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.   Continue reading “Interacting with artworks online: A few new(ish) resources”

Roundup: Contemporary santos; singing grace with knives; Auden interprets Bruegel; “The Old Churchyard”; pyrotechnic ladder

“The Cosmopolitan and the Campesino: The Sacred Art of Luis Tapia” by Dana Gioia: I first learned about the pioneering Chicano artist Luis Tapia from the book Crafting Devotions: Tradition in Contemporary New Mexico Santos. His work was memorable, so when I saw it on the cover of the latest Dappled Things issue, I was eager to read inside. Dana Gioia’s essay introduces us to work that is “both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins” in the Hispano religious folk art tradition established in New Mexico in the seventeenth century. Pushing the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary, Tapia “has enlarged his tradition to make it capacious enough to contain his imagination and the complexities of contemporary Latino experience.”

The art world is more accustomed to disruption and transgression than to transformative renewal. (What is more normative in art nowadays than transgression?) It is easier to renounce or mock the past than to master and reshape it to new ends. Assimilating the past, however, allows new work to carry powerful formal and cultural resonance, such as Tapia’s adaptations of New Mexican Catholic folk subjects and symbolism into new secular and social contexts. Tapia does not approach the past with the distanced irony and intellectual condescension of artists such as John Currin or Jeff Koons. Tapia remains invested in the forms, themes, and techniques of the New Mexican Latino Catholic tradition.

(Related post: “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

Pieta by Luis Tapia
Luis Tapia (American, 1950–), Pietà, 1999. Carved and painted wood, 20¼ × 14½ × 9½ in. Collection of John Robertshaw. Photo: Dan Morse, courtesy The Owings Gallery, Santa Fe.

Renaissance-era cutlery engraved with musical notations: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has in its collection a rare “notation knife” from sixteenth-century Italy, whose blade contains on each side a line of music expressing gratitude for a meal. The inscription on one side reads, “The blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat,” while the other reads, “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.” The knife, which contains only a tenor voice part, belongs to a set. Art historian Flora Dennis, whose background is in musicology, tracked down the other three in the set and, with the help of the Royal College of Music, transcribed the voice parts into modern notation, then had the benediction and grace from the knives sung and recorded (listen below). Click on the link to hear curator Kirstin Kennedy discuss the knife’s possible uses, to view footage from the recording session, and to listen to two alternate recordings.

Notation Knife
Left and right views of an etched, engraved, and gilded steel knife with ivory, brass, and silver handle, by an unknown maker, Italy, 1500–50. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Benediction, Version 1

Grace, Version 1

“‘About Suffering They Were Never Wrong’” by Kevin Antlitz: This essay about human indifference to others’ suffering centers on W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which is itself a response to two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Census at Bethlehem and The Fall of Icarus. Insights from Mark Twain, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Elie Wiesel, Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and St. Theophan the Recluse add to the commentary, which is personalized by the author’s reflections on his visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The indictment is sobering: we are all of us guilty of evil—the enabler just as much as the perpetrator.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
Nobody notices the need of the pregnant couple—the Holy Family—making their way into town. 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.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel
The plowman, shepherd, and angler continue with their work, indifferent to the upside-down, flailing legs in the sea beside them, and “the expensive delicate ship” at the crash site “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” 1560s copy of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558. Oil on canvas, 73.5 × 112 cm (28.9 × 44.1 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

Offa Rex records spiritual folk standard “The Old Churchyard”: Olivia Chaney has teamed up with the Decemberists under the name Offa Rex to record an album that pays homage to British folk music. Released this month, The Queen of Hearts features a beautiful rendition of “The Old Churchyard,” a song about the pain of death and the hope of resurrection. It invites you, first, to come pay respect to loved ones who have passed out of this world over the years, then entreats you not to feel sorrow for them, “for sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard their pillows may be.” The song acknowledges that words are insufficient to comfort those left behind but nonetheless offers the reassurance of peace and rest for the deceased, and a glorious rising on the last day. (Thanks to Paul Neeley for this find!)

Come, come with me out to the old churchyard,
I so well know those paths ’neath the soft green sward.
Friends slumber in there that we want to regard;
We will trace out their names in the old churchyard.

Mourn not for them, their trials are o’er,
And why weep for those who will weep no more?
For sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard
Their pillows may be in the old churchyard.

I know that it’s vain when our friends depart
To breathe kind words to a broken heart;
And I know that the joy of life is marred
When we follow lost friends to the old churchyard.

But were I at rest ’neath yonder tree,
Oh, why would you weep, my friends, for me?
I’m so weary, so wayworn, why would you retard
The peace I seek in the old churchyard?

Why weep for me, for I’m anxious to go
To that haven of rest where no tears ever flow;
And I fear not to enter that dark lonely tomb
Where our saviour has lain and conquered the gloom.

I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay,
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard.

Sky Ladder documentary (2016): This Netflix original directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) profiles the world-renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced Tsai gwo chi-ONG), who is best known for reinventing the possibilities of the firework, opening its purpose up beyond mere entertainment. Through interviews with the artist and his family, friends, and critics, the film tracks Cai’s rise from childhood in Mao’s China to global fame, addressing the cultural influences on his work, his desire to effect social change, and his struggles to maintain integrity and artistic freedom (his acceptance to design the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was controversial).

The documentary shares its title with Cai’s decades-long obsession and most ambitious work to date: a pyrotechnic ladder that rises up over a quarter mile into the sky, as successive explosions etch each new rung and rail segment into place. “I want to connect the earth to the universe,” Cai said. It was fascinating to be let in on his process for this, his working through all the technical details and other hurdles. Three previous attempts to realize Sky Ladder were canceled—in 1994, due to bad weather; in 2001, due to the 9/11 attacks; and in 2012, due to a revoked permit. It wasn’t until 2015 that the project finally succeeded, in a small Chinese fishing village before an audience of a few hundred. It lasted approximately two and a half minutes. Cai’s Sky Ladder reminds me of “Jacob’s ladder” from Genesis 28:10–19, burning bright, connecting two worlds.

Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Sky Ladder rising. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.
Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Cai Guo-Qiang (Chinese, 1957–), Sky Ladder. Realized at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, Fujian, June 15, 2015, at 4:49 a.m., approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.

Praying with pretzels

The salty, twisted treats that we call pretzels have their origin, it is thought, in a seventh-century European monastery—according to lore, either in southern France, northern Italy, or Germany. Allegedly a monk invented them by shaping scraps of leftover bread dough to resemble arms crossed in prayer over the chest. (Think upside-down pretzel.)

During the Middle Ages the church’s fasting requirements for Lent were stricter than they are today, forbidding the intake of all nonaquatic animal by-products, including eggs, lard, milk, and butter. Because pretzels could be made with a simple recipe that avoided these banned ingredients, they soon became associated with the season.

Lady Lent with pretzels
Detail from The Battle between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel, 1559, showing the gaunt Lady Lent (a man cross-dressed as a nun) riding a cart bearing traditional Lenten fare: pretzels, waffles, and mussels. He holds, like a lance, a baker’s peel topped with two herring.

The pretzel’s Lenten link, not to mention its popularity as a year-round snack both inside and outside monastic communities, led artists to sometimes paint pretzels into Last Supper images.

Pretzel at the Last Supper
The Last Supper, from a bishop’s benedictional made in Bavaria, Germany, ca. 1030–40. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles: MS Ludwig VII 1, fol. 38.

Continue reading “Praying with pretzels”