Friday, June 30, 2017

The Rucellai Sepulchre in Florence, the precursor of Renaissance mausoleums.

Florence is the home of perhaps the most refined architecture in Europe. Before Bramante’s Temple at San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, there was one previous funerary monument to define the Renaissance style and it was the Tempietto di San Sepolcro in the (now former) church of San Pancrazio. The rather small, but architecturally perfect temple is the tomb of Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai, whose family still thrives in Florence today and the architect is Leon Battista Alberti.

Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai was a wealthy Florentine merchant, linked to the great architect Leon Battista Alberti through a friendship and similar tastes, and to whom Giovanni had already commissioned the construction of his Palazzo, the completion of the fa├žade of Santa Maria Novella, and the Loggia Rucellai. 
The little temple was supposed to eventually become Giovanni’s tomb, in fact it was located in the church nearest to the family Palazzo. The Tempietto is thought to have been built between 1457 and 1467, Giovanni died in 1481.

It is a scale reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, except obviously for the exterior decoration which is an interpretation on earlier Florentine Medieval and Classical styles, especially the Florentine Romanesque tradition, the main examples being San Giovanni’s Baptistry, San Miniato or the Badia Fiesolana. Alberti modernised and revalued these themes. The square-shaped mausoleum’s walls sections are divided by Corinthian pilasters and decorated with marble panels, in the centre of the different panels of green and white marbles, divided into geometrical shapes, are roundels with imaginary shapes, except the central ones which feature the Rucellai family’s most notable members and friends, coat of arms: loose sails, Giovanni de’Medici, the three-feathered chaperon, Cosimo, the diamond ring with two feathers, Piero de’Medici and the three intertwined rings, Lorenzo de’Medici. On the entablature is an inscription in a Classical font that reads a quote from the Gospel of Saint Mark, the size of the letters is the same of the inscription in the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella in Rome, which inspired the structure. The upper part is decorated with fleur-de-lys shaped merlons, the theme is in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Annunciation to whom the Chapel was originally dedicated. The structure has a sort of apse on the wall opposite the entrance. Inside the mausoleum there are two frescoes by Giovanni da Piamonte, a follower of Piero della Francesca, the iconography is quite powerful: the dead Christ being held by two angels, and the Resurrection. 

This is quite a spectacular work: the precursor of all perfect Renaissance structures and a glorious gate from death to heaven, a mystical way in which to leave the grief behind and have an anticipation of the glorious Resurrection.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Baroque master between Rome and London: Peter Paul Rubens.

Today is the 440 anniversary of the birth of one of my favourite masters of the past: the great Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, he was one of the most admired and successful artists of the 17th century, his patrons varied from churches to royalty, his art expanded from history to sacredness and from mythology to politics - his legacy, art and works, we will explore in this article. 

The Feast of Venus, c.1635, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.
Born on this day in 1577, in Siegen in Westphalia, he was the son of a wealthy lawyer and a well educated wife as well as a brother of six - when he was only 10 years old his father died and the family moved to the larger city of Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands, where the young artist-to be received training his what what will become his vocation, he served as an apprentice for the local artists' guild in 1598.
His story dramatically changes in 1600, when Rubens travels to Italy and discovers the beauty of late Renaissance masters, especially the Venetian Titian and the refinement of Raphael in Rome. As his genius was starting to appear, he was employed by Vincenzo I Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, one of the cultural centres of the time for whom he painted portraits - he was shortly sent by the Duke to Spain, Genoa and Rome, where, under ducal recommendation he started to receive orders from important churches and clients. During his time in Rome, he received the most important commissions, a cycle of frescoes in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, now sadly lost and that of the high altar of Rome's most renowned Baroque church: the Chiesa Nuova, the altarpiece centred on an older icon of the Virgin and Child surrounded by cheering angels and two side panels with Saint Gregory the Great, Sts. Mauro and Papia and Saint Domitilla with Sts. Nereo and Achilleo - a fascinating triumph of refined, yet unusual for its location, Baroque art in its capital city.

Rubens' tryptich in the Chiesa Nuova in Rome, c.1607.

During these years Rubens worked on historical and mythological scenes, a stunning example is the "Wolf and Fox Hunt" (c.1615-21). It is no surprise that he soon became known as the "prince of painters and the painter of princes", after his commissions from Louis XIII of France for a series of 21 canvas representing the triumph of his life and reign with the great Marie de Medici at his side. 

The Birth of Louis XIII, c.1623, Louvre Museum.
And of course the magnificent "Peace and War" (c.1636) with the famous "Apotheosis of James I" and the "Peaceful Reign of James I" at its centre" in the Banqueting House in London for Charles I of England, the epitome of "Baroqueness", a triumph of the divine role of the English monarchy and probably the greatest work of art commissioned in England after the Reformation and part of the process that triggered the Civil War.

The Ceiling canvases in the Banqueting House, c.1636.
In 1626, Rubens loses his adored wife Isabella and again he travelled, combining diplomatic visits to Spain and England on behalf of the Netherlands (an interesting detail given this was long before the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713) with his artistic career. On his return to the Low Countries, he married his second wife, Helena Fourment, his family "Self-Portrait with Helena and Peter Paul" will be a testament to his life and his newly found happiness with his wife and son. 

Self Portrait with Helena and their Child.

During these later years the master will produce some of the most celebrated works of this age, such as the idyllic and mythological scenes of the "Judgement of Paris", a representation of the event that led to the Trojan War and the "Garden of Love" a landscape with seminude couples courting each other.

The Judgement of Paris, c.1637, National Gallery, London.

At the time of his death, on May 30, 1640, in Antwerp, Rubens was among the most celebrated artists in the whole continent, he left eight children, several assistants, among them Anthony van Dyck, another master to be, he will become another legend of his age. Ruben's skill in complex groupings and composition, the ability to work in grand scales and his great charm as well as his majestic subjects, the way in which he embraced post-Renaissance classicism with Baroque dynamism and lively realism, especially in the curvaceous famous world gave a new meaning to the art of his time. His legacy lived for the ages to come, inspiring artists of the caliber of Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Delacroix.

The Garden of Love, c.1633, Prado Museum, Madrid.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Virgin Mary and her role in Anglicanism.

Anglicans, but also other fellow Christians, may often wonder what is the role of Mary within the Anglican Communion. The role of Mary, the Virgin and Mother of our God as most Christians define her, could in fact not find a vaguer position than in the Anglican tradition - this is what we're drawn to think, because of the breath and width of our churchmanship or because Anglicans never really had a definite theology besides the 39 Articles of Religion (blinking an eye there), finalised in 1571.
Although the articles ban any sort of devotion or invocation to the Virgin as the famous Article XXII states: The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God. However, what we find about Our Lady in the articles, especially Article II, about Christ's Incarnation, is in fact completely different and it ratifies traditional Christian Marian theology: The Son, which is the Word of the Father [...] took Man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance. 
Statue of the Virgin commissioned by Archbishop William Laud
in the mid 1600s for the University Church in Oxford
Whereas this article may seem obvious nowadays, it really shows how the figure of Mary never changed her purpose or form, even in early Reformation theology, this was basically the view of the Church of the first centuries. In truth, we Anglicans definitely have a Marian theology, but how has it evolved so much? Indeed, the Marian question in Anglicanism goes much deeper than the low, high church divide between those who only hear her name at Christmas and Easter and those who continue Mary's Dowry and go to Walsingham for pilgrimages and pray the Hail Mary - which thankfully both survive in our splendid tradition in which, as we have just seen, we all regard her as the Virgin Mother of God just as the first Christians or just as the first disciples!
But how has her figure evolved through the Reformation? Did she just remain there, in the Scriptures? Or did she somehow touch the hearts and minds of Anglicans to come? Did the restoration of Walsingham truly come out of the blue? Or just because the Tractarians thought it good to restore it because it felt "Roman"?
As we read in the great Anglican-Roman Catholic joint document Mary: Hope and Grace in Christ: as early as 1561 the Calendar of the Church of England (ratified in 1662) retained five feasts associated with Mary: Conception of Mary, Nativity of Mary, Annunciation, Visitation and Purification. Therefore, the Virgin also had a rather massive liturgical presence in the Anglican calendar, this is not to say, that there were high masses and long processions, but simply that the Mother of God was remembered on those days, every Book of Common Prayer edition until the latest 1662 refers to Mary as "pure Virgin", the main office of the day, Evensong has at its centre the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, she had a presence in the liturgical life of the Church, a way in which she could keep having a role in the theology of Revelation as part of God's manifestation and salvation among us, which really is what the joint document signed by both Anglicans and Catholics also proves.
14th century wall painting representing the Assumption
of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lichfield Cathedral

However, what we might call a turn would be the 17th century with the great Caroline Divines, such as Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Ken who even more so had a fuller appreciation of Mary in the prayers of the Church and in her very place within it and the eyes and hearts of the believer.
In the 20th century with the Anglo-Catholic revival the figure of a devotional Mary, in the form of the reinstitution of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, for example, will be once more reintroduced within the life of the Church in England founded by Saint Augustine, and in the last decade our Church ratified a document regarding the figure of Mary with the Church of Rome. However, Mary has always been in the hearts of the English, the people of Mary's Dowry, as it was known in the late Middle Ages. Still, today the people of the English Church regard Mary either in the pure way the first Christians did or in the way in which thousands of years and the Tradition of the Church combined with God's Revelation unto humanity has created, the last two being strictly intertwined. She is indeed remembered and placed high in our tradition and therefore she does have a place in our fragile and undefined Anglican theology, the place of the pure material and substance that gave birth to God:

Neither are we unmindful to bless Thee, for the most holy, pure, 
highly blessed, the Mother of God, Mary the eternal Virgin, with all the Saints:
Recommending ourselves and our whole life to Thee,
O Lord, our Christ and God:
For to Thee belongeth glory, honour, and worship. Amen.

Lancelot Andrewes