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Orvieto clouds-resized2

Orvieto

In the center of Italy is Umbria, a green land of deep forests and medieval hill towns. One of the most dramatic of these hill towns is the small city of Orvieto which is located atop a volcanic plug of tuff.  Atop the taupe butte, the ancient towers and campaniles of Orvietto rise above the dark green hills.  One building stands out beyond the others, the Duomo di Orvieto which is universally acclaimed for having the consummate masterpiece of Italian Gothic cathedral facades.

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Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, the Cathedral of Orvieto was commissioned by Pope Urban IV sometime around 1263 as a suitable place to keep the Corporal of Bolsena, a miraculous uhhh cloth which soaked up the miraculous blood of Jesus which spouted out of a miraculous host (the sacred bread) in the nearby town of Bolsena.  The Cathedral was begun in earnest in 1290 as a classic Romanesque basilica, however progress was fitful.  When Giovanni di Uguccione succeeded Fra Bevignate as principal architect (project manager?) of the cathedral, the design morphed from Romanesqe to Italian Gothic.  It was an inspired upgrade which incorporated the best of both styles in the breathtaking facade (which is said to have been the creation of the Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani).

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Creation of Eve (probably by Maitani)

The Facade is such a masterpiece, with so many things going on, that it is nearly impossible to describe properly.  Wikipedia resolutely approaches the task by breaking down the individual elements as follows:

The most exciting and eye-catching part is its golden frontage, which is decorated by large bas-reliefs and statues with the symbols (Angel, Ox, Lion, Eagle) of the Evangelists created by Maitani and collaborators (between 1325 and 1330) standing on the cornice above the sculptured panels on the piers. In 1352 Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna added the bronze Lamb of God above the central gable and the bronze statue of Saint Michael on top of the gable of the left entrance.

The bas-reliefs on the piers depict biblical stories from the Old and New Testament. They are considered among the most famous of all 14th-century sculpture. These marbles from the fourteenth and fifteenth century are the collective and anonymous work of at least three or four masters with assistance of their workshops, It is assumed that Maitani must have worked on the reliefs on the first pier from the left, as work on the reliefs began before 1310.

The glittering mosaics of Mary’s life which make up such an impressive part of the facade have been redesigned and replaced since the originals were installed in 1390. However the great central rose window is an original by Orcagna.  The widow is surrounded by statues of Apostles within niches in the manner of French Gothic style.

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Naturally I was unable to find any high-resolution photos that really do justice to this supremely complicated book of a building, but here is a link to a clickable high resolution image if you want to examine particular individual elements.

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Actually the interior of the church might really be the feature of greatest interest to artists, featuring exquisite murals by Fra Angelico and crazy violent “Antichrist” mural by Luca Signorelli, but we will address those another day. How much apocalyptic stuff can we handle right now?  Let’s just enjoy the exquisite outside of this Italian Gothic wonder.

Orvieto medieval town, Umbria, Italy, Europe.

Orvieto medieval town, Umbria, Italy, Europe.

 

Today’s goose post features shocking questions about the truthfulness of a respected and beloved blog—Ferrebeekeeper!  That’s right; this very site, an esteemed font of knowledge which you regularly tell all your friends to read (right?), has been caught in the midst of a scandal which spans the centuries…the millennia even! This mysterious controversy encompasses the greatest family of pharaohs ever, an enigmatic nineteenth-century archaeologist, and the fundamental meaning of art and objects.  At the center of the swirling allegations lies the enigma behind the identity of a pair of geese.

"Meidum Geese" (Age and artist unclear)

“Meidum Geese” (Age and artist unclear)

It all began with this post about an ancient Egyptian masterpiece, the famous goose frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (Nefermaat being a nobleman of Egypt’s renowned Fourth dynasty).  The geese in that ancient picture are gorgeous, they look like real birds which might hop down from the forty-six-hundred year old artwork and open up their beaks begging for corn (a fact appreciated by aesthetes among Ferrebeekeeper readers—as you can see in the original comments). However after I posted the article, cracks also began to appear in the story.  Sharp-eyed readers wrote in with questions about my ornithology. There are three pairs of geese in the painting: a pair to the left, a pair to the right, and a split pair grazing, like bookends, on each side.  With unwarranted ambiguity, I identified the birds as Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus), based on the bird identification in an essay I had read concerning the paintings (and also based on the fact I wanted to write about a certain breed of domesticated geese).  I was wrong to be so blithesome, for it is extremely clear that the two center pairs are very different species.  The split pair may or may not be the same species as the pair on the left.

 Juvenile Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus).  Note the complete dissimilarity to the painting above.

Juvenile Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus). Note the complete dissimilarity to the painting above.

