Thursday, September 22, 2011

reminder: Alberti's Window has moved!

I have a new post about Fragonard's painting The Swing on the new domain for my blog, Alberti's Window. If you haven't switched your links or RSS subscriptions to the new site, please do so! I look forward to seeing you on my new site.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Alberti's Window has moved!

My friends, the time has come. I am moving this site away from Blogger. Alberti's Window has been redesigned (by my talented husband) and I have changed to a new domain:

I think you'll be pleased with the new design and look! Please join me there and update your links. I am working so that all of the links from this site will redirect to the new site. I will no longer be posting at this URL address, however.

NEW RSS feed: feed://
NEW Comments feed: feed://

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: "Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome"

I recently had the pleasure of reading the new exhibition catalog, Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome. I've read this book with a great deal of personal interest - not only do I love Caravaggio, but I will be traveling to Texas later this year to see this historic exhibition! Many of you are probably aware that I highlighted some details from this catalog on a post at Three Pipe Problem - particularly information regarding the painting, Saint Augustine (c. 1600) which recently has been attributed to Caravaggio.

When opening this book for the first time, I was immediately struck by the beautiful images. This catalog is chock full of gorgeous, simply delicious color reproductions of paintings by Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti. There are numerous detail images for many of these paintings, too. The catalog also includes several dozen images that are not included in the actual exhibition, too. Honestly, I would own this book just for the reproductions themselves.

But praise for this catalog goes beyond the reproductions. This book also includes a lot of great essays about Caravaggio, written by prominent scholars like Sebastian Schütze, Francesca Cappelletti, and Michael Fried. That being said, though, this catalog isn't for someone with just a casual interest in art history or Caravaggio. The essays are pretty dense, and some writers (I'm particularly thinking of Fried and Schütze) use art historical terms that would be unfamiliar to the casual reader.

The first half of the book is dedicated to essays about general history regarding Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti (even mentioning Caravaggio's plate of artichokes that recently grabbed a bit of attention in the news). This section also includes a theoretical essay by Michael Fried. The essay is interesting (and, granted, is written in a slightly more approachable way than many of Fried's other essays on similar topics of absorption and spectatorship), but it seems quite out-of-place with the other historical essays in the book.

The second part of the book is dedicated to thematic essays related to works in the exhibition. I loved this section of the book the most. The essays are generally organized by different types of subject matter: gypsies, cardsharps, musicians, saints, etc. It's really fun. I was interested to learn that Caravaggio's painting The Cardsharps (c. 1595, shown left) has inspired more copies and variants than any other work by Caravaggio.1

In fact, themes of gambling (which expands to include dice players) and were popular among Caravaggio's Roman followers. One popular subject matter for the Caravaggisti was The Denial of Saint Peter (as can be seen in Bartolomeo Manfredi's work of c. 1616-18). These scenes were often expanded to include depictions of soldiers playing dice or cards. Interestingly, though, the Caravaggisti were not inspired by Caravaggio's personal treatment of the subject; Caravaggio's Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1609-10) includes only three half-figures. Instead, the Caravaggisti used Caravaggio's The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) as a prototype for their Denial of Saint Peter scenes. One can see similarities in composition by comparing Manfredi and Caravaggio's paintings, particularly since both works involve groups of men huddled around a table. In addition to these similarities, Nancy E. Edwards points out that "The Denial of Saint Peter and The Calling of Saint Matthew have similar subjects: an apostle's response to Christ's call of faith."2

Anyhow, that interesting tidbit of information is just a taste of what is available in this great catalog. I would heartily recommend it to anyone that has a keen interest in Caravaggio or the Caravaggisti. I only have one small complain about the book itself: it needs to have an index! I know that it is not common for exhibition catalogs to have indexes, so I realize that this complaint is geared more toward a cultural standard than this particular book. However, I have noticed that exhibition catalogs are becoming increasingly more scholarly in their content. If museums want scholars to use their catalogs as an academic resource, more indexes need to start showing up in catalogs!

As I read Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome, I wrote down a makeshift index on the last page of my book copy (see above right), with some of the topics that are particularly interesting to me. If there was an index, I would be spared such effort...

1 Nancy E. Edwards, "The Cardsharps," in Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, edited by David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 180.
2 Ibid., 199.

Thank you to H Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem, Inbooks and Yale University Press for supplying the review copy.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

New(ish) Romanesque Theories

Boy, art history keeps me on my toes! If I ever start to feel too comfortable in my knowledge of an artistic period, I get knocked off of my feet again by discovering some new theories! Here are two new(ish) theories that I recently have learned about Romanesque art:

THEORY #1 - GISLEBERTUS THE COUNT: For those of you who love that Autun Cathedral and the sculptural program there, this fairly new theory by Linda Seidel may come as a surprise. For a long time, it was thought that Gislebertus (and his workshop) were responsible for the sculptures here. This well-founded assumption is based on the inscription, Gislebertus hoc fecit ("Gislebertus made this") which is located underneath the text of Christ in the Last Judgment tympanum (c. 1120-1130 or 1130-1145; see detail image on right). It sure seems like Gislebertus was the sculptor based on that inscription, right? It was unusual for Romanesque sculptors to sign their work, so Gislebertus has received quite a bit of attention and recognition in the art historical world.

However, Seidel argues that Gislebertus wasn't a sculptor at all. She finds that he was a late Carolingian count who might have contributed financially to the Autun Cathedral. Count Gislebertus made significant contributions to local churches, and his name might have been included in the tympanum in remembrance of his patronage. Seidel even goes further to suggest that this inscription may "challenge those in power to respect and continue the venerable tradition of patronage."1 For more information, I would recommend Seidel's book, "Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus, and the Cathedral of Autun" (1999, University of Chicago Press). I haven't read Seidel's book myself yet, but I look forward to checking it out. I think this theory is quite compelling.

And regardless of whether Gislebertus is an artist or count, I "heart" him all the same.

I've always remembered when I first learned about the "Hildegard and Volmar" frontispiece of the Liber Scivias (original 1150-1175, facsimile shown on left) as a student, since my professor joked that the stylized flames of fire (representing Hildegard's vision) looked like tentacles. I can't remember his joke verbatim, but it was something like, "and we can see in this manuscript that the Spirit of the Lord descended on Hildegard like a squid."

All joking aside, I'm very interested in the new(ish) theory regarding the Liber Scivias. This book is a text that contains descriptions and illustrations of Hildegard of Bingen's visions. This theory by Madeline Caviness proposes that Hildegard might have been the designer for the illustrations for her visions. Caviness supports her argument in two ways: 1) She finds that these depictions of visions of very unconventional and 2) She thinks these designs also conform to some of the "visionary" aspects that are experienced by people during migraines.2 Hildegard had migraines throughout her life, but especially during the period when she was composing the Scivias.

I think this is another interesting argument, and I to think that many of the designs are quite unconventional and unique. One of the images that I like is the "Vision of the Angelic Hierarchy" (1150-1175, shown right). You can see read a synopsis of Hildegard's visions (and see some small images for some of the designs that may have been created by Hildegard) by looking here.

I hope I can get my hands on a copy of Caviness article; I'd like to learn what "visionary" aspects of these illustrations compare with the effects produced by migraines. More information can be read in Caviness' article, "Hildegard as the Designer of the Illustrations of her Works" (1998, Warburg Institute).

"Hildegard and Volmar" image courtesy of Wikipedia.
"Vision of the Angelic Hierarchy" image courtesy of Wikipedia.

1 Stokstad, Art History (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 478.
2 Ibid., 487.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fragments of the Gates of Hell

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed I my tweets about Byzantine art over the past day or so. I've been revisiting Byzantine art this past week - it's been quite a while since Justinian and I have hung out together. And I can always use more gold backgrounds in my life, right?

Today, while finishing up my Byzantine projects, I happened to notice some fun details in "anastasis" depictions that have caught my attention. "Anastasis" is the Greek word for "resurrection." Depictions of anastasis don't reference the biblical story of Christ's resurrection, but are inspired by the Gospel of Nicodemus (also called "Acts of Pilate"), an apocryphal text. These scenes show a triumphant, victorious Christ who has broken the Gates of Hell in order to rescue his Hebrew forbearers. Probably the best known anastasis painting is this one:

Anastasis, Funerary chapel of Theodore Metochites, located at the Monastery of Christ in Chora, 1310-1321

Here, Christ is shown rescuing Adam and Eve from their tombs. Other patriarchs, prophets, and kings wait on the sidelines - perhaps waiting their turn to be rescued by Christ. I like a lot of things in this painting, particularly that Christ and Adam are dressed in similar white robes. Since Christ was perceived as a "new Adam" to reverse the effects of the Fall, I think it's fitting that they are depicted in matching clothes.

Anyhow, what I noticed today were details at the bottom of this wall painting. The Gates of Hell are depicted in reddish panels, located underneath Christ's feet. In between the two gates is the defeated Satan, who is wrapped in a bundle. Underneath Christ's feet there are a bunch of tiny fragments:

Anastasis, detail of funerary chapel of Theodore Metochites, located at the Monastery of Christ in Chora, 1310-1321

It turns out that these fragments are keys, nails, hinges, bolts, locks, and other tiny bits from the locks which sealed the Gates of Hell shut. Christ, in his triumph over death, has burst through the Gates of Hell with a dramatic gesture. From a historical standpoint, these different depictions are especially valuable to scholars and archaeologists. Some scholars have found that this fresco includes the most detailed depictions of keys, locks, etc., that exist and have compared the wall painting to actual historical artifacts.1

I decided to look at the Gospel of Nicodemus to see if there were any specific references to keys, locks, or the Gates of Hell. There are a few references, particularly Chapter V (XXI): 1-3. Christ announces his arrival at the doors, and Hell cries "unto his wicked ministers: Shut ye the hard gates of brass and put on them the bars of iron and withstand stoutly, lest we that hold captivity be taken captive" (Verse 1). The captive saints in Hell protest against this action, and King David reminds Hell that Christ is the individual who "hath broken the gates of brass and smitten the bars of iron in sunder" (Verse 2).

The artist for the funerary chapel of Theodore Metochites really took the "in sunder" description to heart! Other Byzantine artists also depicted this scene, but usually with less fragments of locks and keys. Here are three other anastasis scenes that include some keys and pieces of the "bars of iron." I'm showing details of the images below, but also providing links in case anyone wants to see the full scene.

Detail of Anastasis, Hosios Loukas, Greece, first quarter of the 11th century

Detail of Anastasis, Russian icon from 17th century (Hermitage Museum). Detail image courtesy of jimforest via Flickr.

Detail of Anastasis, west vault from Cathedral of St. Mark, Venice, c. 1180

These artists have left the Gates of Hell in shambles - it's no wonder anastasis scenes are sometimes called the "Harrowing of Hell!"2 If you know of any other anastasis scenes that have fun depictions of keys, locks, bolts, hinges and the like - please let me know!

1 George Fletcher Bass and James W. Allan,Serçe Limanı: An Eleventh-Century Shipwreck Vol. 2, (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 449. Available online here.

2 If you want to be nitpicky, though, I think it's more accurate to refer to Byzantine works of art as "anastasis." The term "Harrowing of Hell" is an Old English and Middle English term, so it doesn't perfectly apply to the Byzantine period.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Feathers and Colonialism

Over the past few days I've been thinking a lot about Amerindian featherwork and colonialism. Probably the best-known examples of featherwork are the "feather paintings" produced by Nahua featherworkers (who were called amanteca). The Aztecs, a branch of the Nahua people, used featherwork for a wide range of prestigious items, including tapestries for their palaces, capes, and head crests.

I'm particularly interested in what happened to featherwork after the Europeans came to the Americas. For one thing, Aztec artisans were commissioned to create "feather paintings" in the European style. A Nahua ruler, Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin, commissioned The Mass of Saint Gregory (1539, shown left) as a gift for Pope Paul III.1 From a postcolonial standpoint, it's interesting to see how the use of European style can be interpreted as an expression of European control. Gauvin Alexander Bailey points out that European "friars wanted to harness this native tradition in the service of Christian propaganda and benefit from the prestige enjoyed by such featherwork in the pre-Hispanic era."2

Along these lines, Europeans also were fascinated with feather paintings, not only for their technical skill, but apparently for their delicacy.3 I think that this idea of delicacy and fragility is very interesting, given the context of colonialism. With the European mindset of conquering the Amerindians (in terms of politics, culture, and religion), it doesn't seem surprising that the Europeans would be drawn to imagery that reinforces the delicacy and fragility (in other words, the weakness) of the Amerindians. And I think it is especially interesting that the this idea of fragility is not necessarily embodied in the subject matter for the imagery, but in the artistic medium itself.

Undoubtedly, the feather medium also was a source of exoticism to European viewers. The feathered cloaks of the Tupinambá people (an indigenous group of Brazil) "were collected as objects of curiosity and wonderment by Europeans."4 No doubt that this sense of wonderment was brought about by the "difference" and "Other-ness" of these objects. Even today, these cloaks continue to instill a sense of awe in European viewers by virtue of their rarity - today only seven such objects remain in European museums. (An image and discussion of the cloak in the Royal Museum of Art and History (Brussels) is found here.)

In fact, the act of collecting featherwork also can be connected to the conquering mindset of Europeans and colonists. One can argue that Europeans were able to "own" or "control" Amerindians through the collection and ownership of feather art. Works of art can be transported, manipulated, bought, contained (think of the Cabinet of Curiosities in the 16th and 17th centuries), and sold - similar to how the Amerindians were treated by various European groups.

1 This feather work copies the composition and details of a 15th century German engraving, Mass of Saint Gregory by Israhel van Meckenem.
2 Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Art of Colonial Latin America (London: Phaidon, 2005), 104.
3 Ibid., 105.
4 Edward J. Sullivan, "Indigenous Cultures," in Brazil: Body and Soul (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2001), 78.

Image credit: Public doman image via Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ancient Art: Formal Analysis Example

Note: The following post is intended to be a resource for my ancient art students. If you know of any good examples of basic formal analysis that are available online, please leave links in the comments section below! I would like to build up a list of resources for my students.

Formal elements are things that are part of the form (or physical properties) of a work of art: medium, line, color, scale, size, composition, etc. Formal analysis involves an exploration of how these formal elements affect you, as a viewer.

Formal analysis involves describing a work of art, but formal analysis goes beyond mere description. Instead, description is used as an agent to support the argument-at-hand. Although your essay will likely introduce a work of art with some general descriptions, the rest of your descriptions should be very pinpointed and with purpose. Make sure that such detailed descriptions are used to back up specific points of your argument. For this formal analysis assignment, your argument will revolve around some type of reaction to the work of art.

Your formal analysis should include some type of thesis statement that revolves around your reaction. To help you think about your own assignment and personal reaction, I have written a short sample of formal analysis below (and have underlined the thesis statement). Please also note that I am not having my reaction based on the subject matter (in this case, the narratives depicted in the four scenes), but strictly on formal elements:

The front panel of the Great Lyre sound box (c. 2600-2500 BCE, shown left) is an example of Sumerian art from the Ancient Near East.The panel is divided into four different registers. These registers contain four scenes with figures (mostly animals) involved in various activities. Despite the rather rigid compartmentalization of the four sound box scenes, the overall effect of the front panel of the Great Lyre sound box is one of energy and dynamism. Such energy can be seen in the color of the figures and in curvy compositional lines.

The sound box is comprised of two different colors, a dark black and a light tan.  These colors are caused by the medium of the panel. Dark black is the color of bitumen, which is used for the background of the panel and lines. Light tan is the color of the inlaid shell that is used for the bodies of the figures and objects. The stark contrast of light tan against a dark background adds a sense of dynamism to the figures. The figures seem to glow and hum with life. Furthermore, these lightly-colored figures are pushed closer toward the viewer, away from the black background, which gives the figures a sense of presence and energy.

The composition of the figures also lends itself to this idea of energy. The figures fill the whole space of their respective registers and scenes, giving them a strong, energetic presence. In fact, some figures strain and twist so that their bodies can fill and fit within the register space. Such dynamic twisting is especially seen in the two bulls in the upper-most register. These bulls are symmetrically placed on either side of a central human figure, creating a "Master of the Animals" motif. The bodies of the bulls twist inward toward the human figure, and but their necks and heads twist outward and slightly downward. The theme of curves and energy is underscored in the beards and hair of these three figures: each lock of hair ends with a bouncy curl.

Energy can be seen in the curvaceous lines of other figures as well. In the second register from the top, the backs and tails of the hyena and lion are comprised of swooping lines. In fact, the lines of the lion's back are reinforced and highlighted by swooping, short lines that suggest the lion's bushy mane. While the lion's mane swoops toward the center of the scene, the lion's lower back curves in the other direction. These opposing compositional lines give the panel an added sense of energy and movement.

In the second register from the bottom, the back of the bear curves upward and downward in a lyrical, dynamic swoop. In fact, the whole body of the bear is placed at a more dynamic angle, since the bear is leaning toward the lyre placed on the left side of the scene. Some of the strings of the lyre curve upward toward the right, opposite the angle of the bear's body, to add more opposing movement and dynamism to the overall composition.

The lowest register of the front panel contains some of the most dynamic curves and lines. The most obvious curve is found in the tail of the scorpion man on the left side of the scene. This tail curls and swoops upward, only to end with a stinger that loops downward. The shape and detail lines of the scorpion tail are also energetic. The tail is comprised of several oval shapes of decreasing sizes. These shapes are combined together to creating a visually dynamic, bouncy outline for the tail. Furthermore, the tail is full of energy because of the multiple lines that appear within each oval shape. These lines look a little like a maze or labyrinth; they visually reinforce the idea of movement through their repetition and interlocking layout.

The front panel of the Great Lyre sound box embodies energy in many ways. This energy can be seen not only because of the colors of the panel, but also through several compositional devices and lines. Such visual interest in energy is fitting for this piece, given that this sound box originally hummed with musical vibrations and the energy created by sound.

For further information about formal analysis, you may want to look at the chapter, "Formal Analysis" by Anne d'Alleva. Preview is available online here.