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.

M36028-15 002

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.

Untitled

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

 

 

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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.

Pooping on Paganism: A Remarkable Find in Ancient Israel

The ancient site of Tel Lachish is now a ruin, but in its day the city of Lachish was almost as large as Jerusalem. Lachish is mentioned throughout the Bible, including in the Books of Joshua, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Chronicles II, Kings II, Micah, and Nehemiah. Outside of the Hebrew Scriptures, Lachish was also a familiar place to other ancient cultures. The capture and destruction of the city is recounted on the walls of the palace of King Sennacherib, in the ancient Assyrian capital city of Nineveh. It also appears in the so-called “Amarna Letters”, a group of tablets containing diplomatic correspondence found at Amarna, which was briefly the capital city of Egypt under the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten. Lachish was destroyed and rebuilt many times, until it was finally abandoned sometime during the reign of Alexander the Great.

During the reign of King Hezekiah, we read in the Second Book of Kings that:

In the third year of Hoshea, son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah, became king…He did what was right in the LORD’s sight, just as David his father had done.  It was he who removed the high places, shattered the pillars, cut down the [pagan] sacred poles…He put his trust in the LORD, the God of Israel; and neither before nor after him was there anyone like him among all the kings of Judah.
(2 Kings 18:1, 3-4)

Archaeologists excavating at Tel Lachish have recently uncovered a gate-shrine in the ancient city, and you can see a video about the dig here. Inside of the city gate was a pagan shrine, containing two altars as well as numerous offering vessels. At some point in the ancient past, the pointed, horn-like corners of the altars were deliberately smashed off. In addition, a rather grand toilet had been installed smack in the middle of the space. This is a particularly interesting find, because it is very similar to what the Bible describes in 2 Kings 10:27.

About a century before King Hezekiah ruled in Judah, King Jehu of the northern kingdom of Israel, went after the cult of the pagan god Ba’al. He smashed the shrines to Ba’al, and then installed toilets in them so that these places would remain permanently unclean. This is the first time that archeological evidence of this practice has been found. It would not be surprising then that King Hezekiah, in his zeal to stamp out paganism in Judah, would take the same steps as King Jehu had taken in Israel.

In essence, these Jewish kings were telling the pagans: “I poop on your false god.”

Proving or disproving the historicity of events recounted in the Bible is a fruitless exercise. The Tel Lachish excavation simply indicates that the events recounted in the Bible have some basis in fact – they do not turn the Bible into a history textbook. More importantly, and this is the real takeaway here, the find paints a rather vivid picture of the ancient struggle between Judaism and paganism in the Holy Land as something palpable and quite real.