Sunday, April 11, 2010

Touched, like a Virgin. (Part I)

The Virgin, Mary, Madonna, Maryam, and at one time Theotokos. These are a few manifestations of probably many more appellations of this figure. Though she is so much more than that : a constant, yet ever-changing, ever evolving idea that has become the quintessential holy mother figure for both followers and non-followers of religions around the world.

Yet she is also a host of contradictions that demonstrate how she herself is not a single person or representative of a set of ideals, but rather a reflection of what is needed by leading individuals—for most of history religious ones—of the time. Most Marian images were created as tools or vehicles for Christianity. What interests me particularly about her (and because this is my soapbox I will make my own personal fascination rather than the important art historical theme the focus of this entry) is her effect on people. The ability for her image to spiritually seduce people by, like a marionette, no pun intended, chaning form and role to carry out the intentions of others.

My favorite images rendered of her are a collection of several paintings, all entitled Madonna, by the unusual Symbolist painter Edvard Munch. The one to which I am most drawn is shown below, where she appears as an ephemeral being whose presence is alluring and strong yet fleeting. She attracts you, drawing you to her aura, but then you are repelled when you remember that this is an image of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. She is not virginal, nor is she chaste.



Oil on canvas

Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway

Her unruly hair--a motif one never sees on traditional images of this figure--flows over her shoulders. It frames her peaceful yet expressive face and leads the viewer’s eyes to her voluptuous, naked body--another trait that is not featured on traditional images of Madonna--that appears to be rotating right, in the direction of the paintings light source. Her head is crowned by a red crescent shape that, as this is an image of a religious subject, alludes to a halo. But then again, its red color could bring in a host of sexual, sensual connotations.

It also could be regarded as a setting sun which can render the viewer uncomfortable since it creates a dichotomy of a earthly realm and a heavenly (or extraterrestrial or just simply "elsewhere"): we see the setting sun, a body that exists in our world, yet appear to be no where in particular by the appearance of the rest of the painting. This dualism is repeated by the both solid and fleeting nature of her body. Madonna's hair, face and torso appear nearly palpable while her extremities flow off into the abyss of the background and turn into an echo of expanding rings that frame her body.

Perhaps, just for the sake of juxtaposing, it would be interesting to see some of the other images Munch created in his Madonna series.

Madonna(The Brooch/ Eva Mudocci).



Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway

Madonna (Conception)


Colored Lithograph

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Madonna (Loving Woman)



Art Institute of Chicago

The permutations of possible meanings brought out in these paintings' range of title, medium and symbol complicates the already unusual and mysterious appearance of the first example displayed. But this is not what I wish to discuss, not this time at least, and this is just a blog entry and not a dissertation, I will pass on to other favorite Virgins of mine.

Ah, and there goes a perfect subject for transition. As Munch gave his versions the name Madonna, this name was not used popularly until the 14th century. For example, such as this example by Cenni di Pepo a.k.a. Cimabue shown below.

Madonna of the Holy Trinity (Maestà)


Tempera on Panel

Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This is likely much more of the kind of "Madonna" image that comes to mind, as opposed to the rather sexualized Munch version. Here she is shown enthroned (maestà means “majesty” in Italian) presenting the smiling Christ child who makes a benediction sign to the viewer. The two are framed by a parenthetical formation of eight angels, four on each side, and sit above four other religious individuals. Mary is the largest figure in the work, thus designating her as the most important. She is also placed centrally and at the apex of the pyramidical formation, both of which emphasize this hierarchy. She wears her traditional tunic, in blue, as that was color designated for royalty and important. The golden hue of the background as well as the halos demonstrate Cimabue's Byzantine influence as that color often dominated the brilliant mosaics that decorated churches like the Hagia Sofia or those at Ravenna.

Before "Madonna" became who she was, however, she was more simply the Virgin Mary. This nomenclature has a far more Medieval connotation. Another particularly characteristic designation of this time period is the idea of sedes sapientiae or throne of wisdom.

Virgin and Child in Majesty


Walnut with paint, gesso, and linen

From the Auvergne, France

Metropolitan Museum, New York.

This surprisingly well preserved example illustrates this archaic idea. Sedes sapientiae is the idea that Mary was the actual vessel or passage through which God was incarnated as man. This style of sculpture is demonstrative of 12th century central France, though visually related images are known to have been made in other territories. While the work today appears austere by nature—the simple wood materials, the equally sober appearance of the Virgin and her son and their unembellished, humble clothing is an ironic contrast to the name of this genre of sculpture—Throne of Wisdom— evokes for it implies a more royal presence. This style of sculpture was always either painted (notice there are still traces of polychrome that survive)or in some cases in a metal shell or with metal embellishments (i.e. royal regalia or jewels). This one, specifically, has traces of tin, so it may have had such details. The purpose and function of this kind of statuette vary from source to source, though it is generally accepted that they were mean to be portable, which may explain why the vast majority of objects in this style are made from wood, rather than a more sumptuous material (though originally the wood cores were covered in a thin metal sheet – this was only done very rarely), and fairly damaged. Modern scholars believe that these Thrones of Wisdom would be exhibited during processions on special feast days (such as on August 15th for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin) so that pious churchgoers could venerate her.

Slightly more is known about the iconography of this type of statue. Mary is shown here not as a queen, despite her placement on a thone, but as the Mother of God. That is, she is meant to be the throne on which her son, Jesus, sits. During the years in which these sculptures were popular Mary still had somewhat of a minor role in Church practices and in the liturgy; she was important only because she gave birth to the son of God. Though this was not meant to be celebratory either of maternity or of Christ as a child—observe how though he is small he is stern, making a gesture of benediction, while his mother, shown equally as serious, doesn’t cradle him but holds him by his waist on either side, presenting him to the viewer The pair is rendered in this fashion in order to solicit awe and amazement. These types of statues are sometimes seen as representations of the story of the Tree of Jesse, which is a Biblical Passage from the Book of Isaiah that metaphorically describes the arrival of the Messiah as it says that “there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…” (Isaiah 11:1-3). That is, Christ is viewed as the growing branch while Mary is often seen as the stump of the tree. While the Tree of Jesse is really about the genealogy of Christ, associating him with O.T. kings and the Throne of Wisdom iconography is more about Mary as the vessel, the seat of the Incarnation, the correlation between the two concepts is apparent. This relationship has other applications as the Virgin was sometimes referred to as the embodiment of the Church itself or the vessel through which God was incarnated as Christ; though returning to the object at hand, it is clear to see how that story was applied to this type of sculpture as it appears that Christ is an extension of the Virgin herself. In fact, the bodies of these works were often made from one solid piece of wood (with the heads attached later). Finally, it was sometimes, though not always the case, that objects of this nature were used as reliquaries. Conservators have found small chambers in the backs of some of these statuettes though no relics were found to remain. Therefore, this remains an open question. However, if they were used for relics, they may have been Marian relics (those believed to be from the Virgin herself), such as the hair, blood, or milk from her body, or pieces of her vestments. While this type of sculpture is so characteristic of the Romanesque, iconic even, it evolved and lived on into the Gothic style, reflecting ideological and societal changes, upon which I will elaborate in the next entry.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Νίκη della continuità nello spazio: Victory!

I thought this would be an appropriate introduction to this new venture. I study images and their relationship to us. How obtuse. I am fascinated by how what we think of as "art"-whether created to be admired for its aesthetic attributes, to be venerated for its spiritual value, or to be used to serve a specific purpose—plays a role in our society. Art is everywhere. Art surrounds us. Everyday I (well, you too, but I just continue to think about it) am inundated by images that take my mind through a series of questions analyzing their meaning and purpose. Some may say perhaps I am thinking too much? Yes, perhaps. But I believe in the perpetuation of images and art as a manifestation of something. As proof. Of what, you ask? That depends entirely on the example. But I happen to believe that the signs and symbols one might think of as quotidian decorations penetrate our minds and thoughts and do, in fact, carry an influence onto their viewers. Along that same vein, these illustrations also comment on our society, our values and our times.

I am using this blog as a platform on which to share some of my frivolous musings on art and its greater meaning. In this case I will consider art anything that can be photographed. Specific examples may not be what we think of now as beaux arts, but neither were most examples of visual culture created up until the 19th century that are now housed and adored in museums. For each posting, I intend to juxtapose (oh, there goes the title!) contemporary examples with historical counterparts as a means to comment on a works potential meaning. It is important to remember that, when you break it down to a fundamental level, everything that exists now has always existed and will always exist, it is simply the intended purpose and its presentation that changes. This precisely is what shown when one can draw a correlation between a statue dating roughly from 190 BCE to art from the 1900s and later.

