Tag Archives: holiday

Tawaf

Reem Nazir  Oil on Canvas 2010

Over two million Muslims will begin the Hajj this evening.  One of the Five Pillars of Islam, the Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the most important events of a person’s life.  It is required of all that are physically and financially able the make the journey at least once.

The highlight for many is the Tawaf, the circling of the Kaaba.  The group of thousands together walk seven times around the structure.  This harmonious circumambulation  symbolizes the unity of the people as one in worship of the One God.

The large cube-like structure in the middle is the Kaaba, the most sacred Islamic site.  When Muslims around the world stop to pray, it is toward the Kaaba they are kneeling.  Part of the granite structure is the Station of Ibrahim.  It’s said that the impression of Abraham’s feet are there from where he stood during the construction.

There are many different theories and legends about the Black Stone that is located on the Kaaba.  Some believe the angel Gabriel gave it to Ismael, son of Abraham, to put on the temple.  There are amazing stories ranging from it being a meteorite to the remains of the angel from the Garden of Eden turned to stone when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.  Touching or kissing the Black Stone is an important aspect of the Hajj, as the Prophet Mohammed ﷺ kissed it when he saw it.

The large fabric that is draped over the Kaaba is the Kiswah.  It’s a beautiful embroidered piece made of silk and stitched with gold.  It is draped only one day a year during the Hajj and a new cloth is created each year.

This painting by Reem Nazir shows the Kiswah being lowered as the pilgrims walk around the base.  I love how it shows it mid-process, with the lowering ropes visible, as well as the back side of the fabric.  She shows a surprising amount of detail in the embroidery, as well as the small objects hanging in the foreground.

Reem Nazir is a Saudi Arabian born artist, but has lived and worked around the world.  She paints a wide range of subjects from landscape to portrait to still life, all of which are known for their bold color and heavy, layered palette knife work.  Without a doubt, my favorites come from her series entitled Hajj Journey Through the Ages, which includes 43 paintings.  These works were based on historical photographs and first hand accounts from Hajjees.

To learn more about this series and the artist, please check out this interview:  Reem Nazir

The Tawaf is just one segment of the Hajj.  Please learn more about the journey.  Sending peace and love to those making the journey this week.

o-HAJJ

 

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Adoration of the Magi

Albrecht Durer   Oil on Wood  1504

The story of the Magi, the Three Kings, the Wise men, however you know them, it’s one of my favorite Biblical stories.  I love the mystery of who they were, where they were coming from, and where they went after they saw baby Jesus.  Matthew says “they returned to their country by another route” in order to avoid King Herod.  But where was “their country?”

Most Western Protestants and Catholics follow the tradition of three Magi, although some traditions say there were up to 12.  Traditionally, there are three men, Melchior of Persia, Casper of India, China, or “the Orient”, and Balthazar the African Wiseman, possibly from Ethiopia.  They are known by different names and countries in different traditions.

I’ve always had this nagging question no one seems to have a good answer for.  What would three men of such different ages (traditionally 20, 40, and 60) from incredibly different backgrounds be traveling together for?  Some traditions even suggest Balthazar was Muslim.

I think it seems more likely that all three were Zoroastrian.  This would probably explain not only why the three were traveling together, but also the use of the term “magi.”  Although it was also associated with magicians, alchemists, and astrologers, it was also commonly used to describe followers of Zoroaster.  (A people I hope to expand on in a later blog.)

The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which are another mystery.  Who gives a baby incense and embalming oil?  Of course, the symbolism is heavy in this story.  Gold for a king, frankincense for God, and myrrh for death and the subsequent Resurrection.

Still, what mother wants to deal with that?  Oh great, let me lug this stuff around while I ride a donkey.  You could have just paid for a room at the inn so we weren’t still hanging out in this stable 12 days later.  Of course, I may be a bit more practical than one that has just experienced a virgin birth and is by now quite accustomed to visits by angels.  A surprise visit in your recovery stable from some random foreign dignitaries must have seemed quite in the ordinary.

I’ve pasted the story from Matthew 2 below.

Albrecht Durer is one of my favorite artists, and is by far my favorite printmaker.  Since this blog is already long, I’ll save his story for another time.  I’m sure I’ll post a block print of his sometime soon.

I do want to mention the person that commissioned this painting.  Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, commissioned the painting in 1504 for the church in Wittenberg.  You may think he or the church seem vaguely familiar.  He was an early ally of Martin Luther. The church at Wittenberg is the same church where Luther nailed the 95 theses, prompting the Protestant Reformation.  Frederick actually hid Martin Luther at Wartburg Castle to avoid arrest.

You can read a blog I wrote about another piece involving a dream Frederick III had about Martin Luther here.  Frederick III’s Dream

At first glance at this painting you may just see three Magi, but you’ll notice there are actually four.  Kneeling in front of the baby is Melchior, the oldest, traditionally aged 60, and representing Persia.  He presents gold.  Over his shoulder is Balthazar, representing Africa or Arabia.  He’s the youngest and is presenting the gift of myrrh.

And although it seems obvious that person next to him must be Caspar, I disagree.  Caspar is the Magi from India, or some even say China.  To me, the figure on the far right with his hand in his bag is more likely the third of the traditional Wise men.  His complexion, facial features, and attire show this man represents the East.

Then who is the long-haired man in the middle?  Albrecht Durer himself.  The artist created several self portraits, and there are just too many similarities to ignore.

Now most scholars look at this painting and say the three men in the center are the Magi, including the obvious self-portrait.  The fourth man is always considered a servant.  But why would there be only a servant for Caspar and not the others?   And why is he presented in such an “ethnic” way?  No, I’m sticking to my claim that Durer represents someone else, possibly one of the 12 Magi, or maybe just himself.  There are so many different stories about these men, and practically every nation claims one of them represents their culture.  Some even believe one was from Tuscany.  I think he’s representing Europe.

I love the wonderful architecture in this painting.  There are arches connected to what seems to be a crumbling wall.  I especially like the roof over the cow and donkey that is attached to what seems to be part of an arch.  Notice that little detail near the top that looks like it’s some sort of pin keeping the curved  block attached.

And the animals, although we can’t see much of them, are marvelous.  Look at the expression on that donkey.  The fur on the face of the cow is so rich and varied.  I just want to reach in and pat him on the nose.

And of course, we can’t leave out my favorite part, the stag beetle.  On first glance, my thought was whoa, what happened to the proportions?  Then I remembered seeing another wonderful painting of Durer’s, one of this same beetle.  I can’t seem to come up with a good reason for this, but for some reason Christ was sometimes symbolized as a beetle during the 16th century.  Whatever the reason, it makes for an interesting and visually appealing part of the painting.

durer

You can read a very insightful essay about this piece that I enjoyed here: Durer Magi

If you’re anything like me, the story of the Magi will continue to be an intriguing  story and mystery for years to come.  I hope you look up other versions of the story you know.

Happy Epiphany!

Here is the Biblical account of the story of the Magi as found in Matthew 2.  It is the only one of the Gospels to include the story:

The Magi Visit the Messiah

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

 

Judith Slaying Holofernes

Artemisia Gentileschi  Oil on Canvas  1620

I have to admit, until recently, I had no idea the story of Judith slaying Holofernes had anything to do with Hanukkah.  I’m awfully glad that there is a connection, because I’ve been wondering how I was going to work this painting into my calendar.  It’s really not clear if it has any actual relation to Hanukkah at all, but it seems that in some cultures, the story of Judith (or Yehudit) is told on Hanukkah as an example of Jewish faith and courage overcoming a larger force.

The story of Judith can be found in the Apocrypha, as she didn’t make the cut in either Jewish texts or the Protestant Old Testament.  The Book of Judith is considered canon by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.  It’s easy to jump to the “it was excluded because it’s about a female hero” reasoning, but it’s more likely because it is incredibly historically inaccurate (even for the first or second century BCE), and is generally considered a parable or possibly even the first historical fiction.  (She says Nebuchadnezzar is the King of Assyria, but he was actually Babylonian.)  Regardless, it’s a wonderful piece of literature and a great heroine story.

You should definitely take the time to read the story of Judith yourself, but here is the super abridged version.

Judith was a widow living in the Israelite town of Bethulia.  Holofernes and his army of Assyrians besieged the town by cutting off the mountain pass and access to water.  In thirty four days the town ran out of water.

The townspeople gathered and tried to persuade the town elder, Uzziah, to surrender.  Surely they would all die if not.  A devout man, Uzziah persuades the townspeople to have faith for five more days,  their God would provide.

When Judith heard the Uzziah put a timeline on her God to rescue them, she was appalled.  In chapter 8:12 she says, ” 12 What right do you have to put God to the test as you have done today? Who are you to put yourselves in God’s place in dealing with human affairs? 13 It is the Lord Almighty that you are putting to the test! Will you never learn?” She actually tears into the leaders with a very lengthy speech, but you get the idea.

So Judith takes matters into her own hands.  She vows that before the five days have passed, the Lord will use her to rescue her people.  One little thing–no questions asked.  Uzziah agrees.

She prays (again, quite lengthy).  She says in chapter 9:9 “I am only a widow, but give me the strength to carry out my plan. 10 Use my deceitful words to strike them all dead, master and slave alike. Let a woman’s strength break their pride.”

Judith had been in mourning for her husband for three years and four months.  She wore ony a sackcloth.  Although she was very beautiful, she did not adorn herself.  That is, of course, until the night she went to the camp of Holofernes.  You can guess what happens next.

She put on her most beautiful clothing and jewelry, adorned herself with ribbons in her hair.  Although she had fasted while in mourning, she and her slave now carried wine, roasted barley, dried figs and delicious bread.  She convinced the guards, not only with her beauty, but with her wit and wisdom, that she was indeed Hebrew, but was running away because their God had abandoned them.  Surely they would all perish any day now.

Over the course of the next four days, Judith beguiled not only Holofernes, but his guards and servants as well.  They were not guarded and could do as they wished.  All the while, Judith was careful to keep with her faith, praying and eating only what her slave prepared for her.

So of course, the time came for action.  It’s an old story.  Woman meets man.  Man lusts for woman.  Woman plays along.  Man gets drunk.  Woman slices off man’s head and saves her city from certain destruction.  Again, the actual Book of Judith is probably where you should read the story.  It really is a great story of faith, conviction, bravery, and well, gore.

Artemisia Gentileschi has an equally riveting story.  The daughter of an artist in early 17th century, it was soon apparent her talent outshined that of her father, who himself was a well-respected painter and contemporary of Caravaggio.  Although not unheard of, it was rare for a female artist to succeed.  Her father recognized her great talent and did what he could to help in her success.

When she surpassed him in skill, he arranged for an apprenticeship with Agostino Tassi, another well-respected artist.  However, Tassi raped the 17-year-old Artemisia,  at which time the girl yelled out for her female chaperone, the only adult female figure in her life.  The woman ignored her cries, and many believed had even colluded with Tassi before the rape.

What followed was a very long, drawn out, gruelling  seven month trial when Tassi refused to marry Artemisia after taking her virginity.  Apparently, the gynecological examination she was forced to endure wasn’t proof enough.   She was subjected to torture, actual, literal torture of thumbscrews to “verify” her testimony.  At the time, there was only a case if the victim was a virgin.

Tassi was sentenced to one year in prison.  He never served any time.  Many people look at her paintings and see the anger, the bitterness, the hurt, the betrayal.  But what I mostly see in this painting is resolve.  The expression of Judith’s face isn’t menacing, it’s determined.  In her mind, he’s getting exactly what he deserves.

Artemisia Gentileschi actually did two versions of this painting.  This is the second, and I believe the superior of the two, now found in the Uffizi.  Although both have the amazing Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro, she just seems to have worked it out a bit more in the later version.  The proportions are better, the shadows are deeper, and the blood, oh, the blood.  Notice in the second painting the blood spraying from Holofernes’ neck.  Yeah, I’m betting she also believed he was getting what he deserved.

af5c34b5f0596e74c472735f44940eb8ab6eeda4

Left-1611  Right 1620

In addition to these two paintings of Judith, she also painted the glorious Judith and Maidservant in 1613.  And truly, this is my favorite of all Judith paintings by any artist.  Although it doesn’t show the act of slicing his neck, it shows something better–Judith’s wisdom.

Most paintings of this moment show Judith or her servant holding the head by its hair, ala David and Goliath.  However, that’s not how it happens in the story.  Although Judith had the run of the camp, I don’t think she could have made it back to town swinging the head of the leader of the army around.

That’s why her plan was so genius.  The guards were used to her slave carrying a basket, as Judith would only eat her food.  No one even noticed when they strolled out of camp with a little something extra.

Not your typical Hanukkah story, I know.  But I hope you’ll enjoy learning more about Judith and Artemisia Gentileschi on your own.  Maybe you can add (possibly a less gory version) to your Hanukkah tradition.  Happy Hanukkah!

393px-gentileschi_judith1

 

 

 

 

 

Be Be

Paul Gauguin  Oil on Canvas  1896

I was having a hard time deciding which of the hundreds of thousands of Nativity paintings I should share for Christmas.  Then I remembered this very interesting and unusual painting by Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin during his second stay in Tahiti.  I thought I would share it as it is not very well-known and is quite an unusual take on the very familiar scene.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of Gauguin.  I prefer the Renaissance masters for religious images like the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Pieta.  But it’s the history, the story behind the story that interests me with Gauguin.  Like Picasso, it’s not the aestheticism I enjoy, it’s the reason he painted what he did.  (To read my blog on Picasso’s Guernica,  click here Guernica).

Two Decembers ago, Kip and I attended a lecture at the St. Louis Art Museum about Gauguin’s time in Tahiti and its influence on his work, which was quite interesting. Although he originally left his wife and kids to go to Tahiti to get inspired and get rich, it seems that he spent a great deal of his time conquering very young teenage girls.  He returned to Paris to a relatively positive reception to his new work, but it wasn’t long before he returned to Tahiti to take up residence (without his wife and children).

The first time he went to Tahiti was only about two years after his short-lived stay at The Yellow House with Vincent Van Gogh, which ended with Van Gogh cutting off his own ear.  Although their relationship was strained to say the least, they continued corresponding until Van Gogh’s suicide about six months later.  Although it doesn’t seem that Gauguin used the loss of his contemporary as a reason behind the first trip, I can certainly understand how it could have been.

Van Gogh desperately wanted Gauguin to be the first of his friends to join him at The Yellow House to start an artist colony.  When Gauguin discovered he couldn’t tolerate living in Arles with a genius that happened to also be unbearable to live with, he had to go.  Van Gogh never recovered.  Gauguin had to feel some regret, some remorse, and to some degree, like the cause of Van Gogh’s quick decline and death.  A remote island full of beautiful young girls seems like a logical place to go.

In 1895 Gauguin returned to Tahiti to live with his very young Tahitian wife, Pau’ura, who was also his most widely used model for many of his nudes.  It was during this period in 1896 when he painted Be Be and Nativity.   Pau’ura was most likely the model for Mary in Nativity, seen below.

nativity

Nativity   Paul Gauguin Oil on Canvas  1896

It’s wildly annoying to me that Be Be and Nativity are not in the same museum, as they are obviously meant to be viewed together.  Painted in the same year, both paintings show the same scene from different angles.  Nativity shows a Tahitian Mary on a very yellow bed, with animals around her.  The color scheme is so typical of Gauguin, bright, bright yellow with rich browns.

But Be Be is the painting I enjoy the most.  At first glance one might think it’s just a painting of a Tahitian woman holding a baby.  Then you notice the angel to her right, and the halo encircling the baby’s head.  The same livestock are in front of her as in Nativity.  And then you notice at the very top of the painting Mary herself, also with a glow about her.  Then it seems obvious that this is indeed, the same location, the same baby, the same stable.

So who is this woman?  Some believe she is Pau’ura.  Honestly, I don’t buy that.  She may have been the model, but I have serious doubts that a playboy like Gauguin was so infatuated with his young wife he made her the center of a religious painting, particularly because he had multiple young girls in his bed.

I tend to believe she is a representative of humankind in general.  Mary is long ago, in the background.  Jesus is being held by the native girl front and center.  She is us.  She is every Christian that holds Jesus as the center of their religion.  She is just a regular, normal girl, with Christ at the center of all things.

Today Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.  They continue to hold the Christ child lovingly, just as the young Tahitian girl does for Gauguin.  Merry Christmas!

 

 

Captain Jean-Luc Picard

Picard

Olga Shvartsur  Watercolor and Colored Pencil 2016

June 16 is the day on which we celebrate one of our most beloved captains, Captain Jean-Luc Picard.  Traditionally, Captain Picard Day is celebrated more as a children’s holiday. School children across the galaxy are encouraged to create portraits and sculptures in the likeness of Captain Picard.  As such, it is also seen as one of the great art holidays of the year.

Captain Picard was born in Labarre, France and went on to have a long and distinguished career in the Federation.  After his stint as the First Officer of the USS Stargazer he became Captain of the USS Enterprise-D.  He was also a POW survivor of Borg assimilation.  His Federation honors and awards are numerous.

An amateur archaeologist, an avid reader, an equestrian, flute player, and a diplomat, Captain Picard is a well-rounded role model for children of all ages.  He was married for 35 years to his wife Eline and had two sons and a grandchild on Kataan, which was only an astonishingly short 25 minutes on the Enterprise.

Olga Shvartsur is a Seattle-based artist best known for her portraiture in graphite.  She has recently started using watercolor and colored pencil, which are the mediums of this piece.  You can see a lot more of her work on her etsy site here:  OlechkaDesign

There are a lot of portraits of Captain Picard out there, so it was hard to choose one.  I really like the way she used the colored pencils to get the detail of his skin and face, but uses watercolor on the uniform and the starry background.  It’s such a great likeness of him.

So enjoy a cup of Earl Grey, hot.  Read some Shakespeare.  And of course, do what should be done on Captain Picard Day, create a likeness of our favorite Captain of your own.  Make it so.

 

St. George and the Dragon

Vittore Carpaccio  Tempera on Panel  1502

Traditionally, the people of England celebrate St. George’s Day on April 23 to commemorate his martyrdom on this date in 303 AD.  Like most saints, it’s very difficult to separate historical fact from myth.  St. George’s story swirls with contradictions and mystery.  I won’t even bother to try to get to the bottom of it,  I’ll just hit some highlights.

St. George was a Roman soldier in the time of Emperor Diocletian in the late 200s CE.  His father had been a Roman army official in what is modern day Turkey.  His mother was from Palestine.  They were both Christians and raised George in their faith.

Possibly because the emperor knew his father, George rose quickly through the ranks and was part of the Imperial guard by his mid 20s.  On February 24, 303 CE Diocletian issued an edict essentially demanding the conversion of all of his army.  Each soldier was to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods.  Not only did George very publicly refuse, he declared he was a Christian.  Although offered riches and land, he held to his beliefs.

He knew his execution was imminent, so he gave his money and possessions to the poor.  He suffered through torture, although the stories of his torture vary widely.  Most stories say he died on three separate occasions and was brought back to life.  Eventually, he was decapitated to finish him off.

There are many, many stories and myths surrounding the slaying of the dragon.  Most involve some sort of damsel in distress.  There is one version that I like best.  It says that Diocletian’s wife, Empress Alexandra, witnessed George’s torture and suffering.  She was so moved by his resolve that she too converted to Christianity.  She is the damsel present in the story.

The dragon is the representation of Diocletian himself.  George “slayed” Diocletian not by killing him, but by standing by his faith.  By doing so, his death brings Empress Alexandra to the light, freeing her from her unchristian life and missing out on eternal afterlife.

It’s said his story was brought back to England by the Crusaders.  The story also spread to the Eastern Roman Empire and eventually to Georgia, where he is also the patron saint.  No, the country was not named for him, but they don’t really mind if you think that.  There are numerous stories of St. George protecting armies and heartening soldiers.

Vittore Carpaccio was a Venetian artist in the late 15th, early 16th centuries.  He was one of the early masters of the Venetian Renaissance and studied under Bellini.  His style evolved into what is considered “orientalist,” which is the category in which  St. George and the Dragon falls, generally meaning he used a Middle Eastern setting with more accurate architecture and details.

Like many versions of the St. George story, this painting is set in Beirut.  The buildings in the background are obviously designed to represent Lebanon.  The landscape is sand with little vegetation.  It is slightly annoying to me that St. George is blonde as his father was Turkish and his mother was Palestinian, but I guess you can’t have everything.

In the far right you see the woman, Empress Alexandra in my mind.  She’s in prayer to be saved.  St. George is on his stallion slaying the dragon with his lance.  And scattered on the ground are body parts and skulls, representatives of the victims of the beast.

Regardless of how you view the St. George story, I encourage you to take a close look at this wonderfully macabre painting.  I also encourage you to read some of the many, many versions of his story.  Happy St. George’s Day!