Dominic and Clare: Two Great Saints, Two Great Activities

With the feast of St. Dominic tomorrow, and that of St. Clare of Assisi coming up this Saturday, I wanted to share two bits of news related to both, which hopefully the reader will find interesting.

The first involves a Solemn Mass which will be held at St. Dominic’s Church here in DC, at 7pm tomorrow evening. After Mass there will be the opportunity to venerate a relic of St. Dominic, followed by a reception which, I am assured by the parish, will be non-solemn. St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominicans, who, along with St. Francis of Assisi (1180-1226), helped to usher in a significant period of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic growth in the Church during the Middle Ages, and his spiritual descendants carry on that work today.

If you’ve never been to St. Dominic’s, you’ve probably seen its striking bell tower from the 395 expressway going to or from Capitol Hill. It points skyward amidst the bland, boxy, brutalist concrete structures that were built in the middle of the previous century, when demolition of historic structures in the name of “progress” was all the rage in urban centers. St. Dominic’s is one of the few architectural survivors from before that supposedly enlightened movement destroyed the neighborhood around it, which similarly ruined places like Penn Station in New York and Boston’s City Hall. And what a magnificent survival it is, as you can see here:



Although I’m unaware of any evidence that he ever met her, another contemporary of St. Dominic was St. Francis’ dear friend St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), whose life the church commemorates on Saturday, August 11th. St. Clare founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, more commonly known as the Poor Clares, a few years after the foundation of the Dominicans and Franciscans. Whereas the former concentrated largely on preaching and education, and the latter on caring for the poor and outcast, the Poor Clares are a contemplative order, living in monastic community and spending their days in lives of prayer and meditation.

In 1326, the first Poor Clares monastery was founded in Pedralbes, then a small village in the foothills of the mountains that surround Barcelona, by King Jaume II for his 4th and final wife, Queen Elisenda de Montcada. She retired there after his death, and over the years the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes grew in size and beauty to eventually become designated as a National Monument of Spain. It’s a place that has been important in the life of my mother’s side of the family for many generations.

One of the great treasures of the monastery is the Chapel of St. Michael, a cell located in the beautiful, triple-story Gothic cloister (the only one in Europe, BTW.) It is completely covered with frescoes dating from 1346, executed by an artist named Ferrer Bassa (1285-1348). Little is known of his life or training, but the frescoes are highly significant to art history as evidence of early Italian Renaissance art making its way to the Iberian Peninsula. Bassa’s work shows that he was familiar with the work of contemporary Italian artists such as Giotto, Duccio, Simone Martini, and others, and may have studied in Siena. This art would have been seen as cutting-edge design at the time of its execution in Barcelona, since there was nothing else like it outside of Tuscany.

Now, after a multi-year, complex conservation and restoration effort, the chapel has been brought back to as near as possible what it looked like when it was first completed in the mid-14th century. The decorative program features a number of saints – including St. Francis and St. Clare, naturally – as well as scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Because the chapel was originally a nun’s cell, it’s not possible to get a good sweeping vista of the decoration, but this gives you some idea of the impression that you get when you step inside from the cloister:


The significance of the spread of this kind of art outside Tuscany cannot be overestimated. Whereas in earlier Catalan art, faces were often stoic and expressionless, Bassa introduced his Catalan viewers to a new and unprecedented kind of realism, drawn from the observation of nature and real life, in which we can more easily empathize with the figures depicted in the scenes. Here, for example, we see expressions of anxiety, sorrow, and suffering in the faces of the women who have been witnessing the torture and death of Jesus:


Whether you find yourself in Barcelona this weekend for the feast of St. Clare, or indeed at any other time, if you are interested in art history, magnificent architecture, and/or Christian spirituality, make sure to make a pilgrimage to Pedralbes. There are still a few Poor Clare nuns left, although sadly like many religious orders in Spain, they have been dying off for quite awhile now, and personally I’m worried that the place, which is mostly run by the city as a museum at this point, is going to get turned into some god-awful hotel and conference center or something, so best to go see it now while you can. It’s a bit off the beaten path for most tourists, being in a mostly residential neighborhood, but I think you’ll find the beauty and indeed the peacefulness of the place well-worth the trip.


Art News Roundup: Can You Dig It Edition

Before getting to some news from around the art world, I wanted to share at a bit more length some news about a structure that has fascinated me for some time, but which most people have probably never heard of.

The massive Canfranc International Railway Station, located in the Spanish Pyrenees a few miles from the French border, was completed in 1928 and formally opened by King Alfonso XIII. At the time, it was the second-largest train station in Europe, its sheer size explained by the fact that the differing Spanish and French railway gauges forced both passenger and freight trains crossing the border to exit the train they were in and transfer to one suited to the gauge in the country they were entering. Massive tunnels were dug through the mountains, along with service roads and other infrastructure, in order to make the new undertaking possible. However, most of the station has been closed since a derailment on the French side of the border in 1970 destroyed a railway bridge, which the French never bothered to rebuild.

After many years of semi-abandonment and neglect however, the station will now be coming back to life. Plans were announced this week for the grand 1920’s station to be converted into a luxury hotel, while a new and modern station will be built alongside to handle both regional rail traffic as well as a re-opening and expansion of rail connections between Zaragoza and Bordeaux. In a sense, the hope is that this will prove to be for the Pyrenees what the revived and renovated St. Pancras has been for its part of London.

While one might reasonably wonder who would bother to go to a luxury hotel out in the middle of nowhere, Canfranc station is surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery:


With snow sports in winter and hiking in the summer, lush forests, streams and lakes, small villages with ancient churches and castles, it’s a location that, if it had been in the Alps, would have been developed as a tourist resort destination centuries ago. Even in its current state of semi-abandonment, for the past several years the Canfranc station itself has been attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually: train buffs, mountain hikers, nature enthusiasts, architecture aficionados, and so on, so giving these visitors a chance to stay at their destination seems to be a safe bet. It’s a real pleasure to see this fascinating building come back from the brink, and interesting to speculate on where these new tunnels for the expanded rail network will end up going.


And now on to some other digging about…

Dead Lawns of Devonshire

A recent summer heat wave in Britain has been killing off the lawns of houses across the island, but perhaps nowhere as spectacularly as at Chatsworth House, the estate of the Dukes of Devonshire. Beginning in the 1750’s, the famous English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-1783) ripped out the formal, terraced gardens that had surrounded the house during the 17th century, replacing them with vast expanses of lawn. With the current heatwave however, the outlines of those long-gone parterres have suddenly been exposed. Frankly, I find them preferable to Brown’s obsession with perfectly maintained but ultimately rather boring turf, an obsession which continues to affect homeowners on both sides of the Atlantic down to the present day, but I suspect His Grace will not be digging up the back yard in response to this temporary reveal.


Sharing the Spoils

A German farmer is (potentially) a far wealthier man today, after his local government tried to swindle him out of his fair share in what at the time was described as one of the best-preserved Roman sculpture finds in Germany in many years. After archeologists dug up the head of a bronze horse in 2009, from what is believed to have been an equestrian statue of Caesar Augustus dating to about the year 9 A.D., the local government paid the farmer on whose land the piece was discovered roughly $56,000 for his share in the discovery. Later, it was revealed that the head was actually worth somewhere around $1.8 million, and he had been low-balled by the government. The man rightly chose to sue for his share, since under German law the owner of a land on which treasure is dug up is entitled to half the value of the recovery, and won a whopping $904,000 plus interest. No word yet on whether the government will appeal the decision.


Levon’s Labyrinth

In the world of “Honey-Do” lists, this example puts just about everyone else’s to shame. Back in 1995, in an Armenian village not far from the capital city of Yerevan, a wife asked her husband to dig her out a root cellar underneath their modest, one-story house. He obliged, but took things a step further. Over the next 23 years until his death in 2008, he tunneled out what is now known as “Master Levon’s Divine Underground“, a catacomb of chambers, tunnels, and stairs which he carved out in his spare time, guided by prayer, dreams, and meditation. “Once he started digging, it was impossible to stop him,” said his widow recently. “I wrangled with him a lot, but he became obsessed with his plan.” Today she leads tours into her late husband’s subterranean world of columns, mosaics, halls, and niches.


Meeting Moroni: Italian Renaissance Genius To Get His Due At Last

For Christmas one year, when I was around 10 years old or so, I received a massive book on the National Gallery of Art here in DC. I count it as one of the seminal reference works that got me started on learning about Western art, as it features about 1,000 works from the NGA collection along with accompanying essays and analysis from critics, historians, and technical experts, as well as copious notes and bibliographical materials. Among the artists surveyed was Giovanni Battista Moroni (1525-1578), who at the time was characterized as a mid-level painter with some skill in portraiture. There are three Moroni portraits in the collection of the NGA, and even at a young age, I was always drawn to these images, because I thought them far better works than the commentators appeared to suggest in the text.

With that in mind, I was very pleased to read just recently that the Frick in New York will be mounting a show early next year celebrating Moroni’s portraiture, which will be the first major exhibition of the artist’s work ever held in this country.

One of Moroni’s most famous portraits, which will be in the Frick show, is a late work known as “The Tailor” (c. 1570-1575), from the National Gallery in London. It depicts an unknown man at work cutting a garment on a table, who has paused and is looking out at the viewer. It is a very direct, deceptively simple image, which because of its simplicity can make it easy to overlook some of the wonderful detail in the piece. Notice for example the carefully observed details of the sheen on the metal belt buckles, and the tiny bit of warm reflection off of the gold signet ring which the man is wearing on the pinkie of his right hand, that contrasts with the cool reflection off the curve of the handle of the steel scissors just next to it. [N.B. I must say, Brits, the painting looks like it could do with a good clean.]


The sitters in Moroni’s paintings are often dignified, stylish individuals, but while their attire may seem somewhat outlandish to us today, there is nevertheless something about the way in which Moroni paints them that seems to make them exist out of time, in a way that few of the artist’s contemporaries were able to accomplish. Take a look at his portrait of Prospero Alessandri from 1560 for example, which is in the princely collections of Liechtenstein. Yes, that outfit is rather something, but if you focus on the face and the relaxed pose, rather than the garments – which, admittedly, are beautifully represented by the artist – he would not look out of place if you ran into him at your local microbrew pub:


Similarly, look at the intense, sunburnt, battle-weary face of Gabriel de la Cueva y Girón, later the 4th Duke of Alburquerque, one of the Grandees of Spain. This was a man who had spent a great deal of time in the saddle and on the battlefront with his troops, and as a younger son never expected to end up with what we might call a “desk job”. Yet within three years of Moroni painting this picture the sitter’s brother, the 3rd Duke, had died without heirs, and de la Cueva inherited the Dukedom, as well as being made governor of Milan. The Spanish inscription on the plinth next to him is a couplet which (roughly) translates, “Here I am without fear, and of death I do not dread.” I doubt the Lombards dared to complain to him very often about the Spanish occupation.


Then there is the portrait usually called “The Man in Pink”, but more properly, it is Moroni’s portrait of Giovanni Gerolamo Grumelli, painted about the same time as the preceding two portraits. Here we see an aristocratic Lombard dandy in full plumage, ready to mingle with the other dandies at the Spanish court in Milan. Grumelli was a well-liked and successful lawyer from an important family in Bergamo, who became a government official and professional archivist. He married three times (he was widowed twice), fathered many children, and was a close friend and advisor to St. Charles Borromeo about how to implement the reforms of the Council of Trent. In the past, pink was considered the preferred color for boys in the same way that blue is now, but the added twist here is that the Grumelli family crest bore a piece of pink coral on it, meaning that pink was not just a fashionable color for them, but a heraldic one as well.


Despite the skill demonstrated in these portraits, Moroni was not particularly good at straight-on religious paintings. However, he was adept at creating an updated version of what had been a traditional Christian artistic concept from the Byzantine and Romanesque through the Gothic and mid-Renaissance: the image of a donor, i.e. patron, depicted in prayer alongside saints or in Biblical scenes that had significance to that patron. This was a type of art that gradually died out beginning around Moroni’s time, when we begin to see fewer and fewer images of a patron alongside, say, the Nativity or surrounded by saints, and in some ways Moroni’s work is a kind of last gasp of that art form.

For example, in Moroni’s “A Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna” (c. 1560) here in the National Gallery, which was the first piece of his that really caught my attention as a child, we see a man in stylish 16th-century attire praying before the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. The picture is quiet and still, while the flesh tones are warm and real. Similarly, in Moroni’s “A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ” (c.1555-60), in a private collection, a more somberly dressed young man is shown witnessing Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan from behind some classical ruins:


As an aside, I have to say that for many reasons, The Frick has become my favorite museum in New York, hands down. While not as vast a collection as that at The Met just up the street, both the permanent collection and the special exhibitions at the museum, the former 5th Avenue mansion of financier Henry Clay Frick, have never failed to please, educate, and inspire every time I visit. Its curatorial staff has taste and style, and doesn’t dumb down its shows in the way that The Met and many other major museums have done in recent years, in an effort to try to attract more visitors. On my most recent visit, to review “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”, there were certainly plenty of visitors, but not such a crushing throng as to be unable to sit and quietly look at and think about the art on display. And while there seems to be a continuing see-saw of conflict between the museum’s desire to expand and the NIMBYism of its neighbors, hopefully the ability to show not only more of the works in its permanent collection but also to host larger exhibitions, lectures, and other events, will soon come to fruition.

“Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture” will open at The Frick on February 21st of next year and run through June 2nd: I can guarantee you that you will read my review of it somewhere.