Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Books and Movies’ Category

Spielberg gets an A+ in History

Abraham Lincoln

I would imagine it is incredibly difficult to create historical fiction about legendary figures and there are few that loom as large as Abraham Lincoln in American history.  Since everyone knows of him, the modern storyteller has a duty to accurate present the facts without over dramatization or moralization – Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter not withstanding.  With an interest in history (and of Oscar contenders with high caliber acting), I saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln this weekend and loved it!  Besides the excellent production, script and cast, I was amazed by some of the historical tidbits that may have blown past viewers.  As unbelievable as it sounds, the major plot elements are essentially all historically accurate, but it was the look of the film and the historical details that really made the movie for me. Read more

The Ghent Altarpiece – Art & Crime

Stealing the Mystic Lamb cover

Now that its snowing in New England, I’m staring to think about a potential European vacation next year.  I’ve become fascinated by one massive piece and somehow have got to get to Belgium.  This fall I read Noah Charney’s Stealing the Mystic Lamb which describes the exciting life of the most stolen work of art ever – The Ghent Altarpiece.  A captivating artwork and a suspenseful story, the book made me want to study the painting in its home cathedral.

Jan van Ekye’s 1432AD masterwork comprised of 24 panels is known for its luminous, naturalistic and detailed images.  The book begins with an analysis of the extraordinary iconography.  The altarpiece was designed with two massive doors showing the Annunciation, Saints, Prophets and its two patrons in prayer.  When opened on Easter and feast days, you can see a glorious scene of God enthroned, angels, Adam, Eve and a procession of holy men and women visiting the altar of a holy sacrificial lamb.  For a time period in which religious imagery and symbolism was fairly straight-forward, van Eyke pulls from some interesting theology to create the namesake Mystic Lamb panel and others.  For example, the central royal figure is God but he is depicted with attributes more frequently associated with Jesus (two finger blessing, flanked by Mary and John the Baptist, youthful appearance), thus blurring the line between these two entities of the Trinity.

The historical discussion of the painting and its commission is disappointingly short because very little information survives.  I did at least enjoy the discussion of Hubert van Eyke, Jan’s brother, who is believed to have started the piece and left it to his brother Jan to finish on his death.  Hubert’s overall contributions in the painting, planning or preparations of the altarpiece are still under debate.

John the Baptist - van Eyke, Ghent Altarpiece

Expertly executed grisaille image of John the Baptist meant to resemble stone on the subdued outer panels

In the early 20th century, two panels were stolen.  The description of the events surrounding the theft read like a real life Dan Brown novel!  A crime which has never been solved, the tale is filled with conspiracy, weird ransom notes, unusual inconsistencies in the evidence, financial scandal, railway luggage tags, poor police work and of course, Nazi’s.  Ultimately, the panel of the Righteous Judges has never been found; some believe it is still hidden in the church while others believe that the replica panel created by a local art conservator simply covers the original panel.

Righteous Judges panel - Ghent altarpiece

Replica by restorer Jef Van der Veken of the “Righteous Judges” panel, on display today

The Ghent altarpiece was stolen during World War II and hunted down by the allied “Monument Men”.  The chapter describing this process begins slowly with a lengthy description of international governmental organizations set up to protect art.  The story then proceeds too quickly to several, barely connected rescue teams with a large confusing cast of characters.

Eve - Jan Van Eyke, The Ghent Altarpiece

Adam and Eve’s revolutionarily natural appearances have shocked viewers over the centuries

In order to understand how the altarpiece became a victim of war, Noah Charney includes a length but very fascinating history of museums.  The narrative traces the evolution of art as booty following a conquest, to the status of art as sacred national or cultural objects worth fighting for.  Surprisingly, the display of plundered art by Napoleon directly led to the establishment of the Louvre.  The practice continued to World War II in which Hitler had a list of target art destined for either his own use or repatriation back to Germany.  The ruthlessness and organization of the Nazi art hunters is a chilling section for anyone who loves art.

Ghent altarpiece jewel detail

Detail from Mary’s jeweled robe with scale bar.  The high quality digital images allow for very detailed study of the Ghent altarpiece

I may not need to go to Belgium next year after all.  I can “see” the Ghent Altarpiece anytime thanks to a massive digitization project.  The Getty Foundation sponsored Closer to Van Eyke: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece which produced high quality photography and scientific analysis of the panels following cleaning and restoration.  All of these images are available free online.  Given that the priceless artwork is shielded in a protective case, you may actually be able to see the brushwork better online than in person.  At the very least, read the book and decide for yourself how long you want to spend visually traversing this masterpiece online or on an airplane to see it in person!

Dismantling the central panel of the Ghent altarpiece

Dismantling the central panel of the massive Ghent altarpiece for conservation

(Some detail images of the Ghent Altarpiece used herein come from the Closer to Van Eyke: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece project and are reproduced for educational purposes.)

***UPDATE: I finally got to see the Ghent Altarpiece in person!  Read about it here.***

A Virtual Visit to the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

Every blockbuster seems to come out in 3D these days.  The only one I actually saw this summer didn’t have superheroes, but was actually a documentary about prehistoric art.  In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, Werner Herzog and a 3D film crew were allowed to shoot the recently discovered Chauvet Caves in the South of France which contains animal drawings over 30,000 years old.  Realizing that a few decades of tourist traffic has severely damaged the Lascaux Caves, the French government has limited access to Chauvet meaning that this movie may be your only way of seeing the cave art.

Grouping of horses from Chauvet (Image from Bradshaw Foundation)

I know Herzog is famous and an “artist” but this documentary would have been better if the History Channel had complete control and not just acted as a producer.  Herzog tried to be reflective about what it means to be human and our ability as modern people to understand Upper Paleolithic humans but it came off shallow – like he was just throwing out some rhetorical questions.  He tried to add historical context through an atlatl demonstration and a trip to see early female stone figurines, but it wasn’t quite enough.

What I was looking for was more analysis of the cave.  In one of the best scenes, an archaeologist describes a series of painted hand imprints and what this teaches us about the artist.  (Spoiler Alert!  He was six feet tall and had a broken pinky finger!)  There is also cool digital fly-through of the cave but the narration doesn’t clearly enough establish the lay-out of the cave, the locations of the art within it, and the possible cultural meaning of the art’s placement.  I hate to say it, but National Geographic or NOVA would have done this in the first 15 minutes.

Crowd of elegant lions (Image from the Bradshaw Foundation)

As much additional history as I would have liked, the art in Chauvet is absolutely amazing and the film does a good job of capturing its beauty.  I could have watched 20 more minutes of slow pans over the cave paintings.  The horses and lions seemed more realistic than other similarly dated cave drawings.  The composition of the animal groupings is also very sophisticated placing layer on layer of figures.

To explore Chauvet cave on-line, see the French Ministry of Culture or the Bradshaw Foundation which is dedicated to the preservation of rock art.  And by all means, watch “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”.

*UPDATE* – As of June 22, 2014, the Cauvet Caves have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site!  You definitely need to see this film now since visitors are still not allowed within the real cave.

%d bloggers like this: