St. Peter’s Chair

Bernini’s next job was to do something with St. Peter’s chair.
It wasn’t really St. Peter’s but it was a very old chair.

St. Peter’s Stool , Vatican (see a larger version)

By Bernini’s time it was taken as the symbol of the Pope’s primacy. Each bishop had a “chair” (cathedra in Latin), and a cathedral (chair-church). The Pope “held” the most important “chair” of them all.

Bernini looked at the  old wooden relic and decided  he would invent his own  great show-chair and lock the real one away inside it.

What would a proper chair for Christ’s representative on earth be like?  He made some clay models like this one:

Bernini’s terracotta model for the Cathedra; see a large version here

Then came up with this:

The Cathedra Petri (see a large version at  the St. Peter’s Basilica page)

It is on the wall of the main apse, at the front of the basilica.  Bernini wanted to give pilgrims some goal to walk towards once they had reached the great Baldachin in the center. He lined up the chair, raised it on the wall at just the right height, so that they could see it through the canopy.

bernini sketh baldachin2

Bernini’s sketch

They would stand on Peter’s grave, look up, and see a vision:

public domain photo

The Chair comes out of heaven, out of the clouds. It hovers. It appears with an almost frightening importance and immediacy, like a phantom or a genii. You might almost expect it to speak with a deep voice. Bernini always thought architecture should come more than half way. It ought to reach out and grab the viewer.  It ought to rock him.

To make his chair look more like an airy vision, Bernini set it up in front of  the general basilica decoration, partially blotting  out the Corinthian columns and the wall, as though with clouds and vapor.


A vision is an event of light. In his best-known work, the Ecstacy of St. Teresa in the Santa Maria de la Vittoria Church in Rome, Bernini had drilled the wall to bring in what might seem divine light above his figure. Then he  marked out the rays of light with shining strips of bronze.

Ecstasy of St Teresa, 1652, by Gianlorenzo Bernini. Cornaro chapel, Santa Maria Della Vittoria church in Rome. (public domain photo)

Here in St. Peter’s the big window in the apse above the Cathedra blinded the eye. It was too big, too bright.  Bernini decided to block it up and leave only a small oval. When that still seemed too bright, he gave it yellow glass and painted a dove on the pane. The little oval window would be the source of the light from heaven, and the dove would represent the Holy Spirit that guides the Church through the ages.

Saint Peter’s Basilica, the apse, showing the Catedra of St Peter supported by four Doctors of the Church, and the Glory, designed by Bernini  (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Vitold Muratov)

The project took Bernini nine years. Though he delegated most of the work to collaborators, of which there were many, including his old father and brother, he always stayed in perfect control. That was part of his genius.

See Bernini in St. Peter’s and read about the Great Canopy.


Posted in architecture, art, art history, Baroque, Bernini, St. Peter's, Vatican | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments

Few Can Beat Old Bruegel

Nobody puts a world in a picture like Pieter Bruegel. Look at this winter scene.

Pieter Bruegel’s Return of the Hunters (Wikimedia public domain photo)

You are alive in 1565. You lived in old Flanders on a sad day when the sun never came out. You saw the day close and the tired hunters come trudging home through the snow. Even their dogs were pooped.

The wind blows right through you. You were a child and you shivered by the fire your mother had started for supper. Those damn magpies glide so easily down to the the plain. They never mind the cold.

Or you were a kid skating on the pond, all bundled up in wool, or a guy collecting firewood or peeing in a corner by the frozen mill.

Remember what the old houses looked like? That’s them. And the roads and the trees. You saw them, you knew them. Bruegel’s winter has been everyone’s WINTER for four hundred and fifty years.

Brueghel is always a surprise and a mystery.  Take two of his Epiphany paintings:

The Adoration of the Magi by Pieter Bruegel, in the National Gallery of London (public domain photo)

Who else would put such ugly humanity into a picture of this great event?
What a congregation of mean, stupid people! The rude soldiers look as though they have collected for an arrest or a Crucifixion and are disappointed. Except for the crossbowman with a bolt in his hat (the way a carpenter keeps his pencil): he has gone soft on seeing the Infant and Mother.

