When in Rome

This blog post is dedicated to art from the eternal city. Given that Rome is the spiritual home of the Baroque I could discuss any number of works in the BMAG collection, but I’m going to focus on a sculptural piece: a terracotta bozzetto depicting The Martyrdom of Saint. Emerenziana by Ercole Ferrata.

Ercole Ferrata, The Martyrdom of Saint Emerenziana, Birmingham Museums Trust

Ercole Ferrata, The Martyrdom of Saint Emerenziana, Birmingham Museums Trust

A bozzetto is a small, rough, clay study for a larger sculptural piece. The Martyrdom of Saint Emerenziana was created as a study for a relief on the Saint’s altar in the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in the Piazza Navona. The church was designed by Girolamo Rainaldi, his son Carlo Rainaldi and the great Baroque architect Francesco Borromini, and remains one of the city’s most iconic church buildings.

Saint Agnese in Agone, Piazza Navona, Rome

Saint Agnese in Agone, Piazza Navona, Rome

The bozzetto offers a fascinating insight into the commission, revealing the sculptor’s working practice. Clay was an ideal material for making a preliminary sketch, since it can be easily shaped and modelled, allowing an artist to work quickly and creatively. Here, we can see Ferrata developing his ideas through the medium. However, the bozzetto is also important as a record of the artist’s intentions, especially since Ferrata didn’t live to see the altar completed.

Altar of Saint Emerenziana, Sant'Agnese in Agone, Rome

Altar of Saint Emerenziana, Sant’Agnese in Agone, Rome

The church of Sant’Agnese in Agone was built under the papacy of Innocent X and the relief for the altar of Saint Emerenziana was commissioned by his nephew Don Camillo Pamphili in 1660. It is likely that the BMAG bozzetto was presented to Camillo for approval before construction on the altar began in earnest.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Innocent X, Palazzo Doria

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Innocent X, Palazzo Doria

A contract was drawn up between Camillo and the sculptor, which stipulated Ferrata would be paid part of the 1,000 scudi fee as a down payment, and the rest upon satisfactory completion of the work. When the lower two-thirds of the relief were finished, Ferrata realised he had underestimated the work involved, and wrote to Don Camillo asking for extra money to purchase the necessary marble to complete the upper part of the relief. This was refused, and so the work was installed in the church with the upper section – including the figure of Saint Agnes, the angel and the putti – finished in the much cheaper stucco.

The stucco was later replaced and the relief finished by one of Ferrata’s pupils, Leonardo Retti (around 1666-1714), who fulfilled the commission in 1705. Retti was also the executor of Ferrata’s estate, in which capacity he attempted to cheat Ferrata’s heirs of the payment due for Ferrata’s part of the relief, when in fact he was paid much more to complete it. This led to a long legal dispute, which was only resolved in 1716. However, as part of the legal case, various sculptors were called in to give their official opinions of Retti’s contribution to the Altar of Saint Emerenziana, which were generally unfavourable.

But why did Camillo choose to commission this particular subject? Saint Emerenziana was a Roman martyr, who lived around the start of the 4th century. She was said to have been present at the burial of Saint Agnes, her foster sister, after whom the church was named. When pagan worshippers arrived to disperse the Christian mourners at Saint Agnes’ burial, Emerenziana kept vigil at the tomb and was stoned to death. According to legend, Emerenziana was baptized in her own blood as she died defending her faith and confessing to God. As one of the earliest Christian saints, and a Roman, her presence would have underscored the ancient lineage of its patrons the Pamphili, as one of the oldest and most noble Roman families.

The Martyrdom of Saint Emerenziana is currently undergoing some light cleaning in conservation, ready for the redisplay. Also being cleaned is the Infant Saint John the Baptist – discussed in a previous post – which is having its very own baby bath!

The lovely Laura cleaning the Infant Saint John the Baptist

The lovely Laura cleaning the Infant Saint John the Baptist

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A Proper Copper Painting

Keen readers of this blog will, I’m sure, have noticed that I haven’t written anything about 17th century French painting. Well, at last, the wait is over…

Claude Gellée (called Le Lorrain), Embarkation of Saint Paul, 1655

Claude Gellée (called Le Lorrain), Embarkation of Saint Paul, 1655, Birmingham Museums Trust

This post looks at ‘The Embarkation of Saint Paul’ by Claude Gellée (called Le Lorrain), dated 1655. BMAG actually holds two paintings by Claude, the other being ‘Landscape with View of the Ponte Molle’, dated 1645, and both works will feature in the display.

Claude Gellée (called Le Lorrain), Landscape with View of the Ponte Molle, 1655, Birmingham Museums Trust

Claude Gellée (called Le Lorrain), Landscape with View of the Ponte Molle, 1655, Birmingham Museums Trust

Claude Gellée (1604/5? – 1682) was born in the Duchy of Lorraine but left around 1612 for Germany, before travelling to Rome. According to one of his biographers his first job in the city was as a pastry chef, however, he soon found work in the studio of the Italian landscape painter Agostino Tassi. After a period, he visited Naples and Nancy before returning to Rome to settle permanently around 1628. Claude quickly established a reputation as a superb landscape painter in his own right, making numerous sketches from the Roman countryside and transforming these into finished oil paintings in his studio. At the start of his career, Claude’s work focused on pastoral scenes showing ideal country-living however, over time, his subject matter became weightier with a greater emphasis on scenes from the bible and classical mythology. It has been suggested that this shift was influenced by Nicholas Poussin, another French ex-pat living in Rome, known for painting complex and challenging themes.

Nicholas Poussin, Landscape with Man Killed by a Snake, 1648, National Gallery

Nicholas Poussin, Landscape with Man Killed by a Snake, 1648, National Gallery

Claude Gellée (called Le Lorrain), Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641, National Gallery

Claude Gellée (called Le Lorrain), Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641, National Gallery

One subject Claude returned to time and time again was the port. These paintings allowed him to combine tranquil sea views with biblical or mythological episodes. The stories he used were often very obscure but, importantly, they gave an intellectual gravity to his work. The story represented in the BMAG painting is no exception, and is mentioned in only two verses in the Acts of the Apostles. St. Paul, after being imprisoned at Caesarea on the coast of Palestine, was delivered into the charge of the centurion, Julius, and taken on board a ship for Rome:

1. When it had been decided that we should sail to Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion called Julius, of the Augustan cohort. 2. We boarded a vessel from Adramyttium bound for ports on the Asiatic coast and put to sea; we had Aristarchus with us, a Macedonian of Thessalonica.’

Claude’s painting shows the moment just before departure, and the artist was seemingly very interested in these points of transience and the possibilities of journeying.

Unusually, the ‘The Embarkation of Saint Paul’ is painted on copper: Claude painted only 15 works on copper over his career. Claude was renowned for his light effects, and the medium allowed him to exploit these to the full by giving his work an added luminosity and greater colour saturation. As a printmaker himself, Claude had easy access to the small copper plates used for making engravings. Yet, Claude later abandoned copper to paint exclusively on canvas, enabling him to work on a much large scale.

After Adam Elsheimer, Tobias and the Angel, National Gallery

After Adam Elsheimer, Tobias and the Angel, National Gallery

Claude was likely inspired by the art of Paul Bril and Adam Elsheimer, both artists who had pioneered painting on copper to create beautiful cabinet paintings with richly statured colours.

Johann Georg Platzer, An Allegory of Misrule, c.1755, Birmingham Museums Trust

Johann Georg Platzer, An Allegory of Misrule, c.1755, Birmingham Museums Trust

In my display, I really wanted to draw attention to the unusual practice of painting on copper so the Claude will be paired with a work by Johann Georg Platzer: a very different painting but one which also exploits the properties of the copper surface.

As ever, comments and questions welcome…

Dressed to Impress

Here’s another chance to read my post about new research into BMAG’s Dutch paintings in case you missed it…panic over!

Netherlands calling! I recently undertook research trip to the Netherlands to discover more about the Dutch and Flemish paintings. The visit was generously supported by a bursary from the Pre-1900 European Painting Subject Specialist Network.

Most of my trip was spent at the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History). The RKD has some amazing resources, and much of my time was spent wading through their visual documentation collection (consisting of more than 700,000 photographs and reproductions of Dutch and Flemish painting).

My primary focus was a single painting from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s collection: Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy’s ‘Portrait of a Woman’, dated 1630 (accession number: 1973P8). As with many Dutch portraits of the period, the identity of the sitter is unknown. However, she was clearly very wealthy: her black dress has fine gold-embroidered sleeves, the ruff is elaborate, she wears gold jewellery and holds an expensive folding fan. I wanted to see what else I could find out about her, and was particularly interested in her dress, known as a Tabbaard, a design that was very rare at this time and might provide some further clues as to who she was…

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My primary focus: Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy’s ‘Portrait of a Woman’, 1630

It quickly became apparent that the lady’s costume was very different to those worn by other women at the time. In Holland, around the 1630s, married women traditionally wore a stomacher, bodice and vlieger (an over-coat) (see image below), making our lady’s fitted all-in-one dress very unusual. In fact, the only examples I found of the dress-type were dated significantly earlier. Yet, the sitter’s costume was far from old-fashioned or conservative; with her costly jewellery and accessories and her red petticoat revealed through the fore-part of her skirt this was definitely the costume of a fashion-conscious young woman. It’s important to remember that it was the sitter, not the artist, who chose their outfit, so why did the woman choose this dress, and what was she trying to communicate about herself and her status?

Portrait Of A Woman Copyright J. Paul Getty Museum 00052701
Nicolaes Eliasz. Pickenoy’s ‘Portrait of a Woman’,1632 from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. (Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program).

In the past it has been suggested that the woman might be a young bride, with particular attention paid to the ring she wears on her finger. Yet, my research highlighted that this might be misleading. During the first half of the century brides often put the ring on the first finger or little finger, however, our lady wears the ring on her fourth finger. Nevertheless, there weren’t any strict rules about which finger to wear a ring on – just fashion – so this doesn’t necessarily imply anything about her status. Moreover, even if her dress and headwear could be associated with bridal fashion, brides would continue to wear the wedding dress at festive occasions as long as it was deemed fashionable. As such, this portrait could well be made several years after she married…

 Hand

Basically, my research left me with far more questions than answers. However, I am pretty convinced that the sitter was a married woman. It was very rare for women to have singular portraits of themselves, even indecent. I think our portrait is a pendant: one of a pair. Pickenoy made numerous paired-portraits of husbands and wives, which were separate but with the figures facing towards each other. I think our lady is one of these, facing towards her husband who’s portrait is now lost.

Pickenoy didn’t just paint single portraits, he also painted large group portraits of Holland’s civic leaders and I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition of such portraits in the Hermitage in Amsterdam; as well as the fantastic collections of the Rijksmuseum and The Mauritshuis – bringing back a few ideas for my own display!

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Interior of exhibition at the Hermitage, Amsterdam 
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Interior of the Mauritshuis, The Hague

Support Birmingham Museums!

I recently gave a podcast talking about Birmingham’s fantastic collection of Baroque painting and Carlo Dolci’s Saint Andrew Praying Before His Martyrdom, dated 1643. The podcast is one of series by curators, celebrating Birmingham’s rich and diverse collections.

Have a listen to the podcast here:

http://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/blog/posts/new-podcast-celebrating-birmingham-s-collection

Carlo Dolci, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew, Birmingham Museums Trust

Carlo Dolci, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew, Birmingham Museums Trust

Birmingham Museums Trust faces a proposed £850,000 per annum budget reduction from Birmingham City Council. This has the potential to reduce public access to these objects and directly affect the way we use these collections.

And please sign our petition to show your support for Birmingham Museums: http://bit.ly/SupportBhamMuseums 

If you would like to tweet the link to the petition please use the hashtag #supportbhammuseums

Many thanks to History West Midlands for creating the podcasts to support Birmingham Museums.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…

The Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, The Annunciation to the Shepherds

In Birmingham the Christmas lights are up so, in spite of the fact that it’s only November, this post is going to have a seasonal feel. The Annunciation to the Shepherds depicts the moment the birth of Christ was announced to some very surprised shepherds. The Shepherds then rushed to Bethlehem, where they found Mary, Joseph and the Christ child lying in a manger.

Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, Birmingham Museums Trust

Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, Birmingham Museums Trust

Whilst we don’t know the name of the artist who painted The Annunciation to the Shepherds, we can connect it to group of paintings produced by the same artist who, unsurprisingly, painted the annunciation to the shepherds a lot. Painting was a very commercially-orientated practice and often, once an artist had found a successful subject, they would paint it several times over. The Annunciation to the Shepherds is one of the artist’s key works that gave him his name, along with a horizontal version of the subject in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

Although his identity is unclear, The Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds was clearly an exceptionally talented painter. We know he was living and working in Naples and was certainly influenced by the naturalistic style of the Spanish artist Giuseppe de Ribera, who had settled in Naples in 1616. The Kingdom of Naples was then part of the Spanish Empire, and was ruled by a succession of Spanish Viceroys, as such there was a strong cultural relationship between these two territories. Ribera had also lived in Rome where, like many of the artist’s in BMAG’s collection, he was inspired by the powerful realism of Caravaggio. The Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds’ painting also reveals this Caravaggesque influence. Like Caravaggio, he is interested in the depiction of real people; the shepherds presented uncompromisingly, wearing typically rustic clothes and sleeping amongst their flock. He is similarly influenced by Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro (extreme contrasts of light and shade). In fact, it has even been suggested that the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds used charcoal dust in the flesh tones to enhance the chiaroscuro. When The Annunciation to the Shepherds first entered the BMAG collection it was thought to be an early work by the famous Spanish artist Diego Velázquez. In a rather embarrassing episode for the museum, this attribution was soon proved to be incorrect.

Giuseppe Ribera, Jacob with the Flock of Laban, National Gallery, London

Giuseppe Ribera, Jacob with the Flock of Laban, National Gallery, London

The painting has an amazing provenance and formed part of the collection of Frank Hall Standish of Duxbury (1799-1840), a gentleman who built up a considerable collection of Spanish art during his travels to that country. At his death, Standish offered his paintings to the British nation; on the condition that the baronetcy that had been in his family was revived. When this was refused, however, Standish bequeathed them instead to the King of France, Louis Philippe, ‘as a testimony of my esteem for a generous and polite nation’, in what was effectively a massive ‘up yours’ to Britain. Louis Philippe exhibited Standish’s painting in their own gallery within the Louvre. When Louis Philippe was forced to flee France after the revolution of 1848, however, he shipped the paintings back to Britain. According to reports, they were hastily transported and many were without frames and some were damaged by sea water. Yet The Annunciation to the Shepherds made it in one piece and was sold at Christie’s, London in 1853. The Annunciation to the Shepherds has had an eventful life: Naples – Seville – Chorley, Lancashire – Paris – London – before eventually making its way to Birmingham.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds is going to be in my final display. It’s such an important painting, both visually and in terms of its history, and I think more people should know about it. I have almost settled on a final hang now and am about to begin the long process of writing exhibition labels. It really feels like it’s all starting to happen now!

The Curation Game

Gioacchino Assereto, Guardian Angel

This week, as part of my re-display project, I held a series of audience consultations within the Baroque Galleries. The aim was to learn how visitors perceive the 17th Century paintings and what they felt could enhance their visit. I used ‘The Curation Game’ as a way of finding out this information in a fun and interactive way. ‘The Curation Game’ invited members of the public to choose works from the collection and create their own mini-display in a mock-up of the Gallery space. They could then choose interpretation and write a little blurb about their hang. I found it to be a really fruitful exercise, as people were more relaxed and open than with a traditional Q&A audience survey and the quality of information we obtained was very high. Visitors would happily chat about their choices and many became really involved in the activity, taking the time to make sure their display was perfect. I’m currently in the process of writing an evaluation for ‘The Curation Game’: trying to figure out what my findings mean and how this will impact my re-display. It is already clear, however, that people are drawn to specific works. One work that people kept choosing again and again was The Guardian Angel by the Genoese artist Gioacchino Assereto.

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The Guardian Angel shows an angel sheltering a young boy with its left arm. Traditionally, the painting was thought to represent the story of Tobias and the Angel: Tobias was sent by his blind father to collect a debt; the Archangel Raphael accompanied Tobias and instructed him to extract the heart, liver and gall from a fish to heal his father’s blindness. The Guardian Angel is unlikely to depict this story, since Tobias was a man and this painting shows a young boy holding a book, not a fish. Instead, it is more likely to be an allegorical painting about morality and the choice between good and evil. At the bottom left, behind the boy, is the devil lurking in the darkness. By contrast, the right side of the picture is bathed in light, and the angel points to God the Father and Jesus Christ seated in heaven at the top right corner. The angel guides the young buy away from evil and into the light. The book in the boy’s hand perhaps represents the key to his salvation: the bible.

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It is an incredibly beautiful work, with drapery and polished surfaces used to create a striking result. Assereto painted The Guardian Angel when he was quite young, and was still working under the influence of the Bolognese artist Giulio Cesare Procaccini (who visited Genoa in 1618, and left a number of works in the city). This is evidenced foremost in Assereto’s use of theatrical lighting effects within the painting.

Given its height and brilliant colours, The Guardian Angel is a really impressive painting. However, its large size means that it is competing for space with many of our other star works. Because of this, I had previously left it out of my hang, something which I have now re-considered in light of ‘The Curation Game’. As ever, your thoughts on the painting and the display are welcome!

Baroque Babies

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Vision of Saint Anthony of Padua and Spanish School, Infant Saint john the Baptist

Babies, babies, babies. Babies are everywhere in Baroque art. The Italian artist Francesco Albani (whose work is represented in the BMAG collection) was apparently so fanatical about painting cherubs and cupids that he suspended his own children (of which he had 12) from the ceiling with ropes! Even the art of Italy, however, cannot compare with the Spanish Baroque, which seems particularly baby-crazed. Whilst the BMAG collection only contains two Spanish works both are deserving of a blog post.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Vision of Saint Anthony of Padua, Birmingham Museums Trust

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Vision of Saint Anthony of Padua, Birmingham Museums Trust

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s painting The Vision of Saint Anthony of Padua is one of the best works in the collection. Murillo was the leading painter in Seville at the end of the 17th Century. His painting shows Saint Anthony kneeling on the ground, receiving a vision of the Christ Child who is shown in a pose of benediction (blessing).

Although Saint Anthony died in Padua, Italy, he was actually born in Lisbon, Portugal in about 1195. He was originally an Augustinian canon but became a Franciscan friar in 1220, and in Murillo’s painting is shown wearing his Franciscan robes. He developed a gift for preaching and was given teaching posts in Italy and France. His intellect is represented by the book on the table next to him, on top of which is a lily symbolizing the Saint’s purity. Books are of particular importance to the story of Saint Anthony who, according to legend, had his prayer book was stolen. When he prayed for its return, however, the thief was moved to bring it back to the monastery. Because of this, Anthony is recognized as the patron saint of lost objects and people.

The BMAG painting shows the moment the Infant Christ appeared to him when preaching on the Incarnation (the belief that Christ became man). The two figures are shown in near-total darkness, against which the Christ Child and the front body of the Saint are illuminated, thus demonstrating the close relationship between the two figures and the Saint’s communion with Christ. Anthony enjoyed great popular devotion in 17th Century Spain, which led Murillo to paint this subject repeatedly throughout his career. Murillo is also well-known for his representation of children, and would frequently depict holy figures as infants; as seen in his The Infant Saint John with the Lamb at the National Gallery, London.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Infant St. John the Baptist, National Gallery, London

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Infant St. John the Baptist, National Gallery, London

This brings us to our second work, a Spanish sculpture of the Infant Saint John. The sculpture dates from the late 17th or early 18th Century, and is by an unknown artist, possibly working around Seville. It is part of a tradition of Spanish polychrome (painted) sculpture that was intended to be as lifelike as possible, in order to provoke greater religious devotion. To create such realistic effects, statues were often adorned with glass eyes, wigs, and one recent example in Mexico was found to contain human teeth! [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-28703877].

Spanish School, Infant Saint John the Baptist, Birmingham Museums Trust

Spanish School, Infant Saint John the Baptist, Birmingham Museums Trust

The practice of creating child versions (Niños) of holy figures became incredibly popular in Spain. The practice had first developed in Italy, where widows and nuns used these ‘holy dolls’ to fulfill their desire for motherhood and to have a closer relationship with Christ. In Spain, these sculptures were used in both convents and churches, where they would be dressed in clothing and jewellery or used in processions, depending on the time of year; which explains why the BMAG sculpture is naked.

Juan Martínez Montañés, Iglesia del Sagrario de Sevilla

Juan Martínez Montañés, Iglesia del Sagrario de Sevilla

The BMAG sculpture is derived from the work of Juan Martínez Montañés, one of the most famous spanish sculptures of the 17th Century, who created a similar sculpture of the Christ Child for the confraternity of the holy sacrament in Seville in 1606. Typically, these sculptures would be made in wood, however, their popularity outstripped their production and the BMAG sculpture is made from pewter, suggesting it was cast; a less time consuming process than wood carving.

In many parts of the world, these sculptures still form an important aspect of religious devotion. One of the most famous examples is the Infant Jesus of Prague, which allegedly holds miraculous powers, especially among expectant mothers.

Infant Jesus of Prague, Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious in Malá Strana, Prague

Infant Jesus of Prague, Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious in Malá Strana, Prague

In terms of the re-hang, the Murillo will definitely go on display with the Infant Saint John the Baptist possibly displayed nearby, providing more context for the Spanish Baroque. Let me know your thoughts, perhaps the sculpture is just too freaky! In other news, I am starting audience consultations next week, where visitors can try their hand at re-displaying the Baroque Galleries. If you’re around Birmingham, then stop by to have a go or just have a chat on:

Friday 22nd August, 2pm-4pm

Thursday 28th August, 11am-1pm

For more information: http://bmagblog.org/2014/08/13/the-curation-game/

Finally, many thanks to Marjorie Trusted at the V&A who has been a huge help in discovering more about our Infant Saint John the Baptist sculpture.

Ring-a-ring of Roses

Daniel Seghers and Erasmus Quellinus the Younger, The Miracle of St. Bernard in a Garland of Flowers

This week’s post looks at a Flemish painting in BMAG’s collection The Miracle of St. Bernard in a Garland of Flowers, painted by not one but two artists: Daniel Seghers and Erasmus Quellinus the younger. The practice of producing collaborative work was far from unusual in 17th Century Holland and Flanders. The market for painting was highly competitive, and artists were obliged to specialise in a single genre (landscape, still-life, portraits, marine painting) and shine in that field. This meant that when artists wanted to combine genres, they would often find a partner to produce the work with. In the case of the BMAG painting, Seghers painted the flower wreath and Quellinus created the grisaille (monochrome) sculptural relief.

Daniel Seghers and Erasmus Quellinus the Younger, The Miracle of St Bernard in a Garland of Flowers, Birmingham Museums Trust

Daniel Seghers and Erasmus Quellinus the Younger, The Miracle of St Bernard in a Garland of Flowers, Birmingham Museums Trust

Flower painting was incredibly popular with both Dutch and Flemish artists in the 17th Century. The Miracle of St. Bernard in a Garland of Flowers, however, represents a type of painting unique to Flanders: a country, which unlike its neighbour Holland, remained Catholic. This had a profound impact on the art produced there, which retained its religious character, in contrast to Holland where the spread of Protestantism had led to many religious images being banned. The partly explains the use of religious imagery in BMAG painting; yet, this also had a personal significance for Seghers who was a member of the Jesuit order and whose paintings were frequently given as gifts rather than sold for profit.

The image at the centre of the wreath depicts the vision of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the founder of the Cistercian Order. In the vision, the Virgin appeared to St. Bernard, who is shown about to feed Christ, but not before a spurt of milk touches the Saint’s lips. That the scene is painted in grisaille, creating the illusion of stone sculpture, is very important. In 17th Century Flanders, several instances of ‘miracle-working’ sculptures had been recorded. These sculptures were often found in woods and fields, and would perform miraculous feats for those who prayed before them. This context is particularly relevant to the legend of St. Bernard since, in account from the fourteenth century, the saint was said to have prayed at Chatillon-sur-siene before a statue of the Virgin saying the words, ‘Show yourself as mother [of all mankind]’, at which drops of milk spurted onto the saint’s mouth. In this way, the BMAG painting deliberately blurs the line between painting and sculpture; and Erasmus Quellinus the Younger, whose brother and father were sculptors, was an ideal choice to paint it.

The central image is surrounded by a carefully planned bouquet of flowers, designed to focus the viewer’s meditation on the story of St. Bernard, acting as a stimulus to religious contemplation. The garland contains ivy, snowdrops, narcissi, roses, hyacinths, bluebells, pinks, hollyhocks and tulips. The tulips shown are the bi-coloured or ‘breaking’ tulips that caused ‘Tulipomania’ in Holland and Flanders during the 17th Century.

'Breaking' Tulip

‘Breaking’ Tulip

Tulipomania’ was the world’s first great speculation crisis. At the beginning of the 17th Century, tulips sold for dizzying amounts of money and the ‘breaking’ tulip, flowering in different colours, was the most rare. In fact, a rare ‘breaking’ tulip bulb could set you back 13,000 guilders (2500 guilders could probably buy you a farm). Although, today, we know that the rare ‘breaking’ tulip is not genetic, but is actually caused by a virus; thus, if you bought a ‘breaking’ tulip bulb, there would be no guarantee it would retain its distinctive bi-coloured pattern.

Prices for tulip bulbs escalated until the mid 1630s when it went into overdrive. Tulips have to be ground in the winter, making them physically impossible to trade during this time, to keep the market going sellers invented bills of exchange traded in paper form. By 1636 there were more bills than actual tulip bulbs, and the market collapsed in on itself. Overnight, bulbs became worthless and many lost everything; the artist Jan van Goyen, whose work is also represented in our collection, paid 900 guilders and two paintings for fifty bulbs the week of the crash. In this context, during the 17th Century flowers were far from innocuous, and be it positive or negative, the image of a tulip would definitely stimulate a reaction in the viewer.

Jan Van Goyen, River Scene, Birmingham Museums Trust

Jan Van Goyen, River Scene, Birmingham Museums Trust

The Miracle of St. Bernard in a Garland of Flowers will definitely form part of my re-display. It’s a fantastic example, and is also the only flower painting in the collection. But where to put it? I’ve built a model of the galleries, and am starting to think about where to hang the pictures, but there’s just not enough room! What do you think should make the cut?

Ideas for displaying the Dutch and Flemish pictures

Ideas for displaying the Dutch and Flemish pictures

Bologna Baroque

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Girl Holding a Dove

Since my last post, I have travelled to Bologna; home of Guido Reni, the Carracci academy and the lesser known pasta sauce. Whilst in the city, I was fortunate enough to visit the incredible Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, with its many baroque masterpieces. The artist I have chosen to focus on in this post, however, is Guiseppe Maria Crespi: his painting of Girl Holding a Dove at BMAG and its relationship to Girl with a Rose and a Cat in the Bolognese collection.

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The Bolognese painter Crespi had a varied output, but is perhaps best known for his intimate genre scenes. Indeed, he was one of the first artists of note to use contemporary life as a serious subject for painting. His figures are presented with a particular softness. Using contrasts of light and dark, Crespi would build up impasto in the brightest areas and apply pigment thinly in the shadows, before adding a final glaze to create a smooth transition between the two. In fact, after Crespi’s death, it was suggested that the artist had been a pioneer of the use of the camera obscura in painting, allowing him to study the effects of light within his studio.

Crespi’s picture of a Girl Holding a Dove at BMAG demonstrates this beautiful use of light and shade, and the figure is given a luminous quality. The girl is holding a pet bird in her right hand, whilst offering it a treat with her left. In the background, obscured in the darkness, we can see the bird’s wicker cage. The scene carries connotations of femininity, whilst the cage may reference to the entrapments of love.

The BMAG painting has much in common with Crespi’s painting of a Girl with a Rose and a Cat in Bologna. The work carries a similar subject and theme. Here, the figure holds two objects associated with softness and delicacy, yet both conceal thorns and claws, again alluding to the pain that comes with love. At one time it was believed that Girl with a Rose and a Cat and BMAG’s Girl Holding a Dove might have been pendants, that is, when an artist conceives of two paintings as a pair – although we now know that this was not the case.

Crespi produced many of these genre paintings, showing female figures within domestic settings. During my research, I also found this drawing attributed to Crespi. Most bizarrely, however, here the sitter is shown holding a gun. If anyone has any guesses as to the significance of this, then please let me know.

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Girl with a Dove is a lovely work, which will definitely feature in my final hang. As ever, your thoughts and feelings are much appreciated!

Small Artist Trapped in Painting

Carlo Dolci, The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew

The subject of this post is Carlo Dolci’s painting The Martydom of Saint Andrew. Dolci was the most important painter in 17th Century Florence, known for his paintings depicting intense and emotive religious subjects, characterised by an obsessive attention to detail and texture.

Carlo Dolci, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew, Birmingham Museums Trust

Carlo Dolci, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew, Birmingham Museums Trust

This story of this painting does not begin in Florence, however, but Venice. Having achieved some success in his home city, The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew was Dolci’s introduction to the Venetian art market, where his work was an instant hit. Dolci’s first painting of The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew, commissioned by his friend and patron Paolo Del Sera(now in a private collection, New York) was reproduced at least 3 times for collectors around Venice. The Birmingham painting was probably the first of these variants. In fact, the fame of the painting was such that it was copied countless more times by followers and imitators of Dolci’s techniques.

Detail, The Martyrdom of St.Andrew, Birmingham Museums Trust

Detail, The Martyrdom of St.Andrew, Birmingham Museums Trust

Yet, the BMAG painting is the only version by Dolci to include a miniature self-portrait of the artist himself.Dolci places himself just below St. Andrew’s right hand. It is uncertain why Dolci chose to include himself in this specific version, maybe he was particularly proud of this work (perhaps the finest of the variants) or possibly he was friendly with the collector it was made for.

The Birmingham painting – and indeed all other versions – contain a number of other interesting minute details. In between the Executioner’s legs we can see tiny recreations of Titian’s Man with a Cap (Frick Collection, New York) and a quote from Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon). Dolci frequently copied the paintings of Old Masters, displayed in the Palazzi of Florence. However, the Titian and the Rubens might also be a pointed nod to the collecting interests of Paolo del Sera (who commissioned the original), who possessed works by both artists.

Detail, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew, Birmingham Museums Trust

Detail, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew, Birmingham Museums Trust

Titian, Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, Frick Collection

Titian, Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, Frick Collection, New York

Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Magi, Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon

Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Magi, Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon

The Matrydom of Saint Andrew is one of BMAG’s underrated masterpieces, simultaneously painful and sweet, filled with exquisite details. This will definitely be included in my re-display but I want to give it more prominence, presenting it in a way that encourages people to give it a second look.