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Art Review: Decorated Glass Lamps from Mamluk Mosques at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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December 28th, 2014

Glittering Gold &
Colorful Enamel Glazes
Illuminated Medieval Mosques

Mosque Lamp of Ahmir Ahmad al-Mahmandar, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk Period (c. 1325, enameled and gilded glass) and others.

Mosque Lamp of Ahmir Ahmad al-Mahmandar, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (c. 1325, enameled and gilded glass) and others.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Illuminated in their vitrines in a relatively dark gallery, the glass lamps created in Mamluk Egypt and Syria during the fourteenth century attract immediate attention with their colorfully enameled and gilded calligraphic designs. Among the ones displayed in gallery 454 in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, four line up in a vitrine against a wall, while in a case in the center of the room, a fifth appears with two non-lamp glass pieces.

Blue and gold, with accents of red and the occasional green and yellow, spell out Qur’anic texts and florid blessings related to the donor and those he served.1 Produced during the Mamluk period (and the previous Ayyubid one) primarily in factories in Damascus and Aleppo, decorated glass had been around for centuries. Building on advances in technique achieved during those years, Islamic craftsmen perfected a tricky process that required a different firing temperature for the colors than for the gold.2

Enameled and gilded glassware from Syria and Egypt.

Enameled and gilded glassware from Syria and Egypt, Mamluk period.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

This glassware from the Near East during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries acquired an international reputation, so much so that in the next century the renowned factories of Venice adopted what was probably the Syrian method. Closer to home, Syrian suqs abounded with multicolored examples fabricated by local artisans who also catered to Egyptian demand.3 A contemporary commentator wrote of glass items so wondrous in Aleppo markets that visitors did not want to leave.4

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the invasion by the Central Asian Timur (also known as Tamerlane) devastated Syria, shattering the glassmaking centers in Damascus and Aleppo. Rumor had it that he also made off with the craftsmen. By 1500, trade in enameled glassware was totally reversed, with Venice now supplying the Mamluks.5

Such valued objects as those of fourteenth-century Syria would of course over time spawn knock-offs, and samples from the nineteenth century were particularly difficult to differentiate from originals until the conservation laboratory associated with the Musée du Louvre trained Raman spectroscopes on some Syrian glassware to identify the chemical composition of the colors used in known originals.6

Mosque Lamp of Sultan Barquq, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (c. 1382-99, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Mosque Lamp of Sultan Barquq, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (c. 1382-99, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

As expected, lapis lazuli was used for blue and when mixed with Naples yellow, to derive green. Alternatively, cobalt blue was also used to make green. White came from tin oxide and sometimes calcium phosphate. These pigments differed significantly from those used by the nineteenth century imitators–arsenate white, cobalt blue and lead chromate yellow.7

To craft their masterpieces, Syrian artisans would first apply gold to the bare glass shape, using either a pen for lines or a brush for fill. Then a first firing would occur to fix the gold in place. Next came an outline of the design in red and the application of the other enamel colors, followed by another firing8 at temperatures ranging from 600 to 900 degrees Celsius.9 Since the gold and enamels required different temperatures to fuse with the glass, the trick was to find the sweet spot where colors wouldn’t run, the job would get done and the glass wouldn’t be compromised.10

Mosque Lamp, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (14th century, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Mosque Lamp, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (14th century, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by D. Feller.

The resulting enameled and gilded glass lamps were hung on chains festooned with glass balls. Inside them, smaller glass vessels held oil, to be ignited when needed to illuminate the prayer hall.11 Inscriptions appropriately quoted the “Light Verse” from the Qur’an:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
the likeness of His Light is as a niche
wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass,
the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it;
Light upon Light;
(God guides to His Light whom He will.)12

Elements of this poem form part of the inscriptions of at least two of The Metropolitan Museum’s lamps.13

Visitors enjoying the beauty of these objects are afforded a close-up view denied to worshipers for whom the lamps were originally intended, but undoubtedly afforded to like-minded connoisseurs wandering the stalls of a fourteenth-century Aleppo suq in search of a vendor to craft a lamp with inscriptions powerful enough to ensure the patron a place in heaven.
1 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, online object information, accessed December 7, 2014, =Mosque+lamp.
2 Object label text, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
3 M. S. Dimand, “An Enameled-Glass Bottle of the Mamluk Period, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, no date but probably 1930s, 73.
4 Marilyn Jenkins, “Islamic Glass: A Brief History,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Fall 1986, 41.
5 Ibid.
6 CNRS (Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique), “Chemistry sheds light on Mamluk lamps,” press release, September 11, 2012, accessed December 7, 2014,
7 Ibid.
8 Dimand, 74.
9 CNRS press release.
10 Object label text.
11 Dimand, 74.
12 Jenkins, 41.
13 Online object information.


Art Book Review: “Rendez-vous with Art” by Philippe de Montebello & Martin Gayford

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December 25th, 2014

A Quiet Passion for Art

Philippe de Montebello holding Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna and Child (c.1290-1300).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Philippe de Montebello holding Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna and Child (c.1290-1300).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Like a proud father gazing admiringly at the latest addition to the family, Philippe de Montebello holds the small panel painting of the Madonna and Child at just the right angle to benefit the camera.  As then director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, he might have arranged for the photo shoot on the occasion of his visit to the conservation laboratory soon after the new arrival–the museum’s first Duccio di Buoninsegna–was brought home in 2004.

When the painting appeared on the market, de Montebello had to consider whether it was worth the $45 million he knew it would cost.  Of the many factors that went into his decision, the physical encounter with the actual object seems to have been a deciding one, assisted by what he describes to co-author Martin Gayford in Rendez-vous with Art as “the irrepressible need…to have taken possession of the object of desire.”

For de Montebello, this direct engagement with artworks forms the core of his personal enjoyment of them.  It motivated him some fifty years ago to seek employment at The Met, less out of interest in the museum itself than for its contents.  He wanted to “enjoy their physicality, hold them, move them about, and above all share [his] passion with…many others.”  Not surprising then that this photograph became the frontispiece of Rendez-vous with Art, a book in which de Montebello–now director emeritus of that encyclopedic museum in New York City, in collaboration with his sidekick–art critic and writer–Gayford, continues to share his enthusiasm with others.

Rendez-vous with Art book jacket

The seed for the book was planted when the publishers, Thames & Hudson, approached de Montebello about writing something for them and he demurred.  They turned for help to Gayford, one of their writers, whose skill at entering into dialogs with artists produced such winners as Man with the Blue Scarf, his story of posing for Lucien Freud.  This time, however, his subject was to be an art connoisseur, and first they had to meet.

The initial conversation happened over lunch in Paris, where Gayford caught up with de Montebello, abroad at the time.  The chemistry was right and by the end of their amiable chat they agreed to develop something together.  Several months later, when life brought Gayford to New York, the two met again and tossed around some ideas, among them the question, “What is a museum?”  Next stop would be The Met and de Montebello’s choice for the greatest work of art in the world.

Whoever chose the title–Rendez-vous with Art–opted for the French spelling of the first word with its meaning of appointment but also perhaps because of its etymology.  It derives from the imperative form of se rendre, to present oneself, and translates: Present yourself!  Rendezvous (one word, no hyphen) in English carries the additional connotation of assignation or tryst, a meeting between two lovers.

In the book, art is the object of desire that commands de Montebello and Gayford to present themselves.  They obey its directive over the course of many months whenever the peripatetic museum director alights in a city accessible in time and space to the art critic, whose base of operations is England.  For the greater good, de Montebello engages in his least favorite activity, talking about artwork he loves while immersed in its magic.  Gayford holds a microphone under his nose, capturing the precious words that they will later integrate into an ongoing narrative that frames one man’s emotional response to art within each object’s historical context and current museum placement.

Fragment of a Queen's Face, New Kingdom, 18th dynasty, reign of Akhenaten.  From Middle Egypt, probably el-Amarna/Akhetaten (c. 1353–1336 BCE, yellow jasper, 5⅛ x 4⅞ x 4⅞ in [13 x 12.5 x 12.5 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photograph by Bruce White. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fragment of a Queen’s Face (c. 1353–1336 BCE, yellow jasper, 5⅛ x 4⅞ x 4⅞ in [13 x 12.5 x 12.5 cm]).  Middle Egypt.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photograph by Bruce White.  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The reader is grateful for their efforts and the opportunity to eavesdrop on those exchanges, the first of which occurs at The Met in front of a pair of full lips.  Carved in yellow jasper by an Egyptian artist millennia ago, they are all that is left of what was once the portrait of a queen (or princess), and their perfection captivates de Montebello.  He declares the fragment “one of the greatest works of art” ever and admits that if somehow the sculpture were to be completed, it would cease to be for him the source of intense pleasure that it now is.

This first visit to a beloved object establishes the format of the book: a dialog in front of a work of art–each part indicated in print by the actor’s initials (as in a script) in different typefaces–and a third voice (mostly Gayford’s, in yet another font) that binds together this collage of conversations by setting the stage for each day’s events, providing additional art historical information and occasionally ruminating on the nature of museums.

Connecting objects like the yellow jasper lips with works they will later visit, the writers note that all art displayed in museums is fragmentary and forever incomplete, wrenched as it was from some other context.  Constantly changed by the effects of time, the company it keeps in museum galleries and the varying perspectives of its viewers, art–once it leaves the hands of its maker–can never be known again in its original form.  Underscoring the inevitability of this, in the penultimate chapter the reader learns that the director thought to call the current book The Art Museum: An Imperfect Construct.

Considering all the knowledge, ideas and opinions de Montebello accumulated during his time in the museum world, and that those interests inform many of his exchanges with Gayford, that other title deserves a book of its own.  In the aptly named Rendez-vous with Art, the more compelling story is his love affair with art and the solace it affords him.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation (1425-1428, gold and tempera on wooden panel, 76⅜ x 76⅜ in [194 x 194 cm]).  Image courtesy of Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation (1425-1428, gold and tempera on wooden panel, 76⅜ x 76⅜ in [194 x 194 cm]). Image courtesy of Museo del Prado, Madrid.

For a work of art to attract de Montebello’s attention, it must be well crafted but also embody some ineffable quality that eludes description.  Musing about The Annunciation (1425-1428) of Fra Angelico, after noting such fine qualities as “its clear tonalities, its lyricism and grace; the wonderful bipartite treatment in which both the damnation and the salvation of mankind are evoked,” he admits that what repeatedly brings him back to the painting is that it “makes [him] feel good,” adding that “there’s something so serene and uncomplicated about it…looking at this makes me feel better.”  Such serenity might not be so easily attainable surrounded by the crowds they encountered at popular museums like the Prado, where The Annunciation currently lives.

Quieter viewing circumstances greeted them on their visit to the Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, a side trip occasioned when de Montebello’s travels brought them to Amsterdam during renovations at the Rijksmuseum, where Rembrandt’s Night Watch might have been one of their choices.  Instead, they found themselves in front of another Dutchman’s paintings.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, The Mariaplaats with Mariakerk in Utrecht (1662, oil on panel, 45⅛ x 54⅞ in [109.5 x 139.5 cm]).  Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, The Mariaplaats with Mariakerk in Utrecht (1662, oil on panel, 45⅛ x 54⅞ in [109.5 x 139.5 cm]).  Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

In The Mariaplaats with Mariakerk in Utrecht (1662), Pieter Jansz. Saenredam used one-point perspective to create a rapidly receding view of an expansive plaza but neglected to use that schema when he sized the figures scattered throughout his composition.  Though inaccurate according to principles of perspective, the tiny figures in the foreground nonetheless enhance a sense of distance that the eye finds pleasing.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, The Interior of St. Janskerk at Utrecht (c. 1650, oil on panel, 26 x 33½ in [66 x 85]).  Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, The Interior of St. Janskerk at Utrecht (c. 1650, oil on panel, 26 x 33½ in [66 x 85]). Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

In The Interior of St. Janskerk at Utrecht (c. 1650) displayed at the Boijmans alongside The Mariaplaats, Saenredam again depicts a deep as well as broad space, this time bare of any suggestion of human presence.  While the stillness of the plaza in the first painting appeals to de Montebello, it’s the emptiness and silence of the church interior that prompts him to reflect on the beauty of that painting’s surface.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (c. 1565, oil on panel, 23⅝ x 29⅜ in [59.9 x 74.6 cm]).  Image courtesy of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (c. 1565, oil on panel, 23⅝ x 29⅜ in [59.9 x 74.6 cm]).  Image courtesy of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Several galleries away, they stopped at The Tower of Babel (c. 1565) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which Gayford in his role as narrator describes to the reader.  Although little else will be said about it, de Montebello refers back to the Saenredams and explains, “I’m enjoying the fact that I’m looking into the distance behind the Tower–how many miles?  I love space.”

He’s not alone.  Research has found that regardless of whether they’ve ever been to one, people prefer pictures of the savanna, a landscape with slightly elevated areas that look out over large, grassy fields interrupted by few trees.  From such overlooks, Pleistocene humans could quickly detect any large animals whose presence might mean for them danger or dinner, depending on who spotted whom first.1

The Dying Lioness from Nineveh, Assyrian period.  From the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (660 BCE, alabaster mural relief, 6½ x 114/5 in [16.5 x 30 cm]).  British Museum, London.

The Dying Lioness from Nineveh, Assyrian period.  From the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (660 BCE, alabaster mural relief, 6½ x 114/5 in [16.5 x 30 cm]).  British Museum, London.

Perhaps something primal also draws de Montebello to the stone relief carvings of King Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE) hunting lions in an Ancient Middle East gallery at the British Museum, images of scenes glorifying a monarch that leave little room for feline victory.  Singling out for the highest praise that of a dying lioness, de Montebello explains its appeal: “You can almost hear the startled, weakened roar of pain, and observe the lower part of her body, her sagging back already paralysed by the arrow in the spine, leaving her hind legs dragging behind, limp, useless.”

Once again it is the skill of the artist that most impresses de Montebello.  Although the lions are not depicted naturalistically, they have been “observed with a piercingly accurate as well as sympathetic eye…their suffering…rendered with incredible specificity as to the condition of each.”

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Triumph of Death (c. 1562, oil on panel, 46 x 634/5 in [117 x 162 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Triumph of Death (c. 1562, oil on panel, 46 x 634/5 in [117 x 162 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Contrast this with his earlier stated feelings about another gruesome image, The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) by Brueghel the Elder, where the tortured and dying are fellow humans: “it is a painting from which, seductive as the paint layer is, I can’t but recoil.”  Pictured in the lower left corner, a wagon with a load of skulls resonates on a personal level, reminding him of Nazi concentration camps.

Indeed, though many of the visited masterpieces elicit extensive reflections on that imperfect construct, the art museum, the gold to be mined in Rendez-vous with Art is de Montebello’s unabashedly personal responses to his long-standing favorites.  When he compares museum goers who have knowledge of art history (a group to which he obviously belongs) to those more plentiful ones with none, he reminds the reader that “most people react and ‘feel’–or not–in front of works of art.”

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve (1507, oil on two panels, each 82 x 32 in [209 x 81 cm]).  Image courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve (1507, oil on two panels, each 82 x 32 in [209 x 81 cm]).  Image courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Relating that observation to himself while standing before Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1507), he turns to Gayford–his able interlocutor–and wonders aloud, “Why should I be ashamed…of simply asking you if you have ever seen a better-looking Adam or a more adorable Eve?”  Acknowledging that he could go on about one art historical point or another, de Montebello reveals some of what he finds pleasing about the first couple: “Dürer has so engagingly endowed his classically inspired figures with tender sensuality; and I love Eve…You see: no art history here, just my own very personal response.”

Before good fortune landed him at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello was a young man with a craving to spend as much time as possible around works of art.  Decades later, the former student at the Institute of Fine Arts now holds a professorship there, eminently qualified to discourse at length on all things art historical.  Yet he still claims his right to wander among the objects of his desire like everyone else, responding not as an academic but as the passionate art lover he has always been.
1 Anjon Chatterjee, The Aesthetic Brain (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2014), 48-49.

Special thanks to Martin Gayford and Philippe de Montebello for taking time out of their busy schedules to discuss the book.

Rendez-vous with Art
by Philippe de Montebello
& Martin Gayford
Published by Thames & Hudson


Art Historical Musing: Egyptian Portraiture

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July 20th, 2014

The Tomb of Ipuy:
Monument as Self-Portrait

With something like awe, the scientists gazed at the still figure from the past, while in turn the little biped stared back at them with its characteristic expression of arrogant bad temper.

For the rest of time it would symbolize the human race. The psychologists of Venus would analyze its actions and watch its every movement until they could reconstruct its mind. Thousands of books would be written about it. Intricate philosophies would be contrived to account for its behavior…

Its secret would be safe as long as the universe endured, for no one now would ever read the lost language of Earth. Millions of times in the ages to come those last few words would flash across the screen, and none could ever guess their meaning:

“A Walt Disney Production.”

