The reliquary statue of Ste Foi, preserved at the saint’s pilgrimage church in Conques, assumed its present form in the 10th century. The relic of the saint, who was martyred in the 3rd century—the back piece of her skull—had been placed in a the head of a gilded, late-antique imperial portrait bust at an earlier date. Housing the relics of a Christian, female saint martyred by an emperor in a portrait bust of a pagan, male emperor posed no problems for the custodians of the shrine—the gold leaf and the represented body part made it an appropriate vessel for the spiritually-radiant skull relic. In the 10th century a body made of hollow wood covered with gold leaf was added to the head, and the figure was set in a throne. The value and reflectivity of gold, along with the throne is meant to give the viewer an idea of glory emanating from the saint, who now resides in heaven.

The reliquary is also encrusted with uncut gems, pearls and antique cameos. Many of these were “gifts” to the saint from pilgrims who had been assisted or protected by her. According to The Book of Sainte-Foy, a collection of accounts of miracles performed by the saint, she regularly made appearances in dreams, giving instructions about the kinds of gifts and honorifics she wanted in an exchange for her assistance. And being a saint, she had then powers to get what she wanted: when one noblewoman ignored the saint’s request for a ring she had worn to the shrine,it went missing, and was later discovered on the finger of the reliquary statue. The precious stones not only record pious donations made by pilgrims in thanks for the saint’s intervention, the are symbolic representations of the light and colors of the Heavenly Jerusalem, as described in the Book of Revelation, where the saint’s soul resides, awaiting for the Last Judgment, when the soul will be reunited with his or her bodily remains left on earth.

Not only did Sainte-Foy leave the church at Conques to visit people at night, her reliquary statue was carried to the sites of conflict involving the church, as was the case when the statue was placed in a field of contested ownership for left there to several days to mark the land, not as church property but as her’s and anyone who challenged that would have to face her displeasure. Such disputes always went in the saint’s favor.

The cult of Sainte-Foy, which was focused on the reliquary statue, rapidly became a pilgrimage site, one many on one of the three pilgrimage roads that traversed France aabd ended at Santiago de Compostela. The ecclesiastical hierarchy was always anxious about popular shrines and cults, and in 1002, the Bishop of Chartres sent a representative, Bernard of Chartres, to investigate the rumors of idolatry—the worshipping of false images—taking place at the saint’s shrine. When he arrived at Conques. Bernard was at first horrified to see crowds of pilgrims praying to a golden statue, but after spending several weeks at the shrine, he came to see the acts of the pilgrims the saint as sincerely directed to the saint, and not to an inanimate object. After all, she was physically present inside the reliquary, so addressing it was perfectly orthodox.

Given the their relationship to the cult of the saints, “popular” religion, and pilgrimage, reliquaries, be they statues, busts or body parts, are often discussed more in historical and anthropological, rather than in art historical terms. To do so, however, would be to overlook a development of real significance. Statues like Ste Foi and the Golden Virgin of Essen, also a 10th-century reliquary are the first examples of free-standing sculpture in the round to be produced in western Europe since the collapse of the Western Empire 500 years earlier. If figural, three-dimensional sculpture disappeared due to a decline in skill in the Dark Ages, and a Christian abhorrence of paganism and/or asceticism towards the body in general, then the fact that it resurfaces in the particular context of relics—body parts of the holy dead—suggests that the cult of relics legitimated or recuperated the representation of the body enough to allow for the creation of stylized, anti-naturalistic but nevertheless three-dimensional works that interact, so the documents tell us, with humans in embodied ways. One will have to wait until the late Gothic period for the invention of the individual and the self to bring sculptural portraiture of real persons back to life.


One night I dreamed I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it. And I did. I worked on that painting a long time. It’s a very rotten painting— physically rotten—because I began it in house enamel paint, which you paint furniture with, and it wouldn’t dry quickly enough. Then I had in my head this idea of something I had read or heard about: wax encaustic.
— Jasper Johns, 1955,

Jasper Johns chose to paint the flag in a nation that has an entire Legal Code devoted the the proper display and handling of the flag and requires school children to swear a daily fealty oath to the flag, and secondly, “to the republic for which it stands.” He chose to paint the “living symbol” of the nation at the height of the Cold War, a historical period marked by government-sponsored inquisitions, witch hunts, blacklists, loyalty oaths, censorship, and espionage. The established careers and reputations of Elia Kazan, Dalton Trumbo, Lillian Helman, Ring Lardner and Herschel Bernardi, the voice of Charlie the Tuna, were destroyed on account of suspected Communist sympathies perceived in their work. Johns chose to paint the flag at the onset of his career, before he had savings and a professional network to support him should he be accused of un-American activity. To put it more directly, Johns risked much when he elected to paint the flag.

Johns’ dream about painting the flag is the artist’s explanation of his unusual choice in subject matter. In placing that choice in the  locating that choice  within an unconscious, passive, psychological context, as opposed to a conscious political one, Johns can deflect potentially risky questions about his motives. In the dream he doesn’t fashion the flag for any practical or ceremonial purpose, he merely represents it.

Johns wants the viewer to see the flag as an image and not as a symbol. The belabored design and overworked brushwork stress the flag’s status as a crafted image, while the, uneven, tactile, encaustic layer and applied to an unframed supports which makes the flag seem to project forwards into a third dimension, foregrounds the work’s status as object.  The image-ness and object-ness of Johns’ Flag ask the viewer to see the painting, and not see through it to a discursive symbolically-coded meaning.

Propaganda is structured around a reflexive, unthinking response to a simple, immediately recognized image. Insofar as Johns’ flags disrupt that process, they have a political function and should not be understood as empty ontological conundrums.


“The divine” Raphael Sanzio of Urbino (1483 – 1520), is the greatest draughtsman of the Western tradition. In his lifetime, his drawings were prized by collectors. The same remains true today: on 6 December 2012, a Raphael black-chalk drawing of a head of an apostle, from the collection of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, was sold at auction by Sotheby’s for £ 29.7 million ($ 50.7 million), a record for a work on paper. Before that sale, the record price for a drawing had been set by Raphael’s “Head of a Muse,” which was sold by Christie’s for £ 29.1 million on 8 November 2009. And in July 1984, Christie’s had sold a drawing by Raphael, also from the Chatsworth collection, for £ 3.3 million, a record for a drawing at that time. The British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and the Chatsworth Collection are the repositories of the finest Raphael drawings, attesting to the long-standing taste for the Renaissance master in England.

Over the whole, in truth, there seems to breathe a spirit of divinity, so beautiful are the figures, and such the nobility of the picture, which makes whoever studies it with attention marvel how a human brain, by the imperfect means of mere colors, and by excellence of draughtsmanship, could make painted things appear alive.

This work is in every part so stupendous, that even the cartoons are held in the greatest veneration; wherefore Messer Francesco Masini, a gentleman of Cesena who, without the help of any master, but giving his attention by himself from his earliest childhood, guided by an extraordinary instinct of nature, to drawing and painting, has painted pictures that have been much extolled by good judges of art, possesses, among his many drawings and some ancient reliefs in marble, certain pieces of the cartoon which Raffaello made for this story of Heliodorus, and he holds them in the estimation that they truly deserve.

Albrecht Dürer, a most marvelous German painter, and an engraver of very beautiful copperplates, rendered tribute to Raffaello out of his own works, and sent to him a portrait of himself, a head, executed by him in gouache on a cloth of fine linen, which showed the same on either side, the lights being transparent and obtained without lead white, while the only grounding and coloring was done with watercolors, the white of the cloth serving for the ground of the bright parts. This work seemed to Raffaello to be marvelous, and he sent him, therefore, many drawings executed by his own hand, which were received very gladly by Albrecht.

O happy and blessed spirit, in that every man is glad to speak of thee, to celebrate thy actions, and to admire every drawing that thou didst leave to us! When this noble craftsman died, the art of painting might well have died also, seeing that when he closed his eyes, she was left as it were blind. And now for us who have survived him, it remains to imitate the good, nay, the supremely excellent method bequeathed to us by him as a pattern, and, as is called for by his merit and our obligations, to hold a most grateful remembrance of this in our minds, and to pay the highest honor to his memory with our lips. For in truth we have from him art, coloring, and invention harmonized and brought to such a pitch of perfection as could scarcely be hoped for; nor may any intellect ever think to surpass him.

— Giorgio Vasari, ”The Life of Raphael of Urbino,” Lives of the Artists (1550/1568).

SEEN, BUT NOT OBSERVED: Jacob van Ruisdael

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Thirty years ago UC Berkeley art historian Svetlana Alpers published The Art of Describing, which is a study of the 17th-century Dutch way of seeing the world; a study of the art a culture possessed of that visual epistemology produces; and a study of the (inadequate) art historical methodologies that had been brought to bear thus far on that art representing that epistemology.

Alpers argues at the local level that the approach of Dutch art historians, which relied on emblem books to decode hidden moral meanings in Dutch art was not only often wrong, but unintellectual, while at the global level, she challenged the prevailing iconographical methodology, claiming it had been developed for the study of Italian Renaissance art, where it worked (when practiced by scholars such as Panofsky) because Italian art was textually-based, but had been extended to the study of northern art, where it did not work.

All of the above was merely an introduction to The Art of Describing, the main goal of which was construct a framework for understanding Dutch art, that was derived from indigenous Northern visual and artistic practices, conventions and skills. That indigenous Dutch way of visually construing the world, according to Alpers, involved description (rather than rhetoric), empiricism (not classicism or idealism), mapping and surveying (as opposed to inventing), and other visual practices, particular to the Protestant, Dutch republic at the time of the advent of capitalism.

The genre of landscape painting, with its interests in topography, recording and plotting, plays an central role in The Art of Describing and pictures by Jacob van Ruisdael (1626-82) support Alpers’ thesis. Surveyed from above, the landscape seen in View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields, (c. 1670) resembles a map, which correctly charts relative distances while at the same time, it provides an empirically-observed record of topographical features.

Ruisdael was a prolific artist, his studio producing over 700 known paintings and 100 drawings in his lifetime and, naturally, emphases and interests fluctuate within this large body of work over time. Later in his career, Ruisdael continued to work in an objective, descriptive mode, but gradually shifted over to a more subjective, imaginative, and inventive mode. Many of the visual tropes associated with Romanticism appear routinely in the later Ruisdael—ruined buildings, abandoned cemeteries, stormy weather, blasted trees, torrential waters, castles and even sublime mountain peaks. Pictures with tiny single figures, facing away from the viewer and gazing at primeval landscapes could be by Caspar David Friedrich.

Ruisdael never traveled far from the Low Countries, which had no mountains or waterfalls to describe; nevertheless, these rugged, dramatic landscapes were the result of on-site, observation—done by another artist. Amsterdam painter Allart van Everdingen visited Scandinavia in 1644 and made a number of drawings of rocky mountainous scenes with torrents and waterfalls, from which other artists, including Ruisdael, borrowed motifs to create views of topographies they had never seen (A Norwegian River Landscape with Waterfall, c. 1665). Ruisdael also created detailed images of ruined buildings (Ruins in a Dune Landscape, probably 1650-5), the individual bricks of which are discernible and from which ground plans could be made, that never existed.

This is not to say, however that Ruisdael is a fraud, cutting empirical corners and making convincing fakes. Ruisdael invented and composed landscapes may have been a response to the changing tastes of the art-buying public and/or necessitated by the increased demand for for his work which meant less time out in the field and more composing from memory and models.

On a less material level, Ruisdael’s fictive landscapes do not contradict Alpers’ theory. His use of another artist’s visual record of a place is not unlike citing an authoritative work in a written argument—a drawing’s informational value is not diminished by reproducing it. Furthermore, Ruisdael’s use of another artists testimonial could be seen as observing description, and insofar as his work draws on visual rather than textual sources, Ruisdael’s seeming exception actually confirms Alpers’ thesis, which holds that works of art were accepted as visual information as much as maps and diagrams and a practical, rather than (Italian) decorative, function.

THE MODERN HOUSE I: Richard Meier’s Douglas House

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Architects: Richard Meier Associates

Year: 1971-73

Location: Harbor Springs, MI

Clients: Jim & Jean Douglas, owners Douglas Trucking, Grand Rapids MI

Meier recalls standing on the precipice of the cedar, birch and spruce covered slope that winds down to aquamarine shallows of Lake Michigan and thinking, “Wow, this is great. It seemed to me that we could build on it if, instead of entering at the bottom we entered from the top.”


