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Here is another painting by the underappreciated 15th century master Carlo Crivelli (whose enigmatic biography is sketched in this post concerning a beautiful Madonna and Child which he painted around 1480). Crivelli’s paintings have been called grotesque—and there is no denying that there is something alien, and disturbing—and thrilling–about his works. Maybe that is why he is so often out of favor in the art world compared to his more admired Quattrocento contemporaries (although his paintings have lingered on for more than half a millenium in our greatest museums and collections).
In this extremely vertical composition, a richly attired Mary Magdalene proffers a golden jar of ointment to the viewer with haughty languor. With her right hand she lifts the jeweled vessel of salve while her left hand lifts up the pink folds of her exquisite gown. As always in Crivelli’s work, the rich details and dazzling colors pull our eyes around the composition to the weird details. At the bottom is a garland of dull faced putti with insect wings who rest their heads on elephant-headed vine creatures. Sumptuous flowers with beguiling petals (but grasping roots and piercing thorns) frame Mary’s gilded head. The overly ornate golden filigree of her chemise resembles fungi and lichen. Her jewel crusted hair is so perfectly coiffed, it resembles the work of a Etruscan jeweler rather than actual human hair.
The weird details continuously distract us from the crowning achievement of the painting: Mary’s beautiful Byzantine face with sloe eyes, arch brows, and tiny chiseled mouth. Here at last there is humanity and true beauty, but distorted through the alien mannerism of the painters of Constantinople (which finally fell to the Turks in Crivelli’s lifetime). The whole composition reeks with the perfume of unknown realms. The prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair is entirely subsumed by the riches of a fabled past. Renaissance art turned toward the human, but Crivelli’s heart was always with the Byzantines, looking toward impossible otherworldly splendor.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands has the 16th highest nominal gross domestic product in the world. This becomes more impressive when one realizes the Dutch have the 61st largest population. Holland’s long history of trade and empire has combined with its own native tradition of artistic excellence to leave the country littered with all manner of treasures and masterpieces. The country is a parliamentary democracy ruled by a beloved sovereign, Queen Beatrix. If you say anything censorious about the reigning monarch to a Dutch subject, you are likely to get a scowl and some harsh words (or possibly a fist). At times, the personal net worth of Queen Beatrix has been reckoned to surpass that of the Queen of England (depending on the art and financial markets).
So what is the crown of the Queen of the Netherlands like? Actually the crown, which symbolizes the sovereignty of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (which presently consists of the Netherlands in Western Europe and two overseas territories in the Caribbean: the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba) and represents the dignity of the sovereign as head of state, is of comparatively recent construction. It was made in 1840, upon the abdication of King William I, and it differs substantially from the heraldic crown of the house of Orange (which–being heraldic–exists only in depictions). The actual crown is very small. It appears to be gold but it is actually constructed of silver covered with thin gilding. The crown has no actual jewels but is ornamented with colored glass, foil, and artificial pearls. These “pearls” which are the chief feature of the royal headdress are constructed from paste covered with fish skin.
For some reason the Dutch kings and queens have never chosen to wear the crown during coronations, but the object has always been present on a special table. The crown has only appeared in public during coronations (in 1898, 1948, and 1980), during a royal funeral in 1934, and at an exhibition in 1990. Below is the largest picture I could find.
Many of the greatest medieval artists are anonymous. Their actual names and personalities have been lost in the swirl of time and only their works remain. In such cases the unknown masters come to be named after their region, or a distinctive trademark, or (as in this case) one famous painting. This is how today’s featured gothic artist came to share a title with Lucifer himself. The trecento Siennese master who painted this panel is known by two surviving works (which are both at the Louvre). The more influential and dramatic of the pair is The Fall of the Rebel Angels which was painted between 1340 and 1345 AD. The painter is therefore called the “Master of the Rebel Angels”. Here is the best digital image I could find of the painting—itself a portion of a long lost poyptych (the other surviving portion is a picture of Saint Martin, the patron saint of France—which suggests the work was made for a French buyer). This work had a deep influence on French Art and was often copied or imitated—most notably by the Limbourg brothers for the illuminated manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.
In a world without quicksilver mirrors, abundant cheap plate glass, or artificial lighting there was only one substance that conveyed divine luster in a lasting manner—actual gold. The majority of the The Fall of the Rebel Angels is pure elemental gold flattened out into sheets and affixed directly to the panel. This precious but inhuman metallic background provides a perfect setting for the larger than life metaphysical battle portrayed in the painting. The story behind this artwork is immediately comprehensible to anyone who chafes under rules: the rebel angels come to believe they would be better off running their own affairs instead of submitting to the hegemony of heaven. God and his hosts of loyal angels learn of their disloyalty and cast them down. Without the naturalistic conventions of Renaissance art (which would come later) the war in heaven takes on an otherworldly almost science-fiction aspect. The glowing armored hosts of heaven guard the welkin. Above them are the enthroned ranks of saints. God towers at the pinnacle of the composition, serene on a living throne of flame-like angel wings.
The rebel angels have lost their heavenly beauty and their effulgence. Blackened and monstrous, unable to bear their weight on corrupted wings, they fall from the skies and are swallowed by a mysterious drab gray orb. This dull circle represents life and the affairs of the world. The artist meant us to understand that we too are its inhabitants, fallen like the rebel angels and cut off from what is numinous and ineffable. The painting starkly conveys the hierarchical philosophical outlook of the times, but strangely it also makes the rebel angels sympathetic. They are the subjects of the work: their mutilation and defeat provides the drama. Christian art reversed the conventions of Greco/Roman art: the victim or acted-upon party is the protagonist (rather than the victorious aggressor). I can’t imagine the Master of the Rebel Angels intended such a result, but, somehow he painted a work where the monsters are the protagonists and their transformation is the dominant mystery.