Men In Armor: Art on the Edge of Change

At The Frick in Manhattan, a new exhibition entitled Men in Armor opens today, juxtaposing portraits by El Greco and his contemporary, the less well-known Italian painter, Scipione Pulzone.  The show is taking place as part of a commemoration of the 500 years since the death of El Greco, whose work was rediscovered and re-appreciated beginning with the Impressionists and which continues unabated today.  What unites both paintings, apart from their timeframe, is the portrayal of two martial members of Roman society.  Yet despite what at first glance may seem to be very similar images, there are important differences between the two, which speak to how Western art stood on the edge of change, not long after these portraits were painted.

Pulzone’s portrait of Jacobo (also known as Giacomo) Boncompagni is an example of the highly refined, haughtily aristocratic imagery which characterized society portraiture during this period.  Boncompagni, commander of the Papal Army back when there were Papal States, was the son of the man later elected as Pope Gregory XIII.  We all know that a number of the popes, particularly during the Renaissance, were far from saintly, but it should be pointed out that Gregory XIII is generally considered to have tried his best to live piously during his pontificate; the affair which produced Jacobo Boncompagni took place when the future pope was still a layman.

Despite the fact that Pulzone is portraying one of the most powerful Italians of his day, the painting speaks to a foreign influence.  The seriousness and darker tones of this type of portrait were originally popularized by what was, at the time, Europe’s greatest superpower: Spain.  Even as early as the time of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog and author of the “Book of the Courtier”, Spain was looked to by many aristocrats and intellectuals of the Renaissance as a model of both appearance and behavior, worthy of being emulated.

Earlier, related examples of how European artists catered to the serious tastes of the Spanish court include Titian’s famous image of Felipe II as Crown Prince, painted around 1550-1551, and the 1557 portrait of the now-King Felipe by the Dutch portraitist Antonis Mor.  In both of these propaganda images, as in the portrait by Pulzone, the background is dark, the individual is starkly lit, and the gleam of intricately inlaid armour contrasts with the muddled shades and textures of the fabric.  Notwithstanding their comparatively minimal surroundings, the men in these paintings give off an impression of restrained luxury, and a male peacock’s pride of appearance, even though the flashy, comic book colors which we often associate with the Renaissance are completely absent.

The Frick’s rare, full-length portrait by El Greco of Vincenzo Anastagi, sergeant-major of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, at first might seem to be related to these other images.  Like these, Anastagi is also shown dressed in gleaming armor, ruff collar, and plush velvet, minus the fashionable codpiece sported by both Felipe II and Jacobo Boncompagni.  However, closer inspection reveals some significant differences between the images of Anastagi and his contemporary Boncompagni, which both speak to their relative status in the pecking order, and show how Western art was about to start looking inward.

For one, the armor worn by the two men is quite different: Anastagi’s is polished, but plain, whereas Boncampagni’s armor is highly decorated, reflecting their relative wealth and status.  Anastagi is placed in a simple, white-washed room with a small window, the blandness of the background made slightly more dynamic by the addition of some burgundy velvet drapes.  By contrast, even though Boncompagni stands in a darkened room, he is placed next to a table covered by a rich, satin tablecloth, and the space is punctuated by the sweep of a steel blue velvet curtain edged in gold embroidery.  We can also see that Anastagi’s rather ordinary, workaday soldier’s helmet lays, untied and discarded, on the floor behind him, while Boncompagni rests his arm on a magnificent, engraved and hammered helmet, perhaps from one of the highly prestigious Renaissance armorers in Milan.

There are also palpable differences in the expressions of these two men.  Ananstagi, with his sunburnt nose from many days out on the ramparts of the castle, looks somewhat suspiciously at the viewer, trying to decide what to make of the person who is looking back at him.  Boncompagni, on the other hand, seems self-assured and detached, almost languidly so, as he deigns to give you some of his attention.  Whereas El Greco gives us an individual in this painting, Boncompagni gives us a type.

