Thought-Pourri: Take A Seat Edition

As the weather improves and things become more busy both professionally and socially, it becomes increasingly more difficult for me – and, I daresay, for you – to find some time to sit back, relax, and enjoy an interesting meander through things that we do purely for pleasure, rather than because we have to do them. So with that in mind, take a few minutes when you can, and have a flick through some of the art news stories below. They won’t clear up your calendar for you, but at least they will (hopefully) provide you with something of a break.

Easy, Chair

One of my favorite periods in decorative art is the style known as “William and Mary”, corresponding roughly to the reign of William III and Mary II of England. It was popular in Britain, Holland, and their respective colonies in the first quarter of the 18th century, and you see a lot of it in places like Boston or Colonial Williamsburg. Characteristically very architectural, furniture in this style often features carved elements such heavily crested rails, or playful barley twists, reproducing on a domestic scale the heraldic pediments and twisted columns that were popular during the Baroque era of architecture. Although it enjoyed a brief revival in this country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – along with, it should be said, virtually every other historical design style – it’s never been quite as popular as some of the other styles that came before and after it, due to the perception that it is rather too dark and uber-masculine.

Now, following years of painstaking research, the Philadelphia Museum of Art may be about to change how we think about this period of American decorative art. Known as the “Emerson Easy Chair” because it had been owned by ancestors of the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, the newly-restored William and Mary armchair shown below should dispel any notion that everything about this period of design was oppressively heavy. This fascinating article in Antiques by the restorers who worked on the piece describes how they went about bringing this piece of furniture back to its formerly sumptuous appearance, complete with vibrant crimson upholstery and intricate gold trimmings. The end result is a piece of historical design that really makes you sit up and take notice.

Chair

New Director, Same Old Met

After a long search, a new Director will be taking his seat at the (to my mind) troubled Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose travails I’ve written about before, both here and for The Federalist. The new head of America’s largest art museum is Max Hollein, an Austrian who is currently the director of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums; he previously served stints at museums in Frankfurt and at the Guggenheim in New York. So far reaction in the art press has been largely positive, mostly because Hollein brings a reputation for embracing Contemporary Art and raising lots of money, both of which are important to the leadership of The Met, if not to those of us who wonder whether The Met hasn’t become something of a lost soul in recent years. As Marion Maneker commented yesterday in Art Market Monitor, “[t]hat this directorship was also the focus of hopes and demands about diversity and representation within museums is only confirmation that the role of the museum in 21st Century society has changed dramatically.” None of this sounds like much of an improvement, frankly.

Met

Supposedly Shifting Sands

Since his assent to the position of man behind the throne in Saudi Arabia this past June, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been gaining a reputation for being something of a reformer and maverick, at least comparatively speaking. Women can now drive in his country, for example, and he had a hand in the extraordinary sale of Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”. Now news comes that the Saudis have reached out to the French to help them establish cultural institutions which the country currently lacks, including a symphony orchestra and an opera; the French are also being called on to do archaeological work at the major Nabatean site of Hegra, a location which I’ve told you about previously, in the hope of drawing foreign tourists to visit the remote site.

Of course if you’re a Catholic – and there are more than 1.5 million of them in Saudi Arabia – you can’t openly practice your faith. There are no churches in the country, and if you want to attend some type of service you must do so in a private home, but since the Saudi government does not allow non-Muslim clergy to enter the country in order to perform religious services, you can imagine how that goes. Moreover, if you convert to Catholicism from Islam, or if as a Catholic you try to evangelize others, you can be executed. So forgive me if I’m not particularly impressed by His Royal Highness’ so-called “reforms”.

 

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Thought-Pourri: Childhood Fantasy Edition

When I was a child, I wanted to grow up to be many things. From policeman to paleontologist, superhero to symphony conductor, it was possible to imagine being all of these things simultaneously even though, practically speaking, such a combination of professions was always going to be impossible. For many, the abandonment of childhood dreams such as these becomes a cause for sadness and disappointment, perhaps even a source of residual bitterness throughout life, because things rarely turn out quite the way we had hoped when we were small.

