Archive for the ‘Object of the Month.2018’ Category

Object of the Month: December 2018

The Visitation

Oil on canvas

Johann Friedrich Overbeck

German, 1789-1869

Friedrich Overbeck began art instruction at age 15 under the tutelage of Joseph Nikolaus Peroux. He then learned from artists in Hamburg and through close study of Italian Renaissance works on display. The move to Vienna in 1806 enabled him to study at the Akademie and learn the principles of drawing in the academic tradition. This traditional approach, however, led him to reject those principles and adopt the teachings of Eberhard Wächter, particularly in the area of moral tone. One of the fascinating concepts about the sister arts (writing, drawing, music, and sculpture) is that principles from one art often apply to another. So, the idea of moral tone, usually applied to literature, is quite appropriate to discuss in the area of painting.  Overbeck infused his religious beliefs into his beginning work in oils, an emphasis which became a hallmark of his work, especially following his 1813 conversion to Roman Catholicism. His family heritage was religious as well; the three previous generations of men in his family were ministers. It was Friedrich who broke with the family calling. 

Although, it would be wrong to say that he abandoned the ministry; his works “preach” in merely another medium. In 1809 he and friends began the group Brotherhood of St. Luke, also known as the Nazarenes. Living in an abandoned monastery and adopting a biblical style of hair and dress led to “Nazarene” becoming a derogatory term. The Brotherhood’s motivation to reject the sensuality and artistic virtuosity of artists beginning in the sixteenth century was accompanied by a belief that all art should serve a moral purpose. Their work emphasizes Christian symbolism and bright clear colors which are hallmarks of the later Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood members such as William Holman Hunt and Frederic James Shields.

While Overbeck embraced the art before Raphael, he also admired Raphael’s style. A look at The Visitation drawn c. 1517 by Raphael (in the Prado since 1837), suggests that Overbeck may have seen the master’s composition. The headdress of Elizabeth is strikingly similar to that in Overbeck’s painting as is the hairstyle of the Virgin. But there are purposeful differences as well. Raphael’s Virgin has no ornamentation on her dress; however, Overbeck chooses to give Mary a gold band of ribbon or lace, contrasting her gown with the matronly garb of her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, and showing her superiority.  

Overbeck also indicates Mary’s elevated position as the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ through the physical positioning of the figures. Though Elizabeth is heavily pregnant at the time of Mary’s visit, she is positioned kneeling toward her younger relative. Luke 1:39-56 details the interaction between the women. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth proclaims a three-fold blessing on Mary: she is blessed as a chosen woman, she is carrying the blessing of mankind’s Savior, and she is blessed for her faith in the promise of the Lord through Gabriel.  Then Luke records Mary’s praise of the Lord, the Magnificat.  Appropriately enough, Elizabeth gazes into the distance while Mary looks heavenward in a sign of her understanding of the privilege and position she has been accorded by God. John’s movement in Elizabeth’s womb at the arrival of his Lord is undoubtedly one of those things that Mary will keep and “ponder in her heart.”

In another work, Overbeck features Mary and her cousin, Mary and Elizabeth with Jesus and John the Baptist.  The title indicates the characters in the painting; yet the accepted iconography and religious symbolism of the time provides clear and immediate identification.  Mary is found in her blue robe holding her missal. John the Baptist wears his clothing of camel’s hair and grasps a sheep, signifying his task of proclaiming that his cousin Christ is the “Lamb of God.”  Christ, sitting on the lamb, could not be more closely identified as that “Lamb.”  In addition, He holds John’s cross-shaped staff indicating the manner in which the “Lamb of God” will be sacrificed for the sins of the world.  The background of this painting is more reminiscent of Raphael’s work with its Italian landscape; such scenery suits this family portrait. However, Mary’s Magnificat focuses on the Lord God, so this portrait-like composition of The Visitation directs the viewer’s attention to her message by eliminating a distracting setting. 

Overbeck’s biographer, Joseph Beavington Atkinson (1822-1886) records the artist’s mission in life: “Art to me is as a harp of David, whereupon I would desire that psalms should at all times be sounded to the praise of the Lord.”  The sacred mood and expression of Christian piety, the beautiful colors, and the clean lines found in The Visitation fulfill his mission well.

Dr. Karen Rowe, M&G Board Member and Volunteer Membership Coordinator 

Suggested Reading: Overbeck by Joseph Beavington Atkinson

Object of the Month: November 2018

The Repentant St. Peter

Oil on canvas, circa 1664

Carlo Dolci

Florentine, 1616-1686

This powerful portrait of the penitent Peter is by seventeenth-century Florentine artist Carlo Dolci. A child prodigy, Carlo entered Jacopo Vignali’s studio as an apprentice at the age of 9 and by 13 was independently completing noteworthy commissions. Throughout his lifetime Dolci’s paintings would continue to garner praise and to attract the patronage of luminaries like the Grand Duchess of Tuscany Vittoria della Rovere and her son Cosimo III.  

However, Dolci’s aspirations went beyond a desire for fame. His lifelong friend and biographer Filippo Baldinucci wrote: “From early childhood, Dolci frequented the Benedictine Order, and his devotion ever increasing, he made a firm vow never in all his life to wish to paint anything other than sacred images or religious stories, and to represent them in such a manner that they would inspire Christian piety in those who saw them.”  It is not surprising, therefore, that aside from a few portraits, Dolci’s entire oeuvre is comprised of devotional works. 

One of those rare portraits is this 1674 Double Self-Portrait.  This work not only highlights the artist’s technical skill but also insinuates his temperament.  Dolci was a meticulous artist. Baldinucci commented: “It may seem strange to hear that he completed so many works, having worked so slowly, or more accurately having taken so long to complete them, since sometimes a single foot occupied him for weeks.” We see that obsessive attention to detail in this work—both in its execution and in the handling of the subject. In a sense it is a visual pun. In the miniature portrait we see the bespectacled Dolci leaning in to delicately apply brush to canvas while the larger, central figure holds this miniature up for viewer examination. Notice the wistful expression of the dominant Dolci. It’s as if he is inquiring of the viewer, “I’m not sure I’m satisfied with my ‘image.’ Are you?” Numerous sources site that throughout his life Dolci suffered from melancholia, an archaic term describing (among other things) bouts of extreme depression. Perhaps this malady contributed to his ability to render powerful emotion convincingly. Regardless, it is this quality that evokes the pathos readily apparent in the Museum & Gallery’s portrait.  

Although the subject of this work is derived from the gospels, it’s popularity during Dolci’s time was due in part to Counter-Reformation dogma.  For example, one of the many objectives of the Council of Trent was to urge Catholic painters to reaffirm through art the salvatory function of those sacraments dismissed by the Reformers—including the sacrament of penance (the private confession of sins to a priest).  Art historian and curator David Steel notes that as a result “the repentance of Peter became an especially popular subject since it depicted the Prince of Apostles, and the first pope, in the sacramental act of doing penance; Peter’s tears became a symbol for that sacrament.”  

The compositional details mirrored in Dolci’s work were first codified by the Mannerist painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco. El Greco completed numerous variants and at least five autograph versions of this subject, including the one pictured here from the San Diego Museum of Art.  His dark background, grotto-like setting, and figural pose became standard, and we see these elements mirrored in Dolci’s rendering.  Both artists also clothe the figure in his traditional yellow-gold mantel of faith.  However, Dolci’s elegant brushwork and jewel-like coloration add what one historian describes as a “fresh, objective approach.”  

Although naturalistic in the handling of light and the depiction of Peter’s weathered face, red-rimmed eyes, and tousled hair and beard, there is none of the severity characteristic of such Baroque naturalists as Caravaggio. Dolci’s vital realism seems free of despair. As art historian Michael Bryan observed, “Nothing is harsh or obtrusive, all is modest and harmonious.” This seamless integration of the natural and the sublime creates a wonderfully moving image. 

To learn how Protestant painters sought to affirm their faith read about Lucas Cranach, the Younger’s Allegory of the Fall and Redemption of Man. 

View this painting in person from now through December 30, 2018 at M&G’s exhibition, Sampling the Old Masters: Highlights from the Bob Jones Museum at the Greenville County Museum of Art.

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education

Object of the Month: October 2018

The Fountain of Life

Unknown

French, 16th century

Potmetal and stained glass

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter W. Lee

Every collection object has a life story to tell, and the fascinating narrative of these beautiful windows begins in the fertile flood plain of the Loire Valley in France, near Saumur…

The Windows’ Story

At his mother’s passing, Baron René de Thory inherited estate and lands as the new Lord of Boumois. His wealth included the ruins of a castle once owned by the Counts of Anjou and which was destroyed during the Hundred Years War. Following his marriage to Françoise du Plessis, René undertook the building of Chateau Boumois between 1521 and 1525 on the remains of the former Angevine castle.

The chateau’s designs included private living quarters, guest areas, public entertaining areas, kitchen, bakehouse, pantry, cellar, and towers.  As is fitting the role of the Lord of Boumois who held a seat of authority, the house included a dungeon and space for hearing judicial cases. To run such a household required servants, their living quarters, stables, a courtyard, and a dovecote.  Since the area was a central hub for the activity of those living and working on the estate, there was a chapel for worship; and all at the castle were protected by a surrounding moat.

In Anjou, there are some 1200 castles remaining today; Boumois is classified as a French Historical Monument and is one of the last remaining castles of Gothic architecture. Christian Cussonneau writes, “Boumois still offers today despite some mutilations, the essential features of a manor house at the end of the Middle Ages.”  On a beautiful imposing, carved door at the chateau, there still remains the de Tory coat of arms on the lock (see image). 

The chateau’s chapel was completed by 1525. To appropriately beautify the space, René de Thory commissioned stained glass windows, which were most likely created and installed before his wife, Françoise du Plessis, passed away in 1528/9. The chapel windows consisted of three sections:

  • The central window of three panels: the Fountain of Life
  • On the West wall: two lancets featuring the donor, René de Thory, presented by St. René to the Virgin of Pity (also known as the Pieta). De Thory is depicted as a kneeling knight wearing his family coat of arms; the window includes the Latin inscription: Omniae dei memoria mei meaning “Remembering that all things are for God.” 
  • On the East wall: two lancets featuring Françoise du Plessis presented by St. Francis of Assisi to the Virgin and Child with saints (most likely including St. Barbara, the patroness of the daughter of Lord and Lady Boumois).  These panels have since disappeared and are known only from written sources from the nineteenth century and supposedly by a photograph taken around 1890.

Not long after his wife’s death, René de Thory fell in love with Anne d’Assé, wife of François de Villeprouvée, Baron of Trier, who died under suspicious circumstances in January 1530. Questions arose that perhaps Anne’s husband was poisoned. Since poems written by René about his love for Anne were discovered, the two were accused and tried for murder; however, they were not convicted and secretly married in March 1530. 

While the windows of the chapel honor the first Lady of Boumois, de Thory had the chapel consecrated as the Chapel of St. Anne by the priest at Saint-Martin-de-la-Place on March 15, 1546 in honor of his second wife, Anne. At René de Thory’s death in 1565, Boumois was left to his wife and his son, Antoine de Thory.

The estate stayed in the de Thory family until sold in 1607, and then changed owners repeatedly over the next 300 years including a sale of the chateau’s furnishings in 1833. At the end of the nineteenth century, the architect and designer Stanford White obtained the five stained glass panels. He was known for decorating in the neo-Gothic style favored by his wealthy clientele—the nouveau riche seeking to create the wealth of the Old World in their American homes. After White’s death, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst acquired the panels in 1907. Later, through a gift purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Lee from French & Co, M&G received the windows in 1956.

The Windows’ Imagery

Stained glass as an art reached its peak in the Middle Ages; the cathedrals with the increased buttressing allowed for more windows, whose colored beams of light created beautiful effects in the sanctuary by illuminating the space and using light to “paint” the Scriptural stories.  Jacques DuPont explains “this form of painting is less an ornament than the lyrical expression of a transcendent world” as stained glass creates “an atmosphere befitting the House of God, the Light of the World.”

Having a complete set of windows from this period is rare, and the imagery of the central windows is dramatic. In this crucifixion scene, the cross bearing Christ’s suffering body with five bleeding wounds stands above a fountain in which Adam and Eve are bathing—being cleansed of their sin; Christ’s blood then flows into a larger pool representing the forgiveness provided for all mankind—“whosoever will” may be cleansed and made righteous through faith in Christ’s sacrifice.  Above Christ is a door perhaps referencing Christ’s own words, “I am the door…. I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” 

Interestingly, the four fountain heads are the symbols in art for the four evangelists: an angel (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an ox (Luke), and an eagle (John). The designer may have referenced the iconography of paintings in the region like the Fountain of Life at the Calvet Museum in Avingnon or a slightly different version at Saint Mexme in Chinon.  Emile Male in his book Religious Art in France explains the symbolism of the four fountain heads, “This is an ingenious way of saying that the miracle of forgiveness has the Gospels as authority, that is to say, the Word of God Himself.” These windows present a beautiful representation of several doctrinal truths, such as the love of Christ, the power of His sacrifice to cleanse sin, and the fulfillment of His promise to Adam and Eve. 

William Cowper, eighteenth-century poet, captured the same visual truth through language: There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director

Object of the Month: September 2018

Iron Safe

German, 17th Century

Gift of Paul W. Doll

Since the fall of humanity, there has been a need to prevent theft.  At the end of Genesis 3, Adam and Eve were barred from Eden to keep them from partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life. The cherubim armed with a flaming sword became the keepers of the Garden.

Securing one’s valuables is a universal priority, and man has devised various methods to accomplish the goal. One of the most common means of protection is the safe.  From hotel rooms to bank vaults, a safe seeks to provide both security and safety for treasured items including M&G’s Iron Safe, a type of strong box sometimes called a coffer, casket, lock box, or armada chest. 

Safes have existed for more than two millennia—even the Romans built and used money chests to protect valuables.  While locked chests were used primarily for storing and protecting special items, it was common practice through the eighteenth-century for the safe’s aesthetic design to equal the importance of its security. 

Early strong boxes were constructed of resilient and heavy wood that later was reinforced with metal straps and nails.  As advancements were made in metallurgy, corresponding improvements were made in safe construction.  M&G’s seventeenth-century safe would have been forged after the introduction of iron plates, and was probably crafted in Germany, where much of Europe’s iron work was manufactured.  The cities of Southern Germany, such as Nuremberg, were particularly known for the craftsmanship of their blacksmiths and locksmiths, and demand was high for their lock boxes not only in Germany, but beyond.

M&G’s safe exhibits the common elements of a top opening safe from the 17th century with a spring-loaded keyhole cover accessed by pressing a slightly disguised button. A large key releases an elaborate steel locking mechanism inside. Once unlocked, a hand crank is used to lift the heavy lid.  

Joseph Aronson explains that “the security of this safe lay in its great weight, probably self-defeating even in its own day. The whole top is the lock, with a naively hidden keyhole in the decorative plate on the center. Even though it would certainly foil pickpockets and larcenous domestics, the type occurs in pictures of war booty in transit.”  This safe was quite possibly bolted to a ship officer’s cabin to secure valuables and plunder.

Visit Historical Locks and LockWiki to learn more.

John Good, M&G Docent and Security Manager

Object of the Month: August 2018

The Martyrdom of St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas

Signed and dated, Félix Leullier, 1880

Oil on canvas 

Félix Louis Leullier

French, 1811–1882

In this arresting example of the nineteenth-century Romantic style, Felix Louis Leullier uses all the forces of paint and position to create a gruesome depiction of one of the most famous martyrdoms of the Christian church. Little known outside of France, Felix trained with Antoine-Jean Gros, renowned for his depictions of some of Napoleon’s famous battles: Battle of Arcole, Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau, and Battle of Abukir. Gros leaves little to the imagination in the spheres of conflict and conquest, so it is no wonder that his student, Felix, would choose to depict a martyrdom in a context resembling the twisted forms often found on a battlefield.  

The painting’s setting is the Roman Amphitheatre in Carthage, the North African center of Christianity in the early centuries following Christ’s death and resurrection; there is little more than an outline remaining today of the prominent structure that seated 30,000. Although Felix most likely did not travel to that part of the world, he could have easily participated in a Grand Tour, a customary excursion in the 18th and 19th centuries for men coming of age, to see and learn from the culture and histories of antiquity. Such a broadening and experiential trip included significant time in Rome, where the Colosseum was a chief point of interest and which is very similar to Carthage’s own great amphitheater. The combined influence of travel and exposure to prominent depictions like Granet’s Interior View of the Colosseum in Rome, 1804 and Towne’s The Colosseum, 1781, Leullier opts to create only a faint representation of an outdoor arena.  

On March 7, 203 AD, under the rule of the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, the noblewoman Vibia Perpetua, was executed with her handmaid, Felicitas, and fellow catechumens, Revocatus, Saturninus, and Secundulus. Just a few years earlier in 197 AD in his treatise Apologeticus, Tertullian had posited that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” As providence would have it, Tertullian himself was eyewitness and later chronicler to the gripping event portrayed in this work.  

In addition to Tertullian’s account and Perpetua’s own prison diary, Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis, in which she captures much of the detail up until the hour of her entrance into the arena, many attempts to present the event have been created in various media formats. It is contained in older volumes like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), as well as in more recent accounts like Thomas J. Heffernan’s The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (2012). It is visible in paintings, drawings, mosaics, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts like Menologion of Basil II; and it has been presented in investigative journalism in the PBS Frontline series, From Jesus to Christ (1998). 

Leullier’s visual rendering is indeed grand both in presentation and size, measuring nearly seven feet high by nine feet wide. Though literary works relate that Perpetua and Felicitas were martyred separately from the men, Leullier deviates from the historical account and instead depicts the entire company—the martyrs, the men that assaulted them, and the many animals that mauled them. By placing the massacre in the forefront of the work, the purity and testimony of these Christians’ story cannot be ignored.

Bonnie Merkle, M&G Database Manager and Docent

For further enrichment:

Object of the Month: July 2018

Angel with Candlestick (pair)

Polychrome and parcel-gilt

Unknown

Florentine, c. late 15th century

 

Since paintings in an exhibit often take “center stage,” ecclesiastical pieces like these Angels with Candlestick can be overlooked by museum viewers. During the Renaissance, however, a polychrome sculptural grouping would often be the centerpiece of an altar’s decorative scheme while the painted narrative scenes or figures functioned as the “wings” of the altar. Although by the end of the sixteenth century, paintings became the central focus of Italian altarpieces, while sculpture continued to be used extensively in other countries like Spain. 

The term polychrome (meaning “many colored”) refers to the application of colored materials to sculpture in order to present a more life-like quality. This technique dates back to the Greeks and Romans and was particularly popular during the Renaissance. Because these pigments fade over time such coloring is rarely discernable today.  The good condition of these statues is due to the porous wood used which retains color well. 

We know that the figures shown here were meant to be angels from the metal pins that remain on the back of each figure—a clear indication of the wings’ placement. Sadly, it is not uncommon for such appendages to be broken off or lost over centuries of movement from place to place. Fortunately, the carved wooden haloes have remained intact, as has the original base with its Latin inscriptions.

Since several of the words are Latin abbreviations, the precise translation of the inscriptions is unclear. However, a loose reading would be: 

OVEM DEDIT VOBIS DNS ADVES CENTVIM 

Dedicated to the Lord’s Advent

VENITE ET COMEDITE PANEM

Come and eat bread 

ANGE ORVM

Angels

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education

These sculpture can be seen at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC from July 1, 2018 through September 30, 2018 in the exhibition, Sacred Drama.

Object of the Month: June 2018


Amulets: Scarabs, Winged Scarab, Rectangular Plaque, Cat, Fly, Hippo, and Goddess Bes, 

Carnelian, faience, stone, and pottery

Egyptian, ranging from 1786 BC-30 BC

Amulets are an important part of ancient Egyptian culture. The origin of the word is uncertain but some scholars are of the opinion that the word has Arabic roots and means to bear or carry. More commonly, scholars believe the word comes from the Latin word amuletum meaning to avert evil or protect from a spell. 

The ancient Egyptians believed that amulets possessed magical powers, which were determined by the amulet’s shape, color, and material. The amulet’s “powers” could be activated by reciting a spell or rubbing the amulet.  Amulets were worn by both the rich and poor and might be made of precious stones and metals or cheaper materials such as faience, a ceramic made from quartz. The picture on the right provides a sampling of Egyptian amulets from M&G’s Bowen Collection of Antiquities. From left to right: fly, Hippo, Bes, and Cat.

During the Old Kingdom (2686 BC-2134 BC) these good luck charms consisted mainly of animal forms or symbols derived from hieroglyphs. However, progressing through the Middle Kingdom (2050 BC-1652 BC), amulets began to take on the form of ancient Egyptian gods. Finally, during the New Kingdom (1550-712 BC), amulets appeared in a variety of forms.

These special ornaments were used for two main purposes—in daily life and funeral preparation. In daily life, an Egyptian would wear or carry and amulet for protection or good luck. In funerary ritual, the mummies were often buried with multiple charms to ensure protection in the after-life. The amulets might be part of necklaces and bracelets or interspersed in the layers of linen wrapping the mummified body. 

The scarab was the most popular amulet in ancient Egypt; it was formed in the shape of a beetle and became a good luck charm, believed to bring prosperity and eternal life. The Egyptians viewed the beetle as a divine manifestation of the sun-god Ra; just as the beetles rolled balls of dung across the ground, so Ra controlled the movement of the sun in the sky. The heart scarab was placed on the chest of a deceased person. It was believed to help the person “pass the feather of truth test.” This test would allow the individual to pass on into the after-life. The heart scarab had a spell inscribed on the back that can be found in the Book of the Dead. 

Interested in scarab beetles? Many Egyptians amulets from M&G’s Bowen Collection of Antiquities  are currently on display in Mack Library located on Bob Jones University’s campus. A scavenger hunt is available for children (1st-8th grades) at the Circulation Desk.

Carissa Wells, Elementary Education Coordinator

Object of the Month: April 2018

The Ascension, 1883

Oil on canvas 

Gustave Doré

French, 1832–1883

 

Louis Auguste Gustave Doré (1832-1883) is justly known as the greatest illustrator ever. His genius was recognized when he was a child, and his photographic memory allowed him to include minor details often overlooked by others. 

He began his prolific professional career at the age of 15 as an illustrator for the humorous magazine Journal pour Rire. During his relatively short life, he produced at least 8,000 wood engravings, 1,000 lithographs, 700 zinc engravings, 100 steel engravings, 50 etchings, 400 oil paintings, 500 watercolors, 800 mixed-media sketches, and 30 major works of sculpture.

While many admire Doré’s work, few people actually recognize his art, even having grown up seeing his pictures. His New and Old Testament illustrations became the most widely used and familiar images in twentieth-century Bible literature. He also created several large series of engravings for classics including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, Perrault’s Fairy Tales, The Divine Comedy and more.

Historically, illustrators have received little recognition for their artistic careers compared to their “fine art” counterparts. Doré was equally productive in creating oil paintings and sculpture, and his greatest ambition was to be respected primarily for his painting career; however, he is best remembered as an illustrator. 

M&G’s Collection has two of his most important religious paintings—The Ascension and Christ Leaving the Praetorium, both completed in 1883. 

As is typical of many artists, Doré created multiple versions of his works. His first version of The Ascension was completed in 1879 and measures almost twice the size of M&G’s painting, which is an imposing 11’ 11” tall by 7’ 8” wide!  The original Ascension hung with other religious works in the German Gallery of London (later called the Doré Gallery) where the great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon frequented and encouraged his congregation to visit. 

Sketches that Doré made while riding the newly invented hot-air balloon with his photographer friend, Felix Nadar, probably inspired The Ascension’s aerial perspective—the viewer is on the plane of the ascending Christ with the disciples small and distant standing on the ground. The rich greens and golds in Doré’s thick brushstrokes create excitement and energy at the end of Christ’s earthly ministry and the beginning of His heavenly role. The angels’ response in Acts 1:11 voices the painting’s story, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?  This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” 

The Ascension will be on display at the Greenville County Museum of Art in June through the end of 2018. 

John Good, Docent and Security Manager

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director

Object of the Month: May 2018

 


Clay Oil Lamps

Roman, circa 2nd-3rd century AD

 

In 1931 after retiring from church ministry, Frank and Barbara Bowen traveled on what was to be the first of several trips to the Holy Land. Motivated by a desire to make the Bible and its culture accessible to those who might never visit the Middle East, Mr. and Mrs. Bowen began collecting artifacts. With each trip, they added more to their collection including objects from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, and even from the Royal Tombs of Egypt. Among those antiquities were many small vessels vital to the daily life of ancient civilizations: oil lamps. 

These necessary pieces of practical technology were used universally by the ancient peoples of Greece, Italy, Egypt and more. The earliest lamps were carved from stone or made of clay; other materials included various metals, the most popular of which was bronze. Oil lamps also served as a status symbol. The poor usually had a plain bowl and couldn’t always afford to light a lamp every day. Because metal was considered a higher quality material, wealthier citizens owned more ornate, metal lamps with multiple mouths; these lamps required more wicks and oil, making them more costly to use.

The standard design for oil lamps comprised of a wick, fuel and a reservoir to hold the fuel. The wicks were made of plant fibers such as linen, papyrus and flax. Early lamps entailed a flat, saucer-like basin that was pinched at the top creating a place for the wick to rest (figure 1). With this open design came the risk for oil spillage—an issue supposedly resolved by the Greeks, who developed a closed vessel. Lamps eventually evolved to include multiple spouts allowing for more than one wick and a brighter output (figures 2 and 3).

Ancient peoples most often used olive oil as fuel. Besides being relatively odorless, olive oil generated less smoke and soot and burned cleaner than alternative fuels such as animal fat, beeswax, fish oil or oils from sesame, nuts and radish seed. Burning fuel required vigilant supervision because of the potential for fire and smoke; special niches were designed in the home specifically to hold oil lamps and other fire-producing utilities like stoves and ovens. If a lamp was placed on a table, it would be positioned on top of another vessel that would collect any spilling oil. 

Just like our light fixtures today, ancient lamps primarily functioned as a source of light both indoors and outdoors. They provided light for daily household activities, businesses, and streets; they were used at soldier encampments and occasionally by fishermen for evening fishing expeditions. Lamps played an important, even symbolic role at weddings, funerals and in the synagogues. For example, sometimes ancient people would bury an oil lamp with the dead to light the deceased’s journey in the afterlife. 

Understanding the importance and use of oil lamps illuminates the Biblical parables of The Lost Coin (Luke 15) and The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25)—a story of five wise virgins who packed extra oil while five foolish virgins failed to plan ahead. Matthew does not tell us at what time the women began their vigil for the bridegroom; however, when the bridegroom appeared at midnight, the virgins needed to “trim their lamps” by adding more oil and cutting the wick indicating they had been waiting for some time. Because the foolish virgins neglected to bring extra oil, they needed to leave and purchase more; thus they missed the opportunity to enter the wedding banquet with the bridegroom. Thanks to Frank and Barbara Bowen’s collection (now part of the Museum & Gallery), many biblical passages come alive to the modern world. 

To learn more about the Bowens and their collection, visit here.

 

Rebekah Cobb, former M&G Guest Relations Manager

Bonnie Merkle, M&G Database Manager and Docent

Object of the Month: March 2018


The Instruments of the Passion of Christ

Oil on panel

Unknown Dutch

Dutch, 17th century

 

Genre painting could best be described as a painting that depicts everyday life without idealization.  There are many subject matter that fall under the category of genre painting including interior, landscape, and still life.  But what sets genre painting apart from other categories is the narratives or moral tales hidden in plain sight.

It is during the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, known as the Dutch Golden Age, that Dutch painting, sciences, military, and trade flourished.  Genre paintings were a favorite of every class, which reveals both the increasing urbanization of society and the people’s intense love of their national culture and way of living.Still life genre paintings use symbolism to portray common themes such as vanity, the passing of time, the brevity of life, or specific character qualities (vice or virtue).  From the fourteenth century to today, still life paintings use flora, fauna, household items and personal possessions to symbolize ideas, which add depth and meaning to the narrative.

Throughout the Museum & Gallery’s collection, there is only one painting that falls within the category of a still life genre painting.  Painted by an unknown seventeenth-century artist, The Instruments of the Passion is filled to the frame with symbolism.

Instead of painting the entire narrative as recorded in the Gospels, the artist depicts objects as a symbolic and literal reminder of Christ’s sacrifice. Each individual element, painted in great detail, references a part of the greater story. The objects included are: a hammer,
nails, dice, pliers, spear, sponge, lantern, halberd (a sixteenth-century spear-like weapon), brass pan, broken reed, wine flasks, crown of thorns, scarlet robe, purse with 30 silver pieces, and an inscribed parchment (translated “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”).

While this painting may not be one of the biggest or the prettiest in the Collection, the grouping of these objects provides a powerful representation of Christ’s suffering through the simplicity of symbolism.

 

KC Beach, former M&G staff member