[Conclusion from “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clark in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Volume 1: History Lesson (Originally written in 1949).  Cited in Patrick F. Houlihan, Wit & Humour in Ancient Egypt (London: The Rubicon Press, 2001).]

[To view the slide show in a separate tab while reading the text, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]


Mention Ancient Egypt and most likely images come to mind of the four colossal statues carved out of the cliffs at Abu Simbel, the towering lotus-topped columns of the Temple of Karnak, the rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and/or King Tut’s dazzling tomb furnishings, among the many other examples of imposing monuments built to aggrandize their sponsors.

[Image 1: Edifice as Self-Image Enhancement vs. “Man Behind the Curtain.”]

To believe that these structures represent the total character of the Egyptian people would be like imagining that the National Mall in Washington, DC, depicted everything there was to know about the inhabitants of the United States.

[Image 2: Presentation title slide: Ipuy’s tomb as cleared and repaired by the exhibition.]
[Image 3: Map of Thebes.]

A corrective to that lopsided view of early Egyptian life can be found tucked away between the cliffs overlooking the mortuary structures of the New Kingdom and the tilled land on the west bank of the Nile–opposite modern Luxor–

[Image 4: Village of Deir el-Medina.]

where ruins of a workers’ settlement lie exposed under the relentless Egyptian sun.  Known today as Deir el-Medina, the village probably began its life during the reign of Thutmose I (c. 1506-1493 BCE) as a collection of mud-brick houses surrounded by a wall of bricks in a small valley, reaching its maximize size and population during the long tenure of Ramesses II (19th dynasty, 1290-1224 BCE).1

[Image 5: Map of the Village of Deir el-Medina.]

Not representative of ordinary Egyptians, the residents belonged to a special class of artists, artisans, administrators and others employed to construct the tombs and chapels for the royal family and its close associates in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens.  Of sufficient means, many of these “servant[s] in the Beautiful Place of the mighty king” (their official job title)2 could afford to build respectably sized tombs of their own.

[Image 6: Tomb of Ipuy, Lower Part of North Wall-Workers Crafting Structures for a Tomb & Tomb of Ipuy, Upper Part of North Wall-Preparation of the Funeral Equipment of Ipuy.]

One among those was that of the sculptor Ipuy, whose long-buried funerary structure was originally unearthed in the late 1800s and further explored in 1911.3   Its painted walls contain many scenes of daily life and, of special interest, several showing workers building and decorating structures, furniture and other objects destined for the royal tombs.  In much the same way that the king and his cohorts sought to portray themselves as models of maat (truth, balance and order) with images of their divine authority, unimpeachable devotion and exemplary living, a craftsman like Ipuy would naturally choose to represent himself engaged in his own life’s work.

In that way he wasn’t all that different from later-day artists whose self-portraits show them either among their creations,

[Image 7: Nicolas Poussin, Self-portrait.]

as in Nicolas Poussin’s Self-portrait (1650, oil on canvas),

[Image 8: Deborah Feller, Reflections on Self.]

or in the act of painting, like this writer’s Reflections on Self (2003, oil on linen).

[Image 9: Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting.]

Artemisia Gentileschi, in her Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-9, oil on canvas) made a bold statement by picturing herself as painting personified, a role only a woman could play.

[Image 10: Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio (L’Atelier du peintre): A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life.]

Along the lower part of the north wall of Ipuy’s tomb, the scenes of “Workers Crafting Structures for a Tomb” bring to mind Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio (L’Atelier du peintre): A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life (1865, oil on canvas), a cross-section of the artist’s milieu.

Before they were self-representations, however, the images in Ipuy’s tomb were part of an overall program that served the critical function of ensuring safe passage to the good part of the netherworld and guaranteeing a heavenly afterlife through the establishment of an ongoing cult of worship and offerings.

[Image 11: Village of Deir el-Medina & Necropolis.]

Cut into the cliffs overlooking the large swath of real estate that was the village necropolis,

[Image 12: Deir el-Medina Necropolis, Showing Pyramidion.]

Ipuy’s tomb was originally topped by a pyramidion, standard fair for the mortuary structures he and his fellow non-elites could well afford to build.

[Image 13: Approach to Ipuy’s Tomb Entrance.]

Visitors would first enter the courtyard,

[Image 14: Plan and Section of Ipuy’s Tomb (detail-left half).]

encountering a garden and perhaps an adjoining pool (1), and notice–abutting the tomb’s façade to the left of the entrance–a bench for offerings and a stela identifying the owner, either painted on the wall behind it or erected nearby.  They would see the pyramidion, now missing along with its surrounding cliff rock that long ago collapsed.

Stepping inside, they then would walk through a dark, narrow, vaulted, brick passageway and come upon a white contour painting of Ipuy on his way out of the tomb.

[Image 15: Interior of Ipuy’s Tomb, Southwest Corner of Chapel.]

As they continued, they would enter the vaulted chapel–the only decorated room in the tomb–with its mud-coated brick walls covered in yellow pigment, the ground over which all images would be painted.

In the chapel, on either side of the opening that led beyond through another vaulted passageway, they would notice on two low pedestals, statues of Ipuy and his wife Dowesmiset.  Attached to the wall, each was crafted from brick and mud, then covered with layers of linen, white stucco and paint.  The one of Ipuy included the standard prayer for “all the offerings on the altar [of the god].”4

[Image 16:  Plan and Section of Ipuy’s Tomb (detail-right half).]

Passing the statues and entering the hallway between them led first to a slightly higher and wider vaulted corridor (II) and then to a flat-roofed continuation of it (III) at the end of which a brick wall belied the presence of the undecorated rooms behind it, reachable via a five-foot deep pit in the floor.  The rooms beyond were little more than cavities dug out of the cliff.

Unearthed during the excavations, stoneware and various objects hint at the contents and functions of the tomb, but the paintings that covered the walls of the chapel reveal the most about the life of its owner, providing a portrait of not just him but also of the community to which he belonged.

Ipuy lived with about 47 other men and their families, occupying about seventy houses within the original town plus another forty or fifty outside its wall.  Arranged on a grid, the homes opened onto the main thoroughfare and were all similar in layout, variations reflecting the wealth and social status of the inhabitants.  Paralleling the larger Egyptian society, the “men of the gang”5 had clearly defined positions that by Ipuy’s time had become largely hereditary, excepting the occasional usurpation of the choicest ones through bribery and intrigue.

[Image 17: Workforce Division at Deir el-Medina.]

Men were assigned to either the left or right side of the tomb under construction, with a foreman (“chief of the gang in the Place of Truth”6) overseeing each half.  Of equal clout, “the scribe of the Tomb”7 (appointed directly by the vizier) was the bean counter, tracking workers’ attendance, accounting for all items leaving or entering the royal storehouses, and disbursing wages mostly in the form of emmer wheat (for grinding into flour) and barley (for making home brew).

Foreman and scribe served as captains of the village, links between the community and the central government’s vizier and its overseer of the treasury.  In addition to their usual responsibilities, they could make recommendations when vacancies opened in the workforce, providing additional opportunities to generate income.  Because of their power, they could also draft crew members for work on their own tombs and accept private commissions from outside the village.  Wealthy as they were, they remained integral parts of the community, with their families living among and intermarrying with ordinary workers.

Nonetheless, nepotism was standard fare.  The foreman’s deputy was selected from among his own family, usually his oldest son or another close relative, and was generally next in line for the highly lucrative position of chief.  Till then, however, he was paid just like other workers.

One step down in the hierarchy, the “guardian of the Tomb”8 controlled the royal storehouses, under close scrutiny of the foreman and scribe.  Other jobs included the three guards at the entrance to the royal tomb (“door-keeper[s] of the Tomb”9)–musclemen who also did the village dirty work as bailiffs and debt-collectors.  The police (Mediay) kept order and also had a hand in safeguarding the royal tombs, with the two chiefs participating on local courts and involved commercially with workers.

Then there were the actual tomb builders–stonemasons, carpenters and chief carpenters, sculptors and draftsmen–their apprentices, usually drawn from their own families–and their wives and children.  By Egyptian law, women were accorded rights equal to those of their husbands, including property rights that could sometimes be manipulated to their good advantage.

At the lower rung of the economic ladder were “servants of the Tomb,”10 support staff–woodcutters, watercarriers, fishermen, gardeners, washermen and sometimes potters–who commuted to work from down near the Nile and could hope to become full workmen if positions became available.  For additional assistance, the central government allocated to the workers the services of female slaves for grinding wheat into flour, any unused portion of which becoming another commodity that they could save, swap, share or sell.

During their free time, villagers found ways to entertain themselves.  They especially enjoyed a good party, celebrating religious and other occasions like weddings, births and anniversaries with home brew flowing and young men getting into mischief.

Artists, during break time or other idle moments, could reach for potsherds or small chips of limestone from the nearby cliffs on which they could doodle, practice their drawing,

[Image 18: Sketch from Life Ostracon.]

copy already existing images that moved them,

[Image 19: Animal Ostraca.]

devise compositions for current or future projects, and/or create amusing

[Image 20: Sex Ostraca.]

and sexual cartoons to delight their friends.

When Ipuy was ready to design, dig and decorate his tomb, he didn’t have far to go for a pool of skilled craftsmen well versed in the artistic trends of the times.  As the head sculptor, he could have called upon his fellow crew members to sculpt and carve the required images, yet other than the two portrait sculptures of his wife and himself, all the surviving decorations are paintings.

[Image 21: Nineteenth Dynasty Royal Tomb Painting.  Painting from Queen Nefertari’s Tomb, Wife of Ramesses II.]

Post-Amarna painting–about to slide into a steep decline–still had its exciting moments.  In the royal tombs of the early nineteenth dynasty, notably in the paintings of Ramesses II’s wife Queen Nefertari, painters had even begun to experiment with using darker pigments to indicate shading.11  In private tombs, the new emphasis on black-outlined, primary-colored forms against a bright yellow ground could produce either a garish display of images or the lively, expressive figures that scamper around the walls of Ipuy’s tomb.

Despite touches of humor, the chief sculptor’s tomb was serious business, designed to guarantee the transformation of his human essence into an akh being with full citizenship rights in the netherworld and the celestial realms of the cosmos.  An integral part of that process was the establishment of statue and offering cults, the practice of which ensured continuous rebirths and renewals into the infinite future.12

[Image 22: Ipuy & His Wife Adore Anubis & Ptah-Sokar.]

Upon entering the chapel, the worshiper saw opposite on either side of the entrance to the inner rooms, images of the tomb owner Ipuy and his wife Dowesmiset in the act of honoring several gods.  In the interest of maintaining a certain height and overall size for the figures, and to accommodate the resulting lack of sufficient space, the wife’s picture had to be painted on the adjacent walls.

On the left of the rear wall, Ipuy wears a leopard skin with the cartouche of the deified king, Amenhotep I, attesting to his function as a priest in the then popular cult.  The god immediately in front of Ipuy is Anubis and behind him, Ptah-Sokar.

[Image 23: Ipuy & His Wife Adore Osiris & Hathor.]

On the other side of the far opening, Ipuy makes an offering of flowers and fruit to Osiris and his eternal supporter Hathor, perhaps a comment on the relationship between Ipuy and Dowesmiset.  The mortal couple’s daughter is pictured standing beside her mother, tucked inside the older woman’s skirt.

[Image 24: Frieze of Relatives.]

A frieze of seated couples marches around the upper perimeter of the remaining three walls, originally topped by an accompanying band of text.  At the ends, dressed similarly and identified only by their names, tomb owner and wife lead the throng.  The theme of conjugal pairing finds expression in the grip each woman has on the arm of her man, though from the looks of the squawking bird and attentive cat under one woman’s chair, all might not be as harmonious as pictured.

[Image 25: Presentation of Food to the Dead Pair by Their Children.]

On the south wall to the left of the scenes of worship, Ipuy and Dowesmiset receive offerings of food and flowers from attendants who carry gifts, including painted jars capped with green vegetation.  Arrayed on the table, loaves of bread, a plate of fruit and a bouquet of flowers add to the colorfully festive quality of the scene.  In a nod to Egyptians’ affection for their pets, Ipuy’s lap hosts a kitten playing with the hanging fabric, and under Dowesmiset’s chair, an adult cat looks out at the viewer.

Of particular interest in this painting, what looks like reddish-brown shading on the robes has been explained as staining from ointment that has run down from the celebrants’ heads where it had been poured as part of a pleasurable ritual.  The greater the area covered, the more generous the host had been with the provision of unguent.  Realizing the artistic potential inherent in adding lines of oil stain that would gather in the deeper folds of garments, artists exploited this effect to add color that delineated form where before only lines on white had been used.  Brown hatching follows the edge of the women’s robes all the way to the bottom hem even though the stains stop much further up.

Continuing the tour of the chapel, the visitor next encountered scenes from Ipuy’s life, though at the time of Davies’s excavation, the east wall south of the entrance had fallen into ruin except for certain remnants.  His reconstruction of the paintings was based on previous verbal descriptions, one particular drawing of officials in front of the palace window, and a color copy of Ipuy’s house and garden by the earlier explorer.

[Image 26: Ipuy Receives Award from King Ramesses II.]

In the upper register of the wall, a scene of the king reaching out from his palace’s window of appearance to interact with the sculptor Ipuy continues the defining Amarna practice of close contact between Akhenaten and his people.  Although the actuality ended with the fall from grace of the rebel pharaoh, the idea appeared sporadically in tomb images of this period.  Here the figure in front wears vizier attire while the one behind him, lifting his fan to the king’s face, sports that of a gentleman or official (presumably Ipuy).  The vizier, having recommended the chief sculptor for the reward, presents him to his ruler.  Fragments of text described the other recipients–shown wearing their newly gifted golden collars–as scribes, soldiers and temple servitors, a group to which the sculptor would certainly have belonged.

[Image 27: Burial of Ipuy.  His House & Garden.  His Functions as Priest of the Cult of a Dead King.]

Below the scene at the palace window were pictures that charted the progress of Ipuy’s coffin from embalmer’s workshop on the right to the transport of it on its bier to its final resting place in his tomb on the far left.  Across that register are pictured various rituals performed during funerals: mourners’ sprinkle sand over their heads (signaling their grief) and carry papyrus flowers (expressing hope for the dead), and women raise their arms (praising a deity).

Beneath the funeral narrative, servants draw water from a garden pond to irrigate the lush vegetation that surrounds a building resembling Amarna tomb images of houses, though not that city’s actual structures.

[Image 28: Ipuy’s House & Garden (Drawing Water from the Pond).]

In the Davies painting with one of the servants pictured, the original Egyptian artist detailed a variety of identifiable plant life, deploying cool greens and green-blues (assuming Davies’s fidelity to pieces with intact original color) to offset the warm red-browns and yellow ochers.  He also enlivened the action by turning the head of the servant, who looks behind him rather than to the task at hand.

[Image 29: Burial of Ipuy.  His House & Garden.  His Functions as Priest of the Cult of a Dead King.]

On the far right, in a fragment of a slaughterhouse a butcher weighs out portions of meat, perhaps payment to the workers for jobs well done, while beneath him in the laundry room others toil at cleaning the white robes indispensable for a feast.  Moving left from there, four figures (perhaps Ipuy’s family members) pray at an altar–piled high with offerings–to three barks decked out with images of the Amon-Ra ram’s head, each boat with its own small shrine, not unlike a burial catafalque.

[Image 30: Agriculture Operations with an Aquatic Scene.]

In preparation for that other-worldly journey, on the wall to the right of the entrance a full range of food-producing activities guarantees an eternal supply of provisions for the dearly departed.  In the top register on the left, Ipuy and Dowesmiset sow a field and harvest flax together, something they would not have done in their earthly lives.  The grain that grows is winnowed on the right, adjacent to a scene of date gathering.

Below, an offering ritual tops an open-air grain storehouse where a couple of youths fight a losing battle against marauding birds that include a marsh duck.  In the center of this very busy level, workers simultaneously load onto and empty from two boats, the portion of harvested grain destined to be exchanged in town for urban products.  On shore, market women sit before their enticing wares, ready to relieve sailors of their in-kind pay for wine, beer, treats and trinkets at seriously inflated prices.

Further afield, goats frolic

[Image 31: Goats Led to Pasture.]

and otherwise go about their pleasurable business of cleaning up behind the harvest, mowing down stubble, vacuuming up stray pieces of grain and chaff, and pruning the lower branches of trees.  One of the herd looks directly out at the visitor, another touch of the whimsy so prevalent throughout the chapel.

[Image 32: Agriculture Operations with an Aquatic Scene.]

As other sources of nature’s bounty, the marshes provided aquatic fowl, and the river supplied food fish.  In the old style duck-hunting scene that takes up a large swath of wall, a cat rustles the reeds while a falcon intently eyes the proceedings.

Encapsulated by a thick frame of black, water fills the lowest level, background for two boats jointly engaged in netting a representative sample of each of the available species.

[Image 33: Vintage & Fishing.]

The cool blue-greens offset the warm tones in the register above where vintners gather and press grapes in the already time-worn ritual of making intoxicating beverages.

[Image 34: Agriculture Operations with an Aquatic Scene.]

Elsewhere on the same level, servants pluck and butcher geese, prepare fish and mend netting under the watchful eyes of the bird of prey perched above.  Animals–both pet and prey–pervaded every aspect of Egyptians’ lives, appearing everywhere in their art.

[Image 35: A Catch of Fish.]

Around the corner on the north wall, the lower register theme of fishing and other river views continues.  Young men haul in a netful of fish, load and carry baskets filled with their catch, and deposit them on a table, where preparations for their consumption are underway.

[Image 36: Preparation of Funeral Furnishings & Fishing.]

On the rest of that wall, sandwiched between the frieze of seated guests above and the water below,

[Image 37: Preparation of Funeral Furnishings.]

Ipuy’s crew chisels and paints the furniture and other paraphernalia their boss will install in his tomb.  As head sculptor, this tomb owner had a special interest in the quality of the items produced.  They would signal both his high-ranking status and the proper discharge of his duties in keeping with the principals of maat.

[Image 38: Workers Crafting Caskets, Funeral Craft & Tomb Furnishings.]

Devoted to work for Ipuy’s tomb, the narrower register above (reading from right to left) depicts the chief sculptor and one of his sons surrounded by an assortment of tomb furnishings.  The younger man is displaying the fine pectoral that will grace his father’s mummy.  To their left, work proceeds apace on the decoration of the coffin.  In the earlier stage, a sculptor carves the wood that has been chopped from the tree behind him.  Later, a painter will decorate the coffin’s surface with brushes made from the same plant.

Beneath the scene of an apprentice tending the fire under a large glue pot, Ipuy’s oldest son Any, a sculptor himself, practices reading “the service of the opening of the mouth,”13 standing before a table piled with the ritual objects he will need on the day he performs the rite.  On the far left, the funeral craft in which Ipuy’s remains will be carried to his tomb receives its finishing touches.

[Image 39: Workers Crafting Structures for a Tomb.]

Befitting his role as supervising sculptor in the Place of Truth, Ipuy devoted a significant portion of the north wall to images of his crew laboring in his workshop on a project for the refurbishing of the temple and/or tomb of the long-dead but deified necropolis patron, Amenhotep I.  On the left, sculptors defying gravity work diligently on a structure destined for the king’s mortuary temple shrine.

[Image 40: Workers Crafting Structure for a Tomb.]

On the right, the artist (perhaps with instructions–or at least approval–from the tomb owner) pictures not just the sanding, hammering and painting, but also the shenanigans that are part of any workplace.  On the roof of what appears to be a portable catafalque in the form of a canopied bedchamber, one man attempts to rouse his sleeping friend while another tired soul takes a break on the steps in the lower right.  Across from him on the other steps, a kohl-painter tests his eyeliner on a willing subject while above them a hammer is about to land on the foot of someone shouting directions.

Although difficult to discern, Ipuy strides onto the stage from the upper right, ready to exercise his god-given authority as chief sculptor by restoring order.  In so doing, he demonstrates for eternity the proper discharge of his duties in full compliance with the principles of maat, thus ensuring his safe passage through the duat, the Egyptian land of the dead.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all information about Deir el-Medina comes from Morris Bierbrier, The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1989).

2 Ibid., 27.

3 Unless otherwise indicated, all information about the tomb of Ipuy comes from Norman deGaris Davies, Two Ramesside Tombs at Thebes (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1927).

4 Davies, 37.

5 Ibid., 47.

6 Bierbrier, 27.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 32.

9 Ibid., 38.

10 Ibid., 39.

11 Ibid.

12 W. Stevenson Smith, The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt, Revised Edition  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 213.

13 David O’Connor, “Society and individual in early Egypt” in Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth in Ancient States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 25.

14 Davies, 71.


Art Historical Musing: Ludovico Dolce’s “Aretino”

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July 13th, 2014

Beauty is a Woman:
Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian
Construct the Nude

In 1557, the great Venetian aggregator Ludovico Dolce published The Dialogue on Painting, Entitled Aretino, less than a year after the death of the volume’s eponymous interlocutor.1  A literary man more than a connoisseur of the visual arts,2 Dolce gathered his information from a variety of sources including the letters of Pietro Aretino, Part Two of which he had assisted in preparing in 1542.3

Positioning the Central Italian art proponent, Tuscan grammarian Giovan Francesco Fabrini (1516-1580) as the foil to the poet and reigning Venetian literary personality, transplanted Florentine Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), Dolce explored contemporary debates about the nature of art.  In keeping with his own intellectual interests, he structured the conversation along the lines of a classical rhetorical device in which he “takes advantage of all the tricks and strategies of formal oratory,”4 including a few ad hominem swipes at Fabrini by Dolce’s favorite, Aretino.5

Viewed as the Venetian answer to Giorgio Vasari’s first edition (published in 1550) of Lives of the Artists, which elevated to godhood the Central Italian artistic giant Michelangelo Buonarroti, omitted Giorgione da Castelfranco completely and had little to say about Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian) and his other cohorts, Dolce’s Dialogue covers a lot of theoretical territory before concluding with a partly mythological biography of Titian6 that establishes his superiority over Michelangelo and Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael).7

Along the way, Dolce–through his mouthpiece Aretino–offers praise for Michelangelo’s draftsmanship and Raphael’s delicacy and restraint, intending to use the two artists as protagonists in his description of the elements of fine painting.8  When Fabrini rightfully challenges his adversary on his qualifications to judge beautiful art, he is told that such a skill is within the capacity of anyone with “both eyes and intellect.”9  Aretino draws an analogy between the ability to recognize beauty and the capacity to know good from evil; both are “implanted” by nature and cultivated by learning.10  Beauty, avers the poet, is epitomized by the “harmony of proportion [that] resides in the human body.”11

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Last Judgment (1536-1541, fresco, 45 x 39.4 ft [13.7 x 12 meters]). Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Last Judgment (1536-1541, fresco, 45 x 39.4 ft [13.7 x 12 meters]).  Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Having established his bona fides, Dolce’s Aretino eventually uses them to hurl invectives at Michelangelo’s renderings of the nude by using the Last Judgment as primary evidence.  “He is supreme…in only one mode…making a nude body muscular and elaborated, with foreshortenings and bold movements…[H]e either fails to recognize or else is unwilling to take into account those distinctions between the ages and the sexes.”12  In a change of heart probably motivated by his earlier unsuccessful attempts to pry some drawings from the object of his criticism, the real-life Aretino (in a letter to Michelangelo) turned against the artist he had previously venerated.13  Despite his pique and reasons for it, the poet scored some legitimate points in his observations about his former idol’s female nudes.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, David (1501-1504, Carrara marble, 17 ft [5.17 m]). Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, David (1501-1504, Carrara marble, 17 ft [5.17 m]).  Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Dream (c. 1533, black chalk on laid paper, 15.6 x 11.9 in [39.6 x 27.9 cm]). Courtauld Gallery, London.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Dream (c. 1533, black chalk on laid paper, 15.6 x 11.9 in [39.6 x 27.9 cm]).  Courtauld Gallery, London.

The great sculptor Michelangelo, who carved a paean to homoeroticism with his monumental David (1504, marble, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence) and composed a beautifully seductive drawing called The Dream (c. 1533, black chalk on laid paper, Courtauld Gallery, London) for a beloved young male friend,14 never displayed the delicacy needed for rendering lovely women.  His female figures look suspiciously like men with strategically placed anatomical alterations, exuding masculine power rather than feminine grace.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Night (1524-27, marble, 61 x 59 in; max length 76.4 in diagonally [155 x150 cm; max length 194 cm diagonally]). Medici Chapel, Florence.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Night (1524-27, marble, 61 x 59 in; max length 76.4 in diagonally [155 x150 cm; max length 194 cm diagonally]).  Medici Chapel, Florence.

 After Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leda and the Swan (known only from copies) (c. 1529-31, oil on canvas, 41.3 x 55.5 in [105 x 141 cm.]). National Gallery of Art, London.

After Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leda and the Swan (known only from copies) (c. 1529-31, oil on canvas, 41.3 x 55.5 in [105 x 141 cm.]).  National Gallery of Art, London.

When Michelangelo borrowed the pose of his sculpture Night (1524-27, marble, Medici Chapel, Florence) for his painting of Leda and the Swan (c. 1529-31, known only from copies), he created an erotic composition whose impact comes from both the swan’s bill penetrating Leda’s lips and the bird’s feathers caressing the skin between her enveloping legs.15  Less compelling is the woman’s body, constructed of large masses of muscles (e.g., the left deltoid and adjacent biceps) reminiscent of a well-built man rather than an alluring woman.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1544-46, oil on canvas, 47.25 x 67.72 in [120 x 172 cm]). Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1544-46, oil on canvas, 47.25 x 67.72 in [120 x 172 cm]).  Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

In contrast, Titian in his Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1544-46, oil on canvas, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples) has covered the muscles and bones of his object of desire “smoothly with flesh” and “charge[d] the nude figure with grace,” painting “a tender and delicate nude…naturally more pleasing to the eye than a robust and muscular one.”16  Danaë reclines on a bed of rumpled sheets and fluffed pillows, looking contentedly at the cloud of gold that spits coins at her, in a position reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Night and Leda, either or both of which Titian could have seen on his stay in Rome (1545-46).17

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), Galatea (1511, fresco, 25.6 x 18.75 ft [7.5 × 5.7 m ]). Villa Farnesina, Rome.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), Galatea (1511, fresco, 25.6 x 18.75 ft [7.5 × 5.7 m ]).  Villa Farnesina, Rome.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), La Fornarina (c. 1520, oil on panel, 33 x 24 in [85 x 60 cm]). Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), La Fornarina (c. 1520, oil on panel, 33 x 24 in [85 x 60 cm]).  Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Dolce’s Aretino rarely touches on Titian’s nudes, approaching the subject of the ideal depiction of the unclothed female via laudatory observations about the refined and delicate figures of Raphael in contrast to those of Michelangelo, who “painted porters.”18  He briefly mentions Raphael’s Galatea (1511, fresco, Villa Farnesina, Rome) but goes on at length about his cartoon for the Coronation of Roxana who, though “completely naked…maintain[s] decency [with] a rather soft little piece of drapery conceal[ing] those parts of her which should keep themselves hidden.”19  Indeed, Raphael’s marmoreal La Fornarina (c. 1520, oil on panel, Palazzo Barberini, Rome) looks a paragon of virtue despite the position of her right forefinger–invitingly close to her left nipple–and the suggestively isolated position of her left middle finger in the vicinity of her crotch.  Perhaps it’s the mask-like, idealized facial features and the shrubbery behind her that interfere with the erotic potential of the image.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Venus and Adonis (c. 1554, oil on canvas, 73 x 81 in [186 x 207 cm]). Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Venus and Adonis (c. 1554, oil on canvas, 73 x 81 in [186 x 207 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.

While rightfully stressing Raphael’s “propriety and modesty,”20 the compiler of The Dialogue in a report to Alessandro Contarini on his experience of Titian’s Venus and Adonis (c. 1554, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid),21 goes on at length about the raison d’etre for its composition–the rear-view pose of the love goddess.22  Moved to “sweet and vital” feelings, Dolce “recognizes in the hindmost parts here the distension of the flesh caused by sitting,” likening Titian’s brushstrokes to those of nature.23  He ends the letter to Contarini with a reference to Pliny the Elder’s story of a young man who “left his stain” on a statue of Venus,23 mere marble compared to Titian’s Venus, “made of flesh, which is beauty itself, which seems to breathe.”25

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Venus of Urbino (1538, oil on canvas, 47 x 65 in [119 x 165 cm]). Courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Venus of Urbino (1538, oil on canvas, 47 x 65 in [119 x 165 cm]).  Courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Adonis’s Venus pales in comparison with a much earlier painting that by 1538 resided in the bedroom of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, duke of Urbino,26 and which was Titian’s first depiction of a sexy nude woman without pretense of poetic narrative.27  Though plenty has been written attempting to dress her up in deeper meaning, usually as a blessing for a marriage,28 the Venus of Urbino (1538, oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) remains a tribute to its creator’s genius, not just in his ability to distribute oil colors strategically around a canvas but also in his imaginative composition that practically throws the viewer onto the bed with the young woman.29

When Dolce’s Aretino declared that “[p]ainting was invented primarily…to give pleasure,”30 neither poet nor author had in mind Titian’s Venus of Urbino, tucked away in a duke’s private bedchamber.  For surely if either of them had encountered the seductive lady, she would have had a starring role in the Dialogue.

Giorgione da Castelfranco, Sleeping Venus (1508-10, oil on canvas, 42.7 x 69 in [108.5 x 175 cm]). Gemaldegalerie, Dresden.

Giorgione da Castelfranco, Sleeping Venus (1508-10, oil on canvas, 42.7 x 69 in [108.5 x 175 cm]).  Gemaldegalerie, Dresden.

Borrowing from Giorgione’s painting of a Sleeping Venus (1508-10, oil on canvas, Gemaldegalerie, Dresden) on which the surviving artist had worked after the untimely death of his colleague, Titian in the much later Venus of Urbino opened the eyes of the somnambulant goddess31 and trained them on the implied visitor entering the room.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine, Dominic and a Donor (1513, oil on canvas, 54 x 72 in [137 x 184 cm]). Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, Parma.

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian), Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine, Dominic and a Donor (1513, oil on canvas, 54 x 72 in [137 x 184 cm]).  Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, Parma.

Dividing the canvas between a frontally lit foreground interior and a background bathed in daylight from a rear opening onto the sky, Titian contrasted the reclining nude’s warm, uncreased and otherwise flawless skin against a quadrant of cool green fabric hanging behind her on a dark, bluish vertical drape (or wall).  Suggestive of the cloth of honor backdrop to many a Madonna, this visual trope reprises the artist’s previous use of it in his Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine, Dominic and a Donor (1513, oil on canvas, Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, Parma).  In the earlier, religious work, a dark wall behind Mary, her baby and Catherine partitions the canvas into feminine/indoor and masculine/outdoor spheres, the latter consisting of Dominic and a male donor kneeling in front of a deeply receding landscape under a cloudy but brightly lit sky.

In the equally reverential Venus of Urbino, Titian’s squarish upper-right portion of the canvas could almost pass for a picture hanging on the wall or a mirror reflecting activity within the viewer’s space, so dramatic is the composition’s discontinuous perspective and aberrations of scale.32  Under these visual circumstances, the activity of the maidservants who rummage around in a cassone for an ensemble befitting a noblewoman (or, more likely, a courtesan) constitutes an entirely distinct realm from the one inhabited by the luscious beauty positioned so close to the picture plane.

Reclining on a white sheet that ineffectively covers the bed on which it is spread (perhaps ruffled by recent action or hastily laid down in anticipation of some), this lovely young woman tenderly holds in her right hand a corsage of pink flowers, a rose from which has escaped and fallen onto the exposed portion of the underlying red mattress.  The beauty’s left arm gently snakes over her abdomen and ends in a hand that possesses her mons pubis where, with thumb and forefinger, it busily engages in self-pleasurable behavior.

Whatever socially acceptable function the Venus of Urbino was purportedly created to fulfill, first and foremost it is a tour de force of erotica performed by Venice’s premier artist of the time.  The middle-aged Titian must have spent more than a few pleasurable hours vicariously caressing with his brush on canvas the sexy female model with the come-hither eyes.

The painting that emerged from that encounter conveys “the thoughts and feelings of [his] spirit,”33 epitomizing Dolce Aretino’s venustà (charm)–the non so che (literally, I don’t know what) that defines great works of art.34  Neither Michelangelo nor Raphael ever achieved in their art the beauty that Titian could in his paintings of female nudes.


1 Mark W. Roskill, Dolce’s Aretino and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 219.
2 Ibid., 7.
3 Ibid., 34.
4 D. R. Edward Wright, “Structure and Significance in Dolce’s L’Aretino,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 45, no. 3 (Spring 1987): 275.
5 For example, on p. 34 of Roskill’s translation of the Dialogue, when Fabrini admits ignorance about “painters who [fooled] birds and horses,” Aretino begins his explanation with, “Even young children know…”  Roskill., 151.  On p. 44, Aretino decides that Fabrini’s wrong-headed convictions stem from his letting his “affection” sway his opinions.  Ibid., 171.
6 Roskill, 320-324.
7 Ibid., 185-195.
8 Ibid., 99.
9 Ibid., 101.
10 Ibid., 103.
11 Ibid., 101.
12 Ibid., 171.
13  Erica Tietze-Conrat, “Neglected Contemporary Sources Relating to Michelangelo and Titian,” The Art Bulletin 25, no. 2 (June 1943), 154-156.
14 For Michelangelo’s poems for, and letters to and from, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, see Stephanie Buck, ed., Michelangelo’s Dream (London: Courtauld Gallery, 2010), 76-97.
15 Fredrika H. Jacobs, “Aretino and Michelangelo, Dolce and Titian: Femmina, Masculo, Grazia,” The Art Bulletin 8, no. 1 (March 2000), 55.
16 Roskill, 143.
17 For other possible sources, see Paul F. Watson, “Titian and Michelangelo: The Danaë 1545-1546, Collaboration in Italian Renaissance Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 245-254.
18 Roskill, 173.
19 Ibid., 169.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid., 215.
22 In a letter to his patron Philip II of Spain, Titian wrote, “Because the figure of the Danaë, which I have already sent to your Majesty, is seen entirely from the front, I have chosen…to…show the opposite side, so that the room in which they are to hang will seem more agreeable.”  Quoted in Jacobs, 61.
23 Roskill, 215.
24 Ibid., 217 and 351.
25 Ibid., 217.
26 David Rosand, “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch,” Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” ed., Rona Geffen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 42.
27 Daniel Arasse, “The Venus of Urbino, or the Archetype of a Glance,” in Geffen, 92.
28 Rona Geffen, “Sex, Space, and Social History in Titian’s Venus of Urbino, in Geffen, 63-90.
29 Arasse, 98.
30 Roskill, 149.
31 Arasse, 93.
32 Geffen, 83.
33 Roskill, 97.
34 Ibid., 175 and 176.


Art Historical Musing: Lorenzo Lotto’s “Brother Gregorio Belo of Vicenza”

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July 4th, 2014

His Own Artist
Lorenzo Lotto Traveled His Way

On March 25, 1546, Lorenzo Lotto drew up a will in which he referred to himself as a “‘pictor venetiano…de circa anni 66,’”1 helpfully leaving for future art historians the approximate date of birth of an artist for whom secure documentation doesn’t begin until 1503.2  Perhaps feeling the weight of his years prompted that action, for within a few months he was staying in a friend’s house during a period of illness.3

The peripatetic artist was born in Venice and did eventually set up shop there but not before he had already reached middle age (1525) and established a career in such geographically divergent areas as Treviso, Bergamo and the Marches.  By then Lotto had also spent time in Rome, working on frescos in the Vatican Palace, though they didn’t stay up for long.4

His reasons for roaming seem to have been to follow the money, but even when prospering he could still be enticed by a job in some distant location.  On short notice he would pack up his workshop to reestablish it elsewhere.  Nevertheless, except for his time in Rome, Lotto remained within the Venetian sphere of influence, traveling among municipalities in northern Italy and along the Adriatic coast.

Although Lotto probably spent his formative years in Venice,5 the question of his early training has never been definitively resolved.  During the last decade of the Quattrocento when he would have been serving as an apprentice, the fledgling artist had a choice of either the Vivarini workshop–active on Murano under the auspices of Bartolomeo’s son Alvise–or the highly productive Bellini enterprise in the city of Venice proper, where Giovanni and his most promising students, Giorgione and later Titian, would eventually develop a uniquely Venetian brand of painting.6

Wherever the teenage Lotto acquired his art education, by the summer of 1503 he was well ensconced in the Venetian city of Treviso7 and within three years was referred to as “‘pictor celeberrimus’ – a very famous painter.”8  He spent the rest of his life filling commissions for altarpieces and small devotional paintings, and becoming one of the greatest portraitists of his generation.

Virgin and Child with St. Peter Martyr (1503, oil on wood panel, 21⅞

Virgin and Child with St. Peter Martyr (1503, oil on wood panel, 21⅞ x 34¼ inches [55.5 x 87 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

Beginning with the saint in one of his earliest works, Virgin and Child with St. Peter Martyr (1503), Lotto manifested an uncanny ability to endow faces with individual character and emotional expression, eschewing the stylized and ideal.  In this youthful oil on panel that borrowed heavily for its composition from the Bellini oeuvre,9 Lotto’s interest in movement and interpersonal interaction was already evident.

That sensitivity would remain a part of this artist’s practice throughout a career that spanned over fifty years, appearing at times in the Madonnas and saints that populated his altarpieces and devotional paintings, and finding profound fulfillment in portraits, one of the most powerful of which was Fra Gregorio Belo da Vicenza, produced during the last decade of the artist’s life.

In December 1546, Gregorio sat for a portrait by Lotto in Treviso where they shared membership in the same religious community and probably knew each other well.  Almost a year later the oil-on-canvas, almost-life-size portrait was recorded as completed in the artist’s carefully kept account book, the Libro di Spese Diverse (begun in 1538 and kept until 1556, the year of his death).10  The painting now hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art where in less than ideal lighting it slowly reveals its genius to the interested viewer.

Fra Gregorio Belo da Vicenza (1547, oil on canvas, 34⅜

Fra Gregorio Belo da Vicenza (1547, oil on canvas, 34⅜ x 28 inches [87.3 x 71.1 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Attention travels first to Fra Gregorio’s face, with its display of intense affect heightened by light falling across it from the upper right.  The brother makes direct contact with his audience with out-of-convergent eyes shadowed by lowered eyebrows.  His mouth (clearly revealed under a well-trimmed mustache), with its slightly pursed lips held tightly together, and his furrowed brow, portray concentration and determination.  Wrinkles under his eyes, deep nasolabial lines and sagging flesh indicate aging and attest to Lotto’s intention to show his subject “de naturale.”11

A couple of tufts of hair grow from Fra Gregorio’s scalp, and his long beard–with its few flecks of white–blends in with, and disappears into, the front of his deep-brown habit.  The pulled-back cloak hood frames the lower half of his head, contributing to the pyramidal shape that imparts maximum solidity to both the composition and the character of the sitter.

Fra Gregorio clenches his right fist, pressing it against himself in emulation of Saint Jerome, whose penance involved pounding his chest with a rock.  As a member of the order of the Hieronymites (Poor Hermits of Saint Jerome), Gregorio opted to be portrayed with the attributes of the saint he venerated, taking on Jerome’s behavior and attire.12  The placement of the brightly lit fist on the horizontal midline of the picture, along with the high-value vertical sliver of white sleeve bordering it, underscores the centrality of this hand’s action to the meaning of the painting.

Fra Gregorio, detail of book

Fra Gregorio, detail of book

Fra Gregorio, detail of inscription.

Fra Gregorio, detail of inscription.

Also lying on the composition’s horizontal midline, Fra Gregorio’s other hand holds open a small book, the lettering of which is imperceptible in the museum’s lighting but which has been identified as the brother’s name-saint Gregory the Great’s Homilies on the Gospels.13  The hand is cradled by the arc created by a sleeve edge painted with the highest value pigment on the canvas, directing the eye to the book above it.  The brother leans on a large brown-gray stone block on which is inscribed his name and the date of the work, an additional reference to the sitter’s rock-solid faith and devotion.

The apex of the triangle that is the figure of Fra Gregorio divides the background into two sections connected with an approximately four-inch band of dark, green-blue sky.  On the right, a cool light suffuses the clouds near the horizon, perhaps the beginning of a sunrise following a long night of vigil by the suppliants in the upper left who look wide-eyed at a bleeding Christ still nailed to his cross.  Summarily painted with small daubs of mostly bright color, the figures of Mary, Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Baptist participate in a scene that seems conjured up by Fra Gregorio as he meditates on Saint Jerome’s years spent in the desert contemplating the crucifix and mortifying his flesh.

In a valley formed by outcroppings of bare rock, dead trees populate a slope visible on each side of the opened book, surely a comment on its contents.  By contrast, trees are elsewhere in full leaf, and vegetation covers most of the turf.  To the right of the cross a sapling bends at an angle parallel to that of Fra Gregorio’s head, and sparse vegetation on the crest of the hill just to the right of his left ear mimics the tufts of hair on his head, an example of the humorous note often discoverable in Lotto’s pictures.

Alvise Vivarini, Portrait of a Man (1497, oil on panel, 24½

Alvise Vivarini, Portrait of a Man (1497, oil on panel, 24½ x 8½ inches [62.2 x 47 cm]).  National Gallery of Art, London.

While the three-quarter-length figure of the Brother Gregorio Belo with its expressive features and identifying attributes can be found in some of Lotto’s early portraits, his first forays into the genre link him with Northern European portraiture via Antonello da Messina’s impact on Alvise Vivarini (and imported portraits by Hans Memling and Petrus Christus14).  This Flemish formula of a bust-length, three-quarter view of a highly realistic, brightly lit face against a dark background as painted by Antonello was adopted by Alvise in his Portrait of a Man (oil on panel, 1497) and further developed by both Giorgione and Titian.  Bellini also adopted this format, but his subjects rarely make the eye contact used to such powerful effect by the other artists.

Youth with a Lamp (c. 1506, oil on panel, 16½

Youth with a Lamp (c. 1506, oil on panel, 16½ x 14⅛ inches [42 x 36 cm]).  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Lotto, in his Youth with a Lamp (c. 1506, oil on panel), took the Flemish pose, added emotional expression, and placed the subject in front of a white curtain behind which a flame-lit lamp illuminates a small patch of a long strip of darkness.  With this adjustment, he demonstrated by his mid-twenties a propensity for adopting stylistic elements from other painters while continuing to follow his own creative impulses.

Those idiosyncrasies worked well for him over the course of the mostly prosperous next twenty years and don’t seem to have been a disadvantage in Venice when, as a 45-year-old bachelor, he returned in response to a promised commission.15  Perhaps hoping there would be more opportunities for him now that Giovanni Bellini, Alvise Vivarini and the still-young Giorgione had passed from the scene, Lotto might have been disappointed to find the younger Titian filling the vacuum with a formidable artistic presence.  Nonetheless Lotto stayed, unlike in his younger years when by leaving town he effectively avoided competing with the powerful machine that was the Bellini workshop.

Maintaining his long-standing commercial ties in northern Italy and the Marches, Lotto sought and found new outlets for his portraits and devotional paintings among the citizen class of Venice.  Unlike the aristocracy that governed La Serenissima, these merchants and professionals were free to have themselves painted as emotionally expressive, powerful individuals surrounded by possessions that spoke to their interests and personalities,16 very much in keeping with Lotto’s own artistic proclivities.  At a time when the commanding Titian arranged subjects in static half or three-quarter-length poses against a dark background, including few if any identifying accessories, Lotto obliged with far more dynamic solutions that seemed in deliberate defiance of that reigning authority.17

Perhaps his nervous personality, religiosity, sensitivity to humiliation and the value he placed on his own work18 led him to jealously guard his artistic independence in the fast-paced world of Venetian artists.  As always, he cultivated profitable friendships with members of the local bourgeoisie and for a time was even part of the circle of the Venetian literary lion Pietro Aretino, coming into personal contact with Titian himself.19  Lotto’s willful insularity shows up in the paucity of comments he afforded other artists in his Libro, and in the way he completely left out Titian.20

Strongly apparent in the portrait of Brother Gregorio is Lotto’s open-form manner of paint handling made possible by the advent of oil in the second half of the 15th century.  Initially aligning himself with the older generation of Venetian painters who didn’t change their usual practices when they adopted the new medium, Lotto in his early work used well-defined contours to set off figures from their surroundings.

When Leonardo dropped by Venice early in 150021 and brought with him a novel way of conceptualizing figure-ground relationships, his sfumato (smoky chiaroscuro) inspired Giorgione and subsequent artists–Titian especially and Lotto eventually–to blur the edges of form and exploit more of oil’s potential.  Likewise, because of the versatility of the still-new medium, painters could dispense with the laborious preparatory process of creating detailed drawings.22  By sketching with brush directly on canvas, they could improvise and spontaneously respond to the image unfolding before them.

The portraits Lotto executed after his arrival in Venice, which are among his best, show his receptivity to this new technique.  Like Titian, he painted three-quarter-length figures, but unlike the more successful painter, Lotto portrayed subjects in active communication with their audience, surrounded by objects whose meanings he liked to leave to the viewer’s imagination.23

By 1533, commissions for altarpieces in towns in the Marches once again took Lotto abroad, though he was back in Venice by 1540 and would come and go as business required until leaving for the last time in 1549.  At age 72, he retired to the Marian sanctuary in Loreto, accepting care in exchange for occasional artwork.  Two years later he joined a religious order and on September 1, 1556, made the last entry in his Libro.24

Berenson opens his final chapter on Lotto’s life with the observation that “[o]ld age is a period in an artist’s life…when old habits are no longer to be changed or new ones acquired…when the man most clearly manifests his native temperament, the almost chemical change it underwent in youth, and what it made of itself in middle age…and the man himself appears with a distinctness never perceived before.  As he now stands before us, thus he essentially was through life.”25

At roughly 67 years of age when he painted Brother Gregorio Belo of Vicenza, Lotto poured the intensity of his being into the portrait.  In strong identification with his subject, he commanded his brush and paints with a confidence born of years, imparting to the figure and its setting the same determination and force of will, sacrifice and devotion, vulnerability and sensitivity that both served and challenged him throughout his life.  Lotto reveals himself in this and many of his other portraits in ways that Titian never could.
1 Peter Humfrey, “Lorenzo Lotto: Life and Work” in Lorenzo Lotto, Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance, David Alan Brown, et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 5.

2 Peter Humfrey, Lorenzo Lotto (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 7.

3 Ibid., 153.

4 Ibid., 32.

5 Humfrey in Brown, et al., 5.

6 Bernard Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto (London: The Phaidon Press, 1956), 17.

7 Humfrey, Lotto, 7.

8 Humfrey in Brown, et al., 6.

9 Humfrey, Lotto, 8.

10 Lorenzo Lotto, Il Libro di Spese Diverse, Pietro Zampetti, ed. (Venice-Rome: Istituto per la Collaborazione Culturale, 1963), 74-75.

11 Ibid., 74.

12 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Catalog entry for “Brother Gregorio Belo of Vicenza, Lorenzo Lotto (Italian, Venice ca. 1480-1556 Loreto),“ 2010.  Accessed February 25, 2014.

13 Ibid.

14 Peter Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 11.

15 Humfrey in Brown, et al., 8.

16 Ibid., 102.

17 Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice, 102.

18 See translations of Lotto documents in Humfrey, Lotto, 176-182.

19 Humfrey, Lotto, 156.

20 Humfrey in Brown, et al., 9.

21 Humfrey, Lotto, 118.

22 Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice, 81.

23 Humfrey, Lotto, 90.

24 Ibid., xii-xiii.

25 Berenson, 111.


Art Historical Musing: Carlo Crivelli’s Pietá

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May 17th, 2014

The Unique Style of
A Venetian Artist:
Carlo Crivelli &
His Golden Paintings

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1450, tempera on canvas, transferred from wood, 15¾ x 21⅞

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1450, tempera on canvas, transferred from wood, 15¾″ x 21⅞″ [40 x 55.6 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Bartolomeo Vivarini, The Death of the Virgin (1485, tempera on wood, 74¾

Bartolomeo Vivarini, The Death of the Virgin (1485, tempera on wood, 74¾″ x 59″ [189.9 x 149.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Gallery 606 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art bears the title Venice and North Italy in the 15th Century.  Included on its walls are paintings by Andrea Mantegna (Adoration of the Shepherds) and Bartolomeo Vivarini (The Death of the Virgin).  Some distance from those works, in Gallery 627 under the heading North Italian Gothic Painting, The Met grouped Carlo Crivelli’s paintings, including his 1476 Pietá, with artists from “The centers of Northern Italian painting…,” deliberately excluding Venice.1

Yet in almost all the work Crivelli signed, he made a point of reminding the world that he was “Veneto” (Venetian).2  Born in Venice in the early 1430s, he left little material evidence of his life there before 1457 court records note his status as an independent master.  Sentenced at that time for his affair with a married woman, the young artist spent six months in prison and then, probably not long after his release, left the city.  Over the course of his artistic career, Crivelli traveled among and worked within an assortment of cities in the north and Dalmatia, ultimately becoming closely associated with the Marches.  He was never again documented in Venice.3

Andrea Mantegna, Ovetari Chapel, Padua (1447-1456, fresco).

Andrea Mantegna, Ovetari Chapel, Padua (1447-1456, fresco).

The Met has separated Crivelli from contemporaries linked to his development via Antonio Vivarini’s workshop on Venetian Murano, where he probably received his early training, and Francesco Squarcione’s studio school in Padua, where Mantegna was a rising star.4  As the university town of Venice, Padua was for a time during the mid-1400s “the most creative centre of Renaissance art in all of northern Italy.”5  It drew artists like Vivarini and Mantegna, who worked opposite each other on the Ovetari chapel between 1447 and 1450, and it might have been a stopover for Crivelli as well.6

Antonio Vivarini, Saint Peter Martyr Healing the Leg of a Young Man (1450s, tempera and gold on wood, 20⅞

Antonio Vivarini, Saint Peter Martyr Healing the Leg of a Young Man (1450s, tempera and gold on wood, 20⅞″ x 13⅛″ [53 x 33.3 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

For his multi-panel altarpieces, Crivelli preferred ornate frames, relied heavily on gold over raised gesso as background for single-figure compositions of saints, and rendered naturalistically plants and other still-life objects.  These elements echo the work of Antonio Vivarini, who (unlike his younger brother Bartolomeo) was never completely won over by the Renaissance practices taught in Squarcione’s school–techniques that soon caught on in Venice.  This connection is acknowledged at The Met by the display in Crivelli’s gallery of Antonio’s 1450s tempera-and-gold Saint Peter Martyr Healing the Leg of a Young Man.

Antonello da Messina, Christ Crowned with Thorns (n.d., oil, perhaps over tempera, on wood, 16¾

Antonello da Messina, Christ Crowned with Thorns (n.d., oil, perhaps over tempera, on wood, 16¾″ x 12″ [42.5 x 30.5 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1470, oil on wood (10⅝

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1470, oil on wood (10⅝″ x 8⅛″ [27 x 20.6 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The segregation of these four artists into two different galleries seems to reflect differences in their responses to the advent of a new kind of painting.  In fact, in the same gallery as Bartolomeo and Mantegna are two panel paintings by Antonello da Messina (Christ Crowned with Thorns and Portrait of a Young Man), both done in the oil medium he is credited with popularizing in Venice on his visit there in 1475-76.7

Although Crivelli absorbed some of the lessons of the Renaissance, he remained steadfast in his commitment to tempera, a fast-drying medium that lends itself–even requires–a style reminiscent of pen-and-brush ink drawings.  Finding in Mantegna’s work a powerful example of the expressive power of line only served to reinforce Crivelli’s personal preference for outlining forms and using hatch marks to create shadows.

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486, egg tempera and oil on canvas, 81½

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486, egg tempera and oil on canvas, 81½″ x 57¾″ [207 x 146.7 cm]). The National Gallery of Art, London.

Contemporary in his use of perspective–most dramatically in the 1486 Annunciation with Saint Emidius–and in his illusionistic naturalism–noticeable in the profusion of still life objects in so many of his paintings (especially the enthroned Madonnas), Crivelli took what he liked and leaving the rest perfected an inimitable style that attracted few followers.8  With a fastidiousness for decorative detail bordering on obsessive-compulsivity, he created visual feasts for the eye.

Carlo Crivelli, Saint George (1472, tempera on wood, gold ground (38

Carlo Crivelli, Saint George (1472, tempera on wood, gold ground (38″ x 13¼″ [96.5 x 33.7 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Just two paintings down the wall from the much quieter Pietá, Crivelli’s 1472 Saint George, aglow in his blue, white and gold armor accented with red straps, holds a candy-cane-striped lance.  The artist designed a stunning cuirass that sports lion-headed shoulder protectors and includes a leonine face on the breastplate.  Sharp blue rays emanate from the knee plates and lions’ mouths, finding resonance in the pointed incisors and long snout of the slain dragon who lies dying behind St. George, the broken-off tip of the saint’s lance lodged in its head.  Crivelli’s relish for bright colors, gleaming gold and intricate design is obvious here, but so are the foreshortened feet, one of which protrudes over the marble ledge into the viewer’s space, reminding onlookers of the artist’s keen interest in three-dimensional space.

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child Enthroned (1472, tempera on wood, gold ground, 38¾

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child Enthroned (1472, tempera on wood, gold ground, 38¾″ x 17¼″ [98.4 x 43.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Bartolomeo Vivarini, Madonna of Humility (c. 1465, tempera and gold on wood, 23

Bartolomeo Vivarini, Madonna of Humility (c. 1465, tempera and gold on wood, 23″ x 18″ [58.4 x 45.7 cm]).

Saint George’s graceful hand-on-hip contraposto pose reflects a closer affinity to the work of Bartolomeo Vivarini than that of his older brother Antonio, whose figures lack the animation with which Crivelli imbues his.  Similarly, in the 1472 Madonna and Child Enthroned panel painting attached to the Saint George, the elaborately embroidered gold brocade with which Crivelli adorned his Madonna looks strikingly like the fabric with which Bartolomeo decorated his 1465 Madonna of Humility.

Antonio Vivarini, Pesaro Polyptych (1464). Pinacoteca Vaticana.

Antonio Vivarini, Pesaro Polyptych (1464).  Pinacoteca Vaticana.

For his 1476 Pietá, a scene of profound grief, Crivelli retained the gold-over-gesso background but toned down his colors in keeping with the somber subject matter.   Originally part of a polyptych altarpiece in the church of San Domenico at Ascoli Piceno in the Marches,9 this lunette-shaped panel painting once occupied the position usually reserved for a Christ-Man of Sorrows, as in Antonio Vivarini’s 1464 Pesaro Altarpiece.

Carlo Crivelli, Pietà (1476, tempera on wood, gold ground, 28¼

Carlo Crivelli, Pietà (1476, tempera on wood, gold ground, 28¼″ x 25⅜″ [71.8 x 64.5 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In this representation of Christ after his crucifixion, Crivelli posed the dead body in a seated position in front of a ledge that makes more sense as a compositional device than as the sarcophagus assumed in The Met’s online catalog entry.10  That the artist elected not to place the dead Christ’s body in its usual supine position on Mary’s lap suggests he might have purposely conflated the Pietá with a Christ-Man of Sorrows.

Here, the left arm of the dead Christ is draped over Mary’s left shoulder while she looks up into his lifeless face with its closed eyes and pallid skin.  Her open mouth reveals upper teeth and tongue, as if caught in the middle of an agonized wail, and three large teardrops spring from her right eye.  She wears a blue garment edged in reddish gold, damage to the paint surface of which reveals a higher-chroma-blue underpainting and Crivelli’s intentional muting of the overall color key of the painting.

Mary Magdalen appears at Christ’s right, the most colorfully attired of the four figures.  Yet her green-lined red cloak, cool-blue dress with gold-embroidered edges, and gold-trimmed red bodice and sleeve were all rendered in a subdued manner appropriate to the narrative.  Her golden-red hair cascades in rhythmic ripples from its central part.  As she looks down at the wound in Christ’s left hand, three tears drop across her left check and one over her right.  Creases form around the left corner of her mouth as she purses her lips, perhaps in the middle of a restrained sob.

In the background, a curly-haired male figure whose youth indicates he is John the Evangelist, opens his mouth and extends his tongue in an almost audible cry.  With furrowed brow, lowered eyelids, and three tears coursing from his left eye and one from his right, he looks heavenward as if for an explanation of why this happened to his friend.

Crivelli bunched together his figures, confining them between the arch of the frame above and the horizontal line of the marble ledge below.  Only the pierced hand of Christ escapes this claustrophobic space, drawing focus by breaking through the picture plane.

The four figures appear collaged onto the painting’s surface rather than situated in a three-dimensional space.  With no indication of the structure on which it sits, the body of Christ mysteriously supports the weight of his mother Mary who throws herself at him in a desperate embrace as his lifeless head leans against hers.  On the right, Mary Magdalene holds but does not quite lift Christ’s weightless left forearm.  Behind the three-quarter-length figures, St. John the Baptist’s head floats free of a body barely hinted at by its neck and the white-trimmed collar of a brown garment.  The flatness of the decorative gold backdrop–including the haloes–presses from behind, leaving little room for the unseen parts of the actors in this drama.

In keeping with his love of line, Crivelli created in this Pietá a symphony of visual rhythms, most obvious in the wavy hair of Christ and Mary Magdalene, the curly hair of John and the narrow bands of folds on Mary’s white head wrap.  A spike on the far right of the crown of thorns perfectly overlaps one of the rays of Christ’s halo, and the pointy leaves of the golden background floral pattern further elaborate this theme.  Lines pick out the form, with parallel hatching in areas of shadow but also in details like the random, curved lines of Christ’s pubic hair.

Despite Crivelli’s reliance on aspects of an increasingly out-of-fashion Gothic style, he showed interest in contemporary painting practices by using an external light source, which models form better, and dispensing with the use of a spiritual light emanating from one holy figure or another.  With the hatch marks typical of tempera painting, he placed shadows strategically.  Those below Mary’s right arm fall across Christ’s rib cage and bury in darkness the mildly bloody gash from the soldier’s spear.  Those on Christ’s left arm provide a dark ground against which the left hand of Mary Magdalene stands out.  Crivelli also used color to direct the eye, relating the green lining of the Magdalene’s cloak to the green of Christ’s crown of thorns, and the white of Mary’s head wrapping to that of the cloth across her son’s thighs.

While the grimacing, teary expressions depict emotional distress, Crivelli understated the traumatic nature of the event by cleaning up the blood from Christ’s forehead where the thorns penetrate below the skin on his forehead and leave evidence of their sharp presence by the mounds they raise.  An area of redness is all that remains around the perfectly drawn spike hole on Christ’s left hand, hardly the evidence of torn flesh that would be expected under the circumstances.  From Christ’s chest wound–painted to emulate the open mouths of Mary and John–seeps a narrow, transparent stream of blood that trickles down his torso, dividing into three lines that run down his abdomen.

Michele Giambono, Man of Sorrows (c. 1430, tempera and gold on wood, 21⅝

Michele Giambono, Man of Sorrows (c. 1430, tempera and gold on wood, 21⅝″ x 15¼″ [54.9 x 38.7 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Crivelli’s Pietá tells a story about suffering.  In contrast, Michele Giambono’s 1430 Man of Sorrows evokes in the viewer empathy for the afflicted.  In this tempera-and-gold panel painting that sits in a vitrine just a few feet away from Crivelli’s work in the North Italian Gothic gallery, the older Venetian artist used gesso to model in relief the crown of thorns and the blood that flows copiously from the victim’s wounds.  The faces of Christ and St. Francis are realistically rendered, further contributing to the image’s emotional pull.  In comparison, Crivelli’s faces take on a highly stylized appearance that creates a comfortable distance between the painful subject matter and its audience.

Like Bartolomeo’s faces in The Death of the Virgin, those in Crivelli’s Pietá convey the idea of emotion rather than its actual appearance (note the calculated number of tear drops), perhaps in keeping with the humanistic trend of the time.  More curious is the lack of believable space in a painting by an artist who established it in other works.  Perhaps Crivelli’s goal here was to bring the narrative action as close as possible to the worshiping public by pressing the figures up against the picture plane.

Whatever Crivelli had in mind, in this Pietá he combined the best of his earlier influences with his own unique vision.  In this, one of his sparer compositions, he arranged three mourners around the body of a recently tortured and murdered loved one.  Their grief-stricken expressions reveal the pain that wracks their bodies while the oddly serene look on the victim’s face shows that unlike them, he is now free of human suffering.  It is a picture that could only have been painted by Carlo Crivelli, Veneto.

1 Gallery 627 description, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

2 Zampetti, Pietro, Carlo Crivelli (Florence: Nardini Editore, 1986), 12.

3 Lightbown, Ronald, Carlo Crivelli (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 3.

4 Ibid, 4.

5 Humfrey, Peter, Painting in Renaissance Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 53.

6 Lightbown, 3.

7 Hills, Paul, Venetian Colour (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 162.

8 Rushforth, G. McNeil, Carlo Crivelli (London: George Bell and Sons, 1908), 78.

9 Zampetti, 140.

10 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Catalog entry for “Pietà, Carlo Crivelli (Italian, Venice [?], active by 1457-died 1495 Ascoli Piceno),” 2011.  Accessed February 16, 2014.


Book Review: “Ribera” by Javier Portús

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December 1st, 2013

Through Spanish Eyes

by Javier Portús

[To view the slide show in a separate tab while reading the text, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

[Image 1: Book cover.]

When the Chief Curator of Spanish Painting (up until 1700) at the Prado Museum in Spain decides to write a monograph on Jusepe de Ribera as part of that institution’s series spotlighting several of its art stars, it’s a given that he assumes the artist belongs in his country’s pantheon.  Lest there be any doubt, the note on the inside front dust jacket of Javier Portús’s Ribera claims the painter and printmaker as a “leading figure in the baroque Spanish tradition–alongside El Greco, Velázquez and Zurbarán,” and names him José rather than the more Italian, Jusepe.

In the very first paragraph, under the chapter heading “In Search of an Identity,” Portús acknowledges this inherent bias and addresses the tradition of categorizing Ribera as a Spanish painter even though the artist left Spain when he was barely twenty and never returned to the land of his birth.  Aware of the exalted status of artists in Italy, Ribera chose it over a Spain that was “‘a pious mother to foreigners but a very cruel stepmother to her own native sons.’”

[Image 2: Map of Iberian Peninsula, 1270-1492.]

Born in Xátiva, Valencia, in 1591, Ribera vanishes in the record for the next twenty years.  No documentation has so far been uncovered beyond his baptismal certificate, dated February 17, 1591, that indicates his whereabouts prior to June 11, 1611, when a record of payment for a painting places him in Parma, Italy.

There are, however, documents indicating that when Ribera was six years old, his father remarried and did so again ten years later.  It’s likely that the reasons for the remarriages were the deaths in childbirth, or from illness, of the boy’s first two mothers.  Perhaps the second loss, before the boy was sixteen, prompted the fledgling artist to leave home and seek his fortune where his work would be more highly regarded, a possibility that squares with recent scholarship that pushes back the date of his arrival in Italy–specifically Rome–by several years.

By 1613, Ribera was well enough established to receive an invitation to a meeting at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome.  During his subsequent three years in that city, he came in contact with the legacy of Caravaggio, an artist who had fled the city by 1606, leaving behind many followers and plenty of artwork to impress and influence the young Spanish immigrant.  That Ribera led “a disordered life” there suggests that he fell in with the artists who once accompanied Caravaggio on his nightly rounds and got into street brawls and entanglements with the law.

Portús picks up his narrative in Rome, laying out his position regarding Ribera’s national affiliation, first by noting how the painter’s style evolved from Caravaggesque tenebrism and undefined space to lighter-colored, multi-figured compositions in architectural settings, and then by drawing attention to the manner in which the artist signed his name.

[Image 3:
Denial of St. Peter (c. 1614, oil on canvas, 64.2″ x 91.75″ [163 x 233 cm]).  Galleria Corsini, Rome.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Denial of St. Peter (c. 1610, oil on canvas, 37″ x 49.4″ [94 x 125.4 cm]).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600, oil on canvas, 127″ x 130″ [322 x 340 cm]).  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.]

That Caravaggio’s tenebrism had a strong impact on Ribera’s early works is readily accepted by Portús, who finds in the younger artist’s “painterly technique and…enthusiasm for chiaroscuro effect” a direct link.  He seems to miss the other commonalities between the master and the newly minted artist that continued well into Ribera’s later years, similarities that include more than just the raking light that originates on the left.  Caravaggio’s theatrical compositions placed gesturing, three-quarter-length figures, wearing dramatic facial expressions, in an undefined space, characteristics evident in the paintings Portús selects to connect the two painters.

In his Denial of St. Peter (c. 1614), Ribera borrows the denying saint’s pose directly from Caravaggio’s painting of the same name (about 1610) and includes figures around a table, a common theme among the Caravaggisti and traceable to Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600), which is also the source of Christ’s pointing finger in the younger painter’s Resurrection of Lazarus (c.1616), which Portús mentions in his comparison of the two artists’ work.

[Image 4:
The Resurrection of Lazarus (c.1616, oil on canvas, 55″ x 90½” [171 x 289 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600, oil on canvas, 127″ x 130″ [322 x 340 cm]).  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Raising of Lazarus (1608-9, oil on canvas, 149.6″ x 108.3″ [380 x 275 cm]).  Museo Nazionale, Messina.]

The curator, in noting the power of tenebrism to heighten emotions, sees a qualitative difference between the “tumult and anxiety” in Caravaggio’s Raising of Lazarus (1608-9) compared with the toned down emotional content of Ribera’s version, observing too the contrast between the “deliberate crowding” in the former and a “clear distinct space” for each figure in the latter. It seems strange, though, that the writer would choose a painting with a compositional format so removed from Ribera’s and from the more relevant Caravaggios with their three-quarter-length figures in shallow space.

[Image 5: The Communion of the Apostles (1651, oil on canvas, 157.5″ x 157.5″ [400 x 400 cm]).  Certosa di San Martino, Naples.]

Having compared and contrasted Ribera’s early Caravaggesque style with that of its originator, Portús goes on to illustrate how that style gradually evolved over time, retaining its naturalism.  He uses the large-scale Communion of the Apostles (1651) done the year before Ribera’s death to chart those changes, particularly in the way the painter has brightened his palette and opened up space with a blue sky populated by flying angels and an arcade receding to some unspecified place.  Portús sees the drapery across the top as the artist’s allusion to the painting’s artificial nature, though it could just as easily be read as a stage curtain pulled back to reveal the dramatic event.  Marveling at Ribera’s skill, the writer points out the interplay of the five hands’ participating in this first offering of holy communion, as well as the parallel action of the kneeling St. Peter’s left hand with the right foot of the standing Christ.

[Image 6: The Immaculate Conception (1635, oil on canvas, 67.7″ x 112.2″ [502 x 329 cm]).  Church of the Convento de las Agustinas Recoletas de Monterrey, Salamanca.]

To further note Ribera’s gradual move away from a Caravaggesque style, Portús cites two other paintings–The Immaculate Conception (1635) and St. Januarius Emerges Unscathed from the Oven (1646), both undeniably different in appearance from early works.  The reader will discover in a matter of pages, however, that these paintings were contemporaneous with others that continued to include many elements from Ribera’s Rome years.

[Image 7:
St. Januarius Emerges Unscathed from the Oven (1646, oil on copper, 126″ x 78.75″ [320 x 200 cm]).  Real Cappella del Tesoro di San Gennaro, Naples.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600, oil on canvas, 127.2″ x 135″ [323 x 343 cm]).  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.]

In fact, a closer look at the composition and figures in the St. Januarius demonstrates Ribera’s memory of Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600), which he would have seen in the chapel where it did (and still does) reside in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.  First and most obvious is the quote of Caravaggio’s open-mouthed boy, wearing white and looking back over his shoulder at the impending execution.  Ribera mirrors that expression and pose in his young man in red on the left, who looks out at the viewer.  Less direct but clearly related is the placement of a foreground figure in each lower corner to frame the action.  Like Caravaggio, Ribera positions one with his back to the audience and the other stretched out on the ground, body facing forward and head turning back toward the unmarred saint.  Tumult abounds in both pictures.

The debate about Ribera’s nationality takes on new complexities once he relocates to Naples, where he is documented by 1616.  The bustling city, capital of a Spanish viceroyalty, offered the artist opportunities to market himself to his compatriots, particularly the procession of viceroys who came and went during the 36 years Ribera lived there.  Through commissions and sales to patrons who moved between Naples and Spain, the painter spread his influence to at-home Spanish artists, the names of which Portús lists as he picks up the thread about nationality with a focus on Ribera’s signature.

[Image 8: Balthasar’s Vision (1635, oil on canvas, 20.5″ x 25.2″ [52 x 64 cm]).  Palazzo Arcivescovile, Milan.]

In Spain, writers like Francisco Pacheco claimed the artist as their own; in Italy, he was known as lo Spagnoletto, a nod to his place of origin.  A diminutive with negative connotations, the nickname translated to the Spanish el españoleto but was bypassed by Ribera when he settled on signature styles.  Portús points out how the painter signed an unusually large number of works compared to other artists of that time and chose the more dignified español over the well-known españoleto to emphasize his association with Spain.

The curator delves into a variety of signature issues in trying to discern whether Ribera identified himself as first and foremost Spanish.  Whatever else the proliferation of signed works might indicate, they show that Ribera was “greatly concerned with leaving written evidence of the authorship of his work,” and Portús finds plenty of examples to prove that point.

Often the signatures call attention to themselves as integral parts of the composition.  In the small canvas, Balthasar’s Vision (1635), Ribera painted “Jusepe de Ribera español F. 1635″ in the same script used by the hand that writes on the wall.

[Image 9:
Drunken Silenus (1626, oil on canvas, 72.8″ x 90.2″ [185 x 229 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
-Detail of signature.  Drunken Silenus (1626, oil on canvas, 72.8″ x 90.2″ [185 x 229 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.]

In the Drunken Silenus (1626), in the lower left corner, a snake–that symbol of envy–tears apart a scrap of paper on which is written the artist’s name.

[Image 10: The Communion of the Apostles (1651, oil on canvas, 157.5″ x 157.5″ [400 x 400 cm]).  Certosa di San Martino, Naples.]

In The Communion of the Apostles, in the lower left, the piece of paper is so large as not to be missed.

[Image 11:
Large Grotesque Head (1622, etching, 8.5″ x 5.7″ [21.7 x 14.5 cm]).  Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.
Head of a Man with Little Figures on His Head (c. 1630, pen and brown ink with brown wash over some black chalk on paper, 611/16″ x 41/16″ [17 x 10.4cm]).  Philadelphia Museum of Art.]

Signed works like these are more abundant after 1625, but the desire to publicize his prowess as an artist is already evident several years earlier in etchings Ribera created and circulated to advertise his wares and generate income.  Unlike paintings, prints lend themselves to mass production and widespread distribution, and Ribera exploited both attributes to reach potential customers throughout Europe.

These mostly signed works also constituted a showcase for the artist’s drawing skills and his command of the printmaking process.  Portús sees the etchings, seventeen in number and created prior to 1630, as vehicles for Ribera’s “highly questing creative spirit,” observing in them “an unequivocally Riberesque world…of narrative resources, human types, varied subject matter and different emotional climates.”  In the Large Grotesque Head (1622), the artist explores a particular type and in the drawing of a Head of a Man with Little Figures on His Head (c. 1630) he displays a touch of whimsy and playfulness, though a darker meaning might lurk nearby.  Might those little men represent obsessional thinking and/or auditory hallucinations?

[Image 12:
Calvary (c. 1618, oil on canvas, 132.25″ x 90.5″ [336 x 230 cm]).  Collegiate Church, Osuna.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595–96, oil and tempera on canvas, 39⅜” x 53″ [100 x 134.5 cm]).  Detroit Institute of Arts.]

If Ribera identified himself as Spanish, his paintings anchor him firmly in the Italian Baroque and were seen as such by two practiced connoisseurs, Philip IV and Diego Velázquez, when they selected his artwork while redecorating El Escorial in the late 1650s.  His “thoroughly Italianate” style qualified him as the only Spanish painter to be displayed in the company of such Italian masters as Titian and Veronese.

Straddling both worlds began to pay off for Ribera soon after he landed in Naples, with commissions for paintings that arrived at their destination–the Collegiate Church in Osuna, Spain–by 1627.  Among these was a crucifixion, Calvary (c. 1618), a tour de force in tenebrism and emotion, whose colorful fabrics bring to mind those in Caravaggio’s Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595-96).

[Image 13:
-View of the nave of the Certosa di San Martino, Naples.
-Paintings of the prophets Joel and Amos above the church arches in the Certosa di San Martino, Naples.]

A decade later, Ribera would execute in Naples a series of prophets for the Certosa di San Martino, a monastery on a hill overlooking the city.  The painter met the challenge of devising compositions that conformed to the irregular spaces into which they were to be placed by relating each figure to its surrounding architecture.  Portús mentions that although a number of Ribera’s paintings did find their way to religious institutions like the Osuna church and Carthusian Monastery, commissions like these were rare.  Instead, the artist specialized “in medium-size and small paintings, conceived for private collections and chapels and easily transportable,” mostly of a sacred nature.

[Image 14: St. Bartholomew (c. 1613, oil on canvas, 49.6″ x 38.2″ [126 x 97 cm]).  Fondazione Roberto Longhi, Florence.]

Portús soon delves into the “Riberesque” world depicted in those compositions, one “in which joy or happiness is hard to find, in which laughter creates a sinister effect and tenderness is rare.”  At the same time, themes of “piety, stoicism, devotion, austerity, meditation and drama abound,” with “cruelty and the grotesque” an integral part of much of his work.  Most of those qualities, particularly the last two, are quite evident in the bloodless but flayed St. Bartholomew (c. 1613) who holds in his right hand the instrument of his torture and drapes over his left arm his recently removed skin, replete with facial features and hair.  The theme of flaying remains of interest to Ribera, who comes back to this saint in future paintings and also explores the myth of Marsyas and Apollo.

Of Ribera’s style, Portús notes its naturalism, as seen in the specific human types that populate the artist’s compositions, and its “precise and descriptive pictorial idiom.”  He describes how the painter clothes his humble characters in earthy-colored, outdated garments that emphasize their poverty, and gives them bearded–they are mostly male–expressive faces with wrinkled, weatherbeaten skin.  Portús traces this rejection of the prevailing Renaissance preference for idealization to certain antique Roman sculpture, while missing the possible influence of Caravaggio’s depiction of religious figures as ordinary people who sometimes reveal their dirty feet.

[Image 15:
Smell (c. 1615, oil on canvas, 45.25″ x 34.65″ [115 x 88 cm]).  Private collection, Madrid.
Sight (c. 1615, oil on canvas, 44.9″ x 35″ [114 x 89 cm]).  Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico, DF.]

Among Ribera’s secular subjects, a series of the five senses dates to his early years in Rome and reappears in later paintings that dramatically demonstrate the evolution of his style.  A long-standing traditional theme in Western art, the senses presented opportunities for innovation that, according to Portús, Ribera exploited by situating all the figures behind a table, directing their gaze toward the viewer (except for the blind man in Touch [1615]), and giving them objects and behavior that illustrate the pictured sense.  Light streams in from the upper left, illuminating the detailed depiction of still-life objects, facial features and cloth.  Portús notes that in Sight, Ribera equipped the character with a telescope, a device only recently invented by Galileo.

[Image 16:
Touch (1615, oil on canvas, 44.85″ x 35″ [114 x 89 cm]).  Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California.
Touch (1632, oil on canvas, 49.2″ x 38.5″ [125 x 98 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

When the painter returned to the theme of the senses some fifteen years later with his 1632 Touch, he retained the trope of using a blind man perceiving a sculpted head to emphasize the absence of sight.  What Portús calls the “unnecessary” portrait painting on the table in the 1615 version, echoed by a similar object in the later one, is ascribed to Ribera’s need to keep the composition of this sense parallel with that of the others in the series.  It might also refer to the paragone, that age-old competition between sculpture and painting for highest artistic honors.

The most immediate differences between the two paintings occur in the lighting, range of color, pose, attire and detail with which Ribera renders it all.  The raking light from the left that divides the background diagonally in the first work is replaced by a mostly dark backdrop that lacks any direct relationship to the light that picks out the details in the face, hands and sculpture.  Where the blind man, wearing what might be a sculptor’s smock, turns from the viewer in the earlier version, he now wears tattered clothing and faces front, handling a less classical head.  Finally, Ribera has aged him by greying his beard and wrinkling his skin.

[Image 17: Protagoras (1637, oil on canvas, 48.88″ x 38.75″ [124 x 98 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.]

The general layout the painter devised for picturing the senses became a handy template to be used freely in subsequent single-figure paintings.  Using a limited palette, Ribera represented three-quarter-length philosophers and saints against a dark background, sitting or standing behind or near a table adorned with still-life objects symbolic of the subject–all depicted with remarkable detail.

Counting over thirty paintings of philosophers done by the artist, Portús writes about them at length, concluding that anyone standing before them “might believe they are in the presence of a collection of ragged ‘secular saints.’” In comparing a couple of Ribera’s philosophers to similarly presented saints, he observes that the clothing of the saints is considerably neater.

[Image 18:
Democritus (1614, oil on canvas, 40.15″ x 29.9″ [102 x 76 cm]).  Private collection, London.
Democritus (1630, oil on canvas, 49.2″ x 31.9″ [125 x 81 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

In revisiting one philosopher in particular, Ribera again provided an opportunity to compare the changes over time in his thinking about his subject and his art.  The Democritus (1614) from his Rome years has a similar palette and lighting scheme as the contemporaneous Touch, while the Democritus executed in 1630 displays changes comparable to those associated with the 1632 Touch.  In both renditions of Democritus, Ribera has associated philosophy with poverty by emphasizing the torn clothing.

[Image 19: St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment (1626, oil on canvas, 142.5″ x 64.5″ [362 x 164]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.]

Having focused mostly on paintings from Ribera’s years in Rome, Portús now moves with him to Naples, where the painter relocated around 1616, married and added to his repertoire large-format canvases of saints, many of which are shown at the moment of their martyrdom in various stages of exposure.  As the writer puts it, Ribera “discovered one of the methods he would apply with great frequency and success [to transmit] feelings of religious devotion: description of flesh…[that endows] the human body with special significance as the scenario of saintliness.”  Portús attributes this change of focus to Ribera’s encounter with a different client base, by implication less sophisticated.

An early example of Ribera’s exploitation of flesh’s potential for expressiveness is his St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment (1626).  In this vertical composition, the artist has raised the saint’s arms to expose his brightly illuminated bare torso, making it the center of interest and a testament to the vulnerability of the body, appropriate for a scene where St. Jerome is being called to his maker.  The lighting, gestures and threatening dark clouds heighten the drama and make practically audible the trumpet’s ominous blare.

[Image 20:
Magdalena Penitent (1637, oil on canvas, 38.2″ x 26″ [97 x 66 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.
St. Mary the Egyptian (1641, oil on canvas, 52.4″ x 41.75″ [133 x 106 cm]).  Musée Fabre, Montpellier.]

Two paintings of penitent women–their creation separated by just a few years–demonstrate the impact bare skin can have on the expressive tone of a composition.   In Magdalena Penitent (1637), a fully clothed Mary is shown with the furrowed brow and lowered upper eyelids of sorrow as she leans her head on her prayerfully clasped hands, which in turn are supported by a skull they partially embrace.  Her remorse is as evident as her beauty.

In the starkly different St. Mary the Egyptian (1641), who is often confused with Mary Magdalene, Ribera places this patron saint of penitents in a barren environment near a skull and crust of bread.  Hands joined in prayer, Mary of Egypt gazes upward, her ascetic penance underscored by the heavy brown cloth that doesn’t quite cover her weathered skin.  By exposing her flesh, Ribera infused the scene with the same sense of vulnerable mortality that he did in his St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment, a feeling absent from his lovely Magdalena Penitent.

[Image 21: The Martyrdom of St. Philip (1639, oil on canvas, 92.1″ x 92.1″ [234 x 234]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Further exploiting the expressive potential of nakedness, as Portús observes, Ribera arrived at a formula for his martyrdom narratives, key elements of which are nude or partially draped male saints whose nakedness and expressions of meditative acceptance stand in sharp contrast to those of their clothed torturers, intent on their murderous tasks with sadistic glee.  In some of these paintings, figures populate the background, variously watching or not.

In one example, The Martyrdom of St. Philip (1639), two diagonals bisect the picture and meet at the saint’s spotlighted rib cage, which comes into view as his body is slowly hoisted up–his wrists tied to the crosspiece of his crucifixion.  Among the spectators, expressions range from the amused interest of the man on the right who supports his head on his hand to the knowing look on the woman in the lower left who holds a baby and stares out at the viewer, implicating all in this act of torture.

[Image 22:
Scene of Torture (1637-1640, pen and brown ink, brown wash, 5⅜” x 10⅝” [13.6 x 27.2 cm]).  Teylers Museum, Haarlem.
Torture Scene (N.d., drawing, no dimensions).  Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa.]

Ribera’s personal interest in such scenes of torture shows up in drawings he executed “for which no sources have been found in the Scriptures.”  An undated one, apparently in pen and brown ink with brown wash, shows a tree festooned with miniature figures–easily mistaken for acrobats–involved in a hanging.  A man in a small audience, with a child hanging onto him, indicates the performance to a newcomer who tips his hat in friendly greeting.  No one seems troubled by the unfolding events.  In another ink drawing, the executioner is about to hack into his defenseless victim who is stretched out between, and tied to, two sets of posts.

[Image 23: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1617, oil on canvas, 70.5″ x 52.75″ [179 x 139 cm]).  Collegiate Church, Osuna, Spain.]

As mentioned earlier, flaying held a particular fascination for Ribera who explored that form of torture in at least five versions of The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew.  The Rome 1613 portrait of the saint holding his skin was followed in 1617 by perhaps the artist’s first Naples edition, which has an almost clinical quality to it.

[Image 24: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1628, oil on canvas, 57″ x 85″ [145 x 216 cm]).  Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, Florence.]

Over the years, Ribera would create additional compositions portraying St. Bartholomew, each exemplifying his stylistic preferences at the time.

[Image 25: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1630, oil on canvas, 79.5″ x 60.2″ [202 x 153 cm]).  Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.]

[Image 26: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1634, oil on canvas, 40.9″ x 44.5″ 104 x 113 cm]).  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.]

In the 1634 version, he simplified the composition by eliminating figures and zooming in on the face of the emotionally detached executioner who regards his victim with curiosity as he sharpens his knife.  St. Bartholomew looks heavenward as if seeking out some source of comfort in this moment where his faith is being tested.

[Image 27:
Apollo and Marsyas (1637, oil on canvas, 71.6″ x 91.3″ [182 x 232 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
-Detail of Marsyas’s face, flipped.
-Detail of Study of Noses and Mouths (c. 1622, etching).  Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.]

In discussing Ribera’s treatment of emotions, Portús isolates his special interest in those “related to devotion, piety, cruelty and pain,” recalling drawings and prints like the Study of Noses and Mouths (c. 1622) to illustrate the artist’s “penchant for these themes and for the grotesque.”  The curator connects the wide-open mouth of that etching to the victim’s scream in Apollo and Marsyas (1637), a distinctly different response to the slicing knife from that of St. Bartholomew in the 1630 version of his ordeal.

[Image 28:
-Detail of Marsyas’s face, flipped, Apollo and Marsyas (1637, oil on canvas, 71.6″ x 91.3″ [182 x 232 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
-Detail of face, flipped, The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1630, oil on canvas, 79.5″ x 60.2″ [202 x 153 cm]).  Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.]

Portús observes that in Ribera’s depiction of mythological subjects, “their facial expressions…invariably reveal all the horror…[while] the attitude of the saints is always one of piety and acceptance of torture,…a highly effective means…to convey religious feeling.”  This difference is apparent in the faces of Marsyas and St. Bartholomew; the former screams in agony and looks directly at the viewer, while the latter contains his anguish and rolls his eyes upward in an attempt to mentally escape his pain.

[Image 29: The Trinity (1635, oil on canvas, 89″ x 46.5″ [226  x 118 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Using the emotionally expressive figures in the colorful St. Januarius Emerges Unscathed from the Oven as a bridge back to his opening thesis about Ribera’s later change in direction toward a less tenebristic style, Portús attributes the appearance in the 1630s of an “extension of the artist’s palette toward warm, sumptuous tones…[and] an engaging, relaxed, expansive piety…expressed through marked chromatic sensuality” to the Neo-Venetianism that was sweeping across Italy, and with the arrival in Naples during that decade of a number of classicizing artists.  He cites The Trinity (1635) as one of several works that exemplify this shift.

A close look at that painting reveals more about the fluidity with which Ribera moved among his stylistic options than about any fundamental transformation in his artistic practices.  Warm, high-value colors distinguish the heavenly sphere from the lower-register darkness out of which angels emerge and carry the body of Christ, whose pale skin and white shroud contrasts dramatically with the shadowy background.

[Image 30:
St. Jerome in His Study (1613, oil on canvas, 48.4″ x 39.4″ [123 x 100]).  Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
St. Jerome Penitent (1652, oil on canvas, 30.4″ x 28.3″ [77.2 x 71.8]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Ribera’s style continued to mature with time and practice and while there are noticeable differences between St. Jerome in His Study (1613)–his first signed painting–and St. Jerome Penitent (1652)–the last signed one completed before his death in 1652 (a comparison with which Portús ends his discourse), he never abandoned the tenebrism of his youth.

In St. Jerome Penitent, the saint bares a softly-modeled, anatomically descriptive right shoulder and boasts a head of shaggy grey hair with matching beard.  Even at this late date, Ribera found uses for his earliest technique of zooming in close on brightly lit, half-to-three-quarter-length figures accompanied by identifying still-life objects.  In this St. Jerome, he applied paint with short, confident brushstrokes that follow the contours of forms and animate the hair, hallmarks of the adept and brilliant painter he had become.

The mature Ribera sharply contrasts with the younger one, however, in the degree to which his subject now engages with the viewer, as Portús astutely points out.  In the 1613 St. Jerome in His Study, the saint is occupied with his writing, unaware of the observer.  In the later St. Jerome Penitent, the figure is positioned closer to the picture plane and looks through it–if not directly at the audience at least in its direction.  The 61-year-old Ribera seems to have evolved not just as an artist but also as a man far more conscious of the power of relationship.

[Image 31: Magdalena Ventura (The Bearded Lady) (1631, oil on canvas, 77.2″ x 50″ [196 x 127 cm]).  Exhibited at the Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

The life of Jusepe de Ribera came to an end on September 3, 1652.  No contemporary writer chose to immortalize this Spanish-Italian artist with a biography that would have preserved vital facts about his life.  In the absence of such a record, posterity has been left with no information about his psychologically formative childhood years nor about his early training as an artist–where or with whom that might have been.  Perhaps a new generation of art historians will be inspired to rummage around the archives of Xátiva and Valencia in search of the missing pieces that will finally fill in the blanks of this great artist’s life.  Meanwhile, art lovers can continue to marvel at the enigma who painted with such veracity the stunning portrait of Magdalena Ventura (The Bearded Lady) (1631).

Brown, Jonathan.  Paintings in Spain: 1500-1700.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
_____________.  Velázquez: Painter and Courtier.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Marandel, J. Patrice, ed.  Caravaggio and His Legacy.  New York: Prestel Verlag, 2012.
Peréz, Alfonso E., and Nicola Spinosa.  Jusepe de Ribera 1591-1652.  New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.
Portús, Javier.  Ribera.  Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2011.

[A version of this review with footnotes is available.  If interested, contact]


Art Historical Musing: Art Historical Methods

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November 24th, 2013

Doing Together
What Can’t Be Done Alone:
An Integrative Approach to
Raped by Käthe Kollwitz


The Blind Men and the Elephant
by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!

“The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

Raped (Vergewaltigt) (1907/08, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11¾

Raped (Vergewaltigt) (1907/08, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11¾″ x 20⅝″ [29.9 x 52.4 cm)].  Plate 2 from the cycle Peasant War.  Proof before the edition of about 300 impressions of 1908.  Knesebeck 101/Va.  Photo © Kollwitz Estate.

The way to the blockbuster show led through a long corridor that at its beginning widened into an area whose walls the museum exploited for temporary exhibitions of works on paper too light-sensitive for permanent display.  Attracted by the drawings and prints in this accidental gallery, some visitors slow for a more sustained look.

One image, which looked like an ill-kept garden, revealed itself via the wall text to be a 1907/8 etching called Raped by a German artist named Käthe Kollwitz,1 who lived between 1867 and 1945.  Viewers who took the time to look more closely would detect amid the foliage a woman with legs splayed and head thrown back, the subject of the picture’s title.  At that point most would move on to look at other works.  Some few would linger, wanting to learn more about this depiction of sexual assault.

The only other information available at that moment–the description nearby on the wall–identified the brown-ink print as a plate from the Peasant War series executed on heavy cream wove paper.  Although unschooled in art historical methods, an intrigued viewer might intuitively know that much could be gained by exploring every aspect of this simply-framed etching.

Drawing the viewer’s immediate attention and bisecting the bottom of the almost-double-square (approximately 12-by-21-inch) composition, the woman’s foot–set off from lighter surroundings by its dark sole–meets the picture plane and beckons the onlooker to follow its arch to the foreshortened, thick-set leg that disappears under a skirt.  The eye continues along an arc, through the torso and extended neck, stopping at the chin beyond which lies the shadowed face with its features distorted by the angle of view.

Searching for the rest of her, the observer discovers behind a bent-over, wilted sunflower the right leg, forming a horizontal line with the top edge of the skirt and ending in a foot that points toward the upper left corner.  Assisted by a nearby still-upright flower slanted at an angle running parallel to it, the foot directs the gaze to a blossoming sunflower in the background’s deep shadow, the form of which echoes the head of a barely discernible child with a pony tail (or braid) who drapes her right arm over a fence and looks down at the body before her.  Faintly silhouetted against a patch of open space, the young girl can easily be missed by all but the most attentive viewers as she blends in with the leafy plants around her.

Once noticed, the child leads the eye to a structure suggested by two sets of vertical lines hiding in the dark recesses of the upper register–perhaps a house.  Across the rest of this small patch of verdant landscape, damaged plants and flowers tell a story of struggle and recent destruction in what might have been a well-tended, backyard vegetable garden.

A shadow originating from outside the picture plane on the left ends in a point that meets the prone woman’s right foot and relates to her dark skirt.  Cast by a structure with straight edges and therefore of human origin, its top boundary becomes one side of a flattened diamond, the other three edges of which are the overgrown part of the fence that supports the girl, its dark extension to the right, and the left side of the woman on the ground.  Ominous in nature, the sharply angled shadow seems a stand-in for the recently-fled rapist.

Following the perimeter of that diamond shape brings the inquisitive observer to the figure’s left hand, the fingers of which curl around the edge of her torn garment near some trickles of blood on her torso and provide the final clue to the story.  A peasant woman working in her garden has been raped and stabbed, then left for dead.  Hearing the commotion and perhaps some screams, her daughter has come to see what happened and now stares sadly at the sight of her mother, wondering what to do.

Having followed the trail of clues and figured out the narrative, the formerly-naive tourist, seduced by a compelling work of art, has unwittingly entered the empirical world of the connoisseur.  Questions tumble forth about the decisions that went into creating the etching.  Who was Käthe Kollwitz?  What was the Peasant War and why did the artist choose it as a subject?  Why did she make a print instead of a painting?  If this is a series, what does the rest of it look like?  Most curious, why didn’t Kollwitz just tell her story directly and not force her audience to work so hard?

As often happens in exhibits, another visitor approaches and, noticing the engrossed tourist with nose scant inches from the print’s protective glass, engages in conversation about the piece.  An art historian by trade, the newcomer eagerly offers information about a favorite artist, her work and her art.  An exchange ensues.

First they talk about the etching itself.  When the tourist points out the little girl in the background and the trickles of blood near the victim’s left hand, the art historian is surprised, having never before engaged closely enough with the image to notice these elements.  More concerned with Kollwitz’s subject matter in general and how it relates to the context in which the artist lived and worked, the art historian appreciated this new insight and resolved to be more attentive in the future to the object itself.

Uprising (1902-03, etching on heavy beige wove paper. 20¼

Uprising (1902-03, etching on heavy beige wove paper, 20¼″ x 23⅜″ [51.4 x 59.4 cm]).  Plate 5 from the cycle Peasant War.  From the 1908 edition of approximately 300 impressions.  Knesebeck 70/VIIIb.  Private collection.  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Familiar with most of Kollwitz’s oeuvre, this knowledgeable viewer knew that Raped was the second plate of seven in the print cycle Peasant War, commissioned by the Association for Historical Art in Germany following submission for consideration of the first completed etching of the series, Uprising (originally called Outbreak).2  In that print, a powerful woman, Black Anna, leads a contingent of fellow peasants armed with makeshift weapons against their feudal lords.3

Revolt (1899, etching on heavy cream wove paper. 11⅝

Revolt (1899, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11⅝” x 12½” [29.5 x 31.8 cm]).  First concept for plate 5 (Knesebeck 70) from the cycle Peasant War.  Knesebeck 46/V.  Private collection.  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

The idea for the cycle began in 1899 with a plate Kollwitz etched, variously translated as Uprising and Revolt, that pictured a rag-tag but triumphant mob of scythe-wielding farmers accompanied by a nude woman flying above, carrying a torch from which a flame leaps into the distant background to set ablaze the manor house, home of the oppressors.  Coming from a long line of socialists,4 Kollwitz had already explored the topic a few years earlier in her gold-medal-winning first cycle, A Weaver’s Rebellion.

From childhood, when the young Käthe had enacted barricade scenes with her father and brother, she had imagined herself a revolutionary.  It followed that as an artist she would draw strong women into her narratives, depicting them as they sharpened scythes, galvanized men into action, cared for the wounded and identified the dead.  When Kollwitz read Wilhelm Zimmermann’s 1841 General History of the Great Peasants’ War and discovered Black Anna, an actual participant in the 1525 revolt by peasants against their overseers, the idea for this cycle was born.

Answering the tourist’s questions about Kollwitz’s choice of printmaking, the art historian explained that after struggling unsuccessfully to master color in her studies at a Berlin academy for women and later in a painter’s studio, and being introduced in 1884 to the work of master printmaker Max Klinger, the young artist finally gave up on painting and in 1890 took up etching, a technique at which she soon excelled.  Although Kollwitz later devoted herself to the medium of sculpture, in which she modeled emotionally compelling figurative pieces, she never abandoned printmaking.  Expanding her practice to include lithographs and woodcuts, she valued the reproductive capabilities inherent in these mediums, guaranteeing the widest possible audience for her socio-political ideas.

The composition of Raped differs markedly from Kollwitz’s usual images of women who are shown in active roles, not supine on the ground.  It is also the only instance where she tackled landscape with enough details to identify cabbage leaves, sunflowers and other plants.5  As for its narrative, in correspondence about this print the artist referred to Raped as “the next to the last plate,” which would have made it the sixth out of seven (though it was published as Plate 2) and described it as “an abducted woman, who after the devastation of her cottage is left lying in the herb garden, while her child, who had run away, looks over the fence.”6

Knowing the artist’s intentions and how she came to etch Raped served only to whet the tourist’s appetite for more information.  Just then someone else approached, walking directly up to the two viewers who were blocking access to the print.  As chance would have it, the latest arrival turned out to be a psychotherapist who worked with trauma survivors and had a long-standing interest in art depicting sexual abuse and other forms of personal violence.

Käthe Kollwitz, whose work is permeated with meditations on struggle and death, naturally aroused the psychotherapist’s curiosity, especially with respect to how the artist came to focus on those themes.  Joining the already in-progress discussion, the clinician related how the printmaker’s son, Hans, had nagged his mother into writing about her life and her development as an artist, and how despite her initial objections, she had surprised him with a manuscript in 1922 that he later augmented with diary entries and letters, and published in 1955.7  Hearing what had already been learned by exploring the image and its creation, the therapist added to the discourse aspects of Kollwitz’s psychosocial history crucial to understanding her choice of subject matter for the etching.8

In recounting her early years, Kollwitz described seeing a photo of her stoic mother holding her firstborn son, “‘the holy child,’” who had died within a year of his birth.  Her mother lost a second son before Kollwitz’s older brother Konrad was born.  When Käthe was nine, her mother had Benjamin, who also failed to survive beyond his first year, dying from the same meningitis that took the firstborn.

The artist remembered how one night, during her baby brother’s illness, the nurse had burst into the kitchen where her mother was dishing out soup and yelled that the infant was throwing up again.  Her mother had stiffened and then went on serving dinner, her refusal to cry in front of her family failing to conceal her suffering from her young daughter, to whom it was obvious.

After that dinner, Käthe–with her younger sister Lise–was sent to play in the nursery where she built with her blocks a temple to Venus and began preparing a sacrifice to a goddess she had learned about in a book on mythology, and who she had chosen to worship over the Christian “Lord”–a stranger to her despite her family’s devotion to him.  When her parents walked into the room to convey the bad news that her little brother had died, Käthe was certain “God had taken him” as punishment for her disbelief and sacrifice to Venus.

Because the family’s way was to grit teeth and carry on, with no discussion or even expression of loss and grief, Käthe carried the burden of guilt for her brother’s death into her adult years.  Her mother’s unexpressed sorrow suffused their home and her oldest daughter lived in fear that her parents would come to harm.

Stopping the story at that point, the psychotherapist retrieved an ebook reader from a handbag and read from Kollwitz’s autobiography.  “I was always afraid [my mother] would come to some harm…If she were bathing…I feared she would drown.”  Reflecting on watching through the apartment window as her mother walked by, Kollwitz continued, “I felt the oppressive fear in my heart that she might get lost and never find her way back to us…I became afraid Mother might go mad.”

As the clinician tucked away the ebook reader, the trio of observers turned back to the etching Raped.  Suddenly they understood what the artist might not have known herself, that the young girl looking over the fence was nine-year-old Käthe and the woman on the ground was her mother, finally felled by a trauma too insistent to be repelled.

As the three viewers continued contemplating the poignant image before them, another person approached.  They eagerly began sharing their recent discoveries as they made room for the newcomer who, noticing the dates of the artist’s life, explained that Käthe Kollwitz was not a twentieth century artist but a woman born, raised and educated in the second half of the nineteenth century.9 Living in Germany in the late 1800s must have affected her art, they all agreed.

But that’s a story for another time.
1A print of the etching was displayed for a while in the Drawing and Print Gallery of The Metropolitan Museum of Art several years ago.  The work under consideration, a proof, is in the private collection of the writer.

2Martha Kearns, Käthe Kollwitz: Woman and Artist (New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1976), 85.

