Monday, November 22, 2010


Last night’s full moon provided me the inspiration to write about something I have observed for some time. Different artists have used the specifically identifiable skies of their native environments to great effect and fame, yet no one seems to point out that the skies and heavenly effects in paintings are actually painterly attempts at realism.

We credit artists with an ability to see somehow differently than the rest of us, as if they have some special sort of vision. I am not arguing that they don’t have certain special gifts or abilities or insights; they do. I cannot help but notice however, that the great pre-Impressionist artists painted to the best of their abilities what they saw, interpreting their own visual reality onto canvas. Their attempts to capture the fleeting reality of the effects of light mark their work.

When an artist paints a sky, presumably he looks up and paints what he sees, or has seen in the past which might suit the painting’s theme. I cite four examples here that I find striking, and admit having noticed many others in galleries around the world.

Titian has successfully captured the wistful layers and streaks of the late summer Tuscan sky in his Sacred and Profane Love at the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

You can see the same light effects today: here a photo I took of the view from the Pope’s Hanging Garden in Pienza, Italy. Looks like Titian’s sky, doesn’t it?

A generation later in Spain, we find El Greco painting skies unlike anything in Italy. Long an El Greco fan, I once thought his skies were fantasies which presaged abstraction, as in his famous “View of Toledo.”

However, a trip to Toledo, Spain taught me that those crazy swirls which animate El Greco’s canvases were real, the same crazy, swirly, animated Spanish skies you can still see there today as in this fantasic photo of Toledo by David Iliff.

Moving north and to the 18th century, there’s England’s John Constable, who was known for his clouds, skies and light effects. The same Constable who gave us tons of paintings called “Cloud Studies” as part of his oeuvre, including a few at the Frick in New York and the National Gallery, Washington whose collections also include “The White Horse” and “Wivenhoe Park, Essex,” shown here.

His clouds are those fluffy, cottony white English clouds you can still see today on any brisk stroll across Millenium Bridge in London.

Big, fat, bucolic English clouds skip as lively across his paintings as they do the River Thames today.

But the painter of whom I was reminded during last night’s full moon was Rembrandt. Living in his city, I am struck by how often the Amsterdam sky looks like Rembrandt’s skies, and never more so than during a full moon. Where did Rembrandt learn about what the sky would look like at Christ’s ascension?
Clearly he had not witnessed the event firsthand, but he had seen the Dutch sky with the racing clouds leaving a halo of light around the moon and looking very much like a portal into heaven itself.

Since beginning my art history studies, I have many times noted that Rembrandt’s skies often have a brown tint. I have never seen this effect noted in any scholarly essay or museum catalogue, so I have credited it to darkening varnish on old canvases. But living in Amsterdam and seeing the sky night after night, and especially the full moon last night, I see that Rembrandt painted the sky he saw. The brown is actually there. Look at the ring around the moon in the photos I took last night: definitely brown, not old varnish.

So, while great artists do have a special gift, I reckon it is that of being able to translate the visual input from their real world experience onto a canvas for us to enjoy centuries later. They don’t necessarily see differently, Titian saw the same striated Tuscan sky I saw. El Greco contemplated the same swirly Spanish sky I did. Constable adored same the whipped cream clouds that float above the land of clotted cream today. Rembrandt gasped at the same drama in the Dutch sky that I saw last night. But in it, he saw the Resurrection of Christ.

That was his gift.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Saints' Day - this year: St Louis!

Saint Louis. Ital. San Luigi. Fr. Saint Louis. b 1214, d 1270
Invoked: against the death of children. Patron Saint of: barbers, bridegrooms, builders, button makers, construction workers, Crusaders, difficult marriages, distillers, embroiderers, French monarchs, grooms, haberdashers, hairdressers, hair stylists, kings, masons, needle workers, parenthood, parents of large families, passementiers (a fancy word for trim makers, embroiderers, button makers and the like), prisoners, sculptors, sick people, soldiers, stone masons, stonecutters, tertiaries (lay members of the church), trimming makers, Québec, Saint Louis, Missouri, Blois, France, Carthage, Tunisia, La Rochelle, France, New Orleans, Louisiana, Oran, Algeria, Saint-Louis, Haut-Rhin, France, Saint Louis, Missouri, Versailles, France

Attributes in art: Sword and armor as Crusader, Crown and Robes as King, Holy Relics usually including conspicuously the Crown of Thorns and or the True Cross.
Feast Day: Aug 25.

St. Louis must be one of the most overlooked saints in the modern pantheon. Patron of almost everyone (I mean really, parents??), he is not the household name that, say, Peter or Paul or even Francis is. Known in America as the namesake of the city also known as “the Gateway to the West” and for his Cathedral in New Orleans, St Louis seems to enjoy little other notice in my native land. I don’t recall seeing his image in any barber shop or construction site I’ve ever passed, though he is the patron saint of both barbers and construction workers. In all my exposure to the train wreck that is modern American broadcast media, including Phil Donohue, Jerry Springer, Dr Phil and the goddess Oprah herself, trying in every imaginable way to save, or at lease dissect the institutions of marriage and family, never have I heard an invocation of St Louis, though he is the patron saint of parents, large families and difficult marriages.

Despite all this and the magnificent church which bears his name in Rome – an enormous pile, filled with treasures including no less than 3 Caravaggios -either St Louis has fallen seriously out of fashion, though his feast day is still celebrated in both the Catholic and Episcopal churches, or else I missed something along the way.

St Louis, above, by El Greco in the Louvre, is nonetheless an interesting case. Son of Louis VIII of France, he climbed the throne of the richest and most powerful state in Europe at the tender age of 12, under the strict eyes of his ever-meddling and conniving mother, Regent Queen Blanche (the White Queen) of Castille. He gained his maturity and rights as King in the year 1234, the same year he married Marguerite of Provence, who had a serious power struggle with his mother all her life and whose sister Eleanor of Provence was married to Henry III of England and whose other sister Sanschia of Provence was married to Henry’s brother Richard Cornwall who was King of the Romans, and whose sister Beatrice of Provence was Queen of Sicily, by the way. The international relations forged out of the filial ones in these royal houses pre-set many of the alliances and entanglements which bound and annulled royal and national relationships for centuries. The story of these four important sisters from the small province in southern France fascinating in its own right, but is better told in Nancy Goldstone’s Four Queens, and is but an aside here.

Louis was apparently a very fair and pious man who instituted may reforms in the administration and judicial system of his kingdom. His contributions to the fair application of law were so profound that he is represented in the chamber of the United States House of Representatives and in a frieze of notable law-givers throughout history on the north wall of the US Supreme Court (along with Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon Draco, Muhammed, Charlemagne and Napoleon, among others), and is cited as the very paragon of the fair and benevolent most Christian King, even though he personally heeded the Pope’s cry to attack the infidels in the Holy Land, leading the disastrous 7th and 8th Crusades and bringing misery and death to hundreds of thousands. He was imprisoned by the Saracens and Queen Marguerite paid literally a King’s ransom to get him back. Not having learned his lesson in the debacle of the 7th Crusade (his first), he died probably of dysentery or plague, though some historians point out that his death pre-dates outbreaks of plague, leaving the unpleasant dysentery option, in Tunisia while leading his second crusade. Some of his gushier parts were buried on the spot in Tunisia and other bits left behind in Palermo, in what is now Italy. After a few other stops, what was left of him was interred in the royal necropolis at St Denis Cathedral in Paris. His were among the remains desecrated and destroyed during the Revolution and consolidated into a single sealed ossuary afterwards, only a finger remaining to be identified and venerated.

Because Constantinople had been conquered in 1204 in a previous Crusade, and by Louis’s time had a new Franc Emperor, Baudoin II de Courtenay, Louis enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Byzantines. Heavily in debt, largely because of his troubles with the Holy Romans, Baudoin was happy to sell the most Holy Relics in Christendom: Christ’s Crown of Thorns and pieces of the True Cross. Ownership of these treasures would bring untold power and prestige to the king pious enough to own them, even if he bought them and did despicable things in the process. Having previously promised them to the Venetians, Baudoin caused some international tension by selling them to a higher bidder, Louis, but those tensions were minor. The relics had been preserved in Constantinople ever since St Helena found them. Coincidentally, the relics of St Helena, who was the mother of the very Emperor Constantine for whom Byzantium was re-named, by the way, rest, at least in part, in St. Denis Cathedral as well.
After his death, during his canonization, it was revealed that Louis had paid an enormous sum to build one of the world’s nicest little jewel boxes: the Sainte-Chapelle in his Palais de la Cite, as a gigantic reliquary for the most important Christian relics, attempting to transform Paris into a New Jerusalem, but a sum dwarfed by more than twice the amount he paid to secure the relics themselves, or the amount he spent on his two crusades, or the ransom to secure his release from the failed first one.
Now recall that the Cathedral of Notre Dame, located just a short walk away, was already complete at this time, so the Ile-de-la-Cite, the innermost and most protected part of Paris already had a huge and venerated house of God. With great ceremony, Louis escorted the Holy Relics to Paris and, deciding against installing them in Notre Dame, built essentially a giant reliquary in which to house them, where only he and his select could see them. The church/reliquary was built in two levels, the lower the palace parish church and the upper, reachable only through the balcony of the royal palace, was the display case and personal house of worship for the pious Louis.
With windows that seem to reach the sky, and colors that are impossible to describe, the upper church was a suitable home for the most Holy Relics until they were dispersed and partly destroyed in that unpleasantness we call the French Revolution. The lacy walls are almost all glass. The stonework and windows are unbelievably intricate, deserving their nearly millennium-long reputation as wonders. Perhaps this is why he is patron of construction workers, stone masons and sculptors.Among the stories told in the 1,113 scenes in the 15 soaring windows of Sainte-Chapelle is the history of the Relics, including their relocation to Paris by Louis himself. The relics were for centuries displayed on a gilded gothic platform with baldachin just behind the altar used for masses. Except for the windows, the interior of the church was largely destroyed in the Revolution. The Crown of Thorns was spared and has since been entrusted to Notre Dame Cathedral, where it is encased in a reliquary designed in the 19th century to replace the one destroyed in the Revolution and is still displayed on Good Fridays, the presumed anniversary of its use.

So what was it that made St Louis a saint? He unified most of what we know as modern France, created judicial and administrative systems that established models for modern governments and through his and his and his wife’s connections, established the social order for centuries of European history, but that’s not saint material. Apparently he was a fantastic and fair monarch, pious man, collector of holy relics extraordinaire, builder of the impossible glass cathedral, and faithful and humble servant of the Church, but that’s not saint material either. He died (of natural causes, it may be noted) on Crusade, following the express wishes of the Pope for the Christian Princes of Europe to destroy the Infidels, and that seems to be the real reason he’s a Saint. Though subsequent popes have apologized for the Crusades, they have not completely resolved some residual issues like St Louis, whose canonization seems to have been really a result of his participation in one of the deadliest, most tragic and avoidable events in human history, a canonization seemingly as political as religious. Ah the Crusades, a dark and complex time. I like to think he’s a saint because of the splendid little private chapel he built for himself which still, 800 years later, fills one with wonder.

Monday, October 4, 2010

St Denis - Beheaded or Deheaded? OR Happy Feast of St Denis Day, Oct 9!

Lat. Sanctus Dionysus. Ital. San Dionisio or Dionigi. Fr. Saint Denis.
Patron Saint of France, and the House of Bourbon
Attributes in art: His own head. Sometimes shown with a palm branch, symbol of martyrdom.
Feast Day: Oct 9

St. Denis was decapitated. Then in a flash of glory he stood up, picked up his head and carried it more than two miles to the place where he finally dropped.

This begs the question. Decapitation is Beheading, right? Shouldn’t that be DEheading? Shouldn’t BEheading be the act of placing a head ON and DEheading the act of removal? I think so. You’d certainly never say “Becapitated.”

But anyway, back to St. Denis: there is confusion as to when he lived. Some historical evidence suggests that perhaps his story is the melding of the legends of two bishops, one a protégé of the apostle Paul, who became the first bishop of Athens, and the other who lived a couple of centuries later. The French have historically argued that he was Paul’s protégé (to enhance the prestige of having him as their patron?). In either case, he was a bishop sent to the wilds of Paris in either 50 or so A.D., or a couple of hundred years later, depending on which version you trust, where he did a lot of good and angered the heathens who cut off his head, starting this whole headless walking thing.

The Cathedral of St Denis is located in the north of Paris on the spot where St Denis expired and was buried. A visit there shines a light on a moment of French history which the modern French seem to find a little cumbersome to explain or even examine.

During the Revolution, hordes ransacked and pillaged churches and abbeys throughout the land, but wreaked a particular vengeance on the Cathedral of St Denis, because it was the burial place of the Kings of France. For about 800 years, the Kings of France were laid to rest in uncharacteristic austerity there. Originally the tombs of the kings were simple marble sarcophagi in a row in the crypt under the altar with St Denis, their patron. Very cozy and convenient. However, with all the violence and upset of the 1790’s, the tombs were violated, their contents burned and desecrated in many creative ways.

The Princes’ Crypt seems not to have been so badly disturbed and there you can still see some of the plain lead-lined, wooden caskets preferred by the French royals, and allegedly the heart of Louis XIV the very Sun King himself sits in a vial on the shelf.

In the 19th century, during the Restoration of the monarchy, Louis XVIII had all of the remaining remains placed in one room of the crypt and sealed with a common marker, and all the other stray royal tombs from remote churches and abbeys throughout France brought to St Denis as he attempted to reassert the power and majesty of the monarchy
He even had his brother, the be- (or rather, de-) headed Louis XVI and his lovely (also decapitated) Queen Marie Antoinette re-interred in the very spot where his ancestors had lain until the, um, disruption of the Revolution.

The Cathedral is beautiful even as cathedrals go, and it is difficult not to feel some reverence for the history of the place and the history caused BY many of those buried there but at the cathedral I was frankly disappointed in the paucity of depictions of St Denis himself.

There is one statue, way up high, in the dark, one great image in the stained glass, and one carving over the door to the crossing.

