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Sunday, 12 February 2017

Pictographic Manuscripts - The Aztec Codex

Young Citlali climbs up to the upper deck of the ship to get a better view of the night sky. He looks up at the star laden heavens and smiles. His name means 'Star' in colloquial Nahuatl. He takes a deep breath and enjoys the cool sea breeze. The year is 1541 and the ship is sailing to Spain, it's laden with expensive gifts and jewels for the Spanish king, Emperor Charles V. However, the most precious object on board that ship is an Aztec codex called the 'Codex Mendoza'.
Suddenly Citlali hears a gun shot followed by another one in quick succession. He turns around and sees a French pirate ship close on the starboard side. He quickly sounds an alarm but its too late. The pirates are already aboard. A fierce fight takes place late into the night and Citali is fatally wounded. After a fierce battle, the pirates take over the ship and plunder everything on board. The Codex Mendoza never made it to Spain. It ended up in France instead.
In France, the Codex was acquired by Andre` Thevet, the cosmographer to King Henry II. Thevet was so impressed by the detailed text and illustrations of this Codex that he wanted to be associated with it and wrote his name in five places, including the top of the cover (pictured above).

After the Spanish took over the Aztec empire, the first viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza commissioned a Codex in 1541 to record information about this fascinating culture. This codex has since come to be known as the 'Codex Mendoza'. He intended to send it to the Spanish King for him to get a better understanding of the Aztecs.
Indigenous artists and scribes used coloured pigments and ink to create this pictorial manuscript, which is in a book format composed of seventy one folios. Each page measuring 30 by 21 centimeters of European paper. Creating the codex was full of intricacies and involved people with multiple skills working together. First the artists recorded information about Aztec history, culture, religion and the tributes paid by each town of the 'Triple Alliance' (a military and political alliance among the three groups living in the basin of Mexico, today's Mexico city). This information was then represented pictorially by them, leaving blank pages in between their paintings. In the second step the narrator provided an oral account of what the drawings represented in 'Nahuatl', the spoken language of the Aztecs. Then someone who the codex refers to as the 'interpreter' translated this speech into oral Spanish and finally a scribe wrote down the lengthy text on a page adjacent to the images it represented. The final manuscript was reviewed by an additional person who corrected errors in the Spanish text and wrote a concluding commentary about the document's production. The codex also gives the reader an introduction to Nahua pictographic writing.

The codex's front piece contains information about the organisation and foundation of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. It was established in the middle of Lake Texcoco in the valley of Mexico in 1325.The front piece has a diagram of the city, it is divided into four parts by intersecting blue - green undulating diagonals. The city was made up of canals and divided into four quarters. This division was intended to mirror the organisation of the universe believed by the Aztecs to be four parts aligned with the four cardinal directions, North, South, East and West.
At the center of the page is an eagle on a cactus growing from the middle of a lake. According to the Aztec myth, their patron deity 'Huitzilopochtli', told their ancestors to leave their ancestral home of Aztlan and look for a place where they saw an eagle on top of a cactus growing from a rock. He told them wherever they see this sign they should settle and build their city. It is believed that the Aztecs saw this sight in the middle of Lake Texcoco and established their capital Tenochtitlan on an island in the lake. The cactus on which the eagle sits also symbolises the name of the capital, which translates into,' the place of the prickly pear cactus'. Today's Mexican flag has an eagle on a prickly pear cactus, growing on a stone in the middle of a lake, relating back to the mystic origins of  the Mexican capital.

Below the cactus and stone we see a war shield indicating that the Aztecs did not settle peacefully in the Valley of Mexico. The simple structure above the eagle symbolises their main temple in the heart of the city. To the right of the eagle is a simplified skull rack, to show the fate of their war captives and the importance of human sacrifice in their society. Different types of plants and grain including maize or corn dot the city's four quadrants indicating the agricultural fertility of Tenochtitlan.

Ten men are also depicted in the four quadrants wearing white garments with top knots in their hair.
These are the figures of the men who led the Aztecs to this island location. Their name glyphs (art in the form of a symbolic figure) are attached to them by a thin black line. One man is different from the rest. He's seated to the left of the eagle, has grey skin, a different hairstyle and a red mark around his ear. He's a priest and the blood from his ear is an offering to the deities. His skin is grey because it's covered with ash. The speech scroll coming out of his mouth and the woven mat on which he sits indicate his high status as well.
Surrounding the entire page are year glyphs, beginning on the upper left and running anticlockwise.

