Playing Soccer With A Michelangelo

The Prado certainly seems to be on a roll lately.

First there was news of the new van der Weyden exhibition, which I wrote about last week, and now news that the only Michelangelo sculpture in Spain is being put on display for three months at the museum, following a twenty-year restoration. The work, a statue of the Young St. John the Baptist owned by the Dukes of Medinacelli, is not particularly impressive. And yet the story of why it needed so much restoration should not be swept under the rug, as art historians tend to do these days when it comes to those with whom they have anticlerical sympathies.

In about 1495 in Florence, Michelangelo carved a statue of the Young St. John the Baptist for Lorenzo de Medici, but no trace of it has been found in Italy. Current thinking is that the statue was one mentioned in correspondence as being given as a gift by Cosimo I, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, to Francisco de los Cobos y Molina, the private secretary of Emperor Charles V. He in turn installed the statue in his family’s funerary chapel.  De los Cobos’ titles, etc. eventually came into the Medinacelli family, as did the family chapel, located in the Andalusian city of Úbeda. 

There the statue stayed for nearly 400 years, until in the early 1930’s debate began to swirl around whether the work was the missing Michelangelo. At this point however, events took a tragic turn with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  Anticlerical leftist (laughably referred to as “Republicans” by most historians) troops sacked, burnt, and destroyed churches and ecclesiastical works of art all over the country, and the chapel housing the remains of the de los Cobos was no exception. Worse, the statue of the Young St. John was smashed to pieces, with the soldiers reportedly using the head as a soccer ball for fun.

In 1994 the Medinacellis had the fragments sent to Florence for restoration, which took twenty years to complete. Today, the statue is about 40% original, with the remaining 60% made of resin and other materials. It was put together using old images of the piece before it was damaged, and with the assistance of modern technological scanning and measuring through computer assistance, to achieve a truly remarkable result, given what the restorers started with. 

This being the first time that the more-or-less-complete statue will be on public display in a major city, for art historians and connoisseurs this will be a wonderful opportunity to finally air some of the questions, assertions, doubts, and so on that often come with uncertain attributions. Debate will likely be lively and ongoing for some time. It is unfortunate that such wonton destruction however, was the catalyst for it.

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The statue after being vandalized

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That Touch of Autumn

Did you feel it this morning, that touch of Autumn?

Those of us in the Nation’s Capital woke up to temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s – that’s in the 12-16 degree range, for my non-American readers.  With low humidity and a crispness in the air, it was the first real sign that Fall is on the way.  Yes, it will be hot and humid later, and yes, it will be hot and humid all weekend for those of us who did not have the possibility of getting out of town this weekend for the Labor Day holiday.  However, this morning was quite the preview of coming attractions, since for me Autumn is the absolute best time of year to be in Washington.

It’s rather appropriate that this first hit of Autumn to come fell today, when the Church remembers the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  You’ll remember from the Bible how St. John was executed when Salome, step-daughter of King Herod, asked for the prophet’s head as a reward for her dancing.  Like Salome, this is the time of year when the Earth, in this part of the world, begins to drop her veils, one by one, until by Winter she is completely bare.

Now for those of you who are “Team Summer”, and who like this scrivener live in an area with distinct seasons, this is the worst of all possible worlds, I know.  You enjoy being sweaty, dirty, and sunburnt.  You enjoy being attacked by insects, or being stuck in transit/traffic for hours when the air conditioning doesn’t work.  You enjoy the chaffing of sandals or flip-flops tearing up the back of your heels, or constantly adjusting those shorts that bunch up when you sit down.  In other words, you like to suffer.

For the rest of us, deliverance is at hand.

It’s soon time for clothing where anyone can both look good and feel comfortable, not just the genetic anomalies.  Drinks can be lingered over and savored, rather than rushed down before the ice melts.  The food will be flavorful and filling and bountiful, not limited by the phrase, “It’s so hot I’m not really hungry.”

There will be celebrations to prepare, requiring far more attention than the three Summer holidays of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, which generally involve, at best, a trip to the grocery store for some burgers and buns, and not much else.  Yet as Autumn gets underway, Halloween leads to Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving leads to Advent, and Advent leads to Christmas. Many of us even get Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day thrown in for good measure, just to have some extra time off or a change of pace.

Now be assured, I’m not forgetting the importance or the significance of any of these holidays, before someone starts to complain.  Rather the simple truth is, Autumn is a time for celebration. We gather in the products of the land, and we enjoy the hard work that went into growing them, and we have very fun ways of going about doing so which do not involve the charade of pretending that we can still live out in the open air like our ancient ancestors did, so long as we have enough propane for the grill and citronella for the tiki torches.

No, give me the cold honesty of Autumn over the pretend joys of Summer any day.  The Fall reveals character. I’m looking forward to seeing the colors of the geology and chemistry of the planet, now hidden under a mask of chlorophyll.  As growing things go dormant, each leaf reveals a uniqueness belied by the uniform green, no two the same.  We see things as they are, not in uniformity but in a huge range of colors and shades of colors, everything from scarlet red to mustard yellow to deep purple.

And similarly, when we can all get out of the blazing sun and actually sit down and see each other, without the need for sunglasses or umbrellas or the like, the chill causing us to draw a little bit closer together for warmth, I believe we’ll all be the better for it.

Detail of "Salome Dancing Before Herod" by Gustave Moreau (1876) Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Detail of “Salome Dancing Before Herod” by Gustave Moreau (1876)
Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

 

Lessons from a Stinky St. John the Baptist

It was interesting to read this morning that the exhibition in Milan of a very large, important painting by the High Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520) known as the “Madonna of Foligno”, has attracted almost a quarter of a million viewers in the roughly six weeks it has been on loan.  I have always thought of this altarpiece as being a rather swarthy picture, particularly in its imagining of the figure of St. John the Baptist.  Yet thinking about this painting gives us a good opportunity to see how and why an artist’s work can dramatically change as they mature, and also gives us non-artists the opportunity to reflect on how we ought to be doing the same in our own lives.

Ansidei Madonna by Raphael (c. 1505-1507) National Gallery, London

“Ansidei Madonna” by Raphael (c. 1505-1507)
National Gallery, London

Raphael’s peaceful, meditative “Ansidei Madonna” of c. 1505-1507 for example, is quite different in feeling from the “Madonna of Foligno”, even though St. John the Baptist appears in both. The “Ansidei Madonna” is a colorful and genteel picture which, like many of the images from Raphael’s time in Florence, had a tremendous impact on mass-produced Catholic devotional images in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  We can look at this picture and admire its architectural perfection, the loveliness of the figures, and the stillness of the composition.  However, while Raphael’s work in Florence at this period has a sense of hushed meditation about it, this style was not to last.

Raphael moved to Rome about a year after finishing the “Ansidei Madonna”, and when he arrived he was quickly inundated with more artistic commissions than he could handle.  From executing famous frescoes like “The School of Athens” in what was then the Papal Library, to designing the magnificent tapestries with scenes from the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul for the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was an extremely busy man.  Yet despite the overwhelming amount of work he took on, he did not stay stagnant as an artist.  Rather, he found the time to study, to think, and to grow artistically and intellectually, so that as he grew older, his style lost that porcelain, idealized quality he started out with, to become something still beautiful, but far more realistic.

The figures in the “Madonna of Foligno” bear some relation to those of the “Ansidei Madonna”, in that we can see they came from the same artistic mind, but the differences are very striking.  In the scant few years since Raphael left Florence, he has been exposed to the work of more diverse artists, and is living in an ancient, rough-and-tumble, sprawling city, the center of the Christian world in the West.  Raphael begins to see that there is another side to life, just as worthy of representation as the courtly images he was famous for.  As he grows, Raphael begins to become interested in “real people”, i.e. the poor, the downtrodden, the working class, the not-so-pretty.

Compare the figures of St. John the Baptist in the “Ansidei Madonna” and the “Madonna of Foligno”, for example, and you can see how Raphael’s world expanded when he moved to Rome.  In the earlier painting, although he is dressed in camel skin and has facial hair, St. John does not appear to have just come in from the Jordan River, having munched on some bugs covered in honey for breakfast, but rather from having taken a nice, hot bath and enjoyed a good lunch. He is built like an idealized athlete from ancient Greece, and could just as easily be the figure of Apollo but for the setting and his accouterments.  The saint is draped in a glorious, expensive red satin cloak, symbolizing his martyrdom, and holds a delicate gold and silver staff in the form of a cross.

"Madonna of Foligno" by Raphael (1511) The Vatican Museums

“Madonna of Foligno” by Raphael (1511)
The Vatican Museums

Now, compare this image to the figure of St. John the Baptist in the later painting.  Here St. John looks like he positively stinks from not having had a bath in quite awhile: his skin is dirty, tanned, and leathery.  His hair and beard are matted and unkempt; he is muscular, but not in a male model sort of way.  Rather, he has the sinewy arm of someone who is used to doing rough work with his hands.  He looks drawn, tired, and pinched – in short, a believable ascetic, who suffers for his faith.

Like in the earlier painting, St. John is depicted wearing his iconic camel hair and having the red robe of the martyr.  Yet whereas in the Florentine image the red drapery is luxurious and more important, here the rough and dirty animal skin is the more prominent article of clothing, with a rugged red martyr’s robe only suggested by a bit of fabric appearing over St. John’s left shoulder and jutting out behind him.  And unlike the jewel-like cross in the earlier picture, in this altarpiece St. John’s staff is a very rough, wooden pole, with a crossbeam affixed toward the top by some rope wrapped around it.

Truly, it is hard to believe that these two figures representing the same historical person could come from the same imagination, painted only four to five years apart.

Keep in mind, of course, Raphael is not trying to represent actual scenes from the Life of Christ in these pictures, but rather the concept of “sacra conversazione”, which you can learn more about here.  Because of that fact, there is always going to be idealization in such compositions.  Yet notice how remarkably less idealized, how much more believable, is the St. John the Baptist in the later picture.  The earlier picture is arguably the more beautiful of the two, but the later picture brings us into this “sacred conversation” in a very different way.  For in it, with all its swarthiness and grime, we can more clearly see ourselves as we are, in all of our human imperfections.

Thus I think the lesson here in comparing these two works is not simply an artistic or academic one.  Raphael’s art evolved the more he saw and experienced, even while remaining tied in to where he had come from as an artist.  So too, we should be open to change as we go along through this life: not losing sight of who and what we are, but at the same time gaining greater nuance and insight into our relationships with God and with our neighbor as we mature.