Category Archives: sculpture

>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

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Filed under art, art history, Barcelona, EWTN, Matthew Alderman, painting, Pre-Raphaelite, Rome, Ronald Reagan, sculpture, The Faithful Traveler

>Nativity of the Blessed Virgin: A Day of Discoveries

>Today the universal Church marks the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, daughter of Sts. Anne and Joachim and mother of Jesus Christ. Of course, we do not know the exact date of her birth, any more than we do the exact date of Christ’s birth, but being the most highly revered of all of the saints, it was only fitting that her birthday be celebrated by the Church. While here in the U.S. there is little in the way of tradition or ceremony to mark this day, in other countries various traditions endure.

Among Catholics in Catalonia today is a pilgrimage date known as the “Dia de les Verges Trobades” or literally the “Day of the Meeting Virgins”. While admittedly something of an odd term, it might be better-translated as the “Day of the Discovered Virgins”. It refers collectively to the images of the Blessed Virgin located throughout Catalonia that were discovered under miraculous circumstances. Probably the most famous of these is that of Our Lady of Montserrat, although she gets her own feast day as the patroness of Catalonia, on April 27th. Other examples include Our Lady of Núria, Our Lady of Olot, and Our Lady of Bonanova, whose shrine in Barcelona I have written about recently.

One thing typically held in common by these images is that they were discovered in caves, or buried, or found in otherwise inaccessible places. How they arrived at these spots is often the subject of legend, but it seems more likely that they came to be hidden as a result of the passage of history and the inevitable march of warfare. Between 711 A.D. and 1492, when the Moors ruled parts of what are today Spain and Portugal, relations between the northern Christian kingdoms and the southern Moslem caliphates were not always pleasant. In 985 A.D., for example, Al-Mansur launched an enormous attack on Catalonia and burned many churches, monasteries, and shrines.

Over the centuries, whenever war or invasion threatened, it would have been prudent on the part of the local people to hide their community’s statue of the Blessed Virgin from being damaged, destroyed, or captured by invading Moors, raiding Christians from other kingdoms, and civil infighting. Sometimes the locations for these artworks were forgotten, but when times became safer, these re-discovered images were brought back into veneration, the local people honoring God for their miraculous preservation. Over time, many of the churches, chapels and shrines which housed these images grew into great pilgrimage centers. Throughout Catalonia then, the Virgin Mary’s birthday is a feast day celebrated communally at these ancient Marian shrines by faithful pilgrims.

Our Lady of La Serra de Montblanc, one of the Catalan “verges Trobades”

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Filed under art, Barcelona, Catalonia, Catholic, Church, sculpture, Spain, Virgin Mary

>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

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Filed under archtiecture, art, Church, France, Italy, painting, saints, sculpture, St. Louis

>Losing Their Heads: Stewardship in Spain

>Common sense warns us that carrying on certain activities in proximity to certain structures is not such a good idea. Reasonable people would, presumably, agree that lighting a large bonfire next to a log cabin is not such a good idea, since a stray spark could set the structure on fire. Another example of common sense would be, the use of explosive materials in close proximity to a historic building is also probably not such a good idea.

And then, of course, there is the current batch of Spanish socialists.

The central square in Toledo, Spain, is dominated on the SW corner by city hall, and on the NE corner by the Cathedral, seat of the Primate of Spain. It is generally considered to be the most important of the Spanish Gothic cathedrals, completed mostly between the 13th and 15th centuries. It is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On this past Sunday, the Feast of the Assumption, the city council set off a mascletà in this town square. Although more common in Valencia than in Castile, a mascletà roughly speaking is a combination of fireworks and large amounts of gunpowder, designed to impress viewers with the shock wave effects of coordinated explosions. These fireworks have taken place over the past three years despite warnings from the Dean of the Cathedral and the Partido Popular (the Spanish national conservative party), that the use of explosives so close to the Cathedral was not such a smart idea. The Socialist city mayor and his counsellors on the other hand, have always maintained that reports from their technical experts say it is perfectly safe to stage the explosions in the square.

And so it was that on Sunday night, the shock wave from the explosions ended up decapitating one of the 14th century granite angels on the facade of the Cathedral. The head fell right next to a man and his son who were leaving the building at the conclusion of the Pontifical Mass celebrated by Archbishop Braulio Rodriguez, the present Primate of Spain. Fortunately, no one was injured.

As one can imagine, this is an “I told you so” moment for those who cautioned that this was a dangerous activity. It has been announced that the city will pay for the repairs to the cathedral, and that the site for the fireworks will be moved next year to a safer location. However, the mayor has also responded that despite their protests, the conservative party never provided technical reports to substantiate their claim that the activity was unsafe.

It should not be necessary to explain, in the 21st let alone any other century, that setting off explosions next to old buildings covered in sculptures, located in a crowded urban nucleus, is unsafe. The activity is lacking in basic common sense, regardless of what technical reports indicate. A technical expert can, at best, speak in probabilities. Even if the probabilities are extremely low, however, if there is no absolute reason to engage in an unsafe activity around an historic monument such as the Toledo Cathedral, why risk it in the first place?

Similarly, regular readers know that I am not exactly thrilled with the prospect of tunneling a high-speed train tunnel close to the foundations of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, which Pope Benedict XVI will dedicate and declare a Minor Basilica this November. There have been warnings from a number of very reasonable people that this is not such a good idea, since the structural integrity of the building could be compromised by tunneling or the vibrations of passing trains, or both. These are also being ignored by the present government.

There needs to be a greater appreciation throughout Spain that one of the reasons people flock to visit is because of the magnificent and unique architectural heritage in cities like Toldeo and Barcelona. Putting that heritage at risk of damage or destruction is not, in the long term, going to improve the lives either of the country’s citizens, nor indeed the reputation of Spain in the eyes of the world. There needs to be a great concern for the stewardship of these monuments and a fundamental respect for them, regardless of whatever political party happens to be in control of either city hall, the Cortes, or Moncloa. While the angel can be repaired, this damage should never have happened in the first place.

Head of the angel from the Cathedral of Our Lady,
damaged in Sunday’s fireworks display in Toledo, Spain

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Filed under architecture, Barcelona, cathedral, Church, engineering, Gothic, Sagrada Familia, sculpture, Spain, Toledo

On the Vandalism of a Monument

Today is the anniversary of the capture of Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, by Hernán Cortés in 1521. With the capture of their capital, the rule of the Aztecs finally came to an end, and for the next three hundred years Mexico was a colony of the Spanish Crown. Some may debate the assertion, but at the very least in its long-term effects it is not an exaggeration to state that this is one of the seminal events of world history.

It is not the purpose of this blog post to engage in debate over the actions of the parties involved in the battle for control of Mexico. Those interested in reading a first-hand account of these events would do well to read the very interesting book “The Conquest of New Spain” of Cortés’ companion Bernal Díaz which, while written from the perspective of a Spanish conquistador, is at least somewhat critical of Cortés. With regard to secondary sources, those seeking to find apologists for Spain, apologists for the Aztecs, and apologists for no one in particular, have a wealth of written material at their disposal.

What does concern me is what occurred in the town of Medellín, Spain, on Wednesday. A monument to Cortés, which stands in the center of the town square, close to his birthplace, was defaced by anonymous vandals early on Wednesday morning, by splashing red paint all over it. This occurred the day after the Spanish national soccer team, on a visit to Mexico City to play the Mexican national team, presented the World Cup Trophy to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patroness of Mexico, at a mass in the Basilica dedicated to her in Mexico City. An unusual display of old-fashioned Catholic piety and chivalric behavior, as well as a gesture of genuine respect and civilized friendship from Spain to Mexico in a highly-secularized and plebeian world, the presentation came about because Angel Maria Villar, President of the Royal Spanish Soccer Federation, made a promise to Our Lady when he visited her shrine in Mexico City last year, that if Spain would finally win the World Cup he would come to honor her favor and bring the trophy with him.

The unknown individuals who defaced the statue – referring to themselves as “anonymous citizens” – stated in pamphlets left at the scene that the statue was offensive because it depicted Cortés standing on the decapitated head of an indian. They further complained that the statue was a “fascist representation”. As usually occurs among proponents of the non-thinking Leftist mob variety, neither of these assertions are the case.

The statue does not show Cortés standing on the decapitated head of an indian. Rather, Cortés is standing on the head of a toppled Aztec idol, as indeed the Government of Mexico has pointed out, through a statement by its Ambassador in condemning the vandalism of the monument. Thus, the first argument of the vandals falls away.

Moreover, as usually happens when people bandy about terms they do not understand, one has to question the use of the term “fascist” with respect to the erection of this monument. From a purely chronological perspective, the monument to Cortés was erected in 1890; fascism only began to emerge as a serious political movement in reaction to World War I, a quarter of a century later. Even if one was to refer to the government of Spain under General Francisco Franco as fascist – at least in its early stages – that government only came into power in 1939, nearly fifty years after the monument to Cortés was inaugurated in Medellín. From the perspective of historical political theory at the time of the dedication of the statue, calling this monument “fascist” makes as much sense as calling it “Guelph”.

In addition, the design of this piece is in no way emblematic of what one could reasonably term a “fascist” aesthetic. Not unlike the art and architecture of the Soviet bloc, the public sculpture of Western fascist artists was typically severely linear, often attempting to evoke a secular humanist, severe neo-classicism. By no means can this complicated sculpture of the conquistador, in all of its late Victorian (admittedly pompous) detail, be considered artistically close in any sense to the fascist aesthetic.

What particularly troubles me is the destruction, in a 21st century representative democracy, of a work of art, whatever its merits or lack of them, for the purpose of making a political statement. Debating history is one thing; defacing history is something else. I may not care for Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, and what they did to thousands of English Catholics, including members of my own family. That fact does not, however, give me the right to march into the National Portrait Gallery in London and slash their portraits with a razor blade, or jackhammer their tombs to pieces.

If citizens of a particular place wish to debate the question of removal of a piece of public art, then any rational chimpanzee knows that the proper forum in which to do so is in the form of democratic debate, forum, or referendum. If some of the residents of the town of Medellín wish to have the monument to Cortés removed, then they should take steps to persuade their fellow citizens do so. In a free and democratic country however, those steps should not include childish acts of vandalism. What is particularly telling about this particular action is that its authors remained anonymous, as is typical of the cowardly who do not have the strength of their convictions.

As a final consideration, dear reader, I would defer to the words of Jaime Manuel del Arenal, the Mexican Ambassador to Madrid, which he made condemning the vandalism of this monument. In a statement he noted that while the history of relations between the Spanish and the Mexicans was often violent and painful, this fact was not a unique occurrence in world history. Moreover, without the coming together of the cultures of Spain and the indigenous peoples of Mexico, as Ambassador del Arenal pointed out, there would have been no emergence of “the proud and free civilization that we Mexicans are. We are the result of a universal epic.”

Defaced Monument to Hernán Cortés in Medellín, Spain


Filed under art, art history, Cortes, Left, Mexico, sculpture, Spain, vandalism