3See Elizabeth Prelinger, Käthe Kollwitz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 30-39, for a description of the evolution and content of The Peasant War cycle.

4See Jane Kallir, “Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles” (Galerie St. Etienne, exhibit essay, October 8 through December 28, 2013) for additional information about Kollwitz’s print cycles.

5 Hildegard Bachert, “Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles,” gallery talk (Galerie St. Etienne, November 7, 2013).

6Käthe Kollwitz, quoted in Käthe Kollwitz: Werkverzeichnis der Graphik, by Alexandra von dem Knesebeck, trans. James Hofmaier (Bern: Verlag Kornfeld, 2002), 291.  Relevant excerpt of text included in provenance documents accompanying the proof.

7The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz, ed. Hans Kollwitz, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1955).

8See Ibid., 18-20, for information about Kollwitz’s childhood experiences of loss.

9Bachert, gallery talk.

Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles
The Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

Now till December 28, 2013.


Book Review: “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood” by Sigmund Freud

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October 17th, 2013

A Case Study of
Psychoanalysis as an
Art Historical Method

Freud's Leonardo bk cover

Turn-of-the-nineteenth century Vienna was a fertile time for scientists, intellectuals and artists as the planets aligned to create what has been called “The Age of Insight.”  The mind became an object of intense scrutiny for practitioners of medicine, psychiatry, psychology, and the literary and visual arts.  New methods that were developed in pursuit of understanding human nature from a biological perspective found usefulness in the study of art and artists.

One resident of the city, Sigmund Freud, created a system of indirect investigation into the psyche using personal experiences like dreams, fantasies, slips of the tongue, and artistic productions.  Calling his method psychoanalysis and taking it beyond the confines of his medical practice, Freud applied it everywhere without reservation, writing about jokes and everyday missteps, romance and war, and creativity and art.

Ever curious about Italy and its artists, Freud wrote a book-length analysis of Leonardo da Vinci based on a memory the artist had included in his Codus Atlanticus.  In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, the doctor uses psychoanalysis with great conviction to answer intriguing questions about this Renaissance master and scientist.

The first German edition of the book, published in 1910, was followed by four more (1919, 1923, 1925 and 1943).  An English translation titled simply Leonardo da Vinci appeared in 1916, followed by an additional two (1922 and 1932) before the one under consideration here.  In 1964 Alan Tyson, working under the general editorship of James Strachey with Anna Freud and Alix Strachey for The Standard Edition, translated the text with an expanded title for this first American edition.

In his book-length essay, Freud takes as his starting point Leonardo’s description of an event from his childhood, using a flawed German translation of the original Italian, to understand why Leonardo traded art for other inventions and took off in pursuit of scientific knowledge.  In typical Freud writing style, the psychoanalyst anticipates all manner of resistance throughout the piece, beginning by assuring those who would question his motives that his intentions are not “‘[t]o blacken the radiant and drag the sublime into the dust’” but rather to further understand a man that he referred to as “among the greatest of the human race.”

Before he tackles the childhood memory, Freud describes Leonardo’s struggles with his art, beginning with the perfectionism that made each painting a major endeavor of upwards of several years and left more than a few unfinished.  He cites Vasari and later art historians who quote Leonardo’s contemporaries on the subject, and mentions several specific paintings as examples, including the Last Supper, where the artist’s frustration with the rapid execution required of fresco painting resulted in the technical disaster that has challenged conservationists ever since.

From there Freud begins an elaboration of Leonardo’s personality based on observations by those who knew him in some way, maneuvering closer to his primary thesis by proposing that the artist “represented the cool repudiation of sexuality.”  He finds evidence for this in Leonardo’s own words as quoted by Edmondo Solmi, an Italian philosopher of Freud’s time.  Soon enough the psychiatrist addresses Leonardo’s homosexuality, declaring that even though the fledgling artist had gotten into trouble with the law for it when he was in Verrocchio’s studio and surrounded himself with beautiful young boys once he was a master, for sure he never actually engaged in sexual activity.

In another secondary source, Freud finds Leonardo averring that “[o]ne has no right to love or hate anything if one has not acquired a thorough knowledge of its nature.”  Applying that to the artist’s assumed abstinence, he notes that in this case “[t]he postponement of loving until full knowledge is acquired ends in a substitution of the latter for the former.”  Thus, for Leonardo, investigating took the place of creating art and of producing much of anything else.

In his element now, Freud asserts that around age three most children go through a period of “infantile sexual researches” usually precipitated by the advent of a new sibling, which invites the question: whence babies?  When repression puts an end to this phase, various outcomes are possible.  Freud believed that Leonardo’s unconscious resolution was perfect; by channeling his sexual drive into non-practicing homosexuality and allowing his investigative instinct to reign supreme, the artist-scientist avoided a neurotic resolution, freeing his libido to “act in the service of [his] intellectual interests.”

After establishing this psychoanalytic foundation, Freud provides information about Leonardo’s childhood, noting that the artist was illegitimate, initially lived with his mother, and when five years old went to live with his father, who had recently married.  That these inadequate bits of biographical data are poor substitutes for having the analysand before him doesn’t seem to deter the doctor from basing his conclusions on them.

Finally Freud presents the memory, translated for this book from the German text he quotes, Marie Herzfeld’s translation of the Italian original as it appeared in Nino Smiraglia-Scognamiglio’s edition of the Codex Atlanticus.  Her version erroneously rendered nibio as vulture when in fact it means kite, a much smaller, non-carrion-eating raptor with the ability to hover in the air due to its long, forked tail.  She also omitted dentro (within), which alters the action of the all-important tail.  These changes have been indicated in brackets in the rendering of Leonardo’s words that follows.

It seems that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures [kites]; for I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture [kite] came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against [within] my lips.

After extolling the virtues of psychoanalysis as a tool for deciphering this passage, Freud points to the obvious erotic content, noting that “tail” (coda in Italian) is a common slang term for penis.  He then goes on to construct an interpretation of the memory that defies Occam’s razor.

Although he acknowledges the similarity between Leonardo’s memory and the dreams and fantasies of women and passive homosexuals, Freud opts to see it as a symbolic representation of the baby suckling at its mother’s breast.  He supports this hypothesis by pointing out that in Egyptian mythology a mother goddess, whose name was Mut (similar to the German mutter for mother), was pictured with a vulture’s head, adding that at the time all vultures were believed to be female.

Freud concludes that the memory represents the overdependence on, and eroticization of, Leonardo by his mother, who used him when he was quite young as a substitute for his missing father.  In the rest of the essay, Freud looks first for confirmation of his ideas to Leonardo’s art–in the special smiles that grace the faces of his women and in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, with its hidden vulture.

As further support, the psychoanalyst pulls in his theories on infantile sexuality, the phallic mother, homosexuality and the Oedipal complex.  He finds indirect evidence in Leonardo’s writings for a negative relationship with his father, linking it to the artist’s homosexuality and his rejection of religion.  Freud even finds meaning in Leonardo’s obsession with flying machines, citing the connection between dreams of flying and sexual performance.

In the final chapter of the book, feigning humility, Freud addresses possible objections to his “pathographical review of a great man,” admitting the limitations of applying psychoanalysis to the biography of someone about whose early life so little is known.  He nonetheless confidently asserts that he has accomplished what he set out to do, showing how the circumstances of Leonardo’s childhood, combined with his inherent capacity to repress and sublimate his primitive instincts, resulted in a celibate artist-scientist forever torn between his art and science.  Although Freud was well satisfied with his conclusions, their unfavorable reception seems to have discouraged him from tackling other art historical subjects.

Freud came to this particular project via a long-standing interest in Leonardo–once remarking in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess on the artist’s celibacy and left-handedness–and had read Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky’s historical novel, Leonardo da Vinci, which he cites in the text as though it were a historical document.  His other bibliographical resources include volumes written on Leonardo by an assortment of scholars as well as a long list of his own publications.

Not unlike Leonardo, Freud was enticed away from his original career path by his curiosity.  Born in Moravia in 1856 but resident in Vienna from age three until he fled Austria for London in 1938, Freud studied biology and medicine, qualifying as a doctor in 1882.  Three years later, a trip to the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris and time spent with the celebrated expert on hysteria, Jean-Martin Charcot, changed his professional direction from clinical neurology to medical psychology.  With his Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, Freud moved even further away from the laboratory, confining his research to observations of his psychiatric patients and reflections on his own experiences and psyche.  Out of that work, he developed the practice of psychoanalysis and his theories about the unconscious.

When he decided to pursue an analysis of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud turned to writings by prominent art historians, among them the German Jean Paul Richter (1847-1937) and the Frenchman Eugène Müntz (1845-1902), whose methods happened to be at odds with each other.  Richter, a disciple of Giovanni Morelli (who believed art was best studied by looking at objects with a well-practiced scientific eye), published in 1883 The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, a two-volume work, first in Italian, then German and English, the last of which Freud consulted.  Müntz, on the other hand, believed in the importance of archival research and, opposing Morelli’s focus on connoisseurship, based his studies on documents he unearthed in Italian archives.  His monograph Léonard de Vinci, released in 1899, was one of Freud’s references.

If the psychoanalyst was aware of the caldron of ideas that simmered close by, especially in the Vienna School but also elsewhere, about how best the discipline of art history should be practiced, his bibliography doesn’t reflect it.  The ideological stew included empiricists who looked to science as a model for the investigation of artworks as physical entities in documented contexts, philosophers who approached the study of art from a metaphysical perspective–more concerned with ideas than things, and a new breed of cultural historians, who occupied a middle ground between the two, finding value in each and adding ethnography and psychology to the mix.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1508, oil on wood, 66

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1508, oil on wood, 66″ x 44″ [168 x 112 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Sketch of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne from Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, 66.

Sketch of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne from Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, page 66.

Freud seems to have gravitated toward outliers like Walter Pater (1839-1894), a British aesthete whose Studies in the History of the Renaissance, a collection of essays published in 1873, had to be recalled because of their anti-religious nature.  In his discussion of specific artwork by Leonardo, the analyst relied on those essays plus the work of two others: Oskar Pfister (1873-1956), a Swedish minister with an interest in philosophy and psychology with whom Freud maintained regular correspondence for many years, and whose discovery of a vulture in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne provided critical evidence for the hypothesis expounded in the book; and German-born Richard Muther (1860-1909), an emotionally expressive writer whose description of images tended toward the “lurid and erotic.”  In fact, Freud’s insufficient knowledge of art history and the scholarship on Leonardo made mistakes inevitable and stood in the way of producing “a meaningful art historical essay on the artist.”

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503-17, oil on poplar, 30

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503-17, oil on poplar, 30″ x 21″ [77 x 53 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Freud referred to the more mainstream writers earlier in the book when introducing Leonardo, his practices and milieu, but switched over to the others later on when analyzing the latent meaning he espied in the artist’s words and images.  For the Mona Lisa, he liked Pater’s perception that it contained “a presence…expressive of what…men had come to desire…the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo’s work.”  And he turned to Muther for observations on the physical relationship among the mothers and baby, and St. Anne’s perpetual youth in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne.

Because his interest was primarily psychological, Freud could be expected to seek out those who approached the study of art from a similar perspective.  While there is surely much to be gained through the understanding of artists’ intrapsychic development and interpersonal relationships, Freud’s system of thought–psychoanalysis–contains many flaws, not the least of which is his attribution of adult sexual feelings to infants and children.

In explaining Leonardo’s memory, the doctor first must explain how the vulture’s tail comes to be symbolic of the artist’s intense erotic attachment to his mother and how that desire later morphs into homosexuality.  He does this by invoking the phallic mother who is imagined to possess a penis by the little boy appalled at the thought that someone he loves so dearly should lack such a precious appendage.  This intense mother-son bond  is reinforced by Leonardo’s oversolicitous mother and absent father, and the child’s unconscious identification with the idolized mother.  The boy grows up to be a man who love boys in the same way his mother loved him.  Here Freud confuses homosexuals with pedophiles; the former are attracted to other men while the latter prey on vulnerable children.

Because Freud’s reasoning about such Leonardo mysteries as his perfectionism, depiction of smiling women, and turn from art to scientific research depends so heavily on the Oedipus complex and other aspects of his theory of infantile sexuality, it’s important to know how he came to substitute those assumptions for his empirically based seduction theory of hysteria.

In his work with women suffering from what would now be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but was then diagnosed as hysteria, Freud came to the unavoidable conclusion that their symptoms stemmed from “one or more occurrences of premature sexual experiences…[in] the earliest years of childhood,” incidents forced upon them by adults in their immediate family environment.  Since most of his patients were women whose fathers came from prominent Viennese families, his observations were met with a chill that forced him to retract his basic premise and instead attribute his patients’ symptoms not to memories but to fantasies growing out of infantile sexual desires for their fathers.  The construction of the Oedipus complex followed.  Boys, Freud asserted, coveted their mothers, wished to do away with the competition, and feared castration at the hands of vengeful fathers.

Had Freud held to his original discovery, perhaps he would have understood Leonardo’s memory of a visit from a bird that places its long tail in his mouth as a screen memory for oral rape.  On that stronger foundation, the doctor could have constructed a different theory about Leonardo’s homosexual activity in Verrocchio’s workshop and his later predilection for boys.

In The Aetiology of Hysteria, Freud observed a link between adult hysterical symptoms and adolescent trauma, which he then traced to childhood sexual assaults.  Rather than seeing Leonardo’s interest in younger males as a manifestation of his over-identification with his mother, the analyst might have chosen the simpler conclusion, that to avoid intolerable feelings of victimization, the artist unconsciously took the role of perpetrator and re-enacted his abuse with others, a common outcome of early sexual trauma.  With that far less complex connection, Freud might then have been able to link Leonardo’s perfectionism with his need to compensate for the shame he carried as a result of being sexually abused.

In addition to those missed opportunities, Freud was led on a wild vulture chase by a significant error in translation.  His excursion into Egyptian hieroglyphics and mythology in support of his contention that Leonardo’s memory of the bird and the appearance of its image in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (as illustrated by his good friend Pfister) proved the artist’s erotic attachment to his mother, while fascinating, must be disregarded.

It would be unfortunate if at this point one concluded that psychoanalysis has little if anything to contribute to the study of art and the artists who create it, for when Freud briefly left behind his obsession with Leonardo’s “vulture-fantasy” and sexualized relationship with his mother and looked instead at his paintings, he had much to offer.  In associating the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa with Leonardo’s memory of his mother’s adoring gaze, and the mother-and-daughter dyad of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne with the five-year-old boy’s relationship with his adopted mother and paternal grandmother, both of whom lived in his father’s house and took over his care from his single mother, Freud kept it simple and raised intriguing questions.  In expounding on those connections, he assumed kindness and tenderness on the part of the pictured women, but one could just as easily see in these images an unconscious wish for an ideal that never was.

In either case, in directly encountering Leonardo’s art, drawing upon limited but salient biographical data and applying the principals of psychoanalysis, Freud introduced to the study of art a potentially powerful tool.  Had he not abandoned his initial discoveries about childhood trauma and spent his genius on devising convoluted theories to explain hysterical symptoms, he might have come to more convincing conclusions about the life of Leonardo da Vinci and made an important contribution to the field of art history.


– Fermi, Eric.  Art History and its Methods.  New York: Phaidon Press, 2011.
– Freud, Sigmund.  Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood.  Translated by Alan Tyson.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1964.
– _____________.  On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on Art, Literature, Love, Religion.  Edited by Benjamin Nelson.  New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
– _____________.  “The Aetiology of Hysteria.”  In The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.  New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
Italian-English Dictionary.  New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2007.
– Kandel, Eric R.  The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present.  New York: Random House, 2012.
– Kultermann, Udo.  The History of Art History.  New York: Abaris Books, 1993.
– Onians, John.  Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
– Sorensen, Lee, ed.  “Eugéne Müntz” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– _______________.  “Jean Paul Richter” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– _______________.  “Walter Pater” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– Simmons, Laurence.  Freud’s Italian Journey.  New York: Rodopi B. V., 2006.
Wikipedia.  “Oskar Pfister.”  Last modified September 21, 2013.

[A version of this review with footnotes is available.  If interested, contact]


Exhibit: Childhood’s Edge painting

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August 26th, 2013

Childhood’s Edge (painting)
Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club
117th Annual Open Exhibition

Childhoods Edge painting for use

The painting, Childhood’s Edge, has been accepted into the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club’s 117th Annual Open Exhibition.

The show, held at the National Arts Club, begins October 1st and concludes on October 25th (2013).

National Arts Club
15 Gramercy Park South
(between Park Avenue & Irving Place)
New York, NY

Monday to Friday, 12N-6pm
Saturday & Sunday, 1-6pm
(call in advance to confirm gallery availability)