Hooray For Hermits: Art Celebrating The Eremitic Life

While many subjects depicted by the Old Masters portray events from long-ago days, or people engaged in activities which seem incredibly remote to contemporary eyes, there is one area of human endeavor as depicted in the arts which has changed very little over the last 2,000 years: eremitic life. In Christian practice an eremitic (or “hermit” as we usually call them) is someone who has chosen to remove themselves from the world, in order to deepen their spiritual life and their relationship with God. The solitary aspects of their lives have fascinated artists for centuries, but such lifestyles are not a thing of the past. In fact, many hermits still live among us today.

As regular readers know, for several years now I’ve served on the Board of the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, which support the establishment of a permanent hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. At the moment we’re still raising funds for the actual hermitage, but we do have a hermit: our dear Franciscan friend, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, who is also the Chaplain of the Coming Home Network International. Brother Rex was recently interviewed by the Catholic News Agency, and I think you’ll enjoy the article – and not just for the great picture of him with a chicken.

Rex

People are often surprised to learn that, yes, there are still hermits among us in this day and age, including right here in the United States. As Brother Rex mentions in the article, he’s aware of a half-dozen or so just in Maine alone! The degree to which those called to this intense form of spiritual life interact with the world depends on various factors, such as the particular religious order which they join. There are, for example, men and women religious who live in solitude, like the wonderful Sister Veronica Paul – whom you should follow on Twitter along with Brother Rex, even if you don’t belong to any particular form of religion – who still manage to engage with the rest of us for periods of time before returning to their solitude.

In art history, there are many depictions of Christians who chose to follow the path to eremitic life. Sometimes these men and women lived in their form of isolation for their entire adult lives, while others did so only for a period of time. The degree to which they removed themselves from day-to-day concerns, and how they chose to live out their vocations, can vary greatly.

A typical example of what most of us think of, when we hear the word, “hermit”, is this work from 1670 by the Dutch Baroque artist, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), now in the National Gallery here in Washington. In it, we see an anonymous Franciscan hermit on his knees at prayer, meditating on a crucifix amidst the ruins where he has chosen to live. Dou was one of the most successful Dutch painters of the second half of the 17th century, and toward the end of his career he seems to have become somewhat enthralled by the subject of the eremitic life, for there are several other works by him depicting hermits “in action” as it were, such as this example at the MIA in Minneapolis and another at the Wallace Collection in London.

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Among the more famous women in history who lived the eremitic life is St. Mary of Egypt. (c.344-421), who simultaneously felt drawn to changing her way of life and indulging her love of sex. In fact, she is said to have made her way on pilgrimage from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to Jerusalem by offering her services to others who were traveling to the Holy City as well. There, she underwent a conversion experience, and retired to the deserts in what is now modern Jordan, to spend her life in solitary fasting and prayer.

Although also revered in the West, she is particularly admired in the East. Icons such as this one, recounting the story of her life, have always been very popular in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. She has also, albeit less frequently, been the subject of Western art, such as in this copy of a 15th century Gothic sculpture at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris (the original is preserved inside the church), or in this c. 1660 painting by the Spanish Baroque artist José Claudio Antolinez (1635-1675), now in – ironically enough – the collection of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Antolinez

To close however, I want to show an example of a scene that is touching but rare in Western art. It is said that Zosimus, a monk living near the Jordan River, used to take time to wander the Judean desert by himself for 40 days during Lent. One day he stumbled across St. Mary of Egypt, who was living in a cave, and she told him her life story. She asked him to return the following year on Holy Thursday, so that she might receive the Eucharist, and he promised to do so; the painting below, by a follower of the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) depicts that return visit the following year. When Zosimus returned to bring St. Mary communion the next year, he discovered that she had died in her cave, so he went about giving her a Christian burial.

Teniers

Perhaps the takeaway here is that, like all hermits who came before and after her, even though this woman gave up everything to follow her call to the eremitic life, at the end of her earthly life she lacked for nothing. We are lucky, gentle reader, that such individuals still live among us, to advocate on our behalf, and that of the whole world. Please support them, as you are able.

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Thought-Pourri: Shivering Spring Edition

In theory, I’m heading up to Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, to review the new exhibition “The Rockies & The Alps: Bierstadt, Calame, and the Romance of the Mountains”, which just opened at the Newark Museum. I say, “in theory”, because the weather forecast is still a bit iffy at the moment, calling for anywhere from a bit of sleet to up to 6 inches along the NE corridor. Being a creative sort, if I decide to err on the side of caution and stay home, I can still manage to write a piece about the show, even if I can’t get up there in person. Pity the poor cherry trees and spring bulbs here in the capital, as they are going to take a serious beating, whatever happens.

Now, on to some news.

Van Veen’s Venus

ArtNet has a great story about the discovery of a lost painting by the Dutch Old Master painter Otto Van Veen (c.1556-1629), which was found in the closet of a cultural center in Des Moines, Iowa. I’ll leave you to read the story about that picture, but use it as an excuse to explain that Van Veen is perhaps best known as being the teacher of the great Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), although during his lifetime he was a highly successful and talented painter in his own right. One of my favorite Van Veen paintings is his portrait of the wonderfully-named Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), a close friend and patron of Rubens who was a lawyer, politician, courtier, art collector, and philanthropist. He spent a significant amount of his personal fortune caring for the poor during his lifetime, as well as leaving an enormous legacy after his death. This particular portrait of Rockox hangs in the Rubenshuis, Rubens’ luxurious home and art studio in downtown Antwerp, which is now a museum.

Van Veen

Fixing The Frick

The Frick Collection is possibly my favorite museum in New York, thanks to its seriously impressive art collection, a beautiful building – the former Gilded Age mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick – and the fact that it’s never jammed in the way that The Met usually is on a weekend. Now, after many years of fits and starts in trying to expand the public footprint of the museum, the Frick has announced that it will soon begin construction which will increase the gallery space by 30%, and open the second floor of the mansion to the general public for the first time. The designs for the expansion, by the firm of architect Annabelle Selldorf, look suitably restrained, and preserve the overall look of the Frick rather than trying to overwhelm it with add-ons: I particularly like this aspect. Additional renovations will include a 220-seat underground auditorium, conservation laboratories, and – hopefully – new facilities, since when I was there two weeks ago I was reminded of the boy’s bathroom at my Catholic grade school, which was built in 1926. Construction at the Frick is slated to begin in 2020.

Frick

Pleasures Of Portugal

Finally, regular readers are familiar with my dear friend Diana von Glahn, a filmmaker and presenter specializing in documentary series about religious pilgrimages, several of which have aired on channels such as EWTN, Catholic TV, and Salt & Light. On April 28th, should you find yourself in the Philadelphia area you’ll have the chance to meet her, as well as sample Portuguese wines, and support production of her latest work, “The Faithful Traveler in Portugal”; a trailer for the new series appears below. Diana takes us to Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra, among many other sites in Portugal, a country with a rich religious and cultural history, and if you’ve ever seen one of her films, you know that Diana not only provides viewers with far more information than you would get on your average Travel Channel show, but she does so with warmth, humor, and enthusiasm.

“Wines & Shrines of Portugal” will take place at Holy Martyrs Catholic Church in Oreland, PA on Saturday, April 28th from 6:00-9:00 pm, and tickets cost $50 per person. Space is limited, so to reserve your seat or request additional information, you can contact Holy Martyrs at (215) 884-8575, or email them at holymartyrssecretary@gmail.com

Thought-Pourri: Pop Song Edition

I’ll be in New York on Saturday to review the “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle” exhibition at The Frick Collection. It only occurred to me after the fact that a) I’m going to New York on St. Patrick’s Day, which does not bode well for getting about, and b) the starting route for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade is, effectively, in front of The Frick, which also does not bode well. I plan to keep myself in a culturally appropriate good mood by downloading some pop songs by The Corrs onto my Spotify. So let’s continue with that poppy spirit in this week’s roundup of some interesting news from the art world.

I’m A Not-So-Little Teapot

For those of you who, like me, are encouraged by news of amazing finds whenever you go to a flea market or have a hunt about on Ebay, take a look at this story which has grossed one lucky collector somewhere around $800,000. It seems that this individual bought an old, cracked porcelain teapot in an online auction in England for around $20, thinking that it might be more valuable than its asking price. After consigning the piece for sale at his local auction house, it was identified by experts as a piece made by John Bartlam, a potter working in South Carolina in the mid-18th century: note the palmetto, the state tree of South Carolina, which also appears on the South Carolina state flag. The dating makes it possibly the earliest known porcelain teapot to be produced in America, and as such the piece is of tremendous historic importance, despite its somewhat shabby state of repair at present. The teapot was purchased by a London antiques dealer on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and should be heading back to these shores for the first time in over 300 years, unless the cousins refuse it an export license.

Teapot

Going To The Chapel (Not)

I encourage you to read this interesting story from Apollo Magazine, which details the history of the charming Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows at Eton College in England, built between 1914-15 in the style of a small, Italian Baroque church. Thanks to the entrenched anti-Catholicism of the British establishment, the chapel had to be built with no windows, only skylights, and initially Catholic students at Eton were forbidden from worshiping there. The interior features many different colored marble panels, and despite the lack of windows on the sides, the light flooding in through the skylights reflects off of the surfaces and creates a jewel-like effect. This building is definitely something worth seeking out, should you find yourself thereabouts.

Eton

How Much Is That Corgi In The Painting

As regular readers know, I’m always encouraged by museum curators who try to make more of their holdings available to the public, particularly when so much art is languishing in basements and attics at public expense, but without the ability of the public to engage with it. Sometimes real treasures are found when a museum cleans out the cupboards, and such is the case with the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, which has just completed a three-year dig through its holdings. Of particular note is the charming “Portrait of Mrs. Anne Dashwood” (c. 1770) newly attributed to the great English portraitist George Romney (1734-1802), making this a find of significant value both to Romney’s catalogue raisonné and from a purely financial point of view. Corgi lovers, take note.

Romney