“To believe your own thoughts, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (After Caravaggio)
by Joe Grenn
A friend once said to me, “I don’t believe in religion. Why would you ever paint religious scenes?” But I don’t paint them because they are religious. They are fantastic mystical stories that have held up for centuries, as have those of Shakespeare or Homer. Paintings tell a story and no one told a story like Caravaggio. They became sensations at a time when few people could read and, for those that could, there was no other way to visualize them.
As I have said before, I am a big fan of Caravaggio. One day, while perusing a rather large coffee table book on him, I was so impressed with his painting “The Taking of Christ” that I decided to reproduce it on a thirty-six by forty-eight inch canvas. I did it for two reasons (of which I am aware). First, I wanted to learn more about his technique and, second, I was pretty sure I couldn’t afford to buy an original, so I wanted to paint my own. Before I knew it, I was mesmerized in the process and painted nothing else for several hundred hours. I learned later that this painting was the most copied of all of his works.
When I finished, I proceeded to paint “St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy.” The story is told by one of Francis’ companions, Brother Leo. In 1224 Francis retired to the wilderness with a small number of his followers to contemplate God. On the mountainside at night Brother Leo saw a six-winged seraph (one of the higher Orders of angels) come down to Francis in answer to the saint’s prayer that he might know both Christ’s suffering and His love:
“All of a sudden there was a dazzling light. It was as though the heavens were exploding and splashing forth all their glory in millions of waterfalls of colors and stars. And in the center of that bright whirlpool was a core of blinding light that flashed down from the depths of the sky with terrifying speed until suddenly it stopped, motionless and sacred, above a pointed rock in front of Francis. It was a fiery figure with wings, nailed to a cross of fire. Two flaming wings rose straight upward, two others opened out horizontally, and two more covered the figure. And the wounds in the hands and feet and heart were blazing rays of blood. The sparkling features of the Being wore an expression of supernatural beauty and grief. It was the face of Jesus, and Jesus spoke. Then suddenly streams of fire and blood shot from his wounds and pierced the hands and feet of Francis with nails and his heart with the stab of a lance. As Francis uttered a mighty shout of joy and pain, the fiery image impressed itself into his body, as into a mirrored reflection of itself, with all its love, its beauty, and its grief. And it vanished within him. Another cry pierced the air. Then, with nails and wounds through his body, and with his soul and spirit aflame, Francis sank down, unconscious, in his blood.”
One of the keys to painting is to represent the multiple planes created by light falling on an object on the two-dimensional canvas. What I learned from my reproduction was that I could paint one plane for every ten of Caravaggio’s. And he did it with live models in a fraction of the time. A true master worthy of his place in the history of art.
I have never put that Caravaggio book back on the shelf and have to constantly resist the temptation to open it as I would be compelled to do another reproduction. But I still haven’t tried his trick of coating the flesh tones with raw egg yolk (egg tempera) to give them a more life-like effect. Maybe I’ll take another peek at that book.
How The Duccio Block Became David
This is an incredible story about a genius and a block of marble from Carrara known as the Duccio block. In 1464, the officials in charge of the Opera del Duomo ordered a statue of David to be sculpted.
A huge slab of marble was extracted from the Carrara quarries in Tuscany for the project. One of Donatello’s students, Agostino di Duccio, was awarded the job but abandoned it for unknown reasons. But we do know that the marble was of poor quality. The block of marble was considered unusable. It was seriously gouged in the center of its seventeen-foot length and any attempt to move it could prove fatal. What we might call a lemon today.
In the summer of 1501 a new effort was made to find a sculptor who could finish the statue. Most experts felt the block was too weak to sculpt a free-standing figure of that height. But Michelangelo, as was his way, could see David already and only had to release him from the marble. The 26-year-old sculptor Michelangelo Buonarotti, was chosen and given two years to complete it.
The sculptor stated, “ The Giant is my great opportunity to create something glorious.” So early in the morning on September 13, 1501, the young artist got to work on the slab, extracting the figure of David in a miraculous process that the artist and writer Giorgio Vasari would later describe as “the bringing back to life of one who was dead.”
The first thing He did was to lay huge pieces of paper on the horizontal block and to cut out the sagoma, a silhouette, his outline for the deepest cut. He then nailed up the papers up with a second series for the design of David.
The statue stood outside of the Duomo in Florence because it was too heavy to place on the roofline of the cathedral as previously planned, so it was placed at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence for what was to be just a short time. It turned out to be three hundred and sixty-five years. In 1873 it was finally moved indoors to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and a replica was erected at the original site.
Sculptors at the time were accustomed to do the first smaller model in clay. But Michelangelo, becoming frustrated with the process, requested a five-foot block of marble to do his. Michelangelo plunged into the marble roughing his way through the marble with his hammer and chisel. He shortly had his model.
At one point, the impatient pope demanded to see the statue before it was finished. Michelangelo reluctantly obeyed him. The pope looked at it and told the sculptor that the nose was too big. So Michelangelo climbed the scaffolding with a chisel, a hammer, a chip of marble and some marble dust. As the Pope watched, the master hit the block of marble in his hand with the hammer and let the dust and chip fall from above. “Aha”, said the Pope, “much better now, you may proceed with your work”.
The full story of Michelangelo’s David is beautifully told in Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy in the chapter, The Giant. Hands down my all time favorite book. If I had only one message to the world, it would be to read this amazing story of the birth of the Renaissance and of Michelangelo”s life.
From the Agony and the Ecstasy.
“The figure, although muscular, is slimmer than the bodybuilder-like physiques that are typical of Michelangelo’s other works. This may be because the marble slab was narrow, having been cut with the thinner statues of Donatello and Duccio’s era in mind. The absence of David’s traditional accouterments, a sword and the severed head of Goliath, maybe because there was no room to carve them in the block of marble or possibly because they would have been invisible once the statue was put in place on the cathedral roof. Likewise, David’s disproportionately large right hand and prominent facial expression may have been exaggerated to ensure that they would be legible to spectators on the ground. The key to the beauty and balance of the composition was in that right hand enclosing the stone. The rest of David’s anatomy and the feeling grew from here. It created a width and bulk to compensate for the leanness with which he had to carve the straight left hip opposite, even as the right arm and elbow would be the most delicate form in the composition.
The Duomo work yard, where the block laid, was two blocks from Michelangelo’s house. Since the block was too fragile to be moved and the master wanted to be near the sounds of the other artisans, the location was perfect for him.
The sculptor went to work chipping out the marble for the top and bottom corners to balance the weight and lessen the danger of it cracking.
In the end, he produced the David he was seeking. David’s countenance portrayed the man who was happy to roam the hills of Jerusalem and cared little for the clash of arms or material reward. But knew that, once he killed Goliath, he would be committed to warfare and power. His face would portray the reluctance of giving up his pastoral life. No Kingdom or power could compensate a man for the loss of his privacy. The dichotomy in all men: the reflective life or the active.”
When offered luxury and a female company by the Pope, he stated:” What you put into the ladies at night, you cannot put into the marble in the morning.”
Many question if there is a God. To me, the best proof would be when a twenty-six-year-old sculptor, named Michaelangelo Buonarotti, created the statue of David. Perhaps one of the best examples of “When given a lemon, make lemonade”.
James Tissot: Fashion & Faith at the Legion of Honor
October 12, 2019 – February 9, 2020
James Tissot was one of the most celebrated artists of his time, yet today, less is known about him than his contemporaries, the Impressionists. This first major reassessment of Tissot’s career offers West Coast audiences a rare glimpse at the fascinating life and dazzling art of a man who captured an era.
Did You Know?
Washington Irving ( 1783 – 1859), American’s first professional author, and creator of Rip Van Winkle and The Headless Horseman, moaned that New York, a dignified old Dutch settlement, was now being overrun by the crassly commercial, money-grubbing Yankees from New England: “ a long sided, raw-boned, hardy race of whoreson whalers, woodcutters, fisherman, and pedlers [sic], and strapping corn–fed wrenches; who by their united efforts tended marvelously toward populating those notable tracts of country called Nantucket, Piscataway, and Cape Cod.”
As Steven Ujifusa tells us in his Barons of the Sea,” The Old Dutch families, whose wealth came from large feudal tracts of farmland in Manhattan and the Hudson Valley, male gentry and good manners. Irving coined a name for the aloof and insular elites: Knickerbockers. He also came up with a lasting nickname for New York: Gotham”.
Even though I grew up in the old whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Herman Melville wrote his incredible Moby Dick, I will give Washington Irving a pass on his comments on New Englanders considering his brilliant contributions to literature. But he did get me to take a peek in the mirror to check if I was long-side (I’m still not sure what that is) or raw-boned. I think I’m okay.