I was in London for a client meeting recently and Charlotte surprised me with a visit after I was finished. It goes without saying that the depths of my delight as this surprise are quite indescribable. One of our activities was to visit the National Gallery. One of the first pieces of transcendent religious art which we saw was The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli. This masterpiece was completed in 1486 and is an example of the late Gothic Italian style.
Born in Venice, he absorbed the influences of the Vivarini, the Bellini, and Andrea Mantegna to create an elegant, profuse, effusive, and extreme style, dominated by strong outlines and clear, crisp colors—perhaps incorporating just a whiff of early Netherlandish manuscript style. Smart History
The Annunciation is a very important moment in the Gospel and indeed is foundational to the Christian faith. It is the moment the angel Gabriel came down from heaven and announced to the Virgin Mary that she was going to be the mother of Jesus. It is also the moment Gabriel announces that Mary’s cousin, who is a lot older, will also conceive a child (John the Baptist). I have included the full reading and the full painting below:
26 The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
27 to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.
28 And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
29 But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
30 Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.
31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.
32 He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
33 and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
34 But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
35 And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
36 And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
37 for nothing will be impossible for God.”
38 Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
The below is the upper part of the painting which was the first to transfix me. The way the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven through a swirling vortex and passes through a small golden arched aperture was very moving to me. The strands of light surrounding it look like the strands surrounding the vortex look like the decorations around the host in a monstrance. The gold detailing around the fascia are absolutely incredible to me. Again this is a painting from 1486. The way Crivelli brought out the detailing in this painting astonishes me. Every square centimetre has been considered and rendered with such mastery that I am lost for words. Look at the draped carpet in the top right corner and the colours on it.
Below is the lower part of the painting. I love how the frame of the painting matches the render on the room. On the bottom left we have the angel Gabriel and St Emidius with the Italian town of Ascoli Piceno, of which he is patron Saint. It also shows the beam of the Holy Spirit entering the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit represented as a bird. The detailing in this is exquisite, the folded fabric of Gabriel, St Emidius and Mary’s clothing, the grille and plant on the window sill, the gold and red thread of Mary’s bedding, the items on the shelving and the book holder where Mary is reading scripture paint a beautiful picture. Libertas Ecclesiatica is written under this scene:
The inscription along the base of the painting reads “Libertas Ecclesiastica” (church liberty), and refers to Ascoli’s right to self-government, free from the interference of the Pope, a right granted to the town by Sixtus IV in 1482. The news reached Ascoli on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation, which is probably the message the official in black is reading. Smart History
Emidius is the patron saint of the town of Ascoli Piceno, and Crivelli painted this altarpiece for the city’s church of the Santissima Annunciazione (the Holy Annunciation). A proud citizen, Emidius seems to have hurried to catch up to Gabriel to proudly show off his detailed model of the town, which he holds rather gingerly, as though the paint hasn’t quite dried. Ibidem
It is unusual to see Gabriel and Mary separate but the message is just as striking: the beautiful joyful mystery of the annunciation. Mary has been chosen to carry the saviour of the world and will forever be called blessed. This painting is an absolute joy and likely was part of the inspiration of the Pre-Raphaelite works which Charlotte and I so love.
48 From now on, all generations will call me blessed.
By the kindness of my good friend Colin, Charlotte and I managed to go to Oxford ostensibly to see Grace Jones at the Kite Festival. We did not want to spend the day in a field for the one artist we wanted to see, so we spent most of the day in Oxford. Among our wonderful and unforgettable dalliances, we visited the Ashmolian. Heading straight for the art after having seen a beautiful sculpture of Antinous and Hadrian (Memoirs of Hadrian was by Marguerite Yourcenar was one of the first books we shared), we happened upon a Pre-Raphaelite room. My interest in them was non-existent prior to meeting Charlotte but, as with many now sacrosanct parts of my life, they have brought me tremendous joy. The below represents the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Some historical context below:
Holman Hunt was among the crowd on London Bridge on the night of 10 March 1863, celebrating the marriage of Princess Alexandra of Denmark to the future Edward VII. He made sketches of it, but did not complete this painting until 16 May 1864, retouching it in 1866. He was fascinated by the contrasts of natural and artificial light and by the ‘Hogarthian humour’ of the crowds. He introduced portraits of several friends and acquaintances, including Thomas Combe in a top hat on the extreme left, arm in arm with the artist himself; and Mrs Combe with Millais’s father and brother and the artist Robert Braithwaite Martineau. The frame was designed by Hunt to combine emblems appropriate to a wedding and the arms of the royal families of Denmark and England. Art UK
Hunt, William Holman; London Bridge on the Night of the Marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales; The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology
This painting transfixed me in Oxford. I stood in front of it for many minutes in awe. The colours and lighting is so vivid. The smoke, fire, clothing and even the cloth on the flags all add up to a splendid procession of movement and celebration. Charlotte is right to label this as a man’s painting. It has a brooding, dark and smokey atmosphere. In fact on second review, it appears almost haunting.
I am glad to have brought this painting to your attention. This is yet another of the innumerable examples of wondrous beautiful things which Charlotte and I enjoy together. Thank you, my dearest, as ever for having introduced me to Holman Hunt.
On the first weekend in May, Cedric, Nick and I visited The Wallace Collection to round off a
happy weekend in London. Like many museums in London, The Wallace Collection is free and
very much worth a visit. Once again, I had the delight of finally seeing in person many paintings
I had admired for years, although I was sad that Fragonard’s playful rococo masterpiece Les
hasards heureux de l’escarpolette, commonly known in English as The Swing, was in a separate
exhibition at the time of our visit. The sumptuous collection of paintings, sculptures, exquisite
porcelain and much more is set in the former townhouse of the Seymour family, and the rooms
are just as much art as the works held within them.
Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette, Jean-Honoré Fragonard
One of the paintings that stood out to me on our visit to The Wallace Collection was an
enormous and striking depiction of Paolo and Francesca observed by Dante and Virgil, taken
from Dante’s Inferno. The painter, Ary Scheffer, painted several versions of the picture with
various titles, and the one held in The Wallace Collection is simply called Francesca da Rimini.
I had wanted to see this painting for years, having grown fond of Dante during my two years of
Italian at university. It depicts Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, the lovers who end up
in the second circle of Hell as Dante imagines it in his Inferno. This second out of nine circles is
reserved for the lustful. Francesca, both in real life and in Dante’s Inferno, was married to
Giovanni Malatesta but had an illicit relationship with his younger brother, Paolo. Giovanni was
filled with rage on discovering them in flagrante delicto and murdered them both. Without the
opportunity to go to confession before dying, they are cut off from God for eternity.
Paolo and Francesca – Ary Scheffer
Dante’s couple has inspired many other works of art, and artists have chosen different moments
in Paolo and Francesca’s affair. Many paintings show their first wild abandon to passion while
reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere:
‘We were reading one day for fun
How Lancelot was seized by love:
we were alone, but didn’t suspect.
Several times the book made us pale,
making us look in each other’s eyes,
But only once it became too much.
When we read of that adorable smile
And how the great lover kisses it,
This man, who’ll always be by me,
He kissed my mouth all quivering.
Both book and author were panders:
we didn’t read any more that day.’ (Inferno, V.III, ll. 127-138)
Scheffer, instead, has chosen the moment that Virgil shows Dante what has become of Paolo and
Francesca. Dante and his poet guide can be seen on the right of Scheffer’s painting, lingering in
the shadowy background. The chiaroscuro in the painting is ironic, given the moral overtones of
the poem and painting; Paolo and Francesca are milky white in contrast to the darkness of the
background. Francesca’s mouth is slack with sorrow, Paolo swoons as Francesca clings to him,
and they both bear stab wounds. Tangled in bedsheets, they are buffeted about by the wind, just
as they allowed themselves to be swept up by lust during their earthly lives; Dante describes
them as ‘like doves summoned by desire, [who] sweep across the sky on impulse, gliding
towards their happy nest’ (ll. 82-84).
I do not think the morality behind this painting’s story is the reason for my liking it and, indeed,
suggesting it. Its sensuality is infused with a delicate pathos, and its scale is impressive, too, like
the painting of Isabella and the Pot of Basil I discussed in a previous post. Scheffer’s painting
reminded me of my love of Dante, whose writing I have neglected for several years now. I highly
recommend London’s Wallace Collection, one of many (free!) gems in our great sprawling
capital, as I also recommend Dante’s Divine Comedy. Don’t be intimidated by its status as a
towering epic; Professor Steve Ellis’ translation (used in this post).
Millais was one of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood’s founding fathers. Ophelia is his most famous painting. Through Charlotte, I have come to love the Pre Raphs’ paintings, style and unique voice. The below is no exception. I was particularly moved by the below when I was doing research into the brotherhood for a series of upcoming posts.
Later on in life, Millais turned more towards landscape painting, creating breathtakingly beautiful artworks depicting the Scottish scenery. One such painting is Dew-Drenched Furze of 1889-1890, which is a picturesque view of the woods in Perthshire. While this dense landscape of muted greens and golden, soft yellows, devoid of any figures, is very detailed, there is an almost fogginess to it, giving it a slight abstract feel – breaking away from his usual clear, crisp artworks. Culture Trip
There are many reasons why I love this painting. The rendering is exquisite. The lighting and the way it interacts with the dew on the furze has an inherently magical quality. The depth of the painting is also quite impressive. The tall furze at the front, with the brambles all covered in morning dew, topped by a serene scene and a deep wood. The light coming through in the central part is hopeful. The height of the trees and their variety is also lovely and contributes to an overall air of peace.
One of the reasons I love this painting is that it reminded me of a scene from my last trip to France with Charlotte. At the time of writing we have planned our next trip and I can only hope it contains the same magic as our first trip. The below is a photograph my mother took of a clearing near the house, where we went on a walk one day.
Suffice to say, there will be more Millais magic to come!
One of Keats’ last poems tells the tale of his doomed love for Fanny Brawne.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
Through Charlotte’s love of Keats, I have become a fan of the great man. Watching the film Bright Star with her and hearing her wide knowledge and infectious passion for the poet is something which will stay with me. The cover photo for this post is taken from the film. One of the memorable scenes for us was Ben Whishaw looking up having climbed a tree barefooted. Reading Keats is very much, for me, like this photograph. Floating atop a tree and letting the words wash over me. This poem is no different.
The poem starts on a melancholy note, as thought he speaker is longing to be someone else. The star is the object of the poem and represents both eternity and transience. The star is of course Fanny Brawne, his neighbour and companion through the later years of Keats’ short life. Keats wishes to remain with his fair love, with his head on her chest looking up, forever. I imagine given the year this was written (1818 or 1819), Keats may have been aware of the illness which was to take his life in 1821. The main themes of the poem are love, life and death, purity, steadfastness and sensuality.
The last four lines are particularly evocative. We can see the depth of moving passion he has for his bright star. He takes special pleasure in listening to her breathe and indeed breathing with her while looking up. He is so profoundly and purely in love that this moment will suffice for him eternally. Would that we could have a love as steadfast as this. How lucky is the man who can love purely in this age of relentless and aggressive secular rhetoric.
I would like to thank my own bright star, as I do daily, for her own steadfastness and for introducing me to one of the immortals in Keats.
Frank Bernard Dicksee (1853–1928) created this beautiful work after reading Keats’ 1819 poem, or ballad, of the same name. This is quoted below. The poem itself is a sort of fairy tale gone awry. The knight at arms finds a women who is ostensibly in love with him, only to find her deserting him after their first and only night together. The poem itself is quite frappant and I shall leave you to read it.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Dicksee, Frank; La belle dame sans merci; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives
This splendid painting captures the moment after the knight at arms places the belle dame on his steed, and she leans over singing a faery’s song. We can see the garland on her head and the bracelets made by the knight on her head and arms, respectively. The knight is besotted with his new beloved. The expression on his face and the possessiveness with which he grips onto the horse are both evident in the painting’s rendering. The horse seems to be the only one who is with the programme and sees what is coming, having bowed his head in shame, almost.
The knight’s armour is done beautifully. I should note that while Dicksee was never a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, his work does show the extent of their influence on his artistic vision. The lighting, the subject matter, the beautiful colours, the red flowing hair of the belle dame herself – all of these elements form a striking picture. The portrait in my view does homage to Keats’ masterful poem.
The predominant mood is one of enchantment, intensified by the idyllic setting of the English countryside: ‘I met a lady in the meads, Full beautiful – a faery’s child, Her hair was long, her foot was light, And her eyes were wild… I set her on my pacing steed, And nothing else saw all day long; For side long would she bend, and sing A faery’s song.’ A fascination with chivalry had lasted throughout the nineteenth century, typically combining romantic escapism with a cautionary note of the ‘femme fatale’. Art UK
I shall leave it to my dearest to explain the vicissitudes of Monsieur Keats’ poetry. I was quite taken aback by this poem on second and third reading. It is beautifully crafted, symmetrical and pierces through the reader. The reader finds him or herself on the hill, with the knight at arms, alone and deserted, bereft of swiftly developed love. These two are a beautiful combination of art forms, I am grateful to Charlotte for sharing these with me.