Hooray For Hermits: Art Celebrating The Eremitic Life

While many subjects depicted by the Old Masters portray events from long-ago days, or people engaged in activities which seem incredibly remote to contemporary eyes, there is one area of human endeavor as depicted in the arts which has changed very little over the last 2,000 years: eremitic life. In Christian practice an eremitic (or “hermit” as we usually call them) is someone who has chosen to remove themselves from the world, in order to deepen their spiritual life and their relationship with God. The solitary aspects of their lives have fascinated artists for centuries, but such lifestyles are not a thing of the past. In fact, many hermits still live among us today.

As regular readers know, for several years now I’ve served on the Board of the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, which support the establishment of a permanent hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. At the moment we’re still raising funds for the actual hermitage, but we do have a hermit: our dear Franciscan friend, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, who is also the Chaplain of the Coming Home Network International. Brother Rex was recently interviewed by the Catholic News Agency, and I think you’ll enjoy the article – and not just for the great picture of him with a chicken.


People are often surprised to learn that, yes, there are still hermits among us in this day and age, including right here in the United States. As Brother Rex mentions in the article, he’s aware of a half-dozen or so just in Maine alone! The degree to which those called to this intense form of spiritual life interact with the world depends on various factors, such as the particular religious order which they join. There are, for example, men and women religious who live in solitude, like the wonderful Sister Veronica Paul – whom you should follow on Twitter along with Brother Rex, even if you don’t belong to any particular form of religion – who still manage to engage with the rest of us for periods of time before returning to their solitude.

In art history, there are many depictions of Christians who chose to follow the path to eremitic life. Sometimes these men and women lived in their form of isolation for their entire adult lives, while others did so only for a period of time. The degree to which they removed themselves from day-to-day concerns, and how they chose to live out their vocations, can vary greatly.

A typical example of what most of us think of, when we hear the word, “hermit”, is this work from 1670 by the Dutch Baroque artist, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), now in the National Gallery here in Washington. In it, we see an anonymous Franciscan hermit on his knees at prayer, meditating on a crucifix amidst the ruins where he has chosen to live. Dou was one of the most successful Dutch painters of the second half of the 17th century, and toward the end of his career he seems to have become somewhat enthralled by the subject of the eremitic life, for there are several other works by him depicting hermits “in action” as it were, such as this example at the MIA in Minneapolis and another at the Wallace Collection in London.

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Among the more famous women in history who lived the eremitic life is St. Mary of Egypt. (c.344-421), who simultaneously felt drawn to changing her way of life and indulging her love of sex. In fact, she is said to have made her way on pilgrimage from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to Jerusalem by offering her services to others who were traveling to the Holy City as well. There, she underwent a conversion experience, and retired to the deserts in what is now modern Jordan, to spend her life in solitary fasting and prayer.

Although also revered in the West, she is particularly admired in the East. Icons such as this one, recounting the story of her life, have always been very popular in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. She has also, albeit less frequently, been the subject of Western art, such as in this copy of a 15th century Gothic sculpture at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris (the original is preserved inside the church), or in this c. 1660 painting by the Spanish Baroque artist José Claudio Antolinez (1635-1675), now in – ironically enough – the collection of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.


To close however, I want to show an example of a scene that is touching but rare in Western art. It is said that Zosimus, a monk living near the Jordan River, used to take time to wander the Judean desert by himself for 40 days during Lent. One day he stumbled across St. Mary of Egypt, who was living in a cave, and she told him her life story. She asked him to return the following year on Holy Thursday, so that she might receive the Eucharist, and he promised to do so; the painting below, by a follower of the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) depicts that return visit the following year. When Zosimus returned to bring St. Mary communion the next year, he discovered that she had died in her cave, so he went about giving her a Christian burial.


Perhaps the takeaway here is that, like all hermits who came before and after her, even though this woman gave up everything to follow her call to the eremitic life, at the end of her earthly life she lacked for nothing. We are lucky, gentle reader, that such individuals still live among us, to advocate on our behalf, and that of the whole world. Please support them, as you are able.


The Courtier In The Federalist: “Jacob And His Twelve Sons” @ The Frick

My latest for The Federalist is out this morning, reviewing the terrific exhibition “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle” now at The Frick Collection. If you have the chance to get to New York between now and the closing of the show on April 22nd, it’s well worth your time, as I explain in the article. My thanks as always to my (very patient) editor Joy Pullman, who somehow manages to condense my excessive art history verbiage into something readable.


Forgotten Painting, Forgotten Genre

Recently, news that a major work by a Spanish Baroque painter has been on display at Hearst Castle for almost a century without being identified caught my interest. The giant altarpiece by Bartolomé Pérez de la Dehesa (c. 1634-1698), depicting the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary (Gospel of St. Luke 1:26-38), was painted in 1690, and has hung on the wall of the Assembly Room of Hearst’s atrocious country house in San Simeon, California since it was acquired from a Los Angeles art dealer back in 1927. As you probably know, the utterly repulsive William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was not only a publisher and a Congressman, but an art hoarder of the first order. From paintings and sculpture, to furniture, ceramics, and even entire cloisters, he bought anything and everything that wasn’t tied down. Nevertheless, it seems incredible that such a major work, particularly one which is so enormous and which, as it turns out, is both signed and dated, went unidentified for so long.


The work is particularly rare because compositions of this size are unusual for Pérez. He was one of the royal painters to Carlos II (1661-1700), the last Habsburg king of Spain, and a second-tier painter of the Spanish Golden Age. He isn’t a household name like El Greco (1541-1614) or Velázquez (1599-1660), which is partly to do with the fact that his compositions seem to be more highly decorative than they are particularly original. In fact, he is best known for creating highly decorative images in which religious figures are shown surrounded by lush garlands of flowers – as in this example depicting St. Teresa of Ávila – but there is more at work in such pictures than meets the eye.


This mixing of still life and religious painting was not new by the time Pérez began to produce these works, but it became his specialty even as it fell out of fashion. The genre, usually referred to as “garland paintings”, began when Jan Breughel the Elder (1568-1625) and Hendrick van Balen (1575-1632) created an image of the Madonna and Child surrounded by a garland of spring flowers for Federico Cardinal Borromeo of Milan in about 1608, shown below. It was a painted representation of the way in which the devout would traditionally decorate a religious image in their home or local parish during Eastertide or other Feasts of the Church, but had the benefit of the lush displays of flowers, fruit, and greenery not having to be thrown out.


Cardinal Borromeo saw this new type of image as a response to the iconoclasm of the Protestants, who by this point had been destroying works of art for decades, as well as banning pious practices such as processions, the decoration of churches with flowers, and so on. Because these types of pictures were both highly decorative as well as spiritually symbolic, they could fit into either an ecclesiastical or a household setting. In this example painted for a private home and dating from about 1621, Brueghel, working in collaboration with Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), painted the still life elements, while the latter painted the figures. Interestingly, some experts believe that the model for the Virgin Mary is Rubens’ first wife Isabella Brant, which I can believe, and that the Christ Child is Breughel’s son, the future artist Jan Breughel the Younger, although in my opinion the latter suggestion seems a bit off for the timeline of that artist’s life.


By the second half of the 17th century, this “garland painting” style was no longer as fashionable elsewhere in Europe, but Pérez continued to receive commissions to paint them. The image of St. Teresa shown earlier was one of a series which he completed between about 1675-1680 for the Franciscan convent of San Diego in Alcalá de Henares, which is fairly late for this genre. All of the paintings depicted Spanish Counter Reformation saints who had recently been canonized, including St. Teresa of Ávila, her friend and fellow Descalced Carmelite St. John of the Cross, the Jesuits St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Borgia, and others, and in that sense their depiction inside of garlands, in a genre that had Counter Reformation origins decades earlier, is not surprising.

Since most of Pérez’ surviving work is in the form of garland paintings or still lifes, the rare canvas from Hearst Castle is all the more valuable for understanding his development as an artist. I confess that I don’t find it to be a particularly great image, since the artist’s skills clearly lay more in depicting the realm of the floral than in the human. Nevertheless, it is a major discovery and will provide art historians with a wealth of new material to investigate for years to come.