23 December 2016

The Word becomes flesh

What is wanted here is silence.

That the young woman is pregnant is suggested by her unlaced gown, shorter in front than in back. Her labor has begun, and her right hand both indicates her pregnancy and feels the movement of the contraction, while her other hand presses into her back to relieve the discomfort. She has moved deep within herself into silence.

The angels, mirror images, their colors inverted, are closing the tent to give her privacy. Inevitably these angels are described as pulling back the curtains to reveal her: this would be the convention, and innumerable putti pull back draperies to uncover lovers or other important events. But Piero is never conventional when he follows conventions, and an understanding of the young woman's posture and the way in which they shield her with their wings makes it clear that they are protecting her, giving her privacy.

This tent, though is even less conventional.

Exodus 25-26-27 describes the making of the tent of the Ark of the Covenant. Piero gives us an imperial tent of his day and here the red-dyed rams' skins and the gold of Exodus have become heavy red brocade woven with gold roses. Where Exodus constructs the tent of skins, Piero lines the young woman's enclosure with fur. The King James Version reads the skins as badger skins, but the word may actually refer to sealskins (there were and are seals in the eastern Mediterranean), and Piero's furs have that softness. So this young woman standing in the Tent of the Ark of the Covenant, flanked by two angels as was the Ark, becomes herself the Ark and the Covenant will be present among us this winter night in the protective quiet and warmth of the enclosing fur. 

The first chapter of the Gospel of John, which nearly every church will read tomorrow night at midnight or Sunday morning, says, "And the Word became Flesh and pitched his tent -- ἐσκήνωσεν --
among us." Translators make that say that he lived, or dwelt with us. But John meant what he wrote: the tent of the Ark of the Covenant was pitched in our midst, and Piero has taken John's words and translated them into fresco.

Piero always paints silence, whatever the images, the silence between notes, and the silence of this young woman about to give birth brings to mind a poem that ends:

She's crowning, someone says,
but there's no one royal here.
just me quite barefoot
greeting my barefoot child.

The poem is by Linda Pastan, from A Perfect Circle of Sun.
A larger version of the painting.

04 December 2016

Emperor or Sultan?

I have been exchanging notes with a Byzantine art historian who recently found this painting although she has never actually seen it. Fundamentally unknown, it was sold at Christie's in 1995 as a portrait of John VIII, and then disappeared into some collector's private world. Christie's dated it to the early 1500s, maybe as late as the 1520s. The few scholars who have mentioned it assign it to a school or follower of Gentile Bellini.

When I saw the picture, I immediately saw it as Mehmed II. Mehmed -- and later Suleiman the Magnificent -- were sometimes portrayed as Byzantines, which is, I think, shorthand for "the ruler in Constantinople."  

Here, for example is a woodcut of John VIII serving as a representation of Mehmed II in the 1493 Nuremburg Chronicle. 

She -- the art historian -- believes the painting is John VIII, and feels details closely resemble those of John in the Sinaii portrait: 

One problem with either identification is the late date of the portrait. Mehmed died in 1481, John in 1448. Was someone making a collection of Byzantine emperors or Ottoman sultans?

The main problem, though, is that the location of the portrait is unknown.  I am writing this entry on the off-chance that someone our there reading has seen the portrait and can give more information about it. Where is it? Who was the painter? Are there similar paintings out there? Would the collector make himself known to the art historian and allow her to see it?

You can write me at the e-mail address up at the right.

25 November 2016

Pray for the soul of Michelis Fantalouris

I have written before about Ag. Metamorphosis near Asine -- here and here. I am writing again because I want to call attention to Micheli Fantalouris -- that is his name in the third and fourth lines of the inscription in the church. 

This is the way the inscription looked when I first saw it in the 70s. Now some idiot has installed a glaring electric light in the lower part of it.

Michelis Fantalouris was a member of one of the very few Greek land-holding families that we know of from the Venetian occupation, and the only one where we actually know the precise piece of land -- the land which surrounds Ag. Metamorphosis. The family was involved in trade and owned a ship. (There is a reference for the family in footnote 43 here.) Probably not a very large ship. Down the hill from the church is a hidden cove, barely large enough for a 
grippo or a light galley. The inscription asks us to pray for the souls of Michelis Fantalouris and his children, and is dated 1570, thirty years into the Turkish occupation. I make the final bit of the inscription November 28, which would make this November 1569 in our calendar system.

No matter, Micheli paid for the little church to be frescoed again. Here are a couple of the 1569/70 frescos.  Several of them have been varnished over and photograph poorly. The painter was very fond of diagonal lines. 

This bit of fresco, though is different. Here the painter has preserved some of the previous fresco -- from about 1400.  This is at the top right, as soon as you enter the church. 

This detail shows a group of Westerners, Latins -- there is a small child at the left edge -- following the direction of a young man to look at the crucifix appearing in the sky. It seems to have been painted by a Greek, but the image is more Western.  I think it is of Franciscan influence, and have tried to get opinions on this, but without any luck. It is one of the very very few -- about four -- Western frescos I have found surviving in the Argolid. I would be so pleased to be proved wrong and shown that there are more.

 In 1569/70 Michelis Fantalouris was an older man. What is most remarkable is that he did not live in Nauplion, or out near Ag. Metamorphosis, but in Venice.  My friend Ersie Burke* has found him listed in the register for the scuole of S. Giorgio dei Greci in 1575. It appears that he continued his trading in Venice, was considered a worthy member of the Greek community, and so that he sent money back to Nauplion to have his family chapel refrescoed. From this entry in the scuole membership book,  it looks as if Michelis died in 1579.  

That is all there is to say about Michelis. Sathas, V. 8, 363-64, mentions the brothers Cosmas and Nicolò Fantalouris, and a woman, Cali,being provided Venetian jobs in 1542, but we don't know their relationship to Michelis. We don't know when Michelis went to Venice.

Pray for the soul of Michelis Fantalouris.  

Ersie Burke has an important book coming out soon from Brepols -- The Greeks of Venice, 1498-1600: Immigration, Settlement, and Integration.

01 March 2016

Sam and Argos

I was crossing Connecticut Avenue this afternoon behind a fluffy white table-dog, the kind a daughter of mine would call a “kick-me dog,” and I thought I should check to see if Homer had actually said "table-dog".  The charming Maltese whelp was a table dog.  Was I only remembering a translation?

You will recall that when Odysseus first returns to his house, the first living creature to greet him is his old dog Argos. Odysseus tears up, and says that clearly used to be a fine dog, not like those “table dogs”. Homer does say that: τραπεζῇες κΰνες. 

When my husband and I honeymooned in Paris in 1988, we took a barge trip from the north of the city down to the Seine. There was a table on the barge, surrounded by all the characters from Renoir's Boating Party (which lives two blocks from me), especially the young woman ignoring her date and talking baby-talk to her dog. I was enchanted with the living painting, as I had been enchanted the previous afternoon on the train through fields of living Monet's.

The first time I visited Ireland, in the mid-90s, I was taken to the farm of my daughter's in-laws. The first thing I really noticed as we drove up the hill to the house was a large pile of cattle manure with an old dog lying on top – it was an icy day. We parked beside the manure. I got out of the car, and the old dog staggered towards me. “Argos!” I gasped, burst into tears, and put my arms around him.

Inside the house was a table dog, a fluffy King Charles spaniel, Sam, who won prizes in dog shows. And this is where the story turns somewhat tragic.  A couple of years later, my son-in-law, Sean, was working on the farm with a tractor.  Sam ran under the tractor. Sean had to take his mother the news and the remains of Sam. 

The next weekend there was a family wedding. When my daughter and Sean arrived, the various children ran up crying out, "Sean, you killed Sam!"  Of course, he felt wretched. When they had lost interest and gone off, a ten-year old sidled up, not quite looking at Sean. "Sean, Sean! " he hissed.  "How flat was Sam?"