Monthly Archives: May 2013

Michael Landy exhibition ‘Saints Alive’ at National Gallery London

Sassetta, The Stigmatisation of saint Francis 1437, National Gallery, London, one of the paintings which inspired Michael Landy’s sculptures on show at the Gallery

British artist in residence at the National Gallery, Michael Landy has a show of the fruits of his two year stay at the gallery in an exhibition entitled Saints Alive. He was made over life-sized moving sculptures from junk materials of various saints after paintings in the National Gallery.  Visitors are able to push buttons and details of martyrdoms recorded in the paintings come alive, their martyrdoms or penitential gestures are re-enacted. St Jerome in penitence beats his chest with a rock, the martyrdom of St Peter Martyr is brought to life.

It’s undoubtedly a witty and  irreverent show, perhaps a risky one in some ways and those of faith may baulk at saints’ lives and deaths being shown as heaps of sculpted found objects, injected with life rather like the sculptures of artist Jean Tinguely, one of  Landy’s acknowledged sources of  inspiration. However, the sculptures are very much inspired by particular paintings of the saints, St Jerome, the painting by Cosme Tura, or combinations of them, first and foremost, and this may be an oblique but effective method of re-connecting gallery- goers with the narratives of the paintings on show and the faith of those depicted, and of those who painted them.  Furthermore, as Jesuit James Martin recently pointed out in Between Heaven and Mirth, a very witty account of humour and sanctity, the saints could be irreverent and funny. He records St Lawrence, one of those featured in the show, even going so far as to say to his executioners, “take a bit of me I’m well done on this side”, when grilled alive on a gridiron!

The exhibition opened yesterday and there is an book available, too.


Vatican Museums hold study day on Michelangelo’s Pieta in Rome

Michelangelo’s Pieta, 1499 St Peter’s Basilica, Rome

The Vatican News Service gave notice of a symposium held today, the 41st anniversary of the  occasion the Pieta was attacked with a hammer, causing damage to the Madonna’s nose, left forearm and elbow. The study day was entitled “Michelangelo’s Pieta: In memory of 21 May 1972- A Restoration Story. A leaflet and abstracts give details of the talks. Details of the history of the statue’s position in St Peter’s prior to its current position where it was placed in 1779 were presented. The archeologist Pietro Zander was scheduled to discuss the many crowns that have adorned the Virgin’s head over the centuries. Also shown was a digitally re-mastered version of the film ‘Violence and the Pieta’, a documentary originally filmed at Paul VI’s express desire, who saw the shattered statue as an image of the church in tears, attacked by evil. There was also to be an introduction to a new Vatican Museum initiative, the creation of a virtual gipsoteca of  3D clones of the Museums most important works.

Ascension of the Lord (C) Acts 1:6-10, Luke 24:46-53

The Ascension Relief , marbel panel by Donatello, 1428-30. V & A Museum, London

The Ascension has been a theme in art since the 4th century when a feast was introduced in the Church forty days after Easter, in accordance with the chronology in St Luke’s account in Acts (1:6-10). The readings for the feast always include this reading but with different Gospels for each year in the cycle. In C, the Gospel is St Luke’s account ( 24:46-53). These texts from St Luke, especially Acts, provide the source for the iconography.

Ernest Dewald gives an overview of the iconography up until the end of the Middles ages in “The Iconography of the Ascension” in the American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 19, No. 3 July 1919, p277-319, looking at examples in manuscripts, ivories, bronze, wood and stone. He traces a Hellenistic tradition in the West on the one hand, where Christ is shown ascending in profile from a mountain with the apostles below, which can be seen in a panel of the Santa Sabina doors and in an ivory diptych in Munich from the late 4th century, and on the other hand, he identifies a Syro-Palestinian tradition, where Christ is in the heavens in a mandorla and the Apostles in a separate zone below as in the Rabula Gospels now in Florence from 586. By the early Middles Ages, the Syro-Palestinian model, which dominated in Byzantine art, had greatly influenced the West and become the main type. We can see this in the bronze doors of St Paul’s Rome, though the Hellenistic influence continues to be seen in the figure of the ascending Christ in profile in many examples as in the Drogo sacramentary and there are other variations and combinations in between.

An entirely new one then developed in late Anglo-Saxon art in the early 11th century in the Missal of Robert of Jumiege from Canterbury, seen in the 12thc Sacramentary of St Bertin and spreading via Paris throughout the West. It was coined by Meyer Shapiro as the ‘Disappearing Christ’ in a seminal article.1 This type dominated the period 13th– 15th centuries, though other traditions continued. Here, only Christ’s feet are shown and the focus is on the apostles in the lower part. Shapiro sees this as a late visual response to Patristic exegetical tradition of the Ascension. However, it is interesting to note that Giotto, both in the Basilica at Assisi and in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua returns to the original Hellenistic prototype, while near contemporaries such as Pacino da Bonaguida used the conservative Byzantine model.

Donatello’s Ascension relief in the Victoria and Albert Museum London, executed 1420s, comes from a hundred years after Giotto, and a similar period of pictorial innovation. He draws on all the different iconographic traditions, for the 11 apostles and the Virgin Mary, for the mountain scene and the presence of angels, though the added theme of Christ giving the keys to St Peter has clearly affected the composition. It is considered very likely that it may have been part of the original scheme for the decoration of the Brancacci chapel alongside Masaccio’s frescos of the life of St Peter in the Carmelite church in Florence for several reasons ( though provenance only extends back to the 1490s): the date of the relief matches the commission; the correspondence in style and in the innovations in perspective, composition, use of cast shadows, and treatment of the figures when compared with Masaccio’s frescoes, in particular the Tribute Money, where layout of the apostles is the same all seems to indicate a link; nowhere else does Donatello use this compositional arrangement; the relief includes the handing of the keys to St Peter, an essential episode in the life of Peter, but omitted from Masaccio’s cycle in the Chapel, suggesting it had been reserved for Donatello’s relief, possibly intended for the tabernacle or altar front; the iconographic detail of Jesus ascending from a mountain and handing the keys to St Peter would fit with the Carmelite tradition that it was St Peter who had brought the good news of Christ to the hermits on Mt Carmel, to whom the Carmelites traced back their origins and it also matches an eye-witness account by the Bishop of Souzdal of a mystery play including the Ascension scene as performed at the Carmel in 1439 in which the handing of the keys and the Ascension are linked in the same way as in the relief:

…at this point a clap of thunder resounded through the church, and a cradle, masked by painted clouds, descended from an aperture above the stage. During its ascent, an actor,representing Christ took up two golden keys, and blessing St Peter handed them to him…. 2

Vasari praised Donatello for his invention of low relief known as rilevo schiacciato (flattened relief)) and this is one of his finest works using this method. It is as if Donatello is drawing in light and shade. Using low relief and Brunelleschi’s innovation of linear perspective, he was able to recess a large number of overlapping figures, create an illusion of depth and precisely locate the spectator in relation to the scene. Even though the relief is a fraction of the depth of Ghiberti’s earlier Agony in the Garden, Donatello could overlay five figures of apostles and Mary on the left and six figures on the right, where Ghiberti was constrained to two. The viewpoint of the spectator is below the line of the apostles feet, as we see the more distant apostles and trees as lower than the nearer ones. This helps also emphasise the vertical movement of the ascending Christ, in the horizontal composition, and like the other trees on the left, draws the viewer’s eye to the distant background scene.

The figures are remarkably solid, and there is drama in their expressions and faces. The Virgin Mary is seen from behind, has the solidity of the Virgin Mary of Masaccio’s Pisa Altarpiece in London’s National Gallery. Angels on the left console each other in grief, or astonishment and wonder.They too, are affected by this moment of departure. The clouds partly obscure Christ and help to situate his figure in space, as do the angels who surround him. Christ is not standing but as if seated on clouds, ascending while in an attitude of authority.

Donatello boldly takes on the difficulty of representing a supernatural scene without flinching from the bodily nature of the mystery. In fusing the event with the handing of the keys to St Peter, probably in accordance with the commission for the Carmel, he links the Ascension, and Christ’s exaltation more concretely to the mission of the apostles and church in bearing witness to him, and links their authority to his divine power.

By representing Christ frontally and with attention to the solidity of his body, only veiled partly by clouds, Donatello finds a way to present Christ’s ongoing presence in the Church.

1. Meyer Shapiro ‘ The Image of the Disappearing Christ: The Ascension in English art around 1000’ Gazette des Beaux Arts Sec 6. Vol XXIII, 1943

2. See quote in B. Bennet and D. Wilkins: Donatello Oxford, 1984 p139

More on the Iconoclasm Network and forthcoming exhibition at Tate Britain, London

Defaced images from the Seven Sacraments font in St Andrew, Westhall, Suffolk. For more details visit Simon Knott’s excellent Suffolk Churches site.

Check out Lauren Dudley, M Phil. student’s post ‘Iconclasts R Us!’ on The Golovine, the official blog of the  Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies of the University of Birmingham, England. It is about the work of the Iconoclasms Network,  which she belongs to and about the exhibition opening October 2nd at Tate Britain: Art Under Attack: Histories of Iconoclasm in Britain, which will explore the history of attacks on art in Britain, from the Reformation of the 16th century to the present day.

Details of The Holy See Pavilion at the Venice Biennale announced today

This afternoon, through the Vatican information Service, Cardinal Ravasi head of the Pontifical Council of Culture announced details of the Holy See’s pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. As previously announced, the pavilion will be inspired by story of Genesis, the first book of the Bible and is entitled ‘In the Beginning’. Three different aspects of Genesis chapers 1-11 have been selected, after ‘ wide ranging discussions on the multiplicity of themes offered by this inexhaustible source…’ Cardinal Ravasi said today. Genesis chapters 1-11 were chosen because they are ‘ dedicated to the mystery of man’s origins, the introduction of evil into history, and our hope and future projects after the devastation symbolically represented by the Flood’.

The three themes of Creation, Uncreation and Re-creation, have each been entrusted to a different artist and the overall pavilion co-ordinated by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums. Cardinal Ravasi explained the different themes:

” ‘Creation’ concentrates on the first part of the biblical narrative, when the creative act is introduced through the Word and the breath of the Holy Spirit…’Uncreation’ on the other hand, invites us to focus on the choice of going against God’s original plan through forms of ethical and material destruction, such as original sin and the first murder, inviting us to reflect on the inhumanity of man to man” In the final section, Ravasi said, on the theme of ‘Recreation’,  a new start for humanity is triggered out of the Flood. “In this biblical story the concept of a voyage and and the themes of seeking and hope, represented by the figure of Noah and his family and then by Abraham and his progeny, eventually lead to the designation of the New Man and a renewed creation”.

Antonio Paolucci then spoke of the artists who had been commissioned: Studio Azzurro, an arts group founded in 1982 by Fabio Cirifino (Photography), Paolo Rosa (visual art and cinema) and Leonardo Sangiorgi (graphics) in Milan, the Moravian photographer Josef Koudelka, and the American artist, Lawrence Carroll

“The theme of Creation was entrusted to Studio Azzurro which places the immaterial image, light, sound, and sensory stimuli at the centre of their artistic investigation… Their work triggers a dialogue, awash with echoes and reverberations, between the vegetable and animal kingdoms and the human dimension, which leads, via memory, to other personal narrations on the concept of origins within an interactive plane that is also a temporal intersection.” The photographer Josef Koudelka is responsible for Uncreation. The power of his panoramic, black and white, speaks of the opposition between the human being and the world with its laws—moral and natural—and the material destruction that comes from a loss of a moral sense. Re-Creation was entrusted to the artist Lawrence Carroll, who is capable of giving life to salvaged materials, transfiguring them through processes of reconsideration and regeneration and who, against all odds, opens new possibilities of coexistence between as seemingly unrelated dimensions as fragility and monumentality”.

Paolo Baratta, director of the Biennale, hailed the participation of the Holy See as an “event of great importance”

Holy See to announce Venice Biennale artists today

View of the Arsenale and Sale d’Armi, where the Holy See will have a pavilion at the Biennale this year

This year, as has been widely publicised, the Vatican is to have a pavilion at the Venice Biennale, joining several countries including Angola, Bahrain, Bahamas, Kosovo, Maldives exhibiting for the first time. However, while listings of the artists representing most of the national pavilions were posted sometime ago,  the Vatican one has remained empty. All that has been clarified is that it will have a space in the  Sale d’Armi, a newly developed exhibition space.

After a period of silence, perhaps on account of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis, Cardinal Ravasi of the Pontifical Council of Culture, one of the main  initiators of the project, announced that details would finally be released on Tuesday 14th May, today. The exhibition opens on 1st June, with previews at the end of May.

The position of the Vatican is slightly different from other nations, who normally select artists from their countries to represent their national pavilions. Jeremy Deller is representing Great Britain for example.  Ravasi has previously suggested that there are many artists who could feature naming Anish Kapoor, Bill Viola and Jannis Kounellis on account of the spiritual dimension of their art, even though none are Catholic, perhaps bearing in mind explicit Christian themes such as Anish Kapoor’s Descent into Limbo at Documenta 1992, the Passions by Bill Viola, as well as the broader spiritual vision of each.

Speaking back in 2011, Ravasi suggested  that 10 artists could be approached with a view to submitting work on the theme of creation in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, from ‘Darkness upon the face of the deep’ to the fall of the Tower of Babel, possibly in view of the 500th anniversary of the unveiling and completion of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel  fresco cycle last November. Ravasi considers that artists have become severed from the great themes of their predecessors: “They’ve lost the great stories, the great narratives,” he said

Such a scheme might fit within this year’s Biennale theme ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ which draws inspiration from the utopian Marino Auriti who filed a fantasy design with the U.S. Patent office in 1955, depicting his Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), an imaginary museum that was meant to house all worldly knowledge,  a 136-story building to be built in Washington, in that would stand 700 meters tall and take up over 16 blocks…..

Certainly , the prospect of the Vatican’s presence was warmly spoken about by the chair, Paolo Baratta, in an article in Time magazine back in 2011: ‘It takes some courage’ he said, ‘The choice to come to the Biennale is the choice of being within the waves of the world. It’s saying, ‘I want to be on a boat in the open ocean,’ not ‘I want to build a monument to the relationship between the church and contemporary art.’  . The presence of the Holy See is singled out on the home page of the Biennale website.

The participation has been a few years in the making.  The Vatican considered contributing a pavilion to the Venice Biennale in 2009 and ’11, but then decided to aim for ’13. it will be interesting to see what the Holy See has planned.

Mary of Warnum sculpture by George Mung Mung on display in Sydney, Australia

Mary of Warnum, by George Mung Mung

The sculpture of Mary of Warnum, a remarkable representation of the Virgin Mary by aborigine artist George Mung Mung is currently on show for the first time in twenty years at the McGlade Gallery of Australian Catholic University, Sydney. It is one of the select few works of art included in some editions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The sculpture forms part of an exhibition entitled ‘Gift of the Artists’ of work by a number of aborigine artists from the Warnum Community in East Kimberley, Australia. The works on show were given to the Sisters of St Joseph in Warnum or purchased by them during their stay at Warnum over 40 years at the Mirrilingki Retreat Centre. They have now come to Sydney for restoration and are being put on display. Some have never been seen outside the retreat centre and it is only the third time in 20 years that the Virgin of Warnum has left the retreat centre, by kind permission of George Mung Mung’s nephew and the community.

Christianity was brought to the village by an elder who was schooled outside and became a Christian. She persuaded the elders to invite a religious community to come and set up a school there to teach the faith, and the Sisters of St Joseph were invited. Many artists produced works to help educate the children in the Christian faith and also into the faith of their ancestors, too.

The collection of art works fuse the folklore of the Gija people and Catholic faith. George Mung Mung’s Virgin was carved to replace a plaster statue of the Virgin knocked over by some dogs while children were praying. He used wood from a tree bough from deep in the Bungle bungles, having vowed to make them a statue of Mary which would not break. She was originally called the ‘Pregnant Mary’ and is painted with a body paint design as worn by unmarried Warmun girls. “Her womb is like a shield under her heart where her unborn man-child dances. He is the One. She is the Mother,” Sr Rosemary Crumlin RSM explains in a feature on the Archdiocese of Sydney website. “Mary of Warmun and the other artworks at the exhibition epitomise what the two pillars of the Warmun culture which are – the Dreaming or Ngarrangkarni which centres on the living land, the ancestors and their stories, and the Bible, especially the Creation and the Jesus and Mary gospel stories.”

The exhibition continues until  25th May