Advent Calendar – Door 24: A doorway to peace

Aldo Capitini
Fondazione Centro Studi Aldo Capitini (CC0)

Another chance discovery I made while browsing the Europeana Collections: When I first saw this photo, I immediately felt I recognized that doorway, though I couldn’t quite place it. But just looking at the picture brought back an almost physical memory of being somewhere high above the ground. Then I remembered: This is the platform high up on the unfinished facade of Siena’s Duomo Nuovo, a popular lookout point for visitors to the city. Well, that’s the architecture covered, but who, you may wonder, is the man in the photo?

As it turns out, he is Aldo Capitini (1899-1968), an Italian philosopher, educator, antifascist and pacifist. He played a key part in establishing the non-violence movement in his home country and is therefore sometimes dubbed “the Italian Gandhi”.

The picture of the young Capitini in Siena belongs to a large collection of images from his family’s private photo albums, provided by the Fondazione Centro Studi Aldo Capitini in Perugia and also available through the Europeana database. The material seems to span the period from the late-19th to the mid-20th century, and, as you’d expect from such a private collection, it includes everything from holiday snapshots to posed family portraits, offering sometimes intimate glimpses into the lives of long-deceased strangers.

Unknown relatives of Aldo Capitini
Fondazione Centro Studi Aldo Capitini (CC0)

But there are also more formal images of Capitini in the database, pertaining to his role as a public intellectual and educator. Also included are photos documenting one of his most enduring achievements, the Marcia per la Pace [Peace March] from Perugia to Assisi, which he organised in 1961, at the height of the Cold War. The March has since become a regular event, held every two or three years, and to this day marks an important date in the calendar of the Italian peace movement…

Marcia per la Pace (just outside Perugia’s Porta San Pietro), 1961
Fondazione Centro Studi Aldo Capitini (CC0)

As you may know, in the Christmas story according to the gospel of Luke, the angel’s message to the shepherd’s reads: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” [King James version]. No matter what you think of the first, “heavenly” part of that message, I do believe that, in any case, its second, “earthly” part is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. In this spirit: Merry Christmas!

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Advent Calendar – Door 23: The Entrance to Luther’s Chamber

Georg Konrad Rothbart, Entrance of the Lutherstube in the Veste Coburg, c. 1844
Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg (CC BY-NC-SA)

A view of the Lutherstube [Luther’s Chamber] in the Veste Coburg, an important fortress in Upper Franconia. The chamber takes its name from the fact that Martin Luther stayed there for almost half a year in 1530. In the painting by Georg Konrad Rothbart (1817-1896), though, we only catch a glimpse of the room through the Gothic revival door of the adjoining Reformatorenzimmer [Reformer’s Room]. All we see of the Lutherstube is just a bit of the floor and part of a window niche with an old-fashioned upholstered chair in it. Framed by the elaborate doorway, the empty chair takes up the centre of the composition and becomes the focal point of the viewer’s attention. Given the painting’s subject, the chair almost seems to become a stand-in for the chamber’s former occupant, its emptiness a visual sign of Luther’s absence in the painter’s own time.

But Luther is actually present in the image, too: His portrait can be seen in the top left corner, on the wall of the Reformatorenzimmer in the foreground. Through the juxtaposition between the portrait and the empty chair, the painter creates an interesting tension between presence and absence. Rothbart may not have been the greatest artist of his generation, but in this case at least, he finds a rather brilliant solution to the task of depicting a room which is now basically just an empty space, but somehow still preserves the memory of an important historical figure.

P. S.: The slightly blurry portrait of Luther visible in the painting is actually one of several historicizing portraits of Reformers decorating the Reformatorenzimmer – and was painted by the very same Rothbart in 1844. Here is a full view of it:

Georg Konrad Rothbart, Martin Luther (Reformatorenzimmer, Veste Coburg), 1844
Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg (CC BY-NC-SA)

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Advent Calendar – Door 22: Two Garden Gates

Joseph Maria Olbrich, Design for a Garden Gate, 1900/01
Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA)

December 22 marks the birthday of Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908), one of the more interesting but perhaps lesser-known Art Nouveau architects of Vienna. After completing his studies at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, Olbrich joined the office of Otto Wagner. His big break came in 1897 when he was chosen to design the building of the Vienna Secession which was much debated at the time, but has long since achieved iconic status. Two years later, Olbrich  relocated to Darmstadt in Germany, where he became the leading architect of the artists’ colony Mathildenhöhe.

Joseph Maria Olbrich, Design for a Gate at the Gartenbauausstellung,  1905
Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA)

Here in Vienna, it seems, Olbrich never really became a household name among the general public, despite his involvement with Wagner and the Secession. This is partly due to the fact that he left the city at a relatively early point of his career, partly to his early death, at the age of only forty. That being said, he has always been well remembered among architecture nerds lovers, and in recent years, his reputation has noticably grown, not least thanks to a large exhibition dedicated to his work in 2010 at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Nonetheless, he’s still not as well known as he deserves, so I thought I’d use his birthday as an opportunity to post a couple of his designs…

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Advent Calendar – Door 21: The Churchyard Gate in Bunge

Bertil Berthelson, The Churchyard Gate in Bunge, 1941
Swedish National Heritage Board (Public Domain)

When I first saw this photo, its almost poetic simplicity immediately appealed to me: There’s an empty lawn, a rough stone wall cutting across it, a line of barren winter trees against the sky, and that’s basically it. Upon looking more closely, admittedly, one discovers several houses and other buildings in the background, but what dominates the composition are the diagonal lines of the wall and the treetops receding into the distance. Almost – but not quite exactly – in the centre of the picture, a white, high-gabled gate stands out, drawing the viewer’s attention towards it.

To be honest, though, what really excited my interest in this photo was the place name given in the original image caption: “Bunge kyrka” – the church in Bunge, a settlement in Gotland, Sweden. Now, I’m aware I said in an earlier post that I didn’t know too much about Scandinavian art, but I do know about medieval art, so the name Bunge rang a bell: This church was once home to one of the most important Gothic sculptures in Gotland, even in all of Sweden, i. e. a wooden statue of St. Olof, now in the Statens Historiska Museum in Stockholm.

Statue of St. Olof from Bunge, c. 1325-1350
Statens historiska museum, Stockholm (CC BY-NC-ND)

Carved in the first half of the 14th century, this figure is of exceedingly high quality and has stylistic ties to the Hanseatic cities of Northern Germany, especially Lübeck. Unfortunately, nothing is known about the artist’s identity, so art historians, with their usual flurry of imagination, have dubbed him the Bunge Master.

When the sculpture was made, the church building in Bunge was still brand new as well. It dates from the very beginning of the 14th century, and so does the wall that surrounds it, including the churchyard gates. Thus, when photographed from a more frontal position, the gate visible in the first photo also reveals itself as rather fine piece of Gothic architecture:

Johnny Roosval, The Churchyard Gate in Bunge, 1916
Swedish National Heritage Board (Public Domain)


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Advent Calendar – Door 20: The Portal Reial in Poblet

The Portal Reial, Monestir de Poblet
via Wikimedia Commons, by PMRMaeyaert (CC BY-SA)

If Monday’s post was about photography’s artistic possibilities, today’s is all about its documentary capibilities. What you see in the above (and in the following) pictures may look like the gate of a castle or a fortress, but is actually, once again, the entrance to a monastery, in this case the Cistercian Abbey of Poblet in the province of Tarragona, Spain. The monastery was founded in 1151, and most of its buildings date from the period between the 12th and the 15th century. The impressive structure in the photo(s) is known as the Portal Reial (Royal Gate) and forms part of the abbey’s defenses erected upon the initiative of King Peter IV of Aragon in the 14th century. It is flanked by two perfectly symmetrical fortified towers with machiolations beneath their battlements. As another photo from c. 1920 shows, the gate hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years or so:

The Portal Reial, Monestir de Poblet
Ajuntament de Girona (Public Domain)

However, the Europeana Collections include even older pictures of the Portal Reial, and once one moves back in time a bit further, small but notable differences begin to appear. Thus, in a photo taken between c. 1900 and 1920, the left of the two towers is still topped by crenellations which are missing in the more recent images:

The Portal Reial, Monestir de Poblet
Ajuntament de Girona (Public Domain)

An even earlier photo from c. 1860-1886 shows differences to the tower on the right hand side, too. Its battlement is lower and more irregular than in the later pictures, giving it the impression of being either damaged or unfinished:

J. Laurent (1816-1886), The Portal Reial, Monestir de Poblet
Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España (CC BY-NC-ND)

As is so often the case with medieval buildings, then, the perfect symmetry we see today is owed, at least in part, to a late-19th/early-20th-century restoration.

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Advent Calendar – Door 19: The entrance of Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel, litograph by T. Picken after D. Roberts
from: J. P. Lawson, Scotland Delineated in a Series of Views by Clarkson Stanfield,
London 1847-1854; Corson Collection, University of Edinburgh (CC BY)

This is the title page of Scotland Delineated, a series of coloured litographs depicting Scotland’s architectural and landscape treasures, published in four volumes in 1847-1854. In a way, this first image of the collection shows a condensed vision of motifs typically associated with Scotland: A group of armed men – two of them wearing kilts – are standing before a simple country lass at the entrance of a medieval church. The richly decorated Gothic building is of course Rosslyn Chapel, just outside of Edinburgh, now perhaps best known for its appearance in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code and the movie based on it. But the chapel was already known for its literary connections back in the days when the litograph was made: It is featured in several of Sir Walter Scott’s works, among them his famous Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). Indeed, the Romantic group of figures in the litograph makes it almost seem like an illustration to one of Scott’s stories. This is certainly no coincidence. More than any other writer of his era – with the possible exception of Robert Burns – Scott had shaped the public image of his home country. 19th-century audiences therefore expected Scotland to look as picturesque and Gothic as something out of a novel by Scott, and that’s exactly what the makers of Scotland Delineated delivered.

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Advent Calendar – Door 18: Two Church Doors

Heinrich Kühn, Church Entrance, c. 1910
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg (CC0)

In the early days of photography, the new medium’s relationship to art, especially painting, was a matter of intense debate. Could photos, i.e. mechanically/chemically produced “copies” of the outside world, be art at all? Quite a few photographers in the late 19th and early 20th century tried to answer this question in the affirmative by creating photos that deliberately looked like paintings. This movement is usually referred to as Pictorialism.

Heinrich Kühn, Architectural Study, c. 1910
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg (CC0)

One of the pictorialists was Austrian-German photographer Heinrich Kühn (1866-1944) who created the pictures of old Austrian church doors in this post. The subject and composition of these images owes a lot to the picturesque traditions of 19th century art, but their “painterly” effect derives perhaps even more from Kühn’s technique: He used soft lightning and focus to give his photos an appearance reminiscent of impressionist painting. To achieve the desired results, he even got involved in the development of a new soft focus lense which eventually became the well-known Rodenstock Imagon. There is an interesting contrast, then, between the somewhat old-fashioned look of Kühn’s pictures and the technological innovation that lies behind them.

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