Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese

Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese (1573)
Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese (1573)

The 16th century the art scene of Venice was dominated by three artists, Titian, Paolo Veronese, and Jacopo Tintoretto and it was these three painters who managed to tender for and win most of the public and religious commissions, which were on offer during that period.  My featured painting today was one of Veronese’s most controversial paintings.   It was intended to be a monumental work depicting the Last Supper but as you will now read that Veronese, three months after its completion, had to hastily change the title of the painting.  The work, which is now entitled Feast at the House of Levi, is a massive work of art measuring 555cms x 1280cms (18’6″ x 42’6″) and was far too big to be included in the recent Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London but I have been fortunate enough to stand in front of this amazing work a few years ago when I visited the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.  It is a truly magnificent painting.

Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice
Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice

In 1573, Paolo Veronese, who was at the time forty-five years old, was awarded the commission to paint a depiction of the Last Supper for the rear wall of the refectory of the fourteenth century Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, sometimes known as the pantheon of doges, as twenty-five of them have been buried there. It is one of the largest churches in the city of Venice. The building of this great church started around 1333 but was not completed until November 1430 as the construction was halted on many occasions due to the never-ending plagues that the city suffered during the 14th century.  This painting by Veronese would replace Titian’s painting, The Last Supper, which had been lost in a fire in 1571.  According to the writing on the base of the pillars, to the left and right in the foreground of the painting, the work was completed by Veronese on April 20th 1573.  When I looked at some of the Veronese paintings at the National Gallery exhibition in my previous two blogs, I talked about the artist’s penchant for combining secular depictions in some of his religious works, such as his painting, Supper at Emmaus, and in today’s painting we can see that this theme was once again adopted, much to the horror of the Catholic Church.  So let us look in more detail at this immensely impressive work.

Dog looking at cat which appears under Last Supper table
Dog looking at cat which appears under Last Supper table

In the painting we see a monumental triple-arch background through which one can see more magnificent buildings of Venice cityscape.  This was more than likely inspired by buildings designed by the great Italian architects of the time, Andrea Palladio and Jacopo Sansovino, who designed many of the Venetian buildings in the sixteenth century.   In the foreground of the painting and on either side of the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper, we witness a scene of great merriment, with jesters and blackamoors, along with the nobility of Venice enjoying their own sumptuous feast.  Veronese has simply combined the Last Supper with Christ and his Apostles with a typical Venetian dinner party.  The first thing that strikes you about this work is the large number of figures that have been included in the work, one could say, almost crammed into the work and because the work is somewhat cluttered by human beings, the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper seems almost lost in the melee and this is part of the reason why it did not find favour with the Church.  One realises that the artist must have derived great joy from including all these various figures, all doing different things and for him this maybe what the painting was about and that the Last Supper was just a bi-product of the work.  Maybe we can glean an understanding of Veronese’s modus operandi by his description of his work as an artist when he described what he did, saying:

“I paint and compose figures”

Jester with parrot
Jester with parrot

The Church’s displeasure of the completed work was not just that the depiction of the Last Supper, in the central background of the painting, seems almost to play a secondary and minor role in the work; it was that they were horrified by some of the numerous other characters who populated the work.  Veronese’s inclusion of this assortment of characters into such a famous religious scene was looked upon by the Church as being irreverent, bordering on blasphemous. One has to remember that this period marked the beginning of the Counter Reformation which was the Catholic Church’s attempt to strongly and vociferously oppose the Protestant Reformation and to move towards a re-definition of good Catholic values.  The Church was very wary about anything which could be perceived as mocking the Church and its values.  This counter-reformation movement attempted to elevate the moral and educational standards of the clergy and by so doing enable it to win back areas endangered by Protestantism.  So when Veronese added a plethora of people, some of whom seemed to be drunk, as well as dogs, a cat, midgets, and Huns to the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper at the house of Simon, the elders of the Church were horrified.  Veronese was summoned to appear before the Inquisition on July 18th 1573 which was sitting in the Chapel of S. Teodoro.

One of the first questions posed by his inquisitors was whether he knew why he had been summoned before them.  Veronese replied:

“…I fancy that it concerns what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the prior of the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I did not know, but who informed me that he had been here, and that your Most Illustrious Lordships had ordered him to cause to be placed in the picture a Magdalene instead of the dog; and I answered him that very readily I would do all that was needful for my reputation and for the honour of the picture; but that I did not understand what this figure of the Magdalene could be doing here…”

 The inquisitors were not pacified by his answer and began to question him in more detail.  They asked him why he had included two German soldiers seen on the stairway, standing guard bearing halberds, in the right foreground.  One has to remember it was the German Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestan Reformation fifty-five years earlier and it was he who had been a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church, constantly criticising the ways of the Catholic clergy and the Catholic doctrine.   The Inquisition wanted to know why such frivolous things as a dwarf with a parrot on his arm, a dog which sits before Christ’s table staring at the cat which has appeared under the tablecloth had been included in a deeply religious scene.  Veronese had all the answers ready.  As far as the German soldiers he answered:

German guards with halberds
German guards with halberds

“…We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants…”

The inclusion of the two Germans in the painting was considered by the inquisitors an even greater sin than the other inclusions the inquisitors questioned Veronese again as to their inclusion.

“…Do you not know that in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense?…”

Veronese realised he was now on dangerous ground but skilfully replied:

“… I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters…”

Veronese was probably now becoming a little fearful at the way the questioning was going and so decided to go down the line of – if you think I have blasphemed with my painting, what about the much beloved Michelangelo’s work in the Vatican.  Veronese expanded:

“…In Rome, in the Pope’s Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary, and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling…”

Other diners

The Inquisitors however would not criticise Michelangelo’s work, merely saying that in the depiction of the Last Judgement, which Veronese was referring to, it was only natural that the people were without clothes and that the work had been inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They then turned on Veronese stating that there was no indication that his work had been so inspired by the Holy Spirit and that he needed to make some changes to it.  They then compared Michelangelo’s work with his and commented:

“…There are neither buffoons, dogs, weapons, nor other absurdities. Do you think, therefore, according to this or that view, that you did well in so painting your picture, and will you try to prove that it is a good and decent thing?..”

A little trickier was the question as to why he would include a jester with a parrot on his wrist in such a “sacred” work.  However, he was not to be browbeaten and simply answered:

“…He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures…”

 Veronese did however agree with his inquisitors that there was only Christ and his twelve apostle present at the table during the Last Supper but forwarded the reason for the inclusion of so many characters.  He said that the painting was to be so large that he had to fill the space with something, saying:

“…when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention…” 

The inquisitors countered Veronese’s argument by asking him whether he thought he had the right to mock the Last Supper by including irreligious figures, such as buffoons, dwarves, a dog, a cat and worst of all Germans.  Veronese replied:

“…No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures…”

The way in which Veronese had depicted the Last Supper seen in the central background was also criticised by the Inquisition.  This was not similar to the portrayal of Last Supper à la Leonardo.  Veronese’s table scene was more of an everyday festive scene and this was not lost on the inquisitors who wanted to know what was going on at the supper table.  They started by questioning Veronese as to who was sitting down with Christ.  He answered:

“…The twelve apostles…”

They then questioned what the person, Saint Peter, on the right hand of Christ was doing.  The artist responded:

“… He is carving the lamb in order to pass it to the other part of the table and Christ holds a plate to see what Saint Peter will give him…”

On questioning what a third person at the table was doing he merely commented:

“…. He is picking his teeth with a fork…”

In a desperate final attempt to justify the inclusion of all the extra people, both normal and strange, he pointed out that such elements that displeased the Inquisition, such as the dog, the dwarf, the blackamoors, the man with the nosebleed, who is seen holding a handkerchief at the left of the picture, were all in the foreground or the sides of the painting, and did not, in any way, form an incursion into the religious depiction of Christ at supper at the centre of the work.

Venetian guest arriving for supper
Venetian guest arriving for supper

With a terrible sense of foreboding the questions came to an end and Veronese awaited his fate. So, it was much to his surprise that at the end of the interrogation Veronese was told that he was a free man.  However as the Inquisition could not accept his argument for adding what they termed “anti-conformist elements” he was given three months to correct the painting at his own expense.  They required him to paint out the dog, and replace it with the Magdalene.  He was also to expunge the German soldiers and it was all to be done within three months. Paolo Veronese, who had feared torture and even death because of his heretical depiction of the Last Supper, couldn’t believe his luck.  So how had he managed to escape the full force of the Inquisition?  Maybe the answer lay in the fact that the Inquisition had much reduced powers in Venice and the inquisitors knew that they could only threaten and not use the brutal methods of torture that was taking place in other countries such as Spain and Italy.  They simply wanted to frighten Veronese in the hope that he would think twice before he again combined secularity with religious scenes.  The Inquisition in Venice was also fully aware that every judgement they made was scrutinised by the Venetian Senate, who were ready to drastically curtail their powers, if they dared to take away the liberty of a Venetian subject and, of course,  Paolo Veronese was one such subject.

Date on column and reference to Luke's Gospel
Date on column and reference to Luke’s Gospel

Veronese never made any of the major changes to his painting that the Inquisition had demanded, but in deference to Ecclesiastical sensibilities and not wishing to push his luck, he added the inscription across the top of the pillars at the head of the staircases, the ones which also showed the date of completion.  The inscription read:

Fecit D.Covi Magnum Levi                       Luca Cap. V

This was in reference to a passage in Luke’s gospel of the New Testament (Luke 5: 27-29):

“…After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.  Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them…”

He then merely changed the title of the work from The Last Supper to Feast at the House of Levi and by doing so was able to retain the dog and removed the need for it to be replaced by a repentant Magdalene prostrating herself on the floor before Christ.  Veronese’s decision not to make the changes pleased both the friars who loved the painting, and for the majority of Venetians who resented Rome’s inquisition.   The painting remained in the refectory of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo until Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops marched into Venice in 1797 and he ordered it be taken back to Paris.   It was returned to Venice a decade later and remained in the church until 1815, at which time it was acquired by the Accademia Galleries in Venice, its current home.

One final thought as to why Veronese would add so many people into a religious scene.   A decade earlier, in 1563, he had completed a similar monumental religious commission for the monks, entitled the Wedding at Cana, which now hangs in the Louvre.  It is interesting to note that it was the monks who had asked him to squeeze as many figures into their painting, as possible.  This was however at a time when the Inquisition and the upholding of Counter-Reformation ideals had yet to reach Venice.

The Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London. Part 2

In art, the hackneyed phrase “size matters” is not relevant as some of the most beautiful works of art are quite small. In my first look at the Veronese exhibition at London’s National Gallery I focused on some of the artist’s monumental works which were on show. In today’s blog I want to look at some of the smaller paintings which were on display at the exhibition.

Mary Magdalen in the Wilderness by Veronese (c. 1585)
Mary Magdalen in the Wilderness by Veronese (c. 1585)

The first painting I want to feature is Veronese’s oil on canvas work entitled Mary Magdalene in the Wilderness which he completed around 1585 and is on loan to the exhibition from a private collection in Genoa. The scene is a cave, bathed in moonlight, which is home to Mary Magdalene. Legend had it that after the death of Christ, his resurrection and finally his ascension into heaven, she, along with her brothers Lazarus and Maximin, fled the Holy Land in a rudder-less boat and one without a sail and landed at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue near the city of Arles. From there she went to Marseille before living for thirty years in a cave in the Saint Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume Mountains. According to legend, during her self-imposed exile, she went on a strict period of fasting and that but for occasional visits by the angels, and the comfort bestowed by celestial visions, she might have died. The only food she received was the Holy Eucharist which was given to her by angels.

In the painting, we see Mary Magdalene leaning back against a shelf as she converses with the angel who has descended to offer her a modicum of comfort. Veronese has retained her youth and beauty despite what would have been her real age. She is depicted as being semi-naked although she attempts to cover up her nakedness with her hair and diaphanous clothing. Her legs are bare and her breast is exposed and this portrayal of her is probably meant to remind us of her previous immoral life. Look at the shelf behind her. On it we can just make out a number of items. There is an alabaster jar which is the traditional attribute of Mary Magdalene, reminding us of the jar of very expensive aromatic oil, pure nard, with which she anointed the feet of Christ. Also on the ledge there is a skull and an hour glass, both Vanitas symbols alluding to the passage of time and the inevitability of death. Propped up against the skull is a crucifix reminding us of the death of Christ which Mary Magdalene witnessed first-hand.

It is thought that the painting, which was purchased around 1736 by the Doria family, was enlarged during the eighteenth century so that it fitted snugly within decorated plasterwork of one of the rooms of their Strada Nuovo palace in Genoa.

The Finding of Moses by Veronese (c.1580)
The Finding of Moses by Veronese (c.1580)

My next featured work is one entitled The Finding of Moses which Veronese completed around 1580 and is part of the Prado collection in Madrid. This small cabinet-sized painting (57cms x 43cms) is another of his religious works and is based on the Old Testament story (Exodus 2:5-6):

“…Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. And when she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. So she had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children’…”

The painting depicts the moment when the Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah, and her ladies-in-waiting have plucked the basket, made of bulrushes and pitch, from the reeds on the edge of the Nile River. The basket was the one in which the baby, Moses had been placed by his Hebrew mother, Jochebed, in order to save him from the slaughter of all male Hebrew children ordered by the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Although this obviously a religious work it has secular connotations and this secularising of the work made it one of Veronese’s most popular subjects. He completed many versions of this depiction, some small like this one, others much larger. This painting has combined the pomp and ceremony often seen in secular works with a story from the bible. The Pharoah’s daughter and her royal attendants are lavishly dressed in sumptuous gowns. Bithiah, as the Pharoah’s daughter, is the most lavishly dressed in stunning orange and white damask gown. To her left is one of her attendants, dressed in blue, holding a blanket ready to wrap up the baby who is being cradled by another attendant who can be seen crouching down with Moses in her arms. The background at the left of painting depicts a river flowing through a large town and is crossed by a bridge. This could well be based on city of Verona, which has many bridges straddling the fast-flowing Adige River.

In the left foreground we see one of her black servants holding the basket which had once carried the baby down river. To the right of the painting Veronese has included a dwarf in the company of the women. Dwarves were often present at 16th century European courts and depicted in paintings of the time. It is thought that this version of the painting was commissioned by Marquis and Marchioness della Torre of Veneto. Its emergence in Spain dates to the 1666 inventory of the Alcázar of Madrid.

Portrait of a Lady 'La Bella Nani' by Veronese (c. 1560)
Portrait of a Lady ‘La Bella Nani’ by Veronese (c. 1560)

My third offering is a portrait which Veronese completed around 1560. It is entitled Portrait of a Lady, ‘La Bella Nani’ and this work is considered to be Veronese’s greatest stand-alone female portrait. Venetian portraiture of Venetian courtesans was very popular at this time with works by the Italian painter of the Venetian school, Palma Vechio, the Italian painter of the Venetian Renaissance, Paris Bordone and Titian. This portrait by Veronese was often likened to Titian’s 1536 work entitled La Bella. In both these paintings the female sitter exudes a sense of opulence by the sumptuous and expensive clothes they wear. Veronese’s woman is standing with her left hand spreading her gossamer veil whilst her right hand is at her breast. Her hair is set tightly, and bejewelled with pearls. She wears a velvet dress which is deep ultramarine in colour and has gold epaulets; The colour of the dress was originally blue although over time sunlight has caused the painting to darken and the beautiful ultramarine dress seems black with just a hint of blue woven in. Veronese’s clever and complex layer of glazes makes the expensive material of the dress shimmer in the light. Her make-up is perfect with rouge on her cheeks she wears an assortment of jewellery, including a large gold piece hanging at her waist. Her wrists are adorned with gold bracelets, on her fingers there are gold rings and around her neck we see a string of pearls. The combination of the jewellery and clothes transforms her into what we would now term a fashion idol. As was the case with Titian’s female, we do not know who the sitter for Veronese’s portrait was but it will almost certainly be a female member of the Venetian aristocracy.

La Bella by Titian (1536)
La Bella by Titian (1536)

Whereas Titian’s woman looks out at us in a somewhat provocative manner, the female in the Veronese’s portrait has a somewhat restrained look as she averts her eyes from the observer. There is a look of sadness in her expression as she stares into the distance. She seems lost in thought and somewhat troubled. She does not seem to be at ease and maybe was a reluctant model, who has had to acquiesce to her husband’s demand that she should have her portrait painted. Her status as a married woman is confirmed by the ring she wears on her left hand. She looks tired and there are lines around her eyes. There is a vulnerability about this woman which makes us question whether wealth has given her all that she desired.

This painting by Paolo Veronese hangs at the Louvre and is in the same room as Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, Mona Lisa and one of Veronese’s monumental works, Wedding at Cana. The question as to whether she is a wife of an aristocrat is questioned by the curators of the Louvre who believe it could just be an idealised portrait of a woman by Veronese bringing together all the attributes that make for a beautiful woman. Their view is quite simple:

“…The figure is in fact a depiction of all the criteria of beauty sought after in Venice at the time: blond hair, a pearly complexion and radiance, as well as sweetness of character, reserve, or the quasi-shyness appropriate to any married woman…”

The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c.1570)  National Gallery, London
The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c.1570) National Gallery, London

My final offerings are a pair of paintings by Veronese based on the dream of Saint Helena. One is housed at the National Gallery, London whist the other can be found in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, in Rome. The Dream of Saint Helena in the National Gallery was completed around 1570 and the Vatican painting of the same name was thought to have been completed by the artist five or six years later. The story behind the depiction tells of the Flavia Julia Helena, the Empress mother of Constantine the Great, receiving a visitation from an angel in her dream. The angel tells Helena that she should leave home, travel to the Holy Land in search of the relic of the true cross on which Christ was crucified. She set off for Palestine in 326AD on a part spiritual part diplomatic visit on behalf of her son Constantine and, after a two year search, found the cross. Since then, the imagery of the saint has always been associated with the relics of the cross.

In Carlo Ridolphi’s seventeenth century book, La Maraviglie dell’Arte, he talks about a painting of Saint Helena in the house of the Contarini family of Padua. Of the painting, he states:

“… a scene of Saint Helena, who while sleeping dreams of a vision of the Cross held by two angels, that saintly queen nursing such a saintly thought in her mind, even though she was resting…”

We can see by looking at the two works, only the one which is housed in London’s National Gallery has a depiction of two angels and so this could well be the work which Ridolphi was talking about.

Veronese, with great skill, depicts the dream of Saint Helena in the National Gallery painting by separating the work into two distinct areas. The foreground represents the “here and now” and in it we see Saint Helena, eyes closed, asleep on a window seat with her head supported by her right hand and her right elbow resting on the window sill. The view through the square window is the space which depicts the dream scene and in her dreams she sees two angels struggling to hold a very heavy and substantial wooden cross. It is a somewhat bare composition but the inclusion of Saint Helena lends an elegance to the depiction. The colours Veronese has used for Helena’s gown are fairly subdued, albeit the cool greens on one hand and the warm golds, rich pinks and oranges, on the other, harmonise perfectly. Look how Veronese has cleverly highlighted the garment with flecks and whirls of white and examine carefully the way he has skilfully depicted the folds of Helena’s gown.

The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c. 1580)  Pinacoteca Vaticana
The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c. 1580) Pinacoteca Vaticana

In the Vatican’s Dream of Saint Helena we see Helena seated in a luxurious palace location. This work is completely different to the starkness and sparseness of the London version. In this painting the background consists of a decorated wall covering. To the left there is a fluted column and behind the chair is a bronze statue. Veronese’s depiction of her in this painting is one of an opulently dressed empress. She wears a glorious brocade dress with a red mantle. A jewelled crown sits atop her head. She is seated asleep in a chair, and once again, as in the London painting, her head is supported by her hand. In the right foreground we see the rear view of an angel who appears to be walking into the picture dragging along a large wooden cross. This is the vision Saint Helena is dreaming about and through Veronese’s two depictions we are privy to that dream.

In my next blog I am staying with Veronese and looking at a painting which was 42 ft (1280 cms) wide was far too large to be transported to London.  It was a painting which combined a secular scene with a religious story and by so doing fell afoul of the Inquisition. His inquisitors were not amused!

The Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London – Part 1.

Today’s blog came in to being thanks to Lady Luck.  Last week I went to London for two days.  The first day was spent with my daughter and her new baby leaving the second day free for me to roam around some art galleries.   It was March 19th and that was the day of the opening of the Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery.  I hadn’t planned my visit to coincide with that day and anyway, I had already checked on the internet to find, not unexpectedly, that I could not book tickets to the exhibition on its opening day.  However I decided to visit the gallery when it opened to see what literature they had regarding the exhibition and I was very surprised, but delighted, to be told that I could buy a ticket to visit the exhibition there and then.  I jumped at the offer.  It was a superb exhibition spread over seven rooms filled with the most magnificent paintings.  In my next two blogs, I want to feature some of my favourite works which were on display and look at the background to the depictions, in the hope that I can tempt you to visit this exceptional exhibition.

The Family of Darius before Alexander by Veronese (1565-7)
The Family of Darius before Alexander by Veronese (1565-7)

The first painting I want you to look at was one Palo Veronese completed around 1567.  It is entitled The Family of Darius before Alexander.  Veronese received the commission for this work from Francesco Pisani, the bishop of Ostia and a patron of the arts, for his residence Palazzo Pisani in Montagnana.  It is thought that this monumental work, which measures 236cms x 475cms (approximately 7.5ft x 16.5ft), was hung high up on the wall of the main room (probably the only room which could accommodate such a large work) on the piano nobile, the main floor of the house.  Its positioning meant that observers had to look up at the painting and from that viewpoint the depiction of the characters must have been amazing.

The event that is depicted in this work features Alexandra the Great and his first encounter with the abandoned womenfolk of the defeated Persian king, Darius III.  The meeting was written about by many Roman and Greek scholars and this work by Veronese was probably based on the writings of Valerius Maximus, a 1st century Roman historian.  It is an account of what happened following the Hellenic leader, Alexander the Great’s victory over the Persian army, led by Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333BC.  Although far outnumbered by the Persians, Alexander’s troops won the battle and Darius, rather than be killed fled the battlefield abandoning his family and his troops.  Although it may seem strange that the female members of the royal family were at the battle but it was the custom for royal Persian women to accompany their father/husband while they went to war.   When Darius made a hasty retreat from the battlefield, without a care for his family, his mother, wife and children were then captured by Alexander.   Darius later wrote a number of letters to his conqueror asking for the return of his family but Alexander would not agree unless Darius acknowledged him as the new Emperor of Persia.

In the meantime the female captives, Darius’mother Sisigambis, his wife Stateira and their two daughters, Stateira II and Drypteis were abandoned.  In the painting we see the four women meeting Alexander and his friend Hephaestion for the first time.  The four women at the centre of the painting are Darius’s family and they have approached Alexander asking for mercy.  Behind them stand their servants and a dwarf.   On the right we see Alexander, who is dressed in red, standing next to Hephaestion.  In between the two parties is an elderly man, dressed in blue, who is introducing the women to Alexander.   It is thought that this figure is a portrait of Veronese’s patron, Francesco Pisani.  The story of the event tells of the Darius’ mother initially mistaking Hephasteion for Alexander and in the painting we can see Alexander pointing to his friend who has stepped back in surprise at Sisigambis’ mis-identification.

For most of the characters in this tale, all ended well.  Alexander married Darius’s daughter Stateira II, whilst his other daughter Drypteis became the wife of Hephasteion.  Sadly all didn’t end well for Darius III who, after the defeat, was assassinated by one of his satraps (governors), Bessus, who then pronounced himself King of Kings of the Persian Empire.  He was later captured and executed on the orders of Alexander for his crime, regicide.

Veronese’s depiction of the scene arranges the figures gracefully across the surface of the painting, and with the exception of Alexander who wears classical armour, the protagonists are sumptuously dressed in modern fashion.  Veronese chose an outdoor setting for the meeting with its classical architecture similar to what he saw in his home town Verona.

The Martyrdom of Saint George by Veronese (c. 1565)
The Martyrdom of Saint George by Veronese (c. 1565)

The second work I am featuring is one Veronese completed around 1565 and is entitled The Martyrdom of St George.   It is a colossal work measuring 431cms x 300 cms (approximately14ft high x 10ft wide).  Veronese was probably commissioned to paint this for the high altar of San Giorgio in Braida, a Roman Catholic church in Verona, by the Venetian architect Michele Sanmicheli.

To set the scene I rely on a passage from Carlo Ridolfi, the Italian art biographer, 1648 book entitled Le Maraviglie dell’Arte, (The Marvels of Art) in which he describes the work:

“…in the church of San Giorgio Paolo painted for the high altar the saintly knight on his knees, stripped by henchman, persuaded by priests to offer incense to the idol Apollo, his face reveals an unvanquished soul, unafraid of the tyrant’s threats, strengthened by seeing the Virgin flanked by the Theological Virtues in the sky…”

In the painting we are not seeing the actual gruesome death of Saint George, who was a Roman soldier, but the lead up to his martyrdom.  The scene has an architectural background and the it is framed by two armoured horseman who enter the painting at the extreme left and right of the work.  Amongst the people we see a couple of men with turbans and a black page boy which gives a Middle Eastern feel to the setting and Veronese may have decided on this as legend had it that the martyrdom of St George took place on April 23rd 303AD in the town of Nicomedia, which is now the north-west Turkish town of Izmit.  High up on the extreme left of the painting we see the statue of Apollo which St George has been asked to worship.  Behind the statue is the unfurled Roman standard with its acronym in golden letters, S.P.Q.R., derived from the Latin phrase:

Senatus Populusque Romanus, (The Senate and People of Rome)

St George, who is kneeling on the ground, is stripped of his armour, which lies before him on the ground.  He is now bare-chested.  Look at Veronese’s portrayal of the saint.  Look how he has lovingly depicted the saint’s face with a look of kindness which is in direct contrast to the way he has depicted the harsh and ugly faces of the priest and executioner.  Behind St George is the priest dressed in a maroon cloak and cowl.  He leans towards his prisoner and points to the statue of Apollo and asks St George for the final time to worship the God, Apollo, and by so doing, saving his own life.   To the right of, and behind St George, we see the executioner. He is eagerly awaiting the priest decision.  The executioner has drawn his sword from its scabbard which he hands back to one of his henchmen.  Another man ties the hands of St George.  St George is unmoved by the threat and can be seen looking up to the heavens where he sees a vision of St Peter and Saint Paul, who sit either side of the Virgin and Child.  Below them are the three virtues, Faith Hope and Charity.  Hope, like the Virgin, look down on the soon to be executed St George.  Below them we see a small angel heading downwards to St George holding a wreath and palm branch, which are symbols of martyrdom.

It is a very moving scene and one can just imagine the painting in place at the high altar.  The observer would have had to look upwards over the altar towards the painting.  The observer’s eyes would then catch a glimpse of St George and follow the upward direction he is focusing on, towards Heaven and the Virgin Mary.  The painting which is housed in the Roman Catholic church of San Giorgio in Braida in Verona was trucked over to London for the exhibition.

Supper at Emmaus by Veronese (c. 1555)
Supper at Emmaus by Veronese (c. 1555)

The third painting I am showcasing is another monumental work, measuring 242cms x 416cms (approximately 8ft x 14ft).  It is Supper at Emmaus and this often painted scene was completed by Veronese around 1555.  The depiction based on the biblical story portrays the moment when the risen Christ, having comes across two of his disciples, thought to be Luke and Cleopas, on the road to Emmaus, joins them for supper.  We see Christ at the head of the table being served by the servant whilst at the opposite end of the table sit Cleopas and Luke who have just realised the identity of their fellow diner.  This supper scene has been depicted in paintings by all the great Italian painters, such as Caravaggio, Titian, and Tintoretto as well as other European artists such as Durer, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Jordaens.  However this painting of the Emmaus Supper by Veronese incorporates into the scene a group family portrait.  There are three men, who maybe brothers, a woman, ten children and an infant in the arms of the woman.  They are all dressed in contemporary 16th costumes.  It could be that is a family who has commissioned the work.  Where the work was to be hung is unknown but thought to be in the main hall of one of the new Venetian palaces.

The combination of the biblical scene with a secular scene works well and there is a lavishness about the secular depiction giving it a grand and stately appearance.  There is an element of humour about the depiction as we look down below the supper table at the two young girls who play with the large dog.  To the left, in the background, we witness a prelude to the supper as we see the two disciples with Christ as they make their way through the countryside to the village of Emmaus and the inn.

It is interesting to note that Veronese liked adding ordinary people into religious scenes and liked to incorporate his love of richness and ornamental embellishment in his religious works as in this painting.  However,  it was to get him into trouble with the Inquisition, who viewed the combining of secular and religious depictions into another of his painting in which, according to them, he had crowded “irrelevant and irreverent” figures into the work.  They took a dim view of it and they looked upon it as a sign of disrespect towards the Catholic Church.  I will tell you more about that painting in another blog.

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese (c. 1572)
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese (c. 1572)

My final offering today is another religious painting by Veronese, which again has been the subject for many of the great painters, such as Caravaggio and Gerard David.  It is based on a passage from the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-15) which is a follow-on from the story of the three magi who had brought gifts to the newborn child, and had now departed:

“…When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,  where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son….”

During their flight the Holy Family stopped for a rest and it is at their resting place that the various artists have depicted the scene.  Veronese completed his painting entitled The Rest on the Flight into Egypt around 1572.  We see Joseph sitting next to Mary who cradles the Christ Child.  They are all in need of sustenance but had nothing to eat or drink.  They sit in a palm grove, in the shade of a palm tree, which is emblematic of martyrdom.  It is laden with dates but they are too high up for them to reach.  Joseph’s water canteen is empty and they have nothing to drink.  Then a miracle occurs.  The tree bends downwards and we see one young angel dropping down dates whilst another gathers them up to give to the Holy Family to eat, whilst the Virgin Mary nurses the Christ Child.  A spring of water appears below them allowing Joseph to re-fill his canteen. Behind the couple is an ass and to the right of the picture there is an ox, a reference to the animals at the manger when the Child was born in Bethlehem.  Another young angel can be seen in the left of the painting, spreading out the baby’s clothes on a branch so they would dry.

Light filters through the leaves of the palm trees and in the background to the right the sky is the most beautiful blue.  This colour used by Veronese for the skies and clothes in some of his paintings is truly breathtaking and it is what struck me most about his work.  In this work, this beautiful rich blue colour is used again for the cloak of the Virgin Mary. Below the sky line in the right of the painting we see ancient buildings and obelisks which are meant to signify the far off land of Egypt, the country to which the couple are heading. It is a truly beautiful work of art.

In my next blog I will look at some more of Veronese’s paintings which were on show at the exhibitions, including some of his smaller works.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Part 2 – The painter of Religious Scenes and his painting The Flagellation of Christ

Photograph of William Bouguereau (c.1870)
Photograph of William Bouguereau (c.1870)

My blog today looks at another of Bouguereau’s great history paintings.  This is one of his religious works and has all the ferocity of his painting Dante and Virgil, which I featured in my last blog.  Whether you are a lover of religious historic paintings or not, I defy you to be unmoved by the beauty of this work.  Bouguereau was a devout catholic and looked upon his religious paintings as a form of his worship of both God and mankind.  Bouguereau’s religious belief can be plainly seen in his religious works.  The painting I am featuring today is entitled The Flagellation of Christ, which he completed in 1880. Before I discuss the painting let me tell you a little about his life.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau was born in the French Atlantic coastal town of La Rochelle in November 1825.  His father was Theodore Bouguereau, a seller of wine and olive oil.  His father struggled to make much money from his business and because of the financial hardship and family tensions William was sent to live with his uncle Eugène Bouguereau, who was curate in the town of Montagne, some twenty kilometres from Bordeaux.   This enforced move to his uncles was to prove highly fortuitous for the young boy as it was his uncle who introduced him to the world of Roman and Greek mythology and had him read the stories from the Old and New Testaments.  At the age of thirteen, William’s uncle arranged for him to attend the high school at Pons where he attended his first drawing classes under the guidance of Louis Sage, a young classical painter who had once studied under Ingres.   He remained at the school for three years.  In 1841, he eventually moved to Bordeaux where his father had set up his business and once again William was with his family.  William joined in his father’s business but at the same time, in 1842, he was allowed to enrol on a two-year part-time course at the city’s École Municipale de Dessin et de Peinture.  Here he studied under  Jean-Paul Alaux, the French landscape painter and lithographer.  He could not attend full-time because of his promise to help his father during the day, and so, he only attended art classes in the early morning and in the late evening.  Despite being a part-time student he excelled in what he did and in 1844 he won first prize for the best History painting with his depiction of Saint Roch.     Following this award William Bouguerau realised that his future was indelibly tied to art.  To earn some money for himself he designed lithographic labels for jars of jams and other preserves.

Bouguereau realised that to progress with his art he needed to be in Paris which was, at that time, considered the capital of the art world.   However to live in the French capital required money, a commodity he lacked.  His father’s business was not successful enough for him to give his son the money but fortunately for William, his uncle Eugène, the curate, once again proved to be his salvation.  He arranged for William to paint portraits of his parishioners for a fixed fee and after months of portraiture he had amassed nine hundred francs.  A similar sum was given to him by his aunt and he was all set to head to Paris.

The Flagellation of Christ by William Bouguereau (1880)
The Flagellation of Christ by William Bouguereau (1880)

In my third and final blog about Bouguereau I will finish his life story but for today I want to focus on another of his great History paintings, his religious work entitled The Flagellation of Christ.   He exhibited this work at the 1880 Paris Salon.  It is a monumental work measuring 390 x 210 cms (almost 13ft high and 7ft wide).  One can easily imagine how it stood out from all the other works on show at the exhibition. This is acknowledged as being one of Bouguereau’s greatest religious works.  In this painting, Bouguereau has depicted Christ, tied to a column.  Christ’s body hangs down almost lifelessly with his feet dragging on the ground.  His head droops backwards.  His eyes are blank and unfocused. He is utterly powerless.  He can do little to stop the ferocious onslaught.  Unlike Bouguereau’s painting Dante and Virgil which I featured in the last blog, he has made no attempt to exaggerate the musculature in his portrayal of Christ’s body.  The body of Christ is that of a normal human being.  It is just like ours and in doing this Bouguereau has allowed us more easily to empathise with Christ’s suffering and pain.

A look of concern
A look of concern

We see Christ’s tormentors, two men, who stand on either side of him, arms raised in mid swing with their knotted rope whips airborne.  In the right foreground we see a third man kneeling.  He is in the process of tying up birch branches which will be used later to flagellate their prisoner.  Look at his facial expression.  It is one of concern.  It appears that maybe he is not convinced that what he sees before him is justified.  It is if he is beginning to question his part in the flogging.    In the background an inquisitive crowd gather to witness the flogging.  This is not a leering and jeering crowd we have seen in many of the crowd scenes in Northern Renaissance works.  This group of people cannot be likened to the snarling mob we have seen in earlier Passion of Christ depictions.

A child looks on
A child looks on

An old man in the crowd, maybe the father, lifts a baby aloft for him or her to get a better view.  There is little sign of compassion on the faces of the crowd.  Maybe they have accepted the charges that have been laid against Christ and feel that he needed to be punished.  However there is one exception.

Look closely at the far left of the background.  We see a young boy in a long green tunic who has turned away in horror of what is happening and has burrowed his head in the clothing of the woman who has wrapped her arm around him in a comforting gesture.  Maybe it is his mother.  Maybe she is horrified by what her young son has witnessed and is trying belatedly to protect him.  In the mid-background, there is a man wearing a white vest and grey headband.  He grips a sheath of birch branches and is readying himself to take part in the flogging.  There are a number of examples where the artist has decided to insert his own image into a work and Bouguereau has done the same in this painting.

The artist looks on
The artist looks on

Look at the face in the background to the right of the man wearing the white top and head band.  There, gazing between the spectators is a man with red hair and a red beard.  His brow is furrowed signifying his unease of what he sees before him.  This is believed to be the face of the artist himself.  He, like us, looks on at the terrible scene.

The size of the work almost certainly precluded the sale of it to a private individual and in 1881 Bouguereau gave it to the Society of Friends of the Arts in his home town of La Rochelle.  This majestic work can now be found at the Baptistery of La Rochelle Cathedral, France. 

Bouguereau never lost his love of Greek and Roman mythology which he had been brought up on from early age by his uncle Eugène.   As I said earlier, Bouguereau was a very religious man and religious imagery was a persistent theme in his paintings.   Often his religious works focused on sad and moving events and it is believed they mirrored the anguish and suffering he endured with the loss of loved ones in his own life, which I will talk about  next time.

The Holy Family paintings by Joos van Cleve

Self portrait by Joos van Cleve (1519) Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Self portrait by Joos van Cleve (1519)
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The artist I am featuring today is the early Netherlandish painter Joos van der Beke, better known as Joos van Cleve because he is thought to have been born in the Lower Rhine region of Kleve, possibly the Rhine-river town of Wesel, which lies on the current Dutch-German border.  The year of his birth is believed to be around 1485.  There are various accounts of his early life, much of which are contradictory, but it is thought that his initial artistic training began when he worked in the Kalkar studio of the Dutch painter, Jan Joest van Kalkar, between 1505 and 1509.

The High Altarpiece in the Kalkar church of St Nicholai  by Jan Joest
The High Altarpiece in the Kalkar church of St Nicholai by Jan Joest

It was during his time with Joest that he worked with his master on the twenty-panelled high altarpiece in the Kalkar church of St Nicholai which is considered to be Joest’s greatest work.   From Kalkar, it is believed Joos van Cleve lived around the Ghent-Bruges area and the next we hear of him is in 1511 where he is mentioned in records as a free-master in the Antwerp’ Guild of St Luke, the city’s painters guild, and on a number of occasions he would hold the position of co-deacon of the guild as well as being appointed Dean of the St Luke’s Guild in 1519, 1520 and 1525.

Centre panel of triptych Death of the Virgin  by Joos van Cleve (c.1515)
Centre panel of triptych
Death of the Virgin
by Joos van Cleve (c.1515)

He set up his own studio in Antwerp and over the next twenty years he took on a number of apprentices.  His studio became the most famous in the city and he was inundated with painting commissions, many of which found their way to the leading European royal, ecclesiastic and merchant houses.  One of these lucrative commissions came in 1515, from the Nicasius and Georg Hackeney, wealthy merchants of Cologne, for a religious triptych which became known as the Death of the Virgin and which is currently housed in Cologne’s Wallraf-Richartz-Museum.  It was from this work that Joos also became known as Master of the Death of the Virgin. It was works like this which brought the Flemish tradition to Cologne, and in so doing brought to bear an extensive influence on the Cologne school of art.

The centre panel of the wide-format triptych is a scene depicting a number of apostles gathered around the bed of the dying Virgin Mary. Of these people, only John and Peter are identifiable.   Peter stands before the bed.  On the floor is a stool on which lies a Gothic rosary.  On the two wings of the triptych there is a depiction of an open river landscape with continuous horizons as well as portraits of the commissioners of the work, Nicasius and Georg Hackeney with their patron saints.

Henry VIII by Joos van Cleve (1535)
Henry VIII by Joos van Cleve (1535)

Besides his religious works, Joos van Cleve was an accomplished portrait painter.  He was so talented that the king of France at the time, Francis I, summoned him to Paris to work at the French court, during which time he painted a number of portraits of the king, his wife, Eleanor of Austria and members of the court.  It is thought that Joos van Cleve also travelled to England around 1534.  This belief is based on a fact that he painted a portrait of the forty-four year old monarch, Henry VIII, dated 1535, which is now part of the Royal collection.

Little is known about his family life except that in 1519 Joos van Cleve met and married his first wife, Anna Vijts.  The couple had two children, both born in Antwerp.  The birth records of the children show them listed as  “vander Beke, alias van Cleve” and that their father was registered as an Antwerp burgher which possibly indicates that Joos had registered as an Antwerp citizen in order to be able to work in the city.  Joos and Anna had a son, Cornelis, who was born in 1520 and two years later in 1522, Anna gave birth to their daughter, Jozijne.  Their son, Cornelis became a talented portrait painter in his own right.  He helped his father in his workshop and would, after his father’s death, run the business   Cornelis was later known as Sotte Cleve (Mad Cleve) after becoming insane at the age of thirty-four.    Joos van Cleve also allegedly had an illegitimate daughter, Tanneken, from his relationship with Clara van Arp.   In 1531, three years after the death of his first wife, Anna, Joos married Katlijne van Mispelteren.  The couple had no children.   The exact date of Joos van Cleve’s death is uncertain but it is known that on November 10th 1540 he wrote his last will and testament and it is believed he died shortly afterwards.  In April 1541 his wife, Katlijne, was listed as a widow.

     The Holy Family  (St Petersburg version)      by Joos van Cleve
The Holy Family
(St Petersburg version)
by Joos van Cleve

The works of art produced by Joos van Cleve merge the emotions of the Italian Renaissance with the exactitude and lucidity of early Netherlandish art. He was also an astute business man who knew the paintings people liked.   An example of this is in the way he painted many versions of his most popular subject, The Holy Family.  One of these versions is in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.  In this work we see a half length composition of the Virgin with the upright Christ Child standing on a stone parapet.  To the left, and somewhat in the background, is Saint Joseph.  The Virgin protects the Child from falling by embracing him with her Mannerist elongated hands.  The pose we see before us is often referred to in Latin, as Maria Lactans, “the virgin’s nursing breast”, or “the lactating virgin”, which was the primary symbol of God’s love for humanity.

    The Holy Family  (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna)  by Joos van Cleve (c.1515)
The Holy Family
(Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna)
by Joos van Cleve (c.1515)

In the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna there is another version of The Holy Family, completed around 1515 and in this rendering we see that Joos van Cleve has added a landscape panorama behind the bespectacled foster-father, Joseph, who seems to be positioned outside the room as he reads his book which rests on the window sill.   Again we have the Child standing upright on the parapet held by his mother.  Once more, we notice the depiction of the hands circling the child in an Antwerp Mannerism style.   To emphasize the close mother-child relationship Joos van Cleve has once again gone for the Maria lactans motif but showing it in a somewhat playful fashion.

    The Holy Family  (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)  by Joos van Cleve (c.1513)
The Holy Family
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
by Joos van Cleve (c.1513)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in its Friedsam Collection, has a yet another of Jan van Cleve’s versions of The Holy Family which was painted around 1513.  In this version the Christ Child is sitting on the parapet and his lips are tight on the breast of the Virgin as he suckles.  On the parapet we see a glass of wine and a plate of fruit which are symbolic of Christ’s incarnation and the sacrifice of his life which will come in the future.  Again in the background to the left of the mother and child we have Saint Joseph.  In this version he seems less detached and is not concentrating on reading from a book, although he is holding an unfurled scroll.

   The Holy Family (Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire )  by Joos van Cleve (c.1520)
The Holy Family
(Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire )
by Joos van Cleve (c.1520)

The Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire has another version of Joos van Cleve’s The Holy Family, completed around 1520.  It is a small painting measuring 74cms x 56cms.  In front of the mother and child there is, not the stone parapet which we had seen in the other versions, but a table covered by a green felt cloth.   It is a beautiful work which is full of finely detailed still-life objects on the table.   Joos van Cleve has adroitly depicted a variety of objects of differing textures varying from a glass vessel to the ermine lining of Mary’s robe.   In this painting the Christ Child lies across his mother’s lap clutching an amber-coloured string of beads.  As the beads are fixed on the string in five groups of ten we can be almost certain that they represent a rosary.  On the table is a glass jar which symbolises the purity of the Virgin.  This symbolism comes from the fact that light passes through the vessel without breaking it similar to the impregnation of the seed which entered Mary womb without her hymen being breached.    There is a cross reflected in the jar and this is a reminder of how the Christ Child will die and the wine in the jar symbolises the blood of Christ which will be shed during his suffering.   Also on the table there is a folded piece of embroidery, known as a sampler.  In the left of the painting we have Joseph.  He is reading a scroll version of the Magnificat which comes from Luke’s Gospel (1:46-55) and which relates to Mary’s holy stature of Luke:

  “…For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed, for He who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name…”

 

   The Holy Family  (National Gallery, London)  by Joos van Cleve (c.1515-20)
The Holy Family
(National Gallery, London)
by Joos van Cleve (c.1515-20)

The final version of Joos van Cleve’s The Holy Family I want to show you is the one in London’s National Gallery.   This version was completed between 1515 and 1520.  In this work the figures are depicted close together giving a sense of intimacy, albeit Joseph is set back and does not engage with Mary or the Child.   This depiction and positioning of Joseph symbolizes his subordinate, albeit contributory, role in the family relationship.  The depiction of Mary is somewhat an idealized and heavenly one but there are definite earthly characteristics about the bespectacled, grey-haired Joseph with his double chin.   Again the Maria Lactans depiction of the Virgin reinforces the human characteristic of the child and adds to the intimate and cherished relationship between mother and baby.  The Christ Child stands on a smooth stone parapet which is shown in the foreground of the painting.  Wrapped around him, almost like a restraint, is the string of beads of an orange rosary.  On this ledge Joos van Cleve has depicted a number of inanimate objects which are symbolic.  We see the Virgin holding a stalk with three red cherries which symbolise paradise.  The glass vase to the left contains a stem of white lilies which symbolizes the purity of the Virgin.  It is believed the piece of lemon which has been cut open by the knife which rests upon it may represent the weaning of the child.

In all the Holy Family paintings Joos van Cleve has depicted the Virgin and the Christ Child in a similar fashion whereas his depiction of Saint Joseph standing in the background varies  from painting to painting.  I wonder why that was.  Did he reconsider the role of Saint Joseph differently and thus altered his image?

Virgin and Child with Saints by Rogier van der Weyden

Sketch of Madonna and Child with Saints
Sketch of Madonna and Child with Saints

Do you like jigsaw puzzles?  Do you like a mystery?    I hope so as today my featured paintings are just part of an artistic and mysterious jigsaw puzzle.  I will be looking at the three remaining pieces of an original oil on wood work of art and a sketch which may give a clue as to what the original complete painting may have looked like.  From the three remaining pieces which still exist, one can tell it must have been a truly beautiful work of art.  The artist who painted the work was the great early Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden.  I featured one of his best known works entitled The Descent from the Cross in My Daily Art Display on November 15th 2010 and today I am pleased to feature another of his fine works.

Rogier van der Weyden was born in, what is now, the Belgium town of Tournai around 1399.  His name at that time was actually Rogier de le Pasture which literally translated meant Roger of the Pasture.   His father Henri de le Pasture was a knife manufacturer.  At the age of 26 he married Elisabeth Goffaert, the daughter of a Brussels shoemaker, and they had four children.  In 1436 he was given the position of stadsschilder, (painter to the town), of Brussels, a post especially created for him.  It was whilst living in Brussels, which was then a Dutch-speaking town that he began to use the Dutch version of his name: Rogier van der Weyden.

The complete painting I am featuring today was entitled Virgin and Child with Saints, but it does not exist anymore.   However three parts of the work have survived.  One of these is entitled The Magdalen Reading and is housed at the National Gallery in London.  The other two pieces entitled Head of Saint Joseph and Head of Female Saint (St Catherine?) are to be found in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon.  It is believed that all three pieces were once part of a large Sacra Conversazione painted by Rogier van der Weyden some time between 1435 and 1438A Sacra Conversazione is an Italian phrase which literally translates to “holy conversation”.  The phrase is designated to works of art, normally altarpieces, which depict the Virgin and Child flanked by attendant saints, who are grouped in a single panel, rather than a multi-panelled polyptych.  From the fifteenth century the sacra conversazione began to replace the polyptych.   The word “conversazione” alludes to the characters in the painting being in intimate conversation with one another.  This depiction of the saints communing with each other was unusual as normally in religious works of the time the saints would be shown simply meditating or reading and it was not until a century later that they took on a more animated quality.

Although the original and complete painting does not exist any longer we have some idea what it looked like as there exists a drawing of the almost complete work in the National Museum of Fine Arts in central Stockholm which was drawn by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden.  Although it is an incomplete sketch, it gives one an idea of what the original finished painting looked like.   In this drawing we see standing on the left a bishop saint with a mitre on his head.  In his left hand he holds his crosier, his pastoral staff, and his right hand is raised as he makes a blessing.    If you look to the right of this figure you can see there is a narrow vertical gap with a few curved but faint vertical lines and it is in this gap that art historians believe was the lower part of the kneeling figure of the female saint, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a fourth century martyr, whose head and shoulders appear in the Lisbon painting. 

Head of Female Saint (St Catherine?) by Rogier van der Weyden ? (before 1438)
Head of Female Saint (St Catherine?) by Rogier van der Weyden ? (before 1438)

However, some art historians, who have studied the three pieces of the painting, have come to the conclusion that the depiction of Saint Catherine may not have been painted by van Weyden himself.  The Scottish art historian, Lorne Campbell, an expert on early Netherlandish paintings, wrote in his 2004 book, Van der Weyden, that the depiction of the head of Saint Catherine was “obviously less well drawn and less successfully painted than the figure in the Magdalen “and as far as he was concerned the image of Saint Catherine may have been painted by one of the members of van Weyden’s workshop. 

The next figure along in the sketch is a bearded barefooted figure holding an open book.  This is thought to be John the Baptist.  Seated to the right of him is the Virgin who holds the Christ Child in her lap.  The Christ Child is wriggling himself out of his mother’s grasp as he tries to look at another book which the kneeling man, on the right, is showing him.  This man is believed to be John the Evangelist.  As I said earlier, this drawing seems to be an unfinished sketch of the original painting, not just because of the empty space between the bishop and John the Baptist but more importantly because it does not show what is believed to have been the complete right hand side of the original painting, part of which forms the work held in London’s National Gallery entitled The Magdalen Reading.   Because the sketch does not show the right hand section of the original painting it is believed that this was the first section to have been cut from the original.

The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden (before 1438)
The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden (before 1438)

So let us examine both the sketch and the Magdalen Reading painting and see if we can envisage the two being joined.    Look at the robes of the figure kneeling in the extreme right of the sketch.  See how they lie along the floor but suddenly stop at the edge of the sketch.   Look carefully at how the folds of this robe in the black and white sketch compare with the folds of the red robe on the floor to the left in the Magdalen Reading, close to where we see the bottom of a stick or cane which is being held by somebody who is not fully shown in the painting.  The stick touches the red flowing robes which are almost certain to be the robes of the kneeling John the Evangelist of the sketch.

So now we have what we believe is the bottom right hand part of the original painting in the guise of The Magdalen Reading.  This fragment of the original painting depicts a woman with pale skin and high cheekbones.   This is Mary Magdalen.  She sits piously reading a holy book, the cover of which includes a chemise of white cloth, which protects the precious tome.  We see her deep in contemplation as she reads. According to art historian, Lorne Campbell, the book she is reading looks similar to a 13th century French Bible.   She seems quite oblivious to those around her.  Her head is tilted so that her eyes are shyly turned from us, the viewer.    She sits on a red cushion and leans back slightly and relaxes against a kind of wooden sideboard.   On the floor by her side is a white alabaster jar.  This is her traditional attribute in Christian art as the Gospels tell of her bringing spices in it to the tomb of Jesus.  Look how beautifully van Weyden has portrayed her.  She wears a long green robe which is pulled tightly below her bust by a dark blue sash.  From beneath the robe we catch a glimpse of the gold brocade of her underskirt which is hemmed with many jewels.  Van Weyden has spent much time in depicting detail, such as the many folds of her green robe, or the rosary beads dangling from Saint Joseph’s hand. 

In the background we have a view through a window which overlooks a canal in the distance.  On this side of the canal positioned on the wall of the garden there is an archer and across the canal we catch sight of a figure walking along the opposite canal bank.  The background and the headless torso are visible to us today but that was not always the case as the background of the painting had been over-painted with a thick layer of brown paint.   It was not until the painting was cleaned in 1956 that the figure behind Mary Magdalen, the red robe of the kneeling figure on the left and the landscape view through the window were revealed. 

 

Head of St Joseph by Rogier van der Weyden (before 1438)
Head of St Joseph by Rogier van der Weyden (before 1438)

But what about the top right hand part of the original painting.   For this we must go to the painting held in Lisbon’s Museu Calouste Gulbenkianand study their painting entitled Head of Saint Joseph.   If you place this painting above the Magdalen Reading painting you can see that the head and shoulders of the man in the Lisbon painting fit perfectly with the lower torso of the “head-less” figure shown standing to the side of Mary Magdalen in the London painting.  The man in the Lisbon painting has been identified as Saint Joseph and if you look carefully at his right shoulder you will see a slight hint of a red sleeve which can be clearly seen continuing on the “headless” torso in the Magdalen Reading painting.  In one hand he holds a walking stick or cane and in the other he holds rosary beads made of rock crystals.   So we now have managed to place the three individual paintings into the one work…….or do we?

I raise the hint of doubt as not all art historians agree that the three are part of one whole, especially when it comes to the head of Saint Catherine.  Let us look more closely at the Lisbon painting, Head of Female Saint (St Catherine?).  Look carefully at the background and the window opening behind her and that of the one shown in the background of the Magdalen Reading painting.  They are different in design, one is plain and one is bevelled and this to some art historians, such as Martin Davies, who wrote about the painting in his work Rogier van der Weyden’s Magdalen Reading and John Ward, who wrote an article about the painting entitled A Proposed Reconstruction of an Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden in the Art Bulletin (vol. 53, 1971. 27–35), means that Head of the Female Saint was not part of the original work. 

Notwithstanding whether I believe the three paintings once formed part of one original work, I only wish I could have seen the work as a whole before it was split up.

Vincent van Gogh, the Copyist. Part 2 – Delacroix’s Pietà

Pieta (after Delacroix)  by van Gogh (1889)
Pieta (after Delacroix) by van Gogh (1889)

In my last blog I looked at how Vincent van Gogh had copied three Japanese woodcut prints and had incorporated his own inimitable style to his versions.  In my blog today I want to look at the versions he painted of a painting by one of his favourite European artists –Eugène Delacroix.

In February 1888, Vincent, tired and disillusioned with life in the French capital, moved to Arles and went to live at No. 2 Place Lamartine in the Yellow House which he had rented.   He invited Paul Gaugin to join him but the latter was rather reluctant.   Vincent’s brother, Theo, was worried about Vincent living alone and so in October pays Paul Gaugin to visit his brother and stay with him.   For the next two months, Gauguin and Van Gogh worked harmoniously together, spending all their time painting and discussing art.

However personal tensions grew between the two men and two days before Christmas Day, Van Gogh experienced what was termed a psychotic episode in which he threatens Gauguin with a razor.  Gaugin fearful for his life left the house but was followed by Vincent.  When Gauguin turned around he saw Van Gogh holding a razor in his hand.  Hours later, Van Gogh went to the local brothel and paid for a prostitute named Rachel. With blood pouring from his hand, he offered her his ear, asking her to “keep this object carefully.” The police found him in his room the next morning, and admitted him to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital.  Gaugin was horrified by the incident and immediately returned to Paris. Vincent’s brother arrived on Christmas Day to see Van Gogh, who was weak from blood loss and having violent seizures. The doctors assured Theo that his brother would live and would be taken good care of, and on January 7, 1889, Van Gogh was released from the hospital.  He was now alone and became very depressed and only his painting relieved the dark moods he was experiencing.   He would paint at the yellow house during the day and return to the hospital at night.  However, the local people of Arles viewed Vincent as somebody mentally disturbed and a risk to the people of the community and petitioned him to leave the town.  Reluctantly he decided to move from Arles and go to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, a former monastery, in the town. Whilst there, he completed numerous oil paintings and drawings.

Pieta by, Eugene Delacroix (1850)National Museum of Oslo
Pieta by, Eugene Delacroix (1850)
National Museum of Oslo

It was whilst Van Gogh was confined to the asylum at Saint-Rémy that he decided to work on a painting based on the Piétà by Eugène Delacroix.   Van Gogh loved the work of Delacroix.  He loved how the French artist used bold and vibrant colours in his works.  In numerous letters to his brother, Theo, he would extol the virtues of Delacroix’s works asking him to buy lithograph prints of Delacroix’s works.   Vincent had in his possession a lithograph by Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf of Delacroix’s  Pietà.  Célestine Nanteuil was a 19th century French painter, engraver and illustrator closely tied to the Romantic Movement in France.  It is believed that the reason Van Gogh decided to paint his own Pietà was because of an accident he had with his copy of the lithograph.  He wrote a letter to Theo in which he says:

“…The Delacroix lithograph La Piétà, as well as several others, fell into my oils and paints and was damaged. This upset me terribly, and I am now busy making a painting of it, as you will see…”

Van Gogh decided that his Pietà was not going to be an exact copy of Delacroix’s work but more of a variation of the French artist’s painting.   Van Gogh described Delacroix’s Piétà in a letter, dated September 19th 1889, to his sister Willemien.  Vincent van Gogh talked about his copying of other artists’ works and describes the Delacroix’s Pietà:

“…I’ve painted a few for myself, too, these past few weeks – I don’t much like seeing my own paintings in my bedroom, so I’ve copied one by Delacroix  and a few by Millet.  The Delacroix is a Pietà, i.e. a dead Christ with the Mater Dolorosa. The exhausted corpse lies bent forward on its left side at the entrance to a cave, its hands outstretched, and the woman stands behind. It’s an evening after the storm, and this desolate, blue-clad figure stands out – its flowing clothes blown about by the wind – against a sky in which violet clouds fringed with gold are floating. In a great gesture of despair she too is stretching out her empty arms, and one can see her hands, a working woman’s good, solid hands.  With its flowing clothes this figure is almost as wide in extent as it’s tall. And as the dead man’s face is in shadow, the woman’s pale head stands out brightly against a cloud – an opposition which makes these two heads appear to be a dark flower with a pale flower, arranged expressly to bring them out better…”

Van Gogh’s positioning and the demeanour of the Virgin Mary, cradling her dead son, as well as the background in his version remain the same as in the lithograph but Van Gogh has added his own colours and “swirling” style.   We see before us the tortured body of Christ after the crucifixion but look at the way Van Gogh has given him red hair and a red beard.  Some art historians believe that the dead Christ in Van Gogh’s Pietà is actually a self-portrait.  It could well be that Van Gogh empathized with the sufferings of Christ and how Christ had been misunderstood.  He could probably see a similarity between the latter days of Christ’s life and his own final years.  It should be remembered that Van Gogh was creating his Piétà from studying the black and white print of Célestine Nanteuil lithograph and so he was free to choose his own colour scheme.  He used bold blues which contrasted strongly with the golden yellows of the background.  Look how he has decide to emphasize lines and curves and we see the outline of the slumping Christ follows the curvature of the rock on which Christ’s body rests.

I wonder if Van Gogh believed that like Christ, he would be reincarnated, in as much as he believed that he would eventually recover from his bouts of mental illness.

This painting is unusual in another way for Van Gogh was not known for his religious works.  However the asylum at Saint-Rémy was once a monastery and was run by an order of nuns and this could have been another reason for Van Gogh to embark on this religious painting.  In a letter to his brother on September 10th 1889 he talks about his mental problems, of Delacroix and why he decided to turn to religion for the subject of his painting:

“…Work is going very well, I’m finding things that I’ve sought in vain for years, and feeling that I always think of those words of Delacroix that you know, that he found painting when he had neither breath nor teeth left.  Ah well, I myself with the mental illness I have, I think of so many other artists suffering mentally, and I tell myself that this doesn’t prevent one from practising the role of painter as if nothing had gone wrong. 

When I see that crises here tend to take an absurd religious turn, I would almost dare believe that this even necessitates a return to the north. Don’t speak too much about this to the doctor when you see him [Doctor Peyron then director of the asylum was due to meet Theo in Paris] but I don’t know if this comes from living for so many months both at the hospital in Arles and here in these old cloisters.  Anyway I ought not to live in surroundings like that, the street would be better then. I am not indifferent, and in the very suffering religious thoughts sometimes console me a great deal. Thus this time during my illness a misfortune happened to me – that lithograph of Delacroix, the Pietà, with other sheets had fallen into some oil and paint and got spoiled…”

Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf lithograph of Delacroix’s  Pietà
Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf lithograph of Delacroix’s Pietà

Vincent van Gogh was never apologetic for “copying” the works of other artists, such as, Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, Jacob Jordaens, Émile Bernard, Gustave Doré , Eugène Delacroix and some of the Japanese printmakers.   He would compare his copying to that of a musical performance with the original artists as the composers and himself as a simple musician interpreting the instructions of the composer.   He made two copies of the Piétà.  The one which belonged to the Van Gogh family hangs in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and the other is part of the Vatican Museum of Modern Art collection.  The latter copy was donated to the Catholic Church by a New York parishioner in the 1930’s.  This Vatican copy is much smaller than the one held at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and much darker in colour but this could be the result of poor restoration and cleaning.   Van Gogh’s lithograph print which was damaged can also be found in the Van Gogh museum.

Van Gogh liked his finished “copies” of the Delacroix Piétà and took it with him when he finally left the asylum, against doctor’s orders, in May 1890 to go and live in Auvers-sur-Oise.  It was one of the few works he kept with him and remained with him until his death, two months later, in July 1890.  The rest of his large collection he had painted over those last twelve months at the asylum were parcelled up and sent to his brother.

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca (c.1468)

For today’s blog I am staying with Italian Renaissance art and looking at a work by, some say, the greatest Early Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca.  This is the second time I have featured this artist in one of my blogs.  The first being The Flagellation of Christ (My Daily Art Display, September 29th 2011).   Today I want to look at his beautiful fresco entitled The Resurrection which he completed around 1468.

Piero della Francesca or as he was known in his day, Piero di Benedetto de’ Franceschi, was born around 1415 in the Tuscan market town of Borgo San Sepolcro, which is now known as Sansepolcro,  a small town located on the plains of the Upper Tiber Valley in the southeast of Tuscany, bordering Umbria and The Marches.  His family were merchants dealing in leather and wool and his father, Benedetto di Franceschi, hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps.  With that in mind, Piero was sent to school to learn arithmetic and the ability to calculate weights and measures, assess the volumes of barrels and bales, and most importantly, learn how to keep accounts.  Piero was academically gifted and became well known as a mathematician and in fact after his death he was revered not so much as a painter but for his mathematical knowledge.

Piero’s initial artistic training came as an apprentice to Antonio di Giovanni, a local painter, who was based in Anghiari, a town across the Tiber Valley from Borgo San Sepolcro.  From being Antonio di Giovanni’s apprentice, he soon became his assistant and during the 1430’s the two of them worked jointly on commissions around Borgo San Sepolcro.  Piero went to Florence for the chance to gain more work and he worked on commissions as an assistant alongside another young artist, Domenico Veneziano.  It was during this time spent in Florence that Piero would have probably come into contact with the great Florentine artists of the time such as Fra Angelico, Mantegna and the architect, Brunelleschi.

In 1442, Piero returned to Sansepolcro and three years later, in 1445, Piero received a large commission from the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo San Sepolcro, for a polyptych, Polyptych of the Misericordia: Madonna of Mercy, as an altarpiece for the local church, Church of the Misericordia.  The confraternity had asked Piero to complete the work in three years, setting the anticipated completion date as 1445.   Piero however did not feel constrained by this suggested timeline and any way he had many other projects on the go at the time and in the end did not complete the altarpiece until 1462, some seventeen years late!

Piero moved around the country a good deal during his life, living in Ferrara and Rimini before arriving in Rome in 1455.  Here he painted frescoes in the Vatican for Nicholas V and continued to work in the Vatican Palace for Pius II. Sadly his works were destroyed to make room for paintings by Raphael.

Piero’s birthplace, the town of Borgo San Sepolcro which literally means “Town of the Holy Sepulchre” derives its name from the story of its founding back in the tenth century.   The story of its coming into being would have us believe that two saints, Saint Arcano and Saint Egidio were returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land bearing some wood shavings from the sepulchre in which Christ had been buried, when they were miraculously instructed to create a new settlement – Borgo San Sepolcro.   These sacred relics have been preserved in the local Benedictine abbey and so when the town hall of Borgo San Sepolcro was renovated and extended in the late 1450s, Piero was commissioned to paint the fresco on the appropriate subject of The Resurrection for the building’s state chamber. This room was set aside for the use of the Conservatori, the chief magistrates and governors.  Before holding their councils, these four appointed guardians of the town would solemnly kneel before Piero’s image, to pray for the grace of God to descend upon them during their deliberations. The room is now the civic museum.

My featured painting today is a fresco which exudes an air of peace and tranquillity.   In the painting, the risen Christ can be seen in the centre of the composition.  He is portrayed at the moment of his resurrection, as we see him with his left foot on the parapet as he climbs purposefully out of his marble tomb clutching the banner in his right hand, as if he is declaring his victory over death.   He looks formidable as he stands tall.   We don’t see the lid of the tomb but look to the bottom right of the painting and we can see Piero has depicted a large rock which probably harks back to the biblical tale which told of a rock being rolled away from the entrance of Christ’s tomb.   In most resurrection paintings we are used to seeing Christ dressed in white burial clothes and yet Piero has depicted him in red robes, which was probably done to infer royalty and signify that this resurrected person is Christ the King.  Piero has portrayed the pale body of the risen Christ as almost blemish-free with the exception of the wound to his side and the wound in the back of both his hands made by the crucifixion nails.   In his depiction of Christ he has not let us forget that this central figure is both man and God, for if you look closely at the stomach of Christ we notice that the artist has given it an almost human appearance.  It has a slightly wrinkled appearance caused by the folds of the skin happening as he raises his leg to exit the tomb.

The sleeping guards

The alertness of the risen Christ in the painting contrasts starkly with the four soldiers who instead of keeping guard on the tomb, lie asleep.  The Renaissance painter and biographer of artists, Vasari, would have us believe that Piero included his own self-portrait in this fresco.

Piero della Francesca

It is the face of the second soldier from the left, and Vasari postulates that Piero did this as a sign of his own hopes of awaking one day to redemption. It is also interesting to note the contrast in the way Piero has depicted the risen Christ and the four soldiers.  Christ is shown in a solid vertical stance looking straight out at us, whereas the sleeping soldiers are depicted in diagonal poses and viewed at various oblique angles.  The way the artist has portrayed Christ almost gives one the feeling that he is about to step out of the painting to join us, the viewer.  In some ways the expression on the face of Christ is disturbing.  It is a penetrating glance and one art critic commented that it was if he was looking into the soul of the viewer.

The landscape is bathed in the new cold and clear light of a Tuscan dawn.  Look carefully at the trees on the right of the painting and those on the left side.  Do you spot the difference?   The ones on the right are depicted as flourishing specimens adorned with leaves and healthy green shoots whereas the trees on the left of the painting are grey in colour and bare as if on the point of dying.   This contrast almost certainly alludes to the renewal of mankind through the Resurrection of Christ

It is likely that Piero painted his striking image of the risen Christ stepping resolutely, banner in hand, from the tomb, to represent not only the resurrection of Jesus but also the resurgence of the town of Sansepolcro.  After a few years under the rule of Florence from 1441, Sansepolcro regained its identity and dignity in 1456 when the Florentines returned the use of the Palazzo to the Conservatori. The church Council which the young Piero had witnessed in Florence had thus had unforeseen consequences for Sansepolcro. The Pope, his treasury depleted by his lavish Council, defrayed some of the costs by ceding Sansepolcro to Florence which was later returned by Florentine authorities to the citizens of Sansepolcro on February 1st 1459, as a sign of the restoration of some measure of autonomy to the Borgo.

One interesting end note to the tale of this painting comes from a BBC article which tells the story of how a British artillery officer, Tony Clarke, during World War II, defied orders and held back from using his troop’s guns to shell the town of Sansepolcro and his decision is believed to have saved this beautiful fresco.   To read the full story click on:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16306893

The Transfiguration by Raphael

The Transfiguration by Raphael (1520)

In my last blog I looked at The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo and talked about how this and a painting by Raphael, entitled Transfiguration, had been commissioned in 1517 by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici as a high end altarpiece for the French Cathedral of S. Giusto Narbonne.  Raphael was, at the time, busy on other commissions.  He had been summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II to paint frescoes on the rooms of his private Vatican apartment, the Stanza della Segnatura and the Stanza di Eliodor and at the same time he was busy working on portraits and altarpieces as well as working alongside Sebastiano del Piombo on frescoes for Agostino Chigi’s Villa Farnesina.   It is thought that Giulio de Medici was so concerned with the time it was taking Raphael to complete The Transfiguration altarpiece that he commissioned Sebastiano di Piombo to paint the Raising of Lazarus for the cathedral in an effort to stimulate Raphael to work faster on his commission.

Today I am featuring Raphael’s work, The Transfiguration, which was considered the last painting by the Italian High Renaissance master.  Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth century Italian painter, writer, historian, and who is famous today for his biographies of Renaissance artists, called Raphael a mortal God and of today’s painting, he described it as:

“…the most famous, the most beautiful and most divine…”

Although Raphael Sanzio was only thirty-four years of age when he was given the commission, bad health prevented him from finishing it. It was left unfinished by Raphael, and is believed to have been completed by his pupils, Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni, shortly after his death on Good Friday 1520.

If we look closely at this work of art we can see two things going on simultaneously both of which are described in successive episodes of the Gospel of Matthew.   In the upper part of the painting we have the Transfiguration, which is described in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 17: 1-7):

“…After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.   Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”    While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”   When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid…”

We see the transfigured Christ floating aloft, bathed in a blue/white aura of light and clouds.  To his left and right are the figures of the prophets, Moses and Elijah.  Below Christ we see the three disciples on the mountain top shielding their eyes from the radiance and maybe because of their own fear of what is happening above them.   The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be the martyrs Saint Felicissimus and Saint Agapitus of Palestrina.

 In the lower part of the painting we have a depiction by Raphael of the Apostles trying, with little success, to liberate the possessed boy from his demonic possession. The Apostles fail in their attempts to save the ailing child until the recently-transfigured Christ arrives and performs a miracle.  Matthew’s Gospel (Mathew 17:14-21) recounts the happening:

“…When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him.  “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.  I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”    “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?  Bring the boy here to me.”   Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.   Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”   He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you…”

Observe this lower scene.  The young boy, with arms outstretched and distorted in a combination of fear and pain, is possessed by some sort of demonic spirit.   He is being led forward by his elders towards Christ who is about to descend from the mountain.   The boy is crying and rolling his eyes heavenwards.   His body is contorted as he is unable to control his movement.   The old man behind the boy struggles to control him.  The old man, with his wrinkled brow has his eyes wide open in fear as to what is happening to his young charge.  He looks directly at the Apostles, visually pleading with them to help the young boy.    See how Raphael has depicted the boy’s naked upper body.  We can see the pain the boy is enduring in the way the artist has portrayed the pale colour of his flesh, and his veins, as he makes those violent and fearsome gestures.   The raised arms of the people below pointing to Christ, who is descending, links the two stories within the painting.  A woman in the central foreground of the painting kneels before the Apostles.  She points to the boy in desperation, pleading with them to help alleviate his suffering.

Contrapposto

The contorted poses of some of the figures at the bottom of the painting along with the torsion of the woman in what Vasari calls a contrapposto pose were in some way precursors to the Mannerist style that would follow after Raphael’s death.   Vasari believed that this woman was the focal point of the painting.     She has her back to us.  She kneels in a twisted contrapposto pose. Her right knee is thrust forward whilst she thrusts her right shoulder back.   Her left knee is positioned slightly behind the right and her left shoulder forward.  Thus her arms are directed to the right whilst her face and gaze are turned to the left.  Raphael gives her skin and drapery much cooler tones than those he uses for the figures in heavy chiaroscuro in the lower scene and by doing so illuminates her pink garment.  The way he paints her garment puts emphasis on her pose.  She and her clothes are brilliantly illuminated so that they almost shine as bright as the robes of the transfigured Christ and the two Old Testament Prophets who accompany him.   There is an element about her depiction which seems to isolate from the others in the crowd at the lower part of the painting and this makes her stand out more.

The unfinished painting was hung over the couch in Raphael’s studio in the Borgo district of Rome for a couple of days while he was lying in state, and when his body was taken for its burial, the picture was carried by its side.   Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici kept the painting for himself, rather than send it to Narbonne and it was placed above Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon.   In 1523, three years after the death of Raphael, the cardinal donated the painting to the church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. In 1797, following the end of the war in which Napoleon’s Revolutionary French defeated the Papal States; a Treaty of Tolentino was signed.    By the terms of this treaty, a number of artistic treasures, including Raphael’s Transfiguration, were confiscated from the Vatican by the victorious French.   Over a hundred paintings and other works of art were moved to the Louvre in Paris.   The French commissioners reserved the right to enter any building, public, religious or private, to make their choice and assessment of what was to be taken back to France. This part of the treaty was extended to apply to all of Italy in 1798 by treaties with other Italian states.   It was not until 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, that the painting was returned to Rome. It then became part of the Pinacoteca Vaticana of Pius VII where it remains today.

The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo (1520)

My next two blogs feature paintings by two different artists, commissioned almost at the same time by the same person, one of which is often looked upon as the greatest painting ever.

My featured artist today is Sebastiano Luciani, who would be better known later as Sebastiano del Piombo for reasons I will explain later.   Sebastiano was born around 1485 and his birthplace is thought to have been Venice as he often signed his works Sebastianus Venetus.   His first thoughts, regarding what he should do with his life, were to join a religious order and he may well have started along the path towards the priesthood. His first love was not drawing and painting but music.  He had a great interest in music and was an accomplished singer and also played many musical instruments, including the lute, which was his favourite.  This musical talent of his made him very popular in Venetian society.   He did however eventually turn his attention to art when he was about eighteen years of age and his first artistic tuition came from Giovanni Bellini, who was a member of the great Bellini family of Venetian artists and brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna.   Having learnt the basics of art from Bellini he left the studio and became a pupil of Giorgione da Castelfranco, whom he had first met through their joint love of music.  Sebastiano and Giorgione had a long association and the early works of the young aspiring painter were greatly influenced by the style and technique of his master, so much so, that some of his early paintings were confused with those of Giorgione.

Giorgione died in 1510 and the other great Venetian artist, Tiziano Vecelli (Titian) was away, working in Padua.   Sebastiano was now looked upon as the leading painter in Venice.   In early 1511, the Siennese banker, Agostino Chigi, who had become one of the richest men in Rome and a financial backer of the Popes,  visited Venice and persuaded Sebastiano to return with him to Rome.  Chigi believed that Sebastiano was the greatest living painter in Venice and he wanted him to carry out some work in his newly acquired villa.   Chigi was a great lover of the Arts and a wealthy patron of art and literature.  Chigi, at that time, owned a suburban villa on the shore of the River Tiber, known as Viridario, but later owners changed its name and it became known asVilla Farnesina.  Chigi wanted his residence to be one of the most opulent in the city befitting a man of his standing in society and wanted the best artists of the time to come and decorate the interior.  Besides summoning Sebastiano he invited other great painters to put their mark on the villa, such as Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Sodoma and Raphael Sanzio.  Sebastiano worked alongside Raphael on the frescoes for the villa which depicted scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

It was whilst working in Rome that Sebastiano became acquainted with, and became one of the rare and trusted friends of, Michelangelo Buonarroti.   According to Vasari, Michelangelo befriended Sebastiano and offered him pictorial designs for him to develop in paint.  This friendship however drew Sebastiano into the long running rivalry Michelangelo had with Raphael Sanzio but in a way it had a lot to do with today’s featured work.  It is believed that through the good auspices of Michelangelo, Sebastiano was, at the end of 1516, commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici to paint a large altarpiece, depicting the Raising of Lazarus.  Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici was appointed to the see of Narbonne, in south-west France, by his cousin Pope Leo X.  The painting, along with its proposed companion piece the Transfiguration, which the cardinal had commissioned, shortly before, from Raphael, were to be sent to the cathedral in the Cardinal’s own bishopric in Narbonne, which owned a relic relating to the story of Lazarus.  There seems nothing strange about the cardinal commissioning two paintings for the same cathedral but Vasari would have us believe that there was a little devilment with the cardinal’s request as, in a way, it was to pit the two artists against one another and of course the cardinal was well aware of the rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael as we know Raphael’s “artistic enemy” was Michelangelo, who was therefore only too willing to lend Sebastiano a hand with the work by supplying him with sketches that could be incorporated into the Raising of Lazarus.

Michelangelo’s sketch of Lazarus

The featured painting today, the Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano, is a great example of the highly colourful style of Venetian painting of the time.   Sebastiano completed the painting in January 1519 and it was immediately hailed as an artistic triumph.  Raphael was concerned that his painting of the Transfiguration was not compared with Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus but the two were seen together in April of the following year, a couple of days after Raphael’s death.  Raphael’s painting never went to Narbonne, remaining in Rome whereas Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus eventually went to the French city.

The biblical tale tells us about the request of the sisters Martha and Mary for Jesus to visit the grave of their brother Lazarus and raise him from the dead.  In his Gospel, St John divided the story of the miracle into three parts. Firstly, Jesus bids the people to take the stone from the tomb.  Next he tells his friend, Lazarus to rise, and finally Jesus tells Lazarus to unbind his shroud and it is this third command to Lazarus that we see in the painting.  The painting we see before us is a depiction of a biblical story from the Gospel of Saint John (John: 11).  Verses 40 to 44 recount the event:

“…Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance.   “Take away the stone,” he said.  “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”    Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”   So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.    I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”  When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.  Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

In the background of the painting, we see a cloudy sky being penetrated by a shaft of light.  We can make out a distant town by a lake or river. The town is more a depiction of a high-walled fortified Roman town with its large and solidly built bridge, rather than a depiction of somewhere from Sebastiano’s birthplace, Venice.   It feels Roman more than Venetian. We see the figure of Christ standing in the foreground, slightly left of centre,   He is portrayed theatrically pointing towards the seated figure of Lazarus, who is still partly covered by his burial shroud.  It is almost as if Jesus is giving a speech.   Jesus needs all his powers of persuasion to bring back Lazarus. It is not so much a command Jesus is giving to Lazarus, more that he is appealing to the old man, his friend, to rise from the dead.

All around, and squeezed tightly into the composition, are men and women all of who pose in a most theatrical manner, due to their shock at seeing Lazarus coming back to life.   In the left mid-ground we see a group of Pharisees unimpressed by what they have seen and are still hell-bent on plotting the death of the so-called miracle maker.    The various figures in the painting are all clothed differently.  It is interesting to take time and study each figure.  There is an old man knelt on the lower left, hands clasped in a prayer-like manner as he looks up at Jesus.    Look how some of the men and women hold their hands up in horror and look away rather than cast a glimpse on the back-from-the-dead figure of Lazarus.  Dramatic poses have been given to Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus.   Mary is on her knees to the right of Jesus, her hand placed over her heart.   Martha, dressed in a blue robe with a red sash, stands to the right of Jesus, recoiling from what the Biblical passage termed “the bad odour”.

Martha recoiling at the sight and smell of Lazarus

Others talk together discussing what they see before them.   Take time and look at all the various expressions on the faces of the people.   All these figures are painted in bright colours.  The artificial and theatrical gestures we see before us seem almost as if time has come to a standstill.  It is like a freeze-frame shot from a film.   Lazarus is indeed a strong, mature man and Sebastiano used the red and black chalk drawings given to him by Michelangelo for a preliminary study of the figure of Lazarus and some of his attendants. Three of these drawings still exist and one can be seen at the British Museum in London.   The way the figures are portrayed by Sebastiano are depicted in a Michelangelo’s style. A prime example is the depiction of Lazarus.  Look at the way Sebastiano has shown him half turned which is often the way a sculptor would position his figure.  The arms and legs of Lazarus are so positioned to show off his musculature and sinews.  It is so like the work of Michelangelo.

Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici chose to keep Raphael’s Transfiguration for himself and it is now housed in the Vatican Gallery.  He sent Sebastiano’s painting to Narbonne.   The Raising of Lazarus in now housed in the National Gallery, London.    After Raphael’s death, Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome and he was the first artist to return there after the 1527 Sack of Rome.  In 1531, the Pope rewarded his service by making him Keeper of the Papal Seal and it was from this position that Sebastaino became known as Sebastiano del Piombo, (piombo being the Italian word for lead which was used for sealing).

Tomorrow I will look at the companion piece or some would say the “competition” piece to Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus – Raphael Sanzio’s Transfiguration, a painting many art historians believe to be the greatest painting of all time.