Caravaggio’s Gay Jesus

The Italian painter gave Christianity a real messiah

Ottavio Leoni, chalk portrait of Caravaggio, c.1621

When I was growing up Christian, nobody told me the religion took its key images of Jesus from queer painters.

How ironic, I’d realize later, for a religion that hated the dreaded “gays” to love Michelangelo, Leonardo, etc. Christians loved the movie The Passion of the Christ. The director, Mel Gibson, spoke of his inspiration:

“I think his work is beautiful. I mean it’s violent, it’s dark, it’s spiritual and it also has an odd whimsy or strangeness to it. And it’s so real looking.”

The Italian painter Caravaggio had shown Christians how to see Jesus as a physical man. It took a homosexual to do that?

Caravaggio, “Christ at the Column” (1607); Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004)

I’m learning only now about Caravaggio’s influence on Christianity.

He was born—Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio—in Milan in 1571. Not a lot is known about him. A recent biography, by Peter Robb, begins with a warning that the evidence is mostly:

“…lies to the police, reticence in court, extorted confessions, forced denunciations, revengeful memoirs, self-justifying hindsight, unquestioned hearsay, diplomatic urbanities, theocratic diktat, reported gossip, threat and propaganda, angry outburst — hardly a word untainted by fear, ignorance, malice or self-interest.”

In a world that Christianity had made, in other words, there were mostly lies and shaded truths. As Caravaggio began an art project which struck his contemporaries as astonishing, and horrifying.

He would paint actual people.

There were no halos or heavenly visions.

There were no deities hovering above the earth, with odd smiles. He painted Bible scenes as if they had occurred on earth.

“He preferred nature as his best — and only — teacher,” notes the scholar Joseph Ostenson. “It was an approach to mysticism grounded in the physical — the real—realm.”

To read Christian history about this time, one is given details about the “Counter-Reformation” and ongoing wars of Catholics and Protestants—each calling the other “sodomites” as the worst insult they knew.

Meanwhile, Caravaggio was thinking about real people.

Caravaggio, “Penitent Magdalene” (c.1595)

The subject of Caravaggio’s sexuality has been a difficult one for Christianity.

Little about him was known until the 1950s, when art historians began to assemble the pieces. Many would note, as the scholar John Champagne writes, that Caravaggio’s male figures “present eroticized male bodies.”

The women — not so much. He never painted a female nude. He never married. The Italian public has tended to reject talk of the matter. An 2012 Italian newspaper declares: “Caravaggio Was Not Gay, He Was Normal.”

But there seems to be a coherent narrative of a male partner. Caravaggio seems to have met Francesco Boneri as a 12-year-old. Born around 1588, ‘Cecco’ may have been sent to him as an apprentice.

After awhile, Caravaggio is painting him — over and over — in works that Robb notes are “most remarkable and deeply felt and radically intimate paintings,” works full of “joyeous and untrammelled sexual energy.”

Cecco becomes an angel, and John the Baptist.

Years later, an English writer met Cecco, who was working as a painter, and recorded that he’d been Caravaggio’s “owne boy or servant that laid with him.”

Cecco had by then taken the name ‘Cecco del Caravaggio’.

Caravaggio, ”Amor Vincit Omnia” (c.1602); “John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)” (1602)

This boy becomes a means of staging a discussion of predatory male sexuality.

Over and over, Cesso is cast in the most difficult dramas. He is Isaac about to be sacrificed by Abraham—with that rather phallic-looking knife.

But Cesso is also a divine force. As X-rays of the painting revealed, the angel who tells Abraham not to do it was originally Cecco as well.

In David with the Head of Goliath, Cecco re-appears as the young David — as Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of the giant.

The drama of the older and younger man replays over and over — as the younger man prevails, and brings a new consciousness into the world.

Caravaggio, “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1602); “David with the Head of Goliath” (c.1610)

Scholars too can resist an effort to describe Caravaggio as ‘homosexual’.

A 2005 paper by Luiz Fernando Viotti Fernandes, “The Sexuality of Caravaggio and His Artistic Identity,” goes through some evidence, and purports to find it inconclusive—on the evidence that no one from the past can be called, by current standards, ‘homosexual’, and the “sex lives of Renaissance artists were probably often bisexual.”

John Champagne is a little more convinced. He reads many Caravaggio paintings as full of queer signs and suggestions. Look at Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, he notes. Isn’t there an odd emphasis on the muscular buttock of one of the soldiers?—lit dramatically and wearing only a contrasting red and gold fabric.

The viewer is prompted to look at—the ass of a Roman soldier?

Seemingly in control, the soldier is himself sexually vulnerable.

Caravaggio, “The Taking of Christ” (c.1602)

All of Caravaggio’s paintings seem to have a certain queer subtext.

He had done a previous painting of the Old Testament scene of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. The scholar Graham L. Hammill reads it in a 2000 study, Sexuality and Form.

The bodies of the man and the boy, he notes, are positioned to suggest sex is about to happen—“which the angel of God attempts to terminate.”

The angel and the boy seem to have the same face—one lit in divine light, one in shadow. But where Isaac is held down, an object for sexual use, the angel as a divinity forces Abraham to look at him.

The message is: you need to see me as a person.

Caravaggio, “Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1598)

I take Caravaggio to suggest that all male interactions have a whiff of homoerotic energy. It was a world, certainly, where the sexual use of boys was considered ordinary.

Even if he had done this himself, he wants it to stop. This dehumanization, the use of others, must stop, the angel says—even if done in the name of “religion.”

Caravaggio’s paintings suggest a new kind of sexuality.

In a world that saw sex as an “act” to be done—with little concern for the partner—he shows real people as illuminated, bodies that are spiritually charged.

They are penetrable, but the body being entered is divine. We see this, for example, when Jesus guides Thomas’ hands to touching his body — an intimate moment of physical exploration.

The scholar Erin Benay writes of the painting:

“Caravaggio’s depiction of the wound and Thomas’s probing finger is particularly explicit: Thomas inserts a finger deep inside the cut, unlike many earlier Italian versions of the subject in which this contact is less invasive.”

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1601)

Allow a real person to be divine, might be the suggestion?

Caravaggio’s Jesus can be curiously sexy — certainly not the weird, withered, emaciated form that many paintings had offered.

As in The Flagellation of Christ, this messiah is nearly a male stripper.

We look as well at the men in shadow who are being so mean — even as they’re just being ‘men’.

The new message: being ordinary — isn’t good.

“Madonna and Child with St. Anne” (1605); “The Flagellation of Christ” (1607)

After Caravaggio died, Cecco continued his own career as a painter.

He frequently did works on Biblical subjects—often with odd positioning of muscular male bodies.

I find myself wondering if his own Penitent Magdalene—a portrait of the fallen women—could be a self-portrait as a woman.

Cecco del Caravaggio, “Penitent Magdalen” (before 1620)

His greatest work would appear to be The Resurrection, supposedly about the Second Coming, though a critic notes the imagery “seems more concerned with muscular legs and coy glances than any action involving the return of Christ from the dead.”

It seems to me that both angels—these strange, floating, voguing, half-naked men—might also be inflected with his self-portrait.

A man, a woman, an angel—a Cecco who is a divine everything.

“Resurrection” by Cecco del Caravaggio (c.1620)

Where would Christianity have been without its queer artists?

Thinking of a religion without Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio, or Cecco del Caravaggio—I’m left musing about an alternate world that would be, really, a wasteland of ordinary people.

But thankfully, they got a little help from their friends. 🔶

Mona Lisa’s Pozzetto Chair

For centuries, our attention has largely been focused elsewhere in the small (77 x 53cm/30 x 21in) oil-on-poplar panel, which Da Vinci never fully finished and is thought to have continued to tinker with obsessively until his death in 1519 – as if the painting’s endless emergence were the work itself. A preoccupation principally with Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile is almost as old as the painting, and dates back at least to the reaction of the legendary Renaissance writer and historian Giorgio Vasari, who was born a few years after Da Vinci began work on the likeness. “The mouth with its opening and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face,” Vasari observed in his celebrated Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, “seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse.” He concluded: “In this work of Leonardo, there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold, and it was held to be something marvellous, in that it was not other than alive.”

Many scholars have been fascinated by the mystery of Mona Lisa's smile (Credit: Alamy)

Many scholars have been fascinated by the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile (Credit: Alamy)

The mesmerising mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile and how Leonardo magically leveraged it into creating “a thing more divine than human” and yet “not other than alive” would prove too intense for many to bear. The 19th-Century French art critic Alfred Dumesnil confessed to finding the painting’s paradox utterly paralysing. In 1854 he asserted that the subject’s “smile is full of attraction, but it is the treacherous attraction of a sick soul that renders sickness. This so soft a look, but avid like the sea, devours”. If legend is to be believed, the “treacherous attraction” of Mona Lisa’s irresolvable smirk consumed too the soul of an aspiring French artist by the name of Luc Maspero. According to popular myth, Maspero, who allegedly ended his days by leaping from the window of his Paris hotel room, was driven to destructive distraction by the mute whispers of Mona Lisa’s engrossingly gladsome lips. “For years I have grappled desperately with her smile,” he is said to have written in the note he left behind. “I prefer to die.”

Walter Pater sees past the seductive snare of the portrait’s smile to a larger vitality that percolates as if from deep below the surface

Not everyone, however, has been content to locate the centre of Mona Lisa’s magnetising mystique in her enigmatic grin. The Victorian writer Walter Pater believed it was the “delicacy” with which her hands and eyelids are rendered that transfix and hypnotise us into believing that the work possesses preternatural power. “We all know the face and hands of the figure,” he observed in an article on Da Vinci in 1869, “in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea”. Pater proceeds to meditate on the Mona Lisa in such a singularly intense way that in 1936 the Irish poet William Butler Yeats found himself compelled to seize a sentence from Pater’s description, break it up into free-verse lines, and install them as the opening poem in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which Yeats was then compiling. The passage that Yeats couldn’t help co-opting begins: “She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants, and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes.” The portrait “lives”, Pater concludes, “only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands”.

Some viewers are as transfixed by Mona Lisa's hands as by her face (Credit: Alamy)

Some viewers are as transfixed by Mona Lisa’s hands as by her face (Credit: Alamy)

Pater’s description still astounds. Unlike Dumesnil and the doomed Maspero before him, Pater sees past the seductive snare of the portrait’s smile to a larger vitality that percolates as if from deep below the surface. Contending that the painting depicts a figure suspended in ceaseless shuttle between the here-and-now and some otherworldly realm that lies beyond, Pater pinpoints the mystical essence of the panel’s perennial appeal: its surreal sense of eternal flux. Like Vasari, Pater bears witness to a breathing and pulsing presence – “changing lineaments” – that transcends the inert materiality of the portrait’s making. Key to the force of Pater’s language is an insistence on aquatic imagery that reinforces the fluidity of the sitter’s elusive self (“faint light under the sea”, “a diver in deep seas”, and “trafficked… with Eastern merchants”), as if Mona Lisa were an ever-flowing fountain of living water – an interminable ripple in the endless eddies of time.

Da Vinci’s subject has a strangely submarine quality to her that is accentuated by the algae green dress she wears – an amphibious second skin that has only grown murkier and darker with time

Perhaps she is. There is reason to think that such a reading, which sees the sitter as a shape-shifting spring of eternal resurgence, is precisely what Leonardo intended. Flanked on either side by bodies of flowing water that the artist has ingeniously positioned in such a way as to suggest that they are aspects of his sitter’s very being, Da Vinci’s subject has a strangely submarine quality to her that is accentuated by the algae green dress she wears – an amphibious second skin that has only grown murkier and darker with time. Pivoting her stare slightly to her left to meet ours, Mona Lisa is poised upon not just any old bench or stool, but a deep-seated perch known popularly as a pozzetto chair. Meaning “little well”, the pozzettointroduces a subtle symbolism into the narrative that is as revealing as it is unexpected.

By placing Mona Lisa on a 'little well', surrounded by water, Da Vinci could be drawing on earlier spiritual connections with springs (Credit: Alamy)

By placing Mona Lisa on a ‘little well’, surrounded by water, Da Vinci could be drawing on earlier spiritual connections with springs (Credit: Alamy)

Suddenly, the waters we see meandering with a mazy motion behind Mona Lisa (whether belonging to an actual landscape, such as the valley of the Italian River Arno, as some historians believe, or entirely imaginary, as others contend) are no longer distant and disconnected from the sitter, but are an essential resource that sustain her existence. They literally flow into her. By situating Mona Lisa inside a “little well”, Da Vinci transforms her into an ever-fluctuating dimension of the physical universe she occupies. Art historian and leading Da Vinci expert Martin Kemp has likewise detected a fundamental connection between Mona Lisa’s depiction and the geology of the world she inhabits. “The artist was not literally portraying the prehistoric or future Arno,” Kemp asserts in his study Leonardo: 100 Milestones (2019), “but was shaping Lisa’s landscape on the basis of what he had learned about change in the ‘body of the Earth’, to stand alongside the implicit transformations in the body of the woman as a ‘lesser world’ or microcosm.” Mona Lisa isn’t sitting before a landscape. She is the landscape.

Drawing from a well

As with all visual symbols employed by Leonardo, the pozzetto chair is multivalent and serves more than merely to link Mona Lisa with the artist’s well-known fascination with the hydrological forces that shape the Earth. The subtle insinuation of a “little well” in the painting as the very channel through which Mona Lisa emerges into consciousness repositions the painting entirely in cultural discourse. No longer is this a straightforwardly secular portrait but something spiritually more complex. Portrayals of women “at the well” are a staple throughout Western art history. Old Testament stories of Eliezar meeting Rebekah at a well and of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well went on to become especially popular in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, as everyone from Bartolomé Esteban Murillo to Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo to William Holman Hunt tried their hand at one or other of the narratives.

There are many depictions in art of people at wells, such as Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310-11) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Credit: Alamy)

There are many depictions in art of people at wells, such as Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310-11) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Credit: Alamy)

Moreover apocryphal depictions of the New Testament Annunciation (the moment when the Archangel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to Christ) as occurring at the site of a spring were a mainstay among Medieval manuscript illustrators, and may even have inspired the oldest surviving visual portrayal of Mary. An endlessly elastic emblem, as Walter Pater intimated, Mona Lisa is doubtless capable of absorbing all such reflected resonances and many more besides. There is no one she isn’t.

But perhaps the most pertinent parallel between Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and pictorial precursors is one that can be drawn with the many representations of a biblical episode in which Jesus finds himself at a well, engaged in cryptic conversation with a woman from Samaria. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a distinction between the water that can be drawn from the natural spring – water which will inevitably leave one “thirsty” – and the “living water” that he can provide. Where water from a well can only sustain a perishable body, ‘living water’ is capable of quenching the eternal spirit. Notable depictions of the scene by the Medieval Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna and by the German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder tend to seat Jesus directly on the wall of the well, suggesting his dominion over the fleeting elements of this world. By placing his female sitter notionally inside the well, however, Da Vinci confounds the tradition, and suggests instead a merging of material and spiritual realms – a blurring of the here and hereafter – into a shared plane of eternal emergence. In Da Vinci’s enthralling narrative, Mona Lisa is herself a miraculous surge of “living water”, serenely content in the knowledge of her own raging infinitude

La Soffietta al Palazzo Vecchio

Sei mai stato nella Sala dei Cinquecento e hai alzato lo sguardo? Se questo è il caso, avresti assistito al magnifico soffitto della stanza. Tuttavia, potresti non essere consapevole che ciò che è sopra il soffitto è ancora più affascinante. Nel suo romanzo Inferno, Dan Brown descrive le travi di legno che sostengono il soffitto della Sala dei Cinquecento come tronchi d’albero interi tagliati e disposti orizzontalmente e che si estendono per 22 metri da una parete all’altra. Oggi, un ascensore riservato a dipendenti e collaboratori si trova all’ultimo piano dietro una porta blindata a protezione di una delle zone più incredibili e delicate dell’edificio. La porta si apre in uno spazio poco illuminato, rendendo l’atmosfera ancora più misteriosa. Ci sono bulloni, chiodi, gigantesche travi di abete e quercia, giunti, passerelle e odore di legno. Quest’area, situata tra il tetto di Palazzo Vecchio e il soffitto della Sala dei Cinquecento, è comunemente indicata come la soffitta. La soffitta della Sala dei Cinquecento è davvero suggestiva, si può assaporare l’odore del legno vecchio e si ha l’impressione di trovarsi in una foresta artificiale di alberi giganti, pur trovandosi sopra una delle più belle sale del mondo. Nel sottotetto sono presenti due tipi di travi di copertura: grandi capriate di tipo tradizionale, chiaramente deputate a sostenere il tetto, e quelle di disegno insolito, poste ad un livello inferiore rispetto alla prima tipologia, a sostegno evidente del soffitto che reggono. Giorgio Vasari fu certamente l’artefice (con documentati consigli di Michelangelo) dell’allestimento generale della mostra, coprendo grandi capriate di tipo tradizionale, in particolare il soffitto a cassettoni, che egli stesso dipinse durante la sua costruzione a partire dal 1563. La costruzione di una grande sala, voluta dal domenicano fra Girolamo Savonarola, che doveva ospitare le riunioni del Maggior Consiglio (organo supremo della città), iniziò nel 1495, con atto del 15 luglio. La paternità del primo progetto di il sottotetto della sala è attribuito dal Vasari a Simone del Pollaiolo detto il Cronaca nelle sue Vite. Circa settant’anni dopo, sotto la direzione del Vasari, nell’ambito del più vasto programma di ristrutturazione di Palazzo Vecchio avviato dal Granduca Cosimo I de’ Medici, si ebbe lo smantellamento della copertura da parte del Cronaca, l’innalzamento delle mura della grande androne e il rifacimento più in alto della copertura e del soffitto a cassettoni. I lavori condotti da Vasari si estendono sia agli aspetti strutturali che decorativi. Conosciamo i dettagli di queste opere grazie ad antichi documenti: Bernardo, nato da Antonio e Mona Mattea, muratore, e Baptista Botticelli, falegname, furono incaricati di alzare le pareti della sala, sollevare le capriate, murarle, ferrarle, armateli e saliteci sopra il tetto. Hanno anche accuratamente smontato il palco esistente per poter recuperare il legname, chiodi e altra ferramenta, e realizzare il palco con legno secco e stagionato, a seconda del modello e del disegno realizzato da Giorgio Vasari. I lavori sono stati eseguiti in meno di tre anni. Ritratto di Giorgio Vasari Le strutture sono oggi visibili sopra la Sala dei Cinquecento; non sono però tutte del Vasari: importanti lavori di manutenzione a sostegno del sottotetto furono intrapresi nel 1853. I fiorentini credono che nella soffitta si aggiri un fantasma: quello di Baldaccio d’Anghiari. Fu prima al servizio di Firenze, poi tentò di conquistare Piombino per creare uno stato indipendente. Temendo la sua ascesa, Cosimo I de’ Medici ordinò che il suo omicidio fosse eseguito in Palazzo Vecchio, poi ne fece gettare il corpo in Piazza della Signoria (1441).

Mystery of Anghiari Battle by Leonardo da Vinci “Cerca Trova-Who Seeks Find” War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of the Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

Fresco – Water Pigments (7.60 x 13 metres) 1568-1571 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Battle of Marciano
On the eastern wall of the Hall of the Five Cents, the third fresco of the Siena War depicts the decisive battle of Marciano, also known as the Battle of Scannagallo in Val di Chiana. 

This battle saw the scathing defeat of the Sienese commanded by a rebel Florentine nobleman, Piero Strozzi, on August 2, 1554. 

Strozzi was the head of an army composed of French, Grisons and Florentine political refugees. 

Shortly before noon, the Imperial Florentine cavalry attacked the French cavalry, whose rout can be seen in the left part of the fresco. 

The French infantry then attempted a counter-attack which was valiantly repelled by that of the Florentines who crushed the French and Grisons, as seen in the ballet of flags at the top of the painting. 

The Sienese casualties were terrible for the French and Grisons: 4,000 dead and as many injured. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: “Cerca Trova”, “Who Seeks Find”

Of the 130 enemy banners, the troops of Duke Cosimo I of Medici took over 103 of them, who were then exposed for several days in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
The fresco of this battle of Marciano also became famous because of the inscription that can be seen on one of the enemy banners, “Cerca Trova”, “Who Seeks Find”. 

Many saw a hidden message from Giorgio Vasari indicating that behind the wall of his fresco was a second wall with the famous Battle of Anghiari painted by Leonardo da Vinci. 

A hypothesis that acquired great fame because of the author Dan Brown and his book “Inferno”. 

Dan Brown staged his hero Robert Langdon in the Hall of the Five Hundred of Palazzo Vecchio to decode Vasari’s secret message. 

In 2012, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, even allowed a team of researchers to drill small holes through Vasari’s fresco in an attempt to find behind it the remains of Leonardo da Vinci’s. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
But the endoscopic micro-cameras used found nothing to confirm the presence of this work by Leonardo da Vinci. 

In October 2020, the hypothesis of a battle of Anghiari hidden under the fresco of Vasari was definitely ruled out by expert Cecilia Frosinini, director of the Painting Restoration Department of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. 

After years of studies and research carried out collectively with experts and academics, she published a book that definitively concludes the debate: “The Great Hall of Palazzo Vecchio and the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci. From architectural configuration to decorative device” Olschki editions, 2019 — 596 pages. 

The conclusion of Cecilia Frosinini and the group of experts with whom she collaborated is that Leonardo da Vinci never painted, even partially, the Battle of Anghiari on the wall of the Hall of the Five Hundred. 

Only preparatory sketches, cartons, would have been made by de Vinci. 

How to explain the presence of this “Cerca Trova” “Who Seeks Find” on the flag of the Florentine exiles?

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
For this, we must recall the verses of one of Florence’s most famous exiles, Dante Alighieri, who wrote in the “Purgatory” of the Divine Comedy (I 70-72): 

“Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta”

“He seeks the freedom that is so dear, as knows who, for her, refused life.” 

The refusal of life is an allusion by Dante to the suicide of Caton, who preferred the immortality of a free soul. For Dante, political freedom is spiritual and ethical freedom. 

If tyranny deprives us of the exercise of free will, of our soul, death must be preferred to a sworn existence. 

Thus, the warrior who lets himself be killed in a crowd of enemies rather than surrender to mercy is violence suffered by the righteous and wise man. 

It is for this reason that the king of France who supported the Florentine rebels had offered them about twenty green banners carrying this verse of Dante: “Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara”. 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Battle of Marciano
The “Cerca trova” seen on the green banner of the Florentine rebels in Vasari’s fresco therefore corresponds well to Dante’s verses. 

On the other hand, Vasari diverted its meaning sarcastically to the benefit of the glory of Duke Cosimo I of Medici. 

The word freedom no longer appears, and for a good reason, since for Vasari it can only be on the side of Florence and in fact his “Cerca trova” can be summed up to “who seeks me finds me! or developed to “Who seeks false freedom while fighting Florence finds punishment!” 

Vasari’s frescoes in the Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio had no other purpose but to affirm the greatness of Duke Cosimo I, and for this reason, the inscription “Cerca Trova” can only be seen in this context as an element of political propaganda, without hidden mystery. 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

True Art Doesn’t Portray, It Evokes

4 Artworks That Speak Emotions to Me

Sheela Na Gig (Left), Baubo (Centre), and Lajja Gauri (Right). Collage by Author.

Art is a subjective medium. You might like an artwork because it connects with you visually. Or perhaps you engage at a deeper level; arousing an ocean of emotions. I humbly place myself in the latter category.

Jim Davies, a cognitive scientist at Carleton University, studied what makes art more appealing to individuals. He looked at why some art is easy to understand while others are more esoteric.

Before I started reading paintings, beauty and aesthetics were my only criteria to checkmark an art piece. But as I’m progressing towards learning more about art history, I love to decipher the creative process behind an artwork.

This is how I love to comprehend artworks. Does this happen to you too?

It doesn’t mean I don’t like Girl with a Pearl Earring or Christina’s World. I love them too; but for me, a deeper engagement is more important.

In this article, I’d list 4 artworks that speak to me, creating an array of emotions — happiness, sadness, giving me goosebumps, or might alter my state of mind. You know what they say — “a picture is a poem without words.”

1. Portrait of the Girl by Konstantin Makovsky

Portrait of the Girl. Source-Public Domain

Can you take a quiet moment to appreciate the magical gaze reflected through this artwork? Or is it just me who feels that way?

The first time I saw this painting on Twitter, it caught my attention for a while. For me, this painting strikes a perfect balance of beauty and innocence. It strikes me in a gentle manner and melts my heart right away.

Konstantin Makovsky, an influential Russian painter of the 20th century has drawn many mesmerizing portraits but this painting stood out for me. If I’ll curate my dream wall in my home, which certainly I’d, this painting would be right there.

2. Rape by Rene Magritte

Rape. Source-Public Domain

Every time I see this artwork, it stuns me with goosebumps. It gives me deep tremors. I might not wish to revisit this often. But it is one of the several paintings that made me curious to understand the painter’s psychology and learn about the trauma he underwent in his childhood.

3. Displaced by Arabella Dorman

Displaced. Source-Public Domain

I don’t know much about contemporary war paintings except Picasso’s Guernica. But when I decided to research and write a 2-part article on the Afghanistan war, it broke my heart, often erupting into tears.

While I’d not jump into the war politics or advocate the right and wrong but the complex narrative raised a single question — what was the crime of the innocent civilians who died or had to forcefully displace from their own country and become refugees in other countries?

We should never take our democracy for granted.

4. Sheela Na Gig

Sheela Na Gig (Left), Baubo (Centre), and Lajja Gauri (Right). Collage by Author.

These stone carvings might be considered grotesque, frightful looking, and absurd but the truth is we have mostly read the distorted narrative. It’s time to change our perspective and rediscover the history behind these figurines.

Sheela Na Gigs were predominately found in the churches of Ireland. Baubo is an African Goddess and Lajja Gauri is a fertility Goddess in India.

Dr. Barbara Freitag, a former lecturer in intercultural studies at Dublin City University and author of the 2004 book Sheela Na Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma, was the first to place academic muscle behind the idea of the Sheela Na Gigs as a fertility goddess or talisman.

An Instagram page called Sheela Na Gig was started in Ireland that fights against misogyny and unabashedly promotes women’s reproductive freedom.

Susan Sontag has aptly summarized: Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty.’ As if art were ‘about’ beauty — as science is ‘about’ truth!

Call to Artists to Create a New World

Don’t be disappointed. Don’t be tempted to stay hopeless.This time marks the end of the world we knew, but also the beginning of a new world full of opportunity.

The current health crisis has made clear how precarious our jobs can be, but most importantly how essential our vocation and our passion is to the world. Without art, no one can survive this lockdown; nor can any artist survive not being creative for such a long time.

As artists we live for the constant disruption and questioning of old ideas; we hold in our minds and bodies the privilege of Creation. That is our purpose: To Create. Even when we interpret, we create. These are perilous times but perhaps no more so than a blank page or a blank canvas. Artists don’t shy away from reinvention.

Through our bodies run the energy that transforms intellectual and emotional energy into being. We enable people to connect to that energy. We hold a mirror so they can confront themselves, reckoning with their own humanity and their place in the universe. We remind them that they’re alive and why life is worth living.

We embrace the power of imagination, bringing it forth; one step closer to existence through representation. We tell them stories that will happen in 20, 30, or hundreds of years. We do not just create an immediate reality, we also create the future and we give it meaning.

Throughout history, art has been used to create and heighten the true sense of spirituality, and give meaning to those experiences. How can we leverage that power to unveil the boundless connectivity between nature and ourselves, and also between each other?

Through art, we confront our harshest realities and push through with passionate resilience.

Art is a vehicle for empathy and for solace through the communion of our higher selves.

Empathy, kindness, and generosity are our biggest assets. These three reigning principles also constitute the solution to any problem. Any system, any technology, and any art that has not considered these principles is doomed to fail in its greater purpose: to acknowledge and protect the intrinsic value of everyone and everything that possesses even the most basic level of consciousness.

Empathy, kindness and generosity are not abstract concepts. They are human words, constituting natural and universal principles. Humanity has an outsized power to damage our planet but our potential to save it through cooperation and altruism is likewise unmatched by any other animal.

One could ask how applying these principles would change or mitigate the catastrophes we have lived through and created as humanity during our time on earth. Would have we become a force for social and ecological healing rather than a force for destruction and harm?

Catastrophes, natural or human-made, are events that fundamentally and traumatically change the way things are. This is why we must use this current crisis to create and implement frameworks that address the issues that got us here in the first place.

The French Revolution was entirely a human-caused catastrophe. It also was the catalyst that expanded human rights and liberty through the principles of Enlightenment. Hardly all-inclusive at the time, these principles of human dignity have grown around the world, but have not reached universal implementation.

That’s why we must resolve now that life will not continue to be business-as-usual. We have a choice during this time of transformation: take action in order to make the world we want to live in, or do nothing while others continue to act against our common interest.

The suffering we go through now might have been avoidable. I do not believe that every experience that we live through has meaning, but it is in our power to give it one. The writer Pico Iyer proclaims that “one of the graces of suffering is that it cuts through all ideologies”. It is a great equalizer and a great powerful trigger for cognitive and affective empathy. As an artist, I cannot think of a greater opportunity than to help people give meaning to a total collective experience.

We’ve been forced to pause, to appreciate the beauty of what the world would be if we could give her space to breathe. We’ve been forced to confront ourselves with the devastating sadness of the damage we’ve caused based on ideologies that benefit only the few.

Collaboration with Tuedon Ariri and Brin Schoëllkopf

Poverty, racism, gender inequality, and the destruction of our environments stem all from greed and ambition for power.We could solve all of these issues if we wanted to. To begin, we must create cultural shifts.

I see art as the creation of Culture with intent. It is in the change of the zeitgeist that as artists we can embrace the powerful tool of culture in order to bring the advent of those cultural shifts.

The worlds dreamed by Yuval Harari, Steven Pinker, Naomi Klein, Kate Raworth, Mathieu Riccard or Jane Goodall can come to pass if we as artists infiltrate society with representations of these realities. We must help people see that nurturing ecological and social environments is the right, kind, profitable, and revolutionary thing to do.

It is time to sharpen our gaze and our minds. It is the time to bring change to our consciousness, and for consciousness to change. We can focus on the problem by focusing on its solution. We can start by creating. We can also start by sitting in silence and taking it all in. Most of all, we can start by asking questions:

If our systems of production are not working how can we reinvent one that renders the old one obsolete? If we scale it down how can you implement sustainable processes in your practice?

Can we imagine a system that procures wellbeing rather than profit? Or, to start smaller: How can you procure the wellbeing of your colleagues and the people in your artistic community?

How can you foster compassion, empathy, and conflict resolution through your art, education, and processes of collaboration?

I propose we unite in creating positive narratives for the future that the world so direly needs: the beauty and the kindness that counter the suffering we are going through. Eventually a vaccine might solve our current health crisis. Active empathy — for one another and for the natural world — is the antidote for the crises to come.

Inaction is not an option. Empathic creation is our gift and our privilege

How Oil Paints Work: Art Fundamentals

A technical revolution in the history of art

Detail of ‘Portrait of a Carthusian’ (1446) by Petrus Christus. Oil on wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Images source The Met (open access)

The invention of oil painting was an enormous turning point in the story of Western art. It enabled artists to represent the world around them with a level of detail never seen before. And because of the ability of oil paints to be layered in semi-transparent glazes, works of art became luminous in their depth and resonance of colour.

The important thing to remember about oil painting is that it really refers to the “medium” of the paint rather than to any special aspect of the pigments used to make the colours.

The “medium” is the liquid substance that holds the pigment and dilutes it. Before they are mixed with a medium, a paint pigment is usually in the form of a finely ground powder. Traditional sources of pigment were various: for instance, the colour known as ultramarine (a vivid blue) came from the ground-up rock lapis lazuli, whereas the colour vermilion (brilliant red) was originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar.

Cinnabar mineral and the powered form of vermilion. Images sources Wikimedia Commons & Wikimedia Commons

More unusually, the colour Indian yellow was once produced by collecting the urine of cattle that had been fed only mango leaves. In more recent times, natural pigments have given way to synthetically derived colours, but the principle remains the same.

From egg to oil as the carrier medium

Before the adoption of oil as the medium, artists used other liquids to play the role. Tempera was popular, where an emulsion of egg yolk and water was used to make the pigment usable as paint. Tempera was capable of producing very fine paintings, often onto wood, but had the drawback of drying quickly and with a matte, opaque finish.

When oil painting arrived, artists made immediate use of its slow drying nature, which meant they could work more patiently over the finer details of their work. They also utilised the fact that oil paint can be thinned and then applied in semi-transparent layers, otherwise known as “glazes”.

With glazes, paint can be built up with one colour overlaying another. When light penetrates the paint layers, it reflects back the full spectrum of layered paint, giving a more resonant and luminous feel.

Image by author.

For a long time, it was thought that oil painting was invented in Northern Europe in the 15th century, by the painter Jan van Eyck in particular. But in fact oil painting had been in use in Middle Eastern countries like Afghanistan since at least 650AD, and in Europe since the Middle Ages.

Still, it was Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries from the Netherlands who, in the 1400s, took oil painting to new heights. Take a painting like Portrait of a Carthusian by Petrus Christus, painted in 1446. Christus was based in Bruges in present-day Belgium, and was active between 1444 and 1476 — the year he is thought to have died.

Portrait of a Carthusian (1446) by Petrus Christus. Oil on wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Images source The Met (open access)

The extraordinary naturalistic detail of paintings like Portrait of a Carthusian was a profound innovation in European art.

To underline the realistic possibilities of his oil paints, Christus added a telling detail to his portrait. Look towards the bottom edge of the painting and notice a small fly perched on what appears to be the picture frame. This lower ledge, along with the inscription, is all painted invention.

From pigs’ bladders to tubes

Early artists mixed their own pigments with heat-bodied (gently-heated) linseed oil, derived from crushed flax seeds, sometimes adding beeswax to prevent the paint from darkening as it dried. They worked through a patient process of grinding the powdered pigments into the oil to achieve a smooth, honey-like consistency.

Monte Pincio, Rome (c.1840) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Oil on canvas. Art Institute Chicago. Image source Art Institute Chicago (open access)

Up until the mid-1800s artists would typically transport their mixed paint in a pig’s bladder. Such was the case with the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who adopted an effective practice of travelling and painting outdoors during the summer months, making studies and sketches directly from nature.

Yet this was not an easy situation. Bladders didn’t travel well and frequently burst open. And to get at the paint, Corot would have to prick the bladder with a pin, after which the hole was difficult to completely plug.

In 1841, the portrait painter John Goffe Rand invented the metallic paint tube. Soon enough, manufacturers of oil paints began to offer paint in tubes with screw caps to preserve the paint.

This simple development allowed artists to more easily carry their paints with them, opening up the possibilities of painting on location for many more artists. The artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is quoted as saying: “Without paint in tubes there would have been… nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionists.”

Moreover, with paint in a more accessible form, artists began to enjoy a greater flexibility of brush marks, from thick impasto (thickly textured paint) to finer details. This dexterity of oil paint has left a permanent mark on the course of Western painting.

Vincent van Gogh’s thick brushstroke “impasto” technique. Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889). Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Artists as wide-ranging as Vincent van Gogh and Willem de Kooning, utilising the versatility of modern tube-based paints, learned to use paint expressionistically. Their paintings forged an imprint of the very moment of creation, and with it, an indelible record of the artist’s response to the world.

Hidden Meanings Behind Six Famous Artworks That Will Blow Your Mind!

Nothing is more unvaried than paintings without hidden meanings.

Close Up of Michelangelo’s Painting — The Creation of Adam | Source: Rover Atlas

People are mostly drawn to paintings for two reasons. They are aesthetically pleasing, and it is hard to turn your eye away from these paintings without fully speculating and admiring them. Two, because of the meaning that they hold, the stories they tell, and the reasons behind why they were painted.

Although paintings are purely subjective and can be interpreted in several ways, here is a list of hidden meanings in 6 famous paintings that will definitely blow your mind.

1. The Old Fisherman by Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka — An Illusion Within The Painting

Original Painting in The Middle | Source: Imgur

This painting, the Old Fisherman, was painted in 1902 by the Hungarian artist Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka. At first glance, the painting seems like a pretty normal one. In fact, you’d even think that the painter was not good at drawing symmetrical figures because of how the old man’s face is shaped.

The right side of the painting is mirrored, you see an evil old man sitting in front of a very gloomy sky and a very stormy sea, adding a sinister touch. When the other side is mirrored, you see an old man clasping his hands as if he was praying, in front of a calm sea.

The artist purposely did this to portray how there are two sides to every person. He wanted to paint the bipolarity of human nature, how we all have both a good and a bad side to us. The right side of the painting portrays the good side and the left side portrays the left side.

2. Bill Clinton’s Presidential Portrait by Nelson Shanks — A Scandal Exposed Through Art

Bill Clinton’s Presidential Portrait by Nelson Shanks | Source: Washington Times

In 2001, American artist and painter, Nelson Shanks, was commissioned to paint the portrait of the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas).

The portrait features Bill Clinton leaning against a mantlepiece with a weird shadow visible nearby. The painting was proudly hung up in the National Portrait Gallery which led to many people asking what exactly was that shadow depicting. After a couple of years, Nelson Shanks revealed that the shadow depicted Monica Lewinsky. Monica Lewinsky was the president’s former mistress. It was Shank’s way of reminding people of Bill Clinton’s scandalous past.

Shanks said that it was hard for him to paint the president because he was a liar and a cheat. He wanted the portrait to depict that side of him.

3. Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time by Agnolo Bronzino — A Depiction of Chronic Bacterial Disease

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time by Agnolo Bronzino | Source: The Kenny Mencher

Agnolo Bronzino painted the Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time in 1545. Many people believe that it is jealousy and lust that this painting depicts but taking a closer look at it says otherwise. The painting seems to be a warning about syphilis and sexually transmitted diseases.

Art theorists at the London National Gallery suggest that the rather ill-looking man at the bottom left side of the painting is not there to depict jealousy. Neither is he depicting the heartbreak and agony you feel after being deceived. In fact, he is suffering from a chronic bacterial disease. His fingers are clearly swollen and red. One of his fingernails is missing. His hair has clear signs of syphilitic alopecia. All of these symptoms hint towards syphilis. Also, his almost empty gums could be pointing towards mercury poisoning.

During the Renaissance period, the closest thing people had to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases was mercury. So, the missing teeth of the man could be because of the mercury treatment.

4. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein The Younger — An Eerie Skull Illusion

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein The Younger | Source: Wikipedia

This particular painting was composed in 1533 by Hans Holbein The Younger. At first glance, the painting seems quite boring, just two very well-dressed gentlemen looking at you.

They’re wearing their dress attire and just standing there. However, if you look closely at the bottom middle of the painting, you can see a skull in anamorphic perspective. It seems odd when you look at it from the front. When you tilt the painting, the skull transforms its shape and looks like a proper skull.

It is said that The Ambassadors was hung up on a stairwell so that as people stepped up or down the stairs, they could see the skull. The skull serves as a reminder of mortality and portrays that death is looming over your head all the time, it is inevitable.

5. The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti — Brain Anatomy Within Art

Hidden Brain Structure in The Creation of Adam Painting | Source: God’s Hotspot

Michelangelo is perhaps one of the most well-known artists of the Renaissance period. A lot of his work is still applauded to this day! He is known as a brilliant artist but what a lot of people don’t know is that Michelangelo had a curious mind and was very much into human anatomy.

At the age of 17, he started dissecting corpses that he got from a church graveyard. He did this because he wanted to draw anatomical sketches. So, he was aware of human anatomy.

In 2010, two American neuroscientists found an image of the brain cleverly disguised in Michelangelo’s work The Creation of Adam. It is not only the outer structure but the inner as well that is cleverly disguised in the representation of God’s neck and chin. Many art theorists believe that Michelangelo incorporated anatomical sketches in his paintings in an effort to attack the church’s contempt for science.

6. The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck — The Painter Himself Hidden In The Art

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck | Source: The Guardian

The following portrait was composed by the artist Jan Van Eyck in 1434. It is believed to depict the Italian merchant, Giovanni do Nicolao Arnolfini, and his wife in their home in Bruges.

Now, you might be wondering what is so unusual about this specific oil painting. If you were to take a closer look between the couple and pay attention to the mirror placed on the wall, you’d notice that there is something written above it.

The Latin inscription reads “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434.” Also, in the mirror, you can notice two figures who seem to be spectators of this scene. One of the figures is Jon Van Eyck himself, waving his arm. Many believe that is why the merchant has his hand raised.

The painter wanted to show that he was being greeted by his subject, Giovanni do Nicolao Arnolfini. Jon Van Eyck was known for entering secret and witty messages into his paintings and compositions.

How many of these hidden meanings were you able to spot when you first looked at these paintings?

Sources

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2966887/

https://hungarytoday.hu/shocking-message-found-csontvarys-painting-20422/

https://artmejo.com/symbolism-in-the-arnolfini-portrait/

https://www.artisera.com/blogs/expressions/6-famous-paintings-with-hidden-meanings-that-will-blow-your-mind