April 2009

Catedral Basílica de Salvador

Next time I am in Brazil, I want to go to Salvador and visit the city’s Cathedral Basilica. This cathedral was built between 1657 and 1672; originally, it was part of the Jesuit College in Salvador. All I can say is, those Jesuits sure know how to construct an awesome building.

My two favorite things on the facade are the ginormous volute scrolls between the two bell towers. So awesome! I also love all of the broken (Baroque-en!) pediments that decorate the tops of the windows. The three statues that cover the portals are the saints Ignacio, Francisco de Borja and Francisco Xavier.

The nave ceiling with the Jesuit emblem. I love the gilded, elaborate carvings.

Nave facing the shallow capela-mor and side altars. It is possible that the statue of Christ (above the main altar) is the largest wooden statue in Brazil.

Detail of the ceiling in the capela-mor

You can see a virtual tour of the Salvador cathedral here.

I’m still doing research on this cathedral, particularly to verify a few things. I read online that the interior carvings were performed by slaves, and some of the altarpieces are decorated with Candomblé symbols.1 As of yet, I haven’t found any printed or scholarly material that supports this idea. But it’s interesting and entirely possible; I’ll add something in the comment section of this post if I ever find more information. Maybe I’ll just have to fly down to Brazil and examine the altars myself…

P.S. If you want to research Brazilian architecture, I wouldn’t recommend History of South American Colonial Art and Architecture (Damián Bayón and Murillo Marx, 1989). It is the most confusing, boring, and poorly edited textbook that I’ve come across. Then again, there aren’t too many books available on this subject. Sigh. I’m just going to have to write a new survey textbook one day…

1 Candomblé is a religion-philosophy that is concentrated in Salvador. It has roots in African mysticism but also has been influenced by Catholicism (largely because African slaves were adopted/forced into the Catholic church by their owners). There are many similarities between the African deities and Catholic saints.



Although I’m not a conservator or connoisseur, I knew from my art history background that craquelure is the pattern of fine cracks that occur in old paintings. What I didn’t know, however, is that there are different types of crack patterns. Craquelure can be further classified into French craquelure, Dutch craquelure, Flemish craquelure, and Italian craquelure. Check out this interesting study.

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I recently read George MacDonald’s novel Lilith, which caused me to think about the Jewish legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. Legend holds that Lilith was God’s first, unsuccessful attempt at creating a female companion for Adam. This dreadful attempt resulted in a female demon who attempts to corrupt the human race through lust.

One of the best sources for the Lilith story is a medieval text called Alphabet of Ben-Sira (c. 10th century AD). According to this text, Lilith was made from the earth at the same time as Adam. Lilith was an independent woman. Since she and Adam were created the same way, Lilith refused to acknowledge Adam’s superiority (was she the first feminist? ha!). Eventually she left Eden to consort with demons that live in the Red Sea. When making a second female companion for Adam, God made Eve out of Adam’s rib so there would be no question of superiority.1 Some sources also refer to Lilith as a half-woman, half-serpent. Filled with jealousy for Eve, Lilith reportedly took on the form of a serpent in order to provoke the Fall of Man (as recorded in Genesis).2 You can read a little more about the Lilith legend and history here.

The story of Lilith has inspired artists for many centuries. In the Middle Ages, many artists included a half-female serpent in depictions of the Temptation of Adam and Eve.3 One Renaissance example of the half-serpent Lilith is by Michelangelo, found on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the late 19th century, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a poem about Lilith and also painted a scene of the seductress combing her golden hair (Lady Lilith, painted 1868-69, shown to the left). Scholars agree that this painting was inspired by the description of Lilith in Goethe’s Faust (Walpurgisnacht scene).2

The most interesting article I’ve read about Lilith is by Virginia Tuttle. She argues that Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1505-1510, left panel of altarpiece shown below) actually includes a depiction of Adam and Lilith, not Adam and Eve. I have always wondered why there are demonic beasts in the foreground of this Garden of Eden scene (it doesn’t seem too paradisaical, does it? Although, one can’t take Bosch too seriously; this whole altarpiece is a little absurd.). However, if one considers this woman to be Lilith instead of Eve, the presence of demonic beasts makes sense.

Tuttle also convincingly argues that this left panel scene does not conform to the iconography of traditional Creation of Eve scenes. Traditionally, Adam is shown asleep or lying on his side, so that Eve easily can be created out of his rib. In other triptychs, Bosch follows this traditional iconographic format (see details in his Last Judgment triptych and Haywain triptych). However, in the Garden of Earthly Delights, Tuttle argues that it appears Lilith has been “raised up from the earth, as if she were created independently and immediately following Adam’s creation.”2 I think this is a convincing argument and I recommend that people read Tuttle’s article (it can be found in JSTOR). My only reservation about this argument is that it doesn’t seem to be widely accepted. This article was written almost twenty years ago, but recent art history texts continue to label this panel as Creation of Eve. Does anyone know of (or have) criticisms for this argument?

What do other people think?

1 To read a synopsis Lilith story in the Alphabet of Ben-Sira, see Virginia Tuttle, “Lilith in Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights,” Simiolus 15, no. 2 (1985): 123.-24.

2 Jeffrey M. Hoffeld, “Adam’s Two Wives,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series 26, no. 10 (June 1968): 434.

3 For Medieval examples, see Ibid., 430-40.
4 Virginia M. Allen, “‘One Strangling Golden Hair’: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith,” The Art Bulletin 66, no. 2 (June 1984): 286.

5 Tuttle, 123.


Is It Really by Michelangelo?

There has been some controversy and debate regarding a small wooden crucifix that has been attributed to Michelangelo. This crucifix made its public debut at the end of last year, and was recently bought by the Italian state for $4.2 million.

Like some experts mentioned in this recent article, I’m skeptical that this is an actual work by Michelangelo. Vasari’s biography doesn’t mention anything about the artist making small wooden statues.

I’d be interested in learning more about the people who advised the Italian government to buy this piece. If this statue isn’t by Michelangelo, the Italian state has spent an unnecessary amount of money for this small, but pretty, statue.


The Cyclical Nature of Art

When I was in college, one of my professors explained her theory that art is cyclical in nature. Over the centuries, there are certain themes and styles in art that keep emerging and fading in popularity. I have often thought about this theory in regards to the Classical and Baroque styles. Although this theory can apply to different types of art, I am in the mood for looking at sculpture, so I’ll only mostly use sculptural examples.

In early Greece, the serene, harmonious Classical style pervaded the artistic scene:

Polykleitos, “Spear-bearer” (Doryphoros), original dated c. 450-440 BC.

However, a short time later, the calm Classical style was disrupted by a taste for more dramatic, diagonal compositions in the Hellenistic period. In addition, relief sculptures were carved more deeply (some sculptures were practically in-the-round, almost jumping off of the relief wall) so that intense shadows could be cast:

Athena Battling Alkyoneos, Detail of the Gigantomachy Freize from the Altar of Zeus (Pergamon, Turkey, c. 175 BC).

The cycle between serenity and drama began again centuries later, when the Classical style became revived during the Renaissance:

Michelangelo, David, 1501-04

And only a century later, the Baroque period began as the artistic scene once again favored diagonal, dramatic compositions and subject matter:

Bernini, David, 1623

With the discovery of Pompeii in 1748, the interest in Classicism began the cycle all over again. This interest brought about the Neoclassical movement:

Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese as Venus, 1808

The Romantic movement began about the same time and can be interpreted as a continuation of this cycle. In a way, the Romantics reacted against Neoclassicism by favoring drama and emotion over the serenity. This painting by Géricault focuses on dramatic subject matter by depicting a real-life event of shipwrecked passengers that were on the boat “Medusa.” A shortage of lifeboats caused 150 passengers to build a raft, and survivors resorted to cannibalism in order to stay alive on the open sea. (You can read more of the story here.) Can you see how this subject matter is dramatic? To heighten the drama, Gericault depicted an emotional moment when the survivors spot their rescue ship in the distance. Géricault even follows the same dramatic diagonal compositions that were favored in earlier dramatic styles:

Géricault, Raft of the “Medusa”, 1818-19

Since the Neoclassical/Romantic periods, the artistic continuum really hasn’t seen another revival of the serene/dramatic styles. There have been some slight interest in traditional subject matter, such as the Regionalism movement (think of American Gothic). I guess Regionalism could be considered a continuation of serenity and tradition, if one is willing to categorize abstractionism (the style the Regionalists rejected) as dramatic. Hmm.

I’m curious to see if art will ever return back to this cycle. Since the 19th and 20th centuries, art has just exploded into different types of media and styles. Have we left traditional cycles altogether? It is interesting to think about what art will be like in a hundred years or so.

What do you think about the future of art? Have you observed any other types of artistic cycles besides this one?


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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.