Satan Snacks: Florence’s Delicious “Last Judgement” Mosaic

If you’ve ever had to scramble to tidy up your place before your parents come to visit, then you’ll appreciate the superhuman effort involved when Papa Francesco is the one coming to visit.

On November 10th, Pope Francis will be traveling to the city of Florence for the first time, on the occasion of the 5th National Ecclesial Convention of the Italian Church. The event, which takes place every few years, brings together bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity to discuss the state of the Church in Italy. Just in time, Florence has completed the restoration of its famous Romanesque Baptistery, the first major renovation to the structure in many decades. Restoration of the famous two sets of bronze doors which Lorenzo Ghiberti created for the structure in the 15th century has also been completed. The Pope will tour the Baptistery before making his way into the Duomo, i.e. the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, to address the participants at the Convention.

While most historians focus on the Baptistery’s remarkable architectural symmetry, including the influence it had on the study of perspective, or on the hugely influential doors by Pisano and later Ghiberti, for me perhaps the most interesting aspect of this building is its magnificent mosaic ceiling on the interior. This lavish, imaginative work shows us the beginning of the transition away from the Byzantine style around the 13th century, as interpreted by Venice in particular, and the emergence of a native, Tuscan form of art. While still very much in the artistic orbit of Byzantium, here we begin to see details which, later, will come to indicate the early Florentine Renaissance.

Of particular note is the wild vision of Hell in the Last Judgment section of the ceiling, in which an enormous Satan is simultaneously munching on the souls of three of the damned, along with the assistance of his minions. This representation made a profound impression on the great Florentine poet Dante, who particularly loved this building, and in his “Inferno” he describes the Devil exactly thus. Also note the presence of crowned rulers and hooded clerics who led their people astray on Satan’s right, who are about to become the next items on the infernal banquet: a sobering image, indeed.

While many Medieval artists portrayed the Last Judgement with greater horror, or deeper introspection, there is something about the almost comic book rendering of this image that draws and holds the eye. The searing red rocks and flames, juxtaposed against the putrid gray-green of the Devil and his demons, gives quite an impact. It transforms the golden background from the standard Byzantine convention for representation of religious scenes, into an evocation of sulfuric clouds and an oppressive atmosphere.

As the artists who worked on this piece understood, while the Devil will no doubt enjoy the never-ending sushi conveyor belt, it is certainly not going to be pleasant for those of us who own up here.


Detail of "The Last Judgement", Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence

Lost Leonardo? The Drawing, the Painting, and the Swiss Bank Vault

As a child, I was always fascinated by a famous portrait drawing of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci.  A reproduction of the drawing, which is presently in The Louvre, illustrated a section about the d’Este sisters in a large book about the Italian Renaissance.  While the accompanying portrait of Beatrice, supposedly the more beautiful of the two, left me unimpressed as to either beauty or technical skill, I found the near-contemporaneous portrait by Leonardo absolutely captivating. While not as pretty as her sister, Isabella in her portrait seemed to be the deeper soul, more interesting and more immediate, her portrait looking like a faded photograph.

So it was particularly fascinating to read that authorities have recovered what at least one expert believes to be the finished Leonardo portrait of Isabella d’Este, of which The Louvre drawing would be a preparatory sketch.  The work, which had been in Rome but was later moved to a bank vault in Switzerland, was at the point of being illegally sold when it was seized. Italian law is extremely strict when it comes to works of art leaving the country, and the owners of this work had not obtained either permission to send the work abroad, nor an export license to sell it.

Looking at the painting itself, while one can immediately spot the similarity to the Leonardo drawing of Isabella d’Este, the finished work is somewhat different in appearance. It is obscured by what, to many eyes, may seem unusual add-ons. Unlike the image of Isabella in the drawing, the figure in the painting is wearing a diadem, and rests her right arm, which is holding a palm branch, atop what appears to be a wheel.

For those of my readers who are fellow Catholics, or who are familiar with Christian iconography, these attributes will immediately identity the figure not as Isabella d’Este, but as St. Catherine of Alexandria. A popular subject in Italian Renaissance art, Catherine was a princess martyred in the 4th century persecutions of the Emperor Maxentius, hence the crown of a princess and the palm of a martyr. One of the instruments of her torture before her death was a spiked wheel [ N.B. which is where the spinning firework known as a “Catherine Wheel” got its name.]

While this may seem an odd thing to have happened to the portrait of one of the most famous women of the Renaissance, such “makeovers” were not unusual in art history. The most obvious example would be the placement of strategic plaster fig leaves over the genitalia of nude sculptures, but even in painting, when a work seemed to be dingy or in need of a facelift, an owner or a dealer might have the piece repainted to turn it into something more appealing to a particular buyer.

Discoveries of long-missing masterworks beneath centuries of overpaint still occur on a regular basis.  However, rediscovering a major painting by Leonardo da Vinci would be quite the coup, if this work is eventually authenticated. Personally, I am suspicious, for two reasons.

