Plaster Cover-Up and the “Last Judgment” at Autun Cathedral

Tympanum depicting the "Last Judgment" from the Saint-Lazare Cathedral, Autun, France. c. 1120-1130 or c. 1130-1145. Base of tympanum is approximately 21' in length

Tympanum depicting the “Last Judgment” from the Saint-Lazare Cathedral, Autun, France. c. 1120-1130 or c. 1130-1145. Base of tympanum is approximately 21′ in length

Earlier this week, I was discussing the “Last Judgment” tympanum at the Cathedral of Autun with my students. I pointed out some details of the bottom-most register (such as this one), and explained that the dead are rising out of their sarcophagi, waiting to be judged by Christ at his Second Coming. These references to resurrection and life after death is especially appropriate on this church, since the Romanesque church was built to house the bones of Saint Lazarus, the man whom Christ rose from the dead.

Then one of my students asked where Saint Lazarus’ bones were located in the church. Since I haven’t visited this church in person, I said that I would look into that question and let him know. In the process, I discovered some very interesting history: the bones of Saint-Lazarue don’t exist anymore because they intentionally were destroyed. For centuries, beginning around 1170-1180, the bones of Saint Lazarus were located in a tomb in the choir area (closer to the east side of the church, in front of the the apse). However, the tomb and bones they were destroyed during the French Revolution (1789-1799) by hostile revolutionaries.

Such destruction of art was not uncommon during the French Revolution, due to the anti-religious and anti-monarchical sentiment that existed at the time. Some French revolutionaries wanted to disassociate themselves and the rising French nation from the traditional past, and the government even endorsed some of this destruction. In fact, other sculptures at the Autun Cathedral were also destroyed by revolutionaries, but luckily the Last Judgment tympanum was preserved through an ironic twist of fate. Around 1766, before the revolution, the tympanum was covered with plaster as part of a remodeling effort to remove traces of the medieval period within the church. In order to achieve a smooth surface of the new plaster covering, Christ’s head was cut off. The head was discovered in the 20th century, authenticated, and restored to its original position (although a visible break in the neck is perceptible; see detail below).1

Detail of Christ from the "Last Judgment" tympanum at Autun Cathedral, c. 1120-1130 or c. 1130-1140. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/; image is unaltered)

Detail of Christ from the “Last Judgment” tympanum at Autun Cathedral, c. 1120-1130 or c. 1130-1140. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/; image is unaltered)

So, ironically, the Last Judgment tympanum was preserved because the clergymen didn’t like the medieval style! Because it was covered up with plaster about two decades before the French Revolution, the tympanum was not destroyed and was only rediscovered when the plaster was removed in 1837. What luck this work of art exists today!

1 Paul L. Cioffi, “Saint-Lazare Tympanum and Tumeau, West portal,” Georgetown University Library, https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/handle/10822/554259, accessed  2 December 2017.

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Flora Forager’s Fresh Flowers: Fantastic and Iconic Images

Flora Forager, “Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night,'” 2016. Billy buttons, blueberry, chrysanthemum, hydrangea, lavender, sunflower. Used with permission from Bridget Beth Collins (Flora Forager).

Last week I had the opportunity to interview Bridget Beth Collins, a Seattle-based artist who creates gorgeous collages out of flowers, leaves, and other botanical items like pinecones, mushrooms, fruit and seeds. Collins works under the pseudonym of “Flora Forager” since her collages often consist of botanical elements found in her garden or the green areas surrounding her Seattle-based home. Just last month, her book The Art of Flora Forager was released, and it is such a delight to see and read! I really am thrilled about this book. Similarly, it was a real pleasure for me to meet Bridget in person, since I automatically feel a true affinity with people who love flowers, juvenile fantasy fiction, and (as I discovered in the course of our conversation) old murder mystery television series.

Ever since I became familiar with Flora Forager’s work on Instagram earlier this year, I’ve been charmed with her creative subject matter, the novelty of her compositions, and also her unusual choice of medium. Flora Forager’s whimsical collages depict things like animals, insects, woodland fantasy scenes, mandalas, star constellations, portraits of iconic women, and even copies of famous masterpieces. In concept, her collages might remind one of colonial feather paintings or even Grace Kelly’s pressed flower collages. However, in the course of my conversation with Bridget, it became apparent that her work is very different from Grace Kelly’s flowers, even if sometimes their compositions are loosely similar (compare Grace Kelly’s geometric patterns with one of Flora Forager’s mandalas).

Mother and Child

Flora Forager, “Klimt’s ‘Mother and Child,'”, 2015. Aster, chrysanthemum, dahlia, lacecap hydrangea, lilac, pansy, Peruvian lily, pumpkin vine, sunflower. Used with permission from Bridget Beth Collins (Flora Forager).

In contrast to Grace Kelly, Bridget does not like to work with dried or pressed flowers. As we spoke, it was apparent that the three-dimensional quality of the fresh flowers is important to her. She wants to her flowers to have bulk and form as they are layered and arranged, to the point that she is mindful of the shadows that are created: she consistently photographs her work from the same location on her white dining room table, so that all of the shadows fall to the left.1 She also wants to make sure that the shadows are soft and comely, and she commented that the cloudy skies of Seattle create perfect lighting for the effect she wants to capture.2

This interest in softly modeled three-dimensional collages is really revealing to me, because I think it helps to explain why Flora Forager’s representational collages are so delightful and impactful: the three-dimensional forms and fresh flowers create a sense of plausibility and give a lively presence to something that might not actually exist in reality. For example, a three-dimensional rendering makes a fantasy scene (such as this one or this one) seem more palpable, and therefore endearing, to an escapist viewer. Such fantastic escapes and whimsical storybook tales are just within reach! And not only are they rendered possible because the collages are three-dimensional, but they are created with found objects that are easily identifiable and readily found to the viewer. In a sense, her art suggests that fantasy is embedded within the everyday world around us.

Screen shot Hokusai

Flora Forager, “Hokusai’s ‘Under the Wave Off Kanagawa,” 2015. Bluebell, California lilac, cherry blossom, narcissus, pixie’s parasol mushroom, purple sage, rhododendron, tansy. Used with permission from Bridget Beth Collins (Flora Forager).

In a related way, I think that the three-dimensional fresh flowers also affect the way that the viewer reacts to Flora Forager’s copies of famous masterpieces or portraits of iconic women (like Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe). On one hand, the three-dimensional forms and botanical media give an iconic image or iconic person a new sense of presence and life: we can look at familiar objects or faces in a new way. But I think that the fresh flowers also help to reinforce the iconic, timeless status of these familiar objects too. When flowers and leaves are captured as fresh and pristine in a photograph, these natural elements become immortalized in the same way that iconic images have been cemented in their well-known celebrity status. As a result, we have timeless flowers that won’t fade, similar to iconic images that don’t dissipate from cultural memory.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 9.59.41 PM

Flora Forager, “Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa,” 2016. Chrysanthemum, dahlia, lamb’s ear, lavender, pinecone, red maple leaf. Used with permission from Bridget Beth Collins (Flora Forager).

I’m reminded of a quote contrasting long-lasting, iconic works of art to flowers:

“Works of art often last forever, or nearly so. But exhibitions themselves, especially gallery exhibitions, are like flowers; they bloom and then they die, then exist only as memories, or pressed in magazines and books.” – Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine

What Flora Forager does so well is belie the inevitable death of nature: her camera captures flowers and leaves while they are fresh and vibrant, and uses that vibrancy to her advantage to reinforce that an iconic work of art can “last forever” or that a famous celebrity is, indeed, immortal.

Flora Forager, Botticelli

Flora Forager, “Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus,'” 2016. Carnation, chrysanthemum, daisy, goldenrod, Lenten rose, marsh rosemary, sunflower, tulip, woolly lavender. Used with permission from Bridget Beth Collins (Flora Forager).

For anyone who is interested, please follow Flora Forager on Instagram and see her print shop. In addition to The Art of Flora Forager book, Bridget Beth Collins has also created Flora Forager: A Seasonal Journal Collected from Nature. She anticipates the publication of another journal titled Metamorphosis in 2018.

1 Bridget Beth Collins, interview with author. Seattle, October 5, 2017.

2 Ibid.

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The Dresden Frauenkirche and “New” Baroque Thoughts

A few weeks ago I had an amazing opportunity to travel to Germany and spend time with two dear friends. My trip began in Munich and eventually ended up in Berlin. I spent an inordinate amount of time at museums, naturally, and I thought a lot about my current aesthetic preferences while I gallivanted about the cultural centers of various German cities and towns. Many of the things I saw that I was drawn to, aesthetically, were typically not the things that I study or teach about in my classes. Perhaps my mind really wanted to feel like it was on summer vacation!

Frauenkirche, Dresden. Original structure completed 1743; restored and rebuilt structure completed 2005.

Frauenkirche, Dresden. Original structure completed 1743; restored and rebuilt structure completed 2005.

One thing that really surprised me was my aesthetic reaction to the Frauenkirche in Dresden. This building is unique because it is a virtual replica of the original building that was destroyed in the WWII bombing of Dresden in 1945. The original building was built 1726-1743. After the bombing of Dresden, the church lay in ruins for several decades (see this photo from about 1965). However, through massive fundraising efforts in the 1980s and 1990s, the church was able to be rebuilt and completed in 2005.

I loved walking around the exterior of this church, because it was a really good reminder to me of how the church is old and new. Several thousands of stones were salvaged from the old building and incorporated into the new structure. The older stones have a darker patina due to weathering and fire damage. I like how the pock-marked appearance of the cathedral gives off a sense of the structure’s complex history and interrupted sense of time, even if the precise placement of the individual stones is not completely accurate to that of the original structure.1

I’ve realized more and more that I like art that gives off some kind of a visual sense of age or time, and I’m trying to determine how much history would I prefer to be visually evident. Some 19th-century art critics considered the successive coats of varnish on a painting to be a mark of beauty and excellence, because they gave an indication of the painting’s age.2 For example, the 18th-century critic Sir George Beaumont wrote, “A good picture, like a good fiddle, should be brown.”3 I don’t know if I would completely go that far, because even while in Dresden I commented to my friend about how it was unfortunate that old structures like the Hofkirche were covered with soot and grime. But think there needs to be some good balance between a sense of the old and the new, and the polka-dotted Frauenkirche exterior helped me to feel connected to the past.

Interior of dome in Frauenkirche, Dresden. Structure completed 2005.

Interior of dome in Frauenkirche, Dresden. Structure completed 2005.

The interior of the Frauenkirche, however, was too new and fresh for me. I know that parts of the original altar were reincorporated into the new structure, but even these salvaged pieces of history were painted over, and it was hard to get a sense of age anywhere.4 The interior was so light and the colors of the paintings were so bright! It made me realize that, had I lived in the 17th or the 18th century, I might not have liked the Baroque style as much, because then it would have been new for its time. Everything in the church appeared to be so clean and recent – and I began to realize that part of the drama that is so inherently “Baroque” in my mind is connected to the mysterious, theatrical aura that these works exude today because they are old.

Interior of the Frauenkirche, Dresden. Interior is a 21st-century replica (completed 2005) of the original 18th-century structure (completed 1743).

Interior of the Frauenkirche, Dresden. Interior is a 21st-century replica (completed 2005) of the original 18th-century structure (completed 1743). Image courtesy Wikipedia

Visiting the Frauenkirche and thinking about my aesthetic preferences for The Old reminded of a quote by Bernard Berenson, which my friend Dr. F shared with me a few months ago. Berenson points out that the inherent biases and preferences which writers bring to their discussions of works of art, and Berenson uses Goethe’s as an example:

“Some months before passing through Assisi he [Goethe] made no reference to San Francesco and all its marvelous Trecento paintings. Such a genius and yet so limited in his visual tastes, he expresses and interprets only the admirations that were current in his epoch, and accepted in the cultured world he belonged to before coming to Italy. If in following his steps I notice his indifference to what is our chief delight now, I do not by any means want to belittle the importance of his pages. I want only to point out the distance created by different cultural traditions between us and eminent men of other ages.”5

This quote makes me wonder if my “chief delight” in Baroque art is its age – something which Baroque artists didn’t inherently imbue in their works of art. I don’t think that this is inherently a bad thing, but I think it should make me reconsider why I am drawn to certain works of art. And it’s revealing to think about this in terms of my escapist personality and character: I want to connect with the past and bygone eras, simply because they are not the present. Old, vintage and antique things need to be unattainable in some way, because that is partially what makes them enjoyable to me!

1 Mark Jarzombek, “Disguised Visibilities: Dresden/’Dresden,'” in Memory and Architecture by Elena Basti ed., 56. Source available online: http://web.mit.edu/mmj4/www/downloads/disguised_vis.pdf

2 David A. Scott,  Art, Authenticity, Restoration, Forgery (Los Angeles: UCLA, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press), 2016), p. 21.

3 Ibid.

4 André Harrmann, “Architectural Reconstructions: The Current Develpoment in Germany” (Master’s thesis, The University of Georgia, 2006), 56. Source available online: https://getd.libs.uga.edu/pdfs/harrmann_andre_200608_mhp.pdf

5 Bernard Berenson, The Passionate Sightseer, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1960), 124. Source available online: https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.507665/2015.507665.The-Passionate_djvu.txt 

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Two Panathenaic Peploi: A Robe and a Tapestry

So-called "Peplos Scene" from the Parthenon frieze (panels E31-35). The scene may depict the peplos garment being folded by an Arrhephoros (?) and a chief priest.

So-called “Peplos Scene” from the east Parthenon frieze (panels E31-35). The scene may depict the peplos garment being folded by a child (perhaps a weaver) and a chief priest. Mansfield believes that this image depicts the smaller peplos/robe of the annual Lesser Panathenaia.

A few weeks ago, I was doing some research on the traditional Greek garment, the peplos. Each year a special peplos was woven to decorate a statue of Athena on the acropolis of Athens. This garment was woven in celebration of the Panathenaic festival that took place every year in honor of Athena’s birthday. The typical annual celebration is called the Lesser Panathenaia, and every four years a spectacular celebration, the Greater Panathenaia would take place.

Phidias, model of Athena Parthenos (now lost) within the Parthenon, ca. 438 BC. Statue was approximately 39 feet tall and made of gold and ivory.

Phidias, model of Athena Parthenos (now lost) within the Parthenon, ca. 438 BC. Statue was approximately 11-12 meters (about 40 feet tall) and made of gold and ivory.

Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t realize that this special Panathenaic peplos was a topic of deliberation among scholars. I thought that only an ancient wooden statue of Athena, called Athena Polias, was the only statue of Athena that was decorated for these celebrations.1 However, I came across a website which explained that an additional peplos was made every four years for the Greater Panathenaia celebration, and this different peplos was created for the monumental, chryselephantine (gold-and-ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos that Phidias created for the cella of the Parthenon. Incredulous, I wrote the owner of the website to ask for more information. He directed me a dissertation from 1985 by John Magruder Mansfield. I also found a 1992 exhibition catalog called Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens.

Manfield argues that there should be a distinction between the type of peploi that were created; this distinction can helps to clarify the semantic confusion caused by the Greeks using the word “peplos” in different contexts.2 A smaller peplos/robe was created by privileged women and given to Athena Polias at the Lesser Panathenaia. In contrast, a large peplos/tapestry was made by professional male weavers, who were selected by competition, and this large peplos/tapestry (between 16-64 square meters in area) was carried in procession as the sail of the Panathenaic Ship at the Greater Panathenaia celebration.3 This argument regarding a monumental-sized tapestry helps to resolve the historical descriptions of the Greater Panathenaia event, since the Panathenaic Ship is thought by many to be an actual maritime ship, perhaps captured from an enemy, and pulled on wheels.4 “In his comedy The Macedonians, written in c. 400, the poet Strattis refers to ‘countless men’ hauling on ropes to raise the peplos to the top of the mast, and others refer to the considerable expense of the ropes and tackle needed to do the job.”5

