Mary and the Immaculate Conception

Mary and the Immaculate Conception

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682), “The Aranjuez Immaculate Conception” (1675), 222x118cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Today December 8th is the day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It’s one of the major Christian feast days and it’s a holiday in many Catholic countries. But what is it about; what is the Immaculate Conception of Mary? First of all: do not confuse it with Mary’s virginal conception of her son Jesus! That’s only happening on March 25th, when it’s announced to Mary that she will be pregnant, being 9 months before the birth of her son Jesus, which happens on December 25th and that’s Christmas day. December 8th is about the Immaculate Conception of Mary herself, and it’s exactly 9 months before another feast day in the Catholic church, the Nativity or Birth of Mary, and that’s on September 8th. It’s all easy to remember when you count with those 9 months pregnancy.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is nothing more than that she was born immaculate, pure, spotless and without any sin. That’s in contrary to any other human being. Everyone is born with the Original Sin, which is the inherited sin of Adam and Eve, who were eating the forbidden fruit while being in Paradis. That was the first sin of mankind ever, and it became an inheritable sin. It means that every baby is born with this Original Sin, to be washed away by baptizing, as soon as possible after birth. Mary on the contrary was born without this Original Sin, she was born Immaculate. That also makes her the one and only human being ever been without any sin. And Mary being so immaculate and the purest of all, is celebrated on December 8th.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746 – 1828), “The Immaculate Conception” (1783), 80x41cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Mardrid.

The parents of Mary are Anna and Joachim, and these two are in that sense the grandparents of Jesus. Many believe that Anna, Mary’s mother, stayed a virgin herself while becoming pregnant of Mary. That’s not correct and officially considered an error by the Catholic doctrine. It’s also not so that Mary, after being born without the Original Sin, by default stayed without any personal sin. In general however, it’s believed that Mary was born without sin and stayed without sin.

Mary’s Immaculate Conception is a doctrine, being established as a faith by Popes and widely accepted within the Church. Already celebrated since the 5th century, the doctrine was only dogmatically defined in 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared so with “papal infallibility”. So, since then it’s a “true” story.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696 – 1770), “The Immaculate Conception” (1767), 281x155cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

It’s for artists not so easy to depict the concept of Immaculate Conception. Painters were struggling with the concept for long time, and only from the 17th Century onwards a standard image developed, based on paintings from the circle of the Spanish painter Murillo. It’s mostly an image of Mary in a heavenly realm with clouds and a golden light, surrounded by symbols of purity like white lilies and roses, with sometimes an image of God above Mary. On some painting symbols of the Original Sin, like snake and apple, can be seen at Her feet. Mary is standing on a crescent moon, symbol of virginity and chastity. It’s always an image of Mary herself and certainly without the baby Jesus, as that happened only later in the life of the Virgin Mary.

Narcissus and Echo

Narcissus and Echo

Meet Narcissus and Echo! Although we know them already, as they are around us every day and everywhere. But originally they are two mythological characters from the “Metamorphoses”, an 1st century book in Latin, by the Roman poet Ovid.

John William Waterhouse (1849 – 1917), “Echo and Narcissus” (1903), 109x189cm, Oil on Canvas, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Let’s start with Narcissus. He was in those ancient mythological times a most beautiful young man. One sunny day, while walking in a wood and being thirsty, he wanted to drink from a well. But then another thirst grew in him. As Narcissus drank, he was enchanted by an attractive young boy he saw in the pond. Narcissus fell in love with that pretty guy in the water, mistaking that shadow of himself for a real body. Absolutely spellbound, he could not stop looking at that mirror image of himself. But poor Narcissus, whenever he wanted to kiss his lover, and when his lips touched the water, the reflection disappeared. Whenever he reached his hands to that guy in the pond, the image faded away. The boy he fell in love with did not exist and was nothing else than his own reflection.

Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), “Narcissus” (c. 1598), 110x92cm, Oil on Canvas, Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Narcissus lay down next to the pond and being deeply in love kept on staring at his own image. No food anymore and no sleep. He started crying, but when his tears touched the water, the pool rippled and the object of his desire disappeared. Narcissus ultimately faded away and died. On that spot where he died, flowers started to grow; it’s the Narcissus flower, the daffodil, with its head hanging down, as if looking at the flower’s own refection in the water. See the painting by Waterford, some daffodils start to grow already next to Narcissus.

Anonymous, “Narcis” (c.1765), 30x19cm, Watercolor on Paper, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Would Narcissus have lived now and amongst us, he probably non-stop posted pictures of himslef on his social media. In that sense Narcissus invented the “selfie”, as ultimate passionate love for ones own image. We all know some of these guys and girls; check your InstaGram! We might even Narcissus ourselves?

Now about Echo, a young girl who fell in love with Narcissus. But first back to the beginning as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Echo was one of those girls who cannot stop talking, a chatterbox first class. Whenever in that mythological world the god Jupiter was playing around with girls, Echo distracted his wife Juno with her endless babbling. Juno got pretty angry and punished Echo. From that moment on, Echo could only repeat the last few words mentioned by someone else.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823 – 1889) “Echo” (1874) 98x67cm, Oil on Canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

When Echo noticed Narcissus walking in the woods, she immediately fell in love. Narcissus sensed that someone was around and said: “Who is there, come here!”. And Echo said: “Come here!”. Narcissus said: “Let’s meet” and Echo said “Let’s meet!”. But when Narcissus saw Echo, he did not like her at all. Echo, feeling ashamed and rejected, hide in a cave where she became old and wrinkled and then died. Only her voice remains and that voice can still be heard when you are hiking in the mountains. Poor Echo will forever continue to repeat your last few words. I guess we all know some of these girls, endless talking and basically saying nothing more than just a few echoed words.

Of course there are deeper psychological meanings behind being a Narcist or being like Echo. The Narcists around us are the self-centered persons and the Echoists are the ones always focusing on others and neglecting themselves. And that makes them attracting each other, but never really connecting. They both should learn to share a bit each other’s characteristics. For Narcissus to echo more and for Echo to become a bit more narcistic.

The Caravaggio painting became the iconic image of Narcissus. The painting is currently to be seen on the exhibition “Caravaggio & Bernini, the Discovery of Emotions” in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, until January 19, 2020. This exhibition (and Caravaggio’s Narcissus) will then move to the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam as “Caravaggio-Bernini, Baroque in Rome” from February 14 until June 7, 2020.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680)

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Still Life with a Roemer and Watch” (1629), 46x69cm, Oil on Panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Let’s have Sunday brunch 17th Century style! And that’s best done with Willem Claesz. Heda, Dutch Golden Age painter from Haarlem, The Netherlands. He specialized in the genre of “banketjes” and “ontbijtjes” (banquets and breakfasts), and most of them in a monochrome manner. Not much known about his life, not even an exact date of birth or death. But his legacy can be seen in the important museums all over the world. Let’s have a closer look at the one from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And let’s find the hidden message in what seemingly is just a banquet still life painting.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Banquet Piece with Mince Pie” (1635), 107x111cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

This is the aftermath of a feast meal; a table filled with exotic food, luxurious tableware and precious glasses. The lemon and olives have been imported from the Mediterranean. The salt – expensive in those days – can been seen on a silver salt cellar. The mince pie, filled with meat and fruits and spices, is a dish for special occasions and on this painting has clearly been eaten already. A glass broke, the goblet fell over and the candle went out. But the message is shown exactly in the middle and in the front; it even sticks out of the painting right into our face. And that’s the piece of bread. The roll has not been touched. Bread in the Eucharistic meaning represents the body of Christ. Heda tells us that we should not overlook the Christian faith while being seduced by the pleasures and richness of food and earthly goods.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Still Life with a Ham, Bread and Precious Vessels” (1654), 105x147cm, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

And here is another still life breakfast painting by Heda. It’s from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. On the table a ham, lemon, oysters, the salt on the silver salt cellar, precious vessels, Venetian glass and even a “nautilus cup”, made of the nautilus shell imported from the Far East. This painting shows the wealth of a rich merchant from the Dutch Golden Age. But also here, on the left side of the table, is that very modest, untouched, lonely piece of bread. All the richness on one side of the table and on the other side, at that pure white clean tablecloth, the power of the Christian faith, symbolized by a simple bread roll. I guess the owners of these paintings, those rich merchants in the 17th Century, liked to show off their wealth and their taste for international and exotic treasures, but they also wanted to show how modest and down-to-earth they were. It’s true Calvinist behavior; almost as an excuse for wealth and success.

Assumption of Mary

Tiziano “Titian” Vecelli (1488 – 1576), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1516), 690x360cm, Oil on Panel, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.

Today August 15 is the official feast day of the “Assumption of Mary”. It’s a holiday in many, mostly Catholic, countries. But what is it about and how has it been depicted in art? This day is to celebrate that the Holy Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, is taken up into Heaven at the end of her earthly life. It’s not so much a historic event, but it’s deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, belief and faith. The historic element is that somewhere around the year 41, Mary passed away. From around the 3rd century the belief was added that the body of Mary was taken up into Heaven and in that sense she followed her son Jesus Christ, who was crucified and subsequently taken into Heaven about 10 years earlier. From the 5th century onwards, it was added that all the apostles were present at this very moment, which is depicted on the many paintings with Mary’s Assumption. They are the group of guys looking up in astonishment when Mary is taken into Heaven, up into the arms of God. On most paintings Mary goes up with the help of angels, like on the gigantic Titian altar piece, almost 7×4 meters, which is still on its original location in the Frari Church in Venice.

Annibale Carracci (1560 – 1609), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1587), 130x97cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

There is still an endless dispute about the moment just before the heavenly Assumption of Mary. Did Mary only fell asleep, the so-called “Dormition”, and then went up? Or did she actually also really die? The official Catholic dogma around the subject is not clarifying this element. Pope Pius XII proclaimed in 1950 that Mary indeed “completed her earthly life” and that her body and soul went up into heavenly glory. The Pope used his Papal authority to declare this dogma and did so with “Papal Infallibility”. He made not clear if Mary just fell asleep and went up, or if she also really died before going up into Heaven. On the Titian painting, Mary goes up into Heaven and no indication of the moment just before the Assumption. On the Carracci painting from the Prado, Madrid, Mary is ascending from a tomb, which would indicate that Mary indeed died. On the Rubens altar piece, still in its original location in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, the tomb is also present.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1626), 490x325cm, Oil on Panel, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp.

I think the Assumption of Mary is a beautiful belief and it’s great to depict this story. Every viewer of a painting with the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Christ, has a mother him- or herself and many viewers are also “mother” themselves. And all those mothers will one day pass away. It must have given – and still gives – a lot of comfort to know or believe that Mary, as the mother of all mothers, was taken up into heaven after her death. It gives hope to everyone, and certainly to our mothers, that one day they will follow Mary up into Heaven. August 15 is a public holiday, but it’s above all the ultimate and sacred Mother’s Day.

Hans Memling (1430 – 1494)

Hans Memling from Bruges, Belgium, died on this day August 11 in 1494. Besides producing the standard devotional paintings, he also became one of the most sought-after Netherlandish portrait painters. He invented an unique and totally new style of portrait, with a landscape in the background, as if the sitter is portrayed outside or in front of a window.

Hans Memling (1430 – 1494), “Portrait of a Man with a Letter” (c1485), 35x26cm, Oil on Panel, Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Memling’s clientele was quite international. Bruges had many visitors from Florence, Tuscany, as the Italians and the Flemish were partners in textile trading and banking. The Medici family even had their permanent representatives in Bruges. These wealthy merchant guys with haircuts fashionable in Florence, asked to be portrayed against a Flemish background.

Hans Memling (1430 – 1494), “Portrait of a Young Man” (c1472), 38x27cm, Oil on Panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The portraits were shipped to Florence and many of these are now in Italian museums. Already a few years after the first Memling portraits were sent home to Florence, painters from Tuscany started to use similar Flemish backgrounds in their own paintings. Memling is the perfect example of the influence of Netherlandish art on the Italian Renaissance. Memling revolutionized Italian painting.

Saint Lawrence

Bernardo Strozzi (1581 – 1644), “Saint Lawrence Distributing the Treasures of the Church” (1625), 118x158cm, Oil on Canvas, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC.

It’s August 10, the feast day of Saint Lawrence. Who is he and how to recognize him in art? Lawrence was a deacon of the Christian Church in 3rd Century Rome. The Roman Emperor of that time prosecuted the Christians and ordered Lawrence to hand over all the riches of the Church. Lawrence thought differently and quickly gave everything away to the poor of the city. When the Emperor asked him where the treasures were, Lawrence answered, while pointing at the poor: “Look, those are the true treasures of the Church”.

Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne (1631 – 1681), “The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” (1660), 82x69cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

That act of charity was not very well received by the Roman Emperor and Lawrence was put to death by being roasted on a BBQ type of gridiron. After a while on the grill, Lawrence made his famous cheerful remark, “I’m well done. Turn me over!”. And so he became an important martyr and the patron saint for cooks, chefs and comedians.

Juan Correa de Vivar (c1510 – 1566), “Saint Lawrence” (1559), 181x78cm, Oil on Panel, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The grill became the symbol of Saint Lawrence and that’s the most easy way to recognize him in art. Quite a few “San Lorenzo” churches in Rome are dedicated to this saint. The grill iron can still be seen in the Basilica of San Lorenze in Lucina, Rome. And the name of Saint Lawrence is now all over the world. The French landed on August 10, 1535 in the estuary of the Great Lakes between Canada and the USA and they named it the Gulf and River of Saint Lawrence.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593)

It’s summer; fruits and veggies galore! So, let’s speak about Giuseppe Arcimboldo, an Italian painter who spent his whole career at the Habsburg court, in Vienna for Emperor Maximilian II and later in Prague for Rudolph II. Arcimboldo was highly successful during his lifetime, but soon forgotten after his death. Only in the 1930s Arcimboldo got rediscovered. About 20 of his paintings remain and those 20 are quite something! A genius with an absolutely unique imagination, Arcimboldo combined fruits, plants and vegetables into allegorical portraits. Here is “Summer”, from one of his “Four Seasons” series, displaying a summer abundance of fruits and vegetables. Arcimboldo’s signature and the date of the painting are woven into the straw coat.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593), “Summer” (1563), 67x51cm, Oil on Wood, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The Habsburg Court encouraged the study of art, nature and science. They not only collected works of art, but also established botanical and zoological gardens. Arcimboldo created a portrait of Emperor Rudolph II as “Vertumnus” the God of the Four Seasons, Gardens and Fruits. And of course Rudolph, who had a sense of humor indeed, loved to show off with this portrait as a symbol of the agricultural richness of his empire. Now the painting is on view in Skokloster Castle in Sweden. In 1648 the Swedish army took it with them after joining the Thirty Year’s War and having looted the castle in Prague.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593), “Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the Seasons”, c1590, 70x58cm, Oil on Canvas, Skokloster Castle, Sweden.

Arcimboldo had another trick. Some of his painting can be turned upside-down. Look at this basket of fruits, a painting from 1590. Reverse it and it’s the smiling face of the gardener himself. What a wonderful and witty way to paint the wealth of summer. Current whereabouts of the painting unknown, latest at French & Company art gallery, New York.

Mary Magdalene

July 22nd is the feast day of Mary Magdalene. But who is she, and how to recognize her in art? If there had been more gender equality in the days of Jesus, than Mary Magdalene certainly would have become one of the 12 Apostles. She was the number one female follower of Jesus and is generally considered a historical figure. Most likely Mary Magdalene was wealthy, mundane, intellectual and beautiful. Rumors say that Mary Magdalene was a penitent prostitute and the lover of Jesus, that she was washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying His feet with her hair and rubbing His feet with precious ointment. These are fantasy stories made up from the Middle Ages onwards. But it’s through these stories that we can identify Mary Magdalene in art: as a beautiful long-haired woman with a perfume or ointment jar, or as a penitent sinner.

Jan van Scorel (1495 – 1562), “Mary Magdalene” (1530), 66x76cm, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Mary Magdalene depicted as a prostitute or sinful woman, whose sins are forgiven by Jesus, was a popular image. As everyone has some sins, big or small, one would love to see a painting with a sinner whose sins are forgiven and who sees the light of salvation. So let’s now look at this painting by El Greco. It’s the ecstatic moment when the penitent Mary Magdalene converts to the heavenly light and the skull representing her earthly mortality is rolling out of her hand. And of course in the left bottom comer is the omnipresent ointment jar.

El Greco (1541 – 1614), “The Penitent Mary Magdalene” (1576), 157x121cm, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Another story is about Mary Magdalene wiping and anointing Jesus’ feet with precious perfume or ointment. Or washing His feet with her own tears and drying with her long hair. That’s pretty dramatic and will certainly appeal to any sinner who is looking for forgiveness.

James Tissot (1836 – 1902) “The Ointment of the Magdalene – Le Parfum de Madeleine” (c.1886), 22x28cm, Watercolor on Paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

As a historical figure, Mary Magdalene most likely was present when Jesus was crucified. See hereunder the crucifixion triptych by Rogier van der Weyden. And just so that we do not mix up Mary Magdalene with anyone else, she is the person carrying the jar with the perfume or ointment. The jar is Mary Magdalene’s traditional attribute and a great trademark to recognize her in art.

Rogier van der Weyden (1399 – 1464), “The Crucifixion Triptych” (c.1443), 96x123cm, Oil on Wood, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792)

July 16th, 1723, birth of Joshua Reynolds. English painter and the most fashionable portraitist of the 18th Century elegant society of England. As a young painter he made his grand European tour and studied all the Italian Old Masters. This influenced his style of painting, which we now know as the Grand Style. His clients were portraited in the most impressive and perfect way. Reynolds portraits show lavish dresses and hats fit for Royal Ascot. His paintings have often been inspiration for Hollywood costume designers.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), “Elizabeth, Lady Taylor” (1780), 127x102cm, Oil on Canvas, Frick Collection, New York.

Joshua Reynolds had a busy career. No exception were 6 sitters a day, each for an hour. And next to work he was an incredible socialite, social climber and self-promoter Reynolds was a smooth talker, friendly to everyone and had no enemies. He stayed single his whole life, but of some of his female clients it was said that they visited his house for more sittings than strictly necessary for painting a portrait.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), “The Hon. Miss Monckton” (1777), 240x147cm, Oil on Canvas, Tate, London.

Reynolds also painted so-called “fancy pictures”, which are character studies. Painted after someone, often a family member of the artist, but now mostly unknown who the model was. Here is Reynolds “The Age of Innocence”. It’s from the Tate London and an all-time favorite of the public. Reynolds himself entitled this painting simply “A Little Girl”. The current and more poetic title has been given after Reynold’s death.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), “The Age of Innocence” (1788), 77X64cm, Oil on Canvas, Tate, London.

Reynold’s use of pigments for paint was of less high standard. His paintings have fading colors and the blacks tend to crack. But better to have a “Reynolds” of low quality than none at all. Sir Joshua Reynolds died in 1792 and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Adriaen Coorte (active 1683 – 1707)

It’s summer; fruits and vegetables galore! And that’s what Adriaen Coorte painted. Mini still lifes, the size of a postcard, often painted just on paper. Around 60 of these fragile works of beauty still exist and were mostly collected by the 17th Century elite in the province of Zeeland in the south-western part of The Netherlands. Fortunately Adriaen Coorte signed and dated his paintings, because that artistic legacy is all we know about the artist himself. Mystery surrounds his personal life.

Adriaen Coorte (active 1683 – 1707), “Still Life with Gooseberries” (1701), 30x23cm, Oil on Paper, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

There are some records of a family of rope and cord makers in IJzendijke, a small city in Zeeland. Their family name “Coorte” means “cord”, and amongst the family members is  a certain “Adriaen Coorte”. Could this be our painter? This Adriaen had 3 brothers and we know more about them. They were sailor and soldier on ships for the Dutch East and West India Companies. Maybe Adriaen stayed at home and painted his delicate paintings as an amateur painter? He certainly lived far away from the influence of centers of art like Amsterdam and he invented his own personal and unique style.

The fruits and vegetables Coorte painted are seasonal and a bit special. Peaches, apricots, asparagus, wild strawberries: these are delights that could be found in the gardens of the Zeeland merchant elite. They collected exotic plants that arrived in Zeeland with the trading ships coming back from the Far East and West.

Adriaen Coorte (active 1683 – 1707), Still Life with Asparagus and Red Currants” (1696), 34x25cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

But what to paint in winter? How about exotic shells! And that’s another specialty of Adriaen Coorte. Maybe he got these on loan from a local wealthy trader who collected precious goods from around the world, or he got these as gifts from his brothers who took these from far-away exotic places? Adriaen remains a person of mystery. We only know him through his wonderful paintings. Adriaen Coorte is not anonymous, but now almost a “Banksy” of his own time.