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Self-Portrait of Theodor de Bry (1597) engraving

Uh, happy Columbus Day…maybe? Some holidays don’t age well, and the Italian-American festival of the European rediscovery (and colonial conquest) of the New World certainly seems to be under exceedingly stern re-evaluation.  While other people are working on that project, let’s run away and check out some amazing and also quite problematic exploration-era art of the New World.  The Flemish illustrator and engraver Theodor de Bry was born is Spanish controlled Netherlands in 1528.  Both his father and his grandfather were engraver/illustrator/jewelers and they taught him the family trade (which he in turn passed down to his own son).  Although born a Catholic, the religious controversies and reforms of his time moved de Bry to convert to Protestantism, which caused enormous trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (which was all-powerful in the Netherlands, since the low countries were then a part of Spain).  Thus, in 1570, at the tender age of 42, De Bry and his family were permanently exiled from Spanish-controlled Liege, and all of his possessions were confiscated by the state/church.

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A refugee, De Bry moved first to moved to Strasbourg. Then in 1577, he moved to Antwerp (which was then part of the Duchy of Brabant).  Between 1585 and 1588 he lived in London, and then in 1588, De Bry and his family moved permanently to Frankfurt.  To make ends meet, he illustrated books concerning the exploration and geography of the New World.  If you reread the history of De Bry’s desperate scramble around Northern Europe, you may note that American destinations are notably lacking.  His famous engravings of the New World, which influenced a generation of rulers, thinkers, explorers, and artists were made by someone who never set eyes upon the New World.

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The Coast of Virginia (Theodor de Bry, ca. 1585-1586) engraving

All of this sounds pretty unpromising from a photojournalism perspective, and, indeed, De Bry’s works were criticized even in his time for inaccuracies.  The indigenous people all look a bit like naked Walloon peasants (except perhaps for the most exotic tribes–who look perhaps slightly Mediterranean with some Native American bangles and props).  The new world forts and seedling colonies are portrayed as though they were erected in a Baroque nobleman’s parterre garden.  Also there are more frolicksome naiads, random Greek gods, and mysterious mythological beasts like sea serpents, dragons, and capricorns than was perhaps literally accurate.

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Engraving of Columbus, the discoverer of the New World (Theodor de Bry, 1594)

Yet, despite, this (or maybe because of this) De Bry’s illustrations strike me as exquisite works of art.  They pack enormous amounts of complicated yet comprehensible visual information into tiny narrative/didactic frames.  De Bry did carefully read the primary source accounts of adventurers, natural historians, and other New World-involved folk.  He collected artworks and studied curios and ethnological objects. Additionally, if you look closely at De Bry’s personal history, you may find reasons for him to dislike the Spanish masters of the Americas.  I suspect if you look at the seething anti-European anti-Western diatribes of the internet today, you would be hard-pressed to find descriptions more lurid and anti-Spanish then some of De Bry’s works. The Spanish may frequently be the protagonists, but the cruel lords clad in velvet and armor are not exactly heroes, even as they travel through exoticized realms of peculiar cruelty and mayhem designed…to sell books.

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For, as much as he was a pioneer of imagery of the Americas, De Bry was a pioneer of new media.  Just as the internet has unleashed a torrent of exciting new ideas, robust philosophies, incomprehensible imagery, lies, half-truths, and heartfelt personal convictions upon an unexpecting world, the first great blossoming of the printing press in the 16th century saw a similar boom (upon societies even less equipped to handle this information than we are equipped to make sense of the info overload of today).  I can’t tell you what to make of De Bry.  Much of his work is more disturbing and more problematic than what I have included here.  But I feel like it is all visual treasure which you should seek out (if you have a strong stomach).  Of all the artworks about the mad crash of civilizations when America and Europe came together, his work burns brightest in my mind’s eye.

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Their danses vvhich they vse att their hyghe feastes (De Bry, 1590) Engraving

Please accept my apologies for not publishing the promised Good Friday post when I said I would.  I am afraid I had a spring cold, and was just struggling to get through the day.  Now that it is Easter Sunday, we can put any sort of Jesus-themed artwork we want, though and we don’t have to have a ghastly crucifixion scene.  So behold: this is “Triptych with the Miracles of Christ” by the Master of the Legend of St. Catherine and his (?) workshop.

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The piece is a superb vision of the life and miracles of Jesus…and of day-to-day life in late Medieval Flanders.  It was completed sometime between 1491 and 1495 (and it is worth imagining some team of earnest painters toiling over it at the exact time that Columbus and his crew were making their way across the Atlantic.  There are nearly endless things to see in the picture (like all the endearing and strangely modern pet dogs in the foreground) but I am afraid I could not download a high-res image, so you will have to visit this link if you wish to pore over the composition (and you really should wish for that).  The background is as interesting as the foreground!  Look at this exquisite Flemish city (which also looks strangely modern).

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I keep thinking about yesterday’s post and worrying about how I could have expressed my concepts concerning future space settlement better.  I also want to vehemently state that I don’t want for humankind to use up the world and then move on:  whatever happens, there is only one earth. We need to stop abusing it and using it up with our follies and treat it like the sacred blue jewel it is.  We will come back to this with better explanations and more cogent ideas, but right now the haunting thoughts of ecocide and possible roads to salvation won’t leave me alone.  I am going to take refuge from visions of a ruined world with one of my favorite things: Flemish religious art!

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Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 28. f. 66v (Noah’s ark). St Augustine, De civitate dei. Rouen, 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Except, of course, there is no escaping this concept (especially in art of the Low Countries from an era of constant warfare and plague).  The idea of humans ruining the world with wickedness and then escaping from the devastation they caused while carrying the seeds of future life is found in the first known work of literature, “Gilgamesh,” (a story which more nakedly addresses environmental concerns than almost anything from the twentieth century), and, likewise, the story of Noah and the great flood takes a star turn in The Pentateuch/Bible. The above picture is actually an illustration from “The City of God” (a work which we may need to circle back to as we look at cities, morality, and humankind’s relationship with the larger universe), yet it is instantly familiar as chapters 6-9 of the Book of Genesis.   Here is the relevant passage (Genesis 7) with all of the rolling thunder & sublime beauty of the King James Bible:

15 And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.

16 And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.

17 And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.

18 And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.

19 And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.

20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.

23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.

Even in this brief passage, the Bible contradicts itself!  But, even if you do not think The Good Book is the only source of worthwhile knowledge, it is certainly a peerless work of literature.  The illuminated picture perfectly captures the spirit of the poetry.  All of the remaining humans and the last animals are packed together in the ark, silent and solemn staring out at the dying world.  All animosity between predator and prey is forgotten as their frightened eyes take in the divine flood, which is captured with all of the ghastly verisimilitude that the artists could muster.  Forests and drowning creatures drift by the tallest church steeples of a city as rich and poor alike perish in the inundation.

For at least as long as we have been able to set down our ideas in words and images, we have looked upon the changes we are making to the world with troubled eyes and we have wondered what it means.  I am not sure that our anxiety or our heavy hearts will alter the ultimate destiny of humanity, but I think the fact that we are always worrying about whether we have corrupted the way of righteousness might be a point in our favor.

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Since this has been a busy week, we will keep today’s post short and sweet (hopefully this will also discourage any disastrous copy writing errors: I fully apologize if any have occurred in the recent past).  This astonishingly beautiful building is the City Hall of Leuven, the capital of the Flemish province of Brabant in central Belgium.  The building is a prime example of Brabantine Gothic, a highly ornate late Gothic style of architecture, which originated in Flanders in the mid fifteenth century.  Work began on the Leuven Town Hall in 1439 and proceeded in fits and starts (as various chief architects died) until the building was finished in 1469). The building has survived mostly intact throughout the great wars which devastated Leuven (although a World War II bomb strike on the front facade was not fully repaired until the 1980s).

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Although the building is not especially noteworthy in terms of its history, it is is exceedingly pretty. It’s long angular shape and numerous ogee arches are much to my taste and make me want to research further examples of the Brabantine Gothic.  In fact I am going to go do that right now!

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Joos Van Cleve was active in Antwerp from 1511 to 1540.  His winsome figures have a delicacy and elegance which is somewhat in contrast to the earthier figures of Flemish painting.  He was also a pioneer in putting large decorative landscapes behind his figures (although, to my eyes his landscapes are much inferior to landscapes by the greatest artists of the previous generation—like Bosch and Patinir).  In a way Van Cleve’s great innovation was combining the elegance and color of French art, the ecumenical breadth of Flemish painting, and the verisimilitude of Italian painting.  This magnificent picture of the Virgin and Child with Angels rewards close scrutiny.  You should blow up the image (for this is a huge file) and enjoy the appealing little details such as the deer woven into the rug, the tart summer cherries which a footman is offering to Mary, and the same footman’s studded jerkin!

Of course Van Cleve was not the peerless master that some of his more well-known contemporaries were and he sometimes overreached.  Looking at the less-than-perfect curly-haired angel in the acid-color jerkin gives me hope for my own career as a painter (whereas sometimes the works of Raphael and Perugino leave me in despair about ever picking up a brush).

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, a six week season of self-denial, repentance, and fasting observed among certain traditional-minded Christian denominations.  Although I myself have no particularly ascetic intentions for Lent, it seems appropriate to mark the occasion with two vivid grisaille paintings by the great fifteenth century Flemish master Hieronymus Bosch, whose bizarre religious visions are among the strangest and most compelling works of painting (despite decades of deliberate strangeness by 20th and 21st century artists) .

The Left Outside Panel of "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

The Left Outside Panel of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

The term ”grisaille” describes a completely monochromatic painting in which all colors have been removed and the values are all rendered in countless shades of black, white, and (especially) gray. The grisaille technique was sometimes used for underpainting by the old masters who would then add color later.  It was also used to portray sculptures, to cover large walls (in the fashion of trompelœil illusion), or, most interestingly, as the opposite side of triptych screens and altarpieces.  If a hinged triptych was closed, the two grisaille panels would become all that was visible.

The Right Outside Panel of "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

The Right Outside Panel of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

These two paintings are the reverse of what may be Hieronymus Bosch’s most bizarre work, The Temptation of Saint Anthony which was finished in 1502, and can now be found at the Museo Nacional de Antiqua, Lisbon.  The Temptation of Saint Anthony deserves its own post (or its own book), but suffice to say it is a truly deeply strange rendering of the beings who accosted the saint after he went to the desert to pray, fast, and repent as a hermit.  It is a scatalogical hellscape filled with pig-priests, ambulatory jugs, stomach monsters, and flying fish crane ships.  Describing the actual painting exceeds my not-inconsiderable descriptive prowess: you will have to go look at it yourself.  However the work was created in such a fashion that the left and right panel can close in front of the central panel (probably so that the painting’s original owners did not have their brains fried by the twisted nightmares swirling around the saint).  When the actual painting was “shut” the two paintings above became visible.  In stark monocolor, the paintings portray the sufferings of Christ as he moved towards his crucifixion.  Great bestial crowds torture and mock the savior as he crawls on his knees (in the left panel) or is crushed by the weight of his cross (in the right panel), yet it is the torments of the human figures in the foreground which draws our eyes.

Here are the inside panels of "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" but don't look at them yet--we are talking about the grisaille panels on the outside

Here are the inside panels of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” but don’t look at them yet–we are talking about the grisaille panels on the outside

In the right image a grim black storm fills the sky above Golgotha.  In the left, the Flemish landscape recedes into a blinding gray erasure.  Perhaps the most disturbing element of these paintings is the ordinary everyday 15th century Netherlandish garb worn by the people around Christ—and the everyday nature of Christ’s tormentors themselves. Are there children among the tormenting throngs?  Of course these magnificent paintings are not really important compared to the true paintings inside the altarpiece.  The one time I saw The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the work was open and the grisaille paintings were turned to the wall—barely visible in the shadows.

Hollywood's Interpretation of the Geats

The Geats are the protagonists of the epic poem Beowulf (in fact, the titular character Beowulf himself was a Geat).  The poem gives us a picture of a society of northern Germanic warriors who lived near the coast.  They spent the summer accomplishing feats of valor–raiding and fighting through the lands around the Baltic and the North Sea–and then they returned home to pass the winter in their mead halls drinking and telling great tales.

It is a compelling picture and such a tribe did indeed exist.   Historiae Francorum by Gregory of Tours recounts a raid against Frisia by the Geatish king, Hygelac, which took place in 516 AD. The Geats inhabited what is now Götaland (“land of the Geats”) in Sweden. Their lands were bounded by the Baltic Sea to the South and the haunted forest of Tiveden to the North. In the great Norse Sagas they are referred to as the “Gautar”. It seems they lived much in the manner suggested by Beowulf and the Sagas–albeit with fewer mythical monsters and less political unity.  Wikipedia somewhat blandly informs us that, “The Geats were traditionally divided into several petty kingdoms, or districts, which had their own things (popular assemblies) and laws.” Ultimately the Geats were integrated into the Kingdom of Sweden.  This annexation was more a matter of political expediency than via conquest:  the Swedes and the Geats shared many cultural similarities and they shared a terrible enemy—the Danes.  In fact many Swedish rulers and elite were Geats.

All of this has a larger context: looking further back into ancient history, one discovers that the Geats are the presumed Goths.   Jordanes, a sixth century Roman bureaucrat who wrote The History and Deeds of the Goths decided that the ancestral home of the Goths was the southern edge of Scandinavia–which he describes as a great island named Scandza.  Here is how Jordanes explains the origin of the Goths:

Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name. As soon as they disembarked from their ships and set foot on the land, they straightway gave their name to the place. And even to-day it is said to be called Gothiscandza…But when the number of the people increased greatly and Filimer, son of Gadaric, reigned as king–about the fifth since Berig–he decided that the army of the Goths with their families should move from that region. In search of suitable homes and pleasant places they came to the land of Scythia, called Oium in that tongue.

Many historians have questioned Jordanes’ accurac–not least because he wrote a century or more after the events described had taken place.  In fact some scholars have written off The History and Deeds of the Goths as utter mythology.  Other writers, however, accord Jordanes greater respect for his primary source of information was Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who served under the king of the Ostrogoths at the end of the fifth century.  Many of Cassiodorus’ works are lost, but Jordanes had access to them.  Archaeological and linguistic evidence has indeed tied the Wielbark Culture to the Geats.  The Wielbark culture in turn gave rise to the Gothic kingdom of Oium, a part of the Chernyakhiv culture. Um, hopefully the following map will make this more clear.

If you have been following my topic thread concerning all things Gothic, you will know that I am baffled and delighted by this inpenetrable muddle.  The origin of the Goths seems to flow into the north in the distant past and dissolve into myth.  Yet somehow these ancient barbarians have lent their name to lovely Northern Flemish art, horror fiction, the sack of Rome, medieval architecture, and an entire contemporary youth movement.  With this in mind, it seems completely appropriate that the original Goths were Geats (or their progenitors).  The violent and exquisite Anglo Saxon Poetry of Beowulf seems as appropriate a place to find the Goths as anywhere.  I like the idea that the Goths did not vanish forever in the sands of northern Africa.  Some of them stayed home and became the Vikings.  The Swedes like the idea as well and the name “Goth” is to be found everywhere in southern Sweden. Indeed until 1973 the King of Sweden was also styled as the King of the Goths. But can any of that explain why kids in black still identify as goths?

Geat?

The Crucifixion (Rogier Van der Weyden, ca. 1445, oil on panel)

Probably the most common theme of Gothic painting was the crucifixion of Christ, an event which was central to the universe-view of nearly all Europeans of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. To observe Good Friday, here is a triptych of the Crucifixion painted by one of my favorite Flemish painters, Rogier Van der Weyden (1399 or 1400 – 1464).  The painting was probably completed around 1445 and can today be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Very little is known concerning Van der Weyden’s life and training.  We know that he was an international success and rose to the position (created expressly for him) of official painter of Brussels–then the location of the renowned court of the Dukes of Burgundy. But aside from that, only tidbits are known about a man who was probably the most influential and gifted Northern European painter of the 15th century.

Detail of Right Panel

Van der Weyden painted from models, and this crucifixion demonstrates a very compelling realism.  The grief and incredulity of the mourners is conveyed in their vivid expressions and poses.  The magnificent color and beauty of their garb underlines the importance of the spectacle.  Behind the figures is a huge empty landscape which runs continuously through all three panels.  The left wing shows a medieval castle, but the other two panels present a strange idealized Jerusalem.

Mary Magdalene is the lone figure of the left panel and St. Veronica is similarly isolated on the right panel. In the middle, John the Apostle tries to comfort a distraught Mary who is grabbing the foot of the cross as her son dies.  To the right of the cross are the wealthy donors who paid Van der Weyden for painting the picture. To quote Bruce Johnson’s Van der Weyden webpage, “The donors, a married couple, have approached the Cross; they are shown on the same scale as the saints, though they are not to be seen as really part of the Crucifixion scene – they are present only in thought, in their prayer and meditation, and are thus on a different plane of reality from the other figures.”

Detail of Mary Magdalen

The greatest glory of the painting is its nuanced palette.  The magnificent vermilion and ultramarine robes leap out of the muted green landscapes. Van der Weyden was renowned for using many different colors.  Art historians have averred that even the white tones in his greatest compositions are all subtly different.  Color also lends an otherworldly numinous quality to the dark angels hovering unseen on indigo wings as the execution takes place.

Joachim Patinir  (c. 1480 – October 5, 1524) is one of my favorite painters, partly because the Met has an exquisite triptych by him, but mostly for his amazing ability to paint the entire sweep of life within his landscapes—a form the Germans called Weltlandschaft (“world landscape”).

Landscape with Charon Crossing the River Styx by Joachim Patinir

In this painting, Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx, currently held by the Prado, the ferryman Charon rows a departed soul down the River Styx.   On the left side of the painting is paradise, a land of fountains, forests, and rivers emptying out into rich wetlands.  On the right lies the infernal city of the damned.  The tiny wavering spirit must choose–but see how his eyes dart towards Hell and away from the beckoning angel…

This painting is divided by color from front to back.  The foreground is the brown of earth.  Lilies, irises, and other flowers sprout directly out of the soil and work their way into the umber rocks.  The middle of the painting is green and filled up with birds, angels, and forest creatures.   The far horizon is pale blue dotted with tiny churches and universities.

The painting is also divided by color from left to right.  Paradise is pastoral: a country landscape of green, blue, and white. The angels are interspersed with deer and geese.  Hell is portrayed in black and orange and red.  But Patinir’s hell is a different affair from Bosch’s hell, which had been painted a generation before.  Three headed Cerberus seems quiet and oddly plaintive.  The lands in front of the gate are filled with fruit trees, lilies and parrots.  It is true that the gatehouse is decked in hanged corpses, but so would be the entrance to any town in Patinir’s native Wallonia. In fact aside from the occasional ogre or impaled human, the horrors of Dis are almost too indistinct to make out.  It could almost be a foundry or just a smoky medieval town rather than the abode of the damned.

Of course there is a moralizing message in Patinir’s work.  The indecisive spirit must choose between right and wrong.  But the choice is not the stark choice offered by Bosch or van Eyck.  The painter is not proselytizing relentlessly, rather the mood is elegiac.  Heaven is the wilderness: countryside, animals, trees, and solitude.  Hell looks like a city with all the hurly-burly of society.  If we stripped the painting of its Medieval Flemish context it could almost be an environmentalist artwork–or at least a defense of country pleasures against the press of urban living.

Patinir's hometown: Dinant in Wallonia

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