XL: Old paintings and such

To those who may be receiving one of these post-notifications for the first time: This is not a blog; it’s actually part of a book, and will make little sense to you without knowledge of what has come before—which you can easily obtain, along with a goodly amount of satirical theatre as matters progress, by simply entering ttgftyri.org into your web browser, opening the menu, and starting at page one. J.J.

Once upon a time in Russia, before the coming of the Christian missionaries, there was a Culture Hero who ultimately came to be worshipped as the Sun-god Dabog. Of course, when the missionaries couldn’t reach an accommodation with his priests, they simply turned him into a diabolical figure as they’d done in so many similar situations throughout the world—while claiming that their own religion had absolutely nothing to do with the old gods and goddesses.

Well, it’s time that someone—especially someone like me, who grew up in the Catholic Church and spent most of my adult life trying to figure out what the hell happened—put that claim to rest once and for all and placed Christianity squarely back in the continuum of religious experience that began during the Stone Age; or for our purpose here, back in the real Beginning—if only because I believe that within that context, stripped of all its myth-making mischief, Christianity really does have something of importance to say.

Now then, the rest of this website is going to consist mostly of photographs—of old European paintings. My personal collection of those relative to our stated mission numbers in the thousands—mostly downloaded from museum websites throughout Europe and the U.S.—but since poring over all of them with you here isn’t feasible, I think we might expect to arrive at our goal with no more than a thousand or so.

1. Annunciation, El Greco, ca. 1600
Museo del Prado, Madrid
2. Madonna and Child in a Garden, Cosimè Tura, ca. 1465
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
3. Virgin and Child, Giotto, ca. 1315
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

So look at the two photographs in Panel No. 1. They’re photographs of the same painting, but are the clouds in the painting supposed to be white—or blue? Are the angel’s wings really light, or dark; and by the way, just which shade of green is that?

Each of the panels above show two different photographs of the same painting, taken by different photographers back in the day when people still used film. Notice the differences in color—which may or may not have been caused by the brand of film that was used, or the kind of film (slide or print? and then, balanced for daylight, tungsten, or fluorescent lighting?); and of course, the age of the photograph and the painting itself also come into play, as does the age of the film, its speed or sensitivity to light, the speed or maximum aperture of the lens that was used, the shutter speed that was selected, the quality of the film processing, whether or not the museum allowed flash-photography in what for everyone is almost always a low-light situation, and if so, whether the photographer remembered to bring a flash, and then what kind of flash (electronic, presumably synchronized with the shutter, or old-fashioned bulb?) and finally, whether or not they knew how to use it properly (many amateurs don’t), and so forth.

Please bear all this in mind as we continue, because in the photographed paintings that follow, color will be of the most importance to us.

During the first thousand years or so of Christianity, the new religion’s artists mostly focused on Jesus and his crucifixion—somber stuff—while hardly bothering with his mother at all aside from a crude 3rd-century Madonna painting (it just means ‘my lady’) in one of the Roman catacombs; an official 5th-century painting depicting her as the divine protectress of the Roman Empire (following its establishment of Christianity as the state religion), in which she appears crowned and robed in purple—the traditional color of royalty back then; along with a few paintings in a 6th century Egyptian monastery specially consecrated to her; another in a 7th-century Constantinople church; an 8th-century engraving of her and the infant Jesus on a German Gospels cover; a 9th-century icon still worshipped in parts of Russia, and so forth. But then around the middle of the tenth century, she suddenly became a favorite subject of Italian artists at the beginning of European art’s so-called Romanesque Period.

4. Madonna and Child, anonymous, 9th or 10th c.
St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

In the above depiction of the Virgin and Child, you’ll see that the painter chose to portray her clad entirely in blue. Of course, that was his prerogative—as was the whole composition, for that matter—since there was obviously no photograph of her or other authoritative guide that he might refer to; rather, as with all the artists who’d come before him—and indeed, in the way of all religious iconographers going clear back to the Stone Age—he had only his imagination to work with.

5. Romanesque painting, anonymous, ca. 1200
El Paso Museum of Art

Here, we find her clad in variations of red. Again, the painter was perfectly free to use whatever color or shades of a color that he wished—or as we would say today, free to exercise his ‘artistic license’.

6. Romanesque dome fresco, anonymous, ca. 1123
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

In this painting, we find Mary portrayed in a blue mantle and red gown.

7. Romanesque painting, anonymous, ca. 1295
Harvard Art Museums

As she is here. Or is her mantle really black? From the cracked paint, we can see that there’s definitely an aging problem.

8. Madonna and Child, Berlinghiero Berlinghieri, ca. 1230
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

And here, more blue over red.

9. Byzantine painting, anonymous

While in this Byzantine, or Eastern Orthodox depiction of the Virgin and Child dating from the early 13th century, the painter portrays her in a green gown.

But now we must pause to note something so easily taken for granted that it would be very easy for us to overlook it: over the first few centuries of Europe’s depictions of the Virgin, then, it became standard practice, or conventional among its artists to depict her in a gown and mantle—of whatever colors. That is, they could have depicted her in just a gown, as some actually did; or in royal robes, as did a few others.

From this point on, we’re going to be paying a lot of attention to another artistic convention that contributed greatly to Mary’s more or less standard iconography as it would eventually come to be accepted not only in Rome and the rest of Italy, but throughout Catholic Europe.

But now I’m going to stand aside and just let you check out the rest of the paintings on this page on your own.

10. Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne, anonymous, 13th c.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C,
11. Madonna and Child Enthroned, anonymous, late 13th c.
Pushkin Museum, Moscow
12. Madonna and Child Enthroned, anonymous , mid 13th c.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
13. Madonna and Child Enthroned, anonymous, ca. 1255
Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne
14. Byzantine mosaic, anonymous, 13th c.
St. Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt
15. Madonna and Child, anonymous, 13th c.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

So why do we care about all this? Because we’re looking for consistency, or some standardization in the colors used to represent Mary’s garments; but first, we need to understand that in the early European artists’ depictions of her, there was none.


1: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/574842339920111262/?nic_v1=1bPfFdeS9a8ARIKdX%2F7rr5SjzV68PIISV6hbLvwQ8Ns1iQ8tlPqQ5%2F5V0fx4UIL2h3

2: National Gallery of Art https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.41639.html

3: National Gallery of Art https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.397.html

4: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/davidlallen5/romanesque-art-and-architecture/

5: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucchese_School

6: Wikipedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6b/12th-century_unknown_painters_-The_Madonna_Enthroned-_WGA19694.jpg

7: Harvard Art Museums https://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/228235

8: Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435658

9: University of California, Davis http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/20A/Byzantine.html

10: National Gallery of Art https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.35.html

11: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/478155685415697207/?nic_v1=1bmsXgMG18HZ8fJOdwO5yY54E%2BEujUhwqvbz3Pr8cuGtKhklT46J3FtNeSUy73OY2m

12: National Gallery of Art https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:13th-century_unknown_painters_-Madonna_Enthroned_with_the_Christ_Child-_WGA23873.jpg

13: Wikimedia Commons https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:13th-century_unknown_painters_-Madonna_Enthroned_with_the_Christ_Child-_WGA23873.jpg

14: Science Source https://www.sciencesource.com/archive/Madonna-and-Child–Byzantine-Mosaic-SS2867133.html

15: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/61150507415425475/?nic_v1=1bhFGL1DQloTdxq4kp1sgZxHGkaAbERlh2awfbiQ8W9x3hk%2Fo%2BU6M4NKgmKwNlxmCn

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