Portable Piety: Hitting The Road With Those You Love

For those of my readers who find themselves in New York between now and March 20th, a visit to the New York Historical Society will bring a wonderful treat, both for lovers of art and for Christians generally. The centerpiece of their current show, “Maestà: Gaddi’s Triptych Reunited” is a glorious panel of the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints, painted by the Early Italian Renaissance painter Taddeo Gaddi in around 1334.  The exhibition is an opportunity not only to admire a beautiful work of art, but also to think about how we ourselves can use similar objects today – even if we are not so fortunate as to own a masterpiece of sacred art.   

In art history, a “Maestà” is a type of image in which the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, related to similar examples in Byzantine art, are represented as seated together on a heavenly throne, often surrounded by saints and/or angels. This particular painting has been restored over the past two years and is now back on display at the NYHS, along with two panels which experts now believe were originally connected to it to form a folding triptych. By following this link one can see an animation of what the entire work of art originally looked like, before it lost its frame, was split into its component pieces, and dispersed to different collectors.  

Photographs of works of art hardly ever give us an impression of their size. In this case, the Maestà is not a huge altarpiece, like the famous “Descent from the Cross” (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden in The Prado, which shocked me by its massiveness when I first saw it in person: that work is about 7 feet tall and about 8 ½ feet wide. By comparison, the Gaddi is quite a small thing, comparatively speaking. When closed, the triptych would have measured around 16 inches tall and 12 inches wide, roughly the size of a college diploma.

Gaddi’s painting does not contain any portraits of the person or family that originally commissioned the work, but from its comparatively small size we know that it was intended for private, rather than public use. The buyer would have discussed with the artist what subject matter he wanted to appear in the piece, and in this case, clearly there were certain saints whom his family had a particular devotion to. For in addition to the scenes from the life of Christ, there are a number of saints portrayed in the work, who are not there by accident or simply for purposes of decoration. We can probably assume, for example, that if a husband and wife commissioned the piece, that their respective first names might have been Catarina and Cristoforo, because images of St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Christopher bearing the Christ Child appear on the outside wings of the triptych. This is what we would have seen as a visitor to the family’s home, if the piece was closed and sitting on a shelf or a table.

This triptych would have been used both as an aid to prayer and as a beautiful object to decorate the room in which it was placed, but its practicality for the devout Catholic was that it could also have been taken on the road. The portability of such a comparatively small work of art allowed the traveler to stop and focus on the spiritual life, at whatever roadside inn or ship’s berth he happened to find himself sleeping in, at a time when travel was particularly uncomfortable, arduous, and dangerous. Stopping to thank God for His continued Grace and protection for himself and for his family, the owner of this piece would be able to keep in mind who he was, and what he believed, even if he was far from home.     

Most of us are not so fortunate as to have objects like this to carry around with us, and yet the tradition of a portable devotional work is something which can easily be employed by anyone today at no significant expense. A very simple example of this is something which I employ when I travel, a practice that I inherited from my Mother. Many years ago I purchased two sizes of folding, leather picture frames with clear plastic panes. On one side of the frame, I place a photograph of my family; on the other, a simple postcard with a religious image, usually of Christ or the Blessed Mother or a favorite saint, picked up at one of my favorite art museums. It weighs practically nothing, and because the materials are all soft and flexible, it does not break, even if dropped or knocked over.

Another, slightly more hefty option for the contemporary traveler is to find a travel icon. Such objects are very easy to find these days, whether online or in a Christian bookshop, or indeed if you are fortunate enough to travel to places like Greece, Poland, or Russia. There are an almost infinite variety of single, double, or even triple-paneled images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels applied through various methods of decoupage to carved and stained pieces of wood. Over the years friends have gifted me a few examples of these from their travels to places like Prague or Ephesus, and I have purchased others of particular saints whom I admire. They fold up nicely, and stand steadily on a nightstand or desk.

Whichever option you choose, it is very easy in either instance to simply place this object in your carry on, or roll it up with some socks in your checked bag. Unlike the Gaddi Maestà, this should not be such an intrinsically valuable objects that, if it disappears into the great unknown of lost luggage, your level of upset would be catastrophic. Instead, as a simple reminder to yourself of who you are, and of He from Whom you seek grace and protection while on the road, they are an easy way to make any room you happen to find yourself in during your journey feel much more like home.        

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The Author As Comic Book Character: Yours Truly By Artist Ryan Hayes

Regular readers and followers on social media know that, from time to time, I pull on the big red cape in real life, and reveal my inner Kryptonian. Now, thanks to my friend, the enormously talented Ryan Hayes, you can see the reverse, i.e., regular old me in comic book form. This illustration is going to be part of my long-promised blog redesign, as I seek to incorporate my author site and The Courtier site into an updated, unified whole.

However more importantly than my own plans, I wanted to take the time to share some of the breadth of Ryan’s art with you, because for such a young artist, he has a great appreciation not only of contemporary culture, but also of art and illustration movements of the past, that I think is worth noting and encouraging.

If you happen to drop by Ryan’s Instagram page, you will see a full range of interesting work. In addition to creating fun caricatures like the one accompanying this piece, he has a clear appreciation for 20th century art and design, using the various styles of the previous century in some really interesting ways. From the playful to the serious, he has a great eye not only for line, but also for balance and drama in his compositions.

Take a look at this extremely clever nod to both the early 20th century American illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, of Saturday Evening Post and Arrow Shirt Collar fame, and the anonymous pulp science fiction covers produced by commercial artists after World War II. There are many works of fantasy and science fiction in Ryan’s portfolio, such as this beautiful illustration of the dwarf lord Gimli from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, to characters from Star Trek and Star Wars, and cool adventure illustrations. He is also keenly aware of artistic movements such as Art Nouveau in the Teens and Pop Art in the Sixties, movements which were either closely related to, or grew out of, the graphic design of their eras. Notice how women were idealized in these styles in very different ways, as shown here and here.

At present Ryan does not have a separate e-commerce site or website for getting in touch regarding inquiries or commissions, so he has asked that people send him direct messages via Facebook. If for some reason you have difficulty getting a response, then do let me know by using the “Contact” tab at the top of this page. I will do my best to put you in touch.

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The Author, by Ryan Hayes (2015)

The Lady Who Taught Van Dyck To Paint

We often think of the Old Master Painters during the Renaissance and Baroque eras as being just that: masters, rather than mistresses. Yet there are exceptions to this, as you learn when you begin to delve more deeply into art history. While most of these ladies are not household names today, during their lifetimes some of them were very popular and well thought of, indeed. So today I wanted to draw your attention to one in particular, whom I was reminded of yesterday, in the context of news about a pretty amazing art discovery.

One of the most remarkable finds in the art market in recent years occurred on the British Antiques Roadshow, when an Anglican minister from Derbyshire learned that the painting he had purchased for 400 pounds in an antique shop a decade earlier was by the great Flemish Baroque painter, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The work turned out to be a study by Van Dyck for a larger work, “The Magistrates of Brussels”, which was destroyed in 1695 during a bombing of the town hall of that city. Several other preparatory paintings survive, including one in the British Royal Collection. The rediscovered painting has just gone on view at the Rubens House in Antwerp, where it is on permanent loan from the collector who purchased it.  

Between 1621-1627 the young Van Dyck was living and working in Italy, earning his keep by painting the nobility in places like Genoa, such as the enormous portrait of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo now in the National Gallery here in DC. He was also taking time to study and travel throughout Italy, sketching and talking to other artists as he went. One of those whom he met, and whose ideas were to have a significant influence on his own development as an artist, was a lady then her 90’s and suffering from an eye ailment which prevented her from painting the portraits that had made her famous.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was the eldest of seven children born to members of the minor nobility in Cremona, Italy. Unusually for her sex and class at the time, she became a highly accomplished artist, to the point that she engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Michelangelo on art and technique, after he praised a drawing she sent him. Her early paintings of herself, her brother, and her five sisters showed a remarkable directness and lack of sentimentality.

Eventually Anguissola was called to Spain to be a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel de Valois, the third wife of King Felipe II, who was a decade younger than the Italian painter, but also a painter herself. The two became close friends, and no doubt for Anguissola it was in some respects like being the big sister again. During her time in Madrid she painted the Royal Family and their courtiers many times. While in Spain her style changed as she matured, in part to adopt to the formalities required of court life and her own place within it, and her figures similarly adopted a certain hauteur.

A very famous painting in The Prado of Felipe II in middle age for example, once attributed to other artists working in Madrid at the time, has now been credited to Anguissola. Dressed completely in black, the most powerful man in the world is portrayed gently holding a rosary in his left hand, with his right hand resting in the carved grooves of his armchair. His expression is one of quiet, complete self-confidence: here is a man who knows exactly who he is, and feels absolutely no need to apologize to anyone for it. This is a remarkable psychological study of a figure who changed the course of world history.

It is some indication of the esteem in which Felipe II held Anguissola that following the untimely death of Queen Isabel in childbirth, he provided for his wife’s dear friend and companion by not only giving her an annual pension, but also a substantial dowry so that she could marry into the nobility. Anguissola married the son of the Spanish Viceroy to Sicily, and with her husband’s encouragement continued to paint. After his death in 1579, with the King’s permission she sailed back home to Italy; on the journey, she and the ship’s captain fell deeply in love with one another, and the two eventually married. Like his predecessor, Anguissola’s new husband encouraged her to continue painting. When it became impossible for her to paint due to her deteriorating vision, she supported the arts through philanthropy, collecting, and by meeting with younger artists who wanted to learn from her experiences.

In July 1624, a young Van Dyck showed up to visit the now very elderly Anguissola, to look at her paintings, hear her stories about some of the great artists she had met and corresponded with, and to come to understand some of her ideas about how to engage in the art of painting. He wrote of their conversations in his notebooks, now preserved in the British Museum, and drew a sketch of her which he later turned into an oil painting, now in the collection at Knole House. In it, we see a very old woman, bowed by age, but still as sharp as ever – as Van Dyck himself described her – her large, searching eyes no longer seeing clearly, but still peering into the person sitting before her.

Who knows – but for that deeply perceptive understanding of how to convey, in portraiture, the dignity of the sitter, Van Dyck might never have emerged from Rubens’ shadow. Whatever the case, Van Dyck acknowledged that he learned an enormous amount about the art of painting from Anguissola, particularly with regard to how to treat his sitters. Had this tiny Italian lady not made such an impact on the man who became the most popular and influential painter in England for well over two centuries, British and indeed American art would have been something else entirely.

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Self-portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola (1558)