Archive

May 2013

Rublev’s “Holy Trinity”

Some of my friends from high school have chosen very interesting professions and fields of study. A few of these friends studied in divinity school, which can make for interesting conversations via social media. Whenever I have something meaningful to contribute in relation to art, I like to join in the conversation. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts that I contributed to a thread about the Trinity this evening. One of my friends, who is an Orthodox Greek, mentioned that the Hospitality of Abraham is one of the feast days in which the theology of the Trinity is celebrated. He mentioned how the Hospitality of Abraham is popular in icons, and I then popped in with some additional thoughts, which I’ve slightly modified below:

Andrei Rublev, Angels and Mamre (also called "Holy Trinity" or "Three Angels Visiting Abraham"), c. 1410-25. Tempera on wood, 142 cm × 114 cm (56 in × 45 in)

“I think that one of the most famous scenes showing the Hospitality of Abraham/Holy Trinity is the one by Andrei Rublev.

The mountain behind the figure on the right is a symbol for the Holy Spirit (since, for example, mountains are holy locations at which the Spirit can be manifest). The tree (next to the central figure) is a symbol for Christ and the cross. This figure also points to an object that resembles a cup filled with wine. I have read different interpretations regarding the architecture in the background on the right. On one hand, it can serve as a symbol for the house of God, or it can reference the Father as a Creator. Also, obviously, this structure can represent the tent in which Sarah “laughed within herself” upon hearing the prophesy that she would bear a child in old age (Genesis 18:12).

On a side note, I think that the practically identical faces of the angels help to emphasize the unity of the Trinity.”

There are a couple of other symbols and thoughts that I could have added to this comment, but I didn’t want to hijack the thread. I’ll include them here:

  • Circular composition of the angels seated at the table emphasizes the eternal and unified nature of the Trinity.
  • Each figure wears a blue garment, perhaps symbolizing the heavens.
  • I’ve read a couple of interpretations that the seemingly translucent nature of the Father’s garment (the figure on the far left) can emphasize the immaterial nature of God (i.e. the idea of God as Spirit). Although it appears that the quality of the paint may be deteriorating in this example above (which could prompt such a reaction about translucency), we can see that other Orthodox artists who copied Rublev (see an example HERE) also suggest this same idea of a translucent garment.
  • The two fingers for the central figure can represent how Christ is both earthly and divine.
  • Each figure holds a staff. I think that these staffs serve as symbols of authority and power. Another blogger thinks that the staffs suggest that God walks with men throughout their earthly pilgrimages.
  • On a different note, the scale of this piece is larger than you might suppose! It is 142 cm tall (over four and a half feet!).

Does anyone have other thoughts on the symbolism for this icon? On a side note, I think that the sweeping curves and sweet faces of these figures are very appealing. I really like Rublev’s style.

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A Timeline of Early Modern Censorship

Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, 1424-25. Image on right shows the fresco after its restoration in the 1980s, which removed the fig leaves that were added in the 17th century. Image courtesy Wikipedia

A few weeks ago I was contacted by an art magazine, specifically requesting information on nudity and censorship in the history of art (since I had previously written on this topic). It took me a few hours to compile the necessary information for this group. Unfortunately, I never received any response after sending a detailed email to my contact, so I assume that the information I sent will not be used in the final article or timeline about censorship. Instead, I have decided to publish my research here.

Although the following timeline is not complete by any means, I think that these are some of the most significant and interesting events which surround the issues of censorship and nudity for the Early Modern period in Western art.

Reconstruction of copper “skirt” which allegedly was placed on Michelangelo’s “David”

  • c. 1504: Objections arose regarding the nudity of Michelangelo’s “David” (to the point that people threw stones at the statue). It is reported that a skirt of copper leaves was created to cover the statue at one point, although we don’t have a mention of this skirt by Vasari (see some commentary on this problematic story HERE). If anyone knows of more historical accounts that discuss this skirt, please share in the comments below!
  • Around 1541: Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini (Ambassador of Mantua) work to have Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” censored, due to the nudity. This undertaking is known as the beginning of the “Fig Leaf Campaign.”
  • 1547: In Spain, the first edition of the Index of Prohibited Books (written in 1547, published in 1551) does not mention nudity specifically, but condemns “all pictures and figures disrespectful to religion” (my emphasis).
  • 1555-1559: Pope Paul IV undertakes censorship of nude works of art, which includes the castration of ancient statues.¹
  • 1563 (December 3-4): 25th session of the Council of Trent (as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation) specifies that art should avoid lasciviousness, “in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.”
  • 1565: Daniele da Volterra (later known as “Il Braghettone” or “The Breeches Painter”) was hired to paint bits of drapery over the nude figures of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. These “breeches” by Volterra were the first; other bits of drapery were added to this fresco in the following centuries.
  • 1592 – Clement VII undertakes a personal inspection of Rome to ensure that revealing sculptures, including semi-nude depictions of Christ on the cross, are covered with drapery.
  • 1644 – 1655: Pope Innocent X had phalluses chiseled off of Roman sculptures in the Vatican. Metal fig leaves were placed on the figures instead.
  • About 1680: Fig leaves were added to the bodies of Masaccio’s Adam and Eve figures in the Brancacci Chapel (see image above). These were removed in the 1980s, when the frescoes were cleaned and restored.
  • 1758-1759: Pope Clement XIII covers more sculptures at the Vatican with fig leaves

Spanish stamp from 1930, based off of Goya’s painting “La Maja Desnuda,” c. 1797-1800. Image courtesty Wikipedia

  • About 1797-1800: Goya paints “La Maja Desnuda” (sometimes called “The Naked Maja”) which is among one of the first works of Western art to depict a woman with visible pubic hair. In 1815, Goya was summoned before the Spanish Inquisition to discuss this painting. “La Maja Desnuda” was turned into a stamp in the 1930s by the Spanish government, but the US Postal service would not deliver incoming letters that were marked with this stamp. One source reports that the US Postal service ruling was reversed as late as 1996!
  • About 1803: Goya paints “La Maja Vestida” (“The Clothed Maja”), which is a painting of the same woman who posed for “La Maja Desnuda.” It could be that this painting was created in order to be more acceptable than the previous version.
  • 1846-1878: Pope Pius IX places fig leaves on more statues at the Vatican.
  • 1878-1903: Leo XIII places fig leaves on more statues at the Vatican.
  • 19th century: Modifications were made to Bronzino’s “Allegory of Venus and Cupid” (discussed in detail HERE).

Large fig leaf covering the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “David” in the Victoria and Albert Museum

  • About 1857: Large fig leaf is created for the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “David” which is located at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
  • 1865 – Victor Lagye creates copies of Adam and Eve for the Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, with the figures clothed. These copies were placed in the altarpiece.
  • Between 1981-1994: Some (but not all) of the “breeches” of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” fresco are removed during restoration and cleaning of the chapel. Others are not removed because the painting could have been damaged in the process.

Censorship in regards to nudity really begins to end in the late 19th century. The early twentieth century sees a lot of nude sculptures that are also more provocative and sexual in nature.

Can you think of any other significant dates in regards to nudity and censorship? I stuck with the Early Modern period in my timeline, but we could also go back to ancient period (I’m reminded of when Early Christians destroyed nude sculptures of the Parthenon in the 5th century CE.)

If you are interested in learning more about censorship and nudity, I would recommend watching this documentary: “Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover Up in History.”

1 Art historian Leo Steinberg explained that we don’t know a lot about the specific censorship actions taken by Pope Paul IV. He writes, “But we are not well informed about the chronology of these practices. Montaigne (Essays, III, 5) cites ‘many beautiful and antique statues’  which were being ‘castrated’ in Rome during his youth by order of ‘that good man,’ meaning Pope Paul IV (1555-1559).”  See Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) p. 186. This book is a reprint of Steinberg’s original 1983 publication. Citation online HERE.

