Peter of Bethsaida: Archaeology, Art, and Audacity

I’m going to attempt to tie together a few threads this morning, as I often do in these pages, and see whether the whole thing hangs together. This past Sunday, Christians celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration, while today is the Feast of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers. Combine these two commemorations with a fascinating new archaeological discovery that will prove of great interest to Christians everywhere, and throw in some great works of art, and away we go. Bear with me, gentle reader.

On the news-y side of things, archaeologists in Israel believe they have found the site of Bethsaida the hometown of the Apostles St. Peter, St. Andrew, and St. Philip, near the Sea of Galilee. The Roman city of Julias was built on the site of Bethsaida, and is mentioned by the Roman historian Josephus, but its location was lost down the centuries. With the remains of a Roman bath house and other substantial finds at the dig site, scientists are now convinced that they have found the right spot. As of right now, the public isn’t allowed to visit the dig, but no doubt when it becomes accessible this site is going to be added to the pilgrimage trail for Christians visiting Galilee.

Bethsaida’s most famous resident, St. Peter, plays a major role in the Feast of the Transfiguration, which Christians celebrated this past Sunday. As retold in the Gospels, Jesus, accompanied by the Apostles Peter, James, and John, climbed up a mountain and revealed His true nature to these three closest followers, in a vision which was accompanied by the appearances of Moses and Elijah with the transfigured Christ. In St. Matthew’s recounting of the event, we read the following:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

St. Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration has been portrayed many times in art, perhaps most famously in Raphael’s final masterpiece, left unfinished at his untimely death in 1520 at the age of 37. The depiction of Jesus in this painting, in particular, has proven to be hugely influential not only in art, but in popular culture. In Raphael’s interpretation of the event, St. Peter is clothed in blue and yellow, shown below and to the right of the transfigured Jesus. He has just finished offering to put up three tents, for Christ and the two Prophets, and is now lying on the ground and twisting his upper body so as to cover his face from the blinding light:

This beautiful but rather complex depiction of the Transfiguration contrasts sharply with the simpler and perhaps more profound one rendered by Blessed Fra Angelico, the Dominican friar and Early Renaissance artist. This particular fresco was painted on the wall of a cell in the Dominican friary of San Marco, outside of Florence, sometime between 1440-1442. In his more solemn and minimalist imagining of this event, Fra Angelico’s image is one of great stillness, rather than one of movement and energy.

Like Raphael, Fra Angelico places St. Peter to the lower right of Jesus, and the Prince of the Apostles still shields his eyes from the celestial light, but this time we see him is in a more upright position: unlike the other two Apostles, St. Peter is trying to see what is happening. Notice also that on the extreme left and right of the picture we see two individuals who were not present at the Transfiguration, but who are shown meditating about it: the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and St. Dominic, whose feast day we celebrate today. The presence of such individuals is anachronistic, historically speaking, but was quite common in sacred art. It often provided a context for placement of the work of art – such as in this case, inside a Dominican friary, and bearing in mind that Dominicans have a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother.

While the individual focus of not only these works of art, but of course the Gospel retellings themselves, is Jesus, they also give us an opportunity to think about the character of St. Peter, and how he grew so far beyond what could reasonably have been expected of someone hailing from Galilee. I was particularly struck by this change in his character when reading-listening to the 2nd reading from Mass on Sunday, which was taken from the Second Letter of St. Peter. It personalizes the Transfiguration in a way which shows us that St. Peter is no longer that provincial fisherman, nor merely an easily-frightened follower of a maybe-Messiah, but a figure of authority, strength, and conviction for the first Christians to turn to:

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
2 St. Peter 1:16-19

This absolutely explicit defense of the reality of the Transfiguration – and indeed, of the Resurrection, for St. Peter and the other two were enjoined by Christ not to tell anyone about the Transfiguration until after His Resurrection – shows us how far St. Peter has come. He may have started life uneventfully enough, in small-town Bethsaida, but by the time the scribe is writing this final letter to his dictation, St. Peter is imprisoned in Rome, and is aware that he is about to die because of his faith in Christ. “Therefore, I will always remind you of these things,” he notes, “even though you already know them and are established in the truth you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this ‘tent,’ to stir you up by a reminder, since I know that I will soon have to put it aside, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me I shall also make every effort to enable you always to remember these things after my departure.” (2 St. Peter 1:12-15)

With a last look at the two paintings we considered today, then, and in the light of the discovery of St. Peter’s birthplace, perhaps the takeaway for us today is one of courage. No matter what forgotten town we start from, and no matter where we find ourselves – in the cell of a monastery, the cell of a prison, or a cell of our own construction – we must be brave in preaching what we know to be true. We may not have the opportunity or indeed the calling to go out and preach the Gospel fearlessly to great crowds, as St. Peter and St. Dominic did. Yet in our own small lives and small towns, we can preach with equal bravery, when we stand up for the things that we know are right in spite of both ourselves, and the rest of the world standing in opposition to us.

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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.

Artists In Love: Painting The Muse

The artistic muse is a figure of great importance in art history. For centuries, men have been inspired by the women they are in love with, to create beautiful works of art which try to capture the beauty of these women for posterity. Today I’d like us to briefly consider an English 19th century example of how beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, at times, and then jump back to perhaps the quintessential artistic muse of the Italian Renaissance.

Jane Morris is a muse well-known to those who have any familiarity with Pre-Raphaelite art. From portraying her as the figure of Beatrice from Dante’s poetry, to dressing her as a goddess or nymph, she inspired the painter Dante Gabrielle Rossetti for years. She had quite a lengthy affair with him as well, even though she was married to another Pre-Raphaelite luminary, William Morris. The question one has to ask oneself, though, is why.

From nearly two dozen paintings of her by Rossetti, Morris stares out, bug-eyed and seemingly bad-tempered. Why Rossetti was so besotted with her is something which I have never understood. To my eye, she looks like a rather oafish young man in drag, who has just been awakened from a stupor to discover that he is drooling on himself. Described in articles like this one as a “beauty”, Morris is proof that for many people, beauty must truly be in the eyes of the beholder.

Whatever beauty Jane Morris may have (inexplicably) been to the English Pre-Raphaelites in the 19th century, for Raphael himself during the High Renaissance in Rome, his mistress Margarita Luti, more commonly known as “La Fornarina” – “the baker’s daughter”, was the muse of muses. I wanted to write briefly about a beautiful portrait of the beautiful La Fornarina known as the “Donna Velata” or “Veiled Lady”, and to look at it in conjunction with his portrait of Count Baldessare Castiglione, painted roughly around the same time, between 1514 and 1515. (Regular readers know that Castiglione’s portrait forms the design basis for this site, as you will discover by scrolling up and clicking “Patron”.)

Before beginning however, a note of caution. The problem with La Fornarina has always been identifying her, since there is a portrait by Raphael called “La Fornarina” which looks nothing like the lady in question. I have always doubted that Raphael painted it, or that if he started it someone else, such as his pupil Giulio Romano, finished it and changed it significantly. La Fornarina is the model for the Virgin Mary in several of Raphael’s most famous paintings, including his “Sistine Madonna” and “Madonna of the Chair”, and the half-naked woman in the portrait named for her, in fact looks nothing like her.  

That caveat out of the way, let’s look at the “Veiled Lady” portrait. The first thing to notice in this picture, after you have absorbed the (actual) beauty of the woman in it, is that here we have almost a tonal painting. There are only shades of browns, whites, and golds, with a tiny bit of red for La Fornarina’s lips and cheeks, and in the ruby clip holding the pearl drop to her hair. Even the agate necklace around La Fornarina’s neck shows earth-toned gems set in simple gold.

Compare this very simple color scheme, almost a lack of color, if you will, to the portrait of Castiglione. Here, too, Raphael is also highly restrained in the color palette he uses. Castiglione’s painting is made up of browns, grays, blacks, and whites, with the only outstanding color being the writer’s piercing blue eyes. Even the gold-set jewel in his cap is shown muddled and in shadow.

Another similarity between the two portraits lies in the use of fabric. La Fornarina’s lavish white dress envelops her like a merengue, but it is lacking in color other than geometric borders in gold thread; she also wears a simple, natural linen veil over her head. In his portrait, Castiglione is shown wearing a basic black suit with a plush but equally simple, gray velvet cloak wrapped around him, and a jaunty black hat pushed back on his head, somewhat like a turban. While both of the outfits shown in these portraits were costly, their cost is shown through their quality, rather than by their being flashy.

We tend to think of the Renaissance as being a bold, colorful business, with people wearing extraordinarily loud colors and patterns. In this instance however, when Raphael chose to paint portraits of the woman he loved and of one of his closest friends and mentors, he did so without a great deal of fussiness, color, or flashiness. The brushwork is swift and natural, with the shyness of La Fornarina being expressed as beautifully in her somewhat timid glance, as Castiglione’s polite, noble self-confidence is in his own. There are no props necessary when you are an artist this good at capturing human expression. Indeed, one can look at this art and easily leap forward over a century and a few hundred miles to see how Velazquez did exactly the same thing in Madrid in the 17th century as Raphael was doing in Rome in the 16th.

Jane Morris and La Fornarina are not the only muses in art history, of course. From Simonetta Vespucci to Lady Hamilton to Gala Dali, many women became artistic inspirations for the men who admired them and represented them in art. However I think that what is interesting in the representations of these women are not when they appear as models for goddesses or saints, but rather in the art created for private consumption by the artist himself, for his own delectation. There we get a better sense, perhaps, of how the artist really saw his muse, when the two of them were alone. In the case of Raphael, one can well understand why he fell in love with La Fornarina.

image

"Donna Velata" by Raphael (c. 1514-15)