Thought-Pourri: Garish Gods Edition

I received a very gracious email this week from Dr. Diana Kleiner at Yale University, thanking me for my positive review of her survey course on Roman Architecture. She wanted me to let my readers know that the course is also available at Coursera, and those who wish to do so can make it a more fully interactive experience there with class assignments, projects, and the like. Again, even if you have only a passing interest in architecture, I strongly recommend this course as both highly interesting and informative, whether you want to understand the types of concrete construction or dome engineering methods employed by the Ancient Romans, or you just want to know the best spots for gelato in the Eternal City (Dr. Kleiner’s got you covered, there.)

And now, on to the news.

Classical Colors

Speaking of classical architecture, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor has just opened a fascinating new exhibition titled “Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World”. Many ancient buildings and the sculptures that decorated them were decorated with vibrant, sometimes garish colors that have faded or disappeared over time, but today scientists can use advanced technology to present us with fairly accurate approximations of what these things originally looked like. For most people it’s rather startling to realize that the stark, white or gray public buildings which we commonly see around our cities and towns, though often based on classical originals, would be considered unfinished by someone from ancient Knossos, Athens, or Rome, thanks to their lack of color. The exhibition runs through January 7, 2018.

Exhibit

Mini Murillo

Meanwhile here on the East Coast, The Frick in New York has just opened a small show on portraiture by the great Old Master painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). One of the most popular and influential artists of his time, particularly in the area of religious painting, Murillo is among the most important painters of Spain’s artistic Golden Age of the late 16th to early 18th centuries. While he painted very few portraits, this compact exhibition at The Frick contains 5 of them, including three members of the upper classes in the Seville of Murillo’s day, as well as the only two self-portraits of the artist known to exist. They display a kind of restrained genius and lack of overt sentimentality which makes them particularly appealing to a present-day audience. Murillo: The Self Portraits at The Frick runs through February 4, 2018, and then will head to the National Gallery in London.

Murillo

Strasbourg Shuffle

Last week, the French city of Strasbourg symbolically returned two paintings to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. I write, “symbolically”, because thanks to existing cultural repatriation agreements between Austria and France, the pictures are going to stay where they are for now, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg. The works in question are a “Landscape with Mercury and Argus” attributed to the Flemish Renaissance painter Lucas Gassel (1499-1570), and a fantastical landscape painting with animals (including an American Bison?) being rampant all over the place titled “The Earthly Paradise” by the Dutch Mannerist painter Roelandt Savery ( 1576-1639). Neither of these artists is particularly important, frankly, though perhaps Savery is comparatively better-known, thanks to his several rather extraordinarily luxurious depictions of the dodo bird. Curiously, these paintings were looted from the Vienna museum by the Nazis during the Anschluss, in order to decorate the Reichskanzler headquarters in Berlin, but no one quite seems to know how they ended up in Alsace-Lorraine after the war.

Gassel

Paradiso

Valuing Vigée Le Brun

Regular readers will recall my review in The Federalist of the major Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) retrospective at The Met last year, which included most of the best royal and aristocratic portraits created by Queen Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter. Perhaps in the wake of heightened awareness of the artist generated by that show, Christie’s New York has just auctioned a (very beautiful) self-portrait of the (very beautiful) artist for over $1.5 million: more than three times its estimated sales price. The picture was painted in Vienna in 1794, one of several cities where Vigée Le Brun and her daughter lived after fleeing the French Revolution. While not a record sales price for the artist, the result at least suggests the possibility that greater awareness of the artist’s work among potential collectors, thanks in part to the 2016 exhibition, has correspondingly led to an increase in the perceived monetary value of her work: a well-documented phenomenon in the art trade.

LeBrun

 

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Coffee With Caligula: Ancient Roman Artifact Rediscovered In New York Apartment

An interesting story that has been making the rounds in the art and archaeology press of late has been the rediscovery, inside a Park Avenue apartment, of a mosaic from one of the ships built for the Roman Emperor Caligula in the 1st century AD. Caligula had luxurious pleasure craft for the use of himself and his entourage when he visited the imperial villa located on Lake Nemi a small resort town about 20 miles south of Rome, which were covered in statuary, mosaics, and other fine materials. It turns out that this particular floor section went missing sometime around World War II, and ended up in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where it had been converted into the top for a coffee table. The owner of the piece has – understandably reluctantly – returned it to Italian authorities, and you can read more about the unusual circumstances involved in this story here.

mosaic

Caligula was a bit of a nut, as you probably remember from your World History class, who succeeded his Great-Uncle Tiberius to the Imperial Roman throne. Among other bizarre acts best not shared here, he infamously made his horse a Inciatus a priest, and was considering making him a Roman Consul, as well. Following his assassination by the Praetorian Guard, he was succeeded by his uncle Claudius, whose fictionalized two-volume autobiography by Robert Graves – “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” – is not only an absolute page-turner, but also the basis for one of the most engrossing TV miniseries ever produced. If you’ve not seen it, you definitely need to make that a priority at some point.

At Lake Nemi, Caligula had more to do than simply float about all day, soaking up the sun. The imperial family owned at least one villa by the lake shore, and could take excursions to interesting sites around the perimeter. I’ve always been particularly fascinated by one of these locations, the Temple of Diana Nemorensis, which is located on the north end of the lake. Although it no longer exists, it was a very ancient site of pagan worship, dating back at least to at least the 4th century BC, and had a rather bizarre ritual associated with it, which will call to mind a scene from “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” involving Indy and the ancient crusader.

The presiding priest at the Temple of Diana Nemorensis was known as the Rex (“King”) Nemorensis, and held that position against all comers only for so long as he could best those who would seek to supplant him in physical combat. If a sitting occupant was killed, then the man who bested him would become the new Rex Nemorensis. By long-standing tradition, only runaway slaves were eligible to compete for the position.

Rex

Not only did Caligula allow this practice to continue during his reign, but there are stories that he enjoyed watching the ritual take place. In fact, so much did he enjoy this rather gruesome day trip whenever he was in town, that according to the Roman historian Suetonius the emperor once sent one of his own slaves to fight the sitting Rex Nemorensis, since Caligula felt that the current priest-king had held his position for too long. There’s no word on who won, but no doubt both men, in their way, were going to lose, whatever the outcome.

You can see some of the remains of Caligula’s ships at a museum located near Lake Nemi today. There are many interesting objects that were once part of these vessels, but my personal favorites are the bronze animal heads – including lions, wild boar, and panthers – with rings in their mouths, which were used to help tow the boats around the lake (they could float but were too heavy to properly row or sail.) Presumably, the coffee table fit for an emperor will soon be rejoining them.

lions

New Church To Glow At Ground Zero

I must confess that, being neither a New Yorker nor Greek Orthodox, I was unaware that a significant, new church is under construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Designed by Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava, the St. Nicholas National Shrine will replace the now-demolished St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was destroyed on 9/11 when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed onto it. The hope is that the church will be completed in time for Easter of next year.

I encourage you to watch the video of what the completed building will be like, and to pay particular attention around the midway point to see what effect it will have at night on its somber surroundings. Thanks to the materials that will be used in its construction, St. Nicholas will actually glow from within, rather like alabaster does when you put a candle behind it. Moreover, the placement of the building within an elevated park will give it a far greater physical prominence in the neighborhood than it held prior to the previous church’s construction. As the parish website points out: “It is clear that the Church will be a lamp on a lampstand, and a city set on a hill (cf. Matthew 5:14,15).”

What struck me immediately was how wonderfully appropriate this house of God will be, in a place where so many cried out to Him in despair. There is a tremendous, symbolic poignancy in the juxtaposition of this small but dignified building, located just across from the massive memorial fountain-waterfall. This part of the 9/11 memorial is certainly a very powerful design, summing up the feelings of those who lost loved ones on that day. Yet it has always struck me as being dangerously nihilistic, like a well descending into nothingness.

Although not a part of the 9/11 memorial itself, St. Nicholas will nevertheless be a fitting companion to it. You will not be able to visit the waterfall and pools without seeing the church, looking as if it was perched solidly on the precipice of an abyss, as a refuge from what terrifies us. It will no doubt receive many visitors seeking somewhere to pray, but I think its greater significance over time will be as a reminder of the bulwark of Faith, particularly in times of trouble.

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