Interacting with artworks online: A few new(ish) resources

The global push to make art more accessible to the public has led to some impressive digital creations in the past year. The following are ones I’ve really enjoyed exploring, some released as recently as this month. They all focus on a particular artwork or era or (in the case of the Jewish art database) faith tradition. I will cover the more all-encompassing digital art initiatives/databases and commendable museum websites in a future series of posts, where I will give them more individualized attention. Some of the creations below represent single projects within those broader initiatives.

“The Audacity of Christian Art”: Written and presented by Dr. Chloë Reddaway, this series of seven short films looks at paintings from the (London) National Gallery’s Renaissance collection and explores some ingenious artistic responses to the challenge of painting Christ.

As curator of art and religion at the museum, Reddaway’s role is to understand more about the paintings’ religious content and context. (Her main academic background is theology.) She also lectures for the MA in Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London. I love how she defines her primary research interest: “visual theology, especially the recovery of historic works of art as a resource for contemporary theology.”

The trailer for “The Audacity of Christian Art” is below, followed by links to all seven episodes. All are shot in ultra-high resolution and feature stunning details.

Episode 1: “The Problem with Christ”
Episode 2: “Christ Is Not Like a Snail: Signs and Symbols”
Episode 3: “Putting God in His Place: Here, Everywhere, and Nowhere”
Episode 4: “Time and Eternity: Yesterday, Today, and Always”
Episode 5: “This World and the Next: Christ on Earth, Christ in Heaven”
Episode 6: “So Near and Yet So Far: Visions and Thresholds”
Episode 7: “Unspeakable Images: When Words Fail”

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The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel: “Online exhibitions” are something I’ve seen more and more of recently—that is, the presentation of artworks in a digital rather than physical space, using tools unique to that medium to enhance the viewing experience. Last year Google Arts and Culture launched one in conjunction with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, centered around Pieter Bruegel’s The Census at Bethlehem (1566), which sets Mary and Joseph’s census registration within the hustle and bustle of a Brabant village. The interface guides you through a sequence of bite-size commentaries, sometimes presented as text alongside an image detail, sometimes as a short video. What makes it an “exhibition” is that other works are shown alongside it to locate it within a larger tradition of Netherlandish painting. One frame, for example, shows how Bruegel furthered the innovative “alla prima” technique introduced by Hieronymus Bosch.

Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), The Census at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm (46 × 64.8 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

I studied this painting in college (through slides and textbook reproductions) but have never seen it in this much detail and am now all the more in awe of it. Bruegel’s paintings, which almost always depict a flurry of activity, lend themselves particularly well to this viewing format: it’s helpful to be guided through the various vignettes, each one a window into sixteenth-century Dutch life. Up close, you can see kids blowing up pig-bladder balloons and running across the ice pushing cow jaws they got from the butcher; you can see adults patronizing a tavern in the hollow of a tree, called “In De Swaen”; and much more.

Census at Bethlehem (detail)

Census at Bethlehem detail

Census at Bethlehem detail

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“Jheronimus Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights”: Created in 2016 by a thirty-four-person team, this “interactive documentary” provides an in-depth audiovisual tour though the Dutch artist’s most famous—and, arguably, most bizarre—painting. The interior of the triptych shows, in the central panel, life before the Flood—a depraved orgy in which humans cavort shamelessly with a whole host of beastly creatures conjured from the artist’s imagination.  

Interactive Bosch

The interface is excellently designed, and I hope it inspires other web developers in the art field, especially those seeking to present busy paintings to a lay public. Bookmark icons draw attention to details; click on the bookmark, and you’ll be taken to an extreme close-up. You can then click play to listen to audio commentary, or “Show text” if you prefer written commentary. Mood music plays in the zoomed-out view to enhance your immersion in the world of the painting, and check marks indicate the details you’ve already visited.

Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)

Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)

This web resource was the second release in a “transmedia triptych” on Bosch, the other two being the documentary film Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil (2015) and the Virtual Reality documentary Hieronymus Bosch, the Eyes of the Owl (2016) (see trailer below, and also this review). Last year marked five hundred years since the artist’s death.

I’ve been fascinated by Hieronymus Bosch ever since learning about him in art history classes—he was so unlike his contemporaries, and a master of the grotesque. I wrote about one of his Ecce Homo paintings here.

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The Ghent Altarpiece in 100 Billion Pixels: Yet another opportunity to explore a Dutch masterpiece in depth! The “Closer to Van Eyck” web application has been newly expanded to include images of the Ghent Altarpiece under various stages of conservation treatment, a larger range of technical images, and the ability to see and compare multiple views of the painting at the same time, and the resolution of all the panel photos has been enhanced even more.

This application is geared more toward academic researchers, so it doesn’t include “fun facts” about the altarpiece (which has a super-colorful history!), but I’m featuring it here because of the ability it provides to view high-resolution details of this world treasure. I recommend starting by clicking on the “Closed” and “Open” tabs on the left sidebar, then select “After restoration” and hover over any of the twenty panels to zoom way, way in. The most acclaimed panel is The Adoration of the Lamb, on the inside bottom center. Other panels include Adam and Eve, some Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, the Annunciation, and Christ enthroned.

Ghent Altarpiece (closed)
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (closed view), 1432. Oil on eight panels, 12.3 × 8.5 ft. (3.8 × 2.6 m). St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent.
Ghent Altarpiece
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (open view), 1432. Oil on twelve panels, 11 × 15 ft. (3.4 × 4.6 m). St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent.

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Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art: Made public in September by the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, this website is the world’s largest online database of Jewish art. Its over 260,000 entries catalog a wide range of objects, artifacts, and sites from forty-one countries, dating from antiquity to recent years, and browsable by artist, subject, sect, collection, location, or category (Jewish Ritual Architecture, Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Sacred and Ritual Objects, Jewish Cemeteries, Ancient Jewish Art, and Modern Jewish Art). Dr. Vladimir Levin, the Center’s director, said,

The Index of Jewish Art is a sophisticated tool for studying visual aspects of Jewish heritage. We hope that making this Index available will lead to further in-depth study of primary sources, and serve as an enduring launching pad for the study of the historical and cultural significance of Jewish art for many years to come.

The photos are not of great quality, and despite extensive listings, some major artists appear to be missing, such as Abraham Rattner and Tobi Kahn, as well as others like Moshe Hoffman and Phillip Ratner. Marc Chagall, who was incredibly prolific and is one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, has only two works represented, and Ilya Schor, who completed a large body of beautiful wood engravings of Jewish life and history, has only three. I know the index is constantly expanding, and it’s likely that the curators are running into permissions issues when it comes to Jewish artworks not in the public domain, but as of now, the “Modern Jewish Art” section is very underwhelming and not representative of the amazing breadth that exists from that era. The search function and overall interface could do with some improvement (the website is not very easy to navigate), but this is a great resource nonetheless, one which I hope its makers will continue to add to and solicit funding for.

Not sure where to start browsing? How about with the search term “Dura Europos Synagogue,” a third-century Syrian structure whose walls and ceiling are lined with nearly a hundred paintings of biblical characters and narratives. Its discovery in 1932 helped dispel narrow interpretations of Judaism’s historical prohibition of images.

Sacrifice of Isaac (Torah ark curtain, 18th c)
Parokhet (Torah ark curtain) depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac, Prussia, 1792. Collection of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw. Photo: Zev Radovan.
Crossing the Red Sea (Persian)
Israelites Crossing the Red Sea, 1686. Folio 70 from the Persian manuscript Musā-Nāmeh (The Book of Moses) by Shāhin. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones (Dura Europos Synagogue)
Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, 245–46. Wall painting. Dura Europos Synagogue, Syria.

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