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Art Review: Mummy Portrait Panels

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January 3rd, 2015

Identity Dilemma:
Greco-Roman Egyptian
Mummy Portraits at
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View of “Young Woman with Gilded Wreath” in Vitrine, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

View of “Young Woman with Gilded Wreath” in Vitrine, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Crowned by light, the lovely young lady with forehead-framing corkscrew curls and golden hair ornament inhabits a tall, slim vitrine intended to suggest a coffin to the viewer, providing a reminder of her original function as a portrait panel nesting in the linen wrappings of an Egyptian mummy.1 The encaustic painting, set off dramatically against a warm red display mat, might feel far more at home exhibited with other representatives of early Western European artistic traditions.

When asked how this work, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, came to reside in the gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 40 B.C. – 400 A.D. at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marsha Hill (co-curator of the 2000 show Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt) replied that when the work became available for purchase in 1909 from Cairo antiquities collector and dealer Maurice Nahman, the Egyptian Art Department pursued its acquisition using Rogers Fund money; at the time, the Greco-Roman Art Department expressed no interest in any of the Egyptian panel paintings then appearing on the market. Thus, the circumstances of the artwork’s acquisition largely determined its ultimate context2 and how future museum goers would come to perceive this example of Greek-influenced Roman-era painting.

In the early twentieth century, the Met’s Egyptian Art Department demonstrated impressive foresight with its enthusiasm for artwork from the land of the Nile deemed a “classical development” by most Egyptologists and of little importance to classicists who associated the mummy portraits with Egypt (not Greece or Rome).3 Even in the twenty-first century, a recent book about ancient Egyptian art failed to include any reference to these mummy portraits,4 and an exhibition catalog on Egyptian portraiture concluded with a beautiful example of a Roman mummy plaster mask but failed to mention the contemporaneous and identically used panel paintings.5

Across the Great Hall from the Egyptian wing at The Metropolitan Museum, in the relatively new Greco-Roman galleries, there are only four examples of Greek painting displayed–all small murals and predating by several centuries Young Woman and her kind. One is Lucanian from southern Italy; the other three are from the Alexandria region of Egypt. Whether or not an argument was ever advanced for placing the latter in the Egyptian wing, a case could certainly have been made for exhibiting the Greco-Roman Egyptian mummy portraits somewhere among the museum’s extensive holdings of Roman wall paintings.

When the Ptolemies took control of Egypt after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, they drained part of the Fayum lake and built an advanced irrigation system to create additional arable land that they then gave to their Greek soldiers, following an already existing practice. Egyptians were later recruited to work on this newly inhabited farmland and after 30 BCE, both these groups were joined by Romans carrying out the business of empire.6 Art like Young Woman, emerging from this conglomeration, was bound to defy easy categorization.

Conceding that they represent a “confluence of Greek painting, Roman portraiture and Egyptian burial practices,” curator Hill explained that an effort has been made to provide a context for the mummy portraits in the room with Young Woman and in the area where the display continues past the nearby gallery-titled doorway. As an example, she pointed to a vitrine there that encases an intact mummy7 intricately wrapped in linen bands with its portrait panel still in place. Rather than serving to emphasize the Egyptian pedigree of these Roman-period portraits, the mummy highlights the startling contrast between the ancient and contemporary burial and artistic practices of its time.

View of “Egypt Under Roman Rule” Gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

View of “Egypt Under Roman Rule” Gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

The museum succeeded in situating Young Woman in an Egyptian context primarily through its physical location. Entering the gallery that contains the painting, visitors are introduced to the entire Egyptian wing by a sign containing text and photos highlighting the collection, and an ancient tomb structure from Saqqara. Crossing the large room on the way to the far wall of mummy plaster masks, painted shrouds and panel portraits, they encounter two coffins from the Roman period decorated with images of deities associated with Egyptian burial practices.

Object Label for “Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo © Deborah Feller.

Object Label for “Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Casual viewers attracted to Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath who read the picture’s accompanying label learn nothing of how an object so uncharacteristic of Egyptian art came to be displayed in that wing. The text describes the painting as a work of art–with notes on technique, appearance and dating–and gives nothing of its history.8

Visitors never learn that before being displayed as an art object, Young Woman functioned to ensure safe passage to the netherworld and, consequently, eternal life for its subject. Meant to act as backup in case harm came to the physical self (preservation of the body being essential to the continuation of the ka [spirit]),9 long ago severed from its body and home, now exhibited out of context, the mummy portrait as shown tells an incomplete story.

Map of Fayum Lake District from Paul Roberts, Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London: the British Museum Press, 2008.

Map of Fayum Lake District from Paul Roberts, Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London: the British Museum Press, 2008).

For The Metropolitan Museum, that story probably began in the late 1880s with the rediscovery of mummies with painted faces in the Fayum lake district in northern Egypt. Tempera examples were already saturating the market when British archaeologist, Flinders Petrie, excavating at Hawara in that area, came across a trove of encaustic portraits10–soon to prove more appealing to contemporary Western eyes than the previously discovered tempera ones.11

Most of Petrie’s finds ended up in London at the National Gallery and British Museum;12 some found their way to dealers like Nahman. Over the course of time, mummy portraits were unearthed throughout Egypt, though they still continued to carry the epithet “Fayum.”13 Unprovenanced, if Young Woman did originate from that lake district, the discoverer might have provided a service by rescuing it from likely destruction had its burial place been in the path of mid-nineteenth-century farmland expansion, a response to economic incentives and technical assistance from England for Egypt to produce more cotton.14

The civil war tearing apart the United States in the 1860s had halted that country’s exportation of cotton and created new European markets for Egyptian farmers in the fertile Fayum region. “[F]armers…in search of sebbakh,…Nile mud enriched with human- and animal-produced organic materials”–a cheap source of excellent fertilizer, and raw material for mudbricks and saltpeter (used in gunpowder)15–widened their search for this much prized commodity. As farmland reached ancient settlements, and ruins became more valuable as agricultural resources, farmers lost motivation to preserve and sell unearthed antiquities as was their previous custom.16

While sebbakh was more plentiful around town mounds–not necessarily in the area of necropolises,17 related population expansion and its attendant pressures constituted other threats. Had Petrie and his ilk not excavated and removed these paintings–and in the case of the former, given many to public institutions–the portraits might have been destroyed, or hidden away in private collections, Egyptian antiquities law at the time being as lax as it was.18

In the current century, objects of questionable provenance are increasingly repatriated to the countries from which they were removed,19 and national and international antiquities laws make legal exportation of cultural patrimony almost impossible.20 But up until 1912, Egyptian laws on the books since 1835 allowed for easy acquisition of excavation permits with the proviso that finds be split equally with the state.21

Digging up mummies, separating them from their masks, shrouds and/or panel paintings, and then removing them and their accessories for sale by dealers headquartered in Cairo would have been considered sacrilegious by the elite, mostly Greek and Egyptian early-first-century residents of the Fayum region22 who entombed their dead in accordance with ancient beliefs, but at the time it was happening it wasn’t even illegal. With no constituency left to speak for them, the two-thousand-year-old mummies were fair game.

This contrasts with far more recent twentieth-century disinterments, a potent example of which was the 1991 discovery of human remains in downtown New York City during a “cultural resource survey” that included “archeological field-testing” in advance of the construction of a federal building. Identified as a burial ground for African slaves, the site quickly attracted attention from the African-American community and its supporters. After years of productive research agreed upon by all parties, the long-ago-forgotten Africans were reburied at the original site, now a national monument–the African Burial Ground Memorial.23

Similarly, in 1990 the United States passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, providing a process for the return of Native American remains and their related artifacts already in museum and federal agency collections. The law also set down procedures respecting new burial ground discoveries, acknowledging their spiritual importance to surviving tribes.24

The mummies that Petrie, other archaeologists, treasure hunters and farmers were unearthing in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and even before, don’t seem to have been considered by anyone as ancestral remains. Egyptian statutes governing these practices regulated antiquities dealers, not the treatment of the buried dead.25 When The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Young Woman in 1909, the action engendered no controversy, their being no Greco-Roman-Egyptian descendants to make a fuss.

In fact, probably with the motivation to present the mummy portrait Young Woman as a work of art rather than a funerary object, someone had flattened what was originally a convex panel and mounted it on a board. Whether the curve was part of the original form or had developed over time with use,26 the retaining of that bowed shape by the excavator/dealer/collector would have made storage and/or shipping inconvenient, rendering the piece less desirable.

Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

According to curator Hill, other than the alteration in the panel’s shape the surface of Young Woman appears pretty much as it was when found.27 Although the four vertical fissures that probably resulted from the flattening were filled in, along with some minor cuts,28 the painting underwent no comprehensive restoration by a conservator intent on imposing upon it some contemporary aesthetic ideal. Fortunately, the portrait retains enough of its original wax pigment and gold leaf to satisfy as both a thing of beauty and a historical document.

If any record chronicled something of Young Woman’s original condition, it would be found in the Maurice Nahman Archives.29 In the absence of such a reference, it seems safe to assume that this portrait panel belonged with others described by Petrie “as [being] fresh as the day they were painted.”30

Displayed to emphasize its aesthetic value, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath showcases its creator’s skill in the rendering of three-dimensionality, rarely of interest to Pharaonic Egyptian painters. Illumination from the upper left throws warm shadows to the right of prominent forms, while a cool grey tone signals where these forms turn from the light, an effect most obvious along the bridge of the nose and the front plane of the face where it meets the only side visible to the viewer.

Those tricks of the trade surely originated with the great masters of Greek painting chronicled by Pliny the Elder (around 77-79 CE) in Book XXXV of his Natural History31 and took on a new life during the Renaissance, Baroque and later Neoclassical periods of European painting. Nature is not the only teacher here, however. Young Woman’s larger-than-life eyes–like those found on many other mummy portraits–bring to mind ancient Egyptian wall paintings of profile faces with over-sized, kohl-lined eyes.

Viewer in the “Gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 30 B.C. to 400 A.D.” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Viewer in the “Gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 30 B.C. to 400 A.D.” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Ordinary museum goers, stopping to admire the dramatically-lit, unusual painting in the corner of a room containing a reconstructed Egyptian tomb, probably wouldn’t notice its finer points of technique nor, because of the way Young Woman is currently presented, would they be aware of the critical function the painting once served. For that matter, no person can know the thoughts of the aggrieved who commissioned the portrait for someone so young32 when seeing it for the first time, probably already held in place by the linen enwrapping the mummified body. In these many ways, the identity of Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath has yet to be fully understood and adequately presented.
1 Marsha Hill, Curator of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, interview by author, New York, October 28, 2014.
2 Ibid.
3 Morris Bierbrier, “The Discovery of the Mummy Portraits” in Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, edited by Susan Walker (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 33.
4 Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt, revised edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008).
5 Donald Spanel, Through Ancient Eyes: Egyptian Portraiture (Birmingham, Alabama: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1988).
6 R. S. Bagnall, “The Fayum and its People” in Ancient Faces, 26-28.
7 Hill, interview.
8 The Metropolitan Museum, object label, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, read on October 28, 2014.
9 John Taylor, “Before the Portraits: Burial Practices in Pharaonic Egypt” in Ancient Faces, 9.
10 Nicholas Reeves, Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, A Year-by-Year Chronicle (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2000), 76-78.
11 Ibid.
12 Bierbrier in Ancient Faces, 32.
13 Ibid., 33.
14 Paola Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History,” The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri Lecture Series, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, n.d., accessed October 24, 2014,
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Hill, interview.
18 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
19 For example see: Jason Felch, “Getty ships Aphrodite statue to Sicily,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2011, accessed November 4, 2014,; and Elisabetta Povoledo, “Ancient Vase Comes Home to a Hero’s Welcome,” New York Times, January 19, 2008, accessed November 4, 2014, arts/design/19bowl.html.
20 “International Antiquities Law Since 1900,” Archaeology, April 22, 2002, accessed November 4, 2014,
21 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
22 R. S. Bagnall in Ancient Faces, 28-29.
23 “African Burial Ground Memorial, New York, NY,” Historic Buildings, US General Services Administration, accessed November 8, 2014,
24 “National NAGPRA, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior, accessed November 8, 2014,
25 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
26 Hill, interview.
27 Ibid.
28 Catalog entry, Ancient Faces, 109.
29 “Maurice Nahman, Antiquaire. Visitor book and miscellaneous papers. 1909-2006 (inclusive),” Wilbour Library of Egyptology.  Special Collections Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Brooklyn Museum, accessed November 8, 2014,
30 Reeves, Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, 78.
31 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, translated by D. E. Eichholz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann, 1949-54), Vol. 10, Book XXXV, 38-53.
32 The existence of portraits of young children as well as the very old make it unlikely the paintings were done during the lifetime of the subject, and CAT scans of mummies show age and sex consonant with still-attached portraits. See Susan Walker, “Mummy Portraits and Roman Portraiture” in Ancient Faces, 24.


Art Historical Musing: The Madrasa in Aleppo

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January 1st, 2015

City House, Country House:
A Tale of Two Madrasas

After 9/11, many Americans came to associate the religion of Islam with terrorism, and madrasas with the recruitment and training of future terrorists.  The early history of these “collegiate mosques”1 or “theological colleges”2 (as they have been called) demonstrates their importance as purveyors of propaganda, a common function of all educational institutions.  As developed and deployed by the Seljuks of Anatolia, they served as front-line institutions in the battle to restore Sunni orthodoxy, which had all but disappeared by the time Nizam al-Mulk became vizier and de facto ruler of the Seljuk empire3 in the mid-eleventh century, and embarked on his madrasa-building campaign.

Begun with more modest objectives, the earliest madrasas probably operated out of a teacher’s house.  Eventually these places of learning grew in size to provide rudimentary lodging for students (all male, of course) as well as space for daily prayers.4  Under the generous patronage of Nizam al-Mulk and his regime, madrasas sprang up in many of the major urban areas in the Near East to counter the significant advances that had been made by the rival Shi’i who practiced a different brand of Islam.5

In addition to consolidating power through the imposition of Sunni state-sponsored institutions of religion, the newly built madrasas provided training for bureaucrats who would then go on to faithfully serve their government.  In this way, Nizam al-Mulk transformed what began as a building for study and prayer into one that was used to train “individuals to maintain order and enforce control and power.”6

By 1146 another ruler, Nur al-Din, was in control, having established his base of operations in Aleppo in northern Syria after political and military maneuvers that arrested and repelled the advance of the Crusaders, contained the Seljuks in the north, and consolidated his authority over an ethnically diverse Near-Eastern population.  Himself a Turk from Anatolia with a largely Kurdish following, Nur al-Din turned to the already-established notion of jihad (the political and spiritual struggle against non-believers–in this case the Crusaders) to rally this variegated Islamic populace around shared goals.7

Perhaps inspired by the work of his predecessors the Seljuks, Nur al-Din positioned himself as the commander of the jihadist cause and began a building campaign to restore and erect orthodox Sunni structures throughout his territory, deploying religious education as a glue to hold his lands together.8  In Aleppo, a predominantly Shi’i city, he waited three years before building his first madrasa, al-Halawiyya in 1149, initially avoiding a heavy-handed approach that would jeopardize his popularity and control.9  When he was ready to challenge the Shi’is hegemony, he did it openly, situating this new Sunni madrasa opposite the Great Mosque in the madina, the center of the city.10

At the same time, by choosing to erect his madrasa on the skeleton of the Byzantine cathedral St. Helena–already retrofitted for use as a mosque in 1124–Nur al-Din could further triumph over Christianity.11  While nothing is known about the original plan of the church or the changes made to convert it into an Islamic house of worship, at the time of its conversion into a madrasa (or later) changes must have been made to its physical structure.12

The current appearance or even the continued existence of the al-Halawiyya madrasa remains a mystery.  A Syrian civil war attracting foreign combatants has already claimed the lives of many important monuments in Aleppo and elsewhere.13  Tourist reports accompanied by photographs from as recently as 2012 documented a building in use as a mosque, no longer functioning as a madrasa, and in need of serious conservation and restoration work.14

View of Interior Courtyard, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

View of Interior Courtyard, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Reports, ground plans and photographs from the 1970s and earlier15 describe a building entered through a portal leading to a long corridor that opened into a courtyard with a pool at its center.  Across this modest-size open space, a floor-to-ceiling window topped by an arch faced with alternating black-and-white stones demonstrated the inventiveness and skill of Northern Syrian masons.16

View of Church Apse, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

View of Church Apse, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Acanthus-leaf Column Capitals, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

Acanthus-leaf Column Capitals, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Through the door to the left of the large window lay the remains of the Byzantine church–the main section of the madrasa–beneath a pendentive dome (one of the first of its type in Aleppo), the fine construction of which suggested the architects might have modeled it on what was left of the one for the cathedral.17  Two iwans (rectangular spaces walled on three sides and open on the fourth) branched off the space under the dome to its left and right.  Opposite the entrance in a semi-circular apse stood six vintage columns crowned with acanthus-leaf capitals–vestiges of the previous structure.

Carved Wooden Mihrab, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

Carved Wooden Mihrab, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

On the southern wall of the madrasa interior, an intricately carved wooden mihrab–the locus of all prayers–became the object of intense activity in October 2013 when the Syrian Association for the Preservation of Archaeology and Heritage walled it off behind a protective barrier.  Dating to the time of Nur al-Din and renovated one hundred years later by an Ayyubid king, it includes verses of the Qu’ran.18

Much later (in 1660), the Ottoman rulers left their mark on madrasa al-Halawiyya with their renovation of the courtyard façades, commemorating that activity with an  inscription over the door to the prayer hall.19  Nur al-Din’s own carved calligraphy, lining three sides of the vaulted corridor leading to the courtyard, was left in place.

View of Interior Courtyard with Trees and Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5850. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Interior Courtyard with Trees and Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5850.  Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Across town and time, another madrasa took shape, one whose fortunes were as affected by its extramural location as al-Halawiyya’s was by its center-city one.  Unlike the madrasa in the madina, which was wedged into an already crowded commercial district, al-Firdaws was designed to be a reminder of the paradise promised to the devout,20 with enough space afforded by its southern suburban siting to include several gardens, flowing water and pools.21

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws from Nearby Cemetery. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5837. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws from Nearby Cemetery. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5837.  Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Commissioned early in her regency by Dayfa Khatun, an Ayyubid queen who ruled for her young grandson from 1236 until her death in 1244,22 madrasa al-Firdaws reflected its sponsor’s deep and abiding devotion to Sufism,23 a mystical practice that combined physical deprivation, ingestion of psychotropic agents and dancing.  The Qur’anic verses inscribed along the building’s exterior and in a band of text that snaked around three of the courtyard interior walls reminded these worshipers of the vision of God awaiting them as the reward for their asceticism and religious zeal.24  By sponsoring a madrasa that as a center of Sufism functioned as a khanqah25 (“monastic mosque”26), Dayfa Khatun continued the work of a predecessor, Nur al-Din, who during his reign built nine of these Sufi monasteries in Aleppo.27

View of Portal on Eastern Wall, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5840. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Portal on Eastern Wall, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5840.   Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

The eleven domes of madrasa al-Firdaws and its lengthy inscription along the eastern façade distinguished it from other contemporary Ayyubid religious buildings28 in a way that its otherwise unadorned exterior walls did not.  From a distance, the relatively small portal tucked away in the eastern wall seemed insignificant in comparison to the massive rectangle of stone blocks into which it was inserted, but its triple-tiered muqarnas vault capped by a scalloped half-dome29 atop a tall, narrow space, imbued it with a monumentality designed to inspire a sense of awe.

Squinch Arch, Mihrab Dome, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo © Çigdem Kafesçioglu, 1990. Image courtesy of MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Squinch Arch, Mihrab Dome, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo © Çigdem Kafesçioglu, 1990.  Image courtesy of MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Architects in the Near East developed the “stalactite pendentive”–or muqarnas vault– to solve the problem of mounting a round dome on a square room.  Initially using a single squinch arch across each corner to transition from rectangle below to polygon above–and then to dome–architects later used four in a pyramidal configuration.  It wasn’t long before these arches proliferated and the muqarnas vault was born.30  In Syria, adept masons carved each separate stone block into shapes destined to fit snugly into place when assembled and to support the weight above them.31  What began as functional evolved into highly decorative multi-tiered constructions, as could be seen in the portal of al-Firdaws.

Once through the doors of this madrasa, visitors encountered a long vaulted corridor leading to an exterior wall of the back-to-back iwans.  A turn to the left brought a worshiper to the entrance corridor of the now enclosed iwan that once opened up into “a walled garden with a pool, whose waters were piped into the madrasa.”32  A turn in the other direction quickly revealed the interior courtyard, in its design a symphony of mathematical ratios.33

Mihrab, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo taken no later than 2012.

Mihrab, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Islamic architects and artists relied almost exclusively on the science and art of geometry in both construction and ornamentation, using grids in the layout of buildings and in the containment of decorative elements.34  Deploying repetitive, symmetrical and continuously-generated patterns35 (as in fractals), they created designs like that on madrasa al-Firdaws’s mihrab (or prayer niche) with its overlapping and interlacing, multi-colored stonework.

Divided horizontally into three approximately equal sections, the front of that mihrab contained red porphyry, green diorite, and white marble with veins of various colors.  Within the semicircular top third, a band of Qur’anic inscription36 wrapped around a circle segment, the innermost part of which was an organized riot of interwoven white lines framing red and green shapes.

In the lower third of the mihrab’s facing, supporting the niche were two granite columns with muqarnas capitals37 echoed by vertical stripes of alternating dark and light marble to their left and right, and continuing into the prayer alcove.  Sandwiched between the facing’s top and bottom sections, in a rectangle encompassing the arch of the mihrab’s vault, thick bands of yellow and white marble curved and angled above and below each other; the left side mirroring the right but for the reversal of the overlapping colors, resulting in a not-quite-symmetrical design.

View of Interior Courtyard with Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo taken no later than 2012.

View of Interior Courtyard with Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Before entering the mosque (that section of the madrasa that housed the mihrab), devotees first availed themselves of the waters of an octagonal courtyard pool, a complex construction of three layers–an eight-pointed star sandwiched between two octagons–unique to the architecture of Aleppo.38  The stone of the inner perimeter of the basin was carved into scallops alternating with right angles; curves resonated with the hemispheres of the many domes and corners with the surrounding pavement–an arrangement of light and dark masonry in square-based patterns.

Located on opposite sides of the courtyard, column-supported pointed arches opened into vaulted corridors beyond which domed rooms might have hosted gatherings of students and teachers.  Perpendicular to these were the prayer hall on one end and on the other, the yawning entrance to the interior iwan, with its evenly spaced niches that at one time could have held books.39

Residence Courtyard with Iwan, Madrasa al-Firdaws. © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5859. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Residence Courtyard with Iwan, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5859.   Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Flanking the back-to-back iwans were two-story residential annexes, each with its own courtyard and pool, though of somewhat different configurations.  Not visible from the madrasa’s interior space, these areas–since fallen into disrepair–were accessed from the vaulted corridors running alongside the exterior iwan.40  Uncommon in Syrian madrasas, student dormitories41 at al-Firdaws probably reflect that institution’s monastic functions.  The minaret rising from this section ensured that calls to prayer could be heard by sleeping devotees, waking them in time for their long nighttime vigils.

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws with Pistachio Trees. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5844. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws with Pistachio Trees.  Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5844.  Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Unlike in downtown Aleppo, where madrasa al-Halawiyya kept company with the Great Umayyad mosque and busy commercial structures, al-Firdaws had for its nearest neighbors pistachio trees and tombstones.  Within walking distance, however, residents and their visitors could, if needed, purchase provisions in a nearby populated area and further away, at the souk (market) of Bab al-Maqam, one of the gates to the city.42

Isolated as the madrasa was, it remained for some time in an active area thanks to the Mamluks–the next rulers of the Near East.  As part of the process of restoring Aleppo after the 1260 Mongol invasions destroyed much of the city,43 this new dynasty capitalized on the connection between the center of the city and its extramural neighborhoods.  One such focus was a corridor linking the shrine of Abraham on the Citadel with the one South of Bab al-Maqam in the district just north of al-Firdaws, along which they added their own monuments.44

When the Ottomans arrived in 1516, the central and northwestern parts of the city benefited45 from their penchant for erecting expansive complexes encompassing mosque, madrasa, public kitchen, souk and accommodations for travelers46 in those parts of town.  This concentration of construction and trade around the al-Halawiyya madrasa helped it maintain its significance, evident in the Ottomans’ seventeenth-century renovations of its courtyard façades.

The emphasis on parts north proved far less advantageous to the madrasa in the southern suburb, which saw the depopulation of its surroundings; even the area cemeteries migrated elsewhere, leaving just al-Firdaws’s own, one of the largest in Aleppo and in the twentieth century, the predominant feature of the immediate environment.  What was once a verdant reminder of a paradise to come found itself in a poor, industrial area that profited little from later urban renewal projects.47

In the early twenty-first century, combatants waging war in Syria and its neighboring states have taken the cultural heritage of those countries hostage, already executing too many of the monuments they captured.  Air strikes by the United States to drive back an especially malignant faction in the conflicts added to the wreckage.48

Differences in location, function, appearance and history of al-Halawiyya, al-Firdaws and other Aleppian madrasas have ultimately no bearing on their fates.  In a corner of the world that has through the ages been in the cross hairs of many conflicts, it remains to be seen what will survive this one and whether restoration and renewal will again be possible.

[For latest updates, click here.]
1 Ernest J. Grube, “What is Islamic Architecture?” in Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning, edited by George Michell (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1978), 37.
2 Yasser Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo (The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1997), 7.
3 Grube, 38.
4 Ibid., 39.
5 Tabbaa in Constructions of Power and Piety, 125.
6 Ibid., 126.
7 Nikita Elisséeff, “The Reaction of the Syrian Muslims after the Foundation of the First Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” in The Medieval Mediterranean: Peoples, Economies and Cultures, 400-1453, Volume I: Crusaders and Muslims in Twelfth-Century Syria, edited by Maya Shatzmiller (New York: E. J. Brill, 1993), 165-67.
8  Ibid., 168.
9 Yasser al-Tabba, “The Architectural Patronage of Nur al-Din” (PhD diss., New York University, 1982),182.
10 Ibid., 263.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid., 50-52.
13 “Provinces: Aleppo,” APSA (Association for the Preservation of Syrian Archaeology), accessed November 16, 2014, aleppo/monuments.html.
14 “Madrassa Halawiyya, Aleppo,” Virtual Tourist, accessed November 16, 2014,
15 al-Tabba, “The Architectural Patronage of Nur al-Din.”
16 Ronald Lewcock, “Architects, Craftsmen and Builders: Materials and Techniques” in Architecture of the Islamic World, 135-136.
17 al-Tabba, “The Architectural Patronage of Nur al-Din,” 53.
18 “Aleppo: Protecting the Halawiyeh wooden niche 10.06.2013,” APSA, accessed November 18, 2014,
19 Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh, “The Image of an Ottoman City: Imperial Architecture and Urban Experience in Aleppo in the 16th and 17th Centuries” in The Ottoman Empire and its Heritage: Politics, Society and Economy, Volume 33, edited by Suraiya Faroqhi and Halil Inalcik (Boston, Massachusetts: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004), 183.
20 Yassar Tabbaa, “Geometry and Memory in the Design of the Madrasa al-Firdows in Aleppo,” Chapter 3 in Theories and Principles of Design in the Architecture of Islamic Societies (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, 1988), 32.
21 Ibid., 28.
22 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 165.
23 Ibid., 176.
24 Ibid., 171-180.
25 Ibid., 8.
26 Graube, 40.
27 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 164.
28 Ibid., 168, 170-71.
29 Ibid., 168.
30 Graube, 124 and 141-142.
31 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 147.
32 Ibid., 169-70.
33 Tabbaa in Theories and Principles of Design, 24-27.
34 Graube, 164.
35 Ibid., 169.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid.
38 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 152.
39 Ibid., 169.
40 Ibid., 159.
41 Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Architecture: Form, function and meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 188.
42 Rana Chalabi, “Madrassa Al Firdaus al-‘Alā” (masters thesis, n.d.), accessed October 17, 2014,
43 Ibid., 27.
44 Watenpaugh, 32-33.
45 Ibid., 52.
46 Ciğdem Kafescioğlu, “In The Image of Rūm: Ottoman Architectural Patronage in Sixteenth-Century Aleppo and Damascus,” Muqarnas 16 (1999): 71.
47 Chalabi, 28-29.
48 “Aleppo – Aïn al-Arab-Kobane: US airstrike against ISIS militants on hill of Tell Shair 24.10.2014,” APSA (Association for the Preservation of Syrian Archaeology), accessed November 27, 2014,


Art Historical Musing: Music as Therapy in Art

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December 28th, 2014

The Power of Music &
The Madness of Art

[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>.]

[slide 1:  Title.]
[slide 2:  Detail, Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

Pity poor Hugo van der Goes.

[slide 3:  Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

He fell into a funk, and his prior and fellow monks tried to cheer him up with “a melody…and other recreative spectacles.”1  While it can’t be known what music they chose, perhaps success would have been theirs had they performed something decidedly more upbeat.

[for slide 4, click here on Flashdance-What a Feeling.]
[slide 5:  Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

In his 1872 painting, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (known in English as The Madness of Hugo van der Goes), Belgian artist Émile Wauters illustrated the legendary story of an artist who, around 1475 at the age of about 39, checked himself into a monastery–the Red Cloister outside Brussels–and became “a brother conversi, a rank between a lay brother and a monk.”2  Within the space of about five years, he had what would now be called a nervous breakdown or psychotic break.3

[slide 6: Melancholy Healed by Music in Aldobrandino of Siena, Livres pour la santé garder (Régime du corps) (late 13th century).  The British Library, London.  Sloane MS 2435, fol. 10v.]

As perhaps the only extant case study (of sorts) from the early modern period (or any other time) of an artist’s descent into madness, Gaspar Ofhuys’s description of van der Goes’s malady has often been cited in discussions of melancholia and creativity, and music’s healing powers,4 two areas of interest that have extensive histories.  Each has also been a favorite subject of artists over the course of time.

[slide 7:  Detail, Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

As Ofhuys relates the story, when van der Goes–a renowned late 15th century Northern European painter–was returning from an excursion to Cologne accompanied by a couple of fellow monks, “he incurred a strange mental disease…[H]e kept saying that he was a lost soul and was adjudicated eternal damnation; furthermore he was intent on injuring himself physically and committing suicide” and had to be “forcibly restrained by those who were standing by to help.”5

Based on that meager description of symptoms and the sparse biographical data available for van der Goes, attempts to reach a reliable diagnosis or even to discern precipitating factors are by necessity entirely conjectural.  In plunging into his suicidal state, however, the Flemish artist provided future writers (including Ofhuys, who made his own–mostly moralistic–guesses about causes and consequences) ample fodder for ruminating about the link between genius and insanity, and creativity and melancholia.

[slide 8:  Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (1609-10, oil on canvas, 49¼ x 39¾ in [125 x 101 cm]).  Rome, Museo e Galleria Borghese.]

As far back as Classical Antiquity, descriptions of artists emphasized their peculiarities.6  In writing about a particular Greek sculptor, Pliny the Elder made sure to mention not only the artist’s nickname of “the Madman,” but also an “unrivaled devotion to the art” that led him to be a “severe critic of his own work” and to break his statues into pieces upon completion, “his intense passion for his art making him unable to be satisfied.”7

[slide 9: Michelangelo Buonarroti, restored and completed by Tiberio Calcagni, Bandini Pietá (1550-55, marble, height 7⅜ ft [2.26 m]).  Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy.  Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen.]

Michelangelo followed suit almost two millennia later when, unhappy with the sculpture, he took a mallet to a late-in-life Pietá.8  Shortly before he died, this great Renaissance man torched “a large number of his own drawings, sketches and cartoons to prevent anyone from seeing the labours [sic] he endured or the ways he tested his genius, for fear that he might seem less than perfect.”9

[slide 10:  Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1989, oil on canvas, 23⅓ x 19⅓ in [60 x 49 cm]).  The Courtauld Gallery, London.]

In more modern times at the end of the nineteenth century in the hills around Aix-en-Provence, a fortunate hiker might have chanced upon an unfinished painting by Paul Cézanne, hanging from a tree.  A brilliant colorist, Cézanne lamented near the end of his life that “even though I am already old, I am only a beginner.”  About his paintings he said, “they are imperfect things…I don’t capture the local colors.”10

That kind of driving passion was noted by Plato but ascribed only to those who practiced what he considered the higher art forms of poetry and music.11  As painters achieved more status during Hellenistic times, they were granted the same “inspired madness of which seers and poets are possessed.”12

[slide 11:  Adam Elsheimer, Minerva as Patroness of Arts and Sciences (c. 1600-1605, oil on copper, 3⅜ x 5¾ in [8.6 x 14.6 cm]).  The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.]

According to the humoral theory of personality, artists could reach feverish states of creativity (Plato’s divine/creative mania13), energized by internal fires that when spent, left behind “remains [that] resembled black coals and polluted smoke,” plunging them into their more characteristic melancholic state.14

Adam Elsheimer, in his small copper painting, Minerva as Patroness of Arts and Sciences (c. 1600-1605), depicts Minerva in the emblematic pose of the melancholic, complete with shadowed eyes, and head resting wearily on her left arm and hand.  She bears a downturned, burned-out torch–of little use to the artist and scholars toiling away in the darkened interior, each with his own meager source of illumination.  The fire in the horizontally-centered brazier, now reduced to smoldering embers, adds a final touch to this representation of the cold, dark, blackness of the melancholic artistic temperament.15

Henry James’s short-story character knew well of this place when he exclaimed, “We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have.  Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art.”16

A committed and acclaimed artist, Hugo van der Goes suffered similar “passions of the soul” and “was seriously weighted down by them…exceedingly worried about how he was to carry out the paintings he had undertaken.”17  In wondering about the origins of the artist’s breakdown, Ofhuys mentioned his ingesting “melancholy-inducing foods” and imbibing strong wine, “which burns the humors and turns them into ashes.”18

[slide 12:  Hugo van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece (1475, oil on wood, 8¼  × 4⅔ ft [2.53 × 1.41 m]).  Uffizi Gallery, Florence.]

Ofhuys also made much of Hugo’s exceptional status at the Red Cloister and the high esteem in which the artist was held.19  When the painter joined the monastery soon after completing The Portinari Altarpiece in 1475, he was allowed to bring his studio practice with him.  Granted special dispensation to receive devotees of his art–many of high rank like the Archduke Maximilian, the artist would join his aristocratic guests in luxurious suites built specifically for their convenience.20

Hugo’s special situation contrasted sharply with that of his fellows, who lived a far more austere life in an environment devoid of instrumental music, particularly that of the organ–all forbidden by monastery statutes.  Not surprising then, when Prior Thomas heard about the artist’s distress and ordered a musical remedy, he had it applied offsite, in advance of the brother’s returning home.21

[slide 13: Queen Mary Psalter, early 14th century.  British Royal Library.
Bible of Duke Borso d’Este, mid-15th century.  Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena.]

The prior upon hearing of Hugo’s illness, left the cloister and caught up with the traveling party in Brussels.  “[A]fter confirming everything with his own eyes and ears, [he] suspected that [the artist] was vexed by the same disease by which King Saul was tormented.  Thereupon, recalling how Saul had found relief when David plucked his harp, he gave permission that a melody be played without restraint in the presence of brother Hugo, but also that other recreative spectacles be performed.”22

Prior Thomas had in mind the short passage in the Bible that describes the magic of David’s harp:

“And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”  (Italics in the original.)23

[slide 14:  Whistles Made of Reindeer Bones, Petersfels, Germany (c. 15,000 BP).  Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe, Germany.  Photo © Don Hitchcock.
Flute Made of Mammoth Ivory, Ulm, Germany (c. 30,000-37,000 BP, 7⅔ in [18.7 cm] in length).  Photo: © H. Jensen, University of Tübingen.]

While that might be the earliest documented use of music as an agent of healing, archeologists have unearthed an assortment of musical instruments from as far back as between 43,000 and 67,000 years ago that certainly had the potential to be used in a similar way.  The original context might have been their use in magical rituals to conjure up and control spirits.24

[slide 15:  Oinochoe with the Myth of Orpheus (ceramics, red figure).  Tuscania, Italy: Museo Archeologica.  © 2006, Scala, Florence / Art Resource, NY.]

Fast forward to classical antiquity and mythological texts to find references to incantations (perhaps closer to spells than songs) used for healing.  Although the music of Orpheus is reputed to have had great power, “there are no stories of his acting as a healer of the sick.”25

Seventh century BCE saw the deliverance of Sparta from plague through the music of a noted composer of paeans.  Several hundred years later, on the advice of an oracle, the possessed women of a couple of localities in southern Italy began to intone daily a great number of paeans in their quest for relief.  Communal holy songs, these verses acted by appeasing the angry gods behind the afflictions rather than affecting the person directly.26

[Slide 16:  Raphael, School of Athens (c. 1510-12, fresco, 19 x 27 ft [5.8 x 8.23 m]).  Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Vatican State.  Erich Lessing / Art Resource, N.Y. & Detail of Pythagoras, School of Athens.]

It wasn’t until his disciples started handing down stories about the mathematician and mystic Pythagoras (who left nothing in writing) that using music to influence a distressed person’s mood came into its own.  As the tale went, the great teacher–accompanying himself on a lyre–sang paeans to his pupils in order to soothe them.  At times they all sang as one.27  By the fifth century BCE, much had already been written about the power of music to not only affect emotions but also to impact a developing young boy’s character.  Aggressive, frenzied music was suspect and proscribed.

[slide 17: Pier Francesco Mola, Mercury Putting Argus to Sleep (c. 1645-55, oil on canvas, 23⅛ x 39⅛ in [58.7 x 99.4 cm]).  Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH.]

Not long after that, Plato (that great ascetic) picked up on the theme of music as character building or destroying, and issued some guidelines:

“Attunement, having motions akin to the circuits in our soul, has been given by the Muses to the intelligent user of the arts not for mindless pleasure, as it is fashionable to assume, but as an aid to bringing our soul-circuit, when it has got out of tune, into order and harmony with itself.  And rhythm likewise, in view of the unmeasured and graceless condition that comes about in most of us, was bestowed by them for the same purpose.”28

[slide 18:  Boethius, De Institutione Musica (early 6th century CE).]

Plato’s ideas about music’s potential for altering mood and behavior inspired other Greek and Roman writers to pick up on the theme,29 but it was the treatise De Institutione Musica by sixth century CE Roman philosopher Boethius that systematized all the previous material, making it readily accessible for later scholars.  By the Middle Ages, his manuscript on the subject had become compulsory reading for anyone studying at a higher educational level, where it constituted one quarter of the quadrivium along with the other mathematical disciplines of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.30

In his medico-astrological treatise De Triplici Vita (The Three Books on Life) published in 1489, theologian, astrologer, physician, musician and magician, Marsilio Ficino, picked up where Plato left off.  With Saturn in a dominant position in his horoscope, this Renaissance man was highly motivated to find a system for overcoming his “seal of melancholy.”31

Believing in the magic of music, Ficino developed an astrologically based therapy founded on his idea that “sound and song easily arouse the fantasy, affect the heart and reach the inmost recesses of the mind…Nearly all living beings are made captive by harmony.”  Playing his lyre and singing helped him “banish vexations of both soul and body”32 and he endeavored to share his discovery with others.  For Ficino, earthly music intently played could connect the performer and the listener to the music of the heavenly spheres, completing a circuit that had power to heal body and soul, two entities not yet separated conceptually at that time.

While it’s possible that De Institutione Musica–with all its classical allusions–provided an additional frame of reference for Prior Thomas (besides the Bible) when he came up with a musical solution to the problem of his conversi’s critical imbalance, his adding to the prescription “other recreative spectacles”33 also indicates an awareness of the benefits to the melancholic of not just music, but also attractive diversions.34

[slide 19:  Gonzales Coques, The Artist in His Studio (1650, oil on canvas, 25½ x 32¼ in [65 x 82 cm]).  Staatliches Museum, Schwerin, Germany.]

When Gonzales Coques conceived the idea for his painting The Artist in His Studio (1650), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy had already been published (in 1621, first in English) and widely referenced as the compendium of two millennia worth of knowledge and experience on the malady of melancholy.  Integrating the physical with the spiritual,35 it offered recommendations for treatment, among which music had a leading role.  “He advised students and scholars ‘to refresh their wearied minds with some sort of melody.  For so shall they drive away the dumpes [sic] of melancholie [sic] and make their spirits more lively to learn.’”36

Burton’s prescriptions for curing melancholy singled out pleasant surroundings like gardens and the viewing of Dutch maps, globes and landscape art as ways to lighten the burden on the intellect’s soul.37  Painters like Coques adopted those recommendations as subjects for their pictures.  In The Artist in His Studio, he placed in the artist’s hands a string instrument and situated him in front of a large landscape painting, scattering around the composition other music-making objects: a lute face down on the cabinet against the back wall, and a violin-cello leaning against a  keyboard.  Fruits of the vine and other produce rest on the floor nearby, symbolizing the pleasures of wine and nature as other popular remedies for the relief of melancholia.

[slide 20:  Frans van Mieris the Elder, The Artist in His Studio (1659, oil on panel, 23⅔ x 18½ in [60 x 47 cm]).  Staatliche Kunstammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany.]

Similarly, Frans van Mieris the Elder in The Artist in His Studio (1659) included in the easel painting a lounging figure with a lute by his side in a romantic classical setting of arches and columns.  In the studio foreground, a globe and a cello refer to additional anti-melancholy devices, and a statue further back of a writhing figure shows Hercules–one of the patron saints of melancholics–battling a snake.38

[slide 21:  Unknown (formerly attributed to Paul Bril), Self-Portrait of an Artist (c. 1595-1600, oil on canvas, 28 x 30¾ in [71 x 78 cm]).  Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island.]

In an anonymous Self-Portrait of an Artist (c. 1595-1600), the protagonist has put aside the tools of his trade, the fires of his creativity having been depleted by the effort to produce the large bucolic landscape that rests on his easel, and avails himself of some musical diversion in an attempt to combat the cold, bilious darkness of his melancholia.

[slide 22:  Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, The Old Song (1959, oil on canvas, 3⅓ x 5 ft [1.02 x 1.53 m)].  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.  © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.]

Music’s power to soothe has never gone out of fashion in artists’ studios, appearing on the canvases of such diverse Northern Europeans as the German expressionist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky and the great Dutch realist Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.  Motesiczky in the touching portrayal of her mother in old age, The Old Song (1959), invites into her mother’s room a close friend and neighbor to play a harp for the bedridden woman.

[slide 23:  Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Saul and David (1655-60, oil on canvas, 4¼ x 5⅜ ft [1.3 x 1.64 m]).  Mauritshaus, The Hague, Netherlands.]

In one of Rembrandt’s paintings of the biblical story of Saul and David (1655-60), David concentrates intensively on his musical production, bending and turning his head to better catch the sounds emanating from his harp, while Saul dabs at his eye as if to wipe away a tear, his upset temporarily assuaged by the magic of the melody.  The ancients knew intuitively what contemporary neuroscience has begun to bear out, that music can have a salutary effect on mood.

[slide 24:  From Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, © 2006.]

Advanced techniques of brain imaging have provided modern-day scientists with an increasingly more intimate understanding of the structures and functions of that mysterious organ between the ears.  Researchers, fascinated by the age-old importance of music to the human species, have determined that “musical activity involves nearly every [known] region of the brain…and nearly every neural subsystem.”39

Briefly stated, the processing of the sound of music begins with the auditory cortex, which sorts through its components.  Regions of the frontal cortex attend to the cognitive aspects of the experience, dealing with musical structure and expectations.  In the mesolimbic system, a part of the emotional center of the brain, the production of opioids and the reward neurotransmitter dopamine activates the nucleus accumbens, critical to the experience of pleasure, resulting in an uplifting state of arousal.  Meanwhile, in the cerebellum–the body’s keeper of the beat–and the basal ganglia (also involved in the brain’s reward system), rhythm and meter get registered.40

(slide 25:  Jan Steen, The Doctor’s Visit (c. 1660-65, oil on panel, 18⅛ x 14½ in [46 x 36.8 cm]).  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.]

Seventeenth-century doctors did not wait for the advent of neuroscience and its attendant revelations to include music in their medicine bag for not just melancholic men, but also for hysterical women who suffered from that long-ago-identified affliction known as the wandering womb, or hysteria.41  Dixon’s feminist approach to the study of melancholia invites viewers to consider gender-specific distinctions that artists made in their portrayals of women suffering the blues–reflections of the intellectual milieu of their times.

While the status of the enervated man was elevated to that of suffering genius, the symptomatic woman was understood as little more than a passive vessel for her uterus, “an independent animal capable of appetites and movements beyond the control of body or mind.”42  In his The Doctor’s Visit (c. 1660-65), Netherlandish artist Jan Steen captured perfectly the medical lore of the time as expressed in theme of the “lovesick maiden.”43

In the picture, a young woman in the iconic head-resting-listlessly-on-hand pose, turns her glazed eyes expectantly in the direction of the doctor who–still holding his gloves (an indication that he has just arrived to deal with the emergency) takes her pulse.  A far more alert young woman plays a harpsichord nearby while staring intently at the painting’s subject, watching to see if the music was having any effect.  No glow emanates from the foot warmer in the foreground, a symbol of the spent fires of melancholia.

To potentiate the musical medicine, Steen added a young male caller (the love antidote) who is welcomed in by a servant, and a jokester (the mirth remedy) dangling a fish behind the sick woman.44  A contemporary audience would have recognized allusions to other medical practices, and physicians would have enjoyed even more.45

[slide 26:  Copy after Jan Steen, Lady at a Clavichord (after 1661 or 1664, oil on canvas, 25¼ x 21¾ in [64.1 x 55.2 cm]).  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.]

The same artist, in Lady at a Clavichord (after 1661 or 1664–a copy of a lost original), explored again the role of music as a balm for melancholia associated with lovesickness, though this time the victim is a man.  Holding a less-than-half-full glass of wine, and supporting the weight of his head in that now familiar position, he looks longingly at the woman meeting his eyes as she turns the page of a score with one hand and rests the fingers of her other on the keys of a clavichord.  In the near background, another young man (or boy) reaches up to retrieve a lute from the wall, perhaps to hand the sufferer so he can respond to the songs of his love.

[slide 27:  Hugo van der Goes, Portrait of a Man (c. 1475, oil on wood, 12½ x 10¼ in [31.8 x 26 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.]
Hugo van der Goes, A Benedictine Monk (c. 1478, oil on wood, 9⅞ x 7⅜ in [25.1 x 18.7 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.]

Love’s painful longings pale in comparison with suicidal ideation, and it’s unknown just how effective was the “melody…played without restraint…[and] other recreative spectacles”46 in the face of Hugo van der Goes’s severe distress.  Ofhuys, amid his sermonizing about God’s compassionate nudge of the painter in the direction of more humility, describes how “[t]he brother, realizing this himself abased himself very much as soon as he regained his health, leaving the table at our refectory…and abjectly obtaining his meals with the laiety [sic].”47  In the end, the renowned converso relinquished his privileged position and probably ceased his entertainment of aristocratic admirers in refined quarters.

[slide 28:  Hugo van der Goes, Death of a Virgin (c. 1470–80, oil on panel, 4 × 4¾ ft [1.23 × 1.48 m]).  Groeningemuseum.  Bruges, Belgium.
Hugo van der Goes, Trinity Altarpiece (c. 1478-79, oil on panel, each panel: 6⅔ x 3¼ ft [2.02 x 1.01 m]).  National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland.]

It’s uncertain whether Hugo painted again after the breakdown he suffered a couple of years before he died in 1482.  Writers have been unable to resist the temptation to retrospectively identify in his masterpieces indicators of a troubled personality.48  But that type of analysis belongs to the field of art not music therapy, a project for another time.
1 Gaspar Ofhuys, “Extract from Originale Cenobii Rubeevallis in Zonia Prope Bruxellam in Brabancia,” translated by William A. McCloy in “The Ofhuys Chronicle and Hugo van der Goes” (PhD diss., State University of Ohio, 1958), 20.
2 Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution (New York, NY: Random House, 1963), 108.
3 Ibid., p. 109.
4 See for example: Peter Murray Jones, “Music Therapy in the Later Middle Ages: The Case of Hugo van der Goes” in Peregrine Horden, ed., Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy since Antiquity (Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2000), 120-144; Laurinda S. Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius: The Melancholic Persona in Art, ca. 1500-1700 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2013), 121; and Wittkower,108-13.
5 Ofhuys in McCloy, 19-20.
6 Wittkower, 7.
7 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, translated by D. E. Eichholz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann, 1949-54), Vol. 10, Book XXXIV, 14.
8 Anna Mazzanti, The Art of Florence in Its Great Museums (Florence, Italy: Scala, 1997), 97.
9 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translated by Julia Conaway and Peter Bondanella (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 472.
10 Michael Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, translated by Julie Lawrence Cochran (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 20.
11 Wittkower, 4-5.
Wittkower, 98.
Ibid., 103.
14 Dixon, 14-15.
15 Ibid., 119.
16 Henry James, “The Middle Years,” Scribner’s Magazine 13:4 (April 1983), 620.
17 Ofhuys in McCloy, 22.
18 Ibid., 21.
19 Ibid., 16-17.
20 Ibid., 18.
21 Peter Murray Jones, “Music Therapy in the Later Middle Ages: The Case of Hugo van der Goes” in Peregrine Horden, ed., Music as Medicine (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publish Ltd., 2000), 123.
22 Ofhuys in McCloy, 20.
23  “I Samuel 17:23,” The Holy Bible, King James Version (New York: The World Publishing Co., n.d.), 216.
24 Martin West, “Music Therapy in Antiquity” in Music as Medicine, 51.
25 Ibid., 54.
26 Ibid., 54-55.
27 Ibid., 55.
28 Plato, Timaeus, 47d, quoted in West, “Music Therapy in Antiquity,” 58.
29 West, “Music Therapy in Antiquity” in Music as Medicine, 59-66.
30 Peregrine Horden, “Commentary on Part II, with a Note on the Early Middle Ages,” in Music as Medicine, 104.
31 Angela Voss, “Marsilio Ficino, the Second Orpheus,” in Music as Medicine, 156.
32 Ibid., 161.
33 Ofhuys in McCloy, 20.
34 Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius, 143-178.
35  Ibid., 3.
36 Robert Burton quoted in Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius, 148.
37 Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius, 152.
38 Ibid., 154 and 156.
39 Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York, NY: Penguin Group Inc., 2006), 4.
40 Ibid., 187.
41 Laurinda S. Dixon, “Together in Misery: Medical Meaning and Sexual Politics in Two Paintings by Jan Steen” in Jane L. Carroll and Alison G. Stewart, eds., Saints, Sinners, and Sisters: Gender and Northern Art in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003), 250-51.
42 Ibid., 250.
43 Ibid., 246.
44 Ibid., 256.
45 Ibid., 249.
46 Ofhuys in McCloy, 20.
47 Ibid., 23.
48 Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character, Volume I (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 330-343.  He identifies “somber pathos” as “the very signature of Hugo’s genius.” (342); McCloy sees the 1902 attribution of The Death of the Virgin to van der Goes as inevitable. (115).


Art Review: “Young Husband, First Marketing” by Lilly Martin Spencer

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December 28th, 2014

Lilly Martin Spencer
Playfully Paints
Her Husband’s Travails

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½  x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½ x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

In the newly appointed American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entering gallery 758 one encounters a rectangular painting of modest size (a couple of feet wide by a little more than that tall) in a gilded frame with ornate corners and a similarly colored plaque that announces in black lettering the subject (Young Husband, First Marketing) and artist (Lilly Martin Spencer), and includes dates that seem to indicate the maker’s life span (1822 and 1902).

In the vertical center of this oil-on-canvas composition, a man clutches in his right hand a folded black umbrella, while with his other hand he grabs the far side (from him) of a wicker basket and one of the legs of a chicken carcass attempting to escape from it. Roped to the feet of that fowl another one has already broken free and dangles head first in front, and to the proper left, of the burden bearer at an angle reflecting that of the right leg the man has raised so that his knee might function as a platform–albeit an unsteady one–to support this cornucopia of foodstuff in danger of toppling over.

On the glistening ground to his right, a bunch of carrots straddles some stalks of rhubarb, the collective leaves of which abut a splayed head of lettuce on which two cracked eggs spill out their contents. Close by, a lone tomato has come to rest on the center of the lower border of the painting, below the shoe heel of the man wrestling for control of his charges.

Light directs the eye to the man’s neatly bearded face with its furrowed, knitted brow capping lowered lids and eyes that gaze down at the vegetables on the ground. Lest anyone miss the ongoing drama of the basket contents, the artist has reserved the brightest painted value for the white eggs participating in it. Keeping them company are a bunch of asparagus, three tomatoes, an orange gourd, a pineapple, some greens, a cut of meat and the aforementioned dead chicken. Only a small portion (perhaps a third) of the basket’s lid rests on those contents, effectively revealing them as it slips back and to the proper right of the protagonist.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½  x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½ x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This struggling man is dressed in black top coat, dark brown pants and stack-heeled black shoes with buttoned grey spats. Under his coat, he has piled on several layers of clothing, including something black (perhaps a sweater) fastened just under his white collar, and a maroon vest. On his head he sports a squat, brimmed hat.

To his proper right and a few steps behind him, another even more carefully bearded man strides toward the left edge of the painting, elegantly attired in black top hat, leather gloves, brown coat, black pants, similarly styled shoes, black vest with a row of light paint spots crossing his vest (perhaps a gold chain for a pocket watch), and a light-colored shirt with two small areas of dark paint near the collar that might be a bow tie. He holds over his head a large open umbrella and leans forward while turning his head toward the painting’s center of interest. His eyes on the basket, this striding man’s upturned mouth corners, bared upper teeth, puffed out left cheek that catches the only high-value light falling on him, all indicate the action of the zygomatic muscle pulling his expression into a smile.

In the far background, two other figures walk toward each other in front of a wall covered with posters. The one to the left of the two foregrounded men, a woman, lifts up her heavy-cloth brown skirt and lacy petticoat to reveal legs clad in white hose and black shoes. A dark-turquoise-and-rust-colored scarf covers her head, and a waist-length reddish-brown jacket of thick material protects her upper body. The umbrella she holds open over her head runs parallel to the one held by the striding man, pairing her with him in the same way as does the turn of her head toward the man with the basket. Her sufficiently lighted face with its open eyes, upturned lip corners and puffed cheek echoes, too, that other onlooker’s amusement.

The other background figure, a man (more sketchily rendered), walks onto the scene from the right, leaning forward at an angle parallel to that of the uselessly folded umbrella gripped by the man with the tilting basket. Carrying a pail on his left arm, this ruggedly dressed character steadies it with his right, far more successful in this task than his counterpart up front. Although similarly not protected by an umbrella, he wears a tall, wrinkled hat with a brim ample enough to shade his eyes, and wide-cuffed boots that reach almost to his knees.

The curb of the sidewalk on which they walk forms the horizontal midline of the composition. Green-crowned trees of differing heights rise up behind the wall that runs along the length of this sidewalk, turning a corner on the far left and ending at that edge of the canvas.

Behind the foliage, several structures comprise an urban skyline, all vaguely indicated except for the one seen in the space between the open umbrella of the dapper strider and the hat of the man with the basket. On the roof of that more well-defined, light-grey house sit several reddish-brown chimneys. Across its face, two rows of windows are visible, each window framed by sills and flanking shutters.

The painting has an overall warm, brown tone, punctuated by the red of the tomatoes, white and orange of the cracked eggs, and white, red and green of the basket contents. Highlights on the face and hands of the foremost figure, on the butt of the hanging chicken carcass and on the cheek of the striding man provide additional areas of contrast.

Splashes of low-value highlights on the cobblestone street and stone-slab sidewalk create the impression of moisture. Resembling water stains on the four-stepped stoop that occupies half of the lower right quadrant, a brown wash trickles over thicker light-brown paint. The grey-green trees, turquoise of the woman’s scarf, green of a row of grass growing along the base of the wall and of some of the produce, all combine to complement the reddish-brown elements in the rest of the painting.

Time and the environment have affected the painting’s surface. The hanging chicken’s head, neck and upper body have become transparent, revealing the sidewalk and cobblestones behind it, and the basket’s handle has practically disappeared. Craquelure has developed in the lightest areas of the sidewalk, helpfully in the broken eggs on the ground but also in the basketed ones, and throughout the rest of the painting, including in the darks. There are two prominent areas of concentric cracks, one between the lifted right foot of the man balancing the basket and the forward foot of the man walking behind him, and the other at the right shoulder of the latter.

The bright light that falls on the protagonist conflicts with the many cues that this beleaguered man is caught in a windy downpour, unable to open his umbrella because of an uncooperative basket of provisions. Yet that doesn’t detract from the whimsical way in which Spencer has successfully poked fun at a young husband grappling with the challenges of his new role.


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.