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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Metropolitan Museum’

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

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

[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.

Athens To Jerusalem: Ghiberti’s Masterpiece

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

         The Gates of Paradise have arrived in New York, and anyone interested in experiencing one of the great masterpieces of the Early Italian Renaissance cannot afford to miss this current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The works represent a crowning achievement of Western civilization in their beauty, excellence of execution and meaningful subjects. And while deeply influenced in style by the Renaissance notion of Greek ideal beauty and form, the themes of the ten original panels are firmly rooted in the Jewish Bible. The subject of the panels here, “The Creation of Adam and Eve,” “David Beheading Goliath” and especially “Isaac and Esau,” present a complex and nuanced rendering of the narratives that, upon closer reading, yield an especially interesting understanding of the text; picking out a uniquely feminine narrative within the nominally male account.


         Lorenzo Ghiberti created these massive bronze doors between 1425 and 1452, finishing them when he was 75. This project began almost immediately after he had successfully finished a first set of 28 bronze doors on themes from the Christian Bible. That project had taken him 23 years. The next set of doors on the Hebrew Bible described in great detail the following subjects: Creation, Cain and Able, Noah’s Drunkenness, Abraham and Isaac, Isaac and Esau, Joseph – Viceroy of Egypt and his brothers, Moses at Sinai, Joshua crossing the Jordan, David and Goliath and finally King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. These ten narrative panels, each 31 inches square, were sculpted in wax, cast in bronze, laboriously chased, filed and finished in all their myriad detail and finally, fire-gilded with gold. Set into the portal of the Baptistery opposite the Duomo in Florence, the massive 17-foot high doors weigh more than 30 tons each and were allegedly dubbed by Michelangelo as “The Gates of Paradise.”



Isaac and Esau by Lorenzo Ghiberti, gilt bronze, 1425-1452 (31 ½ ” X 31 ½ “) – Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Antonio Quattrone, photographer



         Ghiberti’s doors were so successful that the guild that commissioned them immediately had them placed in the position of greatest honor directly facing the Duomo, the principle church of Florence, and moving Ghiberti’s earlier work to the north side of the Baptistery. Their exquisite craftsmanship, subtle evocation of grace and beauty in the figures, use of perspective to depict three dimensional space and narrative power guaranteed their influence on generations of artists and greatly shaped the unfolding pictorial agenda of the Renaissance.


         And there they sat in Florence for over 500 years, beloved, admired, then finally ignored as a thick crust of grime obscured their beauty and golden glow. Finally in the late 1940′s, they were restored but within 20 years tragedy struck in the 1966 flood of the Arno River, damaging the doors, and instituting another bout of restoration. In 1990 they were removed from their original site and have since been undergoing intensive restoration for atmospheric pollution and centuries of neglect. The restoration work is almost complete and these three panels are on a limited, four-city tour at the conclusion of which they will return to Florence, be reassembled with the rest of the panels and door structure, never to leave Florence again.



Isaac commands Esau (detail) by Lorenzo Ghiberti – Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Antonio Quattrone, photographer.



         The three panels now in New York are breathtakingly beautiful. The Creation depicts God (depicted as a kindly old man) awakening Adam as he brings him to life in a gentle gesture of blessing. In the center of the panel, Eve is seen gracefully arising from the side of the sleeping Adam while on the right, the shocked but graceful Primal Couple are expelled from the garden by a stern angel.


         Each scene is attended by intensely curious angels, deeply concerned about the newly minted human beings. Throughout the panels Ghiberti employs a technique known as continuous narrative in which multiple scenes are conflated to be seen simultaneously within the same frame, thereby compressing time and space to evoke the unfolding Biblical story.


         The David and Goliath panel is similarly direct in depicting David decapitating the fallen giant Goliath in the foreground. In the middle ground the assembled troops look on in wonder as some continue the battle on the right. The hapless King Saul attempts to lead the charge but, of course, the battle has already been won by the fearless David. In the background, the head of Goliath is paraded into the city of Jerusalem, here depicted as a typical, Italian fortified town, possibly Florence.



The Stolen Blessing (detail) by Lorenzo Ghiberti – Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Antonio Quattrone, photographer.



         Every detail is attended to; every costume and human emotion lovingly specified so as to move the viewer through the narrative in a convincing and emotional way. Interestingly, the panel depicting Isaac and Esau, though the most striking in its use of perspective and high relief sculpture, is radically different in a number of ways.


         The narrative begins on the upper right with Rebecca imploring God about the twins struggling within her. Rebecca is seen again in the left middle ground on the birthing bed, dramatically framed in the arches of the palace rendered in perfect perspective. Next the scene shifts to the middle center where Esau frantically approaches Jacob, willing to sell his birthright for a bowl of porridge.


         Then the narrative moves to the center foreground where the aged Isaac, standing, commands his son Esau, accompanied by two hunting dogs, to go hunt some of that fine game that he loves to eat so much. The story continues in the right middle ground where Rebecca instructs Jacob to fetch two kids from the flock to trick Isaac into thinking that he is actually Esau. Along the right front edge we see Jacob receiving his brother’s blessing kneeling in front of the seated Isaac as the watchful Rebecca oversees the deception. Finally, on the other side, the narrative concludes with a group of four women standing prominently in the left foreground.



Rebecca and Esau’s Wives (detail) by Lorenzo Ghiberti – Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Antonio Quattrone, photographer.



         A number of problems now become apparent. First of all, why does the narrative seem to wander about the surface with little apparent rhyme or reason? Secondly, the old man instructing the younger man in the center, identified as Isaac commanding Esau, seems to run counter to the main thrust of the narrative as most would understand it, i.e. a story of how the Abrahamic legacy is passed on from Isaac to Jacob, irrespective of Esau’s place as first born. In Ghiberti’s treatment, Esau is the primary subject. Finally, what is the meaning of these four women – gracefully dramatic figures depicted in the highest relief.


         The issue of the wandering narrative is endemic to the continuous narrative methodology, according to James Draper, curator at the Metropolitan and the one responsible for this exhibition. Furthermore, Ghiberti’s concerns were frequently decorative so the placement of the various episodes did not have to conform to a strict narrative logic.


         The surprising emphasis on Esau is another matter since it would seem to betray some type of ideological bias against Jacob. Ghiberti’s autobiography may, in fact, indicate this as he describes the panel: “Esau and Jacob are born, the former is sent out hunting and their mother, led by Jacob, brings him the kid, whose skin she lays over his shoulders” Of course the Biblical text says something quite different, placing the burden of the conspiracy on Rebecca and not Jacob. Indeed, this particular narrative has always vexed our commentators.



The Baptistery, Florence, Italy, showing the east doors, The Gates of Paradise.



         The spectacle of our forefather Jacob along with his mother conspiring to wrest the sacred blessing from its legal owner, has generated endless explanations of the inherently evil nature of Esau. And yet the 15th century Florentine Catholic Ghiberti depicts Esau as a charming, graceful youth, sculpted in high relief, eager to do his aged father’s will. One could conjecture that Ghiberti is acutely aware of Esau’s pain and the injustice done because, at least according to Jewish commentators, Esau is representative of Edom, almost always identified with Rome. While I have no documentary evidence to support this theory, it does explain the unusual emphasis on “the brother not chosen” – Esau.


         Finally, what about those women? They are a visual tone poem of drapery and soft gestures, producing the most beautiful group of figures in all the ten panels. Three are bareheaded and seem to be distinct from the woman on the left who carries some kind of covered basket on her head. She is also set apart in her costume that bears a fair resemblance to the four other depictions of Rebecca. In fact some commentators (Goldscheider) see her as Rebecca with her maidens. (Of course there are no maidens to be found in the text.) Another expert (Krautheimer) identifies them as visiting women who are, in fact, in a certain proximity to Rebecca giving birth. However, this does not explain their enormous visual significance.


        Nonetheless, once the woman on the left with the bundle on her head is identified as Rebecca, the narrative Ghiberti is trying to convey immediately falls into place. If she is Rebecca then the others must be Esau’s three wives that the Torah mentions no less than four times (Gen. 26:34; Gen. 27:46; Gen. 28:9; Gen. 36:1-3). Remember, this panel is predominately about the travails of Esau and therefore it would be perfectly logical to represent his wives. In fact, reassessing the narrative, Ghiberti now shows that his primary interest is in the role Rebecca plays in subverting Esau’s rightful blessing. This explains why her image circulates through the panel, uniting the disparate episodes. She has become the adversary. Of all the characters depicted, she predominates with five appearances. (Jacob appears three times, Esau three times and Isaac two times). And since she has sinned in Ghiberti’s eyes, defrauding the innocent Esau of what was rightfully his, she deserves a punishment that the Torah itself provides, being burdened with three odious daughter-in-laws – pagans who make her life miserable.


         With this interpretation in hand we can now fully appreciate Ghiberti’s genius. Through his inclination to see the story of the bartered birthright and stolen blessing as a tragic tale of Esau, he has focused our attention on the Torah’s emphasis on Esau’s wives and the effect they have on Rebecca. Whether we see this as simply the consequences of her son’s inconsiderate behavior or punishment for her hostility against one of her sons, his beautiful depictions have explored an under-appreciated passage in our Torah. It is especially remarkable to find this type of Biblical reassessment in the heart of one of the greatest works of art in Western civilization.


         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/athens-to-jerusalem-ghibertis-masterpiece/2007/12/27/

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