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Tag Archives: 1500s

Object of the Month: October 2023

Scenes from the Apocalypse

Oil on panel

Unknown French, mid-16th century

These M&G panels are painted sections from a winged altarpiece, positioned on, above, or behind the church’s altar. The wings or hinged doors would be opened for liturgical feasts and events. When the wings were closed, the side facing the audience was often painted in monochrome colors depicting various saints’ lives; as the wings were opened, the interior (including the other side of the doors) revealed more colorful pictures with a large feature painting in the center.

The Scenes from the Apocalypse by an unknown 16th-century French artist illustrates the medieval tradition of the Signs of the Apocalypse (drawn from Mark 13 and Revelation). These five separate panels were once joined in a single winged altarpiece with a total of fourteen or fifteen panels detailing the Signs and with the central interior panel possibly featuring the Last Judgment. Viewing these works from left to right,

  • Panel 1 is the Third Sign: sea monsters that ravage the seas.
  • Panel 2 is the reverse of Panel 1, being once united as a single panel.
  • Panel 3 is the Second Sign: the seas disappearing into the earth.
  • Panel 4 is the reverse of Panel 5, being once united as a single panel.
  • Panel 5 is the Fourth Sign: the burning of the seas and rivers.

Two ideas are fundamental to understanding this altarpiece. First, these panels illustrate the Word of God. According to Pope Gregory the Great (lived c.540-604), “Illiterate men can contemplate in the lines of a picture what they cannot learn by means of the written word.” Seeing the horrors of the End Times should motivate the viewer to take action to avoid them. These panels become visual conviction.

The Bible portrays man’s sinfulness and presents the atoning work of Christ as the remedy. The panels’ subject matter confronts the viewer with the penalty for sin even before the Last Judgment arrives. Juxtaposing these panels directly with the altar argues that Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, accepted by God the Father as payment for man’s sin and ratified by Christ’s resurrection from the dead, is man’s rescue from the Apocalypse. In view of these coming events, the physical placement of these panels prompts the viewer to appropriate for himself Christ’s sacrifice.

Secondly, the reverse of the panels—scenes from the lives of Old and New Testament figures—argues for the ability of humans to react properly to the revelation of God’s Word.

  • Panel 2 references the conversion of Saul of Tarsus when confronted with the crucified Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit as the dove and the holding of the slain Christ by God the Father clearly teaches the unity of the Trinity: Saul’s persecution of followers of Christ is persecution of the God that his pharisaical upbringing revered. The panel directly challenges the viewer to answer the Trinity in the same way Saul did: “What would you have me to do, Lord?”
  • Panel 4 is the Woman Clothed with the Sun. She is labeled in the Revelation as a sign (12:1), but not included in the medieval list of signs. The artist portrays the Woman just as the Scripture does: “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” Though many critics identify this Woman as the Virgin Mary, a continued reading of the biblical text—and a careful examination of the panel—shows that this Woman symbolizes the nation Israel whose annihilation the Dragon seeks in the Last Days. Note the dragon tail just visible at the bottom of the panel. The Jewish child is Christ who escapes the Dragon. But “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days” (12:6). Mary is not present at the end of the world, but the nation that brought forth the Messiah is. This panel, too, points to Christ as the provision of salvation from destruction of the Last Days.

Like the Pricke of Conscience, a series of stained-glass windows also based on the Signs of the Last Days, M&G’s panels challenge the viewer to consider the Apocalypse from a personal point of view.

 

Dr. Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member

 

Published 2023

Picture Books of the Past: Marietta Robusti

Enjoy this series of segments highlighting Picture Books of the Past: Reading Old Master Paintings, a loan exhibition of 60+ works from the M&G collection. The exhibit has traveled to The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. and the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida.

Marietta Robusti’s Allegory of Wisdom is replete with both Christian and mythological symbols. (Following your video viewing click HERE to access the additional information provided on the exhibition’s text panels.)

Object of the Month: August 2023

St. Margaret, St. Ursula, and St. Agnus

Oil on panel

Unknown Rhenish School

Rhenish, active c. 1500

In last month’s article on the companion panel by this Rhenish Master, we discovered that context reveals a wealth of information. We also learned that although there are common symbols in Christian iconography, most saints have one or more distinct attributes that alert us to their identity. Such clues are particularly important when seeking to determine saints with common names like Catherine—or Margaret.

There are two Margaret’s mentioned in traditional hagiographies: St. Margaret of Antioch and St. Margaret of Scotland. The far-left figure in this panel is most likely St. Margaret of Scotland. How do we know? According to legend, Margaret of Antioch was a young beauty who endured several harrowing ordeals before being martyred, including being swallowed by a dragon. The absence of this mythical beast, which became Margaret of Antioch’s distinguishing attribute, provides the first clue. In addition, there are no accompanying symbols indicating that the figure in this panel was martyred (e.g., no laurel wreath, sword, etc.). This elegantly posed Margaret simply points to the cross she holds. The cross is, of course, a universal symbol of Christianity but it is also an integral part of Margaret of Scotland’s life and legacy.

A relative of Edward the confessor, Margaret and her brother were forced to flee England when William the Conqueror invaded the realm. They took refuge in Scotland at the court of King Malcolm Canmore where Margaret “as beautiful as she was good and accomplished” soon captured the heart the king. The two were married in 1070. Alban Butler notes, “This marriage was fraught with great blessing for Malcolm and for Scotland. He was rough and uncultured but his disposition was good, and Margaret through the great influence she acquired over him, softened his temper, polished his manners, and rendered him one of the most virtuous kings who ever occupied the Scottish throne. . . . What she did for her husband Margaret also did in a great measure for her adopted country” (Butler, p. 182). She encouraged (and in some cases spearheaded) much needed reforms in the arts, education, and religion. She would die just four days after her husband, who had been slain while trying to stave off an attack on their castle. In addition to a cross, Margaret is often shown wearing her crown as in the stained-glass panel to the right from the Royal Collection Trust. (For a more detailed overview of Margaret’s life and times see David McRoberts historical essay, “St. Margaret Queen of Scotland.”)

Unlike Margaret of Scotland, there is considerable doubt regarding the historicity of the center figure St. Ursula. According to legend Ursula was the daughter of a Christian monarch who caught the eye of a pagan king. Upon his proposal Ursula asked (and was granted) a three-year delay. During this time of reprieve, she sailed off to visit the shrines of the saints. Accompanying her on the journey were ten noble ladies-in-waiting and several thousand companions of “lower birth.” At the end of the grace period, this formidable entourage turned toward home. However, a storm-tossed sea drove them off course forcing them to disembark at Cologne. While awaiting favorable winds, they crossed the Alps to visit the tombs of the apostles in Rome. Unfortunately when the sojourners returned to Cologne, they found the city besieged by the Huns—whose chieftain demanded that Ursula become his wife. When she refused, she and her fellow travelers “were set upon and massacred for their Christianity by the heathen Huns. Then the barbarians were dispersed by angels, the citizens buried the martyrs, and a church was built in their honor” (Butler, 130).

In this panel, Ursula is pictured holding a heart pierced with the three arrows the Chieftain supposedly used to kill her. In addition to this distinguishing attribute Ursula is also sometimes painted surrounded by her martyred entourage. The painting to the left by Vittore Carpaccio is a good illustration. Carpaccio’s rendering of Ursula is part of a famous cycle in the Gallerie dell’ Accademia in Venice—which is currently undergoing restoration. The cycle consists of nine paintings from Ursula’s life. You can read more about the history and preservation of this impressive undertaking at Save Venice: Conserving Art, Celebrating History.

The third figure, St. Agnes, has always been extremely popular in the lexicon of saints. According to the eminent church father Augustine, she was just thirteen when martyred. Her death likely occurred in Rome at the outset of Diocletian’s persecution which began in March of 303 AD. Though just a girl, “her riches and beauty excited the young noblemen of the first families in Rome to contend as rivals for her hand” (Butler, p. 96). But Agnes had resolved not to marry and when her suitors failed to persuade her otherwise, they went as one before the governor to accuse her of being a Christian. The wily politician at first endeavored to procure her recantation through seductive promises of worldly treasure. To no avail. “He then made use of threats, . . .terrible fires were made, and iron hooks, racks and other instruments of torture displayed before her, with threats of immediate execution. The heroic child surveyed them undismayed” (Butler, p. 96). The profligate politician then sent her to a house of prostitution, but any who sought to harm her, “were seized with such awe at the sight of the saint that they durst not approach her” (Ibid, p. 96). She was sent back to the governor unscathed which so stoked his rage that he had her beheaded, making the sword one of her defining attributes. She is also often pictured with a lamb (relating her name to the word agnus which is Latin for lamb).  M&G’s St. Michael the Archangel and St. Agnes by the Flemish painter Colijin de Coter highlights this symbol. Although modern authorities tend to dismiss many of the particulars of Agnes’s story, there is little doubt that she was martyred during the Roman persecution and that she was subsequently buried in one of the catacombs just outside of Rome along the Via Nomentana.

 

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education

 

Reference:

One Hundred and One Saints: Their Lives and Likenesses Drawn from Butler’s “Lives of the Saints and Great Works of Western Art.” A Bulfinch Press Book: Little, Brown and Company (Compilation Copyright 1993).

 

Published 2023

 

Object of the Month: July 2023

St. Barbara, St. Catherine, and St. Euphemia

Oil on panel

Unknown Rhenish School

Rhenish, active c. 1500

Although there is no biographical material on the painter of these works, we do know two facts. First, he was Rhenish (a designation coined in the 1300s referencing those who lived in a loosely defined region of Europe bordering the Rhine). Second, we know that he was active around 1500—at the height of the Renaissance. During his lifetime literacy and learning were increasing, capitalism emerging, scientific discoveries flourishing, and with the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press mass communication was transforming every aspect of European culture. In The Panorama of the Renaissance Margaret Aston notes, “The invention of printing changed the whole intellectual world forever. Without it, classical learning would have been confined to a Coterie of scholars; the reformation would have been a quarrel between theologians; popular literature would have been impossible; scientific discoveries would have languished unread” (p. 206).

This “revolution” had a tremendous influence on the visual arts as well. Artists across Europe could now readily disseminate images of their paintings, woodcuts, and engravings for critique and profit. In addition, printed versions of works like Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend reinvigorated the visual imagination. Originally compiled between 1260 and 1298, de Voragine’s hagiography (idealized biography of the saints) became the most printed book in Europe between 1470 and 1530. One 16th-century historian observed that “artists found in The Golden Legend a storehouse of events and persons to be illustrated,” and the imagery created in these “illustrations” helped codify the iconographic tradition we still reference today. For example, the figures in this panel painting are identified by their attributes—objects, clothing, colors, and symbols linked to their specific biographies. As we’ll see in our analysis, attributes may be shared by more than one saint; however, each saint usually has at least one key attribute that highlights his or her individuality.

Although St. Barbara, the first of the three saints in this panel, was one of the most popular saints during the Middle Ages, her story is most likely fictional. In Lives of the Saints, Alban Butler notes “There is considerable doubt of the existence of a virgin martyr called Barbara, and it is quite certain that her legend is spurious.” Regardless, her story is a fascinating read. According to legend, she was the beautiful daughter of Dioscorus—a wealthy Roman who built a lavish tower to hide her from the world. Dioscorus’s motivation for this sequestration varies. In some versions he is driven by protective love, in others simple cruelty. Details of her conversion also vary. In one of the more popular accounts, while her father is away on a journey Barbara invites a Christian disciple to visit her in the tower and is persuaded to accept Christianity. Soon after her conversion she summons a workman and insists that he create a third window in her tower wall. Upon his return, Dioscorus questions this architectural alteration. Barbara replies: “Three windows [symbolizing the trinity] lighten all the world and all creatures, but two make darkness.” She also reveals to her father her newfound faith. Enraged Dioscorus turns her over to the Roman authorities to be tortured. Then, at his own request, he is given a sword and “permitted to strike off her head.” But this cruel deed does not go unpunished. As Dioscorus travels home, he is struck down by a bolt of lightning and dies. In addition to the sword, Barbara’s key attributes include the sacramental cup and wafer pictured in M&G’s work and the three-windowed, cathedral-like tower shown in Jan van Eyck’s metalpoint brush drawing. The palm frond (which Romans used as a symbol of victory) is also included in van Eyck’s portrait and is a common symbol of a martyr’s triumph over death.

The sword held by the remaining two figures is also a commonly shared symbol of martyrdom by beheading. However, both figures are also pictured with an additional symbol unique to their individual narratives. Notice the broken, spiked “wheel” entwined in the hem of the central figure’s robe; this object identifies her as Catherine of Alexandria whose martyrdom involved not only a sword but also a spiked wheel.  Dr. Karen Jones covers the details of this Egyptian princess’s life and iconography in an article highlighting another M&G portrait of Catherine by Francesco Casella.

St. Euphemia is memorialized in both Catholic and Greek Orthodox hagiographic literature and art. The M&G image with its subtle blending of flesh tones and more complex figuration is characteristic of a western painting style, while the inset portrait to the right highlights the stylized form and painstaking precision of Greek icon painting. Both images, though vastly different, are equally compelling. Differences in the literary texts are minimal. In almost all versions, Euphemia is born in Chalcedon in 304 A. D. when Rome ruled the known world.  height. The narrative begins when the Chalcedon governor Priscus orders all inhabitants to attend a festival honoring the god Ares. Unwilling to participate in this pagan ritual 49 believers (including the young Euphemia) gather in a house to pray. Their hiding place is soon discovered, and the worshipers brought before Priscus. For 19 days they are tortured but all refuse to deny the faith. So Priscus sends all but Euphemia to Emperor Diocletian in Rome for execution. Separated from her fellow believers, the governor tempts her with promises of earthly blessings; still Euphemia stands firm. Enraged the governor orders her cast into fire, but the flames fail to burn her; he then sends her into the arena, but the wild animals refuse to attack her. It is here in the climax of the narrative that Greek and Catholic versions of the legend diverge. In the Greek version Euphemia prays that the Lord will allow her to die a violent death in the arena. In answer to her prayer a she-bear approaches and gives her a small wound in the leg. Blood begins to flow from the wound and eventually she dies. In the Catholic version she is eventually beheaded for neither lions nor bears will do her harm. Hence, her distinguishing attribute is either a bear or a lion like the one languidly resting at her feet in our Rhenish panel.

This is one of two panels created by this unknown master. His second panel (equally lovely) showcases Saint Margaret, Saint Ursula, and Saint Agnus. We’ll take a look at their stories in our next month’s article.

 

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education

Additional Resources:

The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.)

One Hundred and One Saints: Their Lives and Likenesses Drawn from Butler’s “Lives of the Saints and Great Works of Western Art.” A Bulfinch Press Book: Little, Brown and Company (Compilation Copyright 1993).

 

Published 2023

Object of the Month: June 2023

Jonah Under the Gourd Vine

Oil on panel, monogrammed: D.F.

Maerten van Heemskerck (attr. to)

Dutch, 1498–1574

Maerten van Heemskerck was born the son of a farmer June 1498 in the Netherlands. He left the farm to study art under Cornelis Willemsz. in Haarlem and Jan Lucasz. in Delft. Between 1527-1530, Heemskerck placed himself under the tutelage of Jan van Scorel in Haarlem. M&G’s collection includes works by Scorel and Heemskerck’s biographer, Karl van Mander. Scorel had extensively studied in Utrecht (with Jan Gossaert), Germany (with Albrecht Durer), Switzerland, Venice, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Crete, and finally Rome. During his time in Rome, his artistic style was heavily influenced by the works of Michelangelo and Raphael. Scorel brought these new artistic ideas back with him to the Netherlands and taught them to Heemskerck.

Perhaps Scorel’s adventures inspired Heemskerck. Like many today in modern society, Heemskerck planned his own summer vacation. In 1532, he set off for an adventure with the primary purpose of seeing the Seven Wonders of the World. He left a parting gift for colleagues in the form of an altarpiece for St. Luke’s altar in Bavokerk depicting St. Luke painting Mary. He landed in Rome, July 1532. On his travels, he “made accurate, conscientious sketches of antique ruins and statues” (National Gallery of Art). He also was able to view for himself the works of Michelangelo and Raphael. In 1537, he returned to Haarlem where he remained for the rest of his life. He became well known for portraits, religious paintings, and producing designs for engravers.

M&G’s Jonah Under the Gourd Vine displays elements from Heemskerck’s travels. In the background behind Jonah, he includes the Vatican Obelisk as well as a bridge over the Tiber River which he probably saw during his time in Rome. In fact, the city of Nineveh looks more like the city of Rome than a city in the Middle East. Even the figure of Jonah mimics Michelangelo’s figures in The Creation of Adam. The whole composition imitates Heemskerck’s The Last Four Things as well as his Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World.

Heemskerck depicts the portion of the story of Jonah where he has finally obeyed God’s call to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. In Jonah 1:1, God commissioned Jonah to go to Nineveh and give the city a chance to turn from evil to God. However, Jonah thought that Nineveh deserved condemnation and judgment not mercy (Jonah 4: 2), so he attempted to run in the opposite direction toward Tarshish. Jonah’s disobedience resulted in his spending three days and three nights in the belly of fish before he repented, and God mercifully rescued him. Jonah now had a second chance to obey.

Jonah consented; he went and preached repentance to Nineveh. To his surprise, the whole city repented, including the king. Instead of rejoicing over those who repented, Jonah pouted in anger. Here Heemskerck portrays Jonah taking shelter under the leaves of a gourd vine overlooking the city of Nineveh with God looking down from the heavens. Trailing from his hand is a banner inscribed with BENE IRASCOR EGO VSQVE AD MORTEM IONA CA 4 16 which communicates Jonah’s true feelings: “Rightly I myself am exceedingly angry unto death, Jonah 4:16.” Having experienced God’s mercy first-hand and himself been given a second chance, Jonah should have delighted in God’s compassion. Sadly, he placed himself in the position of telling God what he believed God should have done—to pass judgment on the Ninevites. James 1:19-20 reminds us that unlike Jonah, we should follow God’s example and be “slow to wrath.”

 

Rebekah Cobb

M&G Collections Support Staff

Published 2023

Holy Kinship

Holy Kinship

Vincent Sellaer, called Geldersman

Below the image, click play to listen.

Christ before Pilate: Master of St. Severin

This work is a merging of past and present, making it one of the most intriguing paintings in the exhibition.

Pieter Bruegel, the Elder

Hunters in the Snow

Pieter Bruegel, the Elder

Below the image, click play to listen.

Juan Sanchez, the Younger

The Flight into Egypt and The Nativity

Juan Sanchez, the Younger (formerly, Master of the Large Figures)

Below the image, click play to listen.

Picture Books of the Past: Unknown Follower of Paolo Caliari, called Paolo Veronese

Enjoy this series of segments highlighting Picture Books of the Past: Reading Old Master Paintings, a loan exhibition of 60+ works from the M&G collection. The exhibit has traveled to The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D. C. and the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida.

This work introduces one of Jesus’s most devoted followers, Mary Magdalene. Notice that her clothing is of silk and velvet, the rich fabrics of a prosperous woman. However, this imagery of prosperity is offset by the murky background and the presence of a skull. Her body position (which turns her away from death’s symbol) and her long, flowing hair (reminiscent of her repentance) shifts the narrative mood from one of despair to hope.