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I promised a beautiful painting of Jesus for Easter and here is one of my favorite altarpieces from the Met. This wonderful painting is “The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor.” It was largely painted by Joos Van Cleve (with some assistance from an unknown collaborator) and was finished around 1520. The painting is very lovely to look at! Joos Van Cleve endowed each of the saints with radiant fashionable beauty and energy. From left to right, we see John the Baptist with his lamb and coarse robe; Saint Catherine with her sinister wheel (yet looking splendid in silk brocade and perfect makeup); Mary is leftmost on the main panel in royal blue; Saint Paul holds the cross and touches the head of the donor (whose money made all of this possible); and Saint John wears vermilion garb and has a book in a pouch as he gesticulates about theology. On the right panel are two Italian saints, Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino. Probably this altarpiece was an Italian commission or maybe the Flemish donor had business or family connections in Italy.
But van Cleve’s delightful saints are only half of the picture. In the background, the unknown collaborator has painted a magnificently picturesqe landscape of cold blue and lush green. Fabulous medieval towns come to life amidst prosperous farmlands. Rivers snake past forboding fortresses and great ports. The distant mountains become more fantastical and more blue till they almost seem like surreal abstraction in the distance. You should blow up the picture and let your spirit wander through this landscape (I think WordPress has discontinued that feature in a bid to frustrate users, however you can go the Met’s website and zoom into the painting and step directly back into 16th century northern Europe).
Somewhat lost in this pageant of visual wonders is, you know, Jesus. The painting’s lines don’t even really point to him. He suffers on his cross in emaciated, gray-faced anguish, forgotten by the richly robed saints and the wealthy burghers of the low country. Only the Virgin seems particularly anxious. Yet, though Van Cleve has de-emphasized the savior within the composition, he has painted Christ with rare grace and feeling. The viewer can get lost in the landscape (or looking at Catherine’s lovely face) but then, as we are craning our neck to see around the cross, the presence of a nailed foot reminds us this is a scene of horror and divinity. I have spent a long time looking at this painting and I found the the juxtaposition of wealth, industry, fashion, and riches, with the overlooked figure of Jesus naked and suffering to be quite striking. It is a reminder to re-examine the story of Jesus again against the context of more familiar surroundings. I am certainly no Christian (not anymore) but it seems like there might even be a lesson here for America’s ever-so-pious evangelicals. With all of the excitement of wealth and political power and 24 hour Fox news and mean supreme court justices and billionaire golfers and super models and what not, I wonder if there is anyone they are maybe forgetting…
The fleur de lis is an ancient stylized representation of a flower—most likely Iris pseudacorus a golden-yellow species of Iris, native to Europe, western Asia and northwest Africa. The motif can be found as far back as Assyria and ancient Egypt, but it became universally prevalent after it was gradually adopted as a symbol by the Kings of France from the 11th to the 12th centuries AD. Apocryphal mythology from the middle ages maintains that the connection between the fleur de lis and the throne of France dates back much farther–to the very beginning of the French crown when Frankish warriors invaded Roman Gaul during the 5th century AD. According to the legend, Clovis, the first of the Merovingian Kings, who was descended from Merovech (himself descended from a river god), had a divine vision in which an angel ordered him to change the three golden toads on his shield to three golden flowers.
The first surviving instance of the flower in heraldic use is a seal showing the future Louis VIII and his shield strewn with fleurs de lis which dates from 1211. Thereafter Bourbon and Capetian kings made extensive heraldic use of fleurs de lis. The standard of many golden fleurs de lis scattered across a sky blue field was changed to three prominent fleurs de lis by Charles V in the mid 14th century.
Over the centuries other principalities, cities, and families took up use of the fleur de lis. The coat of arms of Florence is a large red fleur de Lis—although the shield is a comparatively recent innovation which does not date to Florence’s golden age. The heraldic device of the Medicis, who ruled Florence at its zenith, was a shield with five red balls. Over time Luxemberg, various popes, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also utilized fleurs de lis in their standards.
Since the earliest days of the movement, scouting (known in the US as the “boy scouts” and “girl scouts”) has been symbolized by a fleur de lis. The scouts’ founder, Robert Baden-Powell, a British military officer and aristocrat chose the fleur de lis as a symbol because it was used by the British Army as an armband to identify soldiers who had qualified as “Scouts” (reconnaissance specialists). Baden-Powell asserted that the boy scouts’ fleur de lis also symbolized the compass rose–which always points true north.
The fleur de lis is used by numerous New World cities and provinces which were once part of the French colonies before they were conquered or purchased. Many parts of French Canada, the Mississippi valley, and the French Caribbean still use the Fleur de lis for flags, seals, and coats of arms. New Orleans and Louisiana make particularly extensive use of the fleur de lis in local standards. The famous New Orleans Saints football team is symbolized by a golden fleur de lis which is an anomaly in a league filled with aggressive animal symbols.
Beyond the statehouse and the gridiron, bon vivants, artists and sybarites have also come to informally identify with the fleur de lis. It is seen in quixotic tattoos, extravagant fabrics, and luxury logos. It seems appropriate that the heraldic flower, once the symbol of warriors, soldiers, and conquerers has now come to be associated with beauty, pleasure, and leisure (which seem more in keeping with the nature of irises).
Today is All Saint’s Day, a holiday which has been largely subsumed by Halloween in the United States. However All Saint’s Day used to be a major holiday in the middle ages—a day to celebrate the most devout Christian believers who were granted magical abilities by their austerities, beatific visions, or martyrdom. This seems like a prime opportunity to feature some more gothic art, so above, kindly find the best available online photo of The Baptism of Christ by the mysterious Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece. This anonymous master was (probably) trained in the Netherlands and then emigrated to Cologne in about 1480.
The painting is currently located at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The National Gallery’s online art resource nicely describes the painting as follows:
In this unusual scene, fourteen saints participate as witnesses at the Baptism of Christ. All the saints are vividly characterized by costume and attributes. They include the giant Christopher carrying the Christ Child on his shoulders, Catherine of Alexandria with sword and wheel of her martyrdom, Augustine holding his heart pierced by the arrow of divine love, Mary Magdalene with her ointment jar, and the chivalrous George kneeling on his dragon. The gold background, the luminescent cloud on which the saints float, and the unrealistic island setting for the Baptism itself all impart a visionary quality to the scene.
I found it difficult to find a high quality JPEG of the painting so here are some bonus close-ups to give you an idea of the meticulous details which give such character to gothic painting.