When Experts Fail: The Sacred and Profane in Art

An article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding some important frescoes in Rome piqued my interest, and at the same time made me raise an eyebrow as I did further reading.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit, gentle reader, about why too often the media and even supposed art experts themselves, are sources whose pronouncements need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  Too often such sources do not really seem to understand how a supposedly profane work of Christian art is, in fact, actually representing a very sacred concept.

We do need to be a little bit careful about using the term “profane” in this context.  By “profane”, we don’t mean something irreverent or scandalous, as we would when using the word, “profanity”.  Rather, in the study of art history there is a general delineation between sacred art, which deals with religious subjects, and profane art, which deals with secular subjects.   It can get confusing however, when something which at first glance might seem to fall into one category is, in fact, of the other.

Take for example Raphael’s magnificent 16th century portrait of Pope Leo X flanked by two of his cardinals, now in the Uffizi in Florence.  This is a secular work of art, even though it portrays a religious figure.  The intent of the painting is not to glorify God, but rather the sitter.  Being a Medici, Leo had excellent taste, but as was generally true of his family he was also rather prone to indulge in greed and excess.  Since this was definitely not one of the saintly popes, this was not an image designed to lead the viewer into some contemplation of things beyond the material world.

On the other hand, something which seems to be a work of art depicting secular subject matter may, in fact, have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  It’s here where oftentimes the present-day art community gets things terribly wrong.  If you have ever suffered through the exasperation of an art museum tour of Catholic art with a docent who is clearly not a Catholic, let alone a Christian, who authoritatively and incorrectly describes various aspects of theology or Church history, then you know what I mean.

Thus, the aforementioned article, about the restoration of a decorated 13th century hall in the Santi Quattro Coronati convent in Rome, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  The headline declares that this is the most important “profane” medieval fresco cycle in Italy.  The problem is, we are looking at a 13th century work of art with 21st century eyes, when we call this decoration “profane”.

If we think of the people of the Middle Ages as somehow being in the dark, “Dark Ages”, then we simply do not understand the era in which they lived.  Around the time that these frescoes were painted, the city of Paris had seen the dedication of the glorious, light-filled Sainte-Chapelle, a marvel of structural engineering even to this day, and nearby St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert Magnus were teaching philosophy and writing books which we still study, over seven centuries later.  Elsewhere, Jordanus de Nemore was publishing his hugely influential findings on a variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, from the study of weights, gravity, and forces, to treatises on advanced algebra, geometry, and the measurement of spheres.  There was a far more sophisticated, thoughtful, and innovative civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages, than is often recognized today.

This fresco cycle then, while seemingly profane, is in fact full of sophisticated allegories and important lessons about living the Christian life.  In portraying people engaged in work during different months of the year for example, accompanied by the respective Zodiac symbol for each month, the message was easily understandable by the people for whom these frescoes were painted.  The importance of trying one’s best to follow the Divine Order of things was encapsulated in this general type of art, typically referred to as “The Labor of the Hours”. It was a popular theme during the Middle Ages, from paintings to sculpture to book illustrations.

In some sense, a fresco cycle such as this is an embodiment of the concept of the relationship between God and Man contained in the familiar verses of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes.  Man must recognize that God is God, and that Man is not God, but rather a created being – even if a beloved one.  All of Creation exists and is sustained through God’s Will, and it is the duty of Man to seek God’s Will and carry it out, wherever he may find himself in life: young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant.

Someone who does not understand this particular concept, put even more succinctly by Christ in his command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not going to get why these images, which seem to be profane, are, in fact, sacred.  In a way, such persons are rather like the pagans of the early days of Christianity, who would think nothing upon seeing the image of a fish scrawled on the ground, passing by unaware that it was a symbol for Christ.  Unfortunately, too often those who do not really understand sacred concepts, or have their own socio-political agendas which they are seeking to push, look at art like this and simply interpret it for an unsuspecting public however they like, sometimes to the point of laughability.

That’s why it’s important to bring examples of bad reporting like this to your attention.  Here, where the art is clearly sacred rather than profane in nature, we have a good example of why questioning the source is, as always, hugely important.  If we do so, then we can not only better understand our Western heritage, abut we can also make our way down the road toward reclaiming it, from those who, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are trying to turn it into something it is not.

Detail of "October" by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250) Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Detail of “October” by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250)
Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome



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Art Everywhere: Coming to a Billboard Near You

Beginning next month, many of my readers in the States who live in urban areas will be seeing the work of an initiative known as Art Everywhere US.  On both traditional and digital billboards, on bus shelters and train platforms, among other locations, the organizers will be displaying a selection of images from American art history.  The original pool of 100 of these works, “curated”, if you will, by experts from five of America’s major art museums, was narrowed down to a final fifty by online voters on the Art Everywhere website.  These fifty will be seen on approximately 50,000 different types of displays across the country starting August 4th in Times Square, and then continuing to spread throughout the country until August 31st.

Of the pieces making the final cut, that with the single highest number of votes was Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 Nighthawks, which is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.  I do love the painting, though I must confess it isn’t my favorite work of Hopper’s, being somewhat overexposed both in terms of its fame and indeed the lighting of the piece itself.  Still, it’s nice to know that it will be included, and that it’s so well-regarded by the public.

