Archive for the ‘Art Commentary’ Category


The God of Beauty 2 – Paul Johnson

March 4, 2014
There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it -- there is a connection with the divine. That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh -- no English artist ever did it better -- he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.

There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it — there is a connection with the divine. That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh — no English artist ever did it better — he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.


It was Wordsworth who pointed out that a poor man is just as capable of enjoying beauty, and putting it high in his scale of values, as a rich man. The poor of West Africa, who have little but their native pride, may well be happy to observe that their small country is capable of creating a cathedral on the scale of Europe’s largest, and that the black African can pay his or her tribute to Almighty God just as munificently as the white Westerner.

The 8,000 medieval parish churches which we still possess in England — the greatest single item in our national dowry of art – were built and paid for by a society most of whose members had few material possessions. They now constitute a monument to their generosity and magnanimity, which we will continue to use and enjoy so long as we have the sense to preserve them. They give us as much satisfaction as they give to God, for whose glory they were erected. And do not the souls of those medieval men and women, now in Heaven, rejoice that their churches, created with so much sacrifice, still sound forth God’s praises?

Early in the century, both the Protestant and the Catholic communities of Liverpool, a city then famous for its religious fervor, decided to build new cathedrals. Paradoxically, the Protestants chose a gifted young Catholic architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and he produced for them the design of a masterpiece in Edwardian Gothic. With prodigies of effort, the work was financed and built, and finally completed in the 1980s, long after sponsors and architect were in their graves — as usually happens in the case of cathedrals.

But this marvelous building, the finest erected in Europe this century, survives to do them honor, and to honor too the resolution and faith of the Anglican Church in Liverpool. The Catholics of the Edwardian age also chose a fine architect: the great Sir Edwin Lutyens, an Anglican by conviction but a Catholic by artistic sentiment. He designed a glorious church, on the scale of St Peter’s, in the most sumptuous Baroque, to be built of marble. This was an even greater labor and expense than the Anglican cathedral, but the immense crypt was in due course completed. Then came the war, which halted construction.

Some time after the war, Archbishop Heenan — later cardinal — estimating that the cost of completing the project was more than the Catholics of Liverpool could bear, decided not to complete it. Instead he commissioned and built a much cheaper thing, by a meretricious Modern Movement architect, with a peculiar tent-like roof, which has led the jeering Protestants of the city to christen it ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’.

The Catholics, who were barely consulted by Heenan in making his decision, now hang their heads in shame that they must worship in such a hovel, already showing signs of decay. They are indeed poor, but they would have found the money for Lutyens’ magnificent basilica. I reproached Heenan at the time, as being a man of little faith.

I told him about the church which our parish priest had insisted on building, against much advice, when I was a child, and how the money had been found to complete it. He expressed contrition, and maybe it is still not too late to resurrect Lutyens’ ambitious scheme, for the glory of God in the dawning twenty-first century. We shall see.

In the meantime, there can be little doubt that among the most privileged of human beings are those who have the honor to erect a great church to God. They must be considered the most fortunate of artists, and dearest to their maker. Most, as I say, do not live to see their work finished, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi being among their number. But there are exceptions. Sir Christopher Wren designed the new St Paul’s, supervised its main construction, and lived to see it completed.

This immense work brought him little material reward, caused him endless heartache and anxiety, brought him opprobrium and eventually dismissal, and received surprisingly little recognition in his lifetime. But at least he saw it finished, and thereafter he came once a year, to sit under its dome, to pray, to meditate and to rejoice. Those must have been cherished moments – both to him and to God.

However, no good purpose is served by designating a hierarchy of God’s favor for creative geniuses. All artists endear themselves to him by depicting his creations to the best of their ability. Painters are often genuinely pious men and women, despite their wild notions about the Deity. It is common among them to kneel down and pray in dedication before beginning a canvas, and kneel down in gratitude when they have completed it. Sometimes they have misgivings about their failure to use their talents exclusively to praise and explain God’s works – thus Botticelli, one of the purest and most gifted of them all, came bitterly to regret his secular works, with their voluptuousness and riot. He is even said to have destroyed some.

But that was foolish – as foolish as the iconoclasts who, in most faiths, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, have gone around destroying works of art in churches, as vain, idolatrous and blasphemous. It is not for any one or any group of us to decide that people have been wrong to worship God in their chosen fashion.

Far more likely it is that God takes particular pleasure in seeing our attempts to use our skills to replicate the beauty he has created. God is the greatest of all connoisseurs. All my life I have been a landscape painter, after a fashion, as my father was before me. I now regret not having painted more, but I chose to earn my living by writing and the demands of that trade are exigent and for many years I painted little. During the last decade I have tried to make up for lost opportunities by painting what I see wherever I go in the world, even if I only have a few snatched minutes for a quick sketch. The results have been rewarding far in excess of my expectations.

Not only have I accumulated a large stock of sketches and finished paintings, from all continents, but the quality of the rendering has improved. I feel, increasingly, that I am painting for God, as much as for myself and my friends. God gave me this certain, limited talent, and I am serving him by seeking to improve it while making a record of what he has created in the world. To me at any rate, painting is prayerful. It is also one of the most innocent of enjoyments. And it instructs. There is no doubt that painting forces us to look very closely at what God has done and so to grasp the design of nature, just as painting a building gives us a marvelous insight into the intentions of the architect.

Hills and mountains, rivers and waterfalls and lakes do not just come into existence haphazardly. They are formed over long periods by powerful natural forces, and studying them closely while painting enables one to understand these processes and so paint better. No one who spends long hours and days painting landscapes can be without considerable knowledge of the way God has made the world, and of the relationships between beauty and purpose in natural forms.

For a long time I was singularly inept in drawing, and still more painting, trees, so that I almost despaired of them. But they are among the finest of God’s creations – noble things, so full of majesty and honor, and so varied. So I persevered and made a special, painstaking study of their structure, and at long last I began to understand how God designed them, and how it was their functional efficiency which made them works of natural art. So I improved and now take enormous pleasure in painting trees, albeit with occasional failures still.

What I have undoubtedly neglected is the human form. I like to put figures in my landscapes, as my father taught me, just to indicate scale, and I am often ashamed at how poor they are. So I often tell myself that I must go back to life-class and really master the human form by drawing it patiently and industriously. So far this has not happened, and the months and years go by, and I realize yet again the importance of resolution and persistence and will-power in all schemes of human improvement. I say to myself now: ‘I will find time to carry out this resolve, as soon as I have finished this book.’ For who can deny that the human form is in many ways the finest of God’s works of art?

The scriptures tell us that God created man in his own image. We do not know exactly what this means, and it certainly cannot mean that God looks like a man in an ordinary visual sense. We are left with a mystery, but perhaps we can begin to solve it by studying and painting the human form with the diligence its radiant beauties merit. There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it — there is a connection with the divine.

That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh — no English artist ever did it better — he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.

Studying the works of God and trying to reproduce them visually brings us close to our creator. It is one way to know him. But it may be that the musician gets even closer. The universe is an exercise in harmony as much as in shape and colour and texture, and none can doubt that there are celestial sounds as well as visions. Then again, all creation is a series of abstractions as muchas a series of material realities, and these abstractions can be expressed musically as well as mathematically and algebraically.

Composing, reproducing and hearing sounds of exquisite beauty and profundity can give us extraordinary insights not just into beauty, but into goodness itself. After hearing a great symphony, telling us, but entirely in abstract terms, of truth and justice and heroism, we arise better men and women. The musicians in the orchestra feel it, the conductor feels it, the listeners feel it. The mood may not last, but it is much to have felt it at all. It is akin to the lifting of the heart and spirit we experience at a religious ceremony when we have concentrated our thoughts well and meditated deeply. So music works on our minds, and God listens too.

It must be a fine thing to have composed the music which has so held players and audience and so raised their minds to God. That is why, I think, Jean Sibelius told me, in the summer of 1949, ‘to compose is often an agony but it is the quintessence of privilege too’. Many composers have been deeply religious people, humbly rejoicing in this privilege — none more so than Joseph Haydn, whose long, industrious and painstaking life, so modestly conducted amid so many difficulties and setbacks, is a model of artistic integrity in God’s service.

Or there is the case of Anton Bruckner, childlike and wholly innocent in his devotion to God, who spent so many hours seated at the organ, alone with his music and his maker, and then poured forth his prayers in vast symphonies, few of which he ever heard performed. His ninth, last and greatest he dedicated, quite simply: ‘To Almighty God’.

In contrast to architects, painters and composers, writers have a mixed record in God’s service. They are so numerous and varied that it is risky to generalize in any way, but it is remarkable how many writers, in all civilisations, have tended to take a critical view of established order and sought to subvert it. It is probably the single most striking characteristic of the mind which wishes to express itself through the written word.

Now, of course, in subverting order they may be carrying out God’s purpose, and there are plenty of instances in the Old Testament where that is exactly what its more passionate writers are doing. But I have spent my entire working life among writers and I know very well that the cast of mind which they habitually possess, and which harbors huge resentments of the world as it exists, is not necessarily motivated by selfless altruism. To praise God is not usually the writer’s intention in picking up a pen or sitting down in front of a word-processor. More likely it is to express a grievance or work off a resentment or articulate a personal longing or simply to rage — in addition to making money, of course. Writers are sinful and fallen and unsatisfactory man writ large.

It will be, for me at least, one of the great points of interest of the next world to see how God, in his justice, sorts out all the giants and pygmies of the pen. How will Voltaire fare? Some Christian polemicists write as if he were already in Hell, but I am not so sure. A man’s writings have to be judged in their effects, if any, over many generations, and these may be contradictory and, in aggregate, difficult to assess. We may be sure God will do them justice, however, and this may often in the end surprise us.

Where will he place Tolstoy, that astonishing combination of humility and arrogance, wisdom and madness, piety and destruction? He will have difficulty with Milton, too, who sought — so he said — to justify the ways of God to men and ended by writing a masterpiece whose hero was Satan. I do not know how Shelley will fare, he who professed atheism and practised a kind of exalted pantheism, who preached socialism and was a monster of personal selfishness. The fact is, nevertheless, that men and women have been uplifted and inspired by Shelley’s poetry and become better people in consequence.

How will God reward or punish, sanctify or damn the immense mass of gifted men and women who have given contradictory messages to the modern world? All will come up for judgment – the Baudelaires and the Hugos, the Hemingways and the Joyces, a mad genius like Ezra Pound and a calculating operator like Zola, the reckless like Rimbaud and the thoughtful like Emerson, the sinners like Byron and the saints like Chesterton.

