Archive for the ‘Object of the Month.2020’ Category

Object of the Month: September 2020

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

Oil on canvas, signed and dated 1785

Benjamin West, P.R.A.

American, active in England, 1738–1820

Benjamin West was born the youngest of ten children to Quakers John and Sarah West on October 10, 1738 in the township of Springfield, Pennsylvania. At an early age, he showed remarkable artistic talent by painting likenesses of his family. True or not, charming anecdotes have been passed down that the Indians instructed him in preparing colors and that Benjamin made his first paintbrush by plucking tail and back hairs from Gremalkin, the family cat.

At nine, he met a British portraitist, William Williams, who genuinely inspired the young boy. He lent West two books about painting, which developed in him an enduring interest in both the great historians who recorded the stories of the noble and virtuous and the great master painters who depicted the lofty scenes of Scripture and the past.

West continued to paint portraits and at age 18, following his mother’s death, he moved to Philadelphia to live with his married sister. There, he benefited from the mentoring of Rev. William Smith, a respected scholar, minister, and intellectual. Smith found a way for West (age 22, armed with letters of introduction) to travel to Rome, where the great artists studied. West was the first American artist to travel to Italy, where he not only studied and copied the Old Masters and sculpture of Greek and Roman antiquity, but he befriended the contemporary Neoclassical painters including Anton Raphael Mengs and Pompeo Batoni.

In 1763, West moved to England and joined the Society of Artists, where he exhibited and earned the nickname, “the American Raphael”—it was the beginning of a successful career and a lifetime of commissions. Along with Sir Joshua Reynolds and other artists, the king made West a charter member of the Royal Academy.

Defying precedent, West pursued a controversial approach in 1770 for the first exhibition of the Royal Academy by painting The Death of General Wolfe. The scene portrayed a moment of recent history—the heroic death of a great general during Britain’s Seven Years War with France in North America. Rather than following the day’s expectation of clothing the characters in robes of antiquity, West painted the men wearing modern dress. It was a milestone in English and American art, and it established his artistic reputation.

West became England’s leading Neoclassical painter and historical painter to King George III. Following Reynolds’ death, West was made the 2nd president of the Royal Academy and the longest serving. West’s success and recognition attracted art students from America. He gave them opportunities to study and assist on commissions in his studio, where he trained three generations of American artists, including Charles Wilson Peale and Gilbert Stuart. As the “Father of American Painting,” he helped establish a sophisticated American style and provided a foundation for the growth of the arts in America during the Federal period.

In 1780, King George commissioned West to decorate a proposed chapel at Windsor Castle “for the purpose of displaying a pictorial illustration” of subjects from the Bible, “which Christians of all denominations, might contemplate without offense to their tenets.” West developed multiple plans for the chapel over a 20-year period, so it is difficult to know the total paintings he intended to complete. According to records from 1801, his concept for the Chapel of the History of Revealed Religion contained approximately 35 paintings featuring the Scriptural events when God specifically revealed Himself to man.

M&G’s St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost is one of the paintings originally planned for the king’s chapel. The festival of Pentecost brought many visitors from around the known world to Jerusalem. The disciples were gathered together on the feast day when suddenly the sound of a rushing wind filled the house. Flames of fire appeared above their heads, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages. Others at the feast thought the disciples were drunk, but Peter powerfully preached to the assembled crowd, who understood what he spoke in their own language. He explained to them that the miracle they were observing was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy and that Jesus came to save them from their sins, died, and was resurrected on the third day. Three thousand people believed on Jesus Christ that day.

West beautifully and subtly displays this New Testament event from Acts 2, by representing the presence of the Holy Spirit with a smoky quality and the slightest hint of faintly glowing flames above Peter’s head and John’s (behind Peter and wearing green and red). The crowd scene is an observer’s study in reading people. Each person responds differently as they intently consider the apostle’s words. One of West’s special details is the mother with her two young children, which references his skill as a portraitist.

Of course, many factors prevented the chapel and commission from being finished including the American and French Revolutions and the king’s ongoing health struggles. However, West completed 18 large paintings for the chapel and left one unfinished. Of those 18 finished works, 5 are now lost, which leaves 13 paintings with known locations. Six can be found in the collections at the National Gallery in DC, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the Palace of Westminster in London, the Tate Gallery, Margram Castle in Neath, and St. Martin’s Church in Wales. Remarkably, M&G displays the remaining 7 paintings all together in the War Memorial Chapel on the campus of Bob Jones University.

These are no ordinary pictures, and they represent the creative talent and skill of the first, significant American artist. Art historian Alfred Scharf has honored these works as “the most outstanding series of religious paintings in 18th-century England.”

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director

Object of the Month: August 2020

Seat of State

Walnut

Italian, 16th century

A throne is usually a large, ornate chair designed to impress. The majesty and power of the one seated on the throne is visually communicated by the throne’s magnificence. Thrones are also designed to intimidate the one who stands, kneels or bows before the one seated upon it. Today the judge’s bench of a courtroom and the dais of an assemblies’ chairman are designed to have a similar effect.

Technically a high backed, multi-seat bench is a settle. Settles generally have arms, and elaborate ones often have canopies. They are generally stationary and may be an architectural feature built into a room. A settee is the settle’s smaller, movable cousin. Today’s couch, sofa or love seat can be called a settee.

In the 15th and 16th centuries various kinds of settles were used in Italian city-states for ceremonial purposes.  In the Chamber of the Great Council of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, massive, built-in settles surround the room. Along the front wall is a raised seven-seat settle for officials of the Maggior Consiglio. The central, larger, higher seat was for the Doge.

The three seat Throne of Giuliano Dei Medici (son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) is very similar to M&G’s Seat of State. Although the provenance of Giuliano’s throne is not clear, most likely it originated in Florence. Another elaborate three-seat throne, attributed to Bartolomeo Baglioni, was probably made in the early 1500s for the Strozzi family of Venice (now currently in the Ringling Museum).

Other than the Seat of State being crafted in Italy in the 16th century, its origin is unknown. But similarity to these and other examples, give credence to it having served as the ceremonial seat of an Italian, high-ranking, three-person governmental body.

M&G’s Seat of State lacks features that would associate it with a particular city or individual. The rich profusion of intricate carvings reflects scrolling foliage, mythical beings, grotesque masks and geometric embellishments. There are small crests, but they appear to be stylized ornaments rather than official symbols.  Also, they are not located in prominent places where identifying crests could be recognized and appreciated by those in front of the settle.

The stylized crests are not in the prominent places where one would expect to find official crests (center image). Highly skilled craftsmen embellished M&G’s massive settle with ornate details (left-right images).

The choir stall, also represented in M&G’s furniture collection, is similar to a settle. Choir stalls generally have uniform, narrow seats. Their high backs and canopies are more for acoustics and aesthetics of the room than aggrandizement of the individuals seated on them. Choir stall seats are often collapsible, permitting the choir to stand or kneel during religious services. The visible carvings of a choir stall generally have religious themes with geometric ornamentation.

The Seat of State is constructed of interlocking pieces of solid walnut fitted together with mortise and tenon joints. The seat is a chest, and each person sits on a hinged lid. Because of the height and depth of the seat, unless you have long legs, you must sit forward on the bench, which makes the back too far away to rest comfortably. The settle’s lack of comfort might have helped to keep ceremonies and meetings short.

Standing in front of M&G’s 10’ high, ornately carved, polished red-brown Seat of State one is impressed with its magnificence. Now, envision being led into that position while three officials in their elaborate ceremonial garb sat on those seats and stared down at you. Will they grant your petition? Will they decide in your favor?  Whatever they do, you just know they have the power and authority to do it.

It worked. That is exactly what this settle was to settle in your mind.

William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer

Object of the Month: July 2020

God the Father

Tempera on panel

Cristoforo Scacco

Veronese, active c. 1500

Salvator Mundi

Oil on panel

Hendrick Goltzius (attr. to)

Dutch, 1558—1617

St. Mary Magdalene Turning from the World to Christ

Oil on canvas

Jan Hermansz. van Bijlert

Dutch, 1587/98—1671

Technically speaking a symbol is an object that stands for something in addition to itself. However, such a definition hardly captures the depth and beauty that a carefully conceived symbol can add to an artistic work —whatever the genre. The poet William Butler Yeats once remarked, “A symbol is indeed the only possible expression of some invisible essence, a transparent lamp about a spiritual flame.” Philosopher Manly Hall also observed, “Symbolism is the language of the Mysteries. By symbols men have ever sought to communicate to each other those thoughts which transcend the limitations of language.” The orb (or globe) referenced in the following portraits provides a good example. Although in all three works the object serves as a symbol of power, the central character in each painting expands the image in a way that illuminates the symbol’s  “invisible essence” and uncovers more of its “Mysteries.”

The painter of this early Renaissance work, Cristoforo Scacco, was born in Verona. Although biographical information on him is scarce, a 1499 document references his presence at the court of the Duchess Lucrezia del Balzo in Campania, the regional capital of Naples which was a thriving cultural and economic center of the time. In this portrait, Scacco portrays God the Father as the Ancient of Days” clothed in symbolically colored garments—white representing purity, red divine love, and purple royalty. This traditional iconography is in part derived from the prophet Daniels dream: I kept looking Until thrones were set up, And the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow And the hair of His head like pure wool” (Daniel 7:9). However, it is the cross-bearing orb that accentuates God the Fathers sovereign power as Creator of the world. Notice that the left side of the globe is in darkness, but as the eye sweeps to the right, light “overtakes” that darkness. This imagery, coupled with the figures expansive gesture and downward gaze toward the orb, echoes that moment in Genesis as God hovers over the waters contemplating the void before speaking that first divine declaration. Its but a single phrase: Let there be light,” and radiant beauty springs forth.  This radiance is not only reflected in the orb but also mirrored in the golden background that frames the Creator.

In this second portrait by the Dutch painter Hendrick Goltzius we shift our focus from the power of Father to that of the Son.  Salvator Mundi meaning Savior of the World,” was a popular subject for painters from the 15th through the 17th centuries. Here Goltzius depicts a vigorous, authoritative Christ. His right hand is raised in His customary sign of blessing, and He is dressed in the symbolic colors of red (love) white (purity) blue (truth) and gold (majesty). As in the previous portrait, this painter uses a globe as his central symbol, but here the orb is predominantly black—darkened by the sin of a fallen world.  Notice, however, that its surface is minutely transparent, allowing us to faintly glimpse Christs red mantle of love through that darkness. In addition, the orb (an object also held by earthly kings) rests in the palm of Christ’s hand, accentuating the fact that He is not only the Savior but also the ultimate Ruler of the world. The white circle of light “emerging” from the dark orb, further reifies these truths by turning the viewer’s mind to the promised return of the Savior—the Light of the World—who will make all things new.” One other interesting comparison is that Goltziuss background (like Scaccos) mirrors the orbs symbolism. In this case, the figure is framed against a black background—the halo that surrounds Christ’s head the only “illuminating” detail.

Whereas the previous two paintings use the globe to communicate universal constructs that transcend time, Jan van Bijlert uses the symbol to objectify temptations that beset us in time.” Here again the globe symbolizes the world, but this world is pictured as a physical rather than metaphysical object—a material world as concrete as the elegant cloth and pearls draped over its surface. Art historian David Steele says, In this work Bijlert has depicted Mary meditating upon Christs sacrifice. The tilt of her head, her upturned eyes, and the upward motion of her hand suggest that she is being drawn upward toward the source of divine illumination to which the angel gestures.” However, the downward thrust of her left arm toward the globe accentuates the “pull of another force” which she is rejecting—a force described in I John 2:12-17: Do not love the world nor the things in the world. . . For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.”  In Bijlerts rendering the globe becomes the symbol for this passing world system, the cloth and pearls the beguiling lusts that corrupt ones love for God.

Mary Magdalene became an iconic image of penitence in the 16th and 17th centuries. Bijlert’s dramatic lighting, strong diagonal composition, and carefully conceived symbolism make this image one of the most compelling of that time.

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education

 

Object of the Month: July 2020

God the Father

Tempera on panel

Cristoforo Scacco

Veronese, active c. 1500

Salvator Mundi

Oil on panel

Hendrick Goltzius (attr. to)

Dutch, 1558—1617

St. Mary Magdalene

Turning from the

World to Christ

Oil on canvas

Jan Hermansz. van Bijlert

Dutch, 1587/98—1671

Object of the Month: June 2020

Toggle Pins

Bronze

Egyptian, 1648-1540 BC (15th Dynasty)

The Egyptian Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.) began uniting their country after years of civil war and turmoil. The Middle Kingdom brought increased prosperity and public projects which benefited all the people, not just the ruling class. History shows a variety of people groups took residence in Egypt: prisoners of war, traders, craftsmen, diplomats and more from bordering countries.

However, around 1650 BC, one of the well-established foreign groups of people, known as the Hyksos, rose to power as the 15th Dynasty. These rulers continued to maintain the Egyptian traditions and way of life, which Rosalie David explains in Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt, “Foreign influence was minimal in the formative years of the society, allowing the distinctive Egyptian traditions to become firmly established. The culture was so all-embracing and pervasive that, when it finally encountered foreign ideas and customs, these were either readily absorbed and Egyptianized or had little or no impact on the mainstream culture.”

Egyptians focused a great deal on their outward appearance. All men, women and children wore some type of make-up both for beautification and protection from the sun. Egyptians emphasized cleanliness often bathing multiple times per day. To discourage lice, both men and women shaved their heads and wore wigs. Egyptian dress even indicated status and social class. Generally, draped and tied pieces of fabric in square or rectangular shapes formed the basic component of Egyptian garments. The most common textile was linen, which was made from flax, spun and woven by women. The linen was a natural, creamy white color or bleached pure white.

At first glance, these simple metal sticks seem insignificant. However, toggle pins served an important function in ancient civilizations. Ancient peoples used toggle pins to fasten garments closed especially cloaks and mantles much like we use buttons, zippers and other fasteners. They were often used to attach fabric at the shoulders, chest and waist. If needed, more than one could be used for added security. The array of foreigners in Egypt explains the presence of toggle pins in Egyptian excavations. The Egyptians most likely imported toggle pins or aimed their production toward Canaanite residents in Egypt since such pins were associated with Canaanite dress.

Toggle Pin (ca. 17th–16th century B.C.) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bronze toggle pins were most common; however, the wealthy could opt for pins made of gold and silver. On occasion, pins would be formed from bone and ivory. The earliest forms were simple pins with no apparent head, but they evolved into various types such as the nail head, knob head and melon head pins. Some toggle pins contained a hole either for a string to help secure the garment or as a place to hang other decorative objects. Vere Gordon Childe in The Bronze Age: Typology describes how a pin and string were used: “To keep the pin in position a thread was passed through or tied on to its head, looped round the fold of the stuff to be fastened, and the end wound round the shaft again.”

Frank and Barbara Bowen

These Toggle Pins are part of M&G’s Bowen Collection of Antiquities. Collectors Frank and Barbara Bowen took an interest in archaeology believing objects from the Holy Land could illuminate their study of the Bible. They completed five trips to the Holy Land in the 1930s-1940s collecting artifacts. They studied and researched at the American School of Oriental Research in Palestine where they met Sir Flinders Petrie, the famous English Archaeologist and Egyptologist. He became not just their teacher but also their friend, and after Petrie’s death, his wife Hilda (an active archaeologist herself) donated a number of Egyptian antiquities to the Bowens’ collection. After completing their travels, the Bowens actively sought a home for their collection eventually donating it entirely to Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tennessee for a museum. They stayed with the collection as curators. When Bob Jones College became Bob Jones University and moved to Greenville, South Carolina, the Bowens moved as well and continued as curators and docents. Today, these Toggle Pins along with many other artifacts continue to fulfill the Bowens’ goal of “making the Bible come alive” through studying the objects used in the everyday lives of ancient peoples.

Frank and Barbara Bowen teaching a class of children in the Bowen Museum

Rebekah Cobb, Registrar

Object of the Month: May 2020

The Wedding Feast at Cana

Oil on canvas

Giovanni Domenico Piastrini

Roman, 1678-1740

This magnificent 18th-century Roman work may be a rare one by Giovanni Domenico Piastrini and betrays a strong connection to his teacher Benedetto Luti. Piastrini was arguably his best pupil, though very little survives to document his life or oeuvre. Some experts believe that certain passages (for example, the handling of the male figure at the left forefront of the table, the woman at the far right of the table, and the brushwork in the kneeling figure at the extreme right) are painted as if by Luti himself. Other portions, such as the bride and groom, betray a strong connection to the early work of Luti’s other student, Placido Constanzi. While Piastrini’s style is clearly dependent on that of his teacher and his fellow student, other elements of the painting are clearly of his own derivation. 

Though so little is definitively known about the painting, the one surety is the subject. Piastrini illustrates the first of Jesus Christ’s miracles (though not a public one) at the wedding feast of a friend of the family. John’s Gospel (2:1-11) clearly says that Mary was present, and that Jesus and His disciples were invited. The distinction is subtle, but important to the story. 

Mary seems to be especially close to the hosts, close enough to be concerned that the wine was gone, unlike a mere guest. So Mary goes to her Son with only a statement of the need; she sees no reason to spell out her request. She knows her son. Jesus’ calling His mother, “Woman,” may seem cold, but He addresses her the same way from the cross as He directs John to care for her, a tender act under horrific conditions.  The question “What have I to do with thee?” may possibly be a rebuke, but only a very gentle one considering that He resolves her concern. He was here on earth to show that He was the Messiah, not to solve a banquet shortage. However, His relationship with His mother is such that she has utmost confidence in His compassion, even in situations of social crisis. Trustingly, she issues instruction to the servants, “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it” (v. 5). Again, only a close friend would give another’s servants an order, especially of such an open-ended nature. Jesus may not have an obligation to solve the problem, but Mary apparently feels a responsibility to save her friends from embarrassment. And Jesus is touched with compassion for her.

Piastrini places Mary next to an older woman, probably the mother of the groom who is clearly enthralled with his bride. (And, she is apparently appreciative of her wedding necklace!) Mary’s eyes are downcast submissively (remember her submissive answer to Gabriel’s surprising news?), and her hands are in the classic pose of prayer. Perhaps Piastrini reflects the Catholic tradition of Mary as the intercessor to Christ for those on earth. She has certainly interceded for the hosts, but not in any way remotely connected to eternal salvation. It is doubtful that the artist’s rendering depicts the moment she asks her Son for help since the servants are posed to pour out the water-into-wine for the governor of the feast, according to Christ’s instruction. 

The governor of the feast (in the green) is clearly discussing the matter of the empty wine vessel (made of fine silver to show the importance of the occasion). The servant on the left side reassures him that there is more wine ready to serve. No one else seems to be concerned, not even Mary—now.  Presumably the stone water jars which now hold wine are too heavy to pour from, so the servant in the right foreground uses a smaller silver vessel to pour the beverage into the larger silver urn from which the serving pitcher can be filled. 

John carefully relates that no one knows where the latest—and best—wine has come from. Except the servants. Christ has not revealed Himself to the general public for His “hour had not yet come.” But He did reveal Himself to the common man, as He always did in His ministry, finding in them a willingness to believe in His deity that the religious leaders of the day did not. Piastrini composes his work so that the common man and the miracle itself are in the foreground of the painting and thus, in the forefront of the viewer’s mind. Christ’s upraised hand in the iconic pose of blessing shows He not only blesses the feast with His provision, but also the marriage with His presence. 

Whether by a single artist or as a collaboration, The Wedding Feast at Cana celebrates the early 18th-century Roman style. The brilliant coloration of fabrics, the monumental size (almost 6×12 feet!), the gestured poses of multiple figures, and the classical architecture serving as backdrop for the staged event all contribute to a masterful late Roman interpretation of this biblical banquet scene. 

Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member

Object of the Month: April 2020

Christ on the Cross, c. 1610

Branded on reverse with the seal of Antwerp Guild of St. Luke

Oil on panel

Peter Paul Rubens

Flemish, 1577–1640

So they took Jesus, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called The Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. John 19:17,18

Christ on the Cross is one of M&G’s better-known paintings, due in part to the great master who created it. Peter Paul Rubens was born in Seigen, Germany and reared Roman Catholic. At age 12, his family returned to Antwerp, where he received a classical education, typical of the influence of Renaissance Humanism. In the Netherlands, he more than likely apprenticed under the leading artists of the day including Tobias Verhaect, Adam van Noort, and Otto van Veen. By 1598, he obtained the status of a master painter and entered the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke, similar to a union for artists.

To continue his training, he moved to Italy two years later, where exposure to masterworks by artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, and Caravaggio further influenced his developing style. During his eight years on the peninsula, he completed commissions for nobility and churches in both Italy and Spain, spending much of his time serving the Duke of Mantua. By the time he returned to Antwerp in 1609 his renown as an artist preceded him. In his lifetime he filled hundreds of commissions, served as a court painter (in Italy and the Netherlands), diplomat, and ambassador.

As the head of a large studio, he employed as many as three hundred assistants to help him meet the commissions he received from European kings and aristocracy. His workshop included artists who specialized in certain parts of a painting’s composition such as animals, flowers, or physical features. Although, Rubens most likely often painted the hands, feet, or faces of individuals. One of his best-known students is Anthony van Dyck, also represented in M&G’s collection. Rubens’ pageant-like paintings represent the apex of the High Baroque style. He stands as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, baroque artists of the Golden Age. 

According to several specialists, M&G’s painting is recognized as one of Ruben’s better works. Likely, this work was a modello or prototype that would be referenced by an assistant to copy and complete a larger, commissioned version, which may explain some of the unfinished elements such as the absence of the crown of thorns and writing above Christ’s head. 

Additionally, some stylistic features are distinctive to this specific painting including the single cross instead of three and a nail for each appendage. However, Christ’s position with his arms spread upward instead of outward represents a turning point in Christian iconography. In an exhibition catalog, former North Carolina Curator David Steel, explains Rubens’ novel depiction: “Rubens’ Christ suffers heroically, his muscles tense, his fingers clenched, and his arms raised almost straight above his head, thrusting his torso outward. This image emphasizes the physical sacrifice which Christ suffered on behalf of mankind, yet his upward straining, restated in the staves below, suggests his ultimate triumph.” 

Of the three crosses on Golgotha, Christ was in the middle, the place reserved for the most notorious of lawbreakers. Rubens presents Christ, the perfect Son of God, as the singular focus of punishment and suffering, which the Apostle Paul emphasizes in II Corinthians 5:21, “He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” Meditate and marvel at the wonder of God’s crucified and resurrected Son during this Easter season!

John Good, Security Manager and Docent

Object of the Month: March 2020

The Mocking of Christ

Oil on canvas

David de Haen

Dutch, c. 1597-1622

And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!

Matthew 27:29  

Artist David de Haen is the creator of this interesting canvas, which is called a lunette due to its half-moon shape. The painting is a variant copy painted by the artist of the original subject (and same shape) created for the Pietà Chapel in San Pietro de Montorio in Rome. The original lunette was designed to hang above the large altarpiece depicting Christ on The Way to Calvary. The church has multiple small chapels decorated by various prominent Italian painters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; however, two seventeenth-century Dutch painters are also represented, and de Haen is one of them. 

De Haen was born in Amsterdam sometime around 1597 and lived very briefly—just 25 years—with much of his time spent in Rome. Before his death in 1622, he created some notable works including the Entombment, which was destroyed in Berlin during World War II. The commission for the Pieta Chapel was shared with Dirck van Baburen, an artist also represented in M&G’s collection with St. Sebastian Aided by St. Irene. Both de Haen and Baburen were influenced by Caravaggio’s dramatic style. After his time in Rome, Baburen returned home to Utrecht, where he is credited as a key influencer of the Utrecht Caravaggisti—a group of artists following Caravaggio’s well-known trademarks of realistic representations of people and stark contrast of brilliantly lit scenes against darkly shadowed settings.

Dr. Jones Jr., M&G’s founder, acquired the painting for the Collection in 1986 and explained his fortuitous find, “It came up in an auction at Christie’s, and I noticed in the catalog that, when I measured it and checked the proportions, they exactly fit the end of the room (Gallery 5); so I bought it and put it here, although it is later than the other pictures in th[at] small gallery.”  

A closer study of M&G’s painting reveals two men mocking Christ; both are dressed in period clothing of de Haen’s day. Two, less obvious individuals are seen in the background and could possibly represent Pilate and Herod or Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas. The bench on which Christ is seated may allude to the stone slab that will ultimately entomb Him. The stone’s sculptural relief is similar to carvings found on Roman marble and limestone sarcophagi, which sometimes depicted narratives from the person’s life.  

As you enter this Easter season, consider these words written by one of His closest followers, the apostle Peter: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (I Peter 3:18).

John Good, Security Manager and Docent

For Further Study:

Podcast about David de Haen by Dutch expert Dr. Wayne E. Franits

About the artist himself

 

Object of the Month: February 2020

Savonarola Chair

Walnut

Florentine, early 16th-century 

For a mundane piece of furniture with such a simplistic design as to be easily transportable, this folding chair bears the name of a big personality and has allowed countless VIPs to rest and rule simultaneously.

Girolamo Savonarola was a monk and religious reformer in Florence, Italy. He came to the Medici’s city in 1481 to serve at the Dominican monastery and church of San Marco (St. Mark).  He proved to be honest and sincere, and he studied and memorized Scripture, which he applied practically to everyday living for himself and in his teaching. His preaching was passionate and dramatic, and he spoke against corruption in the church and papacy. His influence for morality and reform held popular support for a while, even garnering respect from Lorenzo, the Magnificent. Eventually, however, Savonarola was bitterly opposed by Rome. The pope enforced excommunication, suspension of the sacraments from the faithful, and a ban of trade, which affected Florence’s prosperous economy. Ultimately, the Florentines turned on him too, and Savonarola was sentenced to death. He was hanged and his body burned in the town square in 1498—just seventeen years after his arrival.

Shaped in the frame of an X, this Italian Renaissance Savonarola Chair is one of a few in M&G’s collection. The chair is constructed of walnut and is considered “unusual” by furniture expert Joseph Aronson because it only has five pairs of the thick, pivoted S-shaped strips of wood to hold the hinged seat. Normally, a chair like this might have six, eight, or even twelve pairs. However, these five rung pairs are each held together at the floor with a trestle for sturdiness, and the pairs are joined at the top by heavy arms with carved rosettes. The back of the chair is a modest board, which is attached loosely—easily removed when the chair needs to be folded. 

The chair style has had many names through the centuries and geographical regions including the X-chair, curule, faldstool, scissors chair, Dante chair, and Luther chair. Because of its unique design, the chair traces its roots and practical service back to antiquity. A visual record exists of Egyptian Pharoah Tut’ankhamun sitting in the chair. Roman senators and consuls used a backless version of these portable seats, and in Romanesque and Gothic illuminations the kings of France are perched on it.  

With Italy’s interest in Greek and Roman culture and thought, the Renaissance also revived awareness in the architecture and design from antiquity including furniture. One writer explains the era as “an exhibition of emancipated modern genius fired and illuminated by the masterpieces of the past.” During the awakening, the chair’s status of power continues in the pictorial records of seated bishops, emperors, and popes. Artists also rendered respected religious individuals in the chair such as St. Ambrose and Christ’s mother Mary. 

The Museum of San Marco preserves and features the fifteenth-century Dominican monastery where Fra Angelico was Prior and who decorated many of the monk’s cells and interior spaces with beautiful frescoes. Girolamo Savonarola became the monastery’s Prior in 1491 and occupied three cells that today still display a few of his personal items, including a folding X-chair in his study and similar chairs in other parts of the museum.
However, it wasn’t until nearly 400 years after his torturous death that the chair became associated with Savonarola specifically. In 1878, Florentine sculptor Giovanni Biggi created for the church at San Marco a bronze statue of the monk sitting pensively in an X-shaped chair.

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director

Additional Reading: 

Furniture of the Italian Renaissance, Walter A. Dyer

Michelangelo and Seats of Power, Eric Denker and William E. Wallace

Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from Church History, edited by Mark Sidwell

Anatomy of A Design Classic: The Savonarola Chair

Object of the Month: January 2020


St. Jerome 

Polychrome and giltwood

Unknown Spanish

17th century

The obsessive attention to realistic detail and heightened emotion that characterized many 17th-century paintings is also evident in this dramatic polychrome sculpture.  The adjective polychrome (meaning “many colored”) refers to the color on the wood which enhances the figure’s lifelikeness.  Although this technique can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans, it became particularly popular during the Renaissance. Spanish sculptors who preferred wood to stone became especially adept at using the technique, often adding “gilding and brilliantly imaginative lusters.”  

Jerome, the subject of this work, was born in the fourth century in the small town of Stridon (located in the Balkans today). Initially schooled by his father, he later traveled to Rome where he became proficient in Latin and Greek and excelled in oratory. His later biographical writings lament that this early success encouraged in him an overweening pride and ambition. He continued his education in Trier, a German city on the banks of the Moselle river. It was here that his Christian conscience was reawakened, and as one source notes, “his heart was entirely converted to God.” However, by his own admission his competitive nature and “rambling imagination” continued to trouble him throughout life. He lived in the desert of Chalcis for several years but eventually returned to Rome in 382 to become special secretary to Pope Damasus I. It was Damasus who assigned him the task of creating a revised Latin version of the Bible. The Vulgate, as it is known, was completed in 405. Jerome eventually retired to a monastery in Bethlehem where he died in 420. 

As is typical of the era the creator of this work uses numerous attributes to identify the figure and to illustrate his story.  For example, the books stacked on the rock and supporting the aged Jerome represent his writings (most notably the Vulgate but also his other letters and theological treatises). The skull resting atop two of the books signifies the transience of life or natural death; notice however, that Jerome is turning away from “death” to gaze heavenward–the source of new, eternal life. The brilliant red cloak “embroidered” with fleur de lis seems rather out of place in the wilderness setting. However, in this context it represents Jerome’s office as a cardinal. Although, the position of cardinal did not exist in the early centuries of the church, ecclesiastics of Rome, like Jerome, held the duties that later fell to cardinals.

One other imaginative story connected to Jerome and recorded in The Golden Legend occurs during his retirement in Bethlehem. According to this story, as the monks were going about their daily routine, a wounded lion suddenly appeared. All fled but Jerome. Examining the beast, he discovered and removed a thorn that was deeply embedded in its paw.  In gratitude the lion became Jerome’s constant companion and protector of the monastery. This beautifully carved attribute “rounds out” the base of the sculpture.

Donnalynn Hess, M&G Director of Education