Winged Victory-or-Nike of Samothrace

Circa 190 BCE

Parian Marble

Louvre Museum, Paris

Ah, the beloved Nike. This statue reigns above the Daru staircase at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Perhaps the most notable characteristic of this masterpiece is how the sensation of wind and movement is manifested throughout the statue. This work now stands upon a contemporary base that separates it from its original one which is in the form of a boat. This is an appropriate attribute as the sculpture was created to honor both the goddess Nike or Victory, but also to celebrate sea battle. Thus Nike was made to give the impression that she was literally leading a fleet to victory as she stood at the bow of a ship. Her voluptuous body, accentuated by the drapery that at some points appears tightly pressed against her curves while at others is a dance of drapery, is the kind that the ancient Greeks considered ideal. Her wings, now even more emphasized due to the missing head and arms, swell with the gust of air that would be created by the speeding vessel. Some historians suggest that because her shoulders are not symmetrical and because what is left of her neck appears to be cocked to one side she was also blowing a horn of victory.

In my mind, this work connects me to two modern examples. Lets start with the obvious. Think of the original Greek name: Nike. Nike means victory but our corporationally trained minds can’t help but bring us to the sports equipment enterprise with the same name. Apparently that famous swoosh got its form from the curvilinear nature of the goddesses wings. The original symbol circa 1971 looks slightly different that its 2010 reproduction, and a lot more like its original inspiration.



Caroline Davidson

The other direction my mind pulls me in in seeing Winged Victory is one of the most quintessential examples of Futurist Art. You may have already guessed it. For most, it is referred to as the “blurry walking man” though its real title is Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. This work, now one of the most cherished works at the MoMA was created in 1913 by the Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space


Umberto Boccioni


Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

That movement was one that began as a craze over Italy in the early 20th century and spread eventually to other nations like Russia and England. Futurism was both a social and artistic movement founded by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, a charismatic Italian writer who first published his Manifesto in La Gazzetta dell’Emilia on 5 February 1909. It was reprinted two weeks later in the French newspaper Le Figaro. Frustrated with Italy’s contemporary troubles and with the people's die-hard celebration of the past, Marinetti called for the abolishment of all things ancient—especially in the domains of politics and art. Think of Italy…got an image in your head? What is it? The Coliseum? St. Peter’s Basilica? The rolling hills of Tuscany? It is probably something of yesteryear. Something likely created during the wonder years of the Roman Empire or soon after in its aftermath. Well, this was precisely the image of Italy that Marinetti wanted to rid from the world. Instead, he, along with his faithful Futurist followers, cherished technology, speed and youth (think automobiles and trains, yes Futurism was a rather macho movement) and the idea of Italy’s modern advancement.

It is this idea of speed and movement that is captured in Unique forms of Continuity in Space. Like many examples of Futurist art, this work rejects formal beaux arts ideals of sculpture and of beauty. About this work, the artist stated that:

It seems clear to me that this succession is not to be found in repetition of legs, arms and faces, as many people have stupidly believed, but is achieved through the intuitive search for the unique form which gives continuity in space.

The flowing movement of this man-like figure walking recalls the sensation of wind blowing one feels when looking at Nike, which is quite ironic considering that this Greek statue is exactly the kind of classic sculpture from which the Futurists were aiming to distance themselves.

Juxaposition of Nike and Unique Forms.

It is also in bronze, which was a medium often used for sculpture in ancient Greek and Roman art. Despite the two vastly different situations in which these two sculptures were created. Both glorify celerity and movement as well as pay homage to the homeland—recall that the statue of Nike both honors the goddess as well as Greek naval fleets while Unique Forms represents Italy moving swiftly towards modernization.

At once these two works symbolize entirely different ideals yet have several analogous attributes. Despite Boccini’s intention of innovation and originality, he falls upon a classic of art history. Some things, it seems, are timeless and some sensations or feelings are always paired with similar principles, regardless of the overriding ideals and contemporary settings.