Therefore, it appears that two peploi were woven for the Greater Panathenaia celebrations, both a peplos/tapestry for the ship and a peplos/robe for the wooden cult statue of Athena Polias. Mansfield argues that the great peplos/tapestry of the Greater Panathenaia was decorated with the gigantomachy (the battle between the Olympian gods and the Titan giants), whereas the smaller peplos/robe was plain.6

Some scholars posit or imply that the peplos/tapestry could have been offered to, and not draped on Athena Parthenos, the gold-and-ivory cult statue in the Parthenon.This makes sense to me, and would help to reconcile the probability that the ancient Greeks did not feel compelled to embellished Athena Parthenos with a cloth, since the sculpture was already ornately decorated in ivory and gold. And we know that the tradition of creating the monumental peplos/tapestry was in practice before Lachares stripped the cult statue of its gold in order to pay troops in 296 BCE, so the creation of the peplos/tapestry tradition wasn’t out of an initial motivation to cover the despoiled statue. Instead, classicist Lewis suggests that the ancient peplos rite was transferred to the Athena Parthenos statue was soon as it was finished.8 The large peplos/tapestry would have been costly to create, so it is likely that it was hung in the Parthenon or the Temple of Athena Polias on the acropolis for the next four years, perhaps as a backdrop to one of the statues.9

It is difficult to know the specifics of how these peploi appeared and how they were used, beyond textual documents. For one thing, the woven cloth no longer exists. Additionally, the statues of Athena Polias or Athena Parthenos do not exist today either. But the process of weaving these tapestries and using them in conjunction with sculpture is still important to art historians, so we can learn how art was produced and how it functioned in ancient Athens.

1 It is likely that the Athena Polias was located in a temple (which dates around 525 BCE) that was next to the Erectheion; later, later the wooden statue was moved to the Erechtheion. For more history regarding the placement of this wooden statue, see See also Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, “Images of Athena on the Akropolis,” in Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens by Jenifer Neils, ed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 125-127

2 John Magruder Mansfield, The Robe of Athena and the Panathenaic “Peplos,” PhD dissertation (University of California, Berkley, 1985), 16-17. See also E. J W. Barber, “The Peplos of Athena,” in Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens by Jenifer Neils, ed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 114.

3 Mansfield, 5-8. See Ridgway, 123.

4 Ridgway, 123.

5 Barber, 114. See also Mansfield, 47, 71-74.

6 Ridgway, 123 

7 Ridgway, footnote on 210.

8 D. Lewis, “Athena’s Robe,” Scripta Classica Israelica 5 (1979-1980): 28-29.

9 Mansfield, 55.

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Fragonard’s “The Swing” and “Portrait of a Lady”

Fragonard, "The Swing," 1766. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Fragonard, “The Swing,” 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Tonight I am feeling very sheepish. About three or four months ago, a student mentioned to me that Fragonard’s The Swing served as a point of inspiration for “Portrait of a Lady.” I found a copy of Henry James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady a few days later. Now, after reading 660+ pages and finishing the book, I was left rather confused as to what my student meant, so I went online to read some commentary. Only then did I realize that my student was referring to William Carlos Williams’ poem “Portrait of a Lady” and not the Henry James novel! I don’t regret reading lengthy book at all, but I feel less confused and won’t try to dwell on which suitors are courting Isabel Archer (or perhaps Pansy?) in this Fragonard painting anymore!

Instead, the William Carlos Williams poem has very direct references to Rococo art and painters. This is the poem, which was first published in The Dial in 1920:

Your thighs are apple trees

whose blossoms touch the sky.

Which sky? The sky where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper.

Your knees are a southern breeze — or

a gust of snow. Agh! what

sort of a man was Fragonard?

— As if that answered

anything. –Ah, yes. Below

the knees, since the tune drops that way, it is one of those white summer days,

the tall grass of your ankles

flickers upon the shore —

Which shore?

Agh, petals maybe. How

should I know?

Which shore? Which shore?

–the petals from some hidden

apple tree — Which shore?

I said petals from an apple tree.

I’ve been reading commentary, scholarly interpretations, and watching a short lecture segment (though disregard some of the art historical commentary in the video, since it is a bit inaccurate) on this poem, and thinking about how this poem encapsulates the difficulties of poetic words and conventions in terms of expression. The poem seems to show the problems which poets can face, especially since there are two voices which interrupt the flow of the expressive content. There are even other exclamations which disrupt the flow, too: the first “agh!” may have been exclaimed when the speaker realized that he meant to say “Fragonard” instead of “Watteau” when first referencing to the artist of The Swing.1

Given the historical context of his poem and how the disjointed style of the poem is interpreted as a precursor to postmodernism, interesting to me that these two Rococo artists were mentioned. Watteau is the earlier of the two artists, and he really served as a pioneer for the Rococo style. On one hand, Watteau’s art can be interpreted as expressing conflicting emotions and voices (the subject matter of his artistic output is associated with pleasure and sadness, perhaps typified in his comedia dell’art painting Italian Players from 1720), which parallels the disjointed and interrupted conversation of the speakers in the poem.2 Watteau also was a bit of a radical artist for his time, since his “fete galante” paintings of the aristocracy did not fit the conventional requirements for academic history paintings, and this unconventional approach to art mirrors the unconventional form of disjointed expression in Williams’ poem.3

Fragonard, detail of "The Swing," 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Fragonard, detail of “The Swing,” 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Obviously, Williams was considering the themes like love and eroticism when he made a reference to Fragonard’s The Swing, since a woman is accompanied by two suitors and she kicks off her shoe (and reveals what is underneath her dress) at the suitor who is hidden in the bushes. Fragonard is a later Rococo artist who followed in Watteau’s wake, and I think his socially-accepted painting style and traditional career don’t have the same parallels to the radical style of poetry that Williams used. However, from a compositional standpoint, I like how compositional lines meander through the painting (such as the branch which zig-zags in the upper left corner, see above); these visual lines complement the nonlinear, back-and-forth voices presented in the poem.

Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (after Fragonard)', 2001. Tate Modern

Yinka Shonibare, “The Swing (after Fragonard),” 2001. Tate Modern

Really, I think the best work of art today that encompasses Williams’ poem is Yinka Shinobare’s installation “The Swing (after Fragonard)” from the Tate Modern. Since the Fragonard painting has become iconic, Shinobare’s composition is familiar to the viewer but also strange: the tree lacks a trunk and the principal subject lacks a head. This familiar-and-strange reaction is similar to what is conveyed through Williams’ poem, since the poem attempts to reference the traditional language of poetry (like using a metaphor about an apple tree), but the metaphors are intentionally used in an ineffective way. Since Shinobare intentionally omits aspects of Fragonard’s composition, this disjointed appearance mirrors the disjointed flow of Williams’ poem.

Shinobare detail

Yinka Shonibare, detail of “The Swing (after Fragonard),” 2001. Tate Modern

The skin of Shinobare’s model is also dark and she wears a print that references African textiles which have a complex global history regarding colonial production and international consumption. These references to the complexities of globalization and visually acknowledging multiple voices seems to be a fitting parallel with how Williams’ poem is seen in relation to postmodernism – a movement which accepts the multiplicities of meanings and perspectives.

Do you see any other parallels between Williams’ poem and either the Fragonard painting or Shinobare’s installation?

1 See Thomas Dilworth, “On ‘Portrait of a Lady,'” The Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998). Available online: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/williams/lady.htm

2 For more information on how Watteau’s art is associated with conflicting emotions and interpretations, see Linda Walsh, “Subjects, Society, Style: Changing Evaluations of Watteau and His Art” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (Open University Press, 1999), 220-248.

3 Ibid., 235-238.

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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.