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Monday, June 14, 2010

Amateur Classicists & Art Historians: The National Trust Asks “What’s Going On Here?”

One might wonder how an important and historically valuable painting can end up languishing in storage for 30 years, especially when it’s a huge (approx. 8’10’ x 7’ 9”) masterpiece by Jacopo Tintoretto! Very often, it’s the poor condition of a painting and the lack of funds for restoration that are the culprits.

That was the case for the magnificent octagonal canvas recently put on display at the 17th-century Kingston Lacy House, in Dorset, UK. When The National Trust acquired the house and its contents in 1981, it was impossible to identify the subject matter of this painting – much less to attribute it with any certainly to the hand of Tintoretto – due to layers of darkened varnish and discolored, flaking touch-up paint.

Put in storage during restoration work on the house, the piece was then discredited by some scholars who, perhaps deceived by its bad condition, expressed doubt that it was by Tintoretto himself. Those doubts made a conservation effort seem less imperative … so the piece remained hidden away.

Happily, a recent fundraising effort has allowed the canvas to be cleaned and restored. In the process, X-rays and infrared analysis helped to expose the unquestionable energy, fresh coloring, and loose, broad brushstrokes of the master himself, confirming the attribution to Tintoretto that was stated in a 1847-1852 Kingston Lacy inventory.

At that time, the painting was referred to as Apollo and the Muses, although in Greek mythology there were nine Muses, whereas the painting contains only seven figures, besides Apollo and two cupids. As a result of the cleaning, some of the figures have been otherwise identified, and the painting has been given a rather cumbersome new title: Apollo (or Hymen) Crowning a Poet and Giving Him a Spouse.


Tintoretto painted the canvas in the 1560s or 1570s. It was one of many works acquired in 1849 by William John Bankes*, the owner of Kingston Lacy, when he was living in Italy. Supposedly, it came from the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, but there is no record of it there, and it is possible the dealer who sold it to Bankes fabricated its prestigious provenance.

The National Trust’s Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, Alastair Laing, said: “This is undoubtedly a work of great significance. Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto are the three great masters of the mid- to late-16th century in Venice and to have a painting by Tintoretto in an English house, rather than still in its original location in Venice, or in an Italian museum, is extraordinary.”

“It is all the more fascinating that we do not yet know who or where it was painted for, or what the actual subject is,” he added.

Art experts believe that the painting depicts Apollo, or possibly Hymen, the god of marriage, placing a crown on an androgynous figure who holds a book, probably a poet. Mythical figures surround them, including the god Hercules and a woman believed to be the betrothed. Fortune sits with her back to us, extending a brimming cornucopia toward them.


Although the iconography would likely have been readily understood by viewers in the 16th century, today the identity of some of the other figures is still uncertain … as is the significance of various objects, including a die depicting five dots**, a gold box and a dish of gold coins. Here are some of the mysteries the National Trust is trying to resolve:
  • Why is Hercules (identified by his usual attribute: a lion’s head and pelt) in the picture, with spear (or staff) and bow?
  • Is the young man his son, Hyllus, whom Hercules, once he became immortal, encouraged to marry his former mistress, Iole?
  • Who is the woman whose left hand is linked to Apollo’s left hand?
  • What is the significance of the objects beneath Apollo/Hymen’s feet, which appear to include a gold cup, a gold dish containing coins, a gold box, and a golden steeple? Is he trampling them to signify his contempt for wealth?
  • What is the significance of the enormous die under the figure of Fortune, showing five dots?
  • Could all the symbols and the players be related in some way to the content of the book that the ambiguous “poet” figure holds?

The restoration of Apollo (or Hymen) crowning a Poet and giving him a Spouse has raised as many questions as it answered, and The National Trust is asking the public to help solve its mysteries. If you have any ideas about the subject matter of this wonderful canvas, contact The National Trust through their website. Oh, yes …and please tell me, too!

* His close friend, Lord Byron, called William John Bankes "the father of all mischief'". As a result of homosexual indiscretions, Bankes fled to live in exile in Italy, as sodomy was then considered a grave crime in England, deserving of the death penalty. Nonetheless -- despite the fact that he could never return to England -- he continued to acquire and send artworks back to his 8,500-acre estate. It is believed that before his death he secretly returned to have a last look at his collections in his beloved Kingston Lacy, which had been in the Bankes family since 1663.

** The 5-dot die is found in another painting by Tintoretto, Mercury and the Three Graces (Palazzo Ducale, Venice). In the 17th century Claudio Ridolfi, explained that: “One of [the Graces] leans on a die, because the Graces accompany offices [which, in Venice, were chosen by lot]. ”

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Magnificent Pagan Altar Unearthed in Israel

Workers on a hospital construction project in Ashkelon, Israel, have discovered an ancient pagan burial field dating to the Roman period of the 1st/2nd centuries CE (or AD, as I was taught in school).

Under the supervision of the Israel Antiquities Authority, numerous family and individual burial structures have been unearthed. One of the tombs contained a large limestone sarcophagus with a decorated lid, with an unusual interior pillow-effect where the stone at one end was left slightly raised in the spot where the head of the deceased was to rest.

Perhaps the most exciting find, though, is a magnificent pagan altar made of granite, decorated with bulls’ heads and laurel wreaths adorned with grape leaves and clusters of fruit. Although incense altars usually stood in Roman temples, this one stood in the center of the ancient burial field. It was used for burning incense, particularly myrrh and frankincense, while praying to the gods. The resulting burn marks remain visible, despite the altar having been buried for almost 2,000 years.

I wonder if building contractors in lands with long histories eventually become inured to archeological delays on their projects?

Friday, June 04, 2010

Seraphim Are Red, Cherubim Are Blue

Further to yesterday's posting:

Whenever I look at Jean Fouquet’s Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels, I wonder about the host of blue and red figures crowding in on the throne. I’ve finally taken the time to try to satisfy my curiosity, and this is what I've learned thus far:

1. Cherubim support the Throne of God and represent the Presence of His Glory.

2. Seraphim surround the Heavenly Throne as fiery guardians.

3. Cherubim and seraphim were not counted among the seven choirs of angels in the Jewish Bible, nor were they mentioned in the angelic hierarchy during the early centuries of Christianity; but they were generally believed to exist.

4. It was Pope Gregory the Great (540- 604) who established nine angelic orders divided into three choirs, with cherubim and seraphim populating the highest choir.

5. Angels were believed to be fire, breath, spirit, and radiance. Biblical descriptions of these “beings of fire and wind” were immaterial, unsubstantial.

6. Thus, a certain degree of imaginative license was given to artists who attempted to visualize these abstract creatures, and by the time of the Renaissance, artists were portraying cherubim and seraphim as pudgy, pink-cheeked, winged infants … which today are often referred to as “putti”.

7. Artists traditionally clothed cherubim in blue, while seraphim are clothed in red, and I surmise that these colors symbolize the wind and fire of their immateriality.

By the way: The word putto is the singular form of putti, the Italian word for "small boy" or "child". The Italian was derived from the Latin putus, meaning "boy" or "child”. In modern Italian, putto now only signifies a cherubic, winged little boy figure in art, as in this famous duo by Raphael.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The King's Favorite Mistress

The first time I saw this panel -- the right-hand wing of the "Melun diptych” -- in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, I was stunned to see that it was painted in the mid-1400s … it looks so much more modern that that!

Jean Fouquet (1420–1481) was the first French artist to travel to Italy to personally experience the early Italian Renaissance. Returning to Northern Europe sometime after 1437, he linked elements of the Tuscan style with the style of the Van Eycks, and thus became the founder of an important new school of painting. He was a master of both manuscript illumination and panel painting, and his excellence as an illuminator is evident in the precise rendering of fine detail and lucid characterization that we see in this Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels.

The picture is actually a portrait of Agnès Sorel (1421–1450), a favorite mistress of King Charles VII of France, to whom she bore three daughters. She was apparently an extraordinarily beautiful young woman, of high intelligence, and it is said that her presence at his court brought the king out of a protracted depression. She was known as la Dame de Beauté.

For her private residence King Charles gave her the Château de Loches -- where he had been persuaded by Joan of Arc to accept the French crown -- and she came to have considerable influence over the King. This, combined with her extravagant tastes, gained her powerful enemies at court.

Agnès died at the age of 28, possibly the victim of murder. Recent forensic analysis of her remains has confirmed that she died from mercury poisoning, but in those days mercury was used to treat worms and was sometimes used in cosmetic preparations, so her poisoning might not have been politically motivated.

After her death, the King chose her cousin, Antoinette de Maignelais, to take her place as his mistress.

The "Melun diptych" (c. 1450) originally stood on an altar in the cathedral at Melun, 25 miles southeast of Paris. One of Fouquet’s most important paintings, the Virgin and Child panel faced the left-hand wing -- now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin -- which depicts Etienne Chevalier with his patron saint, St. Stephen.