Art Lesson: Getting Down With Jesus And Mary

When strolling through a church or an art museum, it is quite easy to become bewildered by the profusion of images of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus. The casual viewer, seeing century after century of different interpretations of the Madonna and Child, could be forgiven for thinking that these images were created entirely at random. Yet this is in fact another example of why paying attention to detail, and knowing your history, is so important in understanding Western culture.

The earliest known example of Mary holding Jesus dates to about 150 A.D.; it is located in the Greek Chapel inside the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. Since that time, there have been tens of thousands of different depictions of the Madonna and Child. Because the Bible does not tell us what Jesus or Mary looked like, and we have no contemporary images of either to use as reference points, artists use their imagination in the creation of these pieces.

The majority of earlier paintings, sculptures, or mosaics typically depicted Mother and Son in one of two ways. Either the Virgin Mary was shown seated on a throne, holding the Christ Child in her lap, or she was shown standing and carrying the Infant Jesus in her arms. There are countless examples of these two archetypal images in Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic Art, and they are still popular today. The seated image, in particular, was often used as a way of representing not only Christ’s Divinity and Majesty, but also of His Mother’s own special role in salvation history.

Beginning in the 14th century however, and lasting up through the early 16th, an interesting way of depicting Mother and Son became popular. This was a form called “The Madonna of Humility”, which was particularly popularized by the Franciscans. While this sometimes took the form of Mary breastfeeding the Infant Jesus, more critically this type of image showed the Madonna and Child seated, not on a throne, but either directly on the ground or on a cushion on the floor.

This is a detail one can easily overlook. When seeing a myriad of images of the Madonna and Child in a gallery or cathedral, the eyes can blur over, and one painting or statue can seem very much like another. It is an important detail to remember, however, because it goes to the intent of the artist.

Stop and think for a moment about what this type of image conveyed to the viewer at the time it was created. After having become accustomed to seeing the Virgin Mary and Infant Christ as lofty, regal figures in churches and public buildings, seated upon a throne, here was something quite different. This type of image reminded the Medieval viewer of the humanity and humility of the two people being depicted. In representing a Jesus and Mary quite literally come down to earth, showing them actually sitting upon it as we ourselves might, the artists who created these images were expressing that love of humility which was so much a part of St. Francis of Assisi’s spirituality.

Thus this seemingly innocuous detail, which we can so easily overlook, meant a great deal to the people of the time in which these works of art were created. It allowed them – and us – to reflect and mediate on how God humbled Himself to be born as a human baby, with a human Mother to care for Him. It also demonstrates why paying attention, when looking at a work of art, is so important in understanding the reasons why it was created, particularly in an age which has long abandoned not only Christianity, but also the study of Western history and culture.  

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Magnificent Portrait Of Sir Andrew Wiles By Rupert Alexander Unveiled

This morning as I perused various art news sites, I came across the striking image of a man seated in a leather armchair, painted in cool shades of blues and greens. The image was a new portrait of Sir Andrew John Wiles, who came to international fame back in the early 1990’s for having proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, one of the thorniest problems in mathematics.  The work was commissioned for the primary collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, and has just gone on display there. I was thrilled – but ultimately not surprised – to discover that the painting is by my friend, artist Rupert Alexander.

As the artist explained in the Gallery’s press release, the unusual color palette relates the work to the field of mathematics itself. “I wanted to convey the cerebral world Sir Andrew inhabits,” he noted, “but rather than doing so by furnishing the composition with books or the obligatory blackboard of equations, I tried to imply it simply through the light and atmosphere. Mathematics appears to me an austere discipline, so casting him in a cool, blue light seemed apt.” 

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time working in front of a computer screen or beneath fluorescent task lighting will immediately recognize the tonalities in this painting. The almost aquatic colors that surround us when we are up late at night, working on a project or even just catching up on social media, differ substantially from the more yellow-toned hues cast by incandescent lightbulbs or sunlight. These cool colors are those of a present yet distant environment, one of significant human thought and reason, but which remains ultimately somewhat mysterious to most of us. That ethereal quality, of the mind pursuing the unknown, is difficult to put across effectively in paint, yet in this case, the portrait succeeds handsomely in evoking that world of the mind.

What is also particularly striking about the piece is the fact that the artist took a great risk here, in going outside of what one might reasonably expect both in a commissioned portrait, and indeed from the artist’s own work. While employing the same highly skilled technique that reminds the viewer of premiere Old Master painters such as Velázquez, here he goes out on a limb to create something indicating his willingness to try something different – not so much to show that he can do it, but because it actually makes sense in context. For note how, without including a single visual cue as to what in fact Sir Andrew does with his time, by his careful choice of colors the artist immediately causes us to conclude, “Aha! This is a man of science.” That is truly a remarkable feat.

“Sir Andrew Wiles” is the first, but one expects not the last, portrait by Rupert Alexander to enter the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Next time you find yourself in London, do drop by and have a look for yourself. And my hearty congratulations to the artist both on this achievement, and for creating a truly compelling and well-thought-out work of art.  

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(L to R) Artist Rupert Alexander; Sir Andrew Wiles; Director of the National Portrait Gallery Dr. Nicholas Cullinan

Painting, Paris, and Politics: The Louvre Gets Set To Move

Given that it is Bastille Day, and I have long ago said all that needs to be said about this most dreadful of un-holydays, the reader may be interested in reading about a less bloody battle going on in France at the moment. The Louvre announced this week that it will be moving a quarter of a million of its works currently held in storage in Paris, out to a former mining town in the north of France.  The building of a new storage facility and the subsequent move will take place despite significant domestic and international criticism of the project. While it is easy to look at this plan and detect a strong whiff of that most pungent of odors, politics, the venture does give us the chance to consider what role politics can play for good in the art world.

It may surprise you to learn that the collections of many museums, but particularly ones of significant scope such as The Louvre, are never fully on display to the public. When you go to The National Gallery here in Washington for example, you are seeing only a small percentage of the thousands and thousands of pieces a major museum possesses.  Because it would be impossible to display all of its holdings, the National Gallery has both an art storage facility and a separate warehouse where these works are housed in suburban Maryland, about ten miles from downtown Washington.

By comparison the former mining town of Liévin, where The Louvre will begin storing its art, is located 125 miles from central Paris. According to The Art Newspaper, Louvre President Jean-Luc Martinez has admitted that he will have to come up with ways not only to shuttle Louvre employees to and from the facility, but to actually house them there, since the town is located a 4-5 hour train ride away from Paris. Understandably, 42 of the 45 curators of The Louvre have signed a protest letter against going ahead with this move.

Timing is also of the essence for M. Martinez since French Senator Daniel Percheron, who has been a driving force behind this project, is leaving office next year.  Senator Percheron is both a leading member of France’s ruling socialist party, and – quelle surprise – the representative of the region where the Louvre store will be constructed. No doubt the effort to establish his political legacy played a significant part in pulling off this coup for his constituents. For of course not only will several years’ worth of construction jobs result from this project but, once established, the huge facility will need guards, cleaners, administrative staff, etc., while those who go to work and study there will need nearby hotels, restaurants, dry cleaners, and so on.

Moreover the location for this storage site, strange as it may seem to send these works of art so far away from home, is no accident. The Louvre store will be a few miles from the “mini Louvre” in the nearby town of Lens, a museum which you may never have heard of.  It was built in 2012 to display works from the overstuffed Parisian vaults of The Louvre, in part to try to draw tourism to this rusty, depressed part of France. If you are looking for Delacroix’s iconic “Liberty Leading the People”, or Raphael’s magnificent portrait of Castiglione – which in fact serves as the thematic inspiration for this blog – they are no longer in Paris, but rather in the Louvre-Lens. Sadly, this ensures that I will probably never get to see the portrait in person, but be that as it may.

The question to be asked however, is not whether it is wrong to send all of this art out of Paris.  The real question is whether there was a workable alternative that could have been accomplished politically. Certainly, there are legitimate concerns to be raised regarding the safety and conservation of so many works of art traveling from one place to another, given the inherent fragility of many of the works moving north. Those concerns need to be addressed thoroughly, and one would expect that The Louvre will bear them in mind.

However, if no location within Paris or its environs was able to mount the funding, logistics, and yes, political will necessary to bring about the creation of this project, what, then, would be the acceptable alternative? Allow these works of art to sit below flood stage in the basements of the Louvre, awaiting the next inundation of the Seine? Appropriate or build a massive facility in or near the capital, where the associated costs for such a project would be astronomically higher, for a country still reeling from economic downturn?

Doing nothing and risking the destruction of the art at issue would seem a pyrrhic victory, at best, and gross negligence, at worst, both for the artistic and historical patrimony of France and indeed of all mankind. Much as one finds the end result somewhat distasteful, one must also be honest in acknowledging that the politics at play here will lead, if not to the best result, at least to a solution with positive externalities. The art will be preserved, a poor area of France will benefit, and perhaps works which have never been thoroughly studied or understood for centuries, may finally see the light of day, as they emerge from the cellars in which they presently reside.  Politics may not always provide the answer to all our problems, but without its influence, efforts to preserve artistic collections of major significance such as this one, would almost certainly fall entirely by the wayside.

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