Saturday, May 26, 2018

Simple and Beautiful

So interesting that all the different colors chosen by Amish women all go together in such beautiful harmony.

Also see: Amish Communities Now in 28 States

Saturday, May 19, 2018

In Praise of Hands by Henri Focillon 1

Henri Focillon (1881-1943) was an eminent French art historian and professor, who fled Nazi-occupied France to the United States, where he taught at Yale University. In 1934, he published a book of essays titled The Life of Forms in Art.

He concluded this volume with an essay titled "In Praise of Hands." In its opening section, Focillon notes that "all great artists have paid close attention to the study of hands, they have sensed the peculiar power that lies in them." In recognition of this, this post, composed of experts from Focillon's essay, is illustrated with the studies of hands by the German painter Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), of which his study of hands in prayer is the most famous.

Praying Hands

Perhaps in 1934 Focillon had a premonition of the degree to which we would lose the use of our hands in much of our daily lives, for other than typing or tapping, or of the increasing replacement of manual human labor with the prescribed performance of robots, or the extreme mechanization of agriculture that has practically removed the human hand from the soil. So far, in the plastic arts, the hands have not been replaced. The hands of the artist remain intrinsic to the creation of the work of art, to a far greater extent than in industry or the activities of daily life.

Boy's Hands

The hand, says Focillon, "is, like the higher forms of life, highly original and highly differentiated. Jointed on its delicate hinges, the wrist has a structure of many small bones. From it five skeletal branches, each with its system of nerves and ligaments, run beneath the skin, thence they fan out into five separate fingers. Each of them, articulated on three knuckles, has its own aptitude and its own mind." The hand has remarkable flexibility of motion and of purpose--it can hold, stiffen, be supple, or make a fist that is as hard as a rock.

As if to address the increasingly "virtual world" that we inhabit, where our perception is divorced from physical reality and the natural world, Focillon notes:
"Sight slips over the surface of the universe. The hand knows that an object has physical bulk, that it is smooth or rough, that it is not soldered to heaven or earth from which it appears to be inseparable. The hand's action defines the cavity of space and the fullness of the objects that occupy it. Surface, volume, density, and weight are not optical phenomena. Man first learned about them between his fingers and in the hollow of his palm. He does not measure space with his eyes, but with his hands and feet. The sense of touch fills nature with mysterious forces. Without it, nature is like the pleasant landscapes of the magic lantern, slight, flat, and chimerical. ...

"Without hands there is no geometry, for we need straight lines and circles to speculate on the properties of extension. ... Man's hands set before his eyes the evidence of variable numbers, greater or smaller, according to the folding and unfolding of his fingers. ...
Did not the hand, moreover, set number in order, being a number itself and thus an instrument for counting and a master of rhythm?"
"For touch is at the very beginning of Creation. Adam was molded of clay, like a statue. In Romanesque iconography, God does not breathe on the globe of the world to send it off into the ether. He sets it in place by laying his hand upon it." 
The hand makes possible a relationship with objects--tools--with vast potentials for experimentation, Focillon indicates.
"... Between hand and implement begins an association that will endure forever. One communicates to the other its living warmth, and continually affects it. The new implement is never 'finished.' A harmony must be established between it and the fingers that hold it, an accord born of gradual possession, of delicate and complicated gestures, of reciprocal habits and even of a certain wear and tear. Now the inert instrument becomes alive. To this association no material lends itself better than wood, which, even when mutilated by and shaped to the arts of man, maintains in another form the original suppleness and flexibility that characterized it when growing in the forest. ...  Contact and usage humanized the inert object... Anyone who has not known men who live by their hands cannot understand the strength of these hidden relationships, the positive effects of this association in which are found friendship, respect, the daily communion of work, the instinct and pride of ownership, and on the highest plane, the concern for experimentation."

Durer Self-Portrait, Hand, and Pillow
"When one realizes that the quality of a tone or of a value depends not only on the way in which it is made, but also in the way in which it is set down, then one understands that the god in five persons [the senses] manifests itself everywhere. Such will be the future of the hands, until the day when artists paint by machine, as with airbrush. Then at least the cruel inertia of the photograph will be attained by a handless eye, repelling our sympathy even while attracting it, a marvel of light, but a passive monster. Photography is like the art of another planet, where music might be a mere graph of sonorities, and ideas might be exchanged without words, by wavelengths. Even when the photograph represents crowds of people, it is the image of solitude, because the hand never intervenes to spread over it the warmth and flow of human life."

Christ Among the Doctors (detail of hands) by Albrecht Durer

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Albrecht Durer's Lion

I am wondering if this remarkable drawing of a lion by the great German artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was an inspiration for C.S. Lewis' children's classic, The Chronicles of Narnia

A gentle lion: Is this what Aslan looks like?
In his essay, "It All Began With a Picture,"  C. S. Lewis informs us that the Chronicles of Narnia actually began with an image of a faun carrying parcels in a snowy wood. "At first I had very little idea how the story would go," he relates. "But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time [maybe he had seen and was remembering Durer's lion!].  Apart from that, I don't know where the Lion came from or why he came. But once he was there, he pulled the whole story together, and soon he pulled the six other Narnian stories in after him." 
Surely Durer's drawing of this lion did inspire the artist's great engraving of Saint Jerome in His Study. Here is the lion sleeping in the foreground as Saint Jerome translates the Bible at his desk in the background.  
Sleeping next to the dog--"the peace of God that passeth all understanding" 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Master of Mary of Burgundy's Charming Book of Hours

The Book of Hours in question was created for Engelbert II of Nassau (1451-1504) of the Duchy of Burgundy. The name of the author remains unknown to this day, but  the same hand also produced a Book of Hours for Mary of Burgundy, and so the illuminator bears the name The Master of Mary of Burgundy.

I have a kind of replica of this book, as published by George Braziller, Inc., of New York in 1970. It is the same size of the actual Book of Hours for Engelbert II now held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England: 4 inches wide by 5 1/2 inches in height. It's a pocket book, that you literally hold in your pocket and then pull out to read at the appointed time for prayers. The book begins with the calendar of the year ,so that Engelbert can check which saint is honored on this day.

The month of October in calendar of the Book of Hours. 

This October page and the writing in the book were not created by the Master of Mary of Burgundy but by two calligraphers. All of the pages by the calligraphers contain whimsical scroll work, as seen in the page on the right above, and birds. The birds fly in and out, like little angel prompters and heralds. Here the birds are piecing together Engelbert of Nassau's coat of arms--just as the birds design and sew Cinderella's first ball gown in the Disney production of Cinderella!

Then follows a prayer to the Holy Face (Saint Veronica's veil) and prayers to the Virgin, which includes the page below.

This page ends the prayer to the Virgin and shows the oat of arms of Philip the Fair and of his family.  Pages done in this mode were created by the Master of Mary of Burgundy. 

Next is a prayer to Saint Sebastian, a prayer to Saint Anthony Abbot, a prayer to Saint Christopher, prayers to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and prayers to Saint Barbara--all with a painting from the life of the saint surrounded by a flower-filled margin. These are the work of the Master of Mary of Burgundy, although the afore-mentioned calligraphers supply the text.

Then we proceed to the prayers of the Hours of the Cross for both Matins and Lauds.

But what is life without comedy in the face of such tragedy? The book abruptly switches topic from the Hours of the Cross to...a falconer who unleashes his falcon and his greyhound to hunt down and bring to his lady a beautiful magical bird. The story runs for 18 pages, with the angel prompter birds flying about to guide the falconer and guide us through the story. With this insertion, Engelbert II of Nassau could appear to be piously praying with his Book of Hours while actually reading a medieval comic book!

The falconer begins his chase to bring the magical bird to his lady. 

At the conclusion of this story, we resume the prayers for the Hours of the Cross for Prime, Terce, Terce Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. Most of these pages are beautifully illustrated by the Master of Mary of Burgundy, with flowers painted in the borders of the holy picture painted with such accuracy as to suggest that actual flowers had been strewn on the page. 

Next comes the Hours of the Virgin. beginning with the Annunciation, with a border of peacock feathers signifying Engelbert of Nassau II. 

The Annunciation embellished with peacock feathers. 

The painting of the Annunciation on the page is only 3 inches by 1 7/8 inches, yet the Master of Mary of Burgundy has managed to create an entire architectural space within this tiny boundary and created   exquisite facial expressions on both the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. 

Toward the end of the Book of Hours of the Virgin are these remarkable pages, a trompe l'oeil of crockery of identifiable types set within painted niches. The placement of crockery within niches is a trompe l'oeil technique that goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, as Ms. Mastai and others document. In this painting, the crockery is meant to show the sacramental offerings to the Christ child.

Toward the end of the Book of Hours of the Virgin are these remarkable pages, a trompe l'oeil of crockery within niches. 

The Master of Mary of Burgundy was a skilled practitioner of trompe l'oeil, as his paintings of flowers, insects, and butterflies in this Book of Hours show. My interest in him was piqued when I saw a page of a book that he had painted that had a beautiful flower with the stem painted as if it had been woven through the page itself. I saw this page in black and white in Illusion in Art, Trompe l'Oeil: A History of Pictorial Illusionism by M. L. d'Otrange Mastai but have not been able to find it online.  This painting is a triumph of trompe l'oeil, because it seems so real and the sizing of the flower for the page is perfect. Thus, the text is lovingly surrounded by a reverent offering of completely life-like flowers, a butterfly, and an insect.

The Prayers to the Virgin are followed in the Book of Hours by the Seven Penitential Psalms, which include this beautiful illustration for Psalm 38, where David confronts the giant Goliath. The emotional confrontation of David and Goliath, along with the details and perspective background, a display the Master of Mary of Burgundy's skill. The borders show his ability to paint flowers--columbines and pinks--in an elegantly realistic way. 

Illustration for the penitential Psalm 38.

Then the Book of Hours ends with a Litany and the Office of the Dead. That is the official book ends, but not the real book. We are treated to another cartooned story--the Sequence of the Grotesque Tournament, which begins with the lady preparing the monkey for battle and then the unicorn, and her forces go into battle and win the day. And then the Book of Hours of Engelbert II of Nassau truly ends.

The monkey is prepared for battle.

Then the unicorn. 

The forces race to meet the enemy.

They meet the enemy, and the unicorn and his monkey squires leave the battle triumphant. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018


It almost looks like the stream in the garden at the mid-right is made of white stones or there is a snow path there and as if there are specks of left-over snow on the leaves of the ground cover. But the pure white here and shining on the lake is all sun. 

Same sort of impression created by the sun shining on leaves in a very shady spot. The leaves just shine back. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

"Wise Men Invented It"

"For one who wishes a clever theory, the invention of painting belongs to the gods--witness on earth all the design with which the Seasons paint the meadows, and the manifestations we see in the heavens. But for one who is merely seeking the origin of art, imitation is an invention most ancient and most akin to nature; and wise men invented it, calling it now painting, now plastic art."

Little did the Greek writer Philostratus the Elder know when he wrote these words in the third century A.D. in his treatise on painting called Imagines, that the origins of art would take us back more than 60,000 years.

That is the conclusion of scientists from a redating of the prehistoric drawings in the La Pesiaga cave in Spain. The scientists calculated the age of tiny samples of the sediment on top of the drawings that they meticulously scraped off, with the startling discovery that the paintings had been done 64,000 years ago—a time when Neanderthals were the only hominids inhabiting Western Europe, the scientists said.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, "The analysis revealed that the paintings predated early modern humans in the region by at least 20,000 years, leaving the scientists with no alternative but to attribute the artwork to the Neanderthals who made this area their home. ... 'We conclude that this cave art has to be made by Neanderthals,' said physicist Dirk Hoffmann at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, who led researchers from 15 centers in Germany, the U.K., Portugal and Spain. They published their findings in the journals Science and Science Advances."

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Spring Snow

At last we got real winter snow, albeit on the second day of spring. I was relieved and grateful to see it. Buds are already out though and bravely withstood it all.

Bearing the burden and ...

Peeking through