The Monsters At The End Of The World

While we absorb last evening’s danse macabre between two monstrous Presidential candidates whom no one particularly likes, as well as the news that, perhaps all too appropriately, the leading contender for this year’s Turner Prize in Contemporary Art is a monstrously-sized sculpture of an arse, allow me to point to something rather more interesting, though equally monstrous and appropriate to the times: the “Apocalypse Tapestry”.

The oldest surviving set of French medieval tapestries to come down to us, the Apocalypse Tapestry is an enormous series of images depicting scenes from the Book of Revelation, and was woven in the 14th century to designs by the Franco-Flemish artist Jean de Bondol (c. 1340-1400). Originally composed of 90 scenes on 6 large panels, when it was completed it was probably between 430-470 feet long, which is taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza if laid on its side. Today 71 of the scenes and 328 feet of the Tapestry survive, and are on display at the Chateau d’Angers, itself the former principal residence of the Dukes of Anjou who commissioned it. The French Ministry of Culture has recently announced new conservation efforts, to determine whether it is safe to continue displaying the rather fragile and battered Tapestry as-is.

What is particularly interesting about the Tapestry is that it is both a spiritual and a political work of art, even though only the religious aspect of the imagery is familiar to most of us today. Below we see one of the scenes from the Tapestry, depicting the worship of the beast as described by St. John in his vision. The Evangelist himself appears as an observer on the left side of the panel, as he describes what is going on:

Then I saw a beast come out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads; on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard, but it had feet like a bear’s, and its mouth was like the mouth of a lion. To it the dragon gave its own power and throne, along with great authority…Fascinated, the whole world followed after the beast. They worshiped the dragon because it gave its authority to the beast; they also worshiped the beast and said, “Who can compare with the beast or who can fight against it?”

(Revelation 13: 1-4)

At the center of the image we see a group of people all kneeling in adoration of a large, feline-looking monster with seven heads and ten horns, and feet rather like a bear’s. He is depicted holding a scepter which bears a lily on top. Behind him stands the multi-headed dragon described earlier in Revelation, who represents Satan. The dragon is, in essence, backing up the monster that has come up out of the sea: he is the real power behind this infernal enthronement.

The persistence of war, plague, and famine was something which Medieval people thought heralded the imminent arrival of the end of the world, and works such as this no doubt reminded them to be vigilant against infernal monstrosities that would tempt them away from following Christ. However while the Tapestry seems like a fairly straightforward image of St. John’s vision, and a warning to the faithful to remain true to the Faith in times of trouble, all is not what it appears to be. For if you had lived in France in the 14th century, you would also have recognized that there was a subtle political message inserted into the depiction of this Biblical scene.

The Tapestry was created between 1377-1382, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France for control of the French throne. In 1376 Edward, the “Black Prince” of Wales, who had lead the English in many bloody battles against the French, died; the following year his father, King Edward III, also died. The Black Prince’s son, who became King Richard II, was a minor at the time, and a somewhat weak regency ruled on his behalf. Meanwhile, during the comparative lull in the hostilities, King Charles V was able to continue consolidating his holdings in France up until his death in 1380, and the subsequent ascent of his son Charles VI to the French throne. All of this was taking place during the creation of this work of art.

Keeping this political history in mind, you may know that the lion has long been used as a symbol for England, just as the lily (or “fleur de lis”) has long been used as a symbol for France. Look at this scene again in that light, and in light of the political machinations of the time, and we can see something more than an illustration of a Bible story. Here we have a lion-headed monster who – with the Devil’s backing – has come from the sea, and claimed a scepter that bears the heraldic symbol for France. In this light, it’s easy to see how this work of French religious art could also be understood as a political dig at the English.

To me, this is far more fascinating than either a sculpture of a giant behind, or watching two giant behinds farting at each other on a stage.

Autumn Beauty: On Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna Of The Small Trees”

Lately I have been thinking a lot about a particular image of the Madonna and Child in an autumnal landscape by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini, and since today is the first day of Autumn, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this piece with you.

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) was the most famous member of a family of painters, which included his father Jacobo and Giovanni’s older brother Gentile, as well as his brother-in-law Masaccio. This particular member of the Bellini clan (and I will refer to him as “Bellini” for the sake of clarity throughout this piece) was not only a highly accomplished artist in his own right, but also the teacher of some of the most important artists who came after him. His most famous pupils were Titian, the greatest of all the Venetian painters, and the enigmatic but short-lived Giorgione.

Many of Bellini’s larger works, which were commissioned by the rulers of Venice, have unfortunately not survived due to fires and natural disasters. Yet his smaller-scale religious pictures, such as his beloved “St. Francis in Ecstasy” (1480) at the Frick Collection in New York, are arguably to Italian Renaissance painting what the work of Jan Van Eyck is to Flemish painting of the Northern Renaissance. They feature careful attention to detail, jewel-like colors, and inviting landscapes.

