The Courtier In Chicago: “Cloudy Witnesses”

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been invited to speak to the Catholic Art Guild in Chicago on Saturday, May 5th, at 11:00 am. I’ll be speaking on a problem that has been plaguing the art world for some time now: cultural illiteracy in sacred art. The talk will take place at St. John Cantius, the grand, historic Baroque Revival church located on the city’s West Side. [N.B. On a side note, I’m looking forward to poking around this rather grand building, and snapping a mountain of pics for my IG account.]

I’ve tentatively titled the presentation “Cloudy Witnesses”. This is in reference to Hebrews 12:1 where, after recounting the lives of those who had gone before him in faith, the author speaks of the patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs as a “great cloud of witnesses” who inspire the Church. Yet in our present age, the shining examples of these people of faith, so often the subjects of great works of art, have in many cases become clouded over.

As Western society becomes more aggressively secularized, understanding of the meaning, purpose, and significance of Christian art is declining. Formerly well-understood iconography and symbolism is becoming obscure; meaning is being falsely re-interpreted and distilled through secular philosophies, which usually have little or nothing whatsoever to do with the beliefs of those involved in the creation of these works. Such factors, combined with the decline of standards in art education and art media over the past several decades due to an almost exclusive focus on secular, Modern, and Contemporary Art, have created a climate of widespread institutional and popular ignorance when it comes to sacred art. As part of my presentation, I will attempt to offer some practical proposals for addressing this situation, which I hope will both serve as a clarion call to my fellow Catholics, but which will also prove of interest to non-Catholics who admire and appreciate beautiful works of art.

I’ll be posting the link to the event once that goes live on the Guild site. For those of you unable to attend in person, please note that the Guild will be filming the event in order to make it available on YouTube at a future date. Past speakers before the Guild have included philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, architect Duncan Stroik, sculptor Anthony Visco, and many others, whose presentations you can find on the Guild site. I’m deeply honored that they would include me in such illustrious company.

Esglesia

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Thought-Pourri: Get Back Into It Edition

Although I’ve been back from Spain – and England, unintentionally (more on that in a minute) – for over a week now, I’ve been laid up with the worst flu I’ve ever experienced. Hence, it’s taken a bit longer than anticipated to start blogging again. So I hope, gentle reader, that you’ll forgive my silence up until now.

I had a wonderful time in Madrid and Barcelona, which has given me some fodder for some upcoming posts. All went very well until it was time to head back, and due to a combination of airlines and airport factors I missed my connecting flight in Heathrow. The Dante-like experience of getting rebooked for the following afternoon was something which I prefer not to recount. As a result, after a 15 year absence from England, I spent the night in a hotel near the airport, and although I could have gone into the city to see friends, I was so wiped out from the experience that I just vegetated in my room.

On the flight back to DC the following afternoon, I was treated to a plane full of people coughing their brains out and complaining of flu-like symptoms. Whether I picked it up from them, or from my similarly afflicted relatives in Spain – where the news was reporting nightly on a pandemic of “Australian flu” throughout the country – upon my return to the States I ended up trapped in bed for a week, apart from a couple of medical visits where I was warned to isolate myself due to my being “extremely contagious.” I’m still not completely okay, but at least am well enough to share some news with my readers. Don’t worry: this particular form of plague cannot be transmitted via reading a blog post, or so I am led to believe.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

Get A Head

Saint Aredius (or St. Yrieix, as he is more commonly known in France) lived in the 6th century A.D., and served as the first Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery which he founded in the town of Attanum, about 30 miles outside of Limoges. Attanum was subsequently renamed for St. Yrieix, and his tomb became a popular pilgrimage shrine thanks to his reputation for working miracles. During the 11th century a reliquary was created by local craftsmen to contain the skull of the saint and, through the vicissitudes of history, this object – minus the skull – ended up being purchased about 1,000 years later by American financier J.P. Morgan; it is currently in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In an extremely unusual but very interesting move, the town of St. Yrieix is now demanding that The Met return the reliquary of its patron saint. The essentials of the argument are that, first, all Church property was expropriated by the state during the French Revolution in 1789, and second, subsequent laws passed in 1891 and 1905 meant that cultural treasures such as these became protected state property, which could not be exported out of France without express government permission. In this case, it is alleged that the reliquary was privately sold to a French art dealer by the local parish priest in 1906, who replaced the original with a copy; the original was then subsequently re-sold to an English art dealer, who sold it to Morgan. All of this would, in theory, have been illegal at the time.

I won’t comment on the specific legal arguments here, although it certainly sounds like there are at least grounds for a hearing of some sort. From the standpoint of precedent, this could be the beginning of a major headache for a number of museums, particularly in the United States, where the robber barons and financiers of the Gilded Age stuffed their homes in Manhattan and Newport with religious objects from France, Italy, and Spain, many of which may have been exported under somewhat clouded circumstances. No word yet on how The Met intends to respond.

From a design standpoint what is particularly fascinating about this reliquary is the fact we can see the foundational wooded carving which the decorated surface metals are attached to, in this image from a catalogue of Medieval sculpture published by The Met.

Framework

Get A Clue

Just when you thought the furor over the auction of “The Last Da Vinci” was over, researchers may have just discovered another, very early work by the Master. Scholars have long known that Da Vinci completed his apprenticeship in the workshop of the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), who by his own admission was a better sculptor than a painter. A very famous example of this is in Verrocchio’s “The Baptism of Christ”, now in The Uffizi, where the twisting angel on the far left, painted by the young Da Vinci, is far more complex and accomplished than the other figures in the altarpiece. Now, The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts is launching a new exhibition claiming that a work in its permanent collection is an early work by the young Leonardo.

“A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo” (c. 1479-1485) is a predella painting – a smaller panel attached underneath a larger panel – that was part of a larger commission that Verrocchio was contracted to complete for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Cathedral of Pistoia, about 20 miles from Florence. Verrocchio’s patrons were the Medici family, who commissioned the altarpiece in honor of their late uncle, Donato de’ Medici , who had been Bishop of Pistoia. The main image, of the Madonna and Child flanked by St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and St. Donatus, patron saint of the late bishop, was begun by Verrocchio but completed by another of his assistants, Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537).

Thanks to advances in technology and a growing knowledge base for close, analytical comparison of known works by Da Vinci to works believed to be by him, scholars involved in this exhibition seem fairly convinced that around 80% of this small painting was executed by Da Vinci, probably with the help of his fellow workshop apprentice Credi. To my mind what is a particularly persuasive clue here is the fact that the predella is executed in oil, rather than tempera paint. Few Italian artists were using oil paint at this point in art history, but Leonardo was definitely using it by the early 1470’s, well within the timeline for this picture. Those of you who find yourselves in the Worcester, Mass. Area this spring will have to toddle along and have a look, and let us know what you think.

Leo

Get On Board

Contemporary French artist and designer Mathieu Lehanneur works in many genres and materials, including architecture, lighting, and furniture. His most recent exhibition, “50 Seas”, which opens today at Christie’s in Paris, features fifty ceramic discs, each representing the sea in different geographic areas of the globe, a bit like taking a virtual cruise around the world’s oceans and peeping out of the porthole as you go. I particularly appreciate the painstaking, dare I say it, geeky-nerdy way that he went about finishing these works, as he explained to Christie’s:

I partnered with the French satellite photography company Planet Observateur. It provided me with high-resolution images of each of the 50 points, from which we colour-matched the enamel paint by eye. We probably made close to 2,000 paint samples before I was happy that each was accurate enough. It takes a lot of learning and mixing because the colours change enormously during the firing process, so they look wildly different between start and finish.’

At Christie’s in Paris, they will be mounted on the walls in one long row, at eye level. This is so that the audience can easily compare one to the next, and feel as if they’re in front of the water. Below each piece will be the GPS coordinates and name of each location. That way, you can know where you’re looking, whether it is the Yucatán Peninsula or the Caspian Sea. Each ceramic will operate like a window on to a world of water, allowing people to travel the planet.’

If you’ve ever worked in ceramics, you know that this is a serious pain in the behind to get right. Just because you put a glaze on something before you fire it in the kiln does not mean that it will turn out exactly the way that you want. Not only can the colors change, sometimes radically, from what you think they will be, but if the slightest thing goes wrong during the process you could end up with a ruined piece, and have to start all over again. So in this case the artist is not exaggerating when he says that they probably had to try nearly 2,000 times to get the 50 different final results which were kept.

