Beautiful, anonymous death

Were they holy relics, or disgusting displays of hypocrisy?
A relic from the Holy Catacombs of Pancratius, originally from Prince Abbey of St. Gall, courtesy of the Historical Museum of St. Gallen, photo by David Bu.

The jeweled skeletons and ‘mummified’ corpses of catacomb saints represent one of the creepiest passages in the long history of the Catholic Church.

The Protestant Reformation unleashed the Beeldenstorm, a wave of iconoclasm across Europe and England in the 16th century. The result was the destruction of significant cultural works, including many more Northern European Renaissance paintings than were ever saved.
Altar of St. Almachus, a ‘hermit martyred in Rome.’ He was moved in 1788 from the monastery of St. Anna in Bregenz and reconstituted by the nuns of Bonlanden in 1910, courtesy Bene 16 on wiki.
In England, 90% of religious art was destroyed in the years following the Reformation. The percentages are probably similar in Germany and the Low Countries. The purge extended equally to music and literature.
The Beeldenstormalso suppressed another uniquely Catholic tradition, the display and veneration of body parts of former saints. Consider the earthly remains of St. Thomas Becket, canonized a mere two years after his death in 1170. A stone cover was placed over his tomb, with two holes through which pilgrims could kiss his casket. Shortly thereafter, his bones were moved to an elaborate, gold-plated and bejeweled shrine behind the high altar in Trinity Chapel. The anniversary of that move became a major holiday in its own right. Becket’s bones attracted countless pilgrims for three hundred years, until Henry VIII ordered the obliteration of the tomb, the bones, and even his name.
In addition to lying in state in Canterbury, St. Thomas Becket’s body parts were distributed through Europe in Limoges caskets like this. About 45 examples remain. This one courtesy of the British Museum.
The Counter-Reformationbrought a hunger for all that missing iconography. In response, the Vatican sent out bespoke saints to the faithful. Hundreds of thousands of anonymous skeletons were exhumed from the Christian catacombs beneath Rome and sent to previously-Protestant areas. Their recipients assumed they were early Christian martyrs. 
Some came already decorated from Rome. In other cases, donors lavished thousands of dollars of jewels and gold on them. Some have jewels wired to their bones, some have wax features covering their skulls, some wear silk ‘faces’ or crocheted skin. Finishing a catacomb saint could take up to five years of painstaking, skilled work.
The jeweled skeleton of St. Benedictus, from Paul Koudounaris’ Heavenly Bodies (see below).
They were then proudly displayed in their new churches. They were focal points of veneration and symbols of the resurgent Church flexing its power.
Although the identities—even the gender—of the skeletons were unknown, it is possible they were those of real Christian martyrs. The early Christians preferred burial to the prevailing Roman practice of cremation. Martyrs were laid to rest under the city in secret. After Christianity was decriminalized in the 4th century, the practice of catacomb burial slowly tapered off. The tombs were forgotten. In 1578, they were spectacularly and conveniently rediscovered, just in time to send dead saints out to reclaim Europe from the Protestants.
An x-ray of ‘St. Aurelius’ reveals missing parts. It’s impossible to tell the gender of the skeleton. Courtesy Stefan Alves, from Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto, by Joana Palmeirao.  
The arrival of these remains was usually a source of great excitement for local parishes. It offered a tangible connection between the martyrs and their own recent persecutions.
St. Aurelius’ sandal reveals that he was a pre-fab job assembled in Rome. Courtesy Joana Palmeirão, 2015, Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto.
And then came the modern age and embarrassment about what everyone knew were trumped-up saints. Today only a handful of the catacomb saints remain. It has only been since the publication of Paul Koudounaris’ Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs that they’ve regained any kind of attention at all.

The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting is still among the masterpieces of western art that move me most.

The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, 1567, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel’s birth was unrecorded, but it is thought to have been around 1525-30 in either Liège or Brabant. Just as there is ambiguity about his birthplace, there is no record of whether Bruegel died as a Protestant or Catholic. (He was shrewd; he asked his wife to burn his papers after his death.)

Bruegel’s youthful world was wholly Catholic. His training and early career were excellent and orthodox: apprenticeship to a leading Antwerp painter in the Italianate style (Pieter Coecke van Aelst), further studies with an artist-priest (Giulio Clovio) in Rome, a now-lost church altar in 1550-51. The anomaly was Coecke’s wife, Mayken Verhulst, an artist from Mechelin. This city was an early center for peasant genre painting, and she is sometimes credited with transmitting this idea to Bruegel. (She also trained his young sons after his early death in 1569; art history knows her mainly as the root of the Brueghel painting dynasty.)

Bruegel worked with three themes throughout his career: peasants, landscape and religion. In his early work, these converged and diverged in no particular pattern. As a member of a successful atelier family (he married the Coeckes’ daughter) he flourished; he had a high degree of skill as well. But his most brilliant paintings were at the end of his life. Was that simply because he had grown to maturity, or was he responding to the trials of his times?

The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
One of the decrees of the Council of Trent was that religious painting must be suitably elevated; saints must be set apart from mere mortals in dress, demeanor and activity. The Church recognized that saints with dirty feet were a dangerous endorsement of the Protestant concept of a priesthood of all believers.

By then, Reformation was smoldering in the Netherlands; Anabaptists and Calvinists met secretly and illegally. Bruegel left no record of what he thought of this or anything else. But from a Catholic standpoint, his paintings became positively impertinent. Of these paintings, three deserve mention. Bruegel located his Tower of Babel (1563) in a Flemish city and dressed Nimrod as a European king. The Sermon of St. John the Baptist (1566) is militant—subversive, actually—because it clearly depicts a contemporary Calvinist or Anabaptist service. In it he identifies the heretic Protestant preachers with John the Baptist. The Adoration of the Magi of 1564 is a straight-up Nativity scene, but anything but saintly. Notice Mary’s droopy veil, Joseph’s distraction, and the brutish faces of the peasants to his right.

One could ask whether these reflected the views of his patrons or his own religious convictions. I would guess that the two were so intertwined that the question is meaningless.

The Tower of Babel, 1563, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
How powerful art can be! In 1566, the Reformation ignited in the Low Countries. It did so over the issue of art, in the form of the Beeldenstorm (“picture storm”), in which church art was systematically destroyed throughout the Netherlands. Spain responded by sending the cruel Duke of Alba to Brussels (where Bruegel had settled) to extirpate the rebels. This reign of terror—in which thousands died and many more were dislocated—led directly to the Eighty Years’ War.

It was during the height of this terror that Bruegel painted The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow. It’s lovely, but it isn’t peaceful. The central stream of figures is very nearly on the march.

This weekend I uncrated a set of porcelain crèche figures. They are clichéd and indistinguishable from millions of others worldwide. Our museums are full of similar Nativities—some brilliant, many not. Some religious art slipped over the line to idolatry, and much was commissioned for base reasons of power and prestige. The Beeldenstorm set out to destroy the fruits of these bad intentions, but it destroyed indiscriminately. In his last years, Bruegel was feeling his way along the narrow space between the Beeldenstorm and the Duke of Alba. Today we see his Adoration as quaint; we don’t remember that it was radical.

The Protestant impulse forced a new way of painting. Artists couldn’t produce idols, so the pattern books of their faith—unchanged for a millennium—were closed to them. How, then, could they articulate their religious feelings? Bruegel actually painted three winter scenes of the Biblical Infancy Narratives. The others are The Slaughter of the Innocents (1565-66) and The Census at Bethlehem (1566).

Bruegel was addressing a problem which bedevils our own age: how can the artist tell an ancient, unchanging story in a new language? He solved the problem by quoting a traditional icon in the context of a new reality. In these three paintings, the new context was the Protestant priesthood of all believers, represented by the peasantry. Today we call this “appropriation art” and imagine it’s a new idea.
The Slaughter of the Innocents, c. 1565-67, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Nativity (particularly the Virgin and Child) is the most commonly painted subject in art. Even in our secular age, even among non-Christians, it is universal. Bruegel’s brilliance was in realizing that he didn’t need to spell out the scene inside the stable; everyone knew it. In fact, in not doing so, he allowed us to regain something mysterious and personal about that night.

I must mention Bruegel’s technical prowess. Since he invented the winter landscape, he can also be credited with chromatic modeling in snow, in the form of violet shadows and the warm highlights. Note how the roof in the building on the top left is shaped by these shifts in color rather than with darker grey shadows. (This was an artistic choice; the snow on a dark winter day is generally flat.) The dark mass of people sweeps in an arc to the Nativity, pulling it back up into importance. Bruegel emphasized this sweep by making it the busiest part of his painting, and by making the figures darker and in greater contrast than the surround. This arc of humanity plays off against the perfectly composed diagonal lines of the surround.

Bruegel was an acute observer of reality. I respond to his winter scenes because they are true to my own experience, even if the details have changed beyond all imagining. I respond to his religious vision because I spent decades feeling my way gingerly between Protestantism and Anglo-Catholicism.

(This was originally published on December 11, 2007.)

Iconoclastic fury

History tells us that tearing down statues is divisive and traumatic, a sort of village-by-village civil war.

The Ghent Altarpiece survived destruction because of the courageous actions of a few.
Yesterday, red paint was splashed on the statue of Theodore Roosevelt on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This comes on the heels of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointment of a commission to review monuments, and calls by activists to remove this particular ‘racist’ statue. These follow a nationwide wave of monument destruction.
There is a word for this in English: iconoclasm. This specifically means the destruction of icons, images or monuments for religious or political reasons. It happens during political revolution and periods of religious fervor. We decry it when it is done by the Taliban; are we willing to examine our own behavior with the same critical lens?
Remains of Reformation iconoclasm, Clocher Saint-Barthélémy, La Rochelle, France, courtesy World Imaging.
The Protestant Reformation unleashed a wave of iconoclasm across Northern Europe and England in the 16th century. The result was the destruction of significant cultural works, including many more Northern European Renaissance paintings than were ever saved.
These attacks went by different names: the Iconoclastic Fury, the Beeldenstorm (Dutch), Bildersturm (German) or, in England, the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In France, the violence was part of the Huguenot Wars. Whatever it was called, it was part of the anti-Catholic revolution we now call the Reformation. The violence was often official.
No thought was given to the artistic heritage of the destroyed works. In England, 90% of religious art was destroyed in the years following the Reformation. The percentages are probably similar in Germany and the Low Countries. The purge extended equally to music and literature.
Altar piece in St. Martin’s Cathedral, Utrecht, attacked in the Beeldenstorm in 1566. This was hidden behind a false wall and rediscovered in 1919. Courtesy Pepijntje.
Occasionally, great works were saved by individuals or families. The most well-known is the van Eycks‘ Ghent Altarpiece, an outstanding example of Early Netherlandish painting. It was already famous in August of 1556, when the Beeldenstorm hit Ghent. An attack on the Cathedral on August 19 was deterred by guards. On August 21, the iconoclasts used a tree trunk as a battering ram to break through the doors. By then the panels and the guards had been hidden on the narrow spiral staircase within the tower. The panels were then hidden in the town hall. The original, elaborate frame was destroyed.
In Britain, Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in his dominions. He took their income and sold, appropriated or destroyed their assets. Much of this served to fund his military campaigns in the 1540s.
Shrines to saints were destroyed, libraries were burned, and many precious relics were lost. The more fortunate of cathedrals and abbeys saw their jeweled reliquaries stripped, precious metals and ornaments looted, and their painted walls covered with whitewash. The less fortunate houses were leveled and their leaders strung up. Among these were Glastonbury Abbey, legendary for the tomb of King Arthur.
Medieval altarpiece fragments destroyed during the English Dissolution, mid-16th century, courtesy PHGCOM, photographed at the Museum of London. 
Henry’s son, Edward, was depicted during his life and afterwards as a new Josiah, destroying the idols of Baal. Although he only reigned six years, they had a lasting impact on the English Reformation. His counter-reforming sister is now remembered as Bloody Mary, but she was just another 16th century leader who used murder to advance her religious agenda.
As I watch our country going through its first real experience with iconoclasm, I wonder about a favorite bronze relief in Boston. An historical illiterate might see the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial as racist. After all, it’s a white officer on horseback, surrounded by black men. But it’s not, and it’s also a masterpiece by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
As the 16th century saw, violence against objects usually goes hand in hand with violence against people. The destruction was divisive and traumatic to communities, a sort of civil war on a town-by-town basis. It’s nothing you’d wish on the people you love.

Nothing lasts forever

The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435), by Rogier van der Weyden. The majority of his work was probably destroyed; we can only guess at its extent.
I recently wroteabout the destruction of Egyptian antiquities during their recent political revolutions. This is by no means the only targeting of antiquities in the current Muslim insurgency. The demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 is the most memorable example, but Hindu sites across Asia have also been targeted.
Iconoclasm—the deliberate destruction or mutilation of religious art and symbols for politico-religious motives—has a long and broad history. Sometimes this occurs to oppress a disfavored religion or ideology, and sometimes it occurs to purify a movement from within.
English Altarpiece (c. 14th century) destroyed during the Dissolution.
The Protestant Reformation, in particular, showed marked hostility to graven images—at least until it could replace the preceding genre with its own. As a fan of Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin and other Early Netherlandish Painters, I’ve often wondered about the destroyed altarpieces of northern Europe. There were certainly masterworks we will never know about; were there great painters also lost to history forever?
Bildersturm (or Beeldenstorm, if you’re Dutch) was a series of violent outbreaks against religious icons during the 16th century. In France, these took the form of unofficial attacks by Huguenots that were resisted by the Catholic majority. In Germany and England, looting was organized by the government (after forcible conversion of the population). In the Low Countries, the religious revolution was closely tied with the political revolution that was the Eighty Years War.
Relief in the Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht, damaged during 16th century spasm of Reformation iconoclasm.
Protestant leaders like Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin actively suppressed religious imagery within churches under their control. Martin Luther was less dogmatic, allowing artists like Lucas Cranach to create Protestant altarpieces to replace the Catholic ones. (These Lutheran altarpieces, in turn, were subsequently threatened by a wave of Calvinism a few decades later.)
In the Lowlands, the furor touched off on August 10, 1566, when the chapel of the Sint-Laurensklooster in Steenvoorde (now in northern France) was looted. This touched off a wave of iconoclastic destruction that rapidly spread north. Within two weeks, the attacks had spread to Antwerp, Ghent and Amsterdam.
Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists 1562, by Antoine Caron.
In England, Henry VIII had already looted the rich monastic properties of their treasure, but it took the Civil War and the Commonwealth to finish the destruction of English medieval church art. Between the dissolution of the monasteries in 1535 and the restoration of Charles II in 1660, almost the entire treasury of pre-Reformation art in England was destroyed.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow

The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow (1567)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Oil on wood panel, dimensions not available
Oskar Reinhart Collection, Switzerland
This Nativity by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is the second picture I am considering with my pastor friend John Nicholson at The Shepherd’s Staff. John’s from Alabama, where today they expect a high of 78° F and sun. Here in Rochester we winter under a perpetually gray sky with much snow. The gloom and the oddly trudging figures swathed in black look natural to me but probably seem exotic to John.

My students have spent a lot of time in the past two months talking about composition. They would tell you that it is passing strange to have that Nativity on the edge of the canvas, partially obscured. Many critics have noted this and concluded that this is really a just a Flemish village scene with a Nativity tossed in. I disagree.

Pieter Bruegel’s birth was unrecorded, but it is thought to have been around 1525-30 in either Liège or Brabant. Just as there is ambiguity about his birthplace, there is no record of whether Bruegel died as a Protestant or Catholic. (He was shrewd—he asked his wife to burn his papers after his death.)

Bruegel’s youthful world was wholly Catholic. His training and early career were excellent and orthodox: apprenticeship to a leading Antwerp painter in the Italianate style (Pieter Coecke van Aelst), further studies with an artist-priest (Giulio Clovio) in Rome, a now-lost church altar in 1550-51. The anomaly was Coecke’s wife, Mayken Verhulst, an artist from Mechelin. This city was an early center for peasant genre painting, and she is sometimes credited with transmitting this idea to Bruegel. (She also trained his young sons after his early death in 1569; art history knows her mainly as the root of the Brueghel painting dynasty.)

Bruegel worked with three themes throughout his career: peasants, landscape and religion. In his early work, these converged and diverged in no particular pattern. As a member of a successful atelier family (he married the Coeckes’ daughter) he flourished; he had a high degree of skill as well. But his most brilliant paintings were at the end of his life. Was that simply because he had grown to maturity, or was he responding to the trials of his times?

One of the decrees of the Council of Trent was that religious painting must be suitably elevated; saints must be set apart from mere mortals in dress, demeanor and activity. The Church recognized that saints with dirty feet were a dangerous endorsement of the Protestant concept of a priesthood of all believers.

By then, Reformation was smoldering in the Netherlands; Anabaptists and Calvinists met secretly and illegally. Bruegel left no record of what he thought of this or anything else. But from a Catholic standpoint, his paintings became positively impertinent. Of these paintings, three deserve mention. Bruegel located his Tower of Babel (1563) in a Flemish city and dressed Nimrod as a European king. The Sermon of St. John the Baptist (1566) is militant—subversive, actually—because it clearly depicts a contemporary Calvinist or Anabaptist service. In it he identifies the heretic Protestant preachers with John the Baptist. The Adoration of the Magi of 1564 is a straight-up Nativity scene, but anything but saintly. Notice Mary’s droopy veil, Joseph’s distraction, and the brutish faces of the peasants to his right.

One could ask whether these reflected the views of his patrons or his own religious convictions. I would guess that the two were so intertwined that the question is meaningless. (One of Bruegel’s most important patrons was Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, a leading European statesman and Counterreformer, but if Caravaggio’s experience was an indicator, we shouldn’t read too much into that.)

How powerful art can be! In 1566, the Reformation ignited in the Low Countries. It did so over the issue of art, in the form of the Beeldenstorm (“picture storm”), in which church art was systematically destroyed throughout the Netherlands. Spain responded by sending the cruel Duke of Alba to Brussels (where Bruegel had settled) to extirpate the rebels. This reign of terror—in which thousands died and many more were dislocated—led directly to the Eighty Years’ War.

It was during the height of this terror that Bruegel painted The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow. It’s lovely, but it isn’t peaceful. The central stream of figures is very nearly on the march.

This weekend I uncrated a set of porcelain crèche figures. They are terribly clichéd and indistinguishable from millions of others worldwide. (I treasure them anyway.) Our museums are full of similar Nativities—some brilliant, many not. Some religious art slipped over the line to idolatry, and much was commissioned for base reasons of power and prestige. The Beeldenstorm set out to destroy the fruits of these bad intentions, but it destroyed indiscriminately. In his last years, Bruegel was feeling his way along the narrow space between the Beeldenstorm and the Duke of Alba. Today we see his Adoration as quaint; we don’t remember that it was radical.

The Protestant impulse forced a new way of painting. Artists couldn’t produce idols, so the pattern books of their faith—unchanged for a millennium—were closed to them. How, then, could they articulate their religious feelings? Bruegel actually painted three winter scenes of the Biblical Infancy Narratives. The others are The Slaughter of the Innocents (1565-66) and The Census at Bethlehem (1566).

Slaughter of the Innocents, detail (1565-66)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Oil on wood panel, dimensions not available

Bruegel was addressing a problem which bedevils our own age: how can the artist tell an ancient, unchanging story in a new language? He solved the problem by quoting a traditional icon in the context of a new reality. In these three paintings, the new context was the Protestant priesthood of all believers, represented by the peasantry. Today we call this “appropriation art” and imagine it’s a new idea.

The Nativity (particularly the Virgin and Child) is the most commonly painted subject in art. Even in our secular age, even among non-Christians, it is universal. Bruegel’s brilliance was in realizing that he didn’t need to spell out the scene inside the stable; everyone knew it. In fact, in not doing so, he allowed us to regain something mysterious and personal about that night.

I must mention Bruegel’s technical prowess. Since he invented the winter landscape, he can also be credited with chromatic modeling in snow, in the form of violet shadows and the warm highlights. Note how the roof in the building on the top left is shaped by these shifts in color rather than with darker grey shadows. (This was an artistic choice; the snow on a dark winter day is generally flat.) The dark mass of people sweeps in an arc to the Nativity, pulling it back up into importance. Bruegel emphasized this sweep by making it the busiest part of his painting, and by making the figures darker and in greater contrast than the surround. This arc of humanity plays off against the perfectly composed diagonal lines of the surround.

Bruegel was an acute observer of reality. I respond to his winter scenes because they are true to my own experience, even if the details have changed beyond all imagining. I respond to his religious vision because I myself am feeling my way along the narrow space between two religious traditions.

A blessed Advent to you all.