Dec 26, 2010

Noah and The Mystic Lamb on Christmas Edition of NPR's All Things Considered

Listen to Noah on the Christmas edition of NPR's All Things Considered as he discusses his new book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece.

Text reprinted from
December 25, 2010
It's the size of a barn door, weighs more than an elephant, and is one of the most famous and coveted paintings in the world.
It's the Ghent Altarpiece — also called Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, after a central panel showing hordes of pilgrims gathered to pay homage to the Lamb of God.
Other panels depict the Annunciation, Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and a crowned Christ in detail so exacting that you can pick out individual hairs in a beard, or dirt on a pilgrim's foot.
Artist Jan van Eyck completed the Ghent Altarpiece around 1432. Author Noah Charney tells NPR's Guy Raz that it's arguably the single most important painting ever made.
"It's the first great oil painting — it influenced oil painting for centuries to come," Charney says. "It's the first great panel painting of the Renaissance, a forerunner to artistic realism. The monumentality of it and the complexity of it fascinated people from the moment it was painted."
Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece
By Noah Charney
Hardcover, 336 pages
List Price: $27.95
Charney's new book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece, traces the painting through six centuries of war, theft and intrigue.
150 Years Of Peace
The altarpiece was painted for the cathedral of St. Bavo, in Ghent.  And during the first century of its existence, nothing much happened.
Then, in 1566, all hell broke loose. Protestant militants broke down the cathedral doors with an improvised battering ram, intending to burn the altarpiece, which they considered to be an example of Catholic idolatry and excess. But alert Catholic guards had disassembled the enormous work and hidden it in the cathedral tower, where it survived unscathed.
Over the next few centuries, the Ghent Altarpiece was taken as booty in the Napoleonic Wars and then returned to Ghent.  Parts of it were stolen by a vicar at St. Bavo and ended up, after several sales, in a Berlin museum.
When World War I broke out, a brave cathedral canon hid the painting away in a junkman's wagon for safety. It took the Treaty of Versailles to finally reunite all the panels in their original home.
Enduring Mystery
The Ghent Altarpiece didn't stay safe for long. Thieves broke into the cathedral one night in 1934 and made off with the lower left panel.
Noah Charney is also the author of Art and Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World and The Art Thief: A Novel.
Urska Charney
Noah Charney is also the author of Art and Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World and The Art Thief: A Novel.
"This is the enduring mystery that really is part of the popular cultural awareness of the people of Ghent still to this day," Charney says.
The theft has never been solved. Visitors to St. Bavo Cathedral today will see a copy of the missing panel, painted during World War II. The copy is so good that many people thought it might be the original, hidden in plain sight, though recent conservation work has disproved that theory.
Raiders Of The Mystic Lamb
Missing panel and all, the Ghent Altarpiece was stolen one last time during World War II, on the orders of Nazi Gen. Hermann Goering.
"This may sound very silly," says Charney, "but in fact, the Nazis and Hitler in particular were absolutely convinced that the occult and the supernatural was real," and the Ghent Altarpiece was thought to be a sort of mystical treasure map showing the location of relics of Christ's passion.
The altarpiece ended up hidden with thousands of other looted artworks in a converted salt mine in Austria. The local SS commander had wired the mine with dynamite, determined to destroy all the art as the Allies began closing in.
Charney says the Ghent Altarpiece was eventually saved through the heroism of salt miners who disabled the bombs, and the work of local Austrian resistance fighters and Allied "monuments men" whose job it was to hunt for stolen art.
"There was this race," Charney says, "with the Allies trying to get to the mine before the SS could blow it up, and it was very close to every one of those works being completely destroyed."
But the painting was saved, and you can see it today at the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.
"Each time I see it, I notice something new," Charney says. "For instance, I think it may be the first work of the pre-modern period to show someone laughing."

Excerpt: 'Stealing The Mystic Lamb'

Stealing The Mystic Lamb
Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece
By Noah Charney
Hardcover, 336 pages
List Price: $27.95
As the oak door to the chapel swings open, one is first struck by the scents: the cool, ancient stone of the walls of Saint Bavo Cathedral, the smell of frankincense, and then the surprising notes of old wood, linseed oil, and varnish. The cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, abounds with stunning religious art, but one artwork stands out among the rest. After six hundred years of nearly constant movement, The Ghent Altarpiece is at last back in the cathedral for which it was painted.
Jan van Eyck's masterpiece has been involved in seven separate thefts, dwarfing the next runner-up, a Rembrandt portrait, lifted from London's Dulwich Picture Gallery on a mere four occasions. From enduring questions surrounding the movement, through theft and smuggling, of the altarpiece as a whole to the mystical symbolism of its content, the altarpiece has haunted scholars and detectives, hunters and protectors, interpreters and worshippers.
It is one of art history's great unsolved mysteries.
Those who stand before the altarpiece cannot but feel overwhelmed by its monumentality. The Ghent Altarpiece comprises twenty individual painted panels linked in a massive hinged framework. It is opened on its hinges for religious holidays but remains closed for most of the year, at which point only eight of the twenty panels, which were painted on both recto and verso (front and back sides), are visible. The subject matter of the verso panels, visible when the altarpiece is closed, is the Annunciation: The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear the Son of God. Portraits of the donors who paid for the altarpiece, and their patron saints, also grace the back.
The altarpiece has a puzzle-box appearance, and inside its treasures lie patiently in wait for decipherers. When open, the altarpiece's center displays an idealized field full of figures: saints, martyrs, clergy, hermits, righteous judges, knights of Christ, and an angelic choir, all making a slow pilgrimage to pay homage to the central figure — a Lamb on a sacrificial altar, standing proudly, while it bleeds into a golden chalice. This scene is referred to as "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb." The precise iconographic meaning of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb panel and the meaning of the dozens of obscure symbols within it have been the subject of centuries of scholarly debate.
Above the vast field of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, in the upper panels, God the Father sits enthroned, with Mary and John the Baptist on either side. The figure has a hand raised in blessing, a hand painted with an astonishing realism: veins bulge and tiny hairs curl out of the pore-scored skin. At his foot, a crown is clustered in light-reflecting jewels; the fringe of his cloak is woven in gold threads, and above his head arch rune-like inscriptions. Individual hairs were lovingly painted into his beard, and his almond eyes express a power and a weariness that are altogether human.
The level of minute detail in so enormous an artwork is unprecedented. Until the altarpiece was painted, only portrait miniatures and illuminated manuscripts contained such detail. Nothing like this intricacy had ever been seen before on such a grand scale, by artists or admirers. The great art historian Erwin Panofsky famously wrote that van Eyck's eye functioned "as a microscope and a telescope at the same time." Viewers of The Ghent Altarpiece, Panofsky explained, are privy to God's vision of the world, capturing "some of the experience of Him who looks down from heaven, but can number the hairs on our head."
In The Ghent Altarpiece jewels shine with refracted light. One can see individual hairs on the manes of horses. Each of the altarpiece's hundred-plus figures have been given personalized facial features. Each figure's face is unique and retains the detail of a portrait — sweat, wrinkles, veins, and flared nostrils. Details range from the mundane to the elegant. Viewers can make out tufts of grass, the wrinkles in an old worm-eaten apple, and warts on double chins. But they can also see the reflection of light caught in a perfectly painted ruby, the folds of a gilded garment, and individual silvery hairs amid the chestnut curls of a beard.
The secret weapon that permitted such detail was oil paint. Because oil paints are translucent, artists can build up layer upon layer, without covering up what lies beneath. The preferred medium before van Eyck's time, egg-based tempera, was essentially opaque. One layer blotted out the previous one. Oil allowed for a great deal more subtlety and was also easier to control. Van Eyck used some brushes that were so small as to contain only a few animal hairs for bristles, permitting an entirely new level of intricacy. The result is a visual feast, a galaxy of painterly special effects that at once dazzle and provide days of viewing interest, prompting viewers to examine the painting from afar and up close, to decipher as well as to bask in its beauty.
The Ghent Altarpiece, the young van Eyck's first major public work, was also the first large-scale oil painting to gain international renown. Though he did not invent oil painting, van Eyck was the first artist to exploit its true capabilities. The artistry, realistic detail, and use of this new medium made the artwork a point of pilgrimage for artists and intellectuals from the moment the paint dried and for centuries to come. The international reputation of the painting and its painter, particularly taking into account its establishment of a new artistic medium that would become the universal choice for centuries, makes for a strong argument that The Ghent Altarpiece is the most important painting in history.
It is a work of art that centuries of collectors, dukes, generals, kings, and entire armies desired to such an extent that they killed, stole, and altered the strategic course of war to possess it.
From Stealing the Mystic Lamb by Noah Charney. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

Dec 21, 2010

Christmas Edition of The Secret History of Art: Fran Angelico's "Annunciation"

Fra Angelico
Museo Diocesano, Cortona, Italy
Guido di Pietro, later called Fra Giovanni di Fiesole and better known as Fra Angelico (1395-1455), was born in Tuscany, near the town of Fiesole, overlooking Florence.  There, as a young man, he took his monastic vows, on 17 October 1417.  As a Dominican monk he lived and worked primarily at the monastery of San Marco in Florence.  He was already a painter when he joined the monastic order, as a document exists that indicates two payments made to Guido di Pietro for paintings done in the church of San Stefano del Ponte.  It was traditional for monks to take a new name, and so Guido di Pietro became Fra Giovanni (Fra being short for “frater,” “brother” in Latin).  As his renown as a painter flourished, he was referred to as il beatto angelico, the blessed angelic one, for his sublime, gorgeous paintings.  This nickname was made official in 1982, when the Pope beatified him (one step below sainthood).