Representations of church architecture are ubiquitous in 15th-century Flemish panel painting. The intricacy and wealth of finely-wrought detail of Gothic architecture, in particular, drew the attention of painters like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, as it provided them with an opportunity to hone—and show off—the hyper-realistic simulation of optical reality they had achieved through the mastery of the oil-glazing technique. The interiors of the churches seen in Jan’s Virgin in a Church and Rogier’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece are fitted out with painstakingly-realized niches, sculpture, stained glass, hanging crucifixes, candles, liturgical objects and architectural decoration that clearly reflects a deep familiarity with actual churches such as the cathedrals and parish churches of Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, and other centers.

Despite this high degree of exactitude in the rendering of details, only rarely do Flemish painters depict actual, built monuments or record the appearance of a real structure at a given historical moment. Instead, motifs, proportions, decorative elements and formal arrangements seen in the various churches of the era are selected and combined to create a virtual Gothic that is, and is not, of our world. To put it another way, these are buildings are familiar, but not known.

Furthermore, what transpires in these buildings does not correspond to customary uses of real ecclesiastical architecture. Both Jan and Rogier’s churches are occupied by the Virgin and Christ, who lived over 1000 year prior to the development of Gothic architecture, and they are of a scale wholly disproportionate to their settings (Panofsky wryly commented that the Virgin in a Church could easily have be referred to as the Virgin is the Church).

An indication of how one should interpret this seemingly paradoxical combination of realism and anachronism, of observation and imagination, can be found in a late 15th-century illuminated prayerbook owned by Mary of Burgundy, the consort of the emperor Maximillian. A full-page illumination shows Mary perusing her book of hours, seated next to a glazed window that opens not on to the outdoors, but on to the choir of a vast Gothic cathedral. Seated in that choir are the Virgin and Child, before whom Mary and her ladies in waiting kneel in prayer. The image within the image is not meant to replicate any reality—Mary cannot be watching herself have an audience with the Virgin. Instead, it is a visual metaphor, used to illustrate the spiritual realm, to which Mary gains access by means of the image she sees in her book. The architectural setting is therefore a visionary space, and the generalized forms of real ecclesiastical buildings designate that space as religious, other-worldy and sanctified. The experience is not limited to Mary alone—a vacant stool sits next to her, inviting the viewer to join her.

In Rogier’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, the Crucifixion takes place in the nave of a Gothic church, while contemporary figures enact the administration of the sacraments in the aisles of the church. Here, the focus is more institutional than personal: the architectural setting indicates that the salvation made possible by the crucifixion and attained through the sacraments takes place, figuratively speaking, within the church, which is both a material reality and a religious concept. Jan also makes use of the distinction between aisles and nave in the Dresden Madonna, which places the Virgin and Child at the end of a nave, in place of the high altar where the sacrifice of Christ is re-enacted, while saints and the donor appear in the aisles–secondary places for secondary figures.

Jan’s Virgin in a Church is the left wing of a devotional diptych, the right wing of which is lost. The overall appearance of the original is preserved in a copy of the work made by Quentin Massys in the early 16th century. The missing right wing showed the donor in an outdoor setting facing the Virgin and Child, who are rendered in proportion to him. The difference in setting is clear: the donor exists in the world, whereas the divine realm is signified by an idealized version of Gothic architecture.

These distinctions make other works such as Rogier’s Miraflores Altarpiece or his Virgin and Child seated in a Niche more intelligible—the Gothic arches mark out a sanctified space and what goes on beneath them is not part of the material world we inhabit despite the proliferation of details that suggest it might be.


“I am an artist of paint, making discoveries”

In 1950, Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928 – 2011), fresh out of Bennington College, was thrown by Clement Greenberg into the virile, competitive maelstrom of Abstract Expressionism in its prime years. Not only did the 25-year old show she could hold her own ground, within two years, she produced a breakthrough work, Mountains and Sea,that was held to be the first substantial picture in a style that grew out of the New York School, but broke new ground as well.

Although she had moved the debate forward, Frankenthaler was nevertheless constantly characterized in subordinate or retrospective terms. She was the designated “heir” to Jackson Pollock’s dripped and poured legacy and she was charged with maintaining the abstraction revolution, the irony of which, one imagines, was not lost on the young artist.


JEAN-BAPTISTE OUDRY: Le peintre animalier

Although he had been elected to the Académie Royale, Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) avoided the higher genres of history and religious painting, establishing himself instead as the leading peintre animalier of the first half of the 18th century, counting Louis XV as his chief patron. Oudry’s degree of specialization was made possible by the great expansion of the art market in the 18th century, when members of the bourgeoisie joined the aristocracy in buying and collecting. The fact that Oudry, a painter of non-heroic, no historic pictures, received royal attention and patronage reflects the degree to which the monarchy had to a certain extent taken on the tastes of the bourgeoisie. This is no longer the world or Louis XIV and Le Brun.

The voluminous production of Oudry’s large workshop is teeming with fauna, including scenes of the royal hunt; images of exotic wild and domesticated animals; portraits of animals and pets owned by the king and his courtiers, allegorical works featuring animals and images of animals as menu items— game birds, rabbits, wild boar, and venison laid out alongside leeks, bread, earthenware cocottes and copper pots ready for cooking.

Royal patronage came in the form of the directorships of the Beauvais and Gobelins tapestry manufactories. These large complex enterprises, which produced prestige, luxury goods for export were vital to the national economy, and a major source of income for the crown. Oudry not only ran both well, he provided the designs for many tapestries.

Many of the paintings bearing Oudry’s name were produced by studio assistants and there is a definite sense of art being created and sold by the square yard, with a purely decorative purpose in mind. His meticulous drawings, which served as models for paintings, show his real talents, combining empirical observation and suavity of line.

Oudry’s images of the behaviors, habitats, and interactions of animals participate in the taxonomic and descriptive natural science associated with the Enlightenment. His pictures of oddly-formed deer antlers, set against simple backgrounds and identified by documentary labels, are masterpieces of empirical observation, conceiving of painting as a means to advance knowledge as opposed to flattering patrons.

That said, Oudry flattered his royal patron plenty by using the conventions of formal portraiture to portray his well-bred hunting dogs at rest and at work, including Louis XV’s favorite hounds, the poised and dignified greyhounds, Misse and Turlu. Elsewhere, Oudry borrows from history painting to transform dogs chasing a deer into a elevated, heroic drama. He also overlays his accurately-depicted animal subjects with anecdote, sentiment and narrative borrowed from genre paintings.


It was standard practice in the trecento artist’s workshop for the master to paint the important figures (or at least their faces), while studio assistants filled the peripheral and marginal areas—pinnacles, spandrels, borders, soffits, etc with a large cast of saints, angels, and prophets. While these figures are usually identifiable by attribute or inscription, they tend to be generic in physiognomy and appearance, and were not meant to draw the viewer’s attention away from the principal images.

The startling exception to this rule is the work of Simone Martini (c. 1284 -1344), many of whose secondary and marginal characters are individuated as fully as the protagonists. The range of facial expressions, moods, postures, and degree of personalization is astonishing, given the fact that it has no immediate narrative context. The subtlety, imagination and attention invested in these figures is such that it is hard to imagine Simone himself was not responsible for their execution, just as Orson Welles often directed insignificant reaction and establishing shots himself, normally left to the second unit director.

Saints usually look benign or blandly joyful. Simone Martini’s heavenly host suggests, however, that beatification is not without its trials and annoyances. From the Angel of the Annunciation, Gabriel, who comes crashing into the Virgin’s bedroom, impatiently pointing upwards and frowning at her reluctance to become the Mother of God, to the weary and bored John the Baptist wishing he hadn’t worn sandals to the Maestà; from to the glaring St Martin of Tours who is about to fling the cardinal and donor of the chapel over his shoulder for some unmentioned lapse in protocol to the angry St Joseph chiding the sulking Christ, never have the the saints or the Holy Family seemed so irritable, truculent, disdainful, bored, embarrassed, sarcastic or angry. Everyone is on the verge in Simone’s world.

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