Saturday, November 2, 2013

Dosso Dossi - the unlikely inspiration.

In the last month I have thought about Dosso Dossi more than I have in five years studying art history. Dosso Dossi is a Renaissance painter who was positioned in the court of Ferrara. Ferrara was one of the centres of Renaissance culture and was also home to the infamous Lucrezia Borgia (her third husband was the Duke of Ferrara). I also know Dosso as the owner of the coolest signature known to art history: the letter ‘D’ crossed with a bone (osso), together they are read as D-osso

Dosso Dossi, Saint Jerome, c.1519, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. (Detail)
Unfortunately art history does not remember his with the same excitement. In his day he was overshadowed by titans of Renaissance such as Titian, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael. Therefore it is no surprise that Vasari described him as second best in Lives of the Artists, unfortunately Vasari’s view was so authoritative that it was not questioned until recently. Despite this, Dosso Dossi’s work can be found in many major museums and the work that I cannot get out of my head hangs in the National Gallery in London, it is called 
Lamentation over the Body of Christ.

Dosso Dossi, Lamentation over the Body of Christ, 1510-1520, oil on wood, National Gallery, London.
The small image shows the dead body of the Christ lying on the ground after having been taken of the cross. The body is surrounded by three women. One is at his feet, the second is kneeling at his head, and the third stands behind his head staring into the sky and holding her head. The gestures of all three are theatrical and hyperbolised. What makes the works both awkward and striking is the distortion of the anatomical proportions of the figures. For example the kneeling down woman has an proportionately small head and large arms. The awkwardness, the clumsiness of big gestures and poses, the physical distortions all make this scene look like something Diane Arbus would have been interested in photographing especially as part of her later series.

Diane Arbus, Untitled (6), 1970-71; © The Estate of Diane Arbus
The reason why I became interested in the Lamentation over the Body of Christ is because two very different and two very surprising artists referenced him as an influence. The first of these is John Currin. Currin is a great contemporary artist who is well known for his oil paintings of young women. 
John Currin, Thanksgiving, 2003, oil on canvas, Tate, London.
I always thought that aesthetically Currin's work is somewhere between Balthus (sans the cats and the pedophilic vibe) and the 'girlishness' shown in the Sofia Coppola movies. 

Balthus, Thérèse dreaming, 1938, oil on canvas
The Virgin Suicides, 1999
As you have noticed, I used 20th century references to describe Currin's work, so it was a bit of a shock to find out that an obscure Renaissance artist is one of the influencers. I heard Currin talk about Dosso during one of the Frieze Masters talks last month. Currin explained that the great names of Renaissance always intimidated him, and he felt that he cannot learn from them. There is no point of copying Raphael, as no matter how good you are you are never going to be as good as Raphael. On the other hand, the ‘second tier’ artists were less intimidating, and one could actually approach their work and learn. And of course there is the quirkiness of the image, the distortions that make the image very compelling and accessible, it is less intimidating to approach it and to learn from it. (For the full talk visit
Interestingly, the second artist became interested in the painting also for its distortions. The second artist is Michael Landy a Young British Artist (YBA) who is more famous for destroying rather than creating. His most famous work to date is Break Down where over a few days he destroyed everything he owned including his birth certificate and passport. 

Michael Landy, Break Down, 2001, exhibition view.
A few years ago he took up residency in the National Gallery and during the early stages of his research and exploring the gallery he made copies of a few artworks one of them was Dosso’s Lamentation. The distortions were what interested Landy in this work and when he copied the work he also copied the defects acquired with age – the cracks in the paint. He also enlarged the work making it almost 2 meters high.

Michael Landy, Lamentation over the Body of Christ (after Dosso Dossi), 2011, watercolour pencil on paper, Duerckheim Collection.
I must admit that Dosso Dossi serving as a muse to two very different and very good artists makes me very happy as it shows that the Renaissance is still relevant and that it serves as an inspiration to today's artists. It shows that artists' are not afraid to venture outside the established canon, and that people who say that contemporary artists don't know anything about art are ill informed. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Modern Medieval

Ever since I started studying the medieval period I thought that it was more modern than most people assume. Every image (almost every image) I saw in the lecture I could think of at least one modern equivalent. For example, the iconic scene in 'Ring' of the girl climbing out of the TV screen is actually just the reworked image of the Blemmye that is trying to escape from the pages of the 1050's 'Wonders of the East'. (I even managed to compare characters from Little Mermaid with some illuminations in one of my undergrad essays )      

Now, being in the limbo between handing in the dissertation and the viva, I decided I will explore another aspect of the tricky relationship between the modern and the medieval which is the Digital Medieval. So now I am taking a course on Digital Print on Textiles in Saint Martin School of Art, the aim of this is to look into ways how to digitalise and digitally recreate medieval textiles and patterns, but of course there is a chance that I will stray from that path and attempt to turn medieval into a fashion statement.   

Saturday, April 6, 2013

When angels fall: when? why? and where?

When I was a lot younger and more of a metal head, I really liked a song that had a phrase ‘when angels fall.’ Now, almost a decade later, this turned in to a pestering question ‘when DO angels fall?’  As it turned out trying to find out ‘when do the angels fall’ is just as impossible as telling the exact date for ‘once upon a time’. One of my favorite summaries of the most popular possibilities is given by  B.Murdoch in The Medieval Popular Bible: Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages (Suffolk, 2003) p 23

The Bible gives us very little help on precisely when the angels, including those destined to fall, were created. Most frequently in vernacular writings  in the west, the angels, including Lucifer, are viewed as having been created as part of heaven, either outside time, or specifically on the first day of the Creation. A text as early as Jubilees has them created on the first day. Though a separate tradition – with a reference in the longer version of the Slavonic II Enoch  - has them created on the second, a choice supported in rabbinic and also in Christian writings on the grounds that God is uniquely not reported in Genesis to have seen that things were good on the second day. Usually the fall of the angels comes on that day too, but rabbinic texts also have them falling on the third day , and the Greek and Slav Palaea Historica has the rebellion on the fourth day, linked with the creation of the stars. The Vita Adae tradition, which is the apocryphal work with the greatest resonance in vernacular texts, has Lucifer’s fall on the sixth day, after the creation of Adam, but this is linked with thematic differences in that work and with variant reason for this fall. 
 Thus they fell either before or after creation, and if after then on one of the 6 first days. Lucky for me artists usually went with day one or before creation, like in this illumination where you can just make out the angels falling through the blue void behind God creator
God Creator, Guyart des Moulins, Historia Scholastica, British Library, Royal 19 D.III, fol 3r, France, c.1411.
 Searching for the answer to 'When?' lead to the question of 'Why?' 
It turned out that the Miltonesque rebel was not how Lucifer was first imagined. Some 2 000 years before that the devil was a leader of the Watcher angels who fell in love (or lusted) after human women, and decided to have families and children with them. Unfortunately the two races were not meant to mix as the kids they bore were the monstrous Nephelim. Interestingly despite that the Book of Enoch still shows Satan and his fallen angels as good fathers and part of their punishment is to see their kids destroyed. 

In the Book of Enoch the angels first descent to Earth and then they are thrown in to the pit, so it was not a direct fall to hell it happened in stages. Thus the question of 'Why?' lead to 'Where?' and staying true to my Devil Poster habit  I made a mini poster:

So what can I conclude from all this? (besides that asking questions leads to more questions and more answers) That the fall of the angels has always been a changing narrative, considering it is not to be found in the Bible I am amazed it even came in to existence! And as brilliant as Paradise Lost is, part of me is sad that it overshadowed everything with its popularity as it would have been interesting to see how the narrative could have developed without the Miltonesque influence. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Holkham Bible: Satan enthroned.

fig 1. Holkham Bible, MS 47682, fol 2, British Library, England, 1327-1340, (detail).

The crowning of Satan, from one of my favorite manuscripts the Holkham picture Bible (1327-1340) a book created by an amateur (Figure 1, 2). The proposed, by Michelle Brown, amateurism of the creator certainly explains the very unorthodox image of the creation of the world. Usually God would be shown creating the world while the angels are worshiping him, or if they are the rebel angels then they would be falling in to the fiery pit of hell (Figure 3), but here we have Satan enthroned.
fig 2. Holkham Bible, MS 47682, fol 2, British Library, England, 1327-1340.
Fig 3. Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B. vii, fol. 1v, British Library, England, 1310-1320.

I must admit that this is the first crowning of Satan that I have seen, thought there are quite a few depictions of crowning or worshiping of Antichrist but that is usually shown in the context of Revelation, moreover Satan and Antichrist are different characters. This image is truly unique in its depiction of the crowning of the Devil before the fall, and positioning the scene above God’s head.

Even more interesting is where the idea came from. Medieval theologians usually explained the motivation behind Satan’s fall being envy, that is Satan wanting to be like God. But this definitely does not show envy, this shows Satan trying to replace God as ruler. The only famous and widely disseminated narrative where Satan wanted God’s throne was the Anglo Saxon poem Genesis A&B, which can be found in the Caedmon manuscript (Figure 4). In it the devil is described as being second to God (very different from Augustine who suggested that the devil was one of the lesser category angels) and boasting that he will establish a throne in the Northern part of heaven (interestingly the Northern part of the church is sometimes called the devils side, and the door on the Northern wall is known as the ‘Devil’s door’). In the meantime, God finds out about the boasting but instead of expelling the angel he first creates hell as the rebels' personal prison and then he throws them there. The twist of this story is that it is happening before the creation of the world and reality. This small detail might be relevant to this depiction as the crowning of Satan and hell mouth are located outside the circle of creation in which we see God creating earth while the moon and the sun rotate around him.
Fig 4. Caedmon Manuscript, MS Junius 11, fol 3, Bodleian Library, England, c. 1000.
An alternative explanation for crowning Satan is political - 1327-1340 was a very chaotic time for Britain. In 1327 Isabella of France Queen consort of England and her lover Mortimer overthrew Edward II and his ‘ favorite’ and claimed the thrown for Edward III. Because Edward III was underage at the time it was his mother and her lover who reigned. Edward II was imprisoned, his ‘ favorite’ was executed (he was very unpopular with most of the English Barons), 6 months later Edward II, himself, was assassinated. Popular legend has it that he was killed by having a red-hot poker thrust into his anus, although there is no contemporary evidence to this. The myth probably arose as a comment on the king’s homosexual tendencies. Isabella and Mortimer then ruled until 1330 when Edward III took over the thrown and executed Mortimer, as for his mother he gave her a generous pension and sent her away from the public eye. In this way the crowned Satan can be a reference to a wrongful ruler, and the pit underneath him is the foreshadowing of his fall.