Today’s identification

July 21, 2011

Moving eastward now. Note: Since there isn’t a defined author, I’m asking just for period and preferably century of compostion. Bonus points if you can tell me the manuscript(both names accepted); triple bonus points if you can tell me the scene. Answer will be up in 24 hours barring unexpected circumstances/


Guess the artist

July 20, 2011

Last one, which was spoilt(alas!) was Fra Fillipo Lippi’s [i] Portrait of a Lady With a Man at The Casement[/i]. Here’s today’s challege, by a noted early exponent of Artistic Consumption. This should be a little easier since such challenges should be gettable, people using opens as an excuse to dump impossible questions notwithstanding.

Answer will be posted in about 22 hours.

Italian polypytchs

July 20, 2011

This isn’t about a specific work so much as an overview of something that people tend to be confused about when looking at early Italian painting. Most of the small gold-ground paintings you might see in a gallery would not have been seen independently, but as part of a larger altarpiece or ensemble.  The following painting is notable as one of the few intact large altarpieces:

Andrea Orcagna, Strozzi Altarpice. Strozzi Chapel, Santa Maria Novella.

As you can see, this work consists of a central figure(most earlier works have  Madonna as the central panel, altough a variety of themes exists, flanked by rows of saints(often these are separate panels, with one or two saints to a panel) indentifable by their attributes and sometimes labels on the frame on top of a predella depicting a sort of comic-strip series of narrative scenes.  This altarpiece is also in its original location; the Web Gallery of Art has some photos of it in the chapel for which it was painted. Of course, this was not the only format 14th century panel painting could take(there were also small folding altarpieces intended for travel,a suprising number of which are intact  like Nardo Da Cione’s in the National Gallery Washington), but it was one of the more popular formats and many of the paintings you will see in galleries come from polypytchs like this one.

Guess the painting round 1

July 19, 2011

Note: Don’t try and look at the name of the jpeg.


July 13, 2011

I was thinking of starting an “identify the painting” or “identify the artist contest on a semi-regular basis. Would any of the few readers of this blog enjoy such a thing?

Some thoughts on the flag shrine at the American History museum.

July 1, 2011

I don’t often talk about myself, and I don’t often talk about non-arty stuff, but I just felt like talking a little the flag shrine(which is what I like to call the star-spangled banner exhibit at the National Museum of American History in DC) and how it reminded me of a book we discussed in sosc this year.
A bit of background on the shrine: As you may or may not have heard, the American History museum was recently renovated. Part of that was moving the star-spangled banner to a small, glassed-in back space for preservation reasons( here’s a photo of the new display:,r:2,s:14&tx=53&ty=46&biw=898&bih=515).

Now there are several things about this exhibit that stand out. First of all, the fact that it’s even there-most museums simply rotate cloth objects on-and-off view because they are extremely fragile. That the smithsonian goes to such efforts to keep this flag on pernament display betokens both that it is a relic for veneration and that the museum sees itself as creating this display as a space for veneration almost more than for edification. Incidentally, this is why I am not citing the darkened room, since that is simply a practical necessity for perserving this cloth. The other major component of the displays is the corridors entering and leaving the shrine room. Most of the displays in these corridors are to do with the flag, the bombardment of Ft. McHenry, or Key’s song; a notable one of these displays is the bag the flag was originally stored in, which I will discuss momentarily.

So what does this have to do with Durkheim and the fact that it’s a shrine? Well, Durkheim(better know for essentially founding sociology as we know it and, among quizbowlers, writing a study classifying the four different kinds of suicide) wrote a book called [i]The Elementary Forms of A Religious LIfe[/i] in which he tried to use primitive societies to argue for certain ideas on what exactly religion is and what its social basis is.
Durkheim’s arguments are certainly flawed, but many of his ideas are still of value to the analysis I am attempting. The idea I’d like to single out here is his idea of the sacred and profane. According to him, the distinction between sacred and profane lies precisely in the fact that the sacred is what is restricted from contact with the profane. The connection between this and the idea of enshrining a flag is that to simply store it and occasionally exhibit it in an educational context (as would normally be done with cloth objects) does not present an absolute chasm in the way a display does, since when off display it is simply out of mind(unlike, say the aboriginal churingas, the hiddenness of which is especially fraught with significance). Durkheim follows up by noting that sacredness is contagious and that items that come in contact with the sacred are themselves rendered sacred. This comment is striking in light of the aforementioned bag. This is precisely an object that is worthy of display only because it once was in contact with the star-spangled banner.
What is seen here, therefore, is a reliquary of America’s political religion. Durkheim’s analysis of religion, which focuses on religion as a social institution, sits well with this discussion of the religious forms assumed by political life and in fact in some ways Durkheim’s arguments are strongest when they are examined in relation to political religion rather than what is normally considered religion today. Perhaps this is simply because we are more use to examining the political sphere as a social institution.

Persian painting part 2

June 25, 2011

Due to my stunning inability to find decent reproductions of Jalaryid work, it seems most expeditious to jump forward to the work of the most famous Persian minaturist, Bihzad.

Kamal ul-din Bihzad. Yusuf and Zukhaleia. From a Bustan of Saadi, the so-called "Cairo Bustan". c. 1488

This paticular illustration is from a manuscript of  Saadi’s Bustan that is the only thing universally accepted as being by Bihzad. The situation with him is a bit like the situation with Giotto: a tiny number of certain pieces, a somewhat smaller handful of works that are probably but not certainly by him, and a whole mass of work that historians fight over.

On to the painting: First off, this painting shows the mark of the shift that happened under the Jalaryids(one of the states from after the Ilkhanate fell apart) and under the Timurids in its elaboration. It’s fairly clear if you compare it to the foilo from the Great Mongol Shahnama how the setting has been elaborated much more than the very sketchy Illkhanid manner and there’s also much more finely painted detailwork. It’s also noticable how much more of the page the image has taken over. Where Bihzad’s contribution to Persian painting comes through is first in the organization of the mansion and second in the relation shown between the figures. As becomes clear once the Persian convention that “up is back”, Bihzad has worked out how the mansion depicted is organized in space. This is particularly visible with the projecting balcony and the presence of a stairwell. Bihzad’s other notable contribution is the depiction of human behavior in a way that reflects the figures depicted. This is detectable in the gesture of Zukhalya grabbing Yusuf’s arm. That she is shown going so far and not simply gesticulating may profitably be contrasted with the attitudes of Iskander’s attendants in the previous post’s image, who  do not seem to take very much notice of Iskander himself. Overall, therefore, what is new in Bihzad is a strengthend commitment to the naturalistic depiction of human life. It may seem a bit odd to suggest this as a goal of Persian painting but there is literary precedent for the idea that art should be realistic. Nizami, in his Khamsa, makes several references to painters that compare them to mirrors and suggest that a goal of painters is to use the intellect to correctly reproduce the physical world.

Persian Manucscripts part 1

June 16, 2011

Hello! Now that I’m reasonably free of schoolwork and need to spend less time on a certain website, I’m getting this blog back on track. As part of a general program of more non-Italophilic material, I’m starting a short little series on Persian manuscript painting. We’ll start by looking at the Demotte or Great Mongol Shahnama as an example of the Illkhanid period work in this post. The next three posts will be on the later Ilkhanid and Timurid schools, then on Bihzhad, and then a concluding post on the Houghton Shahama

Iskandar and The Talking Tree. From the Great Mongol or Demotte Shahnama. Tabriz, c. 1330-40. Freer Gallery, Washington

A note on the name: This leaf comes from the so-called Demotte Shahnama, which was cut up and suffered a variety of other indignities* by that art dealer in the late 19th cetury and the surviving leaves wound up in various institutions. Because of this, some scholars prefer to call the manuscript the Great Mongol Shahnama. I tend to call it the Demotte Shahanama, mostly because it’s faster to say/type.

This paticular illustration is of Iskandar (Alexander the Great, who occupies a remarkably prominent place in the Shahanama). This image in part draws on extant persian and mongol artwork. The moon face (oval, small mouth, almond eyes) of Iskandar and the other two figures
*fun fact: It took a conference in the 1980s to realize that the text of some leaves didn’t have images matching text. Turns out our friend Demotte moved images onto image-less leaves so he’d have more to sell.

Now there are two especially noteworthy features of this image. The first is the face of Alexander, and of the two male figures. The notable almond eyes, small mouth, and oval face are features of the moon-face that is the conventional ideal of beauty in mideval persian art. It’s fairly standard on bowls. Related to this is the comparative simplicity of the landscape, which is much less detailed and subtilzed as later Timurid and Savafid landscapes would be. The other notable thing is that there is a landscape. We don’t see  one in early painted pottery and we don’t see one in the only surviving pre-Illkhanid manuscript, a Varqa wa Gusha now in Istanbul( Topkapi MS. 841, if you are curious). My guess is that the landscape came in from chinese influences. Certainly the Chinese painters were held in great esteem(along with the Rumi painters). There are fairly clear chinese features in the rocks and to some extent in the tree trunk; other manuscripts are even more strongly Chinese-flavored. This introduction had a major effect on Persian painting; it seems to my untrained eye to have united illustration and depiction in a way that had happened in the Maqamat illustrations for the Baghdadi school. At this moment, the little page stands out as striving for the monumental in a way that is also distinct from what will come later in the Timurid period.

NEXT: The Timurids and their sucessor states.


May 5, 2011



April 27, 2011

In honor of some nice spring weather today:
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

COME live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks 5
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies, 10
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold, 15
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love. 20

Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing 25
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love
And some poetry by the excellent Ted Hughes: