a painting in the louvre

Selected works from The Louvre: All the Paintings

Month: June, 2013

How to Recognize a Saint

x200_30982_p0007289_001x200_64474_10-517323Entry 17 June 15, 2013

I returned this week to Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art, the exhibit at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario that I wrote about in blog post 14. I sat for a long time with my husband in front of Giotto’s Christ Blessing with Saint John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Francis (Peruzzi Altarpiece), ca. 1309-1315. (I am including the URL for a website where the altarpiece is reproduced: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/florence/introduction.html.)We started talking about whether or not Giotto had given enough information in the portraits to enable a viewer to identify who was being depicted.

It was easy enough to say that the central figure was Christ: the arms of a golden cross framed his face; his right hand, marked with the stigmata, was raised in blessing, and tucked in his left arm was a book, as often appears in images of Christ enthroned in heaven. The figures on Christ’s immediate left, we thought, were John the Baptist and Francis of Assisi. My companion identified John the Baptist on the basis of his unkempt hair and beard, notably longer, thicker and darker than Christ’s; the scroll he held, which contained, “Ecce agnus Dei…”, that is, “Behold the lamb of God”; and by his clothes, “a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt around his waist” (Matthew 3:4). We both spotted traditional signs of Francis: his robes and also the marks of the stigmata, clearly displayed on his crossed hands. The woman on Christ’s right was, we agreed, almost certainly the Virgin Mary, although the portrait differed from the many I’ve looked at in the Louvre book. She was standing alone, whereas in every Louvre painting I have looked at so far she is presented in some type of interaction with Christ; moreover, her head was not surrounded by a halo. I learned later in the exhibit catalogue that at one point the woman was identified as Mary Magdalene, rather than the Virgin Mary.

But the man next to her, I said, was difficult to identify. He held a book, which marked him as either an author or a scholar, but there were no other special objects in the image, none of the four symbols that are traditional marks of the four Evangelists, for example, and no weapons of torture that would identify him by the manner of his death. My husband thought it was likely John the Beloved Disciple, Mary’s companion at the foot of the cross and, therefore, John the Evangelist as well. His evidence: the man was very young and without a beard; his coloring was reminiscent of Christ’s and Mary’s, and he and Mary both wore clothing of rose and blue.

The information provided in the gallery confirmed the identification; the catalogue added that scholars identify the church for which the altarpiece was created as dedicated to the two St. Johns, Evangelist and Baptist. I suppose we might have spared ourselves the exercise of attempting to interpret the symbolism of the portraits; after all, the original churchgoers would have had the church’s name to guide them in identifying the saints. Still, I was happy to have had the experience, to test my powers of observation and my ability to call up information from memory.

Not unlike that original churchgoer, I this week approached another saint’s likeness with the saint’s name already in hand. It was a painting of St. Cecilia as depicted ca. 1640 by Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610-1670). I had heard of St. Cecilia before; in fact, about two months ago I was looking at St. Cecilia with an Angel Holding a Musical Score (ca. 1617) by Domenichino (1581-1641). The two paintings are very different; I could see no object or symbol in Sirani’s portrait that distinguished his Cecilia from any other lovely, well-dressed young woman, whereas Domenichino showed Cecilia singing and playing a bass viol. Her companion is an angel, who is holding music open before her, music that she is not consulting as she plays. The Louvre book also contains a painting of Cecilia, contemporaneous with Sirani’s, St. Cecilia Playing the Organ (ca. 1640), by Jacques Stella (1596-1657), and a 1655 painting entitled Allegorical Portrait of a Couple with an Organ Player by Nicholas Knupfer (1603-1655) that the French language version of the Louvre website says may include, in the “Organ Player”, a portrait of St. Cecilia.

It is notable, I think, that it wasn’t the painting of St. Cecilia as heavenly musician that prompted me to write about her but rather the painting of her that puzzled me because of its lack of distinguishing marks. I had become accustomed to expect a saint’s portrait would contain such marks. Are the instances of John the Evangelist in the Peruzzi Altarpiece and Cecilia in Sirani’s St. Cecilia similar in that they indicate a shift away from the longstanding medieval and early Renaissance practice of providing a visual sign of a saint’s identity, or did Giotto regard John’s clothing, youth and close proximity to the Virgin Mary as such a sign? Is there, perhaps, a sign that I’ve missed in Sirani’s portrait?

For more on St. Cecilia, the early Christian martyr and patroness of music, visit the Louvre’s commentary on Domenichino’s painting at http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/saint-cecilia-angel-holding-musical-score. The commentary states, “The body of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was discovered in a miraculous state of conservation in Rome in 1599.” Might this event explain the early 17th-century vogue for portraits of Cecilia?


Sometimes One Painting Leads to Another and Another and …

61062_15861_003parislondon201208 152Entry 16 June 8, 2013

Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610-1662) is represented in the Louvre book by just one painting, The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert, from 1657. The reproduction is one of nine on a page; its 5 cm. x 5.5 cm. format made me wish for a larger reproduction to examine, particularly because the original’s dimensions are 199 cm. by 213 cm., and the composition contains many figures arranged in a landscape. A search of the English-language version of the Louvre website produced two surprises: first, the Atlas Database contained ten items for Romanelli, not one, and, second, none of them was The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert, although the list did include a work tantalizingly entitled The Israelites Feeding on the Quail. I was headed down the Louvre rabbit hole again (see blog post 7). Still, as with many other passages I have made through the Louvre’s online resources, it was a rewarding journey, in part because it led me back to a Louvre gallery I had visited myself last summer.

Romanelli’s Atlas Database entry on the French-language version of the Louvre website contains 12, not ten items, and one of them was The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert; this meant that I was able to look at the larger reproduction I was hoping for, in which eight foregrounded figures, including Moses gesturing skyward, are shown responding to the miraculous bread that the book of Exodus says was provided to the Israelites every morning. The figures form a second frame, through which other gatherers are depicted and a distant mountainous landscape can be seen. According to the website, the painting comes from a group of seven scenes from the life of Moses that Romanelli painted in 1657 for the Louvre’s summer apartment of Anne of Austria (1601-1666), wife of Louis XIII (1601-1643) and mother of Louis XIV (1638-1715). These names from French history are known to me primarily from reading Alexander Dumas and seeing films based on his novels. In The Three Musketeers Dumas has Anne give to the Duke of Buckingham two diamond studs, a present from her husband, that the musketeers must somehow retrieve to thwart a plot by the chief minister of France, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642). Twenty Years After, the sequel to The Three Musketeers, is set in the adolescence of Louis XIV, with France under the control of Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661); The Vicomte of Bragelonne, the third book in the series, takes place in the 1660s, when Louis XIV rules independently after the death of Mazarin. The Moses series is dated 1657, that is, while Anne was queen mother and Mazarin still the master of France and Louis XIV, who was in his twentieth year. One further connection worth mentioning between this cast of characters and Romanelli: according to Grove Art Online, Romanelli was in Paris at the invitation of Mazarin.

I don’t know why the Louvre book only included one of the 12 paintings by Romanelli; it may have to do with the book’s rubric that specified only paintings on display would be included. This rule is particularly hard on Romanelli, most of whose paintings in the Louvre are on display but as part of the building itself. Although The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert is oil on canvas, other Romanelli works are frescoes, including Allegory of the Treaty of the Pyrenees (Peace, Fruit of War), Religion and the Theological Virtues, and Apollo and Diana, The Seasons, all from the period 1655–58. The Atlas Database provides images of the panels of these wall and ceiling frescoes; I’ve included Diana and Acteon as an example.

I decided to include this work, rather than the painting I started with, because I realized when viewing the Atlas Database photograph of the room containing the Apollo and Diana frescoes that I had been in the room (Denon ground floor room 23) during my visit to the Louvre and taken photographs myself there. I must admit that I paid no attention to the frescoes at the time, but a review of my photos revealed that the Diana and Acteon fresco had come home with me, over the shoulder of the statue of the Roman athlete I had been focused on. I also include that photo here.