The two men on the right are just curious bystanders. God only knows what they will go home and tell their wives.
Hearty St. Joseph loves a good meal. What is that servant whispering to him? Presumably it isn’t bad news, such as that the owner of the stable would like him and his family to leave.

Why did Bruegel make the Kings ugly too, except for the beautiful black Balthassar, who holds one of the most original gold ships there ever was? It is worthy of Benvenuto Cellini.

They say Bruegel took the Virgin’s pose from Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. And so he probably did, though unless they point out the similarity you won’t think of it.

Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna (photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Here is another Three Kings picture.

The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel in the Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland (public domain photo)

They have arrived on a snowy day in old Belgium. No fanfare, no angels, no haloes, no star. The Virgin and Child are almost out of the picture, in that nearly roofless ruin on the left. A fine place to sit and receive a visit.

Everyone is fighting the cold, the wind, and the snow. How they do that seems to be the real subject of the picture. Soldiers have started a fire in a ruin next to the manger. Other soldiers are headed for the shelter of that big farmhouse (or inn). Peasants are scavenging firewood and cutting branches off a fallen tree. Men and women are fetching water from a hole in the ice of a pond. Only the little girl on the sled is enjoying herself and her mother tells her not to.

On the right of the picture, balancing off the manger, is a makeshift toilet and some of the Kings’ soldiers seem to be hurrying there while their lords go adoring to the left.

That’s Bruegel.

Bruegel self-portrait (public domain photo)

There is simply nobody like him.



Posted in art, art history, Brueghel, great artists, oil painting | 9 Comments

The Prado Museum, Madrid

A vitalist like Ernest Hemingway stayed away from museums. He liked to meet the living, not the dead; he avoided the catalogued and the stuffed.

Bill Davis, Rupert Bellville, and Ernest Hemingway dining at La Consula, 1959 (Wikimedia public domain photo)

In the final chapter of Death in the Afternoon he describes the Prado from the outside:
“If I could have made this enough of a book it would have had everything in it. The Prado, looking like some big American college building with sprinklers watering the grass in the bright Madrid summer morning…”

Lawn and tall trees in front of the west entrance to the Prado Museum

The  north or Goya entrance to the Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

Didn’t he go in?

Many times—the Prado was an exception to his rule. It wasn’t like other museums. Its paintings were the truths of some of the greatest observers who ever lived. You could learn from them just as you learned from the great writers. Seeing those pictures was multiplying your own experience.

Is the Prado so special?
Yes. Yes. Its walls are crowded with great paintings—more to the square meter than in any other museum in the world.
All museums are proud of their masterpieces. You walk by rows of paintings that are middling good until you come to the star.
In the Prado they are all stars. There are no fillers on the walls. Even the pictures that hang in the stairwell are originals by Rubens or Tiepolo or Van Dyke. The collection is so vast that most of it has to be permanently stored in the basement, out of sight. Of almost 8000 works there is only room enough upstairs to exhibit 1200—the crème de la crème!

With a starting selection like that, it is impossible to make an even more brutal one and say: “These are the top ten works”—or even the top 50. It becomes a matter of comparing the greatest artists who ever lived. Who is better: Goya or Velazquez? Their best works are in the Prado. Is Tintoretto better than Veronese? Dozens of their best paintings are on display. El Greco? Here is the best collection outside of Toledo. You don’t care for El Greco? Rubens maybe? There are 80 of his paintings here. Or do you prefer the Renaissance Italians like Fra Angelico, Raphael, Correggio, Andrea del Sarto, Titian? The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Raphael’s Portrait of a Cardenal, Del Sarto’s Portrait of Lucrezia, Correggio’s Noli Me Tangere, Titian’s Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg are each worth a trip over the Pyrenees or even across the ocean to see.
Yet many make the pilgrimage to the Prado only to stand before the Brueghels and the Bosches; and more than one hurry right to the room with The Descent from the Cross by Van der Weyden—a work so perfect you “almost” don’t need to see any other.

Hemingway, after a long absence from Madrid, went back in 1953 and hurried over to the Prado. “The pictures were as ‘solidly etched in his head and heart’, writes his biographer, partially quoting him, “as if they had hung on the walls of [his Cuban home] in all the years since he had last seen them. He pored over Goya, Brueghel, and Hieronymous Bosch, and stood long before Andrea del Sarto’s “Portrait of a Woman”, with whose face he had fallen in love years before.” Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker, p. 650


Portrait of a Woman (or Lucrezia) by Andrea del Sarto

(See Andrea del Sarto’s Evil Angel and read how dangerous Lucrezia could be)

Relaxing on the lawn of the Prado Museum

Monument to Francisco de Goya by Mariano Benlliure beside the Prado Museum

Read the exciting news from Google: many of the Prado’s paintings are being digitalized and can be seen on your computer screen as close up as you like. This allows you to see details you would not have been able to see before, even standing two feet away from the painting in the Prado.

Wikipedia on the Prado Museum


Posted in aesthetics, Andrea del Sarto, architecture, art, art history, Correggio, Diego Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, great artists, Murillo, oil painting, Rafael Sanzio, Renaissance, Rubens, Spain, Tintoretto, Titian, Velazquez | Tagged | 17 Comments

Andrea del Sarto’s Evil Angel


Lucrezia by Andrea del Sarto

She hangs on a wall of the Prado Museum in Madrid, ever bewitching.

Who painted her?

Her husband, Andrea del Sarto, who was crazy about her, to his great bad luck.
He was one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance. Many thought he painted so well he might have rivalled the great Leonardo da Vinci. Everyone loved and respected him.

Then along came Lucrezia and Andrea lost his head.  According to Giorgio Vasari, who knew her, she was no good.    She mistreated Andrea’s friends and even his apprentices, and she brought out a shocking weakness in him.

What did she do that was so bad?  Maybe Vasari just didn’t like her.

For instance:
Andrea’s reputation as a painter was so great that the very King of France invited him to come and work for him. He gave Andrea a place to live and a splendid salary and treated Andrea as a personal friend.
One evil day Andrea got a letter from Lucrezia back in Florence. She said she missed him and was miserable. If he didn’t come right home she would—well, she would die.

Andrea ran to ask the king for permission to return to Florence. “It will only be for a short time,” he said. The king put on a very sour face. He had already had some bad experience with Italian artists.

Andrea had an idea: “Your Majesty loves great paintings, right?  Well, while I’m home in Florence I can buy some good ones for you.”

That worked. The king’s face brightened. He knew he could trust the tastes of one of the world’s greatest artists to spot good paintings, and he gave him plenty of money to buy them. “Hurry back, my friend,” he told him.

Guess what happened.  Andrea hurried home to Florence and was reunited with his beloved Lucrezia.  They celebrated their reunion with magnificent feasts. Lucrezia told Andrea that while he was away she had been dreaming of a beautiful Tuscan villa where they could live with dignity; and she  showed him her plans. He happened to have some cash (the king’s) and so he told Lucrezia her wish was his command. They began to build the beautiful Tuscan villa.

One day they ran out of funds.  Andrea woke up remembering King Francis and his promise to return soon.  “Lucrezia,” he told her after she had woken too. “I must go back to the king.”
“You’re not serious,” she said. “The king has already forgotten about you. And that money to him is nothing. Stay here with your little Lucrezia.”  And she gave him a kiss of the kind that simply paralyzed him.
He never went back and King Francis cursed him and all Italians too.

Lucrezia did one more nasty thing. When the plague was raging through Florence Andrea fell sick. Lucrezia quickly left not only the house but Florence too.  She had great fear of contagion. Andrea  died alone in the house and was found days later and buried just anywhere. Lucrezia, probably because of her foresight, survived that plague and forty more years of flu-s and other common maladies.

Supposed self-portrait of Andrea del Sarto (Wikipedia public domain photo)

See Robert Browning’s famous poem, one of his dramatic monologues, in which Andrea talks to Lucrezia on a beautiful Tuscan evening.

Wikipedia on Andrea del Sarto



Posted in Andrea del Sarto, art, art history, Beauty, great artists, Leonardo da Vinci, painting, Rafael Sanzio, Renaissance | Tagged , , , , , , | 20 Comments

That Dalí Was Such a Clown

Salvador Dalí and Man Ray, Paris, by Carl Van Vechten
(public domain photo)

Did you hear about his little number at art school, for his final exam?

“Choose a period in art history and tell us about it,” the tribunal told the young dandy. He had shown up for the exam in a gaudy sportscoat with a gardenia in the lapel.
“No,” he said.  “Since all the professors of this school are incompetent to judge me, I’m leaving.” And he walked out of the hall.
That was the end of his school days, of course. They expelled him permanently.  He was twenty-two and had been enrolled for five years, usually ignoring the classes, once actually getting kicked out for leading a student revolt. That last term he failed Lithography, Color and Composition, and Drawing from a Model in Movement. He did get an “A” in Art History.

How could a young man act that way?  Who did he think he was?

“Why, I was Salvador Dalí,” he would answer. “I knew it already then.”

What did he know?

He had gotten started very early as an artist. At nine he was already drawing and receiving instruction from a painter friend (Ramón Pitchot) of the family. At twelve his dad enrolled him in a drawing course.   He painted too and proudly handed out his works to his relatives after each summer vacation.  Some were  imitations or copies of the reproductions he saw in his father’s books.  But he was fascinated too by his teacher’s Puntillist style and he soon began to experiment with color and ways of applying the paint.
“My experiments led me to cover my canvasses with a thick layer of material that would catch the light and create the sensation of relief and material presence. Then I decided to glue stones to my pictures and paint them.”

“Stones keep falling from our son’s heaven,” his dad used to say.

Dalí’s father (1925), painted while Salvador was still enrolled at the Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. Salvador Dali Cusí was a formidable character with a strong influence on his son.

When Salvador was  fifteen he and a group of friends published a magazine called Studium which was printed on wrapping paper. Dalí was in charge of a section called “Great Masters of Painting”. He wrote about his admiration for El Greco, Dürer, Goya, Michelangelo and Leonardo.  Dalí could write  as well as he could paint.

His dad wanted him to study law (Dalí, Sr. was a lawyer and a notary) but he did not stand in the boy’s way.  He took him to Madrid  for the entrance exam of  the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, which the boy easily passed, then moved him into a room at the famous Residencia de Estudiantes.  There Salvador made friends with other geniuses like Federico García Lorca and Luis Buñuel, who were studying literature and philosophy. There was a lot going on in the world of art and thought and they were all excited about it.

Though for a long time Dalí kept to himself and stayed in his room. One of his classmates said he was “literally sick with shyness”. “Salvador was the most inhibited person that I had ever met,” wrote Juan Bello, who later became his good friend.

Did he learn a lot from his fellow painter classmates?

No.  “When I started out at the Academia, “ he said years later, “I felt superior to almost all of them. They were just discovering Impressionism [superseded two decades earlier by other movements in art], which they interpreted as an invitation to a sloppy kind of freedom…You go to a school like that to learn the formal discipline of oil painting and academic art, [not to horse around].”

He made this statement years later after he had become known for his classical technique. In fact, at the time, he was experimenting with every kind of style, as he had been doing since he was twelve and would continue to do for years.
Here is a Post-cubistic self-portrait:

Self-portrait at 23.  Dalí admired Picasso and Juan Gris and experimented with Cubism. He went to visit Picasso in Paris as soon as he was expelled from art school.

