Art News Roundup: The Anteater of His Majesty Edition

As you might expect, the right-click Google Image Search function is a boon to art collectors and commentators, when we’re attempting to identify a picture that we think we’ve seen before, but aren’t exactly sure where. I was recently looking at an online auction catalog listing of a painting that’s coming up for sale, and it reminded me of something else, but I couldn’t place what about it was familiar. On a number of occasions, the search function has helped me to identify a piece, particularly when I have a notion that I’ve previously seen it, or something like it, which helps both my writing and my acquisition decision-making process. Yet another fun aspect of this function is the fact that it can lead to some interesting side trips down the digital rabbit hole.

As I was scrolling through the search results, I came across a rather unusual Old Master painting of an anteater:


The image was embedded in this 2011 online story, about how this painting in the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid may well be by the great Spanish artist, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

In July 1776, as certain events were occurring elsewhere, King Carlos III of Spain inaugurated the Museum, and was presented with an anteater as a gift from the people of Buenos Aires. It survived its trip across the Atlantic from Argentina to Spain, and the king, no looker himself, fell in love with the strange-looking animal. Initially, the king kept the anteater in the Palacio de Oriente, the principal royal palace in Madrid, and it is hilarious to imagine His Most Catholic Majesty taking it for walks down long, marble corridors, covered with canvases by Titian and Velázquez, and frescoed with ceilings by Tiepolo.

For reasons which one can only imagine, the king eventually ordered that the anteater be moved to the Buen Retiro, a large park in downtown Madrid, where there was already a royal menagerie. “Unfortunately,” as historian Ana Mozo explains in this article [translation mine], “the animal arrived in July and died in January, probably because of the lack of ants.” While this was a sad ending to quite an unusual adventure, the animal itself was immortalized by order of the king himself.

“The Anteater of His Majesty” is not only a magnificent work of art, by one of the most important Spanish artists in history, but there is also something wonderfully eccentric, bordering on the surreal, about this entire episode and indeed the painting. As it happens, Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) also had a pet anteater at one time, and there is a very famous photograph of him from 1969, taking it for a walk in the streets of Paris. I suspect that Dalí, who studied art in Madrid and was a staunch monarchist, was probably aware of the royal anteater, but I leave that question to those with greater knowledge than I currently possess.


And now, on to some art headlines.

Henri I in Haiti

Continuing in the, “Wow, I’ve never heard of that before,” vein, I was intrigued by this review in the Art Newspaper of a new book chronicling the architecture sponsored by Henri Christophe (1767-1820), a former African slave who, in 1811, was crowned King of Haiti. During his reign, Henri I built a number of massive buildings across the island, most of which have now disappeared. However, the ruins of his Sans-Souci Palace, shown below, are an extraordinary example of what he was able to accomplish on an architectural level in a comparatively brief period of time. This seems like quite a fascinating subject for armchair architectural historians such as this scrivener, and definitely worth exploring.


Emerging in Edinburgh

In one of the stranger vicissitudes of history, an 18th century Anglican church in Edinburgh, which later became a Presbyterian church, before ending up as a Catholic Church about 150 years ago, is now undergoing a major art restoration project as a result of a significant discovery. As Bendor Grosvenor details here, when the Calvinists took over the building they whitewashed over the 1774 murals of the Ascension by Alexander Runciman (1736-1785) that decorated the walls, but Scottish art historian Duncan MacMillan had a hunch that the paintings were still there. Lo and behold, he was correct, and restoration work is currently underway. Some interesting links are embedded in this piece, but ignore the joke about Pope Clement VIII, since we should all thank His Holiness for endorsing the drinking of coffee.


Fascinating in Florence

The Uffizi Gallery, the most important art museum in Florence, has just released a terrific online resource for those interested in sculpture, archaeology, and architectural design. Indiana University here in the U.S. has been working with the museum to digitize its entire collection of Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture as 3D images, a project which the research team estimates that they will be able to complete by 2020. It’s already possible right now to see 3D scans of a number of objects owned by the Uffizi, such as this bust of the Emperor Caracalla, as well as a host of sculptures and architectural elements that are not currently on public view.


Looking Great After You’re Dead

Today is Ascension Thursday, when the Church commemorates Christ’s return to Heaven 40 days after His Resurrection, and awaits His return for the Last Judgment at the end of time.  So this is a good opportunity for us to think a bit about what we’re going to look like, when that day comes.  Are we going to have all our real or imagined physical flaws corrected?

For those unfamiliar with the belief in the resurrection of all the dead, this is not a zombie apocalypse theory.  It’s actually a core Christian belief, one which was dividing the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, between Pharisees who professed it and Sadducees who dismissed it.  The idea is, all the dead are raised and given perfected bodies of some sort, and everyone undergoes the Last Judgment, after which some go to Heaven, and some to Hell.

A few spiritual thinkers suggest that when the day arrives and the dead come back, we’re going to end up looking about what we were like around our “Jesus year”, i.e. 33 years old, the approximate age Christ was when He rose from the dead.  I can see how for a lot of people that’s not a bad place to be, particularly if you’re freed from any illnesses or conditions that might have caused you pain at that age.  At 33 you can still be as active as you would like, but you are less reckless or careless about it than you were at 23.

However there’s also the issue of perfectionism when it comes to a resurrected body, which I wonder how God is going to take care of.  Do we get to have that face or body we’ve always wanted? Is God going to treat us like a piece of claymation, making us look any way we’d like, so that we can be “happy” about our appearance? What will make us happy about the way we look, if we’re being given eternal life and eternal bodies to go with it?

Truthfully, we don’t know for sure what we’ll look like, other than some hints we might glean from the Gospels about Christ’s appearance to the disciples after His Resurrection.  For example, we know that He could enjoy material things if He chose, for when He appears to the Apostles in the Upper Room he eats some fish they give Him, to prove He’s not a ghost.  Later still, Jesus even cooks the Apostles a hearty breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  (Perhaps this means God will allow us to have bacon in eternity, but we shall have to wait and see.)

For the Christian, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with imagining, every now and then, what it’s going to be like if we make it to Heaven.  It’s only natural that we will wonder about what we’ll look like, or what we’ll be able to do once we get there.  Yet at the same time, the focus and the goal must always remain on doing what we need to do to get ourselves right on the inside, worrying less about the outside, in order to reach that eternal destination.  God’s not going to care how many beauty pageants you won or how many pounds you could bench, if you never bothered to follow the Commandments He left you to live by.

In the end I suspect that, if and when we get there, how we look will be little more than an afterthought.  We’ll be so unconcerned with our BMI, our wardrobe, our hair, and so on, that all of these concerns about perfecting our appearance will seem to have been little more than a colossal waste of time and resources.  Oh in the meantime I’m still going to comb my hair and pick out snazzy argyle socks, of course, but if I make it upstairs at the end of this life, I for one am really, really looking forward to never ironing again.

"The Resurrection of the Dead" by Luca Signorelli (1502) Duomo, Orvieto, Italy

“The Resurrection of the Dead” by Luca Signorelli (1502)
Duomo, Orvieto, Italy


Ascension Thursday: Not At Mass (Again)

In theory, I am obligated to go to mass today to mark one of the most important feasts of the Church year.  In practice, as I am a member of an Archdiocese which values personal convenience over self-sacrifice, I am not so obligated. Once again, those of us in Washington and in many other dioceses around the country are having to obey bishops who have a low opinion of our ability to devotedly follow the rules of the Church.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension, a holy day of obligation for Catholics to mark when Christ returned to His Father in Heaven 40 days after Easter. St. Luke tells us:

Then He led them as far as Bethany, raised His hands, and blessed them. As He blessed them He parted from them and was taken up to heaven.They did Him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.

St. Luke 24: 50-53

Normally Ascension Thursday is a holy day of obligation for Catholics to attend mass.  However, the American bishops in their continued poor judgement have allowed individual dioceses (if they wish) to transfer this Feast to the following Sunday.  Thus, here in the Archdiocese of Washington, today is not a holy day of obligation, whereas it remains a holy day of obligation in the Archdiocese of New York.

Regular readers know that I have complained about this inconsistency before, in the context of other holy days.  To date, I have yet to see a single bishop give a reasonable justification for this policy, particularly in a diocese such as mine where there are plenty of parishes, priests, and means of transportation. Is it so much more difficult a prospect to require the faithful to attend mass in D.C. on a Thursday than it is in Manhattan?

Back home at the church connected with my old primary school, there is a gigantic 19th century Gothic Revival stained-glass window from Innsbruck, depicting the Ascension of Christ into Heaven.  The image, which features the Apostles and the Blessed Mother with various expressions of astonishment, shows Jesus dressed in white, and sporting a spectacular halo composed of rays of light as He rises into the clouds.  It had and continues to have a profound and lasting impact on my own mental image of the event when I reflect on it, such as when praying the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary.

However, a somewhat unusual image by the great Flemish painter Hans Memling (1440-1494) may be the more all-too-appropriately symbolic of the attitude of the present crop of American bishops to the question of holy days of obligation such as this.  In his late “Triptych of the Resurrection” of c. 1485-1490 now in the Louvre, the central panel shows the Resurrection of Jesus, the left panel the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, and the right panel depicts the Ascension of Christ.  In this latter image, the Virgin Mary and the Apostles are gathered around in a compact group, due to the narrowness of the side panel, and watch in awe as Jesus ascends into Heaven.

Unlike the stained glass window at my old school however, Jesus is shown as almost already vanished.  All we can see are His feet, and the lower part of the dark robe He is wearing.  In film language, he is almost out of frame.

Similarly, with all apologies to Memling, moving the Feast of the Ascension to a Sunday – when Catholics must go to mass anyway – takes the focus off of Christ and fixates on material, human considerations. The First Precept of the Church is for the faithful to attend mass on all Sundays and Holy Days.  By moving a Holy Day to a Sunday for the sake of convenience or low mass attendance figures,  the bishops effectively divide the community of the Church into two camps: those willing and able to make the effort to get to mass, and those who are not. This is worse than low mass attendance, for people who cannot attend mass on a holy day or Sunday due to circumstances beyond their control and despite their desire to get to mass, are excused from their obligation.

All of that being said, in the end one must obediently follow the rule of one’s bishop.  And of course I will do so, and mark the Ascension this coming Sunday along with the rest of the Archdiocese – when, in fact, I will be serving as a lector at mass.  That does not mean I will refrain from complaining about this logical inconsistency on the part of the bishops’ conference. I will simply have to take the long view and wait until priests presently in their 30s and 40s become bishops, take over the USCCB, and adopt reason once again with respect to the issue of the celebration of Christ’s Ascension.

Detail from “The Ascension” by Hans Memling (c. 1485-1490)
Musée du Louvre, Paris