Saturday, December 28, 2019

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Dominion by Tom Holland

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World

By Tom Holland
Basic Books/$32/612 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

As I read Tom Holland's Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, my thoughts turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian, philosopher and martyr. 

In Holland's powerful account of Christian history, the price paid to secure Christian values and human justice is a paramount theme. Bonhoeffer, whose most famous book is entitled The Cost of Discipleship, is but one of Christianity's many martyrs.

By extension, Bonhoeffer's death calls to mind how the sacrifice of self is of fundamental importance to Christian art.

Dominion is not a coffee-table type art book and only indirectly deals with Christian art. Holland's cogent analysis and his brilliant retelling of the life-stories of saints and sinners motivated me to select Dominion for review in Art Eyewitness. This absorbing, unsparing book has enabled me to better grasp the concepts upon which great works of Christian art, like Caravaggio's masterpiece, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, are founded. 

Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1601 

Bonhoeffer was executed in April 1945 for his opposition to Hitler's genocidal madness. The Lutheran theologian had less than four months to live when he wrote a profoundly moving poem entitled "By the Powers for Good." 

The year just past still lingers in our hearts,                                                                     And evil times on us their burden weigh,                                                                               O Lord, to shaken souls bestow your peace,                                                                      Your promised grace, your solace, this bleak day.

But should you tend your cup of sorrow,                                                                               To drink the bitter dregs at your command,                                                                       We accept with thanks and without trembling,                                                                  This offering from your gracious, loving hand.

But if joy be once again your gift bestowed,                                                                          To this our world with sunlit skies so fair,                                                                        May we always hearken to these days of old,                                                                    And commit our lives to your loving care.

As a devout Christian, Bonhoeffer seemingly contradicted himself. How could a loving God press the cup of "bitter dregs" to the lips of a person of faith and/or bestow "promised grace"?  How can arbitrary acts of divine willfulness be squared with the Sermon on the Mount?

For Bonhoeffer (1906-1944), the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is the definitive act of martyrdom. Christians like Bonhoeffer believe that Jesus, sharing in the divinity of God, shattered the chains of sin that had bound human beings to an unpredictable wheel of fortune.

What then of Christian history, with its less than edifying incidents of bloodshed and bigotry? For Holland, the very "scandal" of Jesus' agonizing, humiliating death is proof of the singular nature of the Crucifixion's history-changing consequence. 

Over the centuries, interpretations of the life and - especially - the death of Jesus have changed, reflecting shifts in opinion. In ancient times, practicing Christians attempted to cover the shame of the Crucifixion with a more benign, reassuring image. Early Christian art showed Jesus as the young, beardless Good Shepherd, the Kriophoros. 

The Good Shepherd (Kriophoros), Third-Fourth Century, A.D. 
Courtesy of the British Museum (Image does not appear in Dominion)

Following the fall of Rome in 410, "evil times" cast the world into suffering and shadow. Christian iconography responded to the emotional torment felt by the faithful to this shocking event. In place of the Kriophoros, Jesus, nailed hands and feet, to a Roman cross became  - and remains - the absolute symbol of the Christian faith.

The Borradaile Triptych, Tenth Century A.D.
Courtesy of the British Museum (Image does not appear in Dominion)

Everywhere we look, often in very unexpected places, there are testimonials to the transforming effect of the execution of Jesus, of the sacrifice of his life for humanity. Holland, one of the most perceptive historians on the contemporary scene and a marvelous writer, follows the course of the Christian revolution and shows how it is now part of the "web and woof" of human culture throughout the world.

Belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus created a whole new sense of time. Instead of an endless cycle of war, famine and plague, presided over by fickle or indifferent gods, Christianity was different. It was dynamic and linear. Time was headed in one direction and toward a single goal: eternal life and spiritual communion with God.

The earthly conduct of those who embraced Christianity was marked by sequential steps: concern for salvation followed by virtuous deeds which testified to one's acceptance of Jesus' teaching. The onward journey of the Christian soul never stopped - prayer, reflection, faith and good works.

This progression engendered a new ideal which has since spread all over the world, in both religious and secular forms: progress. 

Holland brilliantly shows how the early Christian reordering of time was based on the belief that Time would soon come to a cosmic conclusion. Over the centuries, this led to periodic outbursts of religious fervor stemming from a conviction that the eschaton was approaching. This "end time" never arrived - at least not yet - but outbreaks of insurrection often did. Several are memorably chronicled in Dominion, notably the Taborite Revolt of 1420 against the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizenca. 1789

Later revolts followed a similar pattern. The goals might be political or economic, but the imprint of a Christian mindset was not hard to discern. Though hostile to the Catholic Church, the French Revolutionaries of 1789 proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, a grandiose document graced by a Madonna-like figure and an angel who gestures toward the "all-seeing eye' of Providence. Holland writes:

That the Declaration of Rights claimed an authority for itself more universal than that of Christianity only emphasised the degree to which, in the scale of its ambitions and the scope of its pretensions, it was profoundly Christian.

The only thing missing from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was the Cross. The centrality of the image of Jesus on the Cross is a vital concern for Holland in Dominion and for all who wish to understand Western art.

Among the pictures in Dominion's center-spread of illustrations is the gruesome image of the heel bone of a crucifixion-victim named Jehohanan. A Jew living approximately at the same time as Jesus, Jehohanan was executed by the Romans and buried in a stone tomb with a nail still embedded in his right heel. The tomb was discovered in Israel in 1968. The pierced heel bone is the only skeletal evidence from antiquity of crucifixion, a cruel form of execution which the Persians and Greeks also utilized.

The bone fragments of Jehohanan  are contrasted with a vitally important work of Christian art. This is the oldest known depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, circa 420-430 AD. It is one of the four Maskell Passion Ivories in the collection of the British Museum. This, the second of the ivory carvings, shows two scenes, the remorseful Judas dangling from a tree and Jesus hanging from  the Cross. The book illustration only shows the detail of Jesus' Crucifixion.

Crucifixion, Panel of Maskell Passion Ivories, ca. 420-430 A.D.

In the Maskell Passion ivory, the crucified Jesus is shown as a young man like the Good Shepherd. The picture caption in Dominion astutely notes that in the Maskell Passion ivory Jesus looks "buff and ripped, Jesus boasts the the physique of a victorious athlete."

During the Victorian era, Christian artists conflated the crucified Jesus with the Good Shepherd to create the image of a tender-hearted Messiah. This persona was treated with contempt by a disparate group of critics: the Marquis de Sade, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, to name a few. Holland is particularly brilliant in his analysis of Nietzsche's baleful influence on the German artist, Otto Dix (1891-1969).

A machine-gunner in one of the German units sent to the 1916 Battle of the Somme, Dix had become enthralled with Nietzsche's man/superman theories even before 1914. This embrace of Nietzsche's controversial  philosophy was at the expense of his Lutheran religious convictions. What Dix endured during the slaughter on the Somme convinced him that Nietzsche was correct in proclaiming "God is Dead!"

Holland writes:

Dix ... refused to see Christ's suffering as having served any purpose. To imagine that it might have done so was to cling to the values of a slave... Dix, volunteering in 1914, had done so out of a desire to know the ultimate extremes of life and death: to feel what it was to stick a bayonet in an enemy's guts and to twist it around, to have a comrade suddenly fall, a bullet square between his eyes; 'the hunger, the fleas, the mud'. Only in the intoxication of such experiences could a man be more than a man, an Ubermensch.

Another German veteran of the Somme reached similar conclusions about the status of Ubermenschen and the way that Christianity degraded human society. A failed artist unlike Dix, Adolf Hitler decided to put Nietzsche's precepts into practice.

Hitler's design for a "Thousand Year Reich" perversely mirrored the millennium of Christendom. From the fall of Rome to the Renaissance, Christianity aimed to create a "total society" for the benefit of its believers until the Second Coming finally took place.  Many less-than-Christian episodes occurred, described in grim detail in Dominion. But under the auspices of Christianity, truly astonishing accomplishments took place - and still do.  

The concept of charitable work (virtually unknown in antiquity), the founding of Europe's universities, a rise in the social status of women (due in large measure to the devotion to Mary, mother of Jesus), the abolition of slavery and the creation of the glories of visual art in the West - all took place in lands where Christianity was the dominant religion and the guiding light.

In  "throwing  the baby out with the bath water," in this case the Infant Jesus, intellectuals and secular reformers like Nietzsche undermined the foundations of the Western world. Nothing of lasting merit has been set in its place, though Holland contends that praiseworthy charitable initiatives like the 1985 Live Aid rock concert reflect continuing Christian values. 

While certainly reassuring, Holland's conclusions cannot banish concern over where these good intentions will lead. Nor does it answer a very pressing question.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery photo of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist, and Angels, ca 1460-1490 

How long will this neutral, anonymous form of Christianity continue to function - without acknowledgement of Christ's Cross?

To expect Holland to resolve this dilemma is hardly fair. What I can say is that Dominion is a book of such critical importance that it will be joining a select group of treasured volumes on my bedside bookshelf for future - and frequent - consultation.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved   
Original Photography, Copyright of Anne Lloyd

The quoted stanzas from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "By the Powers for Good" appear in A Testament to Freedom: the Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (HarperOne,1990)

Introductory Image:
Book Cover of Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland. Courtesy Basic Books

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian 1571-1610) The Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1601 Oil on Canvas: 230 cm x 175 cm (91 in x 69 in) Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Courtesy of

Artist unknown (Possibly Sasanian) The Good Shepherd (Kriophoros), Third-Fourth Century, A.D.  Find spot - Zubayr in South Iraq. Marble, carved: Height: 61 centimetres (cm)  Width: 39.5 cm  Thickness: 16.5 cm  Height: 74.5 cm (with stone base) Width: 35 cm (of stone base) Thickness: 25 cm(with stone base)Weight: 63 kilograms (including base) Copyright of the British Museum, # 114262

Artist unknown (Byzantine, Middle Period) The Borradaile Triptych, Tenth Century A.D. Ivory, carved: Height: 270 millimetres (mm) -  centre panel  Width: 157 mm Height: 278 mm - leaves Width: 85 mm Thickness: 10 mm. Copyright of the British Museum, # 1923,1205.1

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizenca. 1789. Oil on panel: Height: 71 cm (27.9″); Width: 56 cm (22″). Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Given by Georges Clemenceau, 1896. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Unknown Artist, Crucifixion, Panel of Maskell Passion Ivories, Circa 420-430 A.D., Carved Ivory, H: 75 mm W: 98 mm W: 106 grams, British Museum, 1856,0623.5 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist, and Angels with Instruments of the Passion, ca. 1460-1490. Flemish. Painted oak: Cross: 14 feet x 9 feet 6 inches (426.7 x 289.6 cm) Base: 10 3/4 inches × 7 feet 2 1/4 inches × 12 inches (27.3 × 219.1 × 30.5 cm) Philadelphia Musuem of Art # 1945-25-86a,b Purchased with Museum funds from the George Grey Barnard Collection, 1945.  

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe 

Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 25, 2019 - March 1, 2020

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

During the age before art museums, there were Kunstkammern. These private collections or "cabinets" of art and technology played a huge role in the rise of public museums. It is entirely fitting that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City should be presenting a spectacular exhibition on the Kunstkammern as it prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2020.

Without the Kunstkammern there would be no Met - or at least not as we know it. Nor would there be a British Museum, a Museum of Fine Arts in Boston or any of the other "omnibus" institutions with collections of art works of many types and from diverse cultures around the world. There would likely be no museums dedicated to "natural philosophy" or the sciences either.
The golden era of the Kunstkammern spanned the years,1500-1750, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. This epoch also witnessed the Scientific Revolution and the first stirrings of the age of industrialism. The time-honored theories of Aristotle gave way to the cosmology of Copernicus and Newton.

                                                   Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                Gallery view of the Making Marvels exhibition at Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Emperor's Monument Clock, 1570.

Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe displays 170 objects, masterpieces of art and science, from this momentous era of history. In many cases, what was state-of-the-art then will leave you astonished and amazed now.

This exhibition is a model of complexity rendered intelligible and of obscure, slightly bizarre artifacts from the past, now made very relevant to the present age. For this we have the Metropolitan Museum curator, Wolfram Koeppe, to thank for organizing an exhibition that is both definitive and singular. There has never been a major exhibit on this subject before and it is impossible to conceive of another or better one than this, for
many years to come.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Metropolitan Museum of Art curator, Wolfram Koeppe

There is one problem, though, with these arcane products of European mechanical ingenuity. You cannot simply insert a key, wind-up the gears and set these ancien regime gizmos ticking, clicking and moving, as their original, aristocratic owners once did. To satisfy – or at least address – our curiosity, the Metropolitan curatorial team prepared numerous videos showing the workings of many of the “Marvels” on display.” This is an information-rich exhibition but one which constantly delights.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
The Picture Puzzle of King Christian V of Denmark & Norway, 1685

One of the most playful, yet sophisticated scientific instruments in the exhibition is The Picture Puzzle of King Christian V of Denmark and Norway. This initially appears to be a rather conventional royal painting, viewed through a spy glass. Queen Sophie Amalie of Denmark, Christian's mother, is shown, surrounded by eight royal ancestors. 

This lackluster grouping is totally transformed when it is viewed through the faceted lens in the eyepiece. Using the principles of perspective and refraction, a small fragment from each of the surrounding portraits is combined by the lens into a portrait of Christian V at the center of the group portrait, upstaging Queen Sophie Amalie.

The Metropolitan's video, accompanying the Picture Puzzle of King Christian V shows how this incredible feat of optical illusionism was accomplished. Even with this impressive reference aide, however, many viewers are still going to be astonished that such "special effects" could have been achieved long before Adobe Photoshop.

A major share of the exhibition is devoted to non-mechanical objects which none-the-less were proudly displayed in the Kunstkammerngleaming silver and gold plate, jewel-encrusted swords, rarities from the natural world brought to Europe during the early voyages to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, suitably mounted for display.

                                            Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                
Turban Shell Cup with Foot in the Form of a Dragon, mid 17th century

From a region much closer to the courts of Europe came a precious material used to make one of the exhibition's most eye-catching, if non-mechanical, works of art. Amber from the Baltic Sea area was used to create a gleaming playing surface for games of chess and backgammon. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Chess and Backgammon Game Board, 17th century

This exquisite work, dating to the 1600's, sports small medallion-shaped scenes from mythology. Kunstkammer artifacts all possessed some special mark of skill and human ingenuity, like these tiny tableaux, to proclaim the merit of their placement in the collection. The unknown craftsman who made this game board infused this masterpiece with value far-in-excess of the gold and silver content of other objects.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Backgammon Game Board, detail.

Enlightenment and enjoyment: these were the goals of the patrons who sponsored the creation of these instruments and objects d'art. Just as important was the function of these treasures to assert their owner’s status in the elite ranks of Europe’s rulers.

Self-regarding pride had long been a feature of the monarchs and nobles of Europe. The roots of Kunstkammern collecting reached back to the Middle Ages, as can be seen in the glistening insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, owned by Frederick Augustus II of Saxony. The late-medieval Order of the Golden Fleece had been founded in 1430 by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The House of the Hapsburg, rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, traced their pedigree to the Burgundian court. Faithful supporters like Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, received the Golden Fleece for their devotion to the Empire.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Order of the Golden Fleece, owned by Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony,1741

Even in the age of the Enlightenment, to receive an award such as the Order of the Golden Fleece was a badge of honor like few others. Proud recipients like Frederick Augustus II lost no time in commissioning stunning copies of the original. This version, studded with diamonds and jacinth stones, was created in 1741.

A number of the exhibition artifacts belonged to major political players like the eccentric Holy Roman emperor, Rudolf II (1552-1612), including The Celestial Globe with Clockwork, mounted on the back of the winged Pegasus. An ornate microscope made by Claude-Siméon Passemant (1702–1769) for King Louis XV of France (1710-1774), is also on view. By the eighteenth century, practical science was beginning to push mythology to the margins of court life, even at Versailles.

Most of the objects on view in Making Marvels originated from German states like the powerful Electorate of Saxony or the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel, a small province which maintained its independence by renting out its formidable infantry regiments as mercenaries, most notoriously during the American Revolution.

 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) "Invention" Mask of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony,1709

The spectacular “Invention" Mask of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, had nothing to do with science or technology. The lavish court festivals held in Dresden during the reign of Augustus II (proud Knight of the Golden Fleece, like his son, Frederick Augustus II ) were called “inventions.” Augustus visited Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, in 1687. This radiant mask is made of gilded copper, as befits a ruler who could only aspire to be the center of the universe as Louis XIV certainly thought he was.

Much more impressive, if less striking, is the Equation Clock made in 1591, for the astronomy-minded Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, William IV.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Equation Clock of the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, William IV, 1591

This impressive timepiece has a number of “firsts” attached to its resume. According to the exhibition text, it “was the first clock in history with a moon mechanism based on Nicolaus Copernicus’s theory of the lunar orbit.”  As if this was not enough of a claim to fame, the Equation Clock had the unique capacity to enable astronomy savants like William IV to “read the difference, or ‘equation,’ between the true and mean movements of the sun and moon from the clock’s hands.”

I suspect that such intricate calculations were beyond the skill level of most of the visitors to the Kunstkammer of William IV. The “wow” factor, alone, of this stunning work of art and science was enough of an attention grabber.

Only in retrospect did people realize that a “Scientific Revolution” had taken place. It was a gradual process but William IV, his court astronomer, Christoph Rothmann, and Jost Bürgi, the Swiss  mathematician and master craftsman who made the Equation Clock, did have a sense of what today we would call the “march” of scientific progress.

Along the sides of the Equation Clock are eight silver reliefs depicting scenes in the history of astronomy. Beginning with Thales of Miletus c.624-546 B.C., the Greek philosopher who is regarded by many as the world's first scientist, the episodes conclude with Copernicus and his heliocentric theory. 

These eight scenes are easy to overlook given all the gilded brass, esoteric numbers and moving clock hands.The Equation Clock was indeed a working instrument of scientific measurement which William IV was proficient in using. But the idea that he grasped the continuum of human knowledge and appreciated their own role in the infinite journey of science – that is truly revolutionary!

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Armillary Sphere, 17th century

The Scientific Revolution is brilliantly illustrated in the Met exhibition by contrasting two objects, similar in appearance. The Armillary Sphere (above) from the seventeenth century was used to plot the movements of the planets and the Orrery Clock, dating to 1790, had a comparable function.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Orrery Clock of  the Duke of Orléans, 1790

At the center of the rings of the Armillery Sphere, we can see the globe of the Earth, adhering to the ancient cosmology of Aristotle which placed the Earth at the center of creation. The Orrery Clock correctly places the sun at the center of the universe, testifying to the "march" of scientific knowledge from Copernicus to Galileo and ultimately to Newton.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Orrery Clock of the Duke of Orléans, detail

As with the Equation Clock, the really fascinating feature of these two devices is in the "details." In this case, it is the dates of these devices that is key. By the time the Armillery Sphere was made, the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) had been public knowledge for over a century. The fierce debate on the issue climaxed with Galileo's trial and arrest in 1633 for affirming his support of Copernicus. 

The "heresy" factor which motivated Catholic Church authorities to incarcerate Galileo was based on the fear of social upheaval and political revolution, more so than theological disagreement. The date and ownership of the Orrery Clock shows that their fears were not entirely misplaced.

Louis Thouverez made this sophisticated instrument in 1790 as the French Revolution gained momentum. The owner had little lime to enjoy it. The Duke of Orléans, cousin of the king of France, followed King Louis XVI to the guillotine in 1793. The Duke had renounced his royal blood, changing his name to Philippe Égalité, and voted for the execution of Louis XVI less than a year before he suffered the same fate.

That the Scientific Revolution did contribute to "turning the world upside down" is beyond dispute. The savants, artisans and scholars saw it differently. The clocks, orreries, odometers, etc., were viewed as confirmations of an all-powerful, if remote, deity, who had designed the universe to perfection and then set it "ticking-tocking" for the benefit of humankind.

This view of the nature as a model of intelligent design found its ultimate expression in the writings of the English philosopher William Paley (1743-1805). Paley contended that if we found a watch lying on a field or country road, then we would have to assume that someone had made the watch. So too for the universe. Paley wrote:

There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use... Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

Paley cogently expressed what the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, Isaac Newton for one, had already contended, that God was the "divine watchmaker."  Now, however, technological genius was being devoted to making machines in the shape of a human being. The first, unwitting effort of men to "play God" took its first, halting step.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of the Making Marvels exhibition, showing The Moving Monk

The final galleries of Making Marvels are the most amazing and provocative of an already marvel-filled exhibition. Three automatons and their accompanying videos will spark much head-shaking mirth - at first - and then some deep reflection later.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
The Moving Monk, attributed to Juanelo Turriano, mid-16th century

The earliest of the automata, The Moving Monk (ca. 1550), was made, ironically  for religious reasons. According to legend, King Philip II of Spain commissioned Juanelo Turriano to create a walking, worshiping monk to acknowledge the role of St. Diego in curing the heir to the Spanish throne from a deadly disease.

It was a particularly Spanish notion to conceive of an automaton as a "miracle for a miracle." When Friedrich von Knaus (1724-1759) presented his Miraculous Writing Machine to Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna in 1760, it was to celebrate the Enlightenment world view, human thought turned to deed by way of writing.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Miraculous Writing Machine, made by Friedrich von Knaus, 1760

According to the exhibition text:

A brass figurine holding a quill sits atop a globe. Inside the globe is a pin drum on which a sequence of letters can be set by hand. Driven by a spring mechanism the automaton is capable of writing up to 68 stored letters by itself. The control mechanism also ensures that the writing support advances after each written letter and after every completed line. Curved discs acting as templates make sure that the mechanical quill executes the correct stroke for each letter.    

Finally, there is The Draughtsman-Writer, made around 1800 by the Swiss clock-maker and technician, Henri Maillardet. Working in London, Maillardet endowed this doll-faced automaton with the largest mechanical "memory" (stored in "cams" or brass disks) ever achieved. The Draughtsman-Writer is capable of inscribing four drawings and three poems (two in French and one in English). 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
The Draughtsman-Writer, made by Henri Maillardet, ca. 1800

By the time The Draughtsman-Writer entered the collection of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1928, it was a mass of broken parts. The epic, decades-long effort to restore The Draughtsman-Writer to "life" is beyond the scope of this review - already one of the longest Art Eyewitness reviews ever. But this story needs to be told.

I am planning an essay on the rise of public museums to celebrate the bicentennial of the Prado this year and the 150th anniversary of the Metropolitan Museum in 2020. We will be meeting up with The Draughtsman-Writer in that essay, along with some of the other marvels from this great exhibition. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Gallery view of the Making Marvels exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the meantime, having exhausted my store of superlatives in commenting upon Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe, I can only offer one piece of advice.

Get to the Met and experience Making Marvels for yourself.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved                                                                                           
Image of Celestial globe with clockwork, 1579, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.C.

Introductory Image:                                                                                              

Gerhard Emmoser (German, active 1556– 84). Celestial Globe with Clockwork, 1579. Partially gilded silver, gilded brass (case); brass, steel (movement). Overall: 10 3/4 × 8 × 7 1/2 in. (27.3 × 20.3 × 19.1 cm); Diameter of globe: 5 1/2 in. (14 cm). Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (17.190.636) 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Emperor's Monument Clock, 1570. Attributed to the workshop of Wenzel Jamnitzer. Metal (gilded), silver (gilded, enameled), ironwork, ebony, inlays of jasper and lapis lazuli :16 1/8 × 5 7/8 in. (41 × 15 cm) Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Metropolitan Museum curator, Wolfram Koeppe.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) The Picture Puzzle of King Christian V of Denmark & Norway, 1685. Oil on panel, gilding, metalwork: 33 7/8 × 22 1/2 × 25 9/16 in. (86 × 57.2 × 65 cm). Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art video analyzing The Picture Puzzle of King Christian V of Denmark & Norway, 1685. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Turban Shell Cup with Foot in the Form of a Dragon, mid 17th century. Green turban snail shell (Turbo marmoratus), Chiragra spider conch shell (Harpago chiragra), silver (gilded): 0 1/4 × 7 1/2 × 5 1/2 in. (26 × 19 × 14 cm). Kunstkammer, Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Chess and Backgammon Game Board, 17th century. German, possibly Königsberg. Amber, ivory, brass, ebony: Overall (closed, confirmed): 12 1/2 × 12 1/2 × 3 in. (31.8 × 31.8 × 7.6 cm); Overall (open, confirmed): 24 3/8 × 12 1/2 × 1 1/2 in. (61.9 × 31.8 × 3.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Gustavus A. Pfeiffer, 1948. Accession Number:48.174.4

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Backgammon Game Board, detail. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Order of the Golden Fleece, owned by Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, 1741. Jacinth stones, diamonds, gold, silver: Overall height: 6 in. (15.2 cm). Grünes Gewölbe, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  "Invention" Mask, made by Johann Melchior Dinglinger for Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, 1709. Copper (chased, gilded): 19 5/16 × 18 1/8 in., 1.3 lb. (49 × 46.1 cm, 0.6 kg). Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Equation Clock, made by Jost Bürgi for the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, William IV, 1591. Brass (gilded), silver (engraved), iron: 4 5/16 × 6 1/8 × 6 1/8 in. (11 × 15.5 × 15.5 cm) Astronomisch-Physikalisches Kabinett, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Armillary Sphere, made probably in Italy, 17th century. Brass (gilded), walnut wood, beechwood (stained): Sphere Diameter: 7 5/16 in. (18.5 cm); Height: 13 3/8 in. (34 cm); Width: 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm). Museo Galileo–Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Florence.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Orrery Clock, made by Louis Thouverez for the Duke of Orléans, 1790. Cast and gilded bronze, Carrara marble, copper, brass, steel, enamel: 19 × 9 1/2 in. (48.3 × 24.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2019. Accession Number:2019.283.73

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Making Marvels exhibition at the Metropoltan Museum of Art, showing The Moving Monk, attributed to Juanelo Turriano, mid–16th century. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) The Moving Monk, attributed to Juanelo Turriano, mid-16th century. Wood, iron. Figure: 16 × 5 × 6 in. (40.6 × 12.7 × 15.2 cm). The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Miraculous Writing Machine, made by Friedrich von Knaus, 1760. Iron, brass, bronze (cast, some colored), paper, wood (with marbleized stucco, gilding): 70 7/8 × 42 1/8 × 38 9/16 in. (180 × 107 × 98 cm). Technisches Museum, Vienna.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) The Draughtsman-Writer, made by Henri Maillardet, ca. 1800. Brass, steel, wood, fiber. 58 × 34 5/8 × 22 3/8 in. (147.3 × 87.9 × 56.9 cm, 181437g). The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Making Marvels exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Art Eyewitness Book Review: The Wyvern Collection: Medieval and Later Ivory Carvings and Small Sculpture

The Wyvern Collection: 

Medieval and Later Ivory Carvings and Small Sculpture

By Paul Williamson
Thames & Hudson/$95/448 pages 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

During the Middle Ages, artists working on masterpieces of religious art utilized the most precious of materials to create sacred objects. Not merely beautiful, these works of art were holy treasures. Crafted by human hands, they were inspired by God.

Gold, silver, gem stones, rock crystal, expensive paint pigments made by grinding semi-precious minerals, silk imported over vast distances from Constantinople and points east. These were the "raw" materials of Ars Sacra.

There was one other highly-valued substance to which medieval craftsmen - and their patrons - devoted much attention. Rare, often unattainable, this artistic medium was mentioned in the Bible, along with gold and jewels, has having been lavished by King Solomon on his palace in Jerusalem: ivory.

An authoritative - and breathtakingly beautiful  - book has recently been published by Thames & Hudson which recounts the story of this intricate and exacting art form. 

Medieval and Later Ivory Carvings and Small Sculpture includes a number of works of art made from other precious materials, mother-of-pearl, amber, red porphry. These chapters, fascinating to be sure, are sidebars to the main theme, the painstaking carving of elephant and walrus tusks to create ivory devotional objects of astonishing beauty. 
Today, at least in the Western world, the idea of using ivory from elephant tusks to create a work of art sparks outrage and horror. During the Middle Ages, ivory was often difficult to procure but it was not because elephants were facing extinction. It was simply a matter that nothing was too precious that it should not be used to honor God.

Head of a Crozier with the Coronation of the Virgin, mid-14th century
 © 2019 The Wyvern Collection 
The use of rare and costly materials to create works of sacred art underscores the word "use." These ivory carvings were intended to be used.They were not created as status symbols for their owners, either religious institutions like monasteries or wealthy nobles and merchants. Often times, possessing a table-top ivory triptych did serve to confirm the elite status of the owner (if only in their minds) but devotional use was paramount. 

One of the key figures of Western cultural history, Abbot Suger (1081-1151) commented on the importance of ivory religious art, celebrating an especially notable example, "admirable for the most subtle and in our time unattainable carving of its ivory plaques, which exceeded human valuation in the representation of ancient histories."

The object of Suger's praise was the pulpit of the church at the monastery of St. Denis, one of the holiest shrines in France. Most of the ivory art works in the Thames & Hudson book were made for humbler settings.

Diptych with the Virgin and Child and the Crucifixion, c. 1320.
© 2019 The Wyvern Collection

There was an upsurge of piety in Western Europe, following 1000 A.D., with an emphasis on private devotion. It continued into the High Middle Ages, as can be seen above in the Diptych with the Virgin and Child and the Crucifixion, made in the Rhineland, around 1320. The carved figures are set in shallow boxes joined by two hinges. Opened at prayer or reflection times, closed during the rest of the day, this diptych transformed a monk's cell or a nobleman's bedroom into a chapel.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2019)
A view of Romanesque and early Gothic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Many of the great museums of Europe and the United States have impressive collections of medieval ivory art works. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has over two hundred, at its main building and at the fabulous Cloisters located at Fort Tryon Park on the northern tip of Manhattan. The collection of the Walters Museum in Baltimore is even more impressive with over seven hundred medieval "ivories." 

You will not find one ivory work of art from the Met or the Walters - or from an other museum - in the Thames & Hudson volume. The magnificent works of art in the book all belong to a private collection, the Wyvern Collection. Sensibly, the owner has kept his (or her) identity private, as well as the location of these wonderful works of art.

Medieval and Later Ivory Carvings and Small Sculpture is the second Thames and Hudson book to study the Wyvern Collection. The first volume, published in 2018, surveyed sculptures made from wood, stone and metalwork.

The origins of European Ivories can be traced to secular artifacts, like the hilts of Viking swords which often had grips carved from Walrus tusks or the antlers of reindeer. Game pieces like the celebrated Lewis Chessmen of the British Museum were made from walrus ivory. There are a number of delightful game pieces in the Wyvern collection but its most magnificent secular work, carved from ivory, is surely the hunting horn or oliphant shown below.

Oliphant with hunting scenes and wild animals, late 11th or early 12th century
© 2019 The Wyvern Collection

This oliphant is believed to have made in southern Italy during the late eleventh century. 
During this period, the Normans, Vikings on horseback, were aggressively establishing feudal states in Italy and Sicily. One of the most extraordinary sagas in medieval history, the story of the Normans in Italy was memorably recounted by the great historian, John Julius Norwich in his books, The Other Conquest and The Kingdom in the Sun.

The hunting motifs on this horn, however, show cultural signs of the political power which the Normans sought to overturn. As the astute commentary in the Thames & Hudson book notes, "the figure style reveals a Byzantine sensibility transformed into a Western idiom, a mixture commonly found in south Italian Romanesque sculpture."

Artists of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire had long upheld the ancient craft of ivory carving. Much of the religious imagery of Christianity in Western Europe can be traced to presentation pieces sent by the emperors of Byzantium to the rulers of the rising kingdoms of Western Europe. Along with the finished art works from Constantinople came the raw material itself, elephant tusks from East Africa.

It is a noteworthy that the ivory used during the late Middle Ages came from the tusks of wild elephants from East Africa, rather than from the Indian subcontinent. The tusks of African elephants are longer than those from India. Both male and female African elephants grow tusks. The trade in elephant tusks from Africa to Constantinople and later to Italy came via Islamic states and was frequently interrupted by war.

At such times, artists in Europe reworked existing pieces of ivory, some made hundreds of years previously, or carved small plaques, to conserve ivory. These were then incorporated into larger works, such as this reliquary triptych from Siena, dating to 1370.

Bartolo di Fredi, Reliquary triptych with plaques of the Adoration of the Magi and the Crucifixion, c.1370. © 2019 The Wyvern Collection

The carved plaques depict the Adoration of the Magi and the Crucifixion. The painted scene shows the Annunciation, created by Bartolo di Fredi (c.1330–1410). Above the ivory plaques is the portrait of a saint, likely one of the patrons of Siena, St. Ansanus. In a particularly moving touch, God the Father, painted all in sacred blue, hovers over the head of the Angel Gabriel. Thirteen round holes once held relics of Christian saints.

This deeply moving work of art and piety is made all the more incredible by considering its small size. When open, the triptych measures, approximately 14 inches high by 15 inches in width. The ivory plaques are even more astonishing, each measuring a mere 4 inches in height by 2 1/2 inches wide.

The story of this small wonder does not end with its diminutive size or the artistic skill which went into its creation.  Created around 1370, the triptych dates to the years following the Black Death. A world-wide pandemic, Bubonic plague reached Europe from the Mongol domains in 1347. The Black Death is believed to have killed over a third of the continent's population. Siena, the rival city to Florence in Tuscany, was especially hard-hit, with half of its citizenry perishing.

Tom Holland, in his new history of Christianity, Dominion, notes that an ancient statue of Venus had been unearthed in Siena shortly before the outbreak of the plague. The rediscovery and appreciation of ancient art was just beginning in Italy and the town fathers of Siena decided to display the nude Venus in the town square. With the coming of the Black Death, the hunt for scapegoats commenced. The "shameless" Venus was targeted for blame and smashed to bits.  

The surviving people of Siena were lectured to forget about Venus and cherish the special role of the Virgin Mary in Christian doctrine. This post-Black Death reliquary triptych is thus a reminder of a terrible period of human history. It also highlights the human capacity to find spiritual meaning and new visions of beauty even in the most appalling of circumstances.

Central panel of a tabernacle polyptych with the Virgin and Child, c. 1250–60 
 © 2019 The Wyvern Collection

The role, some might say "cult," of the Virgin Mary in late medieval Christianity is a complex issue. Tom Holland, in Dominion, treats it masterfully and I plan to review his book in the new year. 

In an earlier post, I reflected on the Byzantine roots of the Virgin Mary's place in art, as well as religion. The later Middle Ages is no less fascinating as we can see in this ivory masterpiece.

The Central panel of a tabernacle polyptych with the Virgin and Child (above) was likely made in the north of France, around 1250–60. The Virgin and Christ Child shelter in an edifice which mimics the design of the great cathedrals like Chartres and Notre Dame in Paris. These soaring places of sanctity thrill the eye but it is the worship of believing Christians taking place there which make these cathedrals holy places.

The pose of the Virgin and Child in the above work of art re-appears throughout this wonderful Thames & Hudson book. Amidst the Black Death, the Hundred Years War and countless other human-contrived horrors, people of faith created and cherished the works of art in the Wyvern Collection as testaments of their religious belief.

Art lovers today should be grateful to the Wyvern Collection's owner for preserving these ivory works of art. A "shout-out" should also go the author of the accompanying text, Paul Williamson, and to Thames & Hudson for publishing this beautiful volume and its predecessor.

Hopefully, further volumes are in the works and, better still, an exhibition will be organized to present some of the Wyvern Collection treasures to the appreciative gaze of people of faith today.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                Images courtesy of the  Wyvern Collection and Thames & Hudson Publishers 

Introductory Image:
Book Cover of The Wyvern Collection: Medieval and Later Ivory Carvings and Small

Sculpture. Courtesy Thames & Hudson
Head of a crozier with the Coronation of the Virgin. Probably north Italian, mid-14th century. Elephant ivory; h. 32.1 cm (incl. knop), 24.5 cm (not incl. knop and
leaf crockets), w. 10.7 cm (volute only) No. 0817 © 2019 The Wyvern Collection

Diptych with the Virgin and Child and the Crucifixion. Lower Rhenish (Cologne), c. 1320. Elephant ivory and wood (probably maple or walnut), painted and gilded; h. 20.6 cm, w. 27 cm (open) No. 0572 © 2019 The Wyvern Collection

Anne Lloyd Photo (2019) A view of Romanesque and early Gothic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Oliphant with hunting scenes and wild animals. Probably south Italian, late 11th or early 12th century. Elephant ivory; l. 60.2 cm, diam. 12.9 cm (at bell) No. 0580 © 2019 The Wyvern Collection

Reliquary triptych with plaques of the Adoration of the Magi and the Crucifixion
Painted by Bartolo di Fredi (c. 1330–1410) Tuscan (Siena), c. 1370 (triptych); French, c. 1350–70 (ivory plaques). Tempera and gold leaf on wood, elephant ivory, painted; h. 35.5 cm, w. 38.5 cm (open), 18.9 cm (closed), 23.6 cm (at base) No. 0442 © 2019 The Wyvern Collection

Central panel of a tabernacle polyptych with the Virgin and Child. Probably northern French, c. 1250–60. Elephant ivory, with traces of paint and gilding; h. 18 cm, w. 5.3 cm, d. 4 cm No. 1018  © 2019 The Wyvern Collection