Sunday, October 4, 2015

The History of Constantine the Great through the Eyes of a 17th century Baroque artist, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens, The Marriage of Constantine and Fausta, 
The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website
Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who is celebrated as the first Christian emperor has been a source of inspiration and fascination for more than sixteen centuries. As a remarkable figure who changed the course of history, Constantine embodies a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Personally, I feel a certain kinship with the man who founded my beloved city, Constantinople, Istanbul. There is a new exhibition, Rome, Emperor Constantine's Dream, Art Treasures from the Eternal City, that opened at De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam today, which reminded me of a set of 17th century tapestries, The History of Constantine the Great, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Triumph of Constantine over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25  (Philadelphia Museum of Art)    Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website
The vast Roman Empire had become a tetrarchy by 293, ruled by two senior emperors titled Augustus and two minor emperor titled Caesar, a system that came to an end following Civil Wars between the co-emperors from 306 -324.   Constantine's victory over his co-emperor and brother-in-law, Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 is considered to be the precursor to the end of the tetrarchy and Constantine as the sole emperor of the Roman Empire.

The Christian symbol of Christ, Chi Ro (XP) can be seen at the top center of each tapestry. According to ancient chroniclers, the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, on October 28, 312, Constantine had a vision that assured him victory if his army carried the sign of the Chi Ro into battle on their shields. This is interpreted as the first sign of Constantine's conversion to Christianity.

Peter Paul Rubens, Constatnine's Triumphal Entry into Rome,
The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website 
The celebrated 17th century artist, Peter Paul Rubens was responsible for designs of the seven tapestries, that were commissioned in 1622, woven for the French King Louis XIII and gifted to Cardinal Barberini, in 1625, who was in Paris on a diplomatic mission for his uncle, Pope Urban VIII.  The choice of Rubens for the tapestries is thought to be associated with the artist being in Paris in 1622 due to Marie de Medici, the Queen Mother, who commissioned two monumental decorative cycles for her residence, the Luxembourg Palace.

The use of Constantine iconography is also associated with Henry IV, father of King Louis XIII, who was hailed as the new Constantine after his conversion to Catholicism.2 In Constantine's Triumphal Entry into Rome, Rubens is using a confluence of symbols from contemporary events that allude to Henry IV's entry into Paris in 1594 with a scene that recalls a similar relief from the Triumphal Arch of Constantine in Rome.

Peter Paul Rubens, Constantine Directing the Building of Constantinople, The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website

After he became the sole emperor of Rome, Constantine began to build a new Christian capital in the Greek city of Byzas which was named Constantinople, after him. In Constantine Directing the Building of Constantinople, the city seen in the distance is supposed to be Constantinople and the circular building the architect, holding a plan of the Pantheon, is pointing towards, the Church of the Holy Apostles, where Constantine was buried. The eagle carrying the laurel wreath is about to crown the architect for his success in turning a pagan city to a Christian one. This tapestry is also thought to be alluding to Henry IV's building program in early 17th century that restored Paris from an ancient to a great capital.

Peter Paul Rubens, Constantine Worshiping the True Cross, Indicated by Saint Helena, The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website
Helena, Constantine's mother, is attributed with Constantine's conversion to Christianity by some scholars. She is venerated as a Saint due to her contribution to Christianity, she supposedly found the True Cross in Jerusalem during her trip to the Holy Land.

The tapestry borders are a mix of pagan and Christian symbols with the eagle and the serpent at the bottom center representing Christ's victory over Satan.  Henry IV became the King of Navarre before he became the King of France. The two imperial shields on the right and left center of the borders are the coat of arms of the French royal family. The blue shield with the gold fleur-de-lis on the left hand side represent France and the gold chains over a red shield to the right represent Navarre.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Baptism of Constantine, The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25   (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website 
Although Constantine was baptized on his deathbed, Rubens chose to represent him being baptized by Pope Sylvester in the Baptistery of St John Lateran in Rome. The clothing of the man standing in the right foreground, seems to be in the 17th century fashion, it has been suggested that he may have been someone from Rubens' own time, maybe even King Louis XIII. The richly decorated, curving columns that can still be seen in the Vatican today, were given to the church by Constantine showing his support of the early church. 3

Peter Paul Rubens, The Death of Constantine, The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website 
The last episode Rubens depicted in The History of Constantine the Great series was The Death of Constantine. Rubens used the description from Constantine's 4th century biographer Eusebius to represent Constantine dividing his empire among his three sons as he sits on an elaborate antique bed. He also based the setting on ancient Roman carvings of funerary scenes where the protagonist would be surrounded by grieving family and friends. The tapestries with their strong lighting and dramatic poses are great examples of 17th century Baroque style. The curtain hanging above the bed in this tapestry works to enhance the drama.

Pietro da Cortona, The Sea Battle between the Fleets of Constantine and Licinius, 1635
Although he was instructed to not except any gifts, the seven tapestries designed by Rubens were presented to Cardinal Barberini by Louis XIII in September 1625 when he came to Paris to settle a dispute between France, Spain and the Papacy. When he went back to Rome, Cardinal Barberini opened his own tapestry factory, commissioned Pietro da Cortona to design six more tapestries to complete the set given to him by Louis XIII of France. These tapestries were woven in the workshop of Jacomo della Riviera. The borders of these tapestries recalled the six Rubens designed with minor changes in iconography. The top center was reserved for the Chi Ro but the French coat of arms were replaced by bumblebees, the sign of the Barberini family and the Eagle with the serpent at the bottom with a laurel wreath, the symbol of victory.

Pietro da Cortona, Tapestry showing the Statue of Constantine, 1636
These tapestries are exceptional specimens of a certain form of art that encompass layer upon layer of significant events, people and the culture that shaped 17th century Europe. They are not just works of art to be admired but the visual manifestation of a specific time in history and they have so much to offer to so many people. Initially, I was interested due to the subject matter, but as I looked more carefully and researched the history of these tapestries, I found a wealth of information that told the tale of religious conflict, assertion of Counter-Reformation ideals precipitating civil wars in the Low Countries causing the devastation of the whole tapestry industry and the dispersement of the best artists and weavers throughout Europe.  The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series would be a great tool to teach history. Wouldn't it be great if history teachers took their students to art museums to see works like these when teaching European history?
Pietro da Cortona, Apparition of the Cross before Constantine, 1633
Pietro da Cortona, Constantine Slaying the Lion,1637
Pietro da Cortona, Constantine Burning the Memorials, 1634
Pietro da Cortona, Constantine Ordering the Destruction of Pagan Idols, 1637

1 Dubon, David. Tapestries From the Samuel H. Kress Foundation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: The History of Constantine the Great Designed by Peter Paul Rubens and Pietro Da Cortona. Complete Catalogue of the Samuel H. Kress Collection. London: Published by the Phaidon for the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1964. p. 4.

2 Campbell, Thomas P., Pascal-Fran├žois Bertrand, Jeri Bapasola, and Bruce White. Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. p. 162.

3 Philadelphia Museum of Art

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Art, Engagement and the Renaissance

I have always loved art history, for the stories a work of art can tell us of its time, place and the people who lived at that particular point in history. Although I note the formal elements of a work, I am more interested in engagement with art on a personal level- how does it make me feel, think, understand. I had a particularly profound experience in a museum this June that touched on all these elements of engagement and more...

I caught the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from the Florence Cathedral at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York on the last day of the exhibit, the last day of the museum, as a matter of fact.  I came to the show to see masterpieces that had never before left Italy in a totally new setting (it would have been sacrilegious for me to not visit such greatness when it was at my doorstep) but left with a new awareness of the greatness of the Renaissance.

The wonders of the Renaissance are awe-inspiring, to be sure, but for people from non-Western cultures they require a certain lexicon. Even though humanism was one of the main driving forces of this period in history, the context for most commissions were embedded in the Judea-Christian culture. I remember once overhearing a young man in a museum saying "It looks beautiful to be sure, but I wish I understood what it meant..." as he gazed at a 16th century painting of the four evangelists.  Of course no one needs anything except the use of their eyes when gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the majestic sculptures of the great masters filling Florentine museums but my experience at the MOBIA exhibit was different even those moments.

Being up-close and personal with these sculptures, so far removed from their original context, I was able to engage with them as magnificent works of art that moved me. I could not only see but feel the humanism embedded in these works... the intensity, the anguish, the contemplation.  The experience was so powerful that I left with a new understanding and appreciation for the greatness of the Renaissance.

So, what was so different about the works of display on this exhibit than all those other masterpieces of the Renaissance we encounter in museums regularly? Those living outside of Italy can experience the Italian Renaissance mostly through the paintings on museum walls and encountering these monumental works, in such close proximity created a very intimate level of engagement that surpassed any type of intellectual admiration. This was a traumatic experience for someone who is a wholehearted believer in the relevance of context above all else. So, how could I be so moved by these works without any context? or was the context present in the knowledge of knowing their authentic place and purpose? Didn't we need the Cathedral with its doors and niches for which these works were created? How about the tight streets of Florence that surround the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, shaded by the Duomo? These sculptures come from the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, a museum that houses the original sculptures from the Cathedral and the Baptistry from the natural elements, but due to their close proximity to their original location (around the corner from the entrance of the Cathedral and the Baptistry) I feel it is still a vastly different experience to encounter them in a small exhibition space of a museum in New York.

I will share my photographs of the exhibit with some of the gallery labels and let you decide for yourself...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Cybele, the Mother of the Gods

Goddess Figurine, Catalhoyuk, 5750 B.C.E.
(Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)

Since it's mother'day today I thought it would be a great opportunity to take a look at the ancestors of what we have defined as the image of motherhood for centuries. Cybele, Magna Mater, Meter, the Mother of the Gods was an Anatolian deity with many attributes and symbolism we are still trying to figure out to this day. As Bettany Hues reveals quite dramatically in her BBC documentary Divine Women there was a time "When God was a Girl," and some of her ancestors lived in Anatolia...
There is a figurine from the sixth millenium B.C.E. excavated in Catalhoyuk at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara of the first archaeological evidence of what has been identified as a Mother Goddess. She sits enthroned between two feline figures giving birth.

Orthostat of a Mother Nursing her Child, Karatepe, 8th century B.C.E.

Another example of a Mother Goddess figure from Anatolia is Mother Nursing her Child, an orthostat from Karatepe, a late-Hittite settlement. This figure is an earlier example of the more familiar figure of Isis Nursing Horus, 664-332 B.C.E.,which is often quoted as being the ancestor of the Mother goddess figurines. Although contemporary feminists have owned these Mother Goddess images as "the force and awesome power of the virginal mother goddess, the bearer and nurturer of gods and kings, sustainer of all life," not all scholars concur with the maternal interpretation. 1 According to Brigitte Bogh, and Lynn Roller, whose research focuses on the Phrygian Mother Goddess, Meter was more a figure of power and protector than nurterer. The archaeological evidence of the Phrygian Great Mother from Gordion appear from the 8th -6th century B.C.E. She is a standing female figure, wearing a heavily draped gown and a tall headdress, holding a shallow bowl in her right hand and birds of prey in her left hand and rarely accompanied by lions.

Head of Cybele, Salmankoy, 6th century B.C.E.
(Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)

The Lydian influenced images of the Great Mother are standing figures flanked by lions; the raptor birds and the lions, which have been associated with wild nature, are actually being read as symbols of power according to contemporary scholarship. 2 Bogh, who has researched the cult of Meter in the Western Black Sea Region, colonized by the Greeks from Asia Minor in the 7th century B.C.E,  argues that they brought the Mother with them in her role as city protector and goddess of power.3 She was also worshipped in a temple, its portico functioning as the city archive, similar to the temple of the Mother in Athens, which was also located in the city archives. 3

Mater (Cybele), Bogazkale, Middle 6th century B.C.E., Phyrigian
(Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)
By the 3rd century, the image of the Phrygian Mother Goddess had been thoroughly Hellenized, she had garnered a new torchbearing companion, conjoined other Greek deities with similar iconograhies such as Demeter, Artemis as well as the Muses.4  She was represented sitting enthroned or on the back of a lion with her attributes of a tympanum, tapera and lions. The Berlin Cybele, from the first half of the 4th century B.C.E. is one example of the new iconography of the Mother of the Gods, who is wearing a mural crown similar to Tyche's crown of city embattlements, holding a key in her right hand, which has been identified as the key to the earth.

Cybele Enthroned, 1st half of the 4th century B.C.E., Anatolia
(Antikensammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin) 

This was the iconography of Cybele that was translated into the coins of Roman empresses like Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus. In the Denarius struck for Julia Domna during her husband's reign, Cybele is seen with a mural crown, sitting on a throne with a lion by her side with the legend MATER DEVM, the Latin translation of Rhea, the daughter of earth goddess Gaia, wife and sister to Cronus and mother of the gods including Zeus.

Julia Domna, AR Denarius, 196-211, Rome, Septimius Severus
Another attribute to the image of Cybele is seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art stauette from the 2nd century A.D. In Greek mythology, Atalanta the beautiful, virgin daughter of Schoeneus who could run faster than any man, and Hippomenes who managed to win her hand in marriage after defeating her by distracting Atalanta with the three golden apples Venus had given him, were overcome with desire and had sex in Cybele's temple. The Greeks thought lions could not mate so Atalanta and Hippomenes were turned into lions and had to live side by side drawing Cybele's chariots for all eternity.

Statuette of Cybele on a chariot drawn by lions, 2nd half of 2nd century A.D.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Whether it be the image of the fertile mother or the powerful, protector of cities, the Mother Goddess lived on in Anatolia, metamorphosing into new types according to the needs of contemporary society for centuries.  Byzantine empresses, especially Constantinian empresses, used the image of the nursing female on their coins to emphasize, fertility, security and dynastic stability.  Constantine's second wife Fausta was depicted standing nursing twins on her Solidus from 325 which was the personification of spes reipublicae (hope of the republic) and Theodora, Constantine's step-mother was shown as pietas romana (Roman piety) with an infant at her breast.5 Theodora's coin was struck during the struggle for succession after Constantine's death in which Constantine's sons were being promoted against Theodora's sons, Constantine's half-brothers.6

Solidus of Fausta, minted Thessalonica 324
(Dumbarton Oaks)

Nummus of Theodora, 337

The most lasting image of the mother and child that came out of Anatolia has to be the Virgin and Child. Mary, regarded as Theotokos, the container of the uncontainable,  has been the the icon of motherhood and feminine sanctity for the past 2000 years.

"Mother of God, dwelling place of the uncontainable." 14th century
(Chora Museum, Istanbul)
It is believed that the last great siege of antiquity, the siege of Constantinople in 626 by the Avars and the Persians was only deflected by Marian intervention. When the patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius had a procession carrying the icon of the Blachernitissa, kept at the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae, along the ramparts, the enemy, upon seeing a beautiful woman adorened with jewels scouring the walls was frightened and defeated. The Virgin was pronounced as the protector of the city from that day forward.

Blachernitissa, icon of the Theotokos
(Dormition Cathedral, Moscow)
Anatolia, which translates as Anadolu, is the land of Mother Goddesses. The tradition of the feminine as a powerful and protecting force continued  during the Ottoman Empire, an autocratic and patriarchal society, with the Valide Sultans (the queen mothers) who were the second most powerful people in the empire.  The cult of the Magna Mater was transported to Greece as well as Rome, the Mother being venerated in different ways. Over time, the iconography and the rituals differed from one society to another, the power of the Mother of the Gods always stayed constant throughout the pan-Mediterranean culture.  Happy Mother's Day.


York, Hildreth and Schlossman, Betty L."She Shall Be Called Woman": Ancient near Eastern Sources of Imagery”. Woman's Art Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2 (Autumn, 1981 - Winter, 1982), pp. 38-9

2 Bogh, Birgitte. "Mother of the Gods: Goddess of Power and Protector of Cities." NVMEN 59, no. 32-6 (2012): 34-67
Roller, Lynn E. In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkley, CA: U of          California, 1999 
Roller, Lynn E. "The Great Mother at Gordion: The Hellenization of an Anatolian Cult." The     Journal of Hellenic     Studies111 (1991): 128-43

3 Bogh, 2012

4 Roller, 1991

5 J. Kent (ed.), Roman Imperial Coinage VIII, The Family of Constantine I AD 337-364, Spink and Son, London, 1981

Leslie Brubaker and Helen Tobler, “The Gender of Money: Byzantine Empresses on Coins (324-802)” Gender and History, Vol. 12 No. 3 November 2000
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