Mantuan roundel export ban

BBC News ran a report today on this 15th century treasure, saying the UK has put a temporary export ban on the Renaissance bronze roundel.

photo: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The report described the Manuan roundel as being about 42cm (16.5inches in diameter), depicting Vulcan and his wife Venus – the goddess of love. Venus is holding her son Cupid, while turning towards her lover Mars, the god of war.

Seemingly no one is sure who designed the roundel or who it was produced for. For some of the answers, watch this space during the coming week!

Smoke and Leonardo’s eye

Leonardo da Vinci, a master of ‘sfumato’, described the painting technique as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane”.

The detail above is from Andrea Mantegna’s Parnassus in which he makes several references to Leonardo, the sfumato technique being one. Here we see the smoke drifting from the side of the mountain in the direction of the Cupid figure.

But Mantegna amplifies the connection to Leonardo by applying the transition effect of the smoke to form a soft and partial image of the polymath’s head, notably an eye and his mouth. To see this the painting has to be rotated 90º.

At this angle we can see Leonardo has his eye on the Cupid figure. It is meant to represent a young boy who forms part of a relief scupture known as the Madonna of the Stairs (c.1491), an early work by Michelangelo when he was about 15 years old.

Mantegna also matches the boy appearing to have a shortened leg, the effect of climbing stairs. The steps in Mantegna’s version are created by the rocky indents, profiled to suggest the facial features of a lion – and another reference to Leonardo.

Step by step, Michelangelo became the new sensation in Florence, while Leonardo, the god of transitions, moved out beyond the focus plain of Florence and headed North to Milan for a new beginning.

Transition is a major theme of Mantegna’s Parnassus painting.

Botticelli’s Adoration of the Christ Child

This large tondo-format Nativity scene (without its frame) is four feet in diameter! Titled Adoration of the Christ Child, it is one of many Nativity paintings produced by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. This particular version is dated c.1500 and housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

The museum’s website provides this description:

“At once narrative and symbolic, this elegant painting by Sandro Botticelli expands the conventional theme of the Adoration of the Christ Child. In the central scene, the gracefully arched bodies of Mary and Joseph echo the contours of the round picture format.

“The Virgin Mary kneels in veneration before the Christ Child, while Joseph sleeps. The infant lies stiffly on Mary’s cloak, parallel to the picture plane and presented to the devout viewer for adoration. Two shepherds at right approach to offer Christ a sacrificial lamb, and the Holy Family’s subsequent Flight into Egypt is depicted in the background at left.

“Botticelli oversaw an active workshop, producing hundreds of paintings—especially devotional images of the Virgin and Child—over the course of his career. Very few of Botticelli’s paintings are signed or dated, and it is often difficult to determine his authorship. Some scholars attribute this work entirely to Botticelli, but it may have been executed in part by his assistants.”

What the museum doesn’t point out is the male figures also represent four artists: Sandro Botticelli as the Christ Child, Andrea del Verrocchio as Joseph, Domenico Ghirlandaio as one of the shepherds carrying the lamb, and Leonardo da Vinci as the other shepherd.

The four artists are also depicted in Verrocchio’s painting, the Baptism of Christ, produced a quarter of a century earlier, around 1475, in which Leonardo is said to have painted one of the angels.

Another painting linked to Botticelli’s Adoration of the Christ Child is Andrea Mantegna’s Parnassus (Louvre), dated at 1497, although there are elements in the work to suggest it may not have been completed until 1498.

This would place the completion of the Botticelli painting at an earlier date than c1500 for Mantegna to have had sight of it and reference it in the Parnassus. Other Botticelli works are also alluded to in the Mantegna painting, as are several references to Leonardo da Vinci.

So why would Botticelli choose to depict himself as the Christ Child? What narrative was he presenting when he did this, and how did it relate to the other artists featured in the painting?

This seemingly simple Nativity is embedded with much more than what appears at surface level.

Some answers and more details about this painting in a future post.

More heads… and shoulders

This is the second part of a sequence demonstratrating how Hugo van der Goes ‘translated’ iconography from Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting of Jerome in the Desert (see previous two posts) to the Panel of the Relic, the sixth section of the St Vincent Panels.

The Vatican Museums which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Jerome dates the unfinished work to c1482, the year that is also put forward for the death of Hugo van der Goes.

Below are details from two versions of the St Jerome painting, before and after its latest restoration. At some time the oil on wood panel was cut into five parts, generally considered to have happened after Leonardo had died in 1519. You can see some of the cut marks on the earlier version that frame Jerome’s head. The latest restoration has also brought back to life the sky backdrop which tapers to a sharp point and which had been overpainted on a previous restoration, probably at the time the cut-down pieces were reassembled.

Apart from representing tassels hanging from a cardinal’s hat, the larger mount and the smaller one next to it equate to the ears of both donkey and hare, attributes associated with the story of St Jerome in the desert.

Both the tapering gap between the rock formation and the vertical cut mark which runs through Jerome’s shoulder are two key components adpated by Hugo van der Goes for linking Leonaardo’s Jerome painting to his own version of Jerome in the Panel of the Relic.

There is another scenario to this coupling which refers to an injury sustained by Leonardo which I shall put aisde for posting at another time.

Hugo has converted the tapering sky section to represent the ears of the donkey and the hare. As for the cut mark, was the panel already in pieces when Hugo had sight of the painting? Possibly, because he has shown a saw blade cutting into the shoulder of his version of Jerome, parallel with the representation of the hare. But in this instance the hare now becomes a blade. Here we see Hugo punning on saw (sore) shoulder and shoulder blade!

Another pun made by Hugo is hare to hair. Leonardo was noted for writing fables and humerous anecdotes in his notebooks. One such fable in Notebook XX is about a razor blade:

The razor having one day come forth from the handle which serves as its sheath and having placed himself in the sun, saw the sun reflected in his body, which filled him with great pride. And turning it over in his thoughts he began to say to himself: “And shall I return again to that shop from which I have just come? Certainly not; such splendid beauty shall not, please God, be turned to such base uses. What folly it would be that could lead me to shave the lathered beards of rustic peasants and perform such menial service! Is this body destined for such work? Certainly not. I will hide myself in some retired spot and there pass my life in tranquil repose.” And having thus remained hidden for some months, one day he came out into the air, and issuing from his sheath, saw himself turned to the similitude of a rusty saw while his surface no longer reflected the resplendent sun. With useless repentance he vainly deplored the irreparable mischief saying to himself: “Oh! how far better was it to employ at the barbers my lost edge of such exquisite keenness! Where is that lustrous surface? It has been consumed by this vexatious and unsightly rust.”
The same thing happens to those minds which instead of exercise give themselves up to sloth. They are like the razor here spoken of, and lose the keenness of their edge, while the rust of ignorance spoils their form.

Fables of Leonardo da Vinci (Book, 1973) [WorldCat.org]

I previously identified the “rustic peasant” as Jan van Eyck representing John the Baptist, but there are two more identities asociated with the figure which I shall reveal in one of my next posts in this series.

Hugo’s Jerome figure also represents cardinal Henry Beaufort, one of the richest men in England during his lifetime. The portrait is adapted from Jan van Eyck’s version of Beaufort, and not just because of his razored haircut. Notice in Van Eyck’s Beaufort (not dressed as a cardinal) the gament’s sleeves lined with sheep-wool – and shaped to represent the ears of a donkey – a reference to Beaufort’s Midas touch at turning everything into riches!

Bringing matters to a head

This post is the first of a sequence demonstratrating how Hugo van der Goes ‘translated’ iconography from Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting of Jerome in the Desert (see previous post) to the Panel of the Relic, the sixth section of the St Vincent Panels.

Hugo utilised Leonardo’s crucifixion sketch to depict the profled head of Christ crucified which is placed facing the pilgrim’s left hand, whose knuckles also echo the head shape Leonardo formed on Jerome’s right shoulder. This similitude links to a passage from Mark’s gospel (15:34) when Jesus was dying on his cross and cried out: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” (Mark 15 :34). Some in attendance mistakenly thought he was calling out to Elijah. The head shape on the knuckle represents Elijah forsaking Jesus and turning away frorm him.

The Father figure is found in the hair section covering the pilgrim’s temple. This is similar to the crucifixion motif formed by Pilate’s ear and hairline in the Panel of he Friars. The connection is one of several made between the two panels and also links to a major theme that runs through all six sections of the painting – the words of the Nicene Creed.

The galero or cardinal’s hat and tassels are not difficult to pick out. The cardinal’s hat is shaped hanging down at the side of Hugo’s figure of Jerome, while the tassels, depicted as thorn tassels in this instance, are attached to the corners of the green cloth.

More on this in my next post.

Leonardo in the Wilderness

In my previous post I revealed that St Jerome is one of the identities given to the figure in the forefront of the Panel of the Relic. Hugo van der Goes links this version to an unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci known as St Jerome in the Wilderness, which is housed in the Vatican Museums.

It’s generally accepted that Leonardo’s rendering was produced in 1480, shortly before he was commissioned in March 1481 to paint the Adoration of the Magi. This work also remained unfinished, probably because Leonardo left Florence in 1482 and moved to Milan.

That Hugo van der Goes has referenced Leonardo’s Jerome in specific ways in the Panel of the Relic not only helps date the St Vincent Panels but also calls into question the date that Hugo supposedly died, put at 1482.

There is also a questionable claim that Leonardo’s Jerome was cut down into five pieces after his death in 1519 (and reassembled centuries later). Hugo van der Goes provides evidence that the painting was sectioned during his lifetime. One of the pieces – the head – is also a clue to the identity of the Relic.

For details about St Jerome’s attributes and legends, go to this page.

Several of Jerome’s attributes can be identified in Leonardo’s painting. The brimmed Cardinal’s hat or galero is shaped from the rock at the top of the frame, the pointed mount represents the tassels that hang from the hat. Combined with the smaller mount alongside, the two pointed rock shapes also represent the donkey’s ears and those of the rabbit or hare. The rabbit usually symbolises the sexual temptations of the saint. Like the lion in the forefront, both donkey and hare are lying down. The curved shape in front of the sketch of the church is the back end of the monastery donkey, while the shape of the back of the hare is silhouetted above Jerome’s right arm wih the stone in his hand used to beat his chest with. To the right of the monastery is a profile sketch of a crucifix.

Jerome also claims that he saw himself in a dream being scourged in heaven, and when he awoke he could see the scourge marks on his shoulder. Leonardo portrays this in a rather unusual way. The well-formed deltoid muscle area on Jerome’s right shoulder is shaped to form a human face looking upwards at the galero’s knotted tassels and the sharp-shaped stones doubling up to represent a scourge.

But before I post on some of these details in the Panel of the Relic, it’s worth noting that another artist utilised the St Jerome in the Desert painting to reference an event in the life of Leonardo da Vinci.

The painting by Luca Signorelli is titled Testament and Death of Moses and is one of six frescos completed by various artists depicting the Life of Moses on the South Wall in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.

Seated on a tree stump in the centre section is an almost naked Leonardo da Vinci, surrounded by a group of Florentine society’s hierarchy that includes Lorenzo de’ Medici and two of his sons, Piero and Giovanni. Placed in front of Piero and the man looking down on Leonardo is the Medici banker Francesco Sassetti. Next to Sassetti with his back to the viewer is the painter Luca Signorelli. There is a reason for his prominent placing. Firstly, his name Signorelli is a play on the word Signoria, Florence’s Town Council. Secondly, he depicts himself as a rather flamboyant figure representing Sodomy, a charge which Leonardo was annoymously accused of and brought before the Signoria to answer. The accusation against Lenardo and three other men was later dropped because of lack of evidence and possibly because one of the men, Lorenzo Tornabuoni, had a family connection to the Medici.

The figure can also be identified as Lorenzo Tornabuoni via the family’s coat of arms, a rampant lion, its colours predominately pale blue (or green) and gold. The knotted armband represents the shield and its cross attached to the lion’s shoulder. The golden eagle featured in two corners of the stemma is echoed in the coat of the man standing behind the seated Leonardo, probably Angelo Poliziano, the classical scholar and poet who tutored Lorenzo’s Medici’s children. Luca Signoreli has constructed a separate narrative which relates to the combined figures of Leonardo, Poliziano, Sassetti and Tornabuoini but is not connected to the Jerome painting and therefore best left to present at another time.

The iconography which does connect to Leonardo’s Jerome in the Wilderness is fairly straightforward: The rear view of Tornabuoni represents the rear view of the lion, the red rbbons a humorous take on Jerome’s scourging. The encircling lion’s tail is the sweeping arched veil behind the crouching Leonardo (another ‘lion’). The gaunt appearance of Jerome is mirrored in the face of Francesco Sassetti, and probably a clue as to who commissioned the painting. However, the suffering Leonardo is also reflected in the upward gaze of Jerome, his head resting on a dark background, both in the painting and the shoulder of Sassetti, echoing the face feature depicted in the right shoulder of Jerome. Standing behind Sassetti is Piero, son of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Observe the triangular shape of his right shoulder, mirroring both the pointed mountain in the Jerome painting and the shape of the hanging tassels of the cardinal’s hat mentioned earlier. Sassetti’s gold collar mirrors Jerome’s pronounced collarbone.

Sassetti is also holding the thumb of his right hand – a possible reference to Leonardo’s finger marks evident on the Jerome panel as well as the thumbscrew torture used by investigators to extract information. Another form of torture was the strappado where “the victim’s hands are tied behind their back and suspended by a rope attached to the wrists, typically resulting in dislocated shoulders”, perhaps indicated by the action of the sweeping veil behind Leonardo’s back.

The Moses Testament and Death fresco is said to have been completed in 1482, a couple of years on from the 1480 date attributed to Leonardo’s Jerome in the Desert.

My next post will deal with how Hugo van der Goes transferred some of the iconography from the St Jerome panel to the Relic sction of the St Vincent Panels.