Why Are You Here? Christie’s Auction And Da Vinci’s Christ

Pretty much everyone in the art world will be holding their breath tomorrow night, as Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” hits the auction block in New York.

There’s been a great deal of debate about how a Catholic devotional painting by *THE* Old Master painter of all Old Master painters is going to do at an auction which is primarily focused on Modern and Contemporary Art. Instead of putting the picture in a sale with paintings by other, pre-Modern artists, as would normally be the case, Christie’s took the unusual step of including the painting in an evening event with works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol, among others. Putting a panel by the greatest painter of the Italian Renaissance alongside the other works in this sale is certainly risky from a business standpoint, which is one reason why Christie’s decided to take the painting on tour prior to tomorrow night’s sale.

Christies

As part of its marketing campaign, Christie’s created a video which is by turns both simple and complex, manipulative and disarming. If you’ve not seen it yet, go take a look at it before continuing with this post. It’s fairly short, and definitely worth your time.

There are different ways that we could look at this ad.

One take would be that this is both a highly staged and highly manipulative advert. Some of the reactions seem forced, and it’s particularly telling that we never see the viewers from the back, standing in front of the picture. Even more interestingly, even though the video is a bit over 4 minutes long, we’re never actually shown the painting – not even a tiny detail of it. The viewer keeps waiting for that payoff, but it never comes.

Cynically, we could dismiss this as being further proof that the art world isn’t really interested in the quality or the subject matter of the paintings it sells. Rather, Christie’s is simply adding to the feeding frenzy of society’s current obsession with self-reference, in order to increase the final sales price for this picture and thereby its own commission percentage. But as is often the case with work produced by those who have no great love for Christianity, people of faith can look at this ad in a different way.

We can’t know what all of the people that we see in this ad were thinking about at the time they were filmed. No doubt most of them were simply curious to see a Da Vinci which they had never seen before, in a kind of been-there/done-that fashion. Others in the film are artists, art collectors (Leonardo Di Caprio, for one), and historians, who can look at the picture in a somewhat different way, noticing elements of iconography or technique.

Yet beyond simply recording the reactions of curiosity seekers and the art aficionados, I wonder whether we don’t see something else here, as well. For my bet is, that at least a couple of these people are experiencing one of those moments which comes, not from mere temporal appreciation of others’ outstanding achievements, but in seeing something that transcends the material. Such moments in life, when we’re suspended outside of our linear path, are rare occurrences, and when they do occur they both enthrall and disturb us at a very deep level.

I make this observation because, putting aside the more obvious reaction of one elderly lady who weeps before it, at least a few of the people seem unable to look at the painting straight on. Instead, they turn themselves partly away from it, tilt their heads, and look at it almost out of the corners of their eyes. This seems a very curious reaction, because the picture itself is so stark and unavoidably face on: we see only a single, still figure gazing out at us from a dark background.

In fact, the image’s very stillness, and the reaction of at least some of those whom we see in this video to that stillness, puts me in mind of the Prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13:

Then the Lord said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord – but the Lord was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire – but the Lord was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, Why are you here, Elijah?

On a more pop culture level, it’s also a bit like the scene in the film version of “The Lord of the Rings”, when the Fellowship of the Ring arrives at Lothlorien after the loss of Gandalf, and they meet with the Lady Galadriel. There’s a moment in which Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gazes piercingly and unflinchingly into the eyes of Boromir (Sean Bean), to such an extent that he becomes deeply perturbed and cannot look her in the face. She sees what is going on in his heart, and he cannot escape from that exposure of his own selfishness.

Perhaps without intending to do so, Christie’s has created an ad that could be run as a better marketing campaign for the Church than most of those which we see today. Who or what are all of these very different people seeking? And how would each of us answer that same question? To quote Christ Himself, “And you, who do you say that I am?”

If Da Vinci’s painting, half a millennia after it was created, can still provoke such questions in people, even in its somewhat dilapidated state, then this is quite a powerful and invaluable work of art indeed, whatever the final hammer price tomorrow night.

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Thought-Pourri: More Art And Architecture Stories For Your Perusal

Since I had positive reaction to last week’s round-up of interesting stories from the art and design world, I thought I’d try it again and see what my readers think of making this a regular feature of the blog. So here goes:

Barely-Known Birley

If you’ve ever watched an episode of the original, UK version of “Antiques Roadshow”, you’re familiar with Philip Mould, an art dealer who has managed to turn his expert eye for rediscovering important or overlooked old pictures with a successful media career. Recently his London gallery finished a show on the work of society painter Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952), who was immensely popular with the American and British well-to-do during his lifetime, but has fallen into semi-obscurity since his death. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Birley should be mentioned in the same breath as other important society painters from the first half of the 20th century. Many of his works are certainly interesting, however I’m not quite sure that I’d consider him in the same league as John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, or Anders Zorn: you be the judge.

Birley

Light In Leeds

A bit further north, visitors to the Leeds Art Gallery, which is set to reopen today, will be able to visit a “lost” classical architectural space that had been forgotten about for decades. Workers doing demo work at the museum, which first opened in 1880 but has been closed for renovations since 2016, were surprised to find that when they took down a 1960’s drop ceiling, a glass-roofed, barrel-vaulted ceiling soared overhead. The end result belies the often-repeated canard that Victorian architects were only interested in dark, fussy interiors, since this space by Scottish architect George Corson (1829-1910) could not be more bright and classically inspired.

Leeds.jpg

Tanner’s Tones

The work of African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) is probably known to at least some of my readers, particularly his very popular “The Annunciation” (1898) now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tanner, the son of a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a runaway slave, painted many Biblical works infused with details from his travels in the Holy Land. He is known to have created about a dozen different depictions of “The Flight Into Egypt”, one of which was just sold at Swann’s in New York for $341,000. Tanner’s fixation on this theme stems in part from his own family’s experiences of flight and persecution, which were mirrored in the experiences of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in St. Matthew’s Gospel account, but what really sets these nighttime scenes apart from a technical standpoint is his use of truly sumptuous blues and greens that dominate the paintings, which almost seem to dematerialize before our eyes.

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More MFA

This week the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston announced the largest single bequest of European paintings to its permanent collection in the institution’s nearly 150 year-history. The van Otterloo and Weatherbie families, Boston-based art collectors, have promised a total of 113 Dutch and Flemish works to the museum, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and many others. Along with this enormous gift, the collectors are establishing a Center for Netherlandish Art at the MFA, which will be the first of its kind in the US, and dedicated to fostering greater collaborative research and scholarship in this area. Among the numerous works now entering the MFA, Willem Kalf’s “Still Life with a Peeled Lemon” (1664) caught my eye, particularly the juxtapositions of blue and orange that one sees in the fruit, bowl, and carpet.

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Florentines In Bavaria

In conjunction with a new exhibition and accompanying catalogue, Munich’s Alte Pinakothek has just completed restoration of Botticelli’s enormous altarpiece, “The Lamentation of Christ” (c. 1492), as part of “Florence and Its Painters: From Giotto To Leonardo Da Vinci”, which opens at the venerable art museum on October 18th. The picture was originally created for the somewhat forgotten and forlorn 1,000 year-old Church of San Paolino in Florence, which at various times was used by the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites, before becoming State property. In addition to undergoing restoration, the Boticelli altarpiece, as well as dozens of other works by artists such as Da Vinci, Raphael, and others, has been newly photographed and studied for the exhibition, using the latest technological methods and research. If you happen to find yourself in Munich in the next couple of months, this is definitely a show to check out.

Boticelli

 

 

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.