Thought-Pourri: Get Back Into It Edition

Although I’ve been back from Spain – and England, unintentionally (more on that in a minute) – for over a week now, I’ve been laid up with the worst flu I’ve ever experienced. Hence, it’s taken a bit longer than anticipated to start blogging again. So I hope, gentle reader, that you’ll forgive my silence up until now.

I had a wonderful time in Madrid and Barcelona, which has given me some fodder for some upcoming posts. All went very well until it was time to head back, and due to a combination of airlines and airport factors I missed my connecting flight in Heathrow. The Dante-like experience of getting rebooked for the following afternoon was something which I prefer not to recount. As a result, after a 15 year absence from England, I spent the night in a hotel near the airport, and although I could have gone into the city to see friends, I was so wiped out from the experience that I just vegetated in my room.

On the flight back to DC the following afternoon, I was treated to a plane full of people coughing their brains out and complaining of flu-like symptoms. Whether I picked it up from them, or from my similarly afflicted relatives in Spain – where the news was reporting nightly on a pandemic of “Australian flu” throughout the country – upon my return to the States I ended up trapped in bed for a week, apart from a couple of medical visits where I was warned to isolate myself due to my being “extremely contagious.” I’m still not completely okay, but at least am well enough to share some news with my readers. Don’t worry: this particular form of plague cannot be transmitted via reading a blog post, or so I am led to believe.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

Get A Head

Saint Aredius (or St. Yrieix, as he is more commonly known in France) lived in the 6th century A.D., and served as the first Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery which he founded in the town of Attanum, about 30 miles outside of Limoges. Attanum was subsequently renamed for St. Yrieix, and his tomb became a popular pilgrimage shrine thanks to his reputation for working miracles. During the 11th century a reliquary was created by local craftsmen to contain the skull of the saint and, through the vicissitudes of history, this object – minus the skull – ended up being purchased about 1,000 years later by American financier J.P. Morgan; it is currently in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In an extremely unusual but very interesting move, the town of St. Yrieix is now demanding that The Met return the reliquary of its patron saint. The essentials of the argument are that, first, all Church property was expropriated by the state during the French Revolution in 1789, and second, subsequent laws passed in 1891 and 1905 meant that cultural treasures such as these became protected state property, which could not be exported out of France without express government permission. In this case, it is alleged that the reliquary was privately sold to a French art dealer by the local parish priest in 1906, who replaced the original with a copy; the original was then subsequently re-sold to an English art dealer, who sold it to Morgan. All of this would, in theory, have been illegal at the time.

I won’t comment on the specific legal arguments here, although it certainly sounds like there are at least grounds for a hearing of some sort. From the standpoint of precedent, this could be the beginning of a major headache for a number of museums, particularly in the United States, where the robber barons and financiers of the Gilded Age stuffed their homes in Manhattan and Newport with religious objects from France, Italy, and Spain, many of which may have been exported under somewhat clouded circumstances. No word yet on how The Met intends to respond.

From a design standpoint what is particularly fascinating about this reliquary is the fact we can see the foundational wooded carving which the decorated surface metals are attached to, in this image from a catalogue of Medieval sculpture published by The Met.

Framework

Get A Clue

Just when you thought the furor over the auction of “The Last Da Vinci” was over, researchers may have just discovered another, very early work by the Master. Scholars have long known that Da Vinci completed his apprenticeship in the workshop of the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), who by his own admission was a better sculptor than a painter. A very famous example of this is in Verrocchio’s “The Baptism of Christ”, now in The Uffizi, where the twisting angel on the far left, painted by the young Da Vinci, is far more complex and accomplished than the other figures in the altarpiece. Now, The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts is launching a new exhibition claiming that a work in its permanent collection is an early work by the young Leonardo.

“A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo” (c. 1479-1485) is a predella painting – a smaller panel attached underneath a larger panel – that was part of a larger commission that Verrocchio was contracted to complete for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Cathedral of Pistoia, about 20 miles from Florence. Verrocchio’s patrons were the Medici family, who commissioned the altarpiece in honor of their late uncle, Donato de’ Medici , who had been Bishop of Pistoia. The main image, of the Madonna and Child flanked by St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and St. Donatus, patron saint of the late bishop, was begun by Verrocchio but completed by another of his assistants, Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537).

