How about a game of…

spot the Crucifixion? The rules are quite simple, really: All you need is a late medieval wall painting, like this one here…

Crucifixion, wall painting, mid-14th century, Parish Church, St. Nikola an der Donau (Austria)

… and a guidebook claiming that there’s a Crucifixion scene depicted in said painting. And then you just keep staring at the picture until you can finally make out the faded remains of the scene:

Crucifixion (Detail), wall painting, mid-14th century, Parish Church, St. Nikola an der Donau (Austria)

Want to have another go? Try this one:

Crucifixion, wall painting, early 16th century, Cemetery Chapel, Waitschach (Austria)

To help you out a bit, here’s a more detailed image of the painting’s central portion where, after adding lots and lots of contrast in Photoshop, the crucified body of Christ is slightly more discernible and even the silhouette of Jerusalem becomes visible in the background:

Crucifixion (Detail), wall painting, early 16th century, Cemetery Chapel, Waitschach (Austria)

It’s a fun game, isn’t it? Only, for some people, including myself, it’s actually part of our job and in many cases it’s only the smallest of steps from fun to frustration. I mean, I really like wall paintings, and I love studying them, a lot more than for instance manuscript illuminations with their fresh, well-preserved colours… But still, the state of preservation some of those murals are in can often be a real bitch nuissance.

Admittedly, the two paintings shown above are extreme examples, not least because both of them are located on the outside of their respective buildings and have therefore been exposed to sun, wind and rain for ages. But even inside, the situation isn’t always that much better:

Crucifixion, wall painting, late 15th century, Parish Church, Freistadt (Austria)

Well, it’s not that I’m complaining… But I thought it would be fun to share these images here. Fun as well as educational. The thing is that, when we think of art history, we usually  think of well-preserved, high-end works by the likes of Giotto, Michelangelo or Tintoretto. The fact of the matter is, however, that more often than not, what art historians actually deal with are badly preserved, low-key works by anonymous or little-known masters that rarely make it into the textbooks or even onto art historical blogs…

To this effect, I’ll leave you with another “gem” from Austria’s rich heritage of medieval wall paintings:

Christ on the Mount of Olives & The Crucifixion, wall painting, late 14th / early 15th century, Parish Church, Haidkirchen (Austria)

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Dragons, lions and whatnot

A week or so ago, Dennis Aubrey over at Via Lucis – that amazing blog dedicated to photography of (mostly) Romanesque architecture in France – posted an entry about the sculptural decoration of the 12th century facade of the Prieuré Sainte Gemme. Aptly titled Curious Corbels, the post features some of those highly imaginative carvings – from realistic human heads to rather cartoonish figures, ferocious beasts and demons – so typical for the Romanesque era.

This reminded me that for quite some time now I have been meaning to do a post about the only still extant set of Romanesque carvings here in Vienna, i.e. the decorations on the main gate of the Stephansdom [St. Stephen’s Cathedral], the so-called Riesentor [Giant Gate]:

This richly decorated portal was begun c. 1237 and completed about fifteen years later, at a time when the Romanesque style had already begun to give way to the Gothic. However, its sculptures and ornaments are still firmly rooted in the Romanesque tradition. Thus, the tympanum shows Christ in Majesty flanked by two angels – unfortunately, though, this piece is not easy to capture on photo because it’s half-hidden by a close meshed the anti-pigeon-net:

Surrounding the tympanum is a series of archivolts with richly carved mouldings (which, actually, I have already mentioned and shown in one of my earlier posts). At the foot of the archivolts one finds the figures of the twelve apostles, and below that an amazing frieze of weird and fantastic creatures:

It is this frieze which interests me here and which, on the verge of the Gothic, shows the imagination of Romanesque sculptors and masons in all its bizarre glory one last time.

There are, of course, some relatively ‘normal’ human figures, even though most of them are confronted by fierce creatures such as this disproportionately large lion:

Lions, as is well known, were a favourite subject in high medieval sculpture and, right enough, here’s another one:

Next in line: dragons…

… and, presumably, an ape:

It’s hard to say what exactly the creature in the next photo is meant to represent. Personally, I’d refer to it as a demon, but it’s hard to say really…

It’s easier to identify the two gentlemen in the next picture: a cripple and the head of a man grasping his beard. It is equally difficult, though, to determine what their meaning is supposed to be.

Most scholars believe that the weird imagery in this frieze is meant to symbolize the moral perils of earthly existence, the confrontation of mankind with the snares of the devil. I must say, it’s hard to argue with that when looking at figures like these two…

… probably two of the most striking figures in all medieval art and definitely two of my personal favourites!

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A Mural Rising from the Tomb…

When I was in Somerset and Devon last September, I also visited Exeter Cathedral which, among many other notable furnishings and features, also houses what I believe is one of England’s finest wall-paintings from the late 15th / early 16th century. I’ve been meaning to blog about it ever since, but somehow never got round to it. Now, at Easter, however is the perfect occasion to finally write that post, seeing as the painting in question depicts the Resurrection of Christ (with the Three Marys at the Tomb and the Noli me Tangere in the background):

According to your background and education your opinion may vary on whether to tag this painting “late Gothic” or “Northern Renaissance”. What’s undeniable though is its dependence on the realism of Early Netherlandish painting which, from c. 1440 onwards had become the blueprint for most of European painting. Of course, there nonetheless were considerable differences between the various local schools, and as far as I know the image of the Resurrected Christ in Exeter was indeed painted by an English artist. While the painting’s surface isn’t exactly in what you’d call perfect condition, the better preserved parts are of remarkable quality. It is tempting, and at the same time devastating, to imagine how many images like this must have adorned the walls of England’s churches before the English Reformation made sure that all religious imagery was, as 1547 decree puts it, “utterly extinct”.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Resurrection mural in Exeter is, however, its location, namely in or rather above the Sylke Chantry Chapel:

A delicate, cage-like construction in the north-east corner of the transept, this was the burial-place of the cathedral’s preceptor William Sylke (died 1508). As you can see in the photo, Sylke’s tomb itself is placed in such a way that it is visible/accessible from outside the chapel (where church-goers might see it) as well from inside (where the clergy would be saying mass for the deceased’s soul).

Something similar may be said for the Resurrection mural although, admittedly, one has a much better view of it from outside, standing right in the centre of the crossing. From this viewpoint it seems as if the figure is Christ is actually rising from the Chantry Chapel, or indeed as if it is rising from the tomb of William Sylke. This, of course, makes the image all the more poignant – and goes to show just how crucial it is to take setting and context into account when studying wall-paintings.

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Charlemagne’s Alphabet

Here’s a sort of “fun fact” about Charlemagne I just came across in a 15th century source. Ok, technically it may not be an actual “fact” but, as the Italians say: se non è vero, è ben trovato – if it’s not true, it’s well conceived…

Anyway, the source in question is Hans Waltheym’s travel journal, describing a journey he undertook in 1474 from eastern Germany to southern France. On his way back he came through Zurich and, regarding this city, he notes that its main church, the Großmünster [Great Minster], had been founded by Charlemagne.

15th century statue of Charlemagne, Großmünster, Zurich (Image © Andrew Bossi via Wikimedia Commons)

Then Waltheym adds this bit of trivia:

It is noteworthy that the Emperor Charlemagne founded as many minsters as there are letters in the alphabet, and he began with the letter A and founded Aachen first, and he did the same with all the letters, one after the other, so that Zurich was the last minster he founded.

Oh, and here’s another fun fact about Zurich from Waltheym’s account:

Zurich is such an ancient town that it had actually been built before the Deluge.

I bet you didn’t know that! Of course, Waltheym goes on to say, in Zurich as everywhere else everyone drowned in the Deluge, but the buildings remained intact so they could be reused later, once Noah and his clan had produced enough offspring to repopulate the planet. Now it’s not that Hans von Waltheym made these stories up himself. I distinctly remember having read the bit about Zurich pre-dating the Deluge before, and while I’m not sure where exactly that was, I’m positive that it was in another 15th century travel journal. It seems that this was simply the kind of story the locals in late medieval Zurich would tell visitors from abroad.

Ok, I’m in a bit of a conundrum now on how to end this post. The thing is, I had intended to end it by poking fun at the credulity of medieval people and the weird stuff they believed. But I just remembered some of the wildly outrageous stories I’ve heard modern-day tour guides try to sell as “historical facts”, so it might be wiser to stick to that old saying about throwing stones when living in a glass house, and just shut up…


Update: Reading artsymbol’s comment regarding the so-called A of Charlemagne in Conques caused me to do a bit of googling (which, perhaps, I should have done before writing this post), and I can now inform you that a thorough discussion of the stories about Charlemagne’s alphabet may be found in: Amy G. Remensnyder, Remembering Kings Past: Monastic Foundation Legends in Medieval Southern France, Cornell University Press 1995, pp. 157-164, which conveniently is available on google books.

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Boccaccio’s Women Artists

A few days ago, on Twitter, the esteemed Hasan Niyazi posted a link to an amazing online gallery of women artists, containing over two hundred portraits – most of them self-portraits – of female painters at work. The bulk of them are from the modern period and only eight of the images predate the year 1500. The first of them is a prehistoric cave painting showing the print of a woman’s hand. The other seven all show medieval women in the act of painting and are simply labelled “Anonymous, 15th century”. And that, I’m afraid is all the information one gets about those paintings. So I figured I’d do a post about them here… The thing is, all the 15th century images in the gallery are actually illustrations from manuscripts of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris [Of Famous Women] or its French translation Des Cleres et Nobles Femmes.

The way *we* see Boccaccio: Gustave Wappers, Boccaccio reading the Decameron to Queen Joanna of Naples, 1868 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Now, today Boccaccio is best known as the author of entertaining, often frivolous tales written in his native Italian, but in 15th century France his fame rested mostly on his ‘serious’ humanist works in Latin. These included a collection of biographies of famous men (De casibus virorum illustrium) and its counterpart, the aforementioned De Mulieribus Claris, written c. 1360/70. As Boccaccio himself explicitly states in the latter’s introduction, it was the first book in Western literature dealing exclusively with biographies of women and as such it exerted considerable influence, for instance on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women or Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies.

The way people in the 15th century saw Boccaccio: Andrea del Castagno, Giovanni Boccaccio, c. 1450 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Boccaccio’s work collects the life stories of 106 women from both history and mythology, all of them exemplary of what the author believes to be particularly female virtues or, in some cases, vices. Most of this material was drawn from the traditions of Roman antiquity, from the works of writers such as Ovid, Suetonis or Pliny the Elder. And it was Pliny, too, who provided Boccaccio with the biographies of two women artists.

One of them is a certain Marcia, Daughter of Varro. Of her, Boccaccio writes:

“It has long been known that in Rome there was a woman named Marcia, daughter of Varro, who remained a virgin all her life. But I do not remember having found out which Varro it was or even when she lived.

I believe that this woman should be extolled all the more because she was legally independent and preserved her virginity in its full integrity of her own free will, not because of the coercion of a higher authority. As a matter of fact, I do not find that she was bound by holy orders to Vesta or subject to a vow made to Diana or entangled in another commitment – all reasons which curb and restrain women. I believe it was through purity of mind alone that she conquered the sting of the flesh, which occasionally overcomes even the most illustrious men, and she kept her body unblemished by any relations with men until her death.”

Marcia, from an incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474 (Image © Wikimedia Commons). In this illustration, Marcia is shown twice, once as a painter and once as a sculptor, just as the text (see below) demands. Contrary to the text, however, her chastity is visualised by her being dressed as a nun – even though Boccaccio explicitly states that she had *not* taken any religious vows.

“Although Marcia deserves great commendation for her laudable constancy, she is to be praised no less for her intellectual ability and her manual dexterity. We do not know if she learned from a teacher or was naturally gifted. What appears certain, however, is that, scorning womanly occupations and not wanting to waster her time in idleness, Marcia devoted herself completely to the study of painting and sculpture; in the end, she was able to carve ivory figures and to paint with such skill and finesse that she surpassed Sopolis and Dionysius, the most famous painters of her day. Clear proof of this is the fact that the pictures she painted were sold for better prices than those of other artists. And what is still more extraordinary, our sources say that, not only did Marcia paint extremely well (a fairly common accomplishment), but she could paint more quickly than anyone else.

Specimens of Marcia’s art survived for a long time. Among them was a self-portrait which she painted on a panel with the aid of a mirror. She rendered the color, features, and expression of the face so faithfully that none of her contemporaries who saw it had trouble identifying the subject of the painting.”

Marcia painting her self-portrait with the aid of a mirror, from a manuscript of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, France, early 15th century (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

“As regards her unique moral sensitivity, we are told among other things that, whether she was painting or sculpting, it was her practice to reproduce especially images of women, and those of men rarely if ever. This was occasioned, I think, by her purity and modesty. In antiquity figures were, for the most part, rendered as nude of half nude, and it seemed to her necessary either to portray the men in an unfinished state or, by adding all the details, to forget maidenly delicacy. To avoid either alternative, she deemed it better to abstain from both.” *

The other woman painter in Boccaccio’s book is Tamaris. Her biography reads as follows:

“Tamaris was a female artist famous in her own day. Time may have destroyed most of her efforts but not, at least up to now, her distinguished reputation and skill. Reportedly she was the daughter of the painter Micon and lived during the ninetieth Olympiad. (…)”

Tamaris painting the goddess Diana,  from a manuscript of De Cleres et Nobles Femmes, France, early 15th century (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

“Tamaris scorned womanly tasks and practiced her father’s craft with remarkable talent. When Archelaus was king of Macedonia, she gained such acclaim for her painting that the Ephesians, who had a particular veneration for Diana, long preserved as a celebrated image of this goddess a panel painting done by Tamaris. This work of art endured for many years and provided such convincing proof of her ability that it seems worthy of remembrance even today – indeed, eminently so if we compare it with the usual spinning and weaving of other women.” **

Tamaris, from a manuscript of De Cleres et Nobles Femmes, France, 1403 (Image © Wikimedia Commons). Note how the painting of Diana has miraculously been transformed into a Madonna with Child…

So I guess that in the gallery of women artists through the ages, the illustrations from Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris may actually stand for both antiquity and the middle ages. What they show are medieval women in medieval artists’ workshops, but at the same time they claim to show female artists from ancient Greece and Rome. There were, of course, women painters in the Middle Ages: Nuns were often involved in manuscript illumination, and so were worldly women, often working in a team with their husband. And it’s safe to assume that in many cases a painter’s wife would help out in his workshop. Sometimes, this may only have meant sweeping the workshop floor, but other times it may well have included her collaborating in the works of art produced by her husband. But, of course, usually it would have been the man who was the head of the workshop and who signed both contracts and paintings. So yes, there certainly were women artists in the Middle Ages, but unlike Marcia’s and Tamaris’ their names are lost.

* Giovanni Boccaccio, Famous Women, translated by Virginia Brown, Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 135-137.

** Ibid., pp. 114-115.

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Michelangelo and Wile E. Coyote

A few days ago I wound up watching some old vintage episodes of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote on youtube (as one might). In doing so, I came across something quite interesting in the comments to one of the videos. Apparently, one of the users had donned his troll outfit and decided to spoil the fun for everyone else. I don’t remember the exact wording of the comment, but what it said was basically that we shouldn’t be watching this particular cartoon series because its creator, Chuck Jones, was a bad bad man. Allegedly, Jones used to drive out to the California desert, capture live coyotes and throw them down canyons or off of cliffs in order to study their, er, falling patterns and render them more accurately. (In the unlikely event that you’re not familiar with the cartoon, here‘s a short clip to demonstrate why the whole concept of coyotes falling off of cliffs is of crucial importance for the series.)

William Hogarth, The First Stage of Cruelty: Children Torturing Animals, 1751 (Image © Wikimedia Commons) = Semi-random picture to keep you entertained…

Now, we must indeed assume that Chuck Jones wasn’t a particularly nice guy if it is true that he used live coyotes as models for the mishaps of the Wile E. Coyote character. But did he? The thing is, Jones isn’t the first artist to be accused of torturing or even murdering his model(s) in order to arrive at a more realistic depiction of pain and death. On the contrary, that same story has been told many times and with a wide range of different artists as protagonist. It is one of the classic “artists’ legends” which Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz studied in their seminal book Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image of the Artist: A Historical Experiment.

First published in German as Die Legende vom Künstler back in 1934, Kris’ and Kurz’ study explored the way in which, from ancient to quite recent times, certain narrative patterns, motifs and topoi popped up in artists’ biographies over and over again. These motifs therefore are apparently not based on actual events in a given artist’s life, but merely legends which could be attached to any artist depending on what the writer of the biography had in mind for his main character. The most famous example for this kind of legend is perhaps the idea of the artist as a child prodigy. It was already known in Roman antiquity and, not too surprisingly, was taken up again by humanist writers in 15th century Italy. Writing shortly after 1400, Milanese humanist Uberto Decembrio, for example, reported that the painter Michelino da Besozzo (c. 1370 – c. 1455) was so gifted by nature that before he had even learned to speak, he already could draw all kinds of animal in such a realistic way that even experienced artists marveled at the boy.

A few decades later, Lorenzo Ghiberti included the same story in his biography of Giotto who, even then, was considered the father of ‘modern’, i.e. Renaissance painting. As is well known, though, Ghiberti elaborated the story a bit, relating how one day young Giotto was sitting by the roadside, drawing a sheep on a stone slab when it so happened that the famous painter Cimabue came by, saw the boy’s talent and took him on as an apprentice right away. Another century later, Giorgio Vasari pretty much copied Ghiberti’s tale when recounting the life of Giotto in his famous Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects first published in 1550. And it was from there that the story went viral, as we would say today.

José María Obregón, Giotto and Cimabue, 1857, Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

What’s kind of funny, though, is that even Vasari himself used the motif of the child prodigy discovered by an already established artist or a wealthy patron in some of his other biographies as well. If we were to believe Vasari, not only Giotto but also Domenico Beccafumi, Andrea del Castagno and Andrea Sansovino began their careers as self-taught wonder boys drawing their rustic fathers’ sheep or cattle. And even long after Vasari, the selfsame story was reworked and retold, the only major difference being that now the protagonists were called Zurbarán or Goya.

There are, of course, many other such artists’ legends, e.g. the motif of the (usually male) artist falling in love with his (usually female) model. And, as already briefly mentioned, another widespread story is that of the artist torturing or even murdering his model. Again, this goes back to ancient Rome: Seneca in one of his writings narrates how the famous painter Parrhasios bought an old man as a slave and put him to a slow and painful death just to study the expression of pain in the man’s face. And again, this same story then reappears in written biographies of other, much later artists. One example given by Kris and Kurz is Austrian Baroque sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, but as they point out the story has become most closely associated with Michelangelo. Several Crucifixes attributed to Michelangelo are said to have been modeled on a young man whom the artist had tied to a cross and killed in order to achieve an authentic portrayal of the crucified Christ.

Michelangelo (?), Crucifix, c. 1492 (?), Santo Spirito, Florence (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

And this brings us back to Chuck Jones and Wile E. Coyote… Of course, the setting is quite different (the Californian desert) and the supposed victims are coyotes rather than humans, but at its core it’s the same story: An artist inflicts pain and death on another living being just to study its expression while suffering and dying. So if someone tries to tell you that Chuck Jones threw live animals off of cliffs, better take it with a grain of salt. But still, isn’t it fascinating how this story has come all the way from ancient Rome to the realm of 20th century pop culture?

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C. D. Friedrich at the Far Side

Caspar David Friedrich’s The Chasseur in the Forest is one of the master’s most enigmatic paintings (and, considering the cryptic symbolism of Friedrich’s work in general, that’s saying something…). Showing a lonely soldier in French uniform wandering through a wintery forest, the best clue regarding the painting’s meaning is its date: 1814, i.e. the year of Napoleon’s (as it turned out: only temporary) defeat. The consensus therefore is that the intended message was somewhere along the lines of “the teeny-tiny French soldier is rendered small and insignificant when faced with the mighty and eternal German Forest”…

Caspar David Friedrich, The Chasseur in the Forest, 1814, Private Collection (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

However, when I look at that painting, what comes to my mind is something more akin to the caption in a Gary Larson cartoon:

“Lost in thought, Colonel Bértrand had been pondering for hours which tree to choose for Christmas. Only when the evening sky grew darker, did he realise that his horse was gone and there was a hungry-looking raven eyeing him with a certain unnerving attention…”

Hey, what’s the use in studying art history when you can’t have a little fun with it…

Merry Christmas everyone!

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