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: What’s In Edition

I’m still looking for ideas on what to call this weekly feature, partly because in the future, I’m considering turning it into a newsletter, and partly because I’m tired of the title. Titling it “Arts Roundup” or something like that seems rather dull. So please, if you have any ideas on what to call it – other than “Thought-Pourri”, that is – do share your ideas with me by using this form.

Tate Britain In Disarray

In the world of stupid ideas, this is one whose time – one thought – had come and gone, along with (the unlamented) Sir Nicholas Serota, but which now appears to be returning for another round. Five years ago, Tate Britain undid the art historical damage of Serota and his ilk by putting its collection back into roughly chronological order; now, that work is to be undone by its new director who, no surprise, hails from a Contemporary Art background. To re-hang a permanent collection in a way which makes sense to a temporary administrator and his flunkeys, but not to the vast majority of visitors, is not only short-sighted, but presumptuous and grossly egotistical. As Bendor Grosvenor has observed, “this seems to me reflective of an institution which doesn’t really know what it’s about. Shackled to the mother ship of Tate Modern, Tate Britain seems to see itself not as a museum, but a giant exhibition space, one that’s almost embarrassed by what it has to show. Consequently, the exhibition space – and what goes in it – must be changed every five years or so. A museum which was comfortable in itself, and happy to celebrate its collection, wouldn’t do this.”

Tate

Georgia In Hawaii

The great American Modern artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was a painter of sensuous floral paintings, as well as stark New York or Southwestern-inspired landscapes, but what few may be aware of is that she spent time working in Hawaii on commission from N.W. Ayer & Son, the advertising agency for Dole Foods Corporation – yes, the canned pineapple people. From early February to early April of 1939, O’Keefe sketched and painted the flora and landscapes of numerous sites in the Hawaiian Islands, including the Big Island, Oahu, and Maui; she ended up creating 20 paintings reflecting her time there, some of which were used by Dole in their ad campaigns, as shown below. Later this Spring, the library of the New York Botanical Garden will play host to an exhibition of many of these Hawaiian works, in an appropriately tropical setting, bringing them together for the first time in nearly 80 years in what will no doubt be a very interesting and popular show. “Georgia O’Keefe: Visions of Hawaii” opens on May 19th and runs through October 28th.

Georgia

Vegas In Neon

Few American cities are more closely associated with the use of neon lights than Las Vegas, Nevada, and so it will not surprise you to learn that Sin City has a major museum dedicated to this product of industrial design, creative advertising, and electrical engineering. The Neon Museum opened in 2012, and has become a popular tourist destination for those who want to see the remnants of famous casinos long since lost to the wrecking ball, such as the famous Sahara Hotel. The institution not only preserves and restores old neon signs at its facility, but is responsible for the care and maintenance of a number of historic neon signs in its collection which have been installed as public sculpture in and around Fremont Street. The museum has proven so popular that it has just announced a major expansion of its facilities, as well as the addition of new exhibitions and events, to draw in more visitors interested in these fun, supremely kitschy items of American design.

Vegas

 

 

Thought-Pourri: Possessive Edition

For those of you in the DC area, don’t forget that tonight from 6:00-8:00 pm the Catholic Information Center, located at 1501 K Street NW, will be hosting its annual Christmas Poetry Party, in conjunction with the Thomas More Society of America. I will be one of the presenters, and if that doesn’t entirely put you off, drop by and say hello! There will be refreshments and plenty of good cheer on offer, and the event is absolutely free.

Meanwhile, this morning I’m currently participating as an absentee bidder in a live auction taking place elsewhere, for a painting that I’m very interested in adding to my collection, so fingers x’ed…

And with that, it’s time for some headlines:

The King’s Pictures

After Charles I was overthrown and executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, much of the substantial art collection which he and his ancestors had accumulated was sold off and scattered to the winds. When his son Charles II ascended the throne at the Restoration in 1660, the Stuarts had a great deal of work to do to restore the prestige of the monarchy. Through a variety of means, the new king managed to start over, acquiring a number of works of art which are featured in an exhibition this month at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Among the items featured in “Charles II: Art & Power” is one of Lorenzo Lotto’s (1480-1557) best paintings, his portrait of the Venetian art dealer Andrea Odoni sitting in his shop, surrounded by statues and casts of classical sculpture. I particularly like how the dramatically foreshortened right arm and hand are shown holding out a small classical sculpture, as if Odoni is offering it to us for sale, and the mixture of charcoal and dove grays, mossy green, and caramel browns create a surprisingly rich color palette.

Lotto

Vienna’s Virtu

The shortlived Wiener Werkstätte (“Vienna Workshop”), from the beginning of the previous century, had a major impact on Modern art, architecture, and design, thanks in part to its espousal of innovative design methods, which it disseminated globally through the creation of satellite workshops in Germany, Switzerland, and New York. Now a major new exhibition in the latter city, at the Neue Galerie for German and Austrian art, is bringing together a wide range of objects created by the Austrian artistic collective, from furniture and ceramics to jewels and decorative objects. Among the beautiful items displayed in the “Wiener Werkstätte 1903-1932: The Luxury of Beauty” show is this astonishing jewelry box, which in the art trade is known as an “objet de vertu” or “vertu” for short. These were items that often had no practical purpose, or were so luxurious as to be somewhat impractical, but which nevertheless featured an incredibly detailed and painstaking level of craftsmanship.

Wiener

Hoving’s Hordes

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when art museums were fairly hushed, quiet spaces, where there were rarely large crowds of people. That all changed forever, at least at the world’s larger museums, with the blockbuster 1978 exhibition, “Treasures of Tutankhamun” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a fascinating piece from this month’s Vulture/New York Magazine, Boris Kachka explains how one man, former Met director Thomas Hoving, took a gamble on making an art exhibition a must-see event for Americans – like the Super Bowl or the final episode of “Cheers” – and succeeded so far beyond expectations that eventually everyone else in the museum world followed suit. A healthy debate could be had over whether Hoving’s hordes of exhibition visitors have improved or ruined the experience of visiting an exhibition, or indeed a cultural institution focused primarily on visitor numbers.

Tut

Degas’ Development

Those of my readers who happen to be in the Denver area between February and May of next year will want to check out the newly-announced exhibition, “Degas: A Passion for Perfection”, which will be held at the Denver Art Museum. Covering over fifty years of the work of French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the show will feature over 100 examples of Degas’ varied output and artistic development, including paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculptures, alongside the work of some of his contemporaries and friends. Of particular interest is this rather early picture by Degas, painted in around 1865 and now in the collection of the Orsay in Paris, which shows a group of men on horseback shooting at and trampling over a group of nude women, while a city burns in the background. It’s such a strange picture, and so not what springs to mind when one things of the work of Degas, that I don’t quite know what to make of it – but it’s definitely piqued my interest.

Degas