Thursday, October 20, 2016

Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation at the Morgan Library & Museum

Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation

Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
October 7, 2016 - January 22, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Action really does speak louder than words. Martin Luther's life, the subject of a remarkable exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, testifies to the power of deeds. 

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is famous for asserting his opposition to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church with an immortal declaration, "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Luther never actually said these words himself. A later historian composed the brave, bold statement for him. 

This revelation might lead to the conclusion that "Here I Stand..." is a counterpart to "Washington's Cherry Tree" and other parables from the past. Yet the truth of these words is in their doing. Martin Luther did take a stand, with courage and candor, on behalf of his Christian faith.

Next year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's break with the Church hierarchy in Rome. The momentous events of the Protestant Reformation which followed Luther's defiance changed the course of history for good - and ill.

The title of the Morgan exhibit,Word and Image, is well chosen. The Reformation was the first major event in history marked by widespread use of the printing press, in this case to “spread the word” of religious dissent. Likewise, this "sundering" of Christendom was documented with accurate contemporary engravings of the major participants, also a major innovation.

In 1517, Luther composed the famous Ninety-Five Theses, which sparked the revolt against the Papacy's control of Christian doctrine throughout Europe. Unlike the purported "Here I stand" declaration, the Ninety-Five Theses were very real. Luther, or a supporter, did indeed nail this document to a church door in Wittenberg, the university town in Germany where he taught theology. 

Martin Luther, The Ninety-Five Theses, 1517

The Morgan exhibit displays one of the six remaining printed sheets listing the Ninety-Five Theses. A few copies of a pamphlet version have also survived. Why so few?

The Ninety-Five Theses were not intended to incite a revolution undermining Papal authority but rather were an announcement of a university debate. The subject of this rather routine affair was the sale of Indulgences which granted forgiveness of sins in return for cash contributions to the Church. These ninety-five "talking points," composed in scholarly Latin, mixed spirituality with bluntly speaking truth to power.

They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.  (#27)

The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. (#62)

The public debate never took place. But, via the power of the printing press, the Ninety-Five Theses found a wide audience.

Lucas Cranach, Luther as a Monk,1520

Luther had actually been quite respectful of the Pope, targeting the venal Indulgence sellers and emphasizing the need for sincere repentance. But Church leaders over-reacted, sending Cardinal Cajetin (who privately questioned Indulgences) from Rome to insist that Luther recant. Luther refused.

And so a publicity announcement for a debate that never happened became the spark for a revolution that was never intended or planned.

Luther waged a brilliant pamphlet campaign which left the Church hierarchy bewildered and beleaguered. Dissatisfaction - and not just with Indulgences - was rife throughout the Germanic-speaking regions of Europe. 

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of the Word and Image exhibit at the Morgan Library.
 A wooden chest used to collect payments for Papal Indulgences appears, lower left.

The "heavy artillery" of the Holy Roman Empire was deployed against Luther at a face-to-face meeting with Emperor Charles V in 1521. This pivotal conclave or Diet was held at the city of Worms, which has caused no end of merriment to English-speaking history students. But it was no laughing matter.

Luther refused to recant and went into hiding to prevent his arrest. Posing as "Squire George" at the castle of Wartberg, Luther spent the next ten months translating the New Testament into German from the original Greek text. 

 A complete translation of the Bible took a lot longer for Luther to achieve, appearing in 1534. He was assisted by several of his dedicated co-Reformers, including Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558). This "official" version in one huge volume was given the unmistakable title: Biblia, das ist: Die gantze heilige Schrifft: Deudsch (Bible: that is the entire Holy Scripture in German).

The Luther Bible, New and Old Testaments, created a sensation. In the process of reaching beyond the Latin Vulgate Bible, Luther shattered the ecclesiastical monopoly of the Roman curia and evoked a key concept known as the Priesthood of All Believers, based on his populist interpretation of the First Epistle of Peter.

Luther also transformed the German language into a dynamic cultural and political force, decisively shifting the political balance of the Holy Roman Empire away from the authoritative control of the Hapsburg dynasty. Christian unity and the Medieval world order collapsed as the first editions of Luther's Bible, the September Testament and December Testament, sold-out as soon as they came off the printing presses in 1522.

The Morgan exhibition covers these momentous events with an array of original documents - many written by Luther himself - and rare books from German collections. On view are the actual notes Luther prepared for his confrontation with Charles V at Worms, the manuscript of Luther's translation of the Old Testament and copies of the September and December Testaments.

Martin Luther, The  New Testament, in German (December Testament), 1522

The Lutheran Reformation was also a major event in art history. Later incidents of the Protestant Reformation, especially in the British Isles where the theology of John Calvin was preferred to Luther's, triggered a tragic destruction of religious images. Luther and Melanchthon denied that religious pictures or statues had spiritual power but asserted that such images could assist the faithful in understanding Christian principles. 

In order to grasp the impact of the Protestant Reformation, it is necessary to understand the late-Medieval world of Luther’s youth. The Morgan curators did a brilliant job evoking “the autumn of the Middle Ages” as this period is sometimes called.

Anne Lloyd, View of St. Anne with the Virgin Mary, by an Anonymous artist, ca. 1520

Among the late-Medieval art works on view is a carved limewood statue depicting St. Anne and the youthful Virgin Mary. St. Anne was the patron-saint of miners, Luther's father being a mine manager. In 1505, Luther, then a law student, was caught in a violent storm. He was nearly struck by lightning and vowed to St. Anne to become a monk if his life was spared. Luther continued to fondly recall St. Anne even after he came to question the role of saints as intercessors with God.

The statue of St. Anne is a fine example of German folk art. But an extraordinary bas- relief, carved by Peter Dell the Elder (1490-1552) is one of the most astonishing works of art on display in Word and Image

Sculpted in pearwood, two of the central incidents of Biblical history are depicted in Dell's Allegory of the Old and New Covenant. With a cinematic grasp of narrative and an absolute mastery of wood-carving, the temptation of Adam and Eve and the Crucifixion of Christ are brought to life. 

Anne Lloyd, Detail of Allegory of the Old and New Covenant by Peter Dell, ca. 1540 

Each of the protagonists portrayed on Dell’s bas-relief is presented as a unique individual, absolutely convincing in their role in the divine drama. Equally believable is the grimacing skull atop the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Death's Head intrudes into Paradise like a hellish apparition. But the striking sensuality of the nude Adam and Eve deflects our attention away from the specter of death.  

Anne Lloyd, Detail of Allegory of the Old and New Covenant by Peter Dell

This current of eroticism is not what you would expect in a work of Christian art from five centuries ago. Yet, it is a powerful, recurring theme in Word and Image, notably in works by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Lucas Cranach (1472 -1553) was one of Luther's closest friends and an unswerving supporter. Cranach was a brilliant portrait painter and, if not quite of the caliber of Albrecht Dürer or Hans Holbein, he had a knack for capturing the earthy elements in Luther's character and the sharp, hausfrau capability of his wife, Katrina von Bora. 

Lucas Cranach, Katrina von Bora, 1529

Cranach provided illustrations for the early editions of Luther's Bible-translations. But he also painted nudes - nude women from mythology and from the Bible. Almost all of them seem disconcertingly the same, whether they represent Eve, as in the work on display in the Morgan exhibit, or Greek goddesses being judged by Paris.  

In a brilliant book about the friendship of Luther and Cranach, Steven Ozment theorized that Cranach's portraits of women, clothed and nude, were a riposte to the creed of celibacy of the established Church. 

Lucas Cranach, Adam and Eve, 1532

In The Serpent and the Lamb (2011), Ozment writes: 

In the reformatory atmosphere of the early sixteenth century, Cranach’s nudes also confirmed the private desires of Everyman and Everywoman for companionship and intimacy with the opposite sex... Cranach’s alluring images of women drove home the awesome power and divine blessing of human sexuality in and through which new life is created.

Strange things happen during revolutions. Perhaps Ozment, a very perceptive scholar of the Reformation, is correct about this puzzling aspect of Cranach's work.

One thing is certain about the Reformation - and only a little time in the Morgan's Luther exhibit is needed to realize this. The Reformation was a Revolution, the first of modern times. In fact, the Reformation created "modern" times. 

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation.

For an institution which plans and organizes superb exhibits on a "routine" basis, the curators of the Morgan have seemingly surpassed themselves with Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation. Yet, an equally outstanding exhibition celebrating Charlotte Brontë (about which I'll be posting a forthcoming review) is currently upstairs at the Morgan and a major exhibit about Emily Dickenson is coming in January 2017.

Art exhibits take years to plan and only remain on display for three to four months. Great exhibits, however, loom large in the memories of those fortunate to visit them. Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation at the Morgan is sure to do exactly that.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the  Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

Introductory Image:  
Lucas Cranach (German, 1472 - 1553)  Martin Luther, 1529. 14 15/16 x 9 5/8 in. (37.9 x 24.4 cm) Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha

Martin Luther (German, 1483 - 1546) The Ninety-Five Theses, Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Nuremberg: Hieronymus Hötzel, 1517. 15 3/4 x 11 in. (40 x 28 cm) Österreichisches Staatsarchiv/Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv

Lucas Cranach (German, 1472 - 1553) Luther as a Monk. Wittenberg, 1520. Oil on panel:
14 15/16 x 9 5/8 in. (37.9 x 24.4 cm) Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt, Luther Memorials, Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt

Anne Lloyd (2016) Gallery View of the Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation Exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) The New Testament in German (December Testament) Leipzig: Melchior Lotter, December 1522 12 x 16 5/16 x 3 1/8 in. (30.5 x 41.5 x 8 cm)

Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt

Anne Lloyd (2016) Detail of St. Anne with Virgin and Child, ca. 1520, by an Anonymous Artist. Polychrome limewood , 22 7/16 x 14 15/16 x 8 11/16 in. (57 x 38 x 22 cm) Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhal

Anne Lloyd (2016) Detail of Peter Dell's Allegory of the Old and New Covenant,

Würzburg, ca. 1540. Pearwood, 16 15/16 x 29 13/16 x 13/16 in. (43 x 75.8 x 2 cm)
Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha

Anne Lloyd (2016) Detail of Peter Dell's Allegory of the Old and New Covenant.

Lucas Cranach (1472 - 1553) Katrina von Bora, Wittenberg, 1529. 15 1/16 x 9 13/16 in. (38.2 x 24.9 cm) Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha

Anne Lloyd (2016) Photo of Adam and Eve, 1532, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. 19 11/16 x 13 3/4 in. (50 x 35 cm) Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg

Anne Lloyd (2016) Gallery View of Word and Image: Martin Luther' Reformation at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt at the National Gallery, Washington

Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt  

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
October 4, 2016 - January 2, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt, which just opened at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., testifies to Thomas Edison's often-quoted remark.

"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."

Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt provides vital insights into the work habits and methodology of leading Dutch masters from the seventeenth century "golden" age. This exhibit shows how Dutch artists "perspired" in order to realize their inspiration on the canvas sheets stretched on the easels in front of them.

The focus of Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt really is on drawing rather than on painting. There was no color vs design controversy in the Netherlands as had been the case in Renaissance Italy. Dutch artists were determined to be expert at both drawing and painting, always with an eye on selling finished oil paintings. The National Gallery exhibit shows that they succeeded in both endeavors.

Gonzales Coques, Portrait of a Man Receiving a Letter from a Boy, c. 1660

A rare, unfinished work provides immediate insight into the importance of drawing for painting in the Netherlands during the 1600's. This painting is believed to be the work of a Flemish artist working in Holland, Gonzales Coque. It exemplifies the keen Dutch eye for capturing a subject's personality. The skill needed to position a painting's underdrawing, directly on the canvas or wood panel, is evident too. Why Coques, an associate of Anthony van Dyck, never finished this portrait, so splendidly begun, is unknown.

The catalog for Drawings for Paintings includes an insightful essay by the art scholar Ger Luitjen on the Dutch zeal for drawing. The ancient motto from the Roman writer Pliny, Nulla dies sine linea (No day without a line) struck a chord with the well-read, hard-working Dutch. A translation of Pliny's injunction to sketch predictably appeared: Geen dag zonder trek (No day without drawing).

Luitjen also notes that the Dutch emphasis on drawing had a wider impact than serving as a basis for painting. Other artists and artisans relied upon a facility in drawing too: sculptors, architects, tapestry designers. But the most profound implications of closely-observed drawing were psychological, in keeping with the leading role of the Dutch in the Scientific Revolution. The telescope and microscope were both Dutch inventions but neither would have been created had the Dutch not been an observant, imaginative people to begin with. 

"Undergirding the conviction that drawing was important lay the belief that it intensified the process of looking," Luitijen writes. "An added advantage was that someone with a trained drawing hand would benefit when wishing to record something while studying physics and mathematics."

The link between drawing and painting is most readily observed in two works by Salomon de Bray. De Bray sketched the infant children of his nephew with red chalk, the preferred medium for sketching. Close analysis revealed that de Bray did a light, preliminary drawing using black chalk before his more detailed effort with red chalk.

Salomon de Bray, The Twins Clara and Albert de Bray, August 12,1646

There are many differences between de Bray's final version in oil and this preparatory work. The open eyes of the two babies in the painting and the baptismal medals around their necks are only the most obvious changes from sketch to painting. Both of these details are very significant. Most portraits of infants in the Netherlands during the 1600's were memorials to deceased babies. The medals testify to the Roman Catholic faith of the de Bray family. This remarkable painting is a statement of religious faith and a celebration of the gift of life.

Salomon de Bray, The Twins Clara and Albert de Bray,1646

The differences between drawing and painting of The Twins Clara and Albert de Bray have led some scholars to believe that de Bray did an oil sketch as a second stage in the composition. But the astute commentary in the exhibit catalog concludes that he worked only from this simple sketch and from memory to create the superb and endearing final version in oils.

There are numerous examples of the exhibit's namesake on view. Rembrandt's somber painting, Joseph Telling His Dreams, is particularly noteworthy. Dating to 1633, this work was based in part upon a red chalk sketch of an elderly man, drawn two years previously, who reappears as the seated Jacob.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Joseph Telling His Dreams, 1633

The various biblical characters grouped around Joseph and Jacob were likely taken from multi-figured sketch book pages. Rembrandt utilized such sketches throughout his life, referring to these for a pose or a facial expression as needed.

A good example of such a sketch is on view in the exhibit, Studies of Mary, the Mother of Christ and Mary Magdalene. Rembrandt's The Entombment of Christ, c. 1635-39, was based upon it and no doubt similar drawings. After he was satisfied with the basic design of Entombment, Rembrandt would then have filed these sketches away for future use.

Rembrandt, Studies of Mary, the Mother of Christ & Mary Magdalene, 1635-1636 

There are no records of Dutch artists creating finished oil paintings en plein air as the Impressionists would do two centuries later. But the practice of sketching out of doors was surely widespread. One painter who ventured beyond his studio to record the world around him unwittingly documented the climate change known as The Little Ice Age.

Beginning around 1300, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere began to cool, with periodic fluctuations that caused to such bizarre phenomena as the 1608 Frost Fair on the Thames River in England. The canals in Holland regularly froze enabling the Dutch to skate and play "kolf" on the ice. Kolf was a curious blend of street hockey and modern-day golf.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634), though a deaf-mute, became a master drafstman whose drawings were prized by other Dutch artists, Avercamp's painting, A Scene on the Ice, c. 1625, is based on a preliminary work such as A View of Kampen from Outside the Walls, done around 1620. This work was created with pen and brown ink with watercolor over graphite on paper. It shows the city of Kampen overlooking the river IJssel in warm weather.

Hendrick Avercamp, A Scene on the Ice, c. 1625

The 1620's saw some very cold winters - the Thames froze again in 1621. Avercamp, who lived in Kampen, had only to take his sketchbook down to the banks of the frozen IJssel and draw the sleighs, skaters and kolf players. 

His voluminous sketchbooks providing a wide-ranging selection of winter-clad characters and architectural details, Avercamp was well-prepared to compose his works in oil. With the setting already recorded, Avercamp could paint ice in place of water and skaters instead of sailboats. This he did and did repeatedly until he became the recognized expert in painting winter scenes

Dutch artists were meticulous and exacting draftsmen. But their drawings for the most part were intended for use and then discarded. What is displayed in this splendid exhibition, organized by Arthur Wheelock Jr., the National Gallery's dean of Dutch seventeenth century art, is a mere fraction of what was created during that prolific era. Many of the drawings that did survive come from a research institution in Paris, the Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, dedicated to the preservation of the art of the Dutch Golden Age.

The final gallery of the exhibition examines architectural works by such masters as Gerrit 
Berckheyde and Jacob Van Ruisdal. The exhibit uses the advanced technology of infrared reflectography to examine the underdrawings of these amazing paintings. Some exciting and unsuspected discoveries were made.

Gerrit Berckheyde, View of the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam

For all of their emphasis on precise drawings, Dutch painters often used these as a guide, rather than directly transferring the image to the canvas and painting in the colors. We can see this process in a painting by Michiel van Musscher. In An Artist in His Studio with His Drawings, the painter has his sketches spread out around him which he is using to create an oil sketch. This in turn would serve as the source for the finished version.

Creating the final work in oil was an exacting and exhausting labor. Every artist had his - or her - own techniques and technical aids to guide their compositions, safeguarded to protect the "brand." Yet, the artistic process was never a routine, "cut and paste" process. Individuality, as well as hard-work, was the key to Dutch creative excellence.

Wheelock notes in the catalog that Berckyde "was so interested in topographical accuracy that he even amended drawings at a later date when new buildings were constructed."

Gerrit Berckheyde, The Grote Kerk or St. Bavokerk in Haarlem, 1666

Berckyde, however, was far from a pedantic recorder of architectural detail. He often chose unusual vantage points for his final versions. Likewise, the brilliant way that he articulated light and shadow gives an almost photographic effect to works like his 1666 oil on panel, The Grote Kerk or St. Bavokerk in Haarlem

The Dutch Golden Age is such an inspiring cultural phenomenon that it seems appropriate that  van Musscher's Artist in His Studio should be wearing his "Sunday best" attire while hard at work on his masterpiece.

The reality was far different, though the Dutch have always made a virtue of order and cleanliness. The work environment of most Dutch artists was closer to the shabby, sweat-soaked surroundings of Cornelis  Bega's The Alchemist.

The lighting of a Dutch master's studio would doubtless have been better than the dungeon-like atmosphere of the workshop of The Alchemist. But the pungent smells, the stacks of unfinished works requiring immediate attention to keep the bills paid, the very air of hard labor and anxious expectation - these would have been the same.

Cornelis Bega, The Alchemist, 1663

Genius is a messy business. But the result - when everything "comes together" - can sometimes create a "golden" age. That is what occurred in the Netherlands during the 1600's and the works on display in the National Gallery's Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt are proof of the Dutch work ethic and visionary dedication to art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Michiel van Musscher (Dutch, 1645-1705) An Artist in His Studio with His Drawings, mid-1660s. Oil on panel, 47 × 36 cm (18 1/2 × 14 3/16 in.) Liechtenstein. The Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna

Attributed to Gonzales Coques (Flemish,1614/18-1684) Portrait of a Man Receiving a Letter from a Boy, c. 1660. Oil on panel, 55.9 × 44.2 cm (22 × 17 3/8 in.) The Orsay Collection, London, Paris

Salomon de Bray (Dutch, 1597-1664) The Twins Clara and Albert de Bray, August 12, 1646. Red chalk, over faint indications in black chalk, on paper, sheet: 16 × 15.2 cm (6 5/16 × 6 in.) The Morgan Library & Museum, Purchased in 1909.

Salomon de Bray (Dutch 1597-1664) The Twins Clara and Albert de Bray,1646 or after.
Oil on canvas, unframed: 82.6 × 64.8 cm (32 1/2 × 25 1/2 in.) National Galleries of Scotland, Long loan in 1995

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Joseph Telling His Dreams, 1633. Grisaille on paper, 55.8 × 38.7 cm (21 15/16 × 15 1/4 in.) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt and the Stichting tot Bevordering van de Belangen van het Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Studies of Mary, the Mother of Christ, and Mary Magdalene, 1635-1636. Pen and brown ink, red chalk, sheet: 20.1 × 14.3 cm (7 15/16 × 5 5/8 in.) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hendrick Avercamp (Dutch 1585-1634) A Scene on the Ice, c.1625. Oil on panel, 39.2 x 77 cm (15 7/16 x 30 5/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.

Gerrit Berckheyde (Dutch 1638-1698) View of the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in AmsterdamGraphite, pen, and brown ink on paper, 16.9 × 27.6 cm (6 5/8 × 10 7/8 in.) Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap, Amsterdam

Gerrit Berckheyde (Dutch 1638-1698) The Grote Kerk or St. Bavokerk in Haarlem,1666.
Oil on panel, 60.3 x 84.5 cm (23 3/4 x 33 1/4 in.) Otto Naumann Ltd, New York

Cornelis Bega (Dutch 1631/32-1664) The Alchemist,1663. Oil on canvas mounted on panel
35 × 28.6 cm (13 3/4 × 11 1/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, From the Collection of Ethel and Martin Wunsch, 2013.34.1

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 26, 2016– January 8, 2017

Faith and Photography: Auguste Salzmann in the Holy Land
September 12, 2016 - February 5, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

According to the cosmic view of Medieval Europe, the world was divided into two realms: the Earthly City and the City of God. 

This mental universe came straight from St. Augustine in 426 AD. Following the shocking fall of Rome, Augustine pondered the fate of humanity, of those doomed by their moral failings and a fortunate elect redeemed from sin. Augustine's view shaped the philosophy of the West to an unprecidented degree. 

There was, however, another city: Jerusalem. Exposed to the universal lust for gold and power, Jerusalem also possessed a palpable sanctity. 

“Jerusalem is the most sublime of cities," wrote Al-Muqaddasi (ca. 946–991), a Jerusalem-born geographer. "It unites in itself the advantages of this world and the next."

Saint John Sees the Heavenly Jerusalem from The Cloisters Apocalypse, ca. 1330

This city of God - and men - is brought vividly to life in Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven, a spectacular exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Faith and Photography: Auguste Salzmann in the Holy Land, a display of photos of Jerusalem in 1854, little changed since the Middle Ages, is also on view at the Met.

Jerusalem 1000–1400 focuses on this fabled city during a half-millennium of pilgrimage and plunder, conquest and co-existence. The new exhibition portrays history as a sharing of cultural achievements among peoples of many lands and faiths. 

An illustration from a book of Gospel readings dating to 1218 AD testifies to this theme. The text was written in the Syriac language of Christians living in what is today modern-day Iraq. But this picture brilliantly evokes the multiplicity of races in Jerusalem and a universal vision of harmony.  

The Entry into Jerusalem (detail) from a Syriac Lectionary, 1216–20

As Jesus rides into Jerusalem at the beginning of the fateful week leading to his crucifixion, an African man and a fair-skinned European gaze on the scene from upstairs windows. Turbaned men, one with a flowing red beard, ponder Jesus' entry into the city. A woman with Arab features has hoisted her young son to behold a moment of history that neither could possibly comprehend. 

Truly, "every people under Heaven" have been gathered into this extraordinary image - just as they were in the marketplaces of Jerusalem when this picture was painted. 

Six thematic sections document the cooperative connections among Christians, Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem during the Middle Ages. These themes include the role of trade in Jerusalem, the quest for holiness among the congregations of the three "Abrahamic" religions and the vital role of patrons for the creation of art works that still command reverence today.

All was not social harmony and shared spirituality, however. While the art works selected for Jerusalem 1000–1400 emphasize the "positives" of this fascinating time and place, battles raged and blood flowed. This was, lest we forget, the era of Holy War - Christian Crusade vs. Islamic Jihad. 

The curators of Jerusalem 1000–1400 wisely refrain from venturing into the tangled origins of the Crusades or in formulating an appraisal of the legacy of these controversial wars. Several of the exhibit objects relating to the Crusades, however, speak volumes.

 A number of weapons from the period are on display including a massive, two-handed broad sword.  Armaments of this type were used by Christian Crusaders like the Knights Templars. 

Crusader Sword donated to Mamluk Armory in Egypt in 1419

Close examination of this sword leads to a curious discovery. An Arabic inscription has been engraved on the blade, noting that it was war trophy donated to the Mamluk armory in Alexandria, Egypt in 1419. Whoever carried this fearsome weapon into battle evidently did not survive the carnage.

One Crusader who did make it home was Jean d'Aluye who journeyed to the Holy Land in 1241. Upon his return to France, d'Aluye founded the abbey of La Clarté-Dieu near Tours. 

A Knight of the d’Aluye Family, after 1248

The tomb effigy or gisant of Jean d'Aluye presents an almost text-book illustration of Crusader equipment - except for one significant detail. The chain mail shirt or hauberk worn by d'Aluye, the cloth surcoat covering his armor (which kept him from being grilled by the desert sun) and his kite-shaped shield were standard issue of the knights fighting in the Holy Land. 

D'Aluye's sword, as depicted on his effigy, is a different matter. Incredibly, he has a Chinese sword sheathed in his scabbard. The flower-shaped pommel and inverted hand guard are features of swords made in China - but not Europe - during the thirteenth century. D'Aluye most likely purchased his sword while he was in the Holy Land. There was a thriving traffic of many commodities via the Silk Road, including the celebrated Chinese stoneware ceramics glazed in gray-green celadon. 

The objects that most appealed to European pilgrims to Jerusalem were those related to religion, especially to display relics believed to be associated with the life of Jesus. 

Elaborate cases designed to hold these precious fragments are a major feature of the exhibit. Gilded and gem-encrusted, these reliquaries seem at variance with modern conceptions of piety. Medieval Europeans thought differently about extravagant display while maintaining standards of devotion that were sincere, if sometimes naive.

The Reliquary Cross of Jacques de Vitry exemplifies these glittering cases for religious relics. De Vitry is a fascinating figure, a "prince of the Church" yet devoted to ascetic religious convictions soon to be preached by St. Francis of Assisi. It was de Vitry, bishop of the Christian port-city of Acre, who described Jerusalem as being “honored by angels and frequented by every people under heaven.”

For Christians of de Vitry's era, the gold and jewels used to create reliquaries had a symbolic role, testifying to the incorruptibility of souls blessed by God's grace. De Vitry treasured a relic of his friend, the mystic Marie of Oignies who died in 1213. A finger of the deceased woman, famous for her visions and her care of lepers, was placed in a small case or phylactery which de Vitry wore around his neck on special occasions.

The Reliquary Cross of Jacques de Vitry, after 1216

Interestingly, the enamel portraits of saints on this reliquary point to divisions and misunderstandings within the diverse Christian communities. 

The enamels were made by Byzantine artists, most likely in Constantinople during the 1100's. These exquisite images were associated with specific saints but the placement on the cross is "out-of-sync" with their identity. The exhibition commentary perceptively notes that "the enamels of saints are not logically arranged, suggesting that the goldsmith could not read the Greek inscriptions identifying them."

This mutual incomprehension between Greek-speaking Christians and the pilgrims from Western Europe climaxed with tragic consequences. In 1204, a force of Crusaders from France and Belgium became embroiled in a dispute between Venice and the Byzantine Empire. The Crusaders went on a rampage, pillaging Constantinople. The loss of life and destruction of manuscripts and art works was only matched by the Mongol devastation of Baghdad in 1258.

Jerusalem somehow was spared the fate of Constantinople and Baghdad - yet did not escape unscathed. 

The first Crusaders to reach Jerusalem in 1099 massacred thousands of Muslims and Jews when they captured the city. The burning of the Jerusalem synagogue in 1099 recalled the Roman destruction of Herod's Temple in 70 AD. For Jews, the loss of the Temple and the dream of its re-establishment dominated their thoughts and prayers for centuries.

Jewish Wedding Ring. Germany, early 14th century

Jerusalem 1000-1400 displays many precious works evoking Judaism during the Middle Ages. An intricate wedding ring made in Germany during the early 1300's depicts the Temple. Such rings would have been used in the Jewish marriage ceremony "in which remembrance of the Temple played a vital role" rather than worn in daily life.

Even more profound is the page from the Barcelona Haggadah in the collection of the British Library. A small hare, symbol of the hunted and persecuted, rests peacefully, protected by the encircling vines at the bottom of the image.  Above, the text proclaims the immortal words of the Passover prayer: "Next year in Jerusalem."

Next Year in Jerusalem from the Barcelona Haggadah,1360–70

One of my favorite objects in the exhibition is too big to be represented here. It is a vast scroll, a Hajj certificate attesting to the pilgrimage of a Muslim gentleman with a very imposing name, Sayyid Yusuf bin Sayyid Shihab al-Din Mawara al-Nahri. Measuring seven meters long, the scroll plots the pilgrim's journey to Mecca, Medina, Karbala, Hebron, and Jerusalem. Symbols documenting Jerusalem show  the Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the grave of Adam and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. An inscription at the last site mentions “Jesus, peace be upon him.”

Another favorite display in the exhibition, however, places me in the position of having to criticize the Metropolitan Museum design team. 

The Saint Matthew Capital, 1170's

A group of stunning, carved capitals intended for the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth were placed close to a documentary film screen. This placement really interfered with my study of these wondrous objects which had been buried to prevent their destruction by the soldiers of the Muslim army of Saladin in 1187. 

I realize that museums have to experiment with innovative technology. But this continuous-loop documentary was unrelated to the extraordinary story of these architectural wonders. After listening and re-listening to the increasingly bothersome soundtrack, I had to cut short my study of these splendid works of art and move on - in a state of exasperation.

Fortunately, the final gallery of the exhibition concludes on a high note, with magnificent religious manuscripts on view, such as The Cloisters Apocalypse, illustrated above. 

A related exhibition of photos of Jerusalem taken during the 1850's by the early photographer, Auguste Salzmann (French, 1824–1872), provides a brilliant counterpoint to the main exhibit. Here was Jerusalem, hundreds of years after the era of the Crusades, but still looking very much as it did during the time of Jacques de Vitry and Jean d'Aluye. 

Auguste Salzmann, Jerusalem, Damascus Gate, Interior, 1854

Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven
is a notable successor to such outstanding Metropolitan exhibits as The Glory of Byzantium (1997) and Byzantium: Faith and Power (2003). These were transformative explorations of the Medieval world, encompassing a richer and more nuanced view of the interlinked societies of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. 

So too is Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven, definitely worth a pilgrimage to Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image
The Archangel Israfil (detail) from The Wonders of Creation and Oddities of Existence
(‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat) by al-Qazwini (1202–1283). Egypt or Syria, late 14th – early 15th century. Opaque watercolor and ink on paper 15⅜ × 9⅝ in. (38.9 × 24.6 cm)
British Museum, London (1963,0420,0.1) Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Saint John Sees the Heavenly Jerusalem from The Cloisters Apocalypse. Normandy, France, ca. 1330. Tempera, gold, silver, and ink on parchment; 38 folios. 12⅛ × 9 in. (30.8 × 22.9 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1968 (68.174) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Entry into Jerusalem (detail) from a Syriac Lectionary. Iraq, possibly Monastery of Mar Mattei, 1216 – 20. Tempera, ink, and gold on paper; 264 folios. 17½ × 13¾ in. (44.5 × 35 cm) British Library, London (Add. MS 7170) Image: © The British Library Board 

Sword. Before 1419 European. Steel, wood. L. 43 11/16 in. (111 cm); L. of blade 34 1/8 in. (86.7 cm); W. 12 3/8 in. (31.4 cm); Wt. 3 lb. 10 oz. (1644 g) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bashford Dean Memorial Collection, Bequest of Bashford Dean, 1928. (29.150.143) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

A Knight of the d’Aluye Family. Loire Valley, France, after 1248 – by 1267. From his tomb in the Cistercian Abbey of La Clarté-Dieu, between Le Mans and Tours. Limestone.
H. 83½ in. (212.1 cm), W. 34¼ in. (87 cm), D. 13 in. (33 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1925 (25.120.201) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Reliquary Cross of Jacques de Vitry. Enamels: Byzantium, about 1160–80; cross: Acre, soon after 1216; base: Oignies, after 1228. Cross: gilded silver, cloisonné enamel on gold, semiprecious stones, and glass; base: gilded copper. H. 22⅛ in. (56.3 cm), W. 7⅛ in. (18 cm) The Treasure of Oignies, coll. King Baudoin Foundation, entrusted to the Musée Provincial des Arts Anciens du Namurois, Belgium

Jewish Wedding Ring. Germany, first half of the 14th century. Gold. H. 1⅞ in. (4.8 cm), W. 1 in. (2.5 cm), D. 1 in. (2.5 cm) Thüringisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und
Archäologie, Weimar (5067/98) Image: Thüringisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und
Archäologie (photograph by B. Stefan) 

Next Year in Jerusalem from the Barcelona Haggadah. Catalonia (present-day Spain), ca. 1360–70. Tempera, gold, and ink on paper; 163 folios. 10 × 7½ in. (25.5 × 19 cm)
British Library, London (Add. MS 14761) Image: © The British Library Board

The Saint Matthew Capital. Early 1170s. Limestone. b. 16⅝ × 21 ¼× 18½in., 355 lb. (42 × 54 × 47 cm, 161 kg) Terra Sancta Museum, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth
Image: © Marie-Armelle Beaulieu /Custodia Terræ Sanctæ

Auguste Salzmann (French, 1824–1872) Jérusalem, Porte de Damas, Intérieur (Jerusalem, Damascus Gate, Interior), 1854. Salted paper print from paper negative.  Image: 23.1 x 32.6 cm (9 1/8 x 12 13/16 in.) Printer: Blanquart-Évrard, Lille. Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number:2005.100.373.147. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review:The Prado Masterpieces

The Prado Masterpieces

By the Museo Nacional del Prado

Thames & Hudson/494 pages/$125

Reviewed by Ed Voves

It would be easy to speak entirely in superlatives to describe Thames & Hudson's new book, The Prado Masterpieces.  Magnificent, authoritative, insightful, "all of the above."

The Prado Masterpieces certainly deserves such praise. The value of this huge volume, however, is the way that it truly complements a visit to the Prado. A close study of the Prado masterpieces, either on a pilgrimage to this vast museum or via the pages of this wonderful book, reveals the compelling, often ironic features of Spain's culture. 

The  Museo del Prado opened its doors "for the study of professors and the recreation of the public" in 1819. The museum was constructed on a meadow (prado in Spanish) in Madrid to display the royal art collections of Spain.

Founding the Prado represents the solitary enlightened act of one of the most narrow-minded autocrats in European history, King Ferdinand VII (1784-1833). The Prado was an assertion of Spanish nationalism and cultural achievement at the same time that Ferdinand VII shredded the liberal laws and social reforms formulated after the devastation of the Napoleonic War.  

The royal art works which Ferdinand placed on view in the new museum revealed a further irony. Over the centuries, the Spanish monarchy had lavished huge sums on art that often had little to do with Spain.

Beginning with the "Planet Kings" of the 1500's-1600's, a collection rich in Flemish and Italian paintings was purchased to grace the walls of Spanish palaces. Not until until quite late in Spain's era of world domination did Spanish artists receive the patronage they deserved. An otherwise inept king, Philip IV, appointed the great Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) to a position of prestige in his court.

The truth about many of the Prado's paintings is that these art works were status symbols of Spain's global empire. To be fair to the Spanish, they paid for their art rather than stealing en masse as Napoleon later did. But the payment for these Renaissance masterpieces came from the "King's Fifth." This was the share owed to the Spanish monarchy from the vast wealth coming from the Indies. Untold thousands of native peoples died, particularly in the silver mines of Potosi in Peru, to pay for stunning works of art like Titian's Venus and Adonis

Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1554

The text of The Prado Masterpieces was written by a team of curators from the Prado's staff. These unnamed  scholars provide a wide-ranging account of Spanish civilization at the same time as highlighting the treasures of the Prado. Here is a sample of the incisive text of The Prado Masterpieces:

Like his predecessors, Philip II had a preference for Flemish and Italian painting, especially Venetian. He acquired very few works by Spaniards, and the number of Spanish artists who worked for him was small, for the honour was achieved only by those whose versatility allowed them to adapt to his demands.  

The Spanish monarchs and their advisers were certainly knowledgeable  collectors. Along with numerous paintings by Titian, works by Botticelli, Raphael, Durer, Tintoretto and van Dyck are now displayed at the Prado. I was particularly impressed by Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, painted by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) around 1560. This Venetian master is sometimes forgotten, coming as he did between the High Renaissance and the heyday of Caravaggio. 

Paolo Veronese, Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, c.1560

This magnificent work exemplifies the outstanding talent of Veronese. Not only did Veronese place his protagonists in a totally convincing setting, but he displayed acute psychological insight. The conflicted emotions of the Temple scholars are revealed by the skillful way Veronese depicted their facial expressions and bodily postures.

There was another reason why the Spanish monarchs favored art by the great masters from Flanders like Rogier van der Weyden. The Hapsburg dynasty which ruled Spain during its "Golden Age" traced their roots to the medieval House of Burgundy, the feudal lords of Flanders. 

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, before 1443

Van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross combined all the elements of Flemish culture, emotional piety and courtly tenderness, vivid depictions of the blood-oozing wounds of Christ and tactile realism of the rich, flowing robes of his mother and disciples.

During the period when Spanish political power was at its zenith, between 1519-1648, there was no shortage of talented Spanish painters. Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) and Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) were a match for any in Europe. Spanish artists, however, failed to attain the social status of their counterparts in Italy. Moreover, they had to pay a staggering ten-percent retail tax, the alcabala, on any work that was not religious in theme.

Spanish artists, needless to say, painted and sculpted religious works of art on a prodigious scale. Many are deeply moving like Velázquez' 1620 portrait of Jerónima de la Fuente,  a missionary nun posted to the distant Philippines. In order to evade the alcabala, Spanish artists frequently added a theological gloss to a still life or genre scene.

I am not sure what interpretation El Greco intended with his Fable, painted around 1580. 

Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos on the Venetian-controlled island of Crete, El Greco studied in Italy where he created several early masterpieces. But he did not find preferment at the court of Philip II (reigned 1556-1598) when he emigrated to Spain. Thematic elements in some of his religious works raised questions about his orthodoxy. 

El Greco then set up his studio in Toledo, painting magnificent portraits of Spanish hidalgos, one of which,The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest, is among the most beloved paintings on view at the Prado.

El Greco, Fable, c.1580

Fable, however, confounds all attempts at explanation. 

Was El Greco depicting the wonder of human creativity or of worldly vanity? Is this a surreal work of imagination like Francisco Goya's later etchings, Los Disparates (The Follies). Might El Greco have been making a sly commentary of the attempts of Phillip II to "ape" the light of Venice while ignoring the talents of Spanish artists? We will never know. 

We do know that the collection of the Prado would have been richer still but for a disastrous fire on Christmas Eve, 1734, at a dilapidated palace known as the Alcázar. The fire alarm was mistaken for bells announcing midnight Mass. By the time the danger was realized, most of the 500 paintings in the Alcázar collection, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, were consumed by the flames. 

By heroic effort, a few precious paintings, slashed from their frames and hurled from the palace windows, were saved. One of the survivors is now recognized as the supreme masterpiece of Spanish art, Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez in 1656. 

Las Meninas was painted during the twilight of Spain's global power. Ironically, the setting for this stunning work was the Alcázar where so many masterpieces were to be lost. Here Velázquez evoked the rarefied world of the Spanish court as the shadows of history gathered over it. Spain's economy was bankrupt and its population reduced by war, plague, starvation. France under the Sun King, the young Louis XIV, was now the greatest power in Europe.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

But with the bloom of childhood on the face of Infanta Maragarita, Velázquez testified to the promise and resilience of the human spirit. Empires come and go, but the look of wonder and love in the eyes of the young princess is born and reborn everyday.

By an act of great fortune, I was able to visit the Prado back in 1979. I was only a couple of years out of college and knew very little about art. I can't even remember seeing Las Meninas, but I do recall Goya's The Third of May 1808 in Madrid.

Thanks to The Prado Masterpieces, I have been able to relive my long-ago visit.This magnificent book, the closest encounter to an actual tour of the galleries of the Prado short of going there, has rekindled my desire to return. 

I want to go back to the Museo del Prado. What higher praise for a book about this wondrous place can there be?

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

All images courtesy of Thames & Hudson and the Museo Nacional del Prado. The image of Christ among the Doctors in the Temple by Paolo Veronese, is from the Prado website:

Introductory Image:  The Prado Masterpieces. 2016 (book cover) Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Titian (Italian, 1490-1576) Venus and Adonis, 1554. Oil on canvas, 186 x 207 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Paolo Veronese (Italian, 1528-1588) Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, c. 1560. Oil on canvas, 236 x 430 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Rogier van der Weyden (Flemish, 1399–1464) The Descent from the Cross, before 1443. Oil on panel, 204.5 x 261.5 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

El Greco (Spanish, born Crete, 1541–1614)  Fable, c. 1580. Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 63.6 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Diego Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660)  Las Meninas, 1656. Oil on canvas. 318 x 276 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado