Chinese Skyscrapers, Renaissance Style

Architecture is an infinitely rewarding area of study, because just when you think you’ve seen and heard of everything, you come across something like the Italian Renaissance skyscrapers of rural China, and realize that you still have a lot to learn.

In many countries around the world, the rural landscape is dotted with the crumbling architectural fantasies of middle class Victorians and Edwardians. The profusion of styles employed in these places usually did not approximate the originals on which they were based: Italian Renaissance Revival houses, for example, do not greatly resemble the Renaissance palazzi of Florence, Venice, or Genoa. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution however, they could be built comparatively cheaply and quickly.

In general terms, this process is not very much different from how new middle class housing is built today. Buyers seeking to build their own Medici villa could usually select from a series of options in a builder’s catalogue, and then customize their new home with their preferred finishes and as much ornament as they could afford. Just about every small town in America has at least one prominent example of this sort of architectural pastiche, built around the turn of the previous century.

A more unusual manifestation of this trend appeared in rural China at about the same time. In Guandong Province, not far from Hong Kong, quasi-Tuscan towers called “diaolus” sprang up in great numbers during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies. As the Chinese middle classes became both more well-traveled and well-to-do, acquiring homes and businesses overseas, they wanted to display their new wealth back home, and to protect that wealth from attacks by bandits that continued to plague the countryside. Some of these diaolus served as grand residences, for when the owner was in town, while others were built to serve communal purposes, such as watchtowers or places to hole up in times of danger.

At one time, it is estimated that there were over 3,000 such towers dotting the landscape in Guandong. A significant number have been demolished, but hundreds still remain, thanks in part to their recognition as world heritage sites by UNESCO back in 2007. Their future at present is unclear, since finding new purposes for what are in most cases abandoned rural buildings of rather large size is a significant problem in today’s China, where over the past decade the countryside has been rapidly emptied, as peasants leave the land in favor of urban job opportunities and greater social mobility.  

Unlike the tower villas of classic Tuscan hill towns such as San Gimignano, on which these constructions are perhaps loosely based, many of these structures stand independently of one another, rather than clustered next to each other for protection. Some of the towers are exotic mixtures of European and Asian styles, such as the elaborate Ruishi Dialou in the village of Jinjiangli pictured below. It features a bizarre combination of Italian Renaissance tower shaft, a top formed of an arcade and a series of Byzantine-Mughal cupolas, and gigantic Chinese characters painted onto the façade.

None of these structures are great works of architecture. Yet collectively, they are an interesting, sometimes amusing look at the way different architectural styles can be combined to create something truly unique. If any of my readers have been to see these unusual towers, I would be very curious to learn more about what they are like.

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Art Criticism #Fail: Taking A Second Look At Christ

Art Criticism #Fail: Taking A Second Look At Christ

One of the problems with looking at art, let alone writing art criticism, is that it can be easy to forget the meaning of what it is that we are looking at. Perhaps because we live in an age in which we are taught that meaning is subjective, this mindset not only taints the viewer but the reviewer as well. I must confess that I can easily get wrapped up in the finer points of technique, or in recounting the history of a particular work, and overlook the spirituality of the art I am thinking about when I write a blog post or review an exhibition.

Last week for example, I wrote a summary of some interesting summer art exhibitions that I recommended to my readers. I mentioned a show about 1930’s American painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and suggested that visitors should also stop and check out the museum’s latest addition to its collection of Old Masters, a painting of Christ carrying the Cross by Sebastiano del Piombo. I pointed out that there are several versions of this piece, since it was one of the artist’s most popular compositions at the time he painted it, but that nevertheless it was a good buy for the Art Institute and worth seeing.

Reaction to the Art Institute’s acquisition of this painting could not have been more different across the spectrum of art media. Over on Apollo for example, contributor Louise Nicholson pronounced the piece “superb”, praised its condition and composition, and noted its blending of the monumentalism of Michelangelo with the “mystical twilight” landscape of the Venetians. Meanwhile, at-large critic Blake Gopnik over on ArtNet described the painting as “important, but flawed”, explained that del Piombo rarely managed to emerge from the shadows of his contemporaries, and opined that this is another instance among many in del Piombo’s career in which this was the case.

Yet none of us who wrote about this piece, myself included, wrote a single sentence regarding the spirituality of this painting. Intrigued by its provenance, lighting, and angles, and in the rush to give an opinion on the significance of the piece, we forgot that this was more than just a work of art: it was created as a means for spiritually connecting the viewer to Christ. In other words, all of us failed to actually *see* the picture.

If you have a tablet or laptop computer, or you can kneel down on the floor for a moment, take a look at the accompanying photograph of this painting from below, and consider its impact from that angle. Here is Jesus falling on the Via Dolorosa, His face grimacing in pain as the road to Calvary unwinds before Him. If you happen to position yourself to the right of this image, as you look up at it you get the impression that He is looking at you. This painting is a direct, in-your-face reminder that God is doing this for YOU, as you kneel in prayer before it.

Meanwhile the figure of St. Simon of Cyrene, who has just been roped in by the soldier shown in the shadows to help Christ carry His Cross, may cause us to reflect on different aspects of the Way of the Cross. There is a practical determination in his expression, as he figures out how best to help pick up the Cross that Jesus has fallen under. However there is also an illumination of St. Simon’s face, as he is caught up in the same light that illuminates the features of Christ. Is he getting an inkling of something else at work here? Is he realizing that this is going to turn out to be an even more extraordinary event in his life, than the already extraordinary event of his being forced by the Romans into helping a condemned prisoner whom he does not know?

Look also at the depiction of Jerusalem in the background of the painting. Although we know from the Bible that Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus around Noon, and that He died around 3pm, notice that the red skies over the city already look more like sunset than midday. Perhaps del Piombo is artistically anticipating the darkness that we are told fell over the city, when a powerful storm came up, and an earthquake rent the veil of the Temple in two. The artist may be telling us that, even before Christ arrived at Golgotha, the world was already darkening in anticipation of what was about to happen.

Perhaps because so much Christian art has been created over the last two millennia, and so much of it is crowded into our art museums, we have become indifferent to works like this. But consider what a great weight an artist like del Piombo bore on his shoulders, in painting this image of Christ carrying the Cross on His. This was not a work of art that was intended to flatter a wealthy patron, or decorate that empty space over the sideboard. It was intended to make the viewer pray, and in particular to meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus.

What a tremendous challenge it must be, for any artist to really try to get that right. And what a pity that both the public and critics so often miss the forest for the trees, when we look at such spiritually significant works of art. We can only hope to remember, and try to do better by it.

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Portable Piety: Hitting The Road With Those You Love

For those of my readers who find themselves in New York between now and March 20th, a visit to the New York Historical Society will bring a wonderful treat, both for lovers of art and for Christians generally. The centerpiece of their current show, “Maestà: Gaddi’s Triptych Reunited” is a glorious panel of the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints, painted by the Early Italian Renaissance painter Taddeo Gaddi in around 1334.  The exhibition is an opportunity not only to admire a beautiful work of art, but also to think about how we ourselves can use similar objects today – even if we are not so fortunate as to own a masterpiece of sacred art.   

In art history, a “Maestà” is a type of image in which the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, related to similar examples in Byzantine art, are represented as seated together on a heavenly throne, often surrounded by saints and/or angels. This particular painting has been restored over the past two years and is now back on display at the NYHS, along with two panels which experts now believe were originally connected to it to form a folding triptych. By following this link one can see an animation of what the entire work of art originally looked like, before it lost its frame, was split into its component pieces, and dispersed to different collectors.  

Photographs of works of art hardly ever give us an impression of their size. In this case, the Maestà is not a huge altarpiece, like the famous “Descent from the Cross” (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden in The Prado, which shocked me by its massiveness when I first saw it in person: that work is about 7 feet tall and about 8 ½ feet wide. By comparison, the Gaddi is quite a small thing, comparatively speaking. When closed, the triptych would have measured around 16 inches tall and 12 inches wide, roughly the size of a college diploma.

Gaddi’s painting does not contain any portraits of the person or family that originally commissioned the work, but from its comparatively small size we know that it was intended for private, rather than public use. The buyer would have discussed with the artist what subject matter he wanted to appear in the piece, and in this case, clearly there were certain saints whom his family had a particular devotion to. For in addition to the scenes from the life of Christ, there are a number of saints portrayed in the work, who are not there by accident or simply for purposes of decoration. We can probably assume, for example, that if a husband and wife commissioned the piece, that their respective first names might have been Catarina and Cristoforo, because images of St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Christopher bearing the Christ Child appear on the outside wings of the triptych. This is what we would have seen as a visitor to the family’s home, if the piece was closed and sitting on a shelf or a table.

This triptych would have been used both as an aid to prayer and as a beautiful object to decorate the room in which it was placed, but its practicality for the devout Catholic was that it could also have been taken on the road. The portability of such a comparatively small work of art allowed the traveler to stop and focus on the spiritual life, at whatever roadside inn or ship’s berth he happened to find himself sleeping in, at a time when travel was particularly uncomfortable, arduous, and dangerous. Stopping to thank God for His continued Grace and protection for himself and for his family, the owner of this piece would be able to keep in mind who he was, and what he believed, even if he was far from home.     

Most of us are not so fortunate as to have objects like this to carry around with us, and yet the tradition of a portable devotional work is something which can easily be employed by anyone today at no significant expense. A very simple example of this is something which I employ when I travel, a practice that I inherited from my Mother. Many years ago I purchased two sizes of folding, leather picture frames with clear plastic panes. On one side of the frame, I place a photograph of my family; on the other, a simple postcard with a religious image, usually of Christ or the Blessed Mother or a favorite saint, picked up at one of my favorite art museums. It weighs practically nothing, and because the materials are all soft and flexible, it does not break, even if dropped or knocked over.

Another, slightly more hefty option for the contemporary traveler is to find a travel icon. Such objects are very easy to find these days, whether online or in a Christian bookshop, or indeed if you are fortunate enough to travel to places like Greece, Poland, or Russia. There are an almost infinite variety of single, double, or even triple-paneled images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels applied through various methods of decoupage to carved and stained pieces of wood. Over the years friends have gifted me a few examples of these from their travels to places like Prague or Ephesus, and I have purchased others of particular saints whom I admire. They fold up nicely, and stand steadily on a nightstand or desk.

Whichever option you choose, it is very easy in either instance to simply place this object in your carry on, or roll it up with some socks in your checked bag. Unlike the Gaddi Maestà, this should not be such an intrinsically valuable objects that, if it disappears into the great unknown of lost luggage, your level of upset would be catastrophic. Instead, as a simple reminder to yourself of who you are, and of He from Whom you seek grace and protection while on the road, they are an easy way to make any room you happen to find yourself in during your journey feel much more like home.        

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