Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Wells Cathedral - the finest west front in England

The West Front of Wells Cathedral, Somerset.
Photo: David Iliff [5]

Recently I had the pleasure of collaborating on a Wikipedia article with an online associate, Rod, who is from Somerset and who shares my passion for this wonderful special building, Wells Cathedral.  Our article is to be featured as the main article on the Wikipedia front page on 7th June, 2014.  Rod was a great person to work with: he is very thorough in his research and referencing. Moreover, when I looked at the cathedral, from 10,000 miles away on Google maps, and suggested that he park by a certain stone wall and stand on his car to take a photo, he did. When I asked him to crawl around on the floor to photograph the bottoms of the seats of the choir-stalls, he did. He also took the most exquisite photograph of the cathedral across the pool in the Bishop's Garden that has been taken for the last 140 years, and not, satisfied with that, went out and bought a camera on a little helicopter thing, and zoomed in on the west front and the roof. 

On Wikipedia, one is only supposed to write what is referenced (that is the rule, particularly if you want to get a gold star sticker on your work). This means that I cannot publish my "Original Research" in the article.  So I am putting it here.  

Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden
photo: Rod W [6]


Wells Cathedral is a Church of England place of worship in Wells, Somerset dedicated to St Andrew the Apostle, and is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. As with other cathedrals, it is the mother church of the diocese and contains the bishop's throne (or "cathedra"). The present building dates from 1175 to 1490, an earlier church having been built on the site in 705. It is moderately sized among the medieval cathedrals of England, falling between those of massive proportion, such as Lincoln and York, and the much smaller cathedrals of Oxford and Carlisle. With its broad west front and large central tower, it is the dominant feature of its small cathedral city and a landmark in the Somerset countryside. Wells has been variously described as "unquestionably one of the most beautiful"[1] and as "the most poetic"[2] of English cathedrals.

The architecture of the cathedral presents a harmonious whole which is entirely Gothic and mostly in a single style, the Early English Gothic of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. In this Wells differs from most other English medieval cathedrals, which have parts in the earlier Romanesque architectural style introduced to Britain by the Normans in the 11th century. 

The interior of Wells Cathedral, looking east.
The scissor-shaped arches were inserted in the 14th century
to strengthen the tower. Photo: Joseph Renalais [7] 

Work on the cathedral commenced in about 1175 at the eastern end with the building of the choir. The historian John Harvey considers this to be the first truly Gothic structure in Europe, having broken from the last constraints of Romanesque. The stonework of its pointed arcades and fluted piers is enriched by the complexity of the pronounced mouldings and vitality of the carved capitals in a foliate style known as "stiff leaf". The exterior has an Early English façade displaying more than three hundred sculpted figures, and described by Harvey as "the supreme triumph of the combined plastic arts in England".[3] The eastern end retains much ancient stained glass, which is rare in England.

Unlike the many English cathedrals of monastic foundation, Wells has an exceptional number of surviving secular buildings associated with its chapter of secular canons, such as the Bishop's Palace and the Vicars' Close, a residential street which has remained intact from the 15th century. The cathedral is a scheduled monument and is designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building. (end Wikipedia)
* * * * *  

Possibly Fairyland. View into the Lady Chapel from the Retrochoir
Photo: Mattana [8]

As indicated above, the interior of the cathedral is quite remarkable, setting a new standard for architectural design, that is "truly Gothic". No more stout columns; they are all transformed into clusters of slim vertical shafts. No more round arches; all the arches are pointed.  There is a wonderful elegance about the interior.  The vista from the Choir, through the Retro-Choir to the Lady Chapel has been described as "like Fairyland", but I wasn't allowed to include that quotation on Wikipedia because it was OTT.  

What I want to say here pertains to the West Front. 

The West Front 

The west front is 100 feet (30 m) high and 147 feet (45 m) wide,[91] and built of Inferior Oolite of the Middle Jurassic period, which came from the Doulting Stone Quarry, about 8 miles (13 km) to the east. According to the architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor, it is "one of the great sights of England".

West fronts in general take three distinct forms: those that follow the elevation of the nave and aisles, those that have paired towers at the end of each aisle, framing the nave, and those that screen the form of the building. The west front at Wells has the paired-tower form, unusual in that the towers do not indicate the location of the aisles, but extend well beyond them, screening the dimensions and profile of the building.

The West Front of Wells Cathedral, Somerset.
Photo: David Iliff [5]
The west front rises in three distinct stages, each clearly defined by a horizontal course. This horizontal emphasis is counteracted by six strongly projecting buttresses that define the cross-sectional divisions of nave, aisles and towers, and are highly decorated, each having canopied niches containing the largest statues on the façade.

At the lowest level of the façade is a plain base, contrasting with and stabilising the ornate arcades that rise above it. The base is penetrated by three doors, which are in stark contrast to the often imposing portals of French Gothic cathedrals. The outer two are of domestic proportion and the central door is ornamented only by a central post, quatrefoil and the fine mouldings of the arch. 

Above the basement rise two storeys, ornamented with quatrefoils and niches originally holding about four hundred statues, with three hundred surviving until the mid-20th century. Since then, some have been restored or replaced, including the ruined figure of Christ in the gable.

Architectural decoration and sculpture on a buttress of the West Front
Photo: Mattana [9]

The third stages of the flanking towers were both built in the Perpendicular style of the late 14th century, to the design of William Wynford; that on the north-west was not begun until about 1425. The design maintains the general proportions, and continues the strong projection of the buttresses. 

The finished product has been criticised for its lack of pinnacles, and it is probable that the towers were intended to carry spires which were never built. Despite its lack of spires or pinnacles, the architectural historian Banister Fletcher describes it as "the highest development in English Gothic of this type of facade".[4]  (End Wikipedia)

* * * * * 

Last year, I posted this on the discussion page of the Wikipedia article. I am presenting it here, slightly modified, as my own research. 

William Wynford undoubtedly had spires in mind, when he designed the towers. Actually the spires on the west front that I have recreated (see below) are of an earlier design, perhaps what Thomas Norrey would have visualised 150 years earlier. Either way, it didn't happen. Nikolaus Pevsner bemoans the fact that the towers were not built as Norreys would have intended. We don't know whether Norreys wanted spires or not. But it is absolutely clear from the form of the towers that William Wynford (late 1300s) planned them. I might draft some towers that have more of the early-mid 1200s style about them. (Tamsyn Taylor, 2 March 2013) 

Thomas Norreys' West Front,  completed by about 1260

The West Front that Thomas Norreys designed (1230-60) was plainly intended to have towers. The massive buttresses that are around three sides of each tower are a clear indication of that. The proportions of the various horizontal stages are increasingly taller. There was intended to be a taller storey on the early ones. That horizontal course that runs right around on the second level, below the stepped gable, is the visual foundation for the upper stage of the towers, eventually built to a design other than Norreys' in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. 

When William Wynford (or whoever it was) looked at the West Front a hundred years after Norreys, architecture had changed a good deal. I say "whoever it was" because on one hand the suggested date of 1365 is too early to be Wynford as he would have been a kid at the time, but on the other hand, the style looks like Wynford, and, Oh Boy, was he a competent designer! He is the person creditted with taking the old Norman nave at Winchester and literally carving a Pependicular nave out of the existent material.

William Wynford's south-west tower, completed about 1395

So Wynford looked at what Thomas Norreys had designed. He looked at the mathematics of the progression in height of the existent stages, and knew how high the next stage was to be. The proportions gained from this calculation informed him that the towers were not going to be high enough and would need a least one more stage, presumably spires rather than very tall towers

He looked at the buttresses and saw that one of the design problems was how to diminish the massive buttresses in the next stage, which he did, on a level with the uppermost horizontal of the stepped gable. (more about the buttresses to come)

Wynford looked at the architectonic decoration that was plastered all over every surface of the earlier work, including the buttresses, where it is not entirely expected. There were niches, quatrefoils, mini-gables, and dozens of fine marble shafts, attached to the stonework with little bangles. Not to mention half a zillion statues. But this was the 14th century, Man, and it was a New Era!.... 

A second tower was added 1425-35, maintaining Wynford's design

So he is very selective. He takes the tall blind arches between Norreys' buttresses and makes them his main motive for the wall surface of the tower. But he has taken on board the significance of the niches in the buttresses at the lower level and uses the same division in the upper window. Then, cunningly, he runs a shaft right down the centre of each of his wide arcades, passing visually through the slits in middle section and linking with the verticals of the windows at lowest.
He has omitted the marble shafts and their bangles, but he has made up for this by rotating the various attached mouldings so that they form knife-edges which cast sharp shadows in a similar way to the marble shafts, and on a dull day, they still catch the light, stressing the multitude of verticals, while minimising the amount of time/cost/skill that it took to achieve the effect. 

Details of the changing cross-section of the tower as it rises.  [12]

When we look at the Wynford's buttresses, we see that he has given them all little corner pillasters and pinnacles, which again have been rotated in relation to the main surface. This is important, because it is introducing something major. 

At the same height as Norreys' main facade gable, Wynford has given each buttress its own little gable, framed by two pinnacles. These terminal details are the sign that the buttress is about to take a major step back. This lessens the weight, both in actuality and visually. 

But at this point we become aware that something odd has happened. As hinted by the angled pinnacles, the buttresses themselves have become angled. Each corner of the tower is effectively rotated so that the outer surface of the tower no longer has four planes. It now has eight.

There is only one possible reason for the architect to do this. He is creating a structural and visual merge between a square tower and an octagonal spire.

For any architect who designed a tower that was intended to take a spire (particularly a stone spire) this was the ultimate challenge- how to build a tower on square plan that subtly merged into an octagonal plan. 

The basic solution is purely structural- build some squinches inside the tower and stand the spire on them. If the chapter or the bishop says it looks clumsy, then you add broaches to the tower or pinnacles at the corners. If they still complain you add battlements round the edges and tall poppies above the belfry windows.

But not William Wynford. What he was attempting here is something very much more subtle: a tower of square plan that gently becomes an octagon as it rises through the third stage. 
Hypothetical reconstruction of Wynford's plan for completion of the West Front

On the evidence that I have, I am sure that Wynford planned another stage to the tower, before the actual springing of the spire. At this stage, the octagonal form would have become clearly apparent. He would have thought of a method of drawing in the corners while narrowing and emphasising the four cardinal surfaces of the tower. My thought is that he may have planned a single wide opening with a central shaft. 
Above this stage, the spires would have raised themselves effortlessly to Heaven.

(NOTE: I have manipulated various bits of the existent architecture in order to produce the intermediate stage to something like the effect that Wynford must have had in mind.  This additional stage is shown in the image.)

While Nikolaus Pevsner bemoans the fact that the original scheme was not completed, I regret that Wynford's solution was not taken to another stage. There are only a few Gothic spires that do this really well. (Tamsyn Taylor, 3rd March 2013) 

This is perhaps what William Wynford had in mind when he built the south-
west tower (right) between 1360 and 1403. [10]

References and acknowledgements

1. Robin Oggins, "Cathedrals", Stirling Publishing Company (1996)
2. Alec Clifton-Taylor, "Cathedrals of England", Thames & Hudson, (1967) 
3. John Harvey, "English Cathedrals", Batsford, (1961) 
4. Banister Fletcher, ''The History of Architecture on the Comparative Method" (1961 edition) 
5. Photo of the West Front of Wells Cathedral: David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA  3.0. High resolution image at Wikimedia Commons 
6.  Photo of Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden: Rod W.  License: CC-BY-SA  3.0. High resolution image at Wikimedia Commons  
7. Photo of the interior of Wells Cathedral: Joseph Renalais.  License: CC-BY-SA  3.0. High resolution image at Wikimedia Commons 
8. Photo of the Retrochoir of Wells Cathedral: Mattana (2008) License: Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons 
9. Photo of sculpture and details of the West Front: Mattana (2008) License: Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons 
10. Cut'n'paste of two images sourced at Wikimedia Commons. If anyone can identify the spires, please leave a message.  
11. Photo of the misericords by Rod W. License: CC-BY-SA  3.0 
12. Black and white image adapted from photo by David Iliff, No. 5, above. 
13. Wikipedia: Wells Cathedral

I am sure that you wanted to know what was lurking beneath
the seats of the choir stalls. Two people sharing a drink and
a chap for whom it was the wrong moment to be disturbed.
Photos: Rod W. [11]

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks: the real conspiracy

What is the mystery behind the two paintings that are the central works of the exhibition  "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the court of Milan" which has opened at the National Gallery London, until 5th February 2012?  The exhibition was inspired by the recent restoration of the National Gallery's Leonardo, "The Virgin of the Rocks".   The Louvre Museum has lent, among other works, its version of "The Virgin of the Rocks".  The two paintings of the same subject will be displayed together for the first time. 

detail of the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks

On the 25th April 1483, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned Leonardo da Vinci and two assistants to provide the paintings for an altarpiece for their chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. The commission was for a central image showing the Virgin adoring the Christ Child and several smaller panels.  Leonardo responded with a composition showing the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist and an angel set in a landscape of rugged rocks.

The mystery 
How there happens to be two versions of the same painting and which is the earlier of the two are questions the answers to which are unknown and have been subject to much speculation.  

What is known beyond doubt is that the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks now in the Louvre was in France by 1625 and that the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks now in the National Gallery London was sold by the successors of the Confraternity to Gavin Hamilton in 1785. 

The conspiracy
The two paintings are very similar but very different.  They are almost the same in form, and in composition. They differ in colour, in details, in symbolism and in the way the paint is handled. 

For some curious reason, although the Virgin of the Rocks which is now in London can be identified as the one that came from Milan, where you would expect the Confraternity's painting to be, and the version in the Louvre has apparently always been in France,  it is considered by art historians that the Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre is the earlier of the two and constitutes Leonardo's original inspiration.  In order to support this theory, an elaborate hypothesis has been formed involving Leonardo removing the Confraternity's painting, selling it to a private client and painting the London version as a substitute. 

None of this is supported by documentary evidence.   In fact, all the evidence points clearly to the  London painting being the earlier by ten years, and the Louvre painting having been created for a very special client.  This is supported by the documentary evidence, the stylistic evidence, by basic mechanics and simple logic.   It is also supported by the clues that Leonardo left within the paintings.

Why do art historians keep supporting the substitution hypothesis?   Why do they go on dating the Louvre painting at 1483 and the London painting many (up to twenty) years later when the evidence of their eyes contradicts it?  

The real da Vinci code 
Leonardo was known to embed symbols within his paintings.  He put a juniper bush behind the head of Ginevra de' Benci because her name means "juniper".  (Gin is flavoured with juniper berries.)  He put a smile on the face of the Mona Lisa, not because she was pregnant, but because she was married to a man whose name meant "the jovial one".  It has even been suggested lately that Leonardo wrote his initials in the pupils of her eyes, so tiny that so far only one person has ever been able to read them.   

So what about the symbols in the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks?   The symbolism in the London painting is there for the Confraternity.  Very few people would ever notice it or read it correctly.  It has evaded the eyes of art historians for five hundred years.  The symbolism in the Louvre painting is so clear and so very obvious that anyone with a little knowledge can decipher it.  There is no mystery whatsoever about who the client for this artwork was.  

Why have art historians chosen for so long to put aside evidence that almost jumps out of the painting in its eagerness to be discovered? 

Perhaps it's a conspiracy! 

 Find out more about the signs and symbols at my blog:

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Rucellai Madonna, the Madonna of Santa Trinita and the Madonna of Ognissanti

Detail of the Rucellai Madonna
by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Back in the mid sixteenth century a "Renaissance Man'' by the name of Giorgio Vasari wrote a book called "The Lives of the Great Painters, Sculptors and Architects".   The book is sufficiently famous so as to be known as "Vasari's Lives".  Vasari was indeed a "Renaissance Man" being a competent painter, a good architect and an excellent writer.

"Vasari's Lives" is regarded as the first serious art history.  But as the art historian John White points out*, Vasari has a good deal to answer for, in the way in which he guided both sixteenth century artistic taste, and that of later generations.  Vasari told us in the most definite terms that almost all worthwhile painting began with Giotto and had Michelangelo as its benchmark.  Moreover, Florence was the home of art, and if it did exist anywhere else, then it was hardly worthy of a mention.

The art that went before the great painter Giotto, whose life spanned seven decades around 1300, was what Vasari called "the old Greek style",  stiff, formalised, stylised and unconcerned with realism.   Vasari's biographies mention a number of individuals, notably Cimabue who was Giotto's teacher, and the man who was regarded as Cimabue's rival,  Duccio, the leading painter of the nearest large city, Siena.  Vasari had heard that Duccio was a very great painter, but since he could not find either of his reputed masterpieces, it was hard to speak with authority on the subject.

There were two reasons why Vasari failed to find these paintings, even when they were right under his nose.  One of the paintings was right there in Florence, hanging above an altar in the transept of the large Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella, which had been still under construction at the time that the painting was commissioned.  Amazingly, although the documents for the commission have lasted all these centuries, the identity of the artist was lost to Vasari, and he presumed it to be the work of the Florentine, Cimabue, who painted another very big altarpiece, for the church of the Holy Trinity.  The other major work by Duccio that Vasari failed to find, the Maesta in Siena Cathedral, had its surface so covered with gold and silver crowns, stars, necklaces and votive trinkets, that it was barely recognizable to someone who really didn't know what he was looking for. *
Duccio's Maesta, painted for Siena Cathedral.
This double-sided altarpiece had small panels depicting the Life of Christ on the back.  It is now in the Duomo Museo

Duccio's Rucellai Madonna and Cimabue's Trinita Madonna have survived the centuries remarkably well and are now together in the same room in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence  The subject, in both cases, is the Madonna and Christ Child, seated on a throne, in majesty, and adored by brightly robed and winged angels.  In both cases the background was of gold leaf, and the robes of the Madonna decorated with gold.  The paintings have the style of the Byzantine icons which are a very important religious tradition and art form in all Orthodox countries.  However there is one major difference between these two paintings and the familiar Orthodox icons.   Duccio's painting was was 4.5 metres (15 feet) high, the largest such painting to have survived, and Cimabue's was not much less.

According to White, only about 600 paintings survived from this period.*   Those works include two huge altarpieces by Duccio, and two by Cimabue.  Half a dozen small works by Duccio have survived, and perhaps two or three by Cimabue.  Almost all are now in museums.

Cimabue's surviving works have suffered badly.  A large Crucifix was ruined in the floods in 1966.  The two huge frescos of the Crucifixion and Deposition that he painted in the Upper Church at Assisi were ruined by fire.  Of his frescos at Assisi, only the exquisite Madonna and Child with angels and St Francis remains intact.  Because of Cimabue's age, it is possible that his likeness of St Francis is based upon his personal memory of the man.

Madonna and Child in Majesty with St Francis of Assisi,
Fresco by Cimabue in the Lower Church of Sy Francis at Assisi

Cimabue and Duccio represent the culmination of the Byzantine style in Tuscany, and the heralding of a new era.  While both, in the context of their great altarpieces, adhere to forms that had developed in the preceding century and had their roots in the very long tradition of icon painting, both artists abandoned the formalised faces and expressions with which the Madonna and Christ Child were traditionally depicted in favour of greater naturalism.

In the case of Duccio, his new style proved so popular in Siena that magnificent works by his more conservative contemporaries had their faces scraped off and overpainted in Duccio's softer style, sometimes to the great detriment of the artwork.

As for Cimabue, the story goes that he was walking one day in the hills north of Florence when he came across a merry little shepherd boy who was scratching the portrait of one of his sheep onto a rock.  Cimabue went to the child's home and begged to apprentice him.  Little Giotto soon broke from the old traditions, inspired perhaps by a growing movement towards naturalism that was occurring in contemporary sculpture.

Giotto's great Ogni Santi Madonna, painted for All Saint's Church, is now in the same room as that of his older contemporaries, demonstrating a break with Byzantine tradition and style that was to lead to the Renaissance emphasis upon realism, solidity of form and naturalism of expression.   Vasari greatly praised Giotto as the harbinger of the Renaissance.   And, after Giotto, the beauty of the so-called "Greek style" was ignored and neglected for about six hundred years.

The Trinita Madonna  
Madonna della Santa Trinita
by Cimabue
Of the three Maestas that are displayed together in the Uffizi, Cimabue's is the most formal, and in some way the most arresting.  The throne upon which the Virgin is seated is front-on and rises in three elaborate tiers like a gilded wedding cake.  Its decoration is chiefly its elaborately-turned colonnettes, but whether they are pale wood or  ancient ivory like the 6th century throne preserved at Ravenna, it is impossible to say.  Like the throne, the angels that surround it are perfectly symmetrical, in position, in gesture and in colour.  Only the four prophets beneath the throne have individual identities.  The perspective of the throne smacks of Escher. It is impossible to tell whether the base of the throne curves inward or arches upward in order to make room for the prophets.  What works perfectly well on the two-dimensional picture plane makes no three-dimensional sense whatsoever.

On the throne and set high in the picture so that her head rises into the gable of the frame, sits the Madonna in Majesty.  Her position, like the throne, is almost frontal, with just the level of one foot and the angle of her head balanced to left and right.  With a direct gaze through eyes that have been strongly defined by the painter, she commands the viewer to adore her son. Her hand gestures towards him, and simultaneously lies between her belly and her heart.  The Christ Child has little sense of babyhood about him; he is an imperial ruler,  his law clasped in one hand while he gestures his divine benediction with the other, fixing the viewer with his eternal gaze.  Within this world of symbolism the red of his dress prefigures his death and the pink of his robe, his resurrection.

The quality of the painting is magnificence itself.  The arrangement of the folded robes with their warm subtle tones, the pattern of gilding on the uncompromising dark blue, and the luminescent gradation of vermilion and grey on the angels' wings all combine to make this one of the most magnificent works of Medieval period, the painterly equivalent of the greatest stained glass window of Chartres.

The Rucellai Madonna 
In Duccio's huge painting he respects many of the formal Byzantine conventions.  His throne is set at the angle found in smaller icons and manuscript illuminations.  The Madonna is conventionally positioned against the beautifully draped and decorated curtain, and the Christ Child gestures his benediction to an unseen penitent. The angels kneel around the throne on nothingness.

Madonna Rucellai 
by Duccio
Yet Duccio's painting is in its own way revolutionary.   The style of painting the face of the Madonna, in the late 13th century, was so formalised that every line followed a set and seemingly unchangeable pattern.  A U-shape was inscribed in white between her eyebrows,  the lines around and under her eyes were numbered and painted at set angles.  Every detail was dependent on some historic model of the past, meaning that over the centuries of repetition faces became increasingly stylised and geometric in appearance.  

To Duccio's contemporaries, the thing that set his paintings apart was the sweetness and naturalism of the faces of his Madonna and Christ Child.  Duccio carried this naturalism into the painting of the child's body. This is a baby that sits on its mother's knee with something of feel of a real baby.

 The naturalism extended to the angels, who unlike Cimabue's angels, have real bodily form, despite their ability to kneel on air. They are differentiated partly by their positions, which are not exact mirror images of each other, but mostly by their robes which fall in patterns that are similar, but all different.  Duccio uses these softly flowing garments to demonstrate his skill as a colourist.  The balance of pink, blue, mauve, pale red, apple green and olive green is one of the delights of this painting.

Another delight is Duccio's use of gold.  Gold leaf was obligatory to any altarpiece.  It reflected the candlelight and looked wonderful in the church,  It was written into the contract and often provided by the  commissioning patron.  But Duccio has chosen his method of using it.  He has fully decorated the shawl that drapes the Christ Child, as Cimabue decorated the robe of the Madonna in his Maesta.  But here, unlike Cimabue, Duccio has left the Madonna's robe a deep and intense midnight blue, forming a powerful tonality against which all the brighter elements are thrown into relief.  He then accentuates the form of this robe and the body of the Virgin by the skilful placing of six little vermilion accents, her dress, which is only visible at the neck, sleeve and hem, along with two little piece of red cushion that precisely define the angle of her knee and hip.

Her robe is edged with gold.  The line of it starts above the Christ Child's raised hand and curves delicately upward to frame his mother's face.  It then angles downward from below his hand to the unseen top of her left knee. It meanders playfully to describe the angle of her legs before falling in delicious loops and curls above her feet. The journey of this single line and its tributary which loops around the Virgins arm link and define the most important structural elements of the figure composition, against the dark blue background of the robe.

The Ognissanti Madonna 
Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna is something else.   It is possible that Giotto went with Cimabue to Rome, where he met a painter called Pietro Cavallini and other artists of the Roman school whose works, in general, were more naturalistic than those of the painters of Tuscany.  For whatever reason, Giotto abandoned formalised painting and began to paint directly from observation.   He was the master of the human form, master of movement and most of all, master of human expression.  He was the story-teller par excellence.  
Madonna di Ognissanti
by Giotto Bordone

Much of this is not apparent in this particular work, which is, after all, a conventional altarpiece and would have been commissioned with very rigid stipulations.   But within the constraints, Giotto has created a highly original work.

As with the other Great Maestas, the painting is dominated by the figure of the Virgin, conventionally seated on a throne, surrounded by angels and with her importance indicated by her scale which is much larger than the other figures around her.   The throne, for the first time, is real.  It is architecturally Gothic, is three-dimensional and is constructed of marble set with decorative polychrome inlays such as are still produced in Florence.

The Madonna herself and the figures who stand around are as three dimensional and tangible as the marble throne, despite the discrepancies of size.  The Christ Child is chubby.  The faces of the Madonna and Child appear to respect the trend begun by Duccio in that they have not quite broken away from the expected formality, but have none of the traditional mandatory linear features.  They are taking on the character of a real mother and son.

It is the bodily form and the posture of the Virgin which more than anything else, are a radical departure from the past.  This figure is that of a real woman whose large solid body is seated on a cushion on a throne, with her feet firmly planted, her knees apart and is tilted slightly forward and at an angle that balances the weight of the child.  Unlike Duccio and Cimabue, who have relied on the gold to create the flow of cloth over and around the body, Giotto has succeeded in introducing tonality into that huge unmanageable chunk of blue paint, defining the form of the jutting knees and heavy drapes as if daylight was falling across them.

The gold borders are minimised, and perfectly placed to visually accentuate the weight and balance of the figures.  The tiny touches of vermilion surround and emphasise the Child in his little pink dress. The angels and saints stand or kneel like real people, and their dinner-plate haloes overlap each other's faces, possibly causing the same frustration as large hats at a wedding.

Another feature of this painting is Giotto's use of white.  He has chosen to robe the two angels at the very front of the composition in simple white garments, in contrast to the midnight blue of the Virgin's robe and the dark green of the other angels.  The white garments of the angels reflect the colour and tonality of the dress of the Virgin, possibly symbolising her purity, but unusual at a date when her dress was usually painted red.  The effect is stunning. It forms a large triangle with the face of the Virgin making its apex.  This triangular format, consciously demonstrated here,  was to become the basis of later Florentine altarpieces, when the formalities of the Medieval style had been completely abandoned.

* Reference: John White, "Duccio, Tuscan Art and the Medieval Workshop", Thames and Hudson (1979)

Friday, 14 October 2011

Ghosts of Italy: Saint Clement and his House Church

Italy is full of ghosts..........

San Clemente 

One of Rome's most significant churches is San Clemente.  It is one of the most user-friendly churches to those who don’t speak Italian.  This is because it has been run by Irish clergy, ever since 1667 when the English, with a remarkable display of Christian Charity, expelled the entire clergy of the Roman Catholic Church from Ireland.

The present church of San Clemente dates from the late 11th century and has retained its delightful atrium (courtyard) with an odd assortment of salvaged Roman columns all around it, which is the perfect place for wedding and Christening photos.   The church has been redecorated over the centuries and has an elaborate ceiling of carved and gilded wood, but still retains its ancient marble fittings including a canopy over the altar. 

The greatest artistic treasure is an ancient mosaic in the apse, showing the Crucifixion at the centre, with a vine sprouting from beneath it and spreading curling green tendrils across the golden background.  

(Click pictures to enlarge)
The Tree of Life
There are also some wonderful frescos by Masolino, who together with Masaccio painted the Brancacci Chapel at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence in the early 1400s. 

The present church was built directly over a church dating from the 4th century.  This church had been burnt out by the Normans in 1084. It was partially restored while the new church was under construction.  The interior of the 4th century church has remained almost intact, but buried. You might wonder how a city like Rome could have its ground level change so dramatically.  The reason is that at certain times of year, the winds dump Sahara Desert onto Rome.  I saw it happen.  Just within one heavy rainstorm, everything became coated with a layer of fine dust several millimetres thick.  

The Annunciation by Masolino, early 1400s
The 4th century church is kinda gloomy and has dark corners because there are big piers supporting the upper church. The whole place seems to have ghosts lurking everywhere despite the life that goes on in the church above, which is always full of people. 

In the mid 19th century, a certain Father Joseph Mullooly who had an interest in archaeology, realized that there was more to the lower church than met the eye.  He began to excavate. 

The atrium, with recycled columns
What he discovered was that the nave of the lower church was actually the upper level of the central courtyard of a large Ancient Roman mansion, while the two side aisles were the remains of rooms on the first floor.  Father Mullooly's excavating discovered that the courtyard and rooms at the basement level had remained intact, but had been filled with rubble as a foundation for the 4th century church.  

At this lower level Mullooly found that an insula or apartment building abutted the mansion.  And while the lower rooms of the mansion proved to be simply rooms, the basement of the apartment contained a Mithraic Temple, part of which was located directly below the sanctuary of the later church. 

The Mithraeum 

A staircase goes down to a lower level, and there one is confronted by the Mithraic Temple.  It is built like a cave, as they always were, and at the centre is this thing like a sarcophagus, with a relief sculpture of Mithras at one end.  

The cult of Mithras was very popular in the first century AD, as is evidenced by the numerous remains of such temples.  But the cult was so secret in nature that almost nothing was written about it.  The central figure is the hero Mithras who is depicted in three types of scenes. He is sometimes shown naked, apparently being born out of a rock.  But on the other hand, it is just possible that it represents him being dumped in the River Tiber in a pair of cement boots.  The Romans have always been good at making cement, and also good at finding practical uses for it.  The second type of iconography shows him sharing a banquet with Sol, who is identified as the sun by the rays around his head.  

The third, most common and most interesting depiction shows Mithras slaying a bull.  He is always depicted in the same manner, clothed, with a short cloak and a distinctive cap called a Phrygian cap.  He suppresses the bull by grabbing it by the nose and putting his knee in the centre of its back, while stabbing it in the neck.  Mithras is generally accompanied in this scene by two torch-bearers, one who holds the torch up, and the other who points it downwards.  And there are always in the scene a dog, a crow, a scorpion and a snake. 

There has been a lot of argument over the years as to what it depicts.   It seems certain that it is associated with the sky, the night sky in particular, as Mithraeums are always located in a domed cavern-like space, a bit like a modern planetarium.  It seems fairly straight forward that it represents a group of constellations, although not necessarily with the stars overlaid with the same set of imaginary connections that have brought about the identifying names that are currently in use.

If one puts aside the way in which the constellation of Orion is usually interpreted as a figure, and turns it on its side, then one has an entirely different figure, one with a triangular cloak blowing behind it, a bright star forming the top of its cap and a curved knee placed on the back of the constellation of Taurus, the bull. 

The House Church

St Clement as Bishop of Rome.  An 11th century
fresco from the lower church
Leading off from the stairs is a passage which is actually a narrow Roman street, now completely buried.  Apparently it runs through to the Colosseum.  There are doorways leading into rooms, some of which are excavated, but still all underground.  I walked in through a doorway, and found myself greeted by a ghost, who I could not see, but whose presence I could feel so strongly that I knew I was not alone.  It was a man who greeted me.  I can't say that I heard the words aloud, but I heard them clearly nonetheless.  The man said, "Welcome Christian! Come and join us at the table and worship with us!"  I realised immediately that I had walked into an Early Christian house church.  

It wasn't until about twenty years later, when I acquired a book on the history of the papacy that I realised that the ghost that had greeted me was, in all probability, Clement himself.  He was of a wealthy family, and the mansion of which the upper floor had become the lower church had belonged to him.  He became Bishop of Rome towards the end of the first century AD and so is regarded by the Catholic Church as being the second Pope, but accounts differ, and he may have been the third or fourth Bishop of the church of Rome.  A letter that he wrote to the Corinthian church is still read by them once a year.   

The body of St Clement is returned to his titular church
with much rejoicing.  St Cyril and his brother Methodius
 are on the left.
As with so many saints, the facts of his ministry to the congregation who gathered at his house towards the end of the first century have been almost smothered in the legend that came to surround him.  The acts of St Clement date from around the same time as the building of the first church in the 4th century.  It was said that the Emperor Trajan had exiled him, sending him to work at stone quarries in the Crimea.  One day when the prisoners at the quarry were suffering from heat and thirst, Clement had a vision of a lamb.  Going to where the lamb had stood, he struck the ground with his pickaxe and a spring of water gushed forth.  Many people were converted as a result of this miracle.  As punishment, Clement was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea by the Emperor Trajan.  The anchor and some bones were miraculously recovered in the 9th century by Saint Cyril and brought back to Rome where they were enshrined at San Clemente.