Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1510 to decorate with frescos the walls of his private apartment, now known as the Stanze di Raffaello in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. For Raphael, this must have been a daunting task as he had never worked on a project of such magnitude and he had little experiencein fresco.
The second of his frescos entitled The School of Athens was on the wall of a room, known as the Stanza della Senatura and is one of the most famous paintings by the Italian Renaissance artist. This room was intended by the Pope to be filled with portraits of great intellectuals of the ancient world. The fresco is a who’s who of the famous thinkers of the past and there have been many arguments when it comes to identifying the characters of the fresco.
According to Michael Lahanas in his book The School of Athens, “Who is Who?” Puzzle they are usually identified as follows:
Giovanni Bellini was born in Venice around 1430 and was one of the greatest and most influential artists of the Italian Renaissance. He came from a family of artists. His father was Jacopo Bellini, an artist, and Giovanni and his brother Gentile trained under him. His sister married another great Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna. Giovanni had a long and prolific career living to the age of 85, during which he transformed Venice into a centre of artistic excellence which rivaled Rome and Florence as established centres of art. Venetian painting rose to prominence during his time through his use of colour, light and atmosphere. Bellini was a master of portraiture and today’s art display is one of his most famous works of portraiture, Doge Leonardo Loredan.
This portrait hangs in the National Gallery in London. Bellini completed this painting around 1502. This formal portrait of the Doge at the beginning of his rule shows the hat, called a corno, which was worn over a linen cap. His robe is made of luxurious, gold-threaded damask and is decorated with ornate buttons which were part of the official wardrobe. This was a traditional style of portraiture for incumbent rulers of the time. The style of this portrait is similar to the style of sculpted portrait busts which were often inspired by Roman sculpture. Bellini’s signature can be seen below on the parapet in the form of a cartellino. A cartellino being a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, often as though attached to a wall or parapet in a painting, commonly with the artist’s name or that of the sitter.
Guido Reni was born in Bologna on November 4th 1575. He studied art from the age of nine as an apprentice under the Bolognese Studio of Denis Calvaert. At the age of twenty he worked in the Accadmi degli Incamminati (Academy of the newly embarked, or progressives) under the tutelage of Ludovico Carracci. This academy was one of the first of its kind in Italy and singularly helped to encourage the so-called Bolognese School of the late 16th century. His most celebrated work, Aurora, painted in 1614 is an enchantingly beautiful ceiling fresco of the large central hall of the garden palace, Casino dell’Aurora, which was a commission for Scipione Borghese. Although he was highly successful in Rome, he returned to Bologna. After Ludovico Carracci’s death in 1619, Reni was unrivalled as Bologna’s most important artist probably the most sought-after painter in Italy. Reni died in Bologna in 1642 aged 66.
Today’s picture is one I saw at the National Gallery, London and is entitled Susannah and the Elders. The incident depicted in this painting is taken from the Old Testament. As the virtuous and beautiful Susannah bathes in her garden, she is approached by two elders who, lusting after her, threaten to accuse her of adultery if she does not sleep with them. She refuses and is falsely accused by them, but her innocence is proved and prevents her from being stoned. There have been many other versions painted of this scene including one by his former master, Carracci.
Rogier van der Weyden was born in, what is now, the Belgium town of Tournai around 1399. His name at that time was actually Rogier de le Pasture which literally translated meant Roger of the Pasture. His father Henri de le Pasture was a knife manufacturer. At the age of 26 he married Elisabeth Goffaert, the daughter of a Brussels shoemaker, and they had four children. In 1436 he was given the position of stadsschilder, (painter to the town), of Brussels, a post especially created for him. It was whilst living in Brussels, which was then a Dutch-speaking town, he began to use the Dutch version of his name: Rogier van der Weyden.
Today’s painting, The Descent from the Cross, was the centre panel of an altarpiece, of which the wings are lost, created by Rogier van der Weyden around 1436. It can be found in the Prado, Madrid. The painting depicts the lifeless body of Christ being lowered down from the cross. The painting was commissioned by the Greater Guild of Crossbowmen of Leuven and was installed in the Chapel of Our Lady Without the Walls which was demolished in 1798.
The main figures in the painting are, to the right, Mary Magdalen with her fingers entwined. To the left of her, is Nicodemus, wearing a black hat and a gold-coloured robe. At the centre of the picture is Joseph of Arimathea, wearing a brown skull cap, who can be seen supporting the body of Christ. Mary Salome another half sister of the Virgin Mary, dressed in green, is to the left of the body of Christ seen supporting Mary. On the left of the picture, dressed in a red robe, and also supporting the Virgin Mary is St John the Evangelist.
The Flemish painter, Hendrick van Steenwyck the Younger, was born in Antwerp around 1550. He was an artist who specialised in paintings of the interior of churches and cathedrals and through his paintings he is credited with rediscovering the art of perspective using realistic ,if imaginary, architectural scenes as the main subject of his paintings. In all of his paintings his architectural themes predominated as, for him, the figures within his pictures were merely subsidiaries. In the case of today’s featured painting, The Interior of a Gothic Church looking East , the architectural details of the painting are by Steenwyck but the figures were thought to have been painted by Jan Bruegel the Elder. The building has not been identified. In the foreground on the right we have a christening party while behind them one can just make out a priest celebrating mass.
William Holman Hunt was born in London in 1827. He started off his working life as a clerk but moved away from the life of commerce and studied at the British Museum and National Gallery. He, along with Dante Rossetti and John Millais, all members of the Royal Academy, formed the Pre-Raphelite Movement in 1848. This newly formed group sort to reform art by emphasising the detailed observation of the natural world in a spirit of quasi-religious devotion to the truth. They took on board the spiritual qualities of medieval art in opposition to the rationalism of the Renaissance personified by the likes of Raphael. In 1854 Hunt went to the Holy Land to portray scenes from the life of Christ, aiming to achieve total historical and archaeological truth. He returned to Palestine in 1869 and again in 1873. Hunt died in London in 1910, aged 83.
Today’s painting is Our English Coasts which Hunt painted in 1852 and was commissioned by Charles Maud. This painting, which featured sheep, followed an earlier painting of his which featured sheep in the background and was very well received, The Hireling Shepherds . Hunt used the cliffs of Fairlight, east of Hastings, as the background for this work. As with a lot of Pre-Raphelite work, there is an element of symbolism in their paintings. Art historians believe that the use of the cliffs at Hastings, overlooking the English Channel, symbolised the fear of a possible French invasion of England. The brilliance of the colours Hunt used made it the most remarkable of Hunt’s landscapes.
The painting can be found in the Tate Britain gallery, London.
Alfred Sisley, born in Paris to English parents in1839, was sometimes called the “Forgotten Impressionist”. At the age of 18 his father, a silk trader, sent him to London to study business but life as a business man similar to that of his father was not for him and he soon moved back to Paris. His family supported him in his ambition to become an artist and sent him to Gleyre’s studio where he met and worked alongside Monet and Renoir. In 1867 he became a pupil of Corot and a number of Sisley’s works reflect that tutelage with the way in which he has a passionate interest in the sky which became a dominate facet of his paintings
He still rates as one of the greatest Impressionists who ever lived and was regarded as an exceptional en plein air (outdoor) landscape painter. Landscape painting was his favourite genre and he rarely attempted portraits. Similar to another great English landscape artist John Constable, Sisley liked just to concentrate on painting places he knew well such as the Seine and Thames valleys.
The painting on display to today is one of his later works, The Bridge at Moret, which he completed in 1893 and is now exhibited in the Musee d’Orsay. Alfred Sisley died in Moret-sur-Loing at the age of 59, just a few months after the death of his wife. Moret-sur-Loing is a small and charming historical town in the Seine-et-Marne department of north central France and which was a source of inspiration for Monet, Renoir and Sisley.
On October 12th 1654, a gunpowder store exploded destroying much of the Dutch city of Delft. More than a hundred people were killed and more than a thousand were injured. One of the casualties was a thirty-two year old local artist Carel Fabritius, who at the time was painting in his studio close to the gunpowder store. Many of his paintings were also destroyed . Fabritius had trained in Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam and was a contemporary of Vermeer.
Today’s Art Display is Carel Fabritius’s A View of Delft. He painted this in 1652 and the view shows part of the Dutch town of Delft. The actual view is looking north west from the corner of the Oude Langendijk and Oosteinde. In the centre of the painting is the church, Nieuwe Kerk, behind which is the town hall. In the foreground is the booth of a musical instrument vendor. It is thought that the painting may have been formed using a perspective box giving rise to an exaggerated perspective. To the left of the lute one can see the painter’s name “C FABRITIVS 1652” scrawled on the wall
Whilst walking around the National Gallery in London a short time ago I happened to enter one of the rooms in which a talk was being given by one of the curators of the gallery. His small audience and I were mesmerised by his fascinating tale regarding Caravaggio’s painting Supper at Emmaus which was hanging on the wall behind him.
The subject matter of this painting is based on one of the stories from the gospels of the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke (24:13-32) tells of an encounter whilst on the road to Emmaus, two days after the crucifixion, , between Jesus and two of his disciples, one of which was thought to be Cleopas. At the time they did not recognise him as Jesus and they persuaded the stranger to take supper with them. It is at this supper when Jesus “breaks the bread” that they recognise him.
The painting by Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio shows that moment of recognition with Cleopas, on the left, half rising from his chair in shock. Caravaggio’s innovative treatment of the subject makes this one of his most powerful works. The depiction of Christ is unusual in that he is beardless and great emphasis is given to the still life on the table. The intensity of the emotions of Christ’s disciples is conveyed by their gestures and expression. Caravaggio used many devices to create depth in the painting and brings the figures closer to the viewer. The elbow of the disciple on the left with its white patch, the basket of fruit finely balanced on the edge of the table and the outstretched left hand of the disciple on the right which almost goes off the edge of the picture all create the illusion that we are almost at the table ourselves.
I have a large framed print of this painting on my dining room wall and it is often the subject of many conversations of the diners sat around the table. I saw the original painting when I visited the Staatliche Museen in Berlin many years ago and was fascinated by the amount of activity going on within the painting. Along with the print of the painting which I bought there was a small black and white copy of the picture on which the various parts of the scene were numbered so that one could look along the corresponding number on a list of proverbs the painting was depicting. This has been a God-send when viewers of my print have tried to work out the possible meanings of the various scenes.
The painting depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish proverbs some of which are not in use any more or have somewhat lost their meaning when translated into English. More than a hundred proverbs and idiomatic expressions have been identified describing “topsy-turvy” ways of behaviour. This explains the other name occasionally given the painting, that of The Topsy-Turvy World.