Thanks to advances in technology and a growing knowledge base for close, analytical comparison of known works by Da Vinci to works believed to be by him, scholars involved in this exhibition seem fairly convinced that around 80% of this small painting was executed by Da Vinci, probably with the help of his fellow workshop apprentice Credi. To my mind what is a particularly persuasive clue here is the fact that the predella is executed in oil, rather than tempera paint. Few Italian artists were using oil paint at this point in art history, but Leonardo was definitely using it by the early 1470’s, well within the timeline for this picture. Those of you who find yourselves in the Worcester, Mass. Area this spring will have to toddle along and have a look, and let us know what you think.

Leo

Get On Board

Contemporary French artist and designer Mathieu Lehanneur works in many genres and materials, including architecture, lighting, and furniture. His most recent exhibition, “50 Seas”, which opens today at Christie’s in Paris, features fifty ceramic discs, each representing the sea in different geographic areas of the globe, a bit like taking a virtual cruise around the world’s oceans and peeping out of the porthole as you go. I particularly appreciate the painstaking, dare I say it, geeky-nerdy way that he went about finishing these works, as he explained to Christie’s:

I partnered with the French satellite photography company Planet Observateur. It provided me with high-resolution images of each of the 50 points, from which we colour-matched the enamel paint by eye. We probably made close to 2,000 paint samples before I was happy that each was accurate enough. It takes a lot of learning and mixing because the colours change enormously during the firing process, so they look wildly different between start and finish.’

At Christie’s in Paris, they will be mounted on the walls in one long row, at eye level. This is so that the audience can easily compare one to the next, and feel as if they’re in front of the water. Below each piece will be the GPS coordinates and name of each location. That way, you can know where you’re looking, whether it is the Yucatán Peninsula or the Caspian Sea. Each ceramic will operate like a window on to a world of water, allowing people to travel the planet.’

If you’ve ever worked in ceramics, you know that this is a serious pain in the behind to get right. Just because you put a glaze on something before you fire it in the kiln does not mean that it will turn out exactly the way that you want. Not only can the colors change, sometimes radically, from what you think they will be, but if the slightest thing goes wrong during the process you could end up with a ruined piece, and have to start all over again. So in this case the artist is not exaggerating when he says that they probably had to try nearly 2,000 times to get the 50 different final results which were kept.

This combination of technology, craftsmanship, and love of the complexities of the natural world is exactly the sort of thing which Catalan Modernista architects and artists such as Gaudí would have loved. Were he living in early 20th century Barcelona they would be clamoring for Lehanneur to collaborate with them on decorating a residence or a public building with these richly colored, undulating designs. “50 Seas” is on view at Christie’s Auction House in Paris until February 2nd.

Seas

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“Wonderful” Honthorst: A Newly Restored Nativity With A Very Special Beastie

Just in time for Christmas, one of the most beautiful and charming paintings of the Nativity in the history of Western art has been conserved and restored for future generations.

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1622) by the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany, is probably well-known to you from Christmas cards, ornaments, and the like. The subject was one which the artist painted several times during his career, but this is certainly his finest composition. Thanks to a grant from the local government in North Rhine-Westphalia, the picture has been restored, and is now the centerpiece of an exhibition titled “Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds”, detailing the history and extensive research that went into the preservation of this masterpiece, as well as comparing it to other depictions of this Biblical scene.

In its review, Art Daily duly notes the loving and joyful expressions of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the shepherds, the wonderful depiction of light radiating from the Infant Jesus amidst the nocturnal gloom, and the presence of a very faithful beastie. “The scene is also witnessed by an ox,” AD points out, “lovingly warming the child with his breath in the cold night air. It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest an allusion to St Luke’s Gospel, as well as to the emblem of the painter’s guild that Honthorst had recently entered. With this image Honthorst proudly demonstrates that his lively art has the capacity to enable the beholder to become a witness of the Holy scene.”

Two bits of explanation are needed here, for those unfamiliar with Christian iconography. The authors of the four canonical Gospels – Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – have long been associated with four different animals mentioned in visions experienced by both the Prophet Ezekiel and by St. John the Evangelist in the Bible. Think of them as heraldic symbols, much in the same way the bald eagle represents the United States, or the Lion and the Unicorn represent the British Crown. In St. Luke’s case, he is represented by the sacrificial ox, since his Gospel begins with the story of St. Zechariah, father of St. John the Baptist, offering sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, and St. Luke emphasizes the sacrifical nature of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in expiation for the sins of mankind.

