Tag Archives: art

A Great Thing About Catholic Europe: Most Churches are Free

The Romanesque church of St-Julien-le-Pauvre, Paris (free)

The Romanesque church of St-Julien-le-Pauvre, Paris (free)

If, like me, you have an amateur/non-scholarly interest in the history of art and architecture and find yourself travelling Europe on a budget (as was the case throughout the research trips conducted in the course of my PhD), the freeness of most churches in Catholic Europe (in stark contrast to London, home of the moneychangers) is a tremendous blessing.1

If you like Late Antique art, free entry to Santa Costanza in Rome will get you early mosaics plus a mausoleum. Free entry to Santa Maria Maggiore gets you Late Antique mosaics plus some bonus Classical pillars (so do San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and a host of other Roman churches). Free entry to Sant’Ambrogio in Milan gets you a very fine Late Antique sarcophagus (the Late Antique mosaics in the treasury are worth 2 euros, though). Rome, in fact, has quite a lot of Late Antique art in its churches — chiefly mosaics. Even in San Pietro in Vincoli, where the Late Antique decoration was largely redone by Michelangelo in the Renaissance, there is a seventh-century mosaic of St Sebastian.

Romanesque art and architecture are not to be missed, either. Most Italian churches maintain a very ‘traditional’ style throughout northern Europe’s Romanesque period. That is, while they maintain the round arches, etc, like Romanesque, they aren’t as weighty or massive. I’m a big fan of this bit of doorframe from Verona Cathedral:


The Benedictine Abbey of Sankt Paul im Laventtal, Austria, is a very excellent example of Romanesque architecture:


Another free but highly restored Romanesque church worth visiting is St-Germain-des-Prés, in Paris.

After Romanesque comes Gothic, such as Notre Dame de Paris, la Sainte-Chappelle, a host of Parisian churches, Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, the Duomo of Milan, etc. All free! Less famous but still Gothic, Munich Cathedral:

IMG_9011Anyway, to speed things up …

The Renaissance in Florence? Largely free.

Michelangelo’s Pieta in San Pietro, Rome? Free.

Caravaggio in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome? Free.

Saint Teresa in Ecstasy at Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome? Free.

Free art.

The whole history of Western art from Late Antiquity onwards.



All you have to do is turn up at a church.

1. If, like me, you also have an amateur/non-scholarly interest in the history of music, Spotify or a university subscription to the Naxos Music Library can fulfill the same function as free Catholic churches.

Your art and its value (sanity and immortality for all)

Bosch found immortality if not sanity through his art.

I close every e-mail I send with the following quotation:

It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. -GK Chesterton, Heretics

I believe Chesterton here. I believe that each of us should produce his’er own art — be it the art of music, of dance, of gardening, of poetry, of blogging, of painting, of sculpting, of musical theatre, of cooking…

So many of us wish to be involved with or to produce something of lasting value in this world, do we not? In Letter 1.3, Pliny the Younger writes to Caninius Rufus:

Why don’t you — for it’s time — commit lowly and paltry cares to others, and plant your very self with your studies on that high and fertile retreat? This business ought to be your leisure; this work your quiet; in these your vigils, in this even your sleep should repose. Fashion and compose something that would be yours forever. For the rest of your affairs will come by lot after you to one and another master, but this will never cease to be yours if once you begin it. I know what spirit, what natural cleverness I encourage — you just shine forth so that you may be for yourself as great as you will seem to others if you are to yourself. (My trans.)

Pliny is here encouraging Caninius Rufus to engage in the leisure of scholarship, of writing books or analysing books or philosophising and all those things that are part of the leisure of a Roman aristocrat. This, says Pliny, is what will be a true legacy; all that other business, of home and commerce and government, will come into the hands of others.

As a PhD student and blogger, this is encouraging. What is it that lasts, what is a great endeavour? A business empire? A well-laid garden? The purchase, like Jay Gatsby, of an enormous house? All these can crumble and fall; all will be passed on to one and another when I die. But not my writing; not my art that keeps me sane.

Indeed, has not Pliny himself become immortal through his self-published, highly-stylised letters? Is not the temporal immortality of G K Chesterton found in his multitudinous writings — the essays, the poems, the novels, the books? Wagner, whose Das Rheingold I am listening to right now, is immortal through his music; Rodin through his sculpture; Michelangelo through the agony and the ecstasy of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

And Thucydides was not wrong when he wrote, ‘My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten’ (History 1.22.4, trans. Jowett) — for people still read him today, and not just Classicists (we being a breed who do read some obscure texts).

When I think on this, on the quest to make art to keep sanity, to gain immortality, to survive in a dark world, I am pleased and encouraged by my friends who are doing just that. I have two friends, Ryan (plays with Doublechief) and Liam (solo awesomeness), who are taking the rock star route to immortality; my friend Mae makes glass jewellery (you can buy it here); my friends Andrée and Jennq are the artistic directors of Caithream Celtic Dance Fusion; Pip keeps up age-old traditions of art and beauty (visible here).

There are many other friends in the arts — my blogging siblings, one of whom used to write for Marvel Comics, another of whom writes young adult novels; friends involved in music at their local churches; friends who play in amateur orchestras; my piano-teaching, church-choir-leading mother; and no doubt loads of others who escape memory right now — if left out not, not really forgotten!

So I hope that you will not simply consume the art around you — music, books, sculptures, paintings, gardens, films — but make a little art yourself. Find sanity, immortality, light in a dark world.

Friezes — From Assyria to Athens to the British Museum

All photos in this post are mine.

The delight I recounted for you in my post about the Louvre was continued at the British Museum last Thursday. There I was able to stand eye-to-eye with none other than Ashurnasirpal himself.

And here you were expecting, say, the Goddess Athena or Keats’ ‘heifer lowing at the skies’ on the Parthenon frieze. I can assure you that the Parthenon sculptures — frieze, metopes, pedimental sculptures — engrossed me for the better part of an hour. The vitality of the charioteers!

Me with some charioteers

The grotesquery of the centaurs’ faces, running off with the Lapith women!*

Me and a Centaur

Magnificent, beautiful, the sculptures produced under the eye of Pheidias through the grand scheme of Pericles are not to be missed!

Aphrodite? From the Parthenon’s East Pediment

But back to Ashurnasirpal.

Ashurnasirpal II was King of Assyria 883-859 BC. Like many memorable monarchs,** Ashurnasirpal was a warmonger. He extended the western boundaries of his Tigris-crossing Empire into Syria-Lebanon to the Mediterranean and into the Hittite lands of Asia Minor.

He transferred the Assyrian capital to Nimrud in modern Iraq, and the British Museum has various bits of his palace, such as these fantastic lamassu’s — winged bulls with human heads:

Me and a Lamassu’

Besides these, you can see various friezes from Nimrud in the British Museum, of Ashurnasirpal doing such things as lion-hunting or waging war. You can even see his naked soldiery swimming a river with inflated skins! Except for one guy — he must be on the Assyrian Olympic team.

There they go — note the man without an inflated skin

These sculptures and friezes are very well executed. They lack the sinuous vitality of classical Greek art, but I don’t doubt that the skills of the sculptors were lacking. One of the things about ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art that I learned in my visit to Cairo back in the day is the essentially traditionalist aspect of style. Assyrians and Egyptians (Akhenaten aside) are not trying to produce portraiture as the Graeco-Roman tradition would understand it. They are not capturing the vital essence of a moment.

I behold a frieze from Nimrud

They are placing Ashurnasirpal II within a long tradition of art, showing him to be a timeless, great king. The message is one of legitimacy and stability: He is like his father, Tukulti-Ninurta; Sargon II, whose lamassu’s are in the Louvre and look identical to Ashurnasirpal’s, is saying the same thing.

Sargon’s Lammasu’s in the Louvre

The other thing to bring to the forefront of your mind when you look at ancient Mesopotamian things is the sheer ancientness of them. The naked-swimmer frieze dates to c. 860 BC — 100 years before the traditional founding of Rome, 400 years before the Parthenon friezes! And if you think that’s old, the Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre dates to the 1700s BC!!

The Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre

The Ashmolean Museum’s fragment of the Babylonian epic poem Gilgamesh dates to 1900-1600 BC — a millennium before Homer!

The Epic of Gilgamesh fragment in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

This glazed-brick image of a lion from Babylon dates to 604-562 BC. While not as old as the other stuff mentioned here, I just like it:

Babylonian Lion, Louvre

The cultures of the Near East are truly ancient. They were using clay for a writing material when the Greeks were using it for huts. They have a literary and political culture all their own, a war-machine all their own, art and religion all their own. Yet, even to many students of ancient history such as myself, they stand largely unknown, getting maybe a chapter about Ziggurats in a Grade 11 history textbook.

We can all rectify this. Check out the Mesopotamian collections on your next trip to a major archaeological museum, be it the Ashmolean, the British Museum, the Louvre, the National Museum of Scotland or the Royal Ontario Museum, take in the Mesopotamian artefacts. If you like mythology, read some Mesopotamian mythology. If epic is your thing, check out Gilgamesh. Grab a book on Sumeria or Babylon or Assyria or ancient Persia the next time you’re in the library. Educate yourself — even if it’s just one attentive museum visit or one book; it’s better than nothing.

It may not be safe to visit the Near East itself, but we can still take a healthy interest in its culture. Who knows, maybe a fresh interest in such things will help save those lands from ruin?

*It’s a sin with centaurs do it, but when Romulus does it, it’s prudence … ?

**Remember Alexander the Great, Justinian, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, et al? Yep.

Ancient Things found in Paris

Me at the Roman Baths

In Paris, I have seen Roman Baths in the Musée du Moyen-Age and some remains of the Roman wall and some of a hypocaust system on Ile-de-la-Cité beneath the Parvis de Notre-Dame.

But the Musée du Louvre is one of the best places for the Classicist in Paris.

This morning I saw a bunch of paintings (there was some wee pic of a lady called the Mona Lisa, but whatev), and then, besides the Victory of Samothrace, I observed with some enjoyment a bunch of Greek vases and some Cypriot artefacts, ending the morning with the quickest run through an Egyptian exhibit in my life.* Then I dined.

The Victory of Samothrace

Following lunch, I went off to visit the rest of the Greco-Roman antiquities at the Musée du Louvre. I saw a very lovley Etruscan funerary statue of a couple, then a variety of other interesting things.

But things got really exciting for me when I wandered into a gallery and saw the head of a woman from a three-quarter view from behind. There she was, with that bun at the lower back of her head as well as the distinctive pouff of hair at the front. The Empress Livia (58 BC – AD 29), wife of Augustus (63 BC – AD 14). I danced over, and proclaimed, ‘Yes!’ quietly as I surveyed the sign.

Empress Livia (d. AD 29), wife of Emperor Augustus

Emperor Augustus (d. AD 14)

Then I danced over to a statue of … yes, Augustus! (Fist-pump!) Plus three Augustus heads! This was an Early Imperial treasure trove! Smiling with glee, I made my way to the start of this particular gallery of Roman art. Ah, yes, a Late Republican head. You can tell, the realism and severity reflect the uncertainty of the times.

Severe Late Republican Head (c. 50 BC)

Like a child, I surveyed the art in this room. And … what’s this? The Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus? You don’t say! How exciting!

‘Altar’ of ‘Domitius Ahenobarbus’ (late 2nd c. BC)

Mars (detail from Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus)

Detail of the cow for sacrifice (Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus)

I was also quite smitten by the examples of Roman wall painting. Very nice. Especially the fairy-eared, winged fellow. Looks like what C S Lewis dubbed the longaevi in his book The Discarded Image.

A longaevus? (from a villa near Pompeii)

Roman portraiture is so vivid, so real. I felt like I was looking at Agrippa himself (right-hand man of Augustus, 63 – 12 BC). I mean, pallid and bodiless. But, still. Agrippa. The man himself.

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63 -12 BC)

And then that heroic nude of Marcellus.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus, nephew and son-in-law of Augustus (42 -23 BC)

Also … indeed! Indeed! The Ara Pacis! How wonderful! I mean, a fragment. But, still! Look at the relief carving! Look at the folds of that drapery! The skill, the essence of the moment!

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

Indeed, the skill of the ancients at drapery is one of the things that most caught my eye today, as in this statue of Empress Messalina:

Empress Valeria Messalina (AD 17-48), third wife of Emperor Claudius (10 BC – AD 54), and their son Britannicus (AD 41-55)

Or cute, little Nero:

Nero (AD 37-68), c. AD 50

Not that statuary is all that those Romans were good at. No, indeed. There was also a mosaic:

The Judgement of Paris, from Antioch c. AD 115-150

Continuing along, after a lovely double-faced stele with relief carvings from the cult of Mithras, I happily identified Marcus Aurelius (fist-pump, ‘Yes!’), and was enraptured by the luscious locks of Lucius Verus.

I even saw the head of a flamen. That’s right.

A flamen, an ancient Roman priest, c. AD 250-265

And then I giggled with glee upon seeing my fifth-century imperial friends, Theodosius II and Leo I. Good seeing you, guys. Great, in fact.

(Eastern) Roman Emperor Theodosius II (r. AD 408-450)

(Eastern) Roman Emperor Leo I (r. AD 457-474)

I continued on to have many grand adventures amongst the Greek statuary, including the mob that continually throngs the Venus de Milo — with the excitement of a lady who actually stepped over the barrier and laid a hand upon the statue for a photo! AS IF! She got yelled at and merrily stepped out.

The Venus de Milo (c. 130 – 100 BC); Look at that drapery!

I am also fond of the less famous Venus of Arles, by the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles (370-330 BC)

‘Vieux Pecheur’ (aka Seneca Dying), 2nd century AD

There were other Roman statues I enjoyed, such as Sénèque Mourant and one of Trajan that stands within the tradition of the Prima Porta Augustus. And a lovely porphyra Minerva. Although things get blurred — is that Greek or Roman?

As I surveyed the various Graeco-Roman antiquities on display in the Louvre, I was a bit miffed at how many people breezed by. As though, if it’s not the Victory of Samothrace or Venus de Milo, who cares about ancient art? I mean — part of the Ara Pacis! Trajan in your face! Livia, identifiable across the room!

But as I ran out of steam and entered rooms I knew less about, containing paintings/artefacts I enjoyed less than the Roman world, I started breezing through. No doubt a Rubens enthusiast would have shaken her head or an expert on Van Dyck would have told me that King Charles I wasn’t the only thing worth noting in that room.

But there is too much, I only have my own specialised knowledge. Yet this serves as a reminder that my knowledge increases my love of the art — and the art makes the world I have studied that much more real.

*I have seen Egyptian exhibits at the Glenbow, the ROM, in Egypt, in Milan, in Scotland, and at the Ashmolean Museum. Not counting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, until my most recent visit to the Ashmolean, there was rarely anything new to say.

Impressionisme (Musée de l’Orangerie)

I have visited a few museums here in Paris, and while the Musée nationale du Moyen Age (aka Musée de Cluny) is possibly ranking number one right now, here are some thoughts to remind my readers that I like more than the ancient and mediaeval worlds …

Claude Monet, Cocquelicots, Musée d’Orsay

When I was a teenager, somehow or other I ended up quite smitten by Monet. I liked Impressionism in general, but Monet in particular. I read at least one book about Monet at some point, and mentioned him to my parents, with that teenage zeal that is able to remember all sorts of little details I tend to forget these days.

Pretty sure this was the cover of that day planner…

Accordingly, I purchased a lovely book from the bargain books at Coles celebrating Impressionism, and one year in high school I purchased a Monet day planner, complete with those purplish-hued waterlilies (Les Nymphéas) on the cover. My parents gave me a calendar, a book about Monet, an address book with a Monet on the cover.

I liked Monet. He captured the essence of a moment, a colour, a memory — a building in the mist, a river at sunset, a walk in a field, a haystack.

Some of Monet’s famous haystacks

I think I am living something close to my teenage dream-life.

Today, I went to the Musée de l’Orangerie. The ground floor of this museum is devoted to one artist and two sets of works. Monet’s Nymphéas — his waterlilies. In the last thirty-something years of his life, lived out at the idyllic country residence of Giverny, Monet painted over 300 tableaux of waterlilies.

Yesterday, I saw a very large, almost square, instance of one of these at the Musée d’Orsay — the thing was much taller than I, and captured the beauty of a moment in large grandeur on a scale that the cover of my high-school day planner could never reproduce. I think it’s the image posted above.

The Nymphéas at the Orangerie are of an entirely different order from most other Monets — most other paintings, even, certain than the many wonderful tableaux on display at d’Orsay.

First, you have an oval room with a skylight. It has four entrances/exits. And on the four walls in between are four very long tableaux that cover almost the whole wall — painted on huge canvases, so large that you can sometimes see where they have been stitched together to construct this immersion into Monet.

After that is another oval room, laid out exactly the same. Comme ça:

The first room, at the West, is near sunset. The second, the East, near sunrise. At least I think that’s what I read.

I did a circuit of the first room, taking in each portrait long and slow. I sat on the bench four times, once for each enormous painting. I moved on to the second room and did likewise. I slowly walked out of the Nymphéas gallery, soaking in the impressions before me all the while.

I was there in the same room as Monet’s waterlilies. They were huge, drawing me in to their world. Unlike many ‘landscape’ paintings, there is no horizon in the Orangerie. The Nymphéas draw you into a world where you are seeing the images of real life, where you are yourself surveying the pond at Giverny, beholding the lilies, the willows, the colour, the light.

And as the sun shifts and changes above you, so does the room. When I first entered the second room, I thought, ‘These images are significantly darker than the first.’ While I was there the light shifted. I still think they are a bit darker, but not so much as I had first thought. Just like in nature, in the outdoors, in ‘real’ life, the art was transformed before my eyes. The sun himself changed my experience of the art. And I was drawn into this attempt to capture a moment on a canvas.

For that is what Impressionism is — the impressions of light, the capture of a fleeting moment, gone from the world, dancing a little in your memory as you move on to other things. The sun casts its rays upon the world around you, the colours are reflected into your eyes, imprinted upon your memory. It is fleeting but beautiful, this world of ours. This fleeting beauty — this is what Monet, Sisley, Degas, Manet, Renoir, were seeking to capture in their grands tableaux.

And so I allowed myself to be drawn into the richness of Monet’s impression of his pond at Giverny. Absorbed, sucked in, surrounded by this art, I gawked. I stared. I wondered.

Monet, Rouen Cathedral (saw this one too!)

I am living my teenage dream life. I am seeing art I loved back then for real — and lots of it, for I visited Musée d’Orsay yesterday, itself with a large Impressioniste wing, and the Petit Palais the day before! Plus I get to spend a lot of time with mediaeval things. Primarily churches here in Paris, but when I go home there is a castle on a rocky mound. I get to read books for a living. And I write stuff.

This is the good life.

St. Denis and Notre Dame

When the great minds of the so-called ‘Renaissance’ wanted to denigrate the art, architecture, and bookhands of the previous generation(s), they chose the word ‘Gothic’, as opposed to their re-birth of alleged Graeco-Roman ‘humanism’ in architecture, handwriting, and the visual arts.

In what follows, do take a look at the hyperlinks, for they take you to images on my Flickr photostream; the Notre Dame photos are not up yet, though! I am having trouble with file sizes and WordPress, soo….

I have recently visited two Gothic masterpieces here in Paris, Basilique St. Denis and Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris (the world-famous cathedral). Neither is worth denigrating (nor is the mindblowing Duomo of Milan).

The Basilique St Denis is north of the centre of Paris, in one of the <em>banlieux</em> where you feel like you’re in a mélange of French North Africa and French Subsahara with European architecture everywhere. In the Middle Ages, this was not Paris. The community would have arisen up here around the basilica and monastery.

St. Denis was, as tradition has it, founded by St. Denis, third-century bishop of Lutetia (Paris) who was beheaded on Monmartre (Mons Martyrorum) with two companions. Having been beheaded, he picked up his head and walked with it to where he wished himself to be buried. That was up in St. Denis. So they buried him in what would become his basilica’s crypt.

True story, if Hincmar of Reims (806-882) has anything to say about it.

St. Denis was conflated with another person of the same name, (Pseudo)Dionysius the Areopagite, writer of early sixth-century pseudepigrapha of a very mystical nature worth a read or two. It’s about reaching the uncreated Light and all that jazz.

So in the 12th century, Abbot Suger of the monastery at St. Denis decided to make a cathedral of light in honour of St. Denis, theologian of the light of God.

He (re?)built the chevet, the entry point of the church before you reach the narthex as well as a double ambulatory. An ambulatory is a place for walking behind the apse of a church (an apse is the round bit that sticks out like a bump at the back, where the high altar is in traditionally-arranged churches), and a double ambulatory has an extra arcade full of altars for the celebration of private masses.

This space is full of light, because a pointed Gothic arch can span a very wide distance, leaving room for naught but coloured glass.

Later, Suger’s successors rebuilt the Carolingian and Romanesque portions in the mid-twelfth century. This includes the high and lofty nave that reaches in a light, airy manner into the reaches of the heavens above, as well as the addition of transepts. If you imagine a mediaeval cathedral as a cross, transepts are the arms of the cross. Using the weightlessness of Gothic architecture, the transepts include very beautiful rose windows.

St. Denis basically blew my mind, architecturally. It is light and airy and is ribbed with magnificence.

Two nights ago, while Jennie was visiting, we turned up in Notre Dame during one of the Masses for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We thus had the opportunity to visit the cathedral and experience Gothic architecture the way it was meant to be experienced — with choir and priests and bishops chanting out prayers and scripture readings and alleluias:

The nave was full, so I am unable to compare the height and grandeur of Notre Dame with the height and grandeur of St Denis. But here as well we have the high, fluted columns stretching to pointed arches and walls made of stained glass. We have rose windows.

And we have the chapels of a double ambulatory.

These chapels at Notre Dame are interesting. I do not know whether the painting is original, but I do not doubt that they represent an image of how such places were intended to look — full of colour and vibrance, dazzling the eye with the wonder of God’s good creation.

When I visit these large, airy Gothic places, I cannot side with anyone who would think poorly of them. They are magnificent, whether Notre Dame, St Denis, York Minster, Rosslyn Chapel, the Milanese Duomo!

I recommend a visit.