Would a Prayer Nut Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolution?

The Hidden Carvings of Medieval Prayer Beads. (Prayer Nuts)

Article on Prayer Beads, aka Prayer Nuts

Prayer Bead, Boxwood 1500-1525, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan.

I’m fascinated by some of the ‘miniatures’ in art, like the incredible details in manuscripts, or the shading and realism of a woodcut. Another astounding and often overlooked example of an artist working in miniature is the prayer nut.

Article on Prayer Beads

Prayer Bead (Prayer Nut) 1525-1550, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Prayer nuts were all the rage in the 1500’s. Rosaries are a beaded loop meant to aid the devout in saying their prayers. In our culture we think of prayer beads in connection with Catholics and the Rosary. In reality many faiths use prayer beads.

A prayer nut is an additional larger bead that can be opened and contains carvings within to aid in personal devotions. Some prayer nuts are extremely intricate, containing 50 figures of more. Sizes range from the size of a walnut to that of a golf ball. Made from boxwood, the outside of the prayer nut is either covered in intricate geometric designs, or sometimes encased in fine metals.

Article on Prayer Beads

Prayer Bead (Prayer Nut) out of Boxwood. Gift by J. Pierpont Morgan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The small balls open up to reveal scenes from the life of Christ, most often scenes of the crucifixion and passion week. Many also contain scenes of the nativity narrative. There are the two half spheres that artists had to work in, and then often additional panels that were opened to reveal the second half of the sphere. These panels provided additional room for carvings.

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Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s Adoration of the Shepherds

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Murillo.

Welcome to our 25th day of art on Nativity.

This work is by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, a Spanish Baroque painter who spent his entire career in Seville, Spain. Known for his religious paintings, peasant children, and lively street scenes, Murillo’s works were very popular, both in his life time and after.

Churches were the largest patron of the arts during the 1600’s, and during the Counter Reformation the Catholic Church  invested heavily in art. There was a need for works that communicated the reforms the church was making and to reinforce key doctrinal points.

Murillo was a devout Catholic with deeply held religious convictions. He was also a man with great imagination who could inject compassion and realism into Biblical figures making them come alive. His paintings allowed people to insert themselves into the story and identify with the characters, drawing them into a deeper devotion and understanding.

Article on Murillo's Adoration of the Shepherd

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Adoration of the Shepherd, 1646-1650. Hermitage Museum, Russia.

Imagination is a powerful tool of both art and religion. In Murillo’s works we see a master combine the two to give us a powerful painting of the Incarnation. There are 7 figures in this painting, 5 of which are highlighted by light.

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Are an Ox, a Rooster, And a Peacock the Perfect Image of the Nativity?

Tintoretto's Adoration of the Shepherds

Welcome to day 23.

A man of many names Tintoretto started out as Jacopo Comin, or Jacopo Robusti but came to be known as Tintoretto which means ‘little dyer’ as his father was a dyer. Later the name Il Furioso would be added because he painted with such energy and speed.

The eldest of 21 children, he showed an artistic bent early. His family lived in Venice and so his father took him to Titian when he was 13 to see if he could be trained. The story goes that he only lasted 10 days in the Master’s workshop due to jealousy. When Titian found out that the drawings he was looking at were those of the young, untrained boy he sent him home saying he wasn’t trainable. True or not, Tintoretto admired Titian greatly and was influenced by his use of color and light, and Titian and those in his workshop had unflattering things to say about Tintoretto because he didn’t do what was expected.  This seems to be the recurring theme in art.

Some of the negative comments were due to Tintoretto’s fast, loose brushstrokes and emotional style that would become fashionable later, but in his time were considered lazy, as if he didn’t care enough to work slowly and carefully. His paintings have tremendous energy, as if the painter’s frantic speed while working transferred itself to the canvas.

This work was created for the Scoula di San Rocco. St. Roch was the patron saint of plague sufferers. As the plague regularly swept through Europe, he was a popular saint. The Scoula di San Rocco was a confraternity. That means it was a charitable organization that was run by laity as opposed to being run by monks, nuns, or other clergy in the church. Confraternities were recognized by the church and were able to accomplish a great deal. Consisting of a church and school this confraternity continued to grow in wealth because many came to give alms in the hopes of healing from the plague.

This work was also created during the Catholic Counter Reformation or the Catholic Revival. In response to corruptness within, and the ongoing Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church underwent it’s own revival. They reaffirmed doctrines they felt central to their faith, and instituted stricter rules about training and wealth among the clergy. The Council of Trent, over a 20 year period, continued the work of cleaning up, redefining and invigorating the church.

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Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence

Caravaggio's stolen Nativity

Caravaggio, The Nativity 1609.

Welcome to day 22.

Today’s painting is famous, not just because it is by a master, but because it is on the FBI’s 10 Top Art Crimes. This work was stolen, cut from it’s frame in 1969. The rumors and stories that have circulated since have never been substantiated. It seems clear that the Mafia was behind the theft, but it is unclear what has happened since. At various times, criminals have tried to negotiate lighter sentences claiming knowledge of the work, according to two of these stories, it was destroyed.  Whatever happened, the original painting has been lost, likely never to be recovered.  This somehow seems fitting because much of what we know about the artist is from police records.

Michelangelo da Merisi, has always been referred to as Caravaggio, the town he was from. Sharing a name with the ‘divine’ Michelangelo was probably frustrating.  Caravaggio was by all accounts an angry, temperamental man, who was frequently in bar brawls, arrested for carrying a sword without a license, and then for killing someone with said sword. Fleeing the police from one location to the next is an ongoing thread in his life. Not surprisingly, he died young ,at 37.

If we set aside his personal life, and examine his work, everyone agrees, he was one of the most influential artist of the 1600’s.  His innovative use of light, unflinching realism, and the emotion in his religious work is astounding. When we discussed El Greco and the Mannerists we talked about their pushing against the restraints of the Renaissance. Caravaggio pushed back on the Mannerists. He returned to painting things as they appear, but without the perfection and rigidity of Renaissance painters. When he painted Biblical figures he didn’t  clean them up and present them as serene and beautiful with halos. Many were shocked and felt that his paintings were disrespectful. Sometimes patrons, seeing the finished works refused them.

Article on Caravaggio

Caravaggio, The Nativity, 1609

The Nativity that Caravaggio painted just a year before he died is one that shocked. His Mary has just given birth, she is disheveled and tired looking, sitting on the ground. Her dress has drifted down one shoulder. This is not a Madonna who already looks as if she is on her way to being enthroned in heaven, but a young girl, tired and recovering from labor. Shocking the viewers of his day was not just the realism, but the theological message the painting conveyed. Many felt the Virgin had a miraculous birth with no pain and no breaking of her hymen. Not only was her conception miraculous, so was the birth. Caravaggio’s painting challenged that.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder The Census at Bethlehem

Bruegel's The Census at Bethlehem

Welcome to Day 21

I love this painting. I’ve been running short on time, and hope to come back to this soon to add some more photos and clean up the post a bit, but I’m on a deadline. There are just so many engaging pieces to this painting, that I’m going to have to skim over. You may have figured out I am partial to the Northern painters, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder is wonderful. He’s a Flemish Northern Renaissance painter, who, once he finished his training, set off to travel and learn. He went to Italy via France and traveled extensively. In 1555 he was back in Antwerp and settled in.

His return to Antwerp was during a period of unrest in both civil and religious arenas. The Netherlands was divided up into 17 areas, and was ruled by the Spanish. Phillip II was the ruler of the Hapsburg dynasty, and he was a devout Catholic. He was determined that the areas under his rule would remain Catholic and he employed brutal means to that end. Many in the Netherlands were sympathetic to the Protestant Reformation sweeping across Europe. Spain was at war with the Turks and needed money, so the people in the Netherlands were heavily taxed. Nearly 1/2 of the revenue Spain collected came from the Netherlands, their taxes being 4 times greater than the people of Spain. Tensions were running high.

This was the world of Pieter Bruegel. Bruegel was a landscape painter, social commentator, and innovator. He included groups of people going about their normal lives, playing games, getting a drink, bringing in the harvest, chopping wood. Many of his paintings focused on the lives of peasants. From this a new kind of painting developed, genre painting. Bruegel was a pioneer, and his works were original and influential. His portrayal of common people was earthy, unsentimental and varied. His paintings give us a glimpse into what day to day life was like in the 1500’s. The clothing, toys, tools in his paintings are an excellent aid to historians.

Many of his images have an edge to them, they are commentary on the injustices that he saw around him. He used satire in his art to make a point. He died in his early 40’s, and in his last illness had his wife burn some of what he had been working on. He believed it might have been too controversial and he didn’t want his family to suffer for his opinion and work.

So this is the context that The Census at Bethlehem was painted. A poor couple, the wife great with child, must travel a great distance because Caesar Augustus has decided he wanted a census, so that he could collect taxes. And, with the birth of this baby, a new religion was about to be born.  The civil and religious connections would have been obvious. As the Netherlands faced heavy taxes from a foreign king, and were persecuted, sometimes tortured, if they harbored Protestant sympathies they would identify with the Jewish couple, trying to live in a Roman occupied area.

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El Greco’s Annunciation

The Annunciation of El Greco

Welcome to day 20 and El Greco.

The burning bush seen by Moses
The prophet in the wilderness
The fire inside it was aflame
But never consumed or injured it.
The same with the Theotokos Mary
Carried the fire of Divinity
Nine months in her holy body.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, or commonly called El Greco (The Greek) is a Spanish Mannerist Painter who was born in Greece, trained in Italy, and worked in Spain. All three areas of influence are present in his work. When someone is unfamiliar with El Greco they might mistake his works for that of a much more modern painter as he largely leaves behind the realism that is so much a part of the Renaissance and pursues an expressionist style. It’s been said his art was too strange for the time that he lived in, and in fact, after his death El Greco sank into obscurity. He was ‘rediscovered’ in the later 1800’s and inspired much of our modern art development. Picasso in particular was a fan and El Greco’s influence can be felt in many of his works.

El Greco was from the island of Crete, and his early training was in the Byzantine tradition. After becoming a master in icon painting he felt he had more to learn and moved to Italy. There, in Venice and Rome, he learned the many lessons of Renaissance painting. He particularly enjoyed Titian’s colors, and although he thought Michelangelo could sculpt and was a good architect he said he couldn’t paint. Despite the unpopularity of these thoughts, that he didn’t keep to himself, he continued to work and develop in Italy. 

While El Greco was absorbing the art of Italy, a new style was developing. The Renaissance had emphasized rational thought, scientific observation of nature, and exact representation of what is seen.  Eventually, as an artist he felt restrained, and that the current trends in art had gone as far as they could go, there were no challenges left to solve. Younger artists began to explore other means of expressing familiar themes. Mannerism developed.  Mannerism was short lived, only a few decades, but it transitioned art into its next era.

Michelangelo was the forerunner of Mannerism. His work in the Sistine Chapel had spurred some changes in the younger artist working in Rome. They began to play with perspective, they flattened out spaces, they elongated figures, chose unlikely and vibrant colors, and twisted figures into unnatural poses. In particular the sibyls in the Sistine Ceiling gave life to the new movement. Young artists, seeking inspiration, would even break into Michelangelo’s home to steal drawings.

Mannerism embraced the artificial, as opposed to the natural. They exaggerated lines and colors to heighten emotional or narrative parts of the stories their paintings told.  El Greco took these elements of Mannerism with him when he moved to Spain, and there melded them with the Spanish religious mysticism that was a result of the counter-reformation. The counter-reformation was a movement by the Catholic church to address some of the issues raised by the reformation, and to emphasize the distinctives of the Catholic Faith. Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox church embraced mystical visions and the miraculous stories of the saints. Fervor, devotion, and communion with God that had supernatural overtones were popular, and El Greco sought to make these mysterious experiences and emotions visible in his religious paintings.

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The Annunciation by Titian

Titian, and examination of one Annunciation

Welcome to day 19.

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
 And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.

Here we have the Annunciation by the Venetian master Titian. Born Tiziano Vecelli, he was an Italian painter who by some accounts lived to be 99 years old, and produced art up till the end.  He is most noted for his use of color and loose brushstrokes.

Titian was trained by both of the Bellini brothers, and painted with Giorgione. In fact, Titian’s work and Giorgione’s have often been confused. The painting we will be examining is from later in Titian’s life, when he has developed a style very uniquely his own. His contemporaries referred to him by the last line in Dante’s Paradise, “The Sun Admidst Small Stars.” Although this painting doesn’t use the vivid colors of his early works, his interest in color is still evident.

ARticle on Titian

Titian, The Annunciation 1557

In this work we have Gabriel rushing in from the left, land raised, body turned, clothes still in motion. In contrast Mary is kneeling with arms crossed in an attitude of humble submission. She may be in the very act of kneeling as one knee appears to be not quite to the ground. Once again, we have no halo, but the white from her veil is glowing in the light streaming from above.

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Matthias Grunwald, The Annunciation from the Isenheim Altarpiece

The Annunciation from the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Grunwald

Welcome to day 18.

Matthias Grunewald was a contemporary of Albrecht Durer. Both men were important Northern Renaissance painters, both became embroiled in the turbulent politics and religious conflicts that dominated the era, and both expressed themselves in unique and arresting ways. Some of Grunewald’s paintings had originally been attributed to Durer, what is odd about that is that as artists, they were the antithesis of each other.

Durer was an intense naturalist who was interested in the scientific Renaissance that emphasized empirical observation. His art made use of reasoned proportions and mathematical precision in terms of perspective. Grunewald largely rejected the classicism of the Renaissance and his paintings continue, with their own twist, the Gothic traditions. There is an underlying current of Medieval German mysticism to his works, a highly emotional charge that is often disturbing in its intensity.

We will be examining the Annunciation panel on his most famous work, the Isenheim Altarpiece. I plan on doing an expanded series on the Altarpiece, as there is so much contained with it. Each element needs careful examination, and taken as a whole it’s effect is to stretch the viewers understanding of what it means to believe, what it cost Christ to save us.

