The Allegory of Calumny

In a world where misinformation can spread with the click of a button, the echoes of truth and deceit battle in the court of public opinion. This timeless struggle was vividly captured in the brushstrokes of The Allegory of Calumny, an intriguing 16th-century painting attributed to ‘Botticelli’s’ Workshop. Displayed as part of the exhibition titled ‘ΝοΗΜΑΤΑ’: Personifications and Allegories from Antiquity to Today at the Acropolis Museum, this Renaissance masterwork travelled from the Galleria Colonna in Rome to Greece, offering a unique opportunity to explore the multifaceted world of allegorical art.

Rising above the primary notion of the image, an allegorical painting seeks to uncover hidden, deeper meanings, visualizing abstract concepts with the aspiration of yielding educational outcomes. In this context, allegory emerges as a powerful form of expression that succeeds in cloaking the true meaning, engaging both written words and visual arts in a delicate dance of revelation and concealment. The Allegory of Calumny painting stands out as one of the most instructive examples from antiquity and the Renaissance, embodying the intricate layers of meaning that such symbolic representation can convey. To understand the painting, we first need to travel back to the 4th century BC and seek information on a lost painting by Apelles, then explore the Renaissance painting Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Botticelli, and finally discuss the painting in the Collection of Galleria Colonna in Rome.

The story of the painting Calumny by the legendary 4th century BC ancient Greek artist Apelles, as recounted by the writer Lucian (Luciano di Samosata, 2nd century BC), is a fascinating narrative that has inspired artists and thinkers through the ages. In Lucian’s telling, the celebrated Greek painter Apelles crafted the painting Calumny after becoming the victim of slander himself. The allegorical painting illustrated a tale of injustice and deception, where a blameless man was falsely accused by Calumny (Slander), personified as a beautiful but deceitful woman. Flanked by Malice, and Deceit, and led by Evil, Slander was depicted taking the innocent man before a judge, who was depicted with donkey’s ears, symbolizing his foolishness and inability to discern the truth. Beside the judge stood his advisors, Ignorance and Assumption. Apelles’ work served not only as a personal reflection on his experiences with slander but also as a universal commentary on the nature of truth, justice, and the destructive power of false accusations. Through this allegory, Apelles conveyed a poignant message about the ease with which innocence can be marred by malevolence, a theme that resonates as deeply today as it did in antiquity. http://lucianofsamosata.info/wiki/doku.php?id=home:texts_and_library:essays:slander

Alessandro Filipepi known as Sandro Botticelli, 1445-1510
Calumny of Apelles, c. 1495, Tempera on Wood, 62×91 cm, The Uffizi, Florence, Italy https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/calumny-botticelli

Next, the journey through the Allegory of Calumny takes us into the heart of the Renaissance. It is here that Sandro Botticelli, drawing inspiration from ancient texts that describe Apelles’ work, reimagines this timeless theme through the lens of 15th-century Florence. Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles not only pays homage to the original masterpiece but also enriches it with the nuanced intricacies of Renaissance artistry and thought, inviting us to explore how the allegorical message has been transformed and recontextualized for a new era. Crafted around 1495, this painting emerges at a pivotal moment, marking the transition from the flourishing Laurentian era to the dawn of a Republic under the influence of Girolamo Savonarola. This piece stands as Botticelli’s final foray into the realm of allegorical and mythological themes, showcasing his unparalleled ability to weave intricate narratives and interpret complex ideas through his art.

According to Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli’s painting was a gift to the artist’s friend Antonio Segni, with the following lines of his own composition beneath it: Indicio quemquam ne falso laedere tentent Terrarum reges, parva tabella monet. Huic similem Aegypti regi donavit Apelles Rex fuit et dignus munere, munus eo… Let any kings of the earth beware of attempting to harm anyone falsely; a small tablet warns them. Apelles, the painter, gave a similar one to the king of Egypt; he was both a king deserving of the gift, and the gift was deserving of him. http://www.artist-biography.info/artist/sandro_botticelli/ and https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/calumny-botticelli

Having traversed the historical and artistic landscapes shaped by Apelles’ ancient masterpiece and Botticelli’s Renaissance reinterpretation, our exploration leads us to a final piece: The Allegory of Calumny, created by ‘Botticelli’s’ Workshop and residing in the prestigious Galleria Colonna in Rome. This rendition, exhibited, currently, in the Acropolis Museum in Athens and crafted by an artist whose name has eluded history, embodies the aesthetic values of harmony, proportion, and beauty that defined the period. With a delicate and polished use of line and colour, the unknown artist skillfully captures the viewer’s attention, guiding it across an intricate narrative tableau. The painting, lucking Botticelli’s extravagant architectural ‘fantasy’, depicts the allegorical figures with grace and emotional depth, weaving a rich tapestry of human drama that invites the observer to delve into its complex layers. Furthermore, reaffirms the themes and aesthetic principles of its predecessors, serving as a vivid testament to the enduring legacy of the Calumny motif. It invites us to appreciate the nuanced layers of interpretation and craftsmanship that span centuries, from classical antiquity, through the Renaissance, and into the heart of Italy’s artistic heritage.

For a Student Activity, inspired by the Allegory of Columny painting, please… Check HERE!

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1526/1530–1569
The Tower of Babel, 1563, Oil on Panel, 1,140×1,550 mm, Collection      
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria https://www.bruegel2018.at/en/the-tower-of-babel/

11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward,[a] they found a plain in Shinar[b] and settled there. / 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” / 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” / 8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel[c]—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. This is how the construction of the Tower of Babel is described in Genesis 11:1–9. The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, portrays this description within the context of Netherlandish Art. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%2011%3A1-9&version=NIV

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a prominent Netherlandish Renaissance artist, lived from around 1525 to 1569. Known for his distinctive style and masterful compositions, Bruegel excelled in depicting scenes of everyday life, landscapes, and complex narrative paintings. His works often showcased a keen observation of human behavior and a meticulous attention to detail. The Tower of Babel, The Peasant Wedding, and The Hunters in the Snow are among his notable paintings. Bruegel’s contributions to art extended beyond mere technical skill; he played a significant role in influencing subsequent generations of artists, leaving a lasting impact on the Northern Renaissance.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1526/1530–1569
The Tower of Babel (details), 1563, Oil on Panel, 1,140×1,550 mm, Collection      
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria https://www.bruegel2018.at/en/the-tower-of-babel/

Among the artist’s many notable paintings, The Tower of Babel in Vienna vividly captures the viewer’s imagination. The composition is a bustling panorama of a colossal tower in progress, set against a sprawling landscape that showcases Bruegel’s meticulous attention to detail. The architectural marvel dominates the canvas, with countless workers toiling at various tasks, creating a bustling scene of organized chaos. The painting skillfully combines elements of biblical storytelling with a keen observation of human behavior, portraying the futility of human arrogance and the inevitable consequences of divine intervention. Bruegel’s use of color, texture, and intricate details adds depth and complexity to the narrative, making The Tower of Babel a masterpiece that continues to captivate viewers with its rich storytelling and artistic brilliance.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1526/1530–1569
The Tower of Babel, 1563, Oil on Panel, 1,140×1,550 mm, Collection      
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
The building of the tower of Babel, circa 1568, Oil and Wood, 59.9×74.6 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tower_of_Babel_(Bruegel)

The Renaissance artist painted two versions of the Tower of Babel. One is in Vienna, my favourite, and the other is housed in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, in Rotterdam. Seen side by side, the two paintings may depict the same subject in a similar setting, but there are a number of important differences between the two compositions. The most obvious difference is the size of the Vienna panel, which is almost four times bigger than that of the Tower in Rotterdam – but if we were able to enter the compositions, we would realize that the Tower in Rotterdam is in fact 250 % bigger than the one in Vienna. https://www.bruegel2018.at/en/the-tower-of-babel/

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s two renditions of The Tower of Babel, exhibit subtle yet significant distinctions. In the Vienna painting, the tower commands a central and meticulously detailed position, with a slender design featuring a distinctive spiral staircase. The foreground is bustling with a multitude of workers engaged in various construction tasks, contributing to a sense of organized chaos. On the other hand, the Rotterdam version offers a slightly elevated perspective, showcasing a more massive and block-like tower positioned towards the left side. The architectural structure differs, and the foreground activity, while still busy, is less intricately detailed, allowing for a broader view of the expansive landscape. These variations in composition, architectural design, foreground activity, and atmospheric elements highlight Bruegel’s nuanced approach to depicting the same biblical narrative, providing viewers with unique visual experiences in each rendition.

For a Student Activity, inspired by Pieter Bruelel’s paintings, titled The Tower of Babel, please… Check HERE!

Titian’s Portrait of Isabella d’Este

Titian, 1488-1576
Isabella d’Este, Marquise of Mantua (1474–1539), 1534/36 Oil on Canvas, 101.9 × 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Austria https://tiziansfrauenbild.khm.at/en/

In a well-known passage in De pictura, Alberti describes the principal power of portraits, and even painting in general, as follows: Painting possesses a truly divine power in that it does not only make the absent present, as they say of friendship, but it also represents the dead to the living many centuries later […] Through painting, the faces of the dead go on living for a very long time. Does Titian’s Portrait of Isabella d’Este possess a truly divine power in presenting the true likeness of the Marchioness of Mantua? https://scholarlypublications.universiteitleiden.nl/access/item%3A2889008/view page 125

Titian’s renowned painting of Isabella d’Este, commonly referred to as La Bella (The Beautiful), was created in 1534 when Isabella herself was approximately 60 years old. Notably, the Marchioness of Mantua did not directly sit for Titian’s brush; instead, she dispatched a portrait of herself executed by Francesco Francia (now lost) in 1511 to provide a reference for her likeness. Titian, the accomplished Venetian master, concluded his Portrait in 1536, earning Isabella’s delight with the outcome. In a letter to the Mantuan ambassador in Venice, she acknowledged… The portrait by Titian’s hand captures such a pleasing essence that we are prompted to question whether, during the age he depicts us, we ever possessed the beauty it encapsulates.

Titian’s Portrait of Isabella d’Este is currently housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It portrays Isabella as a young and exquisite woman, dressed in elegant attire, with a sophisticated hairstyle and adorned with jewels. The portrait may not be an accurate portrayal of Isabella turning sixty, but it effectively captures the regal poise and demeanor that defined the Marchioness of Mantua.

Titian, 1488-1576
Isabella d’Este, Marquise of Mantua (detail), 1534/36, Oil on Canvas, 101.9 × 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Austria https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/high-ren-florence-rome/late-renaissance-venice/a/titian-isabella-deste-isabella-in-black
Titian, 1488-1576
Isabella d’Este, Marquise of Mantua (detail), 1534/36, Oil on Canvas, 101.9 × 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Austria https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/high-ren-florence-rome/late-renaissance-venice/a/titian-isabella-deste-isabella-in-black

In the painting, Isabella is portrayed in a three-quarter profile, with her gaze slightly averted from the viewer. She is adorned in a sumptuous gown that combines shades of blue and black, intricately embellished with the fantasie dei vinci pattern, which serves as a testament to her position as a prominent noblewoman of her era. The hues of her attire are both dark and vivid, and the fashionable accessories that Isabella wears, pearl earrings and a fur shawl gracefully draped over her shoulder, have been meticulously rendered. These details not only reflect Isabella’s significance but also highlight Titian’s expertise in capturing textures and fabrics. https://scholarlypublications.universiteitleiden.nl/access/item%3A2889008/view pp.22-23

Titian, 1488-1576
Isabella d’Este, Marquise of Mantua (detail), 1534/36, Oil on Canvas, 101.9 × 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Austria https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/high-ren-florence-rome/late-renaissance-venice/a/titian-isabella-deste-isabella-in-black

1 am particularly drawn to the elegant arrangement of Isabella’s hair. The Marchioness wears a captivating bulbous headdress featuring a sizable brooch adorned with eight pearls encircling a gem. Isabella was a famous fashionista. The bulbous headdress (known as zazara at the time) was designed by Isabella herself, and the Titian painting served her own trendsetting fashion put on display. What a magnificent way to emphasize her majestic presence!

Isabella’s expression is both serene and confident, befitting her reputation as a powerful and influential figure. Her gaze conveys a sense of introspection and sophistication, while the faint hint of a smile gracing her lips adds an air of subtle allure. The play of light and shadow in the painting adds depth and dimension to Isabella’s features, enhancing the overall realism of the portrait. Titian’s skillful use of chiaroscuro, a technique that contrasts light and dark tones, gives the portrait a lifelike quality and a sense of depth.

The background of the painting is relatively simple, allowing the focus to remain on Isabella’s presence and personality, her elegance, grace, and authority. Through meticulous attention to detail, refined use of color and light, and a keen understanding of portraiture, Titian created a lasting image that captures the essence of Isabella’s character and her place in history.

For a PowerPoint, titled 9 Portraits of Isabella d’Este, please… Check HERE!… Check HERE!

An Interesting Video about Isabella d’Este the Marchioness of Mantua during Early Renaissance Italy by World History Encyclopedia (8:09 min)

The Choice of Heracles by Annibale Carracci

Annibale Carracci, 1560-1609
The Choice of Heracles, 1596, Oil on Canvas, 273 x 167 cm, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy
https://el.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/%CE%91%CF%81%CF%87%CE%B5%CE%AF%CE%BF:Annibale_Carracci_-_The_Choice_of_Heracles_-_WGA4416.jpg

The Choice of Heracles by Annibale Carracci is probably loosely inspired by Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana (6.10)… You have seen in picture-books the representation of Heracles by Prodicus; in it Heracles is represented as a youth, who has not yet chosen the life he will lead; and vice and virtue stand in each side of him plucking his garments and trying to draw him to themselves. Vice is adorned with gold and necklaces and with purple raiment, and her cheeks are painted and her hair delicately plaited and her eyes underlined with henna; and she also wears golden slippers, for she is pictured strutting about in these; but virtue in the picture resembles a woman worn out with toil, with a pinched look; and she has chosen for her adornment rough squalor, and she goes without shoes and in the plainest of raiment, and she would have appeared naked if she had not too much regard for her feminine decency. Interesting and revealing to say the least! The ancient Greek myth was invented by the sophist Prodico and perhaps suggested to Annibale Carracci by Fulvio Orsini, the librarian of the Farnese family. Interesting and revealing to say the least! https://www.livius.org/sources/content/philostratus-life-of-apollonius/philostratus-life-of-apollonius-6.6-10/

A young, thoughtful Heracles dominates the center of an extremely busy composition. He is depicted in heroic nudity, resting on his club contemplating… whether he will approach life by the path of virtue or the path of vice… And there, writes Xenophon,  appeared two women of great stature making towards him. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Xen.%20Mem.%202.1&lang=original and https://cal.byu.edu/macfarlane/OGCMA/HeraclesChoice1.0019_Carracci.htm

A young, thoughtful Heracles dominates the center of an extremely busy composition. He is depicted in heroic nudity, resting on his club contemplating… whether he will approach life by the path of virtue or the path of vice… And there, writes Xenophon,  appeared two women of great stature making towards him. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Xen.%20Mem.%202.1&lang=original and https://cal.byu.edu/macfarlane/OGCMA/HeraclesChoice1.0019_Carracci.htm

Annibale Carracci, 1560-1609
The Choice of Heracles, 1596, Oil on Canvas, 273 x 167 cm, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy
https://artpaintingartist.org/the-choice-of-heracles-by-annibale-carracci/

On Heracles’s left side, Carracci presents a striking woman, the personification of Pleasure, standing in front of a lush landscape, green, luxuriant, and blossoming. She gestures to play cards, musical instruments, and theatrical masks. She entices him with her presence, the symbols of carnal pleasures, and her words… Heracles, I see that you are in doubt about which path to take toward life. Make me your friend; follow me, and I will lead you along the pleasantest and easiest road. You shall taste all the sweets of life; and hardship you shall never know. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Xen.%20Mem.%202.1&lang=original