Not convinced? Take a look at what each of these two men are doing.  Anastagi is a real person, who doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands unless he is handling a weapon.  Boncompagni on the other hand, is putting on a show, rather than telling us anything really significant about himself.  His hands hold a document and a baton, respectively, indicating that he is a man of learning and power to be reckoned with, but they look and indeed function as theatrical props.  Clearly, if Pulzone is showing us the world as people imagined it to be during his time, El Greco is, by contrast, giving us a sense of what the people of that era were really like.

By the time of El Greco’s death in 1614, a new style of portrait painting had taken hold in Spain and began to spread elsewhere.  It reflected the sobriety of earlier portraiture to the Spanish taste, but also displayed a greater willingness to avoid flattery.  What the deceivingly simple Frick exhibit does, is to show when that sea change in Western art really began to take place.  That transition to a more natural portrayal of the sitter, making him less attractive but more introspective, is due at least in part to the work of perceptive and challenging artists like El Greco.

Detail of "Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi" by El Greco (c. 1550-1551) The Frick Collection, New York

Detail of “Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi” by El Greco (c. 1550-1551)
The Frick Collection, New York

Common Sense in the West Conference: July 17-20

Here’s a terrific opportunity for you to check out if you’re in the New York City area, or looking to get away for what sounds like quite a weekend for debate and discussion:

An upcoming conference co-sponsored by the Adler-Aquinas Institute, Renewing the West by Renewing Common Sense, will give those of you with a philosophical bent the chance to meet with others of like mind, in order to consider some of the issues facing Western society today, as old bonds fracture and need repair or replacement.  How does the church receive funding from the state going forward, if said funding increasingly has moral and ethically problematic strings attached to it? How do we see the question of theological anthropology now, in the wake of the new, trendy version of atheism? What can we learn from the ideas and leadership styles of figures like Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul II?  What lessons about tyranny from Socrates are still applicable in the present socio-political climate?

These are some of the topics to be considered the weekend of July 17-20 at the inaugural international conference, which will be held at the beautiful Seminary of the Immaculate Conception on Long Island  Registration is still available, and includes accommodation, meals, and receptions, but spaces are becoming limited.  You can find out how to register by visiting the Adler-Aquinas Institute site.

Even if you cannot attend, several of the talks at the conference will be streamed live on YouTube. Some of those which will be streamed include presentations on humanism and management, Dante, and the work of G.K. Chesterton.  If you subscribe to the conference’s YouTube channel, you will be able to catch those selected for broadcast.  In addition, selected papers from the conference will also be made available over on the Dead Philosophers’ Society.

For further information, and to be a part of the conference as it is going on, be sure to visit the conference Facebook page, and follow them on Twitter.  Those attending the conference or wanting to interact with those who are, will be using the hashtag #CommonSense to keep the conversation going.  The organizers are very keen on having those participating engage with the speakers and other attendees, so your thoughts, questions, and comments will be most welcome!

Immaculate Conception Seminary Huntington, New York

Immaculate Conception Seminary
Huntington, New York


Let’s Convert Yoko Ono

Times Square is not, despite its perennial attraction to tourists, one of the nicest places in the world to visit.  In fact it’s rather alarmingly tacky, windblown, and uninviting, surrounded by businesses I would never willingly patronize, and a number of large but unimpressive buildings.  For many years however, it has been one of the centers of American popular culture, from the annual New Year’s Eve revels, to historic events like the V-E Day celebrations.

Now we see that a number of the gigantic electronic billboards in Times Square will be honoring the work of artist Yoko Ono and her late husband, pop star John Lennon, by displaying a three-minute film by the former.  Every evening at three minutes to midnight, a montage of the words “Imagine Peace” will be presented, in different languages, along with accompanying imagery.  One official involved in this project stated:

John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is the last song played on New Year’s Eve just before 11:59 p.m., when the ball on 1 Times Square begins to descend. Yoko Ono’s IMAGINE PEACE is undoubtedly a perfect match for the December Times Square Moment program as it taps into many people’s hope for a better world, the sentiment of both the holidays and the New Year.