He worked day and night, filling his little cell at the Residencia with paintings and drawings, talking excitedly with his great friends about the latest ideas in art, literature, and psychology.  The Spanish poet Rafael Alberti remembered him years later:
“They told me he worked all day, sometimes forgetting to eat or arriving late at the lunchroom.When I visited his room, a simple cell like Federico’s [Lorca], I almost couldn’t enter, I didn’t know where to put my foot down since the entire floor was covered with drawings. Dali had a formidable vocation and at that time, though he was only twenty-one, he was an unbelievably good draftsman. He could draw anything he wanted to, real or imagined: a classical line, pure, perfect calligraphy, which though it reminded you of Picasso’s Hellenistic period, was no less admirable….”

By graduation time at the Academia Dali had already exhibited many of his paintings. His first individual exhibition was at the Galeria Dalmau in Barcelona 1925 while he was in his senior year. There were landscapes, portraits, drawings and paintings in several styles: Cubist; Purist; Post-Cubist. But there were also a few with a new atmospheric realism, with strange, isolated figures. The portrait of his father (above) was there. He had painted that a year earlier.
Picasso went to see the exhibit and especially liked this one. How could he not?

Girl from the Back, 1925. This is Dali’s younger sister, who liked to model for him. “The most beautiful girl I have ever seen,” said Lorca, who, however, fell in love with her brother.

His second indvidual show was just a year later at that same gallery in Barcelona. Among them was this Girl from Behind Looking out the Window, which generations of Spaniards have preferred to later Dali extravagances.

Girl from Behind Looking out the Window (painted in 1925)

These masterpieces were still experimental. Dalí had not yet found the subjects and style he became famous for. But this basket of bread had something eery about it, something striking about the light that seems to emanate from the bread itself, that caused much admiration. “It looks like a Zurbarán,” they said. Actually, now we know that it looks like a Dalí.

Basket of Bread (1926) (Fair use image)

So these were some of the young man’s achievements before he appeared for that final exam. He knew he could do this well and better. He believed he was doing something original and important, and he had the support and admiration of his father and his great friends and painters. Though by then he had overcome some of his shyness, he had to down a big glass of absinthe before walking into the examination hall and pulling off his little skit before the professors. Anger helped him too. Some of the professors had failed him, mainly because he had cut so many of their classes. He believed that he could use his time better by pursuing his own ideas than going to class. Unfortunately, this is the attitude of many losers in college and the professors have little patience for it. But this time…

The clown was right. He was a genius.

The  cockeyed photos of Dali’s paintings are my own, taken at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, where they are on permanent display and where photos without flash are allowed. Except for the portrait of Dalí’s father.  I photographed a reproduction of that in a sidewalk exhibit in Madrid.

My sources for most of the information are: Dalí by Dawn Ades, ABC, S.L., 2004, and Dalí Jóven, Dalí Genial by Ian Gibson, Santillana Ediciones Generales, S.L., 2004


Posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Dalí, drawing, great artists, Madrid, oil painting, painting, Picasso, Spain | 9 Comments

Velasquez Dreamed of Becoming Somebody

Nobody is ever happy. Take Diego Velasquez.

He could paint better than anyone. All the painters in Spain envied him.
Here is one of his early works, a boy and an old woman in the kitchen cooking eggs.

Woman Cooking Eggs (public domain photo)

Before he was even twenty-five he beat all the masters in a contest and became the king’s painter. He and his family moved into an apartment next to the royal palace in Madrid and received a royal salary.  Diego hurried out to buy a carriage and hire some servants.
That, when most of the country, including many painters, were living well below the poverty level.

Here is a boy delousing himself  in Velasquez’s hometown, Seville. The painting is by his contemporary Murillo.

The Young Beggar (public domain photo)

And his good fortune didn’t stop there.  He became the very king’s friend. They used to sit and chat. Not even many of the highest nobles could brag about a privilege like that. Palace servants and great nobles alike would watch Velasquez walk right through the palace and into the private quarters of King Philip, the most powerful man in Europe. Or they would see the king make his way to Velasquez’s studio, to watch him paint.

Velasquez made this portrait of his friend, King Philip IV

King Philip IV  (public domain photo)

Yet Diego got used to being gifted and lucky.  He wasn’t satisfied.   He wanted to be a gentleman too. It didn’t matter that he was a world-famous painter and an intelligent and cultivated man. In the Spain of his time you had to be a nobleman to be respected.   He climbed ranks in the palace service. First he became one kind of servant and then another. But that was merely rising in the “firm”.

What he really needed was a title. How do you get a title? You have to show that one of your ancestors was a nobleman. Diego spent a lot of money over many years digging up old papers and getting reports from friends and relatives but he couldn’t find a single aristocrat in his family tree.  When his nobility application stalled, he went to the king.  “Could you help me, Majesty? I’d like to become a  Knight of St. James.”

Though the king was the king and the highest-ranking nobleman, even his good word was barely enough to make the bureaucrats waive the noble ancestor requirement for Diego. And it was only in the last year of his life that he became a Knight.

One of his last paintings was this one, called Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor). He shows himself painting a big portrait of the king and queen (standing where we viewers stand, outside the picture) and surrounded by members of the royal household.

Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) 1656-1657  (318 × 276 cm (125.2 × 108.7 in) (public domain photo)

It is his biggest and maybe his only self-portrait.  He stands full-length. Perhaps now he was finally proud enough to put himself in a picture.
After he died, someone (his son-in-law?) painted the cross of St. James on Velasquez’s doublet.  The great painter was at last a certified gentleman.

Self-portrait of Velasquez in Las Meninas (public domain photo)

This is a  statue of Velasquez at the entrance to the Prado Museum, Madrid:




Posted in art, great artists, painting, Spain, Velazquez | Tagged , , , , | 31 Comments

Oscar Wilde’s Grave

You are a sculptor and Oscar Wilde’s friend Robert Ross asks you to make a monument for his grave. You remember Oscar’s wit as you heard it in his play The Importance of Being Ernest, and a story you read in school about Dorian Grey, whose portrait in the attic mysteriously recorded all the evil of his life. Maybe you know his fairy tales, too. The footnotes to a poem called the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” told you that Oscar had actually gone to prison for “corrupting” a youth, and had died in Paris shortly after his release, a broken man.

(public domain photo)

What sort of monument could you make to such a man—one of the most colorful men of letters of the nineteenth century, a dandy who lived among exquisite things?

Here is what the American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein came up with:

Tomb of Oscar Wilde by Jacob Epstein, in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris  (GNU Free Documentation License photo by JHvW (talk)

What the devil?
“I had in mind Oscar’s poem ‘the Sphinx’”, explained Epstein.
A little Egyptian, a little Aztec inspiration. Something as exotic as the sphinx Oscar talks about in that long poem (which almost no one has read).

Few people have ever been pleased with the big stone, though women love to give it a kiss and leave a print of lipstick there (see a page of photos at Google). The sphinx used to be complete with genitals and those were at first covered (even in famously prude-free France) and finally removed. Oscar’s poem did have a heavy erotic air and the work of Epstein mostly did too.

Was Epstein himself satisfied?
Probably not. He experimented all his life with styles—sometimes of the sort that whole cultures produce. “It looks as though this were made by a people rather than a single man,” said one of Epstein’s friends in admiration of Oscar’s monolith. And in fact some of Epstein’s big projects are so derivative or eclectic that his own personality went under. He has no single masterpiece—as happened to so many of the artists of the twentieth century, nor a readily identifiable style.

Except in his wonderful portraits—some of the best that have ever been sculpted. Have a look at his bronze busts of Joseph Conrad, of Churchill, of the singer Paul Robeson, of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and others. Here is a model named Kathlene:

Kathlene by Jacob Epstein (public domain photo)




Posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Beauty, sculpture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments