The Potter and Wheel | Art for Proper 18C

Jeremiah 18:2 “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”

The Potter and Wheel
W. M. Thomson: The Land and the Book; or Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land. Vol. II. New York, 1859, picture p. 282
The Potter and Wheel
Jaffa, Palestine
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Potter and Wheel, Jaffa, Palestine, pen and ink (book illustration), 1859, William Hanna Thomson (19th century)

Clay is abundant. We tend to think of it as being almost worthless and despite the amount that is used (for everything from bricks to dinnerware), the supply is not being depleted. It is formed by the action of the elements as they break down and erode the surface of the earth. In the process, minute particles of decomposed rock and organic matter are moved by water to low lying areas where clay beds are formed. When clay is moist, it has great plasticity; often it can be used just as it is found. A potter wedges the clay – somewhat like kneading dough – to make it even in consistency and then a pot may be hand-built by the coil method, or “thrown” on a wheel.

A potter’s wheel is a simple device. Its top is a flat disc (today wheel heads are made usually from an aluminum alloy) and a shaft connects it to a larger and heavier disc below, a flywheel. The wheel head and flywheel are supported by a frame; attached to it may be a bench for the potter and a table that provides a place for a pail of water, clay, and tools. When making a pot on a wheel, a potter throws a ball of clay onto the wheel head. The hands are lubricated in water and the flywheel is kicked. As the wheel is turning, the hands are braced and placed on the clay to center it; the centered clay then is opened, raised and given form (bottle, bowl, storage vessel, etc). After a pot is trimmed and thoroughly dry (“bone dry”) it is placed in a kiln. The high temperature in a kiln fuses clay particles and hardens the pot.

In 1834, William McClure Thomson went to the Near East as a missionary and after twenty-three years in the Holy Land he wrote: The Land and the Book: Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land. In his book, Thomson wrote about the setting in which Bible stories took place and his son, William Hanna, illustrated the text with over 200 drawings. “The Potter and Wheel” depicts a Palestinian artisan giving final shape to a pot that has been thrown. “Throwing” is a process that has not changed for thousands of years and when Jeremiah went to the potter’s house, as directed by the Lord, the potter at the wheel would have been very much like what Thomson depicts in the nineteenth century illustration above. At the time Jeremiah arrived, a thrown pot was still on the wheel; the potter was reshaping it because it was flawed. For Jeremiah, seeing the potter at the wheel was a graphic demonstration. Just as a potter controls clay, the form of nations is in the Lord’s hands.

Note

Although firing gives clay strength in compression, it is weak in tensile strength; it can break easily. Thus a person who exhibits a flaw in character is said to have, “feet of clay.”

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Pride | Art for Proper 17C

Pride from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
Pride from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
Hieronymus Bosch
around 1500
Oil on wood
120 cm × 150 cm (47 in × 59 in)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Pride (Detail from: “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things”), oil on wood, c. 1500, Hieronymus Bosch, 1450-1516

The list of “Seven Deadly Sins” (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust) is not biblical in source but instead was written by Evagrius Ponticus at a fourth century Egyptian monastery. It contained eight “sins” originally. “Vainglory” was one of the eight but its meaning overlapped with pride and it was dropped. Also, at one time, the list included “acedia.” meaning listlessness or torpor (a state of being found sometimes in people such as monks who lived a solitary life); it was changed to sloth. Although the term “deadly” seems grim and fatal, St. Gregory the Great noted the items on the list did not in themselves constitute sins. These were, however, behavioral characteristics or vices that could lead to sin. The “Seven Deadly Sins” also are called, “Capital Vices” and “Cardinal Sins.”

While the Renaissance was taking place in Italy, there were still Gothic elements remaining in Northern Europe. Classicism along with its gods and goddesses re-entered the art of Italy but painters in the North tended to be slower to leave themes that focused on morality. Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings included everyday people and often they were satirical and pessimistic; sin and punishment seemed to be his preoccupations. It has been speculated, “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things,” could have been painted by one of Bosch’s pupils but scholars continue to support the belief that it is from the hand of the master.

The full painting of the “Deadly Sins” is rectangular in shape with a large circle dominating the center. The circle has been divided into seven sections (in the manner of a Lazy Susan) and a “sin” is depicted in each of the sections. The very center of the large circle is believed to represent the eye of God. Within its “pupil,” Christ is emerging from his tomb. Below it (in Latin) is written “Beware, Beware, God Sees” In the four corners are smaller circles where the “Four Last Things” are depicted; “Death of the Sinner,” “Judgment,” “Hell,” and “Glory.”

The scene, “Pride” (Latin: Suberbia), depicts a woman dressed in the typical Dutch fashion of her time. Just after entering a room she is shocked and immobilized when a mirror is thrust before her by a fierce looking demon that emerged abruptly from the shadow of the heavy wooden cupboard. The shock has forced her to look at her life and to become aware of pride.

Although to us it may seem like the woman in the painting is wearing a lampshade on her head, it is in fact a standard gauze headdress in the style of her day. Its back side is flat and does not reveal the interesting and often creative manner in which women’s headdresses were folded and pinned in front.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Prophet Jeremiah | Art for Proper 16C

Prophet Jeremiah
DONATELLO
b. ca. 1386, Firenze, d. 1466, Firenze
Prophet Jeremiah
1423-26
Marble, height 191 cm
 Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Prophet Jeremiah, marble, 1423-26, Donatello, c.1386-1466

In the fifteenth century great changes were underway in Italy and Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) played a major role in developments that took place in sculpture.  Throughout the Romanesque and Gothic periods, sculpture tended to be an adjunct to architecture; it was stylized and sometimes column-like.  Often it was in the form of important saints and notable church figures lined in rows at the entrances of cathedrals or placed in niches built into interior or exterior walls.  Much of it was in relief and seemed incapable of escaping from a wall or column.  Even when it was free standing (not in relief) it was placed usually in a space that was surrounded closely and it was seldom created to be seen “in the round.”  While liberating sculpture from its subordinate role in architecture, Donatello became the most celebrated sculptor of the Early Renaissance and an influence on almost all sculpture that followed.

At age seventeen Donatello worked with Lorenzo Ghiberti during the time the first set of doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral was being conceived.  After a short time in the studio of Ghiberti, he went to Rome with Filippo Brunelleschi to “treasure hunt.” Their treasure was the information they gleaned from the pieces of sculpture and architecture found among the ruins of Roman buildings.  This visit to Rome affected the future work of both men.  Donatello departed from his early training in stylized late Gothic sculpture and Brunelleschi went on to discover linear perspective and to build the magnificent dome of Florence Cathedral (known as Il Duomo).

In Greek sculpture the gods and goddesses were given idealized proportions; their bodies and faces were not those of real people.  The Romans also made sculpture depicting their gods but they carved portraits of their leaders as well.  These portraits depicted the sitter’s individual characteristics and expressions.  When Donatello left Gothic stylistic elements, he did not follow the Greek model of ideal proportions.  Instead, like Roman portraits, he brought a sense of realism and naturalism into his work.  This naturalism is evidenced in two marble figures in adjacent niches carved for the BellTower (designed by Giotto) of Florence Cathedral.

The two prophets – Jeremiah and a bald figure dubbed “Zuccone” (pumpkin head) and believed to be Habakkuk – each stand with loose informal toga-like wraps hanging from their shoulders.  Both are beardless and, in their characteristics, are like Roman orators; not like Greek gods.  The Zuccone is in a relaxed stance but rather
undignified with parted lips and almost quizzical expression.  Jeremiah is in a similar stance but has a full head of hair and a face that carries a sense of strength.  His firm jaw and tight lips convey seriousness and inner thoughts.  Yet his large eyes seem to express sympathy, gentleness, and perhaps even sorrow.  Donatello portrays Jeremiah as a real person; a human with whom we can identify, not as an impersonal idealized figure or as a bearded old prophet of long ago.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

The Triumph of Faith | Art for Proper 15C

The four evangelists, filled with faith, begin their journey into the world to preach the gospel.

The Triumph of Faith
VELLERT, Dirck Jacobsz.
(b. ca. 1480, Amsterdam, d. 1547, Antwerpen)
The Triumph of Faith
1517
Grisaille on lightly tinted glass, diameter 22 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Triumph of Faith, grisaille on tinted glass, 1517, Dirck Jacobsz Vellert, c.1480-1547

Dirck Jacobsz Vellert, a major artist of the “Northern Renaissance,” worked in Antwerp but his designs for stained glass were not limited to regional projects; during his career he received widespread recognition. Today, however, many of his pieces are lost and his fame has diminished. “The Triumph of Faith,” was one of Vellert’s six panels based on the poem, Trionfi (Triumphs), by the fourteenth century humanist Francisco Petrarch.

A grisaille (gree-zai) – from “gris,” the French term for “gray” – often resembles a marble bas relief. This type of monochromatic work is painted usually only in gray and white values. Vellert’s grisaille, however, is not a painting; instead it is created in a technique similar to enameling on glass. Vellert began with a tinted glass panel and painted it with oxides. He placed it in a furnace repeatedly to fuse the image as it was being created.

In “The Triumph of Faith,” a crowd is on hand as the four evangelists, filled with faith, begin their journey into the world to preach the gospel. As a backdrop for this allegorical event, God is depicted in the upper middle ground wearing a crown and sitting on a throne-like chariot; the body of Christ is like a limp pieta in his lap. Two youthful angels (one is mostly hidden by God’s right leg), are on the throne with trumpets at their lips and they seem to be offering a send-off fanfare as the evangelists are departing. Matthew, symbolized by a human likeness, is pointing the way. The other three evangelists in symbolic animal form (Mark, a Lion; Luke, an Ox; John, an Eagle), are with him as they go into the world to spread the word of God.

Early Christian artists began using symbols for the four evangelists in the early fifth century. The lion and ox are pictured usually with wings – the eagle did not need wings added – but in “The Triumph of Faith,” Vellert has given wings to only the human symbol for Matthew; not to the lion and ox. The thought behind the symbols for the evangelists are as follows:

Matthew: The Book of Matthew begins with Christ’s human ancestry and in this gospel the human side of Christ’s life is given. Thus, Matthew’s symbol is a human likeness with wings.

Mark: The Gospel of Mark tells the story of the resurrection. Once it was believed a lion was lifeless when it was born; it would be awakened to life by its sire’s tongue and roar. Thus the lion became the symbol for Mark.

Luke: The Gospel of Luke tells of the passion of Christ. An ox was used in sacrificial offerings and by association it became the symbol for Luke.

John: An eagle flies into the heavens. John soared into the heavens in spirit and thus the eagle became his symbol.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Allegory of Faith | Art for Proper 14C

Praying Saviour
DELL, Peter the Elder
(b. ca. 1490, Würzburg, d. 1552, Würzburg)
Allegory of Faith
1534
Limewood, 51 x 72 cm
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Allegory of Faith, limewood, 1534, Peter Dell the Elder, 1490-1552

The traditional materials used for sculpture are stone, wood, clay, and bronze. Of these four, stone and wood are sculpted by a subtractive process. When a marble block or a section of tree trunk is carved, chips are removed until a desired form – the sculpture – remains. Because carving wood or stone is time-consuming and sometimes physically demanding, sculptors today often prefer to work in materials that offer less resistance. In the time of Peter Dell the Elder, however, both wood and marble were still very much in use. Dell worked occasionally in stone and bronze but the area for which he is best known is the long standing German tradition of wood carving. After Dell’s death, his son, Peter Dell the Younger, continued the work of his father’s shop in Wurzburg.

Dell’s “Allegory of Faith” is a type of sculpture called bas relief. It is a carved surface that is shallow in depth and like a painting, is to be viewed from one side only. Instead of being created with colors and values as is a painting, however, the subject matter is defined with shapes, textures and depth levels. For this relief, Dell used an even-grained, easily carved, light-colored wood called limewood (neither the name nor the tree is related to citrus). Its pale brown patina is the result of the natural aging process.

Like other art work of this period, Dell’s relief is intended to teach and inspire. The scene of this allegory depicts a young woman representing the human soul journeying through life. She is in a small ship and is being attacked by those who would distract her and set her off course. Death at the upper left side is on a horse; the devil at the upper right-middle is on a lion; and Frau Welt (an allegorical figure in German literature) is on a sea serpent. [From the twelfth century onward in German lore, the world has been represented as a seductress known as Frau Welt (Mrs. World). With her beauty and guile she tempts a person with promises of wealth, happiness, and fulfillment. Instead, if you follow her ways – the ways of the world – your journey is likely to result in sorrow, disease and decay.] Frau Welt is in the water at the right. Each of these adversaries is out to shake the faith of the young woman traveling through life and each has a bow with three arrows aimed toward her. The woman is steadfast, however, and her eyes are focused on the face of God above as she moves away from a city that is aflame. Christ is on the shore pointing the way. To assure that the symbols in this allegory are recognized, Dell has identified some of them; the ship is labeled, “Flesh and Blood.” “The Christian Life” is written on the ship’s rudder; this will keep her journey on course. While traveling the sea of life, her sail and rigging are, “Love and Patience.” She is guided by the “Word of God.” St. Paul, the Defender of the Faith, is standing at the lower left side of this scene holding a sword in his hand. When St. Paul was martyred he was beheaded with a sword and this (the sword) became one of his identifying symbols.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Still Life with Bouquet and Skull | Art for Proper 13C

Still Life with Bouquet and Skull
Adriaen van Utrecht: Vanitas –
Still Life with Bouquet and Skull
(c.1642, Oil on canvas, 67 x 86 cm;
formerly attributed to Pieter de Ring and Pieter Adrienszoon van der Venne)
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Vanitas Still-Life with Bouquet and a Skull, oil on canvas, c.1642, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1599-1652

In a book titled, The Painted Word, Tom Wolf gives an account of a New York Times art critic who was unable to comment on a painting because he did not know the theory behind it. Instead of a picture being worth a thousand words, today it may take a thousand words to help us understand a painting. This often is true of abstract art but it may be true of “realistic” paintings as well. Art is created in an historical time period and understanding the context in which it was made is essential to its meaning. A person looking at Adriaen van Utrecht’s “Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull,” without regard to the wealthy merchant class and the Protestant Reformation in The Netherlands during the seventeenth century, may think the skull is very much out of place and that it ruins an otherwise perfectly pleasant still-life.

In van Utrecht’s painting we see some of the recurring themes and objects of the vanitas genre (the term vanitas is Latin for “vanity”). Although these paintings were created more than four hundred years ago, they continue to have a message for us today. A bouquet of lovely flowers is featured in this still-life. If we were to be asked why flowers exist, it is likely we would agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson (said of a rhodora), “If eyes were made for seeing, then beauty is its own excuse for being.” Flowers bring pleasure but even while enjoying them, we are aware of their short “shelf life.” In a vanitas, flowers symbolize the cycle of life and often they will be shown in their various stages – bud, full bloom, and faded. They remind us that like flowers we too come forth, mature, blossom, and then fade. Contained in the painting also are objects that represent the passing of time; thus they are reminders of the transient nature of life and our mortality. On the table is a chronometer (a portable timekeeping instrument) and an hourglass in a wooden case (in the background). A smoking pipe and drinking glasses represent time spent in empty pleasures.

Items in the painting also represent treasures that were possessed typically by the wealthy Dutch merchants of Antwerp; a string of pearls, a gold chain, a ring, and money. The wealthy often displayed items such as rare sea shells; a nautilus is on the far right. A decorative pedestal serving dish above the nautilus denotes luxury.

As a reminder of the folly of acquiring treasures, vanitas often contained a skull; the universal symbol of death. In van Utrecht’s still life it is placed prominently atop a book that represents the limits of human knowledge. The skull’s presence among earthly treasures serves as a message, “As I am, so too you will be.” A crown of laurel leaves is placed over the skull to remind viewers that for the Christian there is victory over death.

There is irony in the fact that vanitas were expensive works of fine art and like other objects they too became commodities possessed by the wealthy.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Praying Saviour | Art for Proper 12C

Praying Saviour
CSONTVÁRY KOSZTKA, Tivadar
Praying Saviour
1903
Oil on canvas, 100 x 82 cm
 Janus Pannonius Múzeum, Pécs
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Praying Saviour, oil on canvas, 1903, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, 1853-1919

During the lifetime of Hungarian artist, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, great changes were taking place in European art. During the first two-thirds of his life – a time when he was not painting at all – the Impressionists and Post-impressionists in France already had changed conventional thinking about art and were opening the way for developments that would take place during the twentieth century. Csontváry, as he was known in Hungary, was forty-one years old at the time he began studying art and his major works were not painted until after the turn of the century. By this time, Les Fauves (“The Wild Beasts”) in Paris were revolutionizing the way color was being used and shortly after that the Cubists would be challenging the concept of pictorial space. Instead of following areas being explored by the avant-garde however, Csontváry, after a brief time in Paris, chose to follow his personal vision. The result is an art that does not fit easily into a specific category; it tends to be an “outsider art” with elements of fantasy.

It is difficult to discern the full meaning of paintings that are based on personal visions. An interpretation is often speculative and even when artists offer explanations their paintings may not support what they say. In the “Praying Saviour,” Csontváry places an elongated Christ with lengthy hands and upraised arms close to the center of the painting; his white robe stands out against the dark foreground. To the upper far left and on a higher level is Moses with stone tablets and to his right the city of Jerusalem is glowing in the distance. In the bottom foreground are mask-like faces; they have been interpreted as disciples, yet we cannot be sure. Their expressions seem to indicate something foreboding is near. They appear to be alarmed. Perhaps they have just learned that Christ will be put to death.

Painters often utilize well known symbols but artists also are known to employ personal signs. Among Christian symbols, a cedar of Lebanon represents Christ and Csontváry visited Lebanon to make paintings of them. In “Praying Saviour,” a tall cedar tree is included with two figures clad in dark clothes at its base kneeling over a slab on top of a tomb-like rectangular stone. It would be reasonable to assume the tree represents Christ and the stone represents Christ’s tomb. Csontváry, however, sometimes used a tree as his own personal symbol; the tree may have been his way of placing himself symbolically in the painting. [It is of course also possible this tree is only meant to be a tree representing nothing more than itself.] At an upper level behind the tree is a modern day church with its lights on and the sky glowing as it would at dawn. The church lights seem to be a beacon and people are being drawn toward it. Taken together, these images may be interpreted as representing the journey of Christianity. Moses with the tablets represents the Old Testament, Christ represents the New Testament, and the light from the church and sky represents the dawning of hope and enlightenment that was brought by Christ’s word.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha | Art for Proper 11C

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
c. 1620
Oil on canvas, 60 x 103,5 cm
National Gallery, London
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, oil on canvas, 1618, Diego Velázquez, 1599-1660

In the seventeenth century, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens and Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn were the two most noted artists in northern Europe, and Diego Velázquez was the unrivaled master of painting in Spain. Velázquez graduated from Don Francisco Pacheco’s workshop academy in Seville, married his daughter, and a few years later moved to Madrid. Soon he was working for King Philip IV at the Spanish Court where he remained throughout his life.

While he was still in Seville, Velázquez further developed skills and expanded his range of subjects by painting domestic settings. Kitchen scenes were popular with the public and often they conveyed an underlying message connecting everyday life in Spain with biblical events. “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” depicts a scene of a maid preparing garlic mayonnaise to go with the fish that will be served for dinner. The maid’s expression indicates she is upset and the woman behind her is calling attention to a scene in the upper right corner of the painting. We can not be sure if the smaller scene (like an inset) is intended to be a reflection in a mirror, a hatch (an opening) through which we are looking into an adjacent room, or a painting on the kitchen wall. Velázquez used devices such as reflections and paintings within paintings throughout his career.

In the usual interpretation of this painting, the two figures in the kitchen and the figures in the upper right hand scene are many centuries apart in time. The smaller scene shows Jesus seated in the home of Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42). Mary is seated at his feet and Martha is standing behind her. In the biblical story, Martha became busy serving food and drink while Mary seemed oblivious to the fact that her sister was doing all of the work alone. Instead of helping her sister, Mary sat down and listened to Jesus. Martha was frustrated at this and wondered if Jesus cared that her sister was leaving all of the serving chores up to her; she hoped Jesus would ask Mary to help her. Jesus told Martha that her concern was misplaced and that in sitting and listening to him, Mary had made a good choice.

The frustration of the maid pictured by Velázquez is similar to that of Martha. She is trying to make preparations for a meal but is working by herself and is distraught about all that needs to be done. The woman behind her is calling the maid’s attention to the scene of Jesus, Martha, and Mary; pointing out that spiritual nourishment is an important part of life as well.

It has been suggested this kitchen scene is not set in seventeenth century Spain but rather is in the home of Martha and Mary when Christ was there. If this interpretation of the painting is accepted, the person believed to be an upset maid in the kitchen is actually Martha herself and the second woman with Jesus in the smaller scene is another guest.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

The Good Samaritan | Art for Proper 10C

The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix)
GOGH, Vincent van
(b. 1853, Groot Zundert, d. 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise)
The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix)
May 1890, Saint-Rémy
Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm
Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix), Oil on Canvas, 1890, Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890

In response to a lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” Christ told a parable about a man who was traveling and beset by robbers. He was left lying by the roadside, stripped, beaten, and half dead. A priest saw him and passed by on the other side. A Levite did the same. A Samaritan, however, stopped and gave him aid. He lifted him onto his “beast” and took him to an inn and cared for him. The following day the Samaritan paid the innkeeper and asked him to continue caring for the man; saying if more money was needed he would pay when he returned. Christ asked rhetorically which of these three proved to be a neighbor to the man, and answered, “The one who showed mercy…” He then said, “Go and do likewise.” This parable was of interest particularly to artists who favored biblical stories of human warmth and compassion; many notable artists, including Rembrandt, painted “The Good Samaritan.” In the early nineteenth century, Eugene Delacroix (del a crwah) the leader of the French Romanticists also painted it and a reproduction of it was published. Shown here is Vincent van Gogh’s interpretation of Delacroix’s painting based on a black and white lithograph copy.

In May of 1890, van Gogh was still a patient at the hospital at Saint-Remy. In warmer weather he would go into the fields to paint but he had been mostly indoors throughout the winter months. Books were comforting to him; in them he could study the paintings of the artists he admired. While remaining indoors, he began using reproductions as source material for his own paintings and he had empathy particularly with the subject of Delacroix’s “The Good Samaritan.” Van Gogh had several bouts of illness during the winter months and he himself was in need of compassion. The cause of his illness has not been determined with certainty even today.

When painting the “The Good Samaritan” van Gogh was working from a copy made by Jules Laurens. The lithograph produced a reversed image of the painting and because van Gogh’s composition followed the lithograph, it too was in reverse. The interpretations of the paintings made by van Gogh at this time were not intended to be copies; instead, he painted subjects in the colors he believed would be appropriate. The reproductions in books were used as source material and were modified in much the same way a musician changes the orchestration or makes variations on another composer’s theme.

A few weeks after painting, “The Good Samaritan,” van Gogh boarded a train to Paris. After visiting his brother and his wife, and his recently born nephew, he settled in nearby Auvers-sur-Oise and was under the care of Dr. Gachet. The auditory and hallucinatory attacks from his illness, however, became more frequent and van Gogh determined it would be for the good of all if he ended his life. He shot himself in the chest and died. His brother, Theo, went into a physical and emotional decline and died six months later.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

The Fallen Angel | Art for Proper 9C

The Fallen Angel
Gustave Doré 1832 – 1883
The Fallen Angel
engraving — 1866
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Fallen Angel, Wood Engraving, 1866, Gustave Doré, 1832-1883

During the fifteenth century as painters increased their skills, it was noted their activity entailed more than physical labor. Their work was not the same as that of artisans whose activity often required repetitive handwork. Scholars became aware that critical thinking was taking place as a painting or sculpture was being created; intellectual and emotional content was evident in the work. This assessment led to the belief that painting and sculpture were of a higher order than other human-made forms (e.g. chairs, tables, dinnerware, and pottery). To this perceived higher order the term “art” was given and specialized image makers became known as “artists.” Thus “art” came into being and a hierarchy was established. Painting, sculpture and architecture were regarded as “fine arts” and others were regarded as “minor arts” or even “miscellaneous arts.” Prints such as woodcuts, engravings, and etchings ranked higher than the handcrafts but they were still part of the minor arts despite the work of masters such as Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt.

Photography was invented during the nineteenth century but the halftone process for printing photo images (as in reproductions of black and white photographs in newspapers and books) was not being used until after the 1880s. The medium of choice for illustrations during the nineteenth century was engraving and very skilled artists devoted time to it. Yet even today, the art of book illustration is not usually an area of study among art historians. Gustave Doré is praised for his very original work and exceptional engraving skills, but he did not open the way to new directions in painting as did his contemporaries, the Impressionists. Instead, his work is associated with nineteenth century romanticism which favored drama and exoticism in art. Doré’s illustrations for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” provided an opportunity to illustrate highly dramatic moments and at the end of Book III, an illustration is shown of Satan’s fall. Satan is alone in a freefall from heaven. Rays of heavenly light are breaking through the darkness and stars are in their places as Satan is entering the outer atmosphere of the earth which is shrouded partially by clouds.

The Bible does not say angels have wings but image makers of the Middle Ages reasoned they possessed some means of locomotion. Wings sounded logical and they often depicted them to be spectacular and sometimes in rainbow colors. Satan also has been given wings but they are not the usual graceful and colorful wings seen on angels. Doré has depicted Satan with primitive bat-like wings; the type associated with Gothic horror novels. The falling figure of Satan attracts our attention immediately because of its context. It is difficult to move your eyes away from its active angular shape which contrasts strikingly with the passive softness of the clouds; even the earth seems soft. Satan’s intense darkness against the light grey sky ensures that this “fallen angel” remains the focal point of our attention. In Doré’s engraving there is a sense that something sinister is approaching the earth.

Hovak Najarian © 2013