In addition, St. Luke is also the patron saint of artists. This patronage stems from an ancient, pious belief that St. Luke was not only a physician – according to his friend St. Paul the Apostle – and writer of both his Gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, but a painter as well. He was made the patron saint of artists’ guilds all over Medieval Europe, some of which still exist today, and in order to succeed and get the best commissions, artists needed to become members of these early forms of trade unions. Oftentimes an applicant to one of these guilds, such as Honthorst, had to create an original work for submission and evaluation by a guild committee, similar to the way in which today, an apprentice might demonstrate a particular skill set or final product in order to receive a certification or license.

The connection with St. Luke in this painting is most obvious in the fact that both the familiar story of the shepherds and the Nativity’s nocturnal setting both come from St. Luke’s Gospel. In St. Luke 2:8-14, the Evangelist describes how there were shepherds near Bethlehem “keeping the night watch over their flock,” who were startled by the sudden appearance of angels, announcing the birth of the Messiah. The shepherds then decided to go see for themselves, as St. Luke recounts:

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.

All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

St. Luke 2:15-20

There is no mention in the Bible of any animals being present at the Nativity, but because of St. Luke’s description of the Christ Child being laid in a manger, artists have traditionally included animals in pictorial representations of the scene. A donkey is the animal most commonly shown in these images, but an ox, sheep, and camels are often present as well. Some artists keep things simple, showing no animals at all. Others add all sorts of creatures to their depictions, whether for symbolic or picturesque purposes, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find Christmas images that contain depictions of birds, monkeys, rabbits, and all sorts of other beasties.

Interestingly, Honthorst has chosen to eschew not only the donkey but also the sheep in his painting, and in fact he makes the ox a key figure rather than just part of the background. What is particularly charming here, in addition to the fact that, as Art Daily pointed out in their review quoted above, the ox is warming the Christ Child with its breath, which is just visible curling out from around its nostrils against the rich ochre yellow of St. Joseph’s mantle, is that St. Joseph himself is resting his clasped hands on the animal’s head, as he leans smilingly over the manger. Note as well that the ox is the only one in this painting who looks out at the viewer. None of the humans even notice that we are present at the scene. The ox however, is inviting us in to the picture with a glance, and, in the manner of tame animals like cats and dogs, seems to be asking us, “Did I do good?”

“Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds” is open now at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, and runs through, appropriately enough, February 4, 2018, the weekend of Candlemas (the traditional end of the Christmas season.)

Nadal

Two DC Christmas Events To Calendar

As subscribers know I normally only post twice a week, but for those of you in the DC area I wanted to share two upcoming events that may be of interest. There are always many Christmas-related events here in the capital, and if you don’t put them on your calendar ahead of time, you tend to forget until the day of – or worse, until after they’ve already past. So here goes:

CHRISTMAS POETRY PARTY
Thursday, December 14th @ 6:00 pm
Catholic Information Center
1501 K Street, NW
Metro: McPherson Square
Admission: Free, but please RSVP

This annual gathering is co-hosted by the Thomas More Society of America and the Catholic Information Center, and features seasonal treats as well as Christmas-related poetry (and the odd bit of prose) readings by members and supporters of the Society and the CIC. The event always draws a lively crowd, and I’m honored to have been asked to give recitations for the past several years in a row. Prior attendees have now come to expect that my particular reading will be…a bit different from the others. Please drop in and if you spot me, come over and say hello!

CHRISTMAS CONCERT AND CD RELEASE
Tuesday, December 19th @ 7:30 pm
St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church
Metro: Foggy Bottom
Admission: Free (donations suggested; CD’s available for purchase)

Those of you who follow me on social media know how often I mention what a magnificent job the music ministry does at my parish of St. Stephen’s in Foggy Bottom; you may have even listened to some of my (not-so-great-quality) recordings of them at work, such as this one. Now you have the chance to hear our superb organist/music director Neil Weston – shown here playing the church’s organ – and the members of the choir in action, as they perform Christmas carols and celebrate the release of their latest album, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the founding of St. Stephen’s. Every single person whom I have ever brought to St. Stephen’s has remarked on how glorious the music is, even better than those at other, not-to-be-named Catholic houses of worship in this city of greater size but lesser acoustics. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed if you decide to honor us with your attendance.