First, whereas much of the 20th century was spent by art historians debunking overly-optimistic attributions of Old Master paintings and sculptures to famous artists, since the beginning of the 21st century we seem to have been heading headlong in the opposite direction. We have been rediscovering lost paintings and sculptures by the great names of Western art all over the place. Is this because of our access to improved technology and greater levels of scholarly collaboration on an international basis, or is there some other explanation?

Second, while it is difficult to make a judgment from a single photograph, to me the painting looks wrong. The one thing which da Vinci did better than anyone else was hands. Look at the panoply of hands in his Last Supper, even in its sorry current state, and you will see what I mean. Isabella’s hand however, if this is indeed her portrait, is awkward. Her unnaturally long index finger doesn’t seem to point so much as bounce uncomfortably in the breeze, like a tree branch about to snap. Her curled fingers are too stumpy to be part of the same hand that would hold such an enormous finger.

Of course, I am perfectly happy to be proven wrong. If this is a missing Leonardo, the final product of a project whose preparation was so well-known, then with proper cleaning and restoration, it would be of immense importance in art history. In the meantime, we shall have to wait and see what science tells us.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500) The Louvre, Paris

Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500)
The Louvre, Paris

New Shows in DC, New York Celebrating El Greco

To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco (1541-1614), both the National Gallery of Art here in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have just opened new exhibitions celebrating his life and work.  Although ethnically Greek and born on the island of Crete, El Greco – whose proper name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos – did the vast majority of his work in Spain, where he settled in his mid-30’s and spent the rest of his life.  His is quite a fascinating story of how a creative person’s output can completely change over time, based on the environment they work in.

In Manhattan, “El Greco in New York” runs from now until February 1st, and features 16 paintings by El Greco from the collections of both the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society of America. The show includes El Greco’s stunning “View of Toledo”, a landscape of his adopted city under storm clouds and lightning,which looks as though it could have been painted centuries later; his captivating portrait of the very intimidating  Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, whom you clearly did not want to tangle with; and two very different versions of a nocturnal “Adoration of the Shepherds”, showing the shepherds arriving at the stable with joy to meet the Christ Child.

Here in Washington, the National Gallery has mounted “El Greco: A 400th Anniversary Celebration” of the artist’s work, in collaboration with The Philips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.  There are 10 paintings in the exhibition, which opened this past weekend and continues until February 16th.  Highlights include his charming, bright altarpiece of “St. Martin and the Beggar”, which is one of my favorites for showing the Roman soldier and martyr dressed in contemporary Spanish armor; the powerful, heavy contrasts of the “Repentant St. Peter” from The Philips; and the almost-abstract “Visitation” from Dumbarton Oaks, which I always make a point of seeing when I drop by the museum.

Unusually for an important artist of the late Renaissance, El Greco began his working life as an icon painter.   While there is always some room for individual expression in the creation of such works, the repetition of familiar and well-established elements is very important to that school of Christian art.  As a result, it makes it difficult for the average person to tell what century a particular icon was painted in, from simple observation.  El Greco might have remained content to stay in the tradition of icon painting, or “writing” as it is often referred to, but instead he decided to take a chance and go to Venice, which ruled Crete at the time.

Once he got to Italy, El Greco began to change radically as an artist.  From his work and studies in Venice and Rome, he absorbed what he observed in the late Renaissance and Mannerist art that was being created around him, so different from the Byzantine icons he himself had been trained to create. He was able to study with Titian, the last of the living great masters of the High Renaissance, explore the churches and palaces, and meet with a number of very important people.  He even communicated with Pope St. Pius V, offering to wipe out Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel and paint something more suitable, noting that the late Florentine master was a great sculptor who did not know how to paint very well (a sentiment I share.)

However most of El Greco’s greatest work even today is located in Spain, because that is where he moved after job opportunities in Italy were not working out as he had hoped. The Spanish imperial court was quite different from the flashy, humanist salons in Rome or Florence that El Greco had grown accustomed to.  Serious, stiff, and devoutly Catholic, the Spanish aristocracy when El Greco arrived was not interested in showing off.  They dressed almost exclusively in black most of the time, seeking to impress through sober formality rather than over-familiarity or flippancy, and saved their decoration for their churches.

As a result, El Greco’s art began to change once again.  Whereas previously, he mimicked the colors and light of the Italy he experienced as a young man, as he grew older and spent more and more time in the barren, desert-like plains and cities of central Spain, El Greco’s paintings gradually became darker, featuring stark outlines and contrasts, more elongation and distortion.  His style changed to the point that by the end of his life, some of his later pieces could very easily be mistaken for being works created by a Modern artist in the 20th century.

While you may not be able to get to Madrid or Toledo to see El Greco’s finest work, here in the United States we are fortunate to have about 4 dozen works by El Greco, many of them quite good, in collections around the country.  And now, even more fortunately for those in the Northeast Corridor, two of the best places to see his work are New York and DC.  With these anniversary exhibitions having just opened, you’ll be able to more closely observe his progression as a creative thinker for yourself.

"St. Martin and the Beggar" by El Greco (c. 1597) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

“St. Martin and the Beggar” by El Greco (c. 1597)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC