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Time to get Surreal

By Elevenses, Surrealism, Talking art

Time to get surreal! Not so long ago I was talking about Arcimboldo and his proto surrealist works. He was called the Father of Surrealism by the actual founder of the movement, Andre Breton. Breton was primarily interested in automatism or automatic writing which he felt unleashed the subconscious. Breton was a writer and a psychiatrist so initially the visual arts were slightly peripheral to the movement; there was a concern that the time it took to draw, paint, sculpt was a barrier to true spontaneity but they got over that, especially with works such as Andre Masson’s free association drawings.

Andre Masson automatic drawing

André Masson, Automatic Drawing, 1924, MoMA, New York

Pretty soon a bunch of artists were regularly meeting in Paris. The focus of their conversation wasn’t new pigments or perspective; they had rather more esoteric pursuits in mind and would spend hours experimenting with hypnotism and unconscious creativity. Breton and Masson were part of this group as was Salvador Dalí, perhaps the most famous of all Surrealist artists.

Dalí did produce some free association drawings but was more interested in fantastical and contradictory imagery; things that might appear in a dream or that you’d put together in your subconscious.

Perhaps his most famous work is also one of the earliest paintings he completed in his very recognisable style which juxtaposes sharply defined landscapes and objects with impossible imagery.

Surrealism Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, MoMA, New York

The Persistence of Memory was painted in 1931 a couple of years after Dalí joined the Surrealist movement and also a couple of years after he was thrown not only out of his home by his father but was also excommunicated by the whole town, partly due to his association with the Surrealists but mostly for blasphemy. He exhibited a work that was essentially an outline of a figure recognisable as Jesus and a sketch of the/his sacred heart within it with the title ‘sometimes I spit with pleasure on the portrait of my mother’. Nice.

Dali spit with pleasure

The setting of The Persistence of Memory is Port Lligat, the fishing village that Dalí and his wife lived in in poverty after their excommunication. Maybe it has a whiff of nostalgia about it as the central theme is time; or more accurately the problem of the concept of time. Real time isn’t the same as remembered time, and as for dream time… It’s malleable; just as the clocks are here. Dali said he was inspired by melting camembert but scholars say he may have been referencing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in which he theorises that time is a bit more complex than we thought.

If that’s the case, the clocks are pretty useless. It has to be said, however, that they aren’t actually clocks but pocket watches because they all have a winding mechanism. The Surrealists delighted in mocking the fashionable middle classes and since the pocket watch was the accessory du jour this could be a bit of a poke at not only the arbitrary nature of time, but the pointlessness of having a fancy time piece.

Let’s talk about the squid type thing on the sand that could be a self-portrait of sorts. Is that squiggle below what could be eyelashes part of his famous moustache? Who knows? Is that a tongue lolling out of his nose? Who knows? Might we say that this unformed figure is representative of Dalí’s embryonic career, the new life that’s he’s been forced to start? Who knows?

What many art historians agree on is that the ants are symbolic of decay and destruction. Dalí often included ants in his works after seeing them collectively devour entrails when he was younger.

So basically this is all about “the camembert of time” to coin Dalí’s phrase. Basically everything breaks down and changes over time.

Speaking of things changing over time, when this was exhibited in the US, he had been thrown out of the Surrealist movement for his political opinions (he had fascist tendencies) and was so poor that Picasso had to pay his travel expenses. After the exhibition he became one of the most recognisable people in the world.

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

Art History Room 101

By Elevenses, Talking art

For the 101st episode of Elevenses with Lynne I asked what you would put into room 101. The results are in!

The Mona Lisa!

I know! I think it might be more about the hype surrounding the Mona Lisa than the image itself but where did the hype come from?

I think it’s a perfect storm that included the fact that da Vinci didn’t paint many portraits of women, its inaccessibility in the collection of Francois I, its theft and subsequent retrieval and not to mention those elusive qualities that art historians love to wax lyrical about. I’ll stop there!

Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, 1503-06 (1517?),  Louvre, Paris

Three Graces Rubens Prado

Peter Paul Rubens, Venus, Mars and Cupid, 1635, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Boobs! Specifically the knobbly kind that Rubens was so fond of and the ice-cream scoops that Michelangelo served up. Access to female models was rare and so when Rubens married Hélène Fourment in 1630 he used her as model, wobbly bits and all (which he absolutely adored judging by the frequency with which he painted her). Michelangelo, suffice to say, probably wasn’t remotely interested in anyone’s boobs, even for the sake of not being placed in ‘art history room 101’ 500 years down the line.

Michelangelo Night

Michelangelo, Night from Medici Tomb, 1524-27, Florence, Italy

And so we move from the bizarre to the pretentious. Abstract Expressionism is firmly in ‘art history room 101’. The movement that was particularly popular in New York in the 1950s amongst artists got the thumbs down from more than one of you. I get it. It’s unusual to say the least that Rothko painted the Seagram Murals for the Four Seasons restaurant with the specific desire to make the wealthy diners unwell because they should be paying more attention to the artworks. Are you one of the people who will sit in contemplation of these works for hours? Likewise will you stand the requisite distance away from Barnett Newman’s works and read them like portraits? I imagine that some of you might not. Adam and Eve is a reflection on beginnings apparently. Got it?

rothko

Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958, Tate Galleries, London

Warning! These images may have an effect on you if you contemplate them for hours.

Abstract Expressionism

Barnett Newman, Adam and Eve, 1950, Tate Galleries, London

Which brings me to my ‘art history room 101’ moment. The pseudy artwork descriptions more often than not are connected to movements such as Abstract Expressionism. Along with that goes the kind of art that has to be explained by arty bollocks (see the website artybollocks – brilliant!). It’s not really art at all but an idea that can’t be conveyed in and of itself but has to have some description or clarification attached.

That’s often the case with video art. Yep, that’s in room 101 too.

And finally. Terrible reproductions. Back in the day when only a select few were elevated to the status of biscuit tins and posters, I thought I hated Constable’s Haywain. It’s not surprising when I was looking at the leached colours of a grainy print on tin. Ditto Monet’s Waterlilies or his garden at Giverny. Perhaps it was their association with doctor’s, dentists and the like? Anyway, in they go.

And the door to ‘art history room 101’ is closed.

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

Acrimboldo’s Tasty Portraits

By Acrimboldo, Elevenses, Talking art

Arcimboldo’s tasty portaits?! Hmmm. Imagine you say to your court painter one day ‘good morning, Giuseppe, I’d like you to produce a new portrait of me please’.

So he does. Only perhaps there was something in that phrase that inspired the artist Guiseppe Arcimboldo to produce (that word again) this portrait of Rudolf II in 1590.

Acrimboldo Rudolf II

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, 1590, Skokloster Castle, Sweden

A produce portrait! Get it?! Was he looking to be sacked? Exiled? Rudolf II was the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor; he was one of the most important men in the world and Arcimboldo was his court painter.

We’ve heard of the apple of your cheek but apple cheeks? A pear nose? Peapod eyelids? Wheatsheaf eyebrows? Was he kidding?

If he was, Rudolf laughed. Rudolf loved it.

Art historians over the years have declared that Arcimboldo was absolutely taking the mickey out of the Habsburg Emperor, they have certified him mad, they have dismissed him as merely fanciful but actually he was completely, if rather eccentrically, in tune with the court in which he worked.

The late 16th century was one of exploration and discovery and there was a real fascination for the wonders of the world in the intellectual, avant-garde, milieu of the Habsburg court which became a centre of scientific study.

Rudolf’s father, Maximillian II, was particularly interested in botany and zoolology and Arcimboldo had access to rare collections of flora and fauna which he included in the works.

Wonders of the world in the 16th century are not the same as wonders of the world now. Corn on the cob, for example, was rare in 16th century Europe and here it is in place of Rudolf’s ear. So this is an unusual way to show off knowledge, visual wit and the bounty of the Habsburg Empire all in one image.

If you missed the point, the portrait is called Vertumnus. Vertumnus was the Roman god of seasons, agriculture and growth. Basically the essential elements of a prosperous 16th century society. Essentially the portrait was an allegory for prosperity, harmony and peace. Perfect for a world leader.