Another Sort of Shock of Recognition

1384_p0007270_001Entry 15 June 2, 2013

In my last entry, I used the phrase “the shock of recognition” to name the feeling I had when I thought (incorrectly) that, courtesy of a Renaissance art exhibit at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), I was in the presence of a painting from the Louvre, Giotto’s St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. I have thought since that I would like to mention another sort of recognition that I have experienced with visual art, one that doesn’t rely on recalling a specific memory, as my encounter with Taddeo Gaddi’s St. Francis did, but rather reflects an instantaneous bond with an unfamiliar work of art encountered unexpectedly.

Although my AGO moment with Taddeo Gaddi was unexpected in some ways—for example, I did not know which Renaissance works were in the exhibit—I nevertheless went hoping to find something from the Louvre there and also hoping I might be able to recognize it on sight. The shock I experienced in seeing Gaddi’s St. Francis depended on my familiarity with what I was looking at, rather like noticing a face in a crowd and feeling sure I had seen it before, even if I couldn’t instantly put a name to it.

But another sort of recognition of a work of art also occurs, I think, and is in some ways even more profound. It is free of all mediating influences, including my own memory. There is only a sense that a thing I have never seen before has impressed me greatly, that I have seen a great work and had the good sense to be moved in its presence. This type of recognition is rare for me. My meetings with art are almost always mediated; they occur in buildings devoted to preserving art and to supporting art’s importance by introducing me to crucial details of the work’s origin, production and history in the world.

I especially associate this shock of recognition with an experience forty years ago when my husband and I were visiting Guadalajara, Mexico. We were walking downtown, near the public square in front of the cathedral; it was a regular business day, and the street entrances to the government buildings were open, allowing us to glimpse lovely interior courtyards. We went in. There was a flight of stairs, and we started up it to reach a second-floor walkway that looked out on the courtyard from above, but were stopped almost at once when we saw a mural that filled the domed roof over the landing. It was an enormous image of the face and upper body of a white-haired man. He was wearing priest’s vestments. His right arm was extended in front of him and supported a flaming torch that, like a sword or club, extended lengthwise across his body; his left arm was raised over his head. Enormous eyes looked upward.

I had not expected to find a work of art in the stairwell, I didn’t know the name of the artist, I didn’t know when the mural was done, I didn’t know who the revolutionary priest was. It was simple enough, of course, to gather all this information. Based on what we learned, we viewed several other murals created in Guadalajara in the 1930s by José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), who was born near the city (For more, go to http://hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu/docs/orozcobrochure.pdf.). We also discovered other signs of the city’s role in the 1810-1 battle for Mexican independence, including other monuments to revolutionary leader, Miguel Hidalgo, the man pictured in the mural. But I have always prized that first encounter, even though I can’t claim that I can recapture in memory exactly what I saw that day. In fact, my first attempt to describe from memory what the mural looked like had the torch up over Hidalgo’s head and his eyes staring down at us. I corrected the description after checking my photograph and online sources.

As much as I love my Louvre book and the hope it gives me of being able to return someday to the Louvre a better informed and self-confident visitor, I wonder whether I’m working too much on one sort of recognition—being able to put a name to each new image I see and then on each return visit to hail it as an old friend—and not enough on the other sort. There’s some comfort, I suppose, in noticing how quickly I forget: sometimes after only a few days of looking at new paintings, I can’t remember the names of the artists I’ve made notes on or recall the images I’ve seen. Won’t there be a lot of “first encounter” moments with paintings I have already met?

Besides, even if I can’t identify them by name or describe them fully or even label them great, some of the paintings I have seen for the first time during the Louvre project are still with me because of the shock of that first sighting. I have included here, as an example, by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) active 1423-1450, Blessed Ranieri Delivering the Poor from a Prison in Florence ca. 1440.