cannot become great artists, and Zoffany can only include Kauffman and Moser as portraits, hanging on the wall. They become, as women had always been, the subjects of art, rather than the creative people who make it. And not only that – they are unfinished, incomplete. They owed their position as founder members of the Academy to their brilliance as artists, but their connections undoubtedly helped. Moser’s father was, as we have seen, also a founder member. Angelica Kauffman was a personal friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds. But their admission was, like these portraits, unfinished business: after them, no other woman was admitted until Dame Laura Knight became an Academician in 1936. She was the first woman to be elected, and that wasn’t until 168 years after the Academy had been founded.

You could argue, of course, that Zoffany didn’t have a choice. If he wanted to paint a life drawing class – which would not only show off his skill, but also demonstrate everything in which the Academy believed – it really wouldn’t have been right, at the time, for a woman to be present. However, the fact that Henry Singleton included both of these women in his group portrait The Royal Academicians in General Assembly – a meeting they did not, in reality, attend – shows that it might have been possible for them to be included in person (although admittedly nobody at the Assembly was naked). But Singleton also depicted their paintings, which speaks of a great degree of respect for the women and for their work. As it happens, the ceiling paintings by Angelica Kauffman – which are visible in their original location in Singleton’s group portrait – have just this week been reinstalled in the ceiling of the Front Hall of Burlington House, the RA’s current home. I will include all four of them this Monday as part of my discussion of Angelica Kauffman: Academician at 2pm and 6pm.

These two women may have been marginalised by Zoffany, and made subjects rather than makers, but maybe that wasn’t his fault. Now, however, the tables have turned. Of all the founder members depicted by Zoffany, they are among the few whose names are becoming better known, and certainly the two in whom people are now more interested. Kauffman in particular embodied the ideals of the Royal Academy more than many others, and in the process created some truly glorious History paintings: she was one of the most famous artists of her day. I look forward to talking to about her on Monday.


127 – Adélaïde Labille-Guiard

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Self Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A slight change of plan – rather than talking about a painting by a man this week, as I had planned to – even if it does impinge upon one of my Three Women in the 18th Century – I wanted to talk about another of the remarkable women who isn’t one of my three subjects. Trust me, there are plenty more! Born as Adélaïde Labille in Paris in 1749, she married Nicolas Guiard at the age of 20, but, unlike most women of the time, she held on to her family name, thus becoming the double-barrelled artist we know (although not nearly well enough) today. And this is despite separating formally from Guiard when she was 30 (they divorced, finally, in 1793 when new laws came in), and later marrying the artist François-André Vincent at the age of 50, just four years before she died.

This is her undoubted masterpiece. We see her seated, at work on a medium-sized canvas, which is resting on an easel at the left of the painting. She fixes her eyes on us with a focussed, penetrating gaze – although the conventions of self portraiture remind us that she is fixing her eyes on herself, looking in a mirror, assessing her own appearance, in order to immortalise it on the canvas placed in front of her. Behind stand the two pupils of the title, fashionably but not showily dressed – like their ‘master’ – one looking towards us/the mirror, the other looking at the work in progress – which we would assume to be the finished painting we are now enjoying. However, as this triple portrait measures 211 x 151 cm, it must be substantially larger than the canvas on the easel.

Let’s start from the bottom up. This detail alone must surely qualify Labille-Guiard as ‘the best artist most people have never even heard of’ – just look at that floor! A highly polished parquet, not unlike the ‘parquet de Versailles’ introduced in 1684, it has rectangles of wood, set so as to look as if they have been woven, framing smaller squares, the whole unit being contained within a diamond (you can see this more clearly in another painting, below). One of these diamonds is set symmetrically within the portrait, with a corner at the front centre of the painting, and two sides leading our eyes diagonally back in both directions, left and right. Placed parallel to these diagonals are the easel on the left, and a stool on the right. The latter is giltwood, upholstered with red velvet, and on it are resting a roll of paper, a pink cloth and a porte-crayon, or, simply put, a crayon holder. The paper would be for preparatory drawings, or perhaps, for pastel paintings. There is an old tradition that Labille-Guiard studied for a while with Maurice Quentin de la Tour, the undoubted master of the art, although there is no firm evidence to support this. Nevertheless, she regularly exhibited pastels – hence the porte-crayon – until the mid-1780s, from which time she increasingly focussed on larger-scale oil paintings. The fabric of her dress is sublime, a steely blue, lined with ivory, the precise width of the hem visible where it lies on the ground, and a seam, as carefully painted as the original was no doubt minutely stitched, falling diagonally towards the front leg of the easel. And – miracle of miracles – the steely blue is reflected in the high finish of the parquet. The toes of one delicately clad foot rest on the cross bar of the easel, catching the light with a brilliant sheen, while the other foot is further back in the shadows.

Her palette rests in the crook of her left arm, which is itself resting on her slightly raised left thigh. Running across her lap is the mahl stick, used as a rest for the painting hand when working on delicate details. No need for that now, though, as she is blocking out some less-detailed area with a broad-handled brush. She holds at least six more brushes in her left hand. Behind the projecting brushes is the lid of a box which can be locked – the key hole can be seen just below the mahl stick. This would have contained all of her materials – pigments, oil, etc. We can see the back of the canvas, with lengths of wood nailed together to form the stretcher, and around the stretcher, as its name would suggest, is stretched the canvas, tacked along the edge at regular intervals. There is no waste of material: the canvas only just reaches the back edge of the stretcher in some places. Once the painting was framed, of course, this would not be seen. The student on the right – Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond, who was to die just three years after this portrait was completed – rests her left hand delicately on the back of Madame Guiard’s chair – giltwood, upholstered in green – with her right arm around her companion’s shoulder. This is Marie-Gabrielle Capet, Guiard’s favourite student, who lived with her both before and after the second marriage, and remained even after her death, caring for Monsieur Vincent. Capet has her left arm around Carreaux de Rosemond’s back – a real sense of sisterhood. Labille-Guiard has created a great team.

The ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ gazes in this painting intrigue me. At the back, in the shadows, is a full-length, standing female sculpture. I’m not entirely sure what she is holding, but I suspect it is a brazier, with a stylised flame reaching up. The figure is wearing classical robes, but I would assume this is a contemporary, neo-classical sculpture, rather than an original Roman figure (but I could be wrong). My guess would be that it represents Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. How perfect, for the homely, familial atmosphere the artist has created. And then there is a classical – or neo-classical – portrait bust. Labille-Guiard might be stating her qualifications for the job: a knowledge and understanding of the classical past, of tonal values, and of their ability to create three dimensional form. Plus, as a painter, she has the added advantage of colour, which the sculptures lack. The colour brings the people to life. Vesta looks from left to right, her gaze parallel to the picture plane, whereas the bust look diagonally out to the right: his gaze is at an angle of 45° to hers. Labille-Guiard and Capet look out to the front – at 90° to Vesta – whereas Carreaux de Rosemond looks more-or-less directly to the left – in the opposite direction to the standing sculpture, although somewhat further forward. In this way the gazes define the space around and behind them, looking across several different axes, while also communicating the very idea of looking and of sight – the sense on which painting relies (if not the only one it evokes). Within this nexus of glances – real and imagined – it is entirely fitting that Labille-Guiard and Capet have the same point of view. They both look towards us – the imagined mirror – and the older painter may well have hoped that her similarly minded pupil would one day inherit her tradition. Carreaux de Rosemond, on the other hand, looks at the latest masterpiece with almost incredulous admiration – there is even a sense of love in her expression, as her mouth falls open with unvoiced praise. Capet looks at us, Rosemond at the painting, and it is as if there is only one pupil, alternating her attention between the reality she sees in the world – us – and the identical fiction being created on the canvas. Reality and illusion look the same: Labille-Guiard must be a superb artist, we are told. But we are also being told what to do – Labille-Guiard and Capet look at us, so we look back at them: they draw us in. But then Carreaux de Rosemond is so clearly captivated by the work in progress that we want to turn our attention towards this breath-taking creation, and see it for ourselves – only to be frustrated by a view of the back and side of the canvas, and the blind stare of the portrait bust: like the marble, we cannot see what is being painted. But we want to, and, I suspect, even if frustrated, we are more than happy with what we can see: this masterful (and I use the word advisedly) portrait.

As for the precise nature of Madame Labille-Guiard’s gaze – well, it is enigmatic, even sphinx-like. She is fashionably clad in a straw hat, the like of which Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun had portrayed herself wearing just three years before. Around the crown a ribbon of the same steely blue as her dress is tied in a large bow, and a white ostrich feather is pinned on. The pin is left visible as yet another display of virtuosa skill – enhanced still further by the slim shadow of the pin falling across the feather behind it. She wears gold earrings, one in the light, the other in shadow: this is another trick that Vigée Le Brun had deployed – although with pearl drop earrings – in her self portrait (see below). But what does Labille-Guiard expression communicate? What is she thinking? Is this a cold appraisal of her own appearance? Is she seeking approval in our eyes? Perhaps this is mock modesty as we show the same appreciation as Carreaux de Rosemond. Or maybe she is being ever-so-slightly flirtatious, lips slightly parted, teeth visible, light glistening on her lower lip. You’ll have to decide for yourselves.

It is a truly glorious painting, I think, and one in a long line of women showing themselves at work. I have written about several of these already, whether it be Catherina van Hemessen, Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Leyster, or Labille-Guiard’s contemporary, Vigée Le Brun. But this has an added extra: she shows her self at work, seated at her easel, like the others, but with her pupils. Yes – she had pupils (so did Judith Leyster, as it happens, and she sued when they left her to be taught by a man – but that’s another story). Today we are looking a fantastic painting, a great work of art – but it is also a political statement. In 1783 both Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard were admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Vigée Le Brun had initially been barred as she was married to the art dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, and the oh-so-academic Academicians would have no truck with anyone associated with the market (laudable, perhaps, but under the circumstances, hypocritical: they all wanted to sell). Fortunately Vigée Le Brun was now close to the Queen, and, as an Académie Royale the Academicians could hardly fail to do what the royalty requested – and so Vigée Le Brun was ‘received’ as a full member – as was Labille-Guiard. However, the Académie insisted that from that point on they would only admit a maximum of four women. Labille-Guiard was not having it. Two years later she exhibited this painting at the annual Salon. It is effectively a manifesto, making clear that there were far more than four women who merited admission.

It was widely assumed that, as Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard were two of the ‘four’, they must be rivals, and apparently there are stories to prove it. However, this supposed rivalry had another effect. According to a recently published book (which, like so many others, I haven’t had the chance to read), the myth of their rivalry meant that each woman’s work was only ever compared to that of the other, and not to that of their male contemporaries – yet another mechanism by which the work of women artists has been marginalised. If you are interested, here is a link to Friendship in Enlightenment France by Jessica L. Fripp. It grabbed my attention because this painting is on the cover.

Was there a rivalry between Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard? I doubt it! They both had more than enough work: Paris was large enough for the two of them. It would be easy for them to go their separate ways – and before long, they did. As the French Revolution loomed both were criticised for the royal patronage they enjoyed, but Labille-Guiard stuck it out in Paris. Among others, she lost the patronage of the Mesdames de France – the elderly maiden aunts of Louis XVI – and was told to destroy several royalist portraits. She carried on painting though, but as she died in 1803 she never really made it through to the ‘promised land’ of libertéégalité, and sororité, and her name has all but been forgotten. Not so Vigée Le Brun: as painter to the Queen she was more heavily implicated – and so she fled France. But if you want to know more about that, then why not join me on Monday for Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: How not to lose your Head at 2pm or 6pm? Meanwhile, I shall leave you with a charming painting by one of the pupils – Marie-Gabrielle Capet – showing The Atelier of Madame Vincent. Labille-Guiard, under the name of her second husband, is more practically dressed now, but could be sitting at the same easel, on the same parquet floor, with the same paint box. She looks towards an elderly gent in a blue and gold cape, in the same way that previously she looked towards us. And Capet sits at her right hand, palette and brush ready, looking towards us – or at a mirror – to paint the present scene. À bientôt!

Marie-Gabrielle Capet, The Atelier of Madame Vincent, 1808. Neue Pinakothek, Munich.


126 – Mary Moser

Mary Moser, Spring and Summer, c. 1780. Royal Academy, London.

One of the artists I won’t be able to cover in my admittedly brief series Three Women in the 18th Century is Mary Moser, which is a great shame. Her fame is eclipsed by her contemporary Angelica Kauffman (who will, of course, be the subject of the third talk in the series, on Monday 10 May at 2pm and 6pm), even though they had so much in common. Both were trained by Swiss fathers, for one thing, but whereas Kauffman was born in Switzerland, Moser’s father had moved to London in the 1720s, and she was born there in 1744. George Michael Moser was the son of an engineer and metal worker, and it was as a metal worker that he too was most successful, designing and making candlesticks, watch cases and snuffboxes amongst other things. He also enamelled these objects, attracting the attention of Queen Charlotte, for whom he made a watch case enamelled with portraits of the Princes George and Frederick (who would grow up to be King George IV and the Grand Old Duke of York). But then, George Michael had already been drawing master to King George III when the latter was a boy: these connections would stand Mary in good stead. Dad was well-enough regarded to design and make the seal for the Society of Artists, even if that was destined to be a short-lived group. Its first exhibition was held in 1761, and, although it only lasted six years, its demise was rapidly followed by the foundation of the Royal Academy of Art in 1768. George Michael Moser was one of the founding members – but then, so too was his daughter Mary, and, at 24, she was the youngest. She was also one of only two women, the other, of course, being Angelica Kauffman – this is the other thing they have in common. So why is she not as well known? I suspect it is because, unlike Kauffman, who is well known for her portraits, her allegories, and her narratives, Moser was famed for her paintings of flowers.

These two are still owned by the Royal Academy, and are dedicated to Spring and Summer. The names are clearly derived from the flowers which are depicted. Spring includes a tulip (top right), two varieties of narcissus, and what I suspect is a hyacinth, before horticulturalists bred them to be more compact (I should really ask the Ecologist, but we’re in different towns right now). Many of you are probably gardeners, and will recognise most, if not all, of the species anyway. Chief among the Summer flowers are roses, at the heart of the composition, a poppy, slightly shaded to the right of centre, and a carnation, more shaded, at the top right.

It’s not just the flowers which give the paintings their titles. I think the compositions themselves also express the seasons. In Spring the blooms look relatively bright across most of the surface, and stand out against a dark background. For me, at least, it is the appearance of flowers and leaves, their brightness most evident when they are freshest, which is the surest sign that the darkness of winter is over, and in this painting they really do shine out against that darkness. In summer, though, there is perhaps even more of a contrast. The brighter, stronger sun creates deeper, darker shadows – which in all probability are lighter than those of spring, but, compared to the brilliant sun, they appear to be darker. In the painting of Summer this contrast is evident in the background – dark, even black, on the left, and far lighter on the right. A subtly sinuous vertical axis of light flowers, white, pale pink and cream, shines out in the dazzling light against the dark foliage, with some of the less illuminated blooms rendered visible by being set against the lighter ground.

Mary Moser, Spring (detail); https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/O2361 (c) Royal Academy of Arts. Photographer: John Hammond

The genre of floral still life painting was developed in the Dutch Republic in the 17th Century, but Mary Moser was no fijnschilder. The direct translation of this word would be ‘fine painter’ – someone whose work we might describe, rather inaccurately, as ‘photographic’ in its naturalism. The paintings of a fijnschilder are intricately detailed, with almost no clue that the image has been painted: there is not a brushstroke in sight. Not so with Moser: this is clearly a painting. Most obviously, the highlight on the vase, where light reflects from its lustrous surface, is built up of several separate strokes of cream-coloured paint. There is no attempt to blend these lines, but that does not stop us from seeing an area of light, nor does it make us think that something striped is being reflected: the human mind developed to fill in gaps. Once you have seen her technique, you can begin to see that Moser built up the petals in a similar way, with individual brushstrokes placed over a base colour to create the effect of petals, without their minute and subtle variations. The skill lies in knowing how little, or how much, to do. Mary Moser clearly knew exactly what was needed, and as a result she was enormously successful. So why is she so little known today? I suspect it is quite simply because, although she did paint portraits and history paintings from time to time, she was best known for her flowers.

In terms of Academic values, Still Life came some way down the hierarchy of genres. At the top were ‘History’ paintings, from which the part of the word we want is ‘story’ – narrative images drawn from classical mythology, the bible or the lives of the saints, images which would inspire us by the nobility of the human spirit, or instruct us about the folly of others. After History came Portraiture – paintings of the great and the good, those destined to lead the way and show an example to others – and then Landscape – God’s creation, all the wonders of the world, which mankind was destined to rule. Penultimate, just before Genre painting (normal people doing normal things), was Still Life. The skill is purely aesthetic, you might think, the ability to reproduce appearances, which is, in any case, inherent in all the other genres, and to arrange forms and colours in an agreeable composition.

One of the problems of holding someone’s attention with a floral still life is that there is no narrative to hold on to, and, potentially no greater meaning. Of course, this is by no means always the case. Objects can carry symbolic meaning, and so a Still Life could easily be more fully packed with hidden messages than any narrative – I should show you an example of this one day! Nevertheless, Still Life artists were not as highly celebrated as those who focused on the ‘nobler’ genres, and so their names are more likely to have dropped out of the public imagination. So, in order to make amends in some way, let’s give our artist a face.

On the left is George Romney’s portrait of Mary Moser, painted around 1770-71, which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2003. It is said to show Mary’s professional status – she stands at her easel working in oils, unlike other women who painted flowers, who used watercolour, not an unusual feminine accomplishment at the time. Despite doing what could be classified as ‘man’s work’ – i.e. painting in oils – she is still clearly entirely feminine. The fact that she is depicted at work, rather than as ‘just’ a decorative object (the fate of many women) is also important, particularly at a time when few women of her class worked. On the right is a detail from a group portrait, The Royal Academicians in General Assembly, painted in 1795 by Henry Singleton – like Spring and Summer it is in the collection of the Royal Academy. Angelica Kauffman stands on our left, looking directly at us, while Moser looks towards her more famous companion. Behind them is an equestrian statue. You might assume it is a reduction of the Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, judging by the other sculptures depicted in the painting, but it is actually a Study for an Equestrian Statue of George III by Academician Agostino Carlini. More importantly, hanging on the wall are Moser’s Summer and Spring – freely painted, which is hardly surprising given how small the detail must be, but recognisable nonetheless.

When you look at the painting as a whole it would be very easy to dismiss the appearance of these two women as ‘marginalised’ – they are, after all, pushed to the back of the gathering. However, they shouldn’t be there at all: Kauffman and Moser were not allowed to attend the General Assembly. So, despite this inexplicable bar, their inclusion in the painting is a sign of the great esteem in which they were held. They may be at the back, but they are more-or-less central, and just over the shoulder of the second President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, enthroned on his gold and red-upholstered chair. The women are perfectly placed to be seen. Not only that, but some of their paintings are also depicted – unlike the works of many of the Academicians who are present. We have seen the two by Moser hanging on the wall behind them: there are also two by Kauffman, Design and Composition, set into the coffering of the ceiling. If you want to know more about one of these – and another equivalent painting, Colour, then look back to Day 48 – Colour and Design. The fact is, the women are there, in the painting, their status acknowledged and their work on view: people could see them and know who they were. Next week we will look at a painting in which the situation is really rather different.


125 – Twin Sisters

Jean-Claude Richard, ‘Abbé de Saint-Non’, Two Sisters, 1770. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

On Monday I will be talking about pastel painting, with a brief introduction to the technique and to its history, in the first of my talks about Three Women in the 18th Century – Rosalba Carriera and Power of Pastel. However, I won’t have the opportunity to include today’s image, which I came across while researching, so I shall talk about it today instead. However, I’m not going to cover aspects of technique or history today – nor explain the reasons for the success of pastel in the 18th Century – but if you are interested, there is still time to sign up for the talks on Monday 19 April at 2pm and 6pm BST. What I really want to think about today is the Rococo style: what is it about this image that makes me think of it as ‘Rococo’? The title of the painting (and yes, pastel images are called paintings) is Two Sisters, and we will take that on trust. They could equally well be cousins, or even friends, but as I really don’t know how old the title is, let’s not worry about it.

We see the siblings at play, the younger one seated on a wheeled, wooden horse with her legs towards us. Her right hand rests on the horse’s mane, while her left arm goes around her sister’s back, the hand resting on her shoulder. The more senior girl leans over the back of the horse, with one arm resting on her sister’s lap, holding on to the reins, which are made from a long, flowing, pink ribbon. Her other hand is just visible at the younger sister’s right hip, the right arm of the older girl passing behind her sister’s back. The pose of the elder sibling, leaning over the horse, enhances the sense of familiarity between the two – it does indeed make sense that they are known as sisters – but it also exaggerates the swell of the pink overskirts at the bottom of her tightly laced bodice, and reminds us that, even while the ideas of childhood derived from the writings or Rousseau were still emerging, the children themselves were still dressed as small adults.

Resting on the wooden platform to which the legs of the horse and the wheels are attached is a doll – Policinelle in French, or Pulcinella in Italian – one of the stock characters, or tipi fissi, from the Comedia dell’Arte. This in itself ties the image to the roots of the Rococo, given Jean-Antoine Watteau’s fascination with the theatre, with theatricality, and, in particular, with the Comédie Italienne (as it became known in Paris). In this image the doll reminds us that the girls are still children, although as it might have been discarded, and would find its limbs being dragged along the floor were the horse to be moved, maybe it also implies that nothing will last for ever, and that the girls will inevitably grow up. Is there any significance to the choice of comedia dell’arte character? Well, I’m afraid I’m going to leave you to do the research and make up your own minds. However, I will just let you know that Pulcinella was lazy, felt himself entitled, and always plumped for the winner in any situation – but only when he knew who the winner was. In his efforts to get to the top, he never got the girl, and ended up unwittingly helping others, rather than himself. I cannot see how this could be relevant here – so maybe it isn’t. In any case, this was never meant to be a ‘profound’ image – and its light-hearted nature is another box to tick if we are considering the Rococo. So too, is the colour, chiefly the candy-floss pink, stretching from the bows on the horse’s muzzle and ‘chest’, along the sinuous reins, to the bow on the elder girl’s shoe. Her over skirt is the same pink, as is the ribbon which adorns the hem of her underskirt. The underskirt itself appears to be a shot silk, the warp and weft of which seem to combine the very same pink with a jade green, creating a surprising iridescence.

The younger girl’s skirt is a lighter version of the jade green, and, as silk, it reflects the pink of the reins and of the older girl’s overskirt. Her bodice is a light cream. The similarity of the colours worn by the girls, together with their embrace, helps to unify these two children into a single unit, but whether this is as family or friends is almost beside the point.  To describe the colour palette, which is so much part of the inner harmony of the painting, as ‘pastel’ would seem tautological as it is, of course, a pastel painting. You could argue that the impulse given to French painting, and to pastel as a medium, by the success of Rosalba Carriera during her extended stay in Paris between 1720 and 1721 had led to the adoption of this light and airy palette in subsequent French 18th Century art. However, it was very much in place by the time she arrived in the paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose Embarkation for Cythera, the work for which he was granted full membership of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1717, already used very similar pinks, and equivalent blues. The lightness of the palette reflects the lightness of the mood in Paris during the Regency, which I mentioned last week.

Another feature of the painting which, to my mind, locates it in the world of the Rococo is the precise flow of the reins, curving down from the horse’s mouth and back up over the younger sister’s lap, thus forming a sideways ‘s’ shape, with the addition of a long, broad curve as it falls to the floor. As well as echoing the composition as a whole, the long, broad curve being parallel to the older sisters stance, it is also formed from the combination of ‘s’ and ‘c’ shapes so beloved of Rococo designers. On top of this purely formal element, this image has that ineffable charm, the sweetness of the Rococo, deemed by some to be ‘chocolate-box-y’, but which has me reaching for the chocolates. Some people can’t stand it – I find myself loving it more and more. However, I can understand some criticisms of this particular work. The elder sister’s right hand is every bit as small as her younger sister’s left, and her right arm is maybe a little too long. I’m not usually susceptible to this sort of complaint – I seem to remember having a tirade against the notion that the artist ‘got it wrong’ some time back. After all, it is possible that anatomical accuracy was not what the artist was aiming for. But the younger girl’s feet are also poorly defined, in a painting which looks like he was aiming for a greater degree of naturalism. But then that’s not entirely surprising, as the artist was not professionally trained. Indeed, he wasn’t professionally an artist at all, but a remarkably adept, and influential, amateur – which of course means that he was a ‘lover’ of art, rather than having the current meaning in which the word has come to imply that he was, simply, inept. As it happens, he was a rather interesting man.

This is him, Jean-Claude Richard, usually known as the ‘Abbé de Saint-Non’. The imaginative portrait, by Jean Honoré Fragonard, is, in its own way, entirely Rococo. OK, so the palette is darker, but that is because Fragonard has depicted Richard in fancy dress. Apart from the palette, it has the flickering brushstrokes, fragmented diagonals, and sense of fantasy which can also be seen as features of this evanescent style. Not all Rococo works of art have all of the features I have mentioned, but then for any style, not all of the boxes we use to define them will be ticked all of the time.

The artist of our Two Sisters was undoubtedly one of the fortunate in life, and was able to do as he wished thanks to an enormously wealthy father, Jean-Pierre Richard, who had purchased land to the North of Paris to create the his families estate. It was close to the modern-day village of Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche, which takes its name from a 9th Century bishop, Saint Nonne. Over time the saint lost his last ‘ne’, and then the ‘n’ mutated to ‘m’, meaning that, even though Richard’s title contains a memory of his estate’s history, he has no connection to St Non, the 5th – 6th Century Welsh saint who was the mother of St David.

Jean-Claude Richard did take minor orders – and his family had intended him to go into the church – but, although he held a degree in theology, he didn’t really get any further. OK, so he bought himself a benefice, but despite becoming ‘abbé commendataire’ of the abbey of Pothières, subsequently he seems to have paid little attention to the church. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns today’s pastel, says that, ‘he became an amateur artist, writer, and traveler and a congenial figure in Paris society,’ a ‘career’ which I have to say I rather envy. It was while travelling in Italy in 1759 that he met Fragonard. The artist had won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1752, but didn’t travel to the Eternal City until four years later. He was still there when the Abbé arrived another three years after that, and, once their friendship had been formed, they made extensive forays around the Italian peninsular. This culminated in one of the Abbé’s great contributions, the Voyage Pittoresque de Naples et de Sicile, a richly illustrated travel book in four volumes, published between 1778 and 1786, almost entirely funded by the Abbé himself. Until relatively recently it was assumed that he had written it, but recent research has revealed that this was not the case. As an artist his production was varied. He was perhaps most interested in printmaking, and made important contributions to new technique of aquatint. He was certainly enormously influenced by Fragonard, and it turns out that the Two Sisters has a twin. Compare these two images:

As you would probably surmise, the Abbé’s pastel is a copy of Fragonard’s oil painting, which is dated (by comparison with the pastel) c. 1769-70, and which is, by one of those odd coincidences, also held by the Met in New York. You will probably also have realised that Fragonard’s work was cut down – we don’t know when, exactly, or why – so although the two images may appear to be the same size here, in reality they are not. From what we can see the differences are subtle. The Abbé doesn’t go with Fragonard’s brilliant yellow for the young girl’s dress, he sweetens her face, and Fragonard’s energetic drapery folds have been calmed. The pastel is the work of a skilled copyist, but not of such a brilliant artist. Having said that, even in the oil painting we can see that Fragonard’s anatomy isn’t entirely naturalistic – look at the feet, for example, which make the younger girl look somewhat doll-like. Perhaps that is part of the nature of the relationship, and it could explain why Pulcinella has been abandoned: who needs a doll when you have a younger sister?

Why did Saint-Non choose to copy the work in pastel? Well, I will say this much about the technique: one reason for its popularity was the apparent ease of execution. No messy oil paints – although the powdery nature of the pastels meant that they could be messy in their own way. You could buy the crayons already made at a time when oil paints wouldn’t be available in tubes for several decades. And it was far quicker: there was no need to wait for the oils to dry in between periods of work on the painting, and once the image was finished, that was it – again, no waiting. And we should be grateful. Not only is Saint-Non’s Two Sisters a charming object, but it is also important as a record of the intended appearance of Fragonard’s sadly truncated original. As for Fragonard – well, he too was a remarkably interesting character, but one who will have to wait for another day.


124 – A Sign of the Times

Jean-Antoine Watteau, L’Enseigne de Gersaint, 1720. Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin.

I wanted to write about today’s painting last year, during the original ‘Picture of the Day’ – but somehow I ran out of days… But even if this is a year later than I had hoped, I’m glad, as I know so much more about it now, and there is no better way to start my ‘18th Century Spring’ as I am re-christening it (it is snowing outside as I write). It is a remarkable image in so many ways, and, in all probability, the very last painting of the man who, it could be argued, gave life to the art of the century: Jean-Antoine Watteau. Sadly his star has long-since waned, but he is due for a revival. Admittedly I am a relatively recent convert to his work, mainly because, until recently, I had failed to look. If I am honest, I have always found him hard to talk about, because the chief quality of his work is an inherent charm, and after that, after you’ve said ‘isn’t that charming,’ anything else you say runs the risk of counteracting the dream-like quality of much of his work, which is precisely where the charm itself lies. Like comedy, if you try to explain charm, it dies.

This, his last work, and one of his undoubted masterpieces, was a new departure. Watteau is known primarily as the originator of a new genre, the ‘fête galante’, in which people in elegant clothing – ball gowns, fancy dress and theatrical costumes – party in the countryside or in parkland settings. It is never clear whether the characters are actors, or ‘normal’ people in costume, or both, and it is never clear where, exactly, they are. The charm lies in this mystery, and in the romance, as couples mingle, flirt, and slip away into the hazy distance, for what ever purpose you, the viewer, imagine: Watteau never tells us. However, in this painting, we know exactly where we are. We’re in a shop. We know that from the title, which I have left in French deliberately, because ‘Gersaint’s shop sign’ is altogether too prosaic. But that is what it is. Or rather was – although not for very long: a shop sign. It was not commissioned by Edme-François Gersaint, a mere 26-year-old junior merchant when it was painted: Watteau volunteered the work, to keep himself busy, and ‘to warm his hands’, as he himself said. He was not well at the time. He had just returned from a few months – at the most, eleven – in England.