Below the diagram of the city are two scenes of military conquest. The Aztec soldiers, identified by their shields, physically tower over the two defeated men. The artist emphasises their military superiority through these proportions.                                                                                           
 The codex is divided into three sections. The first section is in sixteen pages and presents a history of the Aztecs, from the founding of the capital city Tanochtitlan in 1325 to it's fall in 1521. This is their political and military history organised chronologically, according to the reign of each emperor. It provides the dates of his rule through blue coloured year glyphs and names of the towns he brought into the imperial fold. (Paintings below)

Conquests of Chimalpopoca (Smoking Shield). The third king of Tenochtitlan


Conquests of Ltzcoatl (Black Serpant). The fourth king of Tenochtitlan.

Conquests of Axayacati ( Face of Water). The sixth king of Tenochtitlan and the ruler of the Triple Alliance.

The second and longest section is in thirty nine pages. It is a list of towns conquered by the 'Triple Alliance' and the tributes paid by each of them. It is organised by region and specifies items such as textiles, fine feathers, animal skins, precious stones, gold mantles and cocoa beans among other things. As in the first section the content, format and style are very structured. Towns are listed in the margins starting at the top left and move in an anticlockwise direction around the page.

Tribute items occupy the majority of the page accompanied by glyphs indicating quantities, arranged horizontally on the page. Clothing and textiles are always at the top of the page, military insignia,warriors uniforms and shields are at the center and food items, grains and other miscellaneous items are at the bottom of the page.

The third section, is in sixteen pages and describes Aztec social life. The upbringing of boys and girls until the age of fifteen, when girls should marry and when boys should enter a trade or specialise in military schooling. The blue stones on the top right hand corner signify the age of the children. This particular page contains information about their  eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth years. In the top segment we can see the father holding his eleven year old son over the smoke of burning red chilies as punishment.On the left side the mother threatens her daughter with similar consequences if she misbehaves.In the second segment the children are twelve years old. This segment also deals with punishment. On the left hand side the father watches his son, whose hands and feet are tied, lying down on a mat the whole day. On the right hand side a mother makes her daughter sweep through the night.  This section also contains information about various occupations, including depictions of military orders and their uniforms, information about governance, old age and death. It provides a unique glimpse into their private and public rites including human sacrifice.

They believed that human sacrifice was important to keep the gods happy and only if the gods were offered the human heart, would the sun continue to rise and set and the rains continue to fall. As a result of this belief people were sacrificed on a daily basis.

After being in the possession of Andre`Thevet, the Codex Mendoza changed many hands.In 1659 it finally reached the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in the United Kingdom and has been there ever since. It was removed from public exhibition in 2011.

The ritual of human sacrifice which resulted in the killing of thousands of people was very detrimental for the Aztec society. Their continuous wars with their neighbours and the spread of the smallpox epidemic made it easy for the Spanish to conquer the Aztecs. In 1521, this great, highly successful and very wealthy empire vanished forever from the face of the earth.

References: Smart History, Academia: History in Pictures

Monday, 12 December 2016

Mystic Nativity

The crowds watched the thick black smoke rising up into the Florentine sky.They watched with a sense of self righteousness as the flames turned irreplaceable manuscripts, ancient scriptures, antique and modern paintings, priceless tapestries,as well as mirrors, and musical instruments into a heap of smoldering ash. 

It's the 7th of February 1497. This is the evening of the notorious'Bonfire of the Vanities'. Among the crowds is Florence's celebrated Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, who burned several of his own paintings that evening. 

The'Bonfire of the Vanities' was orchestrated by the charismatic and fanatical Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola, who was known for his apocalyptic sermons. After the ruling Medici dynasty was overthrown in 1494, Savonarola effectively had the city of Florence captivated, both politically as well as spiritually. Florence, at the time, was a city of extreme wealth. The citizens were patrons of the arts and culture. On that fateful evening Savonarola called upon the people of Florence to burn all objects associated with vanity, temptation and sin. Sandro Botticelli was among his most ardent of followers. 

It is against this backdrop and the fervent speech Savonarola delivered on the eve of Christmas in 1493, that Sandro Botticelli created the beautiful painting 'Mystic Nativity'.

This 42.7 inches by 29.5 inches, oil on canvas painting was created in Circa 1500-1501 and was probably commissioned by a wealthy patron in Florence.
The 'Mystic Nativity' depicts a scene of joy and celebration of earthly and heavenly delight. This is the only painting that Botticelli ever signed. Along with his signature it has an inscription in Greek within a gold band right at the top of the painting. This is very unusual for a nativity painting. The inscription predicts Christ's Millennium, or second coming, as stated in the Biblical text.

Heaven opens in a great golden dome. The gold symbolises the untarnished, unchanging nature of heaven as gold doesn't tarnish like silver. Botticelli added the gold by using an adhesive layer made of oil mixed with resin, and then just patted it down on to the surface of the canvas which made it shine like a jewel. He learnt this craft when he apprenticed with a goldsmith as a boy.

We see a circle of twelve angles dancing below the golden dome. They represent the twelve hours of the day and the twelve months of the year. The angles are dressed in robes representing their virtues.'Faith' in white, 'hope' in green and 'charity' in red. They hold olive branches, the traditional symbols of peace. Below them we see three angels dressed in the same symbolic colors of faith, hope and charity sitting on the roof of the manger reading a book. It is believed that through this Botticelli wanted to indicate to the viewer that his painting has a deeper meaning which needs to be read into. 

At the center of the painting we see the holy family who are depicted much larger than the other figures to emphasise their importance. Mary adores the baby Jesus who is lying on a white sheet which reminds the viewer of the shroud in which his body will be wrapped one day.
The manger in the background behind the virgin, foreshadows the tomb in which Christ will be buried. We see Joseph who appears to be resting. On the right side are the shepherds in rustic clothing who have come to worship Christ on the day of his birth. On the left are the wise men, they carry no gifts and are dressed simply to stress humility and simplicity in the Christian lifestyle.

The foreground shows the second coming of Christ, the 'Last Judgement'. Here we see the same three angels embrace three men, seeming to raise them up from the ground. They hold scrolls which proclaim in Latin "Peace on earth to men of goodwill".

Behind them we can see seven devils, symbolic of evil fleeing to the underworld, some impaled on their own weapons. Through this painting Botticelli is asking the viewer to think not only of Christ's birth but also of his return.

The 'Mystic Nativity' is painted on canvas. Normally Botticelli would have used a wood panel to paint on. Perhaps, keeping in mind the social, religious and political environment of the time, he feared that the painting may need to be rolled up and hidden.

Savonarola's excesses earned him the disdain of Pope Alexander VI. He was eventually excommunicated from the church. In 1498 the disgraced Savonarola was burnt on the stake. 

Botticelli died twelve years later in 1510. The 'Mystic Nativity' remained hidden for over three centuries until it was bought by an English art collector and taken to England. It finally emerged from obscurity and was displayed in Manchester in 1857.

Today it can be seen at the National Gallery in London.

References: Wikipedia, National Gallery, London.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Hamzanama: The Adventures of Amir Hamza

 As night falls the caravan of camels inches its way along the narrow mountain pass of the ancient silk route. It has been a long and tiring day for the travellers. To their relief they see the flickering lights of the Caravanserai in the distance.

Once they reach the Caravanserai, their camels are fed and led away to rest for the night.  The tired travellers freshen up and then get together with travellers from other caravans passing by in the common area, to eat, drink and exchange stories.  Smoke from the hookahs fills the air, and the music is relaxing. In the corner there is a roar of laughter as the storyteller rolls his eyes in an animated manner. The travellers join the group. The storyteller is relating the colourful, action filled adventures of Amir Hamza.

Amir Hamza, the hero of these stories was the uncle of Prophet Muhammad. The stories known as the ‘Dastan-e Amir Hamza’ are action filled tales of giants, sorcerers and demons. Hamza and his brave companions travel the world vanquishing evil and spreading the teachings of Islam.

These fantastic tales of the adventures of Hamza captured the imagination of the young Mughal emperor Akbar. Not only did he recite them personally, he commissioned them to be compiled into the first royal manuscript to be illustrated in India during his reign (1556-1605). This manuscript came to be known as the ‘Hamzanama’.

