The Not-So-Humble Vegetable

Now that the Northern Hemisphere is entering into Autumn, it’s that time of year when food is particularly on our minds.  Neighbors who cannot possibly eat all of the tomatoes and peppers they’ve grown are desperately looking to hand off their excess crops, rather than let them go to waste.  Fruits like peaches need preserving and canning, while apple picking season began just yesterday in many counties around DC.

The bounty of this time of year has inspired Western artists for millennia.  The cornucopias of the gods, tied to various ancient myths, are to be found in many examples of Ancient Greek and Roman statuary. Fruits and vegetables figure prominently in the work of Old Master painters such as Carlo Crivelli and the strange portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  In the 17th century, the Dutch and Spanish artists of the Golden Age often produced still life paintings featuring beautifully rendered produce.

Even alongside all of these examples however, it is hard to imagine topping the work of artist Patrick Laroche.  As a classically-trained sculptor, M. Laroche produces many things, from original pieces or restorations for the French national museums and palaces, to enlargements and reductions of existing sculptures, to exploring his own ideas in his personal work, which has a sensuous, Brancusi-like feel to it.  However the reason you need to know him in the context of this post is his current fascination, which lies in creating giant, colorful sculptures of vegetables, some of which have now been installed on exhibit at the Sofitel St. James in London.

Being somewhat of a magpie by nature, I was immediately drawn to the polished gleam of these works.  They are cast in bronze, stainless steel, or resin, and then coated in a high-gloss finish, giving them a colored shine, sometimes reflecting the vegetable’s actual color, sometimes not.  This makes the pieces stand out even more than they already would, just based on their gigantic size alone.

While historically, they are the sort of object that one could imagine a Renaissance prince commissioning for festivities surrounding a wedding or coronation, at the same time they are something a child with a great imagination would create, if he only knew how.  I think this childlike joy in creating the fantastic, in particular, is what makes them so charming: it prevents the pieces from becoming too totemic.  Moreover, M. Laroche’s motivation is celebration, as he told The Daily Telegraph, because he is passionate about gastronomy.  This seems a great way to celebrate the French national love of good food.

Even those of us who do not have the good fortune to be able to eat French food all the time can still admire, even smile or laugh, at work like this.  We can realize that we are very lucky indeed, in the Western world, to have so much good food to choose from in this season of plenty, particularly when so many around the world do not enjoy that luxury.  And while the realization of that fact should not put us off jarring our homemade marinara sauce or savoring the crispness of this year’s pears, perhaps it will also put us in mind of the fact that in sharing that bounty, we can truly demonstrate our gratitude for it.  M. Laroche’s sculptures are a wonderful reminder of how truly fortunate we are.

Patrick LaRoche

Sculptor Patrick Laroche in his Paris studio




>Of Interest To My Readers – One Hopes

>Gentle reader, I have some suggested events and reading material for you this morning:

- If you are in the Washington area, I encourage you to join me and drop by the Young Conservatives Coalition’s “Reaganpalooza” this Saturday at the Teatro Goldoni bar-restaurant on K Street. You must RSVP on the event website, and there is a $5.00 entry charge at the door. This year marks what would have been President Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, and there will be numerous events around the country this year to reflect on his life and legacy. This event in particular will be a fun and stylish evening in celebration of the great man, as well as a fantastic opportunity to meet new acquaintances – and of course, if you spot me in the crowd please do come up and introduce yourself!

- Hearty congratulations to my friend Matthew Alderman of New Liturgical Movement and Shrine of the Holy Whapping fame, whose art will be featured in the forthcoming new edition of The Roman Missal. Fifteen of Matt’s illustrations will be included in the publication, which is available now for pre-order. Those of my readers of a priestly vocation know that the new translation will be coming into effect this Advent, so why not order your copy today? And of course drop by Matthew Alderman Studios to see the wide range of past, present, and future projects by this gifted young man.

- Congratulations also to the ever-gracious Diana von Glahn from The Faithful Traveler, who along with her producer-husband David and their crew will be accompanying Philadelphia’s Cardinal Rigali on pilgrimage to the Holy Land next month, and filming their adventures for a new series on EWTN. Regular readers know that I much enjoyed the first season of The Faithful Traveler, and that Diana’s example encouraged me to start my ongoing Catholic Barcelona project. I am looking forward to seeing the results of their filming.

- Some amazing sculptures dating from the early 3rd Century A.D. were found yesterday during archaeological excavations on the Via Anagnina, in the outskirts of Rome, as shown in this slideshow released to the Italian press. They include a statue of a male god (probably Zeus), and a number of portrait busts believed to represent members of the Severan Dynasty, the family of the Emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla, which ruled Rome from the murder of the Emperor Commodus in 193 A.D. – he of “Gladiator” fame – until the year 235 A.D. The statues were found together in a cache, carefully buried in the grounds of a villa belonging to a wealthy supporter of the imperial clan, though why they were hidden this way is unknown. They have now been taken to the National Museum in Rome for conservation and study before being put on display.

And finally:

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Eulalia, patroness of Barcelona, who was martyred in the city on February 12, 303 A.D. under the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The city’s Cathedral is dedicated both to her and to the Holy Cross, and her tomb is a magnificent shrine located directly beneath the high altar. Readers may not be aware however, that the story of her martyrdom produced one of the most striking Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the later 19th century.

As it happens, yesterday was the anniversary of the death of the English Royal Academician John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), who continued to develop Pre-Raphaelite painting into the 20th century through a mixing of the ideals of the Brotherhood with classical and Impressionist styles and techniques. Probably Waterhouse’s most famous painting is his 1888 masterpiece “The Lady of Shalott”, now in the collection of the Tate Britain museum. This is a haunting image and one which, in reproduction, I suspect a number of my readers may have hung on their wall at one time or another.

Earlier, in 1885, Waterhouse painted a disquieting work of particular interest to me and to other Catalans: his “Saint Eulalia”, which is also now at Tate Britain. It depicts the pious legend that, after the teenaged martyr was killed and her body left exposed in Barcelona’s Roman Forum, as a warning by the Emperor Diocletian against those who would practice Christianity, a miraculous snow fell, modestly covering her body. No doubt, it is not exactly a pleasant image, but nevertheless it is certainly a most arresting one. We are accustomed to seeing tidied-up images of the early martyrs, but the stark realism of what actually happened to them should give all of us pause, and an opportunity for reflection on our own level of faith.

“Saint Eulalia” by JW Waterhouse (1885)
Tate Britain, London

>What St. Louis Saw

Gentle Reader: Today is your last opportunity to submit your entry for The Blog of the Courtier’s Birthday Contest! I have already received quite a few interesting entries, and thank those who have already provided their submissions. Details on how to enter, and a link where you can email your entry may be found here.

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Today is the Feast of St. Louis IX, King of France, who lived from 1214 to 1270. The world has changed a great deal since St. Louis’ day, but the span of his lifetime provides us with an interesting opportunity to put into context – albeit in a somewhat general way, given the constraints of a blog post – how Western art and architecture developed from the time of his birth to his death. Very often the lifespan of an historical figure merely serves to provide us with a sense of what historical (often military) events would have been witnessed or known to that person, but we do not have a sense of what cultural events took place during the same time period. For example, we all know that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, landing on October 12th, but we may not know that the great Italian Cinquecento painter Piero della Francesca died on the same day.

In the case of St. Louis, at the time of his birth the position of a painter both in France and throughout Europe can be generalized as that of an anonymous artisan: we simply do not know the names of many of the painters creating altarpieces and wall paintings around the year 1214. For the sake of art history, oftentimes these anonymous individuals may be referred to as the “Master of” some existing altarpiece or wall cycle, but aside from being able to spot stylistic conventions and possible relationships, more often than not we are simply lacking biographical detail about their lives. By the year 1270 in Italy however, the great Cimabue had just begun to build his reputation in Florence, and his more famous pupil Giotto was about three years old. The seeds for the Italian Renaissance in painting had, at the time of St. Louis’ death, begun to germinate, and the painter was to, as a result, in the following centuries become what he is today, an independent figure.

With respect to architecture, two seminal works of French Architecture were going up during St. Louis’ lifetime. The present Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims, site for the coronations of many of the Kings of France, was begun in 1211 after a fire destroyed the old Romanesque-style structure which had stood on the spot the year before. St. Louis was crowned King of France in this cathedral on November 29, 1226, while the building was still under construction. Sometime between then and 1245, the famous sculpture of the “Smiling Angel of Reims”, reproduced below, was placed on the West Front of the Cathedral.

Meanwhile work on the West Front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, so familiar to us today, began shortly before the birth of St. Louis. The twin bell towers that cap the facade were completed by 1245. It is not hard for us to imagine St. Louis visiting the construction site, and being shown the progress made on the building during his lifetime. It is no exaggeration to say that the Cathedrals at Reims, Paris, and elsewhere in France that were designed and (largely) built during the reign of St. Louis are justly considered to be among the great architectural and artistic treasures of the world.

Putting saints into the context of their times is always important if we are to gain a deeper understanding into how the historic events that marked their lives might have affected their actions and their thinking with respect to spiritual matters. At the same time however, we should not ignore the products of artistic expression, such as in painting, sculpture, and architecture, that would have been familiar to them in their lifetimes. Much of this has to do with establishing, in our minds, a sense of place. Just as we get a better understanding from a secular perspective of the work of Thomas Hardy by exploring the countryside of the County of Dorset, or that of William Wordsworth by visiting the Lake District, if we are fortunate enough to see the buildings and art that the saints themselves may have admired in their own day, we may gain greater insight into how they saw their relationship to God, to the Church, and to their fellow man.

The “Smiling Angel” from the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims