Dosso Dossi. Part 1 – The Constabili Polyptych

In my last blog I looked at the lives of two American landscape artists, Marion and Elmer Wachtel and for many people outside of America these painters may have been completely unknown.  Today in my blog I want to introduce you to a great painter who may also be unfamiliar to many.  Today let me introduce you to the Italian High Renaissance painter Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri who became known as Dosso Dossi.

The Constabili Polyptych
The Constabili Polyptych

Dossi was born in St Giovanni del Dosso, which is a small village thirty kilometres south west of Mantua.  His actual birth date is something of a mystery with various historical documents and biographers disagreeing, albeit a consensus of opinions puts it at around 1487.  His early upbringing is also somewhat shrouded in mystery.  However we do know Dossi had a younger brother, Battista, who was also a painter but said to be not as talented as his older brother.  We also know that his father, Niccolò de Luteri, was a native of Trentino, an autonomous northern province of Italy, close to the Austro-Italian border.  His father was a member of the Ferrara court of Duke Ercole I d’Este the Duke of Ferrara and later, after his death in 1505, his son Duke Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara.  His role was that of a spenditore, a bursar or land agent for the court and it was the name of the Duke’s property, Villa Dossi, which lent its name to his two sons.

Portrait of Alfonso I by Dosso Dossi (c.1530)
Portrait of Alfonso I by Dosso Dossi (c.1530)

There is much conjecture about Dossi’s early training.  Giorgio Vasari believed Dossi studied under Lorenzo Costa in Ferrara whilst others say he studied in Venice.  Dossi’s seventeenth century biographer, the priest, poet and writer, Girolamo Bruffaldi, wrote in his 1704 book Vite de’ pittori e scultori ferraresi (Biogrpahy of Ferrara artists) that Dossi studied in Rome and Venice.   Records show that Dossi was working for the House of Gonzaga in Mantua in 1512 and two years later was working as a court painter in Ferrara at the court of Alfonso I d’Este, and later his son Ercole II d’Este.  As a court painter Dossi’s time would have been spent decorating the private residences of the Court with large frescoes and paintings, often detailing historical or mythological themes.  Court painters of the Renaissance, like Dossi, would have been asked to provide designs for elaborate tapestries and conjure up theatrical sets and backdrops.  There would have been many portraiture commissions to carry out featuring the Duke and his family as well as portraits of the family members of the wealthy courtiers.

In his early days at court Dossi was sent by the Duke to Venice, Florence and Mantua.  The Duke also sanctioned Dossi and his brother Battista to produce altarpieces and secular works for the local nobility and princely patrons, such as the Duke of Urbino and Cardinal Bernado Bles the prince-bishop of Trent.

Portrait of a Man in a Fur Collar (Antonio Constabili) by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)
Portrait of a Man in a Fur Collar (Antonio Constabili) by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

One of Dossi’s first tasks as a court painter was a collaboration with the painter, Benvenuto Tisi, known as il Garofalo.  Garofalo, who had been living in Rome, where he had once studied under Raphael, received an invitation to come to Ferrara and complete a commission from the Duke of Ferrara to decorate a small chapel.  On completion of the commission he was approached by Antonio Costabili to decorate an altarpiece.  Antonio Costabili was a Ferrarese soldier, nobleman and diplomat and prominent figure at the court of Alphonso I and was a leading patron of the arts.  The commission taken on by Garofalo and Dossi was the polyptych, which became known as the Costabili Polyptych.  It was for the high altar, which stood at the rear of the chancel, raised above the choir stalls of the Augustinian church of Sant’ Andrea in Ferrara, which was home to the Ordo Eremitarum Sancti Augustini, the order of the Augustinian Hermit monks.   This was an order of monks accepted into the Roman Catholic family by Pope Alexander IV in 1256.

The completion date of this magnificent work is contested by art historians but one clue as to the date is that Vasari wrote that the polyptych was completed prior to the death of Raphael and he died in 1520.  It should be remembered that Vasari, on two occasions, met with Garofalo in the 1540’s and therefore should have had accurate knowledge with regards the completion date of the altarpiece.  Others narrow down the completion date to around 1514.

Constabili Polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara
Constabili Polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara

The altarpiece is now housed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara.  The paintings are still in the original altarpiece’s wooden frame but there has been much work on reconstructing it as it was badly damaged during World War II.  The altarpiece measures 31ft 6 inches high and 19 feet wide (9.6 x 5.8m).

Central Panel of the polyptych
Central Panel of the polyptych

The main central panel measures 174 inches x 96 inches (474 x 262cms) and features the Virgin Mary enthroned with the Christ Child.  Alongside her throne, on the right, is the infant Saint John the Baptist.

Angels and spiritelli
Angels and spiritelli

Above the throne, on either side there are angels and spiritelli.

John the Evangelist
John the Evangelist

On the steps below the throne sits John the Evangelist, cross-legged, pausing from his writing to look upwards towards the Virgin. On the floor besides him is a chalice.  The chalice is often associated with and symbolises John the Evangelist.  It alludes to John being put to the test by the high priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. The high priest said to him:

“…If you want me to believe in your god, I will give you some poison to drink and, if it does not harm you, it means that your god is the true God…”

Saint John blessed the cup of poison, neutralizing it and was then able to drink the liquid.

Saint Jerome
Saint Jerome

In the right foreground of the central panel we have Saint Jerome holding an open book whilst his foot rests upon a skull.  In the left foreground of the central panel we have Saint Andrew, the titular head of the church, who holds a cross and points towards the Virgin.

The two side panels of the polyptych depict two further saints.  Saint George, the patron saint of Ferrara, is featured in the lower right side panel whilst Saint Sebastian, the popular saint who was looked upon as a protector of the people against the plague appears in the lower left side panel.

The Spandrels
The Spandrels

Above these side panels there are two spandrels.  A spandrel is the almost triangular space between the left or right exterior curve of an arch and the rectangular framework surrounding it.

Saint Augustine (right spandrel)
Saint Augustine (right spandrel)

Saint Augustine, the patron of the Augustinian order can be seen in the right spandrel dressed as a hermit in the robes of an Eremitani friar with his bishop’s mitre on the floor by his feet and Saint Ambrose appears in the left spandrel with a manuscript resting on his lap.  His demeanour is one of contemplation as one hand rests on his breast as he studies the text.  Both spandrels have in the background an oculus window through which comes the light which illuminates the two saints.

The pediment
The pediment

The resurrected Christ is displayed within the pediment at the top of the polyptych.

This is a truly remarkable work of art.  At first sight it would appear that the Saints that have been depicted were just a random selection but having read Dosso Dossi, Garofalo, and the Costabili Polyptych: Imaging Spiritual Authority by Giancarlo Fiorenza he believes they were chosen very carefully and he goes into great detail in his article about the reasoning.  The article appeared in The Art Bulletin Volume 82, No.2 (June 2000).  It was from this complex article that I got most of my facts about this work but I decided to steer clear of the theories about the inclusion of the saints and other symbolic aspects of the polytypch and will leave you to seek out the article if you want to delve further.

In my next blog I will look at more of Dossi’s paintings and look at one of a young man which is now believed to be a portrait of a famous young woman !

La Fornarina by Raphael Sanzio

La Fornarina by Raphael (1520)
La Fornarina by Raphael (1520)

My Daily Art Display today features an Italian lady, Margarita Luti.  She became known as La Fornarina which in Italian means “the baker’s daughter”.  She was the daughter of Francesco Luti, a local baker from Siena who worked in the Roman district of Santa Dorotea.  The reason she became famous was not because of her father’s occupation but because she modelled for and was the mistress of the great Italian High Renaissance painter, Raphael Sanzio.  It was well documented that Raphael Sanzio was a very passionate man and had many mistresses in his time.  In the book, The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, the biographer described the artist and how his love of women affected his work:

“…Raphael was a very amorous man who was fond of women and he was always quick to serve them. This was the reason why, as he continued to pursue his carnal delights, he was treated with too much consideration and acquiescence by his friends. When his dear friend Agostino Chigi commissioned him to paint the first loggia in his palace, Raphael could not really put his mind to his work because of his love for one of his mistresses; Agostino became so desperate over this that, through his own efforts and with the assistance of others, he worked things out in such a way that he finally managed to bring this woman of Raphael’s to come and stay with him on a constant basis in the section of the house where Raphael was working, and that was the reason why the work came to be finished…”

Although Margarita Luti is not actually named by Vasari her name does appear in scribbled notes on the original pages of the manuscript which would become his second edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.  The painting entitled La Fornarina, by Raphael hangs in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and a further copy can be found in the Galleria Borghese, in Rome.  The work was completed around 1520 when Raphael was thirty seven years of age.  This was also the year in which on Good Friday, April 6th he died. Before us is a portrait of a beautiful young woman who is almost nude.  Her skin is flawless as alabaster. Her cheeks are flushed and pink, She stares out to her left and smiles, presumably at the artist as he works on her portrait.

Venus Pudica
Venus Pudica

She is pictured with an oriental style hat on which is attached a large jewel Her breasts are bare. Her right arm crosses her body and her right hand pulls a diaphanous veil over her stomach and abdomen in a gesture which mirrors the posture of women as seen in classical sculptures such as the Venus pudica, apose that became the custom for the nude Aphrodite figures in the Late Classical period.   It is a very suggestive pose and I am not sure whether she is attempting to cover her breast or in fact she is turning it slightly towards us and her lover, Raphael.  Or could it be that her right hand is pressed against her heart as she looks at Raphael as a gesture of her love for him?  Her left hand rests between her thighs, the fingers splayed out and outlined by the deep, bloody-red of her discarded gown.  On her left arm there is a narrow leather band on which is the name of the artist – RAPHAEL URBINAS.  On the third finger of her left hand she appears to be wearing a ruby wedding band.   The presence of a ring was only discovered in the early part of the twenty-first century when the painting underwent some X-Ray analysis during restoration and cleaning work.

The fact that Raphael painted her with a wedding ring would have been very controversial at the time for six years earlier, in 1514; he had become engaged to marry.   He had been pressured by Cardinal Medici Bibbiena’s to marry one of his nieces, a lady named Maria Bibbiena.   Raphael did not want to refuse the Cardinal, but managed to postpone the matter, saying that he would prefer to wait three or four years before entering into marriage.  However after stringing along the cardinal and his niece for four years, Raphael had to agree to the marriage, but managed to keep putting off the date for the big occasion with a string of excuses.   So why had this engagement lasted six years without it ever ending in marriage?  There are a number of theories.  One is that Raphael had already married Margarita Luti in secret years earlier and therefore could not marry Maria Bibbiena.  Another possible reason is that his engagement to Maria had brought him additional status.  He was made a “Groom of the Chamber”, a papal valet, which in itself afforded him status at court and more importantly an additional income.  He would not want to jeopardise that.  He was also made a knight of the Papal Order of the Golden Spur, an honour which was also bestowed on the artists Titian and Vasari.   All such honours would have been lost if he had had to admit to being already married.  So why was the ring on the sitter’s finger not discovered immediately?  It was not just the ring, which was painted out, as the restoration work also uncovered that the myrtle branches we see filling the background of the painting and which are thought to be symbolic of love and marriage were not always there.  The X-Ray analysis of the painting show that originally there had been a landscape background, similar to that seen in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
The reason for the over-painting is that it is thought that the work which was found in Raphael’s studio when he died had “finishing touches,” added, including a cover-up of the Margarita Luti’s ring finger by his student, Giulio Romano, who then went on to sell the painting.

Raphael Sanzio died in April 1520 possibly even on April 6th, the day of his 37th birthday.  There are numerous speculative explanations as to the cause of his death.  Probably the most bizarre was put forward by Vasari when he postulated that Raphael died on his 37th birthday after a wild night of celebratory sex with Margarita causing him to lapse into a fever and when a doctor arrived Raphael was too embarrassed to admit to what had brought on this feverish state and then had been given the wrong medicine by the doctor which went on to kill him.  Other historians, who also disagree of the date of his death, have put his demise down to working too closely with arsenic and lead based paints or overwork or heart failure.

And so I leave you with one of the world’s greatest artists and his portrait of the love of his life, but is it?  Is this a portrait of the little baker’s girl who became Raphael’s lover?  Some would disagree.  Some art historians, including Doctor Claudio Strinati, superintendent of the National Museums of Rome, now believe that the way in which Raphael’s has depicted the lady is too refined to have been just done for his own pleasure and in fact, due to the quality of the work, was a commission for a wealthy and influential patron and that patron could have been his friend Agostino Chigi.  According to this theory, the woman in the painting was not Margarita Luti but Chigi’s long-time mistress, and later his wife, Francesca Ardeasca.  We know that Chigi had commissioned Raphael to work at his new “palace”, the Villa Farnesina, and the two had become friends so much so that when the lovelorn Raphael’s mind was so distracted having been parted from his beloved Margarita whilst working on the commission, Chigi had supplied a room in his palace for Margarita so that he could better focus on the work in hand.

So is this enchanting portrait of the dark-eyed woman we see before us today Raphael’s paramour or his patron’s wife?  Is this a painting carried out for love or for money?  We will probably never know for sure as there are no other portraits of Chigi’s wife, Francesca, and therefore no possibility to compare likenesses.  Maybe this doubt adds to the mystification of the portrait and I will let you make up your own minds.

Having extolled the beauty of some other women in featured paintings in early blogs I look at this lady and question her purported beauty but as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” I will again allow you to decide and leave you with the comments made by French writer, Gustave Flaubert who wrote about La Fornarina in his satirical work entitled Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas):

“…Fornarina.  C’était une belle femme; inutile d’en savoir plus long…”

(Fornarina. She was a beautiful woman. That is all you need to know)

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca (c.1468)

For today’s blog I am staying with Italian Renaissance art and looking at a work by, some say, the greatest Early Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca.  This is the second time I have featured this artist in one of my blogs.  The first being The Flagellation of Christ (My Daily Art Display, September 29th 2011).   Today I want to look at his beautiful fresco entitled The Resurrection which he completed around 1468.

Piero della Francesca or as he was known in his day, Piero di Benedetto de’ Franceschi, was born around 1415 in the Tuscan market town of Borgo San Sepolcro, which is now known as Sansepolcro,  a small town located on the plains of the Upper Tiber Valley in the southeast of Tuscany, bordering Umbria and The Marches.  His family were merchants dealing in leather and wool and his father, Benedetto di Franceschi, hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps.  With that in mind, Piero was sent to school to learn arithmetic and the ability to calculate weights and measures, assess the volumes of barrels and bales, and most importantly, learn how to keep accounts.  Piero was academically gifted and became well known as a mathematician and in fact after his death he was revered not so much as a painter but for his mathematical knowledge.

Piero’s initial artistic training came as an apprentice to Antonio di Giovanni, a local painter, who was based in Anghiari, a town across the Tiber Valley from Borgo San Sepolcro.  From being Antonio di Giovanni’s apprentice, he soon became his assistant and during the 1430’s the two of them worked jointly on commissions around Borgo San Sepolcro.  Piero went to Florence for the chance to gain more work and he worked on commissions as an assistant alongside another young artist, Domenico Veneziano.  It was during this time spent in Florence that Piero would have probably come into contact with the great Florentine artists of the time such as Fra Angelico, Mantegna and the architect, Brunelleschi.

In 1442, Piero returned to Sansepolcro and three years later, in 1445, Piero received a large commission from the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo San Sepolcro, for a polyptych, Polyptych of the Misericordia: Madonna of Mercy, as an altarpiece for the local church, Church of the Misericordia.  The confraternity had asked Piero to complete the work in three years, setting the anticipated completion date as 1445.   Piero however did not feel constrained by this suggested timeline and any way he had many other projects on the go at the time and in the end did not complete the altarpiece until 1462, some seventeen years late!

Piero moved around the country a good deal during his life, living in Ferrara and Rimini before arriving in Rome in 1455.  Here he painted frescoes in the Vatican for Nicholas V and continued to work in the Vatican Palace for Pius II. Sadly his works were destroyed to make room for paintings by Raphael.

Piero’s birthplace, the town of Borgo San Sepolcro which literally means “Town of the Holy Sepulchre” derives its name from the story of its founding back in the tenth century.   The story of its coming into being would have us believe that two saints, Saint Arcano and Saint Egidio were returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land bearing some wood shavings from the sepulchre in which Christ had been buried, when they were miraculously instructed to create a new settlement – Borgo San Sepolcro.   These sacred relics have been preserved in the local Benedictine abbey and so when the town hall of Borgo San Sepolcro was renovated and extended in the late 1450s, Piero was commissioned to paint the fresco on the appropriate subject of The Resurrection for the building’s state chamber. This room was set aside for the use of the Conservatori, the chief magistrates and governors.  Before holding their councils, these four appointed guardians of the town would solemnly kneel before Piero’s image, to pray for the grace of God to descend upon them during their deliberations. The room is now the civic museum.

My featured painting today is a fresco which exudes an air of peace and tranquillity.   In the painting, the risen Christ can be seen in the centre of the composition.  He is portrayed at the moment of his resurrection, as we see him with his left foot on the parapet as he climbs purposefully out of his marble tomb clutching the banner in his right hand, as if he is declaring his victory over death.   He looks formidable as he stands tall.   We don’t see the lid of the tomb but look to the bottom right of the painting and we can see Piero has depicted a large rock which probably harks back to the biblical tale which told of a rock being rolled away from the entrance of Christ’s tomb.   In most resurrection paintings we are used to seeing Christ dressed in white burial clothes and yet Piero has depicted him in red robes, which was probably done to infer royalty and signify that this resurrected person is Christ the King.  Piero has portrayed the pale body of the risen Christ as almost blemish-free with the exception of the wound to his side and the wound in the back of both his hands made by the crucifixion nails.   In his depiction of Christ he has not let us forget that this central figure is both man and God, for if you look closely at the stomach of Christ we notice that the artist has given it an almost human appearance.  It has a slightly wrinkled appearance caused by the folds of the skin happening as he raises his leg to exit the tomb.

The sleeping guards

The alertness of the risen Christ in the painting contrasts starkly with the four soldiers who instead of keeping guard on the tomb, lie asleep.  The Renaissance painter and biographer of artists, Vasari, would have us believe that Piero included his own self-portrait in this fresco.

Piero della Francesca

It is the face of the second soldier from the left, and Vasari postulates that Piero did this as a sign of his own hopes of awaking one day to redemption. It is also interesting to note the contrast in the way Piero has depicted the risen Christ and the four soldiers.  Christ is shown in a solid vertical stance looking straight out at us, whereas the sleeping soldiers are depicted in diagonal poses and viewed at various oblique angles.  The way the artist has portrayed Christ almost gives one the feeling that he is about to step out of the painting to join us, the viewer.  In some ways the expression on the face of Christ is disturbing.  It is a penetrating glance and one art critic commented that it was if he was looking into the soul of the viewer.

The landscape is bathed in the new cold and clear light of a Tuscan dawn.  Look carefully at the trees on the right of the painting and those on the left side.  Do you spot the difference?   The ones on the right are depicted as flourishing specimens adorned with leaves and healthy green shoots whereas the trees on the left of the painting are grey in colour and bare as if on the point of dying.   This contrast almost certainly alludes to the renewal of mankind through the Resurrection of Christ

It is likely that Piero painted his striking image of the risen Christ stepping resolutely, banner in hand, from the tomb, to represent not only the resurrection of Jesus but also the resurgence of the town of Sansepolcro.  After a few years under the rule of Florence from 1441, Sansepolcro regained its identity and dignity in 1456 when the Florentines returned the use of the Palazzo to the Conservatori. The church Council which the young Piero had witnessed in Florence had thus had unforeseen consequences for Sansepolcro. The Pope, his treasury depleted by his lavish Council, defrayed some of the costs by ceding Sansepolcro to Florence which was later returned by Florentine authorities to the citizens of Sansepolcro on February 1st 1459, as a sign of the restoration of some measure of autonomy to the Borgo.

One interesting end note to the tale of this painting comes from a BBC article which tells the story of how a British artillery officer, Tony Clarke, during World War II, defied orders and held back from using his troop’s guns to shell the town of Sansepolcro and his decision is believed to have saved this beautiful fresco.   To read the full story click on:

The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello

Hunt in the forest by Paolo Uuccello (c.1470)

When I visited the Claude Lorrain exhibition at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford last month,  I had time to look around their permanent collection of painting.  To my mind they have one of the best collections on offer with works from artists of different nationalities and from different eras.  I strongly recommend you visit this gallery for I know you will not be disappointed.

The painting I am featuring in today’s My Daily Art Display is one by Paolo Uccello entitled The Hunt in the Forest which he completed around 1470.  Hunting was a very popular pastime for the aristocracy in those days.  The depiction of hunting in art goes back to the Ancient Greeks when it can be seen on their tableware.  During the time of the Romans, many hunting scenes can be found on their sarcophagi and in Medieval times hunting scenes could be found in their manuscripts, wall paintings and tapestries.  There were many forms of hunting in the Medieval times, such as hunting with hawks, which took place mainly in the spring and summer and the boar and bear hunting which took place during winter.

Cassone (chest) with spalliera (backboard)
Cassone (chest) with spalliera (backboard)

It is believed that this work of art you see before you was a one-off painting and not part of a series.  It is of an unusual size, measuring 63cms tall x 165cms wide.  With those dimensions it could well have been intended for the front panel of a cassone, a Renaissance marriage chest or a spalliera, the back of a Tuscan bench or settle, or the headboard or footboard of a bed.  The spalliera paintings were very popular at the time this painting was completed.  Therefore we are probably safe to assume that this work was painted for a wealthy family to be seen by guests as they entered the house and went into the camera, the reception room which was also often the bedroom, where the spalliera or cassone would be in pride of place.

 So what do we see before us?  Is it a painting of a real hunt or is it an imaginary scene?  Art historians tend to believe the latter is correct as hunts such as these would have had a number of different species of dogs each trained to carry out a specific task in the hunt.  There would be dogs which were good at following scents.  There would be another species of dog which were fast running and capable of catching and bringing their quarry to ground.   In this painting we only have the one type of dog.   In the painting we also only see one type of deer, the roebuck, and that would be unlikely to be the case in a real hunt.  The setting for the hunt is also very questionable.  The scene is dark and it appears that the hunt is taking place at twilight or during the night and this is not the normal time of day set aside for hunting.  Hunting, especially in forests, would normally take place during the day when the maximum amount of sunlight can filter through the trees.

The view we have before us is also one of organised chaos !  The hunters seem to be converging upon each other from two sides while the dogs and the hunted animals seem to be disappearing into the central distance.  There seems to be no attempt by the hunters to enact a carefully co-ordinated plan to capture their prey.

I love the vibrant colours in this painting.  Look how Uccello has given the leaves on the trees golden highlights.  I love the bright livery of the horses and the colourful clothing of the aristocratic hunters atop their horses, ably being assisted by the beaters.  On the livery of the horses we see many examples of a golden crescent moon emblem which could be a sort of homage to Diana the Roman goddess of hunting (Artemis the Greek goddess of hunting) who was often seen wearing a crown shaped as a crescent moon.

The aristocracy liked to have hunting scenes adorning the walls of their mansions.  Hunting, in some way, like chivalric jousting tournaments, was akin to battle and those taking part in such events were looked upon as being fearless and athletic.  Men who organised such hunts (maybe not in this case!) were looked upon as being tactically astute and great leaders and just the qualities which were needed for those who were to lead armies into battle.  In those days hunting was a very prestigious pastime and strangely, sometimes looked upon as an allegory of love.

The one question, which has yet to be answered and one can only guess at it, is who commissioned Uccello to carry out this work.  We know that this was Uccello’s last major painting before he died in Florence in 1475 and historians think the painting was completed around about 1470.  Art historians have come up with a couple of ideas but none our conclusive.  I have already mentioned the crescent moon emblems on the horses livery and as well as being associated with Diana they were also the emblem of the Strozzi family.  The Strozzi clan were an ancient and noble Florentine family who played an important part in the public life of Florence and this painting may have been commissioned by one of them.  The other possibility was that Uccello painted this picture whilst he was still living in Urbino and before he returned to Florence.  We know that he was in Urbino from 1465 to 1469 and if that was the case he could well have been commissioned by his patron, the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro whose palace was full of works of art.

This is undoubtedly a masterpiece and as we look at the painting we can almost hear the noise made by the hunters crashing through the undergrowth and the baying of their animals as they chase after their unfortunate quarry.  It is an exciting painting full of vitality and colour.  The artist encourages us to stare into the depth of the forest and our eyes alight on Uccello’s distant vanishing point in the central background but no sooner do we stare into the distance than our eyes dart back to the foreground, seduced by the colours and the rhythm of the hunt. 

I just love this work and it is even better to stand in front of the original.

Lot and his Daughters by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lot and his Daughters by Lucas Cranach the Elder (C.1530)

My Daily Art Display today starts with a passage from the Bible.  It is from the book of Genesis (19: 30-38) and tells the story of Lot and his two daughters who we see in the painting above, entitled Lot and his Daughters which was painted by the great German Renaissance painter,  Lucas Cranach the Elder around 1530.  The Bible passage sets the scene:

30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. 31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”

33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” 35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi ; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.

Not being a reader of the Bible, nor being particularly religious, I was surprised to read the passage from Genesis, as on first seeing the painting, which is housed at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, I believed it to be simply a picture of two girls, one comforting a tired-looking old man whilst the other was bringing him something to drink.

It is known that Lucas Cranach the Elder painted this Old Testament subject on  at least four occasions and many other artists have depicted this same story in their paintings.  The early part of Chapter 19 of Genesis relates the story of how God destroyed the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which are shown in flames in the background of the painting.  To save the righteous people of the two cities, God sent down two angels to lead Lot, his wife Edith, his nephew Abraham and his family away from the doomed cities.  The two angels warned Lot that they should quickly escape but nobody should look back on the burning cities but as we know Lot’s wife did and was turned into a pillar of salt and we see the grey pillar of salt in the right middle-ground of the painting.

In the foreground we have Lot on one knee his arms resting on the knees of one of his daughters, who rests her hand on his head, trying to console him after the loss of his wife.  As the biblical tale tells us the daughters, Pheiné and Thamma, fearing that with the destruction of all the people of the city they will not have the chance to bear children and their father will thus never have a male heir.  With that in mind they decide that their father should make them pregnant and so on two consecutive nights they got Lot drunk and had him make love to them.  The daughters became pregnant and each had a son, Moab and Benammi.

This is really a story of two females taking decisions about their own destiny rather than leaving it to a male to decide what should happen to them and their lives.  Stories of female domination over men were very popular in the late Middle Ages and could not only be seen in paintings, but could be read about in literature, and words of songs and plays of the time.

I am a great fan of both Cranach the Elder and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger and find their paintings

The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes by Konrad Witz

The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes by Konrad Witz (1444)

From yesterday’s late nineteenth century Swedish painter Sven Richard Bergh I am going back in time, almost five centuries, for today’s featured artist.  My Daily Art Display today looks at an exquisite painting by the 15th century German-born early Renaissance artist Konrad Witz.

Witz was born in Rottweil is now a german town some fifty kilometres north of the Swiss border and is part of the federal state of Baden-Württemburg, in south-west Germany    It was, at the time when Witz was born in 1400, a freie Reichsstadt (Free Imperial City) and formally ruled by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire until 1463.  At that time the town joined the Swiss Confederation where it remained until 1802 and the onset of the Napoleonic Wars when it reverted to part of the Wurttemburg dukedom.  Witz although born in Germany always considered himself to be Swiss.

Through historical records we know that a certain “Master Konrad of Rottweil” joined the painter’s guild in Basle in 1434 and in the same year Witz was granted citizenship of Basle, the Swiss town along with the city of Geneva where Witz spent most of his life.  His style of painting lends one to believe that at some time he received training in the Flemish and Netherlandish painting styles.  Witz is noted as one of the first painters to incorporate realistic landscapes into religious paintings, an example of which we will see in today’s featured painting.

My Daily Art Display featured work today is part of an altarpiece by Konrad Witz entitled The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes which he completed in 1444 two years before he died.  Art historians believe that this beautiful work is amongst the high points of Early Renaissance painting.  Because of hinge marks on the frame of the painting, we know it to be the left exterior wing of the altarpiece commissioned by Bishop Francois de Mies for the high altar of the chapel of Notre Dame des Maccabées of the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Geneva, which belongs to the Swiss Reformed Church.  The right hand exterior wing depicted the release of St Peter from prison but sadly the central panel is lost.   The interior wings of the triptych depict, on one side, the Adoration of the Magi and on the other Saint Peter’s presentation of the donor, Bishop Francois to the Virgin and Child.  Fortunately the wings survived the Protestant Iconoclasm, the collective name for the destruction of catholic churches and possessions which had been raging in Europe since the early sixteenth century and hit Geneva in 1535.  During this Protestant Iconoclasm, hundreds of catholic churches, chapels, abbeys and cloisters in the Netherlands were totally destroyed by rampaging Protestant mobs along with all their contents such as, altars, icons, chalices, paintings, and church books.  The painting is signed and dated 1444 on the original lower frame.

It is by far the most famous of Witz’s works and is sometimes looked upon as the first “real” landscape painting, a painting in which one can recognise a certain landscape as compared with “an idealised landscape” where it is a composite of many places morphed into one idealised picture.  In today’s painting we are standing on the north-west shore of Lac Lehman (Lake Geneva), near Geneva and looking across to the south-east.  We can see the Saleve mountains in the background and included in the scene is the recognisable peak of Mont Blanc.  In the middle ground on the right we can see a pointed jetty and across the water is the staccato line of a breakwater.  Although Witz has given us a true landscape the characters and the scene before us are an amalgam of ideas and the exact subject of the painting is somewhat blurred.

Although the landscape has been identified as Lake Geneva the figures in the painting are all part of biblical stories which obviously took place in the Holy Land.   One reason for this could be that Witz met with his sponsor of the altar, the Bishop of Geneva, François de Mies, during the Ecumenical Council held in Basle.  It was at this Council that it was decided to the elect Amadeus VIII of Savoy to the throne Pontifical under the name of Felix V.   He was to become the last of the Antipopes.  It could be reasoned that by transposing geographically the biblical scene to the land of the pontiff was therefore more of political move that an artistic impulse.

There are three biblical stories going on within this one painting.  Firstly, we have the man who was to become the first pope, Saint Peter, unsuccessfully trying to walk on water.  (Matthew 14:22-26).  Secondly we see Saint Peter, this time in the boat with some of his fellow disciples, fishing which reminds us of the parable of the fishes (Luke 5:1-11).   Lastly, the painting reminds us of the story of the resurrected Christ on the shores of the sea of Tiberius appearing to his disciples as they were in a boat fishing.

This is a beautifully executed painting.  Remember that this is an early 15th century painting.  Look how the artist has skilfully depicted the water with its reflected shadows of the buildings and jettylook at the mirrored reflections of the people in the boat.  Observe the transparency of the water in the foreground as we see the legs of Saint Peter splayed apart as he walks in the shallows having failed to master the “walking upon the water”.

This oil on panel work of art could be seen at Musée d’Art Histoire in Geveva.  I say “could” as it has been taken down for some restoration work to be carried out upon it and will not be re-hung until March 2012.

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) by Jan Van Eyck

Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck (1433)

My Daily Art Display yesterday featured the painting A Man with a Quilted Sleeve by Titian in which we saw a portrait of a man with a brightly-coloured blue tunic and I discussed what was one’s initial focus of attention, the face of the subject or the blue sleeve of the tunic.   Today’s painting, Portrait of a Man (Self portrait?), poses a similar question, what do we focus on when we first look at the painting, the bright red head gear of the man or the man himself?

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) is a painting by Jan van Eyck which he completed in 1433 and is housed in London’s National Gallery.  The painting is still in its original wooden frame on which are inscriptions that have been painted in such a way that they look like they have been carved into the wood.    Along the bottom the inscription reads:


Which when translated reads “Jan Van Eyck Made me on October 21st 1433”

Across the top of the wooden frame is the motto:


This is considered to be a punning allusion to the painter’s name “Als Ich Can (as I/Eyck can) which loosely translated reads “I Do as I Can” – a motto which appeared on a number of other paintings by Jan Van Eyck.

And so to the picture itself.  At first glance it is just a simple portrait.  The man stares out at us.  On his head is a red chaperon which was a form of hat that was worn throughout Western Europe in the Middle Ages.  Van Eyck’s painting of the headgear is wonderful.   The hat actually occupies more space in the painting than the face of the sitter.  Look at the multitude of folds and tucks in the chaperon.   One wonders how long it took the artist to master this part of the painting and how many preliminary drawings were made before he was happy.    As was the case of Titian’s A Man with a Quilted Sleeve, Jan Eyck’s man is seen against a plain dark background, which makes the figure stand out.  At first our eyes just register a red headpiece on the head of a pale white-faced man and do not take in the detail.  However careful examination of the face and the chaperon reveals a multitude of subtle shades and it is actually the painting is awash with detail. 

His eyes have a slight bloodshot appearance. In the book by Lorne Campbell, research curator at the National Gallery, London, entitled The Fifteenth-Century Netherlandish Paintings, he wrote of Jan Van Eyck’s depiction of the left eye thus:

 “…The white of the eye is laid in white mixed with minute quantities of red and blue. A very thin scumble of red is brought over the underlayer, which is, however, left exposed in four places to create the secondary highlights. The veins are painted in vermilion into the wet scumble. The iris is ultra-marine, fairly pure at its circumference but mixed with white and black towards the pupil. There are black flecks near the circumference and the pupil is painted in black over the blue of the iris. The principal catchlights are four spots of lead white applied as final touches, one on the iris and three on the white, where they register with the four secondary lights to create the glistening effect…”

 The man’s skin is weather-beaten and wrinkled.  There are signs of stubble on the chin, the texture of which is in contrast with the smoothness of the soft fur collar.   It is hardly a flattering portrait and has a “warts and all” reality to it, which makes one think that it may be a self-portrait of the then thirty-eight year old artist, as if it had been a portrait of a dignitary they may wanted it to be more pictorially agreeable.

 There is a distinct realism to this painting and Jan Van Eyck’s clever use of shadows is a characteristic of Italian Renaissance paintings.

 So there you have it – today and yesterday I have given you two portraits with some similar characteristics, which do you like the most and why?

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger

Just over a fortnight ago an elderly relative of a friend of mine died.  Last week I went to the funeral service and just prior to the ceremony I was asked if I would like to view the body lying in the coffin before the lid was closed.  I said that I would like to pay my last respects to the deceased.   I was somewhat prepared for what I might see but when you gaze down at the lifeless body it still comes as a shock.  Notwithstanding how well the funeral home people have prepared and dressed the body, the viewing of the deceased is still a harrowing experience.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger (1521)

The other day I came across a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, which reminded me acutely of my experience and I decided to make it My Daily Art Display for today.  The oil and tempera on limewood painting, which can be found in the Kunstmuseum in Basle, is entitled The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb and Holbein completed it in 1521.  The painting is lifelike in size, measuring 2 metres long and just 31 centimetres high (79 inches x 12 inches) and depicts the dead Christ lying stretched and unnaturally thin in a wooden tomb.  The dimensions of the painting create a disturbing effect.  The painting has an almost claustrophobic shape.  Many artists, such as Caravaggio, Delacroix, Titian and van der Weyden have painted The Entombment but looking at Holbein’s portrait of the dead Christ is probably as shocking a picture as one is ever likely to come across.  Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece showing the ravaged and distorted body of Christ on the cross and The Deposition, his lowering to the ground, shows the strain on the body of Christ which one can barely imagine but Holbein’s Christ lying before us, dead in his tomb, is both intense and overwhelming.

One has to wonder what Holbein intended for this piece of art of such unusual dimensions.  Was it meant to be a free-standing painting or maybe it was to be a predella below an altarpiece?

Borne above the painting by angels holding the instruments of the Passion is an inscription in brush on paper:

                           “IESVS NAZARENVS REX IUDAEORUM”

There is a stark realism about the painting and I can only imagine that to stand in front of this life-sized work of art must be both awe-inspiring and shocking.  I am told that when you look at the painting, it is as if the tomb has been set into the wall of the gallery because Holbein has created a three-dimensional illusion.  The physical depiction of the body is realistic.  It is said that Holbein used a body dragged out of the Rhine as his model.  Looking at the body of the dead Christ is just like the experience I had a week ago when I gazed at the dead person, albeit she was clothed, but her hands, wrist and face were uncovered and discoloured.  Every physical feature of death is portrayed in this painting.  The body of Christ has the marks of the crucifixion.  We look in horror at the blood-caked wounds in the back of his hand and his feet, where the nails had penetrated.  We see the wound in his side which had been penetrated by the lance.  All the wounds are turning a gray-green and becoming swollen, due to the onset of gangrene.  Surprisingly, there are no marks on Christ’s forehead from the crown of thorns.

Details of the upper body


Details of the lower body

Let us look at some of the detailed work this great artist has given to this painting.  The blackened feet of Christ lie almost to the end of the stone-walled enclosure.  The bones of his body push against the flesh like spikes emphasising the hollowness of his ribcage.  String-like muscles press against the lifeless yellow skin.   Look carefully at the face of Christ which is slightly tilted towards us.  The hair of Christ spills over the stone block which has been covered with a white shroud.   His beard points upwards towards the low roof of this wooden box-like tomb.  His right hand balances on the edge of the dishevelled shroud.  All but his middle finger is curled inward and we can almost feel the pain the dying Christ felt as his life ebbed away.   His bony middle finger points, to what we do not know.  Except for the deathly pallor we may believe he is still alive.  His eyes and mouth are open.  We could be forgiven in thinking we are at the bedside of a dying man who looks heavenwards as he exhales for the last time.  Why did Holbein paint the dead Christ with his mouth and eyes open?  Could it be that Holbein is reminding us that even in death Christ nonetheless sees and speaks?  Is it to remind us that even from the decay of the tomb Christ did rise again on the third day?  In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, works of art similar to this, intensified the imagination of the observer with regards to the suffering Christ had to endure and by doing so giving an intensity to people’s meditations on Christ’s Passion.

This panel painting has attracted fascination and praise since it was created.   The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky was wholly captivated by the work.  It is said that in 1867, his wife had to drag her husband away from the panel lest its grip on him induce an epileptic fit.

Saint Justina with a Donor by Moretto da Brescia

Saint Justina with a Donor by Moretto da Brescia (c.1530)

Alessandro Bonvicino more commonly known as Moretto da Brescia was born around 1498 at Rovato, a town in the province of Brescia in Lombardy. He studied first under Fioravante Ferramola of Brescia and later with Titian in Venice.    He was the leading Brescia painter of the day and concentrated his works on religious subjects mainly producing altarpieces and other religious works.  The human figure in his paintings is somewhat slender and expressions are intently religious.  The backgrounds of his paintings tended to be of a radiant quality.  He was a very religious person and use to prepare himself before embarking on a work of sacred art by prayer and fasting. 

Today’s offering in My Daily Art Display is Moretto’s St Justina with a Donor which he painted around 1530 and was one of the major works of the Northern Italian High Renaissance.  This picture is one which I saw when I visited the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. 

In this painting the union between a religious subject, in this case Saint Justina, and the figure of a patron has been brought to such a self-contained yet intimate whole.  Although in essence it is a devotional picture there emanates a feeling of a pastoral love scene.  Saint Justina is revered as the patron saint of Padua and is shown holding the martyr’s palm,  standing besides the unicorn.  Moretto merges the legendary figure of a sorcerer, who was converted by Justina, into the donor of the painting.  He gazes up at the saint with an enraptured reverence that seems to have affected even the unicorn.  The influence of Raphael is clearly evident in the statuesque, suspended form of the beautiful saint and Moretto was often alluded to as the Raphael of Brescia.

 Have you a favourite painting which you would like to see on My Daily Art Display?  

If so, let me know and tell me why it is a favourite of yours and I will include it in a future offering.

Autumn by Francesco Bassano (c. 1576)

Autumn by Francesco Bassano (c.1576)

Still at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

After looking around the Hans van Aachen exhibition (see yesterday’s post) I went to the wing of the gallery which housed the museum’s collection of Italian paintings and I came across works of art by a father and son, Jacopo and Francesco Bassano. 

Francesco Bassano the Younger, sometimes known as Francesco Giambattista da Ponte or Francesco da Ponte the Younger, was an Italian Renaissance painter who was born in Bassano del Grappa a town 50 miles north west of Venice in 1549.  He was the eldest of four sons and came from a family of painters, his father being the celebrated painter Jacopo Bassano and his grandfather, a village painter, Francesco da Ponte.  His three brothers, Leandro, Gerolamo and Giovanni Battista, like himself followed in the footsteps of their father and both Francesco and Leandro gained reputations as fine painters.

Francesco was trained in his father’s workshop in Bassano del Grappa between 1560 and 1570.  Later he moved to Venice and ran a branch of the family business.  Francesco the Younger had a penchant for rural scenes begun by his father, and he developed this aspect of the workshop.  Sadly, all his life, Francesco was prone to hypochondria and other mental illnesses and soon after his father’s death in 1592, he committed suicide

My Daily Art Display painting today is Autumn by Francesco Bassano, which hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.  He painted this rural scene around 1576.  Against a lush mountainous landscape, he illustrates a country scene with workers busy picking, collecting and crushing the harvested grapes.  In the left foreground are two oxen hauling a cart on which is a large wooden barrel.  Beside the animals is a young girl kneeling, drinking the grape juice.  The background of the picture has a hare, seen in mid flight, and a couple of dilapidated timber-framed thatched dwellings.  The theme for the majority of Francesco’s paintings, notwithstanding whether the theme was religious, mythological or allegorical, was almost always that of a rustic and contemporary setting and decor.

The subject matter of the painting, harvesting of the grapes, is obviously secular and yet there is also a subtle religious aspect to the painting for if one looks closely at the background on the left hand side one can just make out, on the top of a grassy mound, a kneeling man dressed in a white robe.  He is seen receiving an object from a godly figure in the sky who is reaching down from the illuminated cloud.   This god-like figure extends his hands towards the arms of the kneeling individual. The interpretation of this is that it is probable that this small scene depicts Moses receiving the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. This was a popular iconography during the Renaissance and it was not unusual to include the detail within a larger genre scene such as the harvest.

Have you a favourite painting which you would like to see on My Daily Art Display?  

If so, let me know and tell me why it is a favourite of yours and I will include it in a future offering.