I am honored to report that I’ve received a surprise invitation to cover the Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s red carpet celebration of the Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversationsopening gala this Monday, May 7. (Sidebar: Golly—thank you!—could a girl even possibly dream of a more extraordinary stroke of luck in the tedious midst of Final Exams Week?) Stay tuned to my @bunnyBISOUS Twitter and Instagram accounts for live reporting of arrivals; on Monday morning I will hop to an exhibition press preview and will thereafter report from the gala benefit red carpet, which will also be videostreamed from 6:30-8:30 pm online here. Feel free to tweet me any questions, comments, best-dressed picks, and the like while I interview guests! In the meantime, be sure to to pick up the exquisitely rendered exhibition catalogue [seen above] by Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton (The Costume Institute’s Curator in Charge and Curator, respectively) featuring a thought-provoking forward by Judith Thurman and new photography by David Sims and Toby McFarlan Pond under the creative direction of my hero, Katie Grand.
If truth be told, as a reluctantly jaded New Yorker, I only fully realized the deep impact of taking in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s masterworks while on an art history field trip with my university classmates, some of whom had never been to the Met beforehand. Perceiving the juxtaposition of some of my Met-neophyte friends privately reveling in the history and glory of such masterpieces for the first time within the intensely public galleries teeming with tourists uncloaked just how blasé I had become and prompted a much-needed flashback to one of my first wide-eyed and agog Met excursions. In the summer of 1994, I vividly recall how thrilled and inspired I was by the beauty and magnitude of the museum’s colossal architecture—although admittedly, everything looks enormous when you are scarcely four feet tall—along with the illustrious works therein and the institution’s historic import. After returning to campus, I darted home and dug up the dusty exhibition brochures from my ’94 milestone Met jaunt with my grandfather—a dog-eared Dalí: The Early Years*, an inexplicably weather-beaten Picasso and the Weeping Women: The Years of Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar, The Annenberg Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces filled with my elementary school-aged scribbles, and a worn American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915 volume—and was not only overcome with familial gratitude for being exposed to such tours de force at such an early age, but by a palpable urgency to reevaluate my priorities. At twenty-two, how could I possibly be so inured to such feats of cultural triumph? I suppose we live for moments of insight like these—whether triggered through art, music, personal intuition, or otherwise—as they are fundamental to our consciousness and acknowledgment of life and its awesome possibilities. [*Below: Dalí’s The Accommodations of Desire (1929)]
This experience sparked an exploration of sorts into the psychology of art and its impact upon the role of emotion in art, the essence of aesthetic experience, and the semiotic nature of psychological processes. I reckon the effectiveness of art forms—i.e., their capability to provoke aesthetic effects—outlasts their original social-historical milieux, as evidenced by Classical art’s transcendent power to affect new spectators whose lives are not necessarily germane to the social constructs of antiquity. Given that the intent of these artistic works is to somehow arouse onlookers, our analyses of their symbols revisit the original emotions associated with them, designating them as ideal objects for social psychologists’ scrutiny bearing in mind that these artworks survive as stimuli systems and semiotic entities with specified motives that incorporate the historical dimensions of the unconscious. Moreover, in an indirect or veiled manner, art (especially that of religious ilk) demonstrates the inner conflicts that shape human psychological sentience; art is not merely the dissemination of sentiments spawned elsewhere, but a conduit of emotions that might not befit expression somewhere else, for it is the origin itself of intentions and aspirations otherwise unperceived. But I digress, majorly…
If you have an opportunity to view Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations exhibition in person at the Met from May 10 through August 19, 2012, I bid you to perhaps wander outside the bounds of the ever-popular (and deservingly so) Costume Institute and European Wings. So, below are three saints—Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, Saint Agatha, and Saint Bridget of Sweden—along with a bit of their histories (yes, another odd hobbyhorse of mine) and hints on how you can find them perched in various sites throughout the museum based on their characteristic symbols.
Sainthood comprises a glorious, spellbinding company of men, women, and children who devoted their existence on earth to Jesus Christ’s teachings and who are henceforth invoked as co-heirs and benefactors of Christ. Saints have ascended from every imaginable walk of life—from poor peasants to poverty-stricken slum dwellers to affluent noble aristocrats—to the extent that former thieves and assassins join the saintly ranks alongside pious men and women who lived virtuous, God-fearing lives since their adolescence. Following the Fourth Crusade and the plunder of Constantinople by Christian armies in 1204, precious Byzantine objects materialized onto Italian soil and profoundly impacted the art composed there, specifically the gleaming gold-ground panels profuse throughout and subsequent to the thirteenth century—as exquisitely exemplified by the 1470 tempura on wood atop gold-ground portrayals of Saints Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara, Agatha, and Margaret by Giovanni di Paolo [above]. The era’s art was primarily devised for and catered towards the theologically oriented benefactors upon whose gratification artists were dependent. Byzantium’s influence on these art motifs was far-reaching and included, for example, the starburst-like ornaments at the crown of saints’ heads emblematic of Mary’s virginity before, during, and after the nativity of Christ (Meagher, 2010). As demonstrated in Garafalo’s masterworks Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Reviving the Birds and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Reviving a Child (both circa 1530), the dawn of the fourteenth-century begot Gothic elements that originally emerged in twelfth-century France into Italian painting, including: architectural motifs (viz., pointed arches and interior design elements), a fastidious discretion of and delicacy toward detail, an amplification of naturalism, and an emphasis on fluidity. The wooden panel functioned as the principal support for portable paintings of saints and holy themes; often crafted from native Italian poplar trees, a gesso of powdered calcium sulfate applied atop a piece of linen covering the wood sufficiently concealed mars and allocated adequate surfaces for preliminary drawings. After gold-leafing the exterior, medieval artists portrayed divine figures in the purest and most brilliant hues possible by virtue of tempura paints prepared by mixing ground pigments with egg yolks. The period’s altarpieces in monasteries, churches, convents, private homes, and cathedrals were formed by uniting independently painted panels, most often with the Madonna and Child as the cynosure, flanked by the predella—a strip of smaller panels—which narrated episodes from the lives of saints and apostles as distinguished by their characteristic attributes, often incorporating the vanquished instruments of their martyrdom (which accordingly no longer wielded any obstructive powers). The biographies of saints were of utmost importance; not only did these histories provide artists with telltale symbols to facilitate spectators’ ready recognition of any divine figures depicted, but they moreover prompted churchgoers’ study and emulation of their triumphs and sacred deeds.
The chronicles that Garafalo (1476-1559) chose to depict in Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Reviving a Child and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Reviving the Birds [above] portray just two of over three hundred miracles attributed to Saint Nicholas (1245-1306). These two oil on canvass paintings (transferred from wood) were coupled with two other paintings consigned to oblivion—since replaced with approximate replicas in the 18th century—to form the predella adorning the Capella Muzzarelli, a chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas. Garafalo’s paintings portray feats performed by Nicholas as recorded by Pietro di Monterrubiano in 1326, well before Nicholas’s canonization in 1446 (Bayer, 2003). The diptych found its improbable way to the Metropolitan Museum thanks to American financier J.P. Morgan’s 1917 philanthropic quest to counter the Cappala Muzzarelli’s suppression during the Napoleonic period whence the chapel’s elements and altarpieces were scattered astray. Garafalo carefully selected these scenes to symbolize the awe-inspiring grace of Saint Nicholas, who conducted an austere, self-disciplined lifestyle with the Eremiti: a band of strict and scrupulous Augustinians in the Marchigian city of Tolentino. The narratives of Garafalo’s predella demonstrate both the exceptionality of Nicholas’s spirituality and his wondrous powers as a thaumaturge.
In Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Reviving a Child, Garafalo presents Nicholas—in the black-belted habit donned by Augustinians—intervening on behalf of a family whose child perished prior to his baptism. Garofalo’s lifelong aesthetic held deep classical roots and was profoundly inspired by Raphael (1483-1520); by the same token, his affinity with Venetian painting is evident in the light-filled landscape to the left of the revived child. Garafalo’s depiction of Nicholas as an interceder propagates worshipers’ innermost hopes that saints might also perform miracles for them—especially wondrous interventions effectuated as a release from the perils of nature—including the all-too-common bygone phenomenon of (unbaptized) infant mortality.
In Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Reviving the Birds, Nicholas is dressed in white as an elderly bedridden man of poor health. As a steadfast vegetarian, Nicholas is seen meditating on how best to graciously decline a dish of cooked partridges sent by one of his followers. Miraculously, when Nicholas waves a sign of the cross above the plate, the birds fly away and liberate him from displeasing the offerer. This scene is reflective of Nicholas’s formidable reputation for asceticism along with his civility and reluctance to offend anyone. The classicism of the setting is manifest by the many naturalistic details: an airy (albeit sober) room unostentatiously furnished with a window seat, simple stools, a table topped with glassware, and a sturdy wooden-carved bed.
Saint Agatha (231-251), patron saint of the royal city of Catania, Sicily, perished whilst imprisoned during the Christian persecution ordered by King Decius (ruled 249-251), who had murdered his predecessor, Philip, in a blatant (secular) power-play. As a means of feigning a rationalization for Philip’s murder on the basis of his Christianity (and cozen his dominion), Decius decreed a tyrannical empire-wide Christian oppression and thereafter ordained Quintianus as King of Sicily. Quintianus soon fell head-over-heels in love with Agatha, a magnificent beauty of noble birth who had committed her virginity to Christ; upon adducing imperial edicts of Christian persecution, Agatha rebuffed the Sicilian king’s attempts to seize her family wealth as well as his sexual propositions. The lecherous provost Quintianus duly subjected Agatha to torturous indignities: consigning her to a brothel at the house of Aphrodisia (where she upheld the dedication of her virginity for Christ), ordering the hacking of her breasts (which were swiftly and miraculously healed by Saint Peter), scourged her to burning coals and fire, and ultimately sent her to prison to die. Renaissance artists generally depicted the aura surrounding the Cult of Agatha without ambiguity by focusing on her martyrdom, symbolized by her shorn breasts placed atop a platter (well-nigh resembling loaves of bread) and pincers or shears, the instruments of her martyrization. Through Giovanni di Paolo’s conscious choice (circa 1470) of showcasing fresh blood dripping from the shears utilized to lop her breasts, Agatha’s devout endurance through pain is plainly revealed (Burke, 2006). Such steadfast tidings were especially apt given that di Paolo’s Saint Agatha panel [third from left, above] comprised one of his many lateral pilasters within the framework of a polyptych altarpiece painted for a convent of nuns. Indeed, according to acclaimed English art historian and Italian Renaissance scholar Sir John Pope-Hennessy (1913-1994), “Few experiences in Italian painting are more exciting than to follow Giovanni di Paolo as he plunges, like Alice, through the looking-glass which separates reality from super-realism to explore the resources of a mystical, and therefore of a partially subconscious, world” (Pope-Hennessy, 1947). Saint Agatha’s dominion as the patron saint of fire emanates from her eventual death by flaming coals, whereupon she was beseeched against fire following her burial, especially during the eruptions of Mount Etna (Cheney, 1996). As the patron saint of nurses, it is unsurprising that Agatha came to be invoked against breast diseases in particular.
Through odd historical interpretations, Saint Agatha is even considered the protector of Alpine guides, bell-founders, and miners—the inverted breasts emblematic of the forms of hills and bells—and she likewise became the patron saint of bakers, insomuch as her plated breasts have long been misconstrued as loaves of bread, effectuating her feast day praxis of blessing bread. As one of the church’s first female martyrs, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) promoted Agatha to sainthood and inaugurated February 5th as her feast day. The legal confrontation between the pompous Quintianus and the shabbily-bedecked Agatha showcased Agatha not only as a righteous martyr, but as an articulate guardian of her faith; her intellect and eloquence throughout the trial evinced her cultural and erudite training as a nobil donna. (By dint of Emperor Trajan’s 98-117 promotion of women’s education and the corollary Roman laws presiding over aristocratic female students, Agatha, of noble birthright, benefitted from schooling in Catania that nurtured classical education and sophisticated reasoning.) As a response to Quintianus’s insistence that Agatha submit and sacrifice to pagan gods, during the legal proceedings she sharp-wittingly compared his wife to Venus and Quintianus to Jupiter—a blasphemous and repugnant remark for a pagan believer. When Agatha legally proved her innocence and Quintianus’s criminality, the jury ruled in her favor and the Catanians sought the hanging of Quintianus; he drowned in a nearby river while attempting to escape his residents, withal. The legacy of their trial is routinely conjured when instructing the female faithful: Saint Agatha is not only a prime model of spiritual strength, virtue, and the merits of noble education, but an archetype of how to overcome political swindling and persevere through carnal brutality.
Just as Saint Agatha was born into nobility but opted to live as a pauper, Saint Bridget (1303-1373) was also raised amongst enormous wealth and royalty. Her father, Birger Persson, was one of the wealthiest landowners in Sweden and served as governor and provincial judge of Uppland; furthermore her mother, Ingeborg Bengtsdotter, was closely related to the royal family. As a seven-year-old of deep spirituality and heartfelt precocity, Bridget experienced the first of a lifelong concatenation of revelations: wherein the Virgin Mary placed a crowd upon young Bridget’s head. Early in her youth following the death of her mother (circa 1315), Bridget was sent to live with her aunt in Ostergotland, where she received a meticulous and demanding religious education (Kirsch, 1907). Despite her convent-bound intentions, in 1316 thirteen-year-old Bridget was united in marriage with eighteen-year-old Ulf Gudmarsson; their symbiotic, joyful marriage—marked by Bridget’s subtle sway over her pious and noble husband and their parentage of eight children (among them, Saint Catherine of Sweden)—was extolled throughout Scandinavia for their joint charitable efforts and service on the court of King Magnus Eriksson and Queen Blanka, over whom Bridget also maintained considerable influence. Upon Bridget’s widowhood following Ulf’s rapid decline after the couple’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestella in 1344, the revelations that weighed heavily upon her youth materialized once again, albeit with ensuing frequency and definitive clarity. Bridget dedicated her life to religious asceticism and theologian undertakings and in 1346, as per the thrust of her revelations, King Magnus and Queen Blanka left the State demesne of Vadstena to Bridget for the construction of a convent. Bridget trekked to Rome to confirm the Rule of her new religious congregation, the Brigittines; she subsequently settled in Italy (save for periodic pilgrimages to the Holy Land and elsewhere) in the pursuit of a pious and altruistic existence for the remainder of her lifetime. Pope Urban V confirmed the Briggitines’ rule in 1370 and contemplated Bridget’s chastising appeals for the Holy See to be reinstated in Rome (instead of Avignon, France). This small marble relief [above], Saint Bridget of Sweden Receiving the Rule of her Order (1459) by Agostino di Duccio (1418-1481), depicts a sphinx at the side of a clerically garbed Bridget, shown joining right hands with a youthful Christ beholding a scroll in his left hand bearing the rules of Bridget’s order, in accord with her published mystic visions. These six hundred revelations during her widowhood (translated by her confessor Petrus Oli of Alvastra and her teacher Mattias from Linkoping into a Latin book first printed in 1492) stirred considerable controversy amidst her devout contemporaries: among Agatha’s critiques of kings and governments, her most contentious political visions necessitated the Avignon-based Pope return posthaste to Rome. According to di Duccio’s commission for the predella of the altar of San Lorenzo in San Domenico, Perugia (dismantled by 1482), his conjuring of the sphinx—customarily appropriated for the throne of Madonna in her symbolic role as Sedes Sapientia stemming from her ties to Athena-Minerva as the goddess of wisdom—visually encapsulates how Christ endowed Bridget’s order with a similar prudence and sagacity (Hayum, 2006) (Cohen, 2008). A year subsequent to her death, Bridget’s bodily remains were transported to the Brigittine monastery at Vadstena; she was swiftly canonized in 1391 by Boniface IX and pronounced patron saint of Sweden. After centuries of lobbying by the Birgitta nuns in Rome, in 1999 Pope John Paul II appointed Saint Bridget as one of the patrons of Europe.
[Above: The Adoration of the Christ Child (1515) by a follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar, who depicted Christ’s birth in accord with Saint Bridget of Sweden’s vision experienced during her pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1372 wherein a “great and ineffable light” emanating from the Child illuminated a young Virgin with flowing hair and singing angels, which entirely eclipsed the candlelight held by Joseph.]
The remarkable histories of saints provide humanity with shining exemplars of virtue: which, on the strength of art world maestros, are adeptly conveyed by their unique scriptural interpretations and ensuing artistic incarnations (and our mere glimpses upon these impressive renderings). By virtue of Garafalo, di Paolo, and di Duccio’s virtuosity, Saint Nicholas of Tolentino’s miracles provide us with assurance in the face of adversity, Saint Agatha’s dignified indefatigability endows us with strong feminine principles worth emulating, and Saint Bridget of Sweden’s self-reliance imparts a targeted code of confidence by which the meek can aim to abide. The medieval grounds for fostering religious art found a steadfast champion in Pope Gregory the Great, who reconsecrated a fifth-century Arian basilica to Agatha in the Subura district of Rome and who keenly supported the Cult of Saint Agatha; a letter from Pope Hadrian I (772-795) to Charlemagne ordered that this church, S. Agata dei Goti, be adorned with mosaics and frescos. It is through Pope Hadrian’s acclaimed letters to Bishop Serenus of Marseilles that we are now acquainted with the origins of Gregory’s predilection for religious images and narratives on the basis of their pedagogical value. Pope Gregory’s philosophy serves as the classical Western precedent for religious art: that imagery not be suppressed “so that the illiterate will at least read by looking at the walls. It is one thing to adore images and another to learn the story represented by the image what one must adore” (Ewald, 1891) (Minge, 1849).
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