A Selfie with Jesus: Religious Art or Political Propaganda?

If you could, would you ever take a selfie of you and Jesus?  If you did, would you do it for personal reasons? Or would you do it to try to manipulate others into thinking better of you?  These are questions which come to mind following the rediscovery of a work of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, particularly as we get closer to election day here in the States.

Our story kicks off with this 16th century portrait of King Henri III of France, the recovery of which was announced yesterday. The painting had been in The Louvre in Paris, but went missing during World War II.  The story of how it was found, as detailed in the article, is quite a remarkable one, and demonstrates just how important the online community can be for finding lost works of art.

From the point of view of what the media presently refers to as “optics”, the idea of painting the portrait of your country’s leader at the foot of the Cross, when he lived centuries after the time of Christ, may seem particularly odd.  However if one takes a look at the rather calamitous times in which Henri reigned, one can see that the image serves a particular purpose.  Just as today a politician might go to a factory and roll up his shirtsleeves for a photo-op with the workers before slipping back into his limousine, so, too Henri needed to convince his kingdom that he was a good Catholic, albeit in a manner which may seem foreign to us today.

In Western art history there is a long-standing tradition of portraying contemporary persons who paid for a work of art alongside Biblical figures.  Art historians refer to these people as “donors”.  Sometimes the identity of a donor is well-known as a result of documentation or the existence of other known images of the person, but sometimes they remain anonymous, unknown to us a result of the passage of time and the loss of records.

Originally, most of these “donors” were sized much smaller than the holy person being portrayed, as we can see in this example from about 1386.  Over time however, the donor grew to be equal in size to the saintly individuals shown in the art.  Eventually the donor became part of the action, as it were, such as in being presented to Jesus Himself. Oftentimes this inclusion in the scene was meant to demonstrate the personal piety of the donor, but sometimes the donor was just as much – if not more – interested in propaganda as they were in prayer.

As it happens, Henri III himself was not very saintly in his personal life, even though he liked to put on a show of pious devotions.  He managed not only to offend many Protestants with his loose living, but to alienate his fellow Catholics to the point that they formed an armed league to dethrone him.  After having to flee Paris when the people turned on him, he tricked his chief rival, the fiercely Catholic and hugely popular Duke of Guise, as well as the Duke’s brother Cardinal Louis of Guise, Archbishop of Reims, into coming to see him at the Chateau of Blos; ironically, this is where the researcher who rediscovered the lost painting currently works.  Henri then had the two brothers murdered by the royal guards.

For his actions Henri was publicly condemned in Parliament but never tried.  He continued trying to mount a military campaign to take back the capital, plotting his return to power  by manipulating both potential Catholic and Protestant supporters to shore up his failing rule.  A year after assassinating the Duke and the Cardinal, Henri himself was assassinated by a fanatical Dominican friar, who had been egged on by the Duke’s widow.  In the end, Henri’s efforts came to nothing, and the throne passed from his family to that of his Protestant cousin Henri of Navarre, who converted to Catholicism and placed the House of Bourbon on the throne until the French Revolution.

When we see images today of politicians attempting to manipulate us into thinking that they are just like us, such efforts are not new.  By appealing to what they believe the average person wants to see, our contemporary leaders are simply following in a long tradition that stretches back through centuries of Western culture. The form of the media may have changed from painting and sculpture to videos and tweets, but the thinking behind these efforts is still very much the same.

Thus, the rediscovery of this painting is not only important for historians, it’s also a great opportunity to remind ourselves that the use of popular, and even religious imagery for political ends will likely always be a part of the media landscape.

King Henri II at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century) The Louvre, Paris

King Henri III at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century)
The Louvre, Paris

The Curious Case of the Caring Curator

A not-infrequent criticism I raise on this blog has to do with museums, and the fact that so many of them seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to be.  So it was a real pleasure this morning to read this interview with Luke Syson, the chairman of the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  While I can’t say I agree with him on every point he raises in the article, I can see that he’s coming from the right starting point, both in how he’s looking at the art under his care, and the purpose of the institution he’s working for. Some highlights:

Should we be looking at contemporary and historic art side by side?

Works from different periods and different places are best shown together in people’s houses, but in museums, I like to keep them separate so that everything doesn’t become some mushy whole. The museum’s task is to present the works of art from the past as a product of their particular time, but also as timeless.

This is a blessed relief to read, particularly from someone in a curatorial position.  Over a decade ago, certain museums and galleries in this country began re-hanging their collections in seemingly arbitrary ways, copying some of the damage done by Sir Nicholas Serota and others in positions of curatorial authority who suffer from exceedingly poor taste.  My personal favorite was the major American (taxpayer-funded) collection which decided to install the works in its permanent collection in groups of “feelings” selected by the curators.  Fortunately this trend seems to be reversing itself of late, as the new director of Tate Britain demonstrated recently.

