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[Biblical Scenes]: Two Exhibits At The Metropolitan Museum of Art

[Biblical Scenes]: Two Exhibits At The Metropolitan Museum
Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure From the Palaces of Europe
J. M. W. Turner  [biblical scenes]
Both exhibits run through September 21, 2008
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, N. Y.C.


When Abraham built the altar on Mount Moriah, it must have been very painful to know each step brought him closer to losing Isaac, whom the Bible goes out of its way to call his “only son, whom he loved.” Each stone probably felt heavier than the previous one, and it would have taken extra-human strength, concentration, and loyalty to G-d to steady his hands enough to align the rocks properly to construct the altar. Where many artists use their work to remember and to memorialize tragedy, Abraham – at least on this occasion – was an architect who was charged with creating horror.

Surely, an artist need not experience the fates of her or his subjects to accurately portray them. If this were the case, there would be a great dearth of specialists with experience depicting David killing Goliath, Judith slaying Holofernes, or any scene involving death. It is pure speculation, but one look at Francisco Goya’s “The Disasters of War” series is enough to convince the viewer that Goya must have at least undergone tremendous torture in his mind to visualize his subject matter. This becomes less of a stretch when one considers the “Black Paintings” that Goya painted on the walls of his house at the end of his life, including the devastating “Saturn Devouring his Son.”

Cosimo Castrucci, an Italian artist working in Prague in the early 17th century, underwent such a taxing procedure to create “Landscape with the Sacrifice of Isaac” (before 1603) that he may have known some fraction of Abraham’s and Isaac’s pain. The mosaic, part of the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and presently hanging in the “Art of the Royal Court” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, is made of agates and jaspers in the pietre dure style – which involved arranging finely cut and carefully-polished small stones to give the appearance of a painting. However excruciating the mosaic was to construct, Castrucci did not have to sacrifice his son, but there is something fresh in the notion of the artist using small stones to construct a work depicting the stone altar that Abraham built.



Cosimo Castrucci. “Landscape with the Sacrifice of Isaac.” Before 1603. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.


Castrucci’s “Landscape with a Chapel and a Bridge,” which is also part of the exhibit at the Met, is “the earliest known pure landscape in the Florentine mosaic technique,” according to the exhibit catalog, and was influenced by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous 1565 work, “Hunters in the Snow.” But where Bruegel and “Landscape with a Chapel and a Bridge” show small people, all but engulfed by nature, the landscape with Abraham and Isaac shows the biblical characters looming quite large in the foreground. An angel, perhaps the very one who will soon halt the sacrifice, emerges from a cloud in the top right corner of the mosaic, while smaller figures go about their business – one rowing a boat and the other walking across a bridge carrying what appears to be a gun. The figures are oblivious to the unfolding story, which might surprise many readers of the Bible, who assume that a story canonized in Genesis, should have grabbed the attention of every person alive in Abraham’s day.

This sort of indifference to, or ignorance of, important scenes is reminiscent of another of Bruegel’s paintings, which Castrucci was sure to have known: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (c. 1555). Bruegel tells the Ovidian tale of the young boy Icarus, who was exiled by King Minos to Crete with his father Daedalus.  Daedalus created wings of feathers and wax for himself and his son and warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or the sea. As is to be expected in Greek mythology, Icarus enjoyed the pleasure of flying so much that he ignored his father’s advice and flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax, released the feathers, and send Icarus plunging into the sea.

Bruegel depicts Icarus almost as an afterthought – his feet rising from the water in the bottom right corner – and viewers who do not know where to look could easily miss the fallen figure entirely. Bruegel fills the rest of the painting with figures who do not bat an eyelash at the tragedy: a shepherd tending his flock, a farmer plowing, and even a fisherman hunched over just yards from Icarus.



Collector’s Cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus. “Door on Left Side.” C. 1625/6-31. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Like Bruegel’s Icarus, Castrucci’s Abraham and Isaac suffer in solitude, which adds to the tragedy. Like Icarus, they will be canonized for future generations to study, but they can hardly know that, at the time.

Castrucci’s work is also unique in its resolution of certain biblical “problems.” The Bible says that Abraham and Isaac carried the “fire and the knife” along the way to the sacrifice, which begs the question, how does one carry fire? Lorenzo Ghiberti ducked the problem on his eastern door of the Baptistry in Florence, as did Filippo Brunelleschi, while Simon Marmion’s 1487-89 “Sacrifice of Isaac” showed a pile of wood beside the altar, an anonymous illustrater of the 15th century German manuscript “Speculum humanae salvationis” featured Isaac carrying wood tied to his back, and Raphael’s “Sacrifice of Abraham” (1513-14) depicted a lit bonfire off to the side.

Where these artists avoided the fire altogether, or showed Abraham and Isaac carrying wood to the site, Castrucci represented a jug with fire in it below Isaac’s feet, so that Isaac could have literally carried fire rather than wood to the altar site. Castrucci also includes the ram (which forms a triangle with Abraham’s head and the fire-vessel), but it is so camouflaged with the surrounding foliage that it might actually be “entrapped in the brush with its horns” as Genesis describes.

“Landscape with the Sacrifice of Isaac” is one of several biblical works in the show, which includes a gorgeous cabinet of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus (1594 – 1632), which is decorated with scenes of Cain and Abel, Solomon’s temple, and Jonah; and part of an altar which was in the collection of Grand Duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici, which includes a depiction of “Melchizedek and the Menorah,” “Elijah and the Angel,” and “Jonah and the Whale.”

Turner and the Plagues

The biblical work of Joseph Mallord William Turner, which appears in a different show at the Met, provides a very stark contrast to the work above, not simply because Turner lived two centuries later than Castrucci, but also because of his sort of interpretation of biblical stories. Turner’s “The 10th Plague of Egypt” (exhibited in 1802), on exhibit, departs from traditional depictions of the death of the Egyptian firstborn, which occur indoors, and generally show a few mothers with dead children to symbolize the larger plague. Turner moves the scene outdoors, and shows the live grieving, rather than the dead children.



Joseph Mallord William Turner. “The Evening of the Deluge.” C. 1843. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


It is easy to dismiss this move as the artist using a biblical scene as an excuse to paint captivating landscape (as indeed the catalog suggests of Castrucci’s landscape), and Turner was the sort of painter who was obsessed with landscapes, and was said to have remarked on his deathbed “the sun is God.” But according to the catalog to the Met’s show, Turner’s piece might be a bit more inventive. According to the catalog, the “darkness of the clouds advancing on the town” which, to Turner’s credit, could somehow, pass for Egyptian, “carries the message of impending doom.” Turner seems to be telling the story from the perspective of the Egyptian mothers, which is a controversial approach. In the biblical tale, the Egyptians are evil and deserve the punishments they receive, and more. Yet, Turner focuses on the plight of the mothers who have lost, are losing, or know they will lose their sons.

Turner also created works on Jacob’s ladder, the destruction of Sodom, and a copy of Nicolas Poussin’s “Exposition of Moses.” Included in the Met’s exhibit is his series on the flood of Noah, which might be the first time an artist approached the flood as an episodic event, capturing the time before, during, after the flood.

Turner’s “Fifth Plague,” which was recently exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., might reveal the most about the quality of Turner’s biblical scholarship. “Fifth Plague” shows three dead horses lying in the foreground of a desolated landscape, as an ominous storm brews in the background. A wall text at the National Gallery show claimed that Turner made a mistake in the title and meant instead the seventh plague: hail, not pestilence. This argument presumably arises from the dramatic sky, which seems to indicate a coming hailstorm.

But I think Turner was correct. First, as discussed above, Turner would often include a dramatic sky even where it did not exist (much like the Hudson River School painters). Further, the horses on the ground are already dead, which seems to refute a hailstorm, as Moses is still outside summoning the storm (which hasn’t arrived, as there is no hail). This suggests that Turner was likely referring to pestilence, and the stormy sky is simply a red herring. 

MENACHEM WECKER welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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