Art, Transfigured

Today the Church marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that moment recounted in the Gospels when Christ briefly revealed His true nature to His three closest disciples, Sts. Peters, James, and John.  Without question the single most iconic image of this event in the history of art is Raphael’s eponymous altarpiece, which he was working on when he died, now in the Vatican.  Chances are you will recognize the image of Jesus which appears in the painting, even if you have never seen the entire work at full length, for it has proven to be one of the most enduring images of Christ in the world.  And this last masterpiece by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance gives us the opportunity to consider what secular art historians so often fail to consider when examining Western art, which is the influence of spiritual writing on popular piety.

The painting itself is unusual at first glance because it combines two different stories from the Bible: that of the Transfiguration, which dominates the upper half of the piece, and the attempt by the other Apostles not present at the Transfiguration to cure a boy possessed by demons, which takes up the lower half.  Because these two events occurred sequentially, rather than simultaneously, in the Gospels, one way to “read” the painting would be somewhat like how we read a comic strip.  However nothing in religious art, back when people actually thought about things like iconography and spirituality, happens by chance.  This is what makes the study of art history not only fascinating, but something of a multi-disciplinary subject.

A current theory for the juxtaposition of events shown in this altarpiece would not be apparent unless one was also familiar with the writing of the Franciscan mystic, Blessed Amadeo of Portugal (1420-1482), who suggested that the Transfiguration was a Biblical preview of Christ’s return in glory at the Last Judgment.  The Apostles down at the bottom of Mount Tabor are unable to cast the demon from the boy on their own, and they have to wait until Jesus comes back to them for the healing to happen.  Thus, symbolically, evil cannot be finally cast out from the world until Christ returns.

In the early 16th century, a collection of Blessed Amadeo’s sermons and writings attributed to him were combined into a work entitled the “Apocalipsis Nova”, or “The New Apocalypse”.  It was published after his death, and loosely formed a commentary on the Book of Revelation based on Blessed Amadeo’s own thoughts and experiences, in part examining the symbolism of that book of the Bible.  This work was widely circulated among the well-read and well-to-do in Rome and elsewhere, as they reflected on the signs of the times, and the role they themselves were playing in them.

We often forget that until the so-called Enlightenment, most people were deeply concerned about the impending coming of Christ again in time, in order to render the Last Judgment.  This ongoing concern is reflected through a long period of Western art, including sculptures depicting the Last Judgment which usually dominated the Western facade of the great cathedrals, all the way to Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel.  It is perhaps all too telling that today, one rarely sees this subject treated in art, or if it is, it is treated somewhat mockingly.

What is interesting about Blessed Amadeo is that after his death some of his work and the work attributed to him was condemned as heretical by theologians, and placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.  As it turned out, with greater scholarship it later became apparent that some of the works attributed to Blessed Amadeo which were clearly heretical, turned out not to be by him, but rather were written by another Amadeo or even by unknown individuals, and given his name.  However at the time that Raphael was working, Blessed Amadeo’s spiritual writing was certainly popular, but not exactly acceptable, at least in certain circles.  One can imagine those reading the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, a century later, going through the same issues.

This question mark over Blessed Amadeo’s work arose even though he had not only been a confessor to Pope Sixtus IV, but he had also founded and led a reform movement of the Franciscans known as the Amadeans, who sought to bring the Friars Minor back to their roots of poverty and simplicity.  As an interesting footnote, the fact that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment appears where it does in the Sistine Chapel is likely no accident, for the structure was originally built by Blessed Amadeo’s friend, Sixtus IV.  So despite whatever controversy his spiritual writing engendered, Blessed Amadeo’s recounting of visions of heaven and the saints struck a chord with the well-read and the powerful.  He influenced not only works of art such as this, but the spirituality of influential people such as the Medici family, one of whom originally commissioned this painting from Raphael, and the Hapsburg family, particularly those in Spain.

Like other spiritual writers before and after him, Blessed Amadeo was sometimes misunderstood by his contemporaries, even while his mysticism was embraced by others.  However with the Feast of the Transfiguration today, and with Blessed Amadeo’s own feast day coming up on August 10th, we can appreciate how he has helped us to picture an event in a way which our tiny human brains can understand: a brief glimpse of the Divine in all its glory.  It also gives us, at a more earthly level, a greater appreciation that the study of great art in the Western tradition goes well-beyond simply looking at the image and understanding – or THINKING we understand – what we are seeing.  For even as this painting of the Transfiguration has a permanent impact on how we imagine that event in our own minds, the story behind how this particular interpretation came to be can be just as powerful, if we dig deeper into the story of its creation.


“The Transfiguration” by Raphael (1516-1520)
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

Bringing Science to Art

A recent article combining art, archaeology, and technology caught my eye at lunch the other day, and it reminds us of the old saying, “If the mountain will not go to Mohammed, let Mohammed come to the mountain.”  The Molab, a mobile laboratory for undertaking scientific research into artifacts and art, was constructed by researchers at the University of Perugia in Italy.  It has been touring museums and collections for the past several years, to show what can be done by bringing scientific technology to a site, rather than trying to take an object from a site and bring it to a lab.

While we might not think about it, there are many situations in which detailed scientific examination of something such as a painting, sculpture, or other object is not possible, without causing some degree of damage, or even risking the destruction of the object itself.  For example, a few months ago I wrote about the possibility of rediscovering Leonardo Da Vinci’s lost fresco of the Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  If researchers are going to uncover the fresco, then the wall which currently stands in front of it will have to be removed, damaging or destroying a later fresco by Giorgio Vasari.

In some cases, it is simply impractical or impossible to move the object from where it is, because of size, or a fragile state of preservation.  Yet even if the desired subject of study is portable however, that does not mean that it should be moved if that can be avoided.  As Signore Russano points out in his article, the insurance costs involved with transporting something like a Da Vinci from a museum in one city to a laboratory in another – let alone from one country to another – would be astronomical.

In addition, even though many museums have conservation departments, not all have the budget or staff expertise to maintain their own hi-tech equipment such as digital microscopes or spectroscopes.  While cleaning and restoration may take place on site, deeper scientific analysis may be all but impossible in many instances without a serious outlay of funds.  The Molab eliminates the need for gigantic insurance premiums or anti-anxiety medication on the part of curators shipping away their treasures to some far-off place, by bringing the science to the source.

While the idea of creating a laboratory on-site is nothing new, such as in the case of the restoration, preservation, and study of major works such as Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel or Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, this mobile concept strikes me as having something of a more egalitarian quality.  It allows even a smaller, idiosyncratic collection, for example, to engage in the kind of analysis previously only available to museums with deep pockets or major donors.  No doubt study in the areas of art history and archaeology in particular, but also in a range of fields from anthropology to zoology, will benefit from greater access to these types of tools, the more the concept of Molab becomes accepted in the museum community.

Molab researchers study “The Last Judgement” by Memling (c. 1467-1471)
at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland

Behold, The Power of Blue

This morning I have been reading with great interest reports about the unveiling of the recently-restored Leonardo da Vinci painting “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” at The Louvre in Paris. Leonardo has been in the news a great deal lately; indeed, I cannot recall a time when there was so much fascinating, legitimate (i.e., non-Dan-Brown-related) news about the Renaissance master in the headlines. And I am beginning, if only slightly, to rethink some of my views on him, in part because of his surprising use of the color blue.

In addition to today’s reporting on the “St. Anne” from Paris, recently there have been multiple stories about other Leonardo works. Much of these seem fortuitously tied to the fact that there have been two major exhibitions of late: the first in London from November to February, and the second which opens in Paris today, and continues until summer. There have been stories about Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine”, which traveled to the London show; the astonishing restoration of the Madrid version of “La Gioconda” aka the “Mona Lisa” ahead of its trip to the Paris show, which I blogged about; and the very exciting possibility I shared with you that the remnants of Leonardo’s lost fresco “The Battle of Anghiari” may have been rediscovered in Florence, hidden behind a wall.