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Museum “Shrines” and Performative Rituals

"Nike of Samothrace" on the stairs of the Louvre Museum

The quarter is progressing along, and now I am covering a new book with my students: New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction. It’s been really fun to delve into some of the museum theory that I studied several years ago as a graduate student and graduate fellow at a small art museum.

The introduction of this text explores several of the metaphors that are commonly used to describe museums. One of the most interesting metaphors for me is the “museum as shrine.” Museums have a quasi-religious environment, and I like how Janet Marstine explains this idea:

“The museum as shrine is a ritual site influenced by church, palace, and ancient temple architecture. Processional pathways, which may include monumental staircases, dramatic lighting, picturesque views, and ornamental niches, create a performative experience. Art historian Carol Duncan explains, ‘I see the totality of the museum as a stage setting that prompts visitors to enact a performance of some kind, whether or not actual visitors would describe it as such.’ Preziosi adds, ‘all museums stage their collected and preserved relics . . . Museums . . . use theatrical effects to enhance belief in the historicity of the objects they collect.”1

This description immediately made me think of the architecture in several museums which encourage performative, theatrical, and even ritualistic actions from the visitor. The first space that came to mind was the Grand Staircase at the Louvre, above which the “Nike of Samothrace” presides (see photo above). Here are some other spaces which I considered:

Seattle Art Museum stairs

The Seattle Art Museum has a “processional way” staircase in the older part of their museum. Although these stairs are no longer used on a regular basis, there are escalators in the main museum area which carry the visitor to higher physical (and suggestively “spiritual”) levels. Even with an escalator (which doesn’t require much physical movement on part of the viewer), I think that this motion still contains an element of performance on the part of the viewer. Also, shrine-like picturesque views are found at the Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Garden; the structure of this building is created largely out of glass walls.

Centre Pompidou exterior with escalator "tubes"

The Centre Pompidou probably has the most famous set of museum escalators. The way that the “tubes” slowly climb with alternating sections of flat and angled lines remind me of the terraces of ziggurats from the ancient Near East.

Interior of the Guggenheim Museum, New York

The ramp in the interior of the Guggenheim is probably one of the best examples of ritualistic art, I think because the viewer is continually aware of his or her ascent in relation to the rest of the museum space. The winding ramp reminds me of spires for religious buildings, even contemporary structures like the Independence Temple for the Community of Christ in Missouri.

Schinkel, View of the staircase (and view overlooking the Pleasure Garden) in the Altes Museum, Berlin (19th century). Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Rotunda of the Altes Museum, Berlin

I think that the Rotunda of the Altes Museum evokes this shrine-like setting (and performative nature) not only by evoking classical imagery (this is a small version of the Pantheon), but also creating a stage-like setting for the sculptures, separating them either with niches or columns. The sculptures on the bottom level are also elevated onto stage-like plinths.

Last week, my students and I discussed whether today’s museums should try to bring more self-awareness to their designs and displays, in order to perhaps expose or at least recognize the “shrine-ness” of the institution. We wondered what visitors might think if a museum was blatantly decorated like a shrine (with candles around works of art, offerings scattered in front of displays, etc.). Would viewers feel uncomfortable if they knew they were taking part in a ritual at a museum? What do you think?

What are some of the other shrine-like aspects of museums? Can you think of any museums which encourage some type of “performative” or ritualistic-like activity on part of the viewer? In a general sense, I think that the quiet whispers that are expected in many museums can fit with this idea.

1 Janet Marstine, “Introduction” in New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introdution by Janet Marstine, ed. (Blackwell Publishing, 2006. See also C. Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 1-2. See also D. Preziosi and C. Farago, Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), p. 13-21.

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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.