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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Rediscovered Raphael? Beautiful Renaissance Image Of The Virgin Mary Comes To Light

I have a potentially major, and extremely beautiful, art discovery for you to enjoy this morning.

Recently, art historian and television host Bendor Grosvenor was researching the collections at Haddo House, a country estate in Scotland that was once owned by the Earls of Aberdeen, when he came across a painting that struck him as interesting. The piece, which was extremely dirty and murky under old layers of varnish, is an image of the Virgin Mary, depicted with her hands crossed over her heart. For some time it has been attributed to a minor Italian artist, Innocenzo di Pietro Francucci da Imola (1490-1550). Mr. Grosvenor thought the painting was too good to be by a lesser hand, and asked for permission to have the painting examined and cleaned.

What emerged is the beautiful painting you see in the photograph below, flanked by Mr. Grosvenor and his co-presenter Jacky Klein from the BBC television show “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces”, which is believed to be a lost work by the great Renaissance master Raphael. A drawing of a similar image by Raphael, plus the fact that closer examination revealed pentimenti – changes to the painting made by the artist as he painted – as well as preparatory underdrawing typical of Raphael’s working method, helped persuade Mr. Grosvenor that this was the real thing. The painting has been dated to about 1505-1510, which would cover both Raphael’s “Florentine Period”, when he spent much of his time living and working in Florence, and the early part of his “Roman Period”, which began after he moved to Rome permanently in 1508.

In looking at some other works by Innocenzo, whom I must admit I had never heard of, it is somewhat difficult to understand why this piece was ever attributed to him in the first place. While he painted in a style that was similar to Raphael’s, his modelling and facial expressions are often somewhat clumsy, and certainly nothing like that shown in this work. For me though, what seals the deal here are the hands: Raphael had a very distinctive, elegant way of painting fingers and fingernails, which you begin to recognize the more familiar you become with his work. Zoom in on the Pope’s hands in Raphael’s somewhat later “Portrait of Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals” and you will see what I mean.

Other details, not conclusive in themselves, are also typical of Raphael paintings of the Virgin Mary from this period in his career, including the dark blonde hair braided into plaits and pulled back into a bun, the diaphanous veil falling over the head, and the simple gold embroidery at the edges of the fabrics. The painting also has a very Raphaelesque color scheme of a salmon pink dress, accompanied by a turquoise blue mantle which has a rich green underside. Raphael frequently used variations on this color combination in his images of the Madonna and Child – including his somewhat faded and dirty “Tempi Madonna” of 1508, which was painted around the same time as the dates of possible execution proposed for the Haddo House painting. Personally, I suspect that the same model posed for both pictures, as we can see if we look at the curve of the lips and the brow of both figures.

Raphael has always been my favorite artist, ever since I can remember (with Velázquez as a close second.) He is the Mozart of painters, and while some exclusively prefer tortured souls or cerebral detachment in their art and music, for me Raphael, like Mozart, is a kind of celestial preview. His art often embodies the “sprezzatura” advocated by his good friend Castiglione, who of course is the patron and inspiration for this blog. There is a seemingly effortless grace in his work that, as Mr. Grosvenor says, makes you ask, “How did he do that?”

Viewed purely as a work of art, this painting is a significant addition to the catalogue of works known or believed to be by Raphael – if in fact a majority of art experts come to accept this as being from his hand. It is obviously very beautiful, aesthetically speaking. It is also hitherto relatively unstudied by art historians, and as such will prove to be a great adventure for those who want to try to research subjects such as its provenance or the materials and methods used in creating it.

As a work originally created for religious purposes, it is a deceptively simple piece. Like some other almost pre-Tenebrist paintings of Raphael, where there are dark backgrounds and no elaborate settings to distract our gaze, this picture is wonderfully direct. Rather than complicated compositional theatrics, we are presented with a very quiet, reflective image of the Mother of the Savior, delicately indicating her Immaculate Heart. It is such a lovely, tranquil image that, within the next few years, I suspect you will begin to see it illustrating covers of spiritual books, prayer cards, and so forth.

For those of my readers in the UK, you can learn all about the details of the discovery when the latest episode of “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” airs tomorrow night. Unfortunately Mr. Grosvenor’s show does not currently air in the U.S., at least not yet. However his blog is on my list of must-reads every morning, and so I want to highly recommend it to you. He is far more knowledgeable than I about art history, and I often learn new things from him. Therefore if you like what I write here or in The Federalist, you will most definitely enjoy his work – and more importantly, kudos to him for finding this lost masterpiece.

Reunification in Raleigh: The St. John Altarpiece

​A new exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh covers one of my favorite subjects, the reunification of the former components of a singular work of art. The interesting twist in this particular exhibition is that, as the Sesame Street song goes, one of these things is not like the others. For one of the paintings on display in “Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece” is a contemporary artist’s imagining of what might have been, created using a combination of 14th century techniques and 21st century technology.

Francescuccio Ghissi (c. 1345-1395) was an artist who worked mainly in the Marche, a region of Italy dominated by the towns of Ancona and Urbino; the area was heavily damaged during a 2014 earthquake, as readers may recall. Little is known about Ghissi’s life and work, and truth be told he is not of great importance in art history. However he did produce a number of charming, beautifully colored and patterned works of art, such as this triptych in the collection of the UK National Trust at Polesden Lacey, a country house outside of London.

One of Ghissi’s major works was an altarpiece depicting the Crucifixion of Christ with accompanying apocryphal scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist, based on the book, “The Golden Legend”. This was a popular 13th century work by Blessed Jacobus de Voragine (lived c. 1230-1298), a Dominican friar who later became the Archbishop of Genoa. It was a huge best-seller in de Voragine’s own lifetime, and both Ghissi’s patrons and Ghissi himself as a working artist would have been very familiar with it.

In his book, de Voragine retold stories which he had collected from many sources concerning the lives of the saints. The historicity of these tales is often highly questionable, and in some cases they are little more than pious fiction. However when it comes to developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of Christian culture before the French Revolution, particularly in the arts, “The Golden Legend” is the most important source material after the Bible. The book also had a tremendous impact on world history: for example, it played a significant part in the conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and was one of the first books to be translated and printed by William Caxton, founder of the first English printing press.

The St. John Altarpiece was probably completed by Ghissi around 1370. It featured a large, central image of the Crucifixion, which is now at the Art Institute of Chicago, flanked by 8 small panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist, taken from “The Golden Legend”. Today these smaller components of the altarpiece are scattered among several museums, including NCMA, The Met, and the Portland Art Museum.  

At some point after the altarpiece had been hacked to pieces for sale, probably in the late 19th or early 20th century, one of the smaller 8 panels was lost. In anticipation of this exhibition, NCMA took the rather unusual step of working with artist and conservator Charlotte Caspers to create an original painting which provides an example of what the missing panel might have looked like. Ms. Caspers not only studied Ghissi’s style, she also read “The Golden Legend” for clues as to what story Ghissi might have originally selected to portray. In executing her painting she used 14th-century techniques and recreated materials like those which Ghissi might have used.

Technology experts next took Ms. Caspers’ work and created a hi-res digital image of the completed painting. They then applied faux cracks and aging signs to the digital image, in order to replicate those found on the original, existing panels. This photoshopped image of Ms. Caspers’ painting will be part of the NCMA exhibition, along with a documentary film showing how the new piece was made.The entire project strikes me as being just as fascinating as the reunified altarpiece itself.

Of course, much as we can admire and appreciate both NCMA’s and Ms. Caspers’ work in reuniting and quasi-recreating the lost portion of this work of art, there is also much to mourn here, as well. Ghissi never imagined that his paintings would hang on the walls of museums, to be gawked at as if they were curiosities alongside secular things such as silkscreened prints of Campbell’s Soup cans. Rather, Ghissi’s art was created in order to honor God, to celebrate the life and example of the Beloved Disciple, and to serve as an aid to prayer. That his altarpiece can be reassembled is of great benefit to anyone interested in the history of art. That it no longer serves its intended purpose however, is a loss to all Christians.    

“Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece” runs at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh from September 10, 2016 through March 5, 2017.

Reconstruction of the missing panel