This combination of technology, craftsmanship, and love of the complexities of the natural world is exactly the sort of thing which Catalan Modernista architects and artists such as Gaudí would have loved. Were he living in early 20th century Barcelona they would be clamoring for Lehanneur to collaborate with them on decorating a residence or a public building with these richly colored, undulating designs. “50 Seas” is on view at Christie’s Auction House in Paris until February 2nd.

Seas

Thought-Pourri: Everything Old Is New Again Edition

Gentle Reader, I hope that you find these Thursday news roundups as enjoyable to read as I do in putting them together. The one snag that I continue to have is that I find the term “Thought-Pourri” a bit too clever by half. If at some point this feature were to be converted into an email newsletter, which is something I’m thinking about, I’d like to find a snappier title. So the best Christmas gift you could send me this year would be some a suggestion for a better title that both fits with the purpose of this summary of news from the art, architecture, and design worlds, and that has more of a snap to it – just use the “Contact” form located on the site. Thank you in advance!

And so, onward to some news…

New/Old Argument: Aragonese Art

As Catalonia goes to the polls today – again – on regional elections ordered by Madrid, an interesting art story has slipped under the radar amidst all of the coverage over the question of Catalan independence. The medieval Monastery of Santa Maria de Sigena is located in Aragón, the region just west of Catalonia. In the early 1980’s the nuns moved out of their decaying premises, which had been several damaged by leftists during the Spanish Civil War, and found a new home in Barcelona; as part of their move they sold some of the art from their old monastery to the Catalan government. The works – which include several spectacularly decorated Gothic sarcophagi like the one shown below – were put on display for a number of years in a museum in the Catalan city of Lleida, but a few years ago, the Aragonese government sued to try to get them back; in 2015, a trial judge ruled in their favor. The Catalan government appealed, and although the appellate case is still pending, in the wake of the Catalan independence vote and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid, the national police force was sent in and removed the disputed works from the museum.

Sigena

New/Old Building: Noxious Neo-Brutalism

Is Brutalism, a horrible abomination of architecture which has been (rightly) derided from its inception by people with good taste, making a comeback? Award-winning British starchitect Sir David Adjaye of the awful National Museum of African American History and Culture here on the National Mall, (or as I call it, the Sandcrawler from “Star Wars”) has just revealed plans for his first highrise tower in Manhattan, which will be located near the Brookyln Bridge. The 66-story structure will be clad in cast concrete, a material which no doubt will age beautifully in the filthy, polluted atmosphere of New York City, just like all of the other crumbling, horrible Brutalist-era buildings which it evokes. One of the highlights, if you can call it that, will be an interior spa and pool area which described as being inspired by the Baths of Caracalla in Rome which, I suppose if you were color-blind and morbidly depressed you could very loosely claim to be the case, but quite frankly it looks like something out of “Blade Runner”, and not in a good way. (No word on whether Harrison Ford is personally to blame for either of these awful buildings.)

Brooklyn

New/Old Fashion: Romanov Riches

As Russia marks the 100th anniversary of the bloodbath known as the Bolshevik Revolution, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has just opened a new, permanent exhibition of 130 historic costumes, most of which belonged to members of the ruling Romanov dynasty. Located at the Hermitage’s vast storage and conservation complex in the north end of the city, the new displays features suits, gowns, and other clothing from Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II, among many others. Here for example is a ceremonial cloak and waistcoat worn by one of my favorite Russian oligarchs, Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825), who helped to defeat Napoleon.

Alexander

New/Old Resource: Fine Furniture

If you’ve ever been confused by the multitude of design terms used by museum curators, furniture retailers, and antique dealers when shopping or visiting museums and historic homes, you’re not alone. Even those of us who have at least some knowledge of the history of Western furniture can get a bit perplexed when, for example, a catalogue refers to a chair as “transitional” (what’s it transitioning into, a fridge?) While it won’t solve all such problems, a interesting new site (currently in beta) called British and Irish Furniture Makers Online (“BIFMO”) from the Furniture History Society and the University of London hopes to become a major online resource for those who want to learn their Thomas Chippendale from their George Hepplewhite.

cabinet