Sunday, November 19, 2017

Underappreciated beauty: Renaissance and Baroque in England.

When one thinks of Renaissance or Baroque art we think of Italy, the Flanders, the Netherlands a few will also think of France and Germany, but why is England always left out? I have been thinking about this for years, now I made up my mind and decided to describe why briefly in this post.
Religion played a huge part in this. We have to remember that England underwent a Reformation after 1534 when the Anglican Church was formed and in the following years, but more especially during the English Civil War, much English Medieval and Renaissance art went missing because of iconoclasm; because of Calvinistic theology some Anglicans and Puritans literally smashed and destroyed over 2/3 of English art, most of it being religious. However, there is also another reason, the same reason why generic texts tend to focus on Italian, Flemish, Netherlandish and to an extent German Renaissance, whereas in fact France and Spain or England for that matter are really not. However, England did develop its own Renaissance art. As in the continent there were two main kinds of commissions in Renaissance England: the Church and private individuals, works commissioned by the latter tend to survive. England, especially the south-east, maintained strong relationships with the Flanders and Florence through its important wool-trade, the prime exporter in Europe, while England exported wool, it often took back art from Italy and the Flanders, often it also exchanged some back. This is one way in which English art was inspired by continental one during the Renaissance.


Probably, the most known example of 15th century art is the Wilton Diptych at the National Gallery in London; an early 1400s portable diptych, commissioned by King Richard II to an unknown English master, it incredibly survived the Reformation and Civil War and it is painted on both sides, with Saints John the Baptist, Edmund and Edward the Confessor presenting the Monarch to the the Virgin and Child on the other side, surrounded by a company of angels. On the other side, the King’s coat of arms and the white hart. It is a superb work which shows how they knew exactly what was going on in the continent in terms of art; the gilded background inspired by International Gothic art, yet the plasticity of the figures, even the angels wings’ colors show that England was developing its own art at the time and it could indeed be refined.


We can trace the beginning of English Renaissance Art to the mid-13th century, most parish churches at the time were divided by a sort of partition between the sanctuary and the nave, it was known as the rood screen, it was literally a screen that divided the people from the sacredness of the altar. It was usually surmounted by a “rood” a Crucifix, with statues of the Virgin and of Saint John.


The panels on such screen were decorated with Saints, Angels, Martyrs or doctors of the Church. During the mid to late 15th century this particular kind of art flourished. The style can be defined as a fascinating metamorphosis between earlier English art and Flemish art; a plasticity in the figures, a particular “Renaissance” iconography were already evolving, a trademark of English Renaissance art of the 15th century were unusually long feet. Most surviving rood-screens are now found in the beautiful East Anglian countryside. A notable example being St. Helen’s Church, Ranworth.


Also during the 15th century, another characteristic of early English Renaissance Art in parish churches is the series wall paintings that survived the Reformation, in the most fascinating cases, representing the Final Judgement; the Revelation, Christ sitting on clouds judging the whole of humanity to eternal salvation or damnation with angels and demons fighting each other over souls in scenes set in imaginary lands with the heavenly Jerusalem in the background, oddly enough looking like any Medieval English town. The dynamics, the plasticity and the frenzy of these scenes show us how this particular paintings were well into their own kind of Renaissance. Here is the splendid example of a Doom Painting at St. Thomas’ Church in Salisbury.


As in Italy or the Flanders, the quality of art and masters also depended on the commissioners, it is not a surprise that while being fascinating these works don’t quite count exactly as masterpieces. Towards the end of the 15th century, art in England was mutating, it was strongly being influenced by continental works, probably also under the patronage of the Tudors, especially King Henry VII, a great appreciator of French and Italian art. English sculpture, especially on ivory and alabaster was also one of the specialties of the English, with some great examples being at the Bargello Museums in Florence at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.


Two notable examples of wall paintings that come to mind are the refined works in Chichester Cathedral and Eton College Chapel, both by great English masters of the time. The chapel at Eton was decorated during the 1490s by William Baker and other English masters, the wall paintings are highly inspired by the Flemish style of the same time, on one side are stories of the Virgin Mary, patron of the chapel, on the other, in the true Renaissance rediscovery of Europe’s classical past, scenes from the life of a mythical empress.


The wall paintings at Chichester were executed by Lambert Barnard in the 1530s and show how English art had developed up to that point, they were commissioned by Bishop Robert Sherborne, which is also interesting because it shows there were patrons of the arts among the clergy just like in the continent and just like the continent these are a precious example of power and political propaganda; the Bishop is in a conversation with Henry VIII asking the monarch to preserve the cathedral after the Reformation, on the other side a scene of the foundation of the cathedral. Just like in the continent, the dynamic scenes were enclosed in classical frames known as grotesques and here and there you get exotic animals such as monkeys, you can’t get any more Renaissance than that!


Of course, the English’s true specialty was architecture, we must not forget that England had developed by then probably the most fascinating form of Gothic: Perpendicular Gothic, with examples such as Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey and Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, a spectacular spacious building with a remarkable and intricate fan vault and a Renaissance quire carved in the Italianate style.


England was also the excellency in the entire European continent for Opus Anglicanum, a particular style of needlework and embroideries that were highly popular throughout Europe, they were usually made for liturgical vestments, altar frontals but also personal clothes. In the Renaissance this form of art truly flourished and also reflected the style of painting and sculpture, it was often used as a diplomatic gift but also important churches throughout the continent requested vestments from England, notably Bologna and Rome (st. Peter’s Basilica) requested hundreds of these glorious works during the 15th century. Recently, I saw an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and I was stunned by these amazing embroideries.


Another form of art is indeed music; English Renaissance music, which developed its own style, is considered to be among the most refined of its kind in Europe; thankfully it survived the Reformation and was also commissioned afterwards, Queen Elizabeth I was a great appreciator, I am sure you have heard the likes of: William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons… Their Te Deums and Magnificats and Motets and Services are still sung in every English cathedral and college chapel and are one of the greatest treasure of that green and pleasant land.


How not to mention the superb English Renaissance stained glass, from the early works found in most cathedrals to the superb elaborate works in York Minster; the grand east window designed by John Thornton in the early 15th century, the greatest stained glass window in the entire world, it shows the Christian journey from the Scriptures, from the Genesis to the Revelation, each detailed window shows a style unique of England at the time. English stained glass evolved dramatically during the Renaissance, reaching its apotheosis during the 1500s with the magnificent windows at Kings College.


Secular art under the Tudors included land and naval battles scenes, hunting scenes, etc. in the continental style. However, perhaps the most famous English form of Renaissance art is the incredible number of portraits commissioned to great continental masters such as Hans Holbein, the official “Portrait Maker” of the Tudor court. Portaits of Thomas More, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I are world renowned masterpieces.


In the following century, England fully turned Classical; English Baroque can sometimes be remindful of a neo-Classical style, but it definitely was England’s own kind of Baroque. Already by the end of the 16th century English architects were exploring continental architecture. The Gate of Honor at Gonville & Caius College in Cambridge is a perfect example, Inigo Jones’ porch at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London could also be in any church here in Rome.


During the first half of the 17th century under Archbishop William Laud and other high church bishops of the time, churches, cathedrals and chapels saw a new rebirth of the arts; from painted panels to new stained glasses; there is an excellent book on this subject: the Arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation by Graham Parry. The Stuarts really boosted the “Baroquization” of England; they commissioned great art and architecture, they brought Orazio Gentileschi from Italy, his art was strongly inspired by that of Caravaggio, he worked for the Quirinal Palace in Rome and great basilicas such as Saint Mary Major or Santa Maria della Pace, he also worked extensively throughout England and truly opened the doors to continental-style, he worked for both the Stuarts and the Dukes of Marlborough, where his Allegory of Peace and of the Arts is truly a breathtaking case of delicate Baroque taste, perfect for the English. Another grand example of Baroque art in the British isles is the Banqueting House in London, commissioned by Charles I is a great example of Mannerist extravaganza.


However, its ceiling is the real masterpiece; Charles I commissioned its decoration to no less than Peter Paul Rubens, one of the greatest masters of Baroque Europe, who executed one of the greatest Baroque follies ever produced: the Apotheosis of James I. England had nothing to envy from the continent at the time and those who commissioned this art knew it well.


England’s Baroque age was a time of great glory, of great art and of rebirth, with musicians of the caliber of Henry Purcell, equally known for church and secular music, his Funeral of Queen Mary is probably one of the greatest musical works ever produced; Georg Frederich Handel later followed… his Messiah is probably one of those works even the least acknowledged person would recognise as classical and Christian and it doesn’t end here! Architecture, architecture, architecture! After the fire of London in 1666, Sir Cristopher Wren designed many churches and the great Royal Hospital Chelsea with its great paintings; the ascension of Christ by Sebastiano Ricci in the chapel and the great murals by James Thornill. However, his masterpiece is one of the greatest church of Christendom in the English Baroque Style, it is one of the most photographed and discussed buildings in the world which inspired so many to come, it’s this one.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The role of the Church of Rome during WW2.

Many legends have been spread about the role of the Roman Catholic Church during World War 2, many about the Pope secretly standing with the Nazis. Whereas, it is impossible to mention all the heroic bishops and pastors of the Church of Rome who fought against the horrors of Nazi-Fascism, here I wrote a brief account to shed some light on a theme that has been polluted with several untrue legends and myths. This is a fairer account:

When the Papal States were reduced to the tiny Vatican hill in 1870, the Vatican officially refused any relationship with the new Italian, unified, state. Until 1929, Roman Catholics were forbidden to take part in the political life of Italy by a document issued by Pope Pius IX, the Non Expedit. However, in 1922 Mussolini marched on Rome, he became the Prime Minster of the Kingdom of Italy, his regime will turn out to be a violent and ruthless military dictatorship. This introduction is important because in 1929, after almost sixty years, Mussolini finally signed the Lateran Treaty, recognising the sovereignty of Vatican City, a neutral monarchy led by the Pope.


Before the war, in early 1939, when tensions were strong between European powers, Pope Pius XII tried to reconcile Mussolini with the French, Polish, German, and British governments, through his nuncios (ambassadors). The attempt was not successful, as it seemed to be pro-(future)Axis (it was proposed that the Free City of Danzig could be ceded to Germany), and the Pope broadcast via radio his message: Nothing is lost with peace, all can be lost with war. In order to mediate, the Vatican also proposed to prevent any Russian expansion; Russia at the time was still ambiguously in contact with Nazi Germany. After over seventy years, the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated diplomatic relations with the Vatican.


However, as we know in 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, in a pragmatic way the Vatican thought a quick invasion Poland and its former German territories would be a quick way to end the war. However, in his Summi Pontificatus, the Pope criticised the Nazi/Soviet invasion of Poland. Italy was not yet in the Axis by then and the Pope as the spiritual leader of the Italian people called on the Italians to see Hitler and Stalin as the great evildoers. In Poland, the Germans murdered over 2,500 among the clergy, and more were imprisoned. The Pope shocked by this bloodshed of civilians and religious, wrote: The blood of countless human beings, even noncombatants, raises a piteous dirge over a nation such as Our dear Poland, which, for its fidelity to the Church, for its services in the defence of Christian civilization, written in indelible characters in the annals of history, has a right to the generous and brotherly sympathy of the whole world, while it awaits, relying on the powerful intercession of Mary, Help of Christians, the hour of a resurrection in harmony with the principles of justice and true peace. The Pope wrote fiercely against various anti-Christian movements in various documents but also warned Christians not to be fearful or cowardly in the face of persecution, but to be Soldiers of Christ.


Before the war, in 1938, when racial laws against Jews were promulgated by the Nazi and Fascist governments, racism and anti-semitism were strongly condemned by the Holy See. Regarding Nazi laws the Pope claimed: Mark well that in the Catholic Mass, Abraham is our Patriarch and forefather. Anti-Semitism is incompatible with the lofty thought which that fact expresses. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually we are all Semites. Earlier, in 1937 the Pope with the help of Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII published the anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge. The college of cardinals harshly criticised the laws as well and especially the idea of a “biological” racism. On 3 May 1938, during Hitler’s visit to Rome, the Pope published his anti-racist Syllabus document, criticising anti-semitism in Italy and Germany.


After the Kristallnacht in 1938, Lord Rotschild, a prominent British leader, organised a protest in London, and Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state, on behalf of the Pope, sent a message of solidarity with the persecuted Jews that was read aloud. When Pius XI died in 1939, he was praised for his stand against the Nazi-Fascist regimes and his opposition to anti-semitism.


In 1940, Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop led a delegation to an audience with Pius XII, because the Pope had sided with the Allies. The Pope replied with a list of Nazi atrocities and religious persecutions carried out against the Church and the Jews. In fear of provoking Hitler to commit even more bloodshed, the Pope’s addresses may always seem weaker, but there was indeed a reason behind it. In 1942, Pius XII delivered a radio Christmas message about his concern for the Nazi industrialised genocide of Jews that had just began, the Final Solution, he said: Mankind owes that vow to the numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: 'Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers.' Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or slow extermination.


Throughout the war, the Vatican was in contact with the Resistance in Germany and also behind Hitler’s murder attempts, hoping to restore a democratic republic there. Several generals were persuaded to act against Hitler. As early as late 1942, the Fascist regime already realised it had no chance of winning the war and sent a secret emissary, Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law (later sentenced to death by the dictator himself) to surrender to Britain, through the Vatican. Britain refused to deal with Ciano. The Swiss Guards at the Vatican, its small defensive troop, were given submachine guns and gas masks in the event of an attack. As the Allies started the invasion of Southern Italy, the Fascist regime weakened. In 1943 Mussolini escaped to northern Italy, where he founded the Republic of Salò, a Nazi puppet state. The Kingdom of Italy switched to the Allies’ side, but the Nazis invaded and occupied it, including Rome, perpetrating unnamable horrors. During the German occupation the extraterritorial status of the Vatican was respected although there were rumours of a plot to kidnap the Pope. The Holy See was concerned about the occupation and sent the Vatican Police Force and the Swiss Guards to maintain some order. One of Pius XII’s main priorities was to avoid the bombing of Rome, for it was an already devastated and occupied, as well as a holy city. Rome was bombed twice, by the Allies, who dropped leaflets before bombing but saw no great need for the bombing except in strategic areas. On August 14, 1943, Rome was declared an “open city”. After the Italian surrender, many Ally prisoners of war were released and were hosted in the Vatican City. Fr. Hugh O’Flaherty was one of many priests who helped Jews and allied POW’s to escape or hide during the Nazi occupation; he is credited with saving more than 6,500 people during the war. After the bombings, the Pope went into the crowds in the quarter of San Lorenzo to show the people that despite the horrors they had been through, the Pope and the Church were still there.


One of the most shocking tragedies of the war was certainly the Shoah. The Pope always protested against the deportations of Jews and often ordered his ambassadors to do the same, such as in Bratislava in 1942 during Nazi occupation. Following the Nazi occupation of Italy, the Pope ordered Catholic institutions to open themselves to the Jews, sheltering 4,715 of the 5,715 listed for deportation, in over 150 Catholic institutions; 477 Jews were sheltered in the Vatican itself. A moving testimony, in my city of Rome, is the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where the organ case was emptied for Jews to hide in, the organ was never repaired, but lives were spared. As Germans began the round-ups in northern Italy, the Pope opened his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, to Jews, and he instructed Catholic institutions in the north to do the same. During the invasion of Bulgaria, the Vatican arranged the transfer of thousands of Jewish children to Israel. Similar events occurred in Hungary and Rumania. At Pius XII’s death, the Pope was praised by the Israeli president and other world leaders.


Finally, the Allies liberated Rome on June 4-5 1944, afterwards many troops visited the Vatican for Mass and were invited to hear the Pope speak; he became the greatest celebrity during this period in the continent and a symbol of the resistance against Nazi-Fascist hatred.


The Church was a beacon of hope in times of desolation.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Christ upon the Mountain Peak: the Transfiguration.


One would think of summer as a liturgically bland season, the seemingly endless stretch of ordinary time seems to suggest that the Church is on vacation! It is perhaps for this reason that the Medieval Church used summer as a time to celebrate important saints, such as martyrs or even the Virgin, but also an important feast of Christ, one so significant that it possibly occurs in August because it does not belong to Christmastide or Eastertide and needs a place of its own, it is the feast that shows the glory and divinity of the yet "human" Christ over the religion and prophets of old; the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Transfiguration - Perugino - c.1497 - Fresco - Collegio del Cambio, Perugia. 

The Transfiguration of Christ, on Mount Tabor with Moses and Elias, is found in the Gospels of St. Matthew (17.1-6), St. Mark (9:1-18), St. Luke (9:28-36) and to a lesser extent in St. John (1:14) and in one of St. Paul’s epistle (2 Peter 1:16-18). It is indeed the culminating moment of Christ’s public ministry; starting with his Baptism and ending with the Ascension, but indeed this is the moment during his earthly mission in which he openly shows that he is not only capable of prophetic miracles but that he belongs to the highest sphere of heaven. 
Already during Jesus’ time, the mount of the Transfiguration was known as the “holy mount” (2 Peter 1:18) and tradition identifies it with Mount Tabor. In the third century Origen writes that it is indeed the mountain in Galilee in which Christ was transfigured and in the following century St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Jerome also state the same. On these strong basis the Fifth Council of Constantinople erected the see of this mystical event. During the late 6th century the Byzantines built three shrines, which grew during the Middle Ages and became a monastery, which later became a Benedictine abbey, then destroyed by Sultan al-Malik al-Adil in the early 13th century. In 1631 the Franciscans took possession of the mount. 
The event took place during Christ’s sojourn in Caesarea Philippi; Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to a high mount On the mount, Christ’s body emanated a dazzling brightness, a sign of divinity, changed his earthly face to reveal his godly one, besides him appeared true Judaism in the form of Moses and Elias, representing the law and the prophet that foretold the coming of the Messiah, adoring the Christ. A cloud appears from above and the voice of the Father proclaims Jesus as his only begotten Son, Christ emanates a blinding light, symbol of his divine nature. This concludes the earlier line in which God the Father announces the death and resurrection of Christ, now the Son reunited his closest disciples at the announcement of the glory and heavenly delights waiting for everyone, the conclusion of this process and Jesus’ divine proclamation as God; Jesus of the Cross and Passion, the Christ of the Resurrection, Ascension and heavenly glory, it is indeed a revelation. The Transfiguration of Christ is an anticipation and a preview to the Resurrection, to Christ's truly divine nature and salvific mission and this event must be understood in the light of it as well as of his death and passion.

Transfiguration - Giovanni Bellini - c.1487 - Tempera on Panel - Giovanni Bellini - Capodimonte Museum, Naples. 

St. Matthew and St. Mark define the phenomenon as metemorphothe, in the Vulgata transfiguratus; which is the earthly Jesus reveals his godly and divine nature of Christ. His face did shine as the sun and his garments became white as snow…
The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated by most Christian Churches, the origins of the feast lies in the dedication of the three basilicas on Mount Tabor, it soon spread to the Western Church, the first celebration in St. Peter's Basilica took place in the twelfth century, and it was made a universal feast on 6 August by Pope Callistus III to celebrate the Siege of Belgrade in 1456, this date was also chosen because according to tradition the Transfiguration occurred forty days before the Crucifixion, and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross occurred on 14 September. Interestingly, in the Eastern Churches the Transfiguration is part of the Dormition fast (though fast is not mandatory!) and a beautiful detail is that the Transfiguration is not only viewed as a feast of Christ, but of the Trinity, as not only the Son was taking an active part, but God the Father was the voice from heaven and God the Spirit was the cloud. In England the Feast had a relatively low rank in the Sarum Calendar and after the Reformation it appeared as a black letter day in the Book of Common Prayer, but not as a major feast.

Transfiguration - Sandro Botticelli - c.1500 - Tempera on Panel - Pallavicini Gallery, Rome. 

The subject of the Transfiguration is also an immensely popular theme in Christian art; from the early Byzantine icons or mosaics, such as the early one at Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai to the famous Renaissance works of Fra Angelico, Perugino, Raphael or Titian. 
Iconography follows the Gospels which describe the apostles as afraid but also sleepy, in most works they seem to be just waking up when Jesus begins to shine, at which point they take dramatic poses of amazement. Christ, sometimes floating, sometimes not, is usually shown in a mandorla, (except in post 15th century Western works), emitting light, often through various effects, such as a gilded face. Frequently, God the Father takes the form of light descending from above or as a hand in early scenes.

Transfiguration - Byzantine - c.540 - Mosaic - St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai.

The mosaic at Saint Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai, probably commissioned by Justinian the Great always held a symbolic place, as it is where the Christ “meets” Moses, this is a rare survival of pre-iconoclasm Byzantine art and it shows Christ standing in a mandorla with a cruciform halo, with the prophets at his side. Below them are the disciples. This will be the theme chosen for most, later Eastern icons. In the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, from the same era, Moses and Elias are represented at half-length, God’s hand appears above the scene, but unusually this is a symbolic Transfiguration, Christ becomes a bare Cross within a celestial sphere. Twelve lambs surround the bottom scene. Byzantine iconography emphasised the divinity and glory of God, while since the late Middle Ages, Western Transfigurations emphasised the coming resurrection.

Transfiguration - Byzantine - c.549 - Mosaic - Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. 

In more recent Western depictions the scene usually resolves itself into two zones; usually an upper one with the actual Transfiguration of Christ, the divine part, static, calm and timeless, while the lower zone usually chaotic and frenetic shows the astonished disciples. During the Renaissance the Mount became more of a rock a few feet tall, but the scenes nonetheless maintained their distinction and it is in these cases that the solution of a floating Transfiguration makes more sense, as in the beautiful examples by Perugino or Raphael, whose (last) masterpiece in the Vatican Museum, commissioned by Cardinal Giuliano de' Medici in 1516, is indeed the most important painting of this theme. In Raphael’s work, Christ recalls the composition of the Resurrection or the Assumption and that is the artist’s intent in which two apparently incompatible scenes work together, the solemnity of the Transfiguration and the chaos of Jesus healing a possessed boy, it is also the intent of Western theology, as well as the intent of God, to show his followers that after chaos and death there will be glory, an immense light, an immense peace.

Transfiguration - Raphael - c.1516 - Tempera on Panel - Vatican Museums.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Our Lady of the River, a summery Roman tradition.

Yesterday, on the Tiber I had the pleasure to witness one of the oldest and most beloved traditions of Rome, La Festa de Noantri, literally "our feast", which occurs on the commemoration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the patroness of the Carmelite order. Celebrations last for over a week in the end of July and it is one of the most heartfelt feasts in Rome, but how did it begin?
In 1535, during a storm, a group of fishermen at the mouth of the Tiber found a statue of Our Lady sculpted in cedar wood. The statue which became La Madonna Fiumarola (Our Lady of the River), was given to the Carmelites of the Church of San Crisogono in Trastevere, it became the protectress of Rome. 


Now the statue is housed in the Church of Sant'Agata in Trastevere and every Saturday after the 16th of July a procession to the Church of San Crisogono takes place where the statue rests for a novena. But one of the most striking peculiarities about the feast takes place on the last day of celebration when a spectacular procession on the Tiber, crossing the entirety of Rome, ends up with Our Lady landing in Trastevere again where a Solemn Mass takes place in the third century basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
It is indeed a dazzling experience and it is a good example of Roman spirituality, be sure not to miss it next time! Ave Maria!

Monday, July 24, 2017

A "different" Crucifixion in Florence.

Florence is home to an endless number of marvels, easily comparable, if not superior, to those of any European capital. Of course, Fiorenza was also the home of the Renaissance. 
One of the many gems of the city can be found in the Chapter House of the former convent of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi, here is a rare example of Umbrian Renaissance in the heart of Florence, an incredible combination; in this room Perugino, who resided in Florence for about two years from 1493, when he married Chiara Fancelli, his muse for many works, and was also Raphael’s master, eventually decorated the main wall of the room with a famous fresco representing the Crucifixion of Christ, his workshop, in the same room worked on a fresco of Saint Bernard collecting the body of Christ from the Cross. Now the Chapter House is part of an ancient high school of Florence, guess not every school can boast a room with Renaissance frescoes.
This is by far the largest fresco work of the few Perugino ones in Florence, the other being the Last Supper, it was executed when the convent was still under the Cistercian order and was commissioned by the Pucci family (who are still around today, like many other Italian families). Sources provided in the Libro di Antonio Billi show that the date of the commission is 20 November 1493 and the recipient is Mastro Piero della Pieve a Chastello Perugino, signed by Dionigi and Giovanna Pucci, the payment for the completion of the work (55 ducats) occurred on 20 April 1496. In 1628 the convent of Santa Maddalena dei Pazzi was taken by enclosed nuns and the fresco was forgotten until 1867 when the nuns abandoned the convent and the fresco was rediscovered, causing a great interest among scholars. Today the chapter house belong to the Polo Museale Fiorentino, together with the Uffizi, the Bargello, the several Last Supper frescoes and many other treasures, it can be visited by accessing the Liceo Michelangelo (the school) through the main gate on Via della Colonna.


In the space where the east wall meets the Renaissance rib-vault of the Chapter House, Perugino set the scene of the Crucifixion, divided into three scenes by columns, the capitals are the original architectural ones, the central part of the columns are painted in a rather innovative game of perspective, creating an imaginary loggia. On the north wall is a smaller fresco portraying Saint Bernard in the act of collecting the body of Christ from the Cross. The two frescoes have a common background, appearing beyond the painted loggia, a rather idyllic Renaissance landscape of central Italian woods, hills and lakes, very common in Perugino’s works. In the central section is the Christ on the Cross, still undead and looking downwards, above him the sun shines through rose clouds, Mary Magdalene, patroness of the convent, is just below him, praying at his Lord in penitence. In the other two sections, from left to right are: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order, Our Lady, in a Renaissance emotion-less pose, this is no more Mary, this is now the Mother of Our Lord, on the other section are Saint John the Evangelist, together with Mary, always present at the Crucifixion and at his side Saint Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order of which the Cistercians are part of. On the left, on the north wall is the Saint Bernard deposition from the Cross, that shows the incredible and profound mysticism of the Cistercian order. Despite the dramatic subject the scene appears rather serene, this was very much the case in Renaissance spirituality, a sense of peace pervades the fresco and this could certainly be the intention of the author; behold your God, your Lord, in transcendental peace and awe, a scene of death with a pathos revealing the resurrection - the fulfilment of God's mission, yet hidden in our hearts. Surely a great idea, perhaps the author wanted to create a peaceful atmosphere in the Chapter House, thinking of those canons arguing all day long! This great work is a monumental triptych of about the size of one of the many Last Supper frescoes of Florence, but being for the Chapter House instead of a Refectory, this theme was chosen. This is an incredibly rare example of a Perugino work, an Umbrian, here in Florence. It is quite important as a testimony that proves how good an artist he was to be called here in the cradle of the Renaissance. This is indeed one of Florence’s hidden gems.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saint Mary Magdalene, a more "human" example of faith.

Today is the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, a key figure in the life of Christ and perhaps one of the most enigmatic saints of Christianity, many legends have been told about this important saint. Instead, I would like to introduce her story; a story of remission, forgiveness, redemption and renewal in Christ, an example to all and below Christ, below the Virgin, someone we can not just admire but associate with us.

Mary Magdalene - Carlo Crivelli - c.1485 - Tempera on Panel - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

מרים המגדלית‎‎, Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνή, Maria Magdalena, Mary Magdalene was a humble Jewish woman, she shared a common name of the time and must not be confused with the Mother of God or Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha. In the Gospels she is called the Magdalene, probably an association with the Sea of Magdala, later scholars, such as Saint Jerome, suggest it might indicate her great faith. Mary Magdalene has always been associated by Tradition as sexually immoral or as a prostitute, although this is not supported by Scripture, the Gospels do agree she was a great sinner, but it is her life after meeting Jesus, who casts the seven demons out of her, which is considered much more significant.

St. Mary Magdalene - Jan van Scorel - c.1530 - Oil on Panel - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

She plays an important part in the salvific mission of Christ and in the life of the Apostles. In Luke 8, while Jesus was travelling with the disciples, he cured the evil spirits and diseases of Mary called Magdalene and the seven demons came out, this is when the loving power of God heals Mary the sinner and transforms her, a common woman, nothing like the Virgin Mary, but truly one of us, into someone worthy enough to be part of God's story here on earth in different way from the disciples, sometimes even more intimately. It is in fact during the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25) that the figure of the Magdalene becomes central, unlike any other follower of Jesus she is specified by name as a witness of the main three events of the passion, beginning with the Crucifixion that she witnessed, at a distance. During the Deposition (Matthew 27:61, Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1), Mary Magdalene stands besides Joseph of Arimathea, with Mary (Mother of James) and they brought oils to anoint their Saviour's body, in fact an incredibly active part in the Passion. But it is at the Resurrection (Mark 28:1, Mark 16:19, Luke 24, John 20:1) that she truly fulfils her God's given mission. In the four gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first to witness the Resurrection of Christ, she was chosen among sinners to witness the miracle of Salvation, the first among sinners witnessed the fulfilment of what she also represented, Satan's sin being cast down and renewal, consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive in Jesus Christ the Lord, the Lamb who shed his sacred blood for the Magdalene, the Magdalene who is each and everyone of us. The Resurrection is announced in the Gospels in several ways, by beautiful angels or in the astounding meeting of the Christ and the Magdalene, Noli Me Tangere, "do not touch me!" the famous words Jesus tells Mary, because Jesus was pure, resurrected God and he had then worked through her and through mankind with his redemption. Her story is the story of Christ and the story of our Salvation.

Mary Magdalene - Piero di Cosimo - c.1490 - Tempera on Panel - Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

In the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene, although canonically a great sinner, was seen as being a repentant prostitute or a loose woman, at least in the West - these claims were never supported in the Gospels. This notion can be traced as far back as Ephrem the Syrian in the fourth century, but it was Pope Gregory I during a homily in 591 that more or less made the claim somewhat official; he identified the Magdalene not just as a sinner but also with the company of Mary of Bethany; Martha and Lazarus, starting the so called theological malformation known as the "composite Magdalene" which followed Mary into the Eastern Schism: four saints, one feast. The seven demons removed by Jesus represented the seven capital sins, and so the Magdalene incarnated all sins but also our redemption. An aspect which became her "trademark" in Western art and religious literature, fitting well with the importance of penitence in Medieval theology.

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance. Pope Gregory the Great (homily XXXIII).

The Raising of Lazarus - Geertgen tot Sint Jans - c.1480 - Oil and Tempera on Panel - Louvre Museum, Paris.

The so called "composite Magdalene" was never accepted in the East, where Mary was only seen as a disciple (in the broader sense of the term) and that she lived as a companion to the Virgin. Not only in the East it was unpopular, but also in the West. The Benedictines always celebrated Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus on 29 July, but the Magdalene on 22 July. By the end of the Middle Ages (12th and 13th centuries), Mary Magdalene was generally accepted as the Apostolurum Apostola, the Apostle to the Apostles. She was commemorated throughout Europe and in England the Sarum Rite, the rite used in most of southern England included a beautiful collect:

Grant unto us, most merciful Father,
that like as blessed Mary Magdalene
by loving thy Only-begotten One above all things, 
obtained pardon of all her sins, 
so she may secure for us everlasting blessedness 
in thy compassionate presence.


Mary Magdalene was an especially popular saint for the Medieval man who always sought mediators in which he could identify; the Gothic, late Middle Ages were also a prolific time for mystic, "magical" tales; one of the greatest works of that time was the Golden Legend by Jacobus da Voragine, a Dominican Friar, a beautiful collection of the lives of the saints, from Saint George and the Dragon to the Finding of the Cross by Saint Helena. The Golden Legend stated that Mary Magdalene was in fact also rich and noble. 

...Magdalene abounded in riches, and because delight is fellow to riches and abundance of things; and for so much as she shone in beauty greatly, and in riches, so much the more she submitted her body to delight, and therefore she lost her right name, and was called customably a sinner.


Mary Magdalene - Antonio Vivarini - c.1476 - Tempera on Panel - Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.


After the Ascension, the "Penitent Magdalene" spent the rest of her life as an hermit in a cave for thirty years, communicating with angels: 

...the blessed Mary Magdalene, desirous of sovereign contemplation, sought a right sharp desert, and took a place which was ordained by the angel of God, and abode there by the space of thirty years without knowledge of anybody. In which place she had no comfort of running water, ne solace of trees, ne of herbs. And that was because our Redeemer did do show it openly, that he had ordained for her refection celestial, and no bodily meats. And every day at every hour canonical she was lifted up in the air of angels, and heard the glorious song of the heavenly companies with her bodily ears. Of which she was fed and filled with right sweet meats, and then was brought again by the angels unto her proper place, in such wise as she had no need of corporal nourishing.

The Golden Legend interestingly, and perhaps because of the Dominican influence, sees Mary Magdalene as a preacher and evangeliser:

When Mary Magdalene saw the people gathering at the shrine to offer sacrifice to the idols, she came forward, her manner calm and her face serene, and with well-chosen words called them away from the cult of idols and preached Christ fervidly to them. All who heard her were in admiration at her beauty, her eloquence, and the sweetness of her message...and no wonder, that her mouth which had pressed such pious and beautiful kisses on the Savior’s feet should breathe forth the perfume of the word of God more profusely than others could.

These elaborate, beautiful legends were generally widely accepted by the Church and truly besides being splendid poetry, caused no arm and were usually based on real accounts. In fact, they were instrumental in spreading the faith.
The Anglican 1549 Book of Common Prayer kept the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene as a red letter day, then changed to a black letter day after 1552, interestingly the readings remained the same as in the Tridentine Mass. Here is the beautiful collect from the first prayer book:

Merciful father geue us grace,
that we neuer presume to synne through the example of anye creature, 
but if it shall chaunce vs at any tyme to offende thy dyuine maiestie: 
that then we maye truly repent, and lament the same,
after the example of Mary Magdalene,
and by lyuelye faythe obtayne remission of all oure sinnes:
throughe the onely merites of thy sonne oure sauiour Christ.

Mary Magdalene - English Master of the 15th century - c.1493 - Tempera on Panel - St.Catherine's Church, Ludham.

Mary Magdalene in the late Middle Ages became the second most represented Saint after the Virgin Mary. She was usually depicted as extravagantly dressed and with very long blond or reddish hair, often covering her whole body, a sign of prostitutes or noblewomen, not  the case among working or middle class women, weddings were an exception. But the iconography was a fulfilment of her changed nature in Christ.

Saint Mary Magdalene in Glory with Angels - Master of Gdańsk - c.1430 - Tempera and Gold on Panel - National Museum, Warsaw.

A common iconography is that of the Penitent Magdalene. According to Medieval theology the saint had spent a number of years wandering in the desert as an hermit after leaving her life, a very similar iconography to that of Mary of Egypt, another prostitute who became a hermit. Magdalene’s long hair covers her whole body and as saint dialogued with angels, she is often depicted in an “elevation”, with angels raising her up as recounted in the Golden Legend. 
Another common iconography is that of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross during Jesus’ Crucifixion, she often appears with the Virgin Mary and Saint John as another spectator. She is often found kneeling, clutching the shaft, kissing Jesus’ feet or usually standing in grief at the left behind Mary and John. According to an 11th century English manuscript she is seen as an expressional device rather than a historical motif, intended as the expression of an emotional assimilation of the event, that leads the spectator to identify himself with the mourners

Crucifixion - Hans Memling - c.1491 - Oil on Panel - St. Annen Museum, Lübeck.

She usually appears in the Resurrection of Lazarus besides Martha and Mary of Bethany or in portraits while reading and/or with a vase containing the holy oils for Jesus' body, but probably her most famous iconography is that of the Noli Me Tangere. Christ meets the Magdalene, she mistakes him for the sepulchre keeper, and a garden spade can be usually seen in the foreground, but the beauty of these works is the surprise and the fulfilment of the Christian message when she dramatically falls before the Lord. 

Noli Me Tangere - Marcello Venusti - c.1550 - Oil on Panel -  Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.
When she meets for the first time the resurrected Christ who warns her not to come close, for redemption had been fulfilled in her and mankind; and the very God that he was had become ready for rejoining the Father in heaven. Sin had been broken. This is the story of Mary Magdalene and why this great sinner is the closest to us all, with Jesus in her heart, sin in her past and resurrection in her future. Here is a hymn I wrote to her (to be sung to Austria):

Mary Magdalene, most Blessèd,
born from sin, yet saved by Christ;
forth from her he cast the demons,
she became a Saint so bright.
By his mercy was she saved;
when the sin was torn apart,
Peace of God, his gracious off’ring,
unto her doth Grace impart.

Christ was Crucified by man,
so to save our souls from sin;
at his feet stood Mary weeping,
for the glorious King of kings.
Three whole days of silent waiting,
Mary first to see his face;
the great Christ was now alive,
raised from death, restored the Grace.

And from sin to Grace the story,
tells the victory over sin;
Mary Magdalene, the blessèd,
healed by Christ’s own power within.
To the Trinity be glory,
to the Father and the Son;
to the Holy Ghost above,
ever Three and ever One.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

An unusual Renaissance gem in Florence.

Florence, as mentioned in other articles, is a city that hosts several treasures, among these many treasures there are several convents and monasteries that often have the most outstanding works of art, most of them host the popular Last Supper frescoes we have seen before: the Ghirlandaio, Andrea del Castagno, etc. But there is also an unusual one, at the Convento di Fuligno, which hosts the Perugino Last Supper. Uniquely open to the public this summer, a very rare event. Why is it unique? As we have seen before, with his Crucifixion, it is incredible that an Umbrian artist (remember Umbria was in the Papal States) managed to get art commissions in the centre of the Renaissance: Florence, the city of Ghirlandaio and Botticelli, but this just shows how popular and outstanding his work was, so popular he eventually became Raphael’s master.
The convent took its name from a community of Franciscan nuns coming from Foligno in Umbria which took possession of it in 1419. It eventually became a convent for young aristocratic Florentine ladies and was embellished thanks to donations by Lorenzo de’Medici and the Lapaccini family. Perugino arrived in Florence in 1493, where he stayed for about two years after he married his wife Chiara Fancelli, that same year he worked on in the convent.


The large work is located in a wall in the shape of a horseshoe, the scene is set in a portico, the apostles are sat on a long Renaissance wooden sedilia, decorated with a beautiful green brocade, the iconography is rather common, as usual Judas Iscariot is on the other side of the table, looking towards the viewer, but still giving us his back to us, on the other side are the "holier" apostles and Christ, from the left: James the Less who is inviting us into the scene, then, Philip, James, Andrew, Peter, Jesus, John, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, Simon and Jude, all looking at their Lord, and eating on a table. The floor presents a rather complicated geometric pattern in rose and white marbles, similar to that in the younger works by Perugino. The work is very similar to another Florentine Cenacolo, that by Ghirlandaio at San Marco, especially in the background where behind the sedilia a Renaissance loggia, where decorated pilasters open the scene of a bucolic Italian countryside panorama, with gentle hills and large trees. This was rather common at the time. The point was that these frescoes were made in refectories, in this way it was as if the religious people would eat with Our Lord and the Apostles, as the room architecturally continued into the painting and spaced into that magic countryside. In the background is also a smaller scene, still linked to the Last Supper: Christ preaching in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he and the Apostles slept after the Last Supper and before his Crucifixion, the moments that link his revelation, his sacrifice in the very institution of the Eucharist. An angel appears to be overseeing the whole scene from above. The whole scene is set within a grotesque frame, similar to ancient Roman ones, except there are small portraits of saints, a rather common Florentine detail.
This little Florentine gem is indeed worth seeing, it shows how varied the artistic life in the 15th century was and Florence not only saw local artists, but also Flemish, German but very rarely from other parts of Italy. It's truly worth it!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Short Reflection on the Romanovs' Martyrdom.

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the majestic, imperial Viennese funeral of Otto von Habsburg, by pretence Emperor-King of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia and Jerusalem. While admiring the spectacular pageantry, the fascinating historical legacy of the former crown, I could not stop thinking how good it was for European nations to have such strong bonds with their living history, to be able to witness such ceremonial, the fruit of a continuous evolution of power going back to the Roman Empire, through the Church and via the birth of national states in the Middle Ages, through the later evolution of the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe. Upon hearing the beautiful Kayserhymne sung to the beautiful tune "Austria", I realised how these institution are an important treasure to keep, a treasure that made us who we are; monarchies shaped our culture, commissioned our art, peacefully (or less peacefully) supported the role of the Church in our society, in a fashion that dates back to Emperor Constantine. I am not being nostalgic, or perhaps I am, but I certainly don't believe in anachronisms certainly the existence of monarchies today isn't one, if they humbly serve their people. I do believe that monarchies are a gift to our societies, forgive me for my opinion, but so much more than republics which lack this fascinating and emotional side, but also represent impartiality and regality above any earthly matter and because our rulers of ages past shaped this our European culture, how can we not be grateful? A recent Austrian study stated that despite the country is now a republic the Imperial Habsburg heritage is the main reason tourists visit the country - in the form of their legacy, their palaces, churches and so much more and I believe this is very much applicable to anywhere else: in Italy; from the Doges of Venice or the Medici of Florence, to the Popes of Rome; to the Prussian or Austrian Emperors to the monarchs of England, France and Spain. The imperial legacy of the Habsburg was so strong that when the Emperor-to be died in 2011, Hungarian Parliament held a moment of silence, bad legacies don't prove in these results. 


My mind can only go to our own Anglican Defender of the Faith: Queen Elizabeth II, the fruit of a long lasting line of monarchs going back more than a thousand years, keeping the kingdom together by simply being above earthly matters, a neutral guide to a nation, not elected but anointed, not responding to the people, but serving it, only under God. Also, it is a matter of fact that the English Crown, which is entirely self sufficient is in fact a matter of pride but also revenue for the United Kingdom because of the tourism and merchandising it attracts, as well as the place it takes by making English public life much more interesting, from the Abbey services to the Trooping of Colour, it is doubtless that a crown is a perfect link between history and modernity that truly gives a country a strong self-identity and I believe all of Europe should begin to appreciate this its heritage.



But what is the point of this post? Today in 1918, Russian Bolsheviks murdered Tzar Nicholas II and his family, including children. The Tzar of Russia was among the most powerful crowned heads of Europe, the Russian court was among the most refined of its time and the Romanov family had reigned in Russia for about 500 years, it is as if the Stuarts were still reigning today - the Tzars helped to make Russia, despite its distance, a true European nation, because of its art, culture and political scene. Unfortunately, the Romanov were only the last martyrs of a European revolution, this case that of the the Communists. Sadly, the Romanov, whom most Russian still praise will not be back, but one would hope their martyrdom would prove the sadness revolutions can bring. In the European case, one could easily notice that there are several points in common - certainly, sometimes they were about monarchs who might have been out of touch with their people and reigning under absolute power. But is the only way to change that murder?


Did Charles I and Louis XVI had to die? Would bad monarchs die for the apostolic faith in England or would bad monarchs wish their blood to bring happiness among the French people? But what are these common points? Revolutions are usually started by few who intoxicate the most unhappy spheres of society and don't lead them into a successful way to improve their condition, but instead use them as a mean to get to their own power and preferential type of government, usually dictatorial: whether it is the Puritanism of Cromwell or the Reign of Terreur of Robespierre up to the Communism that brought down Russia's credibility as a nation, as well as its economy, for little less than a century. The point of this post is not to convince anyone about the grandeur of past monarchies but simply to understand that not everything is at it seems - that most of what we must be thankful for, as nationals of our own countries, derives from our past and these institutions shaped our past. Fortunately the English monarchy was restored, but when we talk about France or Russia, we are talking about millenary institutions and I do believe it is just plain wrong that in such a small time they were erased for ever, never to be back; and for whom arts, literature, music and all that shaped our European culture were composed.


These revolutions also led the path for the end of the Prussian and Austrian empires whose legacies and history were also extremely fascinating, instead we all know what happened after their end - nowadays we have the idea that only republics can be real forms of democracy. It is not so. On a lighter note, we left the world of Tchaikovsky, Sissi, Lully and the great palaces of Vienna, Salzburg or St. Petersburg or the French Chateaux for (allow me to say it) boring republican normality - in Germany and Italy the President of the Republic receives almost regal respects, is that democratic? Why not have a Royal Family! I hope these horrors won't be repeated and I hope we will begin to appreciate our past and the respect for the institution of the crown, the beauty of neutrality and a line that goes back to the origin of Western civilisation. Today we remember the slaughter of an innocent man who was instructed to rule under God in the way he did, and of his family and children, that the greed of some may never again prove in the death of other people of God. 

We remember the martyrdom of the Romanovs, 
may the Holy Family of Russia and Saint Mary the Virgin, pray for us.