Hebrew Demi Omer
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Oil on canvas
This magnificent 18th-century Roman work may be a rare one by Giovanni Domenico Piastrini and betrays a strong connection to his teacher Benedetto Luti. Piastrini was arguably his best pupil, though very little survives to document his life or oeuvre. Some experts believe that certain passages (for example, the handling of the male figure at the left forefront of the table, the woman at the far right of the table, and the brushwork in the kneeling figure at the extreme right) are painted as if by Luti himself. Other portions, such as the bride and groom, betray a strong connection to the early work of Luti’s other student, Placido Constanzi. While Piastrini’s style is clearly dependent on that of his teacher and his fellow student, other elements of the painting are clearly of his own derivation.
Though so little is definitively known about the painting, the one surety is the subject. Piastrini illustrates the first of Jesus Christ’s miracles (though not a public one) at the wedding feast of a friend of the family. John’s Gospel (2:1-11) clearly says that Mary was present, and that Jesus and His disciples were invited. The distinction is subtle, but important to the story.
Mary seems to be especially close to the hosts, close enough to be concerned that the wine was gone, unlike a mere guest. So Mary goes to her Son with only a statement of the need; she sees no reason to spell out her request. She knows her son. Jesus’ calling His mother, “Woman,” may seem cold, but He addresses her the same way from the cross as He directs John to care for her, a tender act under horrific conditions. The question “What have I to do with thee?” may possibly be a rebuke, but only a very gentle one considering that He resolves her concern. He was here on earth to show that He was the Messiah, not to solve a banquet shortage. However, His relationship with His mother is such that she has utmost confidence in His compassion, even in situations of social crisis. Trustingly, she issues instruction to the servants, “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it” (v. 5). Again, only a close friend would give another’s servants an order, especially of such an open-ended nature. Jesus may not have an obligation to solve the problem, but Mary apparently feels a responsibility to save her friends from embarrassment. And Jesus is touched with compassion for her.
Piastrini places Mary next to an older woman, probably the mother of the groom who is clearly enthralled with his bride. (And, she is apparently appreciative of her wedding necklace!) Mary’s eyes are downcast submissively (remember her submissive answer to Gabriel’s surprising news?), and her hands are in the classic pose of prayer. Perhaps Piastrini reflects the Catholic tradition of Mary as the intercessor to Christ for those on earth. She has certainly interceded for the hosts, but not in any way remotely connected to eternal salvation. It is doubtful that the artist’s rendering depicts the moment she asks her Son for help since the servants are posed to pour out the water-into-wine for the governor of the feast, according to Christ’s instruction.
The governor of the feast (in the green) is clearly discussing the matter of the empty wine vessel (made of fine silver to show the importance of the occasion). The servant on the left side reassures him that there is more wine ready to serve. No one else seems to be concerned, not even Mary—now. Presumably the stone water jars which now hold wine are too heavy to pour from, so the servant in the right foreground uses a smaller silver vessel to pour the beverage into the larger silver urn from which the serving pitcher can be filled.
John carefully relates that no one knows where the latest—and best—wine has come from. Except the servants. Christ has not revealed Himself to the general public for His “hour had not yet come.” But He did reveal Himself to the common man, as He always did in His ministry, finding in them a willingness to believe in His deity that the religious leaders of the day did not. Piastrini composes his work so that the common man and the miracle itself are in the foreground of the painting and thus, in the forefront of the viewer’s mind. Christ’s upraised hand in the iconic pose of blessing shows He not only blesses the feast with His provision, but also the marriage with His presence.
Whether by a single artist or as a collaboration, The Wedding Feast at Cana celebrates the early 18th-century Roman style. The brilliant coloration of fabrics, the monumental size (almost 6×12 feet!), the gestured poses of multiple figures, and the classical architecture serving as backdrop for the staged event all contribute to a masterful late Roman interpretation of this biblical banquet scene.
Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member
Published in 2020
Glass, a practical material as well as an artistic art form, was first created more than a thousand years before the Romans conquered the world. Even though the Romans did not invent the scientific process of creating glass, they are recognized as skilled craftsmen in the art.
Roman glass like the uniquely shaped forms in M&G’s Bowen Collection of Antiquities begs the viewer to study ancient glass. What makes it iridescent? What was it used for? Was it just for the wealthy?
The word iridescence is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a lustrous rainbowlike play of color caused by differential refraction of light waves (as from an oil slick, soap bubble, or fish scales) that tends to change as the angle of view changes.” M&G’s Roman glass did not begin as an iridescent piece. The iridescent effect was created by the slow decomposition of the glass over time. The alkali in the glass was drawn out and then mixed with the water within the soil in which it was buried, thus leaving colorful hues on the outside of the glass.
Roman glass bowls and bottles were used to hold precious liquids: oils, perfumes, ointments, cosmetics, medicine and perhaps tears of a grieving loved one. While some speculate that tear bottles were not actually used to capture a grieving person’s tears, Scripture gives credence to the idea in Psalm 56:8, “Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” The romance of capturing one’s tears only makes the bottle all the more mysterious and beautiful.
Roman glass was readily available and affordable for the common person to own—so prevalent, that third-century Emperor Gallienus refused to drink from a glass “because nothing was more common.” However, Emperor Tacitus who followed Gallienus’s reign “took great pleasure in the diversity and elaborate workmanship of glass.” These beautiful glass receptacles might have once been owned by a slave, plebeian, patrician, or emperor. Regardless, though, ancient examples of glass are well preserved and have turned more beautiful over time.
To view Roman glass from the Bowen Collection of Antiquities, visit The Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, where many M&G antiquities are currently on loan.
Angie Snow, Museum Educator
Published in 2019
Oil on canvas, Signed and dated, Félix Leullier, 1880
In this arresting example of the nineteenth-century Romantic style, Felix Louis Leullier uses all the forces of paint and position to create a gruesome depiction of one of the most famous martyrdoms of the Christian church. Little known outside of France, Felix trained with Antoine-Jean Gros, renowned for his depictions of some of Napoleon’s famous battles: Battle of Arcole, Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau, and Battle of Abukir. Gros leaves little to the imagination in the spheres of conflict and conquest, so it is no wonder that his student, Felix, would choose to depict a martyrdom in a context resembling the twisted forms often found on a battlefield.
The painting’s setting is the Roman Amphitheatre in Carthage, the North African center of Christianity in the early centuries following Christ’s death and resurrection; there is little more than an outline remaining today of the prominent structure that seated 30,000. Although Felix most likely did not travel to that part of the world, he could have easily participated in a Grand Tour, a customary excursion in the 18th and 19th centuries for men coming of age, to see and learn from the culture and histories of antiquity. Such a broadening and experiential trip included significant time in Rome, where the Colosseum was a chief point of interest and which is very similar to Carthage’s own great amphitheater. The combined influence of travel and exposure to prominent depictions like Granet’s Interior View of the Colosseum in Rome, 1804 and Towne’s The Colosseum, 1781, Leullier opts to create only a faint representation of an outdoor arena.
On March 7, 203 AD, under the rule of the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, the noblewoman Vibia Perpetua, was executed with her handmaid, Felicitas, and fellow catechumens, Revocatus, Saturninus, and Secundulus. Just a few years earlier in 197 AD in his treatise Apologeticus, Tertullian had posited that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” As providence would have it, Tertullian himself was eyewitness and later chronicler to the gripping event portrayed in this work.
In addition to Tertullian’s account and Perpetua’s own prison diary, Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis, in which she captures much of the detail up until the hour of her entrance into the arena, many attempts to present the event have been created in various media formats. It is contained in older volumes like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), as well as in more recent accounts like Thomas J. Heffernan’s The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (2012). It is visible in paintings, drawings, mosaics, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts like Menologion of Basil II; and it has been presented in investigative journalism in the PBS Frontline series, From Jesus to Christ (1998).
Leullier’s visual rendering is indeed grand both in presentation and size, measuring nearly seven feet high by nine feet wide. Though literary works relate that Perpetua and Felicitas were martyred separately from the men, Leullier deviates from the historical account and instead depicts the entire company—the martyrs, the men that assaulted them, and the many animals that mauled them. By placing the massacre in the forefront of the work, the purity and testimony of these Christians’ story cannot be ignored.
Bonnie Merkle, M&G Database Manager and Docent
Published in 2018
Roman, circa 2nd-3rd century AD
In 1931 after retiring from church ministry, Frank and Barbara Bowen traveled on what was to be the first of several trips to the Holy Land. Motivated by a desire to make the Bible and its culture accessible to those who might never visit the Middle East, Mr. and Mrs. Bowen began collecting artifacts. With each trip, they added more to their collection including objects from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, and even from the Royal Tombs of Egypt. Among those antiquities were many small vessels vital to the daily life of ancient civilizations: oil lamps.
These necessary pieces of practical technology were used universally by the ancient peoples of Greece, Italy, Egypt and more. The earliest lamps were carved from stone or made of clay; other materials included various metals, the most popular of which was bronze. Oil lamps also served as a status symbol. The poor usually had a plain bowl and couldn’t always afford to light a lamp every day. Because metal was considered a higher quality material, wealthier citizens owned more ornate, metal lamps with multiple mouths; these lamps required more wicks and oil, making them more costly to use.
The standard design for oil lamps comprised of a wick, fuel and a reservoir to hold the fuel. The wicks were made of plant fibers such as linen, papyrus and flax. Early lamps entailed a flat, saucer-like basin that was pinched at the top creating a place for the wick to rest (figure 1). With this open design came the risk for oil spillage—an issue supposedly resolved by the Greeks, who developed a closed vessel. Lamps eventually evolved to include multiple spouts allowing for more than one wick and a brighter output (figures 2 and 3).
Ancient peoples most often used olive oil as fuel. Besides being relatively odorless, olive oil generated less smoke and soot and burned cleaner than alternative fuels such as animal fat, beeswax, fish oil or oils from sesame, nuts and radish seed. Burning fuel required vigilant supervision because of the potential for fire and smoke; special niches were designed in the home specifically to hold oil lamps and other fire-producing utilities like stoves and ovens. If a lamp was placed on a table, it would be positioned on top of another vessel that would collect any spilling oil.
Just like our light fixtures today, ancient lamps primarily functioned as a source of light both indoors and outdoors. They provided light for daily household activities, businesses, and streets; they were used at soldier encampments and occasionally by fishermen for evening fishing expeditions. Lamps played an important, even symbolic role at weddings, funerals and in the synagogues. For example, sometimes ancient people would bury an oil lamp with the dead to light the deceased’s journey in the afterlife.
Understanding the importance and use of oil lamps illuminates the Biblical parables of The Lost Coin (Luke 15) and The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25)—a story of five wise virgins who packed extra oil while five foolish virgins failed to plan ahead. Matthew does not tell us at what time the women began their vigil for the bridegroom; however, when the bridegroom appeared at midnight, the virgins needed to “trim their lamps” by adding more oil and cutting the wick indicating they had been waiting for some time. Because the foolish virgins neglected to bring extra oil, they needed to leave and purchase more; thus they missed the opportunity to enter the wedding banquet with the bridegroom. Thanks to Frank and Barbara Bowen’s collection (now part of the Museum & Gallery), many biblical passages come alive to the modern world.
To learn more about the Bowens and their collection, visit here.
Rebekah Cobb, former M&G Guest Relations Manager
Bonnie Merkle, M&G Database Manager and Docent
Published in 2018
Oil on canvas
Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.
Although born in Gaeta, Italy in 1680, Sebastiano Conca received his early training in Naples as a student of Francesco Solimena. Conca’s teacher followed the style of his great Neapolitan predecessor, Luca Giordano as well as Giovanni Lanfranco and Mattia Preti, all of whom are represented in M&G’s collection.
Sebastiano eventually moved to Rome (along with his brother Giovanni) in 1706 to begin his own practice. He remained in Rome for about 45 years rising in popularity and becoming one of the most sought after artists of his day. Some of his most notable patrons included Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, various members of the royal families of Spain, Portugal, and Poland, and even Pope Clement XI himself. He returned to Naples, his artistic roots, around 1752 where he remained the rest of his career. Considered his best work, the Coronation of St. Cecilia adorns the ceiling of the nave of the Basilica of St. Cecilia in Rome.
His style evolved from the Giordanesque influence of his early teacher, Solimena, to Baroque classicism and eventually the Rococo for his smaller works. He was not only an artist, but he was also twice the director of the Accademia di San Luca, a teacher (one of his most notable students being Pompeo Batoni), and a published author.
This pair of small, cabinet paintings appear to derive from four, large wall paintings Conca created for the Palazzo Lomellini-Balbi-Lamba-Doria in Genoa. While the four large works each feature an individual Virtue, these smaller pendants present them in pairs. Richard P. Townsend notes, “the painter’s combinations are particularly appropriate: prudence should always inform fortitude and justice should be dispensed with temperance.”
The four Cardinal Virtues are the foundation on which all others rest: Justice, Temperance, Prudence, and Fortitude. Artists and authors alike portray these virtues as women. Conca’s personification of the four Cardinal Virtues appears to be loosely based on Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, which was the primary resource for many artists active in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries looking to personify virtue and vice.
Here Conca draws symbols from three different types of justice described in Ripa’s book. Justice sits on the left with her symbolic scales used to weigh and measure the two sides of a court case. The crown on her head and sword in her hand show her power and authority to execute the verdict. Resting beneath her lies the fasces (a group of wooden rods bundled together with an axe-blade protruding), the emblem of authority for magistrates in ancient Rome.
To the right, Temperance reclines holding a bridle by which she reigns in affections and passions with moderation and self-control. Clutched in the opposite hand, she holds a palm frond, a sign of victory in Roman culture. She is often portrayed tempering wine with water a task carried out by an angel in this work.
Crushed between them lies Vice, an immoral behavior or negative character trait. Together Justice and Temperance overcome Vice, depicted here by hiding her true face with a mask of deceit.
Aristotle describes prudence as “right reason applied to practice.” Conca’s Prudence features two characteristic attributes: a mirror and serpent. A mirror allows for self-examination from multiple angles. It reveals the truth about oneself. The serpent alludes to Matthew 10:16 where Christ tells the disciples to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
Fortitude, “strength of mind which enables one to bear adversity with courage,” sits beside Prudence, clothed in armor and holding a shield by which she is prepared to battle Evil. Fortitude is often portrayed near or leaning on a column which lends her support (in reference to the Biblical Samson). Her spear shows her “superiority gained by strength,” and the lion resting by her side expresses strength and courage.
An angel holds Evil bound with a chain at their feet showing the triumph of Prudence and Fortitude over Evil.
Rebekah Cobb, Guest Relations Manager
Published in 2016
Oil on canvas
Generally, a painter’s style refers to the way an artist executes a painting. Style can also be described as a general trend in painting usually initiated by an artist seeking to paint in an innovative or previously unexplored way. However, a specific artist’s style can often be revealed in his individual expression—idiosyncrasies that help experts identify his work. For example, an artist may paint faces with certain characteristics (i.e. chubby cheeks, almond-shaped eyes, or small ears), use backgrounds in a similar way, or mark out his composition with heavy drawings before painting.
The technique an artist uses to apply paint is also characteristic of style. Every painter employs certain techniques that become distinctive to them—Botticelli outlined his figures; Rembrandt used very thick paint in highlights; Degas used hatching marks in his pastels; Van Gogh used thick paint for each individual brushstroke, etc… So, the actual stroke and method an artist uses to apply paint becomes an integral part of his personal style. Connoisseurs and scholars thoroughly inspect, discern, and memorize both the artist’s characteristic techniques and the general style or trend the artist follows—these are subjective considerations in determining a painting’s attribution.
To illustrate the concepts of style and technique, consider the context of Lanfranco’s painting of St. Cecilia from c.1620. At the turn of the 17th century, Italian artist Caravaggio initiated a style of painting viewed as revolutionary for his time. Artists all around him were painting in the “mannerist” style of the time—an eclectic blend of ideal forms with asymmetrical compositions, uneven or overall lighting effects, and garish colors. However, Caravaggio broke from these conventions to explore the dramatic possibilities of lighting combined with a candid, straightforward realism.
Caravaggio’s innovative style flourished rapidly within Rome’s fertile artistic environment, and Giovanni Lanfranco was one of the artists influenced by Caravaggio’s radical style, as evidenced in M&G’s painting. The half-length figures emerge from a dark background, bathed in a heavenly light streaming in from the upper left. The effect is intensified by deep shadows covering nearly half of each figure. This manipulation of light mixed with a strong sense of realism meet the criteria for the style that Caravaggio inspired called tenebrism.
Lanfranco worked in the tenebrist style intermittently throughout his career, with this St. Cecilia being one of his best representative works. However, M&G’s work is not his only treatment of this subject. The National Gallery’s St. Cecilia and an Angel in Washington D.C. provides unique insight into identifying Lanfranco’s particular style and technique; the National Gallery painting has been confirmed as a collaboration of two artists—Giovanni Lanfranco and Orazio Gentileschi. In 1990, Erich Schleier, the foremost scholar on Giovanni Lanfranco, expressed the opinion that the sleeves and hands of St. Cecilia reflect the style of Lanfranco (for centuries before, the painting bore a firm attribution to Orazio Gentileschi, one of Caravaggio’s principal Roman followers). Following Schleier’s input, further research was made into the old Rondanini inventories from which the National Gallery (and M&G’s) painting once belonged. Alessandro Rondanini’s painting inventory compiled on January 19, 1741 described two St. Cecilia paintings: one (M&G’s) by Lanfranco says, “St. Cecilia playing the cembalo with two angels,” and the other St. Cecilia (National Gallery) “with the heads by the hand of Gentileschi and the rest by Giovanni Lanfranco.”
Not only did the 1741 inventory confirm the attribution of the National Gallery’s painting to Gentileschi and Lanfranco, but analysis of x-radiographs, pigments, and x-ray fluorescence by National Gallery conservators have also supported this conclusion. This remarkable example reveals how expert (subjective) opinion by Erich Schleier led to objective proof for the collaborative attribution found in an old inventory and supported by scientific tests.
Studying the sleeves of M&G’s St. Cecilia furnishes insight into Schleier’s stylistic and technical analysis of comparing Lanfranco’s hands and sleeves in the Washington painting. Cecilia’s hands in both works are formed in a curved manner, almost as if no bone structure supported the flesh. Since artists tend to paint similar figural forms in paintings from a particular phase of their career, the stylistic detail of the hands in the Washington and Greenville paintings reflect the way Lanfranco uniquely handled this element of his composition. The flowing sleeves have highlights painted with rapid, bold brushstrokes, which is another stylistic trait carried over in each work.
In 1620, Lanfranco turned from the influence of other artists and was the first to develop an inventive style of ceiling fresco that presents an atmospheric illusion of figures rising into the heavens by using dramatic foreshortening and figure recession as seen in the fresco of the dome of S. Andrea della Valle in Rome; this Lanfranco innovation created a sensation inspiring many artists after him to use and develop this style.
John M. Nolan, Curator
Published in 2014