Illuminated manuscripts were expensive and jealously collected symbols of rank and education among the European aristocracy. If you happen to be in New York anytime soon, do yourself a favor and go to the Morgan Library. They have a stunning permanent collection of illuminated manuscripts, and it’s constantly changing. The curators just have to turn the pages of the books, and they have a whole new exhibition!
GENTILE DA FABRIANO: Adoration of the Magi
Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423.
Collection of Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi is considered by scholars to be THE masterpiece of the International Gothic style. The work is a gorgeous surface of sumptuously costumed kings and courtiers, exotic animals, chivalric etiquette and lavish processions. The 9’ x 10’ panel portrays the journey of the Magi into Bethlehem. Starting with their ocean voyage in the upper left corner, the narrative moves clockwise to the Magi’s entrance through the city gates, and down into the bottom half of the panel to their meeting of the Virgin and Baby Jesus. Within the painting are a few striking bits of realism that were bold departures from the previous Byzantine and Gothic styles. (Styles of flat visual surfaces, hard outlines, no sense of space or perspective, stiffly formal gestures and limited realism.) The radical foreshortening of the animals foretells the visually realistic ambitions of the Renaissance artists.
Da Fabriano lived (in Italy) from 1330 to 1400. (Don’t you love the fact that da Fabriano lived SEVEN HUNDRED years ago, and we can still recognize his name as Italian?) He worked primarily in Venice (where he painted a now-lost fresco in the Doges’ Palace) and in Florence, where the Adoration was painted to adorn the Santa Trinita. (The piece is now in the Uffizi Gallery.)
STEPHAN LOCHNER: Madonna of the Rose Garden
Stephan Lochner, Madonna of the Rose Garden, 1430.
Collection of Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne
In Germany, the International Style was called the “Soft Style” because of its curvilinear rhythm and smooth, carefully modeled surface. (Same stylistic elements in Germany, Italy and all over Europe. Just two different names.) The leading master of the style in Cologne, Germany was Stephan Lochner, the painter of our Madonna of the Rose Garden. A painter of sophisticated and refined sensibilities, he created compositions that were delicate and pictorially ornate. The light coloration and gentle religious spirit of the Madonna of the Rose Garden give an ethereal quality to the painting, as do the musical angels, a motif Lochner frequently used in his compositions.
Three fun (weird) facts about Stephan Lochner: 1) He died of the plague. 2) He lived SEVEN HUNDRED years ago, and we can still recognize his name as German. (See da Fabriano, above.) 3) Asteroid “12616 Lochner” was named after him in 2008. Don’t ask me why.
STEPHAN LOCHNER: Adoration of the Magi
Stephan Lochner, Adoration of the Magi, 1440.
Collection of the Cathedral, Cologne
One of the oft repeated themes in Western religious art is the Adoration of the Magi. I thought you might like to see Stephan Lochner’s version, a three paneled altarpiece measuring 16’ wide by 8’ high when opened, and painted for the Cathedral of Cologne. Not interested in relaying a narrative story like da Fabriano, Lochner’s Adoration of the Magi, is a massive group portrait depicting the Madonna, Child and Magi in the center panel, Saint Ursula and the martyred virgins in the left panel and St. Gereon and his knightly companions on the right. Saints Ursula and Gereon were the patron saints of Cologne, and by including them in the altarpiece that adorned Cologne’s Cathedral, Lochner narrowed the universal Christian act of worshiping the Madonna and Child to the residents of Cologne to bring protection and blessings to the city.
How did the saints become saints?
Ursula and 11,000 virginal handmaidens (on a Holy pilgrimage with the Pope) were beheaded by Huns in 350 AD. According to legend, the Church of St. Ursula was erected over their bones. The story of Saint Ursula is in dispute, but the church is most certainly built on a massive stash of bones, which scholars believe to be a Roman cemetery.
St. Gereon’s legend is bit less exciting. (No mass of virgins or giant pile of bones.) He was a soldier beheaded in Cologne for refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods.
I’m not Catholic, but I’m going to midnight mass at Cathedral of St. Paul (in San Diego) on Christmas Eve. (Mass actually starts at 10:30, but I’m sure it will be midnight by the time it’s over.) High church is grand – the choir, ritual, ceremony and splendor of a massive cathedral. I soak it up like a sponge, not understanding much but loving the mystery. (Sitting in the very last row next to the outside aisle, so I don’t have to participate, because I don’t know what to do.)
If you are a fan of Gothic cathedrals and the history surrounding the building of them (or if you think learning about them sounds even slightly interesting), I highly, highly recommend Ken Follett’s book Pillars of the Earth. It is MAGNIFICENT. (With a warning. During the first 100 pages everyone pretty much just slogs around starving, homeless and desperate for work. Not much happens, and I stopped reading the book 3 times in the first one hundred pages, but I kept picking it up and pushing myself onward.) Once you hit page 100, I PROMISE you the next 800 pages will FLY by. (I’ve read it twice.) Interested, maybe? Read the reviews on amazon.com. They are much more convincing than mine.
I love you, friends. Have a lovely holiday. See you on the other side of 2009.
Art of the Early Renaissance, adapted by Michael Batterberry, 1968. McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Northern Painting: Purcelle to Bruegel/14th, 15th & 16th Centuries, Charles D. Cuttler, 1968. Holt, Rinehart Winston.