Wednesday, June 30, 2010

And Still Another One Pops Out of the Closet.

Pastor Tom Brock of the New Hope Lutheran Church in Minneapolis

A prominent anti-gay Lutheran pastor in Minnesota, who recently blamed a spate of tornadoes on gays, is exposed as a closet sister.

There is a lot of controversy over the way Tom Brock was outed. A reporter for a local gay paper, Lavender, infiltrated a Catholic group for gay men struggling with chastity called "Courage" and spotted Pastor Brock there confessing to strong erotic feelings for other men. This created some controversy within the gay community in the Twin Cities over breaking the confidentiality of a 12 step program.

I'm not buying it.

"Courage" is but a tiny step away from an ex-gay program. It's a program whose premise is not only self-loathing, but loathing others of your own kind. I don't support outing everybody. I think everyone is ultimately responsible for their own identity. If people want to stay locked up in their own self-loathing and deception, that's their business.

But, when someone who is one of us works actively against all the rest of us, then he's fair game to be publicly exposed for the toxic hypocrite that he is.

I wonder who will be next?


Our friend Dah-veed, a psychologist in Mexico, has a strong contrary opinion that is well worth reading in the comments thread of this post.

Monday, June 28, 2010

John Boone, 1959 - 2010

John Boone was an old friend of mine from the days when I worked at A Different Light Bookstore in New York. He was an assistant manager at the time, and was the one who hired me. We became good friends there, and remained so after I left, and after the store closed down. He died June 23rd from AIDS related causes.
John worked for Different Light for many years. It was one of the first, and then one of the last, gay-lesbian bookstores in New York. It died a long slow painful death, and John was there for it all. I was there for part of it. When I started working at the store, it was still a kind of quasi-community center with a cafe, author nights, and bad movie nights. We had a lot of the best authors come through there from Edmund White to Brad Gooch to John Waters. The poet Manny Xavier made his start at that store. We sold everything from very high literature to very low trash and loved it all. I made a lot of good friends at Different Light, some of whom I still keep up with. John was one of them.

I saw him last when he visited me in New York almost 3 years ago. He lived in Miami Beach at the time. I'm not sure where he was when he died. He lived in Hawaii, San Francisco, and Florida in the years since he moved out of New York. He was originally from upstate New York and lived in California for a long time as well as New York City. He was a regular every year in pearls at Wigstock when that still was happening, and at St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea before the Archdiocese cracked down on everything gay as well as happy.

I painted 2 portraits of John Boone from life in 2002. He owned one of them and I own the other. Here is the one I own. I photographed it myself in my studio last weekend. It is the only picture of any kind that I have of him. There must be a lot of other paintings of him out there. He worked for awhile as an artist's model, as well as a dancer and professional figure skater (so he told me). By his account, he was a favorite model for a few artists, and worked for them for many years. John was an artist himself, though I didn't see much of his work. I should point out that his blond hair at that time was as much a work of art as the painting.

We shared a taste for silly old fashioned things, and here are a few I put together to mark his passing.

Saint Dusty Springfield and Saint Eartha Kitt pray for him. May he rest with them and with all the Saints in Light.

John is happily foxtrotting with his ma now, but I'll always miss him.


John's brother Martin Boon sent this photograph.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Florence: From Craft to Art, Part 3

Italo-Byzantine Florence, continued

The largest surviving Italo-Byzantine panel painting (and probably the largest made) originally sat on the high altar of the church of Santa Trinita in Florence. Cimabue’s Maesta is 12 feet high. It dominates the Trecento galleries in the Uffizi museum, and must have presented quite a spectacle inside the church. We can only imagine its huge gilded presence looming in the darkness of Santa Trinita, sparkling in the candlelight.

Santa Trinita, Florence, ca. 1250 - 1260, modified late 14th century.

Cimabue, Maesta for Santa Trinita, ca 1280

It is an enormous and much more ambitious version of the Maesta, the Virgin and Child enthroned in majesty in heaven, pioneered by Coppo di Marcovaldo and by early Sienese painters such as Guido da Siena. Cimabue remains faithful to the original Byzantine prototypes and expands upon them, and not just in terms of size.
Cimabue turns the Maesta composition into a magnificent heavenly pageant, as though the Queen of Heaven and her Son majestically descend from heaven to the altar of Santa Trinita, bidden by the faithful. She stands out in vivid silhouette against the gold leaf background.

Cimabue, Maesta, detail

Cimabue, Maesta, detail

Her once blue mantle is now black. Blue was a difficult and expensive color to make. Most blues of the time were chemically unstable and turned greenish black with time. As in Coppo’s painting and in earlier Byzantine paintings, there are gold striations throughout her mantle. Cimabue makes them appear not as expressive pattern, but as highlights on the fabric. The Christ child that sat so fitfully upon His Mother’s lap in Coppo’s Maesta now sits more securely upon her knee. He looks less like a miniature man and a little more like a child. The angels in Coppo’s painting were a kind of symbolic afterthought. Here, eight angels in two almost symmetrical groups of 4 make a magnificent escort.

Cimabue, Maesta, detail

Their heads, halos, and wings form an almost musical downward sequence, emphasized by the gradations of rich colors on their wings. Coppo’s throne was an odd prop. Cimabue’s throne plays a crucial role in this picture. It is large and architectural. More striking, there are some indications of rudimentary perspective. The arms and the podium appear to recede back from us. Almost everything in the picture seems to turn inward toward the Virgin and Child. Cimabue, true to Byzantine tradition, goes just so far with perspective before he begins to subvert it. Only the lowest pair of angels appears to be standing on a kind of running-board on the throne. It is not clear at all what the other angels stand upon. The prophets improbably stand in a kind of open crypt under the throne.

Cimabue, Maesta, detail

The central two prophets stand in a kind of spatial ambiguity worthy of Cezanne or Picasso. Are they standing under an arched window, or is that part of the throne forming a kind of exedra? Cimabue implies both. Cimabue makes clear that this scene is not set on earth, and has little to do with our experiences of the world. Cimabue’s great panel set a standard and presented a challenge to the next generation of artists.

The most important and the largest work of Italo-Byzantine painting in Florence is the mosaic cycle in the cupola of the Florence Baptistery.

Florence Baptistery, 11th century

Florence Baptistery, mosaics in the dome, 13th century

This huge project was the work of several artists over decades of time. A Venetian mosaicist summoned to Florence may be responsible for the over-all design. Numerous artists executed it. It is possible that Coppo and Cimabue worked on it. It is a magnificently Byzantine interpretation of a very un-Byzantine subject, salvation history. Since the 9th century, the Byzantine formula for dome decoration in the Eastern Church was set in the stone of dogma. Christ Pantocrator, the Ruler of the Universe, always dominated the top center of the dome. Angels, Apostles, and saints appeared in their assigned ranks down the drum and the supporting arches of the dome.

Mosaics in the dome, Monastery Church at Daphni near Athens, 12th century

The Florence Baptistery dome ruled out this traditional format. The top of the Baptistery dome is an open occulus, like that of the Pantheon in Rome. Christ Pantocrator moves to one side of the dome and changes His role to Christ the Judge at the end of time. The Last Judgment spreads over the western three sides of the eight-sided dome.

The Last Judgment from the Florence Baptistery mosaics, west side.

Christ the Judge from the Florence Baptistery mosaics

A very Western hell scene from the Florence Baptistery mosaics

The remaining five sides tell a series of parallel stories in descending order. In the top are the stories of the Creation and Genesis. Below that is the story of Joseph. Beneath that is the Life of Christ, and finally at the bottom is the life of the city’s patron saint and the patron of the Baptistery, John the Baptist.

Narrative cycles from the Florence Baptistery mosaics. From bottom to top, the Life of John the Baptist, the Life of Christ, the Story of Joseph, and scenes from Genesis.

In true Western fashion, the episodes of each story had their concordances with other episodes in other stories. The panels in the narrative bands of the mosaic were very carefully organized for this purpose. Not only can we read the panels from left to right in narrative order, we can read them vertically. For example, along the bottom strip we see John the Baptist imprisoned. When we move upward, we see the theme of unjust punishment unfold before us. Above the imprisoned John, the Holy Family flees into exile. Above them, Joseph sits unjustly accused in jail with the Pharaoh’s baker and butler. And finally, Cain asks God if he is his brother’s keeper over the body of the innocent and murdered Abel.
These details become visible only after we begin to study the mosaic. At first sight, it is a huge and overwhelming image.

The dome of the Florence Baptistery.

We can only imagine how this must have appeared to the newly baptized coming up out of the water of the font. They would have seen a vision of the whole divine plan of salvation that seemed as big as the heavens.

Italo-Byzantine Siena

The story of Italo-Byzantine painting in Siena begins in Florence with another huge Maesta panel, the misnamed Rucellai Madonna. This painting has nothing to do with the Rucellai family. It stood on the altar of the chapel of the Confraternity of the Laudesi in the great Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The artist who made it was not Florentine, but Sienese, the founder of the whole Sienese painting tradition, Duccio.

