‘He is the Shakespeare of Painting.’ – Giotto’s Arena Chapel

July 30, 2020 at 6:58 pm (Art)

A panel from Giotto’s Arena Chapel serves as the cover art for a book I am currently reading – very slowly and deliberately: . The Arena Chapel, in Padua, Italy, was originally designed as a private place of worship. Covered frescoes painted by Giotto di Bondone, with assistance from those in his workshop, it was commissioned by a wealthy banker, Enrico Scrovegni, in the early 1300s. (Hence it is also referred to as the Scrovegni Chapel.)

The exterior of this edifice is appealing yet modest.

It gives little hint of the riches contained within:

In the book’s first chapter, Clark offers a minute analysis of  the panels that tell the story of Joachim. This rendering of that story appears on the site Christian iconography:

The canonical scriptures say nothing of the birth or parentage of Mary, but countless art works through the ages have taken their cue from legendary material. Starting in at least the 2nd century, this material proposes that Mary’s parents were named Joachim and Anna. Because they had been childless for 20 years, Joachim was expelled from the Temple when he brought his offering on the Feast of Dedication. Despondent, he went with his flocks into the mountains far away. Five months later an angel told him he was to be a father and should go to meet Anne at Jerusalem’s Golden Gate. While Joachim sacrificed a lamb in thanksgiving, the angel brought Anne the same message, and the couple met and embraced at the Golden Gate. When the child was born they named her Mary.


The Expulsion of Joachim

The absolute blue in Joachim’s Expulsion…conjuring an emptiness no human effort can ever stave off, uninflected and godforsaken, the Temple floating on it like a tipping life raft–seems to speak to a bleakness of vision that Giotto’s art, taken as a whole, surely exists to refute.


Joachim Among the Shepherds. I particularly love this panel because of the dog’s spontaneous expression of joy at seeing Joachim, and Joachim’s tender acknowledgement.


Annunciation to St. Anne


Joachim’s Sacrificial Offering


Joachim’s Dream

The blue in Joachim’s Dream is less cruel–the angel, after all, does appear in it–but it remains as cold as a color can be, pressing down into the desert at  the angel’s behest almost as far as Joachim’s halo….

Is that blue sky so cold; is it pressing down with such force? It does not appear so to me. And that angel seems more like a harbinger of goodness than anything else, caught as he is in the very act of materializing! And the animals there once again, sweetening the scene with their simple goodness.


Meeting at the Golden Gate

How wonderful is this image! Joachim and Anna embrace: they are going to have a child after all. And this child, a daughter they will call Mary, will become a most awesome part of the history of the world.

The story goes that Enrico Scrovegni commissioned the chapel as an act of penance:

There is a tradition that he hired Giotto to atone for the sin of usury, although there is debate about whether this idea has any foundation. Dante placed his father in the Seventh Circle of Hell for his notoriously ill-gotten gains, and Enrico himself was a moneylender on a grand scale; it is these facts that have given rise to the tradition. Against the idea that he founded the chapel as an act of atonement may be cited the fact that it was a very sumptuous commission for his own personal use, attached to the grand palace that he built for himself. In 1320 Enrico Scrovegni fled the wars and civil strife that plagued Padua at the time, and settled in Venice. He was formally banished from Padua in 1328, and died in Venice in 1336.

from the Wikipedia entry

If, in fact, the tradition holds true, then Scrovegni’s act of contrition gifted the world with one of its greatest works of art.





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‘For a brief moment, she smiled, and I glimpsed an angel far from Paradise.’ Death in Delft: A 17th Century historical murder mystery by Graham Brack

July 19, 2020 at 12:28 pm (Art, Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  This little novel found me out via one of Amazon’s cunning algorithms. I had previously not heard of it, nor of its author Graham Brack. As the cover explains, the setting is Delft, in the Netherlands, and the time is the 17th century.

This was the era of the Dutch Golden Age. Its characteristics are summed up as follows in the Wikipedia entry:

The Dutch Golden Age … was a period in the history of the Netherlands, roughly spanning the era from 1581 (the birth of the Dutch republic) to 1672 (the disaster year), in which Dutch trade, science, and art and the Dutch military were among the most acclaimed in the world. The first section is characterized by the Eighty Years’ War, which ended in 1648. The Golden Age continued in peacetime during the Dutch Republic until the end of the century.

For many of us, this remarkable era primarily means the following:

Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt


The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals


Soldier and Laughing Girl, Vermeer


The Young Bull by Paulus Potter


The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede by Jacob van Ruisdael

Not to mention this:

Antique Delftware plate

Well, I did let myself get sidetracked there, didn’t I?

Master Mercurius is – well, a curious character. A cleric attached in some capacity to the University of Leiden, he is ordained both as a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister. The latter serves as a cover, at a time when Catholics were not generally esteemed or welcome in the Netherlands.

Having been recognized by his superiors as something of a natural sleuth hound, Mercurius is sent to Delft to look into the disappearance and possible kidnapping of three young girls. Once established in this city which is new to him, he is assisted with his endeavors by a number of individuals, among them two of Delft’s most notable citizens: Anton van Leuwenhoek and Joannes Vermeer.

The story of the achievements of these two gifted individuals is woven seamlessly into this engrossing narrative. In fact, it is a discovery made by Vermeer that provides a clue that proves crucial to  the solving of the mystery of the missing girls (one of whom, alas, is found deceased early on in the story).

Mercurius himself is a very appealing and believable character. Despite being in holy orders, he is as vulnerable to the world’s temptations as any man would be. But he is also genuinely self-effacing, empathetic, and above all, kind. One instinctively has faith in his commitment to the cause.

The book is full of memorable scenes. After van Leowenhoek has shown some of his works in microscopy to Mercurius, the latter exclaims:

‘I hope, mijnheer, that you will publish your drawings and receive the credit your work deserves. You have opened our eyes to the smallest works of our Creator, and are therefore a benefactor to mankind.’

Religious doubts and convictions play an important role in this narrative, but they never overpower or interfere  with the action. I like this quote:

 I remembered a prayer that I was told was used by an English soldier during their Civil War: “Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be today. If I do forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.”

Mercurius adds, with fervor, “I knew exactly how he felt.”

The second book in Graham Brack’s Master Mercurius series is entitles Untrue Till Death. It’s due out on August 10, and I very much look forward to reading it.


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Cocktails with a Curator….Captivating!

July 14, 2020 at 2:44 pm (Art)

The Polish Rider, by Rembrandt


The White Horse, by John Constable

Every Friday at Five PM, the Frick Collection has been presenting “Cocktails with a Curator.” For 17 or 18 minutes, a curator holds forth on the subject of a single work of art housed at the Frick: its history, provenance, and most interesting features. Along with this edifying – but never heavy handed –  commentary, the viewer gets a curated cocktail recommendation that ties in somehow with the work being presented. (Recipes for the cocktails can be found on the Frick’s website.)

The episodes remain available on YouTube after they are originally broadcast. But it’s fun to be present for the first broadcast, because of the running chat that appears on the right. People send greetings from many different places.  When I watched this past Friday, in addition to a goodly number of us in the U.S., their viewers in the UK and Canada; there was someone from Wroclaw, Poland, and another person from Naples, Italy.

Commenters in the chat box invariably wax enthusiastic about the broadcasts. These are mainly hosted by Xavier Salomon, who introduces himself as “the Peter Jay Sharp chief curator at the Frick Collection.” (A few of the episodes are also presented by another curator, the delightful Aimee Ng.) Son of an English mother and a Danish father, Salomon was born in Rome and grew up there. At age eighteen, he moved to London, where he attended the renowned Courtauld Institute. Ultimately he received his doctorate there, having authored a dissertation entitled ‘The Religious Artistic and Architectural Patronage of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini (1571-1621)’

Well gosh…

As for his professional history, we’re informed by an article in This Week in New York that Salomon “…previously worked at the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, and the Met here in New York…” The author of this piece adds that this is “…quite a resume for a man only just in his forties….”

Xavier F. Salomon

This same article proclaims Salomon to be “…fast becoming an internet superstar for his Friday talks.” This is easy to believe if you follow the nonstop praise appearing in the chat box.

The first in the series centers on Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. And no, Xavier does not recommend a Bellini cocktail to his viewers, but rather, a classic Manhattan. (For those who choose not to imbibe, or who are under age, there is also a ‘mocktail’ recipe.)

Here are the two episodes that correspond to the paintings at the top of this post:



You might also enjoy ‘Travels with a Curator.’ I particularly like this one, about an exquisite gem in Venice that was completely new to me. (Ah, will one ever return to Venice…)


Xavier and Aimee both acknowledge the pain and frustration we’re all feeling right now, as we remain imprisoned by this loathsome antagonist. In these video segments, they do their best to brighten these gray days that we are all facing.

You can access these treasures via the Frick site or on YouTube. And this Friday, it’s Vermeer!

I for one am deeply grateful.





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News of the Art World

July 2, 2020 at 2:36 pm (Art)

A previous unseen sketch in charcoal by Picasso is slated to be auctioned by Sotheby’s on July 28. Dated 1931, this portrait, called Femme endormie (Woman Sleeping) depicts one Marie-Thérèse Walter, ‘lover and muse’ of the artist.

On seeing it, I was immediately put in mind of this image:

Ara Pacis Augustae

This frieze resides in the Museum of the Ara Pacis, in Rome. I had never previously heard of this institution, or this work, until I obtained this book:

Does anyone else perceive the likeness? I think it’s the angle of the head, the suggestion of a slightly veiled repose.

As to the book itself, it is slow going, but I like the elegiac tone. I return to it from time to time.


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Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Art

June 25, 2020 at 1:43 am (Art)

I recently took a week long course on art inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This was a wonderful experience.

Here are just a few of the paintings we studied:

The Rape of Europa, by Noel Nicolas Coypel


Jupiter and Io, by Antonio da Coreggio (Can you discern Jupiter’s face? Hint: look closely at Io’s face.)

Many are the ways the wily Jove sates his seemingly endless desire! Here is Rembrandt’s Abduction of Europa:

This is one of the few mythological subjects painted  by Rembrandt.

The Rape of Europa

This masterpiece by Titian is owned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. We’re lucky to still have it; the thieves who perpetrated the notorious theft of March 18, 1990 kindly left it behind. There was some hope that when Whitey Bulgur was finally apprehended in 2011, that he might reveal knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing art. But apparently he did not; if he possessed any useful knowledge on the subject, it’s gone with him to the grave.

Meanwhile, the museum is currently offering a $10 million dollar reward “…for information leading to  the recovery of the stolen works.”

Anybody know anything?

Empty picture frames remain in place – sad reminders.


Mercury and Argus, by Velasquez. This one of the last paintings Velasquez did. I find it utterly haunting; Mercury is preparing to kill the hundred-eyed Argus. He has seen too much.


Deucalion and Pirrha, by Giovanni Maria Bottala. Following the Great Flood, humanity is being reborn from those rocks this man and woman have  been commanded to throw behind them.

This is a huge, delicious subject. There’s more to come.

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Solace in Beauty

June 1, 2020 at 7:18 pm (Art, Current affairs, Music, Poetry)

I am deeply sorry for the pain being felt by many people right now in this country.

I fear that the beauty of this first day of June little avails aching hearts. So I would like to offer some words, sounds, and images of  beauty, as possible solace.

Willem Kalf (1619-1693), Pronk Still Life with Holbein Bowl, Nautilus Cup, Glass Goblet and Fruit Dish

About the chambered nautilus, Wikipedia tells us this:

Nautilus shells were popular items in the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities and were often mounted by goldsmiths on a thin stem to make extravagant nautilus shell cups, such as the Burghley Nef, mainly intended as decorations rather than for use. Small natural history collections were common in mid-19th-century Victorian homes, and chambered nautilus shells were popular decorations.

Here is a cutaway view showing the configuration of the shell’s chambers:

In his eponymous poem, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrests a deeper meaning from this curious artifact:

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!
Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.
Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
To return to Wikipedia, the above entry led me in turn to an entry on goldsmiths. On that page, I found this image, which greatly appealed:
Entitled The Bagdadi Goldsmith, it is a creation of Kamal-ol-molk, This  artist was from Iran; he lived from 1848 to 1940.
This encounter brought to mind a haunting work by the great Russian composer Alexander Borodin. It is called In the Steppes of Central Asia. (The quality of this video is not great, but the visuals are arresting and the music…well, just listen:


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Art Love: Paintings that currently enchant me

May 10, 2020 at 1:30 am (Art)

Virgin Among Virgins in a Rose Garden by the Master of the St. Lucy Legend, 1475-1480

Garden in May by Maria Oakey Dewing, 1895



Georges de La Tour Peasant Couple Eating, ca. 1620


Road in the dunes by Salomon van Ruysdael


Astronomer by Candlelight by Gerrit Dou, late 1650s


Young Bull by Paulus Potter, 1647


White Horse by John Constable, 1819


The Princes of Orange and their Families on Horseback, Riding Out from The Buitenhof, The Hague by Paulus van Hillegaert, 1596

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Cardsharps, fortune tellers, and other dubious (but secretive fun) pursuits

May 5, 2020 at 6:16 pm (Art)

It began, as did so much in Baroque painting, with Caravaggio:

The Cardsharps, 1594

“With this petty crime scene, Cardsharps, the young Caravaggio invented a genre of trickery pictures.” (from Caravaggio.org)

Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, by Georges de la Tour, 1630-34


The Cardsharps, by Gerard van Honthorst


The Procuress by Dirck van Baburen, 1622


The Proccuress by Johannes Vermeer, 1656


The Fortune Teller, by Caravaggio, 1595


Fortune Teller by Georges de la Tour, 1630


Fortune Teller with Soldiers by Valentin de Boulogne, 1618-20

These pickpocket paintings brought to mind this number from the musical Oliver!

Why should we break our backs
Stupidly paying tax?
Better get some untaxed income…

Gerrit (Gerard) van Honthorst, Dirck van Baburen, and Hendrick ter Brugghen were the primary exemplars of a group of artists that have come to be known as the Utrecht Caraviggisti. Caravaggio had no workshop and did not deliberately seek to pass on his distinctive artistic proclivities. Nevertheless, his unique, revolutionary style – the use of models from everyday life, their up close, in your face presentation, and above all, the heightening drama of darkness and light – had a profound influence on his contemporaries and immediate followers.

I’ve saved Hendrik ter Brugghen’s Gamblers for last:

This is because I want to share with you this delightful bit of street theater staged in music. I believe it was conceived as an accompaniment to Utrecht,  Caravaggio, and Europe, a special exhibit at Munich’s great Alte Piankothek. It was staged last year. Oh, to have seen it!




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‘Truly, my friend Rembrandt, all honor to you.’

April 23, 2020 at 12:21 pm (Art)

Judas, repentant, returning the pieces of silver, by Rembrandt, 1629

That single gesture of the desperate Judas…a raging, whining Judas groveling for mercy he no longer hopes for or dares to show the smallest sign of expecting, his frightful visage, hair torn out of his head, his rent garment, his arms twisted, the hands clenched bloodlessly tight, fallen to his knees in a heedless outburst–that body, wholly contorted in pathetic despair.

[He] can withstand comparison with anything ever made in Italy, or f or  that matter with everything beautiful and admirable that has been preserved since the earliest antiquity….that which (and I say this in dumb amazement) a youth, a born and bred Batavian…a miller, a smooth-faced  boy, has done: joining in the figure of one man so many divers particulars and expressing so many universals. Truly, my friend Rembrandt, all honor to you.

Constantijn Huygens was astounded when he saw what the young Rembrandt – age 23! – had accomplished in this painting.

Surely there are few things in this world as inspiring as the praise of one genius for another. May this example comfort and encourage us now.

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The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals (1624)

April 13, 2020 at 1:38 pm (Anglophilia, Art)

Yes – It’s Frans Hals’s famous painting of the Laughing Cavalier. Except, chortled our (Osher Life Long Learning) lecturer Nora Hamerman, he is not laughing and he is not a cavalier!

He is obviously not laughing; rather, he is smiling in a somewhat secretive way. (It was considered bad form to portray a subject openly laughing – open mouthed, that is. The condition of the teeth probably had something to do with that proscription.) As for being a cavalier – meaning a knight or some type of nobleman – he was not that, either. Most likely he was a Dutch cloth merchant. Certainly his spectacular doublet is a fine advertisement for his wares!

Nora inquired whether any of us had actually seen this painting. “I have!” I exclaimed, delighted to recall my visit, several years ago, to London’s fabulous Wallace Collection. That’s where The Laughing Cavalier looks out with sly pleasure at delighted visitors.

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