Crevelli’s Cucumbers, Christ, and Cotán

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I am reading the most wonderful book right now, The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint, which was just published last year. Thus far it has helped the post-holiday “January blues” to feel more manageable. This is a book that I wish I would have written myself. For the past few years, I have been less interested in the things that I studied in graduate school, and personally feel drawn to just looking at images of people reading books. I suppose these images serve as my escape, since I wish I had more quiet moments alone that I could spend reading for pleasure.

What caught my attention last night, though, was a tangential mention of a cucumber in the painting The Annunciation , with Saint  Emidius (1486, shown below) by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli.1 While books to appear in this painting (which ties into the purpose for its inclusion in my new book), I think the most striking thing is the cucumber that is prominently displayed in the foreground, balanced on a ledge and projecting toward the viewer.

Carlo Crivelli, "The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus," 1486 (National Gallery)

Carlo Crivelli, “The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus,” 1486 (National Gallery)

 

The book says that the cucumber is a symbol of resurrection and redemption, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art also supports this connection with redemption. An audio interview with food writer Gillian Riley, embedded on the National Gallery webpage for the painting, more generally says that the cucumber is a symbol for Christ.

But why would cucumbers be seen in this way? This definitely is not a common symbol in Renaissance art, or even Christian art for that matter. Crivelli used the motif often in his art, so much that it has been called his “signature motif.” So far, I’ve only found some amusing and snarky speculation. And I’m afraid this post is just more speculation. I wonder if this conclusion has been determined by the context that Crivelli creates within his paintings: the cucumber appears over the head of the dead Christ in Crivelli’s The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene (shown below). In this painting, the angle of Christ’s limp head is has the same position and directional movement as the cucumber in the garland above, suggesting a visual and symbolic relationship between the two.

Crivelli, “The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene,” 1485 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Crivelli, “The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene,” 1485 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius  and Madonna and Child ( shown at the top of the post), the cucumber is placed next to one or more apples. The apple is commonly depicted as the Forbidden Fruit from the Garden of Eden, and therefore serves as a symbol of sin. Perhaps this context helps us to know that the cucumber, then, symbolically is a reversal of the apple.

The cucumber and the apple also have different shapes too, and I think it is also in the realm of possibility to think of them in gendered terms. The round apple has been connected with female breasts in the past (even within the context of the Forbidden Fruit and Eve).2 Perhaps the cucumber was intended to serve as a symbol of Christ in a very physical way. Perhaps Leo Steinberg would have liked this idea? I think that Elizabeth Honig might agree that the phallic connotations would have been possible, she noted something similar in sixteenth-century art, although admittedly for a Northern context.3

One thing that I would like to determine, though, is whether the seventeenth-century painter Juan Sánchez Cotán might have somehow been influenced by Crivelli’s composition. Cotán’s still life that includes a cucumber has a very similar composition to Crivelli’s one in the Annunciation, with both of the cucumbers placed right in the foreground on a ledge. Both paintings also have a similar interest in illusionism with a strong shadow that falls to the right.

Carlo Crivelli, Detail of cucumber and apple from "The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus," 1486 (National Gallery)

Carlo Crivelli, Detail of cucumber and apple from “The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus,” 1486 (National Gallery)

Juan Sánchez Cotán, "Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," 1602, oil on canvas, 68.9 cm x 84.5 cm (San Diego Museum of Art)

Juan Sánchez Cotán, “Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber,” 1602, oil on canvas, 68.9 cm x 84.5 cm (San Diego Museum of Art)

Could it be that the Hapsburg Spanish presence in Italy somehow allowed for knowledge of Crivelli’s art to reach Cotán in Spain? Perhaps it is a stretch, but it would be interesting if a connection could be made! Any ideas? It is interesting to think about the cucumber and resurrection in this context too, since the other fruits and vegetables positioned in a way to suggest ascension and descension, depending on the direction the viewer’s eye moves horizontally across the picture plane.

Does anyone else have thoughts on cucumbers in art? When I first read about cucumbers as a symbol of resurrection, I jokingly wrote on Twitter that I hoped it was because the cucumber descends into a tomb of brine and re-emerges with a new life as a pickle. Alas, it doesn’t look like that is the case!

1 Jamie Camplin and Maria Ranauro,The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2018), p. 26

2 I’m specifically thinking of the Hildesheim doors, in which even holds an apple from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil over her chest, as if it is a breast. This is discussed in Adam S. Cohen and Anne Derbes, “Bernward and Eve at Hildesheim,” Gesta (vol. 40, no 1): 2001, 24.

3 Elizabeth Honig, Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp (Yale University Press, 1999), 43.

 

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Wiley and Morris at the St Louis Art Museum

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 11.28.59 AM

The radio silence on my blog has been deafening for me, but luckily I’ve been able to do some writing over the past few months. The William Morris Society in the United States contacted me a few months ago, after reading my 2016 post on Kehinde Wiley and William Morris. I expanded this initial post into a new one for their “News from Anywhere” webpage with updated information about a current Kehinde Wiley show at the Saint Louis Art Museum. And check out the gorgeous catalog cover for the exhibition!

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Book Review: “The Museum of Lost Art”

I recently finished reading Noah Charney’s new book The Museum of Lost Art. I have an academic crush on Charney’s work – he always manages to write about fascinating topics that I wish I had thought to write about myself. I’m glad that he is one step ahead of me, though, because he writes in a very engaging and approachable way. I wish that more art history texts were written like his.

The book is divided into sections, and within each section Charney considers different ways for how a work of art can be “lost.” For example, some works of art are destroyed intentionally or destroyed accidentally, while others are altered from their original conception. Each section is tied unified by beginning and ending with an anecdote that relates to the topic. I found this to be a bit confusing when I read the first section, but then I perceived what Charney was doing and the remaining sections made more sense.

Masaccio, "Holy Trinity," 1425-28. Santa Maria Novella

Masaccio, “Holy Trinity,” c. 1425-28. Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The thing that I liked most about The Museum of Lost Art was that I learned new things about famous works of art that I thought I already knew well. For example, I didn’t know that Masaccio’s Holy Trinity painting was covered up with a false wall in the latter part of the 16th century when Vasari was hired to alter the space.1 This canonical painting, which appears in most introductory art history textbooks as an example of mathematical (linear) perspective, was only rediscovered in 1860 when the church was remodeled.2

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm (81.5 x 82.5 in), National Gallery, London

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm (81.5 x 82.5 in), National Gallery, London

I also was also intrigued to learn that part of Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors was “lost” at some point after it first was painted in 1533. The crucifix in the upper left corner originally was created to be partially obscured by the green curtain (which has been connected to the political tension of the day), but at one point the crucifix was completely painted out. Only in recent times, when conservators at the National Gallery cleaned this painting in 1891, was the crucifix discovered.This clear alteration before 1891 suggests that this political message (which references Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church through the formation of the Church of England) was offensive or problematic.

Holbein, "The Ambassadors," detail of crucifix

Holbein, “The Ambassadors,” detail of crucifix

The only section that I wish had a little more attention in this book is that of the “Looting in the Ancient World.” I think that the ancient Near East could have gotten more coverage here in the book, since many works of art were altered or lost due to the different warring groups who lived in this area. Probably my favorite article which discusses this topic is Marian Feldman’s “Knowledge as Cultural Biography: Lives of the Mesopotamian Monuments,” which includes a discussion of the Akkadian King portrait head. I realize that Charney was giving a brief overview of this topic in his book, but I do wish that the ancient Near East could have received a bit more discussion.

Otherwise, I really did enjoy this book and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in the biographies of works of art, art crime, looting, conservation, and restoration.

1 Noah Charney, The Museum of Lost Art (Phaidon: New York, 2018), 215.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 235.

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The Trophy on “Augustus of Prima Porta”

"Augustus of Prima Porta," side view, a copy of a bronze statue of c. 20 BCE. Marble, height 6' 8" (2.03 m). Musei Vatican

“Augustus of Prima Porta,” side view. Early 1st century CE, perhaps a copy of a bronze statue of c. 20 BCE. Marble, height 6′ 8″ (2.03 m). Musei Vatican

Yesterday I was looking for a detail image of “Augustus of Prima Porta” to show to a student, and I came across an image that showed the back of the cuirass (breastplate). “Hold on! What is that?” I thought. I never knew that the back of the sculpture was decorated. Underneath Augustus’ arm you can see that there is a small object that looks like a figure. It appears in considerably lower relief than the figures on the front.

Detail of trophy from the "Augustus of Prima Porta," early 1st century CE

Detail of trophy from the “Augustus of Prima Porta,” early 1st century CE. 

This figure is a Roman trophy (tropaeum). It is not a human figure, but it is an armored body with a helmet and breastplate that is put together on a tall pike to give off the semblance of a man. The armor is supposed to come from that of a defeated enemy. A similar trophy image, which includes the shields of defeated enemy soldiers, is located  within a frieze from at the Temple of Apollo in Circo (Capitoline Museums).

I can’t tell what is projecting from the trophy of the Augustus of Prima though. Can anyone tell what is coming out from its left (our right) side?

This website explains that the back of the cuirass is not only decorated with a trophy, but also wings. From my perspective the image looks like like wings than ribbon that is used to tie the cuirass together.

Augustus of Prima Porta rear view

Augustus of Prima Porta rear view, early 1st century BCE

Detail of side rear of cuirass

Detail of side rear of cuirass with so-called “wings”

I’m curious as to why this trophy was included, especially if it might not have been in a location where the imagery would have been seen regularly (a metal rod in the back of the statue suggests that it was meant to be placed on a wall). Part of me wonders if there was some awkwardness at portraying this trophy with the armor of defeated enemies, since Augustus’ victory over the Parthians was won more through diplomatic means than actual fighting on the battlefield per se. Does anyone else have more information or theories regarding the inclusion of this trophy?

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Making Damage an Advantage

Marcel Duchamp, "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)," 1915-1923. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels, 9 feet 1 1/4 inches × 70 inches × 3 3/8 inches (277.5 × 177.8 × 8.6 cm)

Marcel Duchamp, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass),” 1915-1923. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels, 9 feet 1 1/4 inches × 70 inches × 3 3/8 inches (277.5 × 177.8 × 8.6 cm)

Last week, some of my students and I were discussing Duchamp’s readymades. One student mentioned something to the effect of, “Well, I wouldn’t be able to just march up to a museum and hand them a broken window and expect them to accept it as a work of art.” I chuckled a bit at that comment, since Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also called The Large Glass) is made of large panes of cracked glass. The glass wasn’t broken initially, but it cracked in transit accidentally after an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926-27.

Luckily for Duchamp, he found that the broken glass helped to complete the work of art. Previously, he had declared that the art was “definitively unfinished,” but then later determined the work of art to be complete after he pieced the glass panes back together. The cracks remind me of the delicacy of a bride’s veil. You can read more about the different forms in this object both here and here.

It is interesting to me how this accidental damage was used to help complete the work of art, and even become a feature that is celebrated as part of the aesthetic. This is different than the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana, since those slashes were intentionally made by the artist as part of the original conception of the object.

In contrast to this accidental damage, I have blogged previously about art that is damaged intentionally, often as a result of attack. In addition, there are countless examples of works of art that have been damaged by accident, too, such as the boy who tripped in a museum in 2015, the Cairo Museum workers who accidentally knocked off King Tut’s beard (and then infarmously tried to glue it back on), and the $40 million painting by Picasso that Steve Wynn accidentally punctured with his elbow. In these instances, however, the works of art are restored to give a semblance of their original appearance; the damage isn’t celebrated from an aesthetic standpoint.

Duchamp’s cracked The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even reminds me of “biography” of a work of art – the concept that objects have lives of their own. The broken glass is a reminder of the fateful trip that the object took after the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum – and it was the only time this work of art was displayed in a temporary exhibition! Interestingly, though, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which permanently houses The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, is interested in keeping the work of art in a more timeless and historicized space. The museum website proudly declares that the object is exhibited in the same space that Duchamp chose for it over half a century ago, when The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even was acquired by the museum in 1953. In a way, perhaps this static display counteracts the sense of a living “biography” that is suggested by the object itself.

Do you know of other works of art that were accidentally damaged, and then this damage was incorporated into the finished work of art? Of course, I’m thinking of situations that are more extreme than the “happy little accidents” that Bob Ross talks about in his painting show. If you know of anything, please share!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.