Friday, April 6, 2012

Oral tradition. Folk Stories Geneis and Finding Sacred Art

 I wrote before that during middle Ages some ideas took lives on their own (proto- sciences). Today I will talk about folklore.

There is folk current in European Christianity, for example the  folk Catholicism. Secular or pagan  stories which were liked were appropriated, so, the Christian/religious current and the pagan/secular one created very interesting stream.

One  story is form Ukraine, and Belarus,( if I am right), and it is about a bird: the raven. It tells that "the raven’s plumage was very colorful as a rainbow, and even was radiating rays. Raven was a true bird of Paradise." When the paradise was no more, the land become barren, and the raven become black. But his plumage will be back in its full glory the moment the Paradise is back on Earth. Medieval art represented Paradise as radiant and colorful, cathedrals and basilicas were earthly representations of ideal of Paradise.

Other legends relate to concrete objects,  art which were found and installed in local churches and enjoyed special devotion. Typical motive: the sculpture, for ex. a Black Madonna, or an  icon was lost during turmoil, than was found in a miraculous way. Or even appeared in a miraculous way from the beginning, without being lost. The finders were the animals, such as cattle, or an owl, or a sheep. It appears to me that the animals are the most frequent finders of religious art, but I am not a folklorist, and those are just my original studies. My formal studies in this subject are limited, were part of my anthropology class, and dealt with the subject of art objects which were subject of veneration in Catholicism, and especially those relating to healing. I don't claim special knowledge here, (reading and listening stories passed as part of living oral tradition).

Sometimes instead of the animals young children are the finders.find the art taken then to the local church, or a blind woman. The story about the blind woman whose blindness was healed when she stood in the river and the crucifix was floating on the water, the Jesus on the crucifix talked to her and she was healed. It relates to one small village in Poznan region, Poland. This particular story has variants, including the treasure which was dug up by the oxen. The finders are somehow innocent, or under-priviledged. Those stories represent the idea that the divine is very accessible, and approachable through intuition, no special intellectual training is needed.

But lets go back to the story about the blind women. When the women was told by Jesus on the crucifix he wanted to stay at the local church (common motive, the holy one depicted decides on location where he/she wants to stay). The crucifix was pulled out of the river and put on a cart which was supposed to be pulled by oxen. But the load became so heavy, the oxen couldn't pull the cart even a a single step forward. They just were stepping in place. They tried and tried, but couldn't move, were just digging deeper and deeper into the soil. And this is how the oxen dug up the chest with golden treasure, from which the money was spend for renovation of the church. The chest is still exhibited in the church; the crucifix itself is in Gothic style, dated by art historians as created during early 15 c. The church itself became a local pilgrimage site. The crucifix was moved to other churches, richer and more impressive.The crucifix appeared in a miraculous way back in its humble church which was chosen at the beginning. This is also common: the artifact wants to stay in one and only place. But always I didn't visit this place, I didn't see the crucifix and the chest, but I listen to the story told by very old people. Maybe one day, I will visit this place too.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Red: Mary Magdalene's Case:Medieval Art, History of Color # 7

Mary Magdalene wasn't depicted only in red though history, as Virgin Mary wasn't depicted in blue only. But let take a look at the red, as both Marys were depicted in red garments. For example the red of the robes of Mary Magdalene had a different, double symbolism, than for example red of other persons' cloaks. Mary Magdalene's robes were painted in cinnabar red, (vermillion), having more hint of orange. Red in general can tend toward more to direction of yellow, or blue, and during the Middle Ages the quality of red was important, which red was symbolizing which idea. The other red symbolized regal values and charity.

 Here comes Crucifixion by Juan Rexach from Northon Simon Museum, Los Angeles. Due to poor lighting conditions the color of Mary Magdalene robes not very accurate on this photograph, in person is like on the photo bellow.

 Crucifixtion by Jaun Rexach, Norton Simon Museum Los Angeles

Here you can see desctiption and a better quality photo 
You can zoom into, and see very well the specific color of Mary Magdalene's garment.

Crucifixion by Masaccio, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples,public domain,  via Wikimedia Commons
 I am glad that Maria Rzepinska wisely comments is her book about color that red in Middle Ages was not just red, but it had two aspects. Red was one color in which case people paid attention to its shade, shades had codified meaning. Two types of red were differentiated: the noble one, considered sublimed, and the earthly one, viewed as "sinful". Several examples of this red can be seen close to my living place in California: Norton Simon Museum and  the Huntington Library art collection.But today Massacio, as more widely known.

In general, red stood for love in sense of charity, blood of martyrs, sacrifice on the cross, redemption through crucifixion. But as it could be a color of love in spiritual sense, redemption, also when in specific tone, could symbolize sin, or lust, or both: redemption form sin.This dichotomy is visible in portrayals of Virgin Mary as the sinless one who is represented in another red than Mary  Magdalene  ( dressed in "sinful" red). A medieval painted wouldn't confuse those two reds.

We need to remember that color in medieval art isn't always symbolic: sometimes just the need of decorative usage of color was important. In Latin Christianity (Byzantium was another case) the robes of such a person as Virgin Mary wouldn't have been painted in the same as red of Mary Magdalene's.

Above the crucifixion scene by Masaccio, Mary Magdalene in dramatic gesture of devotion and anguish dressed in red so typical for her. Although there are quite a number of representations of Mary Magdalene in this type of red, specially at crucifixion, this one is probably the most famous one. It is still very medieval. But there are hints of coming of the new era: the Renaissance in Italian art,there are more of human emotions shown. Gothic was very emotional in other countries, (for example showing suffering of Jesus),  but art in Italy was more reserved, making more usage of  Byzantine ideals.

 All  older medieval representations of crucifixion in Latin Christianity would show Jesus fully dressed, each foot nailed separately, and no signs of his suffering. With the passing of time Jesus became more humanized, specially in the art of Northern and Central Europe. The body was more and more exposed, agony and blood shown, feet nailed together. For example in German art Jesus was shown with great attention to expression. From Jesus as a symbol there was a shift  toward showing Jesus as a human being.

What about Masaccio himself? His name was Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone. He died when he was only 27 years old, and he wasn't as famous as the other painters of his times. Even his name was a humorous take on his given name. Masaccio, as he is known even today, is a form from Tom, meaning "clumsy" Tom, as separated form his collaborator Masolino,  the "delicate " Tom.

Yet Masaccio influenced the other Italian artists. It was his example which caused a shift in art:  more and more toward realistic representations of the world around. Here we see a paintings which is still medieval: composition, golden background.  But carved into the golden background humans who were much more real, not idealized, captured in a moment of strong emotion. Figures are real, not ideal.

Other colors of Mary Magdalne's robes in another post, more colors.
And my post about Mary Magdalene depicted in blue click here

Byzantine Christianity depicted her also in red,  with an egg in her hand. In this tradition she was an extremely virtuous woman in similar age of Jesus's mother, and both women died in Ephesus. Mary Magdalene's body was was kept in Constantinople as a very venerated relic. This dissapeared still during the Middle Ages, but also later her relics started to be venerated in Western Europe, Latin Christianity. Relics were hot commodity then, and many stolen from the Churches in Constantinople in 1204 when crusaders sacked and looted this cultured city. Virgin Mary's house is believed still to be there, what was one part of the Byzantine Empire, among ancient ruins of Ephesus, today in Turkey, in a rather remote location but among the most wonderful ruins.

Monday, April 2, 2012

History of Science at Chartres Cathedral, and Zodiac

In the previous post there was Zodiac window form Chartres, today is the astronomical clock. Strange setting for such symbols?

No way. Zodiac then was nothing unusual in churches. So, why all the mystery so many tourists talk about? Actually there is nothing mysterious about it. Explanation follows.
Chartres Cathedral Choir, Astronomical Clock, via Wikimedia Commons, thanks to Harmonia Amanda
First, the clock comes form XVI c. but its ideological roots are medieval, and proto-scientific, not really esoteric. Astronomy, astrology, the synthesizing medieval minds didn't see the difference.

 It is a common misconception that the Middle Ages were not interested in science, only in religion, or there was no reading of Classical texts before the Renaissance. Actually the classics were read, not as widely as  during the Renaissance, of course, but were not unknown, rather kept in high esteem. Many Classical and Arabic texts of science were translated into Latin. Arabic texts about astronomy, mathematics, anatomy and chemistry, and medicine contributed a lot in development of Western medical sciences, we often forget about it. Or simply don't want to know. And there was no agreement about if the Sun was the center of Universe or moved around the Earth. The official decision   in favor of the Earth as the center of the Universe came later. Science was fine as long it didn't oppose any dogma. For example the theological idea of dignity of the human body was applied to the medical field, and this particular idea didn't allow dissecting human corpses for anatomical research. Dead animals were dissected instead, specially pigs. Sometimes, rarely, human bodies were dissected also.

Chartres itself had a cathedral school, as often was the case with such buildings: there were also centers of learning, not only part of religious live of communities as today. Chartres was one of such centers, and was among the famous ones. Neo-Platonism was flourishing there, sciences were treated as separated from theology. A number of so called than natural philosophers (philosophers interested in science) came from Chartres. School of Chartres became less influential when universities started to compete with cathedral schools, but this was a case with all cathedral schools.

So, if the clerics of Chartres were so scientifically minded, why such thing as Zodiac in the cathedral?

 Here we need to understand the mind of people who lived before us, and don't project our XXI c. world view on them. The clerics form Chartres were still products of their times, and during their times astrology was science, before the Catholic Church opposed it, and before it was mocked  by the scientists of the Enlightenment era as superstition, not a scinece. Medicine was part of curriculum at Chartres school, and astrology was officially part of medicine also. Here is the illumination dealing with the human body as related to Zodiac.

Anatomical Zodiac Man, Limburg Brothers, Book of Hours of Duke de Berry, illuminated manuscript tempera on vellum, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, thanks to Petrus Berbygere

In addition to proto-scientific reasons, Zodiac was a very popular motive in depictions of passing time. One  was very common:  the labors of the months. Frequently months and Zodiac signs were tied together, and this is often found in medieval churches and religious  manuscripts. Labors of the months showed secular world. Zodiac window at Chartres belongs to this popular category. Here is incomplete list of  zodiacs and labours of months in churches.

 Another example, most famous of this type is the series of illuminations from the mentioned  Book of Hours of Duke de Berry, (the same book from which the illumination above comes from). It is not the only example of this kind, but among the most beautiful ones, if not the most skilfully rendered, so far. Here it is, via Wikipedia article and picture gallery.

The Book of Hours of Duke de Berry is  of the most beautiful examples of book illumination in International Gothic style, and contains a very good example of Gothic blue, specially loved and used in France.

 Art history itself is an interdisciplinary endeavor, and understanding history of science or cultural history can enhance knowledge of art. Art doesn't exist in historical vacuum. It is connected to the world around, it exists in historical contexts. Striping old art form its historical context can give us only partial insight, and lead to some  misunderstanding too, some of them can be quite funny.