October 2013

Raphael, Transfiguration, and Hasan from 3PP

Raphael (with Gulio Romano), "Transfiguration of Christ," 1516-1520. Oil on wood, 405 cm × 278 cm (159 in × 109 in). Vatican Collections

This afternoon I have had a line related to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists  go through my head repeatedly. This line comes from part of the biography on the Renaissance artist Raphael, in conjunction with Raphael’s painting The Transfiguration of Christ painting (see above):

“For Giulio Cardinal de’ Medici he painted the Transfiguration of Christ, and brought it to the greatest perfection, working at it continually with his own hand, and it seemed as if he put forth all his strength to show the power of art in the face of Christ; and having finished it, as the last thing he had to do, he laid aside his pencil, death overtaking him.”1

Despite what one may believe in relation to divine callings or destiny, I think we can all agree that Raphael’s early death, at the age of thirty-seven, was premature in relation to his talent and potential. The same should be said of my amazing friend, Hasan Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem, who just passed away unexpectedly. Hasan was passionate about Raphael, and committed himself to creating an open-access database, Open Raphael Online. This project was an enormous undertaking, and Hasan “work[ed] at it continually with his own hand,” much like how Raphael labored with his painting. Raphael did not live to see the completion of The Transfiguration of Christ, similar to how Hasan passed away before his own project was finished. Hasan died when he was barely thirty-eight years old; Raphael died when he was thirty-seven.

I think that theme of this painting is fitting as a tribute for Hasan in many ways, given that “transfigure” means to transform into something that is more beautiful and elevated. In this painting, Christ is transfigured into a beautiful, shining, divine figure, right in front of his apostles. Compositionally, the Transfiguration scene appears above an additional scene in the lower foreground, in which the apostles try to cast devils out of a boy (who medical experts have identified as one coming out of an epileptic seizure).2 In line with the themes of this painting, Hasan strove to elevate his own body and mind into something continually more refined and perfected. He was passionate about learning and had an excellent mind. Hasan was also committed to exercise and running, his work in the health profession, and his stalwart dedication in the art history online community. Although he was not formally trained in art history, Hasan applied his medical and scientific knowledge to learn about and analyze paintings from a technical perspective. He loved beautiful things, and continually sought to fill his mind and eyes with beautiful art, poetry, music, and ideas. He was very intelligent and talented in so many ways.

I am particularly grateful that Hasan sought to connect with art history individuals on a personal level. In many respects, he helped to hold the online art history community together. When I last wrote Hasan an email, I was sitting in an airport, waiting to board an international flight. I had just finished reading a passage on Raphael in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, and I wanted to share it with Hasan right away. I quickly typed it into my phone before boarding my plane:

“[Raphael’s] great superiority is due to the instinctive sense which, in him, seems to desire to shatter form. Form is, in his figures, what it is in ourselves, an interpreter for the communication of ideas and sensations, an exhaustless source of poetic inspiration. Every figure is a world in itself, a portrait of which the original appeared in a sublime vision, in a flood of light, pointed to by an inward voice, laid bare by a divine finger which showed what the sources of expression had been in the whole past life of the subject.”3

Like Raphael, Hasan was also a source of inspiration and beautiful ideas. In a way, I think his dedication to digital humanities and accessible information across the globe has parallels with Raphael’s “desire to shatter form.” Hasan’s sincerity, kindness and thoughtfulness were quite unmatched. Unsurprisingly, he made friends all over the world. I feel very lucky to have known him. His death is truly a great loss to all of us.

1 Emma Louise Seeley, Stories of the Italian Artists from Vasari (New York: Scribner and Welford, 1885), p. 171. Available online HERE.

2 Gordon Bendersky, “Remarks on Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration,'” in Source: Notes on the History of Art 14 (no. 4), Summer 1995: 23.