Ferrebeekeeper readers vigorously noted the problems with both my essay and with the supposedly ancient painting.  Dave Dunford wrote:

The birds are not Egyptian Geese, which are distinctive birds. The central pair facing left appear to be White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons), and the central pair facing right are indisputably Red-breasted Geese (Brant ruficollis). Interestingly, the latter is a rare vagrant in modern-day Egypt. The outer birds are somewhat trickier – they could also be White-fronted (which don’t always have the white face markings) but they could be Greylag Geese (Anser anser, also not found regularly in modern Egypt).

It turns out my readers were not the only people to notice and question this discrepancy. The painting (which is more popularly known as “Meidum Geese” since it was allegedly discovered in 1871 in a tomb beside the Meidum Pyramid), is one of the most famous in the Cairo museum—a masterpiece of the ancient world–but now, in 2015, experts are questioning its validity.  This post from livescience.com by Owen Jarus describes how the painting is probably a fake, or, at least a doctored original.  These charges are being leveled by Francesco Tiradritti, a professor at the Kore University of Enna and director of the Italian archaeological mission to Egypt.  Tiradritti came up with yet another species designation for the left-facing geese as bean geese (Anser fabalis) a tundra goose, which certainly don’t belong in Egypt (even if the ancient climate were somewhat different).

Bean Goose (Anser fabalis).  I'm not entirely convinced--I think Dave Dunford still has the best explanation

Bean Goose (Anser fabalis). I’m not entirely convinced–I think Dave Dunford still has the best explanation

Now sometimes when I draw or paint (particularly when my subject is self-willed, like geese) I replace or invent some of the details with the magic of art (i.e. I make stuff up). Egyptian artists seemingly did the same thing—unless there were a lot of personified deities with animal heads actually roaming the Nile Valley. However the question of what sort of goddamn geese these really are caused Tiradritti to reexamine the whole painting with a fresh eye, and suddenly innumerable problems sprang to light.

Snefru's Meidum Pyramid in Egypt near the Fayoum

Snefru’s Meidum Pyramid in Egypt near the Fayoum

The naturalistic perspective/size of the geese in the painting is unusual for Egyptian art (although common in modern western painting). Also the colors are off. To quote Francesco Tiradritti, “Some of the hues (especially beige and marc) are unique in the Egyptian art. Even the shades of more common colors, like orange and red, are not even comparable with the same colors used in other fragments of painting coming from Atet’s chapel.”  Perhaps most damningly, the fresco does not have the sort of cracks one would expect from a 4.5 thousand year old painting cut from a wall.

This painting was discovered in 1871 by a colorful Italian archaeologist named Luigi Vassalli.  Vasalli’s history is fascinating in its own right: he spent his youth as a revolutionary and as a portrait painter before being captured and sentenced to death for his attempts to unify Italy.  His sentence was commuted to exile, and he traveled Europe before finding his way to Egypt where he became an Egyptologist.  He rose to be Egypt’s interim Director of Antiquities, but he ultimately died by his own hand.

I think this is a portrait of Luigi Vassalli (1812 - 1887)

I think this is a portrait of Luigi Vassalli (1812 – 1887)

Vasalli was a great self-promoter and he exhaustively wrote/bragged about everything he found and did. Yet somehow he never wrote about (or apparently talked about) how he discovered “Meidum Geese”. Tiradetti reasonably posits that Vasalli painted “Meidum Gees” himself.  Whether he did so as a joke, or for glory, or to restore a botched excavation is anyone’s guess.

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The allegations spawn sinister questions regarding the fundamental nature of art.  If the geese were painted by Luigi Vassalli—who apparently also defaced an actual work to do so–we take away the designation “masterpiece” and instead label the work as a forgery.  It is fair and right to strip it the painting of its accolades and to erase all the effusive words of praise written for it (of course I mean this figuratively: I am leaving up my old blog post so that you can see what I am talking about—but how empty my words ring, now).  Yet what happened? The painting still looks the same.  Does the fact that it was painted by a nineteenth century artist/revolutionary/con-man/scholar instead of an Old Kingdom artisan take all of its meaning and beauty away?  Do the geese no longer look like they might hop out of the frieze? Do they now look oddly flat and childlike?  Was the provenance all that made this work worthwhile?  We live in an age when the appearance of authenticity means everything—in our art, our leaders, even ourselves.  But what is left when the illusion of authenticity is taken away?

Lion-Head Goose (Lü Ji, ca. 1488-1505, ink on scroll)

Lion-Head Goose (Lü Ji, ca. 1488-1505, ink on scroll)

Here is a masterful painting of a lion-head goose by Ming dynasty master Lü Ji a “flower and bird” painter who gained prominence in the late 15th century.  Lu was born in Ningbo in the Zhejiang province and he became famous for copying the style of early Ming bird and flower master Bian Wenjin, but Lu’s mature works, like this beautiful goose have a style and feeling all their own.  Lu was gifted at painting with flowing lines and flowery washes, but above all he is renowned for his ability to portray expressive lifelike birds (with ample personality).  These gifts made him “a famous court painter at the Renzhi Hall” and lead the Ming court to endow him with a sinecure in the Imperial Bodyguard (which seems like a terrible place for a bird painter–but which was probably an income divorced from title).

In this painting a white domestic goose stands beside a beautiful abstract rock of the sort treasured by Ming literati.  The bird stares up at the graceful stone and the ephemeral flowers as though he is appreciating their beauty and subtle meaning.  The work may or may not have a deeper allegorical meaning (my dictionary of Chinese symbolism does not mention domestic geese), but it is certainly hints at the sentient nature of our fellow creatures–and it is also a powerful reminder to treasure the exquisite beauty of the world!

Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters.  Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty.  He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.

Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting.  Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him.  He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.

Early Spring (Guo Xi, 1072, ink and light watercolor on hanging silk scroll)

The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus.  Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom.  The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains.  The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes.  Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless.  The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.

It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting.  On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center.  Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute.  The tiny people seem excited for spring to come.  They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.

The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too.  But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident.  The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.

Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects (Balthasar Van der Ast, c. 1635, oil on panel)

To compliment yesterday’s post concerning a miniature snake, here is a miniature work of art by my favorite Dutch miniature master (meaning he was a master of painting tiny still lifes—not an unusually tiny man).  Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects was painted around 1635 by Balthasar Van der Ast.  Although the tiny panel is only 24 cm (9.4 in) tall by 35 cm (13.8 in) wide, it contains a world of detail. An entire spring garden’s worth of florid blossoms have been arranged in the large shell of a triton.  Spiders, caterpillars, and a quizzical grasshopper stalk among the empty shells of a cowry, a deadly cone snail, and other gastropods.  There is a palpable sense of drama among the three flying creatures in the painting: a predatory dragonfly is wreathed in darkness, staring the wrong way to see its prey animal–a painted lady butterfly.  The diagonal composition lines of the painting all point to the bottom right corner of the painting where a fearsome stinging hornet has died curled into a fetal position.

Van der Ast has dignified the small objects of a bouquet with a moral tension.  The lovely evanescent flowers, the beautiful (but dead) shells, and the circling hungry insects all point to an elusive lesson about chaos and beauty.

Like many of the great middle class miniature painters, Van der Ast lived a comfortable bourgeois life which featured little outward drama.  He moved between the quietly prosperous cities of Bergen op Zoom, Utrecht, and Delft, painting beautiful objects and teaching his craft to a number of influential artists (including his nephews).  He married and had daughters and died quietly compared to other baroque artists, yet the small dramas of his canvases seem to nobly symbolize the myriad crucial struggles—moral, emotional, and physical–of everyday life.

This is Das Paradiesgärtleina, a superb gothic panel painting created in 1410 by an unknown German artist known only as the “Upper Rhenish Master”.  Various Saints are oriented around Baby Jesus in a lovely walled garden.  The Virgin Mary is at the top left reading a book.  To her left Saint Dorothy plucks cherries (then, as now, symbolic of purity) from a stylized cherry tree.  Saint Barbara draws clear water from a font, as Saint Catherine helps Baby Jesus play a psalter.  To the right St. George sits on the grass with a small dragon dead beside him.  He is earnestly talking to the Archangel Michael who has a black demon chained at his feet.  St. Oswald, leaning on a tree trunk, seems almost to serve as St. George’s squire.  It has been surmised that this painting might depict a knight (in the guise of St. George) entering into heaven.

The real delight of the painting lies in its lovely details.  This painting carefully and individually depicts over 27 plants, 12 species of bird, and two insects. Very few paintings depict nature with such precision.

Here is a list of the identified plants:

Aquilegia
Veronica
Strawberry
Alchemilla
Daisy
Wallflower
Vinca
Cherry
Clover
Lily
Snowflake
Lily of the Valley
Malva
Oxeye daisy
Dianthus
Paeonia
Rose
Primula veris
Iris
Mustard
Red deadnettle
Violet
Plantago
Chrysanthemum
Aster
Hypericum
Matthiola

Here is a list of the birds:

Common Kingfisher
Great Tit
Eurasian Bullfinch
Golden Oriole
Chaffinch
European Robin
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Bohemian Waxwing
European Goldfinch
Long-tailed Tit
Blue Tit
Hoopoe

The work is painted in a tradition of Maria im Rosenhag (Mary in the rose bower), but the Upper Rhenish master has made the convention his own by presenting a garden where virtue and joy, personified by the holy family and the saints, exert easy control over the natural and the supernatural alike.

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