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:

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.

Dali

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.

Haiti

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.

Restore

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.

Caracalla

Joy to the World: Scott Hahn and the Substance of Christmas

[I’m honored to be part of the blog tour for Dr. Scott Hahn’s latest offering, “Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does)”, published by Image Books. Be sure to check out the other reviewers’ thoughts as well.]

In the first chapter of Joy to the World, well-known Catholic apologist and scholar Dr. Scott Hahn presents us with a scene of family life which many of us will find familiar. Tired and worn out as a result of being dragged from church to church, Hahn’s daughter has had just about enough for her 12-year-old sense of patience. Yet when she is given the chance to be of service to someone else, in a way which she did not expect, and which involves a precious baby, everything changes. Of course, in the book, this is taking place not in some American suburb, but in Bethlehem; just as the light clicks on for those of us who are familiar with the Nativity story, so too does the light click on for Dr. Hahn as he and his daughter pause in their Holy Land pilgrimage.

With that very effective hook, Dr. Hahn takes the reader on a journey through thousands of years of salvation history. In “Joy to the World” we meet many characters, whether they are ancient Hebrew Patriarch, Judean client-king, or mysterious Persian magus. Here, Hahn successfully manages to balance between penning a popular reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus, and a scholarly work with concepts and references which reveal connections hitherto unknown to those outside of serious Biblical studies.

Take for example a section in the book in which Dr. Hahn points out three possible interpretations as to why St. Joseph, as described in St. Matthew’s Gospel, decided to quietly divorce the Virgin Mary. There is the theory which I suspect many of us probably adhere to, which is that being a just man, he didn’t want to see his young bethrothed stoned to death, and so acted out of pity. Another is that he was so perplexed by the situation given what he knew of Mary, that he didn’t want to be a part of it. And then there is the theory that when St. Joseph realized Whose Child the Virgin Mary would be bearing, he did not consider himself worthy to take on the role of caring for the Messiah.  The reader can decide for himself which theory he believes, but explorations like this fill “Joy to the World” and make it an extremely interesting survey of some of the fascinating areas which scholars delve into in trying to understand the Nativity.

Dr. Hahn similarly takes an entire chapter to lay out the political situation in Judea at the time of the birth of Christ. As one might expect, he explains how King Herod the Great came to the throne, and the horrors that the monarch got up to in order to preserve his place. Yet Hahn also weaves in the threads of prophecy regarding Herod’s lineage, as well as other, false Messiahs that popped up before and after Jesus, and the sense even in Rome at the time that something was about to happen to the ancient world, changing it forever.

By no means is this relatively short book an attempt to completely catalogue all of Biblical scholarship concerning the Birth of Jesus.  Rather, it is a companion for meditation, and a resource for further study, thanks to the selection of endnote materials which give the reader the opportunity to further explore some of the ideas covered by Dr. Hahn in the book.  As such, I can see it making a wonderful gift for someone who is interested in getting deeper into the study of their faith, or even for someone who isn’t quite sure what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the nature and origin of Jesus.

And indeed the idea of “family” is something which Dr. Hahn returns to again and again, not only exploring the dynamics of the relationships between Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but also using this model as a way to, by extension, explore the nature of our relationship with God.  As His adopted sons and daughters, we are part of His family as well, if we choose to accept his invitation.

For me the takeaway from this book is something more than simply interesting factoids about the Birth of Jesus, and more in the realm of  “substance”. The familiar persons from the Nativity can often seem to be little more than bits of chalkware plaster that we take out of a box from the cupboard and unwrap from their newspaper shrouds, where they lay hidden for most of the year. They present various poses to us, but at times they can seem to be little more than figures in a pantomime, if we do not consider the risks they took, and the changes they underwent, often in defiance of the conventions of their times, to bear witness to the Gospel.

What Dr. Hahn gives us are not pretty, glossy cardboard cutouts, but real individuals, insofar as we can know what we do about them. The shepherds smell; they are not welcome in their community, thanks to the dirty jobs they have to do. The magi are not simply fortune tellers or astrologers, they are actually feared by the Roman Empire because of the huge societal influence they hold over the people of the Near East. Even the angels are not just ethereal figures with tresses of Breck-girl hair, they are powerful beings who help shape the course of human history as they do God’s Will.

There are many books available for spiritual reading on the subject of the Birth of Christ. Adding this one to your list this Advent and Christmas will bring a renewed sense of the truly astonishing premise of the Incarnation: that God would humble himself to be born as a human being, into an existing human family, at a particular time and place in history. No wonder, then, that ever since that birth, we have reckoned our days from it.

Cover

“The American Catholic Almanac”: Four Centuries of Incredible Stories

I’m honored to be the next stop on the blog tour for the new book, “The American Catholic Almanac” by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson, which was just published by Image.  If you’re a Catholic interested in learning about the contributions of your brothers and sisters in the Faith to the building up of this country, you need a copy of this book.  If you’re not a Catholic, but appreciate the huge sweep of American history and cultural life, you also need a copy of this book.  For Catholics, as it turns out, have had a far earlier, deeper, and more lasting impact on this country than many of us were taught in school.

Given that I live in Washington, DC and often write about architecture and design on this blog, I wanted to take one example from the “Almanac” as an example of the wealth of fascinating material in this book.  The name James Hoban may be known to you from pub quiz trivia – or indeed, from the pub named after him in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of the Nation’s Capital – as the architect who designed the White House.  What may not be known to you is the fact that Hoban was a devout Catholic.

In the “Almanac” the authors detail how Hoban, the son of a poor tenant farmer in Ireland, managed through talent, hard work, and being in the right place at the right time to land what even today would still be considered the most prestigious of all home design competitions in America.  His chance meeting with George Washington in South Carolina led to a prosperous career, where Hoban not only built the White House, but was one of the principal architects working on the Capitol, as well as designing homes, churches, banks, and hotels around DC and for other parts of the young country.

Perhaps Hoban’s most famous commission apart from the White House was the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, which was burned to the ground by Sherman during the Civil War.  Fortunately, his elegant County Court House in Charleston still stands.  That said, even the White House did not escape the meddling of others, for Thomas Jefferson, who had himself entered the competition to design the President’s House and lost to Hoban, modified a number of Hoban’s designs when he moved into the Executive Mansion. Ironically, as the authors point out in the “Almanac”, Hoban later had a second crack at the White House, which is why their entry about him appears on August 24th.

During the War of 1812, the British invaded Washington and burned the Capitol, the White House, and many other buildings on August 24, 1814,  When reconstruction began, then-President James Madison approached the now 64-year-old Hoban and asked if he would supervise the residence’s rebuilding and restoration.  “Proving himself a more gracious loser than Jefferson,” the authors write, “Hoban replicated the third president’s modifications in his restoration.”  Given Jefferson’s tendency toward the experimental, which was not always successful, this was a true mark of respect, indeed.

For Catholics across the Capital City, Hoban’s efforts remain a visible reminder of his legacy to this city and the country, even when the buildings themselves were later replaced.  From Georgetown University to St. Patrick’s in the heart of downtown to St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill, the communities that still support these institutions owe a tremendous debt of thanks to Hoban for helping to make the Catholic presence in Washington a visible and lasting one.  He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery here in DC, overlooking the city which he helped turn from a dream of the Founding Fathers into a reality.

The entry on James Hoban is just one of the stories contained in the “Almanac”, one for every day of the year.  There is such a wealth of material, that it is hard to imagine the sheer amount of work that went into this volume.  Spanning over 400 years of history, the “Almanac” provides daily reading on the lives of Catholic men and women, both Americans and those with an important tie to America, as well as non-Catholics who made an impact on the lives of American Catholics.  Often, the stories contained in these pages may come as a complete surprise to the reader.

For example, the original Mary “Mother” Jones, after whom the famous left-wing magazine is named, was a devout, pro-life Catholic, who thought mothers ought to stay at home and raise their children rather than work.  Joseph Warren Revere, the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere and himself a celebrated hero of the Civil War, converted to Catholicism as an adult, much to the surprise of his New England family.  So too did Fanny Allen, daughter of the very anti-clerical Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen; she actually went one step further and became a nun.

Athletes, criminals, entertainers, politicians, writers, and yes, clergy and religious fill the pages of the “Almanac”.  Some of these individuals were pious believers, and some of them were absolute scoundrels. And yet we would not have the America we know today without them.

Catholics have been part of the story of America from the very beginning.  This book is not only proof of that fact, but provides that proof in an engaging, well-researched, but never heavy style, making it easy to read cover to cover, or to pick up and put down as the mood takes you.  It will also provide, particularly for educators, writers, and politicos, a picture of just how significant the Catholic contribution to this country has been in the past, and will continue to be into the future.

Whether for those new to American history, or for those who think they already know it well, there is much to savor and enjoy here, at any level: in fact, I already know which college professor friend I’m giving a copy to for Christmas.

American Catholic Almanac