Tag: Prado

The Visitation: Mary meets Elizabeth

The Visitation: Mary meets Elizabeth

“Baby Shower for two”

As we near December and Christmas, all our attention turns to the story of the birth of Jesus. But how about his mother Mary? How about Mary’s pregnancy, and what did she do in those nine months before giving birth to Jesus? Around May that year, when Mary was 2 months pregnant with Jesus, she travelled some 150km from her home in Nazareth to a small town in Judea, to visit her relative Elizabeth who was 8 months pregnant of John the Baptists. This visit of Mary to Elizabeth is called the “Visitation” and is told in the Bible in the chapter that’s the Gospel of Luke (1:39-56). The Visitation took place on May 31st and Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, during which Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist, on June 24th.

Rogier van der Weyden (c.1400 – 1464), “Visitation” (c.1437), 58x36cm, Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig.
Mary meets Elizabeth, both pregnant, in front of Elizabeth and Zacharias’ house. Although the story is set in Judea, Rogier van der Weyden choose a Flemish setting, which will have appealed to the contemporary viewers.

Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias were both very old and without children. Miraculously Elizabeth suddenly got pregnant, which was predicted to Zacharias by the angel Gabriel. Zacharias could hardly believe this, as his wife was too old to get a baby. Here is a similarity with the message Maria got from the same angel Gabriel: “Ave Maria, you will be pregnant and give birth to Jesus!” When Mary got pregnant, her fiancé Joseph could also hardly believe what had happened.

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528), “Visitation”, from The Life of the Virgin series (1503), Woodcut, 30x21cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Life of The Virgin is a series of 20 woodcuts, published as a book with the prints facing a page with Latin verses. These series focus on Mary as a human and even a mother, opposed the the suffering as in many other series of the life of Mary and Christ. Also, Dürer is using a very contemporary approach, look at the clothes of Mary and Elizabeth and Zacharias standing in the door of their house. This depicting of a “bourgeois” Mary will immediately have been familiar and attractive to Dürer’s clientele. From the moment of publishing, the woodcuts were copied and sold illegally, Dürer started many legal cases to protect his copyright.

Mary knew well that her cousin Elizabeth had grieved for so many years on account of being childless. Mary travelled all the way to share Elizabeth’s joy and of course to help her in her household affairs and be with her during birth and in the months after the birth of the little John. It was a mission of charity.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, (1606 – 1669), “Visitation” (1640), 57×48cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI.
On the left the elderly Zacharias, husband of Elizabeth, easing himself down the stairs with the help of a young boy; on the right Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, climbing up the hill leading his donkey. Considering tradition and the need for security, Joseph probably accompanied Mary to Judea and then returned to Nazareth, to come again after three months to take his wife home. The dog symbolizes faithfulness. This painting may relate directly to Rembrandt’s life. The face of Elizabeth is reminiscent of the artist’s mother, who died in 1640 just as his wife was about to give birth.

Mary’s visit also brought divine grace to both Elizabeth and her unborn child, John the Baptist. Even though he was still in his mother’s womb, John became already aware of the presence of Jesus who was still in Mary’s womb. When Mary and Elizabeth met at the doorsteps of Zacharias’ house – the “Visitation” – Elizabeth spoke out with a loud voice and said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” And Elizabeth said that as soon as she heard the voice of Mary’s greeting, her baby leaped in her womb for joy. At that moment the still to be born John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Drawn by Raphael (1483 – 1520) and finished by his workshop, “The Visitation” (c.1517), 200x145cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
The two figures can be told apart by their age. Mary is depicted as a young woman while Elizabeth, on the left, is an old woman, which emphasizes the miracle of her pregnancy, as the Bible texts have it. The scene takes place in a landscape and in the background we can see an event which would take place years later: Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. This work was drawn by Raphael, who was paid 300 escudos. He then had the painting done by one of his assistants, though it is not clear which one. 

Since the Medieval era, Elizabeth’s greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” has formed the second part of the “Ave Maria” or the “Hail Mary” song. The first part are the words the angel Gabriel said to Mary when he announced she will be pregnant of Jesus. One of the most famous composed music versions is Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” from 1825. Listen to it via the link, with English and Latin lyrics provided in the clip and hereunder.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedíctus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos (aka El Greco) (1541 – 1614), “Visitation” (c.1612), 97x71cm, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.
This Visitation painting was intended for the Church of San Vicente in Toledo, Spain, and the contract signed in 1607 stipulated “in the ceiling a story of the Visitation of Saint Elizabeth, … which is to be placed in a circle. ” By April 17, 1613, El Greco declared the paintings completed. However, it is not certain that The Visitation was installed. El Greco used quite some artistic – almost modern – abstractions in this 17th century work.  

In response to Elizabeth, Mary proclaims the famous words “My soul magnifies the Lord” in what is now called “Song of Mary” or “Magnificat”. Mary rejoices that she has the privilege of giving birth to Jesus. While Mary speaks to Elizabeth, she also turns a bit into a revolutionary as she continues looking forward to God transforming the world. “The proud will be brought low, and the humble will be lifted; the hungry will be fed, and the rich will go without.” In her answer to Elizabeth, Mary transforms herself from an obedient humble girl into an adult fighter for justice and protector of the poor. This “Magnificat” is nowadays banned in certain countries, as seen dangerous by the ruling oppressors. Johann Sebastian Bach put music to the words and created in 1723 his masterpiece “Magnificat”. Listen to it via the link, at least for the first few minutes. Lyrics in English and Latin hereunder.

My soul magnifies the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has looked with favor on His humble servant;  from this day all generations will call me blessed.
The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name,
He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm;
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.

Magnificat anima mea Dominum;
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo,
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen ejus,
Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in bracchio suo;
Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles.
Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes.
Pontormo (1494 – 1557), “Visitation” (c.1529), 202x156cm, San Michele e San Francesco, Carmignano, Tuscany, Italy. This “Visitation” has remained in the church for which it was painted for almost its whole existence. In the foreground of the painting, we see Mary and Elizabeth, in the background two handmaids.

Mary, through her meeting with Elizabeth, is no longer a silent participant of the Christmas story. She is a protector of the suppressed and a revolutionary, a fighter for a better world. Celebrating Christmas, is celebrating hope for a better world, for true justice to come.

Johann Sadeler (I) (1550 – 1600) engraver, after Maerten de Vos (1531 – 1603) drawer, “Visitation” (c.1588), 2nd print from the series of 15, “Life and Passion of Christ and the Virgin”, Engraving, 19x14cm, RijksMuseum, Amsterdam. An almost nowadays meet and greet between two couples. Mary and Elizabeth, who are both pregnant, kiss and hug. And their husband, Joseph and Zacharias, shake hands.

And for the sake of completeness, here is the full text of the Bible story of The Visitation; Luke 1:39-56, in the new international version.

Mary Visits Elizabeth (39 - 45)

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea,
where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!
But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Mary’s Song (46 - 55)

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me — holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. (56)
Icarus

Icarus

Hubris (ὕβρις): Pride Goeth Before The Fall…

This is a story of ambition, pride and downfall. It’s about Icarus (Ἴκαρος) and his father Daedalus (Δαίδαλος) and how they escaped imprisonment, flying out of the infamous Labyrinth on the isle of Crete. But with a tragic ending. Icarus flies too high and too close to sun; he loses his wings, falls out of the sky, plunges into the water, and drowns in what’s now called the Icarian Sea. A story from Greek mythology and written down in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Anthony van Dyck (1599 – 1641), “Self-Portrait as Icarus with Daedalus” (1618), 112x93cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Daedalus is concentrating on adjusting the ribbons with the wings over his son’s shoulders, and may be explaining to him the importance of flying at the right altitude. Icarus though, is already making his own plan. He looks with pride and will follow his own path. Its a self-portrait by Van Dyck, when he was 19 years old. About to start his own career and become a famous painter on his own merits. That’s what he is expressing in this painting.

According to the classical Greek legend, Daedalus was a master architect most famously responsible for building the Labyrinth on the island on Crete, as prison for the Minotaur monster, a half-man, half-bull. Because of his knowledge of the Labyrinth, King Minos of Crete shut Daedalus and his son Icarus, up in his own created Labyrinth, to simply keep the mysteries of the labyrinth a secret. Daedalus decided that for him and his son the only way to escape was up through the air.

Laurent Pécheux (1729 – 1821), “Daedalus and Icarus in the Labyrinth”, 97x73cm, current whereabouts unknown, latest at Sothebys January 19, 2005.
Daedalus tells his son the that the only way out of the Labyrinth is through the air. In the front left corner the instruments of Daedalus as architect, on the right the stove where the beeswax was melted to glue the feathers together.

Daedalus constructed for himself and Icarus sets of wings made from feathers held together by beeswax. He then cautioned his son to fly a middle course: neither so low that the sea would wet the feathers and make them heavy, nor so high that the heat of the sun would damage them.

School of Joseph-Marie Vien (1716 – 1809), “Daedalus in the Labyrinth, attaching the wings to his son Icarus” (c.1750), 195x130cm, Louvre, Paris.
Daedalus is attaching the wings to the shoulders of Icarus and gives his son the vital pre-flight briefing. Seems Icarus has other thoughts, he is pointing out to where he wants to go. Is that towards the sun?

“Daedalus said: Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way between earth and heaven, if you fly too low the moisture from the sea weighs down your wings, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. Take me as your guide and follow the course I show you!” (From Ovid’s Metamorphoses book VIII. Verse 183-235)

Jacob Peeter Gowy (1615 – 1661) after Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “The Fall of Icarus” (1637), 195x180cm, Prado, Madrid.
Icarus, his wings in tatters, plunges past Daedalus into the sea. Icarus’ mouth and eyes are wide open in shock and fear, and his body tumbles as it falls. Daedalus is still flying, his wings intact and fully functional; he looks alarmed towards the falling body of his son. They are high above a bay containing people and a fortified town at the edge of the sea.

Overcome by a feeling of pride and confidence, Icarus disobeyed his father and soared high into the sky trying to quench his thirst. But he came too close to the sun. And without warning, the heat from the sun melted the wax holding his feathers together. One by one, Icarus’s feathers fell like snowflakes. Icarus kept flapping his “wings”, but he had no feathers left and was only flapping his bare arms. Then he fell into the sea and drowned.

Joos de Momper (1564 – 1635), “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”, 154173cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Joos de Momper is closely following the narratives from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These include an angler catching a fish with a rod and line, a shepherd leaning on a crook, a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough. According to Ovid, they are amazed with this sight of Daedalus and Icarus and believed to be gods. Up at the top left, Daedalus is seen to be flying well, but Icarus is in an inverted position as he tumbles down.

“Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?”, screamed Daedalus. Finally, Daedalus found the body of his son floating amidst feathers. Cursing his inventions, he took the body to the nearest island and buried it there. The island where Icarus was buried is named Icaria.

Paul Ambroise Slodtz (1702 – 1758), Fall of Icarus” (1743), Marble, 38x64x55cm, Louvre, Paris.
A beautiful intimate marble from the Louvre. Icarus fell into the sea, a wave comes from the right, his wings detached and the feathers in disarray. As if he washed ashore on the island of Icaria, in the middle of the Icarian Sea. The island where his father Daedalus will burry him.

What do we learn from this story? Icarus is instructed to fly between the extremes; not too high but also not too low. This is a warning to avoid being too ambitious while also not becoming completely unambitious. One need to find a golden ratio. In the story are significant changes of fortune. When Daedalus and Icarus start their flight, it marks a change from prison to freedom, from bad to good fortune but then comes the moment that Icarus gets overconfident and flies too high, he wants to reach the sun! With as result that his wings disintegrate, and his fortune changes from good to bad. Pride goes before the fall! The story of Icarus is the perfect example of hubris!

Herbert Draper (1863-1920), “The Lament for Icarus” (1898). Draper’s painting a more romantic view, in which three nymphs have recovered the (apparently dry) body of Icarus, and he is laid out on a rock, while they lament his fate, to the accompaniment of a lyre. Perhaps influenced by contemporary thoughts about human flight and aerospace travel, Draper gives Icarus huge wings, and they are shown intact, rather than disintegrated from their exposure to the sun’s heat.
Europa

Europa

How Europe got its name…

The European and Asian continent are both named after female characters from Greek mythology. Let’s have a closer look at “Europa” and her representation in art. It’s all about a beautiful princess who is abducted by a divine bull and gives her name to a whole continent.

Nöel-Nicolas Coypel (1690 – 1734), “The Abduction of Europa” (1722), 90×102cm, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond VA.

The story about Europa (Εὐρώπη in Greek) is simple. She was a beautiful princess from the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre, located on the southern coast of Lebanon. One day, Europa and her friends were picking flowers and playing on the beach. Zeus – or Jupiter, the Roman version – sees her and immediately falls in love. As King of the Gods and having a reputation for endless affairs, Zeus decides to take what he wants. He transforms himself into a marvelous bull with a snow-white body and walks towards the girls. Charmed by the bull’s docile behavior, the girls start petting him and decorate him with garlands of flowers. The bull Zeus lays down at Europa’s feet and pretends to be the most kind and gentle animal ever. Encouraged by her friends, Europa thinks she might ride such gentle beast and climbs on the animal’s back. Of course, this is exactly what Zeus had planned. Now he can abduct Europa!

Jean François de Troy (1679 – 1752), “The Abduction of Europa” (1716), 66x82cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Zeus gets up and slowly starts walking around. Soon however, the bull Zeus accelerates his pace and eventually breaks into a gallop, with Europa clinging on for her life. The King of the Gods and the frightened princess reach the seaside and dive into the sea, leaving Europa’s bewildered friends behind. Europa could do nothing but hold on in fear.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), “The Abduction of Europa” (1632), 65×79cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The bull swam with her on his back, all the way from the coast of Lebanon to the isle of Crete. Here the Greek god regained his human form and, under a cypress tree, made love with Europa. She became pregnant and gave birth to three sons of Zeus, all becoming kings and famous heroes. Europa married the King of Crete, became Queen and she lived happily ever after. The story about Europa is a classic Greek tragedy, but this time with a happy ending.

Titian (1488–1576), “The Abduction of Europa” (c1560), 178x205cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston MA.

Europa riding the bull of Zeus was a popular subject in art. The earliest Greek reference is in Homer’s Iliad from the 8thcentury BC. The Roman poet Ovid (born 43 BC) describes the story in his Metamorphoses. Hereunder a fresco from the Casa di Giasone in Pompeii, dated before 79 AD as that’s the year when Pompeii was buried under 5m of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Pompeii, Casa di Giasone, “Europa seated on the Bull” (1st century AD), Fresco, 125x95cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples. Several frescos from the Casa di Giasone (House of Jason; Reg IX, Ins 5, 18-21) have been preserved and can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The house itself is in a seriously dilapidated condition having been neglected and left to the ravages of the elements since its initial excavation in 1878.

The abduction of Europa has long been a great source of inspiration for artists. Many of those produced superb works of art, but only a few have made serious attempts to tell this story faithfully to the myth. With two actors: Europa, a fair maiden, and a white bull, which the viewer must recognise as Zeus (or Jupiter) in disguise, and a setting full of suspense and male dominance. Most artists skipped the suspense part and turned the story into a fairytale image of beauty and romance.

Meissen Manufactory (Germany), “Europa and the Bull” (c.1760), Porcelain with colored enamel decoration, 2221x13cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, MA.

The story of Europa and Zeus is indeed an excellent subject for a light, pastoral and joyful scene with semi-nudeness, garlands of flowers, and stress-free pastime, like the Meissen figurine above or the painting by Jean-Baptiste Pierre hereunder. It’s in strong contrast to the paintings by Titian and Rembrandt which follow the myth more precisely. They depict a bewildered Europa raising the alarm to her companions on the shore, who watch helplessly and stare at the departing princess in horror. Europa holds on to the bull, not because she wants to, but because she would otherwise fall and drown. She was tricked by a friendly bull, one who coaxed her into taking a ride, one she even crowned with flowers before she realized who he was: a bullyish God! 

Jean-Baptiste Pierre (1714–1789), “The Abduction of Europa” (1750), 244× 276cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas TX.

Jean-Baptiste Pierre was First Painter to King Louis XV of France. His painting is a typical rococo confection, here is no serious drama anymore; it’s a lighthearted, elegant and frivolous composition. Few painters felt it necessary to include the eagle in their paintings of Europa. The eagle is the symbol of Zeus and Jean-Baptiste Pierre does this favour to the viewer, to be sure we will not miss the plot. Although he seems to have ignored the fact that the bull was white.

The ancient Greeks first applied the word Europa to the geographical area of central Greece and then the whole of Greece. By 500 BC, Europa signified the entire continent of Europe (although the Greeks were only really familiar with the areas around the Mediterranean) with Greece at its eastern extremity. The story of Princess Europa starts with her abduction from the shores of Lebanon, becoming Queen of Crete, giving her name to – and thus being godmother of – the European continent, and indirectly being the name-giver for the Euro! And on top of that, the story of the abduction of Europa is depicted on the modern Greek two Euro coin! 

Ganymedes

Ganymedes

“Gay Pride”

It’s August, the month of “Pride” in many cities around the world and in Amsterdam today! What started as Gay Pride is now a celebration of LGBTQ+. I take this as an opportunity to speak about the beautiful boy Ganymedes, a hero from Greek mythology and a major symbol of homosexual love in the visual and literal arts.

Homer, who wrote in the 8th Century BC the legendary “Odyssey”, already describes Ganymedes as the most beautiful of mortals. Ganymedes was abducted from earth to become Zeus’s lover on Mount Olympus, serving wine to the Gods and blessed with eternal youth and immortality.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “The Abduction of Ganymedes” (c.1637), 181x87cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Ganymedes (Γανυμήδης) was a young man from Troy and the most stunning guy walking around. Even Zeus, the King of the Gods, couldn’t resist his beauty. Zeus first tried to seduce him in a traditional way as shown on the Greek vase hereunder (from around 480 BC). Zeus pursues Ganymede on one side while the youth runs away on the other side, rolling along a hoop and holding aloft a crowing cock. A cock (the bird, that is!) was a common gift presented by an older man to a younger to indicate romantic interest. This custom took place in ancient Athens where such relationships were widely accepted and depicted many times on the visuals from those days, which was painted pottery as paintings did not exist yet. Considering the connotation of “cock” with penis, the bird nowadays mostly called “rooster”!

This “krater” is an ancient Greek vessel used for diluting wine with water. It’s made in Athens, most likely for the export market as this krater was found in Italy like so many other Greek vases. “Berlin Painter” is the name given to a Greek vase-painter who is widely regarded as one of the most talented vase painters of the early 5th century BC and he got his name after a large vase in the Antikensammlung Berlin.

Julien de Parma (1736 – 1799), “The Abduction of Ganymedes” (1778), 249x128cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Ganymedes was a beautiful and young shepherd boy from the city of Troy. His beauty was so great and “godlike” that Zeus decided that Ganymede was too perfect to walk the earth. One day, when Ganymedes was tending the family flock of sheep, Zeus transformed himself into an eagle and abducted the unsuspected Ganymede, who was then taken to Mount Olympus. There, Zeus made him his cupbearer; it was Ganymedes’ duty to serve cups of wine and the divine drink nectar to Zeus and the other Gods.

Antonio Allegri “Corregio” (c.1492 – 1534), “The Abduction of Ganymedes” (c.1530), 164x72cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

On Correggio’s painting above, Ganymedes looks rather younger and less flagrantly showing the sensual male body. The boy seems happy to be abducted by an eagle, as if he knows that it’s Zeus who takes him into heaven. Rembrandt hereunder makes it more realistic. No toddler would like to be picked up by such ferocious bird, so Rembrandt has his Ganymedes bawling and urinating in fright.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669), “The Abduction of Ganymedes” (1635), 177x129cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

Nicolaes Maes, famous for his children portraits, is portraying a child from the Bredehoff de Vicq family as Ganymedes. Guess the boy’s parents thought their son was the most beautiful one ever! 

Nicolaes Maes (1634 – 1693), “Portrait of George Bredehoff de Vicq as Ganymedes” (17th century), 99x85cm, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

Not everyone was pleased with Ganymedes presence at Mount Olympus. Hera, Zeus’ wife and Queen of the Gods, was pretty jealous, certainly when it turned out that Zeus did not only abduct Ganymedes to serve the Gods wine, water and nectar, but also to become his lover. For the sake of family peace, Zeus promoted Ganymedes to an outside post and made him the stars in the sky that are the constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer. And in post-Medieval times, Ganymedes’ name was given to the largest moon of the planet Jupiter.

Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770 – 1844), “Ganymedes and the Eagle” (c.1823), Marble, 88x118x47cm, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN.

Ganymede’s myth was popular amongst the Greeks and the Romans, the Greek version is with Zeus and the Roman version with Jupiter, both being the same King of the Gods. The first recorded mention of Ganymede is found in Homer’s Iliad dating back to the 8th century BC. The Greek vases shown are from around 500 BC and the Thorvaldsen sculpture is from around 1823. Ganymedes intrigues and inspires art and artists already more than 2500 years!

Géras Painter, Red-figure vase with Jupiter and Ganymedes as cup-bearer, c.475 BC, place of creation Athens; found in Vulci, Italy, 36x24cm, Louvre, Paris.

Ganymede’s myth is yet another piece in the history of sexuality, with particular importance for queer history. If the King of the Gods was allowed to have a male lover, then this certainly adds to the joy of all LGBTQ+ people attending Pride festivals this August.

Saint Lazarus

Saint Lazarus

“The Walking Dead”

Today July 29 is the official celebration day of two sisters and a brother: Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They are from Bethany, a city on the West Bank close to Jerusalem. And it’s the place where Lazarus miraculously resurrected from death, through the hand of Jesus, four days after his entombment. This has been a popular story throughout history and depicted for over 1000 years. Now we have Netflix and “The Walking Dead” series, but in those days there were only paintings to support imagination. The miracle of returning to life gave hope over the fear of death. And from a religious point of view this is a true “Act of God”.

Giotto di Bondone “Giotto” (c.1267 – 1377) “Raising of Lazarus” (c.1305), Fresco, 200x185cm, Scrovegni Chapel (Cappella degli Scrovegni), Padua, Italy.

The raising of Lazarus is a miracle of Jesus recounted in the Gospel of John (John 11:1–44) in the New Testament part of the Bible. Jesus raises Lazarus of Bethany from death, four days after his entombment. It went as follows. Lazarus became ill and his sisters Marta and Mary (note: this is Mary of Bethany and not Mary, the Mother of Christ) contacted Jesus to help curing their brother. He visited the sisters only after Lazarus already passed away. But no worries, they went to the tomb of Lazarus and Jesus said, “Take away the stone”. Martha then said, “it will stink, he has been in that tomb for four days”.  That’s depicted by members of the crowd cover their noses with cloth. They took away the stone and Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead Lazarus came out, his hands and feet wrapped in his grave cloths, but alive and kicking and lived for another 30 years. Jesus also said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

Giovanni di Paolo, “The Resurrection of Lazarus” (1426), 41x44cm, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

On the pictures are usually Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus, whose gestures and expressions record successive states of awareness and awe, and a crowd of astounded witnesses and some of Jesus’ followers. And the two main characters of course: Jesus making signs to resurrect Lazarus, and Lazarus himself getting up out of his grave. The story goes on, as Lazarus never smiled during the thirty years after his resurrection, worried by the sight of unredeemed souls he had seen during his four-day stay in Hell.

The Limbourg Brothers Paul, Johan and Herman, (active 1385 – 1416), “Raising of Lazarus”, from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (C.1412), Château de Chantilly, near Paris.

The event is said to have taken place at Bethany. This is the last of the miracles that Jesus performs before the passion, crucifixion and his own resurrection, linking Lazarus’ resurrection with Jesus’ resurrection, and through faith as a sign of hope for all Jesus’ followers. John Calvin summarized it nicely when he said, “not only did Christ give a remarkable proof of his Divine power in raising Lazarus, but he likewise placed before our eyes a lively image of our future resurrection.” The Lazarus story also appeared in Islamic tradition. Although the Quran mentions no specific figure named Lazarus, among the miracles with which he Quran credits Jesus, the raising of people from death is included.

Juan de Flandes (c.1460 – 1519), “The Raising of Lazarus” (c.1516), 110x84cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The reputed tomb of Lazarus is in Bethany (now called: Al-Eizariya, which means “Place of Lazarus”) and continues to be a place of pilgrimage to this day. Several Christian churches have existed at the site over the centuries. Since the 16th century, the site of the tomb has been occupied by the al-Uzair Mosque to serve the town’s (now Muslim) inhabitants and named it in honor of the town’s patron saint, Lazarus of Bethany.

Rembrandt van Rijn (16010 – 1669), “The Raising of Lazarus” (c.1631), 95x81cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

In medical science “Lazarus syndrome” refers to an event in which a person spontaneously returns to life (the heart starts beating again) after resuscitation has been given up. The “Lazarus sign” is a reflex which can occur in a brain-dead person, thus giving the appearance that they have returned to life. The difference between revival immediately after death, and resurrection after four days, is so great as to raise doubts about the historicity of the Lazarus story. The hand of God is needed!

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), “The Raising of Lazarus”, after a print by Rembrandt, (1890), Oil on Paper, 50x66cm, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam.

I cannot resist to share an image of a more modern “Lazarus”, an artist impression of Béla Lugosi as Dracula from the famous 1931 film. At night, Dracula awakes from death and steps out of his coffin. Béla Lugosi made this Dracula image as iconic as Giotto did with his Lazarus fresco around 1305. Death and resurrection are eternal themes, based on a mixture of fear and hope. It’s with much wonder how we look at death and at the possibility to come back from the underworld. Are we identifying ourselves with Lazarus? And how about the nowadays series on Netflix, like “The Walking Dead”? I dare to see a similarity between a 13th century visitor to the Scrovegni Chapel, looking amazed at Giotto’s Lazarus, and ourselves watching an episode of The Walking Dead. It’s all a mixture of fear and hope. May we conquer death and may we come back to life, not like a zombie but in true divine Lazarus style!

Artist Impression of Béla Lugosi as Count Dracula in the the film “Dracula” (1931).
Saint Christopher and Atlas

Saint Christopher and Atlas

“The World On Your Shoulders”

Today July 25 is the day of Saint Christopher, since the dark Middle Ages the patron saint of travellers and nowadays also the protector of motorists. He is a popular saint, but there is no certainty that he really existed. In 1969 his name was dropped from the official calendar of the Catholic Church. The calendar was getting crowded with many secondary saints and some clean-up was needed to make space for the more important ones. There are hardly any historical data about Christopher, but he became super popular over the centuries. And on top of that, images of Christopher arose, bigger in size than Christ’s, and belief in Saint Christopher became close to superstition. Although Christopher’s day is no longer official and obligatory, he is still recognised as saint. Villages and cities that carry his name celebrate the feast of their saint. And there are many places with his name (Spanish: San Cristobál, Italian: San Cristoforo, Dutch: Sint Christoffel, French: Saint Christofe), even up to the island country of Saint Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies, officially the Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis.

Images of Saint Christopher depict him as a giant man standing in water, holding a staff in his hand and with a child on shoulder who sometimes holds a terrestrial globe in his hand. This image tells the story of Christopher carrying a child across a raging river, and the child revealed himself as Christ.

Benvenuto Tisi “Il Garofalo” (1481 – 1559), “Saint Christopher” (c.1535), 33x37cm, Liechtenstein, The Princely Collections, Vaduz – Vienna.

According to the legendary account of his life, Christopher was a man of significant physical stature: 7.5 feet (2.3 m) tall, full of muscle and with a fearsome face. He took it into his head to serve the mightiest king on earth. He went to the king who was reputed to be so, but one day he saw the king cross himself at the mention of the devil. On thus learning that the king feared the devil, Christopher decided that the devil was even mightier and departed to look for him. He came across a gang of robbers, whose leader referred to himself as “The Devil”. But when this leader avoided a wayside cross out of fear of Christ, Christopher learned there was someone even more powerful than the devil. He left the gang of thieves and asked around where to find Christ. He met a hermit (often also depicted with Christopher, see hereunder the Joachim Patinir painting) who instructed him in the Christian faith. Christopher asked the hermit how he could serve Christ. The hermit suggested that because of his size and strength, Christopher could serve Christ by assisting people to cross a dangerous river, where many people with less strength had drowned.

Joachim Patinir (c.1480 – 1524), “Saint Christopher” (c.1522), 125x170cm), Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid.

After Christopher had performed this service for some time, a little child asked to take him across the river. During the crossing, the river became swollen and the child seemed as heavy as lead, so much that Christopher could scarcely carry him and found himself in great difficulty. When he finally reached the other side, he said to the child: “You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.” The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.”

It is because of this experience that Christopher got his name, for Christopher in Greek is Χριστό-φορος (Christó-foros), which literally translate as “Christ-bearer.”

Jheronimus Bosch (c.1450 – 1516), “Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child” (c.1500), 113x72cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

So, the child revealed himself to be the Christ Child, and that the weight Christopher felt was the weight of the entire world he was carrying on his shoulders. Then the Christ Child told Christopher to fix his staff in the bank of the river and come back tomorrow to see what had occurred. This would be the sign to Christopher that the child was truly Christ. The child then vanished. When Christopher returned the next day, the staff had become a palm tree, bearing fruit. On some paintings we may see the staff already replaced by a palm branch or even an entire palm tree. On the Garofalo painting above and the Ghirlandaio one hereunder, the staff is growing into a palm tree.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (c.1448 – 1494), “Saint Christopher and the Infant Christ” (c.1473), Fresco, 285x150cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Saint Christopher is still today valued by travellers. Small devotional medals with Saint Christopher’s name and image are commonly carried in a pocket or placed in vehicles by more religious (or superstitious?) travellers. Pilgrims who looked upon an image of St. Christopher were believed to gain a special blessing. Many medieval and later churches put up huge images that no pilgrim could miss, either on a prominent interior wall or on the outside of the building. Although condemned as superstitious, it appears this belief has endured. See the Ghirlandaio fresco, it measures almost 3 x 1.5 meters. Not to miss by any traveller or pilgrim.

Jusepe de Ribera “Lo Spagnoletto” (1591 – 1652), “Saint Christopher” (1637) ,127x100cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Joseph de Ribera stripped the story of all the side elements, and kept it to the giant Christopher carrying the child and a terrestrial globe, juxtaposing the colossal size of the saint with the delicacy of the child, creating an image of great expressive power. Like a new Atlas, Saint Christopher crosses the river carrying a child, who is in fact Christ bearing the world. It’s a devotional image of a Christian story, but comparable to the Greek mythological story of Atlas carrying the celestial globe on his shoulders.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri “Guercino” (1591 – 1666), “Atlas” (c.1545), 127×101cm, Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence.

In Greek mythology, Atlas was condemned by the Olympian god Zeus to hold upon his shoulders the heavens or sky, for eternity and while standing at the western edge of the earth which in those ancient days was northwest Africa. Zeus ultimately felt sorry for Atlas carrying the celestial globe and turned him into an entire mountain range, reaching up to the sky. That’s how Atlas became commonly identified with the “Atlas Mountains”. Also, “Atlantic Ocean” is derived from “Sea of Atlas”. 

The term Atlas has been used to describe a collection of maps since the 16th century when Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator published his work in honour of the mythological figure of Atlas.

Bernard Picart (1673 – 1733), “Atlas Turned Into A Mountain” (1731), engraving, 35x25cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

What to learn from the giants Christopher and Atlas? Apparently it will give eternal fame when you carry the world or the sky on your shoulders. But that’s not what we want, when dealing with our nowadays problems. Look at Christopher, he could carry a child so light, but once he started to overthink this burden, it became heavier and heavier. Stick to your sorrows as they are and do not make it heavier than it is. The weight on your shoulders is heavy enough, but you are able to carry it and deal with it. As long as no phantasy takes it over and adds all those kilos of worrying. Now to Atlas…, once your feet are in solid ground and stuck to earth like a rock, you will be able to carry even the heaviest on your shoulders. Make yourself standing up with both feet on the ground. First thing to arrange is your own stability. And then you can carry all that weight and deal with any burden, for yourself and for others.

The Olympian Gods

The Olympian Gods

This is a 101 crash course in Greek and Roman gods. In ancient Greek mythology, twelve Olympian gods and goddesses ruled over the affairs of mankind from their palace on Mount Olympus. Besides this canon of major deities, many other gods, half-gods, human offspring and heroes visited the Olympus, and these twelve Olympians descended frequently to earth to have their wars, love affairs, parties and weddings, with other gods and humans. With 2,917 meters, Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece, about 80 km southwest from Thessaloniki.

Cornelis van Poeleburgh (1594 – 1667), “Feast of the Gods” (1623), 32x84cm, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Roman mythology draws directly on Greek mythology and the Romans identified their own gods with those of the ancient Greeks. Greek and Roman mythologies are therefore often classified together as Classical mythology. The interpretations of Greek myths by the Romans often had a greater influence on narrative and pictorial representations of “classical mythology” and therefore the twelve Olympians are often known under their Roman or Latin names.

There is a certain hierarchy, with Zeus being the King of the Gods and Hera their Queen. Almost all of these twelve have family relationships, Zeus often is the father although his kids have different mothers. The Olympian Gods and Goddesses have their own field of reign, covering all aspects of antique mankind. They can be recognised by their posture and physics, and by their attributes. Hereunder the Twelve Olympians, also with their Roman names and of course with their attributes. After some practising it becomes an easy and fun task to recognise them. Here is the 101 crash course!

Zeus (Jupiter)

King of the Gods and ruler of Mount Olympus, god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order and justice. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter. He is associated with a bundle of thunderbolts and the eagle. Zeus is married to Hera.

Heinrich Friedrich Füger (1751 – 1818), “Jupiter” (c.1800), 103x79cm, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest.

Zeus (Greek Ζεύς, Roman Jupiter) is the senior god, ruling over the other deities who are living on their divine Mount Olympus. He held dominion over the earth and sky and was the ultimate arbitrator of law and justice. He controls the weather, specifically with thunder and lightning. He married Hera, but he had a wandering eye and a penchant for flings with any and all women and occasionally a man or boy. His romantic interests gave birth to numerous other gods, demi-gods, and mortal heroes on the earth. Many of the myths about Zeus concern his seemingly endless adulterous rapes of mortals and demi-gods. His wife Hera doesn’t like this at all of course. Zeus’ amorous adventures and Hera’s counterattacks and revenge provide an endless source of fun and many of these stories are inspiration for generations of artists. On the painting Zeus (Jupiter) enthroned, with the eagle at his feet and in his hand a bundle of thunderbolts.

Hera (Juno)

Queen of the Gods, Goddess of marriage and family. The Roman equivalent is Juno. Her attribute is the peacock. Hera is the wife of Zeus.

Hendrick Goltzius (1558 – 1617), “Juno” (c.1595), 13x11cm, Drawing on Paper, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Hera (Greek Ἥρᾱ, Latin Juno) rules as the queen of the gods. As the goddess of marriage and fidelity, she was one of the only Olympians to remain steadfastly faithful to her spouse, Zeus. Though faithful, she was also vengeful, and tormented many of Zeus’s extramarital partners. This has been depicted multiple times throughout history of art and is an endless source of stories and inspiration for painters. Acting as a matronly Queen of the deities of Olympus, she is normally associated with women, marriage and childbirth. Hera’s most usual attribute is her favourite bird, the peacock, as can be seen in-extremis on Glotzius’ drawing from the Rijksmuseum.

Poseidon (Neptune)

The God of the Sea. The Roman equivalent is Neptune. He can be recognised by his trident, horses and dolphins. Poseidon (God of the Sea) is a brother of Zeus (God of the Sky) and Demeter (God of the Land).

John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815), “Neptune” (c.1754), 70x113cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

When Zeus became king, he divided the universe amongst himself and his two brothers of which Poseidon (Greek Ποσειδῶν, Latin Neptune) received dominion over the seas and waters of the world, its storm and earthquakes. He was the protector of seamen and the god of horses. Poseidon lived with his wife in a magnificent palace under the sea, though he was a frequent visitor on Mount Olympus. On the painting, as usual, Neptune is depicted as an old man with long flowing white hair and beard, riding over the waves of the sea in a coach made of a shell and drawn by his horses. His head crowned as king of the seas, trident in one hand and a big pearl in his other hand.

Demeter (Ceres)

Goddess of the Harvest and Agriculture. The Roman equivalent is Ceres. Her attributes are wheat and the cornucopia, which is the horn of plenty. Demeter is the sister of Zeus and Poseidon.

Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721), “Ceres” (c.1717), 142x116cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Known as the “good goddess” to the people of the earth, Demeter (Greek Δημήτηρ, Latin Ceres) is the goddess of the harvest, who oversaw farming, agriculture, and the fertility of the earth. Not surprisingly, as she controlled the production of food, she was very highly worshipped in the ancient world. On the paining by Watteau she represents summer. Ceres wields a sickle and sits on clouds among sheaves of wheat. The figures surrounding Ceres — the crayfish, the lion, and the nude blond woman — represent the zodiacal symbols of summer (Cancer, Leo, and Virgo). The name of Ceres comes back in the word “cereal”.

Athena (Minerva)

Goddess of War and Wisdom. The Roman equivalent is Minerva. Her symbols are the owl and the body armour including a helmet. Athena is born out of Zeus’ head.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669), “Minerva” (1635), 138x117cm, The Leiden Collection, New York.

Athena (Greek Ἀθηνᾶ, Latin Minerva), was the daughter of Zeus, born out of his head and already at birth dressed in full armour. Athena’s strength rivaled that of any of the other gods. She refused to take any lovers, remaining determinedly a virgin. She took her place on Mount Olympus as the goddess of justice, strategic warfare, wisdom, rational thought, and arts and crafts. In the Rembrandt painting, Minerva can be seen in her study, looking up from her large folio. Her regal appearance is enhanced by the laurel wreath crowning her head. In the background are more books and parts of her body armour, a golden helmet, a spear and a large shield.

Artemis (Diana)

Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt. The Roman equivalent is Diana. Symbols are the moon, bow and arrow. She is a daughter of Zeus and Apollo is her twin brother.

Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707 – 1762), “Diana” (c.1740), 109x77cm, Private Collection, latest at Sotheby’s.

Artemis (Greek Ἄρτεμις, Latin Diana)  and her twin brother Apollo were children of Zeus. The twins became important Olympians, though they were as different as night and day. Artemis was quiet, dark and solemn, the goddess of the moon, forests, archery, and the hunt. Like Athena, Artemis had no desire to marry. She was the patron goddess of feminine fertility, chastity, and childbirth, and was also heavily associated with wild animals. On the painting she is easily recognised by the crescent moon worn as a tiara, the bow and arrow on her back and a hunting dog at her feet.

Apollo

God of the Sun, Light and Music. His attributes are the lyre, sun and laurel wreath. Apollo is a son of Zeus and Artemis is his twin sister.

Rosalba Carriera (1675 – 1757), “Apollo” (c.1743), 67x52cm, Pastel on Paper, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Artemis’s twin brother Apollo (Greek Ἀπόλλων and the same name in Latin) was the god of the sun, light, music, prophecy, medicine, and knowledge, and thus the exact opposite of Demeter. Zeus may have been the senior of the deities, but among the most important and popular with the Greeks and Romans, and later with artists, is Apollo. He is a beardless young man, and the epitome of male beauty. His most common attribute is the lyre, his constant companion for both music and poetry. Apollo was considered the most handsome of the gods. He was cheerful and bright, enjoyed singing, dancing, and drinking, and was immensely popular among both gods and mortals. He also took after his father in the chasing of mortal women and from time to time a boy. On the painting Apollo is depicted as a male beauty, with his lyre and a laurel wreath on his head.

Ares (Mars)

God of Violent War. The Roman equivalent is Mars. Spear, shield and armour are his symbols. Zeus is Ares’ father.

Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588 – 1629), “Mars” (1629), 107x93cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

The attributes of Ares (Greek Ἄρης, Latin Mars) are any part of arms and armour of a warrior, like a helmet and shield. Where Athena oversaw strategy, tactics, and defensive warfare, Ares revealed in the violence and bloodshed that war produced. Often depicted asleep, as on our painting here, which makes him more sympathetic. The God of War asleep becomes the Good of Peace. His name is still used in “martial arts”.

Hephaestus (Vulcan)

God of Fire and Blacksmith of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Vulcan. To be recognised by fire and the hammer. He married Aphrodite.

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (1708 – 1787), “Vulcan” (c.1750), 98x76cm, Pinacoteca Civica, Como.

Hephaestus (Greek Ἥφαιστος, Latin Vulcan) learned the blacksmith’s trade, built himself a workshop, and became the god of fire and metallurgy. His forges produce the fire of volcanoes. Hephaestus was horribly ugly – at least by the standards of gods and goddesses – but he managed to marry the beautiful Aphrodite, goddess of love. His attributes derive from his role, and include the hammer and anvil as used in the working of metals. These tools can be seen on this painting, with fire in the background. The word “volcano” refers to the Roman name of Hephaestus, Vulcan.

Aphrodite (Venus)

Goddess of Love, Beaty and Sexuality. The Roman equivalent is Venus. She can be recognised a dove and beauty aspects like jeweller and flowers. Aphrodite married Hephaestos.

François Boucher (1703 – 1770), “Venus” (1751), 108x85cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Aphrodite (Greek Ἀφροδίτη, Latin Venus) as the most beautiful woman, was married to the most ugly of the gods, Hephaestus. She enjoyed a number of flings with mortal humans, including an affair with the beautiful young guy Adonis. Aphrodite (mostly as Venus) has proved hugely popular in Western art, all too often as an excuse for painting a classical female nude and in the case of her affair with Adonis, also with a beautiful man. This tradition of depicting Aphrodite largely or completely unclothed dates from classical times, already on some of the wall paintings found in the ruins of Pompeii. The Boucher painting, formally called “The Toilette of Venus” was executed for the bathroom of Madame de Pompadour, the powerful mistress of Louis XV. Boucher devised a summary of the key features: Venus as female beauty, and an unfurling of luxurious furniture, fabric, flowers, and pearls. The name of the goddess still lives on in the words “aphrodisiac” and “venereal”.

Hermes (Mercury)

God of travel, commerce and communication, Messenger of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Mercury. Attributes are winged sandals, hat with wings, and the caduceus, a rod with two entwined serpents. His father is Zeus.

Peter Paul Rubens (workshop), “Mercury” (c.1637), 180x69cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Hermes (Greek Ἑρμῆς, Latin Mercury) is the god who spends as much time among mortals as he does on Olympus: he’s the divine messenger and emissary. Attributes associated with that role include winged sandals, a distinctive staff with a pair of serpents around it, known as a caduceus, and a hat or helmet which bears wings too. The pair of entwined serpents along the caduceus indicates his swiftness as a messenger. This is where the word “mercurial” comes from. There’s also a touch of mischief about Hermes, which has resulted in him being referred to as the divine trickster. He’s thus seen as the protector of all messengers, travellers, thieves, merchants and orators. On the Prado painting we can see the wings around his feet and on his head, and the two snakes around the rod; and of course the male beauty of Hermes himself.

Dionysus (Bacchus)

God of Wine. The Roman equivalent is Bacchus. As God of Wine he can of course be recognised by the grapevine and a cup. Dionysus is the youngest son of Zeus.

Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), “Bacchus” (c.1598), 95x85cm, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence.

As the god of grape harvest, wine and its making and consumption, Dionysus (Greek Διόνυσος, Latin Bacchus) was an easy favourite among Olympians and mortals alike. Dionysus was the only Olympian to be born of a mortal mother, and perhaps that was part of the reason why he spent so much time among mortal men, traveling widely and gifting them with wine. Like on the Caravaggio painting here, he is almost always associated with wine and drunkenness. His most distinctive attributes are grapes, wine leaves and of course a glass of wine. His name lives on in the word “bacchanal”.

Saint Joseph

Saint Joseph

“Carpenter from Nazareth”

Today March 19th is the day dedicated to Saint Joseph. Who is he? Joseph is one of the three members of the Holy Family, together with the Virgin Mary and her child Jesus. He is a carpenter from Nazareth and a widower, who married the Virgin Marry at that time already pregnant with Jesus. The virgin birth of Jesus is the Christian doctrine that Jesus was conceived and born by his mother Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit and without sexual intercourse. Joseph is therefore Jesus’s foster-father. In most paintings with the Holy Family, Joseph has a minor role and just in the background. Only from the 15th century artists gave more attention to Joseph and made him visible as head of the Holy Family. When the bible speaks about Jesus’s brothers and sisters, those are children of Joseph from a previous marriage. Saint Joseph is the patron saint of family life, fathers, unborn children and carpenters and in Western Christianity his celebration day is March 19th. And in Italy, this special day of Saint Joseph (San Giuseppe in Italian) is also Father’s Day. Joseph might be a lesser celebrity in the biblical world, but as “father” he is a figure that means so much in everyone’s life. Even when he is a foster-father.

Robert Campin (1378 – 1444), “Saint Joseph” (right-hand panel of the “Annunciation Triptych – Merode Altarpiece”) (c. 1430), 65x27cm, Oil on Panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This is the right-hand panel of a triptych. The old man Joseph, who is engaged to the Virgin Mary, works in his carpenter shop. The mousetraps he made, on the bench and in the shopwindow opening onto the street, are symbols of the crucifixion of Jesus which will only happen 33 years later. Jesus on the cross is considered the devil’s mousetrap.

Robert Campin (1378 – 1444), “Annunciation Triptych – Merode Altarpiece” (c. 1430), 65x118cm, Oil on Panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Looking at the triptych as a whole, the middle panel shows the moment when the Virgen Mary gets the message from the angel Gabriel that she will be pregnant with Jesus. It’s even the moment of the divine impregnation itself. On the right panel Joseph in his workshop, busy making the mousetraps and no idea what is happening to Mary at this very moment. On the left the donors of this triptych.

French 15th century, “The Expectant Madonna with Saint Joseph” (c.1435), 71x35cm, Tempura on Panel, National Gallery of Art (Samuel H. Kress Collection), Washington DC.

When Joseph was engaged to Mary he found out she became pregnant, and certainly not by him! Joseph was very much doubting if he should indeed marry her. As he considered splitting up, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” As is written in the bible, see Matthew 1: 18-20. On the picture above you can see Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and Joseph as an old man doubting about what happened. This is not a very common image to see in paintings and it’s obviously a mysterious element in the whole story and even a bit embarrassing for Joseph. The message from the angel to Joseph is then solving this element to everyone’s satisfaction, including Joseph’s. From the 15th century the Holy Family (Maria, Jesus and Joseph) as a subject became way more popular and that helped to raise Joseph in public esteem. Joseph is from then on represented more sympathetically and more prominently.

George de la Tour (1593 – 1652), “Saint Joseph the Carpenter” (1642), 137x102cm, Oil on Canvas, Louvre, Paris.

This painting by George de la Tour (1642, from the Louvre) cannot be missed in any story about Joseph. As patron saint of carpenters, Joseph is working on a beam, helped by his foster son Jesus. The arrangement of pieces of wood on the floor evokes a cross and prefigures the crucifixion of Jesus. The young Jesus with the candlelight shining on his face makes already a reference to becoming the “Light of the World”. George de la Tour shows that even Jesus lived a simple and innocent earthly life, but he included divinity’s presence by way of the light of the candle.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682), “The Holy Family” (1650), 144x188cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Here we see the Holy family with a playing Jesus and two caring parents in a domestic scene. It shows home life but also work, symbolized by Saint Joseph’s carpenter tools on the right. The almost leading role of Joseph, the foster father, corresponds to the increased worship of Joseph as a father figure within the Holy Family. Over the centuries the image of Joseph developed from a grumpy old man to a caring – and younger – father.

Sir John Everett Millais (1829 – 1896), “Christ in the House of His Parents – The Carpenter’s Shop” (1850), 86x140cm, Oil on Canvas, Tate Gallery, London.

This is a painting from the Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais, showing a scene from the boyhood of Jesus and placed in Joseph’s carpenter workshop. It’s full of symbolic messages. Jesus, as a boy, has wounded himself at a nail and is being comforted by his parents Mary and Joseph. Blood is dripping from his hand on his foot. Both spots of blood are foreshadowing the crucifixion. On the right we see the young Saint John the Baptist with a bowl of water, as reference to the baptizing of Jesus Christ. At the back on the wall is a carpenter’s triangle, referring to the Holy Trinity of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus son of God. And the dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is sitting on the ladder.

The pre-Raphaelites wanted to strip-away all traditions of painting since Raphael. Millais removed all beauty and placed the scene in an ordinary carpenter workshop, with common people as the Holy Family. The picture prompted many negative reviews. The Times described it as ‘revolting’ and objected to the way in which the artist had dared to depict the Holy Family as ordinary, lowly people in a humble carpenter’s shop. Charles Dickens was one of the most vehement critics, describing the young Christ as ‘a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown’. The painting can be seen in the Tate Gallery, London, where it’s now considered one of their masterpieces.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682), “The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities – The Pedroso Murillo” (c. 1680), 293x207cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery, London.

This painting illustrates the belief that Jesus was both human and divine, by placing him in the middle of the two “Trinities”. The vertical line is the Holy Trinity, with God the Father, the Holy Ghost (the dove), and Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus looks up towards heaven, but affectionately holds hands with his human parents, Mary and Joseph. The three together, as the horizontal line, make up the Earthly Trinity. Mary’s loving gaze and gracefully upturned palm are directed towards her young son. Joseph looks out of the picture towards us, inviting us to adore Jesus. Murillo transforms a complex theological principle into a very human and accessible image. With Jospeh as the connecting figure between us humans and the divine world of God.

March and the god Mars

March and the god Mars

March is the month named after Mars, in Roman mythology the God of War. He is also an agricultural guardian. The month March, opening the year of farming, is considered the start of the year for the Roman calendar, which had only ten months. With March being the first, September is number seven, October number eight and November and December nineth and tenth. But who is Mars? Although being the god of war, he is also a god of peace (when sleeping!), an epitome of male beauty, and the secret beau of Venus, Goddess of Love. Let’s look at a few paintings with Mars and also some together with Venus. The last painting is revealing the real scandal!

Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588 – 1629), “Mars Asleep” (1629), 107x93cm and 152x140cm with frame, Oil on Panel, Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

This is not a common soldier. This is Mars, God of War, in a 17th Century human form. The harness on the painting is a very rich and precious piece of work made in Italy. It was owned by Hendrick ter Brugghen and kept in his studio. Exactly the same harness and helmet ended up on other paintings by Ter Brugghen and by his colleagues from Utrecht. Around 1648, the end of the Eighty Years’ War and a final end to Spain’s rule over the Netherlands, the painting was placed in its current frame. The weapons and tools of war on the frame are chained together and cannot be used any longer. Mars fell asleep; he now represents peace. In the true Dutch tradition when Mars, God of War, falls asleep, Mercury, God of Trade, will get active again. A political painting in its time.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599 – 1660), “Mars” (1638), 179x95cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Here is Velázquez majestic painting of Mars. Mars is lazily seating on a soft, unmade bed. The bedclothes belong to a luxurious bed much more suited to amorous struggle than to battles and war. Mars is only wearing his helmet; his shield and armour lie at the ground. This picture is a defeat of arms by love which conquers all. The painting was made for the Spanish royal hunting pavilion on the outskirts of Madrid, in a century when Spain was in continuous wars. An amorous Mars seems certainly more sympathetic than a war-god in full armour.

Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), “Venus and Mars” (1485), 69x173cm, Oil and Tempera on Panel, National Gallery, London.

This Italian Renaissance painting by Botticelli shows Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and Mars, god of war, surrounded by playful and naughty satyrs. Venus watches Mars asleep – and snoring – and she contemplates her victory: love has conquered war. Although it’s unfaithful love, as Venus was in fact married to Vulcan, god of fire and an unattractive blacksmith. The little satyr guys are playing with Mars’s armour: one put the too big helmet on his head and another crawled inside his breastplate. Even one blows a conch shell in his ear to wake Mars, but of course unsuccessfully. The couple have been making love, and Mars obeyed to the male habit of falling asleep after sex. Most likely the painting was commissioned to celebrate the marriage of a wealthy Florentine couple, and was meant to decorate the bedroom with that witty representation of sensual pleasure. There is another thought about Mars’s state of undress. It was thought that looking at an image of a beautiful man would help to conceive a boy – the most desirable heir in those days.

Louis Jean François Lagrenée (1725 – 1805), “Mars and Venus, Allegory of Peace” (1770), 65x54cm, Oil on Canvas, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The French rococo painter Louis Jean François Lagrenée shows us Mars, throwing back the curtains to reveal a sleeping Venus. Mars is captivated by her beauty; his shield and sword lie on the ground. A pair of white doves are building a nest in Mars’s helmet. A 18th Century example of “make love not war”. Mars gives peace a chance.

Joachim Wtewael (1566 – 1638), “Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan” (1601), 21x16cm, Oil on Copper on Panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

This painting depicts the adultery of Venus and Mars. Venus’ husband Vulcan – god of fire and standing with his back to us on the left – has caught the couple in the act. When Vulcan heard that Venus and Mars had an affair, he – as a skilled blacksmith – made an invisible bronze net to catch them in their love bed. The metal net was so delicate that the two beautiful gods did not know that they had been captured until it was too late. Vulcan invited all the gods from Mount Olympus to come and laugh at the trapped lovers. A detail: Mercury, god of trade, is getting jealous and said he is willing to replace Mars. He can be seen above the bed and Cupido is already sending an arrow in Mercury’s direction. The still-life in the foreground is Mars’s armour, Vulcan’s hammer and Venus her red slippers, an old-fashioned symbol of adultery.

Because of the erotic subject matter, the painting’s early owners will have concealed the painting behind a curtain. For a longtime this painting was kept in depot by The Mauritshuis “to protect an immature public against itself”. Only from 1987 this small painting is shown to the public in its full splendor; painted on copper, which is excellent for expressing fine details. It’s an erotic picture, very attractive for the viewers. But it’s certainly also a showcase for the skills of the Joachim Wtewael. And above all an embarrassment for Venus and Mars!

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.