Sassetta’s Heretic

Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta, The Burning of a Heretic, tempera and gold leaf on wood panel, 24.6 x 38.7 cm, 1423-c. 1426, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta, The Burning of a Heretic, tempera and gold leaf on wood panel, 24.6 x 38.7 cm, 1423-c. 1426, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta’s Burning of a Heretic lives in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and I have never seen it in the flesh. I have, however, spent a lot of time admiring its image. Reproductions of paintings have always been important sources of inspiration for me, and now with so many institutions joining the open access movement and making high quality digital images available to anyone via the web, even more so.

sassetta-horseman-detail

Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta, The Burning of a Heretic, detail (horseman)

One of my favorite aspects of European painting in the early fifteenth century is how groupings of objects, figures, and elements of the landscape create clusters of form that become very abstract at times. Part of this is due to the overlapping of figures, for example, that serves as a mechanism for a sort of flattened suggestion of perspective. This is evident in much Northern European painting from the early Renaissance as well as Italian examples like Sassetta’s Sienese masterpiece. These visual clusters create new form and thus the potential for new meaning. I particularly like how the horseman seen from the rear on the left becomes almost unrecognizable as a figure.

The other soldiers on horse are the only figures to break the horizon with its cut-out like mountains and occasional tree. The curvy edge of those hills keep the people and most of the action embedded below, with the exception of what appears to be a lone demon swooping down from above. The flags of the horsemen to the right of center pierce the top edge of the panel, making a convenient formal divide in the picture.

 

Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta, The Burning of a Heretic, detail (priests)

Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta, The Burning of a Heretic, detail (priests)

The columnar priests in the right foreground are equal parts human and architecture, and they are the only figures with their backs turned to the burning man.

Somehow we are elevated but close by as we look on what should be a very gruesome (though the flat expressions of the faces in the crowd make everything seem rather casual) scene. The unfortunate heretic looks to the sky, and his is the most expressive face in the painting. He is resolute and calm. Together with the bundled twigs, the flames consuming him, and the faint spirals of smoke, the heretic takes on new form and is transcendent. Meanwhile, the golden-clad stoker remains faceless.

Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta, The Burning of a Heretic, detail (heretic)

Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta, The Burning of a Heretic, detail (heretic)


 

 

 

 

 

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Sutro Baths

 

A view of the Sutro Baths from above at Lands End, San Francisco, CA

A view of the Sutro Baths from above at Lands End, San Francisco, CA

The Sutro Baths are relatively young for ruins. They were destroyed in a fire in 1966, and since then have been a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. On a recent trip to San Francisco, we walked the trails on the cliffs above at Lands End.

View of the rocky coast and the Golden Gate Bridge from the cliff trails at Lands End

View of the rocky coast and the Golden Gate Bridge from the cliff trails at Lands End

The views from the trail are stunning, and the walk through the woods and down to the beach is pleasant and not too strenuous. Barring a couple of vertigo inducing moments at the highest points where there is little tree cover, it was easy going.

The beach cliffs at Lands End near the baths

The beach cliffs at Lands End near the baths

From the beaches below, the views of the cliffs are sublime, and yet the jagged curves of the shoreline give the space an enclosed feeling. It can almost feel small when you are standing at sea level.

The cave at Sutro Baths

The cave at Sutro Baths

View through the crevice inside the cave

View through the crevice inside the cave

Just to the right of the ruins is a cave that once housed the pump for the baths. It’s a short walk through to the other side which stops at the edge of the rocky shore. Halfway in, there is a small overlook where you can watch the sea crashing through a sharp crevice, and the sound it makes is thunderous.

The baths with the Cliff House Restaurant in the background

The baths with the Cliff House Restaurant in the background

The old walls of the bath house are relatively low and have a somewhat labyrinthine feeling. I couldn’t help thinking that the place was a bit haunted…maybe not, but it was easy to confuse the wind and the crashing of the waves with what the laughter and splashing of the bathers might have sounded like. Above and to the left of the baths is the Cliff House restaurant where we had drinks after the hike.

The “Shoot” at Sutro Baths c. 1898

The “Shoot” at Sutro Baths c. 1898


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Claude’s Sermon

Claude Lorrain  (1600 - 1682), The Sermon on the Mount, oil on canvas, 67 1/2 x 102 1/4 in. (171.5 x 259.7 cm), ca. 1656, The Frick Collection, New York

Claude Lorrain (1600 – 1682), The Sermon on the Mount, oil on canvas, 67 1/2 x 102 1/4 in. (171.5 x 259.7 cm), ca. 1656, The Frick Collection, New York

The mount, of course, is much more important in Claude’s painting than the sermon. The people, the sheep, and the narrative itself are merely props to bring attention to the shadowy edifice that divides the landscape behind it and blocks the sun.

 

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Monochord

Robert FluddA single stringed instrument used to scientifically measure pitched tones, the monochord was also considered by some to be an important alchemical tool. The 16th and 17th century paracelsian physician Robert Fludd (1574–1637) made use of what he called his mundane monochord to express not only his theories of music but also his esoteric ideas about divine cosmic harmonies.

Robert Fludd’s Monochord from 1617, engraving by Kaspar Rötel

Robert Fludd’s Monochord from 1617, engraving by Kaspar Rötel

Robert Fludd’s Monochord from 1624, engraving by Kaspar Rötel

Robert Fludd’s Monochord from 1624, engraving by Kaspar Rötel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An exhibition titled High Matter, Dark Language: The Philosophy of Robert Fludd was organized in 1984 at the Wellcome Library in London. The catalog for the exhibition states:

Fludd used the monochord mostly to depict the musical intervals and numerical
proportions, but he also went further than this and integrated other relationships such as
parts of the human body or the stars into the framework of the musical instrument… It is clear enough that Fludd meant to present in this way an ensemble of harmonies that was shown in its completest form in the Monochordum mundi. But he was never affected by the difference which exists for us between the harmony of an instrument and the symbolism of all the other harmonies.

Titlepage of Robert Fludd's "Utriusque cosmi maioris scilice, engraving by T. de Bry, 1617

Titlepage of Robert Fludd’s “Utriusque cosmi maioris scilice, engraving by T. de Bry, 1617

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Atkinson Grimshaw

Atkinson GrimshawBorn to a modest family in Leeds, John Atkinson Grimshaw (September 6, 1836 – October 13, 1893) left his railway job at twenty-four, against the wishes of his parents, to become a full-time painter. His early works, beginning about 1861, were highly detailed landscapes and still life paintings that show a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence. The paintings from this period, particularly the landscapes, were frequently exhibited and brought Grimshaw fast success. According to Alexander Robertson, who organized an exhibition of Grimshaw’s work in Leeds in 1979 and also  authored a monograph, “Grimshaw’s early success in these years has been seriously underrated, partly because, until recently, the 1860s paintings were relatively unknown.”

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Autumn Glory: The Old Mill, oil on canvas,  87.6 x 62.2 cm, 1869, Leeds Museums and Galleries, Leeds, UK

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Autumn Glory: The Old Mill, oil on canvas, 87.6 x 62.2 cm, 1869, Leeds Museums and Galleries, Leeds, UK

By 1868, he had begun to develop what are now referred to as his “Moonlights.” These paintings and later nighttime scenes of urban neighborhoods, often with lone figures cast in eerie glow and shadow, became Grimshaw’s most well-remembered works.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, At The Park Gate, oil on canvas,  51 × 61 cm, 1878, Private Collection

John Atkinson Grimshaw, At The Park Gate, oil on canvas, 51 × 61 cm, 1878, Private Collection

John Atkinson Grimshaw, November, oil on canvas,  76.2 × 62.9 cm, 1879, Private Collection

John Atkinson Grimshaw, November, oil on canvas, 76.2 × 62.9 cm, 1879, Private Collection

Atkinson Grimshaw, as he would eventually come to sign his paintings, was a popular artist during his career, but remained a mystery for many years, because most of his paintings were tucked away in private collections. More recently, however, there has been a renewed interest in his work, due in part to Robertson’s Leeds exhibition. In 2011 a retrospective exhibition was held at Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate.

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Sylvanus Griswold Morley: Spy Among the Ruins

Sylvanus Griswold Morley

Sylvanus Griswold Morley

Sylvanus Griswold Morley (b. 1883) was an American archaeologist and pre-Columbian Mayan scholar. Some of his most important work included excavations of Chichen Itza on behalf of the Carnegie Institution and the study and publication of Mayan inscriptions. What is less known about Morley, is that he worked as a spy for the United States during World War I. Some time after his death, it became known that he had been employed by the Office of Naval Intelligence to track German and anti-U.S. Activities in Mexico. His cover as an archaeologist being a legitimate one, however, and despite new discoveries and re-evaluations of his work, his scholarly legacy remains intact. The following is an excerpt from his 1915 book, An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs:

…there is encountered at the very outset in the study of these elements a condition which renders progress slow and results uncertain. In Egyptian texts of any given period the simple phonetic elements or signs are unchanging under all conditions of composition. Like the letters of our own alphabet, they never vary and may be recognized as unfailingly. On the other hand, in Maya texts each glyph is in itself a finished picture, dependent on no other for its meaning, and consequently the various elements entering into it undergo very considerable modifications in order that the resulting composite character may not only be a balanced and harmonious design, but also may exactly fill its allotted space. All such modifications probably in no way affect the meaning of the element thus mutilated.

Normal-form and head-variant glyphs, showing retention of essential element in each.

Normal-form and head-variant glyphs, showing retention of essential element in each.

Though Morley was an important figure in the study of Mayan culture and language, it seems that he devoted more time to his covert activities than to his archaeological research during the period of the Great War. During that time, it came to light that others in the field were also involved in espionage, and the practice of spying under the guise of science and exploration was, of course, controversial. In 1919, the well known anthropologist, Franz Boas, published a letter of protest in The Nation, stating:

…A person, however, who uses science as a cover for political spying, who demeans himself to pose before a foreign government as an investigator and asks for assistance in his alleged researches in order to carry on, under this cloak, his political machinations, prostitutes science in an unpardonable way and forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist.

Much of Morley’s work and his publications on the Maya are now outdated, however he is still highly regarded for his important restoration work on Mayan sites like Chichen Itza, as well as for initiating research programs for the Carnegie Institution for Science. He is remembered favorably as a voice for the Mayan people and culture. Sylvanus Griswold Morley died in 1948 at the age of 65 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

From the title page of An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs by Sylvanus Griswold Morley

From the title page of An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs by Sylvanus Griswold Morley

 

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The Vats

Two friends wandering the English countryside happen upon the inexplicable…

 

The Vats
by Walter de la Mare
1923

Many years ago now—in that once upon a time which is the memory of the imagination rather than of the workaday mind, I went walking with a friend. Of what passed before we set out I have nothing but the vaguest recollection. All I remember is that it was early morning, that we were happy to be in one another’s company, that there were bright green boughs overhead amongst which the birds floated and sang, and that the early dews still burned in their crystal in the sun.

We were taking our way almost at haphazard across country: there was now grass, now the faintly sparkling flinty dust of an English road, underfoot. With remarkably few humans to be seen, we trudged on, turning our eyes ever and again to glance laughingly, questioningly, or perplexedly at one another’s, then slanting them once more on the blue-canopied countryside. It was spring, in the month of May, I think, and we were talking of Time.

Michael Maier & Johann Theodor de Bry, Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 36, copper engraving on paper, 9.5 x 10.4 cm, 1687, Deutsche Fotothek, Dresden

Michael Maier & Johann Theodor de Bry, Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 36, copper engraving on paper, 9.5 x 10.4 cm, 1617, Deutsche Fotothek, Dresden

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Adriaen van Stalbemt

Portrait of Adriaen van Stalbemt, Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), oil on panel, 7.75 × 6.5 in (19.7 × 16.5 cm), Boughton House, Kettering, Northamptonshire

Portrait of Adriaen van Stalbemt, Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), oil on panel, 7.75 × 6.5 in (19.7 × 16.5 cm), Boughton House, Kettering, Northamptonshire

 

 

 

Like Gillis van Coninxloo (1544 – 1607) and David Vinckboons (1576 – 1632), Flemish Baroque painter Adriaen van Stalbemt (1580 – 1662) invented dark natural structures that add a psychological weight to his paintings. Sunlight might here and there pierce the shadowy edifices or make visible a nearby village, but the action was almost always in the woods.

Adriaen van Stalbemt, Mountainous landscape, oil on panel, 29.5 × w 47 cm (11.6 x 18.5 in), 1600 - 1640, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Adriaen van Stalbemt, Mountainous landscape, oil on panel, 29.5 × w 47 cm (11.6 x 18.5 in), 1600 – 1640, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Adriaen van Stalbemt, Christ preaching at the Sea of Galilee, oil on panel, 52.7 × 84.6 cm (20.7 × 33.3 in), early to mid 1600’s?, private collection

Adriaen van Stalbemt, Christ preaching at the Sea of Galilee, oil on panel, 52.7 × 84.6 cm (20.7 × 33.3 in), early to mid 1600’s?, private collection

Adriaen van Stalbemt, Landscape with Fables, oil on panel,  129 x 169 cm (50.8 x 66.5 in), 1620, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

Adriaen van Stalbemt, Landscape with Fables, oil on panel, 129 x 169 cm (50.8 x 66.5 in), 1620, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

Van Stalbemt lived in Antwerp, London, and Middleburg and was a well-liked painter during his long career. By some accounts he was still painting until close to the time of his death at eighty-two.

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The Savery Dodo

RSsavery-dodo

 

 

 

 

Dutch Golden Age painter Roelandt Savery (1576–1639) liked to paint the Dodo. As a matter of fact his iconic depiction from 1626 is possibly the most famous image of the bird, and he is known to have completed at least nine more. Many illustrations of the Dodo since have been based on his representations.

Roelandt Savery, Edwards' Dodo (presented to the British Museum by George Edwards in 1759), oil on canvas, 82 x 102 inches, Natural History Museum, London

Roelandt Savery, Edwards’ Dodo (presented to the British Museum by George Edwards in 1759), oil on canvas, 82 x 102 inches, 1626, Natural History Museum, London

Roelandt Savery, Landscape with Birds, oil on panel, Height: 42 cm (16.5 in). Width: 57 cm (22.4 in), 1628, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Roelandt Savery, Landscape with Birds, oil on panel, Height: 42 cm (16.5 in). Width: 57 cm (22.4 in), 1628, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 
 

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