            Fra Angelico originally trained as a manuscript illuminator, and several manuscripts on display at San Marco are attributed to his hand.  He lived for ten years at a Dominican monastery in Cortona, for which he painted frescoes, now all destroyed.  From 1436-1445, Fra Angelico lived and worked at San Marco.  His relocation to the heart of Florence was a good career move, as it placed him at the center of artistic world.  Politics also pulsed through the monastery.  The Duke of Florence, Cosimo de’Medici, kept a cell at San Marco reserved for his private use, just down the hall from Fra Angelico’s, which would later house Savonarola, the firebrand preacher who instigated the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities, encouraging the riotous destruction of any art in Florence that he deemed insufficiently somber and moralistic.  Fra Angelico painted achingly lovely frescoes in each cell at San Marco, every one unique.  The Biblical scenes depicted involved increasingly complex images for meditation, with the more complex works painted in the cells reserved for older monks.  Fra Angelico also painted a much beloved fresco of the Annunciation in the hallway of the monastery, which he was often asked to reproduce, with slight variations, for wealthy patrons.  This Annunciation is one such reproduction, by the artist himself for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole.

            In 1445 Fra Angelico was invited to Rome to paint for the pope.  He frescoed the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in Saint Peter’s for Pope Eugenius IV—this was later, sadly, demolished under Pope Paul III.  One early biographical source writes that Fra Angelico was offered the position of Archbishop of Florence by the pope, but he refused, recommending another friar in his stead.  He was a simple man, content with a quiet monastic life which he could devote to religious painting.

            Fra Angelico worked during a time when painting styles were shifting.  Throughout the Middle Ages, artists strove to create works that look much like a less-refined version of what Fra Angelico created—Gothic works with either rudimentary or non-existent perspective, little foreshortening, and without the illusion of three-dimensionality.  These works were often gilded, with Jesus or Mary featured much larger than other figures.  The emphasis was on dazzling the viewers with gilded backgrounds and bright blue lapis lazuli (the pigment for which was, at the time, the most expensive item that you could buy, by weight).  Hands, faces, and bodies were often elongated (much like the Gothic architecture which they were painted to inhabit), and facial features were fairly generic, not meant to recall a real person or the face of a model.  The preferred medium was egg-based tempera paint, rather than oils. 

This traditional painting style was being superseded by two simultaneous movements which were the avant-garde of their time.  In Northern Europe, artists like Rogier van der Weyden (see the next entry) and Jan van Eyck were creating miraculously realistic, minutely detailed works in oil paint, which permitted far greater precision and subtlety of color and shadow than did tempera.  In central Italy, and most of all in Florence, the likes of Donatello, Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca, and Paolo Uccello among many others developed a mathematical technique to produce the illusion of three-dimensional depth in flat artworks (paintings and relief sculptures), using single-vanishing point perspective and foreshortening.  Their goal was to create the illusion that the viewer was looking out a window onto a real scene, something that artists like Fra Angelico were simply not trying to achieve.  It is therefore inappropriate to pit one style against the other, Fra Angelico versus Piero della Francesca, as their aims differed.  Fra Angelico preferred the traditional painting style, in which lovingly-rendered figures were used to inspire meditation, not astonish through illusionism.

            The magnificent Annunciation seen here (another, brighter version was painted a year earlier and hangs in the Prado in Madrid) manages at once to provoke awe, and yet feel intimate.  The Biblical moment depicted is when God sent the Angel Gabriel to tell the young Virgin Mary that she will bear God’s son.  Mary is interrupted while reading the Hebrew Old Testament, and looks up to greet the angel.  The intimacy of the scene, the electricity that one can almost feel flowing between Gabriel and Mary, makes sense when we consider that Gabriel’s words literally impregnate Mary with the Son of God, Gabriel being the vehicle of the Virginal Conception. 

It is useful to note a common confusion made by many, including pastors and PhDs.  The Annunciation is not related to the Immaculate Conception.  The Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary, through intercourse between Mary’s mother, Saint Anne, and her father.  This intercourse was made clean, immaculate, after the fact by God, so that Mary would herself be clean, conceived without sin.  Gabriel’s words to Mary result in the Virginal Conception, a different theological concept that is widely mistaken for the Immaculate Conception, a much later dogma established by Saint Anselm in the 11th century.

            Mary sits under a portico, walls and porticos referring to her virginity, which was likened to a walled garden.  There is a basic, but not mathematically-sound sense of perspective, which may be seen in the bench behind Mary—a brief reference to the artistic revolution of perspective and foreshortening that was taking place all around.  The garden outside is the Garden of Eden, from which we see Adam and Eve expelled.  It is, technically, the fault of Adam and Eve, who committed Original Sin, that Christ was needed at all.  Had they not sinned, there would have been no need for a Messiah.  Christ’s death reversed Original Sin, and therefore the Annunciation of his conception is the direct result of the expulsion of Adam and Eve.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from The Secret History of Art!

Dec 17, 2010

Kandinsky "Untitled"

Wassily Kandinsky
The mellifluously-named Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky (1866-1944) is credited as the first modern abstract artist.  Art historians love to state superlatives, like “first” and “greatest,” but there is a reason to consider an artistic chronology.  Because art is cumulative, later artists necessarily studied earlier masters and paid homage to them, either continuing their advances or breaking from them in new ways, an understanding of what came first is necessary to grasp what came later.  The Russian painter and theorist Wassily Kandinsky is at the foundation of 20th century art, a time when abstraction overtook centuries of drive toward realistic painting.
Kandinsky was born in Moscow and grew up in Odessa.  He studied law and economics at University of Moscow, and excelled to such a degree that he was offered a professorship in Roman Law at University of Dorpat.  Unlike so many of history’s greatest artists, Kandinsky started painting very late in life.  He was thirty when he began in earnest, with life-drawing and anatomy illustrations.

He moved to Munich in 1896, where he began to study art for the first time, both privately and at the Academy of Fine Arts.  He returned to Moscow after the start of World War I, but found the official theories and policies on art to be stifling.  The Academy in Moscow was fascinated with heart-string-tugging melodramatic realistic painting that could be used as propaganda, which felt passé and tawdry to Kandinsky.  He returned to Germany in 1921, teaching at the famous Bauhaus School of Art and Architecture, where minimalist and abstract aesthetics were cultivated.  When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, he moved to France, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Kandinsky’s approach to art was intensely spiritual and theoretical.  Art, to him, was the best articulation of the holy, the closest one could come to a dialogue with God.  Kandinsky was interested in theory and spirituality first, with art as its conduit.  He gave up a promising career as a law professor in order to pursue what surely seemed to his colleagues a foolish enterprise.  A thirty-year-old embarking as a teenager might, enrolling at an arts academy with no particular background nor exhibition of precocious talent.  Kandinsky himself attributed his decision in part to examining the catalogue for a Monet exhibit in 1896.  He said,

That it was a haystack, the catalogue informed me.  I could not recognize it.  This non-recognition was painful to me.  I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly.  I duly felt that the object of the painting was missing.  And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory.  Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendor.

His other major influences were Wagner’s Lohengrin, which broke the boundaries of what contemporary music had past condoned, as well as the writings of Helen Blavatsky, who established a field of thought called Theosophism, in which spiritual and occult elements of a wide variety of world religions and cultures were woven together to create a new spirituality.  Kandinsky was an avid Theosophist, and his own books, including Concerning the Spiritual In Art (1910) and Point and Line to Plane (1926) may be seen as Theosophical artistic treatises.

While he participated in the Blaue Reiter movement in Germany, Kandinsky was most influenced by his time at the Bauhaus, and this painting reflects the aesthetic encouraged there.  He taught basic design, painting, and advanced theory classes.  In his paintings, Kandinsky preferred to combine geometric forms, which suggest motion, mechanics, technology, and industry, with abstract “soft” forms, which imply organic matter.  In this painting, you can identify which forms fit which category.  The pink bow-like curves suggest human, soft forms, while the stacked colored squares imply the inorganic. 

Most of Kandinsky’s paintings are untitled, because they are not strictly “about” anything—a theme that will recur in conversations about 20th century abstract art.  A title would guide the viewer to search out a shape or a symbolic, allegorical theme in the painting.  “Untitled” provides no clues, which can feel frustrating or liberating, depending on your point of view. 

At its simplest, Kandinsky painted what he found spiritually moving.  If someone were to ask you to paint something spiritually moving, what would you paint?  You might paint a white man with long brown hair and a beard, wearing a white robe.  In fact, most Europeans would probably come up with some traditional image of Christ or God.  You might also choose a sunset, a lightning storm, the birth of a child.  Kandinsky eschewed the traditional art historical trend of painting formal scenes related to history or mythical history.  That had been done, plus it had the aroma of propaganda, most often for the Catholic Church, which many abstract artists found objectionable.  Kandinsky wrote that the artist was a prophet, that “music is the ultimate teacher,” and an authentic artist created art from “an internal necessity.”  In his treatises, he likened the creation of artwork to Noah’s compulsion to build the Ark.  It may have been God acting through a human conduit, or it may have been an internal psychological compulsion that past generations interpreted as the will of God, but true art was born out of a pressing internal need to create.

Kandinsky’s paintings expressed his “internal necessity” to produce what he found to be his spiritual duty as artist/prophet, influenced by the geometry and abstraction of the Bauhaus for which he taught, and the contemporary advances in musical composition.  The result, like this painting, is influenced by early 20th century music, arrhythmic and discordant, but at its heart presents what Kandinsky feels is most spiritually moving to him.  He needs to express this, it is a divine compulsion, but he is not evangelical.  His need is to create, not to convert his viewers to see the spiritual world his way.  Admiring Kandinsky brings to mind the titillating question: what would you paint?

Dec 13, 2010

Mona Lisa Initials Discovery Can Be Safely Dismissed

Today, 13 December 2010, news spread among some sources about the "discovery" on the part of TV presenter Silvano Vinceti that initials were found on the eyes of Leonardo's Mona Lisa.  On the right eye the initials LV were supposedly found, and the initials CE or CB could be seen on the left.

Unfortunately this is an example of looking too hard to find something that may or may not be there.  The celebrity TV presenter in question, Mr Vinceti, is a notorious hunter after mysteries that do not exist, at least not according to proper and thorough study and peer-reviewed scholarship.  I’m as much a fan as the next fellow for secret revelation treasure hunts, but this one is just silly.  Five-plus centuries of studies, including countless books, conservations, and scientific analyses have not revealed any initials in the eyes of the Mona Lisa.  Keep in mind that this same presenter tried to convince the world that Leonardo was actually a woman and that Caravaggio died of lead poisoning.  

Leonardo's Mona Lisa is nothing more than a very beautiful 16th century portrait, one which happened to be Leonardo’s favorite, which is one reason for its fame, and also happened to have been stolen in 1911, which is the other reason for its status as the world’s most famous artwork.  It is beautifully painted according to humanist artistic standards and the use of the Golden Mean to achieve ideally balanced proportions—and there ends the intrigue, I’m afraid.  Like Pope Joan, like the Priory of Sion, this is another theory which may be safely and quickly dismissed as the creation of an over-active and hyper-enthusiastic imagination on the part of a publicity hunter.

With so many real mysteries in the history of art, there's really no need to invent ones.

Noah's Letter on Van Eyck's "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" in This Week's New Yorker

Read Noah's letter about the stolen Judges panel from Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece in this week's New Yorker.

Dec 9, 2010

ARCA Masters Program in the Study of Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection

Call for Applications: Masters in the Study of Art Crime
ARCA (the Association for Research into Crimes against Art) is now accepting applications to its third Masters Program in the Study of Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. 

Recently featured in The New York Times, this program provides in-depth, Masters-level instruction in a wide variety of theoretical and practical elements of art and heritage crime: its history, its nature, its impact, and what can be done to curb it.  Courses are taught by international experts, in the beautiful setting of Umbria, Italy.  Topics include the history of art crime, art and antiquities law and policy, criminology, the laws of armed conflict, the art trade, art insurance, art security and policing, risk management, criminal investigation, law and policy, vandalism and iconoclasm, and cultural heritage protection throughout history and around the world.  Recent lecturers and faculty include:

·         Maurizio Fiorilli (Advocate General of Italy)
·         Francesco Rutelli (former Italian Minister of Culture and Mayor of Rome)
·         Vernon Rapley (Director of Scotland Yard Arts and Antiques Unit)
·         Col. Luigi Cortellessa (Vice-Comandante, Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage)
·         Petrus van Duyne (Professor of Criminology, University of Tillburg)
·         Matjaz Jager (Director of the Institute of Criminology, University of Ljubljana)
·         Dick Ellis (former Director of Scotland Yard Arts and Antiques Unit)
·         Anthony Amore (Security Director, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)
·         Stefano Alessandrini (Head of Italy’s Archaeological Group)
·         Dennis Ahern (Security Director, Tate Museums, UK)

The 2011 program runs from June 1 to August 13.  For a complete schedule and list of faculty and courses, please visit

This interdisciplinary program offers substantive study for art police and security professionals, lawyers, insurers, curators, conservators, members of the art trade, and post-graduate students of criminology, law, security studies, sociology, art history, archaeology, and history.

  • ARCA offers two half tuition scholarships and one full tuition scholarship to a professional in the law enforcement field.  
  • ARCA coordinates field trips within Italy (from the looted tombs of Cerveteri to the frescoes of Orvieto) to demonstrate the themes and skills in the curriculum.
  • The ARCA International Conference in the Study of Art Crime (July 9-10), held in the midst of the Masters Program, gives students a chance to meet with top professionals in the field.
  • More than 250 lecture hours are condensed into the three summer months, and students may take the program over two consecutive summers, six weeks each, to facilitate the participation of professionals and students already enrolled in other academic programs.
  • Past graduates include lawyers, conservators, curators, investigators, and security specialists, as well as post-graduate students in a wide variety of fields, from archaeology to cultural politics

Both the application and prospectus are available at:
For more information, please contact Mark Durney at or visit

Dec 8, 2010

Bosch's "Seven Deadly Sins"

Hieronymus Bosch
The Seven Sins and the Four Last Rites
What feast of playful horrors is contained in any work by Hieronymus Bosch?  This is one of his earliest.  Before Bosch let his imagination travel to the land of hybrid creatures and the ironic tortures of Hell, for which he is best known (see his Garden of Earthly Delights on the other side of the same room in the Prado) he engaged us in a visual riddle that asks of us not what we see, but how we look.

The painter Hieronymous van Aachen (1450-1516) was born in the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, from which he took the nickname Bosch.  His precise birthdate is unknown, 1450 having been estimated by inference—a self-portrait of Bosch exists dated 1516, in which he looks about sixty years old.  It is a wonder that the Prado boasts several of his paintings, as fewer than 25 works worldwide have been definitively attributed to him.  His art has been described as prefiguring Surrealism, as allegorical representations of alchemy, as Freudian projections of the libido, and as nightmarish morality plays.  He was fascinated with illustrations of sin and its punishment in the afterlife.  But his approach was at once horrifying and playful, which appealed to the morose and brooding collector Philip II of Spain, who assembled these artworks that may be seen here. 

The predecessor to Bosch’s visions of human moral failures and the ironic penalties for them exacted in Hell were the Last Judgment scenes in Medieval church frescoes.  These were meant to provide a visual vocabulary that illiterate church-goers would understand, showing them how not to behave (no gambling, flirting, or dancing on Sundays!) and the terrors that awaited them should they falter from the moral path through life (ironic tortures that invert the pleasurable sins in life into some unpleasant extrapolation of them).  Such scenes provided the chance for an artist to stretch his creative wings, inventing tortures at the hands of fantastic demons.  Bosch’s update of this trope is a nightmare dreamscape about which Freud would write, for Bosch incorporated elements of real life in his otherworldly depictions that echoed Freud’s, and later Carl Jung’s, beliefs about dreams. 

Nightmares are an outlet, a projection of the guilt we feel about what we have done in our waking life, taking the action for which we feel guilty and distorting it into an imaginative punishment in our dreams.  A psychological interpretation is neither extemporaneous nor contradictory to Medieval morality.  It simply gives a different title to human actions and failings.  What is to the modern age of psychology the subconscious and the libido, was to Medieval theologians the voice of the Devil and Original Sin.

These lessons may be applied to the work before us, entitled The Seven Sins and the Four Last Things.  The support onto which Bosch paints is a wooden table top, rather than a canvas or traditional panel.  We are meant to look down upon it.  His composition is in the round, meant to be seen from all sides.  Walk around it as you gaze.  Like a Wheel of Fortune, we see the seven deadly sins: lust, greed, gluttony, envy, sloth, pride, wrath.  We do not need to read to understand which sin is depicted in each image.  See if you can identify them.  Painted in the four corners are the potential points of salvation or condemnation which would result from refraining from, or submitting to, these sins: a dying man’s confession, Last Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.  And in the middle of the sin circle is Christ, rising out of a sarcophagus to judge the quick and the dead. 

But what is it that we see?  There is something else there, but it is obscure.  Our minds register something, but know not what.  Take a step back, close your eyes and open them again.  Is it?  It is.  The entire composition of the painting, when viewed without focusing in on individual painted scenes, is in the form of a great eye staring up at you.  It is you, the viewer, to whom this work is addressed.  You are the subject of Christ’s stare, as he watches your every move, should you fall into sin.  The center of the eye bears the chilling Latin inscription: Cave, cave deus videt

Beware, beware, God is watching you.

Dec 2, 2010

Velazquez "Las Meninas": Secret History of Art Podcast

Today's Secret History of Art podcast explores what is quite possibly the greatest painting ever made, Velazquez' masterpiece, "Las Meninas."

Dec 1, 2010

Velazquez "Las Meninas"

Diego Velazquez 

Las Meninas
Why not start at the top? Quite possibly the greatest painting ever made, Velazquez’s self-conscious masterpiece is as much about painting as it is a painting. What seems to be a group portrait featuring the young Infanta Margherita is much more than what may be seen at first glance. T. E. Lawrence said that Las Meninas represented no less than “the philosophy of art.” Velazquez’ contemporary, the painter Luca Giordano, described it as the “theology of painting.” A noted philosopher once stood in front of it and asked, “But where is the picture?” What did they mean?

The scene is Velazquez’ studio at the Alcazar Palace. Pride of place goes to the Infanta Margarita, only surviving child of King Philip IV and his second wife, Mariana of Austria, who appear together within the frame in the background of the composition. The Infanta is flanked by her two maids of honor (las meninas, from which the painting draws its title): Isabel de Velasco (curtsying) and Maria Augustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor. Two dwarves are present, in the person of the stocky German Maria Barbola and the slender Italian poking a dog with his leg, Nicolo Pertusato. Considered both preternaturally cunning and amusing, dwarves played important roles at the Spanish Habsburg Court, both as entertainers and advisers. Behind the Infanta is her chaperone, Marcela de Ulloa, and an unidentified bodyguard. In the doorway at the back of the large studio stands a relative of Velazquez’, Don José Nieto Velazquez, the Queen’s chamberlain and keeper of the royal tapestries. Try an experiment. Close your eyes as you look at the painting, then suddenly open them. Where has your line of sight naturally flowed? Its destination is the perspectival vanishing point which, in this case, is the open doorway at the back of the painting. Velazquez himself stands before an enormous canvas, so large that it must be the very canvas of Las Meninas before which we stand.

What is unusual? The painting is full of unsolved mysteries, for which reasonable interpretations have been offered, but no definitive key discovered. To begin with, Velazquez himself may be seen, paintbrush and palette in hand. It was radical to portray an artist in the process of portraying other, far more important, individuals. And then there are the myriad other figures, all identifiable members of court. What is the significance of their presence in a portrait of the princess? But there is more. At the back of the room, either in a framed painting or framed mirror, we see the king and queen. The beveled edges whisper to us that it is a mirror at the back of the room. But reflecting what? The real king and queen, or a portrait of them which Velazquez is painting on the canvas that stands before him? As all attention is directed towards the front of the canvas, effectively where we the viewers stand, one theory suggests that King Philip and his queen are meant to be physically present in the room with those portrayed, their reflections seen in the mirror at the back of the room, all eyes toward them standing at the front.

But why does Velazquez look directly at us, while painting the Infanta? There is an artistic tradition that, while painting someone’s portrait, the artist would not look directly at the subject, but would look at the subject through a mirror. This is most obvious when one paints a self-portrait—one must look at a mirror to see oneself. But it was also used by artists portraying others. The techniques does two useful things. One, it puts the subject inside a frame, that of the mirror itself, so that the artist can compose the picture. Two, it transfers the three-dimensional subject onto the two-dimensional surface of the mirror. This transfer of three dimensions onto a two-dimensional flat surface is the essential act of painting, rendering a real three-dimensional person on a flat canvas, using paint to give the picture the illusion of reality.

So, if this is the traditional technique, where is the mirror? We are the mirror. The front of the painting at which we, the viewers, stare is in fact a mirror, bouncing the scene trapped inside the painting back to Velazquez’ eyes. Imagine a pane of one-way glass. We see through it. Velazquez and those within the painting see only their own reflection in it. But by staring at their reflection, they make eye contact with us, we who are on the far side of the one-way glass. They “break the fourth wall,” to borrow the theatrical term, announcing to us that they are aware that they are figures inside a work of art, and that they know that we viewers are staring in at them. As the philosopher Michel Foucault wrote, in this painting Velazquez has crafted a work self-conscious of itself an artwork, a painting about the act of painting--the first Post-Modernist work of art.

Though of monumental size, the painting was initially kept in the private chambers of King Philip IV. One might imagine the work as a group portrait of those closest to him. The painting itself has been through many adventures. A fire devastated the Alcazar Palace in 1734, damaging Las Meninas. The painting had to be cut down at the edges and parts of it repainted, including all of the Infanta’s left cheek.

Painted four years before his death, Velazquez intended this to be his masterwork. Though he was always renowned as an artist and carried the official title of Court Portraitist, Velazquez suffered from the fact that painters at the Habsburg court were under-appreciated and considered ignoble. He led a bittersweet life, feeling that he had to justify himself as an individual of high standing, by dismissing his painting as a mere hobby. In order to achieve stature at court, he took on a series of time-consuming administrative positions, leaving him little chance to paint. He had to prove on several occasions that he did not earn his keep from painting, which was considered inappropriate for a man of court. He required the personal protection of his patron, King Philip IV, to avoid censorship of his artistically creative work by the Inquisition, a constant threat.

Velazquez’ dream was to raise his social standing and to be given a knighthood, which he finally received mere months before his death. Knighthood required the approval of a commission, which had found questionable elements in Velazquez’ heritage, perhaps Jewish or Muslim blood, delaying the king’s ability to grant the honor that his court painter so desired. After receiving his knighthood, Velazquez revisited Las Meninas, in order to paint the emblem of his title, the red Cross of the Order of Santiago, onto his garment in the painting, which may be seen to this day. A contemporary biographer tells a Romantic version of the addition of the cross, relating that King Philip IV painted it himself after Velazquez’ death, to record the honor of his friend for posterity.

After centuries and fires, Velazquez’ self-conscious masterpiece, as much about painting as it is a marvelous painting itself, is still considered one of the most important works in the history of art, and Spain’s single greatest national treasure.

Nov 30, 2010

The Ghent Altarpiece: Secret History Of Art Podcast

Since its completion in 1432, this twelve-panel oil painting has disappeared, been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, copied, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, painted over, censored, attacked by iconoclasts, hidden away, hunted by Nazis and Napoleon, prized by The Louvre and a Prussian king, damaged by conservators, returned as war reparations, stored in castle vaults and secret salt mines, used as a diplomatic tool, nearly been blown up, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times.  This podcast introduces The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, the most victimized, and perhaps the most influential, painting in history.

Nov 29, 2010

Valdes Leal "In Ictu Oculi" & "Finis Gloriae Mundi"

Juan de Valdés Leal 
“In Ictu Oculi” & “Finis Gloriae Mundi”
The Brotherhood of Charity (La Caridad) was founded in Seville in 1565, one of many religious confraternities active in Spain. Its goal began as the provision of proper Christian burial for the poor, but they eventually established a hospital for paupers. There were groups of men who gathered for social and charitable functions, much like today’s Knights of Columbus or Rotary Club. Patron of the Brotherhood Don Miguel de Manara commissioned these artworks to decorate the hospital that his confraternity established. Members of the confraternity would pool resources, and were therefore able to commission such wondrous works as this pair of paintings by Juan de Valdes Leal.

The Brotherhood commissioned a series of work within an overall theme—the way to Salvation through Christian charity. This pair of paintings, as intriguing as they are macabre, show the futility of earthly vanity. The second part of the series shows the way to salvation through the Seven Acts of Mercy, six of which can be seen in paintings by the celebrated Bartolome Murillo (1617-1682), also on display. The seventh, burying the dead (the specialty of this Brotherhood) is shown in the altarpiece Entombment sculpture group by Pedro Roldán. The final element of the series, on the lateral altars, comprises two other painting by Murillo, showing Saint John and Saint Elizabeth, exemplars of charitable goodness.
The location of the works of Juan Valdes Leal (1622-1690), just by the entrance, means that visitors are first confronted by the grim warning they provide against earthly vanities, before walking along the “path to salvation” past the Seven Acts of Mercy. This gruesome pair also must be passed on the way out of the chapel, a stern reminder not to forget the lessons learned inside.

But why so gruesome and macabre? The 17th century saw a worldwide fascination with witchcraft, inspired by the most popular book of the era, Malleus Maleficorum (“The Hammer of the Witches” published in 1487 and republished in countless editions), which was essentially a handbook on how to recognize and prosecute witches. Spanish and Italian artists fed this popular interest by incorporating supernatural elements into their allegorical paintings. It was an era in which skeletons, crypts, and occult implements found their way into paintings that, a century earlier, would have settled for less dramatic allegorical attributes. This was, to some extent, a reaction against the strict demands on how art should look, imparted by the Counter-Reformation (particularly after the Council of Trent in 1545). Artists enjoyed expressing themselves in a particularly unorthodox manner when the opportunity presented itself. The revolution that Caravaggio’s work inspired throughout Europe, with his heavy chiaroscuro (figures emerging out of darkness into dramatic spot-lighting) and his unidealized, often shocking naturalism, gave artists of the Baroque period a licence that more traditional, academic contemporaries and painters of earlier periods did not enjoy.

The painting labelled Finis Gloria Mundi (“The End of Earthly Glory”) is meant to be both a warning and of some comfort. The scene is a charnelhouse (a bone respository in a crypt) with the open coffin of a bishop and a decomposing corpse beside it. Hanging on scales held by a disembodied celestial arm are items associated with the occult (a goat, a human heart), balanced out against holy Catholic objects (including a heart topped with the coat-of-arms of Christ, the IHS). The occult objects are labelled with “NIMAS” (“no more”) while the Catholic objects bare the label “NIMENOS” (“no less”). An owl lurks in the back, is an ancient symbol of night and witchcraft. The canvas labelled In Ictu Oculi (“In the Twinkling of an Eye”) shows Death as a skeleton, carrying a scythe and lugging a coffin under his arm, standing in triumph atop attributes of earthly glory: a globe, armor, fine garments, architectural books, missals, gold crowns, even a bishop’s staff and headpiece.

Don Miguel, patron of these works, was an ardent adherent to a life against vanity. In his Will, he describes himself as not only as a sinner, but also as an adulterer, thief and servant of the Devil. The epitaph carved, at his request, on his tomb reads: “Here lie the bones and ashes of the worst person who ever lived on earth." He must have been an awkward guest at dinner parties. The moral for this allegory of death? Everyone dies, the highly moral and the highly immoral, the bishop and the sinner. We all become bones, we all decompose: all are equal in death. Cold comfort for hospital decoration.