Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A forgotten battle and an almost forgotten Pope

Andrea Vicentino, Battle of Lepanto
Italian, 1603
Venice, Palace of the Doge
April 30 is the feast of St. Pius V. Pius, who reigned from 1566 – 1572, is one of those late 16th-century Counter Reformation popes remembered for helping to pull the Church out of the confusion and gloom that descended on it after the shock of the Reformation. After the frequent scandals that had accompanied the lives of the prince-popes of the High Renaissance (men like Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X) these were mostly pious men of purpose, who lead fairly austere lives. Pius himself, born Antonio Ghislieri, was a friend of the great St. Charles Borromeo, one of the leading figures of the Counter-Reformation.

Battle Standard Carried at Lepanto
Italian, 1571
Gaeta, Museo Diocesano
Among the notable events of St. Pius’ pontificate are the reforms of the breviary and of the liturgy. It is Pius who authorized the Roman Missal that was in use until 1970. However, Pius is mostly remembered in the English speaking world for the promulgation of the bull “Regnans in excelsis“. In this bull, Pius excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I and released her subjects from their allegiance. Although well meant, this set the stage for such sad events as the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Armada, and the Elizabethan government’s persecution of English Catholics, who were now deemed to be traitors almost by definition.

Martin Rota. The Holy League
Croatian, c.1571
London, Trustees of the British Museum
  Here Pope Pius V is shown with his arms 
  spread over the shoulders of King Philip II of 
  Spain (left) and the Doge Alvise I Mocenigo (right) joining
   hands to form the Holy League of 1571.  
  God the Father and the Holy Spirit are seen above them, 
  while a male angel holds a crown above 
  the head of the King and a female angel holds the 
  cap of the Doges above the head of Doge Mocenigo.













What Pius is not remembered for among English speakers is his leadership of the Holy League which gained a tremendous victory in the last great naval battle of the classical world. That is the last great battle between naval forces composed entirely of oar powered galleys. The foe was the previously all-conquering Ottoman navy.

Most people know little of the Ottoman Empire, although they may have heard of it. From the 14th century the Ottoman Turks (the name comes from the founder of the ruling line, Osman) expanded their rule throughout the remains of the old Byzantine Empire, until, by 1400, all that remained of the Empire was the city of Constantinople itself and some tributary territories in the Balkans and Greece. In spite of desperate efforts by the Byzantines, their Empire, direct descendent of the ancient Roman Empire, fell to the Ottomans, led by their young Sultan, Mehmet II, on May 19, 1453.

From this point on the Ottomans controlled the entire Middle East and Anatolia and pushed both east and west, into Persia and Egypt. They also began to push into Central Europe, conquering Hungary and reaching Vienna in 1529, although they were unsuccessful in their attempts to take it. The Ottomans also organized a fleet, which began to capture the islands of the Mediterranean, and they began to harass the Mediterranean mainland, especially in Italy.
Anonymous, Battle of Lepanto
Italian, after 1571
Private Collection


In 1570 they began their attack on Cyprus, then a possession of the Venetian Republic. Finally, the powers of Southern Europe became willing to follow the urgings of Pope Pius and to unite in the Holy League. They gathered a fleet to meet the Turkish navy. The command was given to Don John of Austria, an illegitimate son of the former Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and, therefore, half-brother to Philip II of Spain.

Spain, Genoa, Venice and the Papal States formed the backbone of the Christian fleet. On board the Spanish ship, Marquesa, was a young man who would later become known world-wide as the author of “Don Quixote”, Miguel de Cervantes.

Martin Rota, Battle Formations at Lepanto
Croatian, c. 1571 or later
Boston, Museum of Fine Arats
The ships of the Holy League met the Turkish fleet on October 7, 1571 off the coast of Greece, at what is now called the Gulf of Patras. Both fleets were primarily composed of oared galleys. The ships of the Holy League gained a tremendous victory, sinking or capturing the majority of the ships in the Turkish fleet.

By all accounts, the battle was an extraordinarily ugly fight.1  The Turks lost not only a disproportionate number of ships, but huge numbers of sailors and soldiers, by some estimates as many as twice the Christian losses.

Adriaen Collaert, the Battle of Lepanto
Flemish, after 1571
London, Trustees of the British Museum









Contemporary or near-contemporary paintings and engravings suggest some of the ferocity of the battle and, especially, the rather tight engagements that were at its core.


Andries van Eertvelt, the Battle of Lepanto
Flemish, c.1629
Private Collection
The victory helped to lift the pressure of Turkish aggression from the mainland Mediterranean countries. Although the Turks were able to replace the ships quickly, it took them much longer to replace the lost seamen. They continued to press into Central Europe by land for another hundred years, but the security Southern Europe gained from the victory of Lepanto helped to usher in the age of the Baroque in Italy and Spain.

Johann Jakob Zeiller, Pius V Prays to the
Madonna and Child During the Battle of Lepanto
German, 1762-63
Ottobeuren, Monastery Chuch of
Saints Theodore and Alexander
While the Holy League fleet was at sea the Pope had urged Catholic Europe to pray, in particular to pray the Rosary. The sailors and soldiers of the fleet were also urged to pray the Rosary before the battle began. The victory was, therefore, credited to Our Lady’s intercession. In gratitude, Pope Pius instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory on October 7. The name of the feast was subsequently changed to Our Lady of the Rosary, which is how we celebrate it to this day.

Franz Martin Kuen, Thanksgiving Procession and
Feast of the Rosary at Rome
After the Victory at Lepanto
German, 1768
Erbach Alb-Donau-Kreis, Church of St. Martin

















Titian, Philip II Offering the Infante
Don Fernando to Heaven
Italian, 1573-1575
Madrid, Museo del Prado


Many of the artists who have pictured the Battle of Lepanto were Venetian, quite appropriate since Venetian ships played a major part in the battle. Among them are the contemporary painters, Titian and Veronese. Whereas Titian’s picture “Philip II Offering the Infante Don Fernando To Heaven” is a predominantly secular image (Victory (or an angel) hands the palm of victory to Philip’s baby son, Ferdinand, as Philip holds him. In the background is a scene of the battle, in the foreground, a Turkish prisoner.



Titian, Spain Comes to the Aid of Religion
Italian, 1572-1575
Madrid, Museo del Prado











Titian also painted an allegorical picture which promoted Spain's leadership in the struggle against both the Ottoman Turks and the emerging heresies of Protestant Northern Europe, while recalling the role the Spanish monarchy had played in the reconquest of Spain from the Moors.  Spain, personified as two warrior women (presumably representing the double crowns of Castille and Aragon), come to the aid of the near naked figure of Religion, who is beset and apparently wounded by serpents, which infest the tree stump behind her.  On the left we can see the burning ships of the Turkish fleet at Lepanto.  The two commissions together suggest how Philip II, who was the great-grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, wished to be seen by the world.

Paolo Veronese, Battle of Lepanto
Italian, 1572
Venice, Galleria dell'Accademia



On the other hand, Veronese’s picture “The Battle of Lepanto”, while giving us a view of the battle, actually celebrates the miraculous intercession of the Virgin Mary. The upper portion of the picture presents a view of heaven, where among the clouds and choirs of angels, the city of Venice, la Serenissima herself, kneels before Our Lady. Saints, including Peter and Paul and two Dominicans, join her in supplication, urging Mary to intercede. From heaven rays of light fall to earth, underlining the intercession that she grants.






However, like Titian, Veronese also painted another work that offers a slightly more secular view of the battle and its aftermath.  This is The Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto, painted by Veronese in the late 1570s or early 1580s and possibly repainted in part sometime later.


Paolo Veronese Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto
Italian, 1577-1582
Venice, Palazzo Ducale
In it we see the victorious Venetian admiral, Sebastiano Venier, in his later years as Doge of Venice, being presented to Christ by Faith, holding a chalice, and St. Justine, holding the palm of martyrdom and the knife that killed her. Between them is the figure of the lion of St. Mark, one of the emblems of the Venetian Republic. Speculation has suggested that the figure now seen as Christ was originally that of St. Mark, the patron of Venice.  This seems a distinct possibility, especially since Christ appears to be holding an anchor stone, which would seem to be a more appropriate attribute of St. Mark.  In the left background there is a scene from the battle.  This heavenly reception for Venier is his reward for the victory.

One might think that, because Lepanto is now a widely ignored event, no artist has represented it since those who were contemporaries. But, in 2001, the American artist, Cy Twombly, who lives in Rome, executed a twelve painting series , called “Lepanto” for the Venice Biennale.
Cy Twombly, Lepanto
American, 2001

Although abstract, the pictures do evoke the confusion and intensity of the battle and their bright colors recall both the rays of light from heaven in Veronese’s painting and the bloody decks of contemporary accounts. The cycle has since been exhibited in New York, Houston and Munich. So, there is still some resonance from the battle even in the secular world.

Cy Twombly, Lepanto
American, 2001
Cy Twombly, Lepanto
American, 2001














And so, every October 7th for the last 435 years Catholics have celebrated this victory that freed Southern Europe from a serious threat, guaranteed the continuing existence of Catholic Christianity and allowed a breathing space in which the arts could flourish.



© M. Duffy, 2008, 2016

Monday, April 28, 2008

Bridging the Gap

Mosaic Replica of Palace Triclinium (Dining Room)
Roman, 1743, replica from drawings of original of c. 800
Rome, Piazza of S. Giovanni in Laterano
One of the things that alternately makes me angry or amused, depending, I suppose, on my overall emotional tone at the time, is the mindset that persists in judging the events of the past by the standards of the present. This lies behind, or perhaps more properly is the product of the currently fashionable antipathy at all things Western. However, as the English writer, Leslie Poles Hartley wrote, ”The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

What is amusing in the currently fashionable mode of thought, which ignores this bit of wisdom, is that today’s present rapidly becomes tomorrow’s past. No doubt persons in the future will find today’s actions to be dismally wanting by their standards.

However, it must be said that it requires a great effort of the imagination to think oneself back into the world of our ancestors. We can sometimes touch them when we stand in a building that has served a long life, but not often. We can stand in Chartres or Notre Dame or St. Peter’s and participate in the liturgy, for example. Yet, because of modern lighting, sound systems, etc. we can never really recreate the world as they experienced it.

Art cannot help us here. It can show us a part of the world they saw, to be sure. However, once again, the changed atmosphere in which we now view it, whether in situ (as for a fresco) or in a museum, or on a computer screen, divorces the work of art from the living reality of the world in which it was created.

There is one possibility though for coming into close contact with the past on something like equal ground. This is in music. Perhaps because of its transitory nature, of notes that occur and then fade, a reality is created in our world that opens to us the world of the past.

In this regard I would like to mention two CDs that I find particularly poignant in their creation of a world that is lost.

The first is Music of the Crusades (Decca). This CD (a reissue of an LP dating from the 1970s) brings the Crusades and its people to life. There are rousing recruiting songs, songs of loss and longing, songs of dedication. There is a beautiful song, Palestineleid, written by the renowned German troubadour, Walther von der Vogelweide, full of reverent wonder at the experience of being in the Holy Land. And there is the song purportedly written by Richard the Lionhearted while imprisoned by the Emperor. In the variety and intensity of some of the emotions we can touch the medieval world. Too frequently we read history as if it were something enacted by people of two dimensions, somehow removed from our living emotions and complexities. This recording helps to restore some of the living emotions of those who went before us. They were as we are and as they are so shall we be to those who follow us.

Equally interesting is more recent CD, called Chant Wars (RCA). This is a permanent record of what I can only describe as “the greatest concert I’ve ever attended”. I was privileged to attend a live performance about five years ago, a few years before the CD was released. If you think of Christian chant as ethereal and otherworldly this CD will change your mind. The 9th century was formative for Europe. It was the century that saw the creation of the Carolingian empire under Charlemagne, his father and his sons. What this CD reveals is the “war” between the musical interpretations of the older, Mediterranean world and the newly rising assertive world of the Franks. Unfortunately, the CD lacks the verbal narrative comments and readings from contemporary sources that accompanied and enlightened the live performance, and the accompanying notes don’t quite make up for this. Otherwise, the recording does provide a terrific way to enter into the real Middle Ages.
Pope Leo III and Charlemagne at the feet of St. Peter
Roman, c. 800 (replica done in 1743)
Rome, Piazza of S. Giovanni in Laterano
Note that both the Pope and the King have square
haloes, indicating that they were still living when the
work was created.  Note also that St. Peter is giving
each a symbol of their office.  He gives Pope Leo
the special stole, called a pallium, that designates
a pope or archbishop.  He gives Charlemagne a
banner with six stars.
I found one item in particular to be very worthy of note. It is the last piece on the disk, the Laudes Regiae, a version of the Litany of the Saints. It takes you right back to a specific day, sometime around 800, in Rome. The saints are requested to come to the aid of Pope Leo III (Leoni, summo pontifici et universalis pape, vita!) and Charlemagne (Carolo excellentissimo et a deo coronato, atque magno et pacifico regi Francorum et Langobardorum, ac patricio Romanorum, vita et victoria!). It is sung as more of a definite acclamation, with great excitement, than as a suppliant prayer. Easy to imagine the Pope and the Emperor entering old St. Peter’s or the Triclinium of the Lateran Palace (where a replica portrait of the pair at the feet of St. Peter is still visible to this day) accompanied by this acclamation and easy to imagine oneself in the shadows. Suddenly, you find yourself in touch with the living world of 1,200 years ago.

(If the description of this last piece sounds a little familiar, it could be because an extremely sedate version of the same Laudes Regiae was used at the beginning of the inaugural Mass for Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

More Visual Links to “Spe Salvi”

Reflecting on my post of yesterday I felt a tickle of memory. So, I pulled from my bookshelves the catalogue of the 1983 exhibition “The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art” and turned to the pages on the Museo Pio-Clementina, the member of the Vatican Museums that safeguards the collection of early Christian art. Paging through the catalogue entries I found what was causing the tickle and something else besides.

The something else is a monument inscription to a twenty-year old youth named Datus, dedicated by his parents (cat. 139, dated to 3rd or 4th c.). It is the very monument spoken of by Pope Benedict in the section of “Spe Salvi” that I included in yesterday’s post (Spe Salvi, Sec. 6). In English it reads: “Given by his parents for their well-beloved son, Datus, who lived 20 years, in peace”. Such inscriptions were not uncommon in the Roman world, as indeed they continue to be common in our own. The recent reinstallation and reopening of the Greek and Roman collections at the Metropolitan Museum show many similar inscriptions and monuments to children, young adults, wives, husbands, etc. There are some major differences, however, between this monument and those. It is, first of all, not a very impressive slab. The parents must have had some money in order to be able to afford the monument at all. However, by comparison to the monuments in the Metropolitan, they were not rich. The inscription is not as finely chiseled. It’s a bit ragged, in fact. So, the carver who made it was not one of the highly skilled. But, what makes it remarkable is not the inscription, but the rather clumsy image that occupies the left side of the slab. Christ, identified by a halo, holds a staff in his right hand and points it at a somewhat sketchily executed image of a building with a small pedimented porch with three steps. On the top step stands a figure, completely wrapped in bands like a mummy. It is the raising of Lazarus (John 11:39-44). The family knows the story of Lazarus and has the hope that as he was raised, so their “well-beloved son, Datus” will also be raised “in peace”. It is the self-same hope felt by Christians everywhere.

