January 2013
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31    


October 13, 2008

Riza-i ‘Abbasi and The Poetry of Safavid Persian Painting

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Woman With a Veil, album folio attributed to Riza-i 'Abbasi, circa 1590-95. Isfahan. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, H x W (image): 34.2 x 21.5 cm (13 7/16 x 8 7/16 in)

"The rose garden which today is full of flowers,
when tomorrow you would pluck a flower
it may not have one for you."
Firdawsi (10th-11th c.)

“From the bounty of the rose,
the nightingale learned speech, for if not,
there had not been in his throat
all this sweet speech and singing."
Hafez (14th c. ) (1)

The haunting images of both Firdawsi and Hafez on roses and nightingale song remind us about the retrieval of beauty through memory. This is a perfect distillation of sensory richness found alike in the best poetry of the world, shared with Sappho and the Hebrew Song of Songs, where striking visual kinesis is mingled with music and fragrance and where so many impressions (sight, sound, smell, movement) conjoin in lyrical mastery as a sensory cluster. (2) Since visual imagery is important in verbal poetry, how much poetic ambience can be found in visual painting?

Lyricism is clearly found not only in poetic word but also in visual poetic image. Persian painting in the Safavid period of Persia under Shah ‘Abbas (1587-1629) rose to its zenith in the art of painters such as Sadiqi Beg (1533-c. 1610) and especially Riza-i ‘Abbasi (1565-1635) at Isfahan. (3) For reference and study, the magisterial, gemlike books of Sheila Canby are the best sources on Persian painting for the Anglophone world. (4) Along with rich textiles and grand architecture, Persian paintings are one of the primary expressions of Safavid greatness even in microcosm (5), influencing Mughal art in India while newly examining ideas imbibed from European drawing and perspective. (6)

The Safavid master, Riza-i ‘Abbasi, was trained by his artist father, the court painter Ali Asghar, and much stylistic innovation and later influence is attributed to the son Riza, who was able around 1603 to append ‘Abbasi as a title “of ‘Abbas” to his name from his service to the court of Shah ‘Abbas although he left the shah’s service to paint on his own before returning to court and its kitabkhaneh workshop of poets, painters and other artists. (7) Similar in rebellious temperament to the sublime but realistic chiaroscuro Italian painter Caravaggio – who also preferred the company of rowdies and courtesans (8) - the lyricism of Riza can be seen in album folio paintings such as Woman with a Veil, circa 1590-95, one of his earlier attributed works now in the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian, where descriptions of the work examined here even include the idea of "visual poetry."

Perhaps the viewer’s first impression is made from the distinct arching bow of the woman’s body as Riza bends her body strongly to the left with a movement that shows great kinesis on a large scale. Similar contours are often typical for his early courtly personages.(9) Perhaps this woman's gracefully-bowed body even alludes to her standing against wind or a strong breeze, accentuated by the tilt of her head in the opposite direction to the right. Descriptive details abound on the small scale as well. Using opaque watercolor, gold and ink, such bright primary pastel colors – one of his earlier hallmarks (10) – as red, yellow and blue are deliberately chosen and separated for maximum effect in the woman’s garments, shown from ankles upward above her black shoes and decorated gold undertrousers. A lavender shawl veil covers her from head to hip, open in the front. The concerted movement of her clothes with her body – even the many folds of the fairly tightly wrapped shawl veil and her blue-sleeved arm - implies both the mobility and clinging manner of light silk. Although pinned at the upper neck hem, her dark red blouse undergarment is narrowly open at her hinted breast. A gold forehead bangle and bright red and blue spangled headscarf are just visible under the shawl head veil, expressing different layers of emphasis relative to the bright pastel color garments. For lighter effect as counterpoint, her modest dainty necklace jewelry is answered by her heavier gold cloth belt sash tied at her waist, and gold buttons and gold cloth rosettes embroidered on her blue coat all simultaneously express Riza’s love of detail as well as visual economy, especially with only her bent left thumb seen under the held veil.

In subdued and subtle contrast to the woman, the natural light-brown paper background of an almost golden hue is balanced with calligraphic ink style in the lighter fronded and flowering plants in the rocks on either side of the woman, carefully placed in the empty spaces of the paper background at lower left and middle right. Above her, dramatic yet faint calligraphic swirls in the sky may represent moving air and cumulus clouds.

Similar finesse and balance of larger context with intricate detail are seen in many Persian paintings from the Safavid court. Almost certainly known to Riza-i 'Abbasi was an older artist who preceded him in leadership of the kitabkhaneh when it was in Qazvin, Sadiqi Beg (1533-c. 1610). One of Sadiqi's attributed paintings 'Balqis and the Hoopoe' now in the British Museum and contemporary with Riza's work here also shows a marvelous detail. Balqis, legendary Queen of Sheba, is reclining and wearing a beautiful garment Canby observantly identifies as a "remarkable waqwaq design" because it bears calligraphic animal and human heads interspersed with embroidered floral patterns. (11) Such detail is truly mesmerizing and shows these Safavid artists were attentive in such paintings to many aspects of the crafts in their culture.

Continuing Riza’s customary boldness tempered with subtlety in the above painting at hand, Woman with a Veil, perhaps the consummate artist in Riza now brings the viewer to the likely crux of the painting. The woman’s mostly properly hidden left hand holds her veil open in a protective shell between her hand and covered forehead. Like a candle kept out of the breeze, her pear-shaped right hand gently holds and shields between thumb and second finger the stem of a fragile spray of white flowers and her slightly-smiling oval face bends down to the flowers as if to both see its tiny blossoms and smell its scent, a meditative moment of acute sensory appreciation and the philosophic realization that attends this sensuality. The wind – ambiguous in direction but swirling on either side and behind - would tear away its petals and disperse the flowers’ fragrance. With her almond eyes focusing directly on the flower stem she seems to realize bent in the wind herself that she is just like that flower, fragile and ephemeral. A well of sympathy brings the viewer to a mutual poignant universal: the tragedy of Beauty is its brevity. (12)


(1) Firdawsi: "King Nishavir's Address to the Grandees of Persia" and "Ode of Hafez". E. S. Holden, tr. Flowers from Persian Gardens. Cambridge, MA: University Press, 1901, 54, 131; also see Rumi on the rose, Mehdi Khansari, M. Reza Moghtader, Minouch Yavari. The Persian Garden: Echoes of Paradise. Washington, DC: Mage Publishing, 2004, 171.

(2) Patrick Hunt. Poetry in the Song of Songs: A Literary Analysis. New York: Peter Lang, 2008, ch. 2, pp. 55-56 and ch. 4, pp. 83-101.

(3) Sir Lawrence Gowing, ed. A Biographical Dictionary of Artists. Abingdon: Andromeda Oxford, 2002 repr., 581-82.

(4) for example, Sheila R. Canby. The Rebellious Reformer: The Drawings and Paintings of Riza-yi-Abbasi of Isfahan. London: Azimuth Editions, 1996; Sheila R. Canby. Safavid Art and Architecture. London: British Museum Press, 2002. Also see (7) and (10) below.

(5) Barbara Brend. Islamic Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991, 148 & ff, 164 & ff.

(6) Anjan Chakraverty. Indian Miniature Painting. New Delhi & Roli & Janssen BV, Netherlands, 2005, 34, 48.

(7) Sheila R. Canby. Persian Painting. London: British Museum, 1993, 94, 98.

(8) Patrick Hunt. Caravaggio. London: Haus, 2004, chs. 4-5 & 7-8, pp. 29-67, 92-107

(9) Canby, 1993, 99.

(10) Sheila R. Canby. The Golden Age of Persian Art 1501-1722. London: British Museum, 2002 ed., 107.

(11) ibid. Canby, 2002, 106. Also see Glossary, 187 for waqwaq. Sadiqi Beg's painting is 9.9 by 19.2 cm, British Museum OA 1948.12-11.08. In Canby's book, this illustration is Plate 93, also page 106.

(12) Patrick Hunt. Laws of Nature (Aphorisms), 2000. See http://www.jamesgeary.com/blog/aphorisms-by-patrick-hunt/

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian (http://www.asia.si.edu/). Lent by the Art and History Collection; Courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: LTS1995.2.80 (permisssion granted by Betsy Kohut, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution).

copyright © 2008 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University


November 25, 2007

Classics and Civic Identity at the Old Poznan City Hall

Posted by Troels Myrup Kristensen


The reception of Classical antiquity has become quite a hot topic in recent years. It helps that there are lots of examples of the use and appropriation of Classical themes and motifs in modern art and architecture that can be studied through this approach. The field of reception studies has also increasingly been accepted as part of Classics ‘proper’. I have a lot of sympathy for this interest in Classical reception, although I occasionally feel that it contributes more to a communal sense of nostalgia (i.e. longing for a time when the public still appreciated the ‘true’ value of Classics, and Latin was taught as the first foreign language in schools, etc.) rather than ‘enlivening’ the subject and rendering it relevant in the present. It is perhaps because of this that I often find that the most interesting examples of the use (and occasional abuse) of Classics are those that you come across (almost) at random and in contexts where you hadn’t expected them.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised by the extremely interesting decorative programme of the Old City Hall in Poznan when I visited this summer. Across the facade of its loggia runs a series of portrait roundels of various Classical authors, scientists, politicians, a Byzantine emperor and even a rebel slave. Read on at www.iconoclasm.dk

June 20, 2007

Caravaggio's RAISING OF LAZARUS (1609): New Observations

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Caravaggio, The Raising of Lazarus, Museo Regionale, Messina, 1609

Every time I see Caravaggio's Raising of Lazarus (1609) again in Messina, Sicily - such as just this week in the middle of June - new evidence of his genius appears from this late canvas. Many of these observations I've published in a recent book (Hunt, 2004:125 ), but although noticed before and mentioned in lectures at Stanford and elsewhere, the confirmation of such ideas usually comes from repeated direct reflection many times in front of the canvas after one's eyes adjust to the tenebrism of his dark style palpably employed here. Indeed, the passage of John 11:1-43 even refers to this miracle of the raising of Lazarus in the context of light versus darkness (John 11:9), which seems not to have been lost on Caravaggio.

Exemplary prior studies have long discussed Caravaggio's treatment of Lazarus as commissioned by the Genoese merchant Giovanni Battista de' Lazzari (Caravaggio's likely intended name pun noted) for the Church of the Padri Crociferi or "Cross-Bearing Fathers" in Messina (e.g., Langdon, 1998:370-3), often commenting on Lazarus's crosslike pose as an allusion to the "Cross-Bearing Fathers" and some have also long commented on Caravaggio's allusion to Michelangelo's creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel with life returning to Lazarus's hand from the command of Christ while the rest of his body is still in the sleep of death. But several possibly new observations can be suggested here as well as to develop further or respond to others' ideas.

First, the contrasting light and darkness on the hand of Lazarus also reminds one of the famous passage in Genesis 1:3 when God says "Let there be light". That God (in Christ) may also divide the light from the darkness here is possibly alluded by opposition: divine light returns warm life to Lazarus where the cold dark side of his hand is still in absolute shadow and death and the side facing Christ is in light and returning to life. Caravaggio's chiaroscuro is nowhere so dramatic as in this gesture of a dead hand responding to Christ's verbal command to move again. If God is light - Caravaggio's artistic manifest - and also life, Lazarus will rise again starting from this hand in its dual state of light and darkness.

Second, also in parallel with the darkness of Christ's face hidden in like shadow on the left - also suggestive of his yet hidden deity both before and after his Transfiguration - the body of Lazarus is held almost tenderly by his sisters Mary and Martha on the far right (his family members can endure the smell of corruption of his flesh only because of their great grief and loss). But when the lungs of Lazarus refill with air in a few seconds after the moment Caravaggio has painted, his sisters will be the first spectators to notice his breath, their faces being so close to his face about to be reanimated by this resurrection.

Third, the depth and intensity of the darkness of those holding Lazarus is finally enlightened when one studies the painting for a long time in its Messina context and one's eyes dilate to the proper level. With all due respect, John Spike - hugely authoritative - reports that the person often believed to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio is the man above Christ's pointing hand and facing Christ with praying hands, although Spike is clearly not endorsing this view (Spike, 2001: 221). Puglisi, for example, in her magisterial book supports this identification for a self-portrait (Puglisi, 1998: 327). In my opinion, however, this man is not nearly as interesting a candidate for a self-portrait as another candidate suggested below, nor does the bearded resemblance of this candidate seem as compelling as another. Furthermore, my strongest concern about the identification of the praying man as a Caravaggio self-portrait is that it seems to push piety for this rebellious artist a little too far, especially since the artist refused holy water to absolve venial sin in the Messina church of the Madonna del Pilero, as Sussino related, purportedly saying, "I don't need it because all my sins are mortal" (Hunt, 2004, 128).

On the other hand, the person who holds Lazarus's torso is usually forgotten because there is more light on the spectators around Jesus and also on Mary and Martha at either end of the canvas. If one looks very closely at this individual holding Lazarus in the middle of his body (and he is also in the darkest center of the painting), his bearded face is almost entirely in shadow yet fascinatingly lit by the light reflected off Lazarus. He is also in subtle opposition to the more easily recognizable Jesus and the sisters of Lazarus. Given Caravaggio's other self-portraits, this visage is so similar to the face of Caravaggio (equally possible given Puglisi's hallmarks "short dark hair, low forehead, beard and moustache") that it is very plausible as the painter himself in some puzzling act either akin to vicarious faith or at least a voyeur of death. Paranoid and sleeping with a dagger under his pillow at this time in Messina, as his local Sicilian chronicler Susinno relates in 1724, Caravaggio is all too aware of his own mortality.

This painting does not need to in any way suggest an intended point on the continuum of faith (however feeble or strong) or be interpreted as redemptive by its artist who is a fugitive for murder and with a death sentence all too real, but it is nonetheless a mystery about faith where Caravaggio seems to place himself in the middle of a desperately-neeeded miracle.


F. Susinno. Le vite de' pittore messinesi, 1724. Florence: V. Martinelli, ed. (1966).

Helen Langdon. Caravaggio: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1998, 370-3 & 376.

Catherine Puglisi. Caravaggio. London: Phaidon, 1998, 327.

John Spike. Caravaggio. New York: Abbeville, 2001, 221.

Patrick Hunt. Caravaggio. Life and Times Series. London: Haus Publishing, 2004, 125, 128.

John Varriano. Caravaggio: The Art of Realism. Pennsylvania State University, 2006.

copyright © 2007 Patrick Hunt
Stanford University


April 28, 2007


Posted by Liz Consavari



Bartolomeo Montagna’s nearly forgotten contribution to Renaissance Painting of the Veneto merits revisiting through a brief examination of the controversial Monte di Pietà as related to an altarpiece he painted for the Franciscan Church of San Marco in Lonigo, near Vicenza, Montagna attained status of celebrated painter in Venice after he received his first public commission in 1482. By 1485 Montagna’s altarpiece production thrived in Vicenza, Padua, Verona and throughout the Veneto, which made him an industrious and recognized painter by 1500. Here The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Sts. Francis and Homobonus, Bernardino da Feltre and Beggar, circa 1512, tempera on canvas, now in the Berlin, Gemäldegalerie shall be given primary focus with respect to the influence of Bernardino da Feltre.

Bernardino da Feltre, the Monte di Pietà and Vicenza

The figures of Blessed Bernardino da Feltre, who was never canonized, and St. Homobonus (1) were employed with some frequency in Northern Italy, though Homobonus less so than Bernardino. The presence of Bernardino da Feltre may appear innocuous as a Franciscan advocate of charity upon first glance; however, the beholder should consider that he became one of the most passionate Franciscan preachers from the 1470-90s. The effects of his fervent preaching against Jewish money-lending, especially in Mantua, Cremona, Pavia, Padua, Treviso, Vicenza and throughout northern and central Italy, inspired the flourishing of Monti di Pietà, or Christian money-lending establishments. The Monti di Pietà provided a Franciscan alternative in an attempt to interrupt the loan businesses of Jewish lenders, and Bernardino da Feltre advocated donations for the Monti di Pietà as a step toward salvation. (2) As Bernardino preached from town to town, funds poured into the local Monti di Pietà. Vicenza was no exception, and Bernardino gave sermons on numerous occasions in 1493 and 1494 at the request of its citizens. He preached as many as ninety sermons at Vicenza’s cathedral. (3) Nearby Lonigo is registered as having had a Monte di Pietà by the time of the Pope Leo X (1513-1522). Ultimately, the Monte di Pietà was not so much a charitable alternative to usury, but in point of fact, according to Franciscan scholar Vittorino Meneghin, it developed into another lending/earning establishment. (4) It is relevant that Bernardino da Feltre was the son of a wealthy noble notary, and therefore wise to finance; often arguing in support of the Monti di Pietà charging an interest rate to support its administration. Thus, the distinction between the two established loan systems becomes blurred. In the literature, it is fascinating to observe that the motives of Bernardino da Feltre are historicized differently. In one camp, Bernardino da Feltre is seen as preaching fervidly about the Monte di Pietà and its connection to Christian salvation. (5) In the other, scholars have argued that Bernardino preached only in towns with significantly populated Jewish communities with the objective of one, dispersing the Jewish community, and two, destroying their businesses. (6) In one particular case, Bernardino preached in Trent on Easter just before nine Jews were arrested, accused of the murder of a boy named Simon, and tormented until they confessed. As a late fifteenth-century depiction shows, the local Jews were charged - typically falsely - with having tortured and killed the two and half year-old Simon in order to use his blood for making Passover matzo. (7) Regrettably, the practice of charging Jews with ritual murder created an epidemic of similar cases in Northern Italy and Austria. (8) After Bernardino’s death in 1494, the Monti di Pietà continued to thrive; however, the War of the League of Cambrai, 1508-1517, in addition to the growing population in the Veneto, had disastrous effects and put the Franciscan institution in peril. (9)


In looking to fifteenth-century images of Bernardino da Feltre including Montagna’s, one finds that they are not extremely common. According to Meneghin’s survey of Bernardino da Feltre’s iconography, the incidence of Bernardino’s portraits from the late fifteenth century typically correspond to where he gave sermons and established Monti di Pietà throughout the Veneto, Umbria, and Emilia Romagna. (10) A number of visual examples present a window into the depth of Bernardino’s effectual nature as a speaker, a proponent of the Monte di Pietà and Franciscanism in the Veneto and beyond. As was the case in Vicenza, Bernardino gave sermons on a variety of occasions in Faenza, as this canvas was to commemorate his memorable orations.

The portrait shows Bernardino dressed as a Franciscan, hooded with presumably golden rays that issue from his head, a standard iconographical feature indicating the image postdates his life. Meanwhile, a donor is portrayed kneeling in the left lower corner. Bernardino holds a cartouche in his left hand with the maxim written, “Diligere Mundum,” which refers to the First Epistle of John’s “Do not love things of this world (2:15)”, and a clear allusion to the steps taken towards salvation. These same features are seen in another painting of Bernardino by an unknown Ferrarese painter, dated to 1507. Bernardino holds the typical sign for the Monte di Pietà, a mound topped with a standard flying the flag of the Resurrection, which bears an image invoking pathos: Christ, Man of Sorrows. Usually the emblem of the Monte di Pietà also contains the words “Curam illius habe,” or “Give them to the Host,” allusive to the request for charity as seen in the Umbrian example painted by Giovanni di Pietro, otherwise known as “Lo Spagna” The Veronese painter Paolo Morando, called Cavazzola, painted a profile portrait intended as one of a cycle of paintings for a chapel in the Church of San Bernardino in Verona. Here Bernardino gestures as if in the act of sermonizing. Filippo Mazzola, father of the famous Parmigianino, painted a half-length sacra conversazione with Bernardino da Feltre in Parma. While the original context of this oil on panel is uncertain, it is known that Bernardino gave sermons in Parma between 1485 and 1492. Thus, the possibility remains that Mazzola himself might have had contact with the Franciscan missionary. Here Bernardino’s physiognomy is very similar to the features seen in Lo Spagna’s portrait, taking into account the round bulbous eyes and mustache, though the symbol of the Monte di Pietà is an abbreviated Man of Sorrows. Because in many instances the paintings of Bernardino da Feltre were intended as ex-votos honoring his sermons, I pose the following question: Where does Montagna’s sacra conversazione, incorporating Bernardino da Feltre, fit into this tradition? Undoubtedly, the presence of this figure forces us to observe this understudied work in a new light.

State of Conservation

In Montagna’s San Marco altarpiece, the beggar, pendant figure to Bernardino, appears original, as is the miniature figure of St. Catherine of Alexandria. The apparent diminished size of Bernardino is curious, though interesting to note that according to his biographies, he was apparently diminutive in stature. The Bishop of Padua was recorded as having called him, affectionately, “piccolino,” or “parvulo.” (11)


As a part of the recent technical investigation conducted by the Berlin Gemäldegalerie in 2004, the x-ray assemblage reveals that Bernardino da Feltre was likely added later, due to the fact that the figure is extremely light in intensity, almost invisible compared to the other figures in the painting. (12) Further examination reveals that the podium and socle were finished before Bernardino was added, thus he is most likely not a part of the originally planned painting. The letters “M.D.” on the throne base likely refer to Mater Dei, given the titular dedication to the Immaculate Conception. The Church of San Marco was re-consecrated and three additional altars were built on June 3, 1512. (13) Given the evidence of Montagna’s stylistic maturity observed in this work, such as his interest in saturated tones, movement of human form and the blurring of hard contours, it seems probable that Montagna would have produced this altarpiece for the new structure, and thus a date of 1500 for Montagna’s painting is premature. Vicentine Church historian, Francesco Barbarano, gives an account of San Marco’s six altars and describes them as they appeared in the mid-eighteenth century. According to Barbarano, the confraternities of Lonigo maintained these six altars, though Barbarano does not specify patrons to altars. (14)

By 1512 Vicenza and its provincial territory, including Lonigo, had long since restored its allegiance to the Venetian Republic, yet the war of the League of Cambrai persisted. It is known that the Monte di Pietà in Vicenza was affected adversely during these years. If the loan establishment in urban Vicenza had exhausted its funds in this time of extreme need, then can we assume that there were similar conditions in rural Lonigo during the League of Cambrai years? I suggest here that Montagna finished the altarpiece around 1512 and upon presentation to his patron, a local confraternity in Lonigo, it was decided to augment the composition to include Bernardino da Feltre in the interest of re-awakening his memory and donations given to the local Monte di Pietà. Bernardino’s presence in Lonigo was never documented, however he spoke many times in nearby Vicenza, Padua and Verona. Moreover, as his ex-voto portraiture tradition suggests, imagery of Bernardino da Feltre is strictly connected to commemorating his sermons, thus the appeal for donations.
Regrettably, the specifics of Bartolomeo Montagna’s commission remain obscured by the lack of archival information, as none of the convent’s inventories mention the painting. The San Marco in Lonigo altarpiece thus stands as a cultural marker of Franciscan rhetoric: promoting propaganda against Jewish money lending practices, and endorsement for the use of Monti di Pietà reflects Vicentine local piety.


(1) George Kaftal, Saints in Italian Art: Iconography of the Saints in the Paintings of North East Italy. Florence: Sansoni, 1978, 425. In North Eastern Italy, Kaftal cites only two others in addition to Montagna, one in the Basilica San Marco and another by Domenico da Tolmezzo (1479) in Udine at the Museo Civico.

(2) Renata Segre, “Bernardino da Feltre: I Monti di Pietà e I Banchi Ebraici,” Rivista storia italiana, vol. 90, Issue 4, (1978): 888.

(3) Vittorino Meneghin, Bernardino da Feltre e I Monti di Pietà (Vicenza: 1974), 393-5.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Meneghin, 388-90.

(6) Segre, 825. For example, oddly Bernardino da Feltre never preached sermons in his native Feltre. Monte di Pietà was founded as late as 1542.

(7) Dana E. Katz, “The Contours of Tolerance: Jews and the Corpus Domini Altarpiece in Urbino,” The Art Bulletin 55 4 (December 2003): 652.

(8) Leon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism (New York, Shocken Books, 1965), 148. Here is an exerpt from the Franciscan preacher’s sermon at Trento, “Jewish usurers bleed the poor to death and grow fat on their substance, and I who live on alms, who feed on the bread of the poor, shall I then be mute as a dog before outraged charity? Dogs bark to protect those who feed them, and I, whom am fed by the poor, shall I see them robbed of what belongs to them and keep silent? Dogs bark for their masters; shall I not bark for Christ?” Furthermore, the site of Simon’s execution later became a pilgrimage site.

(9) Meneghin, 401-2.

(10) See Meneghin, Iconografia del B. Bernardino Tomitano da Feltre. Venice: San Michele in Isola, 1967.

(11) Meneghin, (1967), 11. Bernardino Guslino da Feltre was his earliest biographer in 1696 and Simone da Marostica in 1871.

(12) See Elizabeth Carroll. “La Pala Ritrovata: Una rivisitazione della Pala d’Altare di
Bartolomeo Montagna, già nella Chiesa di San Marco a Lonigo.” Arte Documento 20 (2004):112-117.

(13) Pomello, 68. Cites the documentation as, “…si legge nei atti di Pietro Giovanni da Schio.”

(14) Francesco Barbarano de Mironi, Historia Ecclesiastica della Città, Territorio e Diocesi di Vicenza 1649-1762, Vicenza: Carlo Bressan, 1761., vol. VI, 48

Images courtesy of Berlin Gemaldegalerie and Vittorino Meneghin

copyright 2007

Elizabeth Carroll Consavari, Ph.D.
Department of Art and Art History
Stanford University

January 6, 2006

Byzantine Art as Propaganda: Justinian and Theodora at Ravenna

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Fig 1 Mosaic of Justinian and Retinue at Apse Entry, San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 546 CE

Power on earth was once - and sometimes even now - perceived as a result of power in heaven. The great double mosaic of Justinian and Theodora at San Vitale in Ravenna is a forceful exercise in demonstrating power through art as propaganda, fusing political and religious imagery for a double statement of authority. In the 6th century, many intellectual Christians, not necessarily an oxymoron despite the possibility thereof, would have found these mosaics hubristic. Even the cynical could have found these mosaics troubling. Yet there are at least three possible reasons why this propaganda was justifiable for a Byzantine ruler. The mosaics here are perhaps the greatest of early Byzantine if not all post-Roman mosaics; they do serve as embellishment to reinforce the grandeur of Justinian, perhaps simultaneously last Roman emperor and first Byzantine emperor.

Continue reading "Byzantine Art as Propaganda: Justinian and Theodora at Ravenna" »

December 27, 2005

Rembrandt and Ovid: The Abduction of Europa, 1632; Metamorphoses II.849-59 and the Myth Tradition

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Rembrandt Europa.jpg
Rembrandt: THE ABDUCTION OF EUROPA (1632, Getty Museum, 61 x 78 cm)

He moved among the cows, more beautiful than they or other bulls,
he strolled spring grasses, white as the snow untouched
by southern rains or footprint on the ground,
huge, silky muscles at his neck and silvered dewlaps hanging,
horns as white as if a sculptor’s hand had cut them out of pearl.
And no one feared his look, forehead and eye were gracefully benign…
Agenor’s daughter gazed at him in wonder.”

(Ovid, Metamorphoses II.849-59)

Rembrandt makes it abundantly clear in this painting that his literary source was Ovid. At the same time, his idiosyncratic genius is nowhere lost in a thoroughly Dutch landscape. He cleverly uses the Ovidian myth iconography. A few words about the underlying myth are helpful. Europa was a Phoenician princess, daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre, and sister of Kadmos. She became by Zeus the mother of Minos and Rhadamanthys, judges of the afterlife in the Underworld.(1) Zeus was enamored of Europa as Ovid tells above, so the god became a beautiful bull whose beauty Europa desired to stroke. The seduction and abduction of a mortal was easy for the experienced immortal who had eons of practice. Zeus took advantage of her wonder and innocence and swam away powerfully with her, soon crossing over to the continent that would ever after bear her name. Europa was also either the daughter (or sister) of Phoinix (also mentioned in Homer, Iliad XIV.321) who becomes the eponymous ancestor of the Phoenicians in myth tradition. (2) At the deepest structural level, this myth parallels the flow of civilization and early technology (accompanied by the alphabet and resulting literacy) from east to west, crossing from the Near East and Asia to Europe.

Continue reading "Rembrandt and Ovid: The Abduction of Europa, 1632; Metamorphoses II.849-59 and the Myth Tradition" »

December 9, 2005

Dante and Trajan: How a Roman Virtuous Pagan Can Leap from Purgatory to Paradise

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Gustve Dore, Trajan and the Widow, Purgatorio X.73-94

What does Dante have to say about the Roman Emperor Trajan and why? Certainly Dante must have known that Trajan was regarded as one of the Good Emperors and as a Virtuous Pagan as well, especially given the traditions and legends associated with Pope Gregory, as Singleton, Vitto and others attest. (1)

Apparently, as a Virtuous Pagan, Dante regarded Trajan so highly that he was said to be rescued by the prayers of St. Gregory when first mentioned in Purgatorio X.68 and converted, a likely result of his known tolerance of Christians relieved after Domitian's persecutions. Then Dante places him even higher in Paradiso XX.44-48. Knowing the answer already, we might ask how many Roman emperors thus end up both first in Dante's Purgatorio, but it is merely rhetorical:

"The exalted glory of the Roman prince
whose mighty worth moved Gregory to earn
his great conquest, Trajan the Emperor."

Secondly, Trajan is elevated even to the Paradiso where the constellation of the heavenly eagle of divine justice describes past just and temperate rulers, this time in the asterism of its eye:

"The one whose glory shines closest to my beak...
he has known the bitter way though he now learns the sweet life".

Dante cleverly has Gregory "conquer" Rome in the salvation of Trajan in this passage above with the very eye of the constellation of the eagle Aquila so connected to heavenly flight. The "bitter way" was Dante's perception of the futility of Trajan's paganism despite his imperial status. Dante also alludes to the story of Trajan, while with his troops, consoling a widow who had lost her son as part of earthly proof of his virtue. (2)

Here is Dante's version of the story of the widow:

"The wretch appear'd amid all these to say:
'Grant vengeance, sire! for, woe beshrew this heart
My son is murder'd.' He replying seem'd;
'Wait now till I return.' And she, as one
Made hasty by her grief; 'O sire, if thou
Dost not return?'—'Where I am, who then is,
May right thee'"—'What to thee is other's good,
If thou neglect thy own?'—'Now comfort thee,'
At length he answers. 'It beseemeth well
My duty be perform'd, ere I move hence:
So justice wills; and pity bids me stay.' " (Purgatorio

If, after the fact, Paradiso might seem far-fetched to some, Trajan deserves at least a place in Dante's Purgatory where, as Dante scholarship opines in Schnapp, "a mere tear of repentance can atone for a lifetime of evil", (3) rightly representing an empathetic pagan Roman emperor, among those who loved and exercised justice (spiriti giudicanti)." (4)

Trajan Bust, British Museum

Trajan's decennial bust in the British Museum (5) is one of many celebrating his first decade as emperor and thus dated at least from CE 108. This bust may be the best likeness of him surviving from Roman sculpture; perhaps even one of the most remarkable of all Roman sculptures. There may be some cultural hybridity in this bust: not only is the general idea of veritas followed in his unidealized features - like the Flavian return to portraits of traditional austerity (6) - but the overall effect appears to simulate Hellenistic style in its athletic upper torso. It is certainly the least flattering of all his surviving portraits (4) and is even more realistic than his relief triumphal portrait crowned by Victory in the Arch of Trajan at Benevento, marked by its pietas and whose stark features are likely exaggerated for viewers to compensate for its lofty height. (7)

Perhaps as an evidence of its representational truth, this is a Roman bust whose face has one of the strongest imprints of character in Roman art. While observation makes it clear that this is an unidealized portrait, interpretation beyond this fact suggests that Trajan's visage here is not what would be traditionally called a handsome face by any stretch. It is asymmetric, almost horsy and his forehead is not going to be high enough for those who have at times foolishly measured intellect thereby. Yet if there is any strong likeness to the real Trajan, this is not a complimentary image of good looks but more likely one rather governed by an aesthetic of mimetic honesty even as a carryover of Hellenistic pathos where the portrait ought to convey its own narrative.

What might be conveyed in this anonymous honest narrative? Is it that Trajan's strength of character and strong determination made him among the wisest rulers in Roman history? If he is not easily bent by any flattery in his personal image, preferring instead the truth of his powerful will to be shown, what a mark of good character this sculpture carefully articulates. This is the real Trajan.

No wonder, having long been cited by his contemporaries as taking his responsibilities seriously, (8) that he is often the very first listed among the Good Emperors. After the immediate damnatio memoriae of Domitian following his death in CE 96, Trajan's rule beginning in CE 98 was welcomed as a meritocratic change and a restimulus for the cursus honorum of public service. His correspondence with Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia, (Pliny, Epistula 10.96-97) over the fate of Asia Minor Christians was enlightened not only in comparison to his predecessor but to most pre-Constantine emperors as he mandated that "Christians are not to be sought out" and he repudiated "anonymously-posted accusations" as dangerously wrong. (9)

In the British Museum sculpture of Trajan's face, there are several strong character aspects combined in his serious mien: both a farsightedness and a rigorous sternness - as one who surveys and guards the whole Roman world and whose frown can almost correct Senatorial corruption - demonstrated in this bust of the emperor who ruled over Rome's greatest geographic stretch from Spain, his birthplace as the first provincial-born emperor, and Mauretania in the west to far Dacia edging the Black Sea and Armenia in the east and from Egypt and Nubia in the south to Britannia in the north. This sculpture is not of an emperor inclined to frivolous pursuit. There might also be the suggestion in this sculpture that Trajan honestly rather than nobly bears in his deeply furrowed brow the dignified entire weight of empire.


(1) Cindy Vitto. The Virtuous Pagan in Middle English Literature. Transactions of the American Philosphical Society, 79.5, Philadelphia, 1989, esp. pp. 45 ff.; Charles Singleton, Journey to Beatrice, vol. 2 Dante Studies, Harvard University Press, 1954.

(2) Fiore di Filosofi e di mosti savi (also in Novellino LXIX). cf. Gospel of Matthew 25:34-40.

3) Jeffrey Schnapp. "introduction to Purgatorio" in R. Jacoff. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 93.

(4) Paget Toynbee. A Dictionary of Proper Names and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1968. “Traiano” 618; also see Nancy Vickers. “Seeing is Believing: Gregory, Trajan and Dante’s Art” Dante Studies 101 (1983) 67-85.

(5) British Museum number GR-1874.7-12.11; acquired from the Charles Townley Collection in 1893.

(6) Susan Walker. Roman Art, London: British Museum Press, 1994, 28.

(7) Eleanor Leach at Indiana University has carefully recorded the range of surviving Trajan portraits in her course on Roman Art and Archaeology "Trajanic Portrait and Relief Sculpture" where she surveys at least 28 portraits (http://www.indiana.edu/~leach/c414/trajport.html).

(8) Bernard Andreae. The Art of Rome. New York: Harry Abrams, 1977, 204.

(9) Gregory Starikovksy, Columbia University (2002) "Letters of Pliny the Younger", reminds that "Tr[a]jan, according to Pliny’s Panegyric becomes princeps because of his high moral principles." (http://ablemedia.com/ctcweb/showcase/starikovsky2.html)

Stanford University


Patrick Hunt © 2005

November 30, 2005

Glykon's Farnese Herakles Sculpture as Myth Narrative

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Herakles Glykon.jpg
Fig. 1 Glykon's Herakles (also known as Farnese Hercules) Museo Nazionale, Napoli

One of the most thought-provoking sculptures in the Classical world is the colossal Glykon sculpture of Herakles at the National Museum of Naples (Museo Nazionale Napoli). We know it now as the Farnese Hercules and it is most likely a copy of a more famous Lysippus 4th c. BCE original.(1) Like other Hellenistic sculptures, it is full of pathos as seen plainly in the face of the hero, "the most often copied and imitated Lysippan Herakles in Antiquity" with its "heavy, dramatically exaggerated musculature" of a "weary Herakles leaning on his club". (2) But where Hellenistic sculpture often infuses a new dynamism by contrast into Greek art, this giant statue - in an age when such colossi are popular - does not offer a restless narrative but its antithesis. (3) This is also an era of portrait,(4) where it is the face of Herakles that is at least a rich part part of the narrative here, and certainly the frontal half of the sculpture has a separate narrative than the back side. The kinesis is not external but internal - in his mind. Not normally associated with intellectuality or strength of mind, this Herakles stands out for that very reason. The man of action is slowed to inaction. The brawny hero who has done so much by force instead now does nothing. But here his mind is wrestling with a different specie of activity. In a brief but bold essay I offer a myth excercise that, albeit speculative, grapples with possible sculptural intent. What might the sculptor Glykon suggest here with this unusual colossus of the myth hero? The following is one of many possible myth interpretations.

Continue reading "Glykon's Farnese Herakles Sculpture as Myth Narrative" »

November 21, 2005

Aeneid XII.383-440 as Inspiration for Ancient Art: The Roman Surgeon

Posted by Patrick Hunt


This famous Pompeian wall painting quoting the Aeneid is one of the highlights of the Museo Nazionale in Naples. From the Casa de Sirico, first century BCE, it has been noted as a "singular case of literary illustration", (1) no doubt because it appears to closely follow Virgil's text. But while it is not exactly ekphrasis (verbal description of a work of art), it proves the practice flowed in both directions. Another even earlier and more famous example of paintings derived from ancient literature - in this case Homer - are the Hellenistic Odyssey (Books X-XII) series in the Vatican,(2) about which practice at the end of the first century BCE Vitruvius writes that "ancient" artists painted "pictures of Odysseus wandering through countrysides".(3) As a painting style favored by Augustus in Rome where it originates, (4) what painting subject could be more evocative of equal Augustan patronage than the Aeneid? The primary questions briefly addressed here are how closely does this painting follow its literary source and how does it deviate? Also, why might this scene in Aeneid XII.383-440 of a wounded Aeneas about to be healed be chosen as a subject?
On of the best descriptions and analyses of this Aeneid literary text is by Noonan, who examines it as mythography. (5)

Continue reading "Aeneid XII.383-440 as Inspiration for Ancient Art: The Roman Surgeon " »

November 9, 2005

Ekphrasis or Not? Ovid (Met. 8.183-235 ) in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
c. 1558. Oil on canvas, wood-mounted (73.5 x 112 cm)
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

Ekphrasis or description of a work of art by a verbal text is an ancient literary practice. In antiquity, Philostratus’ Imagines or Pliny’s Historia Naturalis - where he describes the paintings of Zeuxis (1) - are usually the first examples that come to mind of ekphrasis. Although millennia later, W. H. Auden has also done just that modern version of an ekphrasis in his poem “Musée des Beaux Art” (1938) describing Bruegel’s painting of the fall of Icarus. But here it is rather the opposite that is the subject of this brief commentary: when an artist like Bruegel makes a visual description of a literary text as in Ovid’s narrative, apparently also a common practice since antiquity if we remember Pompeiian wall paintings of Homer’s Odyssey or Vergil’s Aeneid. If there is a term for this other process of visualizing text (reverse ekphrasis?) other than the Latin descriptio, it is elusive to date. So this is not really ekphrasis but perhaps visual imaging (Greek eidetikos?) of a text, to borrow an idea from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (2). Some examples of the fall of Icarus have survived in ancient Roman art; perhaps the most famous or noteworthy is the wall painting in the House of the Priest Amandus in Pompeii (3).

Continue reading "Ekphrasis or Not? Ovid (Met. 8.183-235 ) in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" »