Other works which will be featured in the campaign include probably my favorite work by James McNeill Whistler, his 1862 portrait titled Symphony in White No. 1; one of my favorite John Singer Sargents, his Repose of 1911, which like the Whistler is in the collection of the National Gallery here in D.C.; and Chuck Close’s astounding 1969 painting Phil, a portrait of composer Philip Glass from The Whitney in New York.  The fifty choices are for the most part fairly safe, since apart from photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe (clothed, thank goodness) and the overrated Cindy Sherman (yuck), the 20th century pieces tend to stick largely to the easy and familiar: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.

It was disappointing however, to see that the earliest painting which was included in the final cut – and the second earliest in the original 100 voting list – was John Singleton Copley’s 1778 Watson and the Shark. While the piece has its merits as a form of composition, it’s not my favorite Copley by any stretch of the imagination.  Moreover, in only choosing one pre-Revolutionary portrait for the voting list, one has to question the thinking of the jury with respect to their art history parameters.  If 1776 was not in fact the cut-off year, then why not go back as early as possible into American art history?

Be that as it may, I won’t quibble with the results.  There are some truly great works of art on this list, and I am looking forward to seeing how they pop up around town.  August is always such a dreary time in the Nation’s Capital, with the oppressive heat, humidity, and flocks of tourists.  It will be terrific to be visually refreshed with images like these, and reminded of the great art collections in this city, just a short train or bus ride away.

"Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper (1942) The Art Institute of Chicago

“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper (1942)
The Art Institute of Chicago

Mercenary Makeover: How and Why Art Gets Altered

Today we often hear complaints that advertisers and magazine editors are photoshopping pictures of actresses and models, in order to achieve unrealistic standards of beauty or perfection.  While we certainly can and should question such behavior, in the history of art this sort of thing is nothing new.  The idealized figure has been just as much a part of art history for thousands of years, and for many art collectors, having a pretty face to hang on the wall or stand on a plinth has always been more important than simply having a work by an important artist.  As was once observed to me during my time studying at Sotheby’s Institute in London, a painting of an elderly man will always sell for less than a painting of a pretty girl.

However there is a difference between creating an idealized figure in a work of art, and altering an existing work of art for pecuniary reasons.  Sadly, many art dealers in the past, and sometimes disreputable ones today, employed dubious methods to try to make the works they were selling appear more attractive to potential customers.  Long before the digital alteration of images became commonplace, they would hire “restorers” to paint over those areas of a painting which were considered to be unattractive.  This went beyond actual restoration, such as where paint might have rubbed or cracked off, to actually altering the appearance of the picture in a way never intended by the artist.

Sometimes this “restoration” was done so extensively that it completely obliterated the original image.  Some pictures were actually scraped down to their base board or canvas surface and completely repainted by these “restorers”.  It is a practice whose legacy has plagued the art world ever since, for although frowned upon today, the fallout continues to be discovered, even now.  There has been so much of it, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as industrialists like Andrew Carnegie or J.P. Morgan went about snapping up Old Master paintings, that museums, auction houses, and dealers are still constantly being presented with works which have been so dramatically altered, that they will need timely and expensive restoration to remove all the “improvements” made to them in the past.

One such example came to light recently at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.  The wonderfully-named Lulu Lippincott, curator of fine arts at the museum, was going through the collection and identifying works that could be marked for de-accession.  This is a process by which an institution determines that certain pieces in their collection do not help fulfill the goals of the institution.  The decision can be based on various factors, such as whether the work in question is a fake.

In this case, Lippincott examined the portrait of a woman in 16th-century dress, and came to the conclusion that it was probably a 19th or 20th century piece trying to look like an earlier work.  The painting had been catalogued as possibly being by Agnolo di Cosimo (1503-1572), better known as Bronzino, who was the most celebrated portrait painter of the Italian Mannerist period.  Mannerism is a brief but important stylistic bridge in art history, falling between the High Renaissance and the Baroque, during which a great deal of artistic experimentation went on, not only in portraying the human figure, but also in the use of extremes of light and shadow.

Bronzino’s work is so distinctive, that Lippincott took one look at the picture and concluded, “you’ve got to be kidding – this is not a Bronzino.”  To be on the safe side however, she sent the piece to the Carnegie’s conservation department just to be sure.  Much to everyone’s surprise, the answer came back that in fact it was a genuine 16th century painting, but which had been painted over at some point in the 19th century, to make the woman in the picture look more attractive.  Conservators were able to remove all of the overpaint, and restore the piece as closely as possible to its original appearance.

For the moment, the identity of the artist remains a subject for debate.  The museum believes it may be by Alessandro Allori (1535-1607), a Florentine Mannerist painter a bit younger than Bronzino.  The conclusion that the subject of the painting is Isabella de’ Medici however, the daughter and the sister of the 1st and 2nd Grand Dukes of Tuscany, respectively, makes perfect sense, in light of other existing portraits of her.  The fact that Allori himself had painted her before, in a similar gown, tends to add to this idea, but that issue will continue to fascinate experts for some time, as research continues.

The public can enjoy the detective story this summer, by visiting the Carnegie’s new exhibition, Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated, which opened this past weekend and runs through September 15th.

Side-by-side comparison of "Isabella de' Medici", before and after cleaning and restoration Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Side-by-side comparison of “Isabella de’ Medici”, before (l) and after (r) its recent cleaning and restoration
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh