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It is already the middle of October! This year has ground by with such agonizing slowness that it is easy to overlook how swiftly it has flown by! (?) Uhh…anyway, regular readers know that Ferrebeekeeper always presents a special theme week for Halloween, and, plague or no, this year will not be an exception. Past topics have included the Monster Echidna, Flowers of the Underworld, Flaying, the Undead, and Evil Clowns! Place your bets on what the special theme for 2020 will be!

Before we get there, though, I though lets call back to one of my favorite posts from years back by featuring a beautiful ceiling in Venice. Nobody can travel to Venice this year (ahem, not that I was exactly a regular ’round the ol’ Lagoon before all of this happened) so we might as well go there by means of the magical time/space dispensation which art gives to us.

Francesco de Rossi, ca. 1540, Fresco

Here is the ceiling of The Chamber of Apollo in the Palazzo Grimani di Santa Maria Formosa in Venice. It was painted by the somewhat strange Florentine mannerist, Francesco de Rossi (AKA Francesco Salviati). Completed around 1540 AD, the work showcases Apollo, god of art and light. The center of the composition portrays Apollo riding the chariot of the sun while the constellations of the horoscope circle around him. The four main panels show special episodes from Apollo’s canon of myths. Two of the four concern Apollo’s dispute with Marsyas!

Although the sad end of the contest definitely appears on the ceiling, my favorite panel is the panel (above) which features Apollo listening to Marsyas play. As Marsyas plays his aulos he prances with wild proud abandon! Apollo’s lyre sits at his feet as the god angrily listens to the concert. Not content to let Marsyas play unmolested, Apollo points an angry finger of foreshadowing at Marsyas’ torso.

My own artwork of Apollo and Marsyas portrays the contest itself as opposed to the outcome (although de Rossi painted Marsyas bound to a tree in the next pendant to the right). Like de Rossi’s artwork, my thoughts concerning Apollo and what he means keep going in a circle. I wish somebody from the Renaissance would post some comments so we could get to the bottom of this bloody myth, but I suppose time does not work quite that way. We already have the opinion of long gone artists though, however they are not expressed as little snippets of digital prose, but as magnificent paintings. we will just have to keep on staring at them!

Mary Magdalene (Carlo Crivelli, ca. 1487, tempera on panel)

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.

On the Christian Liturgical calendar, yesterday was Palm Sunday—the day Christ entered Jerusalem for the week of the passion.  Here is one of my favorite religious paintings depicting Jesus saying farewell to his mother before leaving for Jerusalem (and for his death).  The painting was completed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521 and it reflects what is best about that eccentric northern Italian artist.

In many ways Lotto was a kind of shadowy opposite to Titian, who was the dominant Venetian artist of the era.  Whereas Titian remained in Venice, Lotto studied in the city of canals but then moved restlessly from place to place in Italy.  Titian was the height of artistic fashion throughout the entirety of his life (and, indeed, afterwards) while Lotto fell from popularity at the end of his career and his work then spent long eras in obscurity.  Titian’s figures seem godlike and aloof: Lotto’s are anxious and human, riddled with doubts and fears.

Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (Lorenzo Lotto, 1521, oil on canvas)

Yet there is something profoundly moving in the nervous and unhappy way that Lotto paints.  The jarring acidic colors always seem to highlight the otherworldly nature of the Saints and Apostles.  Everything else, however points to their humanity.  The figures imperceptibly writhe and squirm away from the hallowed norm (and toward mannerism).  Instead of a glowing sky here is a dark roof with a globe-like sphere cut into it.  The perspective lines do not lead to heaven or a glittering temple but rather to an obscure cave-like topiary within a fenced garden.  Only Christ is serene as he bows to his distraught mother, yet he too seems filled with solemn sadness.

A remarkable aspect of this painting is found in the ambiguous animals located in the foreground, midground, and distance.  In the front of the painting a little alien lapdog with hypercephalic forehead watches the drama (from the lap of painting’s donor, richly dressed in Caput Mortuum). A cat made of shadow and glowing eyes moves through the darkened columns of the façade.  Most evocatively of all, two white rabbits are the lone inhabitants of the periphery of the painting.  They scamper off towards the empty ornamental maze.  The animals all seem to have symbolic meaning: the dog stands for loyalty, the cat for pride, and the rabbits for purity–but they also seem like real animals caught in a surreal & gloomy loggia.  The living creatures might be party to a sacred moment but they are also filled with the quotidian concerns of life, just as the apostles and even the virgin seem to be moved by the comprehensible emotional concerns of humanity.   Lotto never gives us Titian’s divine certainty, instead we are left with human doubt and weary perseverance.

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