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An Incomplete History of Medieval Art XV

KONRAD WITZ

The German painter Konrad Witz (German, 1400 – 1447) transferred his workshop to Basel to seek work among the wealthy bishops, abbots and cardinals who had converged on the Swiss city to participate in Church Council of 1431-45. While in Basel, he received important commissions to paint the wings for large, sculptural altarpieces, none of which survive intact today. After his death he fell out of memory until 1901, when the curator of the Basel Kunstmuseum, Daniel Burckhardt-Werthemann, linked a panel painting in Geneva signed Konrad Witz to similar works in the Basel collection, hitherto attributed to an unbekannte Maler. The municipal archives of Basel from the period yielded several references to Witz, which allowed for the dating of some works and identified the patrons of others.

Witz’s most important work produced in Basel is the now-dismembered Heilsspiegel altarpiece, probably created for the church of St. Leonard. The iconography is based on the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, a popular 14th-century typological compendium. The 11 surviving panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament and pagan Antiquity bear a formal resemblance to events of the New Testament that they prefigure. Witz has a magic touch when it comes to depicting sumptuous garments and exotic head gear, particularly in the Heilsspiegel Altarpiece.

Despite Witz’s long association with Basel, the greatest commission of his career took him to Geneva, in the western, French-speaking part of Switzerland, to paint the high altarpiece for the Cathedral of St Pierre. The work was donated by Cardinal François de Metz, resident bishop of Geneva since 1436, who probably became acquainted with Witz’s work while at the Council of Basel. Witz took measures to insure he would remembered as the creator of this major civic monument, adding an inscription to the frame of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, that reads, hoc opus pinxit magister conradus sapientis de basilea MCCCCXLIV (Master Konrad Witz of Basel painted this work 1444). His surname, Witz, which means wit or mental sharpness in Middle High German, is rendered in Latin as sapientis or wise.

In the paintings that survive, Witz, like his contemporary Jan van Eyck, shows a serious interest in developing ways to represent certain types of visual experience in two-dimensions. In both the Miraculous Draught and the St Christopher panel, he pays a great deal of attention to effects of refraction of light in water, as well as to color changes and different degrees of sharpness among submerged bodies, including stones and the lower body of St Peter.

On land, Witz experimented with different devices for creating the illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface. Reflecting a knowledge of Italian trecento paintings, the interior spaces of Sts Catherine and Mary Magdelene and the Annunciation are well ahead of Witz’s Geman contemporaries. In an outdoor scene such as Joachim and Anna Meeting at the Golden Gate, Witz compensates for the flat gold backdrop by having the dramatically foreshortened wooden gate project directly into the viewer’s space. Nothing in the narrative requires the gate to be so assertively present, and late medieval artists, on the whole, do not take liberties with religious iconography. The gate must have been of special importance, perhaps as a way of compensating for viewing angle, for Witz to have taken the liberty of foregrounding it.

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THE LAST MINUTES OF MARIE ANTOINETTE, 16 OCTOBER 1793

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Jacques-Louis David, Marie-Antoinette Led to the Scaffold, 1793, Paris, Louvre.

Jacques-Louis David, the chief artist and designer of the Jacobin government, watched the public execution of former queen Marie Antoinette on 16 October 1793 from a window of a friend’s apartment overlooking the Place de la Guillotine, as the Place de la Concorde had been renamed. He made this quick sketch of the gaunt, expressionless 38-year old prisoner as she was led to the scaffold  before a large mob of spectators. The king, Louis XVI, had been beheaded on 30 January.

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Elizabeth Vigée-LeBrun, Marie Antoinette, 1785, Prague, Konopiste Castle.

Marie Antoinette had been convicted, after a two-day trial, of ruining the nation’s finances by renovating the Petit Trianon, conspiring with foreign powers to overthrow the revolutionary régime, and having molested her son, the Dauphin, who was forced to testify against his mother (all charges were patently false).  A witness noted her composure and dignity in her last moments.

As for David, once the grisly event was over, he went to his next appointment, the official unveiling of his portrait of the martyr of the  revolution, Jean-Paul Marat, who public obsequies he had choreographed on in July 1793.

SAINT JEROME – 30 SEPTEMBER

Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (c. 347–420) is a confessor saint, a church father and one the four Doctors of the Catholic Church.

After Augustine, Jerome is the second most prolific of the patristic authors. A tireless scholar, he composed a large body of exegetical, theological, polemical and pastoral texts, all of which which were staples of medieval and early modem libraries. He made the first complete, Latin translation of the bible, the Biblia Sacra Vulgata, rendering the Hebrew Old Testament and the demotic Greek New Testament himself over the years 382-405. Of this monumental task he said:

I am not so stupid as to think that any of the Lord’s words either need correcting or are not divinely inspired, but the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved faulty by the variations which are found in all of them.

Jerome’s Vulgate is not without errors; his most notorious mistranslation gave rise to the depiction of the Horned Moses.

Depictions of Jerome in his study were popular among Renaissance scholars and humanists, in northern and southern Europe, who viewed the saint as a divinely-inspired exemplar of their own profession.

Jerome was also famous for his asceticism, celibacy, and the mortification of the flesh, which he practiced after a period of youthful debauchery and enjoined his fellow clerics and followers among the laity to do as well, not always with happy results.

Prosper of Aquitaine recorded Jerome’s death at the age of 73 on 30 September 420. Initially interred in Bethlehem, his relics were later translated to Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. He was canonized shortly after his death, although the prwfiser year is not known. In the Roman Catholic Church, his feast day is 30 September and he is recognized as the patron saint of translators, librarians and encyclopedists.

Jerome is traditionally depicted as a cardinal, but the cardinalate was formed in the 6th century, some 250 years after Jerome’s death, so he never wore the red hat which serves as an attribute in many depictions of the saint.

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART XII: The Cave Churches of Cappadocia

THE CAVE CHURCHES OF CAPPADOCIA

Cappadocia is situated on the Anatolian plain in what now eastern Turkey. The region is well-known for its bizarre topographical formations created by water erosion of the soft volcanic stone, called tufa. Like the Roman catacombs, the tufa is very easy to carve, thus giving the region its second claim to fame: troglodytes. Early Christians fleeing Roman persecution exploited the softness of the stone, at first digging out simple warrens of interconnected hideouts and after the establishment of Christianity, corridors, houses, markets and places of worship, and finally whole cities, some descending 8 stories beneath ground level.

The images here show two churches in Goreme, the largest city in Cappadocia. They both are designed according to the standard church plan of the middle Byzantine period: an equilateral cross inscribed in a square surmounted by a circular dome; one entered the church from the narthex, a transverse vaulted area preceding the nave. The vaults and domes were either decorated in mosaic or with wall paintings, the iconography of which was dictated by the liturgical calendar. The Cappadocian churches (and monasteries) follow this formula, with some local deviations.

What is unusual about these structures is not so much their design, but their method of construction: unlike a free-standing building, where pre-cut or pre-formed elements such as bricks, masonry, columns, and capitals are assembled, the Cappadocian churches are created, like sculpture, by a subtractive process of removing the amount of tufa equivalent to the desired volume of the church, or more accurately, the church space. Features like blind arcades, columns and capitals are not cut and fit into place — they are continuous with the vaults and domes, with no breaks in the living stone at any point. The columns are not decorative—the support not only the weight of the vaults and domes, but the entire mountain above, and one imagines that the number of load-bearing supports required was often discovered when too few columns were left in place, causing the cave to collapse in on itself, which meant finding a new location and starting all over again. Given this danger, the churches spaces in the Cappadocian caves range from intimate to small —the largest nave is only 25’ 22’ long.

Twenty-five years ago, Cappadocia was a remote site, visited only by adventurous archaeologists and architectural historians, driving Land Rovers and equipped with flashlights. Now, the region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in the wake of that designation, which was intended to preserve the cave cities, came developers who promptly carved luxury hotels with swimming pools, malls, restaurants, and parking structures into the tufa and on the surface, roadways, which brought cars and exhaust, which now threaten the region’s fragile eco-system. Like the caves at Lascaux and the Roman catacombs, the number of breathing, perspiring tourists in the cave churches caused the humidity to spike, which makes the tufa erode and the wall paintings to flake. Lascaux is now closed permanently to visitors, as are the frescoed areas of the catacombs, so if you want to see Goreme, you may wish to book your seats now.

STILL LIFE: 1600 – 2000

HEATWAVE: Art for Late August

HELEN FRANKENTHALER

“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.

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