#18: Grotesques

Last year, I spent 3 weeks in Florence Italy, with day trips to Siena & Lucca. It was a heavenly immersion in Italian Renaissance art, with a generous helping of my favourite motif – wingéd human/animal creatures.  In Renaissance Florence, these creatures were called “Grotesques” and embellished everything from ceilings to ceramics and are anything but grotesque.  Beautifully painted with technical panache, they are a light-hearted treatment of otherworldly beings.

Florentine Ceiling in the Uffizi Gallery with "grotesques"
Florentine Ceiling in the Uffizi Gallery with “grotesques”

Though the styles are very similar in all the ceiling “grotesques” the artists let their imaginations run wild in ceramic “grotesques”.  For instance, the figures below appear to be hermaphrodites.

Bird Hermaphrodites 15th C. ceramic in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy
15th C. ceramic in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy
bird-snake-woman
15th C. ceramic in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy
birdwoman-long-neck
15th C. ceramic in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy
birdwoman-w-flame
15th C. ceramic in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy
birdwoman
15th C. ceramic in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy
copulation
15th C. ceramic in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy

And these creatures appear to be involved in aerial copulation.

Label for 15th C. ceramic in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy.
Label for 15th C. ceramic in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy.

The artists must have had such fun with these images that embellished surfaces everywhere.  It makes our sterile interiors see  lifeless in comparison.

As described in earlier posts, images conflating animals & humans have fascinated me to over 30 years so it was very exciting to explore a cultural period that clearly found much pleasure in these images.

The first painting that sprang from the Florence experience is called Wingéd Seraphim II. In company with artists  for many millennia, I am fascinated by the idea of flying humans. These are sometimes depicted as angels and sometimes as devils. In my version, they are simply plump beings plying the heavens in their own interests and oblivious to anything going on below.

Wingéd-Seraphim II, Dec. 2015, oil on canvas, 24" x 24"
Wingéd-Seraphim II, Dec. 2015, oil on canvas, 24″ x 24″

According to Wikepedia, the word seraph/seraphim appears three times in the Torah and four times in the Book of Isaiah. In Isaiah the term is used to describe a type of celestial being or angel. “Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.”

The Bible contains the words of Ezekiel as he described his vision of “…four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings.Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze.Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched the wings of another.Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side. Four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched the wings of another. “

Before now, I felt uncomfortable about a visual exploration of mythical creatures in the context of the Abrahamic religions. I was concerned that melded human/animal figures would be anathema to that tradition, based as it is on the idea of humans as made in God’s image.  I feared that depicting animal/human creatures, especially in the context of classical Christian imagery, would be offensive to some, and I have no wish to offend anyone’s spiritual beliefs.  So it was liberating to see human/animal creatures used lavishly in the palaces of those who would consider themselves devout.

The big surprise was to discover that references to “winged seraphim” in the Bible also refers to serpents. When I worked on my painting Wingéd Seraphim, I assumed that the images would be a challenge to Christian orthodoxy, not realizing that flying serpents were a part of the tradition.  Naturally, it would have been assumed by Biblical writers & scholars that all these creatures would be male, as the tradition is deeply patriarchal. So the painting does challenge the unacknowledged assumptions in the Abrahamic tradition, that all the important players are male.

Having assured myself that animal/human beings are part of, rather than offensive to, the Abrahmic traditions, I have resurrected some paintings I started many years ago but never finished.  These are part of the “Grotesque” series because they use the animal/human motif, but they are re-workings of famous classical   art, some to do with Christian imagery, some to do with classical mythology.  The first of these is also called “WIngéd Seraphim”. This painting explores the concept of humans as made in the image of God and the only creatures with a soul.

Wingéd Seraphim, Jan. 2016 26" h x 32" w oil on canvas
Wingéd Seraphim, Jan. 2016, 26″ h x 32″ w, oil on canvas

This painting is based on a classical painting that likely refers to the Biblical reference, John 1:51. Jesus tells Nathanael that he will “see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man“. Unfortunately, I am unable to locate the original painting, but will keep trying. The angels Jesus refers to are usually depicted as in the following image  – as Anglo-Saxon humans in long white Grecian-type robes.

Traditional Angels, Unknown artist
Traditional Angels, Unknown artist

I can’t seem to find an attribution for the above image and it is widely used on Christian sites. But according to explorefaith.org, “Occasionally, an angel takes the form of an animal. According to standard Christian, Jewish, and Muslim belief, an angel can take any form it wishes…”. The argument is that, in order to communicate with humans, angels take on human form. So again, an idea that I was concerned may be offensive to Christians is again, acceptable tot eh doctrine.

The second painting in this series, called “Elegy” is again an exploration of the idea that God only cares about human animals as they are the  only beings with souls. So God sent Jesus to help humans perfect their souls, but instead, we murdered Him. This painting investigates the possibility that God cares about all creature here below, even and possibly especially, frogs.  I chose frogs because they are an endangered species due to climate change & the thinning of the ozone layer. They are beautiful creatures created by God, but we are murdering them. Through their demise, like Jesus, they are messengers that we are destroying what is most precious.

Elegy, Dec. 2015 32" h x 42" w oil on canvas
Elegy, Dec. 2015, 32″ h x 42″ w, oil on canvas

I happened to come across the original painting in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and here it is.

Pietà (1516) Fra Bartolomeo  color on wood 62.2" × 78.3" Palazzo Pitti, Florence.
Pietà (1516), Fra Bartolomeo, color on wood, 62.2″ × 78.3″, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

 But there appear to be 2 versions of this painting.  Here is the other one.

Compianto sul Cristo morto, Fra Bartolomeo, 1511-1512, oil on wood, 158×199 cm Uffizi Gallery, Florence

In the “Grotesque” series, I also explore human conceptions of beauty.  Naturally, humans seek physical attractiveness in other humans, but our anthropocentric world view means that we tend not to see the grace & of beauty of other species. To question this view, I used the one of the most famous images from classical mythology and art – the three graces. Called, “The Three Graces”, this painting features 3 female figures with melded human/Great Blue Heron  bodies.

The Three Graces, Jan 2016 40" h x 40"w oil on canvas
The Three Graces, Jan 2016, 40″ h x 40″w, oil on canvas

This work was based on the famous 14th C painting of the same name.

The Three Graces, 1504–1505 Raphael Oil on panel 6.7 in × 6.7 in Musée Condé, Chantilly
The Three Graces, 1504–1505, Raphael, Oil on panel, 6.7 in × 6.7 in, Musée Condé, Chantilly

I have also described this area of inquiry in Blog Post #10: On Women which goes further into the inspiration for this piece.

 

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