Category

Northern Renaissance

Pregnancy in Western Art

Earlier this week, I was researching something on Barbara Kruger when I happened upon some posters that she made in 1991 for bus shelters, as part of a project created through the Public Arts Fund. These posters, which had the word “HELP!” superimposed over the picture of a man, used smaller blurbs of text to draw attention to issues that people might face when they become pregnant. To me, Kruger is pointing out that any difficulties surrounding pregnancy should not be merely perceived as a “woman’s problem,” but a situation which affects both genders. These posters are discussed elsewhere in relation to social responsibility and abortion, which I think also is appropriate.

Barbara Kruger, poster from "HELP!" series, 1991

 

In this instance, I think Kruger’s depiction of a male, while addressing the topic of pregnancy, is entirely appropriate. However, these posters also made me pause and think about how there are comparatively few representations of pregnant women in the Western canon as a whole, especially, say, in contrast with the popularity of the idealized female nude. The topics of pregnancy and childbirth are found in the narratives and historical circumstances surrounding works of art (I’m particularly thinking of Christian scenes of the Visitation and Nativity), but many of those works of art do not highlight the pregnant or postpartum female body. I suppose on one hand, this makes sense, because the pregnant form was not part of the idealized form found in classical art (which is a primary foundation for the Western canon). I thought I would compile a few images of pregnant women in this post — either well-known objects or obscure ones made by a well-known Western artist — as a starting point to think about this topic:

The so-called "Venus of Willendorf" (also 'Woman of Willendorf), ca. 28,000-25,000 BCE. Oolitic limestone, 4.25" inches (10.8 cm)

I thought the Venus of Willendorf would be a good place to start this compilation, particularly due to relatively recent findings by McCoid and McDermott that this statuette and other Paleolithic “Venus” figurines are representations of pregnant women. It is thought that these statues may have been made by prehistoric women who were looking down at their own bodies, which could explain for some of the extreme exaggerations of the body and the lack of feet.1

Rogier van der Weyden, Visitation, c. 1445. Oil on oak panel, 57 x 36 cm.

I like this Northern Renaissance example of the Visitation (see above), because Elizabeth and Mary are not only decidedly pregnant, but they are laying their hands on each other’s bellies (which visually draws attention to their pregnant forms).

Rubens, detail of Visitation from Descent of the Cross, 1612-1614

Perhaps the Northern tradition of painting (with its keen interest in Aristotelian, empirical observation) caused artists like van der Weyden and Rubens to depict the pregnant form more clearly. In Rubens’s “Visitation” scene, Mary is decidedly pregnant. (It is hard to tell whether Elizabeth is pregnant, due to her placement and dark clothing, however.) I also wonder if Rubens, who had a preference for depicting the curvaceous female form, might have visually been drawn to the curves of the pregnant belly in this instance.

Raphael, "Portrait of a Woman" ("La Donna Gravida"), 1505-06. Oil on panel, 66 x 52 cm

I haven’t come across many images of Southern (especially Italian) artists who painted the pregnant female form, but I do like “La Donna Gravida” by Raphael. I especially like how the sitter also draws attention to her pregnant belly with her hand.

Georges de la Tour, "Woman Catching Fleas," 1630s. Oil on canvas

This painting by Georges de la Tour depicts a woman who is crushing a flea between her fingers. The seemingly everyday subject matter probably has deeper symbolic meaning, however. It has been suggested that this is a depiction of the Virgin (perhaps isolated after Joseph discovers she is pregnant), with the candle representing Christ as the Light of the World.

If we jump to the contemporary art scene, there are some images of pregnant women that exist. It makes sense that more pregnant forms would pop up in the postmodern era, since artists are questioning and drawing awareness to traditional Western standards. I think that Ron Mueck’s hyperrealistic Pregnant Woman is probably the best image that highlights and respects the pregnant form. Mueck studied a pregnant model, starting in the sixth month of her pregnancy until about the time that she gave birth. Mueck also studied anatomical books and drawings diligently while creating this sculpture, in order to achieve accuracy.

Ron Mueck, Pregnant Woman, 2002

I really like art historian Mary Kisler’s discussion of this piece, who mentions how this sculpture, in a public environment, has parallels with how a pregnant woman’s body becomes public in actuality. To prove her point, Kisler discusses how people (even strangers!) will sometimes touch the belly of a pregnant woman, when the non-pregnant female has stricter, more private boundaries.

I have to admit, apart from Mueck’s work, I’m not entirely smitten with several of the other contemporary representations of pregnant women. For example, consider this monumental statue by Marc Quinn:

Marc Quinn, "Alison Lapper Pregnant," 2005, 12 feet (3.6 m) high. Photo courtesy of Garry Knight via Flickr under Creative Commons license.*

This sculpture by Marc Quinn was placed in Trafalgar Square in 2005. It depicts the artist Alison Lapper, who was born without arms, when she was eight months pregnant. On one hand, I like that Quinn is trying to deconstruct Western notions of beauty by depicting a figure who is different from Western ideals. So, in that sense, I think that this sculpture is empowering to women, pregnant women, and any figure type which traditionally has been excluded from canonical standards. On the other hand, though, I feel like Quinn is using the pregnant form to get his point across – almost as if the pregnancy itself is a mere device for “shock value.” In this sense, I have a hard time viewing this sculpture as a pure celebration of the pregnant female form.

I also feel the same way about Damien Hirst’s sculpture, Verity, which is a variant of earlier works of art by Hirst (like The Virgin Mother). One half of the statue shows the exterior of the pregnant woman, while the other half shows the internal organs and matter inside the woman, including the fetus.

Damien Hirst, "Verity," 2003-2012. Approximately 65-feet tall (20 m)

Damien Hirst, "Verity," 2003-2012, detail

Verity is a monumental statue which is placed on the pier of Ilfracombe, Devon. Hirst, who lives in Ilfracombe, has loaned the sculpture to the town for twenty years (beginning in 2012). Hirst views his sculpture as an allegory for truth and justice, and I think that meaning is made clear with the revealed anatomy on one side. However, like with the Quinn sculpture, I feel like this sculpture is using the pregnant form to generate “shock value,” rather than for concrete symbolism or celebration of the pregnant form itself. It seems like the reference to truth and justice are best expressed in the sword and scales; I can’t see Hirst’s immediate connection between pregnancy and truth or justice. (If anyone can make that direct connection, please share!)

Do you have a favorite representation of the pregnant form in art? Any further thoughts as to why the pregnant form is comparatively scarce in Western art as a whole, apart from what I have put forward about idealized figures?

1 McCoid and McDermott, “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female
Vision in the Upper Paleolithic,” in American Anthropologist 98 (no. 2): 319-
326.

*See Creative Commons license for photograph by Garry Knight

— 9 Comments

History of the Halo in Art

Pope John VII, mosaic detail, 705-06 CE, Vatican Museums

Last year, in two different classes, I had students ask me about the history of the halo in art. It is an interesting topic to consider, especially since there isn’t a reference to Jesus having a halo in the Bible. I think that the closest reference to a halo in the Bible is a description of Moses being surrounded with a “crown of light” or “rays of light” (from when he came down off of Mt. Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 34:29). Interestingly, St. Jerome’s Vulgate had a translation of this verse as “horns of light,” and you sometimes see depictions of Moses with horns from the Middle Ages and onward. But that’s another story for another post, perhaps.

Detail of Helios from a red-figure vase, 5th century BC, British Museum

I thought I’d write down a bit about the early sources for the halo, in case I have more students ask the same question in the future. The halo may have come from several different sources, including classical culture. For example, the Greek god Helios is depicted with rays emanating from his head. There also are a few depictions of Apollo with halos. A Roman floor mosaic in Tunisia which has one such depiction. I’ve also heard discussions about how laurel wreaths (used to crown victors in classical societies) could be related to the halo.

In addition to classical sources, the sun disk found in Egyptian crowns may have been an early manifestation of a halo-like form.  There also are similar forms related to the halo (like the nimbus or aureola) found in non-Western art, too. Some think that the halo form traveled from West to East, ending up in Ghandara and influencing depictions of the Buddha (see one example from the Tokyo National Museum from the 1st-2nd centuries CE).1

Detail of vault mosaic in the Mausoleum M (Mausoleum of the Julii), from the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica. Mid-3rd century CE. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Christians adopted the round halo from their contemporaries, using the circular shape to connote perfection, divinity, and holiness. I know of one early image, a ceiling mosaic from the necropolis underneath St. Peter’s (see above), which may depict Christ or Sol Invictus (the later sun god of the Roman empire). This image pre-dates the 4th century, and could be a very early example of the halo in a Christian context. After this point, halos were used for Christ and the Lamb of God, angels, the Virgin, and eventually saints.2

Some variants of the halo:

  • The mandorla (an almond-shaped aureole) usually is used for depictions of Christ and the Virgin. However, the earliest representation of a mandorla appears around an Old Testament figure, specifically one of the three angels who visit Abraham (in a 5th century scene at Santa Maria Maggiore).3 The mandorla continues to become more abstract and angularly defined in later art.
  • The cruciform halo is usually used for members the Trinity, especially Christ. This form of halo includes a cross within or extending beyond the circular area of the halo. An early example of the cruciform halo is found in the Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes mosaic of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (c. 504). In Orthodox and Byzantine tradition, the cruciform also include the letters Ο Ν, which translate to mean “The Being” or “I Am,” serving as a testament to Christ’s divinity (see more information HERE).
  • The square halo was sometimes used to indicate that a person is still living when the work of art is created. From what I can tell, the earliest example of a square halo dates from about the early 8th century. The square, as an imperfect shape that represents the Earth, is used to draw a contrast with the perfect circle used for divine figures. (For an example, see mosaic of Pope John VII at the beginning of this post. Other examples of square halos are found at Santa Prassede in Rome, found in a mosaic of Pope Paschal I (c. 820) and a mosaic which includes a woman specified as “Theodora, Bishop”).
  • The trianglular halo is sometimes used to symbolize the Trinity (example: Antoniazzo Romano, detail of God the Father, from the Altarpiece of the Confraternity of the Annunciation, c. 1489-90, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome).
  • The hexagonal halo has been used in conjunction with allegorical figures (example: Alesso di Andrea, Hope, 1347. Pistoia Cathedral, Pistoia).
  • Dotted halos sometimes appear in Crusader art; they are considered one of the stylistic characteristics of this type of art (example: Saint Sergios with Female Donor icon, c. 1250s).4 The dotted halo also appears in other artistic traditions, too, including Ottonian art (example: Christ and the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee from the Hitda Codex, c. 1025-50).
  • The star halo sometimes appears in depictions of the Immaculate Conception. This type of halo refers to the to the description of the Virgin being crowned with twelve stars (Revelation 12:1). Several depictions of the Immaculate Conception appear in Counter-Reformation art, including Velasquez’s The Immaculate Conception c. 1619 and Francesco Pacheco’s Immaculate Conception with Miguel Cid, c. 1621 (Seville Cathedral).

Jan Van Eyck, detail of Virgin from the Ghent altarpiece, 1432

With the rise of realism in Renaissance art, the halo began to decrease (in terms of size and frequency of use). Giotto seems to have struggled with how to depict groups of figures with halos, while still giving a sense of three dimensional space, as seen in his Madonna and Child altarpiece. Masaccio tried to angle his halos to appear a little more realistic in three-dimensional space, as seen in his “Tribute Money” fresco in the Brancacci Chapel. Leonardo da Vinci only subly suggests a thin halo in many of his paintings, like Virgin of the Rocks at the National Gallery in London. In some Renaissance art, sometimes the halo was subtly incorporated into a scene, like the a firescreen (Follower of Robert Campin, Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen) or an architectural device (Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper). I like how Jan Van Eyck created thrones in the Ghent altarpiece with backs that give the suggestion of halos (see above). Beyond the Renaissance, some artists continued to suggest halos without creating a traditional halo, as seen in the drapery behind Christ in Coypel’s The Resurrection of Christ (1700).

What are your favorite depictions of halos? Why?

1 Sally Fisher, The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art: Images and the Stories that Inspired Them (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 92.

2 Ibid.

3 “Mandorla,” Encyclopedia Brittanica. Available online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/361739/mandorla (accessed September 19, 2013).

4 Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “To the Holy Land and Back Again: The Art of the Crusades,” in Art and Visual Culture 1100-1600: Medieval to Renaissance, edited by Kim W. Woods (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), 134.

— 16 Comments

“She’s Got the Look!”: Portraits of Prospective Royal Brides

Hans Holbein, Portrait of Anne of Cleves c. 1539. Parchment mounted on canvas, 65 x 48 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris

I’ve chucked a few times today about the post “Anne of Cleves Gables,” which is especially if amusing if you are familiar with both the Anne of Green Gables series and the story behind the portrait by Holbein (above). I guess if Henry VIII hypothetically could have known the popular song “She’s Got the Look!” by the group Roxette, he might have sung the lyrics when looking at Holbein’s portrait of Anne, but probably would not have thought of that music when he actually met Anne in person.

Holbein was sent to Düren in 1539 to create a portrait of the widow Anne of Cleves for Henry VIII; the king wanted to see whether he would like to take Anne as a bride. There is no doubt that Holbein must have felt a lot of pressure. Henry VIII was in his late forties and already had been married three times before this point. Henry VIII was very displeased upon seeing Anne in person (finding her to be a “fat Flanders mare”), which seems to suggest to me that Holbein created Anne to be more flattering than her actual appearance. There are no records of Henry VIII’s actual reaction to Holbein’s portrait, however. Interestingly, we know that Henry VIII was quite smitten with a portrait that Holbein previously created of Christina of Denmark, who also was considered by Henry VIII as a prospective bride (see below).

Hans Holbein the Younger, "Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan," 1538, oil on oak, 179.1 x 82.6 cm. National Gallery of Art, London

It is recorded that Henry VIII had musicians play all day long when he saw this portrait of Christina, so he could feast all day on music (the food of love). However, Christina wasn’t selected as a bride. All in all, these portraits may have been helpful for Henry, but not the ultimate decision-making tool for marriage. Historian David Starkey claims that influential courtiers convinced Henry VIII to marry Anne instead of Christina.

Several other Renaissance and Baroque artists were commissioned to paint portraits of prospective brides or husbands for rulers. This idea of painting the likeness of a prospective spouse really seems to be a new phenomenon for the Renaissance, which makes sense due to the rise of both portraiture and naturalism in Renaissance art. I thought it would be fun to create a list with information about prospective bride and/or betrothal portraits, so I started a list here:

  • Charles VI of France (c. 1380-1422) is recorded to have sent his painter to three different royal courts to create portraits of prospective brides.
  • Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of Isabella of Portugal, 1428 (now lost, although a copy is thought to exist). This was painted as a betrothal portrait after the marriage agreement had already taken place (to function as a visual assertion of Isabella’s identity for when she arrived in Burgandy).
  • Catherine de’Medici expressed disapproval in the portrait of Elizabeth I that was created for her son Charles IX. Luckily, Catherine blamed the portrait on the portraitist, not on Elizabeth herself. Consequently, on 3 July 1571, Catherine wrote to Monsieur de la Mothe-Fénelon, ambassador in London, requested a new portrait be created: “I pray you do me the pleasure that I may soon have a painting of the queen of England of small volume, in great [de la grandeur], and that it be well portrayed and done in the same fashion as the one sent be by the earl of Leicester, and ask, as I already have one in full face, it would be better to have her turning to the right.”
  • Nicholas Hilliard (also spelled “Nicholas Belliart”) was sent by Catherine de’Medici to Sweden and Denmark in 1574 to paint portraits of prospective wives for Catherine’s son, Henry III.

Rubens, Henry IV Receiving the Portrait of Marie de'Medici, 1621-1625. Oil on canvas, approx. 13' x 9'8" (3.94 x 2.95m), Louvre

  • Marie de’Medici was so proud of her “prospective bride portrait” that was sent to Henry IV that later, after she and Henry were married, she commissioned Rubens to depict Henry falling in love upon seeing her portrait for the first time!

Anything else we could add to this list? I couldn’t pinpoint images for several of the portraits mentioned above, so please comment and leave a link if you know of their existence online. Also, please feel free to share further examples and thoughts on this topic in the comments below.

And I go: la la la la la / She’s got the look!

