The Treasure of Childeric I

Golden Bees, Treasure of Childeric I, 5th century AD, Gold, Garnet, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, France

. The 14th of July is the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, a major event of the French Revolution, and the most important French Fête Nationale! Let’s celebrate this important historical event with a story… that of The Treasure of Childeric I, its beautiful Bee-Shaped Jewels and… Napoleon!

The Treasure of Childeric I, discovered on May 27th, 1653, in Tournai, Belgium, by Adrien Quinquin, a mason working on the reconstruction of the Church of Saint-Brice, is an extraordinary archaeological find that offers a unique glimpse into the early medieval period of European history. Attributed to Childeric I, a prominent king of the Salian Franks and father of Clovis I, the founder of the Merovingian dynasty, the hoard included a remarkable array of artefacts, such as jewelry, coins, and ceremonial weapons, reflecting the wealth and craftsmanship of the time.

Childeric I reigned during a pivotal era marked by the transition from Roman rule to establishing Frankish kingdoms. Therefore, his treasure highlights the personal wealth and power of a Frankish king and serves as a cultural bridge between the late Roman Empire and the early medieval Frankish state. Each item within the treasure provides invaluable insights into the art, culture, and political dynamics of the 5th century.

The discovery of Childeric’s treasure was a landmark event in the field of archaeology and has since played a crucial role in shaping our understanding of Merovingian art and society. The Treasure included a variety of fascinating items: a throwing axe, a spear, a long sword known as a spatha, and a short scramasax, both adorned with gold and garnet cloisonné. There was also a solid gold torc bracelet, part of an iron horseshoe with nails still intact, and belt and shoe buckles as well as horse harness fittings, all elaborately decorated with cloisonné gold and garnets. Additionally, the collection contained a leather purse with over a hundred gold and silver coins, the latest of which featured the Byzantine Emperor Zeno (474-491 A.D.). Among the treasures were also a gold bull’s head with a solar disc on its forehead, a crystal ball, and a gold signet ring.

Among the most notable items were the gold and enamel bees, over 300 of them, which were likely used as decorations for Childeric’s cloak or other regalia. These bees were later adopted by Napoleon Bonaparte, who, preparing for his coronation as Emperor of the French, sought a link to ancient French royalty. He deliberately avoided the still-despised Bourbon fleur-de-lys symbol, espousing Childeric’s heraldic bees as his emblem. Consequently, Napoleon’s coronation robe was embroidered with 300 gold bees, establishing them as the symbol of the new French Empire, and associating himself with the continuity and authority of the ancient Frankish kings. The bees thus became emblematic of the Napoleonic regime, symbolizing immortality and resurrection. In modern times, the bee has also contributed to the commemoration of the 14th of July national holiday, symbolizing the unity and enduring spirit of the French nation.

The Treasure’s discovery

When Childeric’s treasure was discovered in 1653 in Tournai, then part of the Spanish Netherlands, it was sent to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria. Recognizing its importance, the Archduke commissioned his physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, to document the artefacts meticulously. Chifflet’s detailed study, including precise engravings, was published in 1655 as “Anastasis Childerici I,” marking the first scientific archaeological publication. Although Chifflet made some errors in his analysis, his work laid the groundwork for modern archaeological documentation, preserving invaluable information about the Merovingian dynasty. Archduke Leopold brought Childeric’s treasure to Vienna in 1656 and, upon his death in 1662, bequeathed it to his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, who gifted the treasure to King Louis XIV. Louis, unimpressed by the 5th-century artefacts, stored them in the Louvre’s Cabinet of Medals. After the French Revolution, the treasure became part of the Cabinet of Medals at the Imperial Library, later known as the National Library of France.

On the night of November 5th, 1831, thieves broke into the Cabinet of Medals at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, stealing over 2,000 gold objects, including Childeric’s treasure. The exact sequence of events is unclear due to record losses during the Paris Commune of 1871. The theft was a major scandal, prompting the reappointment of Eugène-François Vidocq, founder of the Sûreté, to lead the investigation and recover the treasure. With Vidocq in charge (Vidoq was a former criminal and convict turned policeman, believed to be Victor Hugo’s inspiration for Javert and Valjean of Les Misérables) a portion of the stolen treasure was retrieved from the Seine River where it was hidden in leather bags. Unfortunately, the treasure’s theft led to a dramatic loss of French cultural heritage, as only a portion of the treasure was recovered with many pieces lost forever. Today, the Treasure of Childeric I remains a testament to the historical significance and enduring legacy of the early Frankish rulers.

For a PowerPoint on The Treasure of Childeric I, please… Check HERE!

Girl on the Beach by Thaleia Flora Karavia

Thaleia Flora Karavia, Greek Artist, 1871 – 1960
Girl on the Beach, 1922-25, Oil on Canvas, 61 x 50 cm, National Gallery, Athens, Greece

Thaleia Flora Karavia was a prominent Greek painter known for her vibrant depictions of everyday life, her contributions to war art, and her involvement in the Greek artistic community. Born in Siatista, in northern Greece, she moved to Constantinople as a child in 1874, where she pursued her education at the Zappeion Girls’ School, and received her early artistic education. After graduation, she spent a year teaching, but her passion for painting soon led her to Munich in 1895. There, she attended private schools and received training from renowned artists such as Nikolaos Vokos, Georgios Ιakovidιs, Nikolaos Gyzis, Paul Nauen, Anton Azbe, Walter Thor, and Fer.

The artist returned to Constantinople in 1898, but her artistic journey called her back to Munich, where she stayed until 1900. Upon her final return to Constantinople, she travelled extensively across various European cities. In 1907, she married journalist Nikolaos Karavias during a visit to Egypt. The couple settled in Alexandria, where Flora Karavia lived for thirty years. During her time there, she was highly active in the art community, founding and personally running an Artistic School.

Karavia’s work is distinguished by impeccable draftsmanship, harmonious composition, a delicate approach to colour, and an acute sense of realism. She excelled in a diverse range of subjects, including portraits, landscapes, still life, and genre scenes, capturing the essence of Greek life and culture. Initially, she adhered to the conservative guidelines of the Academy, but eventually embraced the principles of impressionism and plein-air painting. Beyond her canvas work, she also illustrated literary texts and designed lottery tickets to support the Greek National Fleet, showcasing her versatility and commitment to both art and national causes.

A particular favourite is the artist’s painting of Girl on the Beach, as it captures a serene but joyful moment, emphasizing her mastery of light and colour. The painting depicts a smiling, young girl seated on a sun-drenched beach, gazing at the viewer, her back out at the summer sea. The composition is both simple and evocative, with the girl positioned at the center, creating a sense of balance and harmony. Flora Karavia’s use of soft, warm tones reflects the gentle sunlight, casting delicate shadows that add depth and realism to the scene. The brushwork is fluid yet precise, capturing the textures of the gentle ripples of the water, and the girl’s curly hair. This painting highlights Flora Karavia’s ability to convey a mood of peaceful introspection and her keen observation of the natural world. Through this work, she invites the viewer to share in a happy moment of joyful reflection, making it a poignant example of her artistic sensitivity and skill.

During the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and World War I, Karavia was one of the few female war artists who documented the experiences of soldiers and the impact of the wars on Greece. Her war art provides a unique and personal perspective on conflicts, focusing on the human side of war rather than the strategic or political aspects.

Apart from her painting, Flora Karavia was also an active member of the Greek artistic community, participating in exhibitions and promoting the arts in Greece. She was associated with the Art Group “Techni,” which played a crucial role in the development of modern Greek art.

Throughout her career, Thaleia Flora Karavia’s works were celebrated for their emotional depth, technical skill, and dedication to portraying the human condition. Her legacy continues to be honoured in Greece, where she is considered a significant figure in the nation’s art history.

For a PowerPoint titled 10 Portraits of Women by Thaleia Flora Karavia, please… Check HERE!

White Flag

Jasper Johns, American Artist, born 1930
White Flag, 1955, Encaustic, Oil, Newsprint, and Charcoal on Canvas, 198.9 × 306.7 cm, the MET, NY, USA

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art experts… During the 1950s and 1960s, Johns frequently appropriated well-known images such as targets, maps, and flags—in his words, “things the mind already knows.” White Flag is part of Jasper Johns’s famous flag series, which he began in 1954. In this rendering, he drains this iconic subject of its characteristic red, white, and blue coloration, leaving it to loom, ghostlike. The painting’s bleached appearance and composite layered form make the familiar image strange. By challenging our understanding of what constitutes a national symbol and complicating our relationship to this highly charged American image, it speaks powerfully, if ambiguously, to the issue of national identity.

Jasper Johns, born on May 15, 1930, in Augusta, Georgia, is a prominent American artist renowned for his pivotal role in developing postwar American art, particularly in the genres of Abstract Expressionism and Neo-Dada. His contributions extend beyond painting; he has also worked extensively in printmaking, sculpture, and collage. His methodical approach and use of encaustic—a technique involving pigment mixed with hot wax—imbue his works with a textured, tactile quality that invites close inspection. Over the decades, Jasper Johns has received numerous accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and his works are featured in major museums and collections worldwide. His influence on contemporary art profoundly inspires generations of artists to explore the intersections of reality, perception, and artistic expression.

Jasper Johns’ paintings of American Flags emerged in the mid-1950s, a period when he sought to challenge and redefine the boundaries of artistic expression. The concept originated from a dream Johns had in 1954, in which he envisioned himself painting a large American flag. This dream inspired him to create his first flag painting using encaustic, a technique involving heated beeswax mixed with coloured pigments. This method allowed him to build up layers of texture and depth, emphasizing the materiality of the painting itself. His “Flag” (1954-55) became a groundbreaking work, as it juxtaposed a familiar symbol with a complex, tactile artistic process. By selecting an iconic image like the American flag, Johns deliberately chose a subject that was instantly recognizable, yet ripe for reinterpretation, encouraging viewers to see it in a new light.

The artistic value of Jasper Johns’ flag paintings lies in their ability to challenge conventional perspectives on representation and abstraction. These works are celebrated for their conceptual depth and technical innovation. By transforming a common national symbol into a subject of fine art, Johns questioned the distinction between “high” art and popular culture. The encaustic technique he employed added a richly textured surface, creating a sense of depth and solidity that contrasted with the flat, symbolic nature of the flag. This interplay between the literal and the abstract invites viewers to reconsider the flag’s meaning and significance. Moreover, Johns’ flags are seen as a precursor to the Pop Art movement, influencing artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. His work paved the way for future explorations of everyday objects in art, highlighting the potential for ordinary symbols to carry complex, layered meanings.

White Flag (1955) is a monumental work in the artist’s oeuvre and a significant piece in the history of contemporary art. Created shortly after his initial Flag painting, ‘White Flag’ represents Johns’ continued exploration of the American flag as an artistic subject. The painting is notable for its size and its use of encaustic, which Johns adopted to impart a textured, layered quality to his works. ‘White Flag’ was the first of Johns’ flag paintings to be rendered in a monochromatic palette, stripping away the traditional red, white, and blue colours. This alteration transformed the flag from a patriotic symbol into a more ambiguous, abstract form. By presenting the flag in white, Johns opened up a range of interpretations, inviting viewers to consider themes of purity, surrender, and neutrality.

The artistic value of ‘White Flag’ lies in its innovative approach to both medium and meaning. The use of encaustic gives the painting a rich, tactile surface, emphasizing the physicality of the flag and the artist’s hand in its creation. This technique also allows for subtle variations in texture and tone, creating a complex visual experience despite the limited colour palette. The monochromatic scheme forces viewers to focus on the structure and form of the flag itself, rather than its usual symbolic content. ‘White Flag’ exemplifies Johns’ ability to transform a familiar icon into a subject for deep artistic investigation. It challenges the viewer to see beyond the conventional associations of the American flag, encouraging a more nuanced and contemplative engagement with the image. This work, along with Johns’ other flag paintings, has had a profound influence on contemporary art, paving the way for future artists to explore and deconstruct cultural symbols in innovative ways.

For a PowerPoint, titled 10 Works of Art by Jasper Johns, please… Check HERE!

The Yellow Sail

Paul Signac, French Artist, 1863-1935
Venice, the Yellow Sail, 1904, Oil on Canvas, 73×92 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (In deposit to the Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology of Besançon since 1972) – Photo Credit: Amalia Spiliakou, Neo-Impressionism in the Colours of the Mediterranean Exhibition (10.01 – 07.04.2024), February 2024

The Exhibition Neo-Impressionism in the Colours of the Mediterranean (1891-1914) was held in Athens at the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation. This event was organized in collaboration with several prominent European museums and institutions, including the Musée d’Orsay, the National Gallery in London, the Centre Pompidou, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Besançon, the Musée de l’Annonciade, the Musée de Grenoble, the Musée national d’archéologie, d’histoire et d’art – Luxembourg, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, as well as various European private collectors. The exhibition showcased works by renowned artists such as Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce, Théo van Rysselberghe, Henri Matisse, Henri Manguin, and Louis Valtat, many of which were being displayed in Greece for the first time. One piece that particularly, captivated me was Paul Signac’s 1904 painting, Venice, the Yellow Sail.

Let’s explore the Exhibition ‘Neo-Impressionism in the Colours of the Mediterranean’ through Paul Signac’s painting, Venice, the Yellow Sail, by posing questions about When, How, What, and Who…

How would you define Neo-Impressionism? Neo-Impressionism is an art movement that emerged in the late 19th century as a reaction to the spontaneity and subjectivity of Impressionism. It is characterized by a systematic and scientific approach to painting, primarily focusing on the use of colour and light. Neo-Impressionists employed techniques such as Pointillism or Divisionism, where small dots or strokes of pure colour are applied to the canvas. When viewed from a distance, these dots visually blend to create vibrant, luminous compositions. The movement was led by artists like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who sought to bring a greater sense of order and structure to their works through meticulous planning and an emphasis on colour theory.

What is Pointillism or Divisionism? Divisionism or Pointillism is a painting technique developed by Neo-Impressionist artists like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in the late 19th century. This method, which sought to establish a scientific foundation for the Impressionist exploration of light and colour, involves applying small, distinct dots of pure colour to a canvas, which blend visually in the viewer’s eye to create a cohesive image with enhanced vibrancy and luminosity. Inspired by M-E Chevreul’s 1839 colour theory on simultaneous contrast, aimed to enhance luminosity, as optically mixed colours tend toward white, the technique significantly influenced French painters, especially among the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Neo-Impressionists.

Théo van Rysselberghe, Belgian Artist, 1862-1926
Portrait of Paul Signac at the helm of the Olympia (detail), 1896, Oil on Canvas, 93×114 cm, Private Collection – Photo Credit: Amalia Spiliakou, Neo-Impressionism in the Colours of the Mediterranean Exhibition (10.01 – 07.04.2024), February 2024

Who is Paul Signac? Paul Signac was a French Neo-Impressionist painter renowned for pioneering the Pointillist technique alongside Georges Seurat. Born in Paris, Signac initially trained as an architect before dedicating himself to painting. Influenced by Impressionism, he soon embraced a more scientific approach to colour and light, leading to his collaboration with Seurat to develop Divisionism. Signac travelled extensively, drawing inspiration from the Mediterranean and its vivid landscapes. His works often depicted harbours and coastal scenes, capturing the interplay of light and water. In addition to his artistic contributions, Signac authored several important texts on art theory, including From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, which articulated the principles of Neo-Impressionism. His legacy endures through his innovative techniques and his role in shaping modern art.

How would Signac’s painting Venice, the Yellow Sail be described? Paul Signac’s painting Venice, the Yellow Sail, housed in the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, is a vibrant and luminous depiction of Venice’s iconic waterways. The focal point is a sailboat with a striking yellow sail, which stands out against the intricate interplay of blues and greens in the water and sky. Signac captures the essence of Venice with a keen eye for the effects of light and colour, imbuing the scene with a sense of movement and radiance. The painting reflects Signac’s love for sailing, his fascination with maritime subjects and his mastery of Divisionism, resulting in a visually captivating representation of Venice’s beauty.

When did Paul Signac visit Venice? The artist visited Venice for the first time in the spring of 1904. Initially planning to visit in the summer of 1903, Signac’s fascination with the city, partly influenced by John Ruskin’s “The Stones of Venice,” led him to postpone his travels until the following year. Arriving at the end of March 1904, he stayed until late May, producing a significant number of watercolours during his visit. The oils he created were exhibited at the 1905 Salon des Indépendants, where they garnered praise from both the public and critics. Louis Vauxcelles, for example, remarked… nothing is more vibrant, more atmospheric, than the shimmering Venice of M. Signac.

Paul Signac, French Artist, 1863-1935
Venice, the Yellow Sail (detail), 1904, Oil on Canvas, 73×92 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (In deposit to the Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology of Besançon since 1972) – Photo Credit: Amalia Spiliakou, Neo-Impressionism in the Colours of the Mediterranean Exhibition (10.01 – 07.04.2024), February 2024

How is Louis Vauxcelles’s remark nothing is more vibrant, more atmospheric, than the shimmering Venice of M. Signac applied to Signac’s painting Venice, the Yellow Sail? In Signac’s painting Venice, the Yellow Sail, Signac captures the essence of Venice’s shimmering beauty with remarkable vibrancy and atmosphere. The painting radiates with the luminous colours of the city’s water canals and buildings, soft and hazy pinks, lilacs, and greens, evoking the play of light and shadow characteristic of Venice. The focal point of the yellow sail adds a dynamic burst of colour against the serene backdrop, further enhancing the painting’s vibrancy. Signac’s meticulous use of Divisionism infuses the scene with an ethereal quality, as the carefully placed dots of colour blend harmoniously to create a captivating and immersive depiction of Venice’s unique atmosphere.

For a PowerPoint on Paul Signac, please… Check HERE!

Count Issepo da Porto and his son Adriano

Paolo Veronese, 1528–1588 
Portrait of Iseppo da Porto and his son Adriano, circa 1555, Oil on Canvas, 247×133 cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

On Father’s Day consider the majestic, full-length portraits by Veronese, which celebrated the da Porto family, showcasing Count Issepo da Porto and his son Adriano alongside Countess Livia da Porto Thiene and her Daughter Deidamia. These paintings, originally placed in their Vicenza palace designed by Andrea Palladio, symbolize a family’s enduring connection and heritage. Just as Veronese’s art captures the richness of family life and the protection and care provided by fathers, Father’s Day allows us to honour and appreciate the fathers and father figures who have shaped our lives with their love and guidance.

Paolo Veronese, 1528–1588 
Portrait of Countess Livia da Porto Thiene and her Daughter Deidamia, 1552, Oil on Canvas, 208.40×121 mm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA
Portrait of Iseppo da Porto and his son Adriano, circa 1555, Oil on Canvas, 247×133 cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

The artist who created the double portraits, Father and Son, Mother and Daughter, of the da Porta family is Paolo Veronese, born Paolo Caliari in 1528 in Verona, Italy, one of the most prominent painters of the Venetian Renaissance. Trained in the workshop of local master Antonio Badile, Veronese’s early work reflects the influence of his native city’s art and architecture. Moving to Venice in the early 1550s marked a significant turning point in his career, allowing him to immerse himself in the city’s vibrant artistic community. Known for his vivid use of colour, dynamic compositions, and grandiose themes, Veronese quickly established himself as a master of large-scale paintings, creating works that adorned palaces, churches, and public buildings. His integration of classical themes with contemporary Venetian culture, coupled with his skilful rendering of fabrics, textures, and architectural elements, distinguished him from his contemporaries and earned him widespread acclaim.

Among Veronese’s most notable achievements are his grand frescoes and altarpieces, such as the Feast in the House of Levi and the Wedding at Cana, which showcase his ability to blend narrative complexity with a sense of opulence and theatricality. His portraits, on the other hand, like those of the da Porta family, demonstrate his keen ability to capture individual character and status, further cementing his reputation as a master portraitist. Veronese’s work not only exemplified the ideals of the High Renaissance but also laid the groundwork for the Baroque movement that followed. His legacy endures through his contributions to the development of Venetian art, influencing generations of artists and securing his place in the pantheon of great Renaissance painters.

Count Issepo da Porto, a nobleman from Vicenza, and his young son Adriano, painted by Paolo Veronese around 1555, make a masterful representation of Renaissance portraiture. Veronese’s skilful use of colour, light, and composition creates a striking and intimate portrayal of the father and son duo. In the portrait, Count Issepo da Porto is depicted standing, exuding an air of authority and elegance. He is dressed in luxurious Renaissance attire, characterized by rich, very dark fabrics and elaborate details, which signify his high social status. The count’s pose is dignified, with one hand resting on his hip and the other gently placed over his son’s shoulder, establishing a sense of connection and paternal care. His facial expression is composed and confident, reflecting his stature and the responsibilities that come with his position.

Adriano, the count’s first-born son, stands beside him, dressed in similarly fine clothing, lighter in tone, that mirrors his father’s, suggesting both the boy’s noble lineage and the care taken in his upbringing. Adriano’s pose is more relaxed, illustrating a sense of affection and dependence. The interaction between the two figures conveys a tender familial bond, enhanced by Veronese’s attention to the details of their postures, expressions, clothing, and the subtle interplay of light and shadow.

The background of the painting is relatively subdued, focusing the viewer’s attention on the figures and their relationship. Veronese’s use of colour, particularly the rich, dark, and warm tones, and the meticulous rendering of textures, such as the fabrics and the skin tones, demonstrate his mastery in creating lifelike and engaging portraits. The Portrait of Count Issepo da Porto and his son Adriano not only captures the likeness of the subjects but also conveys a narrative of lineage, status, and the deep familial connection between father and son.

For a PowerPoint, titled 10 Masterpieces by Paolo Veronese, please… Check HERE!

Byzantine Ivory Caskets

Byzantine Casket with Mythological and Combat Scenes, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Ivory, 11.5×41.5×17.5 cm, Musée de Cluny, Paris, France (Photo Credit: Amalia Spiliakou, May 2023)

Byzantine Ivory Caskets, also known as covered boxes, represent exquisite examples of medieval artistry and craftsmanship. These small, intricately carved containers were crafted in the Byzantine Empire during the early medieval period, primarily between the 6th and 12th centuries. Made from luxurious materials such as ivory, these Caskets served a variety of purposes, ranging from holding religious relics to storing precious items like jewelry or cosmetics. Adorned with elaborate motifs, often depicting religious scenes, mythological figures, or intricate geometric patterns, Byzantine Ivory Caskets not only served functional roles but also conveyed the wealth, power, and artistic sophistication of the Byzantine civilization. These objects provide valuable insights into the social, cultural, and religious contexts of the Byzantine Empire.

In the present day, around 125 ivory Caskets endure, each bearing its unique journey through time and wear, with approximately 50 adorned in secular motifs. These elegant Caskets stand as a testament to Byzantine artistry, representing a remarkable legacy of secular expression preserved amidst the sands of time. Their survival marks them as the paramount example of Byzantine secular art, offering a glimpse into the aesthetic tastes and cultural nuances of an empire steeped in opulence and sophistication.

Intricately carved and made of transverse sections of elephant tusks, the Byzantine Caskets were more than mere receptacles; they were vessels of cultural significance and practical utility. Their intricate reliefs, often depicting a blend of pagan mythology and Christian iconography, hint at their multifaceted functions. Those adorned with scenes of Christ’s miraculous healings likely served as vessels for safeguarding the sacred elements of the Eucharist, underscoring their role in religious rituals and devotion. Conversely, Caskets embellished with pagan motifs might have been employed for storing personal effects like valuable documents, cosmetics or jewelry, reflecting the interplay between secular and religious spheres in Byzantine society. Though their precise origins remain elusive, scholars speculate that these Caskets were crafted in Constantinople or the Byzantine provinces of North Africa or Syria-Palestine, regions renowned for their ivory craftsmanship. Despite the enigma surrounding their provenance, Byzantine Ivory Caskets endure as tangible manifestations of the empire’s artistic prowess and spiritual fervour.

During the Byzantine period, ivory held a revered status as a symbol of luxury, prestige, and religious devotion. The Byzantines prized ivory for its exceptional beauty and workability, utilizing it in a myriad of contexts ranging from religious artefacts to secular luxury items. Ivory was extensively employed in the creation of intricate carvings, including religious icons, diptychs, and triptychs, which adorned churches, palaces, and private collections and Caskets as containers of precious secular or religious treasures. These exquisite ivory artworks served not only as expressions of faith but also as tangible manifestations of wealth and power. Furthermore, ivory was utilized in the production of practical items such as furniture inlays, game pieces, and personal accessories, reflecting its versatility and widespread appeal across various aspects of Byzantine society. The use of ivory persisted throughout the Byzantine period, leaving an indelible mark on the art, culture, and material wealth of the empire.

Byzantine Casket with Mythological and Combat Scenes, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Ivory, 11.5×41.5×17.5 cm, Musée de Cluny, Paris, France
Byzantine Casket with Mythological and Combat Scenes, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Ivory, 11.5×41.5×17.5 cm, Musée de Cluny, Paris, France

Among these remarkable artefacts, the Byzantine ivory Casket of the Musée de Cluny in Paris stands as one of my favourites. Crafted in Constantinople around the turn of the millennium, this Casket is a testament to the refined tastes of the secular elites within the court of the Macedonian dynasty. Delicately adorned with finely carved ivory panels, it depicts intricate scenes drawn from the legendary exploits of Heracles and various other tales of Greek mythology to epic battles and chariot races. Each panel is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, capturing the essence of both ancient lore and medieval life. Undoubtedly intended for domestic use within the opulent confines of aristocratic households, this Casket serves as a tangible link between the classical past and the burgeoning cultural landscape of Byzantium.

As one marvels at this masterpiece within the halls of the Cluny Museum, one cannot help but be transported back in time, envisioning the opulence and splendour of the Byzantine era.

For a PowerPoint Presentation, please… Check HERE!

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the Goya Tapestries

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1746-1828
An Avenue in Andalusia or The Maja and the Cloaked Men (detail), 1777, Royal Tapestry Factory, from a Goya Cartoon, Tapestry – Wool and silk, 337×217 cm, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral Collection, Spain

On the 10th of May, I visited The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the Goya Tapestries, among the masterpieces I was anxious to see intrigued by their unbelievable charm and allure …

Francisco Goya, renowned for his masterful paintings and prints, also delved into the realm of tapestry cartoons, creating a series of remarkable works that showcased his artistic versatility. Commissioned by the Spanish royal family, Goya produced a collection of tapestry cartoons between 1775 and 1792, intended to be transformed into large-scale tapestries to adorn the royal residences. These cartoons, characterized by their intricate detail, dynamic compositions, and vibrant storytelling, demonstrated Goya’s adeptness in translating his painterly vision into the medium of woven textiles. The tapestries created from his designs adorned the grand interiors of palaces, reflecting the royal court’s opulence and Goya’s unique ability to capture the essence of human experience through his art.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1746-1828
An Avenue in Andalusia, or The Maja and the Cloaked Men, 1777, Oil on Canvas, 275×190 cm, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain
An Avenue in Andalusia or The Maja and the Cloaked Men, 1777, Royal Tapestry Factory, from a Goya Cartoon, Tapestry – Wool and silk, 337×217 cm, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral Collection, Spain

The Cathedral Museum of Santiago de Compostela houses an exceptional collection of tapestries, originally woven at the Royal Tapestry Factory of Santa Bárbara from designs by the celebrated Francisco Goya. These tapestries, based on cartoons mostly preserved at the Prado Museum, were part of a commission by King Charles III between 1777 and 1780 intended to adorn the Royal Palace of El Pardo. The illustrious Pedro Acuña y Malvar, a canon who served as Secretary of State for Justice under King Charles IV, bequeathed these artworks to the museum upon his death in 1814. Acuña, noted for his significant art collection in Madrid, thus ensured that the Cathedral Museum became the custodian of these invaluable cultural treasures, enriching its offerings and preserving a vital piece of Spain’s artistic heritage within the sacred walls of Santiago Cathedral.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828)Tapestries including An Avenue in Andalusia or The Maja and the Cloaked Men, Wool and silk, 337×217 cm, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral Collection, Spain – Photo Credit: Amalia Spiliakou, May 10, 2024

Francisco Goya’s artistic legacy is marked by his masterful exploration of costumbrista themes and his adept use of colour and light. His tapestries, such as The Maja and the Cloaked Men, eschew religious motifs in favour of depicting local customs and traditions. Through these works, Goya invites viewers into the vibrant world of 18th-century Andalusia, capturing the essence of everyday life with keen observation and wit. His cartoons, serving as blueprints for the tapestries, reveal his meticulous attention to detail and his ability to convey emotion through the interplay of light and shadow. Goya’s use of wool for darker hues and fine silk burlap for lighter tones further accentuates the richness of his palette, showcasing his unparalleled skill as both a painter and a storyteller.

Boys Playing Soldiers, 1777, Royal Tapestry Factory, from a Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) Cartoon, Tapestry – Wool and silk, 337×217 cm, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral Collection, Spain – Photo Credit: Amalia Spiliakou, May 10, 2024

The exhibition of Goya’s tapestries at the Cathedral Museum provides a captivating glimpse into the artist’s oeuvre and the cultural milieu of his time. Originally housed in the cathedral’s tailor’s workshop, these remarkable works were later unveiled to the public during the Corpus Christi festivities. Now, as part of the museum’s permanent collection, these tapestries are prominently displayed in dedicated rooms, offering visitors a comprehensive overview of Goya’s contributions to the art of tapestry-making. The legacy of Pedro Acuña y Malvar, who bequeathed these treasures to the cathedral, ensures that Goya’s legacy survives, providing a testament to the enduring significance of his work in shaping the artistic landscape of Spain.

For a Student Activity, please… Check HERE!

For a PowerPoint of Goya’s Tapestries in the Museum of the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, please… Check HERE!

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The Labours of the Months by Luca della Robbia

Luca della Robbia, 1399/1400–1482
Labours of the Months: June, 1450s, Glazed terracotta, Diameter: 57 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

…Which gives into the triumphant and lovely / study, / that has such talent and order and measure / that it represents angelic exultation, / With complete art in inlays and painting, / in perspective and carvings sublime, / and in great mastery of architecture. / There are great numbers of highly ornate books / and vases of alabaster and chalcedony / that are decorated with gold and silver. / And all things there are beautiful and good, / some by nature and others with human talent / made thus with whole perfection… This is how, in Terze Rime, the anonymous Italian 15th-century poet describes the famous studietto, created for Piero de’ Medici in the 1450s. It is the room for which the terracotta roundels of The Labours of the Months by Luca della Robbia were created to adorn the ceiling.

In the context of the Renaissance, a studietto or studiolo was a personal space, often elaborately decorated with paintings, sculptures, and frescoes that reflected its owner’s intellectual pursuits and tastes. These rooms were not just private retreats but also places to store and exhibit collections that demonstrated the owner’s wealth, power, and intellectual interests. The decoration and objects within often had symbolic meanings related to virtues, wisdom, and learning. The Medici Palace, a museum since 1974, reflects the grandeur and influence of the Medici family throughout its architecture and the art it houses. Within its walls, in the early 1450s, a studietto was created for Piero de’ Medici, unfortunately destroyed, when the Medici Palace was remodelled in the 17th century. According to Paula Nuttall… the studietto was a small, intimate room intended for study, contemplation, and display.  Here were kept the most precious objects in the Medici’s collection: costly illuminated books, classical coins, cameos and vases, medieval ivories and goldsmiths’ work, and a tiny painting by the great Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck.  Piero, who suffered from gout and was often confined indoors, is said to have taken great delight in being carried to his studietto, whiling away the hours in contemplating all these objects.

The Luca della Robbia roundels of the Labours of the Months as displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK
The Luca della Robbia roundels of the Labours of the Months as displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK,_volta_dello_studiolo_di_piero_de%27_medici.JPG

Piero de Medici’s studietto ceiling, crafted by Luca della Robbia, stands as a testament to the innovative spirit of the Renaissance. Employing the much-admired tin-glazed terracotta technique that della Robbia perfected in the early 15th century, the ceiling featured twelve intricately designed roundels, each representing a different Labour of the Month. Unlike popular della Robbia relief sculptures, these roundels boast naturalistic paintings in shades of white and blue, colours achieved through an experimental method seldom replicated. The edges of each roundel are adorned with sculpted leaf patterns, subtly detailed in low relief, offering a textural contrast to the smooth, painted centers. This ceiling, decidedly ornate and uncharacteristically detailed for its time, reflected not only the artistic ambition of della Robbia but also the grandeur of the room it overseed, a fitting canopy for the collection of curiosities and treasures it sheltered.

Luca della Robbia, 1399/1400–1482
Labours of the Months, 1450s, Glazed terracotta, Diameter: 57 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

In the mid-15th century, the studietto in the Medici Palace was a marvel of Florentine artistry. These resplendent with the most worthy figures inspired awe in all who entered, as noted by the architect Filarete. This intimate chamber, adorned to stir curiosity and admiration, met an untimely demise during the palace’s 17th-century remodelling. The surviving roundels, treasures of Renaissance art, found their way into a private Italian collection before being acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1861. Today, these pieces form the heart of a reconstructed space at the V&A, meticulously designed to evoke the original studietto’s ambience!

For a PowerPoint Presentation of the 12 Labours of the Months by Luca della Robbia in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, please… Check HERE!

Bibliography: Some Unknown Descriptions of the Medici Palace in 1459 by Rab Hatfield, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Sep. 1970), pp. 232-249 (18 pages)

The Cave of Altamira

Cave of Altamira, Paleolithic Cave Art, Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, SpainScientists believe the paintings date from c. 14,820 to 13,130 years ago
The original Cave of Altamira is closed to the public, but a Replica Cave and Museum were built nearby in 2001 by Manuel Franquelo and Sven Nebel, faithfully reproducing the Cave and its Art.
Photo Credit: Mariola Salceda

Nestled in the verdant landscapes of northern Spain, The Cave of Altamira stands as a testament to the artistic prowess and ingenuity of our prehistoric ancestors. This remarkable archaeological site often hailed as the “Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art,” offers a captivating glimpse into the lives and minds of the people who roamed the Earth over 20,000 years ago.

Discovered in the late 19th century, the cave’s walls are adorned with stunning depictions of bison, deer, horses, and other animals, rendered in vivid hues of red, black, and ochre. These paintings are not merely decorative, they are believed to hold significant cultural and possibly spiritual meaning for the Upper Paleolithic societies that created them.

The Cave of Altamira’s discovery is a tale of serendipity, curiosity, and a bit of luck, intertwining the lives of a local landowner and his inquisitive daughter. In 1868, Modesto Cubillas, a hunter from the Cantabrian region of Spain, stumbled upon the entrance to a cave on the estate of Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. Though Cubillas mentioned the cave to Sautuola, it wasn’t until a decade later that its true significance was unveiled. Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, an amateur archaeologist and nobleman with a keen interest in natural history, began exploring the cave in 1875. Initially, he found nothing more than a few animal bones and flint tools, which piqued his interest but did not hint at the artistic treasure that lay within.

The breakthrough came in 1879 when Sautuola returned to the cave with his eight-year-old daughter, María. As the story goes, while her father was busy examining the cave floor, young María wandered off and looked up at the ceiling. She was the first to notice the vivid paintings of bison, which she excitedly called to her father’s attention, describing them as “painted bulls.” Sautuola was astounded by the discovery and immediately recognized the importance of the paintings. He published his findings in 1880, suggesting that the artwork was prehistoric. However, his claims were met with scepticism and ridicule by the scientific community, which doubted the authenticity of such sophisticated art being so ancient. It wasn’t until the early 20th century when other similar cave paintings were discovered across Europe, that the significance of Altamira was universally acknowledged, and the cave received the recognition it deserved.

The art discovered in the Cave of Altamira is a breathtaking collection of Paleolithic paintings and engravings, primarily featuring vivid depictions of animals such as bison, deer, horses, and wild boars. These images, rendered in red, black, and ochre pigments, showcase a remarkable understanding of perspective, movement, and naturalism, with many of the figures appearing lifelike and dynamic. The cave’s ceiling is particularly famous for its polychrome bison, which seem to leap off the rock surface, demonstrating the prehistoric artists’ advanced skill and creativity. This extraordinary art provides a profound insight into the lives, beliefs, and artistic achievements of our ancient ancestors.

In addition to its iconic animal depictions, the Cave of Altamira features non-iconic art that includes abstract shapes and handprints, adding to the cave’s enigmatic and culturally rich tapestry, and offering a different perspective on prehistoric expression. The handprints, created by placing hands against the cave wall and blowing pigment around them, result in striking negative images that convey a direct human presence from millennia ago. These stencilled hands, along with various geometric patterns and symbolic marks, suggest a complex cultural and possibly ritualistic significance. This non-iconic art complements the more detailed animal figures, highlighting the multifaceted nature of the early human artistic endeavour and providing deeper insights into the cognitive and social practices of the Upper Paleolithic inhabitants.

Today, the Cave of Altamira is celebrated as a cornerstone in the study of prehistoric art, offering invaluable insights into the creativity and cultural practices of our distant ancestors. The tale of its discovery remains a fascinating chapter in the annals of archaeology, underscoring the importance of open-mindedness and the unexpected contributions of youthful curiosity.

On the 15th of May, I was fortunate to visit The Replica Cave and Museum of Altamira with my ‘Art Group’ friends and my colleague and dear friend Mariola Salceda from the University of Saragoza… It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a convergence of history, art, and friendship that left me utterly speechless. It was a journey through time, a profound encounter with humanity’s earliest expressions of creativity, and a moment I shall cherish forever.

For the PowerPoint on Paleolithic Cave Art in Spain, please… Check HERE!

Bibliography: and and

Pandora and Epimetheus

Attributed to El Greco – Domenikos Theotokopoulos
Pandora and Epimetheus, 1600 – 1610, Polychromed, Carved Wood, Height: 43 cm, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on Earth. Created by the god Hephaestus at the request of Zeus, her creation was part of a divine punishment for humanity. This punishment was in retaliation for Prometheus, a Titan, who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to mankind. Endowed with gifts from each god and made irresistibly alluring to humans, Pandora was given in marriage to Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. Despite warnings from Prometheus not to accept any gifts from Zeus, Epimetheus accepted her. Pandora and Epimetheus thus became the first human couple. However, disaster loomed nearby. Driven by curiosity, Pandora opened a box she was forbidden to touch and released into the world all sorrows and death-bringers. Only Hope remained, trapped under the box’s lid, narrowly missing escape when Pandora hastily closed the lid. This calamity unfolded exactly as Zeus, the cloud-gatherer, had planned. Do Pandora’s actions illustrate the profound and often unintended consequences of human curiosity and disobedience?

Domenicos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco, was born in 1541 in Crete, which was then part of the Republic of Venice. Initially trained in the Byzantine tradition of icon painting, he moved to Venice around 1567, where he adopted elements of the Venetian Renaissance style under the influence of painters like Titian and Tintoretto. Seeking greater opportunities, El Greco relocated to Rome in 1570 and later moved to Toledo, Spain, in 1577, where he spent the remainder of his life. In Toledo, El Greco developed a distinctive style characterized by elongated figures and vibrant, expressive use of colour and light, often infused with dramatic spirituality. Despite his critical reception being mixed during his lifetime, El Greco is now celebrated as a precursor to both the Expressionist and Cubist movements, profoundly influencing the evolution of Western art. He died in 1614 in Toledo.

El Greco’s art is distinguished by its unique blend of Byzantine and Western painting traditions, resulting in a highly personal and spiritual style that pushed the boundaries of the Mannerist period. His figures are elongated and anatomically exaggerated, often imbued with a sense of spiritual intensity and inner turmoil that seems to stretch towards the divine. He used unconventional, vivid colour palettes and bold, almost expressionistic brush strokes that imbued his compositions with a dramatic, almost otherworldly quality. His treatment of light is particularly notable. It often seems to emanate from within the figures themselves, highlighting their ethereal and transcendent nature. This handling of form, colour, and light not only enhances the emotional depth and mystical atmosphere of his paintings but also foreshadows the emotional expressiveness of the Expressionist movement and the structural experimentation of Cubism, making El Greco a pivotal figure in the transition from the Renaissance ideals of harmony and proportion to the more subjective and distorted approaches of modern art.

The unique statues of Pandora and Epimetheus housed in the Prado Museum hold significant artistic and stylistic importance as they represent a rare excursion into sculpture by an artist renowned primarily for his paintings. These works are critical for understanding El Greco’s artistic language in a three-dimensional form, showcasing his ability to translate the intense emotionality and spiritual expressiveness characteristic of his paintings into sculpture. Stylistically, these statues exemplify his signature approach of elongation and dramatic posturing, traits that underscore his departure from conventional Renaissance forms and anticipate the emotional intensity of the Baroque period. The representation of such complex mythological figures in sculpture by El Greco adds a profound layer to the interpretation of his artistic legacy, demonstrating his innovative approach to volume, movement, and the human form, which challenged and expanded the aesthetic boundaries of his time.

Considering El Greco’s unique interpretive style and his known penchant for blending the spiritual with the human form, in what ways might his statues of a nude man and a nude woman be seen as symbolic representations of Pandora and Epimetheus? How do these sculptures reflect the themes of innocence, curiosity, and the inevitable consequences of human actions as depicted in the myth? …The woman removed the heavy lid of the jar with her own hands, and / driven by her own thoughts, unleashed sorrows for men, death-bringers. / Hope alone remained in its unbreakable home, / caught underneath the lip of the jar. Its escape / was only a short flight away, but, just in time, she slammed the lid down. / All according to the plan of aegis-bearing, cloud-gathering Zeus…

For a PowerPoint Presentation titled, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, 10 Masterpieces, please… Check HERE!

Bibliography: and