“Wonderful” Honthorst: A Newly Restored Nativity With A Very Special Beastie

Just in time for Christmas, one of the most beautiful and charming paintings of the Nativity in the history of Western art has been conserved and restored for future generations.

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1622) by the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany, is probably well-known to you from Christmas cards, ornaments, and the like. The subject was one which the artist painted several times during his career, but this is certainly his finest composition. Thanks to a grant from the local government in North Rhine-Westphalia, the picture has been restored, and is now the centerpiece of an exhibition titled “Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds”, detailing the history and extensive research that went into the preservation of this masterpiece, as well as comparing it to other depictions of this Biblical scene.

In its review, Art Daily duly notes the loving and joyful expressions of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the shepherds, the wonderful depiction of light radiating from the Infant Jesus amidst the nocturnal gloom, and the presence of a very faithful beastie. “The scene is also witnessed by an ox,” AD points out, “lovingly warming the child with his breath in the cold night air. It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest an allusion to St Luke’s Gospel, as well as to the emblem of the painter’s guild that Honthorst had recently entered. With this image Honthorst proudly demonstrates that his lively art has the capacity to enable the beholder to become a witness of the Holy scene.”

Two bits of explanation are needed here, for those unfamiliar with Christian iconography. The authors of the four canonical Gospels – Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – have long been associated with four different animals mentioned in visions experienced by both the Prophet Ezekiel and by St. John the Evangelist in the Bible. Think of them as heraldic symbols, much in the same way the bald eagle represents the United States, or the Lion and the Unicorn represent the British Crown. In St. Luke’s case, he is represented by the sacrificial ox, since his Gospel begins with the story of St. Zechariah, father of St. John the Baptist, offering sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, and St. Luke emphasizes the sacrifical nature of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in expiation for the sins of mankind.

In addition, St. Luke is also the patron saint of artists. This patronage stems from an ancient, pious belief that St. Luke was not only a physician – according to his friend St. Paul the Apostle – and writer of both his Gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, but a painter as well. He was made the patron saint of artists’ guilds all over Medieval Europe, some of which still exist today, and in order to succeed and get the best commissions, artists needed to become members of these early forms of trade unions. Oftentimes an applicant to one of these guilds, such as Honthorst, had to create an original work for submission and evaluation by a guild committee, similar to the way in which today, an apprentice might demonstrate a particular skill set or final product in order to receive a certification or license.

The connection with St. Luke in this painting is most obvious in the fact that both the familiar story of the shepherds and the Nativity’s nocturnal setting both come from St. Luke’s Gospel. In St. Luke 2:8-14, the Evangelist describes how there were shepherds near Bethlehem “keeping the night watch over their flock,” who were startled by the sudden appearance of angels, announcing the birth of the Messiah. The shepherds then decided to go see for themselves, as St. Luke recounts:

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.

All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

St. Luke 2:15-20

There is no mention in the Bible of any animals being present at the Nativity, but because of St. Luke’s description of the Christ Child being laid in a manger, artists have traditionally included animals in pictorial representations of the scene. A donkey is the animal most commonly shown in these images, but an ox, sheep, and camels are often present as well. Some artists keep things simple, showing no animals at all. Others add all sorts of creatures to their depictions, whether for symbolic or picturesque purposes, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find Christmas images that contain depictions of birds, monkeys, rabbits, and all sorts of other beasties.

Interestingly, Honthorst has chosen to eschew not only the donkey but also the sheep in his painting, and in fact he makes the ox a key figure rather than just part of the background. What is particularly charming here, in addition to the fact that, as Art Daily pointed out in their review quoted above, the ox is warming the Christ Child with its breath, which is just visible curling out from around its nostrils against the rich ochre yellow of St. Joseph’s mantle, is that St. Joseph himself is resting his clasped hands on the animal’s head, as he leans smilingly over the manger. Note as well that the ox is the only one in this painting who looks out at the viewer. None of the humans even notice that we are present at the scene. The ox however, is inviting us in to the picture with a glance, and, in the manner of tame animals like cats and dogs, seems to be asking us, “Did I do good?”

“Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds” is open now at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, and runs through, appropriately enough, February 4, 2018, the weekend of Candlemas (the traditional end of the Christmas season.)

Nadal

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Thought-Pourri: Happy Hippo Edition

It’s been a big week for art news since last week’s roundup, gentle reader.

The very, very big news is that Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which I shared some thoughts about earlier this week, sold for a whopping $450 million last night at Christie’s in New York. This is by far the highest amount ever paid for a single work of art in any art auction, ever, far outstripping the previous auction record holder, Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)”, which sold for $179 million back in 2015. Despite the naysayers – and there are many – at the end of the day a Da Vinci is a Da Vinci, even if it’s a Da Vinci that’s not in especially good nick.

Meanwhile, the other big story is that rival auctioneer Sotheby’s is currently licking its chops, after the Massachusetts Appeals Court halted the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s auction of a series of paintings from its permanent collection, including two works by Norman Rockwell which had been donated to the museum by the artist himself. While the pictures in question are not of great importance in art history, the really interesting item here is how the courts will address the question of deaccession, which is always a thorny subject when it comes to art law. I’m not going to weigh in on the pro’s and con’s of the practice, but it will be interesting to see what the final result is, and whether it sets any precedents.

Anyway, on to some other, less portentous news items.

Happy, Happy Hippo

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of William, the Ancient Egyptian hippopotamus that has long been a symbol of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Met has just opened a new exhibition featuring the beloved blue beastie. In addition, William will be feted with lectures, activities, and even cookies and cocktails named in his honor. William being, of course, the best of all possible boys’ names, and my childhood wish to become an Egyptologist notwithstanding, I’ve always had a soft spot for this little sculpture; perhaps I should look into obtaining a reproduction for myself. Check the Met’s website for a full of listing of exhibition and event details.

Hippo

The Queen’s Cranach

Technology once again comes to the rescue of the art world, in identifying a lost work by one of Germany’s most important Renaissance artists. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) is perhaps best known for his paintings of naked ladies, who are so physically unappealing that it’s hard to understand why his pictures were so widely collected. He also painted portraits however, and it turns out that one of these – long thought to be a copy – was purchased by England’s Queen Victoria as a Christmas present for her German husband, Prince Albert. Personally, I don’t much care for Cranach, whose work was commissioned mostly by Northern Europeans with bad taste (probably because they couldn’t produce anything to rival what was being painted in Italy at the same time.) Nevertheless, it’s an interesting story, down to the rather grisly preparation method – pigeon tendons! – which helped confirm the authenticity of the picture.

Cranach

Clearly Contemporary Claptrap

Speaking of unappealing works of art, I’ve been saying for years that most of the Contemporary Art world is rather boring, and highly derivative in nature, since it constantly has to try to shock the viewer due to an inability to demonstrate much of anything in the way of skill and creativity. Marcel Duchamp hung a urinal on a wall and titled it “Fountain” a century ago, after all; much of what is supposedly avant-garde these days has been said by others, elsewhere, in more interesting ways. So it was particularly refreshing, in this review of a show at Turin’s brand-new OGR complex juxtaposing Ancient, Classical, and Contemporary Art, to find a reviewer who apparently agrees.

Turin

Restoring Russian Ruins

A few years after The Wall came down, we were visiting some friends in Munich who hoped to finally get back their family estate near Potsdam, which had been taken by the Soviets when Germany was divided after World War II; they eventually managed to secure the property and restore it. White Russians, on the other hand, have been waiting to reclaim their ancestral homes for roughly a century now, thanks to the Russian Revolution which broke out in November 2017. Some of these palaces were preserved, but the majority have long been ruins. This interesting piece in Art Daily is just a sampling of some of the problems faced by those trying to reclaim their family’s homes – such as, how do you get people to willingly travel hundreds of miles out in the middle of nowhere to fix up falling down old houses?

Estate

Sorolla and Stock Sale

For many years now, New York art dealer Otto Naumann has been one of the most hallowed names in the world of Old Master painting – and is certainly the most important dealer in this genre in the United States. Now that he’s retiring from the trade, Naumann has decided to sell off his remaining stock through Sotheby’s. In addition to Renaissance and Baroque religious, mythological, and still life paintings, works that will be coming to the auction block include some of what Old Master collectors would consider “Modern” art, such as this beautiful work by Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) of a Castilian peasant pouring himself a glass of water. On their website, Sotheby’s has more on Naumann, his collection, and the upcoming multi-day sale of his stock, which will take place between January 26-31, 2018. If you happen to have a few million sitting around, or know someone who does, this is a sale not to be missed.

Sorolla

Saving The Soviets: The Art Media Loses Its Mind In Moscow

Much of the city of Moscow, as you are probably aware, was scarred with hideous buildings during the Soviet era. Films such as “The Bourne Supremacy” show the bleakness of 20th century Muscovite residential architecture in a way that brings home why we won the Cold War. Because honestly, who would *want* to live in these sorts of places? As it turns out, a number of Muscovites do, but not for the same reasons that architectural experts want them to stay right where they are.

Over the past few weeks, the art press has been wailing and gnashing its teeth over plans by Moscow’s mayor to demolish a large number of low-rise, Soviet-era apartment buildings. The reaction has been predictable, for those who follow the arts. “Moscow’s architectural heritage threatened by development plan” screams Apollo Magazine. The Art Newspaper had the gall to compare the proposed demolition of these buildings, which were built in the aftermath of a murderous land grab, to that very land grab itself. “Describe [sic] by many residents as a property grab akin to the forced collectivisation of property under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the demolition plan has proven so unpopular that thousands turned up for a demonstration against it in Moscow on Sunday 14 May carrying signs with slogans like ‘My house is my castle’.”

What’s most telling amidst all of the histrionic reporting on this story is the fact that almost none of the reports provide any images of the buildings proposed for demolition. There are plenty of photographs of protestors, in the half-dozen or so articles from the art world that I’ve read on this story. The media always likes covering protesters (apart from pro-life protesters, of course.) For the most part however, not one image of these apparently precious apartment blocks appears anywhere in the reporting itself.

Why is this the case? Surely, buildings of such architectural significance ought to be shown by the art media to the international reading public? How else do they expect the outside world to develop a collective sense of concern, and galvanize support for the preservation of these important structures? In the interest of their cause, then, I present to you one of these architectural wonders, which is currently slated for demolition:

Now, if I was arguing this case in court, at this point I’d probably say something to the effect of, “res ipsa loquitor.” This particular gem was one of the first low-rise blocks built under Khrushchev, a figure not exactly known for his innate sense of good taste. If this building was located in the U.S., I’d expect there to be a strip mall across the street with a cracked parking lot, a gas station, a Chinese takeout place, and a nail/threading salon, along with several boarded-up shop windows bearing “For Lease” signs.

There’s a further wrinkle to this story, beyond the perhaps inescapable conclusion that the art press has lost its collective mind, and that is a consideration of what the residents of these buildings themselves want to see happen. They know, and freely admit, that these structures are ugly, dangerous places, which are always falling to pieces and in need of constant repair. The only thing pleasant about them is the fact that they are mostly low-rise apartment blocks, rather than high-rises. Older Muscovites, in particular, do not want to live in high-rise apartments, particularly ones that are built to (questionable) Russian standards, and that’s fair enough.

When you drill down into the reporting, it turns out that what the inhabitants of these apartments are really concerned about is not architectural preservation, or the alleged glories of socialist style. Rather, these people are worried that they will not receive new apartments which will be better than the ones that they currently live in. For the majority of these apartment dwellers, their concerns are focused on money and square footage, not celebrating the supposed brilliance of Soviet-era design.

Among the cognoscenti of the art world however, the demolition of these buildings – which of course, they themselves do not have to live in – would wipe away large swathes of the kind of hideous, leftist architecture which they and their predecessors have promoted and fetishized in our cities for nearly a century. For those focused on the preservation of these sad reminders of the evils of socialism run amok, such oppressive structures represent the good that leftism can do, when it ignores conventional ideas of both beauty and individuality. It is as if Captain Picard would have been better off remaining in the Collective as Locutus of Borg.

Having seen but one specific example of the hundreds of Soviet apartment blocks slated for demolition, I’d certainly be willing to consider whether Moscow’s urban renewal plan is going too far. Perhaps there is some work of significant architectural beauty that is going to be torn down, which my readers could share with the rest of us in the comments section of this post. Yet given the reticence of the art press to provide even one example of such a structure to date, I’ll be very much surprised if you can find any.