December 2010

Our Mother of Mercy and Y1K

Madonna della Misericordia, Church of San Tomá, Venice, mid 14th century to early 15th century
Remember Y2K? I can’t believe that it has been ten years since we experienced the Y2K drama and anxiety. I recall that my mom gave our neighbors hand-powered flashlights as a holiday gift that year (almost entirely in jest).
Remember how some people proclaimed that Y2K would bring the end of the world? This actually isn’t surprising, since history has shown a repeated end-of-the-world fear with the approach of a new year/century/millenium. Actually, it’s interesting to see how this fear even has affected art. I think the most prominent (and interesting) example is the imagery for Our Mother of Mercy, which displays the Virgin protectively taking her protégés/children underneath her cloak (see a late medieval example above). Henry Kraus has discussed that this iconography developed in the tenth century by the order of Cluny, “possibly in response to the terror of the world’s end that spread abroad with the approach of the Year Thousand.”1 This protective, loving image of the Virgin must have brought comfort to devout medieval worshipers who feared that the world was ending in Y1K.
Is it safe to argue, then, that the Middle Ages experienced a “Y1K”? I think so. The iconography for Our Mother of Mercy gives evidence for it! Ha!
Do you have a favorite work of art that is inspired by an end-of-the-world theme?
Having written about this end-of-the-world gloom, it seems a little ironic to wish everyone a Happy New Year. Nonetheless, I hope that this upcoming year is better and brighter for everyone. Personally, I’m not focusing on possibilities that the world will end anytime in 2011. In fact, I’ve already thought to write a post on Mayan art with the advent of 2012… ;)
Happy New Year!
1 Henry Kraus, “Eve and Mary: Conflicting Images of Medieval Woman,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1982), 84. See also Mlle. Chatel, “Le culte de la vierge Marie en France, du Ve au XIIIe siécle,” Théses-Sorbonne (Paris, 1945): 151-52.

Happy Holidays

Unknown German Master, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1420
Happy holidays from Alberti’s Window! This is one of the Christmas paintings which I recently discovered while performing a research project for a friend.  Isn’t it fun? I love that the kings are wearing contemporary Renaissance clothing – check out the crowns and the ermine robe! Ermine has been associated with royalty (and the extremely wealthy) for a long time, so it’s not surprising that one of the Three Magi is dressed in ermine. Interestingly, though, ermine was also seen as a symbol of purity during the Renaissance period. I think that the inclusion of ermine fur in this painting could also refer to the pure heart of the king (and perhaps emphasize the holy nature of the scene in general).
What is your favorite Nativity/Adoration scene?
Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

Christmas During the Civil War

Over the past few days I’ve been reading about the history of Christmas in America. (For a brief introduction on the subject, I suggest you read the preface of William B. Wait’s book, The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving). It has been most surprising for me to discover that Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated until about the mid-19th century. I didn’t realize that the celebration of Christmas was such a recent phenomenon in American history. Of course, I already guessed that the Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the holiday was outlawed between 1659 and 1681. But it appears that Americans still resisted Christmas in the 18th century, partially because it was a way for rebellious American patriots to set themselves apart from an English/European tradition.

In the 19th century, Christmas began to be celebrated more regularly. I’ve been particularly interested in different historical arguments regarding how Americans perceived Christmas during the Civil War (1861-1865). For example, Penne L. Restad argues that around the time of the Civil War, Americans looked toward the Christmas holiday as an “idealized domestic haven that was neither northern nor southern in its origins or biases.”1

On the other hand, it has also been argued that Americans also were divided on the subject of Christmas. Southerners tended to celebrate the Christmas as part of the social season, whereas Northerners saw more sin in the celebration of the holiday.2 Although these two arguments by historians seem a little contradictory, I think that they can coexist. Perhaps the idea of Christmas both unified Americans (with its promise of peace and tranquility) and also divided Americans (in the way that the holiday should be observed).

The division of Civil War era Americans regarding Christmas is especially interesting to me when considering Thomas Nast’s drawings for Harper’s Magazine. Nast made several images of Santa Claus during the 1860s, including a picture of Santa delivering presents to Union soldiers (see image above, which is from the January 3, 1863 cover of Harper’s Magazine).  Some argue that this drawing functioned as a type of psychological warfare against the Confederate Army, since Santa Claus was showing favor to Union soldiers (when Southerners were the ones who tended to celebrate the Christmas holiday).

I think that the drawing is particularly interesting. Santa is dressed in a suit with stripes and stars, which looks very similar to the Union flag. He is handing out gifts which would have been important to soldiers, such as a pair of socks. Interestingly, Santa is holding out a puppet that looks very much like Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate South. Santa is pulling on the puppet string, which makes it look like Santa is lynching Jefferson Davis! (Who knew that Santa could be so violent?) I think that the inclusion of lynching is an especially interesting comment on anti-slavery, don’t you think?

It’s interesting to think about how Christmas is a cultural construct, especially within a relatively young country like America. If you live outside the United States, what is the history of Christmas in your country? Are you aware of early representations of Christmas in your respective country or area? Or, if you are American, what representations of Christmas do you like?

1 Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 98. Citation is available online here.

2 Although not within the Civil War context, William B. Wait also discusses how the Northerners were suspicious of the Christmas revelry, whereas the Southerners embraced the celebration. See William B. Wait, The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving (New York: New York University Press, 1994), xv-xvi. Citation is available online here.


The "Sumptuous" Arts in Greece

The quarter is over. Over the past few days I’ve reflected on what lectures I enjoyed teaching to my ancient art students. I think that my favorite lecture was based on Kenneth Lapatin’s essay, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Metals: Toward a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts”1.

The reason why Lapatin includes a question mark after the word “minor” is important: his whole essay revolves around the argument that the Greeks valued the so-called “minor arts” much more than they are valued today. For Lapatin, the “sumptuous” artistic materials like ivory, gold, silver and gemstone were the artistic mediums that the Greeks most prized. In other words, the Greek marble, bronze and (painted) pottery (all of which are placed at the heart of Western art history) weren’t as valued by the ancient Greeks.

To prove his point, Lapatin gives one especially interesting example. He writes that “in the middle of the sixth century BC, the inhabitants of Phocaea decided to abandon their city rather than submit to the Medes. Herodotus reports, ‘They loaded onto their ships their children, women, and household property, and above all the images of the gods from the sanctuaries and other dedications, everything, in fact, except bronzes, stoneworks, and paintings, and they sailed to Chios.'”2 Now I realize that there may have been some practical reasons why the Greeks didn’t load their ships with stonework (it is heavy, after all!), but isn’t it interesting that the art we value today is precisely the art that the Greeks chose to abandon?

In some ways, this news shouldn’t come as a surprise to art historians. We have known for a long time that the main purpose of the Parthenon was to house Phidias’ chryselephantine cult statue of Athena (see above left for a reconstruction of an original of c. 438 BC). The cult statue was the most valued thing by the Greeks, not the building which housed the statue. This is very ironic, because today much more emphasis is placed on the architecture and exterior sculpture of the Parthenon. In fact, it’s interesting that one ancient Greek writer, Pausanias, only mentions the two pediments and cult statue when he described the Parthenon. He ignored the metopes and frieze completely, which suggests that they weren’t very important.3

So, why do we value painting, architecture, and sculpture above the “minor” materials and objects created by the Greeks? Lapatin traces this ideology back to Vasari’s writings of the 16th century (see a 1566-68 self-portrait of Vasari on right). Vasari’s Lives focused on the achievements of three artistic types: painters, sculptors, and architects. As a result, painting, sculpture, and architecture became “the canonical triad” in art history.4 In some ways, it’s not surprising that Vasari promoted these types of art: after all, he was a painter and architect himself. Although the effect of Vasari’s “triad” was not immediate (gems were still were considered part of the arts for a long time afterward), Vasari’s writings took part in “the displacement and demotion of items fashioned from sumptuous materials from the lofty position they held in ancient art and culture (as well as in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance).”5

Lapatin’s argument is fascinating. He also delves into interesting discussions of how Winckelmann affected our modern perception of Greek sculpture, particularly in terms of what we value today (i.e. unpainted white marble). It’s great stuff. I recommend that everyone should get their hands on a copy of this article. Unfortunately, his essay is found in a book that currently is out of print. But I promise that your efforts in securing a copy of this essay will be well worth the effort!

1 Kenneth Lapatin, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Metals: Toward a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts,” in Ancient Art and its Historiography by A. A. Donohue, ed. (Cambridge: 2003): 69-91.

2 Ibid., 71.

3 Colin Cunningham, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art by Gill Perry and Colin Cunningham, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 53-54. Part of the citation is available online here.

4 Lapatin, 74. It should be noted that Vasari did discuss and laud the importance of gold work and glyptic in the first edition of his Lives (1550). However, the 1568 revision of the text demoted the sumptuous arts and elevated painting instead.

4 Ibid.


"Modern" Gingerbread House

At a Christmas party earlier today, J and I had visions of creating a 20th century gingerbread house that would look something like this:

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Possy-sur-Seine, France, 1929
(image via Wikipedia (ValueYou), under the GNU Free Documentation License, v. 1.3)

Or this:

Frank Lloyd Wright, Kaufmann House (Fallingwater), Bear Run, Pennsylvania, 1936-39

Needless to say, our final product was not nearly as fancy:

Let’s just hope that our gingerbread house is as architecturally sound as the Le Corbusier and Wright buildings. Or even more architecturally sound, I should say: Frank Lloyd Wright’s building was in danger of collapse at one point. The terraces of Fallingwater began to droop over time and were considered unstable. In addition, “long-term stress on the main level’s beams resulted in cracks in the beams, causing the floors to sag.”1 The building was restored in 2002, as part of an $11.5 million restoration project.

You know, maybe it’s a little encouraging to know that even Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t a perfect architect. Then maybe I won’t be disappointed if my house has collapsed by tomorrow morning!

(If anyone ends up building another gingerbread house that was inspired by a great architectural work, let me know! I’d love to see a picture. I dare someone to try and build a gingerbread house that based off of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao Museo.)

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., vol. 2 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), 1017.


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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.