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Sunday, 25 May 2014

Night - Shining White

The setting sun is like a fireball in the sky. There is a gentle breeze and the soft undulating hills of ancient China, look like a green carpet has been spread over them. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a stunning, pure white steed appears like an apparition on the horizon. As the majestic horse canters freely every muscle in his body ripples and his beautiful mane blows in the wind. This spirited steed is 'Night – Shining White'. He is the favourite imperial stallion of Emperor Xuanzong, of the Tang dynasty. There is something more than the sheer physical beauty of this animal; it is his spirit, which epitomizes the Chinese myth about imported ‘celestial steeds' that ‘sweat blood’ are really dragons in disguise. It is the eighth century, and Tang China is one of the greatest empires in the medieval world. Emperor Xuanzong, is referred to as the ‘brilliant monarch ‘and his reign is rightfully ranked as the classical period of Chinese art and literature.
 Han Gan is the leading horse painter of the Tang dynasty. He spends a lot of his time in stables painting horses. One evening as he's on his way home he happens to see something spectacular; Night –Shining White galloping in a thicket of bamboo trees.

What we see here is that moment captured by the artist. He's not only captured the physical likeness, but also the spirit, energy and life force of this fiery-tempered steed, with a burning eye, flared nostrils and dancing hooves. He's achieved this with the most economical means; brush, ink on paper.  This sensitive, precise drawing, reinforced by delicate ink shading is an example of ‘baihua’ (white painting). A term used in Tang texts to describe monochrome painting with ink shading. He rejected the use of colour. He thought of colour as a distraction. He rejected the use of light and shadow as a means of modelling and didn't use opaque pigments to conceal mistakes. Instead, he relied on the 'line' as a form in itself - the indelible mark of the inked brush to capture this emblem of China’s military strength.

The Chinese way of appreciating a painting is often expressed by the phrase ‘to read a painting’. The question is, how does one do this?

Night –Shining White was originally just a little more than a square foot in size and is now mounted on a hand scroll that is twenty feet long.  This is a result of a myriad of inscriptions and seals (marks of ownership) that have been added to the painting and its borders by later owners and experts over centuries, recording over a thousand years of transmission of ownership. Some painted on the surface itself, making the horse look a little overwhelmed by this enthusiastic display of appreciation. This is a distinctive feature of Chinese collecting and connoisseurship and offer testimony of an artwork’s continuing impact on later generations. Han Gan’s, Night- Shining White is regarded as the best known horse painting in Chinese art. Therefore, to read a Chinese painting is to enter into a dialogue with the past, and the unrolling of the scroll provides a physical connection with the work of art.

Emperor Xuanzong, was unable to sustain the glory of his empire. Unfortunately, because of his obsession with a concubine he neglected his empire and eventually lost his throne. We do not know what happened to Night-Shining White, but rumour has it that on certain nights even today, when the sky is full of stars Emperor Xuanzong’s celestial steed can be seen galloping across the night sky.

References: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A Picture in Over a Million Pieces

It is a little after eight p.m, on a cool summer evening, when the first guests start arriving. The venue is the aristocratic, ‘House of the Faun’ Pompeii, named after a statue of a dancing faun in the courtyard. It is 300 BC and the ancient city is at its glorious peak. The parties at this residence are famous for their extravagance and as always,the guest list is extremely high brow.

 As the guests walk from the outer courtyard towards the inner courtyard they slow down and stare in awe at a magnificent floor mosaic surrounded by columns. The mosaic depicts the battle between Alexander the great and Darius the king of Persia.  This ambitious work of art is 8ft. 11 inches in height and 16 ft. 9 inches in length. It is made with a million and a half pieces of tiny coloured tiles of stone and glass called 'tesserae', arranged in gradual curves known as ‘worm work ‘because they seem to replicate the slow motion of a crawling worm. The contrast between the stone and glass (dark and light) gives the mosaic a three dimensional effect. The guests are mesmerised

The scene is equally dynamic, as it is the turning point in the battle, widely believed to be the Battle of Issus in 333 BC. The viewer is immediately drawn into this tense moment when the great ruler of Persia turns and flees. He has just ordered his troops to retreat; the Persian guards’ spears are still facing the Greeks but just at that moment the chariot is being spun around. The centre of the mosaic is dominated by Darius. We see his eyes open wide in horror as he looks towards the left and sees one of his soldiers pierced by Alexander’s spear. The dying man is still gripping the deadly weapon as though he wishes he could pull it out of his body as he collapses on the bloody corpse of his black horse. Darius’s stare is also directed towards Alexander as though pleading with him to spare his soldiers.  Since Darius is not fighting himself he appears as a passive victim of the general horror around him.

In contrast, the Macedonian king is actively directing the battle. Astride his famous horse Bucephalus, he strikes the enemy through the body without as much as a glance at his victim. His widened eye is fixed on Darius; even the picture of Medusa the gorgon on his breastplate turns her view sideways to the horrified enemy. The Macedonians can be recognised by their bonnet shaped helmets around Alexander. The majority of the picture belongs to the Persians, wearing their plate armour which covers their whole body. Created in radical foreshortening, is a figure of the horse in the centre, which shows the knowledge the ancient Greeks had of the anatomy. The most heart wrenching scene for me is the face of a dying man, who has just been run over by Darius’s chariot, reflected in his shield. He stares at it, watching himself die and his reflection is the only thing that looks at the onlooker. The use of shading conveys a feeling of mass and volume, enhancing the naturalistic effect of this scene.

 The party is a huge success, and ends after a night of merry making. Unfortunately for Pompeii, its end was tragic. The entire city was almost completely destroyed, buried under four to six meters of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
 The Alexander Mosaic was found during the excavation of Pompeii in 1831, in the House of the Faun. Created in the third century BC, based on an original no longer in existence. Today, it is considered one of the most famous Roman mosaics of that period and is on display at the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples. An exact copy, identical in shape, size, colour and materials was created in 2005 and is now installed in the House of the Faun in Pompeii.

For those who want to visit the 'House of the Faun' like I did,

References: Wikipedia, Smart history

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Book of the Dead

As the sun sets over the Nile, there is a feeling of calm serenity over the river. Not far from here is a group of very busy men, consisting of the head scribe and his assistants. The year is 1275 BC; they are working on a scroll made of papyrus; drawing, painting and writing, creating a Book of the Dead, with different symbols, magic spells and rituals for a very well-known and respected scribe called Hunefer. The Book of the Dead was an ancient Egyptian funeral text written to assist a dead person’s journey into the afterlife. These texts, written in hieroglyphic script on scrolls of papyrus were buried with the dead in their coffins. The texts and images were magical as well as religious and the whole idea was to protect the dead person on his journey. In case you’re wondering, not all these texts were the same; in fact each was unique and contained a different mixture of spells and rituals. The Book of the Dead was produced to order by the scribes. They were commissioned by people either for themselves or for a deceased relative. These scrolls were very expensive and as you can imagine most of the people who ordered them were part of the social elite. Initially it was just the royal family, but later on scrolls were inscribed for other scribes, priests and important officials as well.

So what were the head scribe and his assistants painting on Hunefer’s book of the dead? Let’s have a look.
This is the beautiful picture they have created. The figure in the white is Hunefer. The Egyptians drew their figures in a unique way. The heads, arms and legs were in profile and the eyes, shoulders and chest were from the front.  Hunefer (in white) is seated on the top left hand side of the scroll, he is talking to the line of sitting deities  and telling them that he has lived a good life and deserves a place in the afterlife.  The scene below is the main judgement scene.  This will determine whether he has truly been a good person. He is being led by the hand by the jackal headed God Anubis, who is associated with the dead and mummification. He is carrying the symbol of eternal life in his left hand called an Ankh. As we move to the right we see Anubis crouching and adjusting a scale. On the left side is Hunefer’s heart in the scale and on the right side is a feather, which represents a life lived by high ethics.
If you look at the top of the scale, you’ll see the figure of Ma’at. She is the deity associated with divine order and living an ethical life. We see that the feather is heavier than Hunefer’s heart proving that he has lived an ethical life, and has therefore secured a place for himself in the afterlife.  The evil monster Ammit, with the head of a crocodile, body of a lion and the hind legs of a hippopotamus is waiting to eat Hunefer’s heart if he is found guilty. Next to the scale on the right side is Toth, another God with a birds head. He is recording the proceedings of this judgement. As we move further to the right we can see Hunefer being introduced to the supreme God Osiris, by Osiris’s son Horus. Horus has a falcon head and also holds an Ankh in his hand. Osiris, sits on a throne and carries the symbols of Egypt in his hands. In front of him is a lotus, which is also a symbol of eternal life. On the lotus are Horus’s four sons. They represent the four cardinal points of North, south, east and west. They care for the internal organs of the dead and preserve them in Canopic jars. On the top we can see Horus again; represented this time as an eye. We see him carrying a falcon feather, which is another symbol of eternal life. Behind Osiris are two standing female figures. They are Isis and Nephthys. Isis, is Osiris’s wife and Nephthys  ( in white) is the guardian of the afterlife. The white platform these figures are standing on represents Natron, the natural salt deposits of the Nile which were used by the ancient Egyptians to dry out the bodies for the process of mummification.

I find it most fascinating how death and the journey into the afterlife played such an important role in the life of the ancient Egyptians. And so as darkness falls over the Nile, Hunefer is laid to rest with his Book of the Dead in his tomb.
In case you want to view a larger version of this image please Google it.  
References: Smarthistory