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

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Persecution and the Thunder of Social Media

Today is the Feast of St. James the Greater, who among other things is one of the patron saints of Spain.  His role in the creation of that country occurred well before the age of social media.  Yet a debate which took place in Britain’s House of Lords yesterday, regarding the nexus between social media and increasing violence in the name of religion, should give us some food for thought as we reflect on the message of Christ which St. James himself witnessed.

It is believed by some that after the Resurrection, St. James (or Santiago, as he is known in NW Spain) preached in Spain in the first century before returning to Judea, where he was arrested and later executed by King Herod.  It is also believed that much later, in the 9th century, he appeared in a vision to Christians fighting against the armies of the resident Moors, helping the outnumbered Christians to win the day.  As a result, Santiago subsequently gained the sobriquet, “Matamoros”, or “The Moor-Slayer.” This is not, obviously, a term which finds much support today, but during this period known as the Reconquista (“Reconquering”), it had a tremendous impact.

Today its territorial empire is mostly gone, but the linguistic and cultural empire which Spain established still remains.  Ironically, while the Christian faith which Spain spread across the planet continues to grow elsewhere, in Spain herself the state of the Church is at present uncertain.  What is needed in Spain, and indeed throughout Western Europe, is an entirely new form of Reconquista: not one of violence, but rather of witness, winning souls in the way Christians live their lives and how they treat others. To that end, social media can and should be a significant component.

Yet all of us, not just Christians in Spain, need to take to heart what Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, said in Parliament yesterday. Noting current examples of religious violence such as the attacks by ISIS on Christians in Iraq, mob rage against Jews in France, and sectarian Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Africa, he cautioned that fiery hatreds are increasingly being stoked via digital means.   “[W]e recognise the power of the internet and social media to turn any local conflict into a global one,” he noted, later going on to state that it is “the worst, not the best, who know how to capture the attention of a troubled and confused world.”

Lord Sacks is absolutely right, of course, in that the online world can be a vicious place.  He who screams the most obscenities or makes the most outlandish statements about annihilating entire groups of people ends up getting the most attention.  What’s more, the media prefers to cover the rantings of fanatics, both religious and anti-religious, rather than the ordinary people suffering because of their faith.  I find it embarrassing, for example, to note how often secular news reporters trim their fingernails disinterestedly, or play political favorites, rather than report on persecutions of Catholics.  And while we may all point to Pope Francis as someone who not only has the will, but the popular reach to bring words of reason and charity to millions of people through online media, more of us need to be doing our part to peaceably aid in this effort, rather than stirring the pot.

On his Feast Day then, we have a good opportunity to reflect upon what happened when St. James became a bit too hot-headed in his own faith.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus realizes it is time to end His public ministry, He and His disciples begin to make their way down from Galilee to Jerusalem, passing through the region of Samaria along the way.  Jesus sends messengers ahead of Him, so that any village He may pause in will be ready for His arrival.

Word comes back that one of the villages has refused to welcome Jesus, because His destination was Jerusalem; given the enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews at that time, this was perhaps not surprising. St. James, however, is absolutely livid at this news.  Along with his brother St. John, St. James asks Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from Heaven to consume them?”  In doing so, the Sons of Zebedee are echoing the call of the Prophet Elijah in the First Book of Kings, in his battle against the priests of Ba’al, and indeed the earlier destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis.

However instead of giving His approval, as St. James might have expected, Jesus rebukes the brothers for their suggestion.  We are not told how He did so, or what He said, or how the “Sons of Thunder”, as they were later nicknamed as a result, reacted themselves.  Perhaps the two of them were still fired up with zeal from what they had seen at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor a few days earlier when, along with St. Peter, they witnessed a glorified Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, two prophets who were quite capable of calling down fire and brimstone when warranted, even upon their own people.  In this case, that kind of holy retribution was not to be.

Whatever St. James himself learned from this exchange with Christ, and he must have learned something to die a martyr’s death a few years later, the first of the Apostles to do so, we can learn from his experience ourselves.  Taking Lord Sacks’ cautions about social media to heart, if I am honest about it, I, too, have been guilty of calling down fire online, a temptation which I suspect many of my readers who use social media have also succumbed to from time to time.  So without dampening our enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel then, or defending our faith, perhaps my fellow Christians may want to take a lesson here, from the life of St. James, the man whose memory we honor today in the Church.

