Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Van Gogh Exhibition at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Van Gogh Exhibition at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Van Gogh Repetitions

Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Oct. 12, 2013–Jan. 26, 2014

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Van Gogh Repetitions, on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., explores the great Dutch artist's habit of painting multiple versions of a select group of people, places and things. But this intelligently curated exhibit is much more than a presentation of theme and variations.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) possessed the eye of a discoverer. Van Gogh looked searchingly at both the mundane facts of human life and the cosmic scope of creation. While van Gogh painted singular, prophetic works like Starry Night, he also worked and reworked depictions of more prosaic images. This was a different sort of endeavor from Claude Monet's evocations of Rouen Cathedral. Van Gogh returned to the same sets of images in order to grapple with more than just the effects of light. He probed humanity's interaction with nature. He addressed the meaning of time itself.


The Bedroom at Arles
On March 29, 1889, Vincent van Gogh wrote an extraordinary letter to his brother, Theo, reflecting on his aims with these répétitions. Van Gogh's letter testified to the great personal suffering of this period, following his emotional breakdown of Christmas 1888. It revealed, more importantly, the well-spring of creative energy and vision that drove him forward against the tide of despair

How strange these last three months appear to me. Sometimes nameless moral anguish, then moments when the veil of time and of the inevitability of circumstances seemed to open up a little way for the space of a blink of an eye

 In the "blink of an eye" during the late autumn of 1888, van Gogh painted Madame Augustine Roulin, holding her baby girl, Marcelle. Madam Roulin was the wife of his friend, Joseph Roulin, the postman of the town in the south of France, Arles, where van Gogh had gone to establish the "Studio of the South." This wonderful painting, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is on display in the van Gogh exhibit at the Phillips. A noteworthy work of art in its own right, Portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin and Baby Marcelle served as the foundation of five extraordinary "repetitions" on the theme of motherhood.

Van Gogh used the expression "La Berceuse" in the titles of these paintings. This may be translated as lullaby, a word and an image with major cultural implications during the Victorian era. Frederick Chopin composed a major work on this theme in 1844, the lyrical masterpiece, Berceuse (Lullaby) in D flat major, Op.57. Two decades later, the American poet William Ross Wallace, a close friend of Edgar Allen Poe, wrote a hugely popular poem extolling the influence of motherhood. This poem is now commonly known by its refrain:

For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world.

Such expressions of maternal care, however, are not readily apparent in van Gogh's La Berceuse paintings.

Madame Roulin's expression in these five portraits ranges from apprehension and stress to philosophical resignation. Also, she looks considerably older in these five repetitions than in the slightly earlier Philadelphia Museum portrait. It is known that Madame Roulin was becoming alarmed at van Gogh's emotional state by the time he started working on the first of the series in December 1888. Madame Roulin's fears for van Gogh's sanity may be reflected in these paintings.

Van Gogh painted portraits of all the members of the Roulin family during this period. He felt a real bond of affection for the family. Even chubby cheeked little Marcelle was recorded for posterity by van Gogh in an individual portrait.


Portrait of Baby Marcelle Roulin

Joseph Roulin, the paterfamilias, brought van Gogh his mail and helped smooth his often stormy relations with other citizens of Arles. Pere Roulin was painted in a series of portraits similar to those of his wife. The paintings are remarkable for the flowering backgrounds and the variations in the way that Roulin's personality is explored. Husband and wife thus receive the same vivid treatment by van Gogh. But there is a lot more going on in the La Berceuse series.

When we look at these 'lullaby" pictures the absence of the infant is immediately apparent. Baby Marcelle's presence is implied by the rope that Madame Roulin is clutching in her hand. By gently pulling on this rope, Madame Roulin could rock Marcelle's cradle while singing the baby to sleep.

The rope, however, has gone slack. If little Marcelle is assumed to be in the cradle, Madame Roulin is not viewed from the position of an infant looking upward. Instead she is seen from the eye level of an adult. She looks away from this mature viewer and is clearly not in the mood for singing a lullaby.

Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse)

Careful study of the La Berceuse paintings has led many scholars to believe that van Gogh began painting the  the Netherlands to be the first of the series around Christmas 1888. The Christmas holidays were often difficult for van Gogh, emphasizing his absence from home and his estrangement from his mother.

Van Gogh had painted a portrait of his mother in October 1888, based on a photograph sent from Holland. This broadly smiling depiction of his mother is one of van Gogh's least convincing works. Were the La Berceuse paintings a way for van Gogh to confront and deal with his ambivalent feelings towards his mother? In these paintings, was van Gogh confronting the woman who had given him life, only to withhold the affection and regard he so desperately craved?

Van Gogh's paintings and the perceptive commentary he often addressed to Theo reveal a firm grasp of reality, at least in terms of what he painted.

Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse)

Van Gogh expounded on the fifth in the La Berceuse series, the one in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, as "nothing but a chromolithograph from a penny bazaar." But then he astutely noted that his aim was to "to make an image such as a sailor who couldn’t paint would imagine it when he was in the middle of the sea and thought of a woman on land."

Van Gogh's aim with his répétitions was to evoke the world around him as the peasants and townsfolk of Arles saw it, as the sailors at sea imagined it. And if these images, as he noted to Theo, did not "even have the merit of being photographically correct," then a valid sense of reality would be produced by intense searching and repeated depiction.

The exhibition at the Phillips Collection is instrumental in enabling art lovers to grasp the "working artist" van Gogh instead of the tortured genius van Gogh. And this is as true for van Gogh in his landscapes and genre studies as when he painted portraits.

Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles
The Phillips Collection, established in 1921, can justly claim the honor of being America's first museum dedicated to modern art. Duncan Phillips, the founder of the museum, early grasped the importance of van Gogh to Modernism. In 1930, van Gogh's Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles, painted in 1888, was acquired for the Phillips Collection. This painting was one of the first works by the Dutch painter to enter a public collection in the U.S. Surprisingly, Van Gogh Repetitions is the first exhibition at the Phillips which is exclusively devoted to van Gogh.

The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy)

Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles is a brilliant example of the way that van Gogh integrated human figures in their natural surroundings. The same is true of two street scenes painted in Saint-Rémy during the autumn of 1889. Both are on view in the Phillips exhibit. In The Large Plane Trees, from The Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Phillips Collection's The Road Menders, van Gogh aimed - and succeeded - in capturing the living essence of village life. Van Gogh rooted real people, as well as towering trees, in the soil of the south of France.

The Road Menders
However similar The Road Menders and The Large Plane Trees may appear, the two works are unique statements of the changing patterns of daily life. These two paintings are not the same work, with different titles and different color schemes. Life is not static and van Gogh's répétitions are anything but repetitious.

This carefully focused exhibition at the Phillips Collection provides a much needed reprieve from the endless psycho-analysis applied to van Gogh's paintings. By emphasizing the technique van Gogh used to create his art, the exhibit enables us to appreciate his beautifully expressed conviction that in "filling one’s canvas regardless . . . one catches the true and the essential."


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images courtesy of the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image:

Portrait of Joseph Roulin April 1889 Oil on canvas 25 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The Bedroom at Arles October 1889 Oil on canvas 22 11/16 x 29 1/8 in. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Portrait of Baby Marcelle Roulin December 1888 Oil on canvas 13 3/4 x 9 3/4 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (La Berceuse) February 1889 Oil on canvas 36 1/2 x 29 1/2 in. Art Institute of Chicago Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection

Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse) February–March 1889 Oil on canvas 36 1/2 x 28 5/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Bequest of John T. Spaulding

Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles 1888 Oil on canvas 28 1/2 x 35 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC Acquired 1930

The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy) November–December 1889 Oil on commercially printed fabric 28 7/8 x 36 1/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art Gift of the Hanna Fund

The Road Menders November–December 1889 Oil on canvas 29 x 36 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC Acquired 1949

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Review: Moments That Made the Movies

Moments that Made the Movies
By David Thomson Thames & Hudson/303 pages/$39.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In a life time of studying motion pictures, David Thomson has learned a lot about film lovers as well. Movie fans love to make lists. They classify and categorize films with relentless zeal - the one hundred greatest movies of all time, the top ten musicals, the funniest comedies, etc. This passion for films often devolves into motion picture taxidermy, as these inimitable works of art are pinned, butterfly-like, to a scrap-book page.

Thomson's new book sidesteps "list mania" by emphasizing the importance of the film scene as the truest measure of quality in film-making. Moments that Made the Movies reveals the "back story" of pivotal scenes from classic films. These turning points are brilliantly analyzed to show how the action or dialogue of a single scene can establish the theme or tone of an entire motion picture.

Some film scenes demanded to be included in Thomson's book. In a witty personal aside, Thomson notes that as he outlined the book he knew he would have to write about the "I'll have what she's having" restaurant encounter from When Harry Met Sally. And of course, the night club scene in Casablanca was a "must." Humphrey Bogart's heart-stricken response to Dooley Wilson playing "As Time Goes By" is "as corny as can be, yet like most clichés it's based on a universal knot of human behavior..."

Casablanca, 1942
Then there's my favorite scene from Roman Holiday when Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck ... But wait a minute! That's not in the book!

Thomson, always one-step ahead us, is quick to remind us that "the big moments don't always come in outstanding pictures." He asserts that the "movie moments" under consideration are not the "best" or greatest or even his personal favorites.

David Thomson

Thomson writes:

But these are moments that have stayed in my memory, and which leap onto the screen in my head if the title is mentioned ... doing something that could be managed in no other medium - the look, the pace, the movement, the texture, the context, all these things are vital. I can describe them, or I will try, but really you have to witness them and feel them.

Thomson here underscores the personal interface of a motion picture and the individual viewer. This happens every time someone watches a film. This is the true magic moment of the movies. Like Dana Andrews, the world-weary detective who becomes mesmerized by the portrait of Gene Tierney in Laura (1944), the film images get inside our heads. Once inside, these "moving" pictures become part of our own story and we are no longer just observers.

Sometimes we can spot a great film scene on the visual horizon, but often they take us by surprise. These "movie moments" trip us up, as Barbara Stanwyck did to Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, and we plunge head-first into the action.

The Lady Eve, 1941

"Screwball" comedies like The Lady Eve reflected the turbulent times of their heyday, at the start of World War II. This wacky film genre presented their stars with unforeseen, astonishing story twists and expected them to climb their way back to sanity. The audience, too, was required to bring a considerable amount of mental agility and movie "smarts" to these "screwballs," for how else could these films be appreciated?

Movies, from the very beginning, even before the advent of "talkies" in 1927, entered into a deliberate dialogue with their audience. And in a very curious way, scenes from different films can communicate or relate to each other via the mind's eye of the movie beholder.

What constitutes a film scene and how do they communicate with us? How much pace, movement, texture and context need to be blended together to produce a "movie moment?"

There are no clear answers to these questions. But we don’t need a list of ingredients to know that the crop-dusting scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North-by-Northwest is an iconic "movie moment."

Thomson regards North-by-Northwest as a "perverse comedy." He could just as accurately have described it as a "screwball" drama. North-by-Northwest, released in 1959, is in many ways a reprise of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, an earlier political thriller with generous helpings of humor. Foreign Correspondent appeared in 1940, the year before The Lady Eve.

North-by-Northwest, 1959

North-by-Northwest and The Lady Eve both require the audience to suspend judgment and join in the story. All films do. In North-by-Northwest, the viewer is required not to raise the obvious question, as Thomson does, why a spy organization would try to kill Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) with a strafing biplane when a trained-assassin could do the job so much more economically with a stiletto or a silencer-gun. Once the audience agrees to suspend belief – an unconscious act - then the film director can get on with his or her job crafting scenes to suit the circumstances of the story line, however improbable that may be.

Thomson notes that some films are so taunt, so tightly focused that they "may be construed as an extended moment, a piece of unbroken duration, and a kind of narrative momentousness." High Noon, the gripping frontier drama starring Gary Cooper from 1952, is a case in point. The fast-paced action takes place in a single day, yielding no "case study" scenes for Thomson to analyze.

Two years earlier, Billy Wilder directed Sunset Blvd. which took post-World War II film noir into the sacred precincts of the Hollywood "dream factories." Sunset Blvd., which the German-born Wilder also co-wrote, is replete with "movie moments." It almost defines the characteristic structure of American films which, "by and large, do look to have sensational events, knock-out set pieces." These, in turn call out for the kind of commentary of which Thomson is such a master.

In the case of Sunset Blvd. that is literally the case. As Thomson points out, the key to this film is its use of voice-over, a film technique that has gone out of favor. But in the capable hands of Billy Wilder and actor William Holden, voice-over was never used to better effect.

Thomson relates that the role of Joe Gillis, a down-at-the-heels Hollywood screen writer, was originally to have been played by Montgomery Clift. But Clift, a year after appearing in The Heiress, backed-out because he feared that he would be typecast if he starred in a similar role of a "kept man." This left the field to Holden, a master at portraying jaded cynics, who narrates his on-screen death in Sunset Blvd. with what Thomson describes as "one of the finest dry, ironic voices in American culture ..."

The central drama of Sunset Blvd., of course, is the relationship of Joe Gillis (Holden) and Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the faded queen of the silent movie era. Thomson, a little surprisingly, selects few of the great silent films for consideration. The Passion of Joan of Arc and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise make the cut. But Thomson, in another personal aside, says that "I don't know that I would ever have fallen in love with silent cinema."

It is the singular "voice" of a motion picture that grabs our attention and deals us in. And when the story being told is set in an exotic realm, filled with menace and forbidden "allure," then we are really hooked.

One of the key insights of the great directors, Alfred Hitchcock especially, is that we, the audience, don't mind going to such dangerous, unsavory places at all. There is a visceral thrill to "being there" in a place of peril or horror, of witnessing a cheating wife like Miriam (Laura Elliott) in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train get her come-uppance. Justice will eventually be served and then we will leave the theater, safe and sound, to go home after a stop for a snack.

But that's just where we, observant movie viewers, have missed a vital point. These great film scenes draw us in and get us "to witness them and feel them" in Thomson's words. We are given an opportunity to visit our own dark side. And more and more films in the 1960’s and 70’s, following in the footsteps of Hitchcock’s Psycho, drew the chilling conclusion that justice is not always forthcoming by the time the credits role at the end of the picture. And explorations into the recesses of our inner selves may not have happy endings either.

Thomson is particularly impressive in his analysis of two of these unsettling dramas from the 1970’s, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and Roman Polanski"s Chinatown (1974).

Both of these films take place in the 1930's, the golden-age of the Hollywood hero. Both films have male protagonists, smartly dressed-dressed and topped-off with fedora hats, like the attire that Humphrey Bogart wore in The Maltese Falcon. But there the similarities end.

Clerici, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is not a hero at all in The Conformist. He is a fascist hit-man who seduces the wife of an opponent of Mussolini and then orchestrates his assassination. The murder of the liberal professor is an appalling act and Clerici, as Thomson writes, is "one of the most hateful, yet warning figures in the movies."

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson's character, Jake Gittes, is a deliberate throwback to Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlow in The Big Sleep. He is a tough guy and a good detective but - unlike Bogart - he can't beat the system.

Gittes takes on a loathsome land dealer, Noah Cross, played by John Huston, who is trying to corner the rights to water for the burgeoning city of Los Angeles. Cross is a close second to Clerici as a movie monster. He raped his own daughter, Evelyn, played by Faye Dunaway, who is desperately trying to stop him from gaining control of her - and his - daughter.

Chinatown, 1974

John Huston's smooth-talking character is the kind of villain that traditional Hollywood screenplays would go to any length to defeat. With a savvy detective like Nicholson and a gutsy heroine like Faye Dunaway, justice in a 1937 drama would triumph without fail. But in a 1974 film like Chinatown, the "Thirties" hero and heroine don't stand a chance. By then, as Thomson notes perceptively, "the code of Philip Marlow was a dusty relic."

Thomson's text is filled with such provocative insights. Thomson is often profound in his commentary, challenging readers to respond to these "movie moments." We re-wind and replay these scenes on the movie screen in our heads - with often startling results.

Thomson pays increasing attention to international cinema from the 1950’s onward. His essay on the French New Wave film, Vivre Sa Vie, directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1962, is notably perceptive. In an otherwise grim depiction of the life of Nana, a Parisian prostitute portrayed by Anna Karina, Thomson focuses upon a remarkable scene that is both life-affirming and an unsettling, cautionary tale.

As her pimp talks "business" with another hustler, Nana pops a coin into a juke box to pass the time. The music, a forgettable European riff on American jazz, begins to play. Nana gets into the mood and begins to dance by herself. For a brief moment, Nana ceases being an "object of desire" and has regained her full humanity. The scene is directed and acted to perfection, exuding a naturalness and simplicity that is far more affecting than a more lavish production number would have been.

Thomson movingly describes Nana's dance as "your girlfriend doing Cyd Charisse..." Earlier in his book, he presents a spirited essay on the Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse dance film, The Band Wagon (1953). By evoking the romantic partnership of Astaire and Charisse in terms of Anna Karina's solo performance, Thomson enables two totally dissimilar films to play-off each other. It’s a double feature on the movie screen in our mind.

The Band Wagon, 1953

Dance films like The Band Wagon represent the epitome of escapism in films. Astaire, Thomson writes, was an auteur who "had a very simple code: that dance could solve everything." Nana’s dance, by comparison, is a truly heartbreaking moment, a stay of execution rather than an escape into bliss. Yet as Thomson shows, Nana's embrace of life in that wonderful display of joie de vivre highlights the humanity of people everywhere trapped in lives of suffering and desperation.

Looked at in this unconventional way, these great film scenes are powerful assertions of human emotions. They allow us to look at ourselves in ways that otherwise we could never do.

Laura, 1944

With its superb interplay of image and text, Thomson’s book rekindled my long, if recently smoldering, passion for films. But Moments that Made the Movies is more than just a "movie book." The personal, profound touch that infuses Thomson's commentary quietly nurtures a sense of empathy for our fellow beings. And then, like Gene Tierney in Laura, "character" is no longer just a picture on the wall. It is a deeply-felt set of values, helping us to feel and act more truly alive.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved


Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Introductory Image:
Moments That Made the Movies, 2013 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson

Casablanca, 1942 (page 69) Image credit: Warner Bros/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY

David Thomson (author photo) Photo: c. Lucy Gray

The Lady Eve, 1941 (page 65) Image credit: Paramount/Photofest

North by Northwest, 1959 (page 153) Image credit: MGM/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY

Chinatown, 1974 (page 227) Image credit: Paramount/Photofest

The Bandwagon, 1953 (page 118-119) Image credit: MGM/Everett Collection

Laura, 1944 (page 72-73) Image credit: 20th Century Fox/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Medieval Masterpieces from Germany at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City September 17, 2013-January 5, 2014

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The exhibition of German art works from the Middle Ages now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City both inspires and confounds the expectations of viewers. Are these precious objects relics of the great Age of Christian Faith? Or are these strange and wonderful artifacts survivors from a remote pagan past, barbaric in spirit beneath a thin veneer of Christian piety?

Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim presents 50 masterpieces from the cathedral and monastery of Hildesheim, an ecclesiastical site of major importance. Here, in this city in Lower Saxony, Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim (960–1022) launched bold programs of church building and the creation of Christian art that rank among the most influential of the Middle Ages. Bernward deserves to be remembered along with Abbot Suger (1081-1151) as one of the pioneering patrons of the arts in what was truly a renaissance before The Renaissance.

The great age of church and cathedral building began after the year 1000 A.D., which many had dreaded as the onset of the Apocalypse. The lavish spending on ecclesiastical buildings during the Middle Ages was not without its critics. Where forward-thinking prelates like Bernward saw the impressive new churches and monasteries as reflections of the Heavenly City, others held different opinions.

In a foreshadowing of the Reformation of the 1500's, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) condemned the kind of gilded reliquaries and ornate candlesticks that are on display in the Hildesheim exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum:

"Oh vanity of vanities, but no more vain than insane! The church is radiant in its walls and destitute in its poor. It dresses its stones in gold and abandons its children naked. It serves the eyes of the rich at the expense of the poor."

Both Bernard of Clairvaux and Bernward of Hildesheim are recognized as saints in the Roman Catholic Church. Though separated by nearly a century, the two churchmen, one French, the other German, had much in common. Both served as advisers and confidantes of kings. Bernard's puritanical zeal and Bernward's progressive vision reflect a duality in Christendom that stretches back to antiquity.

In Bernward's case, he was chaplain and tutor to the short-lived Emperor Otto III, 980-1002. The Ottonian Dynasty, Saxons by birth, revived the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne that had largely disintegrated after his death in 814. The Ottonian rulers looked to expand Christian (and German) power eastward and to exert political power in Italy.

Capable religious leaders like Bernward were essential to the dynastic agenda of the Ottonian rulers. The influential role of bishops and the heads of orders of monks and priests was symbolized by the ceremonial shepherd's staff that they carried. An example on display is the remarkable Crosier of Abbot Erkanbald, a striking statement of ecclesiastical authority. Church leaders during the eleventh century, of whom Bishop Bernward was a noteworthy example, were men to be reckoned with.

The world view and social position of Bernward served as the foundation for his church building. It infused his enthusiastic patronage of art as a means of conveying the truths of religion, as well. This is immediately apparent in the two extraordinary objects that greet visitors to the Hildesheim exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum.

The first is the monumental Baptismal Font, cast in copper alloy in the early thirteenth century. The Baptismal Font displays biblical scenes in bold relief and remarkable narrative power. Each has a water theme - the baptism of Jesus, Moses' crossing of the Red Sea, the transport of the Ark of the Covenant across the River Jordan and the dedication of the font itself. The massive vessel is supported by four figures which represent rivers mentioned in the Bible, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Pishon and the Gihon.

Baptismal Font from Hildesheim, Germany

A stunning masterpiece in its own right, the Baptismal Font evokes the great bronze doors which Bernward originally commissioned for St. Michael's, the church of the Benedictine Order in Hildesheim. The massive doors, measuring 16 feet, 6 inches high, solid cast, are adorned by eight scenes from the Old Testament on one door, eight New Testament scenes on the other.

After seeing the ancient Roman war monument, Trajan's Column, Bernward also ordered a similar column to be cast around 1000 A.D. Instead of battle scenes in bas relief, Bernward's column depicts twenty-eight episodes from the life of Jesus swirling upward with cinematic dynamism.

There are some disturbing nuances in Bernward's Column, given the aggressive efforts of the Ottonian dynasty to invest itself with the trappings of Roman imperialism. Bernward's Column is too closely modeled after Trajan's to escape suspicion that it too is a monument to power politics. But no such charge could be leveled against the Ringelheim Crucifix.

It is commonly believed that Bernward commissioned the carving of this magnificent crucifix for the convent where his sister, Judith, was abbess. In a brilliant design decision, the Metropolitan curators have displayed the Ringelheim Crucifix on a cross-shaped partition immediately visible as one approaches the exhibition. The Ringelheim Crucifix looms over the shimmering display cases with their gilded reliquaries and gem-studded manuscript covers. The effect is profound.

Ringelheim Crucifix
The Ringelheim Crucifix was carved from linden wood, the favored medium of great German carvers down to Tilman Riemenschneider, during the 1500's. The arms, though, are a later addition, replacements made of oak. During restoration in the years 1949-52, a cavity was discovered in the head where several relics had been stored. A note on parchment signed by Bernward himself identified two stones as coming from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, along with bone fragments from two saints. But amazing as this discovery is, nothing can match the sense of spiritual power of the Ringelheim Crucifix, one of the earliest surviving three-dimensional works of art from the Christian Middle Ages.

The Ringelheim Crucifix manifests the raw, powerful convictions of the Christian populations of Western Europe, still only a few generations from the time of their conversion. If the Ringelheim Crucifix exudes the "faith of the convert," the exquisite Bernward Cross, which dates to Bernward's era, points to the growing sophistication of that faith. Likewise, the gilded Hezilo Cross, used in processions, is evidence of the growing wealth and worldliness of the Christian clergy.

Before we endorse Bernard of Clairvaux's zealotry at the expense of Bernward's pragmatic approach to religion, one should take a closer look at the silver Bernward Cross. The figure of the crucified Jesus depicts him as a tortured martyr, head slumped and skeletal rib-cage clearly visible even on such a small scale. Here we see the dying, Good Friday Jesus.

Bernward Cross

This image of the death of Jesus on the cross so shocked early Christians that for the first five hundred years or more of their religion, few depictions of the crucifixion were created. But people of Bernward's generation embraced images of both the suffering Jesus and the transcendent Christ of the Ringelheim Crucifix. And human nature being what it is, it should not surprise us that Christians of Medieval Europe, whose "barbarian" ancestors exulted in objects "rich in gold," should also have paraded around with the glittering Hezilo Cross, encrusted with semi-precious gems and rock crystals. Later "reformers" like Bernard of Clairvaux and Martin Luther would condemn such objects. To most Christian believers during the Middle Ages, however, the Hezilo Cross was a symbol of devotion.

The discovery of the relics inside the head of the Ringelheim Crucifix, mundane chips of stone and bone though they seem to modern eyes, points to the Christian cult of relics. Impressive for engendering piety and belief among the faithful, the cult of relics was also the keystone of vast financial transactions to the Church. The monarchs and nobles of Europe donated lands and revenue to build pilgrimage shrines to safeguard these - often dubious - body fragments and personal objects reputed to have belonged to Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Christian martyrs.

Arm Reliquary of St. Bernward

The Metropolitan exhibit displays several containers or reliquaries for relics. In the case of the silver, arm-shaped reliquary, skillfully cast to show the hem of a bishop's robe, we can be reasonably certain that it contained body parts of Bernward, raised to the rank of sainthood in 1193. But the identity of the skull in the reliquary of St. Oswald is open to question.

Reliquary of St. Oswald
There were at least four skulls of St. Oswald lovingly preserved in reliquaries throughout Europe. The most likely candidate was the one in Durham Cathedral in northern England. Oswald had been one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon rulers to embrace Christianity. But Oswald had converted for the same reason that the Emperor Constantine had in the fourth century. Oswald felt that the Christian god would aid him in his military campaigns. For a time, his plan seemed to be working - until he fought one battle too many and was killed fighting the pagan Mercians in 642.

The exultant Mercians displayed Oswald's severed head on a wooden stake as a battle trophy. Later retrieved, it was placed for safe-keeping in a church in Durham. By the time this bizarre reliquary was created, around 1185, Oswald was venerated as a Christian martyr. This was also the era of King Richard the Lionhearted and the Crusades. Oswald had become a model saint for Church leaders, like Bernard of Clairvaux, preaching "Holy War" against Islam.

The ominous implications of events and Church policies in Bernward's time in the early eleventh century should not detract from his achievements. We should not judge the piety of medieval religious books - or that of the clergymen who commissioned them - by the lavish decoration of their covers.

Small Bernward Gospel
The Reichenau Lectionary, created during the last years of Bernward's life and the so-called Small Bernward Gospel, which dates from a century after his death, are both testaments to a deep and abiding faith. The Reichenau Lectionary, used in church services, presents a charming and heart-moving depiction of the death of the Virgin Mary, with angels swooping down to escort her to heaven. And the gems and rock crystal on the cover of the Small Bernward Gospel should not distract our attention from the carved ivory plaque on the cover depicting the Crucifixion. This was an especially precious object, a gift very likely from the Byzantine court in Constantinople.

Reichenau Lectionary
Yet this wonderful exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum produces an unsettling effect, difficult to define. Is it due to the sheer amount of gleaming gold and silver artifacts in the small space of the single gallery displaying Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim? Or is this vague uncertainty caused by the evidence of so much religious piety in a society vastly different from our own?

Whatever the answer, it is hard not to be impressed with the life and the legacy of the clergyman who was responsible for the creation of so many of these medieval treasures. As Bernward's biographer said of him, "There was nothing in the fields of the arts that Bernward did not try, even when he was not able to bring it to completion."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Crozier of Abbot Erkanbald German (Hildesheim), before 1011 Silver with gilding H : 4-1/2 x 3 in. (11.3 x7.5 cm) without stem Dom-Museum Hildesheim (DS 7) Photograph by Frank Tomio

Baptismal Font German (Hildesheim), ca. 1226 Copper alloy, cast in eight pieces Overall H. ca. 72–7/8 in. (185 cm); font: H. 26–3/8 in. (67 cm); Diam. 37–3/4 in. (95.9cm.); cover: H. 16–1/8 in. (41 cm); finial: H. 12–5/8 in. (32 cm); supporting figures: H. 18–1/2 in. to 19–3/4 in. (47 cm to 50 cm) Hohe Domkirche Hildesheim Photograph by Manfred Zimmermann

Ringelheim Crucifix German (Hildesheim), ca. 1000 / before 1022 Linden wood (corpus) and oak (arms) Overall 63–7/8 × 63–3/8 × 9–7/8 in. (162 × 161 × 25 cm) Dom-Museum Hildesheim, on loan from the church of Sts. Abdon and Sennen, SalzgitterRingelheim (L 1993-8)

Bernward Cross German (Hildesheim), after 1007 / before 1022; base: 14th century Silver, gilding Overall (H. with base) 12–3/8 × 5–7/8 × 1–1/4 in. (31.2 × 14.9 × 3.2 cm); H. of cross 8–1/4 in. (20.9 cm.) Dom-Museum Hildesheim (DS 6) Photograph by Frank Tomio

Arm Reliquary of Saint Bernward German (Hildesheim), ca. 1194 Silver, gilded silver, rock crystal, and semiprecious stones; wood core Overall 21–1/2 × 6–1/8 × 4–5/8 in. (54.5 × 15.5 × 11.6 cm) Dom-Museum Hildesheim, on loan from the church of St. Magdalen, Hildesheim (L1978-2) Photograph by Jürgen Liepe

Reliquary of Saint Oswald German (Hildesheim) or possibly English, ca. 1185–89; partly restored 1779 Gold, silver, gilded silver, niello, cloisonné enamel (a few replaced), gems, pearls, antique cameos and intaglios; wood core H. with crown 18–3/4 in. (47.5 cm); Diam. (base) 10–5/8 in. (27 cm) Dom-Museum Hildesheim (DS 23) Photograph by Lutz Engelhardt

Gospel Book (so-called Small Bernward Gospel) Front cover: German (Hildesheim), second half of 12th century. Gilded copper, rock crystal, paint on parchment under horn on oak; Byzantine ivory plaque 8-7/8 x 6-3/4 in. (22.5 x17 cm) Dom-Museum Hildesheim (DS 13) Photograph by Erika Dufour, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Gospel Lectionary and Collectar German (Reichenau), ca. 1010–30 Tempera and gold on vellum Overall 8–3/4 × 6–1/2 in. (22 × 16.5 cm); 96 leaves Dombibliothek Hildesheim (Hs. 688) Photograph by Lutz Engelhardt