The View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654

Egbert van der Poel Oil on Oak 1654

Around 11:00 AM on October 12, 1654, watchman Cornelius Soetens entered the black powder storage facility in Delft, a former convent, with an unknown visitor.  A half an hour later, one quarter of the city was destroyed.  An estimated 300 lives were lost, thousands injured.  40 tons of powder (80,000 to 90,000 pounds)  exploded, the equivalent of 22.5 tons of TNT.

Known at the Delft Thunderclap (Der Delftse Donderslag), it remains one of the worst non-nuclear explosions in history.  It was heard as far as the North Sea, 93 miles away.  200 houses were razed, an additional 300 were damaged. The loss of human life could have been much worse, but many people were attending a fair at The Hague and were not in their homes that morning.

The painting above by Egbert van der Poel was painted contemporaneously.  Mostly associated with fiery scenes of Rotterdam, he and his family were living in Delft at the time of the explosion.  The destroyed building in the foreground is sometimes misidentified as the powder store, although it is actually a home. Note the people carrying salvaged items.  In the center, two men assist a collapsed woman. The space to the right with the open space and sheered trees is actually the scene of the explosion.  The building and immediate surrounding area was completely leveled.  This may have been a cathartic process for Van den Poel, as at least one source notes he lost his only son in the explosion.

Also tragically lost was Carel Fabritius, often considered the most promising student of Rembrandt.  He, along with his student Mattias Spoors and church deacon Simon Decker, were working on a painting together when the event occurred.  Although he survived the initial explosion, he died only a few days later from his wounds, as did Spoors and Decker.  His studio was completely destroyed, leaving only about a dozen works.  Today, only a handful of his paintings survive.  He was a mere 32 years old at the time of his death.

 

AViewOfDelft Fabritius
A View of Delft, Oil on Canvas, Carel Fabritius, 1852, National Gallery, London

     A View of Delft was painted in 1652.  The large church is Nieuwe Kerk. Two years after this painting was completed, the walls were dislocated and roof and many of the windows collapsed during the explosion.  In the painting by Van der Poel it is seen in the background directly behind the ruins of the home.

Known for experimentation with perspective, this painting may have been for a perspective box or “peepshow.”  These were kind of like the 3D viewers of the 17 century.  A box was built around the painting, often painted to be the exterior of a building.  The viewer would look through a small peephole for a view of the interior of a building.  This particular painting was probably curved from behind to give the viewer even more of a 3D feeling.  Note the curvature of sidewalk.

The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch, Oil on Panel, Carel Fabritius, 1654, The Hague

Mainly because this will most likely be my only blog to feature Carel Fabritius, I would be remiss if I didn’t include a mention of the tiny by great work, The Goldfinch. Although it’s only a 9×13 panel, it packs a big punch and has quickly become one of my favorite paintings over the past few years.  Again expressing his interest in perspective, Fabritius shows off his excellent use of trompe-l’oeil to give the box a three-dimensional look.  I especially love how the gold perch curves and attaches to the wall on the left side, the shadow perfectly angled to look as if it is actually protruding from the panel.

The bird itself is a beautiful European goldfinch.  Its face is perfectly foreshortened with excellent proportions for the beak and eyes.  A delicate chain gives the bird little room to move, but the loop attaching the intricate chain to the perch is expertly crafted into a perfect oval.  The coloring of the wall behind is really a deviation from his teacher, Rembrandt.  Painted the year he died, this painting shows the growth of Fabritius and  gives a feel of what he could have been.

His contemporary, the great Dutch master Vermeer, would take up this  light coloring of backgrounds after the death of Fabritius.  It’s possible they had a teacher student relationship, but there isn’t much evidence.  It’s more likely Vermeer was  influenced by an already established painter that belonged to the same guild.   Upon Vermeer’s death nearly 20 years later, several of Fabritius’ remaining paintings were inventoried as part of his collection.

It was after both of their deaths when Arnold Bon printed a poem by Dirk van Bleyswijck,  Beschryvinge der stad Delft (A Description of Delft, 1689) about Carel Fabritius, which in part read:

Thus did this Phoenix, to our loss, expire,
In the midst, and at the height of his career,
But fortunately there arose from his fire,
VERMEER who masterfully trod his path.

Read an excellent article about Fabritius and his heavy influence on the School of Delft here:  School of Delft

Visit The National Gallery to learn more about both The View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654 and A View of Delft. And Mauritshuis to learn more about The Goldfinch.

 

*Description of The View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654 by Van der Poel:  Landscape format oil painting.  Top two thirds are a dark sky with five flying birds. In the distance, two large churches and the town hall stand erect.  In the foreground, several destroyed homes and buildings.  At left, a building with only two side walls remain. People in 17th century attire, bent backs, carrying containers from ruins.  A collapsed woman is assisted by two men.  To the right, a group is gathered in a large empty space surrounded by a circle of debris.  A row of white trees are stripped bare.

*Description of A View of Delft by Carel Fabritius: Left side is foreground. Profile of man with downturned moustache and large black hat, right arm bent at elbow, thumb at chin.  Next to him, a lute.  Right side is the background.  A large Gothic church in light stone and grey roof, the Nieuwe Kerk,  sits on a corner.   The sidewalk curves around it.  Blue sky with white puffy clouds above.

*Description of The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius: Small blue grey feeder box attached to a light grey wall.  Two gold perches surround the box.  Attached to the top perch is a ring connected to a chain around the ankle of a small yellow and brown bird.  It sits with its body in profile, face turned out.  Signed C. Fabritive 1654 at bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Queen Victoria in Her Coronation Robes

Charles Robert Leslie  Oil on Canvas  1838

“Farewell best beloved, here at last I shall rest with thee, with thee in Christ I shall rise.” On this day, January 22 of 1901, Queen Victoria died.  She was 82 years old.  Her reign as Queen of Great Britain, Defender of the Faith, and Empress of India was 64 years.  Until very recently when Queen Elizabeth II reached her Sapphire Jubilee, she was the longest reigning monarch in British history.  The above quote is inscribed above the mausoleum door that is the resting place for both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

I’ve always loved to learn about royal families, and Victoria and Albert rank just below Henry VIII and above Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in my obsession.  Victoria and I have in common our shorter stature, although for once I’m slighter taller than someone.  I also always imagined we shared similar personality traits, as many of portraits show a stern expression that I read as logical, precise, and no-nonsense.

We also now share the nearly unendurable grief of the loss of a partner at the young age of 42.  I used to find her seclusion after Albert’s death intriguing and romantic, but I never thought she lost her ability to lead without her partner.  I now realize she didn’t lose her abilities, she simply lost her will.  And although I don’t stand at the head of an empire that never sleeps, I can certainly relate to her withdrawal.  She and I are more alike than I had imagined.

This portrait was painted shortly after her coronation in 1837.  She kneels at the altar in Westminster Abbey in her coronation robes. Her hands are crossed over her heart in preparation to pour her soul into her country.  Her eyes are lowered in a sense of solemnity.  The luscious gold fabric engulfs her small frame, as many envisioned the task as monarch would similarly engulf her.  Her critics were wrong.

Learn more about the reign of Queen Victoria here:  Queen Victoria.

Charles Robert Leslie showed an ability for art at a young age and left Philadelphia to study in England.  His most well-known works are scenes from great literature, like Shakespeare and Moliere. He was also a writer himself, as he wrote a biography of arguably the greatest (if not, certainly most beloved) English painter John Constable, and was also a prolific letter writer.

This painting is located (fittingly) at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  See its listing here:  V&A

 

 

 

 

 

Over the Top

John Nash  Oil on Canvas  1918

Eighty men went over the top on December 30, 1917.  Sixty eight were killed or wounded in the first minutes.  They were the Artists Rifles, the 1st Battalion, and this was the Welsh Ridge counter-attack. This was the Great War.

The Artists Rifles were formed in the 1860s as a volunteer group after the Crimean War.  They were made up of painters, poets, architects, engravers, musicians, actors, and artists of all types.  Many of Britain’s greatest (and some of my favorite) artists served with them, including William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, John William Waterhouse, and the list literally goes on through the thousands.  These earliest volunteers had something else in common, they were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Before they were brothers in arms, they were brothers in art.

On this day, they were given the order to leave their trench and make their way to Marcoing near Cambrai.  John Nash was among the 12 men that made it to their destination. Three months later he painted this oil painting.  It hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London. In 1918 he became an official war artist.

Over the Top is important historically because it is one of the few officially commissioned pieces that show a specific action during the war.  It must have been both therapeutic and heart wrenching to paint this piece only three months after watching most of his division meet their fates.  In the trenches you see two men already down, another in the snow in the foreground and one in the far background.  You only see the feet of the soldier closes to the viewer, but they appear to be down as well.  Another soldier kneels, head down, his helmet on the ground in front of him.  Next to him is a soldier slumped forward, head in the snow.

The men that are walking are hunched, shoulders in, trudging through the snow.  One thing I find interesting is none are holding up their weapons, they’re just carrying them.  They were exiting the trench at an order to advance, but judging by the bodies around them, they must have seen action in the relatively recent past.

After the war, Nash mostly worked on landscapes, but the war never seemed to leave his paintings.  There seemed to continue to be a sort of spindly, dreary feel to them, like the painting below.  The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble was painted in 1922.

The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble exhibited 1922 by John Nash 1893-1977
John Nash, The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble 1922 Oil on canvas  Tate Gallery

During World War I, 10,256 officers were commissioned after training with the Artists Rifles. The regiment has been part of multiple engagements, including the Boer War, World War I and II, the Malayan Emergency, and even Afghanistan.

To see a list of some of the artists and examples of their work, click here:  Artist Rifles Members.

To read an interesting article from the Telegraph by Rupert Christiansen, click here: Telegraph

To read another article from the Telegraph about how Nash became a war artist, click here: War artist

To read previous blogs about some of the members, click here: Death of the Pharaoh’s Firstborn SonThe Magic Circle

 

 

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

 

The Carnival in Rome

Jose Benlliure y Gil  Oil on Panel  1881

Fastnacht Day, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Carnivale, Pancake Day–whatever you call it, celebrate it today!  How do you celebrate? Eat, drink, be merry!  And don’t just eat, eat fatty, rich foods like fastnacht and paczki (doughnuts), pancakes, king cakes, or anything else you may not be able to eat starting tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

Today marks the last day of Shrovetide, the period before Lent.  It is a time of self-examination for Christians.  The general idea is self-reflection leads to repentance and the absolution of sins.  It is a way to prepare for the somber season of lent.  And by prepare, I mean eat alot.

Jose Benlliure y Gil is a Spanish painter of the late 19th and early 20th century.  He is known for both his beautiful portraiture, as well as his work based on flowers and floral work.  This painting is a lovely combination of both.

To me, this painting is somewhere between Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist, and I love it.  There’s so much happening with the flowers and the costumes and the banners.  My favorite is the woman on the left in red lowering a basket of flowers from the balcony.  Who is she lowering them to?  Or is an admirer sending them up?

And I  also like the child on the right.  It looks like a young person has just tossed flowers and maybe pamphlets or flyers over the balcony.  You can see blue papers or pieces of fabric and flowers floating down in front.

The cool tones of the palette, especially cerulean blue, contrast wonderfully against the warm grey walls.  And the texture is just layer after layer.  The blotchy walls, the fabric, the flowers.  There is just great depth in this painting that I enjoy.

Please check out Museo CarmenThyssen Malaga for a description from the museum where it is housed.

I hope you have enjoyed your final day of Mardi Gras!

 

 

jose-benlliure
Jose Benlliure y Gil  Self Portrait

 

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Paul Delaroche  Oil on Canvas  1833

On this day, February 12, 1554, teenage former queen of England Lady Jane Grey was beheaded at the Tower of London.  Her cousin, Edward VI, named her as his successor on his deathbed in 1553.  He was bypassing both of his half-sisters, Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn.

Many historians believe the king was pressured by his advisor, who happened to be Jane Grey’s father-in-law, the Duke of Nuthumberland.  And although that may have played a role in his decision, I think he genuinely believed Jane Grey was the right choice for the role.  She was well-educated and well liked, having lived with his step-mother and sixth wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr.  It’s said her husband, Lord Guidford Dudley, was the most well liked man in all of England.  And most importantly, she was Protestant.

Of course, she also had a very strong claim to the throne.  She was the granddaughter of Mary, King Henry VIII’s younger sister.  According to his will and the line of succession she was third in line.  Had it not been for a change of heart to add his daughters back in line late in his life, she would have been the first in line.  Many at the time refused to recognize the change in succession, making Jane Grey the most legitimate candidate in their eyes.

However, the line of succession set forth by Henry VIII was clear.  More importantly, Jane Grey’s supporters abandoned her as soon as it was clear that the tide was turning in Mary’s favor.  The young queen, only 16 or 17 years old, was left to face a charge of treason, along with her husband and father.  The treason charge was based on the fact that she signed papers “Jane the Queen” during those nine days.  Although there was an unsuccessful rebellion, Wyatt’s Rebellion, to fight for her cause, it’s generally believed she was not involved in any way.

There is an amazing account of the execution of Lady Jane Gray called The Chronicle of Queen Jane, and of Two Years of Queen Mary.  Below is an excerpt from this anonymous work.

The hangman went to her to help her of therewith; then she desyred him to let her alone, turning towardes her two gentlewomen, who helped her off therwith, and also with her frose paast” and neckercher, geving to her a fayre handkercher to knytte about her eyes.

Then the hangman kneeled downe, and asked her forgevenesse, whome she forgave most willingly. Then he willed her to stand upon the strawe: which doing, she sawe the block.

Then she sayd, booke, good mayster lieuftenaunte, therefore I shall as a frende desyre you, and as a christian require you, to call uppon God to encline your harte to his lawes, to quicken you in his waye, and not to take the worde of trewethe utterlye oute of youre mouthe. Lyve styll to dye, that by deathe you may purchase eternall life, and remembre howe the ende of Mathusael, whoe, as we reade in the scriptures, was the longeste liver that was of a manne, died at the laste: for, as the precher sayethe, there is a tyme to be borne, and a tyme to dye; and the daye of deathe is better than the daye of oure birthe. Youres, as the Lorde knowethe, as a frende, JANE DUDDELEY.”

Here is a link to the book in its entirety: Chronicle of Queen Jane

Paul Delaroche was a highly lauded and critically acclaimed French history painter.  His tendency to paint British historical events made him very popular in England as well as France.  His scholarly dedication to historical accuracy made him popular with art critics and academics alike.

This painting, although showing one brief moment, has the ability to tell such a story.  The former queen’s ladies wail at the loss of their mistress.  One had been her maid since infancy.  Lady Jane Grey reaches her hand out for the block, unable to see.  Her white dress seems to remind the viewer of her youth and innocence, as well as her willingness to accept the punishment of her cousin, the queen.  The executioner looks calm and patient, ready to do his duty.

It’s such a beautiful painting for such a dark moment.  I find it so striking and lovely, and much more powerful than a gruesome, bloody painting would have been.  And although Delaroche took some liberties with the setting, he did a superb job of depicting an important historical event accurately and wonderfully.

When you think about it, Lady Jane Grey is just another person destroyed in the wake of Henry VIII.  His muddled succession wishes, the division between not only his counrtymen, but his own children in their views of religion, and his overall disregard for human life he seems to have passed down to his heirs.  So today we remember Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Day Queen, her life given in the service of sovereign and country.

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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

 

 

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