Ironic Idolatry, et al.

One would be hard-pressed to find any historian who regards little girls as big players in the course of history, yet when one looks closely, they make their presence known. One of the earliest landmark television series on art and history had some of these interesting anecdotes. It was a thirteen-part series called Civilisation, hosted by Kenneth Clark and aired in 1969.

Kenneth Clark, Peter Montagnon & David Attenborough – Civilisation: The Great Thaw (1969) (1)

In the second episode, called The Great Thaw, I was startled to find a few minutes dedicated to a story about the cult of a little girl. It seems that during late Roman times there was a girl who refused to worship idols as a Christian and remained obstinate in the face of persistent social pressure and thus was martyred. Her relics began to work miracles and the cult of Sainte Foy (Saint Faith) began. In the 10th Century, the story of one miracle in Conques, France reached the bishop of Chartres, who then sent Bernard of Angers to investigate. It seems a man’s eyes had been smitten by a jealous priest and he was blinded. Later, when the man visited the shrine of Sainte Foy, his vision was restored. Witnesses claimed that the eyes were taken up to heaven by either a dove or a magpie so that they might be restored. The bishop was satisfied with Angers’ report and ordered that a Romanesque church be built at the site, an important stop on several pilgrimage routes.

Kenneth Clark, Peter Montagnon & David Attenborough – Civilisation: The Great Thaw (1969) (2)

The relic in question was installed in a golden statue studded with gems inside the church. It’s ironic that a little girl who refused to worship idols should be commemorated in this way.

Kenneth Clark, Peter Montagnon & David Attenborough – Civilisation: The Great Thaw (1969) (3)

Kenneth Clark, Peter Montagnon & David Attenborough – Civilisation: The Great Thaw (1969) (4)

Except for it’s small stature, it is hard to imagine this figure represents a little girl. As a matter of convenience, the mask of a late Roman emperor was used to make the face.

Kenneth Clark, Peter Montagnon & David Attenborough – Civilisation: The Great Thaw (1969) (5)

I was pleased to see Kenneth Clark pay attention to the lives of ordinary people during these times, and sometimes that included children. Another notable artwork was a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. He made a number of paintings that seem to glorify the Age of Reason and the early Industrial Age, but each hints at something more disturbing and foreboding. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump was a painting illustrating how gentlemen of leisure would conduct scientific experiments, this time studying the effects of removing the air on a hapless cockatoo. As one examines the center of the scene, we see two elegant and tender-hearted girls showing distress at this spectacle. One gentleman seems to be explaining to them the necessity of such endeavors while another seems to be expressing doubts.

Joseph Wright of Derby – An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768)

The creation of the Civilisation series is itself a remarkable story, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in European history or art. The U.S. was conducting early experiments with color television in the mid and late sixties, but the results were garish and simplistic. U.K. critics were questioning whether color was really worth the effort. In 1965, David Attenborough was put in charge of BBC2 and his mandate was to make the network innovative; he decided to introduce color and better image resolution as its mainstay. Kenneth Clark was a historian and a popular figure in British media but, approaching age 70, he had yet to learn the subtleties of presenting in a TV format. Attenborough and other producers felt that BBC2‘s color debut should be something really stunning, and it was decided to do a series on Western European art and to actually bring the relevant architecture, sculpture, paintings and music directly to the TV audience. Because this series was an ambitious endeavor, budget costs were understandably high, but Attenborough felt the series was of such high quality that it could be shown twice a week, effectively halving its air-time budget. As few had color televisions, many people organized Civilisation parties each week so that friends could share the experience.

Another innovation was the use of the subtitle “A Personal View,” used by the BBC many times hence. The problem was that Clark had an interesting but subjective view of history, and this phrase was added in anticipation to the inevitable scholarly objections. Clark had difficulty integrating the Spanish contribution to art and simply decided it was easier to ignore it. To Attenborough, it made perfect sense to use art history as a showcase for color, but he had a background in zoology and caught some flak from his associates, who felt his first major venture should have been about natural history. He made up for this by producing The Ascent of Man and then Life on Earth shortly thereafter. These successful series established the BBC’s reputation and style for the coming decades.

More about Civilisation

Wikipedia: Kenneth Clark

Wikipedia: David Attenborough

And the Virgin’s Name Was Mary, Part 2

The story goes that as a young child (around 3) Mary was presented to the Temple, where she would remain until age 12 to be educated.  After this age, due to her menstruation she could not stay at the Temple as it was considered a defilement of the holy place.  Thus, she was betrothed to Joseph and married soon after.  A common tale involving Mary’s presentation is that she was placed on the bottom steps and climbed the entire flight of stairs on her own.  I’m not sure why this was supposed to be a feat worthy of retelling–3-year-olds are hardly incapable of climbing stairs.  Perhaps it was just a really long flight of stairs.  More likely it was intended to demonstrate the little girl’s courage, as she clambered up the high steps to meet with the strange men waiting for her at the top.

Alfonso Boschi – Presentation of Mary at the Temple (17th C.)

Wikipedia: Alfonso Boschi

Cima da Conegliano – Mary’s Presentation (1500)

Wikipedia: Cima de Conegliano

Denys Calvaert – Presentation of St. Mary

Wikipedia: Denys Calvaert

Francisco de Zurbarán – Childhood of the Virgin (1658-60)

Wikipedia: Francisco de Zurbarán

Franz Joseph Spiegler – Mary and the High Priest Zacharias (18th C.)

Wikipedia: Franz Joseph Spiegler

Franz Xaver König – The Education of the Virgin Mary, St. Anne Parish Church, Salzburg, Austria (1752)

This next painting is the earliest visual representation of Mary’s presentation that I am aware of.  If anyone knows of an earlier example, please contact me.

Giotto di Bondone – Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1266)

Giotto di Bondone: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Giotto

Paolo Uccello – Presentation of Mary (1435-1440)

Paolo Uccello: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Paolo Uccello

Titian – Presentation of the Virgin Mary (1534–38)

Titian: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Titian

Artist Unknown – Anne with Child, Altmannsdorfer Church, Vienna, Austria

Artist Unknown – Presentation at Temple of the Holiest Mother of God (1290-1310)

Artist Unknown – Right panel of altar in the Church of Maria Immaculata, Dietelskirchen, Bavaria, Germany

Wikimedia Commons: Presentation of Virgin Mary

Wikipedia: Presentation of Mary

And the Virgin’s Name Was Mary, Part 1

The Virgin Mary is believed to have been the daughter of Joachim and Anne.  She may have been a Levite, or perhaps a descendant of the tribe of Judah.  Mary was a resident of Nazareth, and in keeping with Jewish tradition at the time, probably was married off during early or mid-adolescence.  According to Christian scripture, it was the Archangel Gabriel who decended to Mary to give her the news of her impending motherhood to the Messiah, Jeshua (Jesus.)  Some scholars have argued that Mary may have had a sexual encounter prior to her marriage to Joseph and made the story up to keep from being subjected to the harsh punishment imposed on females for premarital sex in that era.  If that’s so, the real miracle of the story of the virgin birth is that it not only kept her out of legal hot water but flourished, becoming the seed that blossomed into one of the world’s major religions.  All of this, of course, presupposes that Mary actually existed.  For this we have no hard evidence.

Artistic images of Mary with the infant Christ (generally divided into either Nativity scenes or Madonna and Child portraits,) were one of the earliest and most profusely worked themes in the history of Western art, with the first known representations showing up in the early Medieval era and then becoming a veritable flood thereafter.  What are less common are paintings and sculptures of Mary’s own birth and childhood.  The examples we do have are, I think, often more interesting than their counterparts, perhaps because the artists felt less constrained by the degree of reverence accorded to Mary’s deified son and so toned down some of the formality one tends to find in many Nativity and Madonna and Child artworks.  Whatever the case, these pieces often get overlooked in discussions or overviews of religious art and iconography.

Anton Pitscheider-Menza – St. Anne and Mary, St. Ulrich parish church, Gröden

Domenico Ghirlandaio – Birth of Mary, Tornabuoni Chapel (1486-90)

Domenico Ghirlandaio: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Domenico Ghirlandaio

Estácio Zambelli - Maria bambina, Caxias do Sul Cathedral, Brazil

Estácio Zambelli – Maria bambina, Caxias do Sul Cathedral, Brazil

Giotto di Bondone – The Birth of the Virgin (1304-06)

Wikipedia: Giotto

Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet - The Education of the Virgin (1700)

Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet – The Education of the Virgin (1700)

Wikipedia: Jean Jouvenet

Juan de Borgoña - The Birth of the Virgin (1495)

Juan de Borgoña – The Birth of the Virgin (1495)

Wikipedia: Juan de Borgoña

Master of Bambino Vispo - Saint Anne and the Young Virgin Sewing (early 15th century)

Master of Bambino Vispo – Saint Anne and the Young Virgin Sewing (early 15th century)

Wikipedia: Master of the Bambino Vispo

Domenico Beccafumi - Birth of Mary (1540-43)

Domenico Beccafumi – Birth of Mary (1540-43)

Wikipedia: Domenico di Pace Beccafumi

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo – Birth of Mary (1660)

Wikipedia: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Master of Joachim and Anne - Birth of the Virgin (1450)

Master of Joachim and Anne – Birth of the Virgin (1450)

Wikimedia Commons: Childhood of Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary’s Birth, Childhood, Betrothal and Marriage

The Early Life of the Virgin Mary

Early Life of the Virgin Mary Till the Birth of Jesus Christ (Recounts the tale of how Mary was wed at age 12.)