Duccio, The Rucellai Madonna, ca. 1285

Duccio clearly had Cimabue’s great painting in mind. At first glance, it looks as traditional as Cimabue’s work with its very Byzantine looking Virgin and Child. Just as in Cimabue’s painting, there is an angel escort flanking a large elaborate throne. What is different is that the enthroned Virgin and Child appear to be sitting much more securely on a ground plane. The throne and her legs appear to sit at a slightly oblique angle to the picture plane. The angels all appear to be kneeling credibly on a ground plane, even when they are hovering above each other. The top angels hold up a very elaborate, and very Gothic, cloth of honor behind the Virgin. What is really un-Italo-Byzantine are Duccio’s rich florid colors, especially in the angels, salmon pink, lilac, about two or three different greens and blues.

Duccio was contemporary with Giotto, and the textbooks still cast him as the conservative alternative to Giotto. He was nothing of the sort. He certainly was not a revolutionary like Giotto, but he was not any conservative like Cimabue either. In his own way, he was very much an innovator. Duccio would create the brilliant hybrid of Byzantine and Gothic art that would characterize Sienese painting into the 15th century. Duccio would combine Byzantine hierarchies with Gothic splendor into one of the most effective narrative styles ever created.

Nowhere is this narrative mastery more clearly displayed than in Duccio’s greatest work, and the largest most ambitious panel painting cycle of the whole Trecento, the great Maesta altarpiece for the high altar of the cathedral of Siena.

Duccio, the Maesta altarpiece, 1308 - 1311, possible reconstruction of the front side facing the nave of Siena Cathedral.

Duccio, the Maesta Altarpiece, a reconstruction of the back, the side facing the choir.

Anonymous Sienese panel painting showing the presentation of an annual offering to the Virgin Mary. We see a glimpse of the Maesta in its original location in the cathedral in the background on the left.

Interior of Siena Cathedral today.

The Maesta survives in pieces. The bulk of it remains in Siena in the cathedral museum. The remainder is scattered in museums throughout the world. The altarpiece was removed in the 16th century when the cathedral’s high altar was relocated and rebuilt. The altarpiece was broken up in 1771 (never underestimate the destructive power of changes in taste).

The Maesta was not so much an altarpiece as a huge free-standing structure. The altar of Siena’s cathedral originally stood beneath the dome. The cathedral’s choir originally faced toward the dome in the center of the crossing. The Maesta was two sided. The front side facing the nave was the actual Maesta panel with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. Scenes from Christ’s life and Passion made up the back part facing the cathedral choir. It was a very Gothic structure with a lot of elaborately carved and gilded shrine-work and pinnacles. Perhaps the cathedral’s black and white marble stripes (reflecting Siena’s black and white flag) limited the available space for fresco painting, creating the need for so extensive a cycle of narrative panels.

The largest panel that originally faced into the nave, the Maesta proper, was the most innovative.

Duccio, Maesta, the surviving front panel.

So far as I know, this is the first time in Italian painting that the enthroned Virgin and Child were shown together with a throng of saints and angels in the same panel and sharing the same space. This is the beginning of a centuries long Italian (and eventually European) tradition of the composition type known as Sacra Conversazione. The gigantic group of the Virgin and Child dominates the center with a clear strong silhouette.

Duccio, Maesta, detail, the Enthroned Virgin and Child.

Her face unfortunately is a wreck, badly damaged in a botched cleaning in the 18th century. We get a better idea of what her face might have been like when we look at the heads of the flanking angels.

Duccio, detail from the Maesta, an angel.

Duccio made her throne even more clearly perspectival than the one in Cimabue’s huge panel. Not only do all the saints and angels face the center, the throne makes them face inward. The angel escort appears again, but now more attached to the throne and looking inward, even leaning in over the back of the throne. Siena’s patron saints kneel in the first row with Apostles and martyrs standing behind them.

Saints and Angels on the left side of the Maesta.

Saints and Angels on the left side

The back row is a large group of attending angels. Duccio gives the saints, and the rest of the altarpiece, rich brilliant colors ranging from scarlet to yellows to a wide variety of blues, greens, and violets, the colors of a spring meadow.
The Maesta is the earliest surviving altarpiece with painted panels on the base called a predella. Duccio may well have invented the predella in an earlier altarpiece that is now lost. This is an innovation that expands the narrative capacity of painted altarpieces, and that would spread throughout Italian and European painting very quickly. The predella panels, and the panels of the top peaks, front and back, were broken up and sold off. They can now be found in museums from Paris to Fort Worth. The central panels of the attic story on both sides are lost, and scholars can only speculate what they were. The narrative panels on the front of the Maesta told the life of the Virgin Mary. The panels on the predella told the story of Christ’s Incarnation beginning on the left with the Annunciation and ending on the right with the boy Christ teaching in the temple. The panels on the attic storey told the story of the Virgin’s death beginning on the left with the very rare subject, the Annunciation of the Virgin’s Death and ending with her burial on the right. Most scholars believe that the missing center panel showed the Assumption or the Coronation of the Virgin, or both.

The back of the Maesta facing the cathedral choir showed the narrative of Christ’s Passion broken up into 26 panels in the center with more on the predella and on the attic storey. The central Passion narrative remains in Siena, but the predella and attic panels are again scattered, though some remain in Siena. We see in these panels Duccio’s great gifts as a storyteller.

Duccio, Maesta, the surviving back panel of the Passion of Christ.

The Entrance into Jerusalem begins the Passion narrative with a tall panel that combines two panel measures. Christ and the Apostles arrive to a tumultuous welcome at the city gate.

The Entrance Into Jerusalem from Duccio's Maesta

People lean over the city walls and climb trees to get a better look. We can see through the gate one head peeking out an upper storey window. Christ and the Apostles appear to be ascending a steep hill into the city. Duccio does something here that the Italo-Byzantine style never did, apply actual experience to the telling of a story. Duccio would have had a number of occasions to watch grand processions into and out of the city of Siena. People certainly did lean out of windows, climb trees, lean over walls, and call out to each other to get a better view, as they do today (especially for the annual Palio). What is more, Duccio uses very local experiences. Christ and the Apostles climb a hill to enter Jerusalem. To this day, visitors must climb the slope of a hill to enter Siena, even from the railroad station. Duccio cast his own native city into the role of Jerusalem, locating the events of the Passion, not in ancient far away Jerusalem, but in the here and now. We inhabitants of a much more literal-minded age find this kind of creative anachronism to be unsettling. The inhabitants of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance did not share our scruples about historical accuracy. What mattered to them was not the history, but the story and its meaning, and its meaning for them.

The Crucifixion panel in the center is a splendid and original variation on Cimabue’s composition in Assisi.

The Crucifixion from Duccio's Maesta

Instead of Cimabue’s dying giant God-man, Duccio presents a more human Christ, the same size as both His friends and tormentors, collapsing on the thin cross in the angles of bending joints instead of the graceful sweeps of a rhythmic S curve. He dies in the company of the two thieves instead of alone. He still links heaven and earth. The grieving angels still flock to Him in an echo of Cimabue’s composition. The cross decisively divides the two groups of the crowd watching Him die, another variation on Cimabue, but more dramatic. His family and friends are on His right, and His tormentors are on His left (a foretaste of the Last Judgment). Duccio shows Mary swooning in grief, reflecting an anecdote common in popular preaching and devotional literature then current in Tuscany.

Toward a New Beginning

A third great Maesta painting appeared in Florence. This one was painted for the high altar of a church almost around the corner from Santa Trinita and Cimabue’s great panel, the church of Ognisanti or All Saints. The artist who painted it was Giotto.

Giotto, Maesta for the Church of Ognisanti, Florence, ca. 1310 - 1315

The giant Virgin and Child dominate the painting as they did the previous paintings. We have the same gold leaf and halos. But, this painting makes a decisive break with the immediate past. The Virgin and Child have mass and weight. They actually appear to sit upon the Gothic throne. What is more, we know exactly where everything and everyone is in relation to us. We know that the kneeling angels with vases of flowers are closest to us. We know that the back row of saints is furthest from us, and that everyone stands on the same ground plane. The gilded striations in the Virgin’s mantle in Coppo’s painting and in Cimabue’s painting are gone. We see the Virgin’s knees under the mantle described by light and dark. The same is true for the garments of the angels and saints. The angels’ wings that Cimabue turned into a splendid sequence of form and color are here minimized. The throne is far more insistently (and successfully) perspectival than anything that we’ve seen before. Solidity and actuality replace Cimabue’s and Duccio’s grace of form. For the first time with this subject, we are in doubt. Are we in heaven or are we on earth?

All of the art we’ve seen shows the glories of heaven. The inhabitants of all of these paintings and mosaics are the beautiful supernal citizens of the realms of everlasting day. This remains true even in the narrative panels of the painted crosses, the Baptistery mosaics, and Duccio’s Maesta. The stories of salvation history appear in these works of art not as they might have actually happened, nor as anyone might have experienced them, but as they are recounted in heaven in an eternal present tense. The gold halos and background, the insubstantial forms, even in Duccio’s paintings, prevent us from identifying too closely with the actors recounting events on the heavenly stage. This is not our world, nor any world we could ever enter, in these great paintings.

Giotto would turn the gaze of Italian painting from the heavens to earth and to its inhabitants.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Florence: From Craft to Art, Part 2

*Before I get started, a little note. I got so swept up in this particular topic that it went way beyond a single post. So I'll post what I've got so far, and finish it later in the following post. So Part 2 will be in 2 parts.

When I first visited Florence over 20 years ago, worshipers were not quite so thoroughly segregated from tourists as they are today in the city’s great churches. It was an odd and vaguely dismaying spectacle to watch the pious and elderly pass by major masterpieces of art to pray before some brightly colored plaster statue of the Virgin Mary with a halo of electric lights.

I suppose for them, the major masterpieces of art passed into the hands of tourists generations ago. In becoming transformed into museum spectacles, these great paintings and sculptures lost their religious meaning for the people who still used the church as a church. Today, we snicker at these images. I saw the Jesus-of-the-Sacred-Heart-with-bedroom-eyes all over Florence at one time, in just about every church on a side altar with racks of electric votive candles.

These images fail for us because we look at them aesthetically. But, these religious images were never intended to be regarded aesthetically. They were made to serve a function. That function is to assist people in their prayers.

We forget that those great masterpieces of art covering the walls of the great Florentine churches were originally made for the same purpose as the brightly colored picture of Padre Pio with La Madonna Santissima, to assist people in their prayers. And yet, their transformation into objects of aesthetic admiration began as soon as they were completed. Great mosaic and fresco cycles were made to assist and instruct the faithful at prayer, but their beauty glorified the church, the city, and brought distinction to the artist and to the patrons who paid for the whole work. An amazing and wondrous work of art perhaps dimly reflected God’s glory to the pious, but it really glorified the city that possessed it. The great work of art announced to the world the wealth, power, and ability of the city that owned it. Cities, congregations, patrons, and artists competed with one another, sought to outdo each other in making amazing things intended to last for ages. In Florence of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, these two purposes, religious function and civic glory, were not seen to be in conflict. God after all showed His continuing favor to Florence by blessing the city with wealth and with success upon success.

Italo-Byzantine Painting

Italian painting from the 12th to the 14th centuries was very conservative, deeply loyal to Byzantine art. The Byzantine Empire ruled Italy only briefly in the 6th century before being driven out by invading Lombards and rebelling Ostrogoths. The Italians remained deeply loyal for many centuries to its memory. The Italians associated Byzantine art and Byzantine culture with the memory of the Roman Empire, not Classical Rome, but Christian Rome, the Rome of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian.
The Venetians originally considered their state to be a kind of outpost of the Byzantine Empire. When they built their first great churches in the 11th century, they imported many Byzantine artists to work on them as architects, stonemasons, and mosaicists. Saint Mark’s in Venice, and the churches on the nearby island of Torcello were the first major works of Byzantine art made in Italy since the 6th century churches in Ravenna. The mosaics in Saint Mark’s have been heavily restored and modified, but the original mosaics survive in the churches in Torcello.

Cathedral of Torcello, near Venice, 11th century

Apse of Torcello Cathedral

Mosaic in the apse of Torcello Cathedral showing the Virgin Mary as Theotokos with the Apostles below, 12th century

. True to Byzantine liturgical requirements, the Blessed Virgin Mary dominates the apse half dome over the altar. Her role as Theotokos summons to mind the Incarnation and the mysteries of the Mass at the altar. Her solitary figure rises in a sea of reflected golden light. The mosaic decoration at Torcello adapts the Byzantine liturgical format to the Western basilican church.

Adapting Byzantine art to Western religious traditions was not easy or straightforward. The very formulaic liturgical art of Byzantium that emerged out of the 9th century Iconoclastic Controversy did not fit Western religious needs quite so perfectly. Eastern Orthodox liturgical regulations and their theological justifications were so complex that most Byzantine religious artists were in holy orders. By contrast, Western artists were almost all from the laity. Italian monks and other religious did not take up painting in significant numbers until the 15th century. Byzantine mosaic cycles are almost always organized around liturgical function, not narrative order. In Byzantine churches, the Theotokos usually occupies the half-dome over altars, as she does at Torcello, and as she does in the monastery church of Hosios Loukas in Greece half way between Athens and Delphi.

Mosaics in the apse of the monastery church of Hosios Loukas, 11th century.

Occupying the small dome right over the altar of Hosios Loukas is a mosaic of Pentecost. In narrative terms, this makes no sense, collapsing the distance between the Incarnation and Pentecost. The proximity of the two stories is liturgical, referring to the function of the altar and the theological nature of the Eucharist. Something else that strikes Western eyes as strange is the marginal location of the scene of the Crucifixion in Hosios Loukas.

Mosaic of the Crucifixion in the narthex of Hosios Loukas.

Narthex of Hosios Loukas, the Crucifixion mosaic above is on the wall to the right just beyond the mosaic of Christ over the door.

It is nowhere in the Naos or sanctuary of the church proper. It is in the Narthex. For Western Christians, this is the central image of religious life. In this Byzantine mosaic cycle, it is an episode for the instruction of catechumens and novices confined to the narthex.

The Tuscan Painted Cross

Painted cross, 14th century, hanging over the altar of San Francesco in Arezzo (the frescoes in the background are by Piero della Francesca, 15th century)

We think of the painted crosses that appeared in churches all over central Italy as Byzantine, and stylistically they are. But liturgically they are not. These crosses are very Western. They were painted to hang right over the altar, to refer to the altar and explain its sacraments. However, instead of using imagery organized for liturgical instruction, the painted cross is imagery out of a narrative, the narrative of the Life of Christ and of Salvation History. Western Christianity orients itself primarily toward salvation. The Western Christian art that emerged in the 9th century is narrative art, telling the stories of salvation. The painted crosses come right out of that very Latin tradition. The Tuscan crosses are a Latin adaptation of Greek Christian form. The most famous of all the Tuscan painted crosses is the San Damiano Crucifix painted sometime in the 12th century.

San Damiano Cross, 12th century, Assisi

Circle of Giotto, The Cross of San Damiano Speaking to St. Francis, fresco, Upper Church, Assisi, ca. 1290s

This was the cross that supposedly spoke to Saint Francis, commanding him to restore the Church. True to Byzantine form and spirit, Christ stands alive and triumphant in the center of this vivid cross. Like the Byzantine Pantocrator in a dome mosaic, Christ commands despite being nailed to the cross. His followers surround Him in the center (presumably these are the faithful who remained with Him at His death). He ascends into heaven in the top panel. There is a large population of angels. The emphasis of this cross is not on His suffering, but on his triumphant Godhead. Storytelling is kept to a minimum.

These crosses began to change in form and spirit in the 13th century with the arrival of Romanesque and Gothic influences
in addition to continuing influences from the Byzantine realms.

Cross from Pisa, ca. 1200

Christ suffering on the Cross is a surprisingly recent invention. The first great examples of the Crucifix that we are familiar with appear in Germany in the 10th century. Their influence, together with that of the mendicant preachers, met the growing need for images of a suffering and sympathetic Christ. Narrative content begins to appear on these crosses, usually the events of Christ’s Passion. A very fine example from about 1200 is this cross from Pisa. Christ no long stands triumphant on the cross, immune to mortal suffering. He now begins to hang from the cross. The head droops, the arms bend, and the eyes close in death or in suffering. The nailed feet appear to hang instead of stand. Small narrative panels surround the central figure. On the left are three scenes from the Passion, all creations of popular preaching. We see under Christ’s right arm the Descent from the Cross, the Lamentation below that, and the Entombment below that. On the right are scenes from the Resurrection: The Three Women at the Tomb just under Christ’s left arm, the appearance at Emmaus under that, and Christ Appearing to the Disciples under that. At the bottom of the cross is Christ opening Hell. At the top of the cross appears to be Christ of the Last Judgment with archangels. Gold leaf surrounds all of the figures. On a practical level, the gold leaf makes the imagery visible in a dark church, putting them into vivid silhouette. On another level, the gold leaf puts all of these events, the whole narrative, into the eternal present tense of Heaven. Many of these crosses stood on rood screens (called tramezzi or ponti in Italy), or they hung directly over altars. Many of these crosses still hang over altars in churches and chapels today. They call attention to the altar, and show the meaning of what takes place there.

Giunta da Pisano, Crucifix in San Domenico, Bologna, ca. 1250

Italo-Byzantine Rome

The Popes of 13th century Rome, such as Innocent III and Nicholas IV, initiated major campaigns to restore the city’s great though aging and dilapidated churches. Artists in Rome spent much of their careers restoring once immense and now lost Early Christian mosaic cycles in great churches such as St. Peter’s, the Lateran, and Saint Paul’s. Byzantine craftsmen were very much in demand as master mosaicists to restore ancient mosaics and to train Italian artists in the craft.
Sometimes, these artists were commissioned to replace mosaics that were thought damaged beyond repair, or more likely, simply too old-fashioned. Such was the case with the great apse mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore. Pope Nicholas IV ordered the ancient original replaced, and gave the task to Jacopo Torriti.

Jacopo Torriti, apse mosaic, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, ca. 1294

Torriti’s great mosaic is a magnificent hybrid of Byzantine form and some very un-Byzantine subject matter. This is the most important mosaic in the church visible from almost everywhere inside. Instead of the Theotokos required by Eastern Orthodoxy, we have a very Western image of salvation. Mary, the first Christian, receives the crown of glory at Christ’s right hand, an image of the reward that awaits all the faithful who die in grace. Christ and the Virgin sit together on the same throne in the middle of a great blue aureole filled with stars. While the forms of the Virgin and Christ are very Byzantine with the formalized drapery and flattened chiaroscuro, the figure composition is very French Gothic, right off the tympana of any number of French cathedrals. The twining pattern of acanthus is very Roman, specifically Early Christian Rome. If we look carefully, we can see all kinds of birds and other creatures inhabiting its branches. The most truly Byzantine scenes are those below showing the Nativity and the Dormition.

Pietro Cavallini, who the 15th century Florentine master sculptor Ghiberti refers to as “the most noble master,” created a much more subtle hybrid style whose monumentality would influence other Italian painters such as Cimabue, Duccio, and especially Giotto. Very little of Cavallini’s work survives, but what is left is striking. He was commissioned to do a series of narrative panels of the life of the Virgin just below an older apse mosaic in the church of Santa Maria Trastevere (“Across the Tiber”) in Rome.

Mosaics in Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome, the apse mosaic is from the 12th century. Pietro Cavallini made the mosaic panels of the Life of the Virgin beneath the apse mosaic in the 1290s.

He remains very loyal to the early Christian prototypes that he spent much of his life restoring, as we can see in the mosaic of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

Pietro Cavallini, The Presentation in the Temple, mosaic in Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome, ca. 1290s.

It is a grave, simple composition focusing on a Roman ciborium where Simeon takes the Christ Child the left of the altar. Joseph with the offering of doves repeats Simeon’s gesture. What is new is a sense of space and volume in the rudimentary perspective of the stage-prop architecture. We can really see this in the very painterly treatment of the drapery. Instead of reducing drapery folds to flat pattern, Cavallini makes them describe the solid bodies underneath with the most subtle gradations of color. The figures are even more genuinely architectural and solid than the stage prop buildings they move amongst. They are built up out of spheres and cylinders beneath the very fluid drapery.

This painterly effect appears even more dramatically in Cavallini’s one surviving fresco, a fragment of a once very large Last Judgment that filled the west wall of the nearby church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

Pietro Cavallini, Last Judgment (fragment), fresco, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome, ca. 1290s

Pietro Cavallini, Apostles from the Last Judgement

Pietro Cavallini, Apostles from The Last Judgment.

Pietro Cavallini, head of an Apostle from the Last Judgment.

Pietro Cavallini, angels from The Last Judgment

Pietro Cavallini, head of an angel from The Last Judgement.

All that remains is the Christ the Judge enthroned with angels and enthroned Apostles flanking Him. Chiaroscuro is the use of light and dark to describe three-dimensional form on a flat surface. Byzantine artists go to ingenious lengths to defeat that spatial quality of light and dark. Cavalini stops fighting it, and instead embraces that spatial aspect of chiaroscuro. He turns the thrones of the Apostles at an angle facing inward further enhancing the spatial quality of the picture. Gradations of light and color describe solid monumental forms underneath flowing drapery. Cavalini’s Apostles and angels have a heroic grandeur and simplicity of form that looks forward to Giotto, and eventually to Masaccio and Piero della Francesca.

Italo-Byzantine Florence

Examples of Byzantine art, like this 13th century panel painting, continued to find their way into Italy and to profoundly influence Italian painters.

13th century Byzantine Icon

Among them is the first great named Florentine painter, Coppo di Marcovaldo. Since so much of his surviving work is in Siena, and in cities once allied with Siena (such as Orvieto), some people speculate that Coppo was taken prisoner in the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. Indeed, he was working at that time, and it is entirely possible that he may have fought in the battle as a soldier in the Florentine militia. However, it is more likely that he was commissioned by patrons in these cities and traveled there to do the work. Coppo takes the Byzantine panel format and uses it on a grand scale, such as the seven foot high Madonna and Child in Orvieto in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi.

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Maesta, Santa Maria dei Servi, Orvieto, ca. 1265

In contrast to the Byzantine prototypes, Coppo’s Madonna has a kind of brittle almost expressionist emotional quality. Instead of the easy transitions of form, and self-possession of Byzantine art, Coppo’s forms are mostly angular and seem to take on a life of their own independent of describing anything. This is especially true in the gold striations in the Madonna’s blue robes. Coppo’s Christ child follows the Byzantine prototypes very closely, but much with much more vitality. He sits much less securely on His Mother’s lap. She regards us with a melancholy beyond what the prototypes require. The indented halo continues that kind of nervous radiance that we see in the gilded striations of the robe. Coppo’s large Madonna and Child is the earliest of a type of Italo-Byzantine composition called a Maesta, the Virgin and Child in majesty enthroned in heaven with attendant saints and angels. Two angels attend the Virgin behind the throne in Coppo’s painting.

Coppo’s nervous emotionalism becomes even more pronounced and astonishing in a painted cross now in San Gimignano.

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Crucifixion, ca. 1250, Pinacoteca, San Gimignano

Medieval art tends to reduce forms it cannot quite comprehend, like those of the human body, to pattern. Coppo takes that medieval pattern and makes it expressive of pain and agony. As in the Servite Madonna in Orvieto, forms take on an expressive life of their own, especially those of the hair and in Christ’s face.

Time has not been kind to the work of Cenni di Pepi, better known as Cimabue, a nickname in old Florentine dialect meaning “ox-head.” His great painted cross that once stood on the tramezzo of Santa Croce in Florence was severely damaged in the 1966 flood. Some of his frescoes in the ceiling vaults of the Upper Church of San Francesco in Assisi vanished forever in the disastrous 1997 earthquake.
Vasari began his Lives of the Great Italian Painters and Sculptors with Cimabue. He considered Cimabue’s career to be the beginning of the grand progress of Florentine (and thus Italian) art toward the High Renaissance summit. Cimabue was not a beginning, but an end. Cimabue was the last great master of the centuries long Italo-Byzantine style. He was one of the great conservatives of art, breathing new life into traditional formats. His work combines the expressive emotionalism of Coppo with the grandeur of form created in Rome. Even in its now ruined state, the Santa Croce cross has a tragic emotionalism expressed through abstract form that comes out of Coppo.

Cimabue, Painted Cross from Santa Croce, Florence, ca. 1285 (as the cross appeared before the 1966 flood)

Cimabue's Santa Croce Cross in its present state after the 1966 flood and after restoration.

Christ’s whole body now has the emotional force of the head in Coppo’s cross. Cimabue makes the body of Christ into a large sagging S shape against the hard geometry of the cross. Cimabue’s crucifix has some of the painterliness and subtle gradations of tone found in Cavallini’s work. Cimabue gives his cross a grandeur of form beyond both of those artists. Cimabue’s monumental sense of form universalizes Coppo’s emotionalism into something that stands for all tragedy and all time.

We can see this same tragic grandeur again in another splendid ruin of a once great painting, Cimabue’s fresco of the Crucifixion in the Upper Church in Assisi.

Cimabue's frescoes in the apse of the Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi

Cimabue, Crucifixion, Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi, ca. 1280

Photo-negative of Cimabue's Assisi Crucifixion.

It is part of a large cycle of paintings in the apse of the Upper Church. It is a wreck. Vasari, writing in the 16th century, described it as barely legible. Cimabue used a kind of chemically unstable lead white, apparently for its brightness. Over time, the lead oxidized and blackened. Meanwhile, the colors of the shadows faded creating a kind of photo-negative effect.
His vision of the Crucifixion is violent and very grand. There is violence on earth and violent emotion in heaven. The giant figure of the dying Christ links both. The large sagging S shape of Christ against the hard geometry of the cross is even more pronounced in this painting. On Christ’s right, His friend’s and followers grieve. Mary Magadalen reaches out toward Him in vain. To Christ’s left, the crowd mocks and jeers Him. Raised fists of mockery ironically echo Mary Magdalen’s desperate gesture. In heaven, angels swarm toward the center in a composition that beautifully continues the reach of Christ’s out-stretched arms. Though for us, this painting sadly is a ruin, it once influenced generations of later artists. We will see its reverberations through almost two centuries of painting.

Here is Cimabue’s version of the Assumption of the Virgin from the same Assisi cycle.

Cimabue, Assumption of the Virgin, Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi, ca. 1280

Even in it’s ruined state, this is still a magnificent and moving picture. It’s a composition very similar to Torriti’s apse mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, but much more concentrated and dramatic. Christ, and the recently deceased Virgin sit together and embrace on a rainbow within a single mandorla as they are both borne heavenward by symmetrical groups of angels. The formality of the larger composition puts the emotional tenderness of the embracing Mother and Son into sharp relief.

To be continued …