3 Honoré Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece, 1831. Available online HERE.


Minoans, the “Poppy Goddess” and Opium

The "Poppy Goddess," ca. 1300-1250 BCE, approx. 31" in height (79.5 cm). Terracotta, Archaeological Museum of Crete at Heraklion. Image courtesy Wikipedia

I have written before about my undergraduate professor who compared the Minoan civilization to the “hippies” of the 1960s. Today in class, I mentioned in passing that the Minoans used opium, and a question from one of my students led me to explore more of the artifacts that give evidence of opium use in Minoan culture. One sculpture that I learned about was the “Poppy Goddess.” If I have ever come across this sculpture before, I don’t remember it. After doing some research, it seems like right now this figurine is more popular in archaeological scholarship than art historical scholarship.1

Aesthetically, the “Poppy Goddess” is similar to two other Minoan female figurine types, the so-called “Bird Goddess” and “Goddess with a Cone and Horn of Consecration.”  The “Poppy Goddess” is one of the artifacts that archaeologists cite to support the practice of opium use in Minoan culture. She was discovered, along with four other female figurines, at Gazi in July 1959. In the same room as these figurines, a heap of coal was found as well as some vertical vessels thought to be used for the inhalation of opium vapors.2 Classical texts reveal that opium was used for a variety of purposes in the Mediterranean, including use as a hypnotic drug to induce sleep.

Detail of "Poppy Goddess," ca. 1300-1250 BCE

On top of the Poppy Goddess’s head rest three moveable capsules of poppies. A 1967 archaeological study by Kritikos and Papdaki confirmed that these heads related to one specific type of poppy used for opium in ancient times.3 This same study also pointed out that the colors of the vertical notches also correspond to the dried juice of the poppy.2 Additionally, these archaeologists suggested in the study that the goddess might have closed eyes, to represent sleep. I think this is an interesting idea, but I would like to see if microscopic traces of paint have been on this statue. It could be that pupils were painted onto the statue that have disappeared over time.

I hope that more discussion about this figurine can take place amongst art historians, since I haven’t found some in-depth artistic analyses of this figurine yet. (If you know of any more scholarly discussion about this figurine, please share in the comments!) Here are some questions that the Poppy Goddess raises for me, from an art historical standpoint:

  • Why are the opium capsules moveable? Was there an additional function or purpose for these capsules, apart from their placement in the head? Are the capsules moveable simply because they were fashioned separately?
  • Does the woven cap have any significance? The artist took great pains to decorate this cap with incisions, whereas much of the body has a smooth texture.
  • What is wrapped around her neck? What does this scarf-like object look like from the back of the figurine? I wonder if it ends in a sacral knot, similar to some other depictions of priestesses (I’m thinking of the “La Parisienne” fresco at Knossos.)
  • Is this sculpture hollow, if it is made of terracotta? Is there an open bottom? Could it be that the holes in her head (when the opium capsules are removed) could waft vapors of opium, similar to the vessels which were found in the room with this figurine? (This is just a wild idea, but I’m going to throw it out there.)

I think it is also important to note that the poppy, because of its multiplicity of seeds, could also serve as a symbol of fertility in ancient times. Given the associations with other Minoan female figurines and fertility (most notably the famous Minoan “Snake Goddesses,” one of which also appears with upraised arms as a symbol of power), it is important to acknowledge that this statuette might serve a similar function.

Do you know anything else about this figurine or the other terracotta figurines found on Crete?

1One relatively recent discussion on the Minoans and opium is by Helen Askitopoulou, Ioanna A Romoutski, and Elini Konsolaki, “Archaeological Evidence of the Use of Opium in the Minoan World” in International Congress Series 1242, (December 2002): 23-29. Article can be found HERE.

2 We also know that ancient cultures would ingest the “juice” of opium, and some think that smoking opium was another method of intake. See P.G. Kritikos and S.P. Papdaki, “The History of the Poppy and of Opium and Their Expansion in Antiquity in the Eastern Mediterranean Area,” in Journal of the Archaeological Society of Athens: 1967. Available online HERE.

3 Ibid.

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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.