Early Christian Funerary Paintings

Tomb Painting of a Bird (Lark?), early 5th century, fresco painting,  Museum for Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki (Photo: Makis Skiatharesis, ΜΒΠ archive)

“A Work of Art which did not begin in Emotion is not Art” Paul Cezanne said… and I think of him every time I visit Room 3, “From the Elysian Fields to the Christian Paradise” in the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, to admire the exhibited Early Christian Funerary Paintings.    http://mbp.gr/en/room-3-elysian-fields-christian-paradise

Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki

Visiting the Thessaloniki Museum of Byzantine Culture is a true cultural experience. For years now, I have visited it with my Pinewood students, trying to instil upon them the fine essence of Byzantine art and culture. The actual Museum building comes to my assistance… every time!  In 1989, the Museum’s architect, Kyriakos Krokos, wrote: I wanted a space within which movement would create a feeling of freedom, stirring up the senses, and where the exhibit would be a surprise within the movement. Walking through the Museum with my students, one surprise surpasses the other. The floor and wall mosaics in the first Early Christian Period Room, attract everybody’s attention, the Byzantine tunics with their fine embroideries are eye-catching, the icons and the intricately illuminated manuscript in the Middle Byzantine Period Room are definitely noticed. Finally, as we are about to leave, one last surprise: a beautiful Post-Byzantine golden eikonostaasi, one last startling work of art to ponder. After each visit, my students, pencils, notebooks and cameras, in hand, surprised and dazzled, come one step closer to understanding our Byzantine heritage! What more can I ask…    

Grade 6 students eploring the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, photographed by Kostas Papantoniou

When I visit the Museum of Byzantine Culture alone and am in a mood, I cannot fully describe, my steps take me directly to Room 3: “From the Elysian Fields to the Christian Paradise.” Dimly lit, usually very quiet, full of elusive treasures to discover, this is my place, the Room, I love…

Room 3: “From the Elysian Fields to the Christian Paradise” was the first Exhibition Room in the Museum to open, back on the 29th of March 1997. It was the result of an EU funded Research Program,  titled “The Transformation of the Roman World AD 400-900.” As the title of the Exhibition Room connotates, this is an area dedicated to afterlife during Late Antiquity. All exhibited items come from tombs in cemeteries excavated outside the Walls of Thessaloniki. They consist of funerary gifts, inscriptions, and items of worship of the dead. According to the Museum experts “The exhibit is complete with a series of extremely rare and unique funerary paintings. These illustrate in an exceptional way the transition from the Late Antiquity concept of the afterlife into a heavenly place of material prosperity, along with the shift from the funerary customs and decoration of Antiquity that still survives to the final triumph of the Cross with the emergence of the New Religion and the establishment of the belief for the Last Judgment and the Resurrection of the Dead.” http://mbp.gr/en/room-3-elysian-fields-christian-paradise

View of Room 3: “From the Elysian Fields to the Christian Paradise” in the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki (Photo: ΜΒΠ archive)

It is these unique funerary paintings I seek out every time I visit my favourite Museum in Thessaloniki. They carry Hellenistic Naturalism and Roman Verism, traditional Late Antique or novel Christian subject matter, higher or poorer quality craftsmanship… all together, these amazing frescoes transfer me to an exciting world of unwavering changes and exciting cultural developments… the world of the Early Christian period and the artistic milieu of Thessaloniki, a city worth visiting!

Articles you might find interesting about Early Christian Funerary Paintings in Thessaloniki:    https://www.academia.edu/24852527/Iconographic_Programs_of_the_Early_Christian_Tombs_of_Thessaloniki_in_the_Context_of_the_Contemporary_Traditions_of_the_Funerary_Art_English_translation_     and    https://bookonlime.ru/lecture/8-early-christian-funerary-painting-thessaloniki-macedonian-and-roman-traditions    and    https://www.didaktorika.gr/eadd/handle/10442/13516

For a Student Activity on Early Christian Funerary Painting, please… Click HERE!

Van Eyck – An Optical Revolution

Ghent Museum of Fine Arts Exhibition: February 1 – April 30, 2020
https://www.mskgent.be/en/exhibitions/van-eyck

Who can really resist an Exhibition, titled Van Eyck – An Optical Revolution? Particularly when over half of Jan van Eyck’s artistic oeuvre will be on display? Paintings from all over the world will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) in Ghent “to contextualize the optical revolution he inspired.” Painting by Van Eyck, his workshop and from “his most talented peers from Germany, France, Italy and Spain” are placed side by side. This is an opportunity to study, compare and draw conclusions!

“Hubrecht van Eyck, the most famous painter ever known, started this work of art; his brother Jan, who was second in the art, finished the task at the request of Joos Vijd. With this verse the donor consigns the work to your charge on May 6th 1432. Admire what they have done for you”.

The main focus of the Ghent Exhibition is to present the recently restored outer panels of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or as it is widely known as the Ghent Altarpiece. According to the experts of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral “This painting by Hubrecht and Jan van Eyck is the principal work of the Flemish school in the 15th century. The main theme is the glorification or the heavenly apotheosis of man’s salvation and sanctification by the sacrifice of Christ. This subject is treated in a more visionary than narrative or dramatic manner. It is painted on oak panels; the paint consists of mineral pigments in a cement of drying oil.” https://sintbaafskathedraal.be/en/art/the-mystic-lamb.html

The outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, beautifully restored and exhibited at MSK, are divided into three registers. The upper register “lunettes” show prophets and Sibyls looking down on the middle register, the Annunciation scene. The four lower-register panels are divided into two pairs, the central sculptural paintings are in grisaille, presenting St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, while the two outer panels, in astonishing naturalism, stage the donor portraits of Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette Borluut.

Jan van Eyck was a revolutionary, ground-breaking artist and the Ghent Exhibition is a learning experience!

He perfected the Oil Technique by adding siccatives. With oil paints, he created rich, deep, lustrous colours, flawless golden tones, and amazing life-like textures.

Observation of reality is key to Jan’s Art. His portraits are lifelike in the minutest detail. His depiction of nature and natural phenomena are credible and authentic. He is so good at creating reality, his art seems like it is competing with reality itself!

Observing and Painting Optical Light Phenomena shows an artist deeply interested “in the painting of light, so crucial to his optical revolution.” Scholars believe that Jan van Eyck “not only gathers practical but also theoretical knowledge in order to reproduce the effects of light.” https://vaneyck2020.be/en/the-optical-revolution/

Artworks presented in the PowerPoint were put together, thanks to an MSK Catalogue… HERE! and HERE!

Troy: Myth and Reality

Filippo Albacini, 1777–1858
Wounded Achilles, 1825, marble, commissioned for the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth House, Achilles © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/troy-myth-and-reality

This is an Exhibition I wish I could take my students to visit, explore and marvel! Troy: Myth and Reality is as intriguing or rather “tantalizing,” to use an adjective the British Museum does, as its title insinuates.

Created thousands of years ago, Trojan Myths tell us epic stories, adventures of heroes and Gods, tales of love, loyalty, betrayal, friendship, bravery… they show that the gods, very much like ordinary humans, men and women alike, can be right or wrong, fail or succeed, love or hate… they also present the extraordinary deeds of the Trojan War protagonists, displayed on every form of art, from pottery to statues, paintings, music, and poetry! Trojan Archaeology, on the other hand, touches upon reality in its quest to discover the truth behind the story and reality behind the fiction.

My Grade 3 students love the stories of the Trojan War and the adventures of its heroes. Every week for 1 class period we read about, and discuss, the fascinating events presented in the Iliad and the Odyssey. We explore how artists from antiquity to modern times depicted the many events of the story. At the same time, we explore Trojan archaeology and learn about its protagonists and the historical evidence it unearths. My students’ favorite hero is Achilles, and their preferred Activity is to imagine and… reconstruct his Shield… commissioned by his mother Thetis and made by God Hephaestus himself! (For student work, please… Click HERE!)

Grade 4 Student Works on the Shield of Achilles

The British Museum Troy: Myth and Reality is a blockbuster exhibition, that directs visitors’ attention on the myths’ ‘human truth’, rather than their historical fact. The Exhibition is divided into 4 sections, Introduction. Troy: the myth, Troy: the archaeology, Troy: enduring stories, and presents well known as well as rare artifacts. The British Museum’s Exhibition site is a “treasure” to explore as well. The BLOG articles are worth your time to read. The Teachers’ Resources are fantastic, rich with information, Lesson Plans, and Activities. The Museum’s Trailer for the Exhibition is simply… fantastic!

The British Museum asks us to “tread the line between myth and reality in this phenomenal new exhibition” and watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BntZ-34PCWY

Who can really resist such well-presented… drama!

Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company

https://www.wallacecollection.org/forgotten-masters-indian-painting-east-india-company/

A very unique Exhibition takes place in London these days. The Wallace Collection presents Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company honours historically overlooked Indian artists like Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das, Shaikh Mohammad Amir of Karriah, Sita Ram and Ghulam Ali Khan and brings to life a forgotten moment in Anglo-Indian history. Another unique Exhibition highlight is the guest curator of the Exhibition, William Dalrymple, Scottish renowned historian and writer, art historian and curator, as well as an award-winning broadcaster and critic.

Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company introduced me to the work of Shaikh Zain ud-Din, a Bengali Muslim artist whose work blends Mughal and Western painting techniques, creating “…incredibly precise and beautifully observant” works of art, as Xavier Bray, director of London’s Wallace Collection comments on the Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/awe-inspiring-wildlife-drawings-shaikh-zain-uddin-180973502/

Shaikh Zain ud-Din worked for Sir Elijah first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at Fort William, Calcutta, and his wife, the natural historian Mary Impey. The Impeys moved to India in 1773 and soon fell under the spell of the subcontinent, establishing a menagerie of Indian and South-East Asian birds and animals in the extensive grounds of their estate. It was only natural for Mary to commission in 1777, a small group of artists, eminent among them Shaikh Zain ud-din, to paint her exotic flora and fauna. The result of this “brilliant” decision was a collection of paintings, 362 in number, known as the Impey Album. “These paintings,” Xavier Bray, director of London’s Wallace Collection says, “were made into albums to be leafed through back home, on a rainy day, drinking Earl Grey tea.” https://coromandelart.wordpress.com/

Shaikh Zain ud-Din’s paintings, although rendered in European materials, capture India’s natural history in a way that only a local could. They are an unprecedented hybrid of East and West. They “emulate, on a greatly enlarged scale, the refinement of 17th century Mughal natural history paintings,” and, believed to have been painted from life, they also exhibit the artist’s ability to assimilate European conventions. The 2012 Ashmolean Lady Impey’s Indian Bird Paintings Exhibition was the first major presentation of Shaikh Zain ud-Din’s oeuvre to the public, the current London Exhibition will further establish his work as a fine moment in the history of Indian Art. http://jameelcentre.ashmolean.org/collection/6980/10198

An unlikely ‘collaboration’ is a very interesting, worth reading Interview with the Exhibition’s curator, award-winning historian, writer and curator William Dalrymple, by Mark Rappolt, for the ArtReviewAsia. https://artreview.com/features/ara_winter_2019_feature_interview_william_dalrymple/

For a PowerPoint on the Wallace Collection Exhibition, please… check HERE!

Last Supper in Pompeii

If your Christmas “walking shoes” take you to Oxford, England, go the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology to see Last Supper in Pompeii, a wonderful Exhibition on the Roman love affair with food and wine! Inspiration for this Exhibition comes from Pompeii, this amazing time capsule of 79 AD Roman life. Dr Paul Roberts, Head of the Ashmolean Department of Antiquities and exhibition curator, says: ‘The evocative names given to the excavations (the Villa of the Mysteries; the House of the Tragic Poet) have inspired everything from Victorian exhibitions, swords-and-sandals romances to countless scholarly works. Our fascination with the doomed people of Pompeii and their everyday lives has never waned. What better connection can we make with them as ordinary people than through their food and drink?’

Last Supper in Pompeii displays 300 objects related to the culinary arts and the role they played in Roman history and culture. Exquisite floor mosaics from the villas of the affluent Pompeiians, frescoes depicting banquets, and statues, fountains or furnishings that decorated famous triclinia, are all present. Precious or humble dining sets and utensils, simple cooking pots and carbonised food that was on the Pompeiian tables when the volcano erupted tell us interesting stories or Roman culinary voyages and cultural connections.

Useful sources: https://www.ashmolean.org/pompeii and https://www.ashmolean.org/article/last-supper-in-pompeii and https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/exhibit-spotlights-roman-delicacies-baked-dormouse-carbonized-bread-180972731/

My favourite Exhibition fresco is titled Distribution of Bread (AD 40–79) and comes from the House of the Baker in Pompeii.  It shows a man behind a wooden counter handing a loaf of bread to a man, while a young boy reaches up eagerly. The shelves are heaped with loaves of the typical round Pompeiian bread, archaeologists even found carbonized one in its entirety. Scholars today believe that the fresco represents a politician’s free distribution of bread (annona) rather than a baker selling his loaves from a food stall.

The Distribution of Bread is a fascinating Pompeian fresco. I like the artist’s ability to create a sense of depth and space through a diagonal composition, his choice of earthy colours with touches of white and aubergine purple to accentuate the depicted figures. I also like the anecdotal details… the well-crafted wooden stall, the herringbone woven basket painted on the left side of the fresco, the abundance of displayed bread loaves… most of all, I like the human touch, the boy, impatient and eager to get his part of the Distributed Bread!

Bibliography of the House of  Baker and the Distribution of Bread fresco: https://www.pompeiiinpictures.com/pompeiiinpictures/R6/6%2003%2003.htm and http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/daily_life_gallery_02.shtml and https://www.ancient.eu/image/10622/sale-of-bread-fresco-pompeii/

An Activity students will enjoy is… HERE!

For a powerpoint prepared for the Exhibition, please… click HERE!