December 2012

Technology and Triumphal Arch Parallels: Dürer and Debombourg

Baptiste Debombourg, Triumphal Arch, 2001. Cardboard boxes, glue, strings, scotch tape. Height 5.3 m (approx 17.38 feet)

This morning one of my students shared with me a Tumblr page with images of Debombourg’s Triumphal Arch, which is largely comprised of cardboard boxes. My student commented that this disposable monument reminded him of the temporary triumphal arches that we discussed in our class on colonial Brazilian art.1 I am curious as to whether Debombourg recycled used boxes for his construction. If he did, I think this would be an interesting contrast between our environmentally-conscious society and the colonial conquerors who initially perceived Latin America to be a land of abundant, limitless resources.

Anyhow, by coincidence, later this morning I came across another triumphal arch in the new art history textbook that I am reading (edited by Kim W. Woods). The text discusses the monumental arch that Dürer created for Emperor Maximilian (see below). This huge arch was printed on paper using 192 woodblocks, and was intended to be a wall decoration, kind of like a substitute for a tapestry or wall painting.

Albrecht Dürer, "Arch of Emperor Maximilian," 1515-17, colored woodcut. 357 x 295 cm (approx. 11.7' x 9.67')

Although these two arches are very different for a lot of reasons, I can’t help but think about how these arches have some interesting similarities. The both are created on a monumental scale. They both are “constructed” works of art, either with physical boxes or with the woodblocks which comprised Dürer’s final print. Even the small print on some Debombourg’s boxes has an interesting parallel with Dürer’s print: the latter has complicated Latin inscriptions which would have been hard to read, not to mention the complex compositions which would have been equally difficult to view.2

Curiously, both works of art have an interesting element of “reproducibility.” Dürer’s arch was originally printed in 700 sets, and later was reissued in more than 300 sets by one Archduke Ferdinand, one of Maximilian’s grandson.3 Ferdinand’s son Charles, in turn, also reissued sets of the arch. Dürer was able to reproduce his work through the relatively-new technological invention of the printing press. Likewise, Debombourg’s arch has been similarly “reproduced” over and over through blogs, tweets, and Tumblr “likes” (for starters, just look at the list on the Tumblr site that I included above).

It is interesting to think about how the Internet has assumed a “reproducibility function” for art, a function which for a long time was partially the responsibility of the printing press. Artists no longer become famous through distributing physical copies (i.e. prints) of their art. Instead, artists and viewers can place images on the Internet, and let those images (or the links to those images) reproduce themselves. Lately, when I have visited a museum gallery, I have been struck by how many people (including myself) are taking images of art with their cellphone cameras. It is phenomenal to consider how many works of art are “reproduced” via digital images each day.

Considering the widespread fame which Dürer achieved in his lifetime with physical copies of his prints, one can only imagine what mind-boggling fame he might have achieved if he lived in the Internet age. And I would bet that Dürer would have relished every moment of it.

1 Although we don’t have examples of temporary triumphal arches from Brazil, there are some descriptions that exist in documents. We can learn a little about how temporary triumphal arches appeared in Latin America by looking at a Spanish American painting of a viceroy “entrada.” Look on the far right side of Melchor Pérez Holguín’s, “The Entrance of the Viceroy Morcillo into Potosí,” 1716.

2 Kim W. Woods, ed., “Art and Visual Culture, 1100-1600: Medieval and Renaissance,” (London: Tate Publishing), 181-82.

3 Ibid., 181.

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Bull’s-Head Rhyton: Blood and a Second Sacrifice

Bull's-Head Rhyton, c. 1550-1450 BCE (Minoan). Steatite with shell, rock crystal, and red jasper. The gilt-wood horns are restorations. Height 12"

This past quarter, one of my ancient students did a research project on the Minoan rhyton of a bull’s head (found at the Archaeological Museum in Crete). This student found an article by Jeremy McInerny in the Winter 2011 edition of Penn Museum’s Expedition magazine  (.PDF link). This article, which is dedicated to the imagery of bulls and bull-leaping in the Minoan world, had some interesting information about this rhyton.

A rhyton is a type of vase or container which contains liquid that often is used in libation ceremonies. In the case of this bull, the rhyton is filled when liquid is poured into the bull’s neck. Then, during libation rituals, the bull’s head would be tilted forward so that liquid spew from the bull’s mouth. Although the liquid that filled rhytons is unknown (wine and water are some possibilities), I like another suggestion that McInerny mentions. He discusses how scholar Nanno Marinatos has argued that these containers actually held blood from sacrificial animals.1

McInerny explains further that these rhytons would have been like representations (or “portraits”) of the animals whose blood they contained. He writes, “The [rhytons of bulls’-heads] would have been the centerpiece of any gathering at which they were used. If such a gathering were the feast following a sacrifice at which the bull was consumed or its meat distributed, a formal libation from a vessel imitating the bull’s head would have constituted a ritual re-enactment of the bloodletting that began the sacrifice. The savagery of the animal’s slaughter was replaced with the formal dignity of the libation. The disposal of the rhyton after the ceremony amounted to a second killing.”2

The bull long fascinated ancient cultures, and I like this connection between the bull rhyton and animal sacrifices. I like to discuss with my students how this Minoan bull looks much more naturalistic than the representations of bulls which previously were created in the ancient Near East (such as the Sumerian bull’s head lyre). Given this argument about how rhytons were “portraits” of bulls that were symbolically slaughtered, I think that this emphasis on naturalism is quite appropriate. Perhaps the naturalism would have heightened not only the act of the “second” ritualistic killing, but also would have better represented and embodied the power of the bull itself.

1 Jeremy McInerny, “Bulls and Bull-Leaping in the Minoan World,” in Expedition 53, no. 3 (Spring 2011): 8. PDF of article available HERE

2 Ibid.


Mary Magdalene’s Under-Dress

Rogier van der Weyden, "Descent from the Cross," detail of Mary Magdalene, c. 1435

Whenever I want to “wow” my students with the extreme detail of Northern Renaissance painting, I take a few moments to show students some of the amazing details of Rogier van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross” altarpiece. Until this evening, though, I failed to notice a small little detail on Mary Magdalene’s sleeve, near her shoulder: the small pin which attaches her separate red over-sleeve to her dress.

To a fifteenth-century viewer, this pin would have been significant. Normally, these pins were concealed by an outer dress. In this instance, though, Mary has omitted to put on her outer dress. In her distress, it appears that Mary Magdalene rushed to the crucifixion without being properly attired! And not only is her under-dress exposed, but her headdress is slipping off of her head.1

In a new book on medieval and Renaissance art, Kim W. Woods argues that this reference to contemporary dress is a carefully constructed detail which would have heightened the sense of reality for a Renaissance viewer.2 That argument makes sense to me.

I also think it is appropriate that the Magdalene, of all people, has rushed out of doors without being properly clothed. There are lots of artistic representations of Mary Magdalene in various states of undress; I’m especially reminded of depictions of the repentant Magdalene in the wilderness. I would be surprised to find any of the other Marys (including the Virgin) depicted in their under-dresses at a crucifixion scene. But, when it comes to art, the Magdalene seems to get away with a lot more.

1 Kim W. Woods, ed., “Art and Visual Culture, 1100-1600: Medieval and Renaissance,” (London: Tate Publishing), 37.

2 Ibid.


Chagall’s “Fiddler on the Roof”

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no?”

Many years ago, I got to hear the character Tevye speak those lines several times as I took part in the cast of a Fiddler on the Roof high school production. I grew up watching and participating in a lot of musicals, and I feel like I know a lot of these productions like the back of my hand. I was surprised to learn recently, though, that the musical title “Fiddler on the Roof” was inspired by Marc Chagall’s work. Even the set and original logo were done to evoke the style of Marc Chagall, who was a Russian-Jewish artist. This influence can be seen in an original Broadway windowcard designed by Tom Morrow.

Marc Chagall, "The Fiddler," 1912

Marc Chagall, "The Green Violinist," 1923-24. Oil on canvas, 78 x 42 3/4 inches (198 x 108.6 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

The “Fiddler on the Roof” title specifically references a wall painting which Chagall created for the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in 1920. However, we can see that subject matter existed in Chagall’s imagery before this point, as evidenced by the 1912 “Fiddler” painting (the first image included above). Chagall liked the 1920 wall panel so much that he created a later copy, “The Green Violinist” (shown above).

As a displaced Russian Jew who lived in France, Chagall often turned to subject matter which evoked the cultural and religious legacy of his homeland. Jennifer Blessing writes, “The Chabad Hasidim of Chagall’s childhood believed it possible to achieve communion with God through music and dance, and the fiddler was a vital presence in ceremonies and festivals.”1 Since there is such an emphasis on “TRADITION!” and following the expectations of God in the “Fiddler on the Roof” musical, I can see how Chagall’s imagery is especially appropriate.

1 Jennifer Blessing, “The Green Violinist,” Guggenheim Collection Online. Available here:


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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.