But how could Arcimboldo be sure that Rudolf II would appreciate his efforts? Because this isn’t the first time that he had created works of this kind. The Four Seasons and The Elements are two series of paintings presented to Maximillian II, Rudolf’s father, in 1563 and 1566 respectively. They’re works of genius!

Acrimboldo - Spring or Primavera

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Spring, 1563 Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

Acromboldo Summer The Seasons

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer, 1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573, Louvre, Paris

Acrimbldo Winter

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter, 1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Spring is a vision of blossoming flowers; summer is all fruit and vegetables with a lovely visual pun in the form of an ear of corn for the ear; autumn is autumnal in colour and composed of the fruits and nuts enjoyed in this season, and winter is a bit bleak – a gnarled tree trunk to represent older skin and a fabulous mushroom mouth.

Air Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Air, ca. 1566, (copy), private collection

Fire Acrimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fire, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Earth, 1566, private collection, Austria

Acrimboldo The Elements Water

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Water, 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Air we only know from a copy and the original is lost but it seems that it was composed of birds and feathers. I’d challenge anyone to recognise this as a head from close quarters!

Fire is a bit unusual as it’s not a composite of flowers and animals but inanimate objects. This image probably has the most references to the Habsburg dynasty. The nose and the ear are fire strikers, one of the family symbols, that would create a spark if struck against the flint of the cheek. The golden ram is a reference to the Order of the Golden Fleece; the Habsburg’s highest honour. The double headed eagle is a symbol of the Holy Roman Empire and the canons are a reminder of the might of the Habsburg army.

Want to visualise what a neck made from the torso of a cow would look like? I give you Arcimboldo’s Earth. He also creates an eye from the open jaws of a wild dog and a nose from a hare’s bottom. The relationship between the animals might be questionable (the hare is giving the wild dog a hug as the former is about to plunge it’s teeth into the hare’s neck) but the result is stunning. The lion that forms the shoulder is readily visible and a reference to the mythological hero Hercules from whom the Habsburgs claimed their lineage. And they had pet lions.

Water is inevitably made up of various sea creatures including an octopus, a crab, a lobster and a prawn. I’m enjoying the fact that the lobster and prawn must be cooked as they’re pink/red, although apparently you can get red lobsters in the wild. The addition of the pearl necklace and earring add a touch of class.

Maximillian asked Arcimboldo to copy the paintings so the work depicting Spring and Autumn aren’t the originals which are now lost, but copies given as gifts to Philip II of Spain and Augustus of Saxony, and Air is a copy by an unknown artist. Clearly he wanted to share the joy whilst promoting the playful intelligence of his court artist.

It would seem that despite being the most depressing to look at, winter particularly took Maximillian’s fancy. He dressed as Winter in a festival inspired by the paintings. Arcimboldo designed the costumes and the scenery.

So this was a style, a tradition even, that was unique to the Habsburg court but somewhat intellectual, a whole lot of fun and surreal before surrealism was even a thing.

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

An unusual St Margaret in Santo Stefano

By Elevenses, Santo Stefano, Talking art

This is St Margaret. Who knew? Here she is getting raked on the rack although you’d think that she was lying stretched out for a beauty treatment. Unlike, however, the naked torso of St Marius, I don’t feel that there’s much that is erotic about this. Yes, she is partially naked and yes, her hair is spread over her breasts in what could be a sensual way but the fact that she’s being pronged in the nipple by a hay fork somewhat ruins the effect.

Saint Margaret

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

The man doing the pronging is rather intense, as is this man kneeling to the bottom left. Could we but see him properly in this pretty horrible reproduction of the fresco, we would see that he’s turning a wheel. The section of the wooden board beneath her armpit / upper arm is separating further with every turn. All she needs to do is worship the idol that is being held aloft for her attention but stoic St Margaret is having none of it.

Now, you might think that you are perhaps familiar with St Margaret if you take more than a passing fancy to art history.

She is most commonly seen emerging from the stomach of a dragon as in this image from a 15th century French prayer book.

The rapidity of her expulsion from the dragon is demonstrated here through the fact that it hadn’t even finished eating her robe before she burst from its stomach not only intact but bright eyed and bushy tailed. I’m not sure the dragon has noticed, however; it seems to be posing seductively with a bit of robe between its teeth!

The story of St Margaret (and even more than most saint’s stories, it really IS a story because it only appeared centuries after her death) is actually perfect for this time of year as it’s a bit of a Cinderella story…

St Margaret in book of hours

Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440 – c. 1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 216r

St Margaret the Shepherdess

Francisco de Zurbaran, St Margaret, 1631, National Gallery, London

Young Margaret converted to Christianity as a girl and was promptly thrown out of her home by her father. She became a shepherdess but (guess what?) was so beautiful that she attracted the attention of a Roman prefect. Inevitably he was pagan and when she spurned his advances, he had her arrested for her Christian beliefs.

Poor Margaret went through a series of impossible ordeals, aided by celestial creatures and her very own fairy godmother if we keep with the Cinderella tradition. These quite possibly included torture on the rack as well as attempts to kill her by burning her and drowning her, but she survived.

Perhaps she was also ripped apart by a hay fork. Notice the rip along the centre of her torso? This would seem to me to be a nod to the dragon incident. Dragons are pretty interesting creatures and can have multiple meanings but in this instance it inevitably stands for the devil who is so repulsed by the holy personage inside him, that it has to reject her immediately.

After all this torture, St Margaret was finally beheaded as most saints were, and presumably met her Prince Charming in heaven.

It’s not surprising that this became a hugely popular tale very often depicted in works of art and almost always with a dragon.

So why is no dragon depicted here? I think because the frescoes centre on man’s inhumanity to man. There are a few with wild animals, lions etc but they were sent by Pagans to destroy Christians. Remember that the whole raison d’etre of these frescoes was to promulgate the cause of Catholics against Protestants who were killing the Catholics, and to equate the fight for Christianity in Pagan Rome to the Counter Reformation. I guess a dragon masquerading as the devil doesn’t really fit that narrative?

St Margaret by the way, for reasons that are obvious, is the patron saint of child birth.

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

Santo Stefano gorefest: Sexy St Marius

By Elevenses, Santo Stefano, Talking art

If you take the central image of St Marius as your starting point for this fresco, you might feel that it’s one of the less challenging images in the series.

In fact, I have to wonder whether Circignani was going slightly for the objectification of the silver fox here?? He’s stretched out for the viewer, arms up to flatten the tummy and raise the chest, a low slung loin cloth that leads to some magnificently muscular legs AND he has his head down meaning that he can’t meet our gaze, hence we are free to feast on his torso. Okay, I know that he’s somewhat obliged to be in this position because he’s tied to a wooden frame, but that also acts as a pictorial frame. It’s as though this image of St Marius is a picture within a picture or a scene within a scene.

St Marius Santo Stefano Rotondo

N. Circignani and M. da Siena, The Martyrdom of Saint Marius, Martha, Audifax and Abacum, Santo Stefano Rotondo, fresco 19, 1581-2

To Marius’s right are his sons, Audifax and Abacum. They are gorgeous youths who look as though they were just walking down the path, when one stopped to say something to the other and all of a sudden a guy with two huge metal hooks accidentally got them stuck in their flesh. The boy on the right is looking down with some curiosity, as well he might, and the guy with the hooks has the air of a man who’s having a fabulous time perhaps shaking maracas in an overzealous dance rather than someone in the middle of committing an act of murder. Again, it’s rather incongruous, especially as there’s rather a lot of blood dripping down their bodies and pooling at their feet and it’s only on close examination that you realise that they are tied to a tree stump.

Audifax and Abacum from fresco of Martyrdom of St Marius

To Marius’s left is his wife, Martha. She looks like a lovely lady, dressed very decorously in a robe that would have been the height of fashion in ancient Rome. I’m not sure about her necklace or stole, however, I feel it’s in slightly poor taste?

Perhaps she knows this because she does seem to be looking down slightly shame faced. Maybe that’s because her hands are unfeasibly large, maybe it’s because they are indeed draped around her neck like mittens. If we missed that because her hands aren’t large enough, the livid red stumps trickling blood onto her lovely attire are another give away that something’s awry.

I don’t know what was going on in Circignani’s head when he designed this fresco, and I’m wondering whether the toll of all the previous gore had had an effect on him (this is fresco 19). Although we are told that this is Marius, his wife, Martha, and their two sons via the handy (sorry!) reference system, there’s no mention of big hooks and gruesome neck attire anywhere in the story of their martyrdom.

According to tradition, they travelled as a family from Persia to Rome and were arrested for burying martyred Christians, some of whom you can see piled up in the background as is customary in these frescoes. They were brought before a magistrate who told them that they would be released if they renounced their faith but they, I imagine very politely because they look like a polite family, said no thank you.

In the story Marius and his sons were beheaded on the Via Cornelia and their bodies were burned. Martha was murdered thirteen miles outside of Rome. Maybe she managed to run in her dress more successfully than the chaps could in their loin cloths?

Just when you thought there were no further gory scenes, we have St Valentine being beheaded over on the right, seen more clearly in a detail from an engraving of the fresco held in the British Museum.

There is also a couple in cauldron of boiling water on the left. One of them is St Justina who had the misfortune of being pretty and having a pagan nobleman fall in love with her. When it became obvious that she really wasn’t interested, he did what anyone would do in that situation and employed a magician called Cyprian to cast a spell over her to make her love him in return. The plot thickens when Cyprian saw her and decided that, actually, it might be rather nice to have her for himself. So he tried to woo her by filling her head (with the help of the devil) with all sorts of dark, decadent, lustful fantasies and visions but she was having none of it. To his credit, Cyprian realised at this point that God was wielding more power than the devil and he decided on the strength of this to get baptised. After his baptism, he’s also persecuted as a Christian along with Justina; it’s him in that cauldron with her. I don’t know whether the pagan nobleman who employed him in the first place had anything to do with their predicament but if he did, he must have been peeved because they survived (note to Roman persecutors of Christians, they all survive the boiling water – remember Cecilia?) and were beheaded under the orders of Emperor Diocletian.

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

More Santo Stefano gorefest

By Elevenses, Santo Stefano, Talking art

Oh yes, the fresco cycle in Santo Stefano Rotondo is a real gorefest! The frescoes were created in around 1582 at the height of the Counter Reformation and meant to inspire Catholics to martyr themselves if necessary in the fight against Protestantism. There are reports of over-zealous would be missionaries flogging themselves to death in front of the frescoes so I suppose something worked.

santo stefano rotondo

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

Here’s St Cecilia. According to her legend, she was married against her will to a Roman pagan named Valarian. On her wedding day she heard angels singing and when it came to the moment that their marriage was to be consummated, she told Valarian that if he touched her that would not be good AT ALL. Angels can be pretty mean when it comes to looking after their own! On the other hand, she said, if he heeded her wishes he too could see angels. Somewhat surprisingly Valarian listened, had an angelic visitation and was persuaded to convert to Christianity. He loved it so much that he also converted his brother.

The enthusiastic new members of the flock preached Christianity whenever they could and were soon beheaded for their troubles. Cecilia, however, suffered even more. She was condemned to be boiled to death but after a day and a half in boiling water she wasn’t even tepid and an executioner was discharged to behead her. In many versions of the tale her severed head continued to preach for several days until she finally went to meet the angels who had so often sung to her. St Cecilia is now the patron saint of music.

The background to this fresco depicts the horrible sight of her husband and brother in law getting their heads chopped off. Just what you want in a church that has become hugely popular for concerts and weddings. St Cecilia must be delighted with all that music.

The story of St Cecilia is merely a warm up (sorry!) to the gorefest depicted in many of the other frescoes. How about this one of saints Bibiana, John and Paul?

