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May 2009

Your Beautiful Eyes

I know that my blog seriously is lacking in posts on medieval art. I keep starting posts on sundry medieval topics, but I always get sidetracked and excited about something else. It’s not that I dislike medieval art – I just keep getting distracted. Such it is with today’s post. I started reading something about one of the portals at Chartres cathedral, which reminded me of something else, and ultimately, I got distracted by these paintings:

Domenico Beccafumi, Saint Lucy, c. 1521

Franceso del Cossa, Saint Lucy (detail), c. 1473-74
(You can see the full image and more details here)

Go ahead and do a double-take. Don’t second guess yourself – Saint Lucy is holding a plate with a pair of eyes in the top image, and in the bottom image the saint’s eyes transposed into some type of lovely flower (!).

I think that the stories of Catholic saints are really interesting, and Saint Lucy is no exception. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives interesting details about Lucy’s life, but doesn’t mention one of the fascinating legends regarding Lucy’s eyes. I imagine that this legend has affected more representations of Lucy than anything else.

Lucy of Syracuse lived in the 4th century, during the time that Diocletian persecuted the early Christians. According to legend, Diocletian gouged out Lucy’s eyeballs but later her eyes were miraculously restored. The miracle must explain why in art she is holding her eyes, while also having eyes in her sockets. Anyhow, I’m sure that patrons and worshipers wouldn’t particularly enjoy looking at a representation of an eyeless woman. Socket-filled saints are more aesthetically pleasing.

It is thought that this legend may account for Saint Lucy being the patron saint of the blind (and those with eye trouble). The name “Lucy” means “light,” and this also might tie into the saint’s connection with sight. Today, Lucy’s remains are housed in the church of San Geremia (Venice).

There are a lot of saints that I find fascinating (you can read about thousands of them on the Patron Saint Index). However, in terms of art, I might have to argue that Saint Lucy is the most interesting and attention-grabbing.

Who are your favorite Catholic saints? Do you know of a saint symbol that is more unusual than a pair of eyeballs?

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Vietnam War Memorial

I have to admit, I’ve never thought that the Vietnam War Memorial (1981-1983; National Mall, Washington DC) was especially interesting or intriguing. I think it is a serene, respectful tribute to those who died in the Vietnam War, but I can’t spend hours and hours thinking about the aesthetic or design of the structure. Don’t get me wrong – I like the feel and look of minimalist sculpture and architecture, but I just can’t pontificate much about the, uh, minimal qualities of the work. (And art historians love to pontificate!) For this reason, I’ve always kind of skimmed over the Vietnam War Memorial in my art history textbooks and lectures.

However, one of the reasons I started this blog was so I could learn more information about various art pieces and (hopefully) gain more appreciation for them. So, in light of Memorial Day, I decided to read more about the Vietnam War Memorial. And I’ve learned some fascinating information about controversy that surrounded the completion of this memorial.

In 1981, Maya Lin was 21 years old when her design was chosen (out of 1,421 final entries) for the Vietnam War Memorial. The V-shaped black granite is partially lowered into the ground. I didn’t realize this before, but this monument is lowered in the manner of ancient burial grounds.1 The jury selected Lin’s design because they felt like the simplicity of the design would be least controversial. However, many people were upset with the design choice, arguing that the contrast of the black granite against the nearby white memorials could be interpreted as a criticism of the Vietnam War (and a criticism of the efforts expended by those who fought in the war).2 Furthermore, critics were upset with the black color of the granite; one veteran argued that black is “the universal color of shame, sorry and degradation in all races, all societies worldwide.”3

As a compromise, the Commission of Fine Arts decided in 1983 to commission Frederick Hart to create a realistic bronze sculpture of three armed soldiers (shown right). This sculpture which was eventually placed about 100 feet from the memorial wall. About a decade later, a group of nurses got permission to erect a sculpture honoring women’s service in Vietnam. Glenna Goodacre was commissioned to built this sculpture, and it was placed in 1993 about 300 feet south of the memorial (see an image here).

I’m a little surprised that Maya Lin’s memorial caused so much debate and controversy, although it makes sense. I think that people usually have strong opinions whenever a memorial is built, because so much emotion is connected to the purpose of constructing a memorial. Personally, I think that the black granite is effective and appropriate – the reflective surface ensures that anyone who reads the names on the memorial will become active “participants in the experience of remembering the dead,” because the reader can see himself/herself mirrored against the names.

Here’s to remembering our dead, and those who sacrificed so that we can enjoy freedom. The Vietnam War Memorial lists 57, 939 casualties (including those M.I.A.). It’s mindboggling and humbling to think of how many people have died in other wars, especially since our armed forces are overseas at present.

What do you think of Maya Lin’s monument? Do you find the design controversial?

1“Lin, Maya.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T051132, accessed May 25, 2009).

2 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., vol. 2 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), 1044.

3 Elizabeth Hess, “A Tale of Two Memorials,” Art in America 71, no. 4 (April 1983): 122.

4 “Lin, Maya” in Grove Art Online.

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Who Painted These?

I feel like posting something fun today. I liked the little game that I created with guessing artists’ portraits, so I thought I’d do something similar. These are less-well-known paintings by well-known artists. Can you guess who painted these? (The answers are in the comments section.)


How did you do?

Out of these paintings, I think my favorite one is the street scene (second from the bottom). Which one do you like?

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The Immortal Peacock

According to ancient legend, the flesh of the peacock is incapable of decay. Yep, that’s right. It was thought that a peacock’s body would never rot. It would be really cool if this was true, but it isn’t. This myth was propagated by early writers (see here for an interesting example in Augustine’s City of God).1 As a result of this myth, the peacock has been associated with immortality in Christian art. Furthermore, because male peacocks shed and regrow their plumage each year, the peacock also is associated with resurrection.

Peacocks have appeared in Christian art for centuries. Some of the earthen lamps used by early Christians were decorated with peacocks.2 One of the earliest paintings of a”Christian” peacock decorates the ceiling painting in the catacomb of Priscilla* (3rd century AD, Rome, Italy; the peacock is located in the lunette above the “Life of Priscilla” scene). Since catacombs were the tombs for early Christians, it is appropriate that a depiction of a peacock be included here, due to this assocation with resurrection and immortality. I think it is especially interesting that the peacock is located near a depiction of Christ, since Christ is also associated with resurrection and immortality (Christ is shown as the Good Shepherd in the central, circular frame).

Thousands of years later, in the Renaissance, Fra Angelio and Fra Filippo Lippi still included the peacock in their religious art (this is a detail from the Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460). Perched on the stable above the Christ child, the peacock watches the wise men bring gifts to the baby. As a complement to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the peacock symbolizes the gift of immortality that is offered by Christianity.3

I know that peacocks have both positive and negative associations in other contexts and cultures. In America, it could be argued that peacocks are most commonly associated with vanity. I think it’s fun to look at peacocks in a different light, as a symbol of immortality.

1 To see some other examples of early writings (and a great image of a peacock from a medieval bestiary, see here).

2 “Roman Catacombs,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (2009), accessed 18 May 2009. Found online here.

3 A complete view of the painting (and more information about it) can be found here.

*Catacomb of Priscilla image courtesy batigolix on Flickr.

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Intro to Ancient Near East: Sumer

The ancient Near East has long fascinated students and historians, particularly because three major world faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) got their beginnings in this region. Furthermore, this area is of interest because of other early developments which took place here. After the Neolithic Revolution (the change from humans as hunters/gatherers to farmers), the wheel and plow were first used in the ancient Near East.

The first writing system was also developed in the Near East by the Sumerians. Their writing system consisted of wedge-shaped cuneiform signs. The Sumerian book the Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest book in the world, written over a thousand years before Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad.

My favorite ancient Sumerian art has always been the statuettes from the Square Temple at Eshnunna (ca. 2700 BC; Tell Asmar, Iraq). Many of these statuettes have been found beneath the floor of the temple (click here to see some more examples). Most figures are dressed in the form of priests or priestesses, and they have their hands clasped in constant prayer. It is thought that these statuettes were votive figurines; worshipers would leave these figures at the temple as a form or worship or prayer. Or, it is also thought that these statuettes could represent the manifestation of an answered prayer. I especially love the wide-eyed stares on their faces; they probably symbolize the vigilance of the statuettes in their prayerful duty.

Next to the statuettes, my other favorite Sumerian piece is a bull-headed lyre from the Royal Cemetary at Ur (Tomb 789, “King’s Grave”, ca. 2600 BC). The lyre was decorated with gold and lapis lazuli (a precious blue stone). You can see a color image of the restored instrument here. My favorite parts of the lyre, though, are the inlaid panels on the front of the soundbox located underneath the bull’s beard (shown below). In these four registers, animals walk on their legs and act like humans – they look like scenes that could be found in Aesop’s fables or a Disney movie. Some think that these panels represent stories that would have been told for entertainment. Others think that the creatures might be inhabitants of the land of the dead, with narrative containing a funerary connection.1 I also had a professor who thought that the scenes related to animal imagery from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Whatever the reason for this piece, I think it’s very fun. I love that animals are holding cups, playing instruments (the donkey actually is playing a bull lyre in the second panel from the bottom), and possibly dancing (I can’t tell if the bear is dancing or helping to steady the lyre). I especially like that the bulls on the top register have human faces – the artist might have done that to help achieve symmetry in the composition.2

If you’re interested, you can read more about the lyre and animal scenes here.

The ancient Near East has a lot of fun and beautiful art. I also love the Standard of Ur, but I think I might need to save that piece for another day – it deserves its own post.

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, vol. 11 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001), 25.

2 Incidentally, this top scene that contains a figure between two beasts is common in ancient art. It is called the “Master of the Animals” motif and is reserved for great heroes, gods, and goddesses. The influence of this Near Eastern motif can be seen in a “Mistress of the Animals” example from the Archaic Greece period, the west pediment of the Temple of Artemis (Corfu, Greece, ca. 600-580 BC).

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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.