Dominic and Clare: Two Great Saints, Two Great Activities

With the feast of St. Dominic tomorrow, and that of St. Clare of Assisi coming up this Saturday, I wanted to share two bits of news related to both, which hopefully the reader will find interesting.

The first involves a Solemn Mass which will be held at St. Dominic’s Church here in DC, at 7pm tomorrow evening. After Mass there will be the opportunity to venerate a relic of St. Dominic, followed by a reception which, I am assured by the parish, will be non-solemn. St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominicans, who, along with St. Francis of Assisi (1180-1226), helped to usher in a significant period of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic growth in the Church during the Middle Ages, and his spiritual descendants carry on that work today.

If you’ve never been to St. Dominic’s, you’ve probably seen its striking bell tower from the 395 expressway going to or from Capitol Hill. It points skyward amidst the bland, boxy, brutalist concrete structures that were built in the middle of the previous century, when demolition of historic structures in the name of “progress” was all the rage in urban centers. St. Dominic’s is one of the few architectural survivors from before that supposedly enlightened movement destroyed the neighborhood around it, which similarly ruined places like Penn Station in New York and Boston’s City Hall. And what a magnificent survival it is, as you can see here:

Esgles

SantDom

Although I’m unaware of any evidence that he ever met her, another contemporary of St. Dominic was St. Francis’ dear friend St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), whose life the church commemorates on Saturday, August 11th. St. Clare founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, more commonly known as the Poor Clares, a few years after the foundation of the Dominicans and Franciscans. Whereas the former concentrated largely on preaching and education, and the latter on caring for the poor and outcast, the Poor Clares are a contemplative order, living in monastic community and spending their days in lives of prayer and meditation.

In 1326, the first Poor Clares monastery was founded in Pedralbes, then a small village in the foothills of the mountains that surround Barcelona, by King Jaume II for his 4th and final wife, Queen Elisenda de Montcada. She retired there after his death, and over the years the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes grew in size and beauty to eventually become designated as a National Monument of Spain. It’s a place that has been important in the life of my mother’s side of the family for many generations.

One of the great treasures of the monastery is the Chapel of St. Michael, a cell located in the beautiful, triple-story Gothic cloister (the only one in Europe, BTW.) It is completely covered with frescoes dating from 1346, executed by an artist named Ferrer Bassa (1285-1348). Little is known of his life or training, but the frescoes are highly significant to art history as evidence of early Italian Renaissance art making its way to the Iberian Peninsula. Bassa’s work shows that he was familiar with the work of contemporary Italian artists such as Giotto, Duccio, Simone Martini, and others, and may have studied in Siena. This art would have been seen as cutting-edge design at the time of its execution in Barcelona, since there was nothing else like it outside of Tuscany.

Now, after a multi-year, complex conservation and restoration effort, the chapel has been brought back to as near as possible what it looked like when it was first completed in the mid-14th century. The decorative program features a number of saints – including St. Francis and St. Clare, naturally – as well as scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Because the chapel was originally a nun’s cell, it’s not possible to get a good sweeping vista of the decoration, but this gives you some idea of the impression that you get when you step inside from the cloister:

Capella

The significance of the spread of this kind of art outside Tuscany cannot be overestimated. Whereas in earlier Catalan art, faces were often stoic and expressionless, Bassa introduced his Catalan viewers to a new and unprecedented kind of realism, drawn from the observation of nature and real life, in which we can more easily empathize with the figures depicted in the scenes. Here, for example, we see expressions of anxiety, sorrow, and suffering in the faces of the women who have been witnessing the torture and death of Jesus:

Mullers

Whether you find yourself in Barcelona this weekend for the feast of St. Clare, or indeed at any other time, if you are interested in art history, magnificent architecture, and/or Christian spirituality, make sure to make a pilgrimage to Pedralbes. There are still a few Poor Clare nuns left, although sadly like many religious orders in Spain, they have been dying off for quite awhile now, and personally I’m worried that the place, which is mostly run by the city as a museum at this point, is going to get turned into some god-awful hotel and conference center or something, so best to go see it now while you can. It’s a bit off the beaten path for most tourists, being in a mostly residential neighborhood, but I think you’ll find the beauty and indeed the peacefulness of the place well-worth the trip.

Thought-Pourri: Location, Location Edition

A week from today I’ll be flying out to Chicago, ahead of speaking at the Catholic Art Guild on Saturday, May 5th. I’m currently culling through my research to try to make sure I keep this presentation both on point and under the 1-hour mark, so that I don’t overwhelm the audience with too much information (or too many images.) Details are available here, and hope to see many of my readers from the Chicagoland area, there!

Now, on to some art news.

New To The National Gallery (UK)

Two beautiful new works have now joined the permanent collection of the National Gallery in London. The older of the two is the over-titled “Still Life with Lemons, Lilies, Carnations, Roses and a Lemon Blossom in a Wicker Basket, together with a Goldfinch perched on a Porcelain Bowl of Water, on top of a Silver Tray, all arranged upon a Stone Ledge” (c. 1643-1649) by Juan de Zurbarán (1620-1649). This Zurbarán is the son of the more famous Francisco de Zurbarán, (1598-1664) whose “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” I recently reviewed for the Federalist, and his is a classic example of the “bodegón”, a type of stark but highly realistic still life painting that is typical of Spanish Baroque art. The second new acquisition is the more simply titled “Wineglasses” (c. 1875) by the great John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), which depicts a gazebo in a summery garden setting, probably in France, with dappled sunlight splashing over the surfaces. Makes you want to step right into the picture and have a drink, doesn’t it?

Sargent

Quite a Haul In Quincy

A different sort of acquisition scheme is described in this fascinating article from the Boston Globe about James Pantages, an employee and resident of the city of Quincy, Massachusetts, who spent the last 30 years buying art at modest prices, and then cramming his acquisitions into every possible space in his home. Among the paintings in his collection of over 1,200 works of art are pieces by George Inness (1825-1894), one of this country’s most important landscape painters; the polymath Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), whose murals decorate the U.S. Post Office Headquarters and the Longworth Building of the U.S. House of Representatives here in D.C.; and the great American Impressionist painter Colin Campbell Cooper (1856-1937). While not everything Mr. Pantages bought is significant, at this point the auctioneers who have been called in to assess and value the collection have only analyzed about 10% of the collection, so more treasures may await discovery. There is a touch of sadness to this article, I find, and I hope that Mr. Pantages will be able to find some comfort and peace in letting go of these items.

Fixed Up In Florence

Mannerism, the somewhat exaggerated art style that succeeded the High Renaissance in Italy, has been getting a lot more attention recently from academics and the art media, and two of the best representatives of it are Jacopo de Pontormo (1494-1557) and his pupil, Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572). A showcase for significant work by the pair recently re-opened to the public after a lengthy preservation and restoration project founded by American philathropists. The Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence houses the newly-restored “The Deposition from the Cross” (1528), which is generally considered to be Pontormo’s masterpiece; it is a twisting, turning composition of elongated, ethereal figures dressed in bright colors that look like they came from a Pucci scarf. Accompanying it in the chapel are frescoes of the Four Evangelists by Pontormo and Bronzino, now returned to their former glory. This is all thanks to major support from the Friends of Florence, a U.S.-based philanthropic foundation that is “dedicated to preserving and enhancing the cultural and historical integrity of the arts in the city and surrounding area of Florence, Italy.” Well done, and thank you.

Pontormo

 

 

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