You are refurbishing the Met’s galleries of British sculpture, furniture and decorative arts. What can we expect?

What we have had on show in the past is a history of aristocratic British patronage, and that is very important, but we also want to look at the entrepreneurial spirit that runs through British art. This is a country without a dominant court in the way that the French had Versailles. Although the monarch was important, he wasn’t the person dictating all trends. Similarly, London’s Royal Academy of Arts comes late in history. Arguably, the establishment of factories by [ceramic manufacturers] Bolton and Wedgwood is as significant as the Royal Academy.

This is a spot-on observation.  There’s a reason why Napoleon famously referred to the British as “a nation of shopkeepers”, with somewhat mercantile tastes.  This is not to say that there are no grand houses in Britain, for there certainly are.  Rather, the level of show and luxury is, when viewed as a whole, not quite as ostentatious as one would have found in France or Italy during the same periods of time.  Moreover, there is a perennial British fascination with collecting large amounts of smaller objects and cramming them all together onto shelves, mantelpieces, and so on, whether you are an earl in a stately home or a pensioner in a terraced house.

You are one of a number of curators who have left British museums for US institutions in recent years. Why has there been such an influx?

Perhaps it sends a message to museums back home that they need to value their curators more.

Shhh….keep this to yourself.  We want them here to lend a bit of style about the place.  Hopefully Mr. Syson’s plans will bear good fruit over the coming years.

Room in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Room in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Putting Some Color in the Emperor’s Cheeks

Visitors to Washington, DC always remark on the grand public buildings around the National Mall, which look like they were taken from Athens or Rome.  Monumental, temple-like structures house museums and offices, their exteriors often decorated with imposing statuary representing ancient Greek and Roman gods or allegorical virtues, in gleaming white marble.  The problem is, these buildings and their accompanying statuary are historically incorrect, as a new exhibition at Copenhagen’s Glyptotek art museum demonstrates.

Employing a combination of research, technology, and artistic skill, “Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour” displays 120 works of sculpture from the ancient world, all of which were once painted and still retain some degree of their original color, even if only on a microscopic level.  These are accompanied by modern recreations showing what they may have looked like when they were new. In mounting the exhibition, scientists and conservators used electron microscopes, infrared, lasers, and other equipment for a close-up examination of the surface of these works.  They were then able to extrapolate the appearance of these sculptures, before they lost their surface decoration.

To our contemporary eyes, the end result is somewhat shocking, as you can see in this short clip.  A 1st century A.D. marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula is given the color treatment, and the effect is startling.  Instead of a distant, cold figure, we get a more realistic sense of this particularly cruel and insane member of the imperial family.  At the same time however, the colored surface paradoxically flattens the effect, so that the painted Caligula looks more like a giant porcelain doll than the unpainted Caligula, where we have to use more of our imagination to get a picture of the man.

It should not surprise us that sculptures like these were originally brightly painted, when we look at the buildings in which they once stood.  If you recall my article from last week on the just-completed restoration of the Domus Augusti, the home of Caesar Augustus on the Palatine Hill in Rome, rather than a stark, stone environment, the walls of the imperial villa were covered with lively frescoes of landscapes and flowers in rich colors.  The colorful statuary featured in this new exhibition in Copenhagen would have looked perfectly at home in just such a space.

It’s interesting to imagine what Washington would have looked like if the buildings and sculptures which make up the monumental core of the city were decorated with something close to historic authenticity.  Keep in mind however that in trying to evoke the world of Ancient Greece and Rome here in the capital of their new republic, the Founding Fathers and those who came after them were not concerned with completely recreating the past, as if they were about to shoot a movie or stage a play.  Just as the Houses of Parliament and other government buildings in Westminster are a pastiche of British medieval architecture and design, looking back to the foundation of parliamentary rule, so too many of our equivalent structures here in America are adaptation rather than complete recreations.

No doubt a time traveler from Rome or Athens in the 1st century A.D., visiting Washington today, would ask why everything has been left unfinished.  They would comment on the lack of colorful decoration which they would have expected in official buildings and public monuments of their own day.  Yet while it’s certainly fascinating to see in this exhibition just how colorful the ancient world truly was, personally I would prefer that we leave the Lincoln Memorial exactly the way that it is.

Head of the Roman Emperor Caligula (1st Century A.D.) Museum of Archaeology, Munich

Composite of original and restored marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula (1st Century A.D.)
Museum of Archaeology, Munich