I confess though that this monument was not the one that caught my memory when I viewed the exhibition at the Met all those years ago. The one that caught my eye then, and that I have carried in my memory ever since, is the monument to Severa (cat. 136, dated ca.330). In this stone the left side bears a portrait of a Roman woman, presumably Severa herself. On the right three figures in short tunics and capes, carrying gifts approach a woman seated in a wicker chair, who holds out her baby. The baby reaches his arms out toward the first of the three figures. In the space between the baby and the first figure appears a star. Behind the woman stands a male figure who points at the star. Quite clearly this is an early image of the Adoration of the Magi. The catalogue identifies the standing male figure as Balaam, who prophesied “A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel” (Numbers 24:17).

Important as an early image of the Adoration of the Magi is, however, the thing that made the Severa monument memorable to me was not the images, it was the inscription. The inscription, which is placed between the image of Severa and the scene of the Magi, says: “SEVERA IN DEO VIVAS (Severa may you live in God)”. This blew me out of the water when I first saw it. It was one of those moments when the veil of time, like the veil in the Temple on the first Good Friday, is ripped in two. It made the words of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians resonate “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead….For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. “(Colossians 2:12, 3:3,4) Therefore, this Roman woman and her family in 330 believed as I believe now. They have long since ceased to breathe and to walk in the world, but both they and I live in Christ. We are one body across the centuries because we live in Christ through baptism.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Further on Early Christian Sarcophagi

Following the posting I prepared yesterday in reflection on the Gospel of the day, I was reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent references to other images that appear on early Christian sarcophagi in his encyclical, Spe Salvi. In sections 5 and 6 the Holy Father says:

It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love. (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, Sec. 5)
The sarcophagi of the early Christian era illustrate this concept visually—in the context of death, in the face of which the question concerning life's meaning becomes unavoidable. The figure of Christ is interpreted on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after. Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher's travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life. The same thing becomes visible in the image of the shepherd. As in the representation of the philosopher, so too through the figure of the shepherd the early Church could identify with existing models of Roman art. There the shepherd was generally an expression of the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing. Now the image was read as part of a new scenario which gave it a deeper content: “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want ... Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me ...” (Ps 23 [22]:1, 4). The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his “rod and his staff comforts me”, so that “I fear no evil” (cf. Ps 23 [22]:4)—this was the new “hope” that arose over the life of believers.” (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, Sec. 6)

The images of Christ the Philosopher appear in a similar fashion to that of the Traditio Legis on some sarcophagi of the fourth and fifth centuries. Indeed, the chief difference seems to be that, as the Philosopher rather than the Lawgiver, Christ appears standing. See, for example, these two images from sarchophagi from the fourth (Rome) and fifth centuries (Ravenna).











Examples of the Good Shepherd abound in early Christian art, both on sarchophagi, free-standing sculpture and in mosaics. Among the most famous images are the statue of the Good Shepherd in the Vatican Museum and the mosaic from the tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. Both have deep roots in images from the pre-Christian classical world.

I have particular affection for the mosaic from Ravenna because of its calm and serene atmosphere and because of the way Christ the Shepherd reaches across to tickle the chin of one of the sheep. She, for her part, raises her head in response to His touch. Possibly, she represents Galla Placidia herself, raising her head in hope and trust to the touch of her Shepherd and Redeemer. There is a long history of this gesture, sometimes referred to as the "chin chuck", that stretches from ancient Egyptian art to that of the nineteenth century. It is usually directed from man to woman or from parent to child. In this case, it flows from the Shepherd to the sheep, from the Redeemer to the redeemed.

Friday, April 25, 2008

April 25 - Feast of St. Mark -- Traditio Legis

Traditio legis from Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
Late Roman, mid-4th century
Vatican City State, Vatican Museums
Gospel – Mark 16:15-16

"Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them:“Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned."

The subject of the first verse of today’s reading, the instruction to the Apostles to go into the whole world, is the scene called the “traditio legis”. It is a scene well-known from early Christian times through the Middle Ages, but seems to have disappeared from the iconography of later times.

Traditio legis translates as “the giving of the law”. In the case of Christianity it refers to the instruction of Jesus to the Apostles, which is the subject of the quotation from the Gospel of Mark cited above. The most famous early Christian appearance of the traditio legis is on the central panel of the upper row of scenes from the life of Christ on the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, now in the Vatican Museum. The sarcophagus dates from the mid-fourth century (359), just a few decades from Constantine’s proclamation of the Edict of Milan, which made Christian practice legal. Prior to that time, Christian practice was illegal, sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted. With Constantine’s edict, subsequent adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Empire, and his building of the great basilicas in Rome and Jerusalem, we begin to see Christian art emerge from the shadow of the catacombs.

Computer reconstruction of colossal statue of Constantine
which stood in the Basilica of Maxentius
Roman, 4th century
The initial images clearly derive from Imperial imagery. The specific image is that of the Emperor as lawgiver. Christ appears seated on a stool with lion feet, raised on a small platform, just as the Emperor would have sat on a raised throne stool. On either side are Apostles, who receive a scroll of the law, just as members of the Emperor’s court would have appeared on a non-Christian imperial Roman monument. At Christ’s feet appears a Roman sky god (indicated by his billowing sail/dome, a representation of the sky). This little detail shows that bits of Roman iconography remained even after the adoption of Christianity. Christ appears as a young, beardless man, as was common during the early Christian period. The more mature, bearded Christ that is familiar to us developed much later.

Quite a number of sarcophagi with representations of the traditio legis were made during the fourth and fifth centuries. While researching this article I was actually surprised by how many there are. However, following the barbarian take over of the Western Roman Empire the use of the image tapers off.

Apocalypse Tympanum from south portal at Moissac
French, 1130-1140
Moissac, Saint-Pierre
It persists, however, transformed into the familiar image of the Last Judgment seen from the facades of the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals to the wall of the Sistine Chapel, and adopted by Raphael for the beautiful Disputà (Disputation on the Blessed Sacrament, of 1509) in the Vatican.






Raphael, Disputa
from Stanza della Segnatura
Italian, 1509
Vatican City State, Vatican Museums



In these images, Christ sits enthroned, surrounded by the court of heaven as He delivers judgment.

When Angels Aren't...(or are they?)

Jan Gossaert, Madonna and Child with
Music Making Angels
Flemish, c.1510
Private Collection
One of the most common images in Christian art, both Eastern and Western are angels. Angelic choirs surround us when we worship. They appear as adoring figures in paintings of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary. In scenes of the Annunciation, Gabriel is the resplendent messenger of God. Angels are often active as witnesses to heroic martyrdoms. Sometimes, especially in the case of Michael, they are the subject. Many of them are the magnificent and solemn winged beings that one would expect of the spirits that stand before the throne of God and move swiftly to do His will in the universe. Some of them have a different function. Perhaps they represent a less exalted level within the divine economy. Indeed, sometimes not all of them are, strictly speaking, angelic. Some of them may even be putti.

Putti (or the singular putto) is an Italian word more common among historians of art and architecture than among the general population, but every one knows what they are. The secular version is especially prolific around Valentine’s Day. They are those charming, cute, mischievous winged children sometimes called cherubs or cupids and they have a history much too long for their tiny wings. They are the descendants of the Greek god of love, Eros.
Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche
Italian, 1786-1793
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Originally, Eros was depicted as an attractive, but fully grown young man, fully ready and capable of being the husband of the beautiful Psyche. He was also associated with the more mature aspects of human love, those associated with commitment and mature understanding. He was recognized as a god in his own right.

However, as the centuries progressed, he grew ever younger and came more and more under the shadow of his formidable mother, the goddess of sexual love, Aphrodite. By Hellenistic times (the 4th - 2nd century B.C.), he had become a mischievous toddler, armed with the fearsome arrows of desire which he used to create havoc among mortals.
Sleeping Eros
Greek, 3rd-2nd Century BC
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art





He was attended by a train of similar figures, the Erotes, symbolizing perhaps all the strange and disconcerting alterations of everyday life which are associated with the idea of “falling in love”.



Cupid from Ivory Pyxis (small box)
Roman, 1st Century AD
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art





The Romans, as they did with so much of Greek antiquity, adopted him into their own pantheon of gods and he became the familiar Cupid, attendant on his mother, who became the Roman goddess, Venus.


Some of his old mystery was returned to him, however, in the persons of his attendant Erotes, who became identified with the native Roman spirits, the Genii, who were attendant companions to the souls of persons and who led them to their ascent to the gods.


They were imported into Christianity under the latter aspect, so that, by the fourth century, they appear, for example, in the mosaics of the tomb of Constantia, the daughter of Constantine, in what is now the church of Sta. Costanza in Rome.
Putti Treading Grapes from Mosaics
Roman, c. 350 AD
Rome, Santa Costanza



There they are shown playing among the images of grapes and wheat, which refer, of course, to the Eucharist. They also appear on some Christian sarcophagi, especially those which show similar Eucharistic references, such as grape vines.



During the Byzantine period and the Western European Dark Ages they disappear. Angels during these times come into their own as splendidly dressed, solemn and beautiful winged adults. They represent the eternal world of Heaven, calm and serene, and reflect the awesome presence of God.


As Europe recovered from the various invasions which had submerged the old Roman culture a thaw began to set in for angels too, but gradually.

Giotto’s great fresco of the Lamentation in the Arena Chapel at Padua features a group of charming small angels emoting in the sky above. They express their feelings of grief in no uncertain terms, tearing their hair, rending their garments, even screaming.



However, although they are small, there is no doubt that they are definitely angels and not putti. Their emotions, although strong, are serious and noble. Putti are never anything but playful.


Raphael, Sistine Madonna
Italian, 1513-1514
Dresden, Gemeldegalerie






By the time the softening into realism which began with Giotto had reached its zenith in the great artists of the High Renaissance, especially Raphael, putti had returned to their former position.

They appear everywhere. In the art of Raphael alone, they cavort in pagan cheerfulness in the decorations of the Vatican Loggia and appear in barely contained solemnity in religious paintings. To Raphael, indeed, we currently owe the ubiquitous image of the two little “angels” from the Sistine Madonna which currently decorate everything from stationery to umbrellas.


Titian, Venus with a Mirror
Italian, c. 1550
Venice, Galleria Franchetti, Ca d'Oro








At almost the same time, similar beings attend the goddess Venus in the work of Titian and Veronese.






Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Immaculate Conception
Spanish, 1676
Madrid, Museo del Prado






Once established in the work of such a great classical painter of the High Renaissance, the position of putti was firmly assured. They appear continually in both secular and religious painting, barely distinguishable from one another. One need only think of Murillo’s well-known paintings of the Immaculate Conception and compare them to any mythological or amorous painting by Boucher or Fragonard, especially one involving Venus or human lovers, to see how closely the “cherubs” of the one are related to the “putti” of the other.



 To both the sacred and the profane these little winged characters impart their special touch of frolic and joy.


Francois Boucher, Allegory of Painting
French, 1765
Washington, National Gallery of Art






















© M. Duffy, 2008 

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

In the beginning

This blog has several aims.

The first is to offer some thoughts, from a Catholic perspective, on the art of Western Christianity over the last 19 centuries. I intend to do this in both general and specific ways. The general way will begin with a particular work of art. In the specific case I will begin with the Word and will try to connect the liturgical readings to works of art that reflect them. Not every Biblical passage has a corresponding work of art, but many do.

Another aim is that of offering information and reflections on museum collections or special exhibitions that may be of interest to people interested in western art. I live in Manhattan and have ready access to its many museums and to museums on the entire eastern seaboard and sometimes in Europe.

And finally, I aim to practice the art of writing, at least the art of writing that has no connection to my working life. All my life, people have been urging me to write. I've wanted to, but felt I lacked a subject to focus on. Although I have an excellent education in the liberal arts and in the history of art in particular (I'm an abd from the Institute of Fine Arts of NYU) I have not had a professional art historian's career. But the frustrated teacher yearns to move herself into an expression of what is important to her. The final spark came from the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to New York the weekend of April 18 - 20, 2008. I hope this will be my contribution to the work of spreading the good news of Christ, the Word Incarnate.