Archive for June, 2010

Petrus Christus’ The Madonna of the Dry Tree

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , on June 28, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry to tree to flourish.

Ezekiel 17:24

Petrus Christus, Madonna of the Dry Tree, c. 1465
Oil on oak
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

This diminutive painting, a mere 5 3/4 x 4 7/8 inches, makes an enormous impact. The iconography, unique in Netherlandish painting, has a magical quality—the Virgin and Child, standing in the fork of a barren tree, glow, jewel-like, against a dark background. Normally, in paintings of the period, Mary and Jesus are bathed in an all-encompassing Divine Light—here they shimmer in the shadows.

Flemish painter Petrus Christus (c. 1410/20-1472/75), born near Antwerp in Baerle-Duc (now Barrle-Hertog), was active in Bruges. The Madonna of the Dry Tree was likely commissioned for personal devotion by a wealthy member of the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, a group to which Christus and his wife belonged from 1450-1463.

There are so many interesting aspects to this tiny painting, symbolism abounds. The Tree of Knowledge, withered and dry after Adam and Eve ate of its fruit, comes to life through the Virgin. The Virgin, herself the miraculous product of the barren Anne, in turn gives birth via the Immaculate Conception. The dry tree presages the crown of thorns, representing Christ’s sacrifice for man’s redemption. Another fascinating element of this painting are the 15 golden ‘A’s that hang from the thorns of the tree. These represent Ave Maria, the Hail Mary prayer of the rosary. Ave is the reverse of Eva, or Eve—a reminder that Eve’s fall is redeemed through Mary, the new Eve, who is not only the mother of Christ but the intercessor for all mankind.

There are only about six paintings by Petrus Christus that are signed and accorded definitive attribution. Christus’ debt to his predecessors Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden is often cited, and perhaps he never did rise to their level of genius. Nonetheless, I find his works to have an intense, quiet charm and power—each one stamped with a unique sensibility that blazes across five hundred and fifty years of art history.

Wider Connections:
Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges
by Maryan W. Ainsworth

Venetian Red in Tuscany: Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri

Posted in Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture, Site Work, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.

Daniel Spoerri, Grass Sofa, 1985-93

By LIZ HAGER

Daniel Spoerri’s delightful sculpture park lies just past Seggiano on the country road to Castel del Piano. Filled with contemporary art, Il Giardino provides a refreshing respite from the days upon end one spends in Tuscany viewing 13th century altarpieces. Respite, that is, if one has the good fortune to find Il Giardino. Even armed with a detailed map and explicit directions, this visitor nearly missed it. The spider web of poorly-marked roads that criss-crosses the area easily confounds even the most experienced of navigators. On the verge of making what I was sure was another in a sequence of wrong turns, I noticed, less than 100 meters up the road, two large but tasteful signs announcing the garden.  And, of course, the entrance was exactly where the directions said it would be. . .

Spoerri (born 1930) was born Daniel Isaac Feinstein in Romania and emigrated with his mother to Switzerland in 1942.  The artist is best-known for his “snare-pictures,” sets of objects (such as table settings) found in chance positions, which he affixes together on boards for posterity. In fact, Spoerri has produced a wide body of work, which generally has its artistic roots in Dadaism.

He opened the garden in 1997, but it is still off the beaten track for English-speaking visitors (though German and Italians seem to know it). Think of Il Giardino as a scaled-down version of Storm King—a network of paths, fields, and forested knolls punctuated by about 100 pieces of sculpture. Spoerri is of course well-represented by perhaps two dozen works, including the 1991 very clever Circle of Unicorns and Chamber No. 13, Hotel Carcasonne, Rue Mouffetard 24, Paris 1959-1965, a full-size fun-house-like reconstruction in bronze of the room in which he wrote An Anecdoted Topography of Chance. But he has also filled the park with many other artists, most of whom, though well-known in Europe, might be new to American visitors. (Nam June Paik, Jean Tinguely, and Meret Oppenheim are exceptions.) Swiss-born Eve Aeppl is well-represented by scores of her “extraterrestian” busts, but the park also includes “one-offs” from artists like Roberto Barni (figures on seesaw); Olivier Lucerne (whimsical gaggle of concrete geese); and Italian Giampaolo di Cocco (astartling and sobering Ars Moriendi, which consists of elephant carcasses).

My favorite piece at Il Giardino has to be Israeli artist Dani Karavan‘s site work Adam and Eve. The sliced and gilded trunk of an olive tree creates an abstract pas de deux that speaks to deep layers of symbolism, which are all the more enriched by the work’s siting in Tuscany. Perhaps it was just that they had colonized my subconscious, but I couldn’t help but think of Adam and Eve as a contemporary echo of all those 13th century altarpieces.

Wider Connections

Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri
Daniel Spoerri images
Daniel Spoerri: Coincidence As Master

Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Abbey at Sant’Antimo

Posted in Architecture, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.

By LIZ HAGER

On the approach to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo.

The road to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo descends in a steep spiral through vineyards, fields of grass, and groves of olive and cypress trees. On the way down, the abbey—which includes a grand but typically unfussy Romanesque church, its slightly leaning bell tower, and companion cypress—is always in view. The stunning approach heralds Sant’Antimo as the most special of places, center of its own still beautiful corner of the universe.

On approach to Sant’ Antimo.

If the view from on high weren’t enough, on the valley floor a pilgrim (whether spiritually or artistically inspired) is met with another breath-taking vista. The sandy-colored church harmoniously blends with newly-baled hay, as well as the light and dark greens of the grass and trees. The colors of the site speak powerfully to its ancient agrarian roots.

Sant’ Antimo must surely be the most picturesque site in the Val d’Orcia. It’s all the more amazing for having remained virtually unchanged for the last 1,000 years.

Sant’ Antimo—view from apse to the bell tower.
Note the animals and vine motifs, typical of the Romanesque style.

Legend suggests that Charlemagne consecrated Sant’ Antimo. Possibly he passed through the Val d’Orcia on his way to and from Rome for coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D. Documents reliably confirm Sant’Antimo in this spot around 814, though in much less a noble form than the structure which greets visitors today.

Sant’ Antimo—Virgins and Four Evangelists

The 11th century brought an explosion of the monastic orders, as well as growing crowds of pilgrims eager to travel great distances in order to see relics from the Holy Land. As a result, extensive ecclesiastic building ensued. All over Europe, but particularly in France, Germany and Italy, Romesque style churches proliferated.

Sant’ Antimo is a fine example of the classic Romanesque style—it consists of a nave, lateral aisles, a transept in emulation of the cross, a main apse, and radiating chapels. Curiously, it owes more to the French than the Italian Romesque tradition.

Entryway, Sant’ Antimo

The abbey lies not far from the Via Francigena (also known as the Via Roma), one of the primary routes on which pilgrims and merchants alike made their way back and forth from Canterbury to Rome. Proximity to the Via (which passes between Siena and Viterbo, both nearby) would have invested Sant’ Antimo with a certain prestige as a popular stop on near the pilgrimage route. No doubt this is one of the reasons the original church was expanded and embellished by its Benedictine monks around 1100. Certainly, the Via must have allowed for French Romanesque influences to filter into this valley.

The sculptural detail at Sant’ Atimo contains motifs found in the Romanesque world—i.e. foliage (classical Roman tradition); geometric forms (from Celtic Christianity);  biblical or mythological animals (from the Byzantine world).   But some of the column capitals reflect Lombardi characteristics, betraying the multitude of cultural influences at work on the abbey.

Entryway, Sant’ Antimo (detail)

A thousand years after these masters finished Sant’Antimo, it remains actively in use. Taking refuge inside the church from the scorching Tuscan sun, I was greeted by the telltale sounds of liturgical chanting. Just in front of the apse, eight monks stood in two rows facing each other, singing their mid-day prayers.  I rested my irritated body and contemplated the elegance around me to solemn but mellifluous accompaniment.

Wider Connections

More historical detail on Sant’Antimo
The Community of Sant’Antimo (with excellent details on history and artistic elements)

The Mythic Resonance of Wagner’s Die Walküre

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Opera with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

American aviator Amy Johnson (1903-1941)
Photograph by John Capstack
Courtesy Getty Images

Instead of a single phase in the world’s evolution, what I had glimpsed was the essence of the world itself in all its conceivable phases…

—Richard Wagner

In the San Francisco Opera‘s current production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, director Francesca Zambello has created an intensely dramatic and powerful version of the opera that vibrates with immediate, palpable emotion and profound psychology. The splendid cast, including Nina Stemme, Mark Delavan, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Christopher Ventris and Raymond Aceto give outstanding performances. The orchestra, under the brilliant leadership of one of the world’s great Wagner conductors, Donald Runnicles, brought out every nuance and shading in Wagner’s shimmering, multi-layered and sumptuous score. The leitmotifs of Wagner’s music intertwine seamlessly with the drama on stage, creating a riveting whole—what Wagner called Gesamtkuntswerk.


The setting of Die Walküre, the second opera in Wagner’s four-part The Ring of the Nibelungen, is updated in this production to 1920s America, with the god Wotan as a captain of industry amid towering skyscrapers. The Valkyries, led by Brünnhilde and her eight sisters—Wotan’s daughters by the earth goddess, Erda—are aviators who parachute onto the stage in Act III. This update creates a surprisingly harmonious blending of timeless mythology with American mythology.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde

In Die Walküre, which takes place a decade after the first opera, we are in a darker world in which humans and gods have to cope with the legacy of the missteps and hubris of the gods in Das Rheingold. Brünnhilde, the only character in the cycle who is able to truly listen and change, begins her transformation in Die Walküre, and Stemme projects every nuance of this transformation vocally and dramatically. My gold-standard for a great Brünnhilde is the legendary Birgit Nilsson, who I was lucky enough to see perform the role several times, and I found Stemme’s performance remarkable and profound.

Normally I’d say, if you live anywhere near San Francisco, don’t miss this production (the last performance is June 30th)—but wherever you are, it’s worth the trip—do not miss it!

Venetian Red in Rome: Carpaccio’s Bequiling Portrait of a Lady

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.

By LIZ HAGER

Vittore Carpaccio, Portrait of a Lady, ca. 1510
Oil on canvas,
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

Vittore Carpaccio’s (1455-1523/6) delightful portrait of a Venetian woman is squeezed into the corner of an upstairs gallery at the Borghese Museum. She hangs on the same wall as Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man and Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna with Child, although not with them, as Borghese curators have sequestered her in a narrow space on the opposite side of the entry door. Despite the separation, it’s a fitting grouping, since the Bellinis (Gentile and Giovanni), as well as Massina, are widely considered to be Carpaccio’s artistic influences.

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Man, 1475
Oil on wood, 30 x 24 cm
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

An early Venetian Renaissance painter of the generation before Titian, Carpaccio specialized in narrative paintings of religious events set into scenes of everyday life in Venice. (Among his best known works are The Legend of St. Ursula and Life of the Virgin cycles.) Largely associated with the merchant classes of the city, Carpaccio never enjoyed aristocratic patronage or a prestigious official position, though he did receive a number of commissions from various scuole in Venice.

One must wonder if it was Carpaccio’s modest position in the Venetian hierarchy or his well-known crisis of confidence (around 1510) in the face of the radical innovations of younger artists Titian and Giorgione that has placed him in the echelon of lesser painters.

Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man with a Coin of the Emperor Nero, 1473
(Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp)

Nevertheless, Carpaccio occupies an vital spot in history of Italian Renaissance art, not just as a chronicler of the city of Venice, but as a faithful reporter on the rising middle class. Long before the time of Guardi and the Canalettis, Carpaccio painted grand spectacles and elaborate ceremonies of the type that would define the golden age of Venice.

Vittore Carpaccio, Two Venetian Ladies, 1505

In his depiction of Venetian life, Carpaccio was fond of recording minute and exotic detail in a realistic style that betrayed the popular influence in Italy at the time of the Netherlandish painters. He brought that same attention to detail to bear in his portraits. As a result, they become intriguing windows into his sitters’ souls and superb records of the life of the middle class through their accoutrements.

Already unusual for her free flowing hair (recall the last time you saw a portrait of a lady from this period with her hair down!), which Carpaccio creates as feathery feminine delicacy, this Lady‘s jaunty cap makes her all the more appealing. Carpaccio demonstrates that a Venetian woman need not be outfitted in the sumptuous costume of the aristocratic class; through the rendering of her marmoreal skin he imbues her with greater exotic allure than any damask dress studded with emeralds and rubies could.

Vittore Carpaccio, Portrait of an Unknown Man With Red Beret, 1490-93

Wider Connections

“Men’s Portraits of the 15th Century”
More Vittore Carpaccio

Venetian Red in Rome: The “Restitution Room”

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Travel with tags , , , , on June 9, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.

By LIZ HAGER

Label in the “Restitution Room” at the Villa Giulia.

At the end of a long hallway in a wing of the Villa Giulia (Museo Nazionale Etrusco), sandwiched in between the Etruscan armament and jewelry displays, is a room brimming with Etruscan-era pieces repatriated from American museums. The large Euphronious’ s Krater from the Met is there, as are dozens of pieces from the Getty and objects from institutions like The Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Princeton University’s Art Museum.

Euphronios’s Krater, Etruscan, 6th century BC
(Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Rome)

Except for the subtle note on the art work labels, there is nothing that advertises this space as a “Restitution Room.”  And yet, it’s pretty obvious that it was planned specifically to send a message (or two). Otherwise, it seems to me, MNE curators would have integrated each piece within its respective type in other sections of the museum.  Suffice it to say, there is no organizing principle that binds these pieces together, save for their shared identity as recovered pieces.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I visited the “Restitution Room” only  days after a new case had been filed in the Italian courts, this time against antiquities curator J. Michael Padgett of the Princeton University Art Museum. Readers will remember the recent trial in Rome of Getty director Marian True, who was charged with consorting with shady dealers to buy looted antiquities. Though five years old, the case has not yet been resolved. Nevertheless, Ms. True’s career has been completely tanked.


Curator Marian True (©New York Times)

I still can’t decide exactly what Italian officials are trying to convey through the organization of this room.  Is it a manifestation of Italian pride—a symbol that the government has been victorious over powerful American museums? Does it visually signify ultra-diligence on the part of the Italian government in protecting its people’s venerable culture? Or is it simply a well-aimed shot over the bow of the antiquities market, warning all of the folly of trading in illegally procured objects.

Whatever the true message of the “Restitution Room,” it certainly co-opted my thoughts long after I had left the Villa Giulia.

Wider Connections

“Museums into the Fray: The Marian True Trial”
Vernon Silver—The Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece
Sharon Waxman—Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

Petrus Christus’ St. Eligius

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts with tags , , , on June 7, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Petrus Christus, St. Eligius, 1449
Oil on oak panel, approx. 38.5″ x 33.5″
Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Petrus Christus (c. 1420-1476) is in the pantheon of great Netherlandish painters, along with Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. This wonderful painting, A Goldsmith in His Shop, Possibly St. Eligius, stands out even among the extraordinary company it keeps in the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum.

The painting depicts an aristocratic and sumptuously-clothed young betrothed couple in the shop of a goldsmith. St. Eligius was the patron saint of goldsmiths, and this painting would have served as a sort of advertisement for their craft. It is believed that this painting was commissioned for the dedication of the Bruges Chapel of the Smiths, which took place the year this picture was painted, 1449. The figure in red is meant to be either St.Eligius or a portrait of a specific 15th-century goldsmith. This painting has a rich narrative that encompasses the civic, secular and religious worlds of the time.

Petrus Christus was very interested in the definition of space and linear perspective—he was the first northern painter to use a single vanishing point. In his St. Eligius, I love the way so much information and visual interest is packed into this depiction of the tiny shop. First, notice the traditional marriage girdle, flung on to the counter to reinforce the significance of the marriage vows. On the right-hand side of the counter is a mirror which reflects two men in the street outside the shop. One of the figures (possibly a likeness of the artist) has a falcon, a symbol of pride and greed. The mirror has cracks and spots—another reminder of the imperfection of the world, in contrast to the couple inside and the sacred vow they will undertake. The scale in the goldsmith’s hands not only represents the careful weighing of the gold, but notice that his eyes look upward—indicating an assessment of value in a religious sense as well. Petrus Christus takes a secular scene depicting commerce and daily life and also imbues it with multi-layered social and spiritual meaning.

The contents of the goldsmith’s shop are also fascinating and so beautifully painted. We see both the raw materials and the objects fashioned from them: crystal, porphyry, seed pearls, gem stones and beads, as well as buckles, rings, brooches and pins. Among the items depicted are coral, which was meant to stop haemorrhage; rubies, which were believed to have antiseptic properties; and sapphires, thought to heal ulcers. There are indications that this was a royal couple in need of protecting because there are many items related to poisoning. The “serpent’s tongues” (fossilized shark’s teeth) hanging above the coral were said to change color if they came in contact with food or drink that was poisoned. The goblet, half-hidden by the curtain, is made of coconut, which was thought to neutralize poisons. I particularly like the crystal container on whose lid is a pelican, piercing its breast to feed its young, which was likely made to hold Eucharist wafers.

While it is interesting and fun to parse all of the meanings and speculate about all of the symbolism, one does not need to know any of that to understand that this is a painting that has meaning.

Petrus Christus is a bit of an enigma—we know he was born in Belgium, but other biographical facts are scarce. His work was often confused with van Eyck’s and for a time he was thought to be his pupil. Recent scholarship indicates that Christus absorbed wider influences and was an independent painter in his own right. In addition to his use of perspective, he was the first to locate the sitters in his portraits in actual rooms, not against a neutral background. In this way he made a significant contribution to Netherlandish painting, and paved the way for Hans Memling, who was the first painter to add landscape to the backgrounds of portraits. In future posts, VR will explore other unique and interesting paintings by this master of the Bruges Renaissance.

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