Marcus Aurelius: The. Jew From Above

Getting Some Perspective from the Stars

Marcus Aurelius wrote: “It is high time now for you to understand the universe of which you are a part, and the governor of that universe of which you constitute an emanation.” Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhône, 1888 (source: Wikipedia, Public Domain)

Our own sense of self-importance is our undoing.

We often feel as if it is our importance that brings our possessions and relationships into an orbit around us. Being “self-centred” isn’t necessarily about being selfish, it can be about feeling self-worth from the things and people around you.

As much as we marvel at them, we also fear losing them. TVs, phones, cars, homes, partners, friends, pets and jewellery help us validate ourselves, but are at the mercy of fate.

Marcus Aurelius became the most powerful man on the planet when his co-emperor, Lucius Verus died in 169 AD. Everything in the Roman world came into his orbit. Armies, cities, ports, palaces, vast estates.

Many would get drunk on that kind of power. The emperors Caligula, Nero, and Domitian before him met early deaths for their mania for more.

But Marcus counselled himself in his writings that all that surrounded him was little more than a wisp of smoke in the grand scheme of the universe.

The Stoic emperor was challenged in many ways. From the rivals in his own court, to the encroachments of Rome’s enemies at its borders, there were innumerable reasons for Marcus to feel inner turmoil. He found freedom from worries not in his possessions but in his own mind.

One of the exercises the philosopher-king used to gain a perspective on things was to take an elevated and distant view of the world, as if from among the stars. The idea occurs again and again in his journals, published after his death as The Meditations.

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This is all put to the purpose of achieving what the ancient Greeks called apatheia, a tranquil state of mind unperturbed by the distractions of life around us.

To imagine the world around us from high above is to see how inconsequential the things around us are. This kind of “distancing” is a common technique in modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to quell over-thinking.

Thanks to technology, we now have a better idea of how big the universe is. The distances we now perceive are unimaginably vast. Our galaxy is among a huge cloud of millions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars like our sun. There are trillions and trillions of planets like our Earth in this vast cloud of galaxies.

It’s a cliche to be told that in the grand scheme of things you are insignificant. The earth is a molecule in a vast galaxy, itself a mere mote of dust in an inconceivably huge universe.

But the Stoics believed that we are part of the divine oneness of God. The universe is God and all things within it are part of God — part of the order of the cosmos. Of course the universe is massive, they would say. God is perfect, therefore the cosmos is infinite. The breath of life (pneuma) that makes up each human soul is itself a fragment of God’s soul.

For the Stoics the view from above was an exercise of spiritual contemplation as well as a meditation to find calm in the storm of life around them. This meditation allowed them to understand what is significant and what is not significant.

Marcus wrote in his journal: “It is high time now for you to understand the universe of which you are a part, and the governor of that universe of which you constitute an emanation.”

When we contemplate from the stars, we can realise that our material desires and insecurities are insignificant not because of the sheer size of the universe, but because we ourselves are part of that vast glittering whole. We are significant insomuch that we are part of the unity of the whole, the whole does not exist for our benefit.

Many churches, temples and mosques have their vaults and ceilings inlaid with stars. This is the vault of the Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. (Source: Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-2.5.)

Scipio’s Dream

Marcus wasn’t the first Roman philosopher to contemplate from the view from above. In the famous sixth chapter of his Republic, Cicero writes of a fictitious dream of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus. The dream allows Cicero to expound a Roman conception of the universe and how it relates to Stoic virtues.

In Scipio’s dream, he is taken by his deceased grandfather, Scipio Africanus, a hero of the Second Punic War, up into a “shining circle” that the Greeks christened as the Milky Way.

Everything appears beautiful from this perspective, which Africanus explains is reserved for the deceased that have lived virtuously.

Scipio was taken aback at seeing the Earth,

The account continues,

The entire Roman Empire was just a tiny “point” on the Earth, itself a tiny point: a floating speck in the grand temple of the universe. What matters is not your daily life on Earth, replete with its yearnings for wealth, sex and fame, Cicero’s Africanus is saying, but your place in the universe. This is the basis of thinking and acting virtuously.

Marcus wrote:

Amidst this “filth” is dirty politics and competition for fame and fortune. The craving for fame and wealth in the circus of Roman politics would have been immense. Marcus was likely surrounded by sycophants and rivals hoping to make their reputation or fortune in the Empire.

The view from above would have grounded Marcus and everything around him in the realisation that fame is nothing. He wrote:

Anicius Boethius, a Roman magistrate and philosopher, echoed this sentiment in The Consolation of Philosophy, a text he wrote while waiting to be executed in 524 AD. Fame is “puny and insubstantial”, he wrote, when you realise that the earth “may be thought of as having no extent at all” when compared with the heavens.

If that doesn’t sound small enough, only a small amount of the surface of the earth is inhabited. The civilised world is “the tiny point within a point… in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour.”

In the heavens, we can see constancy and real beauty. The celestial spheres burn with splendour. In the heavens above we see a pure order of nature.

Marcus wrote:

Some of us find meaning in our careers, some in devotion to their football team. We devote ourselves to our public image, we veil ourselves with conceits. But devotion to things out of our ultimate control put your emotions — and even your sanity — at the mercy of their fortunes.

Instead, see the meaning in the constancy of the heavens. The rhythms of the earth are a faint echo of the vast cycles of the universe. The ancient astronomers observed a precision in the celestial motions and so it’s no surprise that these motions inspired thoughts of constancy and order within.

The Stoics believed that virtue lies in living in accordance with nature. Human orientation (oikeiôsis) is to reason. Cicero observed that the best among us transfer the order and beauty of the universe to ensure that they are preserved in our actions.

Whatever you believe, you have an undeniable part to play in the universe. The significance of your longings and cravings is no match for the turning kaleidoscope of which you are a part. Invest your passions into being part of the whole, and when you feel you’re at the mercy of fate, rise above it all.

Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.

Ann Treboux

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi

How a female artist broke with convention in this vivid and gruesome painting

Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Take some time to look at this painting. It is dramatic and gruesome. It is also complicated.

It was painted by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Not only was she a supremely talented painter, she was also unusual for being a woman in a predominantly male profession. In 17th-century European art, Artemisia was an exception. Her willingness to challenge convention meant she become the first woman to gain membership to the Florence Academy of the Arts of Drawing in 1616. This self-confidence is also evident in her art, not least in this painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, made sometime between 1614 and 1620 when Gentileschi was in her twenties.

The event depicted is the climatic moment of the story of Judith and Holofernes, as told in the Old Testament and later elaborated in apocryphal texts.

Judith was a beautiful and wealthy widow from the Jewish city of Bethulia. The city was at war with the Assyrian army. Desperately under siege, Bethulia was on the point of surrender. The Assyrians were led by a general called Holofernes. In order to save her city, Judith devised a scheme to kill Holofernes; she pretended to desert her people and cross over into enemy territory. Captivated by her beauty, Holofernes put on a banquet for Judith, and then later took her back to his private quarters. Intent on seducing her, he was instead sedated by too much wine, at which Judith seized his sword and with two swift blows, severed his head. She and her maidservant took the severed head in a sack and returned to Bethulia. After the fate of Holofernes had been discovered, the Assyrian army quickly fell into disarray and consequently retreated.

In this painting, Gentileschi chose to show the actual moment of the assassination. The challenge that she poses to the viewer is to look upon the scene without recoiling. She gives us the most direct view possible, with fierce attention paid to the bloody realism of the slaying.

Gentileschi’s style was strongly influenced by the preeminent artist of Rome at the time, Caravaggio. As artists looked to each other for ideas and inspiration, Gentileschi and her father (Orazio Gentileschi, who was also an artist) incorporated elements of Caravaggio’s painting style into their work.

Caravaggio was admired — and sometimes reviled — for the intense and unsettling realism of his work. His extreme form of chiaroscuro, using contrasts of light and dark, meant his scenes became events of heightened drama, where the details of gesture or facial expression were pronounced in the vivid language of highlights and shadow.

Caravaggio painted his own version of Judith and Holofernes in 1599, some two decades before Gentileschi. It was, up until Gentileschi’s version, perhaps the most macabre version of the scene ever painted.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas.

Prior to Caravaggio, artists tended to show Judith holding or carrying the head of Holofernes after the slaying. Judith is seen holding the severed head in her hands or in a basket, or else displaying it on a plate. These works tended to emphasise Judith’s wealth, making her fine clothes and jewellery a central emblem of the image and thereby underlining her noble status — and by implication, the nobleness of the deed.

Judith and Holofernes (c.1579) by Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Gentileschi’s painting, under the influence of Caravaggio, focuses on the more graphic moment of the murder. Judith has taken hold of Holofernes’ head by grasping a clutch of hair and turning his head away from her, drawing the sword across his neck. It is a gruesome and vivid portrayal that has no intention of softening the brutal nature of the act.

Detail of ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

Spiralling around Holofernes’ contorted head is a complex arrangement of overlapping arms, which array outwards like the spokes of a wheel. This patterning of flesh tones acts as a kind of semi-circle around Holofernes’ head, against which his dark beard, the shape of the sword and the spray of blood stand out vividly. The triumph of Gentileschi’s composition is in how we look directly into Holofernes’ eyes, which are wide open as if he is watching his own death unfold.

To foreground Holofernes’ head in this way helps to anchor the composition on a single point. All of the elements of the work are built up around this atomic core. The arms of all three protagonists, as they flare outwards, form a sort of spiral around Holofernes’ twisted face.

Detail of ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Beyond this, there is another semicircle made up of the red, blue and gold fabrics of the protagonists’ clothing. The red cloak that covers Holofernes begins the shape; it passes through the blue of the maid’s clothing and culminates in Judith’s golden dress.

The two women who undertake the deed, Judith and her maid, are painted with intense concentration on their faces. It is neither disgust nor vitriol they express, but instead a type of practical determination. In this way, the psychological tension of the work is somehow balanced out: Judith undertakes her deed with a steadfastness that regulates some of the horror of the scene. Still, the macabre touches persist: in the spray of blood from Holofernes’ severed arteries, Gentileschi has substituted Judith’s jewellery with a ruby necklace of blood.

Detail of ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

Judith Slaying Holofernes was in fact Gentileschi’s second attempt at the subject. An earlier version, painted sometime before 1612, operates as a kind of forerunner to the later version.

