Bernini’s Louis XIV

Louis XIV by Bernini (1665)

Louis XIV by Bernini (1665)

Some aristocrats were lounging around Louis XIV’s court, watching the old Italian artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, sculpt their king.

‘You are a great talent, sir,’ said one of the aristocrats, ‘but here, you have made the eyes too big and the forehead too high. Your depiction of my king is surely not accurate!’

Bernini turned to the aristocrat and shrugged. ‘My king will last longer than yours,’ he said.

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Descending from the Cross

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435)

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435)

Christ’s descent from the cross was a very common theme in medieval art and continued to be so in the Renaissance. Rogier van der Weyden (1399 or 1400 – 1464) was an Early Flemish painter who created the above version of the deposition, as the descent is often known. Here, in the burgeoning Northern tradition, there is a sense of harsh humanity to the skeletal figure of Christ and the deeply moving expressions on the other figures’ faces. The striking thing about this painting, at least from a wider view, is the placement of the swooning Madonna and Jesus, whose poses mirror each others’ in a vision of empathy and symmetry.

deposition_of_christ raphael

Raphael (1483 – 1520) is of course one of the most celebrated Italian Renaissance artists, although he died at only 37. What is significant about Raphael’s version of the deposition is how it takes clear inspiration from classical art. Raphael had been observing Roman sarcophagi and modelled much of the vibrant fluidity of the scene from those, as well as taking cues from Michelangelo’s massively influential Pietà for the Christ figure.

Jacopo Pontormo, The Deposition from the Cross (1528)

Jacopo Pontormo, The Deposition from the Cross (1528)

A little later in Italy, we find this deposition of Christ in the Mannerist style by Jacopo Pontormo (1494 – 1557). When I first saw Pontormo’s deposition, having been immersed in Italian Renaissance art for some time, I was jolted awake in every way – it hit me as fresh and alarming and aesthetically mysterious all at once. The first thing to notice (inescapably) is the use of colour; pastel, light, airy, almost insubstantially ethereal so that the painting looks as if it might fly away in a breeze. This is only compounded by the lack of strong lines and the use of meandering, silken textures with limbs and yearning faces that seem to flow into each other in a cloud of melting grief.

Rosso Fiorentino, Deposition (1521)

Rosso Fiorentino, Deposition (1521)

In Rosso Fiorentino (1494 – 1540), the deposition draws from the Mannerist style of Pontormo but the colour scheme is markedly more sombre and the figures are busier than in Pontormo. Instead of melting into each other in grief, they are at work in Rosso Fiorentino – the cross itself is a major architectural backdrop for the figures who grapple, jump, twist and reach all around its impervious stature. The ‘squareness’ of fabrics and figures strike me as a great contrast to Pontormo and the positions of the attendants on Christ seem less fluid and and elegant than those in either Raphael or Pontormo. There is also something absolutely remarkable about the placement of the figures and ladders, with the woman at the bottom stretching across, the near-symmetrical (compare this to van der Weyden) imagining of the scene with the impatient emotion of it all… Although Pontormo’s Mannerist pastel explosion struck me with the hardest impact of all the deposition paintings I have seen, I think in the long run Rosso Fiorentino’s will haunt me.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – Translation and Interpretation

The Mausoleum of Omar Khayyam, Iran

The Mausoleum of Omar Khayyam, Iran

Omar Khayyám was a Persian poet and general genius who lived from 1048–1131. He wrote on Euclid, on the philosophy of mathematics and various aspects of geometry. He is also said to have helped correct errors in the Persian calendar. He wrote approx. a thousand quatrains (or ruba’i رباعی‎) of verse, which were famously translated much later in the 19th century by the British poet Edward FitzGerald.

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Himmapaan

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Himmapaan

Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is notoriously not a literal translation, with much poetic material added by FitzGerald himself. It was however so popular that it even brought Omar Khayyam back to the attention of Iranian readers, who had largely forgotten his work. With popularity came debate, as is usually the case with great literature.

Illustration of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

Illustration of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Rene Bull

Debate has often centred around the extent of Omar Khayyam’s Sufism, since the FitzGerald translation often indicates more materialistic, sensual and agnostic concerns. Abdullah Dougan, a Sufi thinker, has written a defence of Khayyam’s religiosity, claiming that the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has been misread without receptivity to the allegorised undertones of spirituality. This mystical, esoteric reading of Khayyam seems likely to have merit to me, since Khayyam did write some orthodox Islamic texts. Mehdi Aminrazavi in The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005) agrees that the poetry of Omar Khayyam is compatible with a Sufi worldview and in fact that he was interpreted this way even during his own lifetime.

I sometimes worry about readings of poems that, in worrying about legitimising the poem as important and non-threatening to a religion/philosophy, end up ringing away ambiguities. Ambivalences, moments of doubt, courage, revolt or sheer brazenness can too easily get subsumed under a totalising allegorised reading. But at any rate, it seems entirely sure that Omar Khayyam expressed mystical and sincerely probing moments of spirituality in his verse.

Illustrated by Edward Gedde

Illustrated by Edward Gedde

Back to Edward FitzGerald much-heralded, much-maligned and most of all much-read translation…I would say that dismissing FitzGerald’s version on the grounds of its lack of faithfulness to Khayyam is a mistake. FitzGerald is in my opinion a poet in his own right, who translated a certain sensuality and power that may not be fully representative of his source text, but stands in its own right as poetry, rather than ordinary translation.

On another note, FitzGerald’s translation has elicited an enormous amount of illustration – so much that I think it merits a future post.

Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book

sei shonagon

In summer, it is the night. It is of course delightful when the moon is out, but no less so on dark nights when countless fireflies can be seen mingling in flight. One even feels charmed when just one or two pass by, giving off a gentle glow. Rainy nights, too, are delightful. – Source

Sei Shōnagon (c. 966-1017) was a Japanese lady who served under Empress Teishi in the late 10th to very early 11th century. Her father was a poet and scholar and Sei Shōnagon was intimately concerned with poetry, politeness, nature, court behaviour. Her Pillow Book is a compilation of poems, notes, observations, essays, etc. that concern all these topics and more. It is in what is known as the zuihitsu ( 随筆 ) style, that is a collection of commentaries in various forms that usually respond to the author’s surroundings and daily life. Perhaps a little like the Western commonplace book, although with more focus on the author’s diaristic voice than the collection of quotations, knowledge, etc. Or, as another blogger suggests, not unlike many modern day blogs!

sei shonagon 2

On a night when you’re waiting for someone to come, there’s a sudden gust of rain and something rattles in the wind, making your heart suddenly beat faster. – ‘Things that make your heart beat faster’, Source

The Pillow Book contains a number of lists such as things that should be large, things that should be short, things that are hateful, things that make the heart beat faster… I think this is my favourite aspect of the Pillow Book. The joy of the list should never be underestimated! It reminds me of Western medieval writers around the same time as Sei Shōnagon, who took equal joy in crafting lists of things like knowledge, theology and angels. Well, Sei Shōnagon is perhaps more interested in the observational; in lists of life’s minutiae, the peculiarities of her own existence and surroundings. But the idea of compiling a list of things that make the heart beat faster is, to me, a wonderful way of encapsulating a variety of small events into an overarching category that suddenly makes you appreciate those little things so much more.

Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai(菊池容斎)

Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai(菊池容斎)

Sei Shōnagon is known to have been rivals with the other great writer of the Heian court, Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji). It is often said that Sei Shōnagon is conceited, ‘bitchy’, even, in her Pillow Book. Without a doubt, she is no people-pleaser and not one to hold back her opinions (even if they might grate on modern ears – she was no fan of the commoner). But she was learned, witty and if she was sometimes harsh, well, she was a commentator – who doesn’t revel in pointing the finger at the irritations of court life?

‘On things that are hateful’ – A lover who is leaving at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and his paper. “I know I put them somewhere last night,” he says. Since it is pitch dark, he gropes about the room, bumping into the furniture and muttering, “Strange! Where on earth can they be?” Finally he discovers the objects. He thrusts the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and busily fans away with it. Only now is he ready to take his leave. What charmless behaviour! “Hateful” is an understatement. –  Source

The Tale of Murasaki

murasaki liza dalby

I’ve admired Liza Dalby’s work since I read her book Geisha when I was 16. I will admit that I haven’t yet read the Tale of Genji, but I decided to delve into Dalby’s Tale of Murasaki anyway in the hopes of getting a feel for the world of Genji and 10th/11th century Japan.

And this book definitely gave me a feel for it and more. Dalby tells the story of the court lady ‘Murasaki’ in the first person, chronicling her life in and out of court, her loves and family and her writing of what many people recognise as the world’s first novel.

yoshitoshi Murasaki

There is a certain vividness to the account that makes the reader yearn for the landscapes and fabrics, poetic courtships and court intrigues of Murasaki’s world. There are a few footnotes throughout the book, with interesting tidbits like the fact that in Japanese at this time, incense was described as being ‘heard’ not ‘smelled’ and that women inherited the family houses whereas men were expected to make their way through court ambitions in order to gain lodging. Personally, I would have liked more of these fascinating side-notes but there is still plenty in the story itself that signals great depth of research on Dalby’s part.

All in all, I very much enjoyed The Tale of Murasaki and if the plot lags in parts, this is redeemed by the attentiveness to detail and vividness of the atmosphere.

Leaders of the First Crusade: Godfrey of Bouillon

Godfrey of Bouillon, from a fresco painted by Giacomo Jaquerio in Saluzzo, northern Italy, in 1420 ca.

Godfrey of Bouillon, from a fresco painted by Giacomo Jaquerio in Saluzzo, northern Italy, in 1420 ca.

Godfrey of Bouillon (c. 1060 – 18 July 1100) was the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and one of the main leaders of the First Crusade. He was a second son, born in an area now France and then part of the Holy Roman Empire. When Urban II preached the crusade, Godfrey and his brothers, Eustace and Baldwin, decided to gather armies and march for the Holy Land.

Godfrey played minor but consistent roles in the battles of the First Crusade. He was present at the siege of Nicaea and the battle of Dorylaeum and at the capturing of Antioch. Meanwhile, Godfrey’s landless younger brother Baldwin was making a name for himself by becoming Count of Edessa.

Godfrey of Bouillon became a crusading legend when he was one of the first over the walls at the taking of Jerusalem in 1099.

Godfrey of Bouillon

Godfrey of Bouillon

He was offered the crown and according to the later historian William of Tyre, he refused to wear a crown of gold where Christ had worn a crown of thorns. Godfrey faced difficulties in his leadership at Jerusalem, first from the Fatimids of Egypt, whom he defeated, and then from Dagobert of Pisa.

Dagebert of Pisa sailing with the other crusade leader Bohemond

Dagobert of Pisa sailing with the other crusade leader Bohemond

Dagobert of Pisa had been chosen as patriarch of Jerusalem, effectively the church authority in the new Latin kingdoms. Dagobert pushed Godfrey to concede Jerusalem to his rule and there was a ceremony held on Easter, 1100, at which Godfrey allowed Dagobert to be his heir upon Godfrey’s death. Dagobert went campaigning with the other Crusader leader, Tancred (who was Bohemond of Antioch’s nephew) and unfortunately for the Patriarch, while he was gone Godfrey died. There are conflicting accounts of how Godfrey died, probably of some kind of illness, but his death prompted the knights of Jerusalem to offer the rulership to Baldwin, Godfrey’s younger brother, instead of Dagobert.

Stained glass window of Godfrey of Bouillon in the Belfry of Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.

Stained glass window of Godfrey of Bouillon in the Belfry of Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.

Baldwin would become the first King of Jerusalem, but Godfrey would long be remembered as a crusading hero, showing up in Dante’s Divine Comedy as a warrior of Mars and in one of Tasso’s works of crusading romance.

Japanese Bunjinga Painting: Kameda Bosai

南画 (nanga) or 文人画 (bunjinga) was a style of Japanese art that flourished during the Edo period. It is associated with literati elites who had a keen interest in Chinese styles of painting, even though Japan was in the sakoku (鎖国 ‘locked country’) period of seclusion from other countries.

Kameda Bōsai, from Kyochuzan ('Mountains of the Heart')

Kameda Bōsai, from Kyochuzan (Mountains of the Heart)

Kameda Bōsai ( 亀田鵬斎 ) lived from 1752–1826 and contributed a great deal to scholarly discourse on art and his book Mountains of the Heart is considered a classic work of woodblock art. I love the barely-there atmosphere of the pages above, the way that we know there is a river taking up most of the page, because there is a boat and there are reeds emerging from it, yet there is absolutely no painted presence to the river itself.

Kameda Bōsai book 2

The above pages from Mountains of the Heart give me such a sense of serenity. Again, there is very little there to suggest the vast expanse of the main scenic features, in this case the mountains. There is the faint, distant shading of mountain. And as is so typical of much East Asian art, the actual human figure is small, another element to a broader vision of nature. To me, the little fellow pottering over the bridge here makes me think of small crossings, little moments of liminality where one part of the landscape trickles into another and one morning saunters into another afternoon.

no time or need now,

to halt, to gaze, to see all.

the river knows me.