Though I'm not absolutely certain of this, my hunch is that during the 19th century restoration of the cathedral, someone, perhaps Louis XVIII himself, noted the sad irony of the headless patron saint and the headless royals inside, and had some of the images of St Denis removed, in the interest of good taste. I offer this potential explanation, as most cathedrals dedicated to a particular saint – especially where that saint’s relics are interred – contain many images of the eponymous saint, and as I have already mentioned, St Denis is conspicuously absent from his own cathedral.
So, despite Parisians’ disdain for the place (my innkeeper even asked “why for heaven’s sake do you want to go there??”) and the thrill of navigating the Paris Metro, for a history nut to pay his/her respects to generations of the rulers of one of history’s great nations, a visit to St Denis Cathedral is an almost overwhelming experience. If, however, you are looking to see great images of St Denis carrying his own head, you will be gravely disappointed.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Misappropriated Holbeins at the Mauritshuis

Stories of misappropriated art are as old as collecting itself. Take for instance Napoleon “buying” the ancient sculptures from the Borghese Gallery (was his sister part of the price, or did Borghese really sell them that cheaply?) and installing them as the nucleus of the Louvre’s ancient collection. Or Andrew Melon getting fire sale prices from Stalin on those Rembrandts, Raphaels, van Eykes, van der Weydens, Peruginos, etc. which once graced Catherine the Great’s Hermitage in St. Petersburg and now form the core of The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC – and encouraging other robber barons to donate their steals as well. Of course, the biggest misappropriation of all time has to be Lord Elgin’s Parthenon Marbles living in the British Museum in galleries built by the plundering, over-restoring, often mis-attributing art dealer to the ultra-rich, Joe Duveen. Recently, though, I learned of a case of re-appropriated art on a somewhat smaller scale which I find interesting enough to share.

In the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, Netherlands, there are several Hans Holbein (the younger) portraits. As you may know, Holbein was a German painter who moved to England in 1532 and 4 years later found himself court painter to Henry VIII. He is responsible for some of the most detailed portraits ever painted and is known for the splendid ones he did for Henry’s court, including several of the Wives.

The Portrait of Henry VIII at the Thyssen Bornemisa Museum in Madrid is fantastic, but my favorites are the pair collected by American Robber Baron, Henry Clay Frick and displayed flanking his living room fireplace in the Frick Collection in New York. In Mr. Frick’s living room, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell face one another still, though both were beheaded by Henry – Cromwell contributing considerably to the case against More, then losing royal favor himself a few years later.

The Portrait of Thomas More is particularly fine and shows Holbein’s fondness for the sitter, his host for his initial visit to England, in the richness of its detail, its textures and finishes – the red velvet sleeve and gold chain are tour de force painting. The Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, by contrast, shows a distinct lack of finish, almost a primitive quality by comparison, which begs the question: is there some statement of fondness for More and disdain for Cromwell in the very finish and fineness of the paintings?

At the Mauritshuis there are a couple of Holbein portraits from his period at the English court. There is a little Portrait of Jane Seymour which is delightful, and which you’ve probably seen before in a history book, and of which there are several copies in various collections.

And there is Sir Robert Cheseman, Lord of Southall and Norwood and Grand Falconer to His Highness, Henry VIII. He is resplendant in his leather sleeves and rich fur collar, a hooded, belled falcon in hand. The textures for which Holbein is famous are as fully rendered here as anywhere. The bird’s feathers, the leather sleeves, fur collar, gold rings, white tucked linen shirt and steely grey hair are all rendered with the same perfect detail that identify the best Holbeins, like the Frick’s Sir Thomas More. The Grand Falconer was an important position in Henry’s Court, so Lord Southall was an important figure; this portrait reflects his importance in its size (it is a large panel for Holbein), the high degree of its finish and the inscription, which includes his name and age.

The other Portrait of a Falconer's sitter is not identified in the inscription, though his age is listed as 25 years. Unlike Lord Southall, he has removed the cover from the falcon’s eyes and the bird is shown from behind, looking to the left in profile. The bearded young man looks affable and is rendered with those perfect details, the wiry beard, rosy skin, leather glove, black velvet jacket with its red satin lining, and just a touch of the white linen sleeve. This is a masterpiece of a portrait, almost photographic, as we expect from Holbein, and is smaller than the other, more the size we expect.

Though both of these portraits are in the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis, both were once part of the British Royal collection. Dutch Stadholder and English King William III (1650-1702) took them from England to decorate his Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn (Netherlands) at the end of the 17th century.

His heir, Queen Anne tried unsuccessfully to have them returned to England as property of the English crown. Her failure to have them returned to England was that country’s loss for they are now two of the treasures of the Mauritshuis: Netherlands: 2 / UK: 0. Too bad, so sad.