Bellini completed his “Madonna of the Small Trees”, now in the Accademia in Venice, in 1487; we know this because he signed and dated the picture on the painted slab of green marble on which the Christ Child is standing in the painting. We see Jesus and His Mother standing against a pea green, silk moire curtain with a cut velvet border in pink coral. Beyond the curtain is a dry landscape in early Fall, featuring two small trees – hence the title of the painting – along with some tree-covered hills and blue mountains in the distance, all beneath a very Venetian sky. It is a wonderfully quiet and still scene, and the rich colors of the fabrics provide an eye-catching contrast to the more subdued landscape colors in the background, which is composed almost entirely of graded blues, autumnal browns, and mottled grays.

This work is related to several other paintings which Bellini produced of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus around the same time, including his “Madonna of the Red Cherubim” and his “Alzano Madonna”, both painted in 1485, and both now in the collection of the Accademia Carrara in the city of Bergamo. However this one happens to be my favorite from this period, in part because Autumn is my favorite time of year, and in part because there is a pensive, dignified, but slightly sad quality to this picture. Given the size of the “Madonna of the Small Trees”, which is roughly 2 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall, it was almost certainly painted for its original owner to use at home, as indeed were the aforementioned paintings.

In making this point I can’t emphasize enough when, as I often do, I point out to my readers that paintings such as this were not intended to be simply decorative objects. Aesthetically pleasing though they undoubtedly are, they were meant to be USED in everyday life. In creating works like this, Catholic artists like Bellini were, in part, trying to help their clients, who were men and women seeking to develop a deeper relationship with God through a more active prayer life. The fact that we can look at a painting like the “Madonna of the Small Trees” and find it beautiful is only logical. Yet if we look at it and miss the intent that went into the commissioning and the execution of this piece, then we have moved out of the spiritual into a purely material and incomplete appreciation of this work of art.

For the wealthy in particular, the challenge of being a good Christian during the Renaissance while living in a world of profit and loss, war and diplomacy, plenty and famine, was no small burden to bear. Paintings such as these helped to remind them of their Faith, and to encourage them to remember the tenets of that Faith in their dealings with others, even if (admittedly) they were not always successful in their attempts. We can see this as hypocrisy, or we can see it in the light that Evelyn Waugh would have, as in his famous letter to fellow writer and Catholic convert, Edith Sitwell: “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.”

In following the art world as I do, trying to keep up with what is going on in the auction rooms, museums, and galleries, I often find myself losing heart or even my lunch. The creative, the well-to-do, and our own cultural institutions are generally not interested in commissioning beautiful objects, let alone devotional ones, and instead are intent upon creating and acquiring works of profound physical and spiritual ugliness. Because we live in a time when all seem to act with deadly, fixed intent upon appearing and behaving in as unattractive and crass a fashion as possible, it is to be expected that our art reflects or indeed anticipates our culture.

All the more reason then, to retreat as needed back into the Age of Faith, when beautiful pictures such as this not only celebrated the beauty of the physical world, but also the spiritual beauty of God made Man: an act of selfless beauty which, like Creation itself, God brought about on our behalf.

I See Dead People: Art From Beyond The Grave

Although we still have more than a month to go before Halloween, an interesting article in this month’s National Geographic raises the question of whether Eugène Delacroix‘s (arguable) masterpiece of 1830, “Liberty Leading the People”, was painted using a heaping helping of human remains. Up until the early 20th century, Ancient Egyptian mummies were exported to Europe and ground up for all sorts of purposes, especially for creating medicines and paints. In the latter category, the shade known as “Mummy Brown” was popular for many centuries. Although “Mummy Brown” is still an artist’s paint color today, it is assumed that mummy is no longer used in its production.

As ArtNet reports more thoroughly, Delacroix was just one of many artists who were known to employ mummy-based paint in their works. I particularly enjoyed a recounting of this by Rudyard Kipling concerning his uncle, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Kipling wrote in his autobiography that he witnessed his uncle come running out of the house one day, horrified, and insisting that they inter his tube of “Brown Mummy” paint in the garden. This was because “he had discovered it was made of dead Pharaohs, and we must bury it accordingly.”

Truthfully, there are all sorts of dead things in much of the Ancient and Old Master art that we can still see today. The best purple, for example, came from the mucus of sea snails raised in Ancient Phoenicia. One of the most popular sources for red was made from ground up scale insects, i.e., parasitic creatures that live on trees. Fish were fermented and turned into glue, in order to help pigments adhere to the beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages; the pigments themselves were made from things like cuttlefish ink or ground-up animal bones. The powdered form of these materials were sometimes bound together using earwax or urine, while the pages were often made out of animal skins. However when it comes to what we might call the “ick” factor, “Mummy Brown” certainly takes the cake.

Over time, many of these biologically-based hues, such as “Mummy Brown”, faded more quickly than those derived from mineral sources. As a result, they have mostly fallen out of favor among artists working today. But the next time you are looking at a painting in a museum, take a moment to reflect on how that work of art came to be in the first place. It may well be that your long-vanished ancestors played a far greater part in its creation than you previously realized.