Two DC Christmas Events To Calendar

As subscribers know I normally only post twice a week, but for those of you in the DC area I wanted to share two upcoming events that may be of interest. There are always many Christmas-related events here in the capital, and if you don’t put them on your calendar ahead of time, you tend to forget until the day of – or worse, until after they’ve already past. So here goes:

Thursday, December 14th @ 6:00 pm
Catholic Information Center
1501 K Street, NW
Metro: McPherson Square
Admission: Free, but please RSVP

This annual gathering is co-hosted by the Thomas More Society of America and the Catholic Information Center, and features seasonal treats as well as Christmas-related poetry (and the odd bit of prose) readings by members and supporters of the Society and the CIC. The event always draws a lively crowd, and I’m honored to have been asked to give recitations for the past several years in a row. Prior attendees have now come to expect that my particular reading will be…a bit different from the others. Please drop in and if you spot me, come over and say hello!

Tuesday, December 19th @ 7:30 pm
St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church
Metro: Foggy Bottom
Admission: Free (donations suggested; CD’s available for purchase)

Those of you who follow me on social media know how often I mention what a magnificent job the music ministry does at my parish of St. Stephen’s in Foggy Bottom; you may have even listened to some of my (not-so-great-quality) recordings of them at work, such as this one. Now you have the chance to hear our superb organist/music director Neil Weston – shown here playing the church’s organ – and the members of the choir in action, as they perform Christmas carols and celebrate the release of their latest album, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the founding of St. Stephen’s. Every single person whom I have ever brought to St. Stephen’s has remarked on how glorious the music is, even better than those at other, not-to-be-named Catholic houses of worship in this city of greater size but lesser acoustics. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed if you decide to honor us with your attendance.



Thought-Pourri: Discoveries Edition

The big news in the art world this week, which the NY Times broke last night, is the identity of the purchaser of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which sold at Christie’s in New York for a record-shattering $450 million. The lucky winner of the auction is Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, a somewhat obscure member of the Saudi royal family. It appears that the painting will now be put on public display at the Louvre’s brand-new outpost in Abu Dhabi, on extended loan from the Prince. The painting, or rather the kerfuffle surrounding it, will be the subject of my next piece for The Federalist, so watch this space.

And now, on to some other news from the creative world.

Valued Veneziano

A very beautiful, recently rediscovered “Crucifixion” by the Early Renaissance painter Lorenzo Veneziano (active 1356–1372) sold for $2.25 million at Bonham’s in London last evening – more than four times its pre-sale estimate. It features all the hallmarks of Quattrocento (14th century Italian) painting, including the use of a gold background, very early attempts at linear perspective, and costly blue pigments. The painting may have been part of a larger, hitherto unknown polyptych, in which a group of individual but related paintings are connected together by means of hinges, in order to sit atop an altar. Oftentimes these assemblages featured a large, central panel, flanked by two or more panels acting as “wings”, which could be opened or closed; one often sees scenes of Christ’s Passion surmounting the central panel, as in this Cinquecento (15th century Italian) example by Piero della Francesca. Unlike the Da Vinci, the Veneziano was properly included as part of a sale of Old Master paintings, but no word on whether the bidding war which drove up the price on this relatively small panel had anything to do with a renewed interest in the Old Masters market in the wake of the Da Vinci sale.


Costly Constable

Speaking of discoveries and auction sales, a British family was recently shocked to learn that a sketchy oil painting of the Thames, which hung on a wall underneath the staircase of their London home, turns out to be a lost preparatory study for a larger work called “The Opening of Waterloo Bridge” by John Constable (1776-1837), one of the greatest of all British landscape artists. I love the story of its discovery during a visit from an art expert from Sotheby’s, as described in The Torygraph:

“That’s a very nice Constable,” he told its owners, making small talk as he got ready to leave their house.
“What Constable?” replied the owner.

The painting sold at Sotheby’s in London last night for $3 million, about three times its estimated auction price.


Departed Designer

His name is probably unknown to you, and yet artist Ivan Chermayeff (1932-2017), who died in New York last weekend at the age of 85, is someone you’ll discover that you’ve known your whole life. Over the course of a very long career that began way back in the Mad Men era, Chermayeff designed corporate logos for many companies, including book publisher HarperCollins, the Showtime cable television network, and the Smithsonian Institution, among others. He also redesigned existing logos, such as that of the late, great Pan Am Airways, and NBC’s famous peacock, to make them cleaner, thereby adhering to his personal design philosophy of making such images less fussy and more easily recognized by the public. When not working in corporate matters, Chermayeff was also a sculptor, collage artist, and art professor, and while I can’t say that I like his sculptures – which were often giant, red-glazed objects such as numbers or geometric shapes – he was certainly a representative of a more optimistic and innovative time that came out of America’s rise to international importance following World War II.



Exciting Egypt

And finally not one, but TWO great stories out of Egypt to share, specifically related to the 18th Dynasty and the New Kingdom, a period from about 1550 BC to 1292 BC which produced some of the most sublime art and architecture of the Ancient World. First, archaeologists have discovered a large cache of 27 statues of the goddess Sekhmet, who was often portrayed as a lioness with the body of a woman, outside the ruins of the funerary temple of Amenhotep III, grandfather of the legendary King Tutankhamun. And speaking of King Tut, the very major news is that beginning in March of next year, a major traveling exhibition from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo will hit the road to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the boy-king’s tomb back in 1922. The show will consist of 150 pieces, and will be the largest exhibition of King Tut’s treasures ever assembled outside of Egypt, meaning you will want to make the effort to see this. No word on whether the superb gold statue of Sekhmet from Tutankhamun’s tomb, pictured here, will be part of the show.


Carthusian Context: Does An Upcoming Art Exhibition Get It Right?

Something which I often comment on in these pages is how many of the Old Master paintings which we see in museums or study in books or via online images are presented to us out of context. We don’t get a sense of their scale, placement, or use in the areas where they were originally intended to be used. An upcoming exhibition at The Frick promises a rather unique presentation, for those who want to experience something approaching what was originally intended for the art on display, but I’m not entirely sure it will be without its problems, when it comes to understanding the Catholic context for these pieces.

“The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Jan Vos”, which will open at The Frick in September of next year, will reunite two religious paintings commissioned by Jan Vos (died 1462), who served as Prior of the Charterhouse of Genadendal near Bruges, in modern-day Belgium, for about a decade beginning in 1481. A Charterhouse, for those unfamiliar with this term, is a monastery of monks in the Carthusian Order. The most famous Charterhouse in the world is the Grande Chartreuse, located in the mountains north of Grenoble, France. It is perhaps best known for the Chartreuse liquors produced there, as well as for it being the subject of the 2005 German documentary film, “Die große Stille” (rendered in English as “Into Great Silence”) – which, if you have not seen, should immediately go into your watching queue.

The older of the two paintings, known as “The Madonna of Jan Vos”, was painted sometime between 1441-43, and is one of the last works by the great Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck (1390-1442); it was likely left unfinished at his death, and completed by his assistants. The panel was originally displayed in a public area of the Charterhouse, perhaps in one of the side chapels of the monastic church, but today it is part of the permanent collection at The Frick. It features all the hallmarks of Van Eyck’s work, from the intricate geometry of the tile floors and embroidered canopy, to the sparkling jewels on the crowns and on the borders of garments, to the lushness of the countryside and intricacies of the townscape seen through the arcade in the background.


The Van Eyck is being joined by a second painting commissioned by Jan Vos during his time as Prior, the so-called “Exeter Madonna” (1450) which is now in the collection of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. This piece is by another great Flemish artist, Petrus Christus (c. 1410-1476), and as you can clearly see, Christus was obviously shown the Van Eyck painting by Vos, and asked to create a somewhat simpler variation on it. While not as ornate as the Van Eyck piece, because it was created for Vos’ personal use rather than public display, it has its own charm, particularly in the brightness of its tone and the rather inviting way in which the pavilion opens up to the blue sky of midday.


According to The Art Newspaper, the Frick is taking the unusual step of placing both paintings in a small space, described as being about the size of a monastic cell, “to evoke a bit of these former ways of interaction [with works] and hopefully make people engage with the art of this period in a new way.” This will certainly bring the visitor into a far more proximate relationship with these two panels than would normally happen in a large gallery space. Other pieces in the exhibition will similarly reflect up-close-and-personal devotional practices of the Carthusians at the time of Vos,

While all of this seems a good idea, I do wonder if there’s a slight problem with the placement of the “Madonna of Jan Vos” in particularly. I’m not well-versed enough in the history of these paintings to suggest otherwise, but I would note that most art historians believe that this picture was executed to assist the faithful in their devotional and penitential practices, “and that forty days of indulgence was granted for reciting the Ave Maria and the Pater Noster to the image.” In Catholic practice therefore, a work such as this would usually be placed in a more public space, rather than inside an individual cell. Veneration by the faithful would become rather too crowded if everyone had to climb into a room designed for the use of a single individual. Thus, while the “Exeter Madonna” would be more at home inside a gallery space the size of a monastic cell, the “Madonna of Jan Vos” does not belong in one.

Be that as it may, while there is a long time to wait just yet, this show promises to be a wonderfully immersive experience for those interested not only in Flemish art of the High Middle Ages, but also in the devotional life of Carthusian Spirituality.