Left: Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1612) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy. Right: Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

The similarities between the two paintings are quite clear. In the first, the overall composition is fully laid out and changes little into the second. Where the differences show are in the intensity of the scene. For in the more recent work, the chiaroscuro is stronger. There is almost no suggestion of depth in either painting; yet in the second, the highlights are painted with greater conviction. Judith’s dress has switched to yellow. The tonal contrasts in Holofernes’ face are more noticeable. Both the nocturnal setting and also the main event in the foreground are emphasised. Everything is more intense.

Detail of ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Much of Gentileschi’s reputation, particularly in recent years, has been shaped by the rape she endured as a teenager in 1611, at the hands of another artist, Agostino Tassi. The case went to trial and remarkably detailed court records exist. They capture Gentileschi’s entire testimony, from which her voice rings out clearly: “He then threw me on to the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them. Lifting my clothes, he placed a hand with a handkerchief on my mouth to keep me from screaming.”

Despite the clarity of Gentileschi’s court testimony, the outcome of the trial was complicated, owing to the fact that Gentileschi and Tassi continued to have relations after the event, and also because of the contemporary expectation of Gentileschi having been a virgin prior to the rape, without which the charges could not have been pressed. At the end of the trial, a disgraced Tassi was exiled from Rome, although no sentence was ever enforced.

Readings of Gentileschi’s art have been strongly influenced by these events, with many historians choosing to interpret her paintings as a proto-feminist response to her experiences. The idea is that Gentileschi took revenge on Tassi — and on men in general — through her gruesome depictions.

It is true that many of Gentileschi’s paintings focus on strong female heroines from myth, allegory and the Bible. Two of her most well-known works are Susanna and the Elders and Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, both of which show strong female protagonists in opposition to men.

Yet it would be a mistake to ascribe the content of Gentileschi’s art to the events in her personal life. It is perhaps more appropriate to read her paintings within a wider historical context. For instance, as a woman it is likely that she was limited only to female models, including her daughters and sometimes herself, which explains her apparent preference for female subjects. She also worked under the patronage of grand-dukes and kings; in short, she worked within a marketplace and served tastes for dramatic narratives from the Bible or classical sources.

Gentileschi was an artist who, against the prevailing conditions of the time, developed a successful career as a painter in a male-dominated field. More than this, she made work that continue to astonish viewers even four centuries after they were made. Paintings like Judith Slaying Holofernes are evidence enough of a remarkable talent and a self-confident individual.

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

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

How to Find the Remarkable Symbolism in this Italian Masterpiece

Decoding The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli

The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

There are many symbols in this ornate painting that capture its story. A ray of light bubbles up from the clouds in the sky and bursts forth into the street of an Italian town. It cuts through an aperture in a building and eventually touches the head of a woman in prayer.

The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, outside, two figures kneel in the street. One is an angel who has feathered wings on his back and holds a lily flower in his hand; beside him is another man who appears to balance a miniature model town on his knee.

Around the image, various birds perch: a peacock sits on a first-floor loggia whilst numerous doves populate the town. At the front of the painting, an apple and a cucumber lie on the ground. They seem to have been placed there deliberately, and even overhang the edge of the image as if they’re not quite part of the painting.

And then there is the overall strangeness of the composition, the radical perspective and the vivid selection of colours, of terracotta, gold and grey-blue.

It must have been more than ten years ago when I first saw this work of art, The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli. The very first impression it made on me — as my eyes tried to become accustomed to the scene — was one of disorientation.

It can feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a labyrinth and asked to find your own way out again. So what’s going on and how do we find our way in this remarkable painting?

A miraculous moment

As the title of the work indicates, this is a scene of The Annunciation. The woman praying is the Virgin Mary. The event marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ — the moment that Jesus was conceived and the Son of God became Mary’s child.

The Annunciation describes the moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and informed her that she would become the mother of Christ. Mary adopts a posture of humility as the news is delivered to her, with her arms crossed in diffidence.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Virgin Mary. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Mary is dressed in fashionable 15th century clothing, with an embroidered bodice and puffs emerging from her slashed sleeves. Notably, her head is uncovered: since only unmarried girls and royalty wore their hair uncovered, it is a reminder that she is both a virgin and Queen of Heaven.

Crivelli followed the established tradition by painting rays of golden light descending from heaven and blessing Mary on the head. Arriving on the rays of light is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, the symbol of God as spiritually active in the world. The motif is from the words of John the Baptist: “I saw the spirit coming down from heaven like a dove and resting upon him” (John 1:32).

An unusual setting

What makes this painting unusual — and what I didn’t understand when I first saw it — is the urban setting of the angel’s appearance, who brings his message forth directly into the street. Traditionally, paintings of the Annunciation show Mary in some sort of walled garden, a reference to her purity as well as the idea that the incarnation of Christ took place in springtime. (The lily carried by Gabriel is Mary’s traditional attribute, a sign of her virtue.)

But in this work, the setting is very much in a town, with brick walls and paved streets. And what’s just as unusual is the bearing of the angel Gabriel, who appears more concerned with the man kneeling next to him than with the Virgin Mary.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

To understand what’s going on here, we have to look at the circumstances of the painting’s creation. The work was first made by the artist Carlo Crivelli for the town of Ascoli Piceno, in the Marche region of Italy. It was painted in celebration, since the citizens of the town had just been granted limited self-government by the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV in 1482.

The news reached the town on 25 March, the traditional date of the Feast of the Annunciation, and every year after 1482 a procession was held through the streets of the town to celebrate the political and religious events in one. As in the painting, oriental carpets would be draped over the balconies as part of the celebrations. At the bottom of the painting is the inscription LIBERTAS ECCLESIASTICA, which was the title of the papal edict granting the city its freedom.

This would explain the municipal feel of the painting, which, the more you look at it, is brimming with townsfolk going about their business.

It goes without saying that nobody is there by chance. The man kneeling kneeling beside Gabriel is the local patron Saint Emidius, who holds in his hands a model of the town. On the bridge behind them, a man is given a letter to read by a messenger, referring to the Papal edict.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

In this detail, one sees the thematic cross-over, with two messages being delivered at the same time, one from the Papal messenger and the other from Gabriel.

A feast of symbols

The overall detailing in the painting is extraordinary. Every stone and brick is individually painted, along with the ornamental carvings of the pillars and archway. Textures — marble, wood, fabric — are all faithfully represented.

In one area of the painting, a peacock stands with its tail feathers showing resplendently — a symbol of immortality and Christ’s Resurrection, as according to ancient belief, it was thought a peacock’s flesh never decayed. Even the small wooden cage, which if you look closely contains a goldfinch, is meaningful. Often an attribute of Christ as a child, who in other works of art holds a goldfinch in his hand, the bird signifies the soul of man that flew away at his death.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Peacock, oriental rug and a caged goldfinch. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Carlo Crivelli was born in Venice sometime around 1430. As this painting demonstrates, he was a fine technical painter, and was especially skilled at simulating marble architecture and other illusionistic effects: festoons of fruit and parchment cartellini. (A cartellino was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, as though attached to a wall, often with a nail or pin.)

Illusionistic fruit and veg. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

The apple and cucumber towards the bottom of the painting were Crivelli’s demonstration of his skills as a painter, how he could make objects seem as if they were coming out of the painting. They also carry symbolism: the apple represents the forbidden fruit and associated fall of man. The cucumber — an unusual symbol in Christian art — is thought to refer to the promise of redemption through Christ’s resurrection.

Crivelli died in 1495 in Ascoli Piceno, the town for which he painted this picture. After his death, his reputation fell on hard-times, yet in the 19th century his paintings were seen afresh and admired, especially by the pre-Raphaelite painters of Britain, several of whom praised his work for its remarkable detailed naturalism.

This painting hangs in the National Gallery, London.

Florence and Livy’s History of Rome: What’s the connection?

Titus Livius (Livy) is a household name in the Classics canon. Born in 64 or 59 BC, Livy is famous for writing an impressively long history of Rome — from the mythical founding of the city in 753 BC up to his own day — called the Ab urbe condita (‘From the Founding of the City’). The text is a mainstay of the UK Classics curriculum whether in translation, as a set text, or as the basis of adapted Latin passages in textbooks such as Latin to GCSE and Latin Beyond GCSE.

Left: Engraving of Livy after Nicolas Beatrizet, c. 1582. Right: Florence, Italy.

So what’s the connection between the city of Florence and Livy’s Ab urbe condita? Florence was a key site of transmission and reception for classical texts throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Here are 4 ways in which the city, and some well-known Florentine citizens, played a role in the textual tradition and visual reception of Livy’s history.

1. Livy and Petrarch

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) was born in 1304, to parents who had been exiled from Florence. Petrarch was a poet, scholar and admirer of antiquity and it is largely thanks to him that we have Livy’s Ab urbe condita in its current form. In fact, Petrarch has been described as ‘the deciding factor in carrying the tradition of the Ab urbe condita from the Middle Ages over into the Renaissance.’¹

Petrarch sought out and compiled manuscripts containing Livy’s fragmented text into a collection that became the most complete of his time, totalling thirty books. It wasn’t until 1527 that five more books were discovered, taking us up to the number we have today. Petrarch wrote a letter to Livy, as if to a long-lost friend, telling him: ‘We know that you wrote one hundred and forty-two books on Roman affairs. With what fervour, with what unflagging zeal you must have laboured; and of that entire number there are now extant scarcely thirty.’²

Detail from Piero Strozzi’s illuminated copy of the first ten books of Livy’s Ab urbe condita.

How did so many of Livy’s books go missing?Firstly, due to its monumental size, it was condensed into summaries or ‘epitomes’ even during antiquity. As mentioned in an epigram by Martial: ‘Huge Livy has been slimmed down to a few volumes / My bookcase hasn’t room for all of him.’³ Post-antiquity, the Ab urbe conditajourneyed in multiple manuscripts via divergent channels through to the Middle Ages. Many parts were damaged, lost or forgotten along the way. The work that Petrarch did to assemble and critically annotate Livy’s surviving books influenced the way it was read by later scholars and paved the way for its entry into libraries and schools.⁴

2. Livy and Histories of Florence

Livy’s Ab urbe condita and certainly the first ten books (which had the clearest and most untroubled textual transmission) influenced the creation of histories or ‘chronicles’ of Florence. In particular, Florentine writers seized the opportunity to engage in similar myth-making for their own city, from its legendary origin up to their own times.

The earliest is the Nuova Cronica by Giovanni Villani in the 14th century. He was inspired by a personal pilgrimage to Rome and, in his own words, “[by] reading the stories and great doings of the Romans, written by Virgil, Sallust, Lucan, Titus Livius… and other masters of history.”⁵ Villani claimed that Julius Caesar ordered the building of Florence in 70 BC and that Fiesole was founded by the Trojans.

Later, Leonardo Bruni wrote an ‘official’ History of Florence in Latin (Historiarum Florentini populi libri XII) which was published by the governing Signoria in 1442. He rejected fables about Trojan foundations and instead argued that Florence was originally an Etruscan settlement and later a military colony under Sulla. Livy, Virgil and Pliny the Elder had all written about the Etruscans’ wars with Rome. Bruni used these sources to imply Etruscan (and therefore contemporary Tuscan) superiority within Italy.

Photo of Florence by Pedro Mealha

3. Livy and Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli is best known as the author of The Prince, but he also wrote a commentary on the first ten books of Livy’s Ab urbe condita. The text is known as the Discourses on Livy (Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio) and was written and published in the 16th century.

Machiavelli explores the notion of Republicanism, which had enflamed earlier humanists and Florentine citizens with glorified ideas about tyrant-slayers. Informed by his own experiences in the Florentine political system and his reading of Livy’s history, Machiavelli maintains that the founder of a Republic must obtain absolute power if the regime is to last.

4. Livy and Renaissance Artists

But Livy’s text was not only known to educated men and women of the Renaissance. Stories from Livy also flourished in 15th century domestic artwork in Florence. This is suggested by the surviving evidence of cassoni (‘wedding chests’) and spalliere (‘decorated backing boards’) painted with scenes from Livy’s history about women such as Cloelia, Virginia, Tarpeia, Lucretia and the Sabine women. As well as those about men, such as Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge, Mucius Scaevola and Coriolanus.

Detail from Story of Lucretia attributed to Sandro Botticelli, cassone or spalliera panel, c. 1496 — 1504.

These pieces were often commissioned for newly-wed couples and the subject-matter depended on the intellectual and moral interests of the patron(s). Domestic art not only reflected the popularity of stories from Livy in Florence, but also served as a method of its visual transmission. As Jillian Robbins notes, ‘Tuscan domestic painting was instrumental in making themes from the Ab urbe condita a familiar and almost ubiquitous presence.’⁶ It is only later, in the 16th century, that we begin to see stories from Livy’s Ab urbe condita depicted in large scale paintings, such as those by Titian, Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani.

Detail of Story of Mucius Scaevola attributed to The Florentine Master, cassone panel, c. 1480.

References

[1] G. Billanovich, ‘Petrarch and the Textual Tradition of Livy’ in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 14, №3/4, 1951, p. 182.

[2] Petrarch, ‘To Titus Livy’ in Fam., XXIV, 8.

[3] Martial, 14.190.

[4] See Footnote 1, p. 176.

[5] D. R. Kelley, ‘Renaissance Retrospection’ in Faces of History, 1999, p. 137.

[6] J. C. Robbins, ‘The Art of History: Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita and the Visual Arts of the Early Italian Renaissance.’, 2004, p. 113.

How to Stay Creative to the End of Your Life

How to Stay Creative to the End of Your Life

The incredible productivity of Paul Klee’s later years

Insula dulcamara (1938) by Paul Klee. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Source Wikimedia Commons

Bythe time he died, in 1940 at the age of 60, Paul Klee was one of the most famous artists of his generation. He had worked at the Bauhaus and could count such luminaries as Wassily Kandinsky and Walter Gropius as his colleagues and friends.

Despite his eventual accomplishments, Klee struggled to find commercial success as an artist. During his 20s and into his 30s, he sold only a handful of works, and when he exhibited the reviews were often unfavorable. The upkeep of the family home was the achievement of Paul Klee’s wife, Lily, who gave piano lessons whilst Paul made art and looked after their son, Felix.

And even when his his reputation was established, Klee’s final years were fraught with adversity. Not only was his health deteriorating as a result of scleroderma, but the wider cultural and political climates in Switzerland (where he was born and where he lived for the last years of his life) and Germany (where he built his career) were becoming ever more unstable.

And yet, the last years of Klee’s life would prove to be some of the most productive and inspired of his career.

Early inspiration

Much of Klee’s enduring creativity was rooted in a two-week trip he took to Tunisia in 1914. He kept a dairy of his time there, and through these notes Klee’s growth as a painter can be mapped.

He painted as often as possible during his time in Tunisia, mostly watercolour sketches that could be made quickly and on-the-spot. It was during this trip that he noted his famous declaration: “Colour possesses me,” he wrote. “It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.”

The working-holiday would inspire Klee for many years afterwards, and as far ahead as the 1930s he continued to makes paintings that referenced his experiences in Tunisia.

View Towards the Port of Hammamet (1914) by Paul Klee. Source Wiki Art

Late-life adversity

Klee eventually established himself as one of the foremost artists of his generation, most especially in Germany. Yet the rise of the Nazi party forced him to leave the country and his teaching post at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, which had been smeared as a stronghold of Jewish artists.

Not Jewish himself, Klee was nonetheless singled out for attack: “Then that great fellow Klee comes onto the scene,” wrote one Nazi newspaper. “He tells everyone he’s a thoroughbred Arab, but he’s a typical Galician Jew.”

The consequences of the derogatory Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition held in Munich in 1937 were just as damaging, particularly to an artist who remained acutely self-conscious and self-critical. The exhibition, in which Klee had 17 works included, was an attempt by the Nazi Party to ridicule modern artists and purge them from German culture. Slogans painted on the walls of the gallery — such as “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul” and “Nature as seen by sick minds” — were intended to stir up further revulsion among the visitors.

With the diagnosis of his illness and the deterioration of conditions in Germany, Klee began to feel hopeless and exhausted. During 1936, at the height of his unrest, his output amounted to just 25 works.

But in the following few years, these numbers would rise remarkably.

Monitoring productivity

Klee was an avid record-keeper of his own output. He carefully catalogued his paintings and drawings with a numbering system that monitored the volume and order of works as they were produced, year on year.

This catalogue was consistent with Klee’s working methods, which relied on a distinct aspect of order, a framework of regulatory practices that made innovation more forthcoming. According to his colleague Lyonel Feininger, Klee’s studio was a “carefully ordered confusion.” He preferred to work on several paintings at once, surrounded by earlier drawings that would offer guidance in a process of constant self-reflection — some from the Tunisia trip.

Klee’s innovation would survive his most difficult year because he had nurtured a process of perpetual growth. Some years before, due to a split in his teaching duties, Klee occupied two studio spaces in two separate cities. Felix recalled how his father “Traveled between Dessau and Düsseldorf, again spending alternate bi-weekly periods in each city, and since he had two magnificent work rooms in each city, he delighted in the half-finished ‘children’ that awaited him each time in whichever studio he was away from.”

One of Paul Klee’s final paintings, Death and Fire (1940). Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Source Wikimedia Commons

Inspiration accelerating

In the last years of his life, Klee adapted to his illness by making works that were simpler and larger in design. He deepened his affinity with hieroglyphic-style motifs, producing paintings that left behind formal and spatial depth in favour of a more direct, ideographic gesture.

His paintings from this period remain some of the most vital and beguiling creations in modern art. I wonder, from where did he get his sense of ferment and hold on to it so urgently? How did he stay inspired?

In 1937, Klee created 264 works; in 1938 the number nearly doubled to 489; in the last full year of his life, 1939, he made more individual pieces than in any year previously, at 1,254.

He expressed his excitement to his son, Felix, at the time: “Productivity is accelerating in range and at a highly accelerated tempo. […] Twelve hundred items in 1939 is something of a record performance.”

Klee was always building on past achievements, often re-using sketches and half-finished compositions as the basis for new paintings. Inspiration of this kind is intimately related to growth. A person travels, sees, listens, learns, reads and endures. In Klee’s case, there was also an internal growth happening within the body of work. The process — a type of harvest — gathers material, but it also leaves material behind. To refine is to learn and in doing so, evolve one’s sensibility.

Paul Klee’s innovation stayed vibrant to the end. His creativity was unceasing because he never let the sense having arrived overtake him. Search and growth were essential aspects of his practice, one complimenting the other, neither of them fully complete — always half-finished.

The words on Klee’s tombstone ring the same truth, “I cannot be grasped in the here and now, For my dwelling place is as much among the dead, As the yet unborn, Slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, But still not close enough.”

Paul Klee’s gravestone. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Why Michaelangelo’s Doni Tondo is a Masterpiece

Also known as the “Holy Family” or the “Doni Madonna”, this rare piece is the one and only intact wood panel painting of Michelangelo from the year 1507 to have survived to this day. Among Michaelangelo’s other works, this one is quite peculiar. It is shaped in the form of a ‘tondo’, which is Italian for ‘round’. This is a shape that has constantly been associated with the renaissance period of domestic ideologies.

Looking at the painting, Mary is the most prominent figure in the composition, taking up much of the center as she appears to be sitting/kneeling directly on the grass ground. Above her, Jesus depicted as a young toddler, and Joseph can be seen. Joseph appears to be in the middle-ground of the painting, between the Holy Family and the background. Behind the Holy Family is a noticeable horizontal slab that somehow divides the whole piece into two particular sections while at the same time including an image of a boy whom experts believe to be John the Baptist. Behind John, the Baptist are five naked men whose physiques are heavily emphasized which appear to be aesthetically proportioned and built as seen in the way their bodies are curved, the texture of their skins, and the way they resemble entities from earlier times or even mythological eras. At the farthest part of the artwork behind the 5 men, it shows a somewhat mountainous ridge as the painting’s distinct background. Proceeding to the artwork’s circular frame — tondo, there are 5 noticeable three-dimensional head figures which are believed to be a figure of Jesus, two prophets, and 2 civilians. Another element found in the circular frame of the artwork is the carvings that can be seen around it. These carvings are in the form of crescent moons, stars, vegetation, and lion heads which somehow shows the story of the (Agnolo) Doni, the patron of Doni Tondo, and (Maddalena) Strozzi family which can be seen throughout the rest of the frame. All in all, these are the aspects that are easily noticed when looking at the Doni Tondo.

As a way to further discuss what the Doni Tondo really conveys, let us first discuss the different noticeable elements and principles of arts that are inherent to the piece. Initially, we can see how the value of the colors of the Holy Family’s clothes greatly differs from the other elements of the piece giving the viewers an idea of where to look. The use of olive green, light blue, light pink, orange and dark blue somehow provide contrast on the color used for the skin of John the Baptist and the 5 men alongside the mountainous ridge. The element of value is also shown as a way to provide a sense of depth in the piece. This can be noticed when we compare how vivid the colors are in the elements in the foreground compared to the background. The colors present somehow exhibit a triadic harmony since the piece plays with the colors of blue, green, and orange. In addition to the colors, we can see how the different textures were really shown in the Doni Tondo. This is shown through the difference in appearance of the silk-like cloth used by the Holy Family and the rough, natural texture of the soil and foliage. This could also be seen through the cloth of the Holy Family which is somehow smoother in appearance compared to the cloth used by John the Baptist. This element of texture also contributed to the sense of depth present in the piece as the elements found in the background appear to be less smooth than the elements in the foreground. The element of shape is subtly incorporated within the piece. Geometric shapes could be seen when evaluating how the pieces of elements were placed. For example, the heads of the Holy Family actually form an inverted triangle and in evaluating their arrangement, it also leads us to an upright triangle having its base parallel to the legs of Mary going upwards converging towards the head of Jesus and Joseph. Organic shapes are also present in the forms of the leaves found on the ground and the mountainous ridge found in the background.

Proceeding in the principles of arts found in Doni Tondo, we will immediately notice how Michelangelo used the principle of balance towards the whole piece. He successfully used all the negative spaces behind the Holy Family through the inclusion of John the Baptist and the 5 men in the piece. Notice that the number of people behind the Holy Family is not divided equally but they are positioned in an asymmetrical manner while still promoting a sense of balance. Given that the Doni Tondo is a tribute to the Holy Family and the birth of Christ, the principle of emphasis was obviously used to highlight a specific aspect or image of the Holy Family that is somehow different from the common images that we see of them. This specific aspect or image will be discussed later on. Another principle that could be seen in Doni Tondo is scale and proportion. Knowing that the piece is composed of a foreground and a background, the use of scale and proportion is highly observable when looking at the size of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary compared to the size of John the Baptist and the 5 men, including the mountainous ridge which simply suggests the sense of depth that is present in the artwork. In terms of the principles of harmony, unity, and movement, these can be seen in the two parts of the piece which is the foreground and the background. In the foreground, the elements used in the Holy Family promote a sense of harmony and unity as shown in the colors used, the contrast present, and how they are shaped which is somehow reflective of an upright triangle. The movement present within the Holy Family either shows that Mary is getting Jesus from Joseph or the other way around. In the background, we can see how the use of monotonous colors worked and provided a harmonious feeling with the help of how they are placed horizontally or side by side with each other. The movement present in the background somehow suggests that the 5 men are discussing as seen in the way their heads are tilted towards each other. On the other hand, John the Baptist’s movement as seen through the way his body is oriented and his head tilted suggests that his attention is focused on the Holy Family.

According to Gibson (2001), “Every real form attests to an ideal form which it more or less resembles, the idea of which, however, it never perfectly actualizes.” Evaluating the Doni Tondo, it seems that Michelangelo is trying to portray a different aspect of how we, as humans, should perceive the Holy Family. Contrary to the usual images of the Holy Family that we commonly see which incorporates elements of holiness such as halos, subtle suggestions of perfection, and a sense of serenity. Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo gives us a more human approach in picturing the Holy Family. In Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, he depicted the Holy Family in the most natural and human form they can be — without the halos and the majestic glow. We can see how playful and human the image of a baby Jesus was portrayed as he appears to be climbing up the shoulders of Mary. On the other hand, Mary appears to be a complete contrast of the images usually incorporated into her. In this piece, she is depicted as a physically adept woman which is actually logical since she helps Joseph in his woodworks. Joseph is given the chance through this piece to actually show how much he is focused and serious in raising Jesus as his son. The way he supports Jesus’ back and the way he looks at him with so much attention suggests a sense of fatherless at the end of Joseph.

References

  • Barolsky, Paul. “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo and the Worshipful Beholder.” SOURCE: Notes in the History of Art 22, no. 3 (2003): 8–11.
  • Buzzegoli, Ezio (December 1987). “Michelangelo as a Colourist, Revealed in the Conservation of the Doni Tondo”. Apollo: 405–408.
  • d’Ancona, Mirella Levi (1968)
  • Gilson, Etienne. Forms and Substances in the Arts. Commonwealth Secretariat, 2001.
  • Michelangelo, Doni Tondo. (2020, July 27). Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://colourlex.com/project/michelangelo-doni-tondo/

Ann Treboux

Why Michaelangelo’s Women Were So Manly?

Deconstructing the reasons behind Michelangelo’s “men with breasts”

Night by Michelangelo. Her sturdy contoured legs and her left breast looks misshapen and stiff. Source-Public Domain

Michelangelo wrote in one of his poems, “I’m ugly.” He believed he did not meet societal beauty standards.

Despite this, he spent his entire life in pursuit of sublime perfection.

Michelangelo’s David is indeed the most perfect statue in the world. It exudes the aesthetics of high Renaissance art and the technical prowess of Greek sculpture.

Giorgio Vasari, described the statue’s perfection in an essay in 1550 — “For in it may be seen most beautiful contours of legs, with attachments of limbs and slender outlines of flanks that are divine; nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry.”

But when it comes to Michelangelo’s women — why do they seem to be imperfect and apparently masculine? Why does the female anatomy seem unladylike?

Let’s deconstruct the possible reasons behind Michelangelo’s “men with breasts.”

Night (Left) and Dawn (Right). Source-Public Domain

Consider Michelangelo’s Night. A nude reclining on the sarcophagus at Giuliano di Lorenzo de Medici’s feet. The woman has an angelic aura but as we slide down, her body looks muscular. For instance, her left breast looks misshapen and stiff.

As we move further down, she has sturdy contoured legs.

Definitely, a mismatch between her divine face and the rest of her body.

On the other hand, Dawn, Michelangelo’s other masterpiece seems to have curvy bosoms but she has a muscular physique too.

Erwin Panofsky, a contemporary art historian said, “Dawn was a young woman’s easily life — softened yet firm, full of vigor and energy, not yet hardened by life. Panofsky even uses the word virginal to describe her. In direct opposition, then, there’s Night.

Panofsky says that Night’s body has been distorted by childbirth and lactation.”

Similarly, if we take a closer look at the Sistine Chapel and analyze female prophets from the twelve apostles, you might be convinced that Michelangelo represented women with androgynous attributes.

Imagine Cumaean Sibyl with her gigantic body and hefty biceps. Although Libyan Sibyl’s face looks ethereal, her physique resembles an Olympian.

Cumaean Sibyl (Left) and Libyan Sibyl (Right)

Delphic Sibyl (Left) and Persian Sibyl (Right) in Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo illustrated the female prophets as monumental as their male prophets but something was clearly off with the female bodies.

Why Michelangelo’s women were so unwomanly?

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael
  • Jill Burke, a lecturer in Italian Renaissance art history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says that during the Renaissance period, nude female models were not readily available. It wasn’t considered appropriate for a female to be nude in front of an unknown painter.

And so, a painter like Michelangelo who literally witnessed anatomical dissections first hand might not have imagined a woman’s figure very well. While this is the most accepted theory, Burke contradicts herself.

Raphael, Michelangelo’s contemporary counterpart painted St. Catherine of Alexandria with a curvy body, supple bosoms, and a sensual aura. How did Raphael know how to paint a woman?

  • Another theory that seems relevant is the patriarchal nature of the Renaissance period. Historian Thomas Lacquer has written, “there was only one canonical body and that body was male.” This means that a male prototype was the most superior and everything else was considered imperfect.
  • Historians have argued at length that Michelangelo was naturally inclined to male bodies. So, in response, to portray a beautiful woman, he’d simply design her to appear as close to a man as possible. This does not mean he was misogynistic. In fact, Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo’s official biographer, wrote that he had a close relationship with his mother and a devoted relation with a widow named Vittoria Colonna. He might not have been sexually attracted to women but it’s highly unlikely that he despised them.

Medical justification of the sculpture ‘Night’

In November of 2000, a letter was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine by a physician named James Stark. He visited Medici Chapel in Florence with an art historian Jonathan Katz Nelson. And just like others, he was drawn to the weird appearance of Night, especially her left breast.

The excerpts from Stark’s letter.

“I found three abnormalities associated with locally advanced cancer in the left breast. There is an obvious, large bulge to the breast contour medial to the nipple; a swollen nipple-areola complex; and an area of skin retraction just lateral to the nipple… These features indicate a tumor.

These findings do not appear in the right breast of “Night” or in “Dawn,” another female figure in the Medici Chapel, or in the many other depictions of women in works by Michelangelo.

We suggest that Michelangelo carefully inspected a woman with advanced breast cancer and accurately reproduced the physical signs in stone. Even if he did not see the disease in a model, he could have studied the corpse of a woman; moreover, autopsies were legal at that time.

Given that Michelangelo depicted a lump in only one breast, he presumably recognized this as an anomaly. Many doctors in his day could probably diagnose this condition in a woman.

Historians of breast cancer agree that the disease and its treatment were discussed, often at length, and described as cancer by the most famous medical authorities of antiquity and by several prominent medieval authors.

For these reasons, there is a strong possibility that Michelangelo intentionally showed a woman with disease and that he may have known that the illness was cancer.

If Michelangelo indeed depicted “Night” as having a consuming disease, this would complement the imagery in the Medici Chapel of life and death, and further help us understand his study of the female body.”

References-
1. The Problem of Michelangelo's Women
2.Men with Breasts (Or Why are Michelangelo’s Women so Muscular?) Part 1
3. Nine times history's greatest artists made bad artworks

Ann Treboux