Hooray For Hermits: Art Celebrating The Eremitic Life

While many subjects depicted by the Old Masters portray events from long-ago days, or people engaged in activities which seem incredibly remote to contemporary eyes, there is one area of human endeavor as depicted in the arts which has changed very little over the last 2,000 years: eremitic life. In Christian practice an eremitic (or “hermit” as we usually call them) is someone who has chosen to remove themselves from the world, in order to deepen their spiritual life and their relationship with God. The solitary aspects of their lives have fascinated artists for centuries, but such lifestyles are not a thing of the past. In fact, many hermits still live among us today.

As regular readers know, for several years now I’ve served on the Board of the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, which support the establishment of a permanent hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. At the moment we’re still raising funds for the actual hermitage, but we do have a hermit: our dear Franciscan friend, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, who is also the Chaplain of the Coming Home Network International. Brother Rex was recently interviewed by the Catholic News Agency, and I think you’ll enjoy the article – and not just for the great picture of him with a chicken.

Rex

People are often surprised to learn that, yes, there are still hermits among us in this day and age, including right here in the United States. As Brother Rex mentions in the article, he’s aware of a half-dozen or so just in Maine alone! The degree to which those called to this intense form of spiritual life interact with the world depends on various factors, such as the particular religious order which they join. There are, for example, men and women religious who live in solitude, like the wonderful Sister Veronica Paul – whom you should follow on Twitter along with Brother Rex, even if you don’t belong to any particular form of religion – who still manage to engage with the rest of us for periods of time before returning to their solitude.

In art history, there are many depictions of Christians who chose to follow the path to eremitic life. Sometimes these men and women lived in their form of isolation for their entire adult lives, while others did so only for a period of time. The degree to which they removed themselves from day-to-day concerns, and how they chose to live out their vocations, can vary greatly.

A typical example of what most of us think of, when we hear the word, “hermit”, is this work from 1670 by the Dutch Baroque artist, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), now in the National Gallery here in Washington. In it, we see an anonymous Franciscan hermit on his knees at prayer, meditating on a crucifix amidst the ruins where he has chosen to live. Dou was one of the most successful Dutch painters of the second half of the 17th century, and toward the end of his career he seems to have become somewhat enthralled by the subject of the eremitic life, for there are several other works by him depicting hermits “in action” as it were, such as this example at the MIA in Minneapolis and another at the Wallace Collection in London.

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Among the more famous women in history who lived the eremitic life is St. Mary of Egypt. (c.344-421), who simultaneously felt drawn to changing her way of life and indulging her love of sex. In fact, she is said to have made her way on pilgrimage from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to Jerusalem by offering her services to others who were traveling to the Holy City as well. There, she underwent a conversion experience, and retired to the deserts in what is now modern Jordan, to spend her life in solitary fasting and prayer.

Although also revered in the West, she is particularly admired in the East. Icons such as this one, recounting the story of her life, have always been very popular in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. She has also, albeit less frequently, been the subject of Western art, such as in this copy of a 15th century Gothic sculpture at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris (the original is preserved inside the church), or in this c. 1660 painting by the Spanish Baroque artist José Claudio Antolinez (1635-1675), now in – ironically enough – the collection of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Antolinez

To close however, I want to show an example of a scene that is touching but rare in Western art. It is said that Zosimus, a monk living near the Jordan River, used to take time to wander the Judean desert by himself for 40 days during Lent. One day he stumbled across St. Mary of Egypt, who was living in a cave, and she told him her life story. She asked him to return the following year on Holy Thursday, so that she might receive the Eucharist, and he promised to do so; the painting below, by a follower of the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) depicts that return visit the following year. When Zosimus returned to bring St. Mary communion the next year, he discovered that she had died in her cave, so he went about giving her a Christian burial.

Teniers

Perhaps the takeaway here is that, like all hermits who came before and after her, even though this woman gave up everything to follow her call to the eremitic life, at the end of her earthly life she lacked for nothing. We are lucky, gentle reader, that such individuals still live among us, to advocate on our behalf, and that of the whole world. Please support them, as you are able.

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Piling It On, Or, Why Do I Read This Stuff…

You don’t often see me write about Contemporary Art on this site, and there are various reasons for that. Among these is the fact that I prefer to read and think and write about art and design created by people who have been dead for awhile. History and a bit of distance usually, although not always (see, e.g., Basquiat) allow us the chance to examine the work of these individuals in a more balanced, dispassionate way.

That being said, in order to keep up with what’s going on in the art world, I read about all kinds of Contemporary Art in the dozen or so art news sites I visit daily. As it’s hard enough for me to slog through the written gobbledygook that usually makes up this sort of news, I don’t feel the need to impose that same level of suffering on my subscribers by writing in an opaque fashion. Nevertheless, I think it’s good to show you, at least occasionally, why it’s important to me to curate what I write to you about, in the hope that you’ll have something edifying to take away with you when you read one of my posts.

Jeff Koons, the American artist known for designing things like the infamous porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with Bubbles the Chimp, or giant puppies made out of topiary – he doesn’t make them himself, he has minions for that – has a major work coming to market shortly at Christie’s. Described by Art Market Monitor as “one of Jeff Koons [sic] complex and exacting Play-Doh works”, the fourteen-by-fourteen foot “Play-Doh” is expected to fetch at least $20 million at auction next month in New York. Made from painted aluminum, one of his preferred materials for monumental sculpture, the piece “took 20 years to realize in the manner Koons found acceptable.” Personally, I would have found the piece more interesting, albeit not $20 million interesting, if it were made from actual Play-Doh, but there you are.

Koons

Koons has always been something of a whipping boy for conservatives who don’t actually understand very much about art. That being said, even he has come under fire recently from the intelligentsia, thanks to his offer to “donate” a memorial to victims of the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris: but only if Paris pays him roughly $4 million to create it. The sculpture, “Bouquet of Tulips”, is of a giant human hand referencing the Statue of Liberty, holding a bunch of tulips. It would stand nearly 40 feet tall, and be placed outside of the city’s Museum of Modern Art.

Back in January, a group of French intellectuals signed a letter in which they quite reasonably asked why it was that such an important monumental commission, on such a prominent site in Paris, was simply to be given to Mr. Koons, rather than be opened to competition to include French artists [“…si une œuvre d’une importance inédite devait être placée dans ce lieu culturellement et historiquement particulièrement prestigieux, ne faudrait-il pas procéder par appel à projets, comme c’est l’usage, en ouvrant cette opportunité aux acteurs de la scène française ?”] To date, Koons has not responded to this criticism. Meanwhile, since the art world is rather a closed universe, if one group of intellectuals starts attacking a particular artist, then the rest of the art world commentariat will eventually fall into line and do the same.
Tulips

Yet even when criticizing what is ultimately little more than showmanship on a grand scale, and of the sort that says little to nothing about the victims of violence, the art world can’t help but pen excremental missives that attempt to provide deeper meaning to what is ultimately little more than an occasion of flatulence. “Even as Koons reiterated images of kitsch culture,” wrote one critic in Apollo, jumping on the “Non” bandwagon several weeks after the publication of the aforementioned letter, “his vibrantly sensual surfaces seemed to collide the erotic with the deathly, and space-age technology with the infantile, anatomising the fetishism at the heart of the aesthetic lure of the commodity, even as they enacted it.”

Quite.

So the next time you see something I’ve written about art, architecture, etc., gentle reader, keep in mind that the reason you’re seeing it at all is because I sloughed through tons of the forgoing sort of material, in order to bring you news which, hopefully, you will find worthwhile.

Digital Ancient Art: Technology Provides Glimpse Of What Was, What Might Have Been

The use of digital images is something that, if you think of it at all in an art context, is normally associated with Contemporary Art. We’ve all seen examples in the news of things being projected onto buildings, or weird images in exhibitions that exist only on monitors. Yet in an art history context, the use of digital images can provide us with an experience that is truly enlightening, by showing us things that no longer are, but once were.

Among the most dazzling examples of this is the projection of overlays showing what the original, painted decoration of a Gothic cathedral façade would have looked like. Far from the monochromatic, grey-and-beige faces which they now present to the world, many of these monumental structures were decorated in vivid colors both inside and out. In this, the Medieval Europeans were merely following the example of ancient cultures of the Mediterranean basin, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, who lavishly (and indeed garishly) colored the statuary on both the inside and outside of their buildings.

Back in the late ‘90’s, restorers working at the 13th century Cathedral of Notre Dame d’Amiens, were able to determine what the original, painted color scheme of the West Front, the main façade of the church, would have looked like from remaining painted surface decoration. Amiens is the tallest complete Gothic church in France [N.B. Yes, Beauvais is technically taller, but it is half-collapsed], and its entrance is known for its host of sculptures, with multiple Biblical scenes and dozens of statues of saints. Using digital technology, the Cathedral projects overlays onto the West Front in the evenings during the summer and at Christmastide, which give visitors an idea of what the bright, colorful façade must have looked like in its heyday. You can see a spectacular video of the projection here.

Amiens

Another use of digital image technology that was recently announced for the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, about half an hour south of Paris. The luxurious castle, built for Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance Nicholas Fouquet, is one of the grandest private residences in France. The main interior element of the château was to be the ceiling of the grand salon, a domed room that is about 60 feet wide and 60 feet high, which was to be covered in an elaborate mythological tableau by the greatest French artist of the period, Charles Le Brun (1619-1690). The ceiling was never completed however, since in 1661 Fouquet fell from grace and was imprisoned for his mishandling of the country’s finances.

Today the visitor to the estate who enters the grand salon will see a ceiling painted with a simple blue sky and a soaring eagle. However, we know from Le Brun’s drawings and contemporary documents what he originally planned to paint on the surface of the ceiling. As reported in The Art Newspaper, current owners Alexandre, Ascanio, and Jean-Charles de Vogüé are now engaged in a fundraising campaign to create a digital projection for the ceiling which would represent, as close as possible, Le Brun’s original intended decoration for the space. Since a full set of engravings for the final plan exist, all the digital artists will need to do, essentially, is color them in; figuring out how to actually project them will be another matter.

LeBrun

Finally, there is the example of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, famously the site of the greatest art theft of the 20th century. The paintings are still missing, and the search to find them remains one of the great, fascinating quests in the area of art crime. Rumors ranging from their destruction to their being held as collateral by the mafia abound, and periodically various theories crop up as to what exactly happened to them, and, if they still exist, where they are today. The frames from which the paintings were cut still hang, empty, throughout the museum as a testament to their loss.

Now, a Boston-based technology firm has created “Hack the Heist”, which offers visitors to the Gardner the chance to see part of the museum as it was before the robbery. Using digital imaging, app users inside the museum can “see” some of the missing pictures placed back in the spaces where they once hung. Although not officially sanctioned by the museum, the app continues to keep alive public interest in solving this mystery, with the hope that, one day, the paintings will return.

Gardner