As reported in many of the articles on the “St. Anne” painting, one of the first visitors to the Leonardo exhibition at The Louvre is quoted as being shocked by the brightness of the blues used by Leonardo. This is presumably as a result of having become accustomed, as indeed most of us have been, to thinking of his work as dark and muddled. “Now you have that same feeling as when you enter Michelangelo’s restored Sistine Chapel. Look at the blue!”, this visitor reportedly exclaimed. A similar reaction occurred when the contemporary copy of the Mona Lisa in Madrid, which experts believe was painted by one of Leonardo’s assistants side-by-side with the master in order to study his technique, was cleaned of layers of black overpaint and darkened varnish, to reveal the bright colors beloved by Italians of the Renaissance and beyond.

It is interesting to consider the possibility that Leonardo loved color as much as he loved light and shade, though perhaps not in the way that most of his fellow Italians did at the time he was working. On a common-sense level, we have to recognize that Renaissance Italians loved bright, often gaudy colors. We see this in how they decorated everything from their public and private buildings, to their everyday household items such as tin-glazed dinnerware, to how they dressed themselves in patterned silks and flashy velvets with plenty of gold jewelry. In fact one could argue that we can still see this today, in the way that some Italian fashion houses such as Missoni, Pucci, and Versace, among others, carry on this historic tradition of the Italian love for bold color.

Even when his work is cleaned and restored, Leonardo is a painter clearly more interested in subtle tonalities, than in creating a kind of bold, almost plastic quality in his work. His “St. Anne” of 1508, even if brighter and more colorful than it was before, is still nowhere near as colorful as the type of work done by many of his contemporaries. For example, take a look at this “Madonna and Child with Saints” by Lorenzo Lotto, or the young Raphael’s “Deposition from The Cross”, both of which were also painted in 1508.  Of course, Leonardo continued working on the “St. Anne” until his death, so the comparison is slightly unfair, but we do have to recognize that  the dreamy quality of the colors, bright though some of them may be, was somewhat atypical of the tastes of his day.

Given all of this media attention, expert opinion, and public scrutiny, I wonder whether future art historians will look back at this time period and consider it an important moment in both the study and critical appreciation of Leonardo’s work. This would not be the first time that such a thing took place. While Leonardo has always been treasured by those fortunate enough to own something by him, other artists have benefited from later exhibitions re-opening the assessments made on their work by their contemporaries or those who later supplanted them in popularity.

In the case of Leonardo, truth be told, I am not a fan of much of his work – nor of much of Michelangelo’s work for that matter. I recognize the contributions of these men to the development of Western art as being monumental in importance, but that does not mean that I necessarily warm to them as others do. It is a little bit like recognizing that a musician or an actor has a great deal of talent and ability, but turns you off in some other way, which would make you eschew the chance of having them over to the manse for cocktails. Intellectual honesty demands that I recognize achievement, but that does not mean I actually have to like it.

And yet now there is, as The Louvre visitor points out, that truly engaging, misty, captivating use of blue. It simply washes through the entire picture, bringing the piece a more intensely spiritual quality, almost like the effect when incense is used at mass, and the sanctuary becomes temporarily clouded in smoke. It is really something to see this, after so many years of thinking that Leonardo was interested almost exclusively in weird and colorless things.

Does this mean that I am about to become a convert to the cult of Leonardo? Not quite: there are many things about his work that I do not like, which will not change based on a re-assessment of his use of color. However one does have to recognize that sometimes, a creative individual can indeed surprise you with their talent, just when you thought you had figured them out.

I will certainly be thinking and reading more about Leonardo’s work, as a result not only of the many news stories about him, but also by the emergence of this surprising application of the color blue in his work – work which, in my ignorance of his palette, I had for such a long time dismissed as being unappealing, dirty, and dark.

A visitor at The Louvre admiring the newly-restored
“The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1508-1519)