I cannot imagine how God will arrange Sartre and Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein and Rilke, Yeats and Lorca in any order of sanctification or devilry which makes sense. But it will undoubtedly be carried out: therein lie the fascinating things to come. What evil have their writings done — then and since? What good — in their lifetimes and thereafter? The heavenly computers will whirr and deliver and the notices of judgment will be posted, and the writers, disheveled, apprehensive, ashamed or defiant, struggling or abject, will be brought out to be given their laurels or punished, in front of all the watching world.

But there are also those writers who have not sought to tell the world what to do, to create Utopias out of their own unaided intellects and incited people into trying to bring them about, but instead have simply set themselves to portray God’s universe and his people in loving words. They will have a smooth passage through the storms of that tremendous judgment day. There are writers who, by their modest genius, or even merely by their carefully husbanded and honed talents, have sought chiefly to enable their readers to see God’s creation with fresh eyes — have taught us to look, again and again, at the world around us and the way humans behave.

To teach us about the universe, to encourage us to explore and value and treat tenderly all its manifestations and inhabitants, is a salient work of art in itself and an act of worship. Such writers are dear to God, and they are valuable to us too: for the understanding and reverence we bring to the world around us is a salient part of our duty, as we are beginning to discover.


The God of Beauty 1 – Paul Johnson

March 3, 2014
The Catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter's itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.

The Catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter’s itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.

Jesuit educated (at the Jesuit independent school Stonyhurst College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford ) Paul Bede Johnson is an English journalist, historian, speechwriter and author. He was educated. Johnson first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. I’ve enjoyed several of his more than 40 books (Intellectuals, Modern Times, The Birth of the Modern). This is a chapter from a little gem of a book, The Quest for God.


When I was a child, I always associated the notion of God with beauty. There were several reasons for this. The first was that, in our house, the only things which seemed to matter, which were treated as important, were religion, education and art. My father was headmaster of an art school, and a practicing painter. He produced watercolors mainly, but also etchings, drypoints, lithographs and other kinds of prints, and at his schools the pupils were instructed in sculpture and pottery as well. In our house was an art room (it was always called that, not a studio, regarded as an un-English expression), where my father worked.

Art and education were intermingled and both were sacrosanct. My father’s very limited resources were primarily devoted to the education of his children, and great significance was attached to our schooling, and our performance at school. But even more important was religion: that is, attending church, prayers, holy pictures and statues, fasting and abstinence, keeping the commandments and pious practices. I became aware of this order of priorities at a very early age.

The second reason I associated God with beauty was our local church. Shortly before I was born, our parish priest, an ambitious and energetic man, decided to build a new church and bought a virgin site, not far from our house. He consulted my father at every stage of this undertaking, from the original design, throughout the construction, and during the completion and decoration of the building. The church was conceived on the largest possible scale. No architect was employed, but our priest, sometimes accompanied by my father, travelled in Europe to look for models, and eventually hit on a compromise between two which had taken his fancy.

So the church had a large Gothic tower joined to a series of Romanesque domes, and three-and-one-half in number, the half-dome covering the high altar, and the other three the nave. The edifice was built of stone and in order to carry its immense weight, in a part of Staffordshire riddled with old mine-workings and liable to subsidence, a thick raft of concrete was placed under the foundations.

Most local Catholics did not believe in the ability of the parish to carry through and finance this immense undertaking — and non-Catholics were scandalized by our audacity and pride. Even my father was worried by the responsibility of it all, and by many other aspects of the design and construction. But our priest was a man possessed by a vision and he was determined to carry it through, no matter what.

And he did carry it through, at remarkable speed. The main construction period coincided with the Great Depression, when there were thousands out of work in the neighborhood and the evidence of dire poverty was everywhere. This made it more difficult to borrow money or to raise funds to finance what was known as ‘the Debt’. On the other hand, it may be that it was easier and cheaper to get labor at this time, and to spur it to exceptional efforts, and this explains why the church was so soon completed.

At all events, by the time I came to consciousness the church was nearly finished, and the internal decoration was proceeding. My father was much involved in this, and so was I as a small, wondering and rapt spectator. It was as though, in a modest way, I was a witness to the topping-out and the embellishment of the great basilica of St Peter’s in Rome. As the church was so near, I was in and out of it many times a week. It was not so much that I was fond of it as completely dominated and overawed by it. It was, physically and in every other way, a huge presence in my life.

My father often drew and painted it and so, in due course, did I. It did not occur to me, in my childhood, that God and art had separate existences, since both were so intimately united in the church itself. Only later did I perceive there was such a thing as secular art, and even then it seemed to be more a tributary of religious art rather than an autonomous entity.

God presided over everything, it appeared, but he had a particularly close connection with any artistic endeavor — architecture, of course, painting, sculpture, but also brass- and ironwork for the church fittings, stained glass for the windows, needlework for the vestments and altarcloths, and various kinds of precious metalwork for the holy vessels. God was also somehow involved in the casting of the massive bronze bells, and the elaborate process whereby they were hoisted to the top of the great tower, so that they could ring out over the surrounding countryside, proclaiming triumphantly that the magnificent church had, indeed, been finished.

The association between God on the one hand, and art and beauty on the other, was thus impressed upon me from the earliest age, so that I took it quite for granted. Hence, when I studied theology at school, what attracted me most among St Thomas Aquinas’s various proofs of God was the fourth one, from beauty.

St Thomas argued, as I recall, that we were aware, through our senses, not just of beauty but of degrees of beauty. It follows from this that there is an absolute beauty, and that thing or being is God himself. We love God, in this life, as the very epitome of goodness, which we perceive from his works and from the love for us which radiates from him. But we cannot — yet — see God and we thus have no conception of the absolute beauty which is him. That, I imagine, will be among the chief delights of Paradise, the contemplation of an effulgent and myriad-natured beauty, which is perpetually changing and modulating, yet permanent in its serenity and power.

I suppose we shall all — if we get there! – be beautiful then, and one of the characteristics of salvation will be the acquisition of power to enjoy beauty in ways we cannot now even imagine. Heaven will be a celestial academy and gallery of living art, whose beauties will penetrate and envelop our very souls. We will walk among and converse with those Raphael madonnas and Botticelli angels and Michelangelo and Donatello Davids. But it is the beauty of God himself which will most entrance us.

God, it is clear, gives us a foretaste of his beauty in the universe he has created. Its beauty, like its energizing forces, radiates from him. Indeed, the fact that God rejoices in beauty is one reason why he created the universe in the first place. The universe, like God himself, is living beauty, constantly changing its form with fresh delights. It creates beauty by its motions. The starry heavens were the first intimations of beauty which penetrated the minds of primitive men and women, who had no possessions and hadnot yet taught themselves to make things, but already possessed the power of ecstasy.

During those long nights of distant antiquity, they lay on the ground and contemplated with wonder and satisfaction the movements of the stars. It was almost certainly then that they grasped what beauty is about — an intimation of God. The stars taught them that God was there, and that he was even greater than the stars because he had made and arranged them and set them in motion. So beauty did indeed lead men to God, as St Thomas later argued.

The universe, from its inception — from that first Big Bang — has had an awesome beauty but, as it expands and develops, its beauties multiply and intensify. We can see this ourselves, as the number and variety of flowers increases, and we and nature together produce finer specimens. Human beings, always beautiful, become more so as new and healthier generations succeed each other. The girls are prettier than ever before, and there are more of them to catch the eye. The young men are taller, stronger, more handsome.

The universe is so full of beauty that it is difficult for one limited human being to take it all in. We travel more than ever, and have far easier access to the splendors of the world than any of our forebears, but it is beyond our power, even in a lifetime, to absorb more than a fraction of what God has provided for our delectation. God is, if anything, too generous, as Martin Luther is recorded as observing in his Table Talk: ‘Dr Luther, holding a rose in his hand, said: “Tis a magnificent work of God: could a man make but one such rose as this, he would be thought worthy of all honor, but the gifts of God lose their value in our eyes from their very infinity.”

God provides us, then, with countless models of beauty, and it seems to me manifestly part of his purpose for us that we should learn to reciprocate, by producing beauty ourselves. It is one important way in which we return God’s love for us. We cannot give him power or possessions, for he has everything of that kind already, but we can give him beauty of our invention, and he rejoices in it, however inferior it may be to his own inventions, just as fond parents enjoy the drawings of their tiny children.

Artists of all kinds are dear to God. He endows them with their skills and, in rare cases, their genius, and delights in the way they make use of them. Woe betide an idle artist, neglecting God’s gifts! — a point Milton makes in one of his greatest sonnets when he writes of ‘talent which is death to hide’.

Some visitors to Rome, seeing the marvelous works of art created there under papal patronage, especially from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, deplore the expenditure of so much time and money and energy on mere artifice. They see the glories of papal Rome as materialism triumphant, sanctified secularity, paganism enthroned. That is an arguable point of view and throughout the millenniums of belief austere souls have sought to praise God without any aids of beauty.

But to my mind, and I think to most people’s, to create beauty is one way in which we respond to God and praise him. To erect buildings and to adorn them with art specifically so that God may be worshipped in them is a worthy occupation for a pope and his cardinals. And it is no bad thing, incidentally, for an ecclesiastical ruler to have the physical means to overawe his secular rivals. Not long ago I was in Rome with Margaret Thatcher on a private visit, and Pope John Paul II kindly arranged for her and one or two of her friends to be shown the Sistine Chapel, reopened after the most extensive restoration in its history.

It was a rare privilege to see Michelangelo’s frescos without the perpetually milling crowd which fills the chapel throughout its official opening hours. It was a still rarer experience to see Margaret Thatcher, this Queen of Politics, this outstanding exponent of the art of ruling, quite overcome — rendered speechless, in fact — by the splendor of beauty brought into being by a genius under ecclesiastical patronage. She saw that the church can command, as well as the state!

No pope or archbishop should be deterred from erecting monuments to Almighty God by mere difficulty or expense. We have to think of future generations, as well as our own. And we have to think what God himself wishes. The catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter’s itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.


Old Subject, New Approach — Richard Cork

May 13, 2013
By breaking away from the domestic context favored in so many other treatments of the Annunciation, Jan van Eyck created an image packed with coded messages about the triumph of the new faith over the old scriptures.

By breaking away from the domestic context favored in so many other treatments of the Annunciation, Jan van Eyck created an image packed with coded messages about the triumph of the new faith over the old scriptures.

Mr. Cork’s latest book is “The Healing Presence of Art: A History of Western Art in Hospitals” (Yale, 2012). This article was printed in the WSJ a while back.


Nothing in the Bible story is more astounding than the pivotal instant when, quite suddenly, the Virgin Mary receives an unexpected visitor. Brandishing a resplendent pair of wings, the Angel Gabriel descends from heaven and gives the young woman some shocking news: She will conceive and give birth to Jesus, the Son of God.

Most Renaissance painters who tackled this popular subject ensured that a sizable gap divorces Mary from Gabriel. But when Jan van Eyck took up the challenge, he broke through to a radical alternative. Based in Bruges as court painter to Philip the Good, the powerful Duke of Burgundy, van Eyck was renowned as a pioneer of naturalism in the new medium of oil paint.

And in a tall, narrow painting made about 1435, executed with mesmerizing precision and a wealth of meanings, he removes the setting from the Virgin’s home. Instead, “The Annunciation” now occurs in a richly detailed church. By breaking away from the domestic context favored in so many other treatments of the subject, van Eyck creates an image packed with coded messages about the triumph of the new faith over the old scriptures.

At first, our eyes are caught up in the intensity of the encounter between Angel and Virgin. In this thin panel, we grow conscious of how very close these figures are to one another. Although the ecclesiastical setting could hardly be more formal, their encounter feels like a private moment, no doubt reflecting van Eyck’s own awareness that Mary is now being impregnated with the seed of the Christ child. Rays of golden light shoot down from an upper window, bearing the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. One ray descends directly onto the crown of the Virgin’s head, piercing her so that Jesus can be conceived.

No wonder she seems so apprehensive and confused. Van Eyck makes no attempt to invest her with poised, spurious glamour. She is a real woman, with a long nose, protruding ear and the beginnings of a double chin. Her head is tilted, probably to acknowledge and receive the golden ray. This diagonal inclination makes her look unsteady, and both her hands are raised as if in shock. But there is also something worshipful about these blanched, wavering fingers. Directly below them, lilies soar up from a vase to symbolize the Virgin’s purity. Painted with consummate skill, the flowers affirm the principle of vitality and fresh growth.

As for the Angel, van Eyck has transformed this divine messenger into a magnificent apparition. Gabriel’s extraordinary rainbow wings echo the dove flying down through the church. Yet they are far larger than the bird’s wings, and shimmer with an iridescent glow. The Angel’s elaborately woven cope looks like a priest’s vestment of the 1430s. So it must have given Gabriel a contemporary appeal to viewers at that time, and the fabric is dominated by an enormous dianthus flower, said to be the flower of God. The petals spring to life through van Eyck’s virtuoso handling of light.

The same luminosity illuminates the Virgin’s face, strikes the crystal scepter clutched by the Angel, and dances all over the bejeweled accoutrements he is wearing with such pride. The colors appear to glow from within, and this sense of ecstasy is embodied above all in Gabriel himself.

His smiling, tender face glistens as much as his fair, curly hair. He looks transported with excitement, and lifts his pale, slender index finger in a gesture of friendly beckoning. With amazing boldness, he pushes his left leg toward Mary’s body. It seems at first like an invasive movement, making us wonder if the Virgin might feel threatened by Gabriel’s proximity.

But there is nothing remotely alarming about this radiant messenger, and the words that issue, in Latin, from his parted lips confirm his innate gentleness: “Hail, full of grace.” Although Mary seems hesitant, she responds by declaring: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.” Yet her words are not addressed simply to the Angel. Van Eyck paints them upside-down and back to front, so that God may read them more easily from his heavenly vantage.

As well as evoking a God of Love rather than a stern God of Judgment, this inexhaustible painting is packed with references to the old Scriptures and the victory of the new faith, Christianity. Why did van Eyck set his “Annunciation” in a church? As our eyes travel over this superbly convincing location, we realize that he is telling us a great deal about the larger meaning of the dramatic event occurring here.

At the top, God stands isolated in a stained-glass window and personifies the ancient Jewish belief that He was alone. But gradually, as we move down the church, the old insistence on a solitary deity is replaced by the Christian Trinity. Symbolically ranged behind Mary’s face are three windows, announcing the triple identity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.

Hence van Eyck’s readiness to make Gabriel such a glittering figure. He is heralding the advent of the new religion, and the wall-paintings above him depict Old Testament scenes regarded by medieval theologians as events that prefigure Jesus’ life and fate. After the baby Moses is handed to Pharaoh’s daughter, the adult Moses receives the Ten Commandments. And on the church floor, violence erupts. The victorious David hacks off Goliath’s head, while Absalom — tucked away behind a prayer-stool — hangs by his hair from a tree as a grim prophecy of Christ’s crucifixion.

Nearly five centuries after it was painted, “The Annunciation” became the focus of a battle between the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and an obsessive American multimillionaire. In June 1930, Hermitage officials were appalled by Stalin’s decision to sell key paintings in its collection to wealthy foreign collectors. But Andrew Mellon, the U.S. secretary of the Treasury, bought “The Annunciation” with 20 other Hermitage paintings before locking them away in a basement near his Washington home. And in 1935, after the U.S. government brought tax-evasion charges against him, Mellon suddenly announced that he would found a great gallery in the capital.

Six years later, the National Gallery of Art was duly inaugurated by President Franklin Roosevelt. And one of its star paintings is undoubtedly “The Annunciation.” Its impact today prompts many visitors to scrutinize this luminous image with a sense of wonder, just as Christians have always marveled at the infinitely mysterious miracle of the Virgin birth.


El Greco The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586), A Vision of Faith — Mary Tompkins Lewis

May 3, 2013
El Greco (1541-1614) The Funeral of Count Orgaz, 1586. Oil on canvas, 460cm x 360cm. Location: S. Tome, Toledo, Spain  His pictorial language defies the laws and logic of material reality to conjure another realm.

El Greco (1541-1614) The Funeral of Count Orgaz, 1586. Oil on canvas, 460cm x 360cm. Location: S. Tome, Toledo, Spain His pictorial language defies the laws and logic of material reality to conjure another realm.

Ms. Lewis teaches art history at Trinity College, Hartford and is a writer for the WSJ where I found this a few weeks ago.


At the center of Spain and of ancient Castile, and less than an hour from Madrid, Toledo has always existed in another world. Countless settlers have been drawn to the city’s impregnable perch on a mountaintop, and they have shaped its cultural history: Romans, Visigoths, Moorish caliphates and, in the medieval period, Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities all left their mark on monuments that fill the small city.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos — the 16th-century painter from Crete known as El Greco — left his adopted home some of its greatest treasures, including his magisterial painting of “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.” On a monumental scale (almost 16 feet by 10 feet) and in astonishingly original form, the canvas reflects not only centuries of Toledo’s history as a cultural melting pot, but the profound faith and tolerance that sustained it.

The cobblestone streets of the old walled city lead to the massive Toledo Cathedral, a spectacular mix of Gothic, Mudéjar and later Baroque designs. In its shadows lies the little parish church of Santo Tomé that once counted El Greco among its congregants. Visitors today enter through a side door that opens into a small funerary chapel where the “Burial” hangs.

Below, a lengthy Latin inscription serves as an epitaph for Don Gonzalo de Ruiz, the 14th-century Lord of Orgaz, whose remains are interred in the church. Ruiz’s celebrated generosity included, as bequeathed in his will, an annual contribution to Santo Tomé to be collected, in perpetuity, from his subjects in the nearby town of Orgaz. According to local legend, he was rewarded for his munificence by the miraculous appearance at his funeral of St. Stephen and St. Augustine, who gently laid his body to rest in his tomb.

In 1586, in an effort to honor the church’s historic benefactor and to reinvigorate the charity of Orgaz’s residents, whose payments had recently lapsed, the parish priest, Andrés Núñez de Madrid, commissioned El Greco to commemorate the fabled event.

As stipulated in the contract, the artist depicted the visionary final moments of the burial rites, the presence of many onlookers, and above, an “open heaven of glory.” The greatest miracle of the painting, however, is the staggering imagination and expressive power El Greco brought to his prescribed task. His early training as an icon painter in Greece, his subsequent study in Renaissance Venice and Rome, and his efforts, after arriving in Spain in 1577, to attract prominent patrons, all figure in El Greco’s canvas, where both Eastern and Western traditions combine to transform his memorial into a cogent contemporary parable.

The composition is clearly divided into earthly and celestial domains and, as the art historian Sarah Schroth has described, two recognizable European types — the “All-Saints Picture” of a sacred realm filled with divinities, angels and saints, and the motif of the “Last Judgment,” in which the dead are judged for eternity — are beautifully conflated in the upper register. Enshrined at center is the triangular grouping of the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist and Christ in Judgment, a familiar Byzantine motif.

More than its blended iconography or august, prayerful figures, however, the painter’s pictorial language defines El Greco’s vision of heaven: The amorphous, billowing clouds, silvery palette and mannered, phantomlike personages who float in indeterminate space and time (including, prematurely, Spain’s King Philip II) defy the laws and logic of material reality to conjure another realm.

Such exquisite details as the twisting, nude Lazarus who rises from his grave at far right; the noble figure of St. Peter, in a luminous yellow cloak, from whose endless fingers dangle the keys to eternal life; and the mist-shrouded vision, at far left, of the biblical patriarchs David, Moses and Noah suggest the wealth of invention and artistry El Greco summoned.

In contrast, the painting’s lower, terrestrial register reflects a burgeoning Spanish taste for naturalism, a gift for portraiture the painter had honed in Italy, and the reality of the Toledo El Greco knew.

A virtual portrait gallery of the city’s 16th-century elite stretches across the canvas like saints in a Byzantine frieze, and includes at right the dignified figure with downcast eyes of Antonio de Covarrubias, the revered canonical scholar, humanist and friend of El Greco who might have contributed to the painting’s complex doctrinal imagery. The artist himself may look out at us just to the left of center, and most scholars agree that his young son, Jorge (identified by the birth date inscribed on his pocket square), points with a didactic gesture to the mystical event in the foreground.

But it is El Greco’s studied, and more naturalist style here, as captured again in breathtaking details, that compels us to believe in miracles: Who could doubt the presence of the early Christian martyr St. Stephen, for example, after catching a glimpse of his radiant reflection in the cold steel armor that serves as shroud to the deceased? The weight of Ruiz’s body, as cradled by the benevolent saints, the bowed heads of many who surround him, and the limpid air and crisp forms of the lower register further ground us in that realm’s earthly aura.

Yet El Greco also takes pains to link the two spheres, not so much to unify his picture as to underscore its implicit message. Flaming torches on either side, the slender staff of a crucifix at right, and the awe-struck gesture and skyward gaze of the priest in a diaphanous white surplice (an image of rapturous faith and a superlative display of painterly skill) draw our eyes upward. At the very center of the composition, an angel ushers Ruiz’s tiny, spectral soul through the narrow chasm leading to eternity, literally enacting the painting’s promise of salvation.

In his wildly expressive, Mannerist heaven and eloquent, earthly realm, hints of El Greco’s deeply idiosyncratic later style abound, one that would perfectly parallel the increasingly abstract theological tenets they embraced. In them, as already in his “Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” we become not so much viewers of their imagery as witnesses to their ideals.


Sinners and Saints By Bruce Boucher

February 20, 2013
According to a legend popular in Caravaggio's time, after Christ's death his faithful female disciple Mary of Magdala moved to southern France, where she lived as a hermit in a cave at Sainte-Beune near Aix-en-Provence. There she was transported seven times a day by angels into the presence of God, "where she heard, with her bodily ears, the delightful harmonies of the celestial choirs." Earlier artists had depicted Mary ascending into the divine presence through multicoloured clouds accompanied by angels; Caravaggio made the supernatural an entirely interior experience, with the Magdalen alone against a featureless dark background, caught in a ray of intense light, her head lolling back and eyes stained with tears. This revolutionary naturalistic interpretation of the legend also allowed him to capture the ambiguous parallel between mystical and erotic love, in Mary's semi-reclining posture and bared shoulder. The painting was immensely influential for future treatment of the theme by artists such as Rubens and Simon Vouet (who adopted Carvaggio's earth-bound Magdalen but reintroduced the angels), and of course Bernini and his celebrated Ecstasy of St Theresa

According to a legend popular in Caravaggio’s time, after Christ’s death his faithful female disciple Mary of Magdala moved to southern France, where she lived as a hermit in a cave at Sainte-Beune near Aix-en-Provence. There she was transported seven times a day by angels into the presence of God, “where she heard, with her bodily ears, the delightful harmonies of the celestial choirs.” Earlier artists had depicted Mary ascending into the divine presence through multicoloured clouds accompanied by angels; Caravaggio made the supernatural an entirely interior experience, with the Magdalen alone against a featureless dark background, caught in a ray of intense light, her head lolling back and eyes stained with tears. This revolutionary naturalistic interpretation of the legend also allowed him to capture the ambiguous parallel between mystical and erotic love, in Mary’s semi-reclining posture and bared shoulder. The painting was immensely influential for future treatment of the theme by artists such as Rubens and Simon Vouet (who adopted Carvaggio’s earth-bound Magdalen but reintroduced the angels), and of course Bernini and his celebrated Ecstasy of St Theresa

A biography and an analysis of the Italian painter who used the outcast as models for his religious works. Caravaggio A Life by Helen Langdon.


One memorable scene in Derek Jarman’s film ”Caravaggio” [a poor film, mostly unwatchable: dj]shows the painter struggling for inspiration as he composes his masterpiece, ”The Marytrdom of St. Matthew”: models and hangers-on fill an improbably large studio while Caravaggio barks orders like a film director. It is a clever if simplistic metaphor of artistic creation, reflecting the criticisms leveled at the painter during his life, for Caravaggio was commonly held to paint only what he saw, invoking nature as his guide.

Like all cliches, Jarman’s interpretation contained a nugget of truth: Caravaggio did undermine the conventional hierarchies of art, glorying in an earthy naturalism too strong for his politer contemporaries. Yet this rebel was also courted by connoisseurs and prelates; he hungered after the status of a gentleman and was as much concerned with his rapier as his brush. Dead at 39, Caravaggio transformed painting while losing himself in a legend even more outlandish than his own life.

Helen Langdon’s ”Caravaggio: A Life” disinters the man and artist from romantic fantasies spun around him and retells his stormy career from impoverished obscurity to celebrated notoriety. Her readings of his paintings are informed by an intimate knowledge of the period; deftly interweaving artifact and milieu, she re-creates the demimonde so lovingly depicted by him and reaffirms his achievement by placing it in a new and more objective context.

Langdon employs a familiar though risky strategy, if only because what is known of Caravaggio’s life would scarcely fill a dozen pages, and her book is occasionally overwhelmed by extended discussions of prostitution or Counter-Reformation piety. Yet, given such a tale of gambling, murder and flight, no one could seriously complain. Langdon’s narrative reads like a chapter from Manzoni’s classic novel, ”The Betrothed,” depicting a society in which violence was never far from the surface.

Caravaggio, who was born in 1571, first learned his craft in provincial Lombardy among artists struggling to convey naturalism and directness at a time when Rome and Florence were dominated by artistic fashions more idealized and self-referential. His training proved a saving grace when he reached Rome in 1592; he brought to his work a talent for simplicity and close observation that contrasted with the high art of the day. He later said a still life required as much skill as figurative painting, and his work was often so vivid as to make critics believe he always had a model before him.

An early painting of the penitent Mary Magdalene seemed so lifelike that it was once believed to have been a simple study of a girl drying her hair, only retrospectively dignified with a religious title. Under the patronage of the influential Francesco Maria Cardinal Del Monte, Caravaggio experimented with highly colored genre paintings of cardsharps, musicians and gypsies, works that reminded contemporaries of the Venetian painter Giorgione.

When given the opportunity to demonstrate his skill on a larger scale, Caravaggio elevated the commonplace through his revolutionary canvases on the life of St. Matthew. Rejecting the ideal art of Raphael and Michelangelo, he placed the saint among the tricksters and rogues of his own day, even displacing Christ to the far corner of the canvas. A hard, cold light streams down on Matthew and renders his conversion all the more powerful by his isolation among the indifferent crowd. As Langdon reminds us, Caravaggio created a highly personal view of biblical times, couched in the fashions of contemporary Rome, thus transforming the present into an echo of biblical truth and simultaneously opening a debate about the role of naturalism in history painting.

The St. Matthew cycle brought him success, which proved as difficult to handle as failure. A subsequent altarpiece of the death of the Virgin was rejected as lascivious and shocking, for his model was reputed to be ”a dirty old whore” from the Roman slums. Caravaggio’s ”deviant” art was matched by mood swings and violence, and in one sense his early biographers were right when they drew an analogy between his somber paintings and his character.

Contemporaries observed that he was ”proud and satirical . . . always ready to argue or fight”; he brawled with allies and adversaries alike. As major commissions began to elude him, his life spiraled out of control. Finally he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, a longtime adversary, during a murky street fight. Not lingering for justice, Caravaggio fled Rome and began a four-year exile, during which, as a later biographer wrote, ”fear haunted him from place to place.”

His last years were spent on the run in Naples, Malta and Sicily, where he produced a clutch of masterpieces whose themes dealt with persecution and death — an extension, perhaps, of his troubled state of mind. His late painting ”The Resurrection of Lazarus,” in Messina, seems like a reprise of his earlier altarpieces, pared to bleak essentials and with its protagonists caught in a harrowing struggle between light and dark.


Remnants Of A Pre-industrial World – Derek Jeter

December 3, 2012
Think of a portrait as a landscape

Think of a portrait as a landscape

Mary Tompkins Lewis was announcing in the WSJ recently a new exhibition at the Frick Collection in NYC:

A suntanned traveler from Southern California is currently residing in the Frick Collection, thanks to an exchange program between that august New York institution and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif. Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of a Peasant,” one of two paintings and several drawings of the rough-hewn Patience Escalier that he produced in 1888 in the southern French city of Arles, attests in astonishingly original form to the Dutch artist’s ambition to capture in his portraits of rural types the fortitude and quintessential character of the common people of the countryside.

Portrait of a Peasant is one of Van Gogh’s seminal efforts, although not as well known as many of his other works. It came at a time when Vincent was knee deep in combat with the Symbolist debates going on in Paris at the time, particularly as it applied to religious imagery:

When Bernard (a fellow painter) defended Symbolism by charting its half-century rise from the scandals of Charles Baudelaire, an early champion of both Delacroix and Wagner, to the heights of the Parisian avant-garde, Vincent took up the gauntlet. In sweeping, vehement terms, he derided the Symbolists’ images as “follies,” “stupidities,” and “sterile metaphysical meditations.” He chastised them especially for turning their backs on the great artists of the Dutch Golden Age who “painted things just as they are.” “Hammer into your head that master Frans Hals,” he instructed Bernard; “hammer into your head the no less great and universal master … Rembrandt van Rijn, that broad-minded naturalistic man.” The argument. escalated to accusations of cultural plagiarism as Vincent dismissed two centuries of French art as nothing more than “Dutch paste solidly stuffed into vulgar French noodles.”

Nothing about the Symbolist tutelage from Pont-Aven incensed Vincent more than the call for religious imagery. Bernard had first reopened these wounds in April by sending some religious poetry for Vincent’s review. Fired by the Symbolist debates in Paris, newly befriended by Albert Aurier, a young Symbolist poet, and reawakened to his own Catholicism by a love affair in Brittany that spring, Bernard arrived in Pont-Aven with a portfolio of mystic religious imagery in one hand and a Bible in the other. Gauguin received the new ideas openly, and soon both artists were busily planning works to plumb the Good Book’s deep well of mystery and meaning.

After such a warm reception, Bernard must have been shocked by the storm of protest that greeted his ideas in Arles. “How small-minded the old story really is!” Vincent fired back immediately. “My God! Does the world consist solely of Jews?” With inexplicable fury, he railed against “that deeply saddening Bible, which arouses our despair and indignation, which seriously offends us and thoroughly confuses us with its pettiness and infectious foolishness.” Only the figure of Christ survived Vincent’s wrath — he called it the “kernel” of consolation “inside a hard rind and bitter pulp.” But he belittled Bernard’s ambition to capture Christ’s image as “artistic neurosis” and ridiculed his chances of succeeding. “Only Delacroix and Rembrandt have painted the face of Christ in such a way that I can feel him,” he scoffed. “The rest rather make me laugh.”
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

There are many of Vincent’s rants that are taken out of context to promote an anti-Catholic point of view. The same thing happens with Dostoevsky but many forget that the Church was involved in activities in the 19th century that were objectionable. You can find many debates in our own day that provoke anti-Church sentiments but do not in any way question the love of the Church that those making the statements truly have. Here we seem to have the same phenomena:

The rant spilled across letter after letter, to Paris as well as Pont-Aven. “Oh, my dear boy,” he wrote Theo, “I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting.” He pounded Bernard with the crimes of Christianity, especially the “barbarity” of Catholic conversions in the New World, and mocked its modern-day hypocrisies.

His months in Catholic Provence, with its medieval festivals and mystical devotions, had already roused childhood feelings of Protestant isolation and anti-papist iconoclasm. (He described the Gothic church in Arles, St. Trophime, as “cruel and monstrous” and, worse, “Roman.”) In July, he undertook to reread the complete works of Balzac, as if to inoculate himself against the world of spirits and superstitions that surrounded him.

But the push from Pont-Aven was too strong, the obsession from the past toe deep and unsettled, to resist for long. That same month, even as his letters filled up with bitter denunciations, Vincent tried his hand at the denounced imagery. He painted “a big study, an olive garden, with a figure of Christ in blue and orange, and an angel in yellow.” It was the image that had haunted him through a lifetime of failures and campaigns for forgiveness: Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Only now he saw it in the vivid color of the new art: “Red earth, bilk green and blue, olive trees with violet and carmine trunks, green-gray and blue foliage, [and] a citron-yellow sky.” But the effort collapsed. In a fit of panic (he later called it “horror”) that foretold the catastrophes to come, he angrily took a knife and scraped the offending image off. He kept his failure secret from Bernard and Gauguin. To Theo, he blamed it on the lack of models. “I must not do figures of that importance without models,” he vowed. But surely he knew the block lay deeper.

The failed image triggered a fresh wave of resistance. He scolded his colleagues for resorting to the static, fabular world of the Bible, when the world of nature all around them — especially in Arles — offered so many subjects ripe with significance: sowers and sheaves, sunflowers and cypresses, suns and stars — all opportunities to “paint the infinite.” “It is actually one’s duty to paint the rich and magnificent aspects of nature,” he declared, taking aim at the Symbolists’ dry metaphysical exercises. “We are in need of gaiety and happiness, of hope and love.” And why confront the terrible, perfect countenance of Christ. he demanded, when sublimity could be found in faces and figures everywhere: “Do I make myself understood?” he wrote Bernard fiercely. “I am just trying to make you see this single great truth: one can paint all of humanity by the simple means of portraiture.”
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

Vincent’s single great truth is on display with Portrait of a Peasant and if you are in NYC greatly worth a trip to the Frick Collection on the upper east side to enjoy it.

To many in late 19th century France, these rugged denizens of the provinces represented the moral bedrock of the Third Republic. [Patience] Escalier was a former oxherd from the Camargue, a region of salt marshes and miry ranch lands that stretches south from Arles to the sea, who toiled in his old age at a farm in the Crau, a rocky area east of Arles immortalized by van Gogh in his landscapes. In letters to his brother, Theo, the painter described his humble subject as a real-life embodiment of the heroic workers who had figured in the pastoral paintings of Jean-François Millet, and as a continuation of his own sober studies of solitary Dutch laborers executed earlier in the 1880s, before he moved to France.

The highly literate Van Gogh also drew on such realist novels as Emile Zola’s controversial “La Terre,” published the year before, which traced the bitter realities of rural life that wedded its rustic inhabitants to the soil. The painter feared, however, that Parisian viewers would see in his charged, emotional portraits from Arles (“paintings in clogs,” he called them, using Millet’s words) only caricature or exaggeration, rather than the collective portrayal of humanity in which he hoped to convey, with radiant light and vibrant color, a sense of the eternal.
Mary Tompkins Lewis, Portrait of a Peasant

As Ms Lewis noted above Vincent’s model has a unique essence, one that Vincent expands  upon here:

At the beginning of August, soon after the success of Anquetin’s The Peasant triggered a rush to rustic imagery in both Pont-Aven and Arles, Vincent recruited an old gardener named Patience Escalier to model for him. He described Escalier as “a poor old peasant, whose features bear a very strong resemblance to Father, only coarser.” Vincent painted him hurriedly, placing his deeply creased, sun-brazed face against a cobalt background and dressing him in a bright turquoise blouse and yellow straw hat much like those Vincent himself wore on his painting trips into the countryside.

To Theo and the comrades in Pont-Aven, he advertised Escalier as an icon out of Millet or Zola (“a man with a hoe, a former drover of the Camargue”), a primitive antidote to “highly civilized Parisian” ways, as well as a Daumier caricature, like the amiable giant Roulin. “I dare believe that Gauguin and you would understand,” he wrote Bernard. “You know what a peasant is, how strongly he reminds one of a wild beast, when you have found one of the true race.”

Vincent quickly fell out with his model over payment terms, but the old man’s image lingered in his eye throughout the arguments with Bernard over religious imagery. When he finally lured Escalier back into the studio at the end of the month, he posed the grizzled gardener leaning on a cane, his hands folded in an attitude of prayer. From under his wide-brimmed straw hat, his old eyes stare serenely into the distance with a sad, long-suffering, heaven-fixed gaze. Beyond his sloping blue shoulders, the world is filled with “flashing orange” representing the “furnace” of harvests past, Vincent said, as well as the “luminous gold” of the sunset to come, and the sunrise beyond.

Listen to how Vincent speaks about another portraiture that he did at around the same time, the painter Boch:

To memorialize this brief manna of friendship, Vincent persuaded Boch to sit for a portrait. Despite their previous antagonism, Vincent had been laying elaborate plans for this portrait for some time. “I should like to paint the portrait of an artist friend,” he had written Theo after an encounter with Boch in early August, “a man who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because it is his nature.” Despite Boch’s dark hair, Vincent imagined painting him as “a blond man [with] orange tones, chromes and pale-yellow” highlights in his hair:

Behind the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I [will] paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination of the bright head against the rich blue background, I [will] get a mysterious effect. like a star in the depths of an azure sky.

445px-Van_Gogh_Portrait_Eugene_BochWhen Boch finally sat for him, Vincent faithfully rendered  his subject’s razor visage and dark hair (with blond highlights only in his mustache and beard. But he dressed him in a yellow-orange coat and stood him against a background of the deepest blue he could devise — just as he had imagined it. He crowned Boch’s head with a thin corona of citron yellow — exactly the color of the “nimbus” around the Savior’s head in Delacroix’s Christ on the Sea of Galilee and flecked the dark void with stars shining yellow and orange from worlds beyond.

It was exactly the scheme he had tried and destroyed in his Garden of Gethsemane: “a figure of Christ in blue and orange.”
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

For Vincent approached the transcendent truths required of Biblical art in another way separate and distinct from his Symbolist colleagues who were all the talk of Paris at the time:

Images like these, Vincent argued, expressed their transcendent truths not in the biblical finery that Bernard urged, but in a new and different garb: color. Whether through “the mingling of opposites” or “the vibrations of kindred tones,” Vincent claimed he could address the deepest mysteries of life –the Symbolists’ grail — without resorting to the follies of religion. He could speak directly to the heart “through the language of color alone.” Thus, the sunset colors on Escalier’s face expressed “the eagerness of a soul,” while the light tone of Boch’s figure against the night sky expressed “the thought of a brow” and “hope upon a star.”

The right color combinations, he insisted, could arouse the full range of human emotions: from the “anguish” of broken tones to the “absolute restfuIness” of balanced ones; from the “passion” of red and green to the “gentle consolation” of lilac and yellow. In describing his colors, especially to Bernard, Vincent adopted the Symbolists’ vocabulary (repeatedly invoking “the eternal,” “the mysterious,” “infinity,” and “dreams”), but defiantly declared himself a “rational colorist” and boasted of the complicated calculations that guided his palette — Seurat-like terms anathema to the Symbolists’ manifesto of sensation.

And he rejected outright Cloisonnism’s relegation of color to a mere element of design — a decorative deduction — rather than the “forceful expression” of “an ardent temperament.”

That temperament expressed itself nowhere more forcefully, or defiantly, than in brushwork. In Pont-Aven, Vincent’s comrades had been developing a paint surface that barely betrayed a brush at all. Following Anquetin’s lead, they had pursued the Cloisonnist rhetoric about “plates” of color and the paradigm of stained glass to their logical conclusion. Where Cezanne had used brushy, thinly painted planes and brickworklike strokes to construct his faceted scenes, Gauguin and Bernard divided their images into areas of pure color and then filled each area with thinned paint applied in smooth, impassive strokes. Vincent surely knew of these innovations through his correspondence with both artists, and even occasionally tried them himself when the urge to solidarity overtook him.

But inevitably his manic brush rebelled. His letter sketches to Pont-Aven continued to show only the coloring-book dogma of blocks of pure color, each with its label of “rouge” or “bleu.”

But in his studio, unseen by his colleagues, his draftsman’s hand tirelessly filled those blocks with flights of brushwork in a pattern book of textures and complex topographies of enlever paint. Sometimes he followed the contours of his subjects with undulating trenches of color, faithfully tracing the spiky needles of a pine tree or the snaking branches of a vineyard. Other times, in the background or on the plates mandated by the new gospel, his brush would break into slathering riffs of strokes, turning a cloudless sky into a churning sea or a plowed field into a scumbled battleground. In one particularly intense eruption of impasto — Vincent himself called such episodes “violent” — he loaded his brush with paint and transformed a picturesque streamside mill into a castle of pigment, shattering every plane — walls, roof, sky, and stream — into defiantly visible paint strokes, each one a silent protest, a shake of his fist, against the orthodoxy issuing from Pont-Aven.
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

In the end Vincent’s approach was eclectic and directed by what he saw and felt:

Simplification and exaggeration, and brushwork, had to serve some deeper emotional truth. In 731px-WLANL_-_Pachango_-_Het_gele_huis_('De_straat'),_Vincent_van_Gogh_(1888) describing how he painted the square in front of the Yellow House — a patch of ill-tended public  real estate — Vincent sheepishly admitted to “leaving out some trees” and shrubs that are not in character…. To get at that character,” he said, the fundamental truth of it.”

This was not “imagining,” he hastened to add, rejecting the Symbolists term as Bernard and Gauguin used it. He imagined nothing, he insisted; only looked and felt. He neither ignored nature, nor slavishly followed it; he “consumed” it. “I do not invent the picture,” he corrected Bernard; “on the contrary, I find it already there in nature; I just have to free it.”

When Rembrandt painted angels, Vincent explained, “[he] did not invent anything.. . he knew them; he felt them there.” So, too, when Vincent looked at the trafficked square, he squinted his eyes and saw not the trompe l’oeil reality of overgrown pathways in un-Dutch neglect, but the riotously blooming oleander bushes — “loaded with fresh flowers, and quantities of faded blooms as well, their green continually renewing itself in fresh, strong shoots, apparently inexhaustibly” — an image of angelic consolation that bore no more relationship to reality, he argued, than reality bore to a colorless photograph.

This was the only theory that Vincent’s refractory art could bear – the inevitable expression of a synthetic intelligence bound forever to a lunging heart. “When I am moved by something,” he said, “these are the only things that appear to have any deep meaning.” And painting those things “absorbs me so much,” he confessed, “that I let myself go, never thinking of a single rule.”

Obsessively introspective and often alone, Vincent thought deeply about questions that preoccupied the writers, artists, and philosophers he read; but his personal theories on art, as on everything else, were neither coherent nor consistent. He never could command consistency from himself (not even within the same letter, much less between correspondents), nor could he keep his ideas isolated  from the swirling currents of his emotions. Even within a single painting, his palette and brush often skidded from theory to theory, from model to model, in pursuit of the emotion that seized him — the only dogma that mattered. “What do these differences matter,” he wrote Bernard, declaring his independence by defending his deviations, “when the great thing after all is to express oneself strongly?”
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

In the Portrait of a Peasant, we see Vincent’s triumph: the landscape of southern France subtly drawn in one of its subjects:

Van Gogh relished the opportunity to paint his subject late that summer, as he explained to Boch, “in the very furnace of harvest time, deep in the south. Hence the oranges, blazing like red-hot iron, hence the old gold tones, glowing in the darkness.” The peasant is pictured as one with his Provençal environs.

Susan Grace Galassi, the Frick senior curator who coordinated the painting’s presentation in New York, has beautifully described how thick furrows and ridges of paint model Escalier’s craggy, weathered face as if it were a landscape, and how the figure’s domed, yellow straw hat serves as a blazing, surrogate sun against a contrasting field of cobalt and darker Prussian blues. Van Gogh’s heavily impastoed, basketweave strokes, which defy the delicate touches and decorative stippling of his Impressionist peers, make that dense sky palpable. In contrast, the green smock that defines Escalier’s torso is evoked with thinner bands of pale blue, emerald and zinc white.

The figure’s chin is framed with discrete strokes of green, a touch of yellow paint crusts on his lip. Above, a bold lemon stripe and a lighter one in green that the painter Henri Matisse would appreciate streak down the ridge of his nose. We hardly notice Escalier’s impossibly projecting shoulder at left, lightly traced with a squiggly blue line, or the absence of a corresponding limb at right, because our attention is focused on the face at dead-center that stares out at us. Concentric circles of paint that surround Escalier’s hollowed eyes and touches of molten red in their inner corners make his gaze inescapable, even hypnotic; it freezes us into place before him. With the bold vermillion outline that van Gogh often used to secure his figures amid a maelstrom of tactile paint strokes, he renders his subject iconic.

In such emotive paintings of rural types that are threaded through Van Gogh’s brief but prolific career, the intensity of his empathy and enthusiasm for these remnants of a preindustrial world is captured with unmatched power. The unmodulated, saturated tones and vehement handling of paint that characterize the Pasadena painting seem to reflect in raw pictorial terms what drew van Gogh repeatedly to his subject: In a letter about Escalier written that same August to the artist Emile Bernard, he marveled at “how much of the wild animal there is when you come across someone pure-bred.”
Mary Tompkins Lewis, Portrait of a Peasant


A Testament Of Faith — By Mary Tompkins Lewis

November 19, 2012
The medieval Irish monks believed that one could discover in these intricate images not only the power of the book’s art but also the mystery and magnificence of the Divinity.

Ms. Lewis teaches art history at Trinity College, Hartford. This article appeared in the WSJ a few months ago.


Most scholars agree that the stunningly beautiful illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells originated in the waning years of the eighth century in a monastery founded by the Irish missionary Colum Cille (also known as St. Columbanus, c. 521-597) on Iona, a remote island just off the west coast of Scotland. But little else about it is certain.

It may have been conceived to celebrate the second centenary of the saint’s death on Iona, and left unfinished when the tranquil island suffered a series of attacks by Vikings. After a particularly brutal assault in 806 left 68 of their community dead, many monks took refuge in Ireland at Kells.

As recorded in the Annals of Ulster, the shrine of Columbanus and some of his relics, including, perhaps, the cherished codex, also found protection there, where work on it may have continued. It was probably the artifact described as “the most precious object in the Western world” that was “wickedly stolen” from the church sacristy in 1007 and retrieved soon after, stripped of its gold ornaments.

The manuscript was definitively at Kells in the late 11th century, when its blank leaves were used to record local property transactions. In the mid-17th century, when Oliver Cromwell’s invading troops threatened, the Book of Kells was sent to Dublin for safekeeping and soon after acquired by Trinity College, where it remains today. The celebrated status it enjoyed in an age and monastic culture renowned for artfully embellished books has never faded.

This large-format codex of the New Testament gospels, intended for display on an altar, was largely based on the Vulgate, the Latin Bible transcribed by St. Jerome in the late fourth century from older Latin translations. It includes sumptuous concordances, summaries of gospel narratives, etymologies of Hebrew names, and prefaces to the four evangelists.

Even more than the sacred text painstakingly copied in an insular, majuscule script, the manuscript’s exquisite decoration attests to the faith and visionary creative genius of the medieval Irish monks, who believed that one could discover in such endlessly imaginative amalgams of enigmatic earthly and heavenly images entwined with the written word not only the power of the art of the book but the mystery and magnificence of the Divinity.

Nowhere is the authority, eloquence and wonder of the written word more exuberantly proclaimed than in the Chi Rho, the monumental incipit taken from the first letters of Christ’s name in Greek (XPI) and enlarged to fill an entire page that introduces Matthew’s account of the Nativity. The lavish tapestry of letters is dominated by the Chi, in which the symbolic, cruciform character (X) is transformed into an elegant scrolling shape that stretches above the smaller Rho and Iota at lower right.

On closer inspection, the monogram’s spiraling, interlaced designs, akin to those found in pagan Pictish (ancient Scottish) carvings and medieval Irish high crosses, yield a maze of tiny figures and beasts. Curving filaments at the center of the upright Rho terminate in a beautifully-drawn, blond human head positioned sideways. Two men in the small Iota, visible when the page is inverted, pull each other’s beard (a favored Kells motif). A dense labyrinth of men and peacocks surround the Chi’s central lozenge, and three flaxen-haired angels grace its left-most vertical edge.

Beneath a yellow Greek cross a black otter clutches a fish in its mouth, whimsical mice tug on a host while cats look on, and above, butterflies and chrysalises flutter. Long thought to represent fanciful flights of the monks’ imagination, these animals from land, sea and sky, as witnessed by earthly and heavenly observers, are in fact, as Suzanne Lewis has conclusively argued, (the link will cost you) metaphors for the incarnate or resurrected Christ and underscore the special Eucharistic and liturgical significance of the manuscript by giving tangible form to the most intangible tenets of Christian faith.

Apart from its brilliantly allusive artistry, the Book of Kells offers a telling window into the context of the monastic scriptorium, and even the personae of the medieval monks.

Bernard Meehan, Trinity’s Keeper of Manuscripts, has aptly described how the community that produced the 340-page codex on costly vellum (prepared calfskin) in pigments applied with quill pens or the finest brushes fashioned from the prized fur of martens must have been wealthy, stable and in possession of an established library, a description that fits either late eighth-century Iona or Kells shortly afterward.

Although the famed Iona abbot Connachtach (d. 802) has been linked to its production, scholars have separated the hands of the manuscript’s nameless scribes and artists largely on the character of their contributions: the conservative Scribe A, whose sober script eschewed embellishments in the Book of John; the more “extroverted” Scribe B, who exhibited a penchant for color and distinctive flourishes; or the gifted “goldsmith,” one of a handful of decorative artists and so named because his intricate, luminous work, including the Chi Ro folio, is suggestive of decorated metalwork.

Yet centuries of scholarly research fail to explain the wide range of influences the Book of Kells seems to reflect despite its outlying, insular origins. The seventh-century pilgrim Arculf, whose storm-tossed ship landed him in Iona on his way home from the Holy Lands, has been credited with introducing animals from Egyptian Coptic art that could have shaped their fanciful counterparts here. Coptic models may have also inspired the full-page folio of the Madonna and Child folio that would count James Joyce among its many admirers. Arculf, or perhaps other travelers, may have even contributed a plan of the Holy Sepulchre’s rotunda in Jerusalem, which seems inscribed in the halo of the evangelist John’s portrait.

But how to account for the fineness of detail in the Chi Rho, for example, in an age predating sophisticated magnifying tools? Countless other leaves and images of extraordinary sophistication defy even the most capricious explications, and led the 13th-century historian Giraldus Cambrensis to famously pronounce the manuscript “the work, not of men, but of angels.” Such are the mysteries and the miracles the Book of Kells has kept intact.


The Drunkenness of Noah — Andrew Graham-Dixon

November 12, 2012

Contrary to popular belief, he painted in a standing position, not lying on his back. According to Vasari, “The work was carried out in extremely uncomfortable conditions, from his having to work with his head tilted upwards”.

The last painting in the final triad of the ceiling’s narrative frescoes is The Drunkenness of Noah. The picture is a lesson in human frailty, and a meditation on the mysterious workings of God. At first glance it might appear to be one of the most backward-looking of Michelangelo’s compositions. But in fact it is a highly inventive, unusual picture, pregnant with possibility for future generations of artists.

As in the narrative paintings of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the painting breaks with the unities of time, place and action to tell its story like a comic strip, with the same protagonist shown in two different situations at two different moments in time. To the left, the red-robed Noah sets to with his spade, working the land that God has spared from the Flood, and has blessed with fertility: `And Noah began to be an husbandman; and he planted a vineyard’ (Genesis 9: 20). He is silhouetted against a harsh white sky and confronted with an expanse of yellow ochre ground that seems so harsh and desert-like that his spade barely penetrates its surface. In this particular passage of the painting, Michelangelo proposes an image as simple and emblematic as a piece of heraldry, as schematic as the impresa on a Renaissance shield or flag — a rugged symbol of the lot of man after the Fall, doomed to a life of hard labor.

To the right, Noah appears again. But this time he is naked, no longer the righteous patriarch but an all too mortal man, who has indulged too much in the wine that his vineyard has produced: `And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent’ (Genesis 9: 21). He reclines in a stupor, his head sunk upon his chest. He appears as another of Michelangelo’s parodies of the figure of an ancient Roman river god, like the petrified boy hunched over the wine cask in The Deluge. His sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth, shocked by the sudden apparition of their inebriated father, gesticulate and prepare to cover his nakedness.

This troubling, dreamlike picture is susceptible to different levels of interpretation. Within traditional Christian theology, its message was one of hope, since throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance this episode was seen as one among many Old Testament stories in which was prophesied — as through a glass, darkly — the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Like Christ, Noah was stripped bare and humiliated in the eyes of mankind. The torpor of Noah’s drunkenness was, symbolically, a small death, foreshadowing the death of Christ on the Cross. Noah’s drunkenness was also held to prefigure Christ’s Passion, in that while Noah seeded the vine and drank of its fruit, Christ said, `I am the true vine, – and my Father is the husbandman’ (John 15:1) — a sacrifice commemorated daily at Mass, in the wine of the Eucharist.

Michelangelo reinforces those ancient associations by placing a pitcher at the end of the hard wooden bed on which Noah has collapsed. A clay wine cup is at his side, as if to suggest the blood that will course from the wound in Christ’s side when he is crucified on the Cross. This allusion would not have been lost on Michelangelo’s contemporaries, familiar as they were with images of the Crucifixion in which angels descend from heaven, bearing goblets in which to catch the precious drops seeping from Christ’s wounds (a well-known example is the so-called Mond Crucifixion in the National Gallery, painted by Michelangelo’s contemporary Raphael).

Yet Michelangelo complicates his vision of The Drunkenness of Noah, adding and inventing elements that are entirely his own to impart a deeper structure of meanings to the scene. The broader pattern of images on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which creates an interlocking network of symbols and allusions — like themes repeated and varied in musical composition — instantly imparts a dark and penitential note to this image of an unregenerate drunkard shamed before his sons. Joel, the prophet enthroned immediately to the left of the scene, had railed against the sinfulness jr of those who fall into inebriation: `Awake, ye drunkards, and weep; and howl all ye drinkers of wine’ (Joel 1:5).

Moreover, the all-encompassing symmetry of the nine narrative panels on the main vault invites the viewer to see The Drunkenness of Noah, the very last image, as a pair with the very first, The Separation of Light and Darkness. The contrast is striking and severe, its effect like that of a scything caesura in poetry. On one side, the all-powerful God reaches up with a majestic gesture to bring light from the darkness — and, by implication, to wrestle good from evil; on the other, a mere man lies slumped ignominiously in the den of his own sinfulness, impelled, despite himself, to repeat the error of Adam’s Fall.

The Drunkenness of Noah is a work that shows how deeply Michelangelo responded to the compressed, laconic and enigmatic style of Old Testament epic. The artist may not be inclined to dwell on the particularities of specific human emotions — he stands, in this regard, at the opposite end of the spectrum to a painter such as Rembrandt, or a sculptor such as Donatello — yet he has his own deep sense of humanity. In painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo did not only reflect on the Book of Genesis, digest its meanings and ponder the detail of its stories. He expressed, with terrible poignancy, the predicament of those who are created and controlled by the veiled God of the ancient Hebraic tradition. They live under the perpetual threat of self-alienation and cannot help becoming other than they once were.

It is the lot of every great figure of the Old Testament, from Adam onwards, to follow God’s will and to embody his purposes as best they can, but in doing so they often find themselves terrifyingly helpless — uniquely helpless, by comparison with the heroes encountered in any of the world’s other epic literary traditions. The God of the Old Testament not only sends them challenges and trials of unfathomable mystery (the instruction to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac; the myriad ills heaped on the head of Job). He also changes them, within themselves, within their very beings, in ways that are equally beyond their comprehension and power to predict.

This aspect of the Old Testament stories was perceptively analyzed by the German literary. critic Eric Auerbach in an essay entitled `Odysseus’s Scar’.” Auerbach, whose method was comparative, believed the particular qualities of biblical narrative were thrown into sharp relief by the counter-example of Greek epic. In particular, he drew a series of telling contrasts between the heroes of the Hebraic tradition and those of the Homeric legends. The heroes of Homer, he noted, change little. They are people whose `destiny is clearly defined and who wake every morning as though it were the first day of their lives: their emotions, though strong, are simple and find expression instantly’.

But those who play their part in the stories of the Old Testament are different. They are more inward and variable, more cloaked, even to themselves. They are separated in time and place, horizontally distant from one another but joined by their vertical connection to God — a God whom they know they must serve, but whose purposes are hidden from them. Life, for them, is the painful process of discovering what lies in store. `The stern hand of God is ever upon the Old Testament figures; he has not only made them once and for all and chosen them, but he continues to work upon them, bends them and kneads them, and, without destroying them in essence, produces from them forms which their youth gave no grounds for anticipating.

This is Michelangelo’s theme in The Drunkenness of Noah. An Old Testament hero succumbs to a great transformation, realized in the forms and colors of a vivid nightmare. The artist has created an image that seems to externalize the hero’s awareness of his own complexity — making visible, so to speak, the dark thoughts that are present only as a shadow across the face of his carved David.

Noah could be dreaming the scene of his own humiliation, such is the hallucinogenic power of Michelangelo’s representation of the scene. The artist paints it as a phantasmagoria, lends it a quality of inward vision found nowhere else in the world of his time, save perhaps in that hauntingly weird fifteenth-century prose romance, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a work of fiction by the Dominican friar Francesco Colonna, quite probably known to Michelangelo, in which the hero progresses through a landscape of architectural and sculptural dream imagery that feels like a projection of his own thoughts and fantasies.

Once more, the depth of Michelangelo’s originality can be measured by the extent to which he departed both from the literal Genesis narrative and from established visual convention. Earlier artists had shown Noah drunk among his vines, which they usually imagined as a form of leafy arbour. By contrast, Michelangelo places him inside a wooden shed so dark it might be a cellar. Objects in this space assume the characteristics of things seen in dreams, being either over-scaled or unnaturally clear and distinct from one another. The wine vat behind Noah looms ominously while the bowl and pitcher beside him are held in a light that gives them a trembling, oneiric particularity. These are effects that anticipate, by some five hundred years, those found in the `metaphysical’ paintings of Giorgio de’ Chirico and the dreamlike art of the Surrealists.

In the Book of Genesis, Noah is discovered in his drunken state by his son Ham, who fetches his brothers Shem and Japheth: `And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.’ But in Michelangelo’s painting, these relationships are all changed. The three sons confront their father’s nakedness together. None faces backward and none is allowed to escape the shock of the encounter. .’

The sight of their father is like an apparition, an image from out of the dark. As Charles de Tolnay noted, Noah is `like a marble statue placed on a temporary wooden base’. He might almost be a sculpture that they have excavated from the ground — like the antique sculpture of the struggling Laocoon and his sons, doomed by the Greek gods to die wrapped in the coils of serpents, that Michelangelo himself had witnessed being excavated in Rome in January 1506, two years before he painted this picture.

The Laocoon

The memory of the Laocoön, a work that made a deep and lasting impression on Michelangelo, seems embedded in this painting, which also joins a father with his sons in a moment of crisis and pain. Even the draperies that play about the figures have a writhing, serpentine quality.

Whereas the Bible implies that Noah’s sons themselves are clothed — which was how earlier artists had envisaged the scene — Michelangelo paints them as nudes, just like their father, giving them merely token robes that do nothing to obscure them. This is a daring invention, epitomizing his bold habit of transforming the conventions of religious art, bending them to purposes and meanings that evade purely theological analysis. The young men’s upright, athletic and muscular bodies, lit by an irregular play of lights and darks, as though by the flare of lamplight, contrast cruelly with Noah’s slack and slumped form. The image is an archetype of that moment, late in the father-son relationship, when the child must take on the role of parent because the parent, enfeebled, has become a kind of child. It can also be seen as a metaphor for the sudden, shocking recognition of death as an ineluctable fact of human existence.

Seeing their father like this confronts the sons with their own mortality and mutability — that mutability which, within the scheme of the Old Testament stories, governs all of life in the postlapsarian world. As he is now, so they will become. Their powerlessness to change that fact is emphasized by the inadequate flimsiness of the wisp-like drapery with which they have been furnished. The sons cannot cover their father’s shame and they reflect his vulnerability in their own uncovered state. Man is always naked before God.


The Sacrifice of Noah — Andrew Graham-Dixon

November 5, 2012

The Sacrifice of Noah is a characteristically Michelangelesque image, one that places a single, inspired individual in a pit of fools. The solemn, white-bearded prophet, rapt in contemplation of the true spirit of God, is surrounded by a crowd of the unenlightened, whirled in the circle of their own restless energies around a vortex of flames.

The Deluge is flanked by two other paintings representing scenes from the biblical story of Noah. The first of these, which can be identified as The Sacrifice of Noah, appears to be the only one of the Sistine ceiling’s narrative pictures to have been placed out of chronological sequence. It precedes The Deluge, although logic dictates that it should come afterwards, given that its subject is Noah’s sacrifice to God for having spared him and his family from the Flood. The subject is described in Genesis 8: 20-1: `And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done.’

Michelangelo’s decision to place this scene first has been the cause of some confusion. The artist’s early biographers, Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi, assumed that the picture did not illustrate the life of Noah at all, but must represent the sacrifice of Cain and Abel. Their explanation, which has been followed by some modern scholars, has the virtue of restoring chronological integrity to Michelangelo’s fresco cycle (since Cain and Abel’s sacrifice occurs well before the Flood in the Book of Genesis). But it is contradicted by the visual evidence of the fresco itself. There are no obvious candidates for the figures of Cain and Abel, while Abel’s offering, `the fruit of the ground’ (Genesis 4: 3), is nowhere to be seen. The congested queue of animals awaiting sacrifice, which include an elephant, is surely intended to suggest the multitude of living creatures disgorged from the Ark.

Comparison with the other frescoes definitively confirms the subject as The Sacrifice of Noah. The patriarch may only appear as a diminutive figure in The Deluge, but his principal attributes are unmistakable. He wears red, and he has a long white beard. So too does the figure at the centre of Michelangelo’s scene of sacrifice. The altar over which he presides stands next to a structure resembling part of the Ark in The Deluge. There is further supporting evidence, if any were needed, in the distinct similarity between Noah’s three sons in the nearby Drunkenness of Noah and three of the youths assisting at the rite in The Sacrifice — the boy bearing logs for the fire, the boy kneeling astride the dead ram, and the boy peering into the altar flames. They are the same figures in different poses.

So the chronological conundrum remains, but Michelangelo’s apparently puzzling decision to place the scene out of sequence is most plausibly explained as a victory for expressive power over strict narrative coherence. The Deluge, a subject that involved multitudes fleeing a rising flood, clearly called out for the largest of the three fields dictated by the structure of the ceiling’s design. The artist must have been reluctant to relegate it to the first of his two smaller panels, so, instead, he placed The Sacrifice there.

Michelangelo was the first artist of the Italian Renaissance to create an image of The Sacrifice of Noah that evokes the pagan sacrifices depicted on sarcophagi and other works of antique art. His predecessors, such as Jacopo della Quercia, who had depicted the life of Noah in his bas-reliefs on the doors of San Petronio in Bologna, represented the episode as a comparatively inert act of devotion, showing the patriarch and his family joined in prayer around a simple altar — a far cry from Michelangelo’s dynamic frieze of turning, twisting figures.

In deciding to treat the subject in this way, Michelangelo was looking back in time, past the early Renaissance and the Middle Ages to the distant traditions of Greece and Rome. The artists of antiquity had dwelt in much detail on the material preparations for acts of sacrifice to their many gods — the preparation of offerings, the lighting of fires — and Michelangelo drew direct inspiration from such classical sources in planning his own composition.

Noah’s daughter-in-law, who shields her face from the heat as she places a brand of wood in the sacrificial fire, is directly derived from a figure representing Althea in a frieze on a Roman sarcophagus. The youth seen from behind, crouching to peer into the flames, may have been based in part on a similar figure on a sarcophagus in the museum of antiquities at Naples. He bears an even closer resemblance to the lower, struggling figure in one of the most celebrated surviving classical statues, the pair of marble wrestlers preserved in the Uffizi Galleries at Florence. Since this work was only excavated in 1583, Michelangelo cannot have known it directly. But it seems probable that he was familiar with a similar sculpture, subsequently lost to the ravages of time.

Michelangelo’s allusions to classical sculpture should not be taken to signal an unthinking admiration for the world of antiquity. The opposite is the case. On this occasion, he uses the figural language of Roman art, with its straining, busy forms, to suggest that Noah’s children are so wrapped up in the bloody acts of animal sacrifice that they misunderstand the true significance of the rite in which they partake — the implication being that they are almost as lost in ignorance as those devotees of ancient pagan cults whom the artist has made them resemble.

They wrestle with the reluctant beasts; they carry wood; they tend the fire and exchange a bloody parcel of viscera, destined for the flames. The contrast between these figures and that of Noah himself could hardly be more extreme. While they are lost in mere action, he is absorbed in solemn contemplation. His eyes are lowered, his head bowed in thought. Those around him resemble warriors, but he looks like a priest. His shaven head even faintly resembles a priest’s tonsure.

In the contrast between Noah’s stillness and the movement all around him lies the essence of the picture. In the theology of Michelangelo’s time Noah’s offering was seen as a prefiguration of the Mass, the salvific re-enactment of Christ’s death, the offering of his flesh and blood as bread and wine. It is to that higher rite that Noah’s gesture, pointing heavenwards, prophetically refers. A stark contrast is drawn between the old rites of sacrifice, made redundant by the coming of Christ, and the pure rite of the Mass – between the acceptable and the unacceptable offering.

It is a characteristically Michelangelesque image, nonetheless, one that places a single, inspired individual in a pit of fools. The solemn, white-bearded prophet, rapt in contemplation of the true spirit of God, is surrounded by a crowd of the unenlightened, whirled in the circle of their own restless energies around a vortex of flames.


A Picture That God Can Unpaint — Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 29, 2012

The nine narrative paintings that span the vault of the Sistine Chapel climax in a catastrophic scene of universal destruction illustrating the events of The Deluge. Although it comes near the end of the sequence, it was the very first picture to be painted. The fresco is the largest of the three images in the cycle telling the story of Noah. Its theme is human sinfulness punished by the omnipotent Almighty, the moment when the vengeful and unpredictable God of the Old Testament saw

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
Genesis 6: 5-7

Noah alone is exempt, for God finds that he is `righteous’. He is told to build an ark from gopher wood, and to take on board all of his family. He must also give shelter to every species of animal, `to keep seed alive on all the face of the earth’, for God intends to send a great flood to cleanse the wicked world. As the waters rise, Noah and his family board the ark; `the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened … And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground:

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.”

And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him. Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth. And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind—every bird, every winged creature. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.

The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.

And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
(Genesis 7).

Michelangelo fleshed out this, starkly told tale, transforming it into a panorama of human misery. A disjointed crowd of refugees seek their last haven in a drowning world. The floods of divine vengeance, which despite a raging tempest are not storm-tossed but eerily still, stretch to the horizon, forming a blue-grey field of watery nothingness that will, inexorably, engulf and erase all. In places, especially on the right-hand side of the composition, this dull-colored void is so extensive that the artist might almost have left the fresco bare. This effect has been accidentally exaggerated by a patch of actual paint loss, caused by an explosion in the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo in 1797, which made a section of painted plaster fall to the ground. But a contrast between emptiness and fullness was, in any case, certainly part of Michelangelo’s intention. It is an apt pictorial metaphor for his subject — which is, itself, a great unmaking. A vigorous crowd of the damned is being encroached upon by an expanse so blank as to be virtually abstract. Seen through half-closed eyes The Deluge resembles a picture that has been partly whitewashed. The world is a picture that God can unpaint at any moment.

Michelangelo envisages a moment when the flood has risen so high that only two mountainous outcrops protrude above the waters. To these precarious points of refuge the last remnants of humanity cling, as if washed up by the tides like so much flotsam and jetsam. On the right-hand side of the picture, a group of lamenting figures takes shelter beneath a makeshift tent strung between two tree trunks. To the left, a tribe of antediluvian humanity winds its way up towards the cramped, plateau-like summit of a mountain.

Scale is hard to determine in this blasted, almost empty place, but the considerable height of these stunned unfortunates, measured against the single leafless tree that fails to offer them shelter, suggests they are beings of gargantuan stature. `There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bear children to them, the same became mighty men, which were of old …’ (Genesis 6: 4). Forming a procession of the damned, these doomed titans concentrate on carrying their possessions — pots and pans, articles of clothing and furniture — to safety.

Michelangelo rarely descends to such detail, being one of the least circumstantial artists of the Italian Renaissance. His principal instrument of self-expression is the nude, on which he plays innumerable variations, the corollary of which is that as an artist he shows little interest in the mundane details of day-to-day existence. For him, painting and sculpture, like poetry, were essentially means by which spiritual ideas might be expressed.

Francisco de Holanda, a Portuguese illuminator who made his acquaintance in Rome in the 1540s, recorded a conversation in which Michelangelo expressed a revealing level of disdain for the oil painters of the Flemish tradition. `They paint in Flanders,’ he said to de Holanda, `only to deceive the external eye, things that gladden you and of which you cannot speak ill. Their painting is of stuffs, bricks and mortar, the grass of the fields, the shadows of trees, and bridges and rivers, which they call landscapes, and little figures here and there. And all this, though it may appear good to some eyes, is in truth done without reason, without symmetry or proportion, without care in selecting or rejecting.‘ He added, dismissively, that such .an art was capable of pleasing only `young women, monks and nuns, or certain noble persons who have no ear for true harmony’.7

By Michelangelo’s own stern standards, The Deluge pays an unparalleled degree of attention to the minutiae of ordinary life. At the back of the group of hapless figures hurrying uphill away from the waters, the artist includes an impassive woman in a simple turban. She balances an upturned kitchen stool on her head, on which are poised a conical clay soup jar — inventories reveal that Michelangelo’s own kitchen contained a similar vessel — some loaves of unleavened bread, a stack of crockery, a knife and a spit for turning meat. Painted in muted tones of earth and off-white, this is the artist’s only recorded still-life. The woman carrying it is preceded, in the headlong rush to safety, by two male figures who are similarly laden.

The first, a youth whose long tresses of blond hair are blown sideways by the gale-force wind that courses through the whole scene, carries in his left hand a roll of salmon-pink cloth and a long-handled frying pan. The second bears a heavy bundle wrapped in a blanket, stooping under his load like Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders. On the island to the right, the group of sheltering figures has managed to salvage a keg of wine. One slumped and almost comatose figure, supported by two others, has clearly drunk deeply from it, in an attempt to anaesthetize himself from the terror of imminent death. Another fearful young man, his body curled up in a fetus-like position, lies across that same, presumably emptied, keg. Staring out across the waters with a blank-eyed expression, he seems petrified by fear.

Michelangelo draws attention to these small details but does so in a way devoid of all compassion. The objects that these people have stored against their ruin are not intended to evoke pathos; they are items of incriminatory evidence. These men and women are doomed precisely because they have taken too much pleasure in the things of this world, while paying too little heed to the state of their souls. The objects depicted are themselves pointedly symbolic. One group has loaves of bread; the other has wine.

To Michelangelo’s audience, bread and wine would inevitably have evoked the Eucharist, the mystical body of Christ consumed by the faithful during communion. But the bread and wine in The Deluge are unsanctified remains of impious feasts, symbolizing the sins of an irredeemable multitude.

The painting contains numerous pointed inversions of this kind, parodies of the language of high and sacred art that serve to underline the cursed state of this antediluvian multitude. The naked young man curled against the wine keg resembles a Roman river god — in antique art, the gods of the rivers were conventionally depicted leaning on upturned, gushing water vessels. But instead of presiding over a life-giving flow of water, Michelangelo’s youth prepares to die a watery death. The reclining woman in the other group, to the far left of the composition, also resembles a Roman river deity. But she too is a symbol of death and aridity, rather than fertile life. Her breasts are empty and will bear no more milk, as the weeping infant at her shoulder makes clear.

This pattern of inversion is carried through to several other figures to the left of the painting, which seem calculated to evoke sacred associations, only for those associations to be simultaneously denied. A young man bearing his wife on his back recalls St Christopher carrying the Christ child across the waters. A young woman, who is haloed by a wind-blown arc of plum-colored drapery, and who holds her smiling and oblivious baby close to her, calls to mind innumerable images of the Madonna and Child.

A group truncated by the edge of the frame, to the extreme left, includes another woman with a baby, next to whom patiently stands a donkey — imagery that evokes the Holy Family’s rest on the flight to Egypt. But there is to be no rest for these people, no blessing, no salvation. Michelangelo takes a particular and even cruel relish in forcing the message home, by filling his work with such echoes of other, happier themes. He imparts a brutish, crude quality to these figures, that makes them seem both primitive and irredeemably earthbound. The standing mother is confirmed as an anti-Madonna by the set, sullen, stupid expression on her face. Not one of the doomed titans looks up, or makes time to pray.


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