Monthly Archives: December 2013

Nativity in the Italian Renaissance

On this Christmas night, I wanted to show some colorful and detailed classic artwork from Italy’s renowned Renaissance period where advances in art, architecture, math and science helped Europe climb out of the muck of the Dark Ages.  Since the Roman Catholic Church was an integral part of the region’s daily life, it’s no surprise much of the art bore religious themes.  Here are 10 pieces of the Nativity, one of the most prominent subjects among Italian Renaissance artisans.

Fresco in San Marco, cell no. 5

Fresco in San Marco, cell no. 5

This is one of many frescoes in the friars’ cells in the convent of San Marco, dating to the early 1440s.  Historians disagree on the artist: Fra Angelico or Benozzo Gozzoli, with most believing the latter is responsible, based on the frescoes’ more decorative aspects and thicker applications of paint characteristic of Gozzoli.

Bartolo di Fredi, “Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds,” Vatican Museums, 1383.

Bartolo di Fredi, “Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds,” Vatican Museums, 1383.

Bartolo di Fredi was commissioned to paint this panel by the Company of Saint Peter in 1383, for the Chapel of the Annunciation in the Church of S. Francesco in Montalcino.  The polyptych has since been broken up, and parts of it can be seen in various museums.  This piece is in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.

Sandro Botticelli, “The Mystical Nativity,” National Gallery of London.

Sandro Botticelli, “The Mystical Nativity,” National Gallery of London.

Sandro Botticelli

Duccio, Nativity panel, ca. 1308, National Gallery of Art – Washington, D.C.

Duccio, Nativity panel, ca. 1308, National Gallery of Art – Washington, D.C.

Duccio

Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1475, Pinacoteca Nazionale – Siena.

Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1475, Pinacoteca Nazionale – Siena.

The Nativity with two angels, St. Bernard and St. Thomas of Aquino, is the only signed work of the Francesco di Giorgio Martini.

Gentile da Fabriano, “Adoration of the Magi,” 1423, Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence.

Gentile da Fabriano, “Adoration of the Magi,” 1423, Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence.

Gentile da Fabriano

Domenico di Ghirlandaio, “Adoration of the Magi,” Ospedale degli Innocenti, 1488.

Domenico di Ghirlandaio, “Adoration of the Magi,” Ospedale degli Innocenti, 1488.

Domenico di Ghirlandaio

Masaccio, Birth salver depicting the nativity, with Florentine horn-blowers, ca. 1427, Staatliche Museen – Berlin.

Masaccio, Birth salver depicting the nativity, with Florentine horn-blowers, ca. 1427, Staatliche Museen – Berlin.

Birth trays like this wooden one from the first quarter of the 15th century were common objects in many medieval European households.  They were given to women often before or during pregnancy; their imagery was believed to encourage the healthy delivery of a baby boy.  Masaccio.

Lorenzo Monaco, “Adoration of the Magi,” 1422, Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence.

Lorenzo Monaco, “Adoration of the Magi,” 1422, Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence.

Lorenzo Monaco

Leonardo da Vinci, (unfinished) “Adoration,” 1481, Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence.

Leonardo da Vinci, (unfinished) “Adoration,” 1481, Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence.

The master of all master artisans, Leonardo da Vinci left some work unfinished, including this panel currently on display in the Uffizi.  Da Vinci developed his own theories about creating dramatic contrasts between various figures (e.g. young and old, female and male), like the strong triangle created by the central figures.  Although uncompleted, this panel also notes Da Vinci’s technique of working on a dark panel and building up first the shadows, then the color.

All images courtesy of Tuscany Arts.

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Repairing Jesus’ Birthplace

Visitors light candles in the Church of the Nativity.

Visitors light candles in the Church of the Nativity.

Christian lore has it that Jesus was born in a manger in the city of Bethlehem and ultimately died to bring peace and joy to the world.  Looking at the centuries-old violence that has plagued the region now called the Middle East, it seems to have been in vain.  But, Palestinian authorities have set aside their animosity for outsiders by allowing a handful of Italian craftsmen to begin much-needed repairs to the roof of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which dates to the 4th century A.D.  Water leaks, seismic activity and general weather conditions have taken a toll on a structure classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The church’s pine and cedar timbers are up to 800 years old and its deteriorating roof was donated by England’s King Edward IV in 1479.

“It’s very emotional to work here,” says Marcello Piacenti, head of a family business that is rejuvenating the structure; something his clan has being doing for six generations.

Workers are applying protective gauze to gold-leaf mosaics, while technicians examine the church’s wooden trusses for hidden damage.

As one might expect, there are internal clashes over the structure’s care.  Monks from Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches have disputed who has authority to clean and repair the church.  The three dominions manage the building under a tense arrangement that seems to mirror the overall Middle East conflict.  You’d think they’d know better.

Finally, in 2009, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, fearing the church might collapse, issued a decree to repair the church.  That brought some agreement among its proprietors, and Piacenti’s company was called in to help.

Whatever religious disputes anyone has, I can only hope they drop all that friction and realize how important the church is.  Christian or not, it is a piece of history and it needs to be preserved.

Lieu de naissance de Jésus : l’église de la Nativité et la route de pèlerinage, Bethléem

Lieu de naissance de Jésus : l’église de la Nativité et la route de pèlerinage, Bethléem

Lieu de naissance de Jésus : l’église de la Nativité et la route de pèlerinage, Bethléem

Le Lieu de naissance de Jésus : l’église de la Nativité et la route de pèlerinage, Bethléem

Lieu de naissance de Jésus : l’église de la Nativité et la route de pèlerinage, Bethléem

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Merry Christmas!

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Whether or not you celebrate this particular holiday, or if you’re more like me and just sort of let it come and go, I still wish everyone a great one today.  Remember, it’s always the thought that counts, so I’m thinking the very best of all of you!

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December 25, 2013 · 12:17 AM

Creepy Christmases

What could possibly spoil the joy of taking a photo with Santa Claus?  Well…maybe if Santa looked like a serial killer or a drunken pedophile.  Gaze at these gems from Christmases past and be thankful you had otherwise normal holidays.  If you recognize yourself in any of them, please seek help immediately.  You deserve it!

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Monsters and Maps

Humanity has always had a love/hate relationship with the world’s oceans.  It is from the seas we were born and, for millennia, trying both to navigate and live off those waters has created dreams and nightmares.  Plowing across the oceans has been crucial to our survival, but people always wonder what lurks beneath.  Even now, with advances in deep sea diving, we know more about the surface of Earth’s moon than its oceans.

Medieval European artists were particularly adept at bringing seafarers’ worst hallucinations to life.  Everything from beautiful sirens luring sailors into a rocky demise to gigantic serpents wrapping themselves around entire ships populated ancient oceanic lore.  Here are just four colorful delights that make you wonder if these folks were genuinely frightened or if they just needed some loving after long days at sea.

In “Theatrum orbis terrarum,” first published in 1570 by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, Jonah is cast overboard to a sea monster.

In “Theatrum orbis terrarum,” first published in 1570 by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, Jonah is cast overboard to a sea monster.

 

Ortelius became even more creative with this chimeric entity: an ichthyocentaur (part human, horse and fish) playing a viol on a map of Scandinavia from the 1573 edition of “Theatrum orbis terrarum.”  The sea surrounding Scandinavia showed sailing ships and the otherwise peaceful ichthyocentaur, perhaps suggesting safe passage.

Ortelius became even more creative with this chimeric entity: an ichthyocentaur (part human, horse and fish) playing a viol on a map of Scandinavia from the 1573 edition of “Theatrum orbis terrarum.” The sea surrounding Scandinavia showed sailing ships and the otherwise peaceful ichthyocentaur, perhaps suggesting safe passage.

 

In Olaus Magnus’s “Carta Marina” from 1539, a sea pig – which was compared to heretics that distorted truth and lived like swine – dwelled in the North Sea.

In Olaus Magnus’s “Carta Marina” from 1539, a sea pig – which was compared to heretics that distorted truth and lived like swine – dwelled in the North Sea.

 

This giant lobster in Magnus’s “Carta Marina,” is described as an octopus in the accompanying text.  Polypus, which means “many-footed,” was often used to describe many different types of multi-limbed creatures, from lobster to octopi.  Such sweeping designations showed confusion about what types of creatures actually lived in the sea.

This giant lobster in Magnus’s “Carta Marina,” is described as an octopus in the accompanying text. Polypus, which means “many-footed,” was often used to describe many different types of multi-limbed creatures, from lobsters to octopi. Such sweeping designations showed confusion about what types of creatures actually lived in the sea.

 

In a classic delineation, a siren admires herself in a mirror while surrounded by ships in the Southern Ocean on Pierre Descelier’s map from 1550.  Other monsters can be seen on the nearby lands.

In a classic delineation, a siren admires herself in a mirror while surrounded by ships in the Southern Ocean on a 1550 map by Pierre Descelier. Other monsters can be seen on the nearby lands.

 

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A Very Krohn Christmas

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Fellow blogger Sherry Lachelle has found her true calling: taking extraordinary photographs of seemingly ordinary people and objects.  In her latest offering, she highlights Cincinnati’s Krohn Conservatory Christmas display, which combines one of my favorite subjects, miniature buildings, with a variety of Christmas plants.  It’s a truly unique combination.

Please check out the rest of the pictures as well as Sherry’s blog, Travel Spirit.  It’s all a feast for hungry eyes!

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Free Speaking

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“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire

On the night before the United States was set to invade Iraq in March of 2003, the Dixie Chicks, a Texas-born country music trio, took to a London stage.  Lead singer Natalie Maines suddenly blurted out, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all.  We do not want this war, this violence.  And, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”

The audience cheered, and Maines laughed loudly, as if she had just been joking.  But, the repercussions here at home were swift and vitriolic.  Country music radio stations quickly pulled the band’s music from their play lists; fans turned on the group and began destroying their records and CD’s; others threatened violence; someone even made a bomb threat to the band’s record company.  The group has recovered in the ensuing decade, but hasn’t really attained the same level of popularity they enjoyed before “The Incident.”  I’m not a country music fan, so I don’t follow the band.  But, I’m certainly not a fan of former President George W. Bush.  Indeed, he is an embarrassment to the state of Texas.

Maines’ 2003 pronouncement came to light again recently with the uproar over comments made by another southerner: Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame.  Robertson’s family created an empire making and selling products for duck hunters from their Duck Commander Company in West Monroe, Louisiana, which has been in operation since 1973.  The show debuted on the A&E Network in March of 2012 and became an instant success.  The family is devoutly Christian and proudly redneck.  They seem to celebrate both, and each episode ends with the family gathered around the dinner table reciting a prayer.

Now, the show’s future is threatened after Robertson granted an interview to GQ Magazine during which he equated homosexuality with bestiality and claimed African-Americans were better off in pre-civil rights America.  It’s the homophobic part of his rant that has garnered the most attention.

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there,” Robertson told GQ.  “Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.  Don’t be deceived.  Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.  Don’t deceive yourself.  It’s not right.”

After I got past the difficult concept of someone like Phil Robertson actually speaking with GQ Magazine, I just sort of yawned.  I’ve heard this crap before.  Evangelical Christians here in the U.S. have long compared homosexuality (especially male homosexuality) to bestiality and always seem to know what’s right for everyone else.  If anyone should dare criticize them, they then claim they’re merely quoting biblical scripture.  I’ve heard that crap before, too.  I’ve known plenty of people who often said, ‘Hey, don’t get mad at me.  I’m just doing what it says in the Bible,’ – not understanding how stupid they sound.  That’s almost like a man claiming he couldn’t help but sexually assault a woman because she was wearing a mini-skirt.

That Robertson assumes Black-Americans would have done well to forgo the efforts of the civil rights struggles of the last two centuries and accept their lowly place in society is equally unsurprising.  Many older White conservatives, particularly in the southeastern U.S., bristle at the thought of non-Whites achieving any kind of equality.  Robertson and his ilk remain indignant about the Civil War and continually reenact key battles in the vain hope they’ll attain victory and the Negroes and Indians will retreat into the fields where they belong.

When A&E announced “Duck Dynasty” would be suspended, many Robertson fans came to his defense.  Among them are the usual right-wing squawkers: Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.  Yet another, Ian Bayne, an Illinois Republican congressional candidate, produced the most laughable response by comparing Robertson to Rosa Parks.  “In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people,” stated Bayne, “and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians. What Parks did was courageous… What Robertson did was courageous too.”

I’d love to see the look on Robertson’s face when he heard that one!  Ironically, Rosa Parks’ actions were an early cannon shot in the brewing civil rights movement.

Several Robertson defenders are denouncing the apparent hypocrisy of his critics.  “Free speech is an endangered species,” said Palin.  Perhaps it is, but then again, you have to consider who’s speaking and what they’re saying.  When Natalie Maines criticized President Bush, her detractors suddenly warned that free speech has its responsibilities, which is a polite way of saying if you don’t agree with them, then you’re dead wrong.

Indeed, free speech has its limits.  You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater (a common comparison); you can’t phone in a bomb threat; and you can’t falsely accuse someone of committing a criminal act, such as…oh, bestiality.  As a writer, I know that free speech is sacrosanct; an undeniable tenet of democracy.  It’s a precious right; one born of blood and more valuable than gold or diamonds.  I’ve known people who grew up in the former Soviet Union or communist East Germany and listening to their tales of living under such oppressive regimes where dissent was regarded as a scourge makes me understand how fortunate I am to have grown up in the U.S.  I’ve seen a few episodes of “Duck Dynasty” and think it’s rather funny.  Only in America can someone make a fortune from building duck calls.  As much as I detest people like Phil Robertson, I can’t let what he says bother me too much.  If he doesn’t like gay people, then that’s his right.  No one should try to force him to march in the next gay pride parade, while holding hands with a drag queen.  If he feels Black folks had it better in America pre-1970, I feel he’s an idiot.  Ask any older Black person, especially those who grew up in the southeastern U.S., what life was like for them under Jim Crow laws, and I’m sure they’ll tell you that – aside from gatherings with family and friends – it was pretty hard and scary.  But, if Phil Robertson believes otherwise, what are you going to do?  Try to drown him in the swamp behind his mansion?

There is one unique irony about Robertson’s pathetic analogy between homosexuality and bestiality.  A hunter’s duck call is actually a ruse; the device mimics the sound of a duck’s mating wail.  In other words, the hunter masquerades as an amorous waterfowl to ensnare an unsuspecting bird into a trap.  Not that Robertson has ever sought to get busy with a duck, of course!  But, just words for thought.

Image: Albany NY a.k.a. Smalbany.

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