Friday, May 21, 2010

Tiepolo's Immaculate Conception

It might be said of Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) that he is one of the last great painters of sacred art who painted in the baroque tradition (when he died, in Spain, he was swimming against the neo-classical current). Tiepolo is a master who added his own developments to the form of the baroque as it developed in the 17th century, but without compromising on the principles of the tradition. This makes him worthy of attention today, I feel.

The mark of a living tradition is that it able to reapply its principles without compromising on those aspects that define it; when it does this it always speaks to and of its time. This is different from pastiche, which is a rigid copying of style. (Although frankly I think pastiche is underrated – I’d take decent pastiche of the 17th century baroque over modernism every time.) Incidentally, another possible area to study to this end is that of landscape painting. I would maintain that the baroque principles of landscape painting, unlike its sacred form did not decline in the 18th century, but continued to develop well into the 19th century. Nineteenth century landscape is, in my opinion, even better than its 17th century counterpart. There are lessons to be learnt that could be taken from the mundane form and applied to the sacred art. Because landscape is not sacred art, I will not write about it for the New Liturgical Movement but for those who are interested I have begun to post a series of articles about this on my blog, here.

I saw this particular painting, above, the Immaculate Conception, last summer at an exhibition about the baroque at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (if you click, it will enlarge). This style of the Immaculate Conception was developed in Spain. Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644) who was the teacher of Spanish baroque masters Alonso Cano and Velazquez (he was also Velazquez’s father-in-law), described the iconography of the Immaculate Conception in his influential book, The Art of Painting (Arte de la Pintura) published posthumously in 1649. (By the way, I have only ever seen small excerpts of this book in English and have not been able to get hold of a translation of the full document. Can anyone help here at all?)

With reference to the Immaculate Conception, Pacheco wrote: "The version that I follow is the one that is closest to the holy revelation of the Evangelist [John writing in Revelation] and approved by the Catholic Church on the authority of the sacred and holy interpreters...In this loveliest of mysteries Our Lady should be painted as a beautiful young girl, 12 or 13 years old, in the flower of her youth...And thus she is praised by the husband: tota pulchra es amica mea, a text that is always written in this painting. She should be painted wearing a white tunic and a blue mantle...She is surrounded by the sun, an oval sun of white and ochre, which sweetly blends into the sky. Rays of light emanate from her head, around which is a ring of twelve stars. An imperial crown adorns her head, without, however, hiding the stars. Under her feet is the moon."

He also specified that her hands are to be folded on her bosom or joined in prayer. The sun is to be expressed by a flood of light around her. The moon under her feet is to have the horns pointing downwards, because illuminated from above. Round her are to hover cherubim bearing roses, palms, and lilies; the head of the bruised and vanquished dragon is to be under her feet. She ought to have the cord of St. Francis as a girdle, ‘because in this guise she appeared to Beatriz de Silva’, a noble Franciscan nun, who was favored by a celestial vision of the Madonna in her beatitude.

All these accessories are not absolutely and rigidly required and the 17th century Spanish artist, Murillo, who is perhaps the painter most known for the Conception, strayed from Pacheco without being considered the less orthodox for it. His moon, for example, is sometimes full, or when a crescent, the horns point upwards instead of downwards (as we see in Tiepolo’s).

The rose symbolizes Our Lady, and the white colour, as with that of the lily, symbolizes the purity of the Virgin. Palms, deriving from Palm Sunday, symbolize spiritual victory and triumph over death (often used with martyrs). In this case it is emphasizing Mary’s crucial role in the victory achieved by her Son. The dove, of course, symbolizes the Holy Ghost.

In this example, Tiepolo varies the focus and where he mutes the colour he uses tonal variation to describe form, in characteristic baroque mode. I have written more about this in articles here and here. Look, for example, at the mantle. This is intended to be seen in our mind’s eye as uniformly blue in accordance with Pacheco’s specifications. However, only part of it in his painting of it is actually blue. Much is rendered tonally in brown ochre and sepia.

Tiepolo is noted for giving his paintings a lightness and airiness that did not exist in those works by artists who worked in the previous century. He has achieved this by using colours in a higher register than many of his 17th-century counterparts would have done – more pale blue, bright yellow and orange for example. Also he deftly varied the colour that he used for the purely tonal description. As mentioned in connection with the mantle, he uses sepia and brown ochre. Elsewhere he uses yellow ochre. Contrast this with, for example, Rembrandt’s St Bartholomew: all his tonal description is in a dark sepia, which creates a sense of heavy shadow wherever it is used. Tiepolo used quite a range of colours as well. For example in his John the Baptist Preaching, we see him modelling tonal areas in blue-greys and green-greys. all this helps to lend a mood in a Tiepolo that is more joyful and less somber than a Rembrandt.

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