Bibiana, John and Paul Santo Stefano Rotondo

Circignani and M. da Siena, The Martyrdom of Saint Artemius, John, Paul and Bibiana, Santo Stefano Rotondo, fresco, 1581-2

In the foreground, we see 3 dead saints on the ground and we know this because they have halos, there’s another saintly personage getting crushed, I was going to say to death but I feel he’s already a gonner (or at least I hope he is) and then in the background are heaps of cadavers and a burning ship with a cross that you can just about make out through the flames.

Many of the frescoes have similar scenes of genocide in the background which I think is meant to suggest the huge number of Christians that fell foul to the pagan regime and the number that were giving their lives for the cause during the Catholic Revival. It’s propaganda folks, but not as we know it.

But to the four in the foreground. The three on the grass in a nice neat row are Saints John, Paul and Bibiana. They have been intertwined apocryphally for centuries but the story of Bibiana is actually separate to that of John and Paul.

John and Paul, however, share a hagiography. These two saints were brothers and officers of the Roman army in the days of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine. They happily served in his daughter’s house until both she and her father died and Julian became Emperor. Julian returned to the cult of idols and paganism. Sigh!

Emperor Julian asked John and Paul to return to active service, they said ‘no thanks’ and they were decapitated secretly in their own garden to avoid an outrage. Julian then instigated a rumour that they had been exiled which didn’t go down too well because pagans started to get possessed by demons. When the son of their murderer was also possessed, the soldier went and prayed at their tomb at which point the demons fled his son’s body and he subsequently and unsurprisingly converted to Christianity, and wrote the story. Hurrah!

So who actually noticed that their heads have been severed from their bodies???

Before we get to squashed man, let’s talk about Bibiana. You might notice that squashed man’s eyes are quite literally popping out of his head looking at her but despite the best efforts of a very cruel lady, Bibiana remained a virgin when she was martyred.

There are two versions of the Bibiana myth; in both she’s the daughter of Christian parents and persecuted by Julian the Apostate hence the connection to John and Paul.

In the first myth Julian banishes her father, and her mother and sister subsequently die of natural causes and are buried in their house (under the floor boards?!) by Bibiana. Bibiana herself is subject to torture before she passes away. A couple of days later she’s laid to rest with her mother and sister by a priest called John (St John?) and the house was eventually consecrated as a church. It’s the site of St Bibiana in Rome.

In the other version, the two sisters survive their parents and are stripped of all their possessions. They don’t mind too much as they spend their days in fasting and prayer. Really peeved that hunger and deprivation had absolutely no effect on them, the Roman Governor summons them, and it is at this point that Bibiana’s sister falls down dead.

Bibiana, however, is tortured in this account as well. She’s held captive by a wicked woman called Rufina, who in tries to defile her virginity firstly by seductive persuasion and then by violence but that doesn’t work (I’m not sure what didn’t work or how it didn’t work but she remained a virgin). Enraged, the Roman governor ordered her to be tied to a pillar and flogged which was a torture that she endured with a smile on her face until she died.

Her body was then put in the open air to be torn apart by wild animals, but as you can see she was left intact and finally buried.

So who is pop-eye?  He’s Artemius, a Roman soldier also martyred under the reign of Julian the Apostate. He was renowned for his ability to cure maladies relating to the spine and testicles. Why has he suffered the indignity here of getting pulverised under a huge rock? Maybe to show a bit of immediacy; the fact that his bowels are spewing out and that his eyes have indeed popped out of head under the weight of the rock is meant to be a visceral reminder that the struggle was not yet over. Nice.

The video of the episode on St Cecilia can be viewed here.

The video of the episode on Saints Bibiana, John and Paul can be viewed here.

To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

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.

Michelangelo’s (pissed up) Bacchus

By Elevenses, Michelangelo Bacchus, Talking art

Gazing into the glazed eyes of Michelanagelo’s Bacchus in the Bargello in Florence a few years ago, a friend said to me that you kind of have to love him, even if he looks a bit dodgy. Unusually, I couldn’t quite agree. I was more with the poet Percy Shelley who wrote that the god of wine looks ‘drunken, brutal, and narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most revolting’. A virtuoso piece of sculpting though.