The silk route which had existed for centuries, was the trade route linking East Asia to the Mediterranean.Apart from trade this route was also used by travellers, which allowed the exchange of religious, cultural and artistic ideas and traditions. The rich literary and artistic content of Akbar’s Hamzanama was inspired by these exciting exchanges.

The Hamzanama was written in Persian and Urdu. It took fifteen years to complete this great book. Apart from the text it includes fourteen hundred full page paintings, 27 inches X 20 inches in size. These paintings were done on cloth and the complete Hamzanama was finally produced in twelve to fourteen volumes. The layout is simple with the illustration on one side and the text on the other.

The paintings are a complete fusion of Persian and Mughal styles. They were made in a imperial workshop. About thirty main artists were used and over a hundred men worked on various aspects of the book. Initially there were two main artists from Persia, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad, but due to the large scale of this commission they had to train more than a hundred artists, many of them were Hindu painters from Gujrat. This amalgamation of different cultures gave birth to a wonderful combination of Persian, Central Asian and Indian styles of painting that we see in the Hamzanama.

In the illustrations we see two worlds of the Mughals, India and the Persian world of Central Asia. Some illustrations are very Persian in style. The ornate architectural settings, flat linear forms which are geometrically perfect, the finely patterned carpets, tiled roofs, fairies and flowering cherry and Cyprus trees.


Along with these illustrations we see paintings which are purely Indian in spirit. The figures are wearing Indian clothes and their gestures are typically Indian. The palette in these paintings is brighter and more dramatic; there is a love for the natural world which is very specific to India.

When we look at the playful elephants that charge across the illustrations of the Hamzanama, we can see a direct influence of the Hindu rock sculptures.


( Refer :Story  below)
Hamza and Umar exchange insults with Ghazanfar and challenge him to a battle outside the fortress of Armanus:

Umar:  A former opponent of Hamza, is now a stalwart, sometimes comical warrior companion.

As Hamza and Umar explore a fortress, the local ruler Ghazanfar hurls drunken curses at them. While Umar replies to the taunts Hamza challenges Ghazanfar to demonstrate his manhood in battle. The impudent infidel is defeated quickly by Hamza and Umar cuts off his tongue. They then force Ghazanfar to swap his armour with Hamza, who drags the disguised and mute Ghazanfar towards the citadel and shouts that he has taken Hamza prisoner. As soon as the gates open, Hamza and his men seize the fortress.

(Refer: Story below)
Zamurrud Shah reaches the foot of a huge mountain and is joined by Ra’im Blood Drinker and Shining Ruby:

Zamurrud Shah: A gigantic figure, lord of the East and perennial enemy of Hamza.

After being defeated on the battlefield once again, Zamurrud Shah slinks into the night. He travels alone for nine days, finally camping at the foot of an enormous mountain. Here he begins to recuperate, eating fresh game from a hunt and receiving his followers. Rahim Khun – known as Ra’im the blood drinker and Yaqut Daraksh – known as Shining Ruby are the first ones to renew their allegiance with him. Soon many others join him and Zamurrud Shah plots and plans his next move with them.

(Refer: Story below)
Zumurrud Shah falls into a pit and is beaten up by suspicious gardners:

After suffering a terrible defeat at the hands of Hamza’s army, Zumurrud Shah now has to endure another humiliation. He stumbles into a deep pit which has been dug by some gardeners who are trying to catch the culprit who has been raiding their groves. The gardeners had suspected some bears but they find a wretched giant instead. They beat him despite him pleading his innocence. Finally the gardeners allow Zumurrud Shah to come out and explain himself, but they get irritated again when he claims to be the lord of the east, which seems like a preposterous lie.

The boisterous laughter, the animated storytelling and business negotions continued late into the night at the caravanserai. The silk route served as a trade route till the early sixteenth century, after which trade began to be carried out by sea routes, which were a faster and relatively cheaper option.

Unfortunately, only a little over a hundred paintings of the Hamzanama survive today. Of these sixty one paintings are in the Austrian Museum of Applied Art in Vienna, the rest are spread over many collections at  the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum in London and some at  the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
References:!) The Adventures of Hamza, 2) Wikipedia




Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Enlightened One

 Fourteen year old Lobsang looks out of the monastery window. He can see the vast expanse of the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance. It was about seven years ago that his parents sent him here to join the order of the Buddhist monks. Gradually over the years the monastery has become his home and the other monks his family, his earlier life is now nothing but a distant memory.   Lobsang, leads a very regimented life in the monastery and spends a lot of time studying under the guidance of a very senior and learned Lama. He is waiting for his teacher; today’s class is on Buddhist art. He wishes he could go out and play with his friends instead, but he hears his teacher approaching and runs and sits down on his mat.

Lobsang’s teacher is an elderly Lama. He is a very kind and gentle person and is like a parent to him in many ways. He shows Lobsang a beautiful painting of ‘ Shakyamuni Buddha ‘and explains to him that it was painted in the fifteenth century, here in this very Tibetan monastery.  This fact interests Lobsang and he studies the 17 inch X 16.5 inch painting carefully. His teacher explains to him that the painting is made of ground mineral pigments and is painted on cotton cloth. The painting process had to be strictly according to the principles and guidelines of the holy shastras. The entire colour for the painting was prepared from minerals and plants which were derived from the lap of these very Himalayas and then broken down and hand ground into a fine powder. Sketching the drawing was a very important part of the painting. The artist needed to have a sound understanding of Buddhist iconographic and iconometric principles. The eyes of the deity were painted in the end; this signified the opening of the eyes and the completion of the painting.

By now Lobsang has forgotten about playing with his friends and his teacher has his complete attention. He gazes at the supreme Buddha as he sits in the centre of the painting, golden in colour he has a large round face and looks straight ahead. His black hair is piled up in a knot on top of his head, ( Vishnisha in Sanskrit) and crowned with a small gold ornament at the peak. A red dot (Urna) adorns his forehead and his earlobes are long and pierced a remnant from his princely life. His right arm is extended across the knee in the mudra (gesture) calling the earth to witness his moment of enlightenment. He holds a black begging bowl in his left hand, which is placed on his lap in the mudra of meditation. He wears orange and red patchwork robes, made from discarded cloth. His right arm is bare and the left is covered in the fashion of a Buddhist monk. The Buddha is seated in the ‘Vajra’ pose, with his right leg crossed over his left, on a multi-coloured lotus throne. Below the throne we see a snow lion, a peacock and he is surrounded by swirling rays of coloured light.
The back rest of the throne is decorated with two blue coloured lotus flowers (Utpalas), two pink mystical sea creatures (Makaras) and a yellow Garuda bird perched at the top with his wings spread out.

Standing to Buddha’s left is Shariputra, he is painted yellow and holds a monk’s staff in his right hand and a begging bowl to his heart in his left.

On Buddha’s right side we can see Maudgalyayana, he is painted white and holds the same objects in his hands. Shariputra and Maudgalyayana were Buddha’s foremost disciples, both wear orange robes and stand on moon shaped discs and lotus seats.

Among Buddha’s disciples were sixteen saints or ‘Arhats’ who were believed to have fully realised for themselves the Buddhist doctrine and had attained freedom from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. These sixteen Arhats were picked by Buddha himself and are also worshipped. The learned Lama explains to Lobsang, that it takes years of study and discipline to reach a state of nirvana, something that all Buddhist monks aspire to achieve.

Along the top are eight of the sixteen Arhats, holding various objects in their hands. They all wear robes with long sleeves.

Below Maudgalyayana we can see the figure of Dharmata, who was an attendant. He holds a flywhisk in his right hand and in his left hand he holds the strap supporting a load of study books on his back. There is a fierce tiger roaming below the figure of Buddha.
Below Shariputra on the left hand side there is a single Arhat in a sitting position and along the bottom are seven Arhats holding various objects in their hands and also wearing long robes.

Finally on the bottom left hand side of the painting, we see a monk in meditation. He sits before an elaborate array of offerings arranged in two rows. He was in all probability the sponsor of this painting.

Lobsang, lived in the monastery for many years, he studied under the guidance of his teacher, and at the age of eighteen, he left with a group of other young monks and travelled to distant places living a monastic life and teaching the doctrine of the great enlightened one.

This painting is part of the collection of the Rubin Museum in New York.

References: The Rubin Museum

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Battle of San Romano

It’s past midnight but sleep evades Bernardo. He turns on his back and looks up at the night sky, staring thoughtfully at the stars that look like tiny jewels. He thinks of home and how he celebrated his seventeenth birthday just a few days ago. Looking around at the small forested area he feels a sudden shudder as he realises there are just a few hours left before he  joins the other foot soldiers and goes into battle.

On the 1st of June 1430, Bernardo fought in the Battle of San Romano. This battle was fought between Florence and Sienna, about thirty miles outside Florence, it lasted the entire day and the outcome is generally considered favourable to the Florentines.

The events of that day from dawn to dusk, have been portrayed in a set of three paintings each over six feet high and ten feet wide in the famous painting known as the, ‘Battle of San Romano’. This masterpiece was created by the much respected artist of the early Italian Renaissance, Paolo Uccello. These panels were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family in Florence, who obviously had very deep pockets and a very large house. This set of paintings is considered very significant as it shows the development of linear perspective during this period. At a time when religious art was the most sought after subject matter, this was an unusual secular commission.

Painted in egg tempera on wooden panels, these paintings were much admired in the fifteenth century. Egg tempera is a permanent fast drying painting medium where coloured pigments are mixed with egg yolk which works as a binding agent. These paintings last very long and it was the primary method of painting until after the sixteenth century when oil painting replaced tempera.

These paintings were so coveted that Lorenzo de Medici popularly known as 'Lorenzo the Magnificent ' a powerful statesman and de facto ruler of Florence during this period, purchased one and had the other two forcibly removed to the Palazzo Medici  (Medici Palace) and had them put up in his room known as ‘Lorenzo’s Room’. Lorenzo the Magnificent was a great patron of the arts and commissioned a lot of paintings in his time.


This is the first painting in the series. Believed to be at the break of dawn, we see the Florentine mercenary general Niccolo  Mauruzi  da Tolentino on his white charger leading the cavalry, he can be identified by the motif of ‘Knot of Solomon’ on his banner.
He wears a large gold and velvet brocade patterned hat. He has a reputation for recklessness and doesn’t even wear a helmet. On the top towards the centre of the painting we can see that he has sent two messengers to his allied army led by Micheletto da Cotignola, to ask for reinforcements as he is badly outnumbered by the Siennese army.

 It’s interesting to notice that in none of the three paintings do we see the sky, we the viewers are seeing this battle close up. In all the three panels the battle scene is packed with action in a chaotic clash of horsemen, lances and debris shown through a series of superimposed intersecting perspective planes. Many areas of the painting are covered in gold and silver leaf and these would have shone when the paintings were viewed in candlelight, as they must have been at that time. The middle ground is occupied by a hedge bearing oranges and roses; one of Uccello’s several decorative and stylised details.


The central panel chronicles the events at midday; it shows the decisive combat between the two armies. Bernardino della Ciarda, leader of the Siennese mercenaries is the central figure on a white horse. He is wounded by an enemy spear.
The composition is very crowded; we can see young soldiers barely in their teens on the battlefield. Uccello understood that the young are usually the main casualties in any battle. This second panel is also special because it is the only one that Uccello signed. His signature appears on the lower left hand side on a shield. The colours are very unreal and the use of light gives the composition a feeling of a knight’s fairy tale. The figures tend to look a bit wooden and toy like, but the strong sense of narrative design and attention to decorative detail give the painting a beautiful visual appeal.

The third and final panel believed to be at dusk shows us that the reinforcements have arrived and the counterattack by Florence’s ally Micheletto da Cotignola. On the right side the stationary warriors wait for orders. In the centre Micheletto da Cotignola gives the signal for the attack, leading the Florentines to victory.

This painting features strong decorative elements the hosiery of different colours worn by the soldiers, the arrangement of the lances forming a series of patterns all set against the beauty of the Tuscan countryside.

Unfortunately Bernardo did not survive that day and neither did six hundred others. This battle was one of the many that were fought during those troubled times and there were many young soldiers like Bernardo who lost their lives. But it is this visual depiction of the’ Battle of San Romano’ by the great master Paolo Uccello that still holds us captive so many centuries later.

Today an art lover would have to travel to Florence, London and Paris to see the entire painting. Like three siblings living in three different cities, the first panel is displayed by the Uffizi Gallery, the second and third were sold by art dealers to the National Gallery and the Louvre and are displayed there.

Paolo Uccello: (1397- 1475) Paolo Uccello’s real name was Paolo di Dono. He was born in Pratovecchio in Italy. His father was a barber surgeon and his mother was a high born aristocrat. Paolo Uccello is known for his pioneering work on visual perspective in art, which he used to create a feeling of depth in his paintings. His nickname ‘Uccello’ came from his fondness for painting birds.

References: Private life of a Masterpiece, Uffizi Gallery, National Gallery, Louvre

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Woven Paintings

The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries on display
 Two noblemen on horseback accompanied by their servant and hunting dogs move towards the female bear. She has been flushed out of her cave with her cubs. As the cubs escape, one of the noblemen puts a spear into her chest, while she grapples with the hunting dogs the other nobleman gets ready to deal a deathly blow with his sword. It is hunting season in the fifteenth century and the Dukes of Devonshire are out hunting.

Hunting in the middle ages was more than a mere pastime. The elaborate rituals were an integral part of court etiquette, and being skilled in hunting was the peacetime equivalent of being masterful on the battlefield. This passionate love of hunting is reflected in the scenes woven into tapestries known as the ‘Devonshire Hunting Tapestries’. These tapestries from the estates of the Dukes of Devonshire, woven in Arras in modern France are over a hundred and thirty three feet long. Tapestries were very expensive and prized by the nobility. They hung in their halls and provided a means for insulating and decorating the coldest and gloomiest castle. These enormous works of art would have hung from floor to ceiling and then placed edge to edge like wallpaper in a modern room. They were easily transportable, and during wartime they decorated the tents with recreational scenes, providing some respite from the horror around them.

Tapestries were woven by hand on a loom. The design was invariably copied from a full scale coloured pattern known as the ‘cartoon’ a practice that continues till today. Before starting work the weaver traces the pattern from the cartoon onto the bare warps (threads). Most tapestries were wool or cotton but they may have included silk, gold or silver threads. Weaving consists of warp threads (threads which run parallel to the length) and weft threads (threads which run parallel to the width).Tapestries have weft faced weaving, which means all the warp threads are hidden in the completed work.

Although the Devonshire Tapestries depict hunting scenes, all is not blood and gore. There are forest glades, bounded by trees on the high horizon with glimpses of toy like castles, hilly pastures and ships on a distant sea. The foreground is filled with tiny trees, bushes and flowers, rocky caves for bears and turbulent streams flushed with water fowl. In this delightful setting the huntsmen and their prey, crowd across the tapestry in two great tiers subtly linked by intermediate figures, which lead the eye from group to group. The scenes are of perpetual spring even though boar and bear were hunted in winter. These tapestries depict scenes of ‘Boar and Bear Hunt’, ‘Swan and Otter Hunt’, ‘Falconry’ and ‘Deer Hunt’.

Boar and Bear Hunt
Boar and Bear Hunt: This tapestry features a number of elegant couples. Towards the centre a lady wears a sumptuous blue gown decorated with back to front letters that spell ‘much desire’. The man’s sleeve is decorated with silver shapes that resemble teardrops and probably also relate to the pursuit of love. The rich red gown of the lady to the right is lined with miniver, a very expensive fur. On the top right corner of this tapestry two castles are visible, they are meant to be seen by all levels of society, potent symbols of power, status and wealth.

Swan and Otter Hunt
Swan and Otter Hunt: In this tapestry we can see the fashions of the early fifteenth century, the women in high waisted gowns with collars wider than their shoulders, wearing heart shaped headdresses.



Falconry: This is the only tapestry in the set to confine itself to a single hunt. We see the couple on horseback dressed beautifully, the man has his arm around the woman. We can see another elegant lady on a white horse. The attention to detail down to the patterns on the gowns is a visual treat.

Deer Hunt

Deer Hunt: In this tapestry we see a group of men in bulky garments with large drooping sleeves and low slung belts. Deer hunting was known as the sport of kings and was confined to the courtiers and other favoured individuals.

 As night falls the hunting party returns to their castle with their kill which will be served later for dinner, followed by a night of drinking, merry making and talking about the events of the day.  It has been a long day, the tired horses return to their stables and the ravenous dogs are fed. While  the main activity may have been hunting it has also been a day full of endless gossip,frivolous flirtations and a show of fine clothes and expensive jewels by the nobility of Devonshire.

The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries can be viewed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

References: Victoria and Albert Museum and Wikipedia