Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Earthly Delights by Jonathan Jones and Raphael by Paul Joannides

  Earthly Delights, a History of the Renaissance 

by Jonathan Jones
Thames & Hudson/336 pages/$39.95


by Paul Joannides
Thames & Hudson/320 pages/$23.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The alchemy of genius during the Renaissance inspired the minds and guided the hands of Europe's painters and sculptors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In a few short decades, artists ceased being regarded as mere craftsman or servants. Instead of wearing the livery of an arrogant duke or worldly bishop, they were clad in the aura of the "artist as hero.",

People are fascinated by flawed and troubled protagonists. The more faults and doubts, the more suffering, the more smoldering sexual desires, it seems the more public interest is generated by their lives and struggles. 

The Renaissance, as interpreted by Jonathan Jones in his just-published book, Earthly Delights, serves a heaping helping of all-of the-above. 

Jones, the art critic for the Guardian newspaper in Britain, explored the themes of private passion and creative vision in earlier books about the Renaissance in Italy. Now, with Earthly Delights, he travels to Bruges in Flanders, to Nuremberg in Germany and to Holland to examine the artistic and personal travails of Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Jones frequently shifts his attention, returning to their compatriots in Italy, making Earthly Delights a gripping, page-turning excursion, continent-wide in its scope.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait, 1500

North and south of the Alps, Earthly Delights focuses on the private lives and personal viewpoints of these Renaissance men - and women. Jones reveals how the embrace of the "new" - in life styles, sexuality, and free-thinking opinions - informed the sensational artistic achievements of titans like Dürer and Michelangelo, as well-as eccentric, lesser-known figures such as Piero di Cosimo.

Piero di Cosimo, Return from the Hunt, c. 1494-1500

From these introductory remarks, it might appear that the primary concern of Earthly Delights is to reinterpret the Renaissance to heighten its relevance to gender concerns of the twenty-first century. That would be a natural assumption but a misleading one. Earthly Delights is a book that is both judicious and challenging in its verdicts on the still-controversial people and events of the 1400's-1500's. 

The Renaissance, as related by Jones, was a epoch-changing reconfiguration of European culture. Jones is not alone in his estimate of the importance of the Renaissance, though some scholars maintain that the artistic and scientific developments of these centuries were little more than "late medieval" additions. Jones in Earthly Delights, like the outstanding 2019 book, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissancecontends otherwise:

The 15th century was when modern history began. Renaissance perspective, with its new clarity about space and objects, played its part in that European "discovery" of the world. But before you turn away from it on that score, consider that, while some conquistadors undoubtedly cast only dead, gold-addled eyes on new lands, the drive of Renaissance culture, fueled by news from new worlds, was investigative, curious and attracted to what was different.

"Embracing the new" during the 1400's initially involved utilizing innovations in technology and technique such as the printing press and oil-based pigments. The authorized Christian content of religion and culture was little affected. The Gutenberg Bible, for instance, was printed with movable type and marketed in 1455, but made to look like a deluxe hand-copied text of sacred scripture.

As news spread of the voyage of Columbus to the "Indies", another revolutionary event occurred. In 1495. Aldus Manutius established the first modern publishing firm, the Aldine Press in Venice. Manutius dispensed with large format editions like the Gutenberg Bible. Instead, he printed small, octavo books, less expensive, easy to read and offering a great variety of titles. The resulting availability of pre-Christian authors placed a host of provocative ideas into circulation, thus challenging the once-ironclad censorship of the Christian Church. 

European scholars began questioning long-accepted wisdom. However, these "humanists", with their Aldine Press books in hand, were not the first to focus on their studies with a Renaissance perspective. Well before the first Gutenberg Bible was printed, visual artists had begun to create unsettling visions of heaven and earth and - and hell.  

Hieronymus Bosch, The Haywain, 1512-15

Jones is an astute historian, experienced in ferreting-out little-noticed details that can turn an old story or an often-seen artwork into a startling revelation. He begins with Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, dating to 1434.

Giovanni di Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruges, is believed to be the subject of van Eyck's oil painting. This iconic work has been interpreted in many ways - a celebration of Christian marriage, a "show-off" display of mercantile wealth, a brilliant investigation of light and optics. One of the signature works in the collection of the National Gallery in London, the Arnolfini Portrait continues to pose some weighty questions.

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Arnolfini is a strange, ascetic looking man and the position of his right hand is distinctly odd. He is holding his hand as if giving a religious benediction. 

For a painter like van Eyck, such a gesture should have been reserved for a Christian clergyman or a heavenly being, a saint or an angel. The depiction of God blessing Adam and Eve in Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (the introductory image of this review) is a good example of its customary use. 

Yet, here is Giovanni di Arnolfini, a lay person and a merchant, to boot, bestowing a blessing as if he were the Pope. Dürer, in his Christlike self-portrait, painted in 1500 (above), appears to be following van Eyck's lead and Arnolfini's example.

Jones speculates that Arnolfini was a member of the heretical religious sect, the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Rejecting the need for an established church to guide souls to salvation, some of the Brethren also believed in "free" love, or, as Jones states, fornication "without guilt because they were perfectly at one with God."

To include Arnolfini in the ranks of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, based on a hand gesture, may seem to stretch the evidence a bit thin. Jones has more to prove his case.

Along with this Portrait, van Eyck is reputed to have painted Arnolfini's young wife in the same setting, this time without the layer-upon-layer of woolen robes and shifts and petticoats underneath. This portrait would thus be the first nude in European art history since antiquity and confirmation that Arnolfini and his wife belonged to the Brethren or at least engaged in some of their forbidden practices.

Willem van Haecht, The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, 1628

The nude portrait by van Eyck no longer exists - or has not been seen in centuries. But Jones offers substantial proof of its existence, analyzing two, crudely rendered, copies, one with occult details. He also identifies the actual work on the wall of a later painting of an art gallery in Antwerp, 1628. Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck are shown among the host of artists and savants admiring the vast array of art works, including the Arnolfini Nude

If Jones is correct, then one of the key paintings of the Renaissance undermines many of our assumptions about art history. The "shock of the new" took place a lot earlier than Matisse and the Salon d'Automne!

Quite a number of Renaissance masterpieces challenge traditional interpretations. During the process of re-examination, evidence of the religious doubts and anxieties of their creators is often revealed. Botticelli's Mystic Nativity is a case in point.

Sandro Botticelli, Mystic Nativity, 1500

Botticelli's Mystic Nativity is one of the strangest, unnerving depictions of the birth of Jesus ever created. It is almost entirely lacking in unified composition. Three zones of activity are shown, with protagonists engaged in seemingly unrelated dramas.

At the top, a hovering choir of angels is drawn upward and away from the central action where a mournful Virgin Mary prays over the infant Jesus. Her husband, Joseph, a doddering old man, sleeps through the miraculous event. Down at the bottom, three pairs of angels and human beings grasp each other, as small devilish imps scamper around their feet.

Detail of Botticelli's Mystic Nativity, showing an inscription in Greek referencing the painting's date, 1500, to St. John's Revelations

On its own terms, this painting is almost incoherent. But Botticelli provided an explanatory banner which Jones lucidly explains. Mystic Nativity, Botticelli states was painted "at the end of the year 1500... in the half-time after the time, according to eleventh of St. John, in the the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the Devil for three and a half years."

As Botticelli applied the last touch of oil paint to the canvas of Mystic Nativity, he was convinced of imminent catastrophe. He was not alone. For much of the period we call the Renaissance, the people of Europe lived in dread and expectation of the End Time.

This belief in a coming Apocalypse was not based on misplaced religious hysteria. The World had nearly ended a century before. The Great Plague, the Black Death, killed a third of Europe's population in the 1340's. Nor was the Plague a nightmare from the past. Over 30,000 people died during an outbreak in Florence, 1527-1531.

Anxiety was not limited to concerns about return of the Plague. The embrace of sexual freedom among the Brethren of the Free Spirit in Flanders and the Rhineland was matched by corresponding attitudes toward homosexuality in Italy, especially in Florence.

Homoerotic ideals certainly influenced the art of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Jones describes with moving conviction Leonardo's attempts to "use even more subtlety to create a face of transcendental beauty that isn't male or female but something new."

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevera de' Benci, c. 1474-76

Jones is here describing Leonardo's depiction of the angel Uriel in The Virgin of the Rocks. We could, likewise, ascribe the same descriptors to the haunting, ethereal features of Ginevera de' Benci.

But when Leonardo later devoted the same gender ambiguity to St. John in The Last Supper, he was treading on dangerous ground. Jones writes:

Leonardo is at once highly orthodox here and completely subversive. He directly refers to the account in the Gospel - John sits at Christ's right hand because he is the disciple 'whom Jesus loved' - yet the way in which John is depicted rejects any pusillanimously 'spiritual' interpretation of the nature of that love. John is an androgynous, beautiful youth. He conforms to Leonardo's personal homoerotic inconography. He is the lover of Jesus.

Leonardo was always careful to stay in the good graces of powerful patrons, including Pope Julius II, keeping his speculative, heterodox writings unpublished. 

Leonardo succumbed to a stroke in 1519, aged 67. The next year, another, much younger, artist died: Raphael.

If Earthly Delights has one weakness, it is the relative lack of attention which Jones devotes to Raphael. This superb, thoughtful book has a lot of ground to cover and a very full cast of protagonists clamoring for attention. Yet, Raphael is, in many ways, the definitive artist of the Renaissance by virtue of the quantity and quality of his oeuvre.

Fortunately, Thames and Hudson has recently published a biography of Raphael in its prestigious World of Art series. Written by the noted historian and curator, Paul Joannides, it sets a very high standard of scholarship and should be read in conjunction with Earthly Delights.

Raphael was born in the courtly city of Urbino in 1483. He was thus not a member of the circle of artists from Tuscany - Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo - so favored by the artist/writer Giorgio Vasari, himself a Tuscan. 

According to Vasari, Raphael died from a fever brought on by "excessive" sexual indulgence. Joannides discounts this "picturesque" story and attributes Raphael's demise to overwork. Sheer exhaustion from too many demands on his time and talent claimed the life of this hugely gifted artist, especially after he took over the burdens of chief architect of the new basilica of St. Peter in Rome. 

Joannides is able to ground his study of Raphael by detailed examination of the developmental stages of major works like the fresco cycles of the Stanza della Segnatura, including the fabled School of Athens, and the design of the Sistine Tapestries. 

Raphael was a Renaissance "artist as hero." Yet even the greatest of human beings is still very human after all. We often forget or discount the limitations imposed on "immortal" artists by their fragile bodies or overwrought emotions.

And when that happens, we risk losing the secret to success of these "prodigious" Renaissance artists, as Jonathan Jones so astutely judges:

Keeping an open mind is, on their evidence, the best recipe for creative excellence.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images and cover art of Earthly Delights (2023) and Raphael (2022), courtesy of Thames and Hudson

Introductory Image: Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), 1490-1500.  

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528), Self-Portrait, 1500. Oil on panel: 67.1 x 48.9 cm (26 1/2 x 19 3/8 in.) Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

Piero di Cosimo (Italian, 1462-1522) Return from the Hunt, c. 1494-1500. Oil on oak panel: 82.2 x 60 cm (32.4 x 23.6 in.) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hieronymus Bosch (Dutch, c. 1450-1516), The Haywain, 1512-15. Oil on panel: 147.1 x 224.3 cm (58 x 88 3/8 in.) Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Jan van Eyck (Flemish, 1390-1441) Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on oak panel: 82.2 x 60 cm (32 3.8 x 23. 5/8 in.) National Gallery, London

Willem van Haecht (Dutch, 1593-1637) The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, 1628. Oil on canvas: 99 x 129.5 cm (39 x 51 in.) Rubenshuis, Antwerp, Belgium

Sandro Botticelli (Italian, c. 1445-1510) Mystic Nativity, 1500.  Oil on canvas: 108.6. x 74.9 cm (42 7/8 x 29 1/2 in.) National Gallery, London

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, c. 1452-1519) Ginevera de' Benci, c. 1474-76Oil on panel: 38.1 x 37 cm (15 x 14 5/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

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