On Heracles’s right side, Carracci painted the personification of Virtue, who according to Xenophon, addressed young Heracles in an exemplary way… I, too, am come to you, Heracles: I know your parents and I have taken note of your character during the time of your education. Therefore I hope that, if you take the road that leads to me, you will turn out a right good doer of high and noble deeds, and I shall be yet more highly honoured and more illustrious for the blessings I bestow. But I will not deceive you by a pleasant prelude: I will rather tell you truly the things that are, as the gods have ordained them. [28] For of all things good and fair, the gods give nothing to man without toil and effort. If you want the favour of the gods, you must worship the gods: if you desire the love of friends, you must do good to your friends: if you covet honour from a city, you must aid that city: if you are fain to win the admiration of all Hellas for virtue, you must strive to do good to Hellas: if you want land to yield you fruits in abundance, you must cultivate that land: if you are resolved to get wealth from flocks, you must care for those flocks: if you essay to grow great through war and want power to liberate your friends and subdue your foes, you must learn the arts of war from those who know them and must practice their right use: and if you want your body to be strong, you must accustom your body to be the servant of your mind, and train it with toil and sweat.’ [29]

Carracci’s personification of Virtue is presented as a young, unpretentious woman, dressed in blue and red. She stands in front of an arid landscape, and points at the winding road up a mountain plateau, where the winged Pegasus, emblem of the Farnese family, awaits Heracles to guide him to Mount Olympus. A life of Virtue, however, does not come without fame and distinction. In the lower-left corner, Carracci painted a poet crowned in laurels looking up to Virtue and Heracles, ready to immortalize the Hero’s accomplishments and assure him great renown.

Annibale Carracci, 1560-1609
Camerino Farnese (the ceiling), 1596, 4.8×9.4m, Private Room of Cardinal Oduardo Farnese. Palazzo Farnese, Rome, Italy
https://it.ambafrance.org/Camerino-d-Ercole

The Choice of Heracles by Annibale Carracci once graced the center of the ceiling in a small room known as the Camerino di Ercole in the Farnese Palace in Rome. The room’s iconography was determined by the palace’s librarian, Fulvio Orsini, who knew the fifth-century Ancient Greek parable involving HerculesCardinal Odoardo Farnese selected Annibale to execute the Camerino’s decor, which the artist completed between 1595–97. In 1662  the Carracci’s canvas was replaced by a copy, still in place, underwent various movements, and then became part of the “Cabinet of obscene paintings” of the Royal Bourbon Museum. Today, it is exhibited in Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/hercules-at-the-crossroads-annibale-carracci/EwGkF5dbmWVeHw and https://capodimonte.cultura.gov.it/oggi-e-il-compleanno-di-annibale-carracci/

For a Student Activity inspired by Annibale Carracci’s The Choice of Heracles, please… Check HERE!

Virgin and Child

Attributed to Simon Bening, 1483/84–1561
Virgin and Child, ca. 1520, Oil on wood, 25.4 x 21 cm, the MET, NY, USA
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436103

Lady, Our Lady, writes Vittoria Collona (Sonnet 51), did you not press and pour / into your milk, like essential oils wrung, / the whole of you, like living breath into lung, / to nourish the whole of your divine son? Or / did his living fire scorch your holy breast, and more, / breaking into pure light and pure song / the pieces of you like a universe born? / Who can understand it, how spirit tore / into the material world like lightning, / did not burn but lit it up in a flash / that lasted through the long night, whitening / like snow the dark, dark world? In the flesh / he came and defied every logic, not frightening / but consoling like the evening’s red flush… and I think of a lovely painting of the Virgin and Child in the Metropolitan Museum attributed to Simon Bening. https://aleteia.org/2022/08/14/is-this-the-most-beautiful-sonnet-ever-written-for-mary/

Simon Bening, 1483 – 1561
Self-portrait of Simon Bening, aged 75, 1558, tempera on parchment, 8.6×5.7 cm, the MET, NY, USA
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/459254

Simon Bening is a master manuscript illuminator. Hailed by Portuguese art critic and artist, Francisco da Hollanda as the greatest master of illumination in all of Europe, Simon Bening was one of the most celebrated painters of Flanders in the 1500s. He served powerful aristocrats and worked for a group of international royal patrons including Emperor Charles V and Don Fernando, the Infante of Portugal. He is famous for creating some of the finest illuminated Books of Hours in the history of art. His specialty was painting, in the Flemish tradition, poetic landscape vistashttps://www.getty.edu/art/collection/person/103JTN

The painting of the Virgin and Child in the Metropolitan Museum attributed to Simon Bening exhibits the painter’s interest in artistic exploration. According to the Museum experts, the artist of the Virgin and Child was heavily inspired by Gerard David’s painting depicting the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Both paintings present the Virgin as the very model of a nurturing mother. The context is, however, different. David’s painting refers to the Gospels (Matthew 2:13-14) and the arduous journey of the Family to Egypt. Bening, if the Virgin and Child painting is indeed his, presents a ‘genre’ scene of a nurturing mother and child. From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 308-313 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/From_Van_Eyck_to_Bruegel_Early_Netherlandish_Painting_in_The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art

Attributed to Simon Bening, 1483/84–1561
Virgin and Child, ca. 1520, Oil on wood, 25.4 x 21 cm, the MET, NY, USA
Gerard David, ca. 1455–1523
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, ca. 1512–15, Oil on wood, 53.3 × 39.8 cm, the MET, NY, USA https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436103 and https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436101

The MET painting of the Virgin and Child is typical of the Flemish tradition of ‘hidden’ symbolisms. Mary, for example, sits on the wall of an enclosed garden, the Hortus Conclusus, a symbol of her purity, which refers to the Garden of Eden of the Old Testament. Mint, present, in abundance, behind Mary, is a plant that grows wild in Palestine and is mentioned by Jesus in His discourse with the Pharisees. Bening uses it to further stress the virtue of Mary, as mint is a plant with healing and cleansing properties. The violets, at the lower part of the garden wall, are used by the artist as a sign of Mary’s humility. She is, after all, the Viola Odorata, meaning Our Lady of Modesty. Very important to underline is the stream of milk that flows from the Virgin’s breast to the lips of the Child, who turns to the viewer, spoon in hand, to directly communicate the notion of physical and spiritual nourishment. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/From_Van_Eyck_to_Bruegel_Early_Netherlandish_Painting_in_The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art page 312

Simon Bening was famous for his poetic landscape vistas. His manuscript illuminations, like the pages of the Twelve Months in the Book of Golf we have been examining, reveal various aspects of his innovative character. The MET painting Virgin and Child favors a landscape that recedes into the far distance, large trees with highlighted edges, and the inclusion of a vignette… a small house surrounded by trees near the edge of a pond. This is a wonderful example of early sixteenth-century art for all to enjoy! https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/From_Van_Eyck_to_Bruegel_Early_Netherlandish_Painting_in_The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art page 312

For a Student Activity, please… Check HERE!

Giorgone’s Madonna Cook

Giorgone, 1477/78 or 1473/74 – 1510
Virgin and Child called Madonna Cook, circa 1500, oil on wood, 68 x 48,1 cm,  private collection on deposit at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany https://www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com/en/giovanni-bellini

While in Paris, visiting the Exhibition GIOVANNI BELLINI Influences croisées (March 3 to July 17, 2023) at the Jacquemart-André Museum, I came upon a painting, Giorgone’s Madonna Cook, I did not know. The painting made an entirely unexpected impression on me. It is part of a private collection, on deposit at the Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin, and however hard I searched (on the Internet), little did I find. https://www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com/en/giovanni-bellini

Giorgone, 1477/78 or 1473/74 – 1510
Virgin and Child called Madonna Cook, circa 1500, oil on wood, 68 x 48,1 cm,  private collection on deposit at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany (my amateurish attempt at the photography of Giorgione’s Painting as presented in the Exhibition GIOVANNI BELLINI Influences Croisées (March 3 to July 17, 2023) at the Jacquemart-André Museum)

Giorgio Barbarelli, universally known as Giorgione (Castelfranco Veneto, 1478-Venezia, 1510), is one of the most enigmatic painters of the Renaissance. Very little is known about Giorgione’s early life and training, but he is believed to have studied, along with Titian, with the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, who was a prominent figure in the Renaissance art scene. Unfortunately, Giorgione’s life and career were cut short by his premature death at the age of 33, probably from the plague. Despite his short career, he had a significant influence on the development of the Venetian school of painting, and his legacy continues to inspire and intrigue art lovers and scholars to this day.

A major innovator, Giorgione is acclaimed as the father of modern Venetian painting of the 16th century. As a student of Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione’s style in painting was characterized by his use of atmospheric effects, delicate modeling, and a subdued color palette. Influenced by Leonardo, the young Venetian artist is also known for his mastery of sfumato, a technique in which colours are blended together in such a way that they appear to merge seamlessly, creating a soft, hazy effect. Finally, paintings by Flemish artists motivated Giorgone to further explore the application of multiple thin layers of paint, so as to give a new dimension to light and colour. https://archive.org/details/giorgionemytheni0000unse/page/n3/mode/2up

What I find appealing is how Giorgone often painted landscapes or cityscapes as backdrops to his compositions, using them to create a sense of depth and space. The landscape scene in his Virgin and Child called Madonna Cook exhibited at the Jacquemart-André, caught my attention. It looks sparse and unfinished(?), yet a tower, a ‘leitmotiv’ in his landscape repertoire, is prominently displayed.

The Tempest, circa 1508, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
The Holy Family, probably c. 1500, Samuel H. Kress Collection
Castelfranco Madonna, c. 1503/04, Duomo of Castelfranco, Veneto
Adoration of the Shepherds, c. 1500, NGA, Washington DC
Virgin and Child called Madonna Cook, circa 1500, Private Collection

Legend has it that Giorgone was not just a handsome, amorous man, and an innovative painter, but a talented musician who, as Vasari wrote, “sang divinely” and played the lute. He was also likely a large man, as Giorgione translates to “Big George.” For today’s BLOG POST allow me to quote and remember  Giorgio Vasari who describes the life and artistic achievements of the famous Venetian. The first paragraph of Vasari’s presentation to Giorgione is a small compensation for the little information I can provide for the so-called Madonna Cook. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-four-paintings-renaissance-master-changed-course-art and http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/gutenberg/vasarilives4.htm#Page_107

At the same time when Florence was acquiring such fame by reason of the works of Leonardo, no little adornment was conferred on Venice by the talent and excellence of one of her citizens, who surpassed by a great measure not only the Bellini, whom the Venetians held in such esteem, but also every other master who had painted up to that time in that city. This was Giorgio, who was born at Castelfranco in the territory of Treviso, in the year 1478, when the Doge was Giovanni Mozzenigo, brother of Doge Piero. In time, from the nature of his person and from the greatness of his mind, Giorgio came to be called Giorgione; and although he was born from very humble stock, nevertheless he was not otherwise than gentle and of good breeding throughout his whole life. He was brought up in Venice, and took unceasing delight in the joys of love; and the sound of the lute gave him marvellous pleasure, so that in his day he played and sang so divinely that he was often employed for that purpose at various musical assemblies and gatherings of noble persons. He studied drawing, and found it greatly to his taste; and in this nature favoured him so highly, that he, having become enamoured of her beauties, would never represent anything in his works without copying it from life; and so much was he her slave, imitating her continuously, that he acquired the name not only of having surpassed Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, but also of being the rival of the masters who were working in Tuscany and who were the creators of the modern manner. Giorgione had seen some things by the hand of Leonardo with a beautiful gradation of colours, and with extraordinary relief, effected, as has been related, by means of dark shadows; and this manner pleased him so much [Pg 110] that he was forever studying it as long as he lived, and in oil-painting he imitated it greatly. Taking pleasure in the delights of good work, he was ever selecting, for putting into his pictures, the greatest beauty and the greatest variety that he could find. And nature gave him a spirit so benign, and with this, both in oil-painting and in fresco, he made certain living forms and other things so soft, so well harmonized, and so well blended in the shadows, that many of the excellent masters of his time were forced to confess that he had been born to infuse spirit into figures and to counterfeit the freshness of living flesh better than any other painter, not only in Venice, but throughout the whole world… http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/gutenberg/vasarilives4.htm#Page_107

For a Student Activity, inspired by Giorgone’s Madonna Cook, please… Check HERE!

The Veil of Saint Veronica

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), 1541 – 1614
The Veil of Saint Veronica, the early 1580s, Oil on Canvas, 51 × 66 cm, Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, Athens, Greece
https://goulandris.gr/en/artwork/el-greco-the-holy-face

VII And a certain woman named Bernice (or Beronikē, meaning in Greek “bearer of victory”) (Veronica Lat.) crying out from afar off said: I had an issue of blood and touched the hem of his garment, and the flowing of my blood was stayed which I had twelve years. The Jews say: We have a law that a woman shall not come to give testimony… Part VII of the Apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate, is considered to be the first reference to the story of a woman called Veronica related to the Passion of Christ. This is where and how the legend of the Veil of Saint Veronica starts… https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Apocryphal_New_Testament_(1924)/Passion_Gospels/The_Gospel_of_Nicodemus

Hundreds of years later… The Estoire del Saint Graal, part of a larger work called the Lancelot-Grail or Vulgate Cycle, attributed to Robert de Boron, and written circa 1230, tells us the famous story of Veronica’s Veil as we know it today. My lord, says Veronica, on the day that the Holy Prophet was led away to be crucified, I passed before Him carrying a piece of cloth to sell. He called me and beseeched me to lend Him this cloth to wipe His face, which was dripping with sweat. After He had done so, I folded the cloth and took it home. And when I unfolded it, I found Jesus’ face as clear as if it had been painted on a wall. Since then I have kept it, and no matter how sick I have been, once I looked at it, I was completely healed. https://www.academia.edu/12112461/St_Veronica_Evolution_of_a_Sacred_Legend

Thus… the legend of Veronica’s Veil, the Acheiropoietos Icon of Christ’s image on a simple piece of cloth, became a great source of inspiration for many distinguished artists of the Renaissance like Memling, Bosch, Pontormo, and Dürer. It has been depicted as a symbol of piety, devotion, and faith. The imprint of Jesus’ face on the cloth is seen as a testament to his suffering and a reminder of his sacrifice on the cross. The veil has also been used as a symbol of comfort and solace, particularly for those who are suffering or in need of healing. It has also been seen as a reminder of Jesus’ love and compassion, and as a symbol of hope in the face of adversity. When Greco decided in 1577 to approach the subject of Veronica’s Veil, he joined an already well-established tradition in the Catholic iconography. https://goulandris.gr/en/artwork/el-greco-the-holy-face

Whether alone or in collaboration with apprentices in his studio, Domenikos Theotokopoulos carried out several paintings on this subject. In some of them, he focused merely on Christ, while in others he represented the veil as well. The painting in the Museo de Santa Cruz, in Toledo, includes the portrait of Saint Veronica as well. https://goulandris.gr/en/artwork/el-greco-the-holy-face

The painting of The Veil of Saint Veronica in the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation in Athens, is, in my humble opinion, a version realized δια χειρός Domenikos Theotokopoulos.  

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), 1541 – 1614
The Veil of Saint Veronica (detail), the early 1580s, Oil on Canvas, 51 × 66 cm, Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, Athens, Greece
https://goulandris.gr/en/artwork/el-greco-the-holy-face

The face of Christ looks tranquil, genteel, and collected. It appears to float on the moving surface of the silken Veil, bathed in light that ‘shines’ from within, rather than an external source. The composition, developed in three successive planes, is composed yet dramatic, as Christ’s face is placed first, on the white surface of the Veil, and then, on the bleak, black background of the painting. 

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), 1541 – 1614
The Veil of Saint Veronica (detail), the early 1580s, Oil on Canvas, 51 × 66 cm, Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, Athens, Greece
https://goulandris.gr/en/artwork/el-greco-the-holy-face

The Goulandris painting of Veronica’s Veil summarizes El Greco’s entire aesthetic journey. Emotionless and serene, with hollow cheeks, a long and narrow face, and …almond-shaped eyes, Greco’s painting communicates a sense of nobility and grace. The wounds caused on his head by the crown of thorns do not affect Him at all. The single drop of blood running down in the middle of His forehead offers no pain… it symbolizes the route to Calvary, His immortality… and humanity’s salvation… https://goulandris.gr/en/artwork/el-greco-the-holy-face

Καλή Ανάσταση!

For a PowerPoint on El Greco’s rendering of the theme of The Veil of Saint Veronica, please… Check HERE!

Holy Thursday – Μεγάλη Πέμπτη

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), 1541 – 1614
The Agony in the Garden, c. 1590, oil on canvas, 104 x 117 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, USA https://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/g/greco_el/index.html

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”  He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Luke 22:39-46 Holy Thursday – Μεγάλη Πέμπτη) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2022&version=NIV

Domenikos Theotokopoulos was a Cretan Greek, born at Handaka-Candia, present-day Herakleion, part, at the time, of the thriving Republic of Venice. He was young, talented, and ambitious, well-versed in the Creto-Byzantine style of painting, and eager to establish himself among the greatest of his time! By 1567/8 Theotokopoulos traveled to Venice, by 1570, he was in Rome, by 1576 he relocated to Spain, and in 1577 the artist settled in Toledo where he found his spiritual home and remained for the rest of his life. He died on the 7th of April 1614, admired for his unique fluid style, temperamental character, and humanist education. One of his friends and admirers, Hortensio Félix Paravicino y Arteaga (1580-1633) the Spanish poet, preacher, and a member of the Trinitarian Order, wrote for the artist “O Greek divine! We wonder not that in thy works / The imagery surpasses actual being.” Paravicino also wrote, foreseeing Theotokopoulos’s legacy “Future generations will admire his strange genius, but for centuries he will not be imitated.” http://www.nccsc.net/essays/spanish-style 

The Agony in the Garden is a mature El Greco painting circa 1590, created in Toledo. The artist, known for his unique style that combined elements of Renaissance and Byzantine art, depicts the biblical scene of Jesus’ agony (in Greek, agonia, “agony”) in the Garden of Gethsemane, located on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion. Christ prays to God for strength and comfort. He is depicted as a tall and slender figure, surrounded by his disciples who are asleep. He is shown with his head raised to heaven, as he prays in a state of intense emotion and expressive distress. El Greco gives visual form to Matthew 26:42, My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done. http://emuseum.toledomuseum.org/objects/54729/the-agony-in-the-garden

My thoughts on why this is a very ‘special,’ one of my favourites, Theotokopoulos paintings:

The composition is unique! El Greco’s figures and landscape are isolated in individual pockets of ambiguous, shallow space. There are four such areas, the sleeping disciples, the imposing Angel to the left, the approaching Roman soldiers to the right, and Christ in the middle, depicted kneeling, praying… in agony. The contrast between the individual pockets of shallow space creates a sense of emotional tension, with Jesus in a state of intense distress and the disciples in peaceful slumber. http://emuseum.toledomuseum.org/objects/54729/the-agony-in-the-garden

El Greco’s use of light and color is one of the most distinctive features of his work. In The Agony in the Garden, the intense light source illuminates Jesus and creates a strong contrast with the dark background, emphasizing his centrality and importance. The use of warm, golden tones adds to the emotional impact of the scene.

The figures in the painting are depicted with elongated forms, a hallmark of El Greco’s style. The two larger figures in the composition, Christ in the middle and the Angel of Compassion and Consolation to the left, facing each other, contribute to the emotional and spiritual intensity of the scene and highlight the dramatic nature of Jesus’ anguish.

The Agony in the Garden is considered one of El Greco’s most important works and is considered a masterpiece of Spanish Renaissance art. It is widely regarded as one of the most powerful and expressive religious paintings of the period and continues to be widely admired and studied by art enthusiasts and scholars today.

For a Student Activity on Holy Thursday – Μεγάλη Πέμπτη, please… Check HERE!

Holy Monday – Μεγάλη Δευτέρα

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), 1541 – 1614
Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, c. 1570-75, oil on canvas, 115.57×147.32 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN, USA https://collections.artsmia.org/art/278/christ-driving-the-money-changers-from-the-temple-el-greco

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.  And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. (Mark 11:15-19 Holy Monday – Μεγάλη Δευτέρα) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark%2011&version=NIV

El Greco’s painting of Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts presents a dramatic scene from the New Testament, told in all the Gospels. According to the Gospels, Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem and became angered by the commercial activities taking place there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and drove them out, accusing them of turning the temple into a marketplace. This scene was rarely painted in its own right before the Reformation. After the Council of Trent, it gained a new significance and for the Catholics, the image came to symbolize the purification of the Church through internal reform. https://collections.artsmia.org/art/278/christ-driving-the-money-changers-from-the-temple-el-greco

The Minneapolis painting is known for its powerful composition, dynamic figures, and vibrant colors. It was probably executed in Rome, in about 1570/1575. Set in a grand architectural interior, the scene reflects El Greco’s experiments with Italian linear perspective and break from the Byzantine style he employed in the Greek icons painted, while in Crete, in his youth. The composition seems less crowded, and the figures, distorted, but fuller and more clearly articulated, dominate the spatial setting. The lines are bold, the brushstrokes are expressive, and the colours are intense and pulsating. The use of light and shadow is masterful, casting a theatrical glow over the scene, highlighting the central figure of Christ, and adding to the sense of drama. Overall, the painting is a powerful and emotive depiction of this moment in the life of Jesus. https://collections.artsmia.org/art/278/christ-driving-the-money-changers-from-the-temple-el-greco

Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple is a theme that interested El Greco throughout his career. He painted this subject at least five times. What distinguishes the Minneapolis version is the inclusion of four male portrait heads in the lower-right corner of the painting. It turns out that these four men are famous artists whose lives and work inspired El Greco. They are four major figures in the arts during the Renaissance, and they are, from the left: Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio, and Raphael.

For Holy Monday – Μεγάλη Δευτέρα and a PowerPoint of all five versions of El Greco’s painting of Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, please… Check HERE!

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), 1541 – 1614
Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (Detail), c. 1570-75, oil on canvas, 115.57×147.32 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN, USA https://www.flickr.com/photos/museumnerd/5207337688

Eros and the Bee

Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1472-1553
Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey, 1530, Oil on Panel, 38 x 58 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark
https://open.smk.dk/artwork/image/KMSsp719

A wicked bee once filching Eros stung, / As from hive unto hive the sly god flew. / Looting the flower-sweet honeycombs among; / With finger-tips all pierced he cried and blew     /    
His hand, and stamped upon the ground with pain, / And vaulted in the air; to Aphrodite / Sadly he came commencing to complain, / “Although the bee is small his wound is mighty.”     /     Then said his mother smiling, “Are you not / A creature small just like the bee, I pray? / But ne’ertheless it must not be forgot— / The cruel wounds you deal—how great are they!”
Idyll XIX, Eros, and the Bee, attributed to the ancient Greek Poet Theocritus of the 3rd century BC, is the source of inspiration for a number of paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder depicting an alluring Venus, and Eros, a stolen piece of honeycomb in hand, stung by Bees.  My favourite version, in the SMK Art Museum in Denmark, is expecting us to probe and explore… http://nicholasjv.blogspot.com/2009/11/sweetness-of-honey-and-sting-of-bees.html

Venus with Cupid as a honey thief was probably one of the most successful mythology-inspired compositions created by the German artist of the Renaissance period Lucas Cranach the Elder. Scholars suggest there are twenty versions of the same theme, dated between 1527 and 1545, painted by the artist, his workshop, or followers of his theme and style.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1472-1553
Cupid complaining to Venus, c. 1526–27, Oil on Panel, 81.3×54.6 cm, National Gallery, London, UK
Venus and Cupid as Honey Thief, 1527, on beech wood, 83×58.2 cm, Güstrow Castle, Germany
Venus and Cupid, the Honey Thief, 1529, Oil and Tempera on Beech Wood, 38.1×23.5 cm, Cook collection, National Gallery, London UK
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid_complaining_to_Venus
Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1472-1553
Venus and Cupid, 1531, Oil on Panel, 51×35 cm, Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse, France
Venus and Cupid, the Honey Thief, circa 1537, Oil on Lime Panel, 50.1×34.4 cm,
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany
Venus with Cupid as a Honey Thief against a Black Background, 1537, Oil on Lime Panel, 175.4×66.3 cm, Bavarian State Painting Collections, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, Germany
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid_complaining_to_Venus

These paintings depict the same two figures, Venus, the Greek Goddess of beauty and love in glorious nudity, and her son, Eros, god of love as well, holding a stolen piece of honeycomb, stung by bees, and in obvious pain. My favourite painting of Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey is exhibited in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Denmark and combines all the important elements of the composition.

In the upper, left corner of the painting in Denmark, a sign with a reference to Idyll XIX of Theocritus clearly explains the theme. “As Cupid was stealing honey from the hive / A bee stung the thief on the finger / And so do we seek transitory and dangerous pleasures. / That are mixed with sadness and bring us pain.” The wording does not reproduce Theocritus’ exact Greek text, but rather a Latin epigram based on the poem. Painted on a cream-coloured ‘panel’ on the upper left side of the painting, the epigram is related to the work of the great German humanist Philipp Melanchthon. with whom Cranach was closely connected in producing illustrations for Luther’s Bible translation. (A short but comprehensive presentation of Philipp Melanchthon’s contribution to Humanism in Germany… Melanchthon: A German Humanist by A. Pelzer Wagener, The Classical Weekly, Vol. 22, No. 20 (Mar. 25, 1929), pp. 155-160 (6 pages). I particularly like his point of view that Greek and Latin should be studied side by side by all who sought to grasp the substance of the involved rather than its shadow”. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4389299?read-now=1&seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents) https://open.smk.dk/artwork/image/KMSsp719

Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1472-1553
Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey (Detail), 1530, Oil on Panel, 38 x 58 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark
https://open.smk.dk/artwork/image/KMSsp719
Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1472-1553
Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey (Detail), 1530, Oil on Panel, 38 x 58 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark
https://open.smk.dk/artwork/image/KMSsp719

Examining Cranach’s painting at SMK, depicting Venus, Eros, and the landscape that surrounds them, I see, compared to the rest of Cranach’s paintings of the same theme. elegance and grace, an understated sense of humor, and a subtle mood of morality. The Landscape, in a true Norther European Renaissance tradition, is glorious, lush, and detailed. It invites you to examine the luxurious foliage, the city reflections on the depicted water, and the travelers’ mannerisms. Eros, a blond toddler with blue wings, ever so charming, is displaying his surprise and pain with gusto. Venus looks at the viewer, and laughs, explaining to him that the effect is comparable to the wounds he himself inflicts on all those struck by his arrows. What a painting to consider Love, Euphoria, and Heartache!

For a Student Activity, please… Check HERE!

Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1472-1553
Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey (Detail), 1530, Oil on Panel, 38 x 58 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark
https://open.smk.dk/artwork/image/KMSsp719