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Category Archives: Object of the Month.2021

Object of the Month: December 2021

The Adoration of the Shepherds

Oil on canvas

 

Jacques Stella

French, 1596–1657

Sometimes it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know.

Jacques Stella travelled to Florence, Italy, and worked for Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Returning to France, Stella became official painter to Cardinal Richelieu and then Painter to the King (Louis XIII). But these powerful historic personages do not impact his work Adoration of the Shepherds.

Likely inspired by a prototype by Correggio, the first Italian to introduce the supernatural light emanating from Christ and illuminating the nocturnal scene1, Stella has one of the shepherds shield his eyes, foreshadowing Christ’s declaration of Himself as the “light of the world.” But it is not even this master of Italian art that figures most prominently in Stella’s painting.

Rather, it is his lifelong friend and fellow painter Nicolas Poussin whom he met during his 10 years in Rome between his service to the Duke and the Cardinal. Their similar works Adoration of the Shepherds reveal their friendship and knowledge of each other’s art.

Stella’s Adoration contains the obligatory elements in the lower half. But the viewer must read the upper half through the iconography of the lower. Mary, robed in blue, prays; Joseph kneels; and the shepherds wonder. Christ lies in the manger on a white cloth which outlines his extended left hand which, in turn, points directly at a resting lamb. Surprisingly, the baby is not “wrapped in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:12). He is only diapered. On the far right two figures bear a basket containing two doves, an oddity until one remembers that the temple sacrifice to redeem the firstborn of a poor family was two turtledoves.

In these three ways Stella points to Christ as the Savior of the world: His identification as the Lamb of God, the necessity of a sacrifice for redemption, and the hinted-at burial shroud on which He’s resting.

So far, so good. But in the upper area are both angels and putti. The biblical account clearly states that the angels “had gone away from [the shepherds] into heaven” (Luke 2:15), so these figures show definite artistic license. In the air above his Holy Family, Nicolas Poussin also has putti; his are strewing flowers, a seemingly joyous gesture. However, the flowers are iconographic “flores of martyrum”2; these putti represent the Holy Innocents who by the hand of Herod will be the first martyrs for Christ. Though Stella does not include flowers, clearly his putti also represent the Holy Innocents—given the intimations of Christ’s own martyrdom and the sacrificial doves, classic symbols of innocence.

Stella blends the halves of the work in three significant ways. The two putti gathered around the manger connect the worlds of heavenly bliss and earthly suffering. In addition, the sightline of the front dove-bearer looks heavenward past the basket, connecting the sacrificial doves to the now-redeemed children.  The mountain seen on the right also connects the two worlds. Surely here is Mt. Moriah, where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, the innocent child of promise, but was stopped by God who provided “himself a lamb” (Genesis 22:8); and where the Lamb of God would sacrifice Himself, the innocent dying for the guilty, to make heaven possible for fallen mankind.

Jacques Stella, like his friend Nicolas Poussin, tells more than the Christmas story: there is none innocent enough for heaven without the redeeming death of the sinless Son of God. It’s not what you know, it’s Who.

 

Karen Rowe Jones, M&G Board Member

 

Footnotes:

1David Steel Jr., Baroque Paintings from the Bob Jones University Collection, Exhibition catalogue (Raleigh: North Carolina Museum of Art, 1984), 22.

2De Grazia, Diane. “Poussin’s ‘Holy Family on the Steps’ in Context.” Cleveland Studies in the History of Art 4 (1999): 26–63.

 

Published 2021

Object of the Month: November 2021

Christ Cleansing the Temple

Oil on canvas, c. 1660

Luca Giordano, called Luca fa presto

Neapolitan, 1634–1705

As M&G celebrates 70 years this month, it is only appropriate to highlight a wonderful piece in the collection that has been a part of the museum since its inception. This canvas has often been referred to as a favorite of our visitors to the Museum & Gallery. Its imposing size and theme have left an indelible effect on many viewers since the beginning.

M&G is indebted to the generosity of Carl Hamilton (1886-1967) for this work. Carl Hamilton, art connoisseur and dealer, is credited with suggesting in 1948 the idea to Dr. Bob Jones Jr. of beginning a museum. Around the same time, he was also involved in the formation of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Dr. Bob found him to be very helpful and encouraging during the early acquisition years. Not only did Hamilton provide introduction to dealers, advise on purchases, and shape collecting criteria, he also gifted many pieces in the period furniture collection.

Hamilton’s upbringing in rural Pennsylvania with an alcoholic father and firm, loving mother shaped his outlook on life. Exposed to Methodism through his mother, it enabled him to not only preach on occasion, but also to influence others in practical and financial scenarios. As a capable entrepreneur, he paid his way through Yale with a business pf pressing suits and shining shoes. His ability to invest and create income allowed him to adopt a son, pay the tuition of many students, and become an industrialist that owned a significant share of copra production in the Philippines at that time. Later, when his interest in art grew, he was mentored by Joseph Duveen and Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Berenson. A lifelong bachelor, he owned an ornately decorated apartment in New York City covered with Old Master paintings, period furniture, and sculpture.

Baroque master Luca Giordano began his artistic career during his childhood in Naples, Italy. His father, Antonio, was his first teacher, and he ensured that one of the best contemporary artists available would instruct his son—master painter Jusepe de Ribera. Luca proved a talented artist and a fast-painting one, which earned him the nickname of “fa presto” meaning to “work fast” or “go quickly.” Over his lifetime, he painted more than 5000 works, not including frescoes and etchings. His career involved travel to Rome, Venice, and Florence; he also spent a decade in Spain, where he was court painter to King Charles II. Giordano was incredibly skilled and adaptive—he often adopted styles of other artists, whose works he encountered. Several of his contemporaries are also represented in our collection: Rubens, Preti, Veronese, and Dolci.

Completed in 1660, Giordono’s Christ Cleansing the Temple is recognized as one of his most important paintings in America. It measures 10 feet wide and over 7 feet high. Noticeable through the paint are three panels of coarse canvas woven together, which reflects a Neapolitan influence. The effect of golden lighting is indicative of his connection to Venetian artists during his mid-twenties, when he was creating this work.

The Gospels mention the temple cleansing four times. Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to the event near the end of Christ’s ministry, during the final Passover just prior to Christ’s passion. However, John describes a temple cleansing that takes place at Passover during Christ’s first year of public ministry and reveals Christ’s reason for the cleansing. He was God incarnate, and His place of worship was being defiled by the dishonesty of the money exchangers. Tyrian currency was used to pay the temple tax since it was the closest form of currency to the old Hebrew shekel, and exorbitant rates were charged to exchange the money. Also, the sacrificial animals were in the only area of the temple grounds that non-Jewish people were allowed to worship—an expectation and promise that God Himself declared in Isaiah 56. The Gentiles were disregarded by temple authorities for the sake of commerce.

Since the painted narrative includes a quizzical-looking ox and ruffled doves near several broken eggs, Giordano may have referenced John’s account (Jn. 2:13-25), which includes a list of sacrificial animals: ox, sheep, and doves. With Christ positioned in the center forefront, the artist skillfully captures the turbulence that ripples throughout the scene using a drybrush technique and the drama of diagonal lines.

 

John Good, Security Manager

 

References:

  • American Dionysus: Carl W. Hamilton (1886–1967), Collector of Italian Renaissance Art, Tiffany L. Johnston
  • Botticelli to Tiepolo: Three Centuries of Italian Painting from Bob Jones University, Richard P. Townsend

Luca Giordano is also represented by two other works in the Collection: The Triumph of Miriam and St. Barbara.

 

Published 2021

 

Object of the Month: October 2021

Majolica Charger

19th century, Italian

Majolica is earthenware that has been fired in a kiln, coated with an opaque white glaze, decorated with other pigments and fired again, fixing the glaze and design onto the ceramic. The process originated in Africa around the 6th century. By the 13th century, techniques and the ability to paint detailed designs were perfected. It was discovered that a clear glaze and a third firing added luster to the piece.

Italians became enamored of these decorative ceramics. Large quantities were produced in Africa and Spain and passed through ports on the Spanish island of Majorca on their way to Italy. Thinking the pieces had been made there, Italians called this kind of ceramic majolica or maiolica.

By the Italian Renaissance, techniques for producing majolica ceramics had reached Italy. Ceramists produced decorated plates, jars, cups, pitchers, and ornamental pieces. Often the item featured a portrait of a bride, a family member or some notable. Apothecary jars bearing the name of their contents were embellished with scrolling vines, leaves, flowers, and fruits. Wealthy families would display large sets of dishes and serving pieces which were used to impress guests at elaborate banquets.

Often these pieces were istoriato, meaning they illustrated a story—usually mythological, historic, or biblical. Sometimes the narrative would cover the entire surface of the piece; other times, as seen on M&G’s charger, the picture would be surrounded by intricately designed borders. Today museums and collectors prize even the broken pieces of Italian Renaissance majolica.

Although it may look it, M&G’s Majolica Charger is not dated to the Italian Renaissance. In the late 1800s, there was a resurgence of interest in the Italian Renaissance ceramic design, and Italian ceramists produced high quality stoneware in the Renaissance style to meet the demand. M&G’s charger is one such piece.

Making Majolica

Creating an elaborate majolica requires great skill. Not only must the clay be formed and fired carefully, but the tin oxide glaze which dries into an opaque, white surface must also be evenly applied. Colored glazes are then painted onto the prepared surface. The color palette is extremely limited. Black, yellow, blue, golden brown, and green were used on M&G’s charger—typical of majolica designs. Diluting, concentrating, or mixing the glaze pigments can produce various shades of colors.

Painting on the porous white surface is extremely unforgiving. Once applied, the pigment cannot be removed or hidden by painting over it.  Adding pigment to the initial layer produces different effects; however, the original brush stroke, as well as any additional painted strokes and colors in subsequent layers must be adeptly applied. There is no way to repair a mistake.

Consider the border on the lip of M&G’s charger. The inner ring consists of an amber background with 50 hand-drawn, double circles of two different intensities of a golden-brown pigment. The outer border contains 8 fauns, 4 winged angel heads, and 4 angel torsos arranged among scrolling foliage and architectural flourishes. These are arranged in four matching quadrants. The figures are outlined in black and shaded with gray. After the black outlines were painted, the intense blue background areas were painted individually. The lip alone required a precise, highly skilled artisan.

Gaetano Battaglia

Painters of istoriato majolica scenes were consummate craftsmen, such as Gaetano Battaglia (c. 1826-1887). During his lifetime he was known as “a painter of figures.” His exquisite work, often large ceramics with Battaglia’s signature, are in museums and private collections.

His career started around 1850 in Naples, Italy, but little is known of his early works or employment. When the Mosca brothers founded Raffaele Mosca & Compagno in 1865, they hired Battaglia, and he helped them hire other ceramic painters. During the company’s more than 40-year history, its name and ownership repeatedly changed. Mosca produced architectural ceramics and decorative pieces, and it was known for producing an “odorless toilet,” patented by one of the brothers. Battaglia’s duration at the firm, however, is unknown.

Most ceramic painters of the period did not (or were not permitted to) sign their pieces. While many works are attributed to Battaglia, most earthenware known to be his are inscribed with his signature or initials. Generally, his signature is paired with the letter “N” or with “Napoli” for Naples. M&G’s Majolica Charger bears both Battaglia’s signature and an “N” on the reverse.

The specific company that produced many of Battaglia’s signed pieces, however, is unknown. The “Fca” on M&G’s charger (which appears as “Fabb” on other Battaglia pieces) presumably stands for Fabbrica, Italian for “factory.” At that time there were numerous ceramic companies in Naples which had Fabbrica as part of their name. Battaglia may have worked for one of those companies or fired his earthenware designs in a hired kiln, which was a known practice at the time.

The Image

For istoriato earthenware, ceramists in the 1800s often referenced narrative etchings as their design source. The artists would also sketch scenes found in galleries, churches, and palaces as inspiration for their works. A popular image would often be painted by different ceramists on various earthenware pieces, but the source of the design can help identify the narrative’s subject.

M&G’s Charger appears to be unique in that the source of the narrative image is unknown, and no other ceramics are known to have a similar subject. Therefore, only details in the image can be used to determine the pictorial scene. The flowing, loose-fitting garments on the three main figures are of the type artists of the time used for Biblical characters. The winged angel pointing a direction and the three putto leading the procession further suggest a Biblical illustration.

For many years, Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt was the title associated with the charger; however Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus were the only Biblical characters involved in the secretive escape from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-21). The missing infant Jesus and the second adult male on M&G’s charger make this assumption unlikely. Also, the angel instructing Joseph to take his family to Egypt appeared to him in a dream prior to the journey and is rarely included in paintings of the subject by the Old Masters. Additionally, the Holy Family was of modest means and traveled discreetly; yet the charger depicts a large entourage of people and animals behind the three mounted figures. Neither does the imagery follow typical illustrations of the family’s return from Egypt.

More likely the scene is Abraham, his wife Sarah, and nephew Lot on their departure to Canaan. God directed Abraham to travel “unto a land that I will shew thee.” A pointing angel and the procession of putto are used as an artistic rendering of God’s directing the travelers. The 75-year-old Abraham, his “fair. . . to look upon” wife, and the younger Lot correspond to the mounted figures on the charger. Their servants, belongings, and herds are depicted following the main figures (Genesis 12).

While a great deal is known about M&G’s charger, many questions remain unanswered. Was this rarely depicted scene part of a set of dishes and serving pieces illustrating various biblical scenes? If so, do other pieces of the set exist? Or was this piece a unique, limited commission for a specific purpose? More research may reveal answers, but some specifics may never be known, which only adds interest to M&G’s mysterious, beautiful Majolica Charger.

William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer

Published 2021

Suggested References:

  • Tortolani, La fabbrica napoletana dei fratelli Mosca: il Bello e l’Utile, in “Faenza,” XCIII, 2007, p. 62
  • Fiorillo, Ciro. 1992. “Gaetano Battaglia maiolicaro a Napoli.” In Quaderni dell’Emilceramica: storia e tecnica della ceramica particolarmente nell’arredo domestico e urbano16: 3–8.
  • Municipal Galleries at Palazzo Ciacchi

Object of the Month: September 2021

Prie Dieux

Walnut

16th century, Italian

When one thinks of prayer, furniture is not usually the first thing to come to mind. In Matthew 6:5-6, Christ encouraged making requests in prayer privately, rather than praying to be noticed publicly. However, a common piece of furniture constructed for the purpose of prayer was manufactured during the Renaissance and is still being made today. It is known as a prie-dieu, derived from French for “praying to God.” This special furnishing serves the same purpose as a prayer desk and a prayer chair.

M&G currently has two prie-dieux in its collection. These may have been used in a church, cathedral, or even a home. As a common piece of liturgical furniture in the Roman Catholic Church, they are still in use for worship, weddings, and funerals. When President Kennedy was lying in state, prie-dieux were in the same room.

Both of M&G’s Prie Dieux are from Italy, dating to the early Renaissance in the late 15th to mid-16th centuries.  Ornately carved walnut adds to the richness of their finish. One has a hinged kneeler with a raised panel door in the middle and a small drawer at the top. The other’s “lectern top” sits on “two powerful scroll consoles edged with gouge carving in a scale effect; the base terminates in small posts with pine-cone finials.” However, “the most striking feature is the festoon suspended from the top” with “fruit-and-leaf forms enclosing a winged angel head.”

Additionally, two paintings in M&G’s collection include prie-dieux. Both pictures highlight the importance of the Annunciation. The archangel Gabriel came to Mary to inform her that she had found grace in the sight of God. She would be privileged to bear the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus Christ. Christ Himself would become the only means of access to God the Father—through prayer. As explained in I Timothy 2:5-6, this direct access was accomplished through His passion and resurrection, which is symbolized by an open door on the prie-dieu. Fellowship with God in heaven is available to all people.

St. Gabriel the Archangel and The Virgin Annunciate by Venetian Reniassance painter, Francesco Montemezzano, were formerly one complete canvas (with one other M&G painting of God the Father depicted with a group of angels). These works were separated into three sections, which are all in M&G’s collection. The artist depicts Mary kneeling at her prie-dieu as she converses with Gabriel, who is seen on the opposite canvas.

The Altar Wings with Scenes from the Birth of Christ was created by an unknown Netherlandish artist. These wood panel paintings were completed during the same century as the Montemezzano canvases—roughly mid to late 1500s. Once the hinged doors of a larger altarpiece, these special panels hid the interior artistic scenes, which would be opened for special services or events. The interior paintings were in vivid color; however, the exterior doors like these were usually painted in gray tones, known as grisaille. This technique suggested a sculptural effect. Gabriel the archangel is positioned on the left panel facing Mary on the right. Mary is depicted with a lily (symbolic of her purity and Christ’s future resurrection) and a prie-dieu (on the far-right edge).

Prie-dieux are found in museum collections around the world—both as furniture and within the pictorial settings of Old Master paintings. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has a prie-dieu closely resembling one of M&G’s. The National Gallery’s Venetian Annunciation depicts Mary sitting at a prie-dieu.

Prayer is more often discussed than practiced. Fortunately, the opportunity exists for not only God’s children to approach their Heavenly Father, but anyone seeking His help—with or without a prie-dieu.

 

John Good, Security Manager

 

Published 2021

 

Further Resources:

Aronson, Joseph, Furniture in the Bob Jones University Collection

Hiebert, D. Edmond, Working With God Through Prayer

 

Object of the Month: August 2021

A Philosopher Holding a Book

Oil on canvas

Giambattista Tiepolo

Venetian, 1696–1770

One of the latest Italian painters represented in the Museum & Gallery Collection is the greatest artist of 18th-century Venice, Giambattista Tiepolo. While Tiepolo achieved most of his fame through breathtakingly airy frescoes on the ceilings of palaces, churches, and villas, he also revived age-old themes from the Bible and antiquity through fresh interpretations. Such is the case with a series of bust-length portraits of bearded old men, begun perhaps as early as the 1740s. These men in oriental garb are widely regarded as a series of ancient philosophers, but no definite case may be made for the group since most lack traditional attributes. Tiepolo was certainly influenced by Rembrandt’s paintings of bearded old men which may also be perceived as simple character studies.

The present painting is the original treatment by Tiepolo that together with others from the series was later copied by his artist sons, Domenico and Lorenzo, in etchings called La Raccolta de Teste (The Collection of Heads). The vigorous brushwork, vibrant colors, elaborate dress, and penetrating gaze of the sitter combine to make M&G’s Philosopher Holding a Book an excellent example of Tiepolo’s lesser-known skills at small-scale work. The etching to the left is made by Giovanni’s son as a copy of his father’s work. These smaller versions usually omit the hands, but the cloak clasp is included.

One of the virtues of art that John Keats extols in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is the ability of art to ask questions of the viewer. Sometimes these questions are answerable; sometimes they aren’t. But the mystery is what draws viewers to return, allowing them to absorb more of the work as well as more of the mystery.

So, what is it that makes this seemingly straightforward portrait of a man with a book so interesting and intriguing?

  • Size: The work is small, unlike most of Tiepolo’s painting, which adorns ceilings and walls of various significant buildings in Venice and elsewhere. This focused work is part of no grand scheme or storyline. The work is part of a larger collection, also unusual for the artist. While artists often had studios of apprentices, Tiepolo’s own sons copied these works as etchings, collecting them into a published book—a practice which, presumably, expanded the audience of viewers and increased greater demand for similar works. This painting is called a portrait; yet, in one sense it is not, for the emphasis is not on the sitter. This man is not a historical figure who wishes to be known to posterity; he is merely an anonymous model given a role to play as a philosopher with a book.
  • Subject: Is he really a philosopher? Which philosopher is he? In the collection of twenty “heads,” only two have been identified as actual philosophers: Diogenes and Pythagoras. It has been suggested that M&G’s may be Xenophon, a Greek historian and philosopher. It has also been suggested that these “philosophers” are merely studies in physiognomy, a so-called science of identifying the character of a person through an examination of facial structure or attributes such as the set of eyes or wrinkles. Such a science was familiar to Tiepolo whose sketches illustrated a manual on the topic.
  • Details: What or who are on the clasps and brooches so prevalent in the collection? Tiepolo used the motif on the clasps in other works not a part of this collection—Two Men in Oriental Costume (a large wall decoration) and the more elaborate scenes of the Scherzi di Fantasia. The cameo-like ornament adorns the turbans as well as the cloaks. Are they meant to identify the philosophers? Or simply beautiful Oriental embellishments?

All of these questions can be frustrating to art historians and viewers alike. But Keats would propose that they are an indication of good art, something beautiful that attracts further examination, pondering, and appreciation without final satisfaction. Good art pulls us out of ourselves and reminds us, like Horatio, that “there are more things in heaven and earth. . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Doubtless, this philosopher with a book would have agreed.

Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member

Citation: Print, Portrait of a Man, Plate 6, from the series Raccolta Di Teste I; Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (Italian, 1727 – 1804); Italy; etching on white laid paper; 1931-67-106-2

 

Published 2021

Object of the Month: July 2021

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda

Oil on canvas

Unknown Italian

16th or 17th century

This beautiful 16th or 17th century work by an unknown Italian artist stands out due to its rectangular shape spanning approximately 9 ½ feet long. The artist used the entire length of the painting to masterfully demonstrate his knowledge of architecture and perspective. He also illustrates Palladian-style architecture which was inspired by Ancient Greek and Roman temples and focused on symmetry and proportion based on mathematical principles. The massive Corinthian columns, Roman-style sculptures in the niches along the arcade, and decorative motifs above each of the many doorways further exemplify the Palladian character of the structure. The painting also demonstrates the realistic use of lighting and perfect proportion of the figures (clad with a variety of rich, vibrant color) in comparison with the enormous temple-like structure. The actual site of the Pool of Bethesda, the subject of this painting, was discovered in the late 19th century confirming its description in the Gospel of John.

The artist captures one of only two miracles Jesus performed in Jerusalem. For those living in this part of the world, water was vital to all aspects of life. The Pool of Bethesda was no exception. The pool was divided into two reservoirs with one most likely functioning as a ritual bath (mikveh) and the other used to replenish it. Many sick, lame, and blind came to the pool because of the pool’s supposed healing powers, a long held pagan tradition. They believed that an angel would come and stir the waters and whoever stepped into the water first would be healed of his ailment (John 5:3-4).

Jesus knew there would be large crowds attending a religious festival in Jerusalem (John 5:1) and therefore, witnesses to what he was about to do. To the right of the painting, Jesus, wearing a dark blue cloak, and accompanied by a few of his disciples, approaches one of the many invalids. Jesus specifically chose a crippled man who had been ill for 38 years. Jesus asks him, “wilt thou be made whole?” (John 5:6) The invalid tells Jesus that he has no one to help him into the water and that he can never get to the water before someone steps in before him. Jesus does not lay hands on the man or touch him in any way but instead commands the invalid to get up, pick up his bed and walk. Miraculously, the man is completely healed by only words of Jesus.

The miracle of the lame man’s physical restoration revels Jesus’s identity as the Jewish people’s long-awaited Messiah. Instead, the Jewish leaders remained spiritually blind focusing only on the fact that Jesus healed a man on the sabbath which violated their oral traditions expanded from the Law of Moses. Jesus later finds the healed man in the temple and in addition to physical healing offers spiritual healing encouraging the man to “sin no more” (John 5:14). This miracle not only showcases Christ’s compassion for those enduring physical afflictions but also, and more importantly, reveals His desire to provide spiritual healing for all from the ravages of sin.

Rebekah Cobb, Registrar

Published 2021

Object of the Month: June 2021

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon

Oil on Canvas

Jacopo Robusti, called Il Tintoretto

Venetian, 1519-1594

Allegory of Wisdom

Oil on Canvas

Marietta Robusti, called La Tintoretta

Venetian, c. 1554- c.1590

 

Jacopo Robusti, better known by his nickname, Il Tintoretto, was one of the most sought after and prolific painters in sixteenth-century Venice. He never lacked for commissions throughout his life and produced some of the city’s most famous canvases. The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon from the Museum & Gallery collection is one of his early works.

Jacopo’s success was in part due to his bustling family workshop which included two of his sons and Marietta his daughter, painter of M&G’s Allegory of Wisdom. In an article on Marietta, Louise Arizzoli points out that “Our reading of Renaissance masters as individual geniuses that started with Vasari’s Lives, sheds a negative light on those collaborators who remained in the shadow of the leading artist. These family workshops have however to be understood as teamwork, in which every member had specific responsibilities in order to ensure the quality of the commissions. Therefore, it is particularly difficult for us now to recognize individualities, as it was not the aim of the workshop to enhance individual style but to produce a certain style—that of Tintoretto” [Italics added]. This is one reason that apart from a small number of religious paintings and the Self-Portrait above (now in the Uffizi) few works are definitively assigned to Marietta. In addition, her talents were a close match to her father’s. This is especially evident in the figural details and similarities of brushwork and coloration in the two M&G works showcased.

These mysteries of attribution are not only on-going but truly fascinating.  For example, many scholars believe that several of Marietta’s works may simply have been incorporated into her father’s oeuvre.  For example, Old Man and a Boy (Kunsthistorisches Museum) was considered one of Jacopo’s best portraits, but in 1920 Duncan Bull, a curator at the Rijksmuseum, reassigned the attribution to Marietta on the basis of the ‘M’ signature discovered on the work. (The ‘M’ is in the lower right of canvas beside the chair arm.) However, there are still scholars reluctant to accept this re-attribution.

Two other important biographers detailing Tintoretto’s (and by extension Marietta’s) career are Raffaele Borghini (1537-1588) and Carlo Ridolfi (1594-1658). Both writers note that Marietta was not only exceptionally talented but also her father’s favorite. In his Le Maraviglie dell’Arte Ridolfi writes:

Marietta Tintoretto, then, lived in Venice, the daughter of the famous Tintoretto and the dearest delight of his soul. He trained her in design and color, whence later she painted such works that men were amazed by her lively talent. Being small of stature she dressed like a boy. Her father took her with him wherever he went and everyone thought she was a lad. She made a portrait of Jacopo Strada, the antiquarian of Emperor Maximilian, who presented it to his majesty as a rare work, whence the emperor, charmed by her valor, made enquiries about her of her father. Philip II, the King of Spain, and Archduke Ferdinand also asked him about her. However, Tintoretto was satisfied to see her married to Mario [Marco] Augusta, a jeweler, so that she might always be nearby, rather than be deprived of her, even though she might be favored by princes, as he loved her tenderly […] When she died her father wept bitterly, taking it as the loss of a part of his own inner being.

Marietta died four years before her father around 1590. The exact cause of her death is uncertain, but many believe she died in childbirth. Regardless, Ridolfi’s account of the close personal and professional relationship between the two would blur “into the myth of a young and talented woman painter who died too soon, leaving her father heart-broken.” We do know that Jacopo’s output began to fall off after his daughter’s death—whether because of grief or because of the loss of collaborative talent cannot be known. In any case, she would eventually become a muse for 19th century painters. Léon Cogniet’s Tintoretto Painting his Dead Daughter is perhaps the most famous among these Romantic paintings.

 

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education

 

Published in 2021

Object of the Month: May 2021

The Brazen Serpent

Oil on canvas, 1790

Benjamin West, P.R.A.

American, active in England, 1738–1820

Roughly three years before the treaty ending the Revolutionary War, King George III commissioned Benjamin West to create a special series of paintings for the chapel at Windsor Castle. West, who had become one of the leading artists in England and Historical Painter to the King in 1772, considered this commission to be the “great work of [his] life.” The Progress of Revealed Religion would cover Biblical history from “commencement to completion.” To understand more about this royal commission, the artist, and M&G’s distinction of displaying the largest assembly of completed paintings from the series, read St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost.

West’s choices for the series’ subjects and organization were probably influenced by William Warburton, who wrote about the parallels between the Old and New Testaments and specifically how the Old Testament laid the foundation for the New Testament work of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The artist chose and outlined his visual narratives for the chapel into four dispensations: creation and fall of man (pre-Mosaic law), the Israelite nation under Mosaic law, Christ’s life and dispensation of grace, and the last judgment.

M&G’s The Brazen Serpent fits within the dispensation focused on the Israelite nation under Mosaic law. The life of Moses is remarkable from birth to death. God called him to lead the enslaved Hebrew nation out of Egypt to Canaan, the Promised Land. From the outset, the journey was challenging. As the Hebrews arrived at the Red Sea, their Egyptian masters followed them, and the situation looked dire. The overwhelmed children of Israel responded by crying, blaming God and Moses, and complaining about their circumstances—a cycle of responses that the infant nation would repeat. God miraculously parted the waters into two heaps while the large caravan crossed on dry land to the other side. As the Egyptians started through the waters, God closed the path with the Red Sea crashing down and destroying them instead—the first of His many provisions and blessings. God’s presence and leading were visible with a pillar of clouds by day and fire by night. He supplied fresh water, manna (bread of heaven), victory over enemies, clothing and shoes that didn’t wear out. On Mt. Sinai, God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses for the help of Israel’s development as a distinctive nation protected by God. God outlined unique worship features and a sanctuary designed for praise, prayer, and offerings to Jehovah alone. He chose this people and made a special covenant with them.

Even with these physical and spiritual blessings, the Israelites griped about the food (wishing for leeks and onions of Egypt, meat, etc.), their thirst for water, Moses’ leadership, fear of the “giants” in the land God promised them. Their recurring lack of gratitude led to judgment, including the curse to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until the complaining generation (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) had all died. Only their children would enter the land of promise. Following a victory over the Canaanites as they neared the border of the Promised Land, once again “the people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.’ So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:4-9).

As on previous occasions, the people begged Moses to pray to God for their forgiveness, admitting they had sinned against the Lord and him. Moses prayed, and the Lord commanded him to “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live. So, Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole.” Instead of taking away the punishment, God mercifully provided a remedy in the form of a brass serpent. Whoever turned to view the brazen serpent was healed. Individuals could make their choice: they could look and live or choose death.

Helmut van Erffa and Alan Staley consider The Brazen Serpent to be “one of the most successful full-scale paintings for the chapel.” In West’s powerful visual narrative, he included snakes everywhere—biting and coiling themselves around the people, and even some in the air (upper left). West owned a collection of Renaissance and Baroque engravings, which he often referenced for inspiration. The drama of this work borrows from both Peter Paul Rubens’ Brazen Serpent and the famous sculpture from antiquity of Laocoön and his sons (figure group at the lower left of the painting). However, the figure of Moses reflects the muscular strength and monumentality of Michelangelo’s style.

In the distance between Moses’ feet, the camp tents are barely visible, but filling the foreground (and our ears’ imagination) are a variety of emotional responses expressed by these suffering people. Compassionate, fearful mothers carry their children to view the bronze serpent. Some men are praying or pointing the way for others to look and be healed. Others are in the stages of recovery, while a few mourn over those who have died. West’s composition leads the eyes upward to the light breaking from heaven and silhouetting the figure of Moses—the brightest part of the painting, where there is hope, the cure.

Centuries after the great patriarch’s death, Nicodemus, a knowledgeable teacher of the Jewish Sanhedrin, came to Jesus by night for answers. To illustrate how one can enter God’s kingdom, Christ explained His coming crucifixion and hope of salvation, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director

 

Published 2021

Object of the Month: April 2021

The Entombment of Christ

Oil on canvas

Jusepe de Ribera, called Lo Spagnoletto

Spanish, 1591-1652

While Italian Renaissance artists benefited from a mutual sharing of progressive artistic advancements, Spanish artists remained deeply provincial until the Baroque age. Jusepe de Ribera spent his career in the Spanish-controlled kingdom of Naples where he adopted the naturalism of Caravaggio. Ribera’s works, imported from Naples to Spain, brought to other Spanish artists the lighting effects of Caravaggio, the most influential Italian painter of the 17th century. In addition, viceroys brought both originals by Caravaggio and copies back to Spain. Caravaggio’s dramatically deep chiaroscuro (the effect of light and shade) and rugged realism (portraying as accurately as possible the natural world) are evident in this work by Ribera.

When looking at religious art, it is best to begin with the source of the work. In this case it is the Biblical accounts of the burial of Christ which are detailed in all four of the Gospels and reveal the cast of characters present in the painting (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19). After His sacrificial death on the cross, Christ was hastily buried because of the imminent start of the Sabbath celebration. Joseph of Arimathea, a just man who had voted against the action of the Sanhedrin to put Christ to death; Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin who had sought out Jesus by night to inquire how one could enter the kingdom of heaven; and Mary Magdalene, a wealthy follower of Christ who had seven devils cast out of her, are all mentioned as being present at the tomb. Other women are mentioned as well, but John the disciple and Mary, Christ’s mother are not mentioned in the Gospels as attending, but Ribera chooses to adhere to tradition and include them both.

Traditional Imagery

So, who is who? Traditional iconography would dictate that John is the young man in the back right who is wiping away his tears. Joseph would be the older man in the forefront with the red cloak; he is, after all, a wealthy man who has donated his new tomb for the Savior. That leaves Nicodemus as the older man at the head of Christ. Because of the long, free blonde hair, Mary Magdalene is in the center with Mary the mother of Christ in the shadows.

Though Christ’s body is pallid and remarkably whole given the scourging and the crowning of His head with thorns, the open wound in His side signifies Christ’s personal cost for man’s salvation from sin, which He purchased for all. Bringing forth blood and water, the soldier’s action revealed the emptying of life that sustained Christ until the payment of man’s sin was complete. Ribera places the body on a stone surface, likely the burial table in the tomb, which has a sharply defined corner. This compositional detail reflects the words of the Apostle Peter, referencing the Psalmist David and the prophet Isaiah who characterize the coming Messiah as a “rejected” stone of “stumbling and a rock of offense” which has become the “cornerstone.” A cornerstone sets the stability of the entire building, and the reader is told that “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (I Peter 2:6-8). Clearly, the kingdom of God is set upon the foundation of the death of Jesus Christ.

Ironically, however, at His death and burial, no one believed He would rise again. The incredulity of the disciples when the women reported the angel’s words at the empty tomb reveals that they did not understand the teaching of Jesus that He “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:21). But anyone who does understand that saying, including the multitude of Christ’s followers in the days following the resurrection, can be assured that he or she will not be disappointed in believing and accepting the death of the sinless Christ to pay for their own sins.

What is interesting about Ribera’s composition of the Entombment is the placement of the two women. Mary the mother of Christ is no longer the prominent woman; she is nearly hidden in the shadows while Mary Magdalene is in the foreground mourning Christ with clasped hands and downcast eyes.

Scriptural Accounts

Given the controversies associated with the Magdalene, it is important to focus on what the Scriptures tell about her:

  • Luke tells that “some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” followed Christ as He traveled. The first listed is “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out” (8:2). These women are also characterized as supporting Christ and His disciples “out of their means” (Luke 8:3).
  • At the crucifixion, John reports that Mary was “standing by the cross of Jesus” with Mary the mother of Christ (19:25).
  • Mark then relates that “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus saw where [Jesus] was laid” (15:47) and with “the women who had come with him from Galilee . . . returned and prepared spices and ointments” (Luke 23:55-56) for the more detailed burial after the Sabbath was over.
  • All four Gospels reveal that Mary Magdalene was up early on the morning after the Sabbath on her way to the tomb to minister to the Lord’s body. Here, clearly, is the biblical record of a woman dedicated to the life and memory of the One who had rescued her from Satan’s power.

Artistic Depiction

Ribera’s reversal of prominence may reflect the truth that at Christ’s death, His relationship to His mother ended. As the eldest son, now unable to care for His mother any longer, He transferred Mary to John’s care. But the prominence of Mary Magdalene in the central foreground of the group of followers mirrors the tender truth of a Luke 7 parable told by Jesus about a moneylender who forgave a large and small debt of two men as an illustration about another woman only identified as “a sinner” (likely a woman of loose morals). Although Magdalene is not this woman, her life attests to the same love that the “sinner” had for her Lord. Christ explains that the unnamed woman is like the man with the greater debt. Her “sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” The Magdalene had not one, but seven, devils cast out of her; there is no telling the damaging physical effects of her demon-possession. And though the demons were aware of Christ’s identity as the Messiah, they certainly would have kept their victim from realizing and accepting that truth for herself. The Magdalene of Ribera’s focus had much to be thankful for, and her dedication to the service of both the living and dead Christ reveals the depth of that love.

At the tomb early that Easter morning, Mary Magdalene and her companions were told that Christ was risen and instructed to tell the disciples. What a privilege to share that good news! But Mary was more than a messenger. Christ appeared to hundreds of His disciples in the days after His resurrection, but Mark relates, “Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons” (16:9). Given her love for Christ as evidenced by her eagerness to prepare His body properly for burial, it is no accident that she is the first to see the risen Christ whom she worships immediately, clasping His nail-pierced feet—the physical manifestation of Christ’s power to defeat death, her demons, and save her eternal soul.

Ribera’s composition places the viewer within the circle of mourners around the dead Christ with nothing in the composition to separate the viewer from the body itself. Thus, we are made to react as if we were within the frame. Do we see ourselves as sinners, loving Christ dearly, but devasted at His death, demoralized by the apparent emptiness of His promises of the kingdom of God and the forgiveness of sins?  Will we, like Mary Magdalene, recognize our Savior and hear Him say that He is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17)? We will, if this Easter, we believe the Gospel accounts of the Christ whom Mary followed faithfully.

Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member

 

Published 2021

Object of the Month: March 2021

Christ and the Samaritan Woman

Oil on canvas, c. 1620

Abraham Bloemaert

Dutch, 1566-1651

Abraham Bloemaert, whose career spanned more than 50 years, adapted to several major changes in prevailing artistic styles. His art began firmly rooted in the late mannerist tradition with its elongated figure-types and complex compositions, but later changed to the tenebrist style brought from Italy by some of his students. As the master of many important Dutch painters, including Terbrugghen, van Bijlert, and Honthorst, Bloemaert is considered one of the most important and influential Dutch artists of the early 17th century.

The subject of Christ and the Samaritan Woman enjoyed popularity for many generations in the Netherlands. While artists generally painted this theme in a landscape (horizontal) orientation, Bloemaert chose a vertical one. This change allows him to focus on the figures in the foreground without surrounding countryside to distract the viewer. It also allows him to create a more intimate portrait of the two major characters in the story.

According to Art Daily, “The bulk of his painted oeuvre is made up of history pieces, paintings with large figures depicting an episode from a story. . . . Since the fifteenth century, art theorists had regarded history painting as the apex of the hierarchy of painterly genres.” And since this is a history painting, “to comprehend such a picture, [viewers] have to know the story” (Art Daily).  Bloemaert portrays the Samaritan woman’s conversion as told in the Gospel of John, chapter 4. Of course, he needs to choose which moment in the storyline to freeze for the viewer’s consideration. But make no mistake, the whole story is important.

The Story

In John 4, a weary Christ confronts a marginalized woman with a simple question: “Give me to drink” (4:7). She responds with a defensive reminder that the “Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans” (4:9) who were usually ostracized as an ethnic group.  The Jews hold that their descent from Jacob is the purer one, unadulterated by intermarriage as the Samaritans’ was. This woman is in a very uncomfortable position from the beginning of the conversation. She has also come to the well at noon. Drawing water, then carrying water any distance in the heat of the Middle Eastern day is burdensome. She must have had a compelling reason for her presence at that time. The well was a social gathering spot, a type of “watering hole” for women from the village and even herdsmen from the fields. It seems clear that the woman is avoiding people.

Jesus then asks her another question, a “who” question somewhat like hers: if she only knew Who was asking a drink from her, she would ask Him for water, and it would be “living water” (4:10), superior to that from the well. Defensively, she notes He has nothing with which to draw water from the well, unlike her rope and pitcher seen in the painting. She follows up with a history lesson: Jacob, a common ancestor, dug the well, and it gives good water, tasty and plentiful. Christ responds with an elaboration on His “living water.” The major difference, He says, between the types of water is their thirst-quenching properties. How she must have tired of the hot, dusty chore of fetching water from a well probably some distance from the village. Then she asks for His water in order to ease her workload: “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (4:15).

Next, Jesus changes the subject abruptly and tells her to call her husband. Here seems to be the moment of the painting, and the marginalization of the woman increases. With His hand outstretched Christ tells her she has had five husbands and is currently living with a man not her husband. Morally, the woman is on the fringe of society; undoubtedly this fact is the reason for her midday water run. In the painting, she tilts her head downward. She must have been astonished by His knowledge; she may have been ashamed. She certainly tries to deflect the conversation.

This woman, like most people, does not want to come directly to Jesus. But she moves one step closer: “I perceive that you are a prophet” (4:19). She poses a religious red herring question about the worship of God: whether the Jews were right about Jerusalem or the Samaritans about their mountain. Christ kindly answers her question, “Salvation is from the Jews” (4:22), from the line of David. She obviously knows her Old Testament and brings up not only the coming of the Messiah, but also His omniscience: “When He comes, He will tell us all things” (4:25). At this point Christ tells her, “I Who speak to you am He” (4:26).

She is on the fringes geographically. Though Jews would go miles out of the way to travel around Samaria if at all possible, yet Jesus “must needs go through” (4:4) the region. She is historically ostracized by the Jews as well and morally shunned by her village. But Jesus goes out of His way, literally, to tell her the truth about Himself. And she is the first to hear from His own lips that He is the Messiah, not only of the Jews, but of all who will accept His offer of living water. But it is the knowledge of her life that convinces her: she leaves her waterpot, goes into the village and tells all, “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? (4:29). The story ends with Christ staying two days in Sychar, Samaria, then returning to Galilee. There is no record of His working in any other town; it appears that meeting this woman and those of her village was His whole purpose for the journey into Samaria.

The Art

Bloemaert has symbolized the woman’s need by the empty copper pot near her feet; while the greenery at Christ’s feet is lush, testifying to the abundant life that Christ’s water gives. The choice of clothing color is also significant. While purple is the color of royalty, Christ’s inner garment is violet, a color representing love, truth, passion, and suffering. His outer cloak is a vibrant red, certainly an association with blood. As the Messiah, Christ would suffer a violent death for the sins of this woman and of the whole world, because He loved those who would surely die without His living water. That a dying Messiah offers living water is an interesting juxtaposition. The yellow of the woman’s gown signals revealed truth but can also signify degradation. Here Bloemaert’s color choices (his palette was distinctive) reveal the storyline too. A sinful, marginalized woman encounters revealed truth, both in word and in person. What she does with that truth removes her shame and allows her to live forever as a child of God.

Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member

 

Published 2021