Given that the “holiday season” is religious in origin, and that the song “Imagine” is the atheist equivalent of “Amazing Grace” – asking us to imagine how much better the world would be if there was no religion and no heaven, for example – one wonders whether the Times Square officials who green-lighted this project have been to church or synagogue recently.

The idea of “Peace on Earth” at this time of year is not just some idealistic wish for something better.  As a matter of fact, it comes from the song which the angels sang before the shepherds, when Christ was born in Bethlehem.  I would draw your attention to the fact that not only is the idea of hoping for peace on earth at this time of year fundamentally based in the Christian religion, but the peace which the angels call down upon humanity is, in fact, conditional.

And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

(St. Luke 2:13-15)

Many other religions pray for peace and an end to violence as well, of course.  Yet praying for peace at this particular time of year is fundamentally tied to the mystery of the Incarnation, which we Christians celebrate at Christmastime.  Ms. Ono could certainly have broadcast her message of universal harmony and equality for all – except for the celebrity intelligentsia, of course, who naturally must live in luxury – at any time of the year, but she chose to do so now.  Why?

The answer, sad to say, is our own stupidity.  For it must be said, dear friends, that we have become both spiritually and culturally lazy.  We have allowed people who do not believe in Christianity – and indeed, in many cases those who openly despise it – to co-opt a Christian holiday by degrees, to the point where we have forgotten what the point of this celebration is.

Christmas is not about achieving peace on earth, whatever Hallmark or Hollywood or some aging Japanese con artist may tell you.  Rather, it is about  God choosing to become Man, in order to save us from ourselves.  It is the awesome reality of the Eternal stepping into our linear timeline, purely out of love for us.

Unfortunately, projects such as Ms. Ono’s, which were once considered counter-cultural, are now in fact the cultural norm among so-called elites, or at least, those who imagine themselves to be so.  Hers is not the first nor the last such message we will see during the month of December.  We are going to continue to be bombarded with both overt and subtle messages that all religion, but particularly Christianity, is nothing but rot, and that only uneducated, prejudiced people would believe in such things.  The solution to this insidious message, it seems to me, is two-fold.

The first is to simply laugh at it.  I mean, honestly: a bunch of animated billboards in Times Square, where as soon as your “holiday” display time is over, there will be a nearly naked ten-story tall model hawking the latest Calvin Klein underwear? Forgive me for being unimpressed with your substitute for a house of worship – or maybe you won’t forgive me, but since you do not believe in an afterlife anyway, presumably you do not care.

Secondly, it is for you, gentle reader, to take this season into your own hands, in the way in which you choose to celebrate it.  Too many of us, as a very wise priest pointed out in a reflection I heard last evening, start celebrating Christmas during Advent, when we have not even reached December 25th.  And by the time the 12 days of Christmas roll around, we have packed away the tree and the tinsel and are concentrating on after-Christmas sales.  Many of us are not commemorating the birth of Jesus, but rather celebrating the holy days of obligation as ordained by Madison Avenue – which, by the way, are designed to make you feel inadequate and lonely, so that you will empty your bank account in search of meaning for your life.

We are at the beginning of the preparations for Christmas, so you still have time to pull back from the cliff of nothingness from which modern atheism and materialism wants you to jump – and as it happens, Ms. Ono still has time, too. For however much we may roll our eyes at her work she, too, is still capable of being brought to the truth: that God created her, loves her as His own adopted daughter, and wants her to get to know Him.  The rather obvious subversiveness of her message is so very easily defeated, if we recognize that God is infinitely more good and more powerful than any mere human being, no matter how vociferous they may be.

As a final thought, I must admit that I did have a little germ of an idea, when reading about this video installation.  Imagine – ahem – what would happen if a group of Christians were to meet in Times Square every evening during this Advent and Christmas season, to pray together for the conversion of Ms. Ono?  Now THAT’S what I would call counter-cultural.


Yoko Ono’s “Peace” installation in Times Square