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The Crucifixion (Anthony Wierix & Martin de Vos, ca. 1590), engraving on paper

It is Good Friday, and as per tradition, here is an exquisite crucifixion artwork to mark the occasion. The beautifully engraved print is remarkable for its enormous quality, precision, and detail: just look at the lightning striking Jerusalem in the distant background! However it is also remarkable for the two (or three) levels of reality which the artists/printmakers have divided it into. In the central rectangle, Jesus is crucified on a hill in Israel as Mary, Mary Magdalen, and Saint John lament. Moving outwards by a degree, we find a second, rather more metaphorical frame which presents the instruments of the passion: the cross, the scourge, the nails, the pitcher of vinegar. Only as we examine the carefully engraved items in depth do we discover how allegorical these images really are. The coins are avarice. The flail is cruelty. The cock is denial. The vinegar is bitterness. The sepulcher is fear. These bedrock emotional drives are the true tools of the Passion. It is by means of the universal nature of humankind that Jesus was slain, but only by transcending such things and moving inwards to a more divine and transcendent level of faith, tenderness, and compassion can we be redeemed.

Of course there is an unspoken third level as well–of bare paper which has not been pressed by the plate. This reminds us that we are looking at a little nesting universe of profound ideas which are the contrivance of gifted artists working in the real world with ink, burins, presses, and paper in order to make us think more carefully about existence…or such would be the case if you were looking at this in a Duke’s library or the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Instead you are looking at this on the internet on glowing pixels on my blog–so there is really a fourth meta-level of ideological interpretation (conveniently provided by me, some random guy on the internet just writing stuff). The 16th century was an age when thrilling new media lead humankind to terrible excesses (there is a reason all of those torture implements look so realistic). Theologians, political leaders, and rabble-rousers used these new tools to whip up the sectarian passions of Christ’s followers and drive the faithful to slay the faithful in vast religious wars. There is a symbolic reason the scimitar, the torturer’s tongs, and the open crypt are closer to the viewer than Christ is: God is separated from us not just by space and time, but by supernatural and moral hierarchy as well (and by ethnicity too, as the Hebrew at the top reminds us). I wonder if His followers in the modern era will see what the Christian artists of the new mass media arts of the 16th century were trying so hard to explain…

Flemish Flatfish (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) ink and watercolor on paper

Happy Solstice! I wanted to finish off the ocean theme and celebrate the longest day of the year by coloring one of my large flounder drawings (which I originally designed to be in a huge strange flatfish coloring book). Unfortunately, coloring the image took sooo long that the longest day of the year is now over! (and I am still not happy with the coloring–which turns out to be just as hard as I recall from childhood)

Anyway, here is a sky flounder with a Dutch still life on his/her body swimming over the flat sea by the low countries. Little Flemish details dot the composition (like the clay pipe at the bottom, the bagpiper by the beach, and Audrey Hepburn in a 17th century dress) however the endearing minutiae can not forever distract the viewer from larger themes of sacrifice and the ineluctable passage of time (both of which are fine ideas to contemplate on this druidic holiday).

As always, we will return to these ideas, but for now, happy summer!

Crucifixion Diptych (Rogier van der Weyden, 1460), oil on panel

I failed to post a beautiful crucifixion painting for Good Friday this year…but don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the tradition, and I was thinking about the right painting over Easter weekend. Here is Crucifixion Diptych, a late work by Rogier van der Weyden which shows Saint John and Mary on the left panel lamenting Christ’s death which takes place on the right panel. Although the figures are beautifully painted, the colors and composition are unusually stark and the background elements–Golgotha, a stone wall, the night sky–are flattened and simplified. The painting does not suffer from this, but rather the jagged abstract shapes of vivid white, red, and green make it pop out among the other works of its era. I saw it back in the 1980s before a “reverse restoration” returned the sky to night blue (a restoration artist of the 1940s decided the sky should be gold), but even with the colors wrong it demanded attention. The work was painted in 1460, a few years before van der Weyden’s death and the profound stillness of the figures has led some art historians to speculate it was his last painting. Van der Weyden’s son joined the Carthusian monastery (which received gifts of cash and devotional paintings from van der Weyden), and it is possible that the red and white painting may also have been a private Carthusian devotional piece.

Siege of Ostend (Peter Snayers, ca early 17th century) oil on canvas

The Siege of Ostend (1601-1604) was a devastating siege which lasted three years and effectively destroyed the city of Ostend in West Flanders. The defenders of Ostend were the rebel Dutch “Geuzen” (and their English allies) who stood up to the hegemonic and reactionary Spanish Crown. The siege was important to two different wars–the 80 Years’ War (a struggle for independence by the Dutch) and the Anglo-Spanish War, an undeclared and intermittent war between Spain and England for naval supremacy.

Ostend was a small coastal city of perhaps 3000 inhabitants who mostly made their living from fishing. It ended up being at the center of one of Europe’s most costly and prolonged sieges by the accidents of war since, in 1601, Ostend was the only piece of territory which the Dutch Republic held in Flanders. Spain was a towering world power during the 16th century and honor demanded that Ostend be retaken (presumably as a prelude to a grand defeat of Dutch and English forces). The Spanish side had a famous aristocratic leader, the Archduke Albert, who commanded vast armies of soldiers. The Spanish also had an Italian inventor, Pompeo Targone, who kept creating outlandish new siege devices (see illustrations below) and they had a Catholic turncoat embedded within the English garrison. None of these assets proved particularly helpful. The Spanish commander had a penchant for huge frontal assaults which cost tens of thousands of besiegers their lives. Exposed to saltwater, gunpowder, and sand, the innovative siege devices of Pompeo Targone had a way of breaking and turning into deadly rubble. The English turncoat was found out and sentenced to death (although, in a show of goodhearted English mercy he was merely stripped and whipped out of town).

What could go wrong?

On the other side, the English and Dutch had the ability to resupply from the ocean, which proved invaluable in defeating the hunger and scarcity which are the purposes of a siege. Although they could never field the endless men or martial the vast material resources of the Spanish, the defenders could hide out behind heavily fortified walls, palisades, moats, and so forth. Then, whenever the Spanish breached the fortifications through sheer heroic bravado, the Dutch could pour grapeshot onto the invaders, or collapse walls of sand onto Albert’s men, or, perhaps most devastatingly, break the levees and drown the armored soldiers.

After long years of this, the Spanish crown finally replaced Archduke Albert with Ambrogio Spinola, a Genoese general who understood that the siege could only be won by carefully building elaborate earthworks and methodically bringing up larger and larger artillery. The Spanish were victorious in September of 1604, when the Dutch commanders allowed the garrison to surrender (the Dutch had just conquered the city of Sluis and no longer needed Ostend). The terms of the surrender allowed Ostend’s defenders to depart with their weapons and their colors–and they marched right off to Sluis. the Spanish finally entered Ostend which was effectively destroyed. Only two civilian inhabitants were left. The siege had cost over 100,000 lives. The Spanish victory proved pyrrhic, since, its cost caused the Spanish crown to go bankrupt three years later, which in turn lead to the twelve years truce (and an era of Dutch ascendancy).

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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.

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