Bacchus Bargello Michelangelo

Michelangelo, Bacchus, 1496-7, Bargello, Florence

Michelangelo’s Bacchus can barely focus on his cup and he definitely looks as though he could sway off that marble podium at any time. His tummy is protruding, shoulders slumped, and whilst there is evidence of some firm musculature beneath that naked torso, his body appears softly rounded, and somewhat feminine.

His left hand loosely grips an animal pelt, quite probably that of a leopard as they traditionally pulled his chariot, and bunch of grapes that are being slyly nibbled by the little satyr sitting on the tree stump behind him. The pay-off is that Bacchus is practically leaning against the satyr for support. You can practically smell the wine on his breath and see the red stained lips and teeth.

At some point he also made the sartorial decision to adorn his head with vine leaves and little bunches of grapes which resemble curls. If you’ve read the Elevenses blog ‘The art of the Bacchanal’ you’ll know that ivy was more commonly used as Bacchus’s crown. It was supposed to act as a defence against drunkenness. Could have been helpful here?!

Standing a little over two metres high, he is in fact, the embodiment of drunkenness. I haven’t tried, but I imagine wobbliness is pretty bloody hard to achieve in marble.

Which begs the question: who commissioned this and did they actually want a pissed up Bacchus with a slightly sleezy air or something less challenging – after all Bacchus here is a nasty reminder of the effects of drink.

The first question is easy to answer. The consensus is that Michelangelo was commissioned by Cardinal Riario in Rome and began working on the statue in 1496.

The answer to the second question is less clear because we don’t have the paperwork detailing the commission. Regular payments were made but as far as all the evidence suggests, the statue was never actually delivered to the Cardinal but instead displayed in the sculpture garden of Riario’s banker and Michelangelo’s friend, Jacopo Galli.

One theory is that the drunkenness was a problem. This is way past the ruddy cheeked conviviality of many other depictions of Bacchus. Alcohol was the pathway to hell and so it was unseemly in the extreme to have a statue, albeit of the god of wine, that appeared to represent total inebriation, especially if you were a man of the cloth.

Or perhaps it wasn’t quite antique enough. The 16th century saw a lot of excavation and everyone was mad for the statues of classical antiquity.

Michelangelo Bacchus 1496

Michelangelo had just pulled off a magnificent stunt in which he created a marble cupid, roughed it up a bit, and allowed it to be passed off as a genuine antique. This is, in fact, how he met Cardinal Riario who bought the piece believing it to be antique. When he found out that it was merely a fabulous fake, he was initially furious but, once he had his money back, he recognised the extraordinary talent of Michelangelo and invited him to come to Rome. This is when he commissioned Bacchus.

It would definitely seem that Michelangelo was attempting a similar outcome with Bacchus as he did with Cupid (now lost). Word on the street was that the artist himself mutilated the statue to make it look more antique, knocking off the raised hand and cup and chiselling away the penis (ouch).

In this sketch by Marten van Heemskerck of Bacchus in Galli’s sculpture garden, dated to the 1530s, you can see that both are already missing. By the 1550s, however, the hand had returned, reattached by the artist using cement, but the penis was never in evidence.

van Heemskerck Bacchus

Drawing of Bacchus in the sculpture garden of Jacopo Galli by Maarten van Heemskerck, c. 1533–1536

Did it look antique? Some contemporary commentators definitely thought so, others weren’t sure. Perhaps the slightest doubt wasn’t good enough for either Michelangelo or Riario? Perhaps it just wasn’t the kind of antique Riario was looking for.

Finally, there’s the fact that it may have been considered too effeminate. The issue was that this led to suggestions of homosexuality. Which was forbidden. But rife. Michelangelo was probably gay. Nevertheless you couldn’t promote it in a statue in the late 15th century.

So drunk, not antique enough, too effeminate? All of the above? Who knows?

Michelangelo I imagine was somewhat upset at the time. But for us today, it’s testament to his daring and genius. Would I want Michelangelo’s Bacchus in my garden though? Definitely not.

And the big (or little) question is: where’s his penis?

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