Thursday 31 October 2013

Lecture 5: Altar pieces

It seems timely that Monday’s class was about altar pieces. Given that Hasan Niyazi spent so much of his time investigating and writing about these hugely important paintings, it was soothing to connect with his memory and contemplate some of the wider issues of church art. Hasan concentrated on the pre-Trent period when, it might be argued, the images had a gloriously balanced aesthetic and an aura of beautiful unreality. You only have to look at The Madonna di Foligno to see the difference between Raphael’s abilities and some of the less than average artists we've seen this term.

The focus this week was the way that the altar pieces interacted with the rest of the church; that is to say everything from the liturgy, the architecture, iconographic program, saints patron as well as the wider community. After the Council of Trent, the Eucharistic became of central importance and the altar piece usually reflected this. Our tutor stated that they were more likely to have symbolism in them after Trent than before, a statement which has had me puzzling since I returned to my notes. I would heavily dispute this given the amount of iconographical studies of some difficult altar pieces pre-1563. However what I think the lecturer meant was that symbols were used in a different, more unsubtle way and became easier for the congregation to 'read'.

Monday 28 October 2013

Book Review: The Sensuous in the Counter-Reformation Church

This book review is dedicated to the memory of my good friend, Hasan Niyazi. I just wish it had been a book on Raphael, about whom who he knew so much. Thank you for your help my dear...

With every new papal regime the Catholic Church undergoes a subtle change with attempts to re-engage and invigorate the hearts and minds of the faithful. For me, it seems that every fresh endeavour is nothing more than a manifestation of the ripple effect of sixteenth-century reformation Rome, where all means were employed to win back those tempted by the inflammatory protestant sects. A combination of enthusiastic new saints to venerate and an immersive theatrical experience to rival any playhouse would have given the average Catholic quite a jolt, if not a complete sensory overload.

Editors Marcia Hall and Tracy E Cooper bring together a collection of essays which explore ideas of sensuousness in the Catholic reformation church. Each author is a specialist in late sixteenth century religious subjects and well known for scholarly articles and/or monographs. The introduction makes it quite clear that the editors have defined ‘“sensuous” as related to, or derived from the senses, usually the senses involved in aesthetic enjoyment’ (p1). Some essays make reference to sexual pleasure, however they stress that is not their primary focus.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Lecture 4: The one in which Catholic churches justify their decor

Il Gesu
The title of this fourth lecture held a lot of promise: 'Space, Function and Decoration in a Catholic Church'. In it we examined the church's decoration and design and looked at what these implied in terms of how the space was used. We compared the use of church space pre- and post- catholic reformation and the changes this entailed in the light of new ways of worship. The case study revolved around the most Catholic of post-Trent organisation's churches, the Jesuit 'Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus at the "Argentina"', or Il Gesù for short.

However this lecture was vaguely unsatisfactory and I was pleased that I had supplemented it with a lot of reading - there is too much to cover in depth in an hours lecture. I'd read Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque which clearly sets out the subtle differences between rhetoric, persuasion and propaganda. It also discusses and dismisses the notion of 'the Jesuit style', a label which should definitely be avoided. I've also been reading the truly excellent The Sensuous in the counter-reformation church which covers in depth a number of issues that we merely touched upon in class. Art historians like to use the Jesuits as examples for various things so lecture and reading all tied in well.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Lecture 3: St Peter, the Pope and the Eternal City

Rome as a religious centre? Pardon? Ok, what exactly did I know about Rome as a place of pilgrimage? I’ve seen Gladiator and I, Claudius(!), been awestruck by Nero’s golden house, paid homage at the Pantheon and I’ve even been on a private tour of the Villa Medici. I’ve never been to the Vatican because of the crowds and ‘Look at me, I’m the Pope’ so for me Rome is antiquity, pagan glory and the best baba al rhums I’ve ever had. Last night’s lecture was yet another excursion into the unknown. 

We started at the symbolic centre of Catholic, holy Rome with the authority of the popes – the c17th façade of St Peters, where the power of the Church is represented visually, an architectural creation of sacred place/space. St Peters is not the cathedral of Rome but it is the most important church. The focus is on the tradition and establishment of St Peter as head of the church in Rome. 

Saturday 12 October 2013

Old Master Dialogues at the Collyer Bristow Gallery

'Hands' French, c18th, Richard Day
I am lucky enough to work in a place with an idiosyncratic and eclectic take on the arts. A dedicated curatorial partnership works with the firm's gallery to stage three varied exhibitions per year, and though generally small in scale, are large in personality. Old Master Dialogues is the latest offering and is a collection of selected and newly commissioned works responding to the Old Master prints and drawings collection of Richard Day.

The exhibition notes say that museums traditionally aim to observe the hierarchies of history, whereas collectors and artists acquire or visually consume anything and everything that appeals to them personally. And this goes straight to the heart of this show. The small, intimate pieces borrowed from the Day Collection demand your attention because they have this aura of love and care around them. They are all beautiful works of art and where artists have responded to a specific one, they could not fail to have been inspired by it and open a dialogue with the past.

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Lecture 2: Reform and reformations

This course has piqued my interest in a huge way. After nearly spending the entire weekend – unintentionally – in the Warburg Library reading about reformation music and refreshing my memory regarding the Council of Trent, I am hooked. Happily the security guard escorted me out when he realised he’d locked me in.


Last week I cast my mind back to the historians that my A-Level teacher talked about. I refreshed my memory concerning revisionist history books of the 80/90s which were all the rage in 1990-2 and we were encouraged to read JJ Scarisbrick, C Haigh, D Starkey and disregard J Elton and AG Dickson. So finally reading the latter, who was the set text this week, was quite an interesting experience. This continuous re-editing of history proves the reformations throughout Europe at this time were extremely complicated.

Christianity was not monolithic even in the 15th century. Devotion varied; in practice and belief which had evolved. After all, the New Testament is not a set of rules or a religion. The gospels are interpreted and even the bible is made up of council picked, selected texts. Church tradition, dogma and doctrine evolves throughout the Middle Ages

Thursday 3 October 2013

Lecture one in a new term: Am I persuaded?

No nudes thanks, we're post-Trent Catholics
It's that time of year again when we're dusting off the pencil cases and hole reinforcers and toddling off to university as if the summer didn't happen. This first term, second year, is shaping up to be purgatorial because the options were rather limited. I opted rather anxiously to do 'Art of Persuasion: Catholic art of the reformation'.

The reminder to treat the past (and religion) as a foreign country is never more important than in this tricky area. To distance yourself from your own faith (or lack thereof) and maintain an open minded historical perspective, concentrating on what they believed THEN is crucial. I'm thinking of the Catholic Church as a political entity rather than anything religious or spiritual and as we are supposed to be thinking about belief in context, this should work.