— 2 Comments

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.

— 3 Comments

CAA Recap: Mary Magdalene and Cotán

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed my burst of activity when I began to live-tweet while attending sessions at CAA (and that THATCamp session which preceded the conference). There are a lot of things that I learned and explored during the conference, and I particularly liked contributing to the Art History Flashbook that was created during one THATCamp session. Another highlight of the conference was getting to meet several art history bloggers for lunch. It was fun to meet Ben, Frank, and Sedef in person.

My notes from each conference session are very extensive, and I don’t think I want to hash them out in this forum right now. But I do want to highlight a few of the talks which really stood out to me. These talks were particularly interesting, especially because of the course which I am teaching on Counter-Reformation art. In fact, I discussed several ideas from the conference with my students this afternoon.

Titian, "Penitent Magdalene" (c. 1533, left) and "Penitent Magdalene" (c. 1565, right)

I really enjoyed Charlene Villaseñor Black’s talk, “Sacred Tranformations, Indigenous Influences: Mary Magdalene and Other Case Studies in Colonial Art.” Black discussed the treatment of Mary Magdalene in relation to the Counter-Reformation, and brought in some European examples (such as the two depictions of the Penitent Magdalene by Titian shown above, which evidence how Titian moved away from the problematic exposed-breast iconography after the Council of Trent stipulated conditions for religious art in 1563).

Black discussed how colonial artists did not quickly respond to the censorship of the Council of Trent and argued that Juan Correa’s Mary Magdalene (c. 1680) is similarly erotic, even though the figure is clothed. She mentions how the reclining posture of the Magdalene can reference the her previous life as a prostitute. Additionally, images of the Magdalene outdoors (in the wilderness) can even recall her past as a prostitute, since outdoor scenes have associations with Venus and love-making. Overall, Black wonders if indigenous attitudes toward sexuality and prostitution may have affected the way that the Magdalene was represented in Spanish America.

My view of Penny Howell Jolly's talk from the hall. I took this picture so that I could remember paintings by Master of the Female Half-Lengths, Quentin Massys, and Jan Gossaert.

Speaking of the Magdalene, I also really enjoyed a talk by Penny Howell Jolly, “Experiencing the Magdalene: Seeing, Smelling, and Hearing Salvation in Northern Devotional Art.” This session was extremely full, and I only got to hear this presentation from the hallway. I remember that she spoke about sexual associations with the lute in Northern art. She discussed that when the Magdalene is depicted with a lute, this could suggest that she is love-sick for her symbolic lover, Christ himself. She also discussed how the jar (part of the Magdalene’s iconography) can have associations with perfume and the perfumed luxury offered by the Magdalene as a prostitute.

Cotán, "Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," 1602

I also enjoyed Martina Phleger Hesser’s talk, “Juan Sánchez Cotán’s San Diego Still Life Painting as Vehicle for Gender Transformation.” Hesser discussed how Cotán painted this still life perhaps right before he entered a Carthusian monastery. She discussed the many sexual associations with the fruits and vegetables in this painting, including how the cabbage plays a role in sexual gratification since layers are peeled away and removed (just like clothing). As a result, the upward, parabolic composition could indicate the sexual struggles that a monk must overcome in order to elevate to a higher, more divine realm.

Hesser also discusses how monks have to create a new gender for themselves that is neither male nor female, since they enter a monastic community and leave sexual desires behind. Additionally, members of a monastic community enter a mystical marriage with God, which therefore sets them apart from both men and women in the outside world. I thought that this idea of gender was particularly interesting, especially since the Carthusian monastery to which Cotán belonged practiced vegetarianism. Since these monks have given up the arguably “masculine” practice of meat consumption, I think the vegetarianism could be another manifestation of how these men have created a new gender identity for themselves. Cotán’s still life paintings are evidence of this vegetarian practice (and gender identity) in many respects, although I have noticed that game fowl is depicted in some of his still lifes (see Still Life with Game Fowl, Vegetables and Fruits (c. 1602)). It is an interesting angle to consider, though, and I’d like to explore this topic further in the future.

Did you attend CAA? What conference talks stood out to you?

— 4 Comments

Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Name
Email *

Archives

About

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.