Yet just because you’re never going to be something like an archaeologist – one of my other fantasy professions – doesn’t mean that your sense of wonder and excitement regarding archaeology has to be put away, left behind to collect dust in some forgotten corner of your mind. In fact, I find that as I grow older, the things which I loved as a child possessed of a very active imagination are the things which still fascinate me today. True, I may never get to find the remains of some undiscovered Egyptian tomb or what really happened to the Roanoke colonists, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t take pleasure in the efforts of those who do manage to go out and do these things.

So although this week’s news roundup is not, strictly speaking, about art, nevertheless I want to encourage you both to read these interesting stories about recent archaeological finds dating from the 1st century AD, and also to think about what it is that you have pushed to the side in your brain, as the concerns of life and work have become more pressing: perhaps they are worth rediscovering.

Building Bath

The English city of Bath, originally a sacred site for the Celts thanks to its hot springs and mineral-rich waters, really took off architecturally speaking when it became a Roman spa resort town known as Aquae Sulis; visitors to the spot can enjoy some of the most extensive Roman ruins in Britian, as well as a wealth of Medieval, Georgian, and Victorian architecture. Recently, a volunteer with the local archaeological society uncovered what are probably the very first mosaic floor tiles plunked down by the Romans in Bath during the 1st century AD, not long after the Emperor Claudius invaded Britain and began to establish colonies on the island. While the mosaics themselves are not particularly impressive, I think the takeaway here is about how average people, who are interested in subjects like art, history, architecture, and the like, can make a significant contribution to our understanding of these subjects. Don’t assume that you have to have a PhD in something in order to be able to make a difference.

Bath

Stormy Spain

Another group of locals, this time in Spain, have helped archaeologists recover Roman ruins from roughly the same period as the newly-discovered Bath mosaics. Last week, an unusually powerful storm revealed the remains of a long-lost Roman aqueduct in Cádiz, in southern Spain; residents out walking on the beach after the storm had passed spotted the ruins, and had the sense to immediately contact local authorities to come out and survey the discoveries. Once one of the largest engineering projects in the Roman Empire, the Aqueduct of Cádiz was built in the 1st century AD to carry fresh water from springs on the Spanish mainland across the bay to what was then an island, where present-day Cádiz was founded some 3,000 years ago, (supposedly) by the legendary Hercules. Amazingly, despite being submerged under sea water for centuries, parts of the structure are still held together by their original mortar.

Roman

Seeing Saudi Arabia

In an ongoing effort to change outside perceptions of his country, Crown Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia, who supposedly helped to bring about the acquisition of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” for the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, may be making a fascinating archeological site more accessible to researchers and visitors. In today’s edition of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks describes her visit to the ancient city of Hegra, modern-day Mada’in Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site which sits in the NW Arabian desert about 250 miles from the city of Medina. It was founded in the 1st century AD by the Nabateans, whose rich and bizarre architecture – a mixture of Greek, Roman, Persian, and other influences – will be known to you from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”: the climactic final scenes were shot in the ancient Nabatean city of Petra in modern Jordan. The Saudis want to invest in drawing more interest and visitors to the remote archaeological site, and as there are well over 100 monumental tombs which need to be fully excavated and studied, such a project would likely keep scientists occupied and tourists enthralled for decades.

Hegra

Peter of Bethsaida: Archaeology, Art, and Audacity

I’m going to attempt to tie together a few threads this morning, as I often do in these pages, and see whether the whole thing hangs together. This past Sunday, Christians celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration, while today is the Feast of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers. Combine these two commemorations with a fascinating new archaeological discovery that will prove of great interest to Christians everywhere, and throw in some great works of art, and away we go. Bear with me, gentle reader.

On the news-y side of things, archaeologists in Israel believe they have found the site of Bethsaida the hometown of the Apostles St. Peter, St. Andrew, and St. Philip, near the Sea of Galilee. The Roman city of Julias was built on the site of Bethsaida, and is mentioned by the Roman historian Josephus, but its location was lost down the centuries. With the remains of a Roman bath house and other substantial finds at the dig site, scientists are now convinced that they have found the right spot. As of right now, the public isn’t allowed to visit the dig, but no doubt when it becomes accessible this site is going to be added to the pilgrimage trail for Christians visiting Galilee.

Bethsaida’s most famous resident, St. Peter, plays a major role in the Feast of the Transfiguration, which Christians celebrated this past Sunday. As retold in the Gospels, Jesus, accompanied by the Apostles Peter, James, and John, climbed up a mountain and revealed His true nature to these three closest followers, in a vision which was accompanied by the appearances of Moses and Elijah with the transfigured Christ. In St. Matthew’s recounting of the event, we read the following:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

St. Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration has been portrayed many times in art, perhaps most famously in Raphael’s final masterpiece, left unfinished at his untimely death in 1520 at the age of 37. The depiction of Jesus in this painting, in particular, has proven to be hugely influential not only in art, but in popular culture. In Raphael’s interpretation of the event, St. Peter is clothed in blue and yellow, shown below and to the right of the transfigured Jesus. He has just finished offering to put up three tents, for Christ and the two Prophets, and is now lying on the ground and twisting his upper body so as to cover his face from the blinding light:

This beautiful but rather complex depiction of the Transfiguration contrasts sharply with the simpler and perhaps more profound one rendered by Blessed Fra Angelico, the Dominican friar and Early Renaissance artist. This particular fresco was painted on the wall of a cell in the Dominican friary of San Marco, outside of Florence, sometime between 1440-1442. In his more solemn and minimalist imagining of this event, Fra Angelico’s image is one of great stillness, rather than one of movement and energy.

Like Raphael, Fra Angelico places St. Peter to the lower right of Jesus, and the Prince of the Apostles still shields his eyes from the celestial light, but this time we see him is in a more upright position: unlike the other two Apostles, St. Peter is trying to see what is happening. Notice also that on the extreme left and right of the picture we see two individuals who were not present at the Transfiguration, but who are shown meditating about it: the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and St. Dominic, whose feast day we celebrate today. The presence of such individuals is anachronistic, historically speaking, but was quite common in sacred art. It often provided a context for placement of the work of art – such as in this case, inside a Dominican friary, and bearing in mind that Dominicans have a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother.

While the individual focus of not only these works of art, but of course the Gospel retellings themselves, is Jesus, they also give us an opportunity to think about the character of St. Peter, and how he grew so far beyond what could reasonably have been expected of someone hailing from Galilee. I was particularly struck by this change in his character when reading-listening to the 2nd reading from Mass on Sunday, which was taken from the Second Letter of St. Peter. It personalizes the Transfiguration in a way which shows us that St. Peter is no longer that provincial fisherman, nor merely an easily-frightened follower of a maybe-Messiah, but a figure of authority, strength, and conviction for the first Christians to turn to:

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
2 St. Peter 1:16-19

This absolutely explicit defense of the reality of the Transfiguration – and indeed, of the Resurrection, for St. Peter and the other two were enjoined by Christ not to tell anyone about the Transfiguration until after His Resurrection – shows us how far St. Peter has come. He may have started life uneventfully enough, in small-town Bethsaida, but by the time the scribe is writing this final letter to his dictation, St. Peter is imprisoned in Rome, and is aware that he is about to die because of his faith in Christ. “Therefore, I will always remind you of these things,” he notes, “even though you already know them and are established in the truth you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this ‘tent,’ to stir you up by a reminder, since I know that I will soon have to put it aside, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me I shall also make every effort to enable you always to remember these things after my departure.” (2 St. Peter 1:12-15)

With a last look at the two paintings we considered today, then, and in the light of the discovery of St. Peter’s birthplace, perhaps the takeaway for us today is one of courage. No matter what forgotten town we start from, and no matter where we find ourselves – in the cell of a monastery, the cell of a prison, or a cell of our own construction – we must be brave in preaching what we know to be true. We may not have the opportunity or indeed the calling to go out and preach the Gospel fearlessly to great crowds, as St. Peter and St. Dominic did. Yet in our own small lives and small towns, we can preach with equal bravery, when we stand up for the things that we know are right in spite of both ourselves, and the rest of the world standing in opposition to us.