Rosalba Carriera, Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1721. Museo Santa Caterina, Treviso.

This is the only portrait we have of him, a pastel painted by Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera, when she was in Paris between April 1720 and March 1721. We know from a letter written to her, dated 20 September 1719, that Watteau was then in Paris. And according to her own journal entry from 20 August 1720 we know that, by then, he was back. In between those two dates he visited England. We don’t know why he went, but while he was there he got to know Dr Richard Mead, one of the leading physicians of the day, and a notable collector of art: at his death in 1754 he owned at least two of Watteau’s paintings, which may have been directly commissioned from the artist. We don’t know how or why they met, although as he was a specialist in tuberculosis, and as it was from this that Watteau was suffering when he returned to Paris in the late summer of 1720, the initial contact might have been a consultation. However, any medical advice Mead gave was not successful for long: Watteau died less than a year after his return. Carriera’s portrait thus dates from the final year of his life: he was only thirty-six. Artist and sitter were perfectly suited, though – the lightness of touch, both in mark-making and concept, and the lightness of the palette – pastel, in more ways than one – made them equivalents. She will be the subject of the first talk in my series Three Women in the 18th Century on Monday 19th April at 2pm and 6pm. If you would like to see more of her delicate and highly sought-after work, I do hope you will be able to make it – just click on the relevant time to book.

No wonder Watteau wanted to ‘warm his hands’: he was not well. He painted the image in a couple of weeks, and yet somehow managed to sum up the entire epoch. The painting suggests that we are out on the street, with the ‘fourth wall’ of Edme-François Gersaint’s shop removed so that we can see inside. In the foreground are the cobblestones of the road, with some straw, possibly for packing, lying to the left, and a dog – quoted from Rubens’s Marie de Medicis cycle – on the right. It is only this dog – and the hem of a lady’s skirts – which break the long line of the kerb stone which keeps us on the outside. But this same lady’s step, as she is handed into the shop by a young gallant, encourages us too to enter – with our eyes, at least.

Her luxurious pink silk dress shimmers in the daylight as she heads into the darkened space. It would be long enough to reach to the ground, were she on the level, but her step up allows us to catch a glimpse of her shoe, and just a hint of a green stocking. Despite the gentleman’s attentions she looks away from him, down to her left, as a painting – a portrait of Louis XIV – is boxed to be sent to its buyer – or perhaps, to be put into storage.

The Sun King had died five years earlier, when the reins of power were handed to his five-year-old great grandson – or rather, to the Duc d’Orleans, who would act as Regent until 1723, when the young Louis XV came of age. The whole court relaxed, packed up their formalities in Versailles and headed home to Paris. This collective sigh of relief, and the ensuing reminder of the pleasures of home living, resulted in a new, relaxed and even at times frivolous attitude to life and art, not to mention a renewed interest in interior decoration, and a style which we have come to know as the Rococo. Watteau was at the very forefront – as indeed was Rosalba Carriera, in Venice, for altogether different reasons. The idea of packing away the portrait – a bust-length image derived from Hyacinth Rigaud’s formal vision of le Roi Soleil from 1701 – is a metaphor that cannot be surpassed in poetic terms. The old, pompous, rigid rules are being dispatched to make way for newer, fresher ideas – and far more fun. This painting truly is a sign of the times.

On the right of the painting, the great and the good of Paris enjoy art as a sophisticated leisure activity. It is as if the inhabitants of the fêtes galantes had put on their day clothes, headed back into town, and are now set on taking art a seriously. However, if we look closely, well – plus ça change… The couple on the left of this detail are being shown a sizeable oval painting, and while the woman, standing on the left, may be paying close attention to the delicate portrayal of the branches and the foliage high up in the canopy of trees, her male companion, genuflecting in the face of high art, does so to get closer to a number of female nudes appearing en plein air. To the right of this painting three more amateurs – or ‘lovers’ – of art, dilettanti, ‘delighting’ in the finer things of life, pay close attention to a charming, smaller work. Or do they? We’ll see… The shop assistant might be none other than Madame Gersaint, wife of the proprietor, and daughter of Pierre Sirois, who just happened to be Watteau’s first dealer.

The shop was on the Pont Notre-Dame, which had been constructed between 1500 and 1507 as the first stone bridge across the Seine, leading from the Île de la Cité to the North Bank. Once the bridge was complete, a row of buildings was constructed along both sides, a total of sixty-eight identical houses which lasted from their completion in 1512 until they were destroyed in 1786. Gersaint moved into no. 35 in 1719 – the year before Watteau insisted he needed a sign – and years before he became one of the most innovative and influential dealers of the 18th Century. But he was by no means alone. The bridge was home to no fewer than 60 dealers in art and luxury goods at the height of its success: its importance to the 18th Century art market cannot be overestimated. Neither can its reputation. Members of the Académie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture did not approve. According to a 19th Century historian of the by-then venerable institution, when it had been founded back in 1648,

It was decided that, upon pain of exclusion, all members of the academic body would refrain from having an open shop in which to display their works, from exhibiting them in the windows or other external parts of their residence, and from attaching to the latter any sign or inscription stating that they were on sale, and would do nothing that might confuse the honourable status of academicians with the mechanical and mercenary status of the masters of the community.

Or, as Gilles-André de La Roque said – more succinctly – in 1678:  “there is nothing but nobility in painting when it is practiced without trade.” And yet, look at what Jean-Antoine Watteau, Academician, has done: he has painted a shop sign! Arguably, as far as the Academy was concerned, the lowest form of art. While giving an important role to painting as something worthy of attention, he is also undermining the founding principles of the establishment to which he himself belonged. This was an entirely different ethos to that of the Guild of St Luke, which had been founded by artists to ensure that they got the right price for their work. The guild also freely admitted women, apparently, unlike the Academy. Indeed, as many women as men seem to have held leases on the Pont Notre-Dame, sometimes inheriting their positions – and sometimes their status as peintresse – if their husbands died.

This is art, though, and however much of a political statement it might be, it is also a great exaggeration. Inventories showed that Gersaint initially sold far more furniture than paintings – and there certainly wasn’t as much space inside as Watteau’s masterpiece implies. Nevertheless, the painting was enormously successful. We know that from an almost-contemporary review, written a dozen years after the painting was completed, which appeared in the Mercure de France in 1732:

This Piece, which is 9 feet 6 inches wide by 5 feet tall, has always been regarded as the Masterpiece of this excellent Painter. It represents the Shop of a Dealer, which is full of various Paintings by the greatest masters (…). This famous Sign was on display for only two weeks; it was admired by the whole of Paris.

In his memoirs Gersaint also acknowledged the importance of this un-commissioned painting, saying, ‘We know what a success the piece was […] it drew the eyes of all the passers-by; and even the most skilful painters came several times to admire it.’ Indeed, as the Mercure de France stated, it was only on view for around two weeks. Although the canvas was always rectangular, the painting originally occupied only a segment of the surface – an arched curve can be seen cutting off the top corners, running close to the bottom of the paintings at the top left and right. These, and others, were added some time between 1720 and 1732, possibly by Jean-Baptiste Pater, Watteau’s only student. The painting was initially acquired by a man called Claude Glucq, who passed it on to Jean de Jullienne, one of Watteau’s main patrons, and the man responsible for communicating the artist’s genius by commissioning an extensive series of engravings. Before long it came to the attention of Frederick the Great of Prussia, one of history’s most notable collectors, and that is how it comes to be at the Schloss Charlottenburg now: it was first exhibited there as early as 1748.

The original curved shape of the painting relates to its intended location, and its function as a shop sign. There are various ideas of how it was attached, and most of them draw on the fact that each of the premises had an arch of an almost identical size and shape. This is what the bridge looked like in 1684, at the festivities which were held to celebrate the return to health of King Louis XIV in the January of that year. You would think the painting would slot nicely into one of those arches, just where the chandeliers are hanging.

In case you were wondering, the bridge was never this wide – this expansive perspective was created by the anonymous printmaker in order to impress on the viewer the magnificence of the spectacle. A recent computer simulation has suggested that originally the bridge actually looked more like this:

Digital reconstruction of the Pont Notre-Dame in 1720, from https://www.journal18.org/issue5/virtual-explorations-of-an-18th-century-art-market-space-gersaint-watteau-and-the-pont-notre-dame/

While each arch might still look like a good place for a painting, when the painted area was made rectangular, the sides were cut down – the curve does not reach its full extent. If the missing sections of the canvas were to be replaced to complete the curve, it would be too wide for one of those arches – and would also block the upper part of the doorway. However, if it weren’t inserted into the arch, but onto the canopy above it, it would fit perfectly.

Digital reconstruction of Gersaint’s shop, from https://www.journal18.org/issue5/virtual-explorations-of-an-18th-century-art-market-space-gersaint-watteau-and-the-pont-notre-dame/

All of this comes from a brilliant article from which I have derived much of the above information. So, if you have the time, and would like to know more about the history of the Pont Notre-Dame and the Parisian art market, I would recommend Sophie Roux’s Virtual Explorations of an 18th-Century Art Market Space: Gersaint, Watteau, and the Pont Notre-Dame published online by Journal 18 – a journal of eighteenth-century art and culture.

But let us finish with the painting. I questioned, above, whether the customers on the right truly were ‘paying close attention to a charming, smaller work.’ Have another look, and see what you think.

Hanging on the wall behind them is what appears to be a 16th Century Venetian altarpiece – a Nativity with the Mystical Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria, perhaps. It is notable that the rapt attention of the customers, who are looking at the painting held by Madame Gersaint, echoes the heartfelt devotion of St Catherine herself, kneeling before none other than the Christ Child. What has so absorbed them? What could the painting show? How exquisite can it be to inspire such attention? TO be honest, the more I look, the less I am convinced that this is a painting. Madame Gersaint has her left hand on a stand, which hinges from the top of the elegant 18th Century frame, and I’ve never seen a painting that has a stand like this. Admittedly, I’m not an expert on how paintings were displayed in the 18th Century, but everything else I’ve seen suggests that they were hung on walls, much as we would do today, and that would include small paintings, the size of this object. However, just next to the elbows of the two seated customers is a box with an open, hinged lid, containing a brush, and another, similarly-coloured round or oval object – there is another one of these just next to the black frame. This is surely a vanity case. Which makes me think that the black frame with a stand is probably a mirror, and that these people are completely wrapped up in themselves. Watteau really was a gorgeous artist, a clever, and subtle man. He may be advocating art as a sophisticated leisure activity. He may be promoting the art market over the pretensions of the Académie. But he wasn’t above poking fun at the self-absorption of the haute-bourgeoisie. Buyer, beware!

Rosalba Carriera, Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1721. Museo Santa Caterina, Treviso.

Now that Lent is over, I am hoping to blog about once a week – as long as other commitments don’t get in the way. And I will, of course, continue talking! I do hope some of you can join me for Rosalba Carriera and the Power of Pastel on 19th April – not to mention the other two of the Three Women in the 18th Century, full details of which are on the diary page, along with information about everything else I am up to in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I trust you are enjoying the changeable weather: I’m glad to say that it has now stopped snowing and the sun has come out…



Andrea Bonaiuti, The Resurrection, 1365-8. The Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Happy Easter! Yesterday I referred to last year’s blog on The Devils in Andrea Bonaiuti’s Harrowing of Hell – and then I thought I ought to read it through, just in case there were any embarrassing typos. I’m glad to say that there weren’t, but I was surprised to see how much of yesterday’s material I had already covered. The focus changed, I suppose, from putting the Harrowing of Hell in context, to using the Crucifixion as a focus. I will do the same today, as last year I included this painting of the resurrection when talking about The Devils, and also referred back to it on Easter Day itself, when I talked about Donatello’s relief in San Lorenzo, which still continues to astonish me (see Day 25 – The Resurrection).

We have already explored the frescoes on this wall, starting at the bottom left, outside the walls of Jerusalem, then looking up to Calvary, and back down again to hell on the right, the position of the narrative on the wall effectively mapping, in relative terms, the supposed geographical locations of the settings. But for the resurrection, where should be go? Clearly, from hell, we must look up, and then look higher still than the Crucifixion: up onto the ceiling.

Once more I think that the use of the available space is remarkable – the resurrection, the culmination of the Easter story, and the confirmation of Christ’s triumph over death, is at the very top of the decoration of the chapel, as close to the apex of the ceiling as is possible. We can see the edges of the other images on the quadripartite vaulting, but we’ll talk about them another day.

Three Maries approach the empty tomb from the left, the soldiers still fast asleep in front of it, two of them with shields labelled SPQR (although the inscription on the red shield is hard to see). Two angels sit on the edge of the open sarcophagus, the lid having been tipped off to the back – you can see one corner of it next to the right angel’s wing. Christ is resplendent – and glorious – up above. There is no description in the bible of how Jesus emerged from the tomb, but what we see here is a combination of elements derived from all four gospels. Mark 16:1 says,

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.

So – these are the three woman we see to the left of the image. All four gospels say that the stone covering the tomb had been taken away, and most say it had been rolled. The bible implies that Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb had been cut into a rock like a cave, with a stone rolled in front to close it. However, medieval artists knew that people were buried in sarcophagi, and that was what they were going to paint. By the time Bonaiuti was at work in the 1360s, this image was entirely traditional. Mark 16:5-6 goes on to say,

And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.

The angel who is gesturing, as if to say ‘behold the place where they laid him,’ is indeed on Christ’s right side, even if (1) Jesus is way above them, and (2) there are two ‘men’ in the painting, not just the one referred to by Mark. Matthew 28:3 also mentions only one angel, saying, ‘His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow.‘ However, Luke 24:4 says, ‘two men stood by them in shining garments.’ Bonaiuti draws on all of these accounts – the white clothes, which do indeed shine out against the relatively dull background; the gesture towards ‘the place where they laid him’; and, from Luke, the fact that there are two of them. But that is not the only source for this image. Compare these two details:

On the right is Giotto’s Resurrection from the Scrovegni Chapel, painted some 60 years before Bonaiuti’s version. I made the mistake last week of saying to a group that Bonaiuti had worked in the Scrovegni Chapel: I was thinking of Giusto da Menabuoi, another Florentine artist, and similarly on the edge of being considered obscure. But I can see why I made the mistake. It does look as if Bonaiuti had seen Giotto’s painting, as he combines the same elements. Both images show two angels sitting on the tomb, with the one on our left pointing to the risen Christ, at whose feet kneels Mary Magdalene. The pointing hand, illustrating the phrase ‘behold the place where they laid him’ could equally well, in the Bonaiuti, illustrate the phrase ‘he is risen,’ which is used in all three of the synoptic gospels. Giotto is being remarkably clever, combing the resurrection with the Noli me tangere (more of that later). It is almost as if, for Giotto, the two angels sitting on the tomb are a ‘flashback’, or as if they are talking to the three Maries who are ‘off screen’, as it were – as indeed they are in the detail I have taken from the Bonaiuti.

I have written about the episode traditionally called the Noli me tangere before, when I discussed Galizia Fede’s version (see 104 – Don’t touch!), not to mention Giotto’s painting in the Scrovegni which we see here (109 – Death and Resurrection). The title itself comes from John 20:17, and means ‘touch me not.’ According to John, Mary Magdalene finds the tomb open, and so goes to tell Peter and John, who run there only to find it empty, before heading back home.  John 20:11-12 then says,

But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

It seems clear that, however much Giotto and Bonaiuti drew from the synoptic gospels, everything they needed is here. In John’s account Mary then turns away from the tomb and sees the risen Christ, but does not know it is him. At the end of John 19 we were told that the tomb was located in a garden, which could explain what happens next in John 20:15-17,

Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

Notice that Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the resurrection. Notice, too, that Jesus instructs her to bear that witness to the apostles. Now, given these two observations, I really don’t understand the objection to having women in the priesthood. In fact, in all of the gospels it is the women who are told to tell the apostles that Christ is risen, although in Matthew, Mark and Luke it is the angels who give this instruction. So, if this ministry was valid, what is the problem now? But I’ll get off my soapbox and move on.

In both of the details, and in Bonaiuti’s image of the resurrected Christ above the tomb, Jesus carries the Cross of Christ Triumphant: the red of his suffering, in the shape of the cross, against the white of his purity. He also, in both appearances in Bonaiuti’s fresco, wears red and white, as do the angels sitting on the tomb: these are the colours of the resurrection. Bonaiuti shows the resurrected Christ carrying the flag in his right hand, with, in his left, a palm leaf, denoting his victory over death. In the Giotto, it is the flag itself which gives us this message. Written in the four white corner sections are the letters ‘VIC’, ‘TOR’, ‘MOR’ and ‘TIS’ – or Victor Mortis, ‘victor over death’. I was asked about this on Thursday, but couldn’t get back to the relevant slide to try and read it: thank you to the person who did!

In Bonaiuti’s telling of the story the resurrection seems effortless (especially when compared to Donatello’s version which I mentioned above). Christ floats in the sky, drapery only slightly ruffled by the breeze, a glorious mandorla of light around him which illuminates, ever so slightly, the trees growing on either side. The hills slope down towards the tomb, leaving Jesus beautifully framed in the middle of the blue sky, the apex of a triangle whose base is formed by the sleeping soldiers and sides by the attendant angels. He is at the very top, a joyous triumph at the end of the long, slow period of reflection that is Lent, and the unimaginable suffering of the Passion. A Happy Easter, indeed!

No more to say for now. I look forward to talking to some of you tomorrow, when we will be Getting Carried Away with Michelangelo at 2pm and 6pm, but after that I will take a break for a while, before my next blog… which, almost inevitably, will be about something from the 18th Century. But before then, I do hope you enjoy the rest of the long weekend, both today and tomorrow. Happy Easter!


Lent 46

Andrea Bonaiuti, The Crucifixion, 1365-68. The Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

As I said on Thursday, the Master of Delft does not take us any further than Good Friday, and so, for the final day of Lent we will leave the Netherlands and head down to Italy, and to Florence, to consider one of the city’s rich array of decorative schemes which doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as it should. One corollary of this is that the available images are not the best, and most of these are pre-restoration – my apologies, but they should still all be legible. Now the paintings are clearer, and brighter, after the removal of layers of dust and soot, and the careful and subtle reintegration of small areas of loss. We are in Santa Maria Novella, the chief Dominican church of the city, or rather, in the monastery of which the church forms a part. If we have arrived by train we won’t have to go far – the station is ‘Firenze SMN’ – taking its name from the church, and directly opposite the ecclesiastical East End. Nowadays, you enter the complex through the side towards the station, as most of the buildings are now part of an extended museum, even though the Dominicans are still, somewhere, in residence. The room we are visiting is called The Spanish Chapel, as it was here that the Spanish community in Florence used to worship in the sixteenth century. They arrived in the retinue of Eleonora da Toledo, daughter of the Viceroy of Naples, who married Cosimo de’ Medici, the second Duke of Florence and later first Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1539. However, originally it was the chapter house of the monastery, where the Friars would meet every day to read a chapter from the Rule of St Dominic. This part of the building was completed in 1355, and the frescoes were painted between 1365 and 1368 by Andrea Bonaiuti – although the ‘chancel’, a chapel dedicated to the Holy Sacrament, was redecorated in the 18th Century, which is when the stone arch that you can see in this detail was made. However, there would have been something similar in the 14th Century, as there are frescoed statues peeking out from behind the later arch.

Bonaiuti had a difficult challenge – to fit his fresco around the arch – and that is why I wanted to talk about this image today: to see how well he succeeded. The whole painting is surrounded by a decorative border, which unifies all of the imagery in this remarkable space (more of that another day). In between the patterns made up of stylised vegetation – recognisable to contemporary tourists from the Florentine ‘handmade’ paper available from shops on almost every street – we see prophets emerging holding scrolls, foretelling the coming of the Messiah and his inevitable suffering and death. At the very top you may just be able to pick out a bird on its nest – the Pelican in her Piety. It was believed that the pelican would peck at its own breast to feed its young with its flesh and blood (presumably a misunderstanding of the act of regurgitation), and the Christological significance is clear: in Christian terms Jesus feeds us with the sacrifice of his own body, and notably, the wound in his chest, from which, like the pelican in this symbolic image, the blood flows.

The fresco on this particular wall is, in essence, another Crucifixion. We see Christ, top centre, on his cross, facing forward, flat against the picture plane in much the same way as the Master of Delft was to paint it later: this is entirely traditional. So too are the two thieves, whose crosses are again angled, although both are turned inwards, so that the arms of the crosses lead our eye into the painting and towards the image of Jesus. They are surrounded by a vast multitude, too many to number or name – but let’s see what we can do! We shall start at the bottom left of the image.

You should recognise this, from the Master of Delft, as the Via Crucis, ‘the Way of the Cross’. It is also known as the Via Dolorosa, or ‘the Sorrowful Way’, or, more prosaically perhaps, the Road to Calvary. We see Jesus, in his red robe, though stripped of his blue cloak, carrying his cross and heading off to our right. He looks over his shoulder towards the only three people the crowd who have halos. Prominent in the foreground is Mary Magdalene, her head uncovered, but with her full-length red cloak covering her hair as it goes over her shoulders. To one side of her we see Mary, the mother of Jesus, in blue, and to the other side, St John the Evangelist. Behind them are some other women, presumably the ‘Daughters of Jerusalem’ Jesus speaks to, or some of the ‘many’ who followed him from Galilee. Next to the Magdalene are two small boys, one wearing white, with curly blonde hair, another, in darker clothes, sadly damaged, wearing a cap. We have seen them before, depicted several times by the Master of Delft, and we will see them again. The crowds have left the city gate, and so are now ‘without a city wall’, and they are turning to their left and walking up the ‘green hill’. Bonaiuti imagines the crucifixion as an important event in the life of the city, and the crenellations of the walls, the towers and loggias of the city, even the lookout from the barbican of the city gate, are crowded with the curious. Public executions would always bring out the crowds.

If we follow them up the road, we arrive first at the good thief’s cross. He faces inwards, and up. A small group of five angels, just above his left hand, accompany a sixth person in white, who is praying. The angel on our right gestures upwards, and looks back at the central, praying figure. This is the soul of the good thief, being accompanied to heaven. Below the cross we see the ‘Good’. On the right Mary Magdalene reaches up to Jesus on the cross. Next to her, St John the Evangelist looks back to the Virgin, supported by Mary Zebedee and Mary Salome, and they are accompanied by more of the female followers of Christ. The boys are nowhere to be seen. Amongst this mass of soldiers, many on horseback, the women, and John, look vulnerable, and indeed, a man on a lively brown horse, perched on the edge of the chancel arch, looks down at them as if they are a threat. Just to the right of the horse’s head is a man poorly clad in a pinkish-brown, with a pot in his left hand and a long pole in his right: he has offered the sponge soaked in vinegar to the thirsty Christ. A white horse looks over his shoulder. This steed bears a soldier in dark grey armour, looking up to the cross, hands raised in prayer. He has a halo, and a spear. This is the centurion who declared ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’ (Mark 15:39), here identified as St Longinus, the soldier who pierced Christ’s side with a spear.

When we turn our attention to the centre of the image, we can see that Longinus and the sponge-bearer are at the foot of the cross. This is topped by the titulus, and surrounded by mourning angels. To the right, one of the shields bears an inscription which should read ‘S.P.Q.R.’, although whichever member of the workshop painted this detail, they couldn’t fit it all in, leaving out the ‘Q’. Mind you, this is a good choice for the omission, as it only stands for ‘and’.  The initials are short for Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome,’ referring to the ancient Roman Republic, although its use continued throughout the Empire until the reign of Constantine I. However, it was revived, and is still in use today. It can be found, among other places, on the drain covers of roman streets and pavements. Nowadays, however, Italians from other regions have realised that it actually stands for Sono Pazzi Questi Romani – ‘These Romans are bonkers’. At the foot of the cross stand two boys, one wearing white, with curly blonde hair, another, in red, wearing a cap. They have pushed their way to the front, as boys will. These children, present at the crucifixion, appear more and more from the 13th Century onwards, apparently, and, from imagery elsewhere in the Spanish Chapel, have been identified as the Jews and Moslems who would be converted to Christianity – even if Islam did not exist at the time of the crucifixion.

There is only threat and violence on the side of the bad thief. A soldier on horseback wields his club towards a group of onlookers who are fleeing towards the chancel arch. To the left of the bad thief’s legs another soldier, on a brown horse, also wields a club. The thief’s shins are bloodied, following the text in John 19:31-34. It is a result of crucifixion on the eve of the sabbath, and the need to get the bodies down before sunset:

The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

At the bottom right some of the men have taken hold of Jesus’s red robe, and stretch it out between them. The one on the left holds out a dice to his companion. Like the breaking of the thieves’ legs, this episode is not represented by the Master of Delft, but is recounted earlier, in John 19:23-24,

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. 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.

The ‘scripture’ here is Psalm 22:18, ‘They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.’

If the good thief has angels to carry his soul away, the bad thief is tormented by devils. One sits astride the cross, threatening him with a barbed spear, while three more bring a large bowl, presumably containing something else with which to torture him, or simply to carry him away – down – to hell. Which is where we shall go next – down to hell.

The Apostles’ Creed states quite clearly that Christ, ‘was crucified, dead and buried, he descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead.’ So what was he doing in hell? The painting does make it quite clear, but, as I talked about this at length last year on the equivalent day (though not the same date – Easter is a moveable feast), I am just going to direct you towards Day 24 – The Devils, while also pointing to the painted statue on the chancel arch which looks down from the top left of this post-restoration detail.

What I love about this fresco is the way that Bonaiuti uses the space available to him. Christ leaves Jerusalem at the bottom left, and follows the procession up the wall, and up the hill of Calvary, where his is crucified at its summit, just visible on either side of the 18th Century keystone. Way below his left hand is hell, as it will be at the Last Judgement, and this is where he now descends. It is a remarkably good use of the awkward format, and entirely appropriate, placing his body on the cross directly above the altar, where mass would take place, and the bread would become the body of Christ, as if lowered down from the cross. Good Friday was the first day, today, Easter Saturday is the second, so tomorrow is the third day, and ‘On the third day he rose again from the dead’. But what space has Bonaiuti left for the resurrection? Maybe we will find out tomorrow.

Looking forward, beyond Lent, and beyond Easter, things will get a little less godly (I’m afraid/I’m glad to say/neither of the above/delete as appropriate). On Easter Monday I will be talking about Michelangelo in love, and the fruits of his infatuation: some of his most beautiful drawings and poems. If you are interested, there is still time to book for Michelangelo Matters 3: Getting Carried Away at both 2pm and 6pm. The following series of talks, Three Women in the 18th Century, is also on sale, and you can find more details, together with links to Tixoom to book, on the diary page. Thank you, as ever, for all of your support. Until tomorrow, have a peaceful day.


Lent 44

On the right hand panel of the triptych, Christ is taken down from the cross. The stark, empty form appears against the sky, which is partially clouded, as we witness the gradual emptying of the top half of the painting. A ladder leans against the cross, one man climbing down, lowering the lifeless form as he goes. Another, probably Joseph of Arimathea, holds the body, as if he is showing it to us, like a monstrance but with the body itself rather than the consecrated host (which is, of course believed by some to be the body itself). At Jesus’s feet Mary Magdalene and another man, probably Nicodemus, play their part. The Virgin Mary kneels at the foot of the ladder. On reflection I have little doubt about this. The other day I forgot to mention that, in the foreground, we can see that Mary does wear a red/pink dress under her blue – which would explain the pink sleeves, not seen elsewhere, but which are revealed at the foot of the ladder.

From this point a diagonal sweeps downwards towards the holy woman who is reaching out to Jesus, a gesture which seems to beseech, to indicate and to welcome. It is as if she is inviting the kneeling Virgin to join them in their sorrow, which indeed she has.  Kneeling down at the same angle as this woman, John tilts his head towards the other representation of the Mother of Christ, who here is helpless in her grief. A woman, in white, but wrapped in rich red, angled outwards, a little like the donor, puts her hand to her chest, .

To me – and this is pure hypothesis – the striking downward diagonal of the composition suggests the continued movement of Jesus’s body towards the beseeching arms of the holy woman. There is a little space at the Virgin’s feet. Maybe we are supposed to imagine his body being carried there, and placed before the mourners, allowing the lamentation to continue as in many other paintings and sculptures. Maybe we are then supposed to imagine it being lowered, still further, into the hands of the priest who has elevated the host during the Mass, and will then turn to the congregation with the body of Christ – the consecrated host, the body itself – as part of the liturgy.

But this is as far as it goes. One of the curious features of this painting, as far as I am concerned, is that there is no image of the resurrection, no hint, even, of the tomb, empty or otherwise. I can only suppose that, elsewhere in the convent, nearby, there was another altarpiece dealing with the entombment, the resurrection and the subsequent events leading up to the ascension of Christ, and to Pentecost. What little has been attributed to the Master of Delft, though, doesn’t include these later episodes, so it probably wasn’t by him. However, I will include some of them, as painted by Giotto, in a free talk entitled Painting the Passion with Passion, which I am delivering for the Churches Conservation Trust at 1pm today, Thursday 1 April. It will be on their Facebook page, and a recording will be posted later on their YouTube channel – I’ll let you know about that when it happens. But as it is not yet Easter, I will continue this Lenten series on Saturday in Florence. No words tomorrow – just images. I do hope you have a calm and peaceful day.


Lent 43

The central panel of the triptych shows The Crucifixion. Christ appears at the top centre of the painting, outlined against the sky, the weather deteriorating from the clear blue we saw yesterday as we move from left to right. He is presented formally to us, an icon outside of the worldly clamour all around. The good and bad thieves are seen to the left and right, their crosses angled and so reaching in and out of the space inhabited by the other characters. Seen together, the individual details we have looked at over the past six weeks take on their full meaning, as their context become clear. The patron, possible Herman van Rossum (Lent 25) kneels, anachronistically, in the bottom left hand corner, next to the Virgin Mary, angled slightly outwards. In context it is clearer that he is not looking at anything depicted in the painting – but he must be contemplating it nevertheless.

The Master of Delft, The Crucifixion, about 1510. National Gallery, London.

I do not know of a painting that is better at illustrating the difference between the good and bad thieves – although I know there are many which match this. The good thief is on Christ’s right hand (on our left), the side of The Blessed at the Last Judgement. His cross rises up behind the group of ‘The Good’ – the Virgin, St John the Evangelist, the Holy Women and the donor. In the background he is flanked by Jesus carrying his own cross, the New Church of Delft, and Judas, hanging on the tree. He faces forwards, towards us, like Christ, and upwards, towards heaven.

