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.


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.


Thought-Pourri: Exclamations Edition

Among my fellow practitioners of popery there have been a great many dumbfounded exclamations on social media since yesterday, when The Met announced that the theme for the 2018 Met Gala will be – wait for it – “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The idea appears to have been suggested by the upcoming loan of historic vestments and other liturgical garments from the Vatican, for an exhibition which will open at The Met on May 10th. I find it difficult to understand why Rome would allow itself to serve as the touchstone for a parade of tarts, gigolos, and social parasites who openly hate the Church, but then the inherent tackiness of the present occupant of the chair of St. Peter is something which has been more than apparent for years now. I hope Cardinal Dolan has better sense than to attend this event.

Now, on to some more interesting news.

Ah, Venice!

After many years of complaints from residents, art and architecture historians, and international cultural organizations like UNESCO, Italy is finally taking steps to ban jumbo cruise ships from the center of Venice. Over the next two years, the mega-liners will be diverted from the Giudecca Canal, which merges with the Grand Canal to lead into the Piazza San Marco. The behemoths will now dock at a newly-constructed facility on the North Canal at Marghera, on the Venetian mainland. While not a complete solution to the many problems faced by La Serenissima, from depopulation to pollution, hopefully scenes like that pictured below, of a tacky monstrosity looming over the historic core of the city, will soon be a thing of the past.


Bah, Berkshire!

Despite last-minute interventions by both the Rockwell family and the Massachusetts Attorney General, it looks as though the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s two Norman Rockwell paintings will be going ahead at Sotheby’s next week as planned. Readers will recall that the Berkshire decided to sell off a significant portion of its art holdings, including two paintings gifted to the museum by Rockwell himself (one of which served as the Saturday Evening Post cover pictured below), as well as a number of other significant works of art in the collection, to become some sort of experiential tourist destination. Barring some last-minute appeals, the museum is now free to reinvent itself as the nonsensical, irrelevant, lowest common denominator institution which its current leadership wants it to become. My prediction is that a decade from now, it will have ceased to exist entirely.


Bello, Bernini!

A major exhibition featuring almost 80 works by the greatest master of Italian Baroque architecture and sculpture, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), has just opened at the Borghese in Rome, should you happen to find yourself in the Eternal City in the coming months. What’s particularly interesting about “Bernini” (no other exhibition descriptors were thought necessary) is that, in addition to a number of the artist’s most famous sculptures, as well as a newly restored work, and drawings and models for buildings such as St. Peter’s, the show features several of his paintings – for yes, Bernini could paint, too. Note for example the wonderfully direct frankness and overall simplicity of this 1632 portrait of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644), which is on loan to the Borghese show. I particularly like how Bernini handled the red of the garments in this picture, so as to give the viewer a real sense of it being the kind of dense, close-cropped velvet that has little or no sheen to it. “Bernini” runs through February 4, 2018.


Golly, Guido!

Speaking of the Italian Baroque, Bendor Grosvenor – whom I read every day and you should, too – reports that the National Gallery in London has recently determined that a work presumed to be by assistants of the very influential painter Guido Reni (1575-1642) has now been determined to be, at least in part, from the hand of Reni himself. Though not quite a household name today, Reni was *the* most popular Italian Baroque artist of his day, and indeed for centuries afterwards; dozens of important artists came to study in his studio, and his pictures were widely sought after by collectors all over Europe. “The Toilet of Venus” was painted sometime between 1620 and 1625, but it has been a dark and dingy thing for many years. Thanks to a recent cleaning, it has regained the almost porcelain qualities of flesh and jewel-toned fabric for which Reni is justly famous. Intriguingly, as Grosvenor mentions in his piece, another painting that was gifted to the National Gallery as part of the same bequest was also believed to be a copy executed by Reni’s studio assistants. I suspect that the museum is now going to turn its attention to funding the cleaning and restoration of this one, since it would be just as major of a rediscovery. At this point, the painting is so grimy that you can only barely see the threatening Kraken swimming about at the lower left of the picture.


Beauty In The Banal: Spanish Still Life Painting

A reader recently contacted me regarding what she should try to look at, when she visits The Prado during a one-day stop in Madrid. Naturally I pointed out some must-see paintings in the museum’s collection, including “Las Meninas” by Velazquez, “The Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden, etc. I also strongly urged her to seek out a genre of Spanish painting called a “bodegón”, which I think you will agree is particularly appropriate, now that we are entering harvest season, and the year begins to slide toward its close.

For our purposes, a bodegón refers to a type of picture that became particularly popular in Spain during the 17th and 18th centuries, and has continued to influence art in that country (and indeed around the world) up to the present. Spanish artists in this period tended to focus on simple, everyday food and domestic objects, displayed in a very stark, almost minimalist way. Usually the objects selected by the painter are shown resting on a rather plain surface in the foreground, usually a stone slab, while the background is just a black void. This creates an almost photo-realistic picture, centuries before the invention of photography.

An example by one of the greatest of these artists, Juan Sánchez Cotán, “Still Life with Game, Vegetables, and Fruit” (1602), is one which my traveling reader may end up viewing in Madrid. You can see how the incredibly realistic details of the fruit, vegetables, and birds are made all the more stark by placing them in a minimalist setting, with the end result that the pictures looks almost Surrealistic. I particularly love the detail of the lemons, and have a large reproduction of this portion of the painting hanging in my kitchen:


One of the later masters of this genre was Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), as we can see in the example below from the MFA in Boston. “Still Life with Bread, Ham, Cheese, and Vegetables” (c. 1772) shows a large hunk of the famous cured Spanish ham known as “jamón serrano”, which is like prosciutto but better, resting in a bowl along with some herbs and vegetables. Surrounding it are: a ceramic pitcher holding a wooden spoon peeping out from under a pottery shard lid (a “tapa”) placed on top to keep the flies out of whatever is inside; a wedge of Manchego cheese; a selection of bread, garlic, and beefsteak tomatoes; etc. Far in the back, we can see the top of a bottle of wine. What’s particularly interesting about this composition is that you can go into a tapas bar today, and have essentially the same meal set out before you.


The Spanish bodegón picture has several artistic relatives, particularly in Flemish and Dutch painting, as well as in Southern Italian painting. This is not a surprise, since these areas were, for many years, part of the Spanish Empire. However an often overlooked ancestor of all of these paintings comes from Ancient Rome.

Fresco painting in the early Roman Empire is usually divided into four periods, or styles, which sometimes overlap one another. The 3rd style often depicted a single object or a group of objects against a black or flat-colored background, often on a small scale, so that the effect was one of a painting hanging on a wall. The 4th style was more concerned with a return to a type of realism that had been present in the earlier, 2nd style, but still had characteristics of creating the illusion of small paintings. Here are three examples from a house in the city of Herculaneum, showing peaches, a metal roasting pan with garlic and figs, and so on.


What separates Spanish still life painters from their ancient and contemporary fellow artists however, is their ability to turn a beautiful work of art into something even more profound than what one would imagine possible from a still life painting. Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) is best known as a painter of religious subjects, such as his 13 life-sized paintings of Jacob and his 12 sons, which are currently visiting the Meadows Museum in Dallas, and will later be heading to The Frick in New York. [N.B. And oh yes, I do plan to go to New York in January to see them – more anon.] However he also produced some lovely bodegón paintings, such as this one, which my reader might also see at The Prado.

Yet without question, the greatest bodegón ever painted by Zurbarán was one which is also in The Prado. Unlike the many still life images of foods and kitchen objects, I specifically told my reader to seek this one out. While it bears all the hallmarks of a Spanish still life painting – the stark setting, the detailed observation of the object, the black background, the borderline surrealism – if you’re a Christian, you’ll realize that it represents something much more than a tour de force of painterly skill.


Simply titled, “Agnus Dei”, this picture was painted sometime between 1635-1640. It shows an unblemished, male lamb, its feet bound, resting on a slab and ready to be sacrificed. It does not struggle, but patiently awaits its fate. It represents, in paint, the sacrifice of Christ’s death on the Cross, and also the hymn sung by Catholics the world over during the Mass, before receiving Holy Communion: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us).

While the “Angus Dei” is in a class by itself, fortunately for my American readers, many museums around the U.S. have Spanish bodegón paintings that are worth seeking out, even if you can’t make it to see the best in The Prado. I think you’ll find yourself not only mesmerized by the incredible skill involved in creating these pictures, but you’ll also come to appreciate how there is symbolism to be read into all of them. Though none are as overtly spiritual as the “Agnus Dei”, all of them do give us an excuse to pause, to reflect, and to think, particularly on the gift of life that we have been given, and what we ought to be doing with it.