Art News Roundup: Can You Dig It Edition

Before getting to some news from around the art world, I wanted to share at a bit more length some news about a structure that has fascinated me for some time, but which most people have probably never heard of.

The massive Canfranc International Railway Station, located in the Spanish Pyrenees a few miles from the French border, was completed in 1928 and formally opened by King Alfonso XIII. At the time, it was the second-largest train station in Europe, its sheer size explained by the fact that the differing Spanish and French railway gauges forced both passenger and freight trains crossing the border to exit the train they were in and transfer to one suited to the gauge in the country they were entering. Massive tunnels were dug through the mountains, along with service roads and other infrastructure, in order to make the new undertaking possible. However, most of the station has been closed since a derailment on the French side of the border in 1970 destroyed a railway bridge, which the French never bothered to rebuild.

After many years of semi-abandonment and neglect however, the station will now be coming back to life. Plans were announced this week for the grand 1920’s station to be converted into a luxury hotel, while a new and modern station will be built alongside to handle both regional rail traffic as well as a re-opening and expansion of rail connections between Zaragoza and Bordeaux. In a sense, the hope is that this will prove to be for the Pyrenees what the revived and renovated St. Pancras has been for its part of London.

While one might reasonably wonder who would bother to go to a luxury hotel out in the middle of nowhere, Canfranc station is surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery:


With snow sports in winter and hiking in the summer, lush forests, streams and lakes, small villages with ancient churches and castles, it’s a location that, if it had been in the Alps, would have been developed as a tourist resort destination centuries ago. Even in its current state of semi-abandonment, for the past several years the Canfranc station itself has been attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually: train buffs, mountain hikers, nature enthusiasts, architecture aficionados, and so on, so giving these visitors a chance to stay at their destination seems to be a safe bet. It’s a real pleasure to see this fascinating building come back from the brink, and interesting to speculate on where these new tunnels for the expanded rail network will end up going.


And now on to some other digging about…

Dead Lawns of Devonshire

A recent summer heat wave in Britain has been killing off the lawns of houses across the island, but perhaps nowhere as spectacularly as at Chatsworth House, the estate of the Dukes of Devonshire. Beginning in the 1750’s, the famous English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-1783) ripped out the formal, terraced gardens that had surrounded the house during the 17th century, replacing them with vast expanses of lawn. With the current heatwave however, the outlines of those long-gone parterres have suddenly been exposed. Frankly, I find them preferable to Brown’s obsession with perfectly maintained but ultimately rather boring turf, an obsession which continues to affect homeowners on both sides of the Atlantic down to the present day, but I suspect His Grace will not be digging up the back yard in response to this temporary reveal.


Sharing the Spoils

A German farmer is (potentially) a far wealthier man today, after his local government tried to swindle him out of his fair share in what at the time was described as one of the best-preserved Roman sculpture finds in Germany in many years. After archeologists dug up the head of a bronze horse in 2009, from what is believed to have been an equestrian statue of Caesar Augustus dating to about the year 9 A.D., the local government paid the farmer on whose land the piece was discovered roughly $56,000 for his share in the discovery. Later, it was revealed that the head was actually worth somewhere around $1.8 million, and he had been low-balled by the government. The man rightly chose to sue for his share, since under German law the owner of a land on which treasure is dug up is entitled to half the value of the recovery, and won a whopping $904,000 plus interest. No word yet on whether the government will appeal the decision.


Levon’s Labyrinth

In the world of “Honey-Do” lists, this example puts just about everyone else’s to shame. Back in 1995, in an Armenian village not far from the capital city of Yerevan, a wife asked her husband to dig her out a root cellar underneath their modest, one-story house. He obliged, but took things a step further. Over the next 23 years until his death in 2008, he tunneled out what is now known as “Master Levon’s Divine Underground“, a catacomb of chambers, tunnels, and stairs which he carved out in his spare time, guided by prayer, dreams, and meditation. “Once he started digging, it was impossible to stop him,” said his widow recently. “I wrangled with him a lot, but he became obsessed with his plan.” Today she leads tours into her late husband’s subterranean world of columns, mosaics, halls, and niches.


Beauty In The Banal: Spanish Still Life Painting

A reader recently contacted me regarding what she should try to look at, when she visits The Prado during a one-day stop in Madrid. Naturally I pointed out some must-see paintings in the museum’s collection, including “Las Meninas” by Velazquez, “The Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden, etc. I also strongly urged her to seek out a genre of Spanish painting called a “bodegón”, which I think you will agree is particularly appropriate, now that we are entering harvest season, and the year begins to slide toward its close.

For our purposes, a bodegón refers to a type of picture that became particularly popular in Spain during the 17th and 18th centuries, and has continued to influence art in that country (and indeed around the world) up to the present. Spanish artists in this period tended to focus on simple, everyday food and domestic objects, displayed in a very stark, almost minimalist way. Usually the objects selected by the painter are shown resting on a rather plain surface in the foreground, usually a stone slab, while the background is just a black void. This creates an almost photo-realistic picture, centuries before the invention of photography.

An example by one of the greatest of these artists, Juan Sánchez Cotán, “Still Life with Game, Vegetables, and Fruit” (1602), is one which my traveling reader may end up viewing in Madrid. You can see how the incredibly realistic details of the fruit, vegetables, and birds are made all the more stark by placing them in a minimalist setting, with the end result that the pictures looks almost Surrealistic. I particularly love the detail of the lemons, and have a large reproduction of this portion of the painting hanging in my kitchen:


One of the later masters of this genre was Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), as we can see in the example below from the MFA in Boston. “Still Life with Bread, Ham, Cheese, and Vegetables” (c. 1772) shows a large hunk of the famous cured Spanish ham known as “jamón serrano”, which is like prosciutto but better, resting in a bowl along with some herbs and vegetables. Surrounding it are: a ceramic pitcher holding a wooden spoon peeping out from under a pottery shard lid (a “tapa”) placed on top to keep the flies out of whatever is inside; a wedge of Manchego cheese; a selection of bread, garlic, and beefsteak tomatoes; etc. Far in the back, we can see the top of a bottle of wine. What’s particularly interesting about this composition is that you can go into a tapas bar today, and have essentially the same meal set out before you.


The Spanish bodegón picture has several artistic relatives, particularly in Flemish and Dutch painting, as well as in Southern Italian painting. This is not a surprise, since these areas were, for many years, part of the Spanish Empire. However an often overlooked ancestor of all of these paintings comes from Ancient Rome.

Fresco painting in the early Roman Empire is usually divided into four periods, or styles, which sometimes overlap one another. The 3rd style often depicted a single object or a group of objects against a black or flat-colored background, often on a small scale, so that the effect was one of a painting hanging on a wall. The 4th style was more concerned with a return to a type of realism that had been present in the earlier, 2nd style, but still had characteristics of creating the illusion of small paintings. Here are three examples from a house in the city of Herculaneum, showing peaches, a metal roasting pan with garlic and figs, and so on.


What separates Spanish still life painters from their ancient and contemporary fellow artists however, is their ability to turn a beautiful work of art into something even more profound than what one would imagine possible from a still life painting. Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) is best known as a painter of religious subjects, such as his 13 life-sized paintings of Jacob and his 12 sons, which are currently visiting the Meadows Museum in Dallas, and will later be heading to The Frick in New York. [N.B. And oh yes, I do plan to go to New York in January to see them – more anon.] However he also produced some lovely bodegón paintings, such as this one, which my reader might also see at The Prado.

Yet without question, the greatest bodegón ever painted by Zurbarán was one which is also in The Prado. Unlike the many still life images of foods and kitchen objects, I specifically told my reader to seek this one out. While it bears all the hallmarks of a Spanish still life painting – the stark setting, the detailed observation of the object, the black background, the borderline surrealism – if you’re a Christian, you’ll realize that it represents something much more than a tour de force of painterly skill.


Simply titled, “Agnus Dei”, this picture was painted sometime between 1635-1640. It shows an unblemished, male lamb, its feet bound, resting on a slab and ready to be sacrificed. It does not struggle, but patiently awaits its fate. It represents, in paint, the sacrifice of Christ’s death on the Cross, and also the hymn sung by Catholics the world over during the Mass, before receiving Holy Communion: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us).

While the “Angus Dei” is in a class by itself, fortunately for my American readers, many museums around the U.S. have Spanish bodegón paintings that are worth seeking out, even if you can’t make it to see the best in The Prado. I think you’ll find yourself not only mesmerized by the incredible skill involved in creating these pictures, but you’ll also come to appreciate how there is symbolism to be read into all of them. Though none are as overtly spiritual as the “Agnus Dei”, all of them do give us an excuse to pause, to reflect, and to think, particularly on the gift of life that we have been given, and what we ought to be doing with it.

The Roman Emperor Who Wasn’t

When you’ve been around as long as the Catholic Church has – roughly 2,000 years and counting – you get to take on some of the aspects of the cultures that you outlast, and put them to your own uses.  Pagan temples get turned into churches, local customs are re-formulated to use as teaching tools for apologetics, foods can be prepared in such a way as to bring to mind particular saints or Biblical events, and so on.  And sometimes you simply take a work of art which has nothing to do with Christianity, and turn it into something else, to the confusion of art historians everywhere.

Some months ago a sculpture of a head, initially reported as being that of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was broken from its bust and stolen from the facade of a church in the town of Quintana del Marco, in north-central Spain.  It was recovered this week by the Spanish national police, and returned for conservation and restoration.  The headline of this particular article reporting the story refers to Marcus Aurelius as a “Roman emperor turned Christian saint”, but this is something of a mischaracterization of what is going on here.

Art experts agree that the sculpture in question was carved in late Roman times, probably around the 4th Century A.D.  Most also agree that it is not a portrait bust of Marcus Aurelius, but rather of an unknown Roman of importance.  The identification of the sculpture by some sources has to do with the somewhat shorthand tendency to assume that almost any statue of a Roman with a beard is probably one of that particular emperor, who was famous for his luxuriantly curly beard.

These types of lazy attributions can be comi-tragic.  If you have ever read “The Leopard” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, then you know how unfortunately humorous some of these errors can be.  In the coda to the novel, when a visitor describes a chapel in the Neapolitan palazzo of the last remaining members of the Salina family, he observes that it has been decorated with questionable paintings and bits of old tat passed off as saintly relics, which were not in fact what the elderly sisters thought that they were.  This assemblage has gotten the family into trouble with the Archdiocese, and if it were not so pitiable the mistakes would be laughable.  Yet in doing so di Lampedusa shows us how history and tradition can easily become obscured, and meanings changed, rather like playing a game of “telephone”.

In this case, although Marcus Aurelius was considered one of the “good emperors” for his stoic philosophy and for his initial tolerance, or more likely indifference, to the early Christians, the term “good” is really a comparative one.  The latter part of his reign was marked by widespread persecutions of Christians spearheaded by local governors, and the creation of martyrs throughout the empire.  While not brought about directly by imperial edict, Marcus Aurelius certainly did not stop or discourage such persecutions, as he became more suspicious of sectarianism and its effects on the stability of the empire.  Thus, prominent early Christian saints like St. Cecilia and the great apologist St. Justin Martyr met their deaths during his reign.  Indeed the latter was arrested, tortured, and killed after having written a book defending Christianity and attacking pagan philosophy, which he had presented to the Emperor and the Roman Senate.

Thus, if this were in fact a bust of Marcus Aurelius, it would be highly inappropriate to have him on the front of your church, even if he was not as bad as say, Nero or Diocletian.  The only explanation then, for why pseudo-Marcus Aurelius ended up where he did might actually come from his famous equestrian statue on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.  In fact that sculpture is so beloved that Michelangelo designed the entire square around it to showcase it, even though for centuries no one had the right idea of whom it represented.

That figure is one of the few large Roman bronzes to survive, and it did so because over time, people forgot who exactly it portrayed.  Rome had so many emperors, and so many invasions and migrations of new peoples into the city, particularly in the last centuries of the empire, that over time many people could not recall who Marcus Aurelius was.  They began to assume that the bronze was a statue of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, who was clearly worthy of a substantial monument in Catholic eyes.  It was only much later realized whom the sculpture actually represented, and Marcus Aurelius was certainly no lover of Christians.

In the case of the mysterious bust in Spain, the sculpture was originally placed on the church facade in the 18th century not because the local people believed it represented Marcus Aurelius, but rather because they believed that it represented St. Peter. Who knows who first led them to reach this conclusion, but again, that conclusion was probably based on a strand of the popular imagination.  In this case, it assumes that any bearded figure with short hair in Christian art represents the first Pope. This can sometimes make identifications difficult, if there are no items traditionally associated with that person – for example, a key or pair of keys for St. Peter – which appear in the work of art itself, in order to clear up any doubt.

Thus, the people in Quintana del Marco decided that the man portrayed in the bust fit their mental picture of St. Peter, and used the sculpture accordingly.  Perhaps today, with a greater sense of historicity, we might find such a use inappropriate, and there is no word yet on what the parish intends to do with respect to placement of the sculpture.  Yet while we may never know the real identity of the subject, it is nice to see that his head has been returned home safe and sound.


Spanish police officer with recovered 4th Century A.D. head of a Roman
Quintana del Marco, Spain