Sunday, October 9, 2011

Paintings As Scientific Documents?

After Frans Hals, Malle Babbe
Dutch, Second quarter of 17th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This past week has seen me sick with some viral bug that is making the rounds of New York City. So, this essay is a bit late and for that I apologize. I was going to write a review of the small exhibition of the work of the 17th-century Dutch painter Frans Hals that is currently at the Metropolitan Museum.1

The exhibition is primarily based on the Met’s own collection of his works. I have visited it several times and had been saving writing a review until a period when subject matter might be scarce. Unfortunately, I waited too long. When I checked the exhibition dates today, I discovered that—gasp—it closes on Monday (October 10, one of the Met’s rare holiday Monday openings). So, unless you are in the New York area and can get to the Met by closing time Monday, it will be too late.

Since that is the case I am going to shift this essay from a straightforward review of the Hals exhibition to some musings on an issue that arises from one painting that is included in the show. This is the picture known as “Malle Babbe”. Once considered to be the original it was reassessed some time ago and is now considered to be a copy after Hals.

Frans Hals, Malle Babbe
Dutch, 1631-1633
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie
A nearly identical portrait of the same person now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin has been recognized as the true Hals original (click for high resolution image). The two paintings are extremely closely related, as a side by side comparison between details of the Met’s version and the Berlin version in the final room of the exhibition demonstrates (the Berlin painting is represented only by reproductions of details). If a copy, the Met’s painting is the work of an artist who was able to copy not only Hals’ composition, but his technique as well. It is an intriguing problem for the connoisseur.

However, what I’ve been reflecting on is not the painting itself, but its subject matter. Malle Babbe was the popular name for a woman who was an inmate in the workhouse in Haarlem, the town where Hals lived. The owl on her shoulder, a symbol of wisdom in classical antiquity, had become by this time the symbol for a fool. 2 The fact that there are several versions or copies of this painting is very suggestive. It accords with other paintings of such human oddities found in the work of other 17th century painters.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Red Hat
Dutch, c. 1665-1666
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art
Clearly, there was an interest in recording the appearance of unusual people during this century that sets it apart from earlier periods. And this accords with the rise of scientific inquiry in the 17th century. This is the century that begins with the work of Galileo. It also includes the Vatican led reform of the calendar (change from the old Roman Julian calendar to the more scientifically correct Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII) and the development of complex mathematics such as calculus by Leibniz and Newton. It concludes with the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687).
Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Water Jug
Dutch, c. 1662
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the world of 17th-century Dutch painting, it also includes Vermeer’s experiments with the camera obsura that give his work such immediacy.

It would appear that part of the burgeoning of science in the 17th century was an interest in human diversity. And this is true not only in the Protestant Netherlands but also in Catholic Italy and Spain. Paintings exist whose subject matter is not just the insane, but dwarfs and other human oddities.

In Spain, Diego Velazquez painted several portraits of the dwarfs who served as members of the Spanish royal household.

Diego Velazquez, Dwarf known as
Don Antonio el Ingles,
Spanish, 1640-1642
Madrid, Prado
Diego Velazquez, Dwarf known as
Sebastian de Morra
Spanish, 1641-1642
Madrid, Prado

In the 17th century many “little people” served in this capacity, as entertainers and as servant “pets” to royal masters.  Today, this may seem undignified and even cruel but, in the world 400 years ago, for a small person unable to find work in occupations that required stature, strength or stamina, this may have been a blessing.

Jusepe Ribera, Boy with a Clubfoot
Spanish, 1642
Paris, Louvre

In addition, in southern Italy, the transplanted Spanish painter Jusepe Ribera painted the portrait of a boy with a clubfoot.  His deformity is clearly visible, but so is his engaging, cheeky personality. 

Jusepe Ribera, Magdalena Venturi with
Her Husband and Son
Spanish, 1631
Toledo, Museo Fundacion Duque de Lerma

Ribera also painted the portrait of a most unusual family, a bearded woman with her husband and baby.

Today these paintings may seem bizarre, but we ourselves are barely removed from the carnival freak show in which people like these would have been on exhibit.

Rather than viewing these pictures with disdain or anger I suspect that we should view them as interesting documents of a burgeoning scientific point of view.

1. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum, July 26 – October 10, 2011,

2. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catalogue Entry,

© M. Duffy, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

St. Francis of Assisi

Giotto ?, Sermon to the Birds
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level
A bout of something very much resembling the flu has prevented me from doing the research for the full-length essay on the iconography of St. Francis, which I had planned. But St. Francis is such an important and beloved saint that I can’t let his feast day pass without some acknowledgment. So, I will just point you to the extensive series of frescoes painted, shortly after his death, in the upper church of the basilica in his honor at Assisi.

The story of St. Francis is relatively well known. Perhaps no saint in the history of the Christian Church in the West has been so influential, so beloved, so misunderstood. From his own time to the present he has been made the subject of legends and stories. He has even been the subject of several movies. He is the goofy saint who talks to animals, the holy fool, the proto-hippie, sometimes seen as slightly mad. Yet, in reality his story and his joyful attempt to imitate Christ by a life of poverty, humility and service to the poor, is the spark that has ignited many souls to search for God and spend their own lives in serving the poor.

The Young Francis Receives a Vision While Praying
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level
The outlines of his real life story are fairly well known. Francesco Bernadone was born in the Umbrian town of Assisi in 1182 into a family of merchants. As a youth he had a fairly privileged and sheltered life. During a period of illness in 1205 he underwent the beginnings of a conversion to a more spiritual life and began to try to serve the poor.

Following his understanding of the message he had received in a vision, Francis sold some of his father’s stock of cloth to begin the task of rebuilding a ruined church on the outskirts of their town. His father was, understandably, angry about this and the ensuing battle of wills led Francis to renounce all worldly possessions and attachments, even the clothing he wore.

Francis Renounces Worldly Possessions
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level
 Attired in garments he acquired by begging, Francis began his life of total poverty, begging his clothing, food and the building materials with which he repaired various local churches. He also began to preach the joy of poverty and service in imitation of Christ and to attract other men to follow him.

In 1209 he drew up a simple rule for his “friars” and requested Papal approval. Pope Innocent III eventually agreed and in 1210 the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor was recognized by the Church.

The Rule is Confirmed by Pope Innocent III
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level

With St. Clare of Assisi he also founded the order of women that became known as the Poor Clares. Later, for those who wanted to associate themselves with him and his ideas he founded the Third Order for ordinary people not able or willing to leave their secular lives. All three orders still exist to this day. They have also sprouted a sometimes bewildering group of branches as well. In addition to several different Catholic sets of Franciscan friars and sisters there are Anglican and other Protestant Franciscans.

Giotto ?, St. Francis Receives the Stigmata,
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level
Francis is the first known person to receive the Stigmata, the visible wounds of Christ. He died on October 3, 1226 and was formally canonized two years later.

 That same year, 1228, a magnificent two-level basilica in his honor was begun in his hometown of Assisi. It was consecrated in 1253.

Near the end of the century the upper church was decorated with frescoes depicting the life of Francis and some of the legends that had already arisen in the 70 years since his death.

St. Francis Prepares the First Christmas Crib at Greccio
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level
 A number of artists were engaged in the decoration, including the Roman Jacopo Torriti and the Florentine Cimabue and his pupil, Giotto. Attribution of the frescoes is disputed, but many have seen in them the first works of Giotto.

Although severely damaged in an earthquake in 1997 (when four people were killed during an aftershock), the basilica and the frescoes have been repaired and the basilica was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 (

Francis’ greatest legacy, of course, is not the building in Assisi nor the frescoes that decorate it nor the other works of art inspired by his story, but the good done by the countless men and women who, over the last 800 years, have followed in his footsteps.

you helped Saint Francis to reflect the image of Christ
through a life of poverty and humility.
May we follow your Son
by walking in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi,
and by imitating his joyful love.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Memorial Prayer from Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours for Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4)

© M. Duffy, 2011