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Friday, 19 April 2019

The Imperial Easter Eggs

Peter Carl Faberge`

It’s almost one a.m., a chilly night before Easter. The year is 1885. In his workshop on Bolshya  Morskaya a fashionable street in St. Petersburg, Peter Carl Faberge` is giving the final finishing touches to a beautiful golden Easter egg. This is no ordinary Easter egg and Faberge` is no ordinary jeweller. He's recently been titled ‘Master Jeweller’ and been awarded a gold medal by Tsar Alexander III. Faberge` had been commissioned by him to make an Easter egg for his wife Tsarina Maria Feodorovna.  The Tsar wanted to present the egg to his wife on Easter and also celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary.

The Hen Egg

The next morning the Tsar presents the egg to his wife. The egg which came to be known as the ‘Hen Egg’, is crafted from a foundation of gold. Its opaque white enamelled ‘shell’ opens to reveal a matt yellow yolk made entirely of gold. The yolk in turn opens to reveal a golden hen that’s resting on a bed of suede edged with striped gold fashioned to resemble straw. The hen contains a diamond and ruby replica of the imperial crown from which a small ruby pendant is suspended. Maria is so delighted with the gift that the Tsar commissions Faberge` to create an egg for Easter for his wife every year. He is given a free hand to design the eggs, the only requirement from the Tsar is that each egg should contain a surprise and be unique.

From then on it became a royal tradition to have Faberge` create this small, mesmerising, jeweled work of art every Easter. Each year he outdid himself, his workmanship and designs became more intricate and elaborate.

 Once Faberge` approved of the design, the work was executed by a team of talented craftsmen under his close supervision. Faberge` was a serious man who did not like small talk. He laid extreme emphasis on fine craftsmanship, creativity, beauty and set very high standards for everyone who worked for him.

In November 1894 the Tsar passed away and his son Nicholas II became the new Tsar of Russia. The newly appointed Tsar kept up the tradition of presenting a Faberge` egg every Easter to the Empress, but now instead of one he commissioned Faberge' to create two eggs. One was made for his wife Alexandra Fyodorovna and one for his mother the Dowager Empress. All together fifty imperial eggs were created; twenty were given to the Empress and thirty to the Dowager Empress.

The Lilies of the Valley Egg

For the Easter of 1898 Faberge` created the ‘Lilies of the Valley’ egg. Nicholas II presented this egg to his wife. The egg is covered in pearls and topped with rose-pink enamel. It’s supported by cabriolet legs of green gold leaves; with rose cut diamond dew-drops. The gold stemmed lilies have green enamelled leaves and flowers made of gold, set with rubies, pearls and diamonds.

The eggs surprise reveals itself by twisting a gold mounted pearl button. When fully raised, three portraits are visible under the imperial crown. Tsar Nicholas II and his two oldest daughters, the Grand Duchess Olga and the Grand Duchess Tatiana.  The portraits are framed in rose diamonds and backed with gold panels, engraved with the presentation year-1898. Today this egg is housed in the Faberge` museum in St. Petersburg.

 Faberge` became extremely wealthy and famous in imperial Russia. In 1900, he was awarded with a gold medal at the World’s Fair in Paris and France recognised this with one of the most prestigious awards, appointing him a Knight of the Legion of Honour. The eggs were made each year, except in 1904 and 1905 when Russia was at war with Japan. Nicholas II resumed the tradition in 1906 and carried it on until 1917.

The Tsarevich Egg

In 1912, the Tsar presented his wife with the Tsarevich egg. Unknown to all except the royal family at that time, Alexi was expected to die of haemophilia and was so close to death at one point that the Russian Imperial court had already drawn up his death certificate. When Alexi survived, Faberge`, who knew about his health created the egg for his mother as a tribute to the miracle of his survival. The egg is 15 cm in height; the outer shell is made from Lapis Lazuli with architectural style gold cage work in a design of leafy scrolls. The gold motifs cover each joint, making the egg look like it was carved from a single block of Lapis.
 The gold work includes two imperial double headed eagles, as well as cupids, canopies, floral scrolls, flower baskets and garlands. Two large diamonds, one on top and one at the bottom are encrusted into the eggs surface showing the initials of the Tsarina, the year 1912 and the imperial crown. Inside the egg the surprise is a Russian double headed imperial eagle with a miniature portrait of Tsarevich Alexi set in platinum and encrusted with diamonds. This intricate frame sits on a base of Lapis Lazuli and can be completely removed from the egg.

T he Winter Egg

In 1913, Faberge` created the winter egg. The Tsar presented this 10.2 cm high beauty to his mother. The exterior of the egg resembles frost and ice crystals formed on clear grass. It’s studded with 1,660 diamonds and is made from quartz, platinum and orthoclase. The surprise is a miniature basket of flowers, announcing the coming of spring. The basket is studded with 1,378 diamonds and is made from platinum and gold. The flowers are made of white quartz and the leaves are made of demantoid. The flowers lie in moss made from gold. This egg was sold at an auction at Christie’s in New York in 2002 for USD 9.6 million to the former Emir of Qatar.

In 1917, Faberge` keeping to the tradition worked on two eggs, but before they could be presented, the Bolshevik’s February Revolution broke out and Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne. His entire family was executed the following year. The eggs and many other treasures were confiscated by the interim government. The two final eggs were never delivered nor paid for. In 1918 the ‘House of Faberge` was nationalised by the Bolsheviks.

After the nationalisation Carl Faberge` left St. Petersburg on the last diplomatic train for Riga, finally the family settled in Switzerland. He never recovered from the shock of the revolution and died on September 24th 1920 of what many believed to be a broken heart.

Today, there are ten eggs at the Kremlin Armoury, nine at the Faberge` museum in St. Petersburg, Five at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and three each at the Royal Collection in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Two more are on display in Lausanne, Switzerland, two at Hillwood Estate in Washington, D.C and two at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. There’s a single egg in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, one at the Faberge` Museum in Baden- Baden, Germany. One is also owned by the former Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

The fate of eight imperial eggs remains a mystery. Two eggs are believed to be in the west, these are the 1889 Necessaire Egg, last spotted in London in 1949 and the 1888 Cherub with Chariot Egg, which  seems to have been exhibited at Lord & Taylor department store in New York in 1934.

In 1924 Faberge's sons opened a store called Faberge`and Cie in Paris. Today the company is headquartered in Mayfair in London. 

References: Art History Resources, Wikipedia

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Celebrating Imperfection- Kintsugi

The year is 1460, little Akira sits on a mat in his father’s workshop in Kyoto. It’s way past his bedtime, but he just can’t tear himself away from the beautiful ceramic bowl that has caught his attention the whole evening. He gazes at the beautiful blues and marvels at the many shades of green he glimpses in the glow of the lantern light. His father gently requests him to go to sleep and just as he gets up, the bowl slips from his hands and breaks. Tears well up in Akira's eyes, he can’t believe that this beautiful bowl, which was so flawless has now broken. He falls to the ground next to the shattered pieces and begins to cry. When his father sees what’s happened, he picks him up and tells him not to be upset and that he’ll repair the bowl in such a way that it’ll be even more beautiful than before. Akira’s not convinced however he decides to believe his father. His father is after all the chief craftsman to the mighty Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa.

The next morning as soon as Akira's eyes open to the early morning light glistening through the cherry blossom trees in full bloom, he runs to his father’s workshop. On his father’s simple wooden work table lies Akira’s bowl. It’s in one piece, but it doesn’t look like it did before. Akira is visibly disappointed. The pieces have been joined together and the cracks have been highlighted with what looks to him like gold. Sensing his disappointment, his father sits him down. He asks Akira to try and keep an open mind and to look at the bowl again, but in a completely new way. In his soft, soothing voice he explains that there's a special kind of beauty in emphasising the cracks instead of hiding them. "We must be able to perceive the beauty of the bowl in its entirety with all it's flaws," he says. He goes on to explain to Akira the art and philosophy of  "Kintsugi”.

Kintsugi, literally translates into golden joinery. It’s the centuries old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer, dusted with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Beautiful seams of gold glisten in the cracks of the ceramic ware, revitalising it with a new lease of life while celebrating it’s imperfections. Akira’s father tells him that the mighty shogun had sent a cracked ‘Chawan’ or tea bowl back to China to be repaired. When it was returned, Yoshimasa was very displeased to see that it had been mended with ugly metal staples. He asked his craftsmen to find an aesthetically pleasing method to repair the bowl and the art of Kintsugi was born.

There are three predominant styles of Kintsugi. While in each case gold dusted epoxy resin is used to repair the broken pottery, the methods vary.

Crack: Objects repaired using this method, are touched up using minimal lacquer.

Piece Method: In this case a piece is replaced with a fragment made entirely of epoxy.

Joint-call: This method uses similar shaped pieces from other broken wares, combining two aesthetically different works into one unified work of art.

Kintsugi is heavily influenced by the ancient Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. It’s a sensibility based on an appreciation of the transient beauty of the physical world. Rooted in Zen philosophy Wabi-Sabi celebrates all that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It embodies the appeal of the modest and the rustic, the beauty and serenity of the ageing process, dried falling leaves and the comfort of an old blanket are all examples of Wabi-Sabi. It promotes a completely alternative approach to the western concept of beauty, which celebrates perfection, symmetry and mathematical precision.

Akira’s father explains to him, that if something is cracked or broken its not useless. Once repaired its transformed into something more beautiful. It’s flaws and cracks add to the beauty for they celebrate what it has endured.

Akira hugs his father, he doesn’t completely understand the depth of his father’s words but he knows it's something very important. From the corner of his eye he sees his bowl, the gold in the cracks gleam in the sunlight and he has to agree that it's looking more beautiful than before.

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”- Leonard Cohen

References: My Modern Met, Andrew Juniper

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Supper at Emmaus

In the middle of the afternoon, a man runs frantically on the shore under the fierce summer sun. He is desperate to get to Rome and is trying to catch a glimpse of the boat that has left with all his belongings. He is a murderer, a fugitive, has an infected sword wound, and a raging fever, he is also the most powerful and influential Italian painter of that time. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio died on the 18th of July 1610 at the young age of 38, alone and penniless on a hospital bed in Ponto Ercole.

 Caravaggio was born in Milan in 1571. He moved to Rome in his early twenties, arrogant and rebellious, Caravaggio was a violent man in a violent world. Rome in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century was a difficult place to say the least. Thousands of artists flocked to the city in search of work. The Vatican was a magnet for artists, and each one was competing for powerful patrons in the church .There were no rules and hostilities ran deep. It’s against this backdrop that Caravaggio managed to establish himself as the most famous artist in Rome. It was during this time that he met Ciriaco Mattei. He was an Italian nobleman of Rome and belonged to one of the most powerful and influential families during this period, they held high positions in the church and the government. Mattei, who was a prolific art collector of his time, became a close friend and patron of Caravaggio.

At the height of Caravaggio’s career in 1601, Ciriaco Mattei commissioned him to paint what is widely considered to be one of his most powerful paintings, ‘Supper at Emmaus’.

As the story goes, after Christ’s crucifixion, two of his disciples were walking to a small town near Jerusalem called Emmaus, when they met a man who joined them and agreed to have dinner with them.  The disciples did not know at that time that this third man was in fact the resurrected Christ, he was incognito and so they failed to recognise him.

The painting captures that culminating moment in the narrative when Christ blesses the bread at supper and then vanishes, the disciples realise that this is the risen Christ, it’s the moment of spiritual as well as physical recognition, the moment when the divine enters the everyday world. Painted in oil and tempera on canvas, this 141 x 196.2 cm painting is full of drama. The use light plays a very essential role and underlines the main message of the painting,  Caravaggio is known for his strong use of light and shade known as, 'Chiaroscuro' to add that element of drama and theatre in his paintings. He always used live models, as a result his figures are very real, they’re normal folk they are poor, dirty and their hands are rough.

We can see the disciple in the torn green shirt, literally jumping up in his chair in that moment; his elbow is jutting out breaking into the viewer’s space. The second disciple has his arm spread out in surprise, he seems to be inviting the viewer to come and share this great moment with them.
There is space at the table for the viewer making us a participant in this great event.

Christ’s face is bathed in light, the innkeeper on the other hand, standing in the background remains in the dark, his face in shadow. He hasn’t realised the significance of the moment, he hasn’t seen the 'light'.

The dinner on the table consists of bread, fowl and a basket of fruit.  The food here is symbolic, the fowl is mirroring death, the bread is Christ’s flesh and the grapes in the basket make wine, a symbol of his blood. The fruit in the basket looks so realistic, you feel it’s good enough to eat. The basket itself is precariously placed at the edge of the table, almost asking the viewer to push it back. This is another way in which Caravaggio manages to include us in this great event.

Though the painting was criticised by some of his critics for showing Christ without a beard, Supper at Emmaus, exemplifies religious history painting. It’s timeless quality reaffirmed Carravaggio’s position as the greatest painter of that time.

Caravaggio’s short and tempestuous life matched the drama of his paintings. He got into brawls easily and got arrested repeatedly. In 1606, at the age of 34, he got into a fight and killed a man, instead of facing the law he fled Rome, he went to Naples and then the island of Malta, he finally died trying to make his way back to his beloved city. Caravaggio’s paintings were controversial, popular and hugely influential on succeeding generations of painters all over Europe.

Today ‘Supper at Emmaus’ can be seen in The National Gallery in London. Caravaggio painted a second version of this painting about five years after the first one, it can be seen in Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

References; Andrew Graham Dixon, Smart History

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