The itinerant John the Baptist has baptized Christ. In the Gospels, John announces the coming of Jesus and is therefore considered the «forerunner». He died a cruel death by beheading. One of the variants of the story is that his death was the result of the wish of Herod’s stepdaughter, Salome.

There have been many renderings of the beheading of St John the Baptist by Salome.

In my view the best is the interpretation by the sublime brush of Caravaggio.

Salome looks away, although she is carrying the tray with the motionless head. The sword-man contemplates the fate of humans, while the servant observes in silence. This is a silent motionless picture full of tension.

There have also been a few «staged» photos. Frantisek Dritkol’s black and white photo shows an ecstatic Salome, delirious with joy, holding the head to her chest.

Finally, in prints Aubrey Beardsley’s depiction is minimal, but in my view highly effective.

Umayyad Mosque in Damascus Syria, built on the Christian Basilica dedicated to St John the Baptist, is one of the places claiming to have St John’s head.

Umayyad Mosque: St John's Shrine

The mosque holds a shrine which still today may contain the head of John the Baptist(Yahya), honored as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims alike. (Source wikipedia).

There is no better end to such a quick tour of the macabre end to the story, than Salome’s dance as interpreted by Karita Mattila. to the music of Richard Strauss’s opera «Salome».

The opera is based on a the Oscar Wilde’s play «Salome».

«In Salome, Oscar Wilde expresses a dangerous relationship between sight and sexual desire that leads to death.  The play depicts a night in a royal court on which Herod, the Tetrarch of Judea, and his wife, Herodias, hold a dinner party for some Jewish officials.  Herodias’s daughter Salome leaves the party and occupies the terrace, where she attracts the gaze of other male characters, while she herself becomes attracted to the prophet, Iokanaan.  Her carnal desire for Iokanaan leads to his beheading, an act that brings her sexual gratification and leads her to kiss the lips of his severed head.  Similarly, Herod comes to desire his step-daughter Salome, and, after persuading her to dance a highly sexualized dance, he is disgusted when she kisses Iokanaan’s lips and orders his soldiers to kill her.»

More on the play in the excellent article by Leland Tabares, which is the source of the above summary.

Birgit Nilsson as Salome

“A scherzo with a fatal conclusion” was Richard Strauss’ own tongue-in-cheek description of Salome. Upon hearing the freshly composed score played at the keyboard, his father—a famous musician himself—declared that it conjured the feeling of countless bugs crawling inside his pants. (From Washington National Opera’s feature article on Salome).

Images of Theotokos, the Mother of God – From North to South

Κυριακή, 15 Αυγούστου, 2010

Today we are celebrating the Dormition of the Mother of God, Theotokos, and I want to share with you some of my favorite images of Her.  I will start from the North of Europe, and the turn from Gothic to Early Renaissance. The direction is from North to South.

The North begins with Jan van Eyck, the Master who opened the way for the rejuvenation of art in the north, for the decisive transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance. His influence is visible in the works of all the Masters who succeeded him.

Jan van Eyck: Lucca Madonna c. 1430

Rogier van der Weyden was an Old Master who following the lead of van Eyck, pioneers Early Renaissance in Northern Europe (second half of 15th century).

Rogier van der Weyden: Head of the Virgin, c. 1440

This extraordinary study of the head of the Virgin is one of very few surviving drawings that can be attributed with any certainty to the early Flemish masters, and one of an even smaller number of drawings with a generally accepted attribution to Rogier van der Weyden. Its extreme sobriety and intensity of expression are utterly characteristic of van der Weyden’s work.

Source: Louvre Museum, Prints and Drawings, Head of the Virgin

Rogier van der Weyden: Madonna and Child c. 1460

Martin Schongauer was a follower of van der Weyden and a superb engraver. He was born and worked in the town of Colmar in Alsace.  The Madonna in a Rose Garden is his masterpiece. It can be seen in the Dominican Church, in Colmar.

Martin Schongauer: Mary in a Rose Garden

Matthias Gruenewald was one of Schongauer’s students. His masterpiece is the Isenheim Altarpiece, to which I have dedicated a separate post. In this post I want to present another of his major works, the Stuppach Madonna.

Around 6 km/4 miles from Bad Mergentheim’s old town in the suburb Stuppach is a small, unremarkable chapel that houses a remarkable painting, the Stuppacher Madonna. This painting of Mary with Child was removed from the Maria Schnee Kapelle in Aschaffenburg during the 1525 Peasants’ War. It remained in the hands of the Teutonic Order until it came to this chapel in 1812.The Stuppacher Madonna was long thought to be the work of Rubens. Only in 1908 was it recognized as one of the pieces from the Marienaltar (Mary Altar) and the 1519 work of the great German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald. (A second piece of the altar is in Freiburg, while Aschaffenburg only has copies.)

Source: European Traveller, Top Sights in Bad Merghentheim

Matthias Gruenewald: Stuppacher Madonna

And in order to remember the Isenheim Altarpiece, here is a detail from the Nativity panel.

Matthias Gruenewald: Madonna and Child, detail from the Nativity panel

We are now going south, to meet the Italian Masters, and a Greek who became Spanish.

I begin with Lorenzo Monaco, whose brilliant colors make him one of the pioneers of Renaissance in Italy. See in the picture below how wonderfully the pink becomes the dominant color of the picture, eliminating the black. The picture is practically flat, maintaining in this respect the Byzantine tradition.

Lorenzo Monaco: Virgin and Child on the Throne with Six Angels c.1415-1420

Giovanni Bellini, the Venetian Master, with his solemn Madonna is next. I love the use of green in the painting, it becomes the center of the harmonies and works superbly with the pale blue of the sky and the ultramarine of Madonna’s dress.

Giovanni Bellini: Madonna degli Alberetti c. 1487

Young Rafaello, with his Madonna del Granduca, gives us a masterpiece in the study of black. In this he anticipates Caravaggio and chiaroscuro.

Rafaello: Madonna del Granduca c.1505

Titian, turns the tables and presents a dark haired pale woman as his Madonna, named the  Gypsy Madonna. She is like a an ordinary girl carrying a huge burden. You notice the green curtain in the background, tribute to Giovanni Bellini.

Titian: The Gypsy Madonna c. 1515

Rafaello a few years later gave us the Madonna of the Chair, a much more vivid and «alive» painting, where the faces almost jump out of the canvas to reach us.

Rafaello: Madonna of the Chair c. 1518

El Greco, the Greek, Dominikos Theotokopoulos, started his life in Crete, and via Venice ended in Toledo, Spain.

El Greco: Virgin and Child with St Martina and St Agnes, 1597-9

El Greco lifts us up in the skies and the clouds and the greyness of the storm that is about to come.  El Greco does not use the domestic environment used by the other artists. He belongs in the sky, and this is what he paints.

El Greco: Immaculate Conception with St John the Evangelist

Back to where it all started. the most fitting end of all.

We traveled from the North to the South, from the Earth to the Skies, from the simple, ordinary faces of everyday women, to the incredibly beautiful faces of sheer perfection. Next trip will be from the West to the East.

According to the legend, these were the words of the shepherd Rodrigo de Balanzategui, who discovered the sculpture of the Virgin in a thorn-bush in the Onati county in the South of the Basque Country.

These words named the place Arantzazu, a holy place for the Basques, where they have erected a Sanctuary.

I visited the Sanctuary of Arantzazu more than a month ago, during a day that the skies were grey and the water was falling continuously, all day long.  As we approach the Virgin’s Assumption on the 15th of August, I felt is would be appropriate to share with you some of my pictures from the Basque Madonna.

The whole area of the Sanctuary is developed for people. You can walk, rest, enjoy the natural environment, visit the Church and the other edifices. The Basilica was rebuilt in 1951, when it was decided that no further extension of the old building made sense.

The Church is modern. The imposing belfry tower has a minimal cross on top.

The main entrance of the Church is modern but powerful.

The spikes of the facade are «thorns».

The four doors of the main entrance were made by Eduardo Chillida. In the page of Onati dedicated to Arantzazu, we read: «The four doors that provide access to the church were designed by Eduardo Chillida and seem to be almost below ground, being set at the bottom of a steep staircase.»

«With their mineral appearance, the doors suggest the entrance to the underground world, an impression which is further reinforced inside the church by the massive high altarpiece, which measures over 600 square metres. The altarpiece was designed by Lucio Muñoz and is carved in wood of many different colors.»

The 14 Apostles guarding the entrance are the work of Jorge Oteiza. The Bilbao Guggenheim organized in 2005 a major retrospective of Oteiza’s work. We read in the Exhibition program: » In the same year (1950), he began work tentatively on a major commission for the statuary of the basilica at Aránzazu, a huge undertaking finally realized in 1969. Here, religious motifs are depersonalized; figures are emptied, opened to space, and filled with spiritual content.»

The Pieta crowns the 14 Apostles.

The crypt is accessible from the inside of the Basilica. It is utterly modern, and captivating. The Onati site comments: «The crypt, decorated by Nestor Basterretxea, contains 18 murals of exceptional expressive strength, which have a somewhat aggressive use of color.»

The 15th century statute of the Virgin.

May her Mercy envelop and deliver us more true and free to the world.

May her Grace help us to sustain pain and sorrow.

May her Heart keep us warm in the cold and dark terrain of solitude and remembrance.

Exiting the Chillida doors.

Time to go.

Time to get lost in the mountains and the clouds.

La Mezquita in Cordoba – Part I

Κυριακή, 27 Ιουνίου, 2010

I am not familiar with Islamic art. But my recent visit to the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain was an ecstatic experience. This is the first part of an article on the Mezquita of Cordoba.

Detail from the Door of the Dean

I start with some history, borrowed from the vast resources of the Metropolian Museum of Art in New York, then continue with a short tour of the outside, and conclude the first part with the entrance in the Mezquita and the first impressions and feelings.

«On July 19, 711, an army of Arabs and Berbers unified under the aegis of the Islamic Umayyad caliphate landed on the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next seven years, through diplomacy and warfare, they brought the entire peninsula except for Galicia and Asturias in the far north under Islamic control; however, frontiers with the Christian north were constantly in flux. The new Islamic territories, referred to as al-Andalus by Muslims, were administered by a provincial government established in the name of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus and centered in Córdoba. Of works of art and other material culture only coins and scant ceramic fragments remain from this early period of the Umayyad governors (711–56).

When the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus was overthrown by the Abbasids in 750, the last surviving member of the Umayyad dynasty fled to Spain, establishing himself as Emir Abd al-Rahman I and thus initiating the Umayyad emirate (756–929). Abd al-Rahman I (r. 756–88) made Córdoba his capital and unified al-Andalus under his rule with a firm hand, while establishing diplomatic ties with the northern Christian kingdoms, North Africa, and the Byzantine empire and maintaining cultural contact with the Abbasids in Baghdad. The initial construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba under his patronage was the crowning achievement of this formative period of Hispano-Islamic art and architecture.»

(Source: The Art of the Umayyad Period in Spain (711–1031) | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Aerial view of the Mezquita in Cordoba (source: Wikipedia)

The Great Mosque of Cordoba was built over a period of three centuries, from the 8th to the 11th. It is a rectangle with a orange tree court with a basin adjacent to it. This court is the oldest Moorish garden in Spain (marked as 7 in the plan that follows).

The concept was to imitate if not exceed the Great Mosque of Damascus.

At the edge of the tree line at the bottom of the photo is the bank of the famous river, Guadalquivir. The plan of the Mezquita that follows is «turned upside down» compared to the photo. The river is at the top. The resolution of the plan is high so that you can download it and view it in full resolution for the details.

The Minaret, enveloped by a Baroque Tower in 17c

Door of Forgiveness (1 in the plan)

Puerta San Esteban (Door of Saint Stephen) - Marked 3 on the plan

Puerta

Puerta San Miguel (Door of Saint Michael’s) – Marked 4 on the Plan.

Door of the Psalms, viewed from the Orange Tree Court – Marked 6 on the Plan.

Carved wooden beams in the cloisters – detail (Marked 8 on the plan)

When the Moors first arrived in Cordoba, they were content to share the Visigothic Church of Saint Vincent with the Christians. When this became insufficient, AdbAl-Rahman purchased their part and started building  the Mosque (marked 9 on the plan) with 11 aisles, opening onto the Orange Tree Court. The architectural innovation in the mosque was the superimposition of two tiers of arches to give added height and spaciousness. They used marble pillars and Roman stone from St Vicent’s Church and other buildings in the area.

Once you are inside (you enter in the area marked 8 on the plan) you get overwhelmed by the «forest of pillars» as one traveler put it, and the  completely new feeling of space. It is as if space is distorted, but yet it returns to its normal state, If there is one thing that I will never forget from my visit there is this «feeling» of space. The last time I felt this was when I visited the Chillida museum in the Basque country. The photos cannot convey this feeling, but you get an idea.

This is one of the corridors that take you from the entrance to the Mihrab (marked 13 on the plan), which you can barely see at the end. The two pillars at the beginning of this corridor are supporting the Christian Cathedral that is almost embedded in the Great Mosque. In the photo below you see the parallel corridor on the left as we face the Mihrab.

As I walk down this corridor with direction towards the Mihrab, I get to see some of the marvelous arches within arches of the Great Mosque.

With these first impressions of the inside area, I conclude Part I of my visit to the Mezquita of Cordoba.

In Part II I will cover the Christian Cathedral and the area of the Mahrib.

Agony in the Garden

Παρασκευή, 2 Απριλίου, 2010

«This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written:
‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed';
but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.»

«Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.»

Jesus spent one night in the garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper and prior to his arrest by the mob.

He went there to pray accompanied by St. Peter, St. John and St. James.

Mosaic in San Marco, Venice (1200)

His state of mind was confused and ambivalent.

He prayed three times.

It appears to be a discussion with his Father, but it is in essence a discussion with himself.

Before committing to the Sacrifice.

Agony in the Garden refers to this state of mind.

Mosaic in San Marco, Venice (1200) – Detail

Jesus is sad and anxious.

He is not ready yet for the Sacrifice.

«My Father, let this Cup pass by me».

Buoninsegna (1308)

Human, all too human!

This is the Greatest moment in the life of Jesus as a Human!

He openly admits that his desire for life is greater than his willingness to save humanity.

«My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!»

Giovanni Bellini (1495)

He asked his pupils to stay awake and pray, but every time he checked up on them they were asleep.

«The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak»

Andrea Mantegna (1460)

After his third prayer, he returned to his pupils and found them asleep again.
«Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners.
Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand.»

Boticcelli (1500)

«While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a large crowd, with swords and clubs, who had come from the chief priests and the elders of the people.

His betrayer had arranged a sign with them, saying, «The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him.»

Immediately he went over to Jesus and said, «Hail, Rabbi!» and he kissed him.»

El Greco (1595)

«Jesus answered him, «Friend, do what you have come for.» Then stepping forward they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.»

El Greco (1608)

(All quotations from the Gospel by Mathew)

Ravenna! The Italian jewel of Byzantium – Part I: San Vitale

Δευτέρα, 21 Σεπτεμβρίου, 2009

Today I visit Ravenna, a sleepy small town near the Adriatic Coast. Ravenna became the seat of Byzantine government in Italy in the sixth century (540), and remained so until 751, when the Lombards took it.

What makes Ravenna unique is the Byzantine treasures that have survived over the centuries and carefully been restored, the mosaics that adourn so many churches and monuments.

In this first part I present some of the highlights of the beautiful Church of San Vitale. The church was built in the middle of the sixth century and is the only church from the period of Emperor Justinian, that has survived the centuries.

justinian In one of the spectacular panels of the church, the Emperor who made Ravenna the capital of Byzantium in the West is seen with his entourage and Bishop Maximian.

panel_justinianThe Church was dedicated to Bishop Maximian in 547 and he is the nly named figure in the panel.

maximianIn another panel, we see a young, beardless Christ

face1giving the crown of martyrdom to St. Vitalis, while Bishop Exxlesius is presenting a model of the Church. Ecclesius was the Bishop who started the building of the Chuch in 526.

major1The representation of Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God is stunning.Agnus Dei is the allegorical representation of the «Sacrifice» of Christ.

agnus-dei

Agnus Dei is positioned directly above the altar.

major2

over1The mosais on the Arches are by themselves masterpieces.

saviourWhat a wonsderful depiction of our Saviour! Encircled by four dolphins!

decorativeThis decorative detail is the best testimony to the absolute glory of the church’s mosaics.

empressEmpress Theodora and her friends.

inside1The church is full of symbolic images, figures and episodes from the Testament.

inside2Abel and Melchizedek.

inside3San Vitale is a treasure that cannot be exhaused easily. I feel I need to go back again and again. Same feeling I had in Moni Choras.

Σημερα μια μερα μετα την 15η Αυγουστου, θελω να μοιραστω μαζι σας δυο τοιχογραφιες απο τη Μονη Πρωτατου στο Αγιο Ορος, δια χειρος Μανουηλ Πανσεληνου.

Today, one day after the dormition of the Virgin, I want to share with you two frescoes of the Protaton Monastery in Mount Athos, Greece. They are the work of the celebrated 14th century painter Manouil Panselinos.

virgin

Η Βρεφοκρατουσα εχει ολα τα χαρακτηριστικα της τεχνης του Πανσεληνου. Διακατεχεται απο μια ηρεμια και εγκρατεια μεσα απο τα ελληνιστικα της στοιχεια, που ενω δενουν με τα βυζαντινα, δεν εχουν την αυστηροτητα που χαρακτηριζουν τις υστερες σχολες. Το βρεφος ειναι ενας μικρος φιλοσοφος, δεν ειναι δηλαδη βρεφος αλλα παιδι αρα και ο τιτλος θα επρεπε να ειναι παιδοκρατουσα.

The Virgin fresco has all the features of Panselinos’ art. It radiates calm and self-composure, features of portraits of the Hellenistic period. They blend with Byzantine art but do not have the out of this world austerity of later Byzantine periods. The Child is a young philosopher, almost melancholic.

virgin_with_child

Ο Χριστος Σωτηρας ειναι εν προκειμενω το γλυκυ εαρ, ο μελαγχολικος αλλα σταθερος και ηρεμος θνητος εν παροδω.

Jesus the Saviour is the «Sweet Spring», the steady, calm, but melancholic human passing through life.

christ

Τις φωτογραφιες τις πηρα εγω την 14η Αυγουστου, με την ευγενικη αδεια της Μονης, κατω απο δυσκολες συνθηκες, μια και η Μονη ειναι γεματη σκαλωσιες και πρακτικα δεν εχει φωτισμο (εκτος απο τα κερια).

I took these photos on the 14th August, with the kind permission of the monastery under difficult light conditions. The monastery is full of scaffolding and the only light comes from the lit candles.

Θα συνεχισω με περισσοτερες φωτογραφιες απο τις τοιχογραφιες του Πανσεληνου.

Προς το παρον ας μας βοηθα η Χαρη Της.

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