The cross of the bad thief, on the other hand, emerges from behind ‘The Bad’ – Pilate on his white horse, the chief priests, and disreputable soldiers. His back is turned, away from us, and away from Jesus, and his head lolls as he looks down to Hell. The painting is, roughly, symmetrical, and in the same way that Jesus appears to the left of the good thief’s feet, he also appears to the right of the bad thief, where he is already suffering the mental anguish of the Agony in the Garden. This is the one point of the triptych in which the narrative does not follow from left to right – it is the earliest episode depicted. But Christ’s sorrow and Judas’s betrayal are associated with the bad thief as much as the Church is associated with his repentant companion. Also next to the bad thief’s feet are the soldiers – the rabble of reprobates who have come to arrest Jesus. And then, there is the weather: the good thief has good weather, the bad thief, bad. It is nearly the sixth hour (Matthew 27:45) –

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour

If you want to know what ‘the sixth hour’ means – and were thinking that I sometimes get a little too detailed with biblical exegesis – why not read What is the sixth hour in John 19:14? on thebiblemadeplain.com

Meanwhile, in the foreground two boys choose where they want to be in the world.


Lent 42

It is Holy Week, and for the remaining days of Lent, I will say relatively little (apart, maybe, from Saturday), but leave you with the painting itself to explore. By now, if you have a good memory, you should find almost all of it familiar, although I am imagining that, if you haven’t located the painting before now, then it would be quite hard to work out, from the details themselves, where everything belongs. And if you did not know this picture previously… well, I am really not surprised! If anything, I have been impressed by the number of people that found it, a few in the first week, and several more during the second. It really is not well known.

The Master of Delft, Christ presented to the People, about 1510. National Gallery, London.

This is the left hand panel, known as Christ presented to the People. In its overall composition, it takes the form of an Ecce Homo. After the arrest, Christ is taken to Annas, and then to Caiaphas, and then to Pilate. He is sent to Herod (we haven’t even mentioned him), and back again to Pilate. Once it is decided that Barabbas will be freed, Jesus is first whipped, and then dressed in purple, crowned with thorns, and mocked a second time. John 19:4-5 tells us what happens next:

Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!

Behold the man!‘ – or Ecce Homo – is the name given to images like this. However, the narrative has gone a little further, as he no longer wears the purple robe. An ensuing discussion – with the mob heavily influenced by the chief priests – determines that Jesus will be crucified. And Pilate, against his will, submits to this. Although other gospels tell us that the purple robe was removed, and replaced with ‘his own clothes’, John omits this detail. Nevertheless, the precise moment that is painted by the Master of Delft is, I believe, that in John 19:16-17, who tells us what Pilate did next:

Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away. And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha

We see the beginning of this progress towards Calvary, with the movement determined in the composition by two overlapping diagonals. Jesus is at the top of the few steps which constitute the Scala Santa, with Pilate looking down at him from his place in the shadows, just above and to the left. The Palace looms above him, and the sculpted archer at the top, when seen in context, seems to be taking direct aim at the Roman prefect himself. The tall, shadowy arcade looks rather oppressive, despite the appearance of the bright yellow sleeve and red hat of the black trumpeter appearing from one of the further arches.  Jesus, and the guard behind him, who holds up Jesus’s robe so he doesn’t fall down the steps, both look down, and their gaze directs us along the diagonal formed by the rope held in the hands of the soldier wearing a pink jacket, behind whom a man crouches to mock Jesus. The rope leads our eye to the cross. This could have already grabbed our attention, as it projects into our space, leading our eyes into the painting, and up to the right – the second diagonal. It is framed by the legs of the carpenter, whose rear side forms the lightest area in the foreground, and claims attention for itself, thus undermining any dignity his profession might have. The carpenter reaches down to reach his auger to make holes to guide the nails. The line of his back, of the auger, and of the cross lead us past the weeping woman and her two children, past the soldier with the full, silvery sleeves, to the two thieves, about to head out through the city gate and turn right to the green hill without the city wall. The weather is lovely. The grass and the trees are green, the sky is blue – and so are the distant hills.


Lent 41

This is the same painting – although you would be forgiven for not recognising it. The work is a triptych – a painting on three panels – and for most of the time it would have been closed, only to be opened when mass was celebrated at the altar on which it was originally found. The ability to close altarpieces like this served several purposes, and one was purely practical: to keep dust off the richly coloured surface. The exterior panels were almost always far less colourful, and here, as so often, they are painted in grisaille – from gris, or ‘grey’, in French – a term for monochrome painting, which is usually intended to look like sculpture.  As such, the exteriors of triptychs are not attention grabbing. When opened, the far richer colours would then draw people to the altar where mass was being celebrated, and conversely, when closed, the colour would be removed – ideal for a season so focussed on withdrawal and contemplation as Lent. This, of course, creates ambivalence. The richly coloured surface we have been contemplating throughout Lent should not have been visible. But by the time it could be opened – on Easter Sunday – then everything that has gone before is all but irrelevant, perhaps, as that is the day to celebrate the joy of the resurrection.

So what do we see here? There are four figures, conceived as stone sculptures, standing on irregular hexagonal plinths, casting shadows onto the backs of the niches in which they stand. The right side of each niche is more brightly lit than the left, which suggests that the main light in the chapel where this painting was originally located came from a window on the worshipper’s left. The ‘sculptures’ represent the Virgin and Child and St Augustine of Hippo on the left wing, and on the right are Sts Peter and Mary Magdalene. St Augustine can be identified because he is a bishop: he wears a mitre – the hat with two points – and carries a crozier, an episcopal equivalent of a shepherd’s crook, which indicates the care of his flock – all of the Christian souls in his diocese. He also wears a cope – the ceremonial cloak, or cape – which is fastened with an elaborate clasp, called a morse. But there have been many holy bishops. It is the heart that tells us this is St Augustine. It relates to a quotation from the the Book of Proverbs (23:26) in the Old Testament:

My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways.

In a commentary on this text Augustine wrote,

“He says, give me. Give me what? Son, your heart. When it stays with you, it will go ill. You will be drawn to toys and to lascivious and harmful loves. Give me, he says, your heart. Let it be mine, and it will not perish.”

And this is precisely what Augustine is doing in this image – giving his heart to Jesus. Hence the presence of the Virgin and Child, as if any reason were needed. But why did the patron choose St Augustine to go on the outside of this painting? Quite simply because the Premonstratensians followed the Augustinian rule (see Lent 25).

The presence of St Peter, identified by the key he is carrying, one of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, is not so obvious, despite the fact that he was the first head of the Church after Christ. Nevertheless, his presence would remind the members of the convent that, after their allegiance to St Augustine, their ultimate responsibility (on Earth) was to the Pope. Also, given his status, Peter is hardly present on the inside of the altar, apart from a brief appearance, asleep, in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lent 10), so a dominant presence here is perhaps to be expected. The Magdalene, dressed differently compared to the interior scenes, but still holding her jar of precious ointment, clearly has a far more central role in the Easter story. She is, in some ways, the closest to Christ in the Master of Delft’s account. She is in the centre of the painting, at Jesus’s feet during the Crucifixion (Lent 32), and then again at the Deposition from the Cross (Lent 39). Given that many of the Canonesses would have been members of aristocratic families, being there against their will might, in some instances, have meant that their repentance from the ‘error of their ways’ would have been constantly required. Her strong female presence, opposite that of the Virgin Mary, would also have been relevant to all members of the convent, though. As for Mary, she too is central at the Crucifixion and the Deposition, serving to remind the Canonesses of their diverse losses, perhaps, and of the Christian endurance necessary to overcome them. Although ‘useful’ as a recipient of St Augustine’s heart, the Christ Child is also present simply to identify the Virgin: he is her chief attribute, or symbol. Indeed, many paintings called ‘Madonna and Child’ are, in truth, predominantly paintings of the Virgin, and Jesus is really there so that we know which female Saint we are looking at.

As for Lent itself – well, I hope you’re learning as much as I am! Cards on the table: I thought, ‘What painting is complex enough to cover the forty days of Lent,’ and this was the answer I came up with. So, on the first two days I planned all forty details. And then I gradually realised that it wasn’t going to stretch all the way to Easter, which, I must admit, was initially confusing. But why should it be ‘forty days’ in any case? Well, as a period of quiet and contemplation, it was made to commemorate Christ’s retirement to the wilderness for forty days. Admittedly, this was immediately after he had been baptised, so approximately three years before the crucifixion, but that is irrelevant. As a period of restraint – and of avoiding temptation – it is entirely appropriate. However, given that every Sunday is effectively a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, it was not deemed appropriate that these should form part of this period of sacrifice. So the Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter are theoretically not part of Lent… which is why Lent lasts 46 days rather than 40. And while we’re talking about it the name itself, ‘Lent,’ comes from an Old English word for the ‘Spring season’, which may itself derive from the idea that the days lengthen. And indeed they have – we have entered daylight saving – British Summer Time – and, as of today, we in England no longer have to stay at home. I, however, have planned a week which means I probably won’t leave the flat until Friday! I do hope that some of you are free to join me for some of this – starting with The Sistine Chapel, from ‘Beginning’ to ‘End’ today at 2pm and 6pm – BST! And tomorrow – back to the painting. Somehow.


Lent 40

If I have cliff-hangers, I left you with one yesterday. Admittedly, it would have left you hanging at the edge of a very low curb, but there you go. At least none of you would have had a sleepless night, especially good as, thanks to daylight saving, we in the UK – and Europe as a whole, I believe – have had one hour’s less sleep. But at the end of yesterday’s blog I asked ‘who are the two mourning women? And, for that matter, the third, whose head appears at the bottom right? I think we will have to leave them all until tomorrow…’ It is now ‘tomorrow’, so what is the answer? Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t know. But I do have an idea…

The two we have seen before are dressed much as we would have expected from the details we saw yesterday. The woman with outstretched arms at the left wears a cloth of gold gown, with very full, dark blue sleeves. She has a fur-lined green overdress, which is wrapped up and tucked into her belt to reveal both the fur lining, and the gold brocade of the dress underneath. Her companion at the top right reaches down towards the Virgin, dabbing tears from her face with her green cloak. Her dress is a relatively subdued light brown, although again it is fur-lined, worn over a simple black-sleeved bodice. Her hat is lilac, encased in what looks like a scimitar, beaten into a ploughshare, and then wrought further to become millinery. It is definitely meant to imply the exotic. Standing on the far right is the woman whose head we saw yesterday. She wears a white overdress, which to me looks a bit starchy, an impression belied by the cloth of gold over which it is worn, with similar brocade trims at the cuffs and lowest hem of the white dress. These additions, my sister informs me (thank you, Jane) were added because these were the parts of the dress which would be most likely to get dirty, and so could be easily replaced. Yet, however practical this might appear, the fact that this supposedly ‘disposable’ fabric was also of the most expensive, suggests a considerable amount of disposable income. This woman also wears a white headdress, or veil, including a bib tied around her neck – it is, effectively, a wimple, covering both her hair and her neck. Over all of this she wears a scarlet cloak, which would, in itself, have been a very expensive garment (if I haven’t said this before, although blue is famed as the most expensive pigment for painting, red was far more expensive than blue as a fabric). In her left hand she holds some sort of handled pot, or jar.

When seen up close, she is far older than any of the other women we have seen, with a wrinkled forehead, a pinched mouth and loose skin around her neck. She is pale with age, and indoor seclusion (the fate of many medieval and renaissance women), and also, undoubtedly, with grief. Not as pale, perhaps, as the Virgin, but then, not as grief stricken. The older woman holds her hand across her chest, a sign of her care and devotion, and her arm casts a shadow on her white overdress. She looks towards the Virgin, who looks out to us, much as she did in Lent 28, inviting our compassion – our ‘suffering with her’. She is cared for, as before, by St John the Evangelist, who rests his left hand on her shoulder, and holds out his right, an offer of further support. The four hands form a wonderful knot of sorrow and caring. His head is tilted at just the right angle to show us that he is genuinely moved, and exhibits true sympathy. As if to express this, the crook of his neck and the flick of the corner of her cloak almost interlock.

But who is the woman on the right? Well, let me quote from the National Gallery’s website:

‘Saint John and the Virgin appear in the foreground, surrounded by four women. If they are the same women who surrounded the Virgin in the foreground of the centre panel, they are wearing different clothes. The older woman on our right carries a small jar, the significance of which has not been explained.’

So, I was right. I don’t know, and neither does the gallery. They could be the same Holy Women, with different clothes – we have seen this before – but they could be others. After all, Mark 15:41 mentions ‘many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem,’ and maybe these are some of them. But why include so many? And why are they so richly dressed? Is it, simply, that Luke 2:2-3 says that there were ‘certain women’ such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, ‘and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance?’ Maybe. But why the interest in them, in this particular altarpiece? As I said, I have an idea. It is mere hypothesis at the moment, but let’s see what you think. I have only said a limited amount about this altarpiece – but then, only a limited amount is known. It was commissioned by a Premonstratensian Canon, possibly Herman van Rossum, as we saw in Lent 25. He kneels in his white habit, facing right, just next to the Virgin Mary. The identification of the patron relies on the fact that he was the provost of the Koningsveld Convent, just on the edge of Delft, at the time that this altarpiece was made for it. Yes, it was made for a convent, full of the daughters of the great and the good who were ‘ministering unto [Jesus] of their substance’, and who would have had an especial devotion – and so care for – the Virgin Mary. But why would women ‘of substance’ be in a convent in the first place? Well, because of dowry inflation. The role of men in a large families is well known: the first son inherits, the second goes into the military, the third into law, and the fourth, the church. The options for women were different. The eldest would have a dowry, and so would find a husband more easily, but after that it became progressively more difficult, and many aristocratic women ended up in convents not because of a calling, but as a result of parental necessity. And while their fathers might not be able to afford a good dowry, they would have been well-dressed – like the women in this painting. There were – and are – Premonstratensian Canonesses, although they are often called Norbertine Nuns, after St Norbert who founded the Premonstratensian Order. For a while there were even mixed houses, with Canons and Canonesses in adjacent cloisters.

I can’t help noticing that the woman on the right is wearing a white dress and wimple, and faces to the left. In some way she balances the donor. Could she, perhaps, be a donatrix, or female donor? I do hope so! Maybe she is the abbess? I need to do more research, clearly, but abbesses could reach a high status, and at least one, the Blessed Gertrude of Aldenburg (d. 1297) was beatified (as her title suggests!) As for the ‘small jar’, I think the significance is quite clear, contrary to what the National Gallery says. After the crucifixion, when the body was laid in the tomb, Luke 23:55-56 tells us,

And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.

I would suggest that the ‘small jar’ contains these spices and ointments.

I must also hypothesize about what the group as a whole are doing here. They do appear in much the same way as they did at the foot of the cross, and the Virgin appears, once more, to be on the verge of fainting. This ties into an idea that had great currency in medieval and renaissance thought, but which did not, with a few notable exceptions, outlive the Counter Reformation: lo spasimo della Vergine, as it is called in Italian, or, less poetically, ‘the swoon of the Virgin’. Although not mentioned in the gospels, the Gospel of Nicodemus, which I have referred to a couple of times already, includes references to Mary swooning during the crucifixion. In art this can be shown on the Via Crucis, at the foot of the cross during the Crucifixion, during the Deposition from the Cross or the Entombment of Christ. Two of those are included in this painting. I should discuss this at length another time, but the Counter Reformation saw this weakness in the Virgin as suggesting a lack of faith in the resurrection, and also, as John 19:25 explicitly states, ‘Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother,’ the idea of her not standing was seen as contradicting the biblical evidence… so the depiction of lo spasimo was discouraged. Not so, during the period in which our work was painted. But how do we account for Mary kneeling at the foot of the cross during the Deposition, but also swooning in the foreground? Well, here’s another idea. Because of the short course I am teaching for the Wallace Collection this week (see the diary), I have been looking at Dürer’s Small Passion series – and then decided to compare it to the Great Passion. Here are his versions of The Crucifixion, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ and The Burial of Christ, which are dated 1497-8, from the Great Passion.

The composition of The Crucifixion is similar to that envisaged by the Master of Delft – and it could be that the latter was influenced by it, although this is quite a common form. But note how Mary swoons a second time at The Burial of Christ. To me, the group at the bottom of our painting looks for all the world like a Lamentation – but without the actual body of Christ. Maybe, this was to be imagined. Maybe there simply wasn’t the space for it, or it was deemed unnecessary, given the presence of the body in the Deposition. But whatever it is, it gives the artist another chance to invite us to share in the Virgin’s grief, and to show the women of substance caring for her, something with which the occupants of the convent could associate. And at their feet – well, at their feet on the right we see the plantain, strawberry and violet we saw in Lent 2, and on the left is the aquilegia which was the subject of the very first of these Lent posts. We are back where we started. Which must mean that we have seen the whole painting. Or have we? After all, it is only Palm Sunday: there is still a week until Easter, and six more days of Lent.


Lent 39

While there might still be some doubt that it is the Virgin who kneels near the foot of the ladder, there is none that the Magdalene finds her place once more at Christ’s feet, her preferred position, as was mentioned in Lent 32. Unlike other characters, whose costumes change, hers is the same. A red overdress, over a rich cloth of gold brocade, her headdress topped with a white veil, which, although wrapped loosely around her head, no longer flutters in the breeze. Her long red hair still falls on either side of her face, which is pale with sorrow.

Both the Magdalene and Nicodemus were associated with precious ointments, and both were reported as taking them to Christ’s tomb – a piece of circumstantial evidence which I would like to put forward as supporting my identification of the man with his back to us as Nicodemus: the two people who both bring ointments also share a task, and help in carrying Christ’s legs. When seen in this detail, there is a greater idea of the effort involved than was evident before. We can see that Nicodemus’ left leg is braced to take the strain, and his right might also be bent. The extension of the left leg also adds to the movement and structure of this detail, and shows us one of the ways in which the Master of Delft keeps our eyes moving around the painting. Nicodemus’ leg – and indeed his belt – are both angled in roughly the same direction, although by no means on the same alignment, as the diagonal created by Christ’s body. It is probably not a coincidence that his left foot is placed next to the hands of the woman at the bottom left – on the surface of the painting, at least, because, of course, she is considerably closer to us: the visual proximity of her hands and his foot is one of the links the artist makes to direct our attention.

Another way of looking at it is to see her outstretched arms, and her gaze, directed up to the right, as leading our attention into the painting, and towards the lifeless corpse. This line is subtly enhanced by the shadows of Nicodemus’ leg, and then of his body. Were we there in the picture, we could also follow the path alongside him to stand close to Christ: this path, in between the grassy knolls, is part of the same structural element. The other mourning woman, whose head appeared yesterday, looks down – her face pointing downwards along the diagonal described above, while her eyes are at a steeper angle, looking towards what is, undoubtedly, the head of the Virgin Mary. This is why I queried her position at the foot of the ladder: although we know that this is a continuous narrative, for some reason it surprises me that she should be represented twice at this point in the narrative – the Deposition from the Cross, in the first case, and then… well, I suppose we will see tomorrow. And who are the two mourning women? Or, for that matter, the third, whose head appears at the bottom right? I think we will have to leave them all until tomorrow as well.


Lent 38

Not far from the foot of the ladder which has been lent up against the cross is a woman kneeling in prayer. There is very little to tell us who she is, and yet, for anyone familiar with Western European painting, her identity is probably clear. We can also see feet descending the ladder, and the two men standing, holding the dead body, who we discussed yesterday. There is also another, mourning, woman, who we have not yet met. The first woman looks up towards Jesus, her hands clasped together, close to her face, and, given the tilt backwards of her neck, they are held rather high. She has pink sleeves, folded back at the cuff to reveal a grey lining, and what looks like the cuff of a black undergarment. She wears a blue cloak, which covers her head, and is folded back over the brow to reveal a white headscarf.

This combination of blue cloak over a red/pink dress will be familiar to most, if not all, as the clothes so often worn by the Virgin Mary. And yet this is not what we have seen in the other depictions of her which have occurred so far – but then, she has only appeared twice, in Lent 24 and Lent 28. Even though the view is very distant for the first of these, it is clear from both that she is wearing a blue dress, with a blue cloak. She does wear a white head covering in both, and in the latter we can see that at least one of the sleeves has a grey lining. But no red, and no sign of a dark undergarment in either. So maybe this is not the Virgin? But then, who else would it be? As we have seen, the clothes that some of the characters wear changes from one appearance to another, maybe this is another example. After all, the two thieves are dressed in different ways for each of their three appearances.

However, this detail does make me think about the presence of the Virgin at the crucifixion, thoughts which were prompted further by an admirable – and detailed – email which I received this morning. A big ‘Thank you’ to the sender, who pointed out – and the relevant texts have been quoted here previously, without me drawing the same conclusion – that in the synoptic gospels the Holy Women watch from ‘afar off’ whereas in the Gospel according to St John, Mary and John are stood at the foot of the Cross (see Lent 28). In fact, on re-reading the synoptic accounts, I realise that the Virgin is not even mentioned as present, contrary to what I said in Lent 28. This point was made in the email, as was the fact that the apostles are nowhere to be seen, with the exception of John, in the eponymous gospel. However, from the earliest days, it seems to have been John’s account that prevailed. The synoptic gospels mention Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross, but that is not what we saw in Lent 22, and Jesus can be seen carrying his own cross as early as the 5th century. Here are two panels from a casket, dating from the 420s, in the collection of the British Museum – and thanks again to my correspondent for reminding me about this wonderful artefact. In the first, we see Christ carrying his own cross, combined with scenes not included by the Master of Delft: Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’s death, and Peter’s denial of Christ, illustrated by the cockerel at the top right of the image, and a woman pointing at the cowering Peter.

The second shows the crucifixion next to the suicide of Judas (Lent 13), with the thirty pieces of silver scattered on the ground beneath him. Longinus stands under the left hand of Christ, his lance lifted in his right hand to pierce the left side of Jesus’s chest (another theological debate, but one I don’t have the energy for, I’m afraid), and the Virgin Mary and St John stand at his right hand – in a similar way to our painting. So she is there from the start. Jesus himself appears strong, and upright – triumphant over death, and over the possibility of death. This idea continued, in some examples, until the late thirteenth century. However, by that time, the image of the suffering Jesus, expressively slumped, and even, sometimes, clearly dead, had started to take over, as the onlooker was invited to empathize with him, and to understand how great was his sacrifice. Mary, too, is strong in this early image, but that would change – we saw her fainting in Lent 28, and I suspect we will again. So I will talk about that another day.


Lent 37

Jesus is being lowered from the cross. The man we saw yesterday, holding on to the ladder with outstretched right arm, grasps one of Christ’s with his left, while another man, standing behind the dead body, supports the breathless rib cage with his left hand, and rests his right on Christ’s thigh. A third man, with his back to us, presumably supports the feet. And yet there is no weight. No pull on the arm, no stress on the supporting hand, no effort given to carrying the legs. It is an almost dream-like quality, the same feeling that the divine imperative transcends gross form and worldly gravity that we saw in the figure of the crucified Christ in Lent 35. This is a terrible task, and yet, for these men, it is what they have to do, it is inherent in their devotion, and it is therefore, in some mystical way, ‘easy’.

Jesus’s arms are extended, although not at the angle they were on the cross, and his fingers are curled, holding a memory of the extracted nails. Perhaps rigor mortis has set in. The mouth is still open, as if uttering its last breath. And the eyes – well the eyes are indistinct. Maybe open, maybe closed, but lifeless nonetheless.

The men perform their deed with delicacy, and the body is wrapped in a translucent veil. An attempt is being made not to sully this perfect form, shown to be precious by the way it is framed with the expensive, delicate fabric.

Who are these men? They are all reasonably wealthy, judging by their dress – richly coloured, with several layers. The man in the centre has a coat both lined and trimmed with fur, although it is the man on the left, with his back to us, who displays his wealth most overtly. His coat has long sleeves, used for show rather than practicality. One of them, its cuff trimmed with cloth of gold, is tucked up into the back of his belt for display – but this also allows us to see his ample purse, black, with a gold trim, strung onto another part of the belt, presumably. The red hat is another indicator of prosperity.

The bible does mention three men who were around at the time, although it is often difficult to distinguish them in art. The first is Joseph of Arimathaea. Here is Matthew 27:

When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple: He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered. And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.

Because it says quite specifically that Joseph took the body, it is he who is often credited with actually carrying it – so I would identify the man directly behind the body, looking out towards us, as Joseph of Arimathaea. There are similar references in Mark, Luke and John, the last of whom mentions a second man (John 19:38-39):

And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.

With this mention of myrrh, the ‘prophesy’ of the Jesus’s death, inherent in the gifts of ‘gold and frankincense and myrrh’ brought by the wise men (Matthew 2:11), is fulfilled. The way the verse from John is written makes it clear that this it is a large amount of myrrh, which was, in any case, extremely expensive. This implies – to me at least – that the wealthy man with his back to us is Nicodemus. However, some assume that the wealthier of the two would be the man with the tomb ‘hewn out in the rock’ – which would make Joseph the man with his back to us, and Nicodemus the one in the centre, judging by their dress alone. And the third man? Well, it could be another onlooker, an unnamed follower of Jesus, but it could also be Simon of Cyrene, who is sometimes shown among the mourners. He was the man who, when Jesus was led away from Pilate’s palace, was charged with carrying Christ’s cross, as mentioned in all three of the synoptic gospels. For example in Matthew 27:32,

And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross.

There is also a woman, kneeling at the foot of the ladder in prayer. But I will take a closer look at her tomorrow.


Lent 36

There is something particularly bleak about today’s detail, I feel. It is empty, devoid of life, despite the person clinging to the ladder, whose aim, anyway, appears to be downward, to get out of view. The tau cross is revealed in all its simplicity, and even the titulus has been taken away. Only the holes for the nails – prepared by the auger we saw in Lent 9 – remain. The sky itself seems silent. A ladder is perched against one arm of the cross, and a bearded man descends, hanging on with his right hand, looking down.

It is still Good Friday. It has been Good Friday since Lent 14, when we knew we were at the Praetorium, the palace of Pontius Pilate – although earlier posts also belong to this day. But then, let’s face it, the earliest episode we have seen, the Agony in the Garden (Lent 10) was on the evening – arguably the night – of Maundy Thursday, the night before. Everything is packed into one intense day. There was haste to take down the body, because it was Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, and nothing could be done after sunset. Here’s John, 19: 28-31,

After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.

The legs were to be broken to speed the deaths of the victims – and John goes on to explain that the thieves were subjected to this treatment, but, as Jesus was already dead, his body was left intact. The sponge soaked in vinegar is just one of many details from the gospel accounts that does not make it into this painting, however rich, and complicated, and busy it is. We also do not see the distribution of Christ’s garments, for example, when lots were drawn to allocate the seamless robe. There is too much in this story to fit onto a single surface – although the artist does what he can. There are other artists who find different ways to include yet more details. As for ‘the scripture’ that ‘might be fulfilled,’ the reference is probably to Psalm 69 (in the King James Version), verse 21:

They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

This was not an act of compassion, but of contempt. There is still a way to go until we can escape this downward spiral.

But to lift our spirits, something to look forward to, and something which is related to a Master of Delft, if not The Master of Delft. Next week is an absurdly busy one for me, but if you still have an evening free, and missed my recent lecture on Vermeer, I will be talking about him again next Tuesday evening. Even if you caught the last talk, this will be different, as, rather than looking at the paintings in his paintings, I will focus on the ways in which he represents music. I’m particularly looking forward to it, as my short talk will be followed by a performance by The Strand Consort of some of the works of Dutch 17th Century composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, live from the Dutch Centre in London. You can book via this link: Not how many but how well: Music, and the Paintings of Johannes Vermeer. The talk will begin at 7.30pm BST (yes, the clocks change in the UK on Sunday) this Tuesday, 30 March.


Lent 35

The cross on which Jesus is crucified in the painting is slightly more sophisticated than those of the Good and Bad Thieves. It is made out of planks of wood, which have been sawn into a rectangular cross-section, whereas those of the thieves are made from the unworked trunks of young trees. But none of them are ‘cross’ shaped. They form the letter ‘T’, the Greek letter Tau, and indeed they are known as the Tau cross. There is no description of the appearance of the cross in the bible, as far as I am aware, but this image is the result of the word used for ‘cross’ in early Greek versions of the testaments –  σταυρός (stauros). And no, I don’t speak Greek. As Casca says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ‘but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me’ (the ‘all’, with which we are all so familiar, crept in later…). Anyway, the literal translation of ‘stauros’ is ‘stake’, and implies that the instrument of torture and execution was stuck into the ground. An early Christian symbol, the staurogram, is a combination of the letters ‘tau’ and ‘rho’, an abbreviation of the word ‘stauros’, and was probably seen by the faithful as an abstracted image of Christ on the cross, with the ‘tau’ as the cross, and ‘rho’ as Christ – the loop effectively represents his head. As such, it is close to the chi rho, a far more familiar early Christian symbol, which is also formed from two letters, the first two of the word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos). Again, the visual reference to the crucifixion is apparent, even though neither actually shows the cross, that most humiliating form of execution. Here are two coins which use the symbols, from c. 570  and c. 350 respectively.

With the addition of the titulus crucis the cross looks a bit more like the Latin cross, the form which I would assume is the one most familiar to most people. As well as having a more sophisticated cross than the two thieves, Jesus is also crucified in a different way. We noted yesterday that the nails go through the palms of his hands, but there is also a single nail driven through both of his feet. The three nails would later receive their own form of reverence, as would the five wounds of Christ – the wounds in the hands, feet and chest.

If you look back to Lent 30 and Lent 31, you will see that both thieves are presented to us at a slight angle. The Bad Thief turns his back on us, and on Jesus, with his right hand slightly further away than his left – his cross appears to slope down to the right as a result. The same is true of the Good Thief’s cross, although because he looks forward, like Jesus, it is his left hand which is further away. Jesus is presented frontally – the top of the cross is horizontal, and the arms reach out symmetrically. This means that he seems to be slightly less a part of the world of the picture. The two thieves are angled into the space, and subject to the laws of perspective, but by depicting Jesus parallel to the picture plane, he is as much a part of our world as theirs, and as much a part of eternity as any one moment, timeless, and other-worldly. You could even imagine that he has been nailed to the panel on which the image is painted.

He is also granted more respect. Rather than the thieves’ skimpy thongs, he wears a more dignified – even if only slightly – loin cloth, a single piece of cloth wrapped once around and tied as a simple knot, the two ends blowing in the same breeze that lifts the Magdalene’s headdress. We know that the artist thought about Jesus’s appearance on the cross – he had to, in order to paint him – but theologians did too. The nature of his loin cloth is even discussed in popular devotional literature. One of the most important, and influential, of such texts were the Meditations on the Life of Christ, written, possibly, by John of Caulibus, a Franciscan Friar, for one of the Poor Clares – a Franciscan Nun – some time around the year 1300. In it, the reader is asked to imagine being present at any number of biblical events, and even to imagine their own participation, the aim being to evoke an emotional response, an instinctive understanding of the bible stories which could be far more profound than an intellectual appreciation. Here is a description of what happened at the crucifixion, concentrating on one aspect of the Virgin Mary’s feelings at seeing her son crucified:

She is saddened beyond measure, and embarrassed, because she sees him completely naked. They did not allow him even a loin cloth. She rushes up and gets close to him; she embraces him and covers him with her head covering. O in how great a bitterness is her soul now!

A manuscript in the library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, dated c. 1350, even has an anonymous illustration of this episode.

It was Roman practice, apparently, to crucify people naked – this was part of the humiliation – but out of consideration not only for the dignity of Jesus, but also for the viewer, he is almost always clad in some way. But not always: Michelangelo, for example, when he was only 17, left Jesus naked when he carved a crucifix for the Prior of Santo Spirito in Florence.

It is not clear why Jesus is naked. It may be because the young sculptor had, reportedly, been carrying out dissections on the human body while he was staying at the monastery. Or possibly, it was because he was already formulating his ideas about the relationship between nudity and being in a state of grace, which I believe would inform his later work, notably in the Sistine Chapel.

Talking of Michelangelo, thank you so much to all of you who were able to join me yesterday for the first in the series of Michelangelo Matters. There are two more to go, over the next two Mondays, looking first at the Sistine Chapel as a whole (and the ignudi, or ‘nudes’ as one part of the decoration), and then at some of the master’s most exquisite drawings. You can find details of these talks on the diary page. Because I was busy yesterday with the lectures, I didn’t have time to write today’s post in advance, as I sometimes do, and then this morning I had to have my eyes seen to (i.e. I had an appointment with the optician). And I’ve just had a lengthy meeting with Art History Abroad… so apologies for today’s delayed posting! Let’s see what happens tomorrow. After all, we’ve arrived at the Crucifixion, what else can there be?


Lent 34

You may be thinking, ‘We are there too soon,’ but part of the function of Lent is the preparation for the inevitable. It is a period of self-denial, of prayer and of repentance, but we have all given up so much over the last year, we are all living within such restricted circles, that I am not convinced that we need to do any more. But for Christians this is a time in which prayer and contemplation is specifically about Christ’s sacrifice, so the Crucifixion would be remembered daily. It could even be considered odd that this is the first time we have seen the crucified Christ, given that we have already arrived at day 34 of my Lenten discipline. As I’m sure you know, there are forty days in Lent, reflecting Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness, and just in case you were wondering, given that we are at day 34, how this could possibly last until Easter – which is just under two weeks away – I should point out that the forty days of Lent last for 46 days. But I will explain that in detail next week!

Jesus is crucified as we would expect – and as we have learnt to expect from all the images we have seen of him in the past. A nail has been driven through the palm of each hand, and, however physiologically impossible that would be, it was the tradition and not to be altered. There is no sense of the weight of the body, the pull on the arms which could dislocate the shoulders, the lifting of the rib-cage which eventually causes suffocation. You could argue that there is nothing too unbearable to look on, or we would avoid it altogether – but there are other traditions that do not shy away from the anguish, from the extreme suffering, or from the grotesque, even. You could equally argue that this portrayal is a sign of Christ’s inevitable triumph over his suffering, and then, over death. We see now, given that it was not clear in Lent 32, that his chest has already been wounded, as described in John 19:33-34,

But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

Whatever the physiological explanation for this phenomenon might be, the blood is, of course, the blood shed for us, which is commemorated during the celebration of the Mass, as instituted at the Last Supper, whereas the water can be seen as the water of life, the promise of life everlasting, as mentioned, for example, in the Book of Revelation 21:6,

And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.

However, the painting contradicts the verses from John. They say that his chest was not pierced until after he had died – and yet he appears to be still alive, and suffering, in this painting. But think back to all of the images of the Crucifixion you have seen: they always include the wound to the chest, whether Christ is alive or dead. That is because, on the whole, images of the Crucifixion are not illustrations of a specific point of the narrative, but the result of a long evolution which means that they can encompass the entire story – the entirety of Christ’s suffering.

An essential part of this passion – which means ‘suffering’ – is the crown of thorns, originally thrust onto his head when he was mocked as ‘King’, as described in John 19:2-3,

And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe, And said, Hail, King of the Jews! and they smote him with their hands.

This was mockery which aimed to hurt both mentally and physically, but although the purple robe was removed, the crown remained. We saw it atop the Scala Santa (Lent 15) and on the Via Crucis (Lent 22).  Now, still wearing the crown, and underneath the sign saying ‘Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews,’ it confirms his kingship, and his reign over suffering, and over death. Around his head the clouds gather (Matthew 27:45):

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.


Lent 33

We have done exactly as I said we would – we have looked up, beyond the cross even, to the inscription attached to the top. If I think back over all of the years talking about art, the question I have been asked most often is, in all probability, ‘What does that say?’. Which surprises me. Well, it is the direct result of something mentioned in all four gospels, but which is described most thoroughly in John 19:19-22

And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was Jesus Of Nazareth The King Of The Jews. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews. Pilate answered, What I have written I have written.

So this is ‘a title’, or in Latin, titulus – which is the word for any label, caption, or inscription, especially those naming figures or subjects in art. To clarify, then, this is the titulus crucis. It tells you who is on the cross – Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews, or, in Latin Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, abbreviated here to I.N.R.I. – the dashes above each letter tell you that they are abbreviations.

Now, John says that ‘it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin,’ although most artists only include the Latin abbreviation. However, there were some, with learned connections – i.e. their patrons were either scholars or priests, or had advisors who were – who included all three languages. However, relatively few artists would have had Latin, even, so they must have had the texts written out for them to be copied onto the paintings. One example is in Fra Angelico’s Descent from the Cross painted between 1432 and 1434 for the church of Santa Trinità in Florence. It was initially commissioned from Lorenzo Monaco – ‘Lawrence the Monk’ – who had completed the pinnacles before his death (c. 1425), and so it was fitting that  Fra Angelico – ‘Brother Angelic’ – should take over. Both were Dominican friars, and so had access to some of the most learned scholars in Florence – i.e. their fellow Dominicans. The painting has made its way to the Museo di San Marco, effectively the Fra Angelico museum, housed in the monastery in which he and his workshop decorated all of the cells – including illustrations taken from De Modo Orandi which I mentioned yesterday. I’m afraid the detail isn’t clear, but it’s proved very hard to track it down!

Lorenzo Monaco and Fra Angelico, Descent from the Cross, before 1425 and 1432-34. Museo di San Marco, Florence.

The Jews objected to this wording because, for them, he wasn’t ‘King of the Jews’. They accused him of saying that he was, and this was his ‘crime’, according to them – even though Jesus didn’t claim the title for himself. In Mark 15:2,

Pilate asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answering said unto them, Thou sayest it.

It’s hardly an admission. When, in John 18:33, Pilate asks him the same question, his response, in verse 36, is ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ In a similar way in which Pilate washes his hands of the responsibility for Christ’s death, he ends up refusing to confront the possible implications of the choice of words, resorting to ‘I have written what I have written.’ Whatever the historical Pilate was like, the character of the biblical version is both rich and complex.

You may remember that it was/is believed that St Helena had brought the steps of the Praetorium (Pilate’s palace) back to Rome (Lent 16), and that they are now known as the Scala Santa. Well, another of the relics that came with them was the titulus crucis, which she gave to the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, founded by the Empress herself around 325 CE. Apparently, it’s still there! Although it went missing for a long, long time, its rediscovery in 1492, by a Spanish priest, on the very day that news arrived from Spain about its delivery from the Moor, was in itself seen as miraculous.

It has been analysed by any number of experts in palaeography (the study of writing systems) who have all dated it to some time in the 1st to 3rd or 4th Centuries, with most of them preferring the 1st Century. Although it’s very hard to read, the first line is mostly destroyed, and the Greek and Latin are written backwards (maybe the ‘scribe’ was Jewish and used to writing right to left – would a forger think of that?), many people are convinced it is the real thing. OK, so radio-carbon dating suggests it was made some time between 980 and 1146. As the Cardinal Bishop of the church between 1124 and 1144 had sealed it in a box – the one in which it was found in 1492 – then you could argue that he was responsible for its production. It could, of course, be a copy of the original… For now, I shall leave you to ponder on it, knowing, at least, that it is there.


Lent 32

By now, we know which side we stand, but at the foot of the cross it is not so simple. Proximity is always a good thing, but it doesn’t mean that you are good, just because you are there. Three people take their places, looking up towards Jesus. Their attitudes are completely different, but abundantly clear, the result of the Master of Delft’s wonderful capacity to capture body language and expression. As more than one of you has pointed out, this painting verges on the cartoonish fairly often – but the more exaggerated someone appears, the less we should respect them. If we remember that a civilised member of society would conduct themselves with a measured demeanour, any exaggerated gesture – excessive pointing (which is rude anyway), waving, or grimacing would not be seen as gentlemanly or ladylike. The excesses of extreme grief could be forgiven, perhaps.

This detail embodies to perfection three completely different responses to exactly the same situation. Two are biblical in origin, the third, part of church lore. The last of these is the appearance and response of Mary Magdalene. We have seen her before, in Lent 24, and indeed, we can see the trepidacious supporters at the top left of this detail. The Magdalene adopts the same posture, to the extent that her headdress even enjoys the same breeze. Inevitably there is more detail, notably in the rich gold brocade of her dress, revealed by the belt, which holds up the hem of her red overdress, and by the latter’s full, slashed sleeves. She links her thumbs in much the same way as the donor (Lent 25) – I don’t know if this is a mannerism of the artist, or contemporary religious practice. Maybe I should look up De Modo Orandi – ‘About the Ways of Praying’ – although as this was a 13th century text about St Dominic’s prayer regime it is probably not relevant here.

On the other side are two soldiers – one has fallen down onto his left knee, and looks up in awe with a longing gesture, the other bends backwards, hip thrust out, pointing and sticking his tongue out just like the mocking man from Lent 8 – a standard form of disrespect, it would seem. I think they are illustrations of specific texts. The kneeling man is undoubtedly the ‘centurion’ mentioned by Matthew (27:54), Mark (15:29) and Luke (23:47). This is Mark:

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.

That newly found belief is apparent in every limb of his body, the tilt of his head, and the open, breathing mouth – he is ‘inspired’, or ‘breathed into’. The other soldier, though, is his opposite – all ineffectual menace and mockery. I think this characterisation is derived from Matthew 27:39-40,

And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.

He is holding a halberd – a medieval weapon that looks like a cross between an axe and a spear. Of course, there was a soldier present with a spear, as we know from John 19:34,

But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

From the detail we cannot tell if this has happened yet – but I do not think that this disreputable man is the one to do it. In the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which I mentioned yesterday, the soldier responsible for piercing Christ’s side is named as Longinus – a Latinised form of the Greek word for ‘lance’ – and is said to be the very centurion who utters the words of belief from Mark 15:29 that I quoted above. He was said to have converted to Christianity, and was eventually canonised as a saint. Before the reforms of the Roman Catholic calendar in 1969, his feast day was 15 March. I’m sorry, we failed to celebrate last week, so we will have to wait until 16 October, which is the ‘new’ official date. His journeys took him as far as Mantua (according to the Mantuans), where he left a relic of the Holy Blood, and the head of the lance somehow made its way to St Peter’s, where it has been since the 15th Century. Bernini carved a remarkable sculpture of Longinus for the crossing of the basilica, 4.4 m high, and just as wide, a result of his baroque gesture of astonishment. I do believe that this is him kneeling, although, as yet, he has no lance.

The mocking soldier is truly grotesque when seen up close, his eyes bulging, with the thumb apparently pulling down an eyelid (when done with the forefinger, for the Italians this is a gesture warning you to keep an eye on someone – I don’t know about the Netherlands in the 16th Century, though). It has that same sense of the obscene that we saw back in Lent 8, a finger thrust into the grimacing mouth, and that nasty combination of finger and tongue. The echo of the heavy brow and pointed nose doesn’t help either. Meanwhile Mary Magdalene is all pale and repentant, tearful and humble. Her mouth is at precisely the right level to kiss Christ’s feet, the part of his body with which she had been associated since her first putative appearance in the bible.

She is first mentioned by name in Luke 8:2,

And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils…

Immediately before this, in Luke 7:37-38, Christ is at dinner, and the following happens:

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.

There is nothing to say that this ‘sinner’ was Mary Magdalene, but in 591 Pope Gregory I said that they – together with Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus – were one and the same, and thus they remained until 1969. For 1378 years Mary Magdalene was seen as a penitent sinner, with no biblical authority whatsoever (although there are other circumstantial reasons for eliding the three women, but I will leave that for another day). As Luke’s ‘sinner’ wept, washed ‘his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment,’ Mary Magdalene has been associated with tearfulness, ointment, hair, and Christ’s feet ever since – hence the position of her head in this detail. She has no ointment just now, but hair and tears are flowing. She was, indeed, maudlin – the same word as Magdalene – and yes, that’s why Oxbridge alumni can’t pronounce the name as it is spelt. You will hear speak of Maudlin College in both Oxford and Cambridge. Miserable bunch, as I remember! Still – like her, things are now looking up for us in our current woes, and tomorrow that is precisely what we shall do: look up.


Lent 31

I can’t believe it’s a year since I started this blog – more on that below, but if you want to celebrate this anniversary by reading, or re-reading (if you’ve been with me all that time) the first entry, it was Day 1 – The Rape of Europa. But for now, I want to concentrate on The Good Thief. Did you know he had a name? Both of them do, as it happens – Dismas and Gestas (for the Good and the Bad).  The names come from the Gospel of Nicodemus, an apocryphal text which reached its ‘finished’ form at some point in the fourth century, although some elements may have an even earlier origin. The names recur in the 13th Century in the Golden Legend, although Jacobo da Voragine, the author, gives the Bad Thief’s name as Gesmas.

In the same way that I did yesterday, I’m going to ask, ‘How do I know’ that this is the Good Thief? Well, he is at Christ’s right hand (so, the side of the Blessed), and above the Good (the Virgin, John, and the Holy Women are just below him, although I have left no evidence of that in the detail I have picked out for today). He is also associated with Christ and with the Church: in the background we can see Jesus on the Via Crucis and the New Church in Delft. Although Dismas is contorted – a sign of his guilt, and of his repentance, perhaps – his back arches and his head tilts upwards – and so he faces heaven. He also has good weather… However, we can also see the post-suicidal Judas to the right. Maybe this implies that by taking his own life we know that Judas was repentant, and this, at least, could be considered ‘good’? I don’t know. As Hamlet says ‘the Everlasting… fix’d his cannon ’gainst self-slaughter,’ and surely two wrongs don’t make a right. But Judas must be there for a reason, and it is something along these lines. Maybe, at least, it is that ‘Justice’ is being done.

