Narcissus—Caravaggio

The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.

‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

The human being is a well-oiled machine, but it has flaws.

One of them affects that concept as ethereal and mysterious as the soul. Psychology, some call it. If we stick to the latter, the problems of the human psyche are practically endless.

Vanity, for example, would not fall within that group of problems; however, it can be a double-edged sword. Greek mythology taught us this danger through the myth of Narcissus.

The myth

In the Hellenic mythological narrative, we are presented with a very proud and insensitive young man in its cosmogony. A guy who keeps rejecting suitors so that sooner or later, the divine punishment had to come for such a braggart.

Narcissus was not going to be an exception.

Among his many suitors who took a good cut was Aminias; the poor man loved Narcissus deeply, but that did not prevent him from rejecting him in nasty manners and with malice. Among these taunts, he gives him a sword, with which the same Aminias will commit suicide in front of the house of Narcissus himself (did he think anything else was going to happen?). While the suitor was dying, he had time to beg the goddess Nemesis to give him an exemplary chastisement Narcissus, making him suffer the suffering of unrequited love in his flesh. Having launched the supplication, Aminias died.

As expected, Narcissus spent enough of that death in front of his house. The guy continued with his business until, one day, he came to a pond.

He saw his own reflection in its waters, falling in love with it. Intoxicated by this attraction, he did not realize that he saw himself. He leaned towards the water’s surface to kiss that attractive young man, recognizing the tremendous deception.

At that moment, shocked by the discovery, he fell into the water and drowned. Saddened by this pitiful spectacle, the gods decided that his body would become a flower, the daffodil we all know.

The painting

Knowing the myth, we can better understand Caravaggio’s painting, which shows us the moment in which Narcissus is engrossed contemplating his reflection in the pond water.

When contemplating the painting, we can make a mythological reading (what it tells the story of Narcissus, the specific passage of the myth that shows us and that is clear) and another more allegorical reading, the messages that the artist wanted to convey through this representation.

We see in the upper part the real character, who looks down on his aquatic antagonist. Two parts divide the work, an upper and a lower one, that is opposed both in presentation and composition.

Above (the real Narcissus), we see the well-defined light in the arms, neck, and face and some flashes here and there. On the contrary, the lower part (the reflection) is very dark, with a very attenuated image that transmits fragility, which seems to foreshadow the fatal outcome of the myth.

The figure of Narcissus, the luminous one, has his left hand coming out of the frame, and we do not see the tips of his fingers; the lower reflection as well, but also part of his back disappears from the painting beyond the margins.

This technique enlarges the figure of the protagonist and promotes the sensation of proximity. A very distant anteroom to the three dimensions, of which there are many other examples throughout the History of Art.

It is as if we could almost reach out and touch Narcissus.

This technique was prevalent in Caravaggio, who liked his paintings to create an impact. Spontaneity and closeness are two common aspects of his works. He wanted the viewer to feel that the characters were about to fall at his feet.

If we look at the painting again, and as mentioned before, we can see that the reflection of Narcissus is somewhat different. It seems older and worn out. In the shoulder canvas, we can appreciate Caravaggio’s mastery in playing with lighting in his works. The ability to put darkness into light was a revolution in his time, so much so that this technique ended up having its name: tenebrism.

Detail of ‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by CaravaggioYear. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. Image source Wikipedia

Some interpret this luminous contra-position between the upper and lower parts as the visualization of the Ego confronting one’s self-consciousness.

Some even venture to theorize that Narcissus can be read as an explanation of Caravaggio’s psyche, a man of great vanity.

Focusing on the reflection again, we can consider it as that dark place we all have and where aspects such as excessive self-contemplation or selfishness nest.

Above is the conscious, luminous, beautiful, and evident self; below is the egocentric subconscious, which is what we want to hide and which is the shadow of any human being.

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Two Masterpieces Compared: Bacchus by Titian and Caravaggio

How two artists represented the same subject with radical differences

Ann Treboux

Two depictions of Bacchus. Left: ‘Bacchus’ (c.1596) by Caravaggio. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source Wiki Art (public domain). Right: ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520–1523) by Titian. National Gallery, London, UK. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

When two artists chose to paint the same subject, the difference between the resulting works can be fascinating.

Here, I look at two paintings, one by Titian and one by Caravaggio, produced just over 70 years apart, both of them depicting the subject of Bacchus — the Greco-Roman god of wine and festivity.

‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520–1523) by Titian. National Gallery, London, UK. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

Titian’s depiction, titled Bacchus and Ariadne, shows the marching band of Bacchus and his followers in full abandon. Bacchus himself can be seen in a pink robe leaping out of his chariot towards Ariadne — dressed in blue — with whom he is in love.

Titian completed the work in 1523. Born around 1490, the artist was in his early-thirties at the time. It was commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, an Italian duke and an enthusiastic patrons of arts.

Bacchus, also known as Dionysus to the Greeks, was most likely a fertility god in his origins, a vital “life force” who expressed himself in the energy inherent in nature — from the blood in the veins to the sap in the tree. By the 7th century BC, worship of Dionysus was well-established in Greek culture.

Detail of ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520–1523) by Titian. National Gallery, London, UK. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

The cult of Bacchus was brought to Rome from the Greece, where ecstatic festivals known as Bacchanalia took place, frenzied rituals where devotees are said to have eaten raw flesh and danced to the drumming of tambourines. By the time this image was painted, the lively and passionate spirit of Bacchus had gained meaning as a complimentary opposite to Reason, as personified by Apollo.

Titian’s work follows the tradition established in art, that of showing Bacchus riding a triumphal carriage drawn by wild animals. Behind him, a partially clothed woman clashes a pair of symbols as the Bacchanalia march proceeds.

At her feet is a young satyr, with the face of a boy and the legs of a goat, who drags a calf’s head next to him — an animal probably sacrificed during the festival. The man behind — a sileni or companion of Bacchus — is wrapped in a snake, symbolic of death and rebirth since snakes shed their skin.

The feisty merriment continues onwards: a chanting follower holds a calf’s leg aloft and a staff with vines growing round it, the vine leaf representing wine. The staff is probably a thyrsus, a symbolic wand used to bestow favour or else as a weapon to destroy those who opposed Bacchus’ cult and the freedoms he celebrated.

‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1520–1523) by Titian. National Gallery, London, UK. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

Titian’s great painting has a clear narrative element too: Bacchus has fallen in love with Ariadne at first sight and asked her to marry him. As he jumps towards her, he offers the sky as a wedding gift, in which one day she would become a constellation — as seen in the scattering of stars in the top-left of the painting.

The two cheetahs pulling the chariot may also be specific references: Alfonso d’Este is known to have had a menagerie at his palace in which he kept a cheetah or a cheetah-like member of the cat family.

‘Bacchus’ (c.1596) by Caravaggio. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

Caravaggio’s painting of Bacchus contains all the revelry associated with the mythological libertine — only this time it is bubbling beneath the surface rather than on show. The painting expresses a deeply restrained sense of a “storm-beneath-the-calm”, making it a potent work of art for all its quietude.

Caravaggio, who was born in 1571, painted this work at the age of around 24. It was commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte, an Italian diplomat who became one of Caravaggio’s early patrons.

The painting shows Bacchus as a callow youth. The boy-god is swathed in autumnal vine leaves that drape over a thicket of black hair that itself might be a bunch of black grapes. His cheeks are plump and red. He is half-dressed, clutching the black ribbon of his robe in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. He is reclined before a table or stone slab bearing a carafe of wine and a basket of overripe fruit with pomegranate, pear, apple, peach, quince, fig, plum and grape.

Detail of ‘Bacchus’ (c.1596) by Caravaggio. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

In Caravaggio’s work, the setting is opulent yet also far more sedate than the Titian painting. There is little sense of narrative impulse in this painting, only perhaps in the intimacy of the drink being offered.

For me, the force of Caravaggio’s painting lies in two details: the first is the particular shape of the wine glass offered by the boy, a glass so extraordinarily shallow that it seems to emanate decadence itself. The wine inside shimmers with fresh ripples — as if the boy is shaking a little with excitement as he passes it.

All of the energy of the painting is concentrated in this wine glass. There is no Bacchanalian revelry, no tambourine-thumping sileni. The boy seems not the least bit drunk, only placid and self-assured as he welcomes us into his private soirée.

As if to underline the worldly setting, the second detail that always catches my attention is the grubby pillow on the bottom-left of the painting, exposed beneath the sheets, the one with the blue stripe, reminding us that the opulence here is makeshift and temporary.

Detail of ‘Bacchus’ (c.1596) by Caravaggio. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Source Wiki Art (public domain)

Along with this sense of the makeshift, there is also something transitory in the feel of the entire piece. The fruit in the basket is beginning to rot and the vine leaves on the boy’s head are turning brown. These elements hint at a vanitasundertone, a symbolic theme in art that attempts to show the transience of life and the futility of pleasure. With this ephemerality and suggestion of impending demise, Caravaggio gives the painting an additional tragic element.

The sensuality of scene is a prominent aspect, and many critics have written about the homoerotic echoes of the work. The art historian Donald Posner, for instance, felt that the latent homoeroticism was actually alluding to Cardinal Del Monte’s sexuality and his relationships with the young boys who frequented his inner circle.

The painting makes use of a simple setting, unlike the rich detail of the Titian work. The sense of place in the Caravaggio work is given simply by a shadow that falls across the backdrop. By no means untouched by trouble in his personal life, Caravaggio would go on to use light and dark in more figurative ways in later paintings, yet without losing the psychological ambiguity he so successfully located in this early Bacchus depiction.

Ann Treboux

How the Renaissance Revolutionised Art & Creativity

An explanation of a major turning point in Western art and culture

David (1501-04) by Michelangelo. Marble. The Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Italy. Image source by Steve Barkeron Unsplash

Beginning in the early 15th century, Western culture underwent a major turning point, characterised by a new confidence in the possibilities of human thought and creativity. It was a moment in time when art became intellectualised, and artists and architects began to establish themselves as individuals with singular talents.

That turning point was the Renaissance.

What does it mean?

The word Renaissance is a familiar term in the history of art. It is a French word that comes from the Italian rinascimento, meaning “rebirth”.

In other words: there was once a birth of cultural excellence, and now, from around 1400 onwards, there emerged a rebirth of the same excellence. But a rebirth of what exactly?

The simple answer is a rebirth of the values relating to ancient culture, most especially the Classical cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The Renaissance centred largely around Italy, where a profound interest in classical antiquity was spurred on by the rediscovery of old texts by authors like Aristotle and Archimedes, and by the recovery of ancient sculptures that were presumed lost. Admirers of the ancient world saw the Classical past as a time of rational thought, prescient philosophical enquiry, and the emergence of human-centred systems of understanding.

With new ideas spreading, the arts began to flourish under a concentration of commissions from influential patrons, most notably the powerful Medici family which ruled Florence for more than 60 years. Many of these patrons wished to link their own status with the eminence of the ancient world and the creativity of the present one. Painters and sculptors were were in demand like never before.

In short, ancient Greece and Rome became idealised as high-points in human civilisation. To be influenced by them and to draw on their philosophies was therefore seen as the very best sign of good taste and learning.

Old books rediscovered

Several things spurred on this interest in the classical past. One of them was the rediscovery of old texts.

An example is the writings of Pliny the Elder, a Roman author who wrote an enormous encyclopaedia covering the full breadth of ancient knowledge. It is from his Natural History, published in around 77 AD, that scholars were able to read about ancient painters like Apelles and Zeuxis, whose works were praised by Pliny for their high levels of naturalism. In one story told by Pliny, Zeuxis entered a painting contest with a rival artist; when he unveiled his painting of a bunch of grapes, birds flew down to peck at the fruit, so lifelike was their appearance.

Stories like this gave the classical past a certain idealised character which artists wished to imitate and learn from.

In architecture and sculpture too, the vocabulary of antique forms and their a search for a perfect harmony of parts inspired the likes of Filippo Brunelleschi, who would go on to build the famous dome of Florence Cathedral. The rediscovery of Vitruvius’ The Ten Books of Architecture (written between 30 and 15 BC) meant that the architectural principles of antiquity could be observed and developed in detail.

A comparison of the ionic order according to Roman architect Vitruvius based on ‘The Ten Books of Architecture’ (written between 30 and 15 BC) with actual examples and with Vignola’s order. Image source Project Gutenburg

People on the move

One of the key factors in the emergence of the Renaissance was the way ideas moved around the European continent as people travelled.

One major event was the conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) by Ottoman soldiers in 1453. Before this point, Constantinople had been the capital city of Byzantium, otherwise known as the Eastern Roman Empire — an extension of the Roman Empire into eastern territories that had lasted for a thousand years, even beyond the fall of the Western Roman Empire in Rome.

As a major city situated between Europe and the Middle East, Constantinople had become home to large numbers of ancient texts, many written in their original Greek. When the attacking Ottoman army overtook the city, refugees made their escape and travelled west. Along with their personal possessions, they took with them valuable items relating to their culture and community, including numerous Greek texts.

Humanism in Italy

In numerous respects, Italy was ripe for the seeds of ancient learning to take root. It was one of the most prosperous countries in Europe thanks to extensive trade routes throughout the Mediterranean. Florence, above all, was extremely wealthy and supported a strata of diplomats and scholars who were well-versed in Latin and Greek.

Within this fertile setting, a new movement known as humanism began to emerge. Humanism promoted the idea that man was the centre of his own universe, and that the achievements of literature, art, rational thought and science should begin to rival the dominancy of the Christian worldview.

One such individual central to the humanist movement was Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444). With careful reading of ancient texts, Bruni came up with his own version of how society should be organised, based on ideals of civic virtue and the forms of government found in ancient Athens and the Roman Republic.

Bruni exemplified the Renaissance concept of humanism, a belief in the potential of human beings to order themselves more wisely and to live more fairly and prosperously. Bruni’s translations of Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics were widely distributed in manuscript and in print.

Ancient artefacts reconsidered

The Belvedere Torso was a fragmentary statue carved sometime around the 1st century BC. It was rediscovered at the beginning of the 15th century in Rome, most likely excavated from among the ancient ruins. Over the course of the next hundred years, the marble sculpture gained admirers and went on to become a significant point of reference for Michelangelo and many other artists working in Renaissance Italy.

The Belvedere Torso (c. 1st century BC) by Apollonius. Marble. Pio-Clementio Museum in the Vatican City. Source Wikimedia Commons

The Belvedere Torso was one of many works whose style and technique were thought to express the perfection of the ancient past. After its discovery, the statue slowly began to attract the attention of artists and scholars, many of whom made detailed drawings of the object.

For the artist Michelangelo especially, the life-likeness of the sculpture, combined with the way it idealises the male form, was symbolic of the sculptor’s powers of creation. He admired the contorted pose of the torso, how it twists around on itself to bring out the muscularity of the whole body. It indicated to him how an artist can mirror nature and even transcend it to become an independent and creative force through his own endeavour.

The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel (c. 1511) by Michelangelo. Fresco. Vatican Museums. Source Wikimedia Commons

It’s not surprising, therefore, to see the influence of the Belvedere Torso in Michelangelo’s own art, some of which have gone on to become the most famous images ever made.

In the scene of The Creation of Adam painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in around 1511, Adam’s body is reminiscent of the ancient statue. The muscular definition of Adam’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are turned to allow Michelangelo to delineate the structure of the muscles, have their roots in the Belvedere sculpture.

Detail of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” (Sistine Chapel) showing Saint Bartholomew holding the knife of his martyrdom and his flayed skin, (1535–1541). Fresco. Source Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, in The Last Judgement fresco, painted on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel, the figure identified as Saint Bartholomew — who, rather morbidly, is seen holding the knife of his martyrdom and his flayed skin — assumes a posture that is clearly drawn from the Belvedere model.

Most noticeably is the arrangement of the Saint’s legs, which sit astride the cloud. Michelangelo used variations of this posture in several of his sculptures as well as in his paintings. The marble statue of Victory (c.1519) and the Rebellious Slave (1513) both adopt a similarly turn-twist motion, with the legs askew and the upper body turned to one side.

The Belvedere Torso remained popular with artists across the centuries that followed. In the 17th century, the painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) made sketches of the statue, whose monumental energy can clearly be seen in his overall painting style.

Later, in the 18th century, Antonio Canova (1757–1822) continued to draw inspiration from the torso for his Neo-classical sculptures. And in the 19th century, the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) is thought to have used the Belvedere statue as inspiration for his work The Thinker.

Belvedere Torso (c. 1602) by Peter Paul Rubens. Pencil and black chalk on paper. Source Wikimedia Commons

And so it’s possible to trace the chain of influence — from a lost ancient Greek sculpture, to a Roman copy made by Apollonius, itself lost until its rediscovery in Renaissance Rome, through the various artworks made by subsequent generations of painters and sculptors. In this way, the Belvedere Torso helps us to understand how ancient Classical art was venerated by European artists, and how its influence helped shape the art of the last 500 years.

The effect of historians

It is perhaps easy to imagine that the events which we now call the Renaissance were somehow a triumphant revolution in intellectual life.

Yet many modern historians have begun to reconsider this idea, arguing that the so-called “Dark Ages” or Middle Ages out of which the Renaissance emerged were not quite as dark as once supposed. An example might be the soaring gothic cathedrals of the High and Late Middle Ages, hugely impressive achievements that went out of favour in the mid-15th century.

Likewise, the Islamic Golden Age that occurred across North Africa and the Middle East, as mentioned above, was a period of cultural and scientific flourishing, traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 14th century.

In fact, it would take several influential historians to make it seem as if the Renaissance was a more radical break with the past than the evidence suggests. As such, we have to except that to some degree the Renaissance was an invention of historians as much as a reality.

Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) remained the principle guide for late 19th century students of the subject and provides one of the defining accounts of the Renaissance. Through his in-depth study of the individual components of the Italian state, Burckhardt established the Italian Renaissance as a period of world-historical significance, a homogenous moment delivered on a national scale — and with it, a sharp break from the Middle Ages that came before.

Ongoing debates

There is no doubt that the Renaissance was a profound cultural movement that affected European life in all intellectual spheres. What is disputed is the exact beginnings and ending of the movement, and to what extent it was an Italian phenomena or if it was continent-wide.

Terms like the Northern Renaissance capture important intellectual events that were taking place north of the Alps, from Netherlandish painting to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the first movable-type printing press. The idea of a Renaissance in the north counterbalances the Italy-centric view of the period.

Nevertheless, the term Renaissance remains a widely recognised label for the multifaceted period that came before the modern era. With far-reaching developments in science and astronomy, and most especially art, alongside the decline of the feudal system and the growth of commerce, the Renaissance must be understood as a vital cornerstone of Western history

Ann Treboux

Rebuilding an Identity: How Renaissance Architecture Reflected Italy

Rebuilding an Identity: How Renaissance Architecture Reflected Italy

Introduction

The architecture of Italy has always reflected the evolving culture of its people, a fact most easily seen in the major changes that took place during the Italian Renaissance. Leaving the design and cultural philosophies of the Medieval era in the past, Renaissance architects moved towards designs based on rationality, order, and a return to the Classical styles of the Greeks and Romans. This change in building styles reflected the changing priorities of Italian culture; where the Medieval period was focused on Buon Comune, or Common Good, of society, Renaissance sensibilities prioritized individualism and humanism. Civic duty was still a valued part of Italian life, as it was in the Medieval period, but Renaissance philosophy promoted the idea that every citizen was entitled to civic participation on some level, and that governments ought to be open and inviting to the people, rather than separate and imposing. 

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore

Florence, Italy



As such, architects in the Renaissance designed buildings to reflect these changing attitudes. Architecture in Renaissance Italy was a thriving crossroads of religion, philosophy, science, and politics. Whether designing buildings and whole cities from scratch, as in the case of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence and the city of Pienza, or recontextualizing Medieval architecture within the Renaissance’s sensibilities, as in the case of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, architects played a major role in adapting and advancing the cultural changes that Italians were experiencing.

Palazzo Vecchio

The dominating feature of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy, is undoubtedly the Palazzo Vecchio (1298-1314). With its towering offset clock tower and crenelated walls, a keen viewer can easily guess as to its history as a fortress. It is decidedly not of the Renaissance; rather, it is a product of a more authoritarian, Medieval Florence. Palazzo Vecchio was designed to be imposing, to separate the city’s ruler from the common people. Its design is in many ways the antithesis of Renaissance philosophy. Yet, the Palazzo Vecchio continued as Florence’s seat of power throughout the Renaissance, and acts as the City Hall today. Rather than abandon it, architects and city planners recontextualized the Palazzo Vecchio, building around it the Piazza della Signoria, a decidedly Renaissance space.

From left to right: Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, and Palazzo Vecchio

Designed by Benci di Cione and Simone Talenti between 1376 and 1382, the Loggia dei Lanzi was built directly adjacent to Palazzo Vecchio, and perfectly represents the Renaissance ideals in architecture. Made up of three open-air arched portions, the Loggia is symmetrical and orderly per the rational design philosophy. Unlike the Palazzo, it is open and inviting to all citizens, with plenty of space and wide steps allowing for many visitors at once. It contains multiple sculptures representing some of the best of the Renaissance period, particularly Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women. All of the art in the Loggia is freely available to the entire citizenry of Florence, reflecting the openness and inclusiveness characterized by the period. With the inclusion of the Loggia dei Lanzi and other Renaissance style renovations to Piazza della Signoria, architects and city planners of the time were able to successfully fold Palazzo Vecchio into the Renaissance identity of Florence.

Ospedale degli Innocenti

Another seminal work of Renaissance architecture in Florence was directly inspired by the Loggia dei Lanzi: the Ospedale degli Innocenti, as designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. Supposedly, Brunelleschi was deeply inspired by the uniformity and rationality of the repeating arches of the Loggia, and so designed the Ospedale degli Innocenti with the Loggia’s themes of rationality and openness in mind. In fact, the very first thing Brunelleschi designed and built was a loggia for his new Ospedale (see left), one which directly built upon the design used in the Loggia dei Lanzi. The loggia is quite long, dominating the entire Eastern side of the Piazza Santissima Annunziata.

The loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti went on to define the styling of the Piazza as a whole, with Michelozzo building an atrium and central bay for the Santissima Annunziata in 1454 purposefully based on Brunelleschi’s designs. In 1516, architects Antonio de Sangallo the Elder and Baccio d’Agnolo followed suit by designing the building on the opposite side of the piazza from the Ospedale’s loggia also within Brunelleschi’s design style. With all four sides of the square completed, Piazza Santissima Annunziata now stands as a unified example of Renaissance ethos, a perfectly rational square emulating the classical design choices of the Romans. In particular, the broad stairs that are present on either side of the square emulate stadium seating, giving the Piazza the feeling of a Roman amphitheater, an identity reinforced by the arcades with Classical pilasters.

Brunelleschi built on the existing design and functional traditions of Florence when designing the Ospedale degli Innocenti, with the most obvious inspiration coming from Florence’s Ospedale di Mateo, built at the end of the 14th Century. Impressively Brunelleschi incorporated and improved upon all of the functionality present in the Ospedale di Mateo, while giving the Ospedale degli Innocenti a unique identity rooted in the Renaissance philosophy. While the loggia serves as a monumental statement piece of the Ospedale, the interior serves all the different functions required by its inhabitants. What’s more, it incorporates the concept of cloisters into its design well past the principle of separation. Brunelleschi’s designs create an interior cloister that is cut off from every other part of Florence so that no exterior building can be seen from inside, no matter the angle one stands at. This artificial feeling of tranquility and isolation in the middle of a major city reflected the dual nature of the Renaissance itself, focused not only on functional rationalism, but on perfect form and idealized aesthetics.

Pienza

The Renaissance harmony found in Piazza Santissima Annunziata was not unique to one Piazza though. In fact, an entire city was able to accomplish this feat, the city of Pienza. Designed by Pope Pius and his architect Bernardo Rossellino, Pienza is the embodiment of Renaissance architecture, with around forty significant buildings being designed and constructed between 1459 and 1464. The city is designed around the central Piazza Pio Il, with all the buildings bearing specific features to link them together. As composer uses leitmotifs to build connective tissue between movements of a symphony, so to did Pope Pius and Rossellino use features like cross windows, doorframes, and pilasters to create a city united in its Renaissance identity. The piazza itself is designed with the humanist and commercial priorities of the Renaissance in mind, with broad streets and many entrances, making it easy for vendors and customers to come and go as they please. From the Piazza Pio Il outward, Pienza was rebuilt as the architectural embodiment of Renaissance principles.

Conclusion

One of the defining characteristics of Italy will always be its arts, and the architecture of the Renaissance is no exception. The buildings and city-planning perfectly reflected the humanist, rationalist priorities of philosophers, artists, and politicians of the time, and by extent the overall culture of Italy. These grand traditions have certainly carried into the modern day, and informed Italian culture in a way that not many other nations have been affected by their own past. Perhaps more so than any other people, to understand where they are and where they will go, it is most important to look at Italy’s past, both architecturally and otherwise.

Resources

Argan, G.C. “The Architecture of Brunelleschi and the Origins of the Perspective Theory in the Fifteenth Century.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 9, 1946, pp. 96–121.

Bohn, B., Saslow, James M, ProQuest, & Ebrary, Inc. (2013). A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art.

Friedman, D., & American Council of Learned Societies. (1988). Florentine New Towns : Urban Design in the Late Middle Ages.

Gromort, Georges. Italian Renaissance Architecture; a Short Historical and Descriptive Account, with a Series of 110 Photographs and Measured Drawings, and 45 Illustrations in the Text, Translated from the French by George F. Waters. A. Vincent, 1922, 1922.

Mack, Charles Randall. “Pienza as an Urban Statement.” Pienza. Cornell University Press, 2019. 156-164.

The Painting That Shocked the World

The Raft of Medusa (1818–1819) by Théodore Géricault (Credit: Wikicommons)

Can art change the world?

People often talk about the ‘power of art’ and by that they often mean power as a subjective experience, the power of art to move. Art historians also understand art in terms of the power it imbues — the art adorned on the walls of palaces and even banks is like the purple robe of an emperor: it speaks of money, prestige and even domination. But in those two respects art doesn’t have much “power” at all.

The power in both cases is external (extrinsic) to the art. In the former case it only has power over any given individual and the measure of that subjective power therefore varies from person to person. It’s therefore a power that’s dependent on the baggage that comes with each person. The same goes for art as an “adornment” or “signifier” of power – it is contingent on the prerequisite real-world power with which it has a mutually beneficial relationship.

In both cases, art is not really changing anything. So how could art change the world? Such a power would be intrinsic — or inherent — in the art, not extrinsic or dependent on other kinds of power. When we look at certain dramatic moments in the history of art we very quickly realise that art does have the power to change the world to a greater or lesser extent. That power resides in art’s ability to reframe and refocus. I can explain….

We have lived in a world saturated by visual culture for hundreds of years. For the most part the purpose of that culture, broadly speaking, serves to tell us a story. It’s the story of who we are and what our place is in the world. Most of this culture — 99.9% of it — is anodyne, innocuous and beige, it simply conforms to the story we are led to believe is the right one, it makes us feel secure and safe and sometimes righteous.

Most religious art and the art of the state and advertising is that kind of culture: it reflects a reality that simultaneously makes us sure of our place in the world and conforms to the world view of the powers that be. Occasionally artists kick against conformity and show us a different kind of reality – a reality that makes us uncomfortable, that perhaps shows the world slipping from the grip of the powers that be.

In the Louvre in Paris you’ll find an example of such a work: a work that shocked, aroused debate, that gave the establishment a bloody nose. It’s The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault. To explore the intrinsic power of this monumental painting, it’s first worth examining the story of its genesis: the story of La Méduse.

A Nation with Little Hope

After the defeat of Napoleon and his forced exile in 1814, the revolutionary Republic was destroyed and the Bourbon Dynasty restored. King Louis XVIII took his place on the French throne with the support of the British, who believed he could restore peace in Europe.

Contrary to this expectation, Louis XVIII was briefly deposed again during the “Hundred Days” in 1815, when Napoleon returned from exile to fight again (he was finally defeated by the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo). The shock of the Hundred Days compelled the British to help Louis XVIII consolidate power over his nation by handing over the captured port of Saint-Louis, a rich trading post on the coast of Senegal, in 1816.

The 40-gun frigate Medusa (La Méduse) fought briefly in the Napoleonic wars but after the restoration the ship was repurposed and given a non-military mission. The vessel was part of a flotilla of four ships to take officials of the new regime to the colony. On board were around 400 people including soldiers, settlers and the governor designate of Senegal.

Louis XVIII by François Gérard. The Bourbon Dynasty was restored to the throne of France after the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1814 (Wikicommons)

The ship was captained by the 53 year old Vicomte Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, an aristocrat and old royalist émigré who had not been at sea for twenty years. Despite his lack of experience, de Chaumareys was given the captaincy of this important mission by the King simply for being a loyal royalist.

A couple of hundred miles off the coast of Africa the ship ran aground and became stuck in a sandbank. A huge makeshift raft was constructed for the ship to jettison cargo in order to free itself. But when a storm came and the crew feared the ship would break up, the captain ordered an immediate evacuation. However, there was a problem: the ship didn’t have enough lifeboats.

A plan was made for the travellers with higher social status — including the captain, of course — to be transported on the few lifeboats while 146 men and one woman were towed on the huge raft that was intended for cargo. For sustenance, those 147 people were given a bag of biscuits, two casks of water and six casks of wine.

The sheer weight of all those people caused the raft to submerge and food was thrown into the sea to lighten the load. What happened next is still a shocking event in French history, a horror among the horrors of colonialism.

Nobody knows for sure, but it is thought that the lifeboats -loaded up as they were with VIPs- panicked when it was thought that the raft would slow them down too much. The ropes were cut at some point leaving the raft, laden with the 147 people, adrift at sea.

When the raft was picked up thirteen days later, only fifteen men had survived and five died soon after. The people left adrift on the raft were already hungry and thirsty at the moment the ropes were cut. They chewed their belts to stave off hunger, they started to fight over the meagre supplies controlled by the officers.

When the casks of wine had been finished, there was a drunken mutiny, dozens of men were shot and stabbed, halving the number of those alive in just one night. During the skirmishes, what was left of the water was lost. The weak and dying were thrown overboard. Eventually, when despair set in, the taboo of cannibalism was broken and men began to eat the bodies of the dead.

The stories told by two of the survivors became an international scandal at a time that the nation was very uncomfortable with the restored regime. Captain de Chamereys was found to blame for the incident and was court-martialed, but the lingering feeling was that the Medusa incident was a metaphor for the French nation in the post-Napoleonic years: a nation ruined by incompetence and greed, a defeated nation with little hope.

Géricault’s Raft

Théodore Géricault, a promising young painter at the time, decided that the incident was going to be the subject of his most ambitious painting. He had read the testimony of two of the survivors and was as outraged by the tale of callousness and incompetence as much of French society was at the time.

He had for the most part taught himself in the Louvre, where he copied the works of renaissance and baroque masters, and the stables of Versailles, where he studied the anatomy of horses. This mostly self-led education enabled Géricault to make a name for himself as a painter of equestrian scenes.

Géricault had a minor reputation in 1818 when he began the work. He had exhibited successfully at the Paris Salon in 1812 but less successfully in 1814. The disappointment he had experienced as an exhibitor at the 1814 Salon led him to briefly join the army.

Before the Raft of Medusa, Géricault had built a reputation with equestrian paintings. The Wounded Cuirassier (1814) painted weeks after the defeat of Napoleon, wasn’t as favorably received as his more triumphant The Charging Chasseur of 1812. (Wikicommons)

The ‘Paris Salon’ was the official exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, open to artists from all over the world. In other words, the Paris Salon was 19th century art’s equivalent to what the Fifa World Cup is to soccer now.

It was the most prestigious regular showcase of contemporary art at the time, a ticketed event that the well-heeled public flocked to and one that generated a huge amount of debate on matters from history and taste to politics and censorship.

In the minds of many artists, a critical triumph at the Salon was a triumph in the eyes of the entire art world.

Upon his return to painting, Géricault made painstaking plans to immortalise the shipwreck in vivid detail for the 1819 Salon. He interviewed survivors, visited morgues to make studies and took body parts back to his apartment – including a severed head from a lunatic asylum, of which he made several famous studies in preparation for his painting.

Study for the Raft of Medusa (Wikicommons)

A scale model of the raft was constructed in Géricault’s studio with the help of three survivors, one of whom was a carpenter on the ship. The moment the artist chose to depict was the moment that the Argus, another ship in the flotilla to Senegal, suddenly appeared on the horizon. The last remaining survivors attempted to signal the ship but it passed by. Of this moment one of the survivors wrote:

As it happens, the Argus did return and eventually rescued the last remaining survivors.

The Painting was finished in 1819, when Géricault was only 27 years old and exhibited at the Paris Salon with the title “The Scene of a Shipwreck”. It was a generic title but nobody was left under the illusion that this was a scene of anything but the raft of the Medusa. The painting even depicts Henri Savigny, the ship’s surgeon (standing by the sail in the painting), who wrote the testimony that scandalised France. He had posed on the reconstructed raft in Géricault’s studio.

It was a monumental painting, enormous in fact. About 5 by 7 meters — 16 by 23 feet — with over-life sized figures in the foreground of the scene. It’s almost like standing in front of a cinema screen.

Images of refugees adrift at sea and dead on the shores of Europe like this one by Sergey Ponomarev have shocked and shamed audiences into political action. Refugees arrive by a Turkish boat near the village of Skala, on the Greek island of Lesbos (The New York Times/Sergey Ponomarev. Low res fair use)

The stage, so to speak, was set. The painting gained the immediate notoriety that the painter had been hoping for. It was seen as an indictment of a corrupt regime and caused an enormous stir at the often crowded salon. Many were fiercely critical of the painting gratuitous morbidity and modern style, but republicans were supportive. The historian Jules Michelet said of the painting: “our whole society is aboard the raft of Medusa.”

The gory details

What made the painting effective was not the subject matter alone. Géricault meticulously planned the execution of the painting to have a number of dramatic effects on its audience.

For example, the raft is tipped up a little by a wave to give the painting an immersive power. Right in the bottom centre of the canvas is the corner of the raft, and it gives you the feeling that you could step onto it. This staging, and the sheer scale of the paining, intended to impress on the crowded room of the salon and it certainly does that to this day.

The composition is arranged into two pyramids made up of figures, one closer and one further from you the viewer. There is a pronounced diagonal across the painting, from the bodies of the dead and the despondent mourners across the bottom and to the left to the standing men on the upper right of the picture who have sighted the Argus and are waving frantically.

Géricault went to extreme lengths in this preparations, including from-life studies of body parts and severed heads that he kept on the roof of his apartment. (Wikicommons)

The colours are murky and dark, mostly browns. The sea is depicted in deep greens. The lighter tones are of pallid flesh and the pale light of dawn on the horizon. Géricault makes use of a style called “tenebrism” where dark tones and shadows are dominant but with dramatically contrasting effects of light. The effect of tenebrism has its origins in the Italian master Caravaggio, who revolutionised painting in the 17th century with his often shocking realistic portrayal of biblical scenes.

It is known that Géricault had traveled to Rome in the years before he painted the Raft of the Medusa and would have seen many of Caravaggio’s paintings in the grand baroque churches where they are confined. Géricault clearly borrows Caravaggio’s particularly dramatic use of light.

The weather is stormy and a large threatening wave is rolling towards the raft from the behind, this is all despite the fact that on the morning that the Argus was sighted, the weather was clear and calm. Géricault is being manipulative, he’s constructing a staging that guides our emotional response.

It’s not just the depiction of the weather that is misleading, Géricault drew on art history to aid his emotional construction. The figures of the living and some of the dying are muscular -even idealised- and evocative of the heroic figures of classical painting and sculpture, not of the starving.

The painting has one foot within the tradition of Neoclassicism, the style of art that flourished in France in the aftermath of the revolution. Neoclassicism was pretty much the opposite style from the preceding Rococo, which was a florid, often frivolous and complex style favoured by the French aristocracy.

Neoclassicism took its inspiration from the art of ancient Rome and Athens, those other great democratic republics. It was serious, austere and heroic, often resembling the statuary and friezes of ancient Rome. Géricault was immersed in the neoclassical style, it was practically the official style of the French state at the time.

It was also the style in which so called “history paintings” were produced, that is, paintings that depict historical scenes with a moral to impart. History painting was the eminent genre of painting at the time, the kind of painting that would carry moral and philosophical weight as well as technical sophistication.

Towards the bottom left is a father mourning his son, two figures inspired by Roman sculpture (of Patroclus held by Menelaus). Géricault used the common effects of this style to impart “seriousness” to his message.

The painting also takes inspiration from a style that was emerging at the time: Romanticism.

Romanticism was a style that evoked the sublime power of nature, the smallness of mankind, it was emotional and hysterically dramatic, a reaction to the rationalisation of nature through the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Géricault admired the Baroque master Rubens, a whose opulent and highly stylised paintings served as a template for the romantic movement.

And so the Raft of the Medusa is a synthesis of the two styles. It is perhaps the first painting to truly import the romantic style into the French artistic scene. It does so by using the neoclassical history painting template to depict a contemporary scene of man’s confrontation with nature. Infact, one of the sailors depicted in the centre foreground of the painting, with his head bowed down to the viewer is Géricault’s young friend Eugene Delacroix, who became one of the most celebrated romantic painters.

Under the makeshift mast at the centre of the composition and forming the apex of the nearest compositional pyramid are from-life depictions of the men who brought the story back to France.

We have, then, this weird juxtaposition of contemporary and timeless, classically rendered, characters in the painting. It’s as if the Neoclassical format of the painting was a Trojan horse of sorts, a way of sneaking the scandal of the contemporary world into the art gallery by meeting its standards of style and seriousness.

The further compositional pyramid is the most extraordinary part. On the far-off horizon we see the Argus, and a group of figures are using a barrel to signal to the distant ship. At the apex of this group of figures is an african man, taking the lead in signalling to a ship with his shirt in his hand.

The decisive role of black men in the picture, and the placement of a black man at the very top of the composition, would have been shocking in France at the time. It’s highly likely that Géricault had abolitionist sympathies this was perhaps his way of making it known through his art, in an oblique yet pointed way.

An African man takes on the most decisive role in the painting, at the apex of a compositional pyramid. (Wikicommons)

The picture was both commended and condemned: it won a medal at the Salon but no buyer came forward for the controversial work. When the exhibition ended, Géricault cut the canvas from its frame, rolled the painting up, and unceremoniously sent it to be stored at a friend’s home. He lamented over the painting, saying: “It’s not worth looking at. I shall do better.”

Gericault went on to paint portraits of the most marginalised people in French society: the mentally and physically sick, the poor and the criminal. The Raft of Medusa was still left unsold but went on a tour of sorts to England where shocked revellers gawped at its naked and dying bodies. A replica was painted and shipped to the United States for the same reason: an appetite for the morbid details of France’s worst naval catastrophe. Even theatre productions of the incident took inspiration from the painting. For the subsequent years after its debut, the painting continued to be a controversial embarrassment to France’s royalist establishment.

Insane Woman (1822). After the Raft of Medusa caused a sensation at the Salon, Géricault began to paint portraits of the marginalised and mentally ill. (Wikicommons)

In January 1824 Géricault died at the age of 32. In September of the same year King Louis XVIII died. It was only in this new political climate that the Louvre made the decision to acquire the work for its collection where it still hangs prominently as a testament to the intrinsic power of art to change the world, even if only a little; the power of art to speak to power.

The writing was on the wall for the Bourbon monarchy in France, Louis’s replacement, the unpopular Charles X, was overthrown in the second revolution of 1830 and replaced by a constitutional monarchy more acceptable to the lower and middle classes of France. In 1848, during a wave of unrest that swept across Europe, France once again became a republic.

Fin.

Ann Treboux

The Mystery Of Symbols In Art

Decoding the obscure language of iconography

Photo by Juan Di Nella on Unsplash

The symbolic language of art is a language of intrigue and meaning.

Did you know that a lily means purity, or an ostrich egg signifies virginity? (More of that later).

One art historian, Erwin Panofsky, likened the language of artistic symbols to that of gestures between people. He imagined walking along the street and being greeted by an acquaintance who lifts his hat in friendliness:

“This form of salute is peculiar to the Western world and is a residue of medieval chivalry: armed men used to remove their helmets to make clear their peaceful intentions and their confidence in the peaceful intentions of others.”[1]

We don’t lift our hats anymore, probably because we don’t wear hats or else we don’t want to mess our hair up. The point is that signs and symbols communicate ideas, and those symbols have a wonderful history.

For me, one of the great pleasures of visiting an art gallery is in exploring the possible meanings of the works on display. After all, every picture tells a story, yet for many visitors the language of art is a mystery.

Woodcut print from a 1618 edition of Cesare Ripa’s ‘Iconologia’. Shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

For centuries, artists have drawn on a rich collection of stories, from ancient Greek and Roman myths to the stories told in the Old and New Testaments. As the centuries passed, a language of symbols developed so that artists could tell these stories with deeper and more intricate emphasis.

People still read the classics of Greek and Roman literature, and thanks to blockbuster films, the names of ancient gods and characters such as Jupiter, Achilles and Helen are still alive in our imaginations. The Bible too — upon which so much of Western art is based — continues to be read. Yet for the understanding of art, it is useful to know not just the stories but also the ‘rules’ that artists followed (and sometimes broke) in order to depict these stories.

It also makes a trip to an art gallery far more enjoyable.

Legends and Lore

As a student of art history, one of my biggest delights was to come into contact with some of the more esoteric sources of pictorial conventions. One such text, for instance, which had a huge influence on Christian symbolism, is the Golden Legend.

Folio Page from “The Golden Legend” by Jacobus de Varagine (1228–1298). Printed by Anton Koberger, 1488. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

Written around 1275 by a Dominican friar called Jacobus de Varagine, the Golden Legend is a compilation of the lives of the saints and legends of the Virgin, as well as other stories relating to the Christian calendar.

Since the Golden Legend is a collection of traditional folklore about the saints; you won’t find these stories in the Bible. The tales of martyrdom and heroism were widely read in medieval Europe, and as such entered the vocabulary of artists and the conventions of their work.

To give an example, if you see a figure in a painting holding a palm leaf, then they are almost certainly a martyred Christian saint whose story is told in the Golden Legend.

St. Lucy, by Francesco Zaganelli (c. 1475–1532). Tempera and gold on wood. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theodore M. Davis Collection, Bequest of Theodore M. Davis, 1915. Photographed at the Metropolitan by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Here is a painting of St. Lucy by the Italian painter Francesco Zaganelli. The green palm leaf she is holding in her left hand tells us straight away that she is saint who came to her death because of persecution.

The association of palm leaves with saintliness comes from the feast of Palm Sunday, a celebration in Christianity commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem when palm branches were placed along his path.

The symbolism of the palm branch in fact stretches back to the ancient world, where it was a symbol of victory and peace. A victorious athlete competing in ancient Greece, for instance, was awarded a palm as a symbolic prize. The palm also has a place in the Muslim tradition where, as a symbol of peace, it is associated with heavenly Paradise.

In the Western artistic tradition, individual Christian saints such as Lucy and Catherine can be further distinguished by objects they tend to be holding or stood beside. These items are known as ‘attributes’.

Let’s examine the case of St Lucy in a bit more detail, since she offers a good example of how pictorial traditions actually help embroider stories.

St Lucy lived in Italy, and died around 304 during a widespread persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Diocletian. She was a real historical figure, yet her depictions in art tend to focus on legends.

As the above image shows, Lucy holds a palm leaf to indicate her martyrdom. Sometimes she is shown at the moment of her death, which was said to have occurred by a knife to the throat.

Saint Lucy, by Francesco del Cossa (c. 1430 — c. 1477). Source Wikimedia Commons

Not all depictions of Lucy are quite so gruesome, however. Since her name comes from the Latin lux, meaning ‘light’, she is sometimes shown holding a candle or oil lamp. Most common of all, she is shown holding a pair of eyes, sometimes held between her fingers and sometimes resting on a plate in her hand or else sprouting from a stalk. Originally the eyes were given to her simply as an allusion to her name, and developed as a convention since she became associated with the protection of people’s eyesight. Legends were later developed to give additional meaning to the eyes: in one story she was said to have had her eyes gouged out by a tyrant; in another she plucked them out herself to subdue an admirer who would not stop praising them.

Mary’s Flora

As with all symbols in art, the rules are never hard and fast. A palm leaf indicates a martyred saint, but sometimes a palm leaf is used as specific attribute of an individual saint too: in depictions of John the Evangelist, who is the presumed author of the fourth gospel, he is sometimes shown holding a palm leaf. This relates the Virgin Mary on her deathbed, at which moment she is said to have handed him her palm. Again, this is an apocryphal story – in other words, it doesn’t appear in the Bible.

‘The Death of the Virgin’ by Andrea Mantegna (c.1431–1506). Source

Look at this painting of the Death of the Virgin by Andrea Mantegna. We can now identify the figure on the left in the green robe as John the Evangelist, since he is clearly holding a palm leaf. With a bit more detective work, we could probably identify all the other figures surrounding the dying Mary. One thing is for certain: they are all holy or sanctified people, because of the halos hovering above their heads.

As well as a palm leaf, another item of flora that is often seen in association with the Virgin Mary art is a lily flower, the presence of which indicates her purity.

One theme of the Virgin’s life in which a lily is nearly always present is the Annunciation, as painted by Leonardo da Vinci, for example. The Annunciation was the moment that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced she would conceive and bear a son.

Annunciation’ by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Sharedunder CC BY-SA 4.0

Sometimes the lily is in a vase; at other times the angel is shown carrying is, as in Leonardo’s painting. Why a lily? Well, since the event occurred nine months before the Nativity, the events of the Annunciation were calculated to have occurred on 25 March. The spring setting gave rise to the motif of the flower, which later refined to a lily. Leonardo decided to give his painting an all-over spring feel, with a lush carpet of flowers beneath Gabriel’s feet.

The Virgin Mary became deeply revered during the late medieval and Renaissance periods. For the Christian Church, the Virgin Mary emerged as the Purissima or ‘most pure’ of figures. It’s for this reason that she appears often as the subject of art, sometimes through episodes of her life, as we have seen, and sometimes as the mother figure of Christ.

Adam’s Apple

In Western art, paintings of the Virgin and Childwere extremely popular. They are so numerous that it is impossible to find a single set of conventions to which they all accord. Here is just one detail which is always worth looking out for.

‘ Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels’ by Quentin Massys (1466–1530). Source Wiki Commons.

The symbol of an apple was sometimes taken up by painters when depicting the infant Christ, for instance, in this painting by Quentin Matsys, which shows the Christ Child held by his mother. Now, if you look closely to the left side of the painting, at the bottom of the column is an apple.

Why an apple? In fact, apples are one of the most prevalent fruit in all of Western art, and have several meanings depending on the context. Probably most well-known of all apples is the one that Eve offered Adam in the Garden of Eden.

According to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first humans, created by God in his own image. God placed them in the Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise where the only rule was not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Unfortunately, a serpent tempted Eve to eat some of the ‘forbidden fruit’, and when she also gave some to Adam, they both recognized their nakedness and covered themselves with a fig leaf. This symbolic act was in recognition of their shame at disobeying God’s orders.

‘The Fall of Man’ by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). SourceWiki Commons

In paintings of this scene, the forbidden fruit is typically shown as an apple, sometimes proffered by the snake hanging down from a tree, and sometimes held in Eve’s hand as she passes it to Adam.

So what about Christ’s apple? The purpose of showing the Christ child with an apple is to connect Him to the story of Adam and Eve: if Adam and Eve were responsible for the ‘fall’ of humankind, then Christ is suggested as being the redeemer. The symbol of an apple is a way of uniting the stories into a grander narrative, reaching back in time and stretching into the future.

Ostrich Eggs

The history of art is replete with symbols both commonplace and cryptic. To end this cursory look at symbols in art, I thought I’d share one of the more obscure reverences in the tradition, and one of my favorites too.

‘San Zaccaria Altarpiece’ (1505) by Giovanni Bellini (c.1430–1516). Source Wikiart

Take this painting by Giovanni Bellini. It shows Mary and Christ surrounded by fours saints, positioned symmetrically about the throne. The overall style of painting is known as a sacra conversazione, a tradition in Christian painting where several saints are gathered together around the Virgin.

Among the riches of this painting, one fascinating detail is at the very top of the picture, so easy to miss: an ostrich egg hanging from a chord.

What is an ostrich egg doing hanging in mid-air like that? Well, how much do you know about incubation habits of ostriches?

It is now known that ostriches lay their eggs in communal nests, which consist of little more than a pit scraped into the ground. The eggs are incubated by the females in the day and by the males at night.

However, in medieval times, the ostrich — a much admired bird at the time — was commonly believed to bury its eggs in sand and allow the heat of the sun to carry out the incubation. On account of the young emerging without parental involvement, it was thought that the ostrich egg was an ideal symbol of the virginity of Mary — a theologically tricky concept for which parallels in nature were sought.

So the ostrich egg was a symbol Mary’s virginity, which is why it has pride of place at the very top of this painting.

Next time you’re at a dinner party, see if you can squeeze that one into the conversation