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The Effects of Intemperance

By Dutch art, Elevenses, Talking art

So, just in time for lent, let’s talk about The Effects of Intemperance. Obviously I have no experience in this arena so I’m turning to the fabulous 17th century Dutch artist, Jan Steen for guidance. Turns out the effects are bad. Very bad.

Jan Steen Effects of Intemperance

Jan Steen, The Effects of Intemperance, 1665, National Gallery, London

But do they look that bad? Okay, mum’s fallen asleep in the middle of the afternoon and consequently the kids are running amok but it’ll all be fine tomorrow, right? Maybe not. You can never take a Dutch painting, especially one from the 17th century, at face value. The Dutch loved riddles and had very high moral standards, at least on the face of it, so there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Firstly, of course, mum isn’t just taking a nap because she’s been working so hard at maintaining a well kept household and bringing up six delightful children. She’s absolutely off her tree as the pipe dangling loosely between her fingers and the overturned wine jug suggests. What somehow makes this even worse is that there is evidence of significant wealth in the woman’s clothes and in that overflowing fruit bowl.

drunk in charge of a fruit bowl

Just look at that shot silk skirt and the fur trimmed jacket. She’s even wearing pearls. There’s definitely a suggestion that she should know better. In terms of the fruit bowl, I can’t decide whether the large white piece of fruit at the front is supposed to be mouldy or not but I think that there may be nectarines or perhaps apricots beneath it. They were available in the Netherlands in the 17th century but they were extremely expensive. As for the over-abundance of grapes, well, they just confirm what was in that jug.

And so to her children who look rather too perky on that healthy diet of fruit, bread and cheese. One of them is so perky that he’s even decided to filch her purse from her pocket, perhaps in reference to a Dutch proverb that “opportunity makes the thief”. I did warn you that the whole work is infused with a coded moral message; contemporary audiences would have delighted in working out the meanings to the various shenanigans detailed within the painting.

The parrot, offered a glass of wine by the eldest child, symbolises blind emulation – it would seem that the young lady is already following her mother’s lead as she looks a bit unfocussed and squiffy herself.

Between the parrot and the squiffy older daughter is a pig snuffling, erm, roses.

Actually the boy in the centre has an armful of gorgeous roses that he appears to be decapitating to throw to the pig. The expression pearls before swine in Dutch translates as roses before swine – so these people have all this wealth and good fortune but it’s wasted on them because they don’t understand or appreciate what they have.

Jan Steen

Steen also suggests that the family will not hold on to their wealth for long. The three younger children are gleefully feeding a delicious meat pie to the cat. If they carry on like that there’ll be no meat for them in the future.

dad and the maid effects of intemperance

Their father, if that’s who we can assume he is, however, is interested in flesh of a different kind. He has a young lady on his knee who perhaps we can take to be the maid (maids, unfairly get a terrible rap in Dutch art and are considered ‘available and up for it’) and is oblivious to or ignoring the unruly gaggle of children and his drunken wife.

He might well regret that because, actually, there is some real danger depicted in the scene – things could go very badly wrong.

Take a look again at the pipe our sleeping beauty is holding. It’s right next to her skirt and could it be smouldering a little? Ditto the clay brazier to her side.

A fire would be a veritable disaster. Most houses were built of timber and were pretty close together. Steen is suggesting that they are taking household mismanagement to the next level. If they do manage to escape a fire, however, the future still doesn’t look rosy…

the beggar's tools jan steen effects of intemperance

The basket that hangs above the bad mother’s head contains the tools of the beggar’s trade, including a set of crutches, as well as the symbolic birch branch that criminals were flogged with.

So, have you decided what you’re giving up for lent?

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

Bronzino’s (slightly upsetting) Allegory with Venus and Cupid part 2

By Bronzino, Elevenses, Greek mythology, Renaissance Art, Talking art

So we’ve established that Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid is rather disturbing, not least because Venus and Cupid, who are mother and son, are kissing with tongues. But what’s it all about? Well, as the name ‘Allegory with Venus and Cupid’ suggests, the cast of characters in this work all have meanings that transcend the confines of the work.

Father Time

In the top right corner is Father Time with wings and an hourglass on his back. He is either pulling back this gorgeous blue cloth to reveal the scene or is desperately trying to cover it up. Either way, it adds to the theatrical artificiality of the painting.

The mischievous little fellow below him is Pleasure or Folly. He is gaily about to throw blossoms over the embracing couple but in doing so he’s also about to tread on a thorn.

And then we have the figure behind Folly. She is another indication that things are perhaps not all as they seem, or at least that they aren’t straight forward..

allegory with venus and cupid

Folly stepping on a thorn



This figure is usually identified as deception. She has a gorgeous face, but the body of a serpent, legs of lion, and a scorpion’s tail. In one hand she’s holding a honey-comb which signifies pleasure and temptation, but then in the other hand she’s holding the sting from her tail. So we are beginning to get a sense of the tone of the work. You can’t have pleasure without pain perhaps, or that it’s dangerous to take things at face value? We certainly can’t take her at face value. Her hands look anatomically distorted which they are because they’ve been swapped and her right has become her left and her left her right. Could things get any stranger?

Bronzino Folly and Deception

Folly and Deception

Bronzino Allegory Syphilis and Night

Syphilis and Oblivion

Masks also often signify deception; the figure in the top left corner is very strange and seems to be wearing a mask, but stranger still is that there’s nothing behind it. This is one of the most contentious figures in the work and has been identified as oblivion, fraud, or night.

And finally, we have the figure on the left which for centuries was referred to as jealously. Now, this title is already problematic because allegorical figures are generally gendered. And jealousy is feminine. I don’t, however, feel that this is a woman. The suggestion is that it’s in fact a representation of syphilis.

In 1545 syphilis was rife and the symptoms were well documented. They included headaches, discoloration of skin, gnarled hands, decayed teeth (because of the mercury used to treat syphilis) and disfiguration. Does this figure look as though they are suffering from any or all of the above? I think they do.

With this in mind, the other figures now have context. Time (Father Time) is ticking as life ebbs away although as many sufferers experienced, the disease would seem to disappear only to burst forth with a vengeance after a year or so. Just as night (Oblivion or Night) follows day. To avoid suffering, be careful where you take your pleasure as it’s legacy may bring pain (Deception); perhaps it’s best to avoid the folly of sexual promiscuity in the first place (Folly).

But what of Venus and Cupid?

Well, that kiss and the nipple tweak alludes to the belief that syphilis could be contracted in the womb and passed from mother to baby through breast milk. As for the proffered bottom, it’s an insinuation that the homosexual community were as much to blame.

So ultimately this is a moral tale about the cost of pleasure. And it’s also an intellectual puzzle, unlike most earlier Renaissance works that celebrated balance and structure and harmony, here your eyes are going crazy – it puts you in a bit of whirl just like the throws of passion that can lead to the sort of situation in which you might catch something nasty.

But who on earth would commission such a strange painting? Bronzino worked in the Medici court and this work was gifted by Cosimo I de Medici to Francois I of France (in around 1545). Fortunately no diplomatic incident was recorded. Who’s to know whether Francois ever managed to unpick the complexities of this curious piece?

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

Bronzino’s (slightly upsetting) Allegory with Venus and Cupid part 1

By Bronzino, Elevenses, Renaissance Art, Talking art

Bronzino’s SLIGHTLY upsetting painting An Allegory with Venus and Cupid? It depicts a very saucy incestuous kiss. I’d say it’s upsetting!

Bronzino was a mannerist painter. Before we go on, let’s quickly address mannerism: throughout the Renaissance, the highest artistic attainment was to successfully paint the human body. From the 1520’s it became the fashion to exaggerate and sometimes even distort the body, to create a more artificial composition to show off techniques and skills. So, Cupid’s protruding bottom is just to show off a technique? Maybe not but we’ll come onto that.

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid

Bronzino, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, 1545, National Gallery, London

If Bronzino was going for artificial, he definitely achieved it. The light source is bright white. The colours are bright and each individual subject or item in the painting has been carefully outlined and equally prioritised. The overall effect is a bit like enamel because the brushstrokes are completely invisible. The overall effect, before you get into any detail (!), is luxurious and visually appealing. Indeed, Bronzino has made abundant use of ultramarine blue, made from the  semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, which weight for weight was more expensive than gold.

Bronzino Venus and Cupid

When you get up close to this work, however, it really is quite disturbing. Let’s address the fact that it involves an incestuous kiss because, yes, there is a little bit of tongue action, not to mention the nipple tweaking, and these ‘main’ characters are Venus and Cupid who are mother and son.

They’re the only two characters universally agreed on by art historians. How do we identify them?

This central character has pearls in her hair and is holding a golden ball, which is actually a golden apple – if you recall the story of the Judgement of Paris, he awards Venus the golden apple thereby inadvertently kicking off the Trojan war. The doves to the bottom left are also symbols of Venus. Where there’s a kid with wings and arrows in the vicinity of Venus, we can be fairly sure it’s her son, Cupid.

Why are they kissing that way? We’ll come onto that but no wonder it was considered a bold move when the National Gallery’s first director Charles Eastlake bought the work for the National Gallery in 1860 from a dealer in Paris. Apparently, its last French owner kept it concealed behind a veil. Although Charles Eastlake thought the picture perfectly moral, he knew “clergymen & others” would not, so he asked his restorer to paint out Venus’s searchingly protruding tongue and the nipple peeking between Cupid’s fingers.

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid had, however, actually been censored even before it came to London (unbeknown to Eastlake and only revealed by the 1958 restoration when they were removed). Earlier moralists had added a veil over Venus’s lap and a myrtle branch covering Cupid’s bottom.

They weren’t the first to make alterations. Bronzino himself overpainted earlier postures for Cupid…but this was to increase rather than obliterate the eroticism.

The question is WHY????? I’ll update the blog with a surprising theory next week…

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

Duchamp’s ‘hot arse’ (L.H.O.O.Q)

By Conceptual Art, Duchamp, Elevenses, Talking art

Marcel Duchamp is perhaps most famous for submitting a urinal signed R. Mutt for display in an exhibition in 1917 but this work comes hot on its heels. A cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa complete with a scribbled in moustache and a goatee and the letters L.H.O.O.Q written beneath it.

LHOOQ Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with added moustache, goatee, and title, 1919, Private Collection, Paris

What does it mean???

Firstly, Duchamp was playing with phonetics; when you read the letters quickly in French it sounds as though you are saying ‘elle a chaud au cul’ or to translate, ‘she’s got a hot arse’, although Duchamp himself gave a loose translation as ‘she’s got a fire down below’.

There are several ways that this can be interpreted.

  1. The feminist reading

‘She’s got a hot arse’, or ‘she’s got a fire down below’ are undeniably sexual comments that invite allusions to the male gaze which isn’t great. It empowers men and objectifies women. Women are reduced to becoming the passive objects of a man’s desire. So the poor Mona Lisa is a dignified woman who is now merely reduced to a sex object.

But that doesn’t really account for the moustache and goatee.

  1. The school boy reading

Duchamp’s work does often have more than a whiff of the playground about it. It’s such a juvenile thing to do to whack facial hair on a sedate lady – he did this in pencil but then added some word play which is admittedly pretty witty. The thing is that then Duchamp passed the work off as an original work of art. He called these works objets trouvés or found objects; basically every day things that he modified in some way. So, yes, playful and silly but there’s thoughtful intent behind his actions… so not totally school boy.

  1. The anti-establishment reading

Let’s just talk about the fact that he chose to ‘enhance’ a postcard of the most famous painting in the world. He may have had his friend Apollinaire in mind when he chose the Mona Lisa. Apollinaire had wrongly been accused of having a connection to the theft of the painting in 1911 but was later acquitted.

Whatever his motive for selecting this work, he’s taking the world renowned masterpiece down a peg or two. He’s poking fun at something sacred! That’s no slight to the lady herself but more of an insult to the madness of the art world and to the swarming masses who blindly worship certain works because it’s the done thing. He’s also, I think, making a little point about the merit – or not – of cheap reproductions.

That would be quite a reasonable reading of LHOOQ but there’s more.

  1. The Freudian reading

With her moustache and beard the Mona Lisa looks more than a little masculine. Duchamp argued that she doesn’t become a woman disguised as a man here but that she actually becomes man. Freud had something to say on the subject of the original work declaring that he believed da Vinci to be homosexual (what a bombshell!!!!) and that there is always male within his portraits of women because he couldn’t identify with the feminine. Essentially their femininity was a flimsy veneer. At the very least he was working with androgyny mused Freud. So, Voila! Who knew that the Mona Lisa was actually a man until Duchamp stuck a moustache on her?!

Duchamp did like playing with gender. He had an alter-ego called Rrose Sélavy, pronouced ‘Eros, c’est la vie’ (‘Eros, that’s life’). I think this was more about exploring ideas of identity and representation than trying to trick anyone or illicit cheap thrills.

Marcel Duchamp_Man Ray 1920

Rrose Selavy (Marcel Duchamp), 1920© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Whatever his motive in choosing the Mona Lisa, Duchamp was probably aiming, rather successfully as it happens, to pick apart and challenge everything that art represents. Actually, he dedicated a career to that. With this work he’s also elevating a banal reproduction to something that others wanted to copy in their own right. Duchamp himself also made several replicas, including one that he adapted from his friend Picabia who was so eager to publish a version in his magazine that he knocked a version out himself forgetting the beard. Duchamp later added the goatee and labelled it ‘Moustache par Picabia / barbiche par Marcel Duchamp / avril 1942’.

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

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 here. 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, 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.