Northern Renaissance

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?


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.

— 1 Comment

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.


Jan Van Eyck’s “Eve” from the Ghent Altarpiece

Jan van Eyck, detail of Eve from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432

How I have missed blogging over the past several weeks! This school quarter is one of the busiest that I have experienced in my career, and I am rarely left with free time to blog or research. I have a lot of ideas for posts swirling in my head, though, so tonight I want to explore at least one topic.

Several weeks ago, near the beginning of the quarter, some of my students of Renaissance art asked some pointed questions about the practice of modeling in Northern Europe. One such question was: “Who posed for the figure of ‘Eve’ when Jan van Eyck painted the Ghent altarpiece?”

I had never considered linking a specific model/individual to that figure, nor had I thought much about the practice of modeling in the Northern Renaissance. I did a little bit of digging and made some inquiries to colleagues, and found some interesting information and theories about this figure.

Jan van Eyck, Eve from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432

As far as I can tell from my research, we have no knowledge of the individual that posed for the figure of Eve. I asked my colleague SW (who specializes in Northern art) for her opinion, and she finds it unlikely that Van Eyck (or any Northern artist before Rembrandt) used a nude female model. In her opinion, it seems more likely that Van Eyck built up this female figure by looking at a nude male model (which, if this is true, makes this realistic image even more astonishing and impressive!).

Thanks to an additional side comment from SW, I also have formulated another theory on this topic, too. I wonder if it would have been possible for Jan Van Eyck to have studied a clothed female model, at least in part (perhaps in addition to studying a nude male figure). In her book, Seeing Through Clothes, scholar Anne Hollander has argued that the exaggerated belly of Eve (and other bellies of women that are represented in Northern paintings) can relate to the clothing fashion of the day. While Hollander sees this exaggerated belly as an sign for beauty and refinement (which does make sense to me), I wonder if the exaggeration of the belly also could have been due to practical considerations (i.e. modeling while clothed). There are some similarities, for example, between Eve’s midsection and Giovanni Arnolfini’s wife, the latter being represented in a portrait by van Eyck while wearing fashionable green dress. Could a similarly-clothed woman have posed for the figure of Eve? It doesn’t seem like an impossible idea to me. I haven’t found much information on this topic (or the practice of modeling in Northern Europe) on my own, though. If anyone has ideas or suggestions for future research, please share!

Victor Lagye, Adam and Eve with Bear Skins (Copies of the Ghent Altarpiece), 1865

While checking up on this topic, I also was reminded that two copies of the Adam and Eve panels were created in the 19th century, although the figures of Adam and Eve were covered with bearskins in both copies. The copies which were intended for display at St. Bavo’s Cathedral (the original and intended location for the Ghent altarpiece) were created by Victor Lagye in 1865.1 If you consider Hollander’s argument regarding clothing and representations of the female body, in addition to my idea that a model might have posed for van Eyck while clothed, it seems almost ironic that bearskins were added to Eve’s body a few centuries later. In this case, Eve seems to be intrinsically linked to clothing, even without the additional skins.

1 Noah Charney, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Altarpiece (New York: Public Affairs, 2010), 115. 


Watercolor as Underdog

Albrecht Dürer, "Young Hare," 1502, watercolor and gouache on paper

One of the classes I’m teaching this quarter includes a lot of avant-garde art from the 19th and 20th centuries. Last week, a student observed that we haven’t been discussing watercolor paintings as a class. I thought this was a good observation, and responded that avant-garde painters often (but definitely not always) stick with oil and canvas as a medium. This reliance or insistence on oil makes sense for a lot of reasons. On one hand, avant-garde artists seemed to want to “reference” the tradition of oil painting while simultaneously establishing their “difference” from that tradition (to borrow two phrases from Griselda Pollock).

This comment about watercolor, though, has got me thinking. On a whole, I would say that watercolors are not highlighted or discussed very much in general art history textbooks (or in the artistic world at large). In some ways, I think this is a little surprising. Water-based paint has existed since prehistoric and ancient times. Several significant European painters also were interested in watercolor, like Albrecht Dürer (see above).

However, it seems to me that watercolor often has played second fiddle to other mediums, including oil paint. (Maybe it’s part of our human psyche to be reliant on all types of oil – hence the contemporary issues with oil drilling today! Ha!) In fact, in 1804 a group of disgruntled watercolorists banded together in Britain. These artists were upset that watercolor did not receive very high status by the Royal Academy (which had created a hierarchy of artistic mediums). One British watercolorist, William Marshall Craig, even felt compelled to debate the superiority of watercolor over oil painting.1

So, is watercolor really less pervasive of a medium than other types of paint (from a historical standpoint), or does our current view of history simply privilege other mediums? Do we not value watercolor as a medium very much? I haven’t come up with all of the answers (feel free to leave your own opinion), but here are some of the things that I’ve thought about:

  • Going back to the Baroque period, watercolor was used by artists for preliminary compositions, cartoons, or copies. (One such example is a kitchen scene by Jacob Jordaens, which happens to fit quite nicely with my recent post on meat and art). Perhaps watercolor has escaped a lot of attention because it is seen in connection with “unfinished” or “lesser” works of art.
  • Today art museums do not highlight watercolor as much, due to the fragile, light-sensitive nature of the medium. I remember a curator once telling me that watercolor paintings can only be displayed for a short period of time (six weeks?) before they needed to be taken down or rotated with another painting. Perhaps if watercolor paintings were inherently a little heartier, then they would receive more exposure (ha ha!) to the public eye?

John James Audubon, "American Stork," 1827-28, watercolor

  • Watercolor is also associated with things that are not strictly labeled as “fine art” (or, along these lines, “art for art’s sake”). For example, watercolor paintings often appear in naturalist field guides. The connection with watercolor and nature has been longstanding, perhaps reaching its zenith in the work of John James Audubon in the 19th century (see above).2
  • Avant-garde artists might have wanted to “reference” the longstanding tradition of oil painting (and perhaps better challenge the Academy by using a medium which was valued at the time?).

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the topic. Do we need to write some revisionist history to include more watercolor painting? What watercolor paintings do you enjoy and/or feel like they deserve more attention? Are there watercolor paintings that you find to be historically significant?

1 William Marshall Craig put forth four arguments in defense of the superiority of watercolor paint. First, he finds that watercolor gets a brighter range of tones than oil paint (partially because the white of the paper produces a brightness that is unattainable in oil). Second, he argues that transparent watercolors allow for clarity and detail that cannot be achieved with oil. (I personally don’t completely agree with that point.) Third, watercolors do not change in appearance when they dry, which is different from oil. Fourth, he finds that watercolor is better for working outdoors, which is necessary with the increasing interest in naturalism. I think this last point is really interesting, especially since he made these arguments several decades before Impressionism. If painters had focused on watercolors a bit more, I wonder if Impressionism (or a similar movement to Impressionism) could have happened several decades earlier. Craig’s arguments are outlined in the book, Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 2. Citation available online HERE.

2 Audubon is best known for his “The Birds of America” publication (1827-1838). The complete watercolor work of Audubon can be seen 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.