The text I quoted yesterday, in which Dismas admits that he and Gestas have done wrong, continues like this (Luke 23:42-43):

And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.

There is a problem here, as Jesus could not have seen him in paradise that day. To quote the Apostle’s Creed, he

…was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven… 

It would be quite some time until he got to paradise. Maybe the problem is with the punctuation in the King James Version. Move the comma, and swap two words round, and it reads, ‘Verily I say unto thee Today, thou shalt be with me in paradise’ – which would work. However, I have just checked a parallel text website, and every single version (in English) implies that they would be in paradise that very same day. But then, as God, and the Heavenly Kingdom, are outside time, maybe that is actually possible.

Like the Bad Thief, Dismas has the nails driven through his wrists, with his feet tied rather than nailed. This last detail is quite common. Both features probably derive from the will to make Jesus unique – no one else should be seen as dying in exactly the same way. That was why Peter chose to be crucified upside-down, according to church tradition (…but not the bible): he didn’t think himself worthy to die in the same way as Christ. Dismas, like Gestas, also wears a pouch with the thinnest of ties. Crucifixion was a humiliating form of execution – the very reason why the early Christians did not use it as a symbol for centuries – and for the thieves it is made even more humiliating, as a result of their degrading state of undress.  

And another intriguing detail: the Good Thief has his right wrist nailed so that the palm of his hand is showing – like any other crucifixion – whereas his left hand is twisted round, so that the back of the hand is visible. I only noticed this yesterday. Maybe it is a frequent feature of Netherlandish art, but I have never seen it in any other painting. I will have to start looking. I can’t imagine what the reason for it might be. For now, I will just point out that it puts his hands into the same configuration that Christ’s adopt in so many images of the Last Judgement: raising with the right hand, and condemning with the left. This parallel with Jesus would certainly confirm his status as ‘Good’, but it seems to go a bit far… I must do some research!

The world has had a truly dreadful year, I know – but the last paragraph is an illustration of one thing that has been good about it, for me at least: I’ve learnt so much, given the time to look at paintings, to think about them, and then, to clarify my thoughts by writing. So thank you for giving me a reason to do this! And special thanks to those of you who have been along for the ride since Day 1. For those who haven’t, I started the ‘Picture of the Day’ on my Facebook page, and only migrated to this blog some weeks later. I had no idea where we were going – none of us did – but I wound down ‘Picture of the Day’ after 100 days just as we were coming out of lockdown, and museums were re-opening. Back then none of us knew (we really should have done) that we would go into lockdown again. And again. Once more, the signs are positive (I had my first jab this week!), and I am continuing to learn. So thank you all, for all of your support – first of all with this blog, and then with the latest thing I have ‘learnt’, which is how to work for myself! Which reminds me – it reminds me to remind you that my second series of talks, Michelangelo Matters, starts on Monday with The Development of David at 2pm and 6pm GMT – some details are on the diary page, and the links there will lead you through to Tixoom who deal with all the bookings, where there are longer descriptions of the three talks. I do hope some of you can join me. And after that – well, the third series has already been planned, but more about that another day. In the meantime, it’s still Lent. So – until tomorrow, enjoy the rest of your day!


Lent 30

We have seen the two thieves about to leave Jerusalem in Lent 19, and then leading the procession along the Via Crucis in Lent 21. Now we have caught up with them again – or at least, with one of them. The Gospel of Mark (15:27-28) explains why the thieves are there – or rather, tells us that their existence had been foretold:

And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.

The ‘scripture’ quoted here is from the Book of Isaiah – just one phrase from verse 12 of chapter 53: the King James Version is careful to use exactly the same words both times. Luke (23:39-41) tells us more, and includes the following exchange:

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.

Because the first is entirely unrepentant, and only out for what he can get, whereas the second is aware that he has done wrong, unlike Jesus, they become known as the Bad Thief and the Good Thief. It has nothing to do with their success in their chosen profession.

Today we have the Bad Thief. How do I know that? Well, he is above Pilate, the Chief Priests and their guards – the ‘Bad’ people, at Christ’s left hand. In addition, he has turned his back on us – and, by extension, on Jesus. Even so, we can see that his head has fallen – and so he looks down, towards hell, his inevitable destination. Not only that, but in the background, on either side of his feet, we see Judas and the rabble charged with arresting Christ – a bad act – and then, in the distance, Christ’s Agony in the Garden, which he should never have had to undergo. And there is more: we know that he is the Bad Thief, because he has Bad Weather. Somehow this seems banal, but it is undeniable. These are the dark and lowering clouds we saw way back in Lent 3, and they show the Master of Delft at his most resourceful. The clouds cast a doom-laden spell on the Garden of Gethsemane, while also echoing the ‘badness’ of this thief. Later, we will see that they also echo the words of Mark 15:33 (among others):

And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.

The darkness is at hand.

The structure of the cross is basic. Two slim tree trunks have been cut to the right length, with a section cut out of the vertical to allow the insertion of the horizontal, and two nails holding it in place. Two more nails, which protrude from our side of the wood, are used to hang the thief. Remarkably, I think – and I only noticed this when I started putting these details together – the nails have been driven through his wrists, not through the palms of his hands. As I’m sure you may know, a nail driven through the palm of the hand will not support the weight of the body, however unpleasant it might be to think about. Crucifixion can only work if the nails are driven between the radius, the ulna and the carpals – right through the ‘middle’ of the wrist bones. I was unaware that they knew this in the sixteenth century.

Having said that, the need for support was paramount, as there are no nails through the feet – they are simply tied in place. I have mentioned the clothes before – underpants at his first appearance, with a shirt and waistcoat added for the second. But now, at his death, the slimmest of threads suggest that his ‘modesty’ might just be intact. But otherwise, this is extremely humiliating. And yet, he is unrepentant.


Lent 29

I try to be optimistic, and I think today’s detail is. To the left, we can just see St John, supporting the Virgin’s arm, a detail we saw in full yesterday. On the right we see the uncouth man in his red top and hot pants, bells on the hem of his blue cape, about to strike one of the horses, who we saw in Lent 26. So, with The Good on our left and The Bad on our right, we must be in the middle, at the foot of the cross – maybe just to the left of centre, as the figure kneeling here is looking up to our right.

There are bones on the floor. Is that because this is a place of execution? Or is it, simply, because the bible mentions bones? Matthew, Mark and John give the place where this happened the same name, although Luke does not. This is what John 19:17 says – I quoted the first half of the verse some time back:

And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha.

So there are bones because this is ‘the place of a skull.’ Luke uses the term ‘Calvary’ – or at least, in the King James Version he does. But then, that is derived from the Latin for skull – or, at least, for Cranium. So all four mention a skull – although oddly there isn’t one here. I can see a bit of a femur, maybe, and a stone that I want to look like an animal’s skull – but I don’t think it is. Legend has it that the skull after which Golgotha was named belonged to Adam, and that, as part of the Divine Plan, Jesus was Crucified in exactly the same spot as the place where Adam had been buried many centuries before. But that’s another story.

The kneeling figure must be another of the ‘many women… which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him’ (Matthew 27:55), some of whom were present in Lent 27. She is definitely a woman ‘of substance’ – just look at her clothes. She wears a full-length, sleeveless, green overdress, lined with fur, over a full-sleeved, cloth-of-gold gown. The belt looks like solid gold, although it must be woven in some way, with gold medallions from which are hanging yet more gold ornaments. She has a large black hood with a gold tassel and its own relatively small cape, and a white headdress. We can hardly see any of her face, as she kneels intently looking up to the cross, her hands clasped in prayer very close to her chin. I would like to think that this is one of the ‘certain women… which ministered unto [Jesus] of their substance’ mentioned by Luke (8:2-3). If we saw Joanna in Lent 27, then this could be Susanna – or the other way around.

We also saw two boys in Lent 27, at the top of the detail. One was in pink and yellow, and one held a bow. The same description could be applied to today’s detail, although the clothing is not the same (but we’ve seen that happen before) and a different child holds the bow (it’s good to share…). They could be the same boys – another puzzle, and, as before, it doesn’t matter if we can’t resolve it. But when we saw the two lads watching the Via Crucis I did wonder if they were innocent onlookers, or if we were seeing more innocence lost. I hope this detail answers that question. As with so many of the other children in the painting they look more like small, scrawny adults, but that’s just the artist’s style. They wear what I imagine would be very expensive outfits for any child, and also have an unmeasurable sense of the exotic, with long, slashed sleeves, loosely gathered waists, delicate colours, and one has an oddly-cut hood. They walk across the foreground of the painting, trailing the bow, as if they didn’t have a care in the world. And yet both gesture to our left: that is the direction they both want to go. Maybe this implies that this is where, in the painting – and therefore ‘the world’ – they want to end up. They are walking away from The Bad – Pilate, the chief priests, et al – and towards The Good – the family and friends of Jesus. They are moving from Christ’s left hand to his right, from the side of the damned to the side of the blessed. I really do hope that this is a conscious choice, and that it really indicates where they want to ‘stand’ in terms of good and evil. As I say, I do try to be optimistic.


Lent 28

O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus.

The words from the Book of Lamentations (1:12) seem particularly apt today. This is a standard translation, adapted from the King James Version:

All ye that pass by, behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.

The book itself laments the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, but this particular text was often sung in Holy Week. Here is a link to a recording of the Tudor Consort from 2003 – our century – singing the setting from 1585 – the same century as our painting – by Tomás Luis de Victoria.

It is still over ten days until Holy Week, but seeing the Virgin’s face, this text, and its use in the liturgy, instantly sprang to mind. Mary is in a state of complete collapse. Her legs have folded beneath her and her arms hang limp, even with John supporting her left elbow. Her blue robe and blue cloak look especially sombre, and, although her state of mind is clear, her disorder is oh-so-subtly hinted at by her cuffs – one folded back neatly, revealing a grey lining, the other at full length half covering her hand. On the left we see the gesture of the turbaned Mary, who you might remember from yesterday, indicating the Virgin’s sorrowful face, as she looks down compassionately towards her. We see the donor’s praying hands: he is beside her, the material of their cloaks overlapping on the floor. He is contemplating her sorrows as much as the suffering of Jesus.

Mary’s presence at the Crucifixion is attested by all four gospels, but the most important source for us is John 19:26-27. As elsewhere in the book, John appears to be describing himself as ‘the disciple… whom he loved:

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.

Apart from any normal human decency, these verses explain the care that St John shows to the Virgin: Jesus has told them, from the cross, to look after one another, to adopt one another, even. Often they are shown standing symmetrically on either side of the cross, Mary to our left, John to our right (giving Mary the higher status), but here, where The Good and The Bad are divided between Christ’s right and left, we see them together – with The Good.

The pallor of Mary’s face is extreme, as is the sense that every feature collapses every bit as much as her body – the eyebrows, mouth and even chin. The eyelids collapse, half covering her eyes, which are full of tears. The white veil covers her head, and wraps around in front of her chest, but her hair is left free. Her status as perpetual virgin meant that her hair was not subject to the same strictures as that of other women. It is not always covered as that of a woman of marriageable age should be: she was beyond reproach, and beyond suspicion. And if the image as a whole reminds me of Lamentations, this hair, tumbling loose, and free, reminds me of one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant conceits, from one of his lesser known plays: King John, which was probably written a decade after the Victoria setting I linked to above. One of the characters, Constance, is the mother of young Arthur, who has been taken captive by King John – who is certain to kill him. Constance enters in Act 3, Scene 4 with her hair in disarray – she has let it down, loosed it from its ‘imprisonment’, in the same way that she wants Arthur freed from his. She later puts them – her hairs – up again, saying,

But now I envy at their liberty,
And will again commit them to their bonds,
Because my poor child is a prisoner.

This does not last long – despair overcomes her, as she utters one of the most penetrating descriptions of loss.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well. Had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.

At this point she lets her hair down again:

I will not keep this form upon my head
When there is such disorder in my wit.

I think this perfectly expresses the image of the Virgin Mary which we see today.

All ye that pass by, behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.


Lent 27

At least one of the characters here looks up to our right – so they must be located to the left of the cross, under Jesus’s right hand: they are the good people, among the blessed, and the donor is somewhere in their company. We have seen at least three of them before. The man looking up is St John the Evangelist, with his long, uncovered hair, and no beard (he was the youngest of the apostles), and on the left are the two Maries, Mary Salome and Mary Zebedee. We saw them before in Lent 24, way off in the distance, watching the procession of the Via Crucis from the other side. The woman in the turban, to the left of centre, was kneeling and reaching out towards the Virgin, and she still seems to be caring – she looks down towards a veiled head with concern: it would be a good guess that this veil belongs to the mother of Jesus. A woman in purple on the far left turns away – it is all too much. She also has a white veil, and there is just a hint of a black collar – this is the other Mary, who was wringing her hands just next to the Virgin and St John when they were still afar off. But the woman raising her hands and looking towards us is new.

We can see Jesus passing in the background – his bare feet, and the skirts of the blue-grey robe. The Maries and John were on the far side before. I wanted to leave this part of the detail visible today to include the two children, who I didn’t have time to mention before when their heads appeared in Lent 22. More innocent onlookers? More innocence lost? I bring them up now, as these questions may soon be answered. The one on the left wears pink, with a yellow collar. The one on the right has a pink skull cap, grey clothes and a caramel-coloured collar, and holds a bow in his left hand. We’ll come back to them another day. To the right of them we see the rump of a white horse – I commented on its saddle in Lent 21.

Who is this new person? Her expression of grief is profound, with unfocussed eyes, red, and glinting with tears. The open mouth allows us to see her upper teeth and her tongue – is this a low keening, or an involuntary sob? Her hands are raised, but she seems helpless – that sense when you really don’t know what to do, and your hands themselves feel useless: like her eyes, perhaps, they are unfocussed. The grief of St John as he looks up is much the same. Their grief is for Christ, I think, whereas that of the turbaned Mary is for the Virgin. As for the identification of this apparently recent arrival, I’m sorry, but I can’t be precise. No one else is mentioned by name at the Crucifixion, aside from Luke’s comment (23:49) that,

…all his acquaintance, and the women that followed him from Galilee, stood afar off, beholding these things.

There are equivalents in the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew (27:55) even saying that,

 …many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him.

So, she is one of the ‘many women… which followed Jesus’. We can at least glean the names of two of them from Luke 8:2-3,

And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.

Maybe this is Joanna, or Susanna, as I happen to know that the Magdalene is elsewhere. The fine clothes of all three women in this detail imply that they did indeed have ‘substance’ from which they could minister unto him.

What the Master of Delft is doing here is very clever, I think, and makes me wonder if he was aware of Alberti’s seminal De Pictura, written in the mid-1430s in Latin, then translated straight away into Italian as Della Pittura – ‘On Painting’. There are two ideas Alberti shares which are adopted in this detail – although that could, of course, be coincidence. The first is the fact that Joanna, or Susanna, looks out at us, as if she is seeking our sympathy, and inviting us to share in her grief. This is what Alberti says:

‘In a painting I like to see someone who admonishes and points out to us what is happening there; or beckons with his hand to see… or invites us to weep or to laugh together with them’