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November 2021

Santo Stefano gorefest: Saint Stephen

By Elevenses, Santo Stefano, Talking art

Those of you who haven’t caught me live on Instagram (yet!) might not know that there is almost always a shout out for GORE. So here we are at the start of a veritable gorefest. This fresco of poor St Stephen is a mere warm up to some of the other frescos in the same series that I’m going to show you over the coming weeks…you have been warned! Spoiler alert: it’s not very festive!!

St Stephen was the first person to be martyred in the name of Christianity. He’s kneeling in his red robe arms held out to his sides, perhaps in a nod to Christ’s crucifixion, eyes to the heavens as he’s pelted at point blank range with stones, or possibly baked potatoes.

St Stephen protomartyr

N. Circignani and M. da Siena, The Martyrdom of St Stephen, Santo Stefano Rotondo, 1581-2

St Stephen, however, doesn’t seem to care much and nor does he seem to have noticed the vision of Christ and God in the cloud above which was what partially got him into trouble in the first place. St Stephen was a brilliant orator and held a lot of views that went against public opinion so when, in a court of law in Jerusalem, he claimed that Jesus’s death was murder, that Moses had foretold of Christ’s coming and that he could, by the way, see a vision in the sky of Christ standing at God’s right hand, things went badly. St Stephen was chased out of the court by an angry mob and stoned to death for his beliefs.

Santo Stefano
Apostles

In the background to the right we have a group that the artist identifies with a ‘B’ as the apostles (there’s a guide to the lettering below the fresco). I imagine that this is a reference to the 12 apostles being dispersed, metaphorically if not geographically, after Stephen’s death because you can see some figures with halos being harangued by others brandishing branches.

Over to the left in the background is a man identified as Jacobus. He’s about to get beheaded. I think this could be James the Great who was the first of the apostles to be martyred and he did, according to the New Testament, get his head chopped off.

I’m not convinced, however, looking at the architecture, that this scene is representative of Jerusalem in the 1st century A.D. There is a reason for that. The artist, Niccolo Circignani, was more than likely asked to present Rome as the successor to Jerusalem. These frescoes were painted in 1582 at the height of the Counter Reformation so glorifying Rome and Catholicism was important.

And the catalogue of bodily horrors in the name of martyrdom that this fresco cycle represents was clearly part of that.

Yes, St Stephen is one of the least gruesome images in the series. For an idea of what’s to come, here’s a description by Charles Dickens. He didn’t mince his words when he wrote about the works in Pictures from Italy, published in 1846:

… St. Stefano Rotondo a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms of saints and early Christians; and such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects. So insisted on, and laboured at, besides, that every sufferer gives you the same occasion for wonder as poor old Duncan awoke, in Lady Macbeth, when she marvelled at his having so much blood in him.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. Or at least partially viewed as there was a technical difficulty and I was interrupted in full flow! To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

The Birth of Bacchus

By Bacchus, Elevenses, Talking art

Brace yourselves! The birth of Bacchus is a mental story!

I’m starting this blog with this gorgeous arcadian scene, featuring the nymphs of Nysa, or the Nysiads and, erm, a dead body in the foreground. It’s called The Birth of Bacchus.

Birth of Bacchus Poussin

Nicolas Poussin, The Birth of Bacchus, 1657, Harvard Art Museums

So basically, ignoring the dead person, these nymphs have been going about their business (also ignoring the dead person) when they are delighted and excited by a visit from the messenger of the gods, Hermes.

Hermes, has quite a big message – he has a baby for them to look after. Spoiler alert, it’s Bacchus.

The god pan is happily presiding over the scene playing his flute and then we have a couple of figures up on a cloud. The man sitting on the bed is Zeus. We know it’s Zeus because his attribute, an eagle, is sitting on the end of the cloud. He’s recuperating and happily accepting a drink by the cup bearer to the gods, Hebe. What’s he recuperating from? Drum roll…..GIVING BIRTH TO BACCHUS.

Here are two images of Zeus giving birth.

Karater depicting birth of Dionysus

Apulian red-figure krater, depicting the birth of Dionysus, 4th century B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Taranto

The Altamura Painter, krater depicting the birth of Dionysus, c. 460 B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Ferrara

Yep, Zeus gave birth to Bacchus out of his leg.

The Greek name for Bacchus is Dionysus. Dionysus means ‘twice born’. So Zeus didn’t gestate this baby but just kept him safe in his leg until he was ready to come out. Is there a back story? You bet there is!

Here’s Rubens giving us the drama…

Rubens Death of Semele

Rubens, Death of Semele, between 1630 and 1640, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Belgium

Obviously it starts with Zeus falling in love with a lovely young girl called Semele, getting her pregnant and making his wife Hera insanely jealous, which was her default emotion.

Now Semele is a mortal and so Zeus has to protect her from his full godly brightness for reasons which will become obvious.

Hera knows this and in her anger and jealousy, she disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse and pretends that she’s really worried about her because, actually, does she really know who she’s sleeping with? How does she know it’s Zeus and not some mortal taking advantage of her by pretending to be the god?

She advises Semele to insist that Zeus properly reveals himself. Here she is doing just that in this image from an illustrated version of Ovid’s Metamorphosis from 1677.

Illustrated Ovid

Illustration of Hera and Semele from an illustrated version of Ovid’s Metamorphosis from 1677

So, the seed is planted and the next night, as she’s running her fingers through his hair, Semele says ‘darling, will you do anything I ask?’. Zeus wakes up (!) and says that he loves her so much that he absolutely will and for good measure, he swears an oath on the river Styx.

You can’t break an oath to the river Styx.

Semele starts to state her request and as soon as Zeus realises what it is, he frantically tries to stop her saying the words that will kill her. She’s a woman on a mission so all Zeus can do is literally blow her mind.

You’ll notice an eagle with a thunderbolt at the end of this bed too. When your lover is the main man with thunderbolts at his fingertips, it’s pretty intense.

As Semele died, Zeus took the unborn child from her womb and stitched it into his thigh until he was born again and we come full circle to Poussin.

But what of the dead person?

It might be a reference to a slightly different myth concerning Dionysus’s birth.

In this story Persephone gave birth to Dionysus, Hera decides the kill the baby and lures him to her with all the latest toys at which point the Titans pounce, rip him to shreds and eat him. Except for his heart. (I have no idea why I can’t find this story depicted in art). Zeus is really upset and decides that he remake his little boy by implanting the heart into Semele’s womb. She’s not dumb enough in this story to ask to see the god behind the mask and she gives birth to Dionysus but clearly can’t be trusted to raise him because in every story he’s raised by nymphs.

So birth, death, rebirth? Maybe that’s what Poussin was getting at?

Actually the dead person is a mystery. We know he’s Narcissus because of the flowers, and this weeping woman is Echo who was in love with Narcissus but there isn’t really a satisfactory theory to my knowledge as to why they’ve painting-bombed the birth of Bacchus, although their story does come next in Metamorphosis

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Themis

By Elevenses, Talking art, Themis

In ‘Maid in Marble’, my video introducing the art of Classical Antiquity, an excited young lady announces that the statue she’s modelling her head for is probably that of Themis – the goddess of law and order.

Themis, from the MET

Marble statue of a woman (Themis?),

Maid in Marble

Still from Maid in Marble, 2021, Beyond the Palette

Themis is one of the most ancient of all the goddesses; being one of 12 offspring between Uranus and Gaia, she is part of the Second Order of divine beings that became known as the Titans.

Here are her parents in the happy days of their marriage as part of a floor mosaic from the 3rd century A.D.

Uranus and Gaia floor mosaic 3rd century B.C.

Uranus and Gaia with children, floor mosaic, 200-250 A.D., Sassoferrato, Italy

Unfortunately things turned sour and Gaia decided to overthrow Uranus, and asked her kids, one by one if they would help her.

So, she called on Themis, who wisely counselled her mother to forget the crazy idea of usurping Uranus. Gaia listened carefully to this wise counsel and ignored it.

Her brother, Cronos, wasn’t quite as wise. He overthrew Uranus by castrating him and throwing his genitals into the sea. Which is how Venus was born.*

And then, of course, Cronos himself was overturned by Zeus.*

Whilst all this was going on, Themis was earning herself a great reputation for being just, wise and a bit of a prophet. When the Oracle of Delphi prophesised, she was either possessed by Apollo, Themis or Gaia. Or perhaps all three.  I would always hope for Themis. By the way, a little gem curtesy of Stephen Fry: the Greek for ‘divine possession’ is enthusiasmos – enthusiasm. To be enthused or enthusiastic is to be ‘engodded’, to be divinely inspired.

Here she is seated on the Delphic tripod, holding a cup in one hand and a sprig of laurel in the other completely confusing King Aegeas. He was so baffled by her prophesy that he had to go to his mate to ask him to explain. At which point his mate got him drunk and had him seduced by his daughter (who later gave birth to Theseus). That’s another rather complicated story.

Themis speaking through the Delphic Oracle

 Themis and King Aegeus, Athenian red-figure kylix 5th century B.C., Antikensammlung Berlin

Zeus, Themis, Athena, Mercury

Hermes, Themis, Zeus and Athena, Athenian red-figure pelike 4th century B.C., State Hermitage Museum

Here is Themis again, this time offering counsel to Zeus who by now is King of the gods.

You’ll notice it’s quite a cosy gathering. Actually, to some extent, this is a nice family gathering. In the centre is Zeus with Themis seated to the far left, then we have Hermes and to the other side of Zeus a little Nike or winged messenger and Athena.

Athena is Zeus’s daughter by his first wife, Metis. Themis is Zeus’s aunty on both sides; she is the sister of his parents, Cronos and Rhea (!) but at this moment she’s also possibly his wife. I say possibly not because they may not have married, they did, but who knows where we are in the crazy life of Zeus at this point other than he’s fathered Athena? He went on to marry Mnemosyne with whom he had the nine muses, and Leto the demure goddess of motherhood before he settled for the deranged and jealous Hera, who was also his sister. I bet family gatherings were excellent.

Back to his brief marriage to Themis. It might be the most normal thing Zeus ever did! They became close when he repeatedly called on her to help him make wise decisions about the conduct of men and gods and soon she was synonymous with the idea of divine law and Zeus couldn’t live without her in his life. Until he could and moved on!

Naturally they had offspring. Two sets of triplets in fact. The Horai and the Moirai.

The Horai were the goddesses of the seasons. At some point another one joined them. They were pretty cool ladies who oversaw the smooth running of time.

The Moirai on the other hand are often depicted as witchy type characters who personified a person’s fate. ‘Moirai’ means ‘parts’ or ‘shares’ so they dished out what portion of life an individual could have. One spun the golden tread, another measured it out and the final Moirai cut it. The fate of man wasn’t inflexible, however. If Zeus decided to play with that tread that was his prerogative.

So Themis was always working away in the background basically doing good work. She didn’t get naked and nor did she do anything grandiose or outrageous, therefore artists mostly weren’t interested in her narrative, but of course as the embodiment of justice and law and order, she is everywhere.

The Romans called her Justitia, and she became the only one of the cardinal virtues to have a signature look in ancient art. Scales, usually a sword and often a blindfold to signify her impartiality were standard attributes.

Occasionally, however, she was depicted with other attributes as in this work by Raphael.

An ostrich.

Justice with ostrich, Raphael

Copy of Raphael’s, Justice, 1508, Sala di Costantino, Vatican (accessed from artistsnetwork.com)

The ostrich was known in the Renaissance for its odd dietary habits (eating anything, including metal) and was sometimes linked with the sin of gluttony. That’s not, I don’t think, what Raphael was saying. The fact that it really did eat ANYTHING also imbued it with the fine quality of endurance and it became an emblem of justice during the Renaissance because, according to the famous 16th century iconographer, Cesare Ripa, “the ostrich ruminates its food as Justice should the testimony put before her”. Apparently they also have very evenly distributed feathers which is just the way that the law should be imparted. That’s according to the 5th century author Horapollo.

On the other hand they put their heads in the ground and so could be symbols of ignorance.

This work was only found a few years ago in 2017 during a fresco restoration. It’s one of only two figures that Raphael painted using a new technique with oil paints.

* a video about Venus is available here, and one about Zeus overthrowing Cronos is available here.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

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