The Isenheim Altarpiece was made for the chapel in a hospital dedicated to Saint Anthony. This hospital served as a hospice for those afflicted with leprosy, syphyllis, and a fungal disease that was carried by rye. These patients were relegated to the edges of society, the hospital did not function as a place to come for healing, as there were no cures, but a place to come to die; it was a hospice facility.

The altarpiece ordered for the chapel would be seen by patients and by those who worked within the hospital, a pretty dismal place.  The work is monumental and opens in layers. When the final panels are raised there is a shrine that houses extraordinary sculptures by Nikolaus Hagenauer. There were 4 different views that were offered by the layered panels.

We will be focused on just one of the panels, the Annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel.

Article on the Annunciation

Matthias Grunewald, The Annunciation Panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece. 1510-1515. Colmar, France

The Annunciation takes place in a Gothic church. This had been done many times by Northern artists in this time period and would not have appeared unusual. What was also commonly understood was that Mary represented the Church. Embracing this imagery that the church, like Mary, was to carry Christ and deliver him to a broken, sinful world in need of a savior might have given strength to the monks who worked in the hospital, dealing with those who had been cast out of society.

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Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione's Allendale Nativity

Article on Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds

Welcome to day 16

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 

Giorgio da Castelfranco, or Giorgione which means ‘big George.’  was born in 1477 and died in an outbreak of the plague in 1510. He was an Italian Renaissance painter from Venice, who in his short life left works that were critical to the development of Venetian painting.

He studied in the Billini workshop and was a contemporary of Titian. His paintings have been compared to lyrical poetry, but what makes them unforgettable is that there is always an enigmatic theme to them. He painted hauntingly beautiful landscapes, sensuous nudes, and transcendent light.

The painting we are examining today was used for personal devotion. In earlier centuries Christian Art focused on the Crucifixion and the events of Passion Week. During the 15th and 16th century there was a movement toward more works that focused on the Incarnation, or God coming in the flesh, which is one of the central focuses of this work.

Article on Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherd

Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherd, or the Allendale Nativity. 1505-1510 National Gallery of Art. Washington D.C.

This painting is of the Adoration of the Shepherds, sometimes referred to as the Allendale Nativity, referencing a former owner. The composition is very unusual. Traditionally, the Holy Family is the center of any work they are in. In this painting, the Shepherds are the center and nearly 1/2 of the painting is the landscape in the background. By moving the shepherds to the center, turning their backs toward us, and leaving an open space in the foreground we, as the viewer are invited to join in this circle, to take our place in worshiping the Christ Child.

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Albrecht Durer and woodcuts of the Nativity

Exploring the Nativity in Durer's prints

Article on Albrecht Durer's woodcuts

Advent in Art, focus on Durer

Welcome to day 15.

Albrecht Durer is my favorite artist of all time, hands down, no one else comes close. I really love his woodcuts and engravings. Communicating complexity with nothing but lines, it astounds the viewer. That he so realistically represents space, emotion, perspective, shading…with nothing but black and white lines is beyond impressive.

Printmaking was just coming into it’s own when Durer purchased a press. He was the first artist to do so. He saw in the medium the opportunity to have a consistent income. Painters, even great ones, had to wait for the next commission to come in, and money worries were the norm. Durer recognized the potential in printmaking. He could sell a piece of work, over and over again, and at an affordable price. This could mean a consistent base income, a luxury most artists didn’t have.

When one sets out to learn about Durer, without fail, along with his incredible artistic talent, the other quality that is mentioned is his understanding of business. This was a true Renaissance man. He was an artist, the greatest artist that Germany had ever seen, and extremely famous and valued in his own time. But with that he was a skilled businessman, a mathematician, an art theorist and student of nature. Insatiably curious and quick to absorb new ideas and see their potential, he didn’t just set up to make prints, he created true art, taking printmaking beyond what had been conceived of.

Article on Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer, Meloncholia

At that time woodcuts had been around awhile, and many were good, very good, but Durer elevated the craft to the same level as painting. His work, Meloncholia, is haunting and mysterious, his rhinoceros is one of the most reproduced images in art.

With painting artists generally waited for a commission, and Durer received many commissions. He did altarpieces and massive paintings, but he also created woodcuts and engravings of things that interested him, and then sold them. He didn’t need to wait for a commission to make a woodcut. His wife handled a lot of the details of the print business, going out to the weekend markets to sell the prints. We know that his print of the rhinoceros sold several thousand prints in his lifetime, and there is still a strong market for the piece today.

Doing so many woodcuts, and being famous, there were challenges. Other artists could easily get a print, make a woodcut from it, then begin selling them. Many people did just that. Copyrights were not a thing. Durer actually went to court with one competitor and the judgement was that there was nothing wrong with copying the picture, but on the copies, his signature could not be duplicated. Of course, knowing that one had purchased a Durer was a selling point, but even without his mark on them, they were amazing prints. Most copies couldn’t match the work that his workshop did, so copies were not identical to the original prints.

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