Detail of "St. James the Greater" by Alonso Cano (c. 1635) The Louvre, Paris

Detail of “St. James the Greater” by Alonso Cano (c. 1635)
The Louvre, Paris

You Must Remember This: Meaning and Pop Culture Relics

The recent re-discovery of a Hollywood treasure once presumed lost, and an item up for sale in an upcoming auction of movieland memorabilia, have set the film world a-buzz.  Tara, the mythical home of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”, was not a real place, but the stage set that was built for the 1939 film certainly was: in fact, it has been sitting in pieces in a barn in Georgia for decades, awaiting restoration.  Meanwhile, this November Bonham’s auction house in New York will be selling off a private collection of Hollywood history, which includes the piano on which Dooley Wilson played “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 classic “Casablanca” for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.

It may seem curious that these pop culture objects of little intrinsic value carry such excitement, when they come to light in news stories or auction catalogues.  After all, hundreds of movies, concerts, and sporting events take place every year, and the vast majority of them are quickly forgotten, the detritus of their production disappearing into basements or scrap heaps.  There is no museum containing the cast-off socks of basketball players from the 1982 Philadelphia 76’ers, so far as I am aware.  And even if such a thing still exists, I cannot imagine that there is a huge market for anyone to own something like Robin Williams’ furry hat from 1982’s “Moscow on the Hudson”.

The survival of any pop culture item often depends on who is entrusted with its care.  Somewhere in one of her jewelry boxes my mother has an old, yellowed lace handkerchief of her mother’s.  Back in the 1940’s, grandmother had gone to see the legendary Spanish bullfighter Manolete work his blood-stained magic in Barcelona.  Manolete was a handsome, hugely popular figure in Spain after the Civil War, who drew crowds of admirers because of his very reserved technique and persona, in which he never made a show of himself to the crowds, as had many bullfighters both before and after him.

My grandmother, being a very elegant and beautiful lady, happened to draw the matador’s gaze when he entered the ring, and she gave him her handkerchief to carry during the fight, an echo of the Medieval tradition of courtly love and carrying your lady’s favor into battle.  After his successful dispatch of the bull that day, he returned the handkerchief to my grandmother, who of course kept it as a relic afterwards.  It was an object which became the more precious after Manolete was killed in 1947 at the age of 30, when he was gored by a bull during a fight in Andalusia.

Why do we hold on to these relics of past popular entertainments?   One very obvious reason is that of trying to preserve our memories.  As we grow older, to be able to draw out some piece of ephemera which reminds us of another time, is to have a bittersweet way of remembering who we are and where we came from.  This is something which human beings seem particularly keen on doing: one does not see birds flying about carrying bits of previous nests, or snakes dragging their old skins along with them as they slither through the underbrush, each reflecting back to a time when they were just hatchlings.

However that sense of a personal, infused meaning which encapsulates part of who a person was at a particular point in their life does not last forever.  Grandmother could pull out that old, stained handkerchief in her declining years, and remember back to a time when she was the belle of the ball.  After her death, her daughter could do the same, calling to mind her glamorous mother and telling the story of that handkerchief to her own children.

Yet the significance of such an object changes, as it goes forward in time.  Today Manolete is merely a name, the bullring where he fought has been converted into a shopping mall, and long-departed grandmother is the haughty grand dame whose portrait gazes confidently back at the viewer above the piano in her daughter’s living room.  The relic of the lady and the bullfighter will retain a personal value for the descendants of the lady who owned it, only for so long as an interest in her life remains.  After that, the value will either disappear entirely, or it will change to become that which may be ascribed to something once touched by a famous person.

At that point, grandmother’s handkerchief becomes no different from Scarlett’s home or Sam’s piano.  The people who lived through the experience of that particular entertainment are no longer around to provide context or personal meaning for these objects.  Vivien Leigh and Dooley Wilson have been gone for decades, and as each year passes, fewer and fewer people directly connected to the making of either “Gone With the Wind” or “Casablanca” remain.  So while we may admire the achievements of those who made and worked with such things, we are rapidly reaching a point where we will not have any personal connection with them.

This is why pop culture relics often survive to go on into a kind of materialist afterlife.  Long after the people who are associated with them have shuffled off this mortal coil, we can tell the stories of who they were and what they meant to our culture, by looking to those objects which once meant something to them.  Thus, while there may be no significant monetary value in something like an old, upright piano, appreciation of that piano’s significance to popular culture far outweighs the monetary worth of the object.  Whatever becomes of grandmother’s handkerchief, I certainly hope we may yet get to see Tara rebuilt, and Sam’s piano sitting in pride of place at a public institution.

Sam Dooley, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from "Casablanca" (1942)

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from “Casablanca” (1942)