Arch of Constantine, Rome, 312-315 CE

26 Aug

Throughout the history of Christianity, the use of syncretism, or the merging of different traditions into one piece of art or architecture, has allowed an inclusive approach toward the spread of Christianity through cultures committed to other religions. Syncretism was famously used during the rule of the Byzantine emperor Constantine in the Arch of Constantine. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to be Christian, which caused many Romans to be uneasy about Constantine and his ability to rule effectively. To quell the Roman people’s fears, Constantine commissioned the start of the Arch of Constantine to commemorate his unification of Rome.

The Arch of Constantine is a unique piece of architecture because it consists of spolia, or decorative sculpture previously used in other monuments. Constantine wanted to convey the ideology and philosophy of previous rulers on the Arch by using spolia from monuments that commemorated the Golden Age Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. By using spolia from monuments that were popular and familiar with the Roman people in the Arch, Constantine assured the people that he too could achieve Pax Romana (long period of relative peace within the Roman Empire) like the Golden Age emperors. Wanting to emphasize Constantine’s leadership in battle, Roman artists took a relief from a monument dedicated to Trajan and incorporated it into the Arch. Trajan’s head was replaced with Constantine’s and a new inscription, saying “The Liberation of the City”, was inscribed above the relief. Syncretism was again used to show Constantine’s leadership in virtue by taking a frieze from a monument dedicated to Hadrian and including it into the arch. The frieze illustrates a number of hunting scenes as well as scenes of sacrifices to the gods. Because Hadrian was known for strengthening the empire rather than trying to enlarge it, the hunt shows his virtue and by extension, Constantine’s virtue. Lastly, panels were taken from a monument devoted to Marcus Aurelius and placed on the Arch. Marcus’ head is replaced with Constantine’s to show the Roman people Constantine’s ability to rule peacefully and morally.

The use of syncretism in the Arch of Constantine was a contributing factor to the success of Constantine as the emperor of Rome. By using spolia that was familiar with the people of Rome, Constantine was able to prove to the people and the Senate how committed he was to Rome despite his conversion to Christianity.


John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778

25 Aug

Painted during a tumultuous time in American history, John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark expresses the tension between imperial order and revolutionary chaos through the true story of a wealthy London merchant, Brook Watson, who lost his leg as a young man in a shark attack while swimming in Havana, Cuba. This painting shows Copley’s dedication to American subject matter and costume as well as to the Revolution despite the artist’s relocation from America to London.

This large painting depicts the dramatic moment of Watson’s rescue from the shark, who is coming in for its third attack upon the merchant. Lowly sailors are heroicized by Copley as one is positioned to spear the great shark (calling St. George slaying the dragon to mind), while others reach over the side and in the path of the shark’s open jaws to save the man. The rescuers bodies are positioned in a triangle shape, with a black slave holding a rope at the pinnacle. He is frozen with fear, signifying the emotional horror of the situation. Watson, naked and helpless, is dramatically lifted by a wave as he reaches toward his rescuers. Watson’s body is muscular and ghostly white. It shows no signs of being attacked by a shark, as there is no torn flesh or blood, which shows that Copley was influenced by the growing popularity of Romantic painting. The background is of the harbor in Havana, Cuba where a golden light spreads over the water and ships despite the horrific events that are unfolding in the water.

Painted during the American Revolution, the painting had political overtones regarding the Americans fight for freedom from the British. The dismembered body of Watson signified the damage done to the British Empire, as Watson’s severed leg stood for America breaking away from the body of the British Empire. When Watson and the Shark was exhibited in 1778, the war had taken a turn for the worst for Britain as France and American were allies and the British had lost some key battles, like the Battle of Saratoga. But Watson, symbolic of the British Empire, survived the attack and lived a successful life. Copley’s painting is optimistic for both parties as he believed that both Britain and America would prosper after the war was over. The golden light of the harbor is a promise of salvation and rebirth for both countries.

El Greco, Assumption of the Virgin, 1577-79

22 Aug

El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin tells the story of the Assumption and was his first major commission after his move to Toledo. Painted for the high altar of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, the painting depicts the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven atop a crescent moon while a group of Apostles look on from below. The Virgin Mary is depicted in an interesting position in that she is seen from below while the Apostles are placed at the viewer’s eye level. The painting is divided into two spheres with the Apostles occupying the earthly sphere and the angels occupying the heavenly sphere. The Apostles stand around a heavy, stone tomb as they look on with amazement as Mary moves into the heavenly sphere. The angels form a semicircle around the Virgin Mary and reach out in celebration as she ascends. The clothing worn by the Virgin Mary, the angels, and the Apostles is rich, undulating, and bold but the Virgin Mary’s blue and red robes make her stand out from the others. Characteristic of El Greco, the bodies twist and gesture dramatically. These characteristics of form such as color and line convey the importance of the story of the Assumption as well as help to awaken a spiritual fervor in the viewer.

The focus of this painting is the Virgin Mary as it is the story of her being received into heaven. She is visually foregrounded in a number of ways. The viewer looks at the Virgin Mary from below which emphasizes her ascension to heaven. Her extended arms and dynamic body position command a presence against a backdrop of swirling clouds and moving angels. A striking patch of yellow surrounding the Virgin Mary’s head marks her as divine compared to the mass of angels behind her. The bright and bold blue cloth contrasts with the red of her dress making the Virgin Mary stand out against the gold of the sky and white of the clouds. Despite the seemingly heavy quality to the clothing the Virgin Mary wears, her ascension to heaven seems effortless and ethereal, adding to the spiritual quality of the painting. The colors and the Virgin’s dynamic body position emphasize the importance and the drama of the Assumption. To Christians viewing the painting, the Assumption is an important topic because it signals to them that they, like the Virgin Mary, can be received into heaven. El Greco’s emphasis on the Virgin Mary and her ascension is a signal to the importance of religion in everyone’s lives in Toledo.

The diagonal line created by the dynamic bodies gives the painting that upward mobility that is essential to a painting depicted the Assumption. The importance of the Virgin Mary’s movement upward is emphasized by the line within the twisting bodies and pointed hands focused on her. Because the line is dynamic and not static, the painting awakens a religious spirit and force within the viewer causing them to connect with their faith on a deeper level. Another striking aspect of Assumption of the Virgin is the bold use of color and the use of black. While the painting is very colorful, black is still prevalent and is an important marker in the distinction between the earthly sphere and heavenly sphere. Black is used within the bodies to give them more weight and distinction. The bold colors of the clothing play off each other in order to draw the viewers’ eye upward and toward the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary’s clothing is also a marker of her importance within the scene as it allows her to stand apart from the countless bodies behind her. Line and color play an important part in telling the story of the Assumption and help to awaken a spiritual fervor within its viewers.

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819

20 Aug

In early nineteenth century France, the arts were controlled by the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts). Very much a conservative organization, the Académie was strict in who was allowed to be a member and what kind of art was allowed to be exhibited in their Salons. Women were not allowed to be members and most of the male members were past middle age which caused tension and dissatisfaction among young artists in France. Very set in their ways and traditions, change did not come easy to the Académie as they rejected anything that wasn’t classical in style or morally uplifting in subject matter. However, young artists like Théodore Géricault began to change the typical history painting supported by the Académie by adding in elements of Romanticism and the sublime. Called into action by a French writer, Henri Beyle (who went under the pen name Stendhal), young French artists began to produce paintings that expressed human emotion and was engaged with the present time. Instead of representing the naked body of a hero that existed long ago, Stendhal wanted art that had a soul and would appeal to a variety of people. Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa was one such painting that brought the emotion and feeling from a contemporary event together with the classical qualities of an Académie-approved history painting.

The Raft of the Medusa was based off a shipwreck that happened in 1816 when the frigate, Medusa, ran ashore off the west coast of Africa. Carrying four hundred colonists and soldiers, there were only enough lifeboats for about half of the passengers. A raft was assembled from the ship’s wood to hold low-ranking soldiers and colonists, but the raft was so overloaded that most of it was submerged under water. Abandoned by the rest of the passengers, only fifteen passengers survived aboard the make-shift raft, causing a huge scandal to erupt in France as it became clear that the tragedy had occurred because of an incompetent and unskilled captain. For a country that was unhappy with competency of their leaders, the Bourbons, The Raft of the Medusa became the symbol for a country drifting and lost for lack of an experienced leader. This contemporary, un-heroic event involving common people- soldiers, sailors, and farmers- as the subject of a massive painting was groundbreaking, as other monumental history paintings were of heroic people and events from the past.

Géricault focused the painting on the moment when the fifteen survivors saw their rescue ship. Their makeshift raft fills up much of the picture plane, broken, battered, and at the mercy of the waves. Some men enthusiastically wave down the rescue ship while others cannot move due to weakness. Despite this incident being a current event, the painting is centered on the male nude, a characteristic of Classical art. Their bodies are naked or half-clothed calling upon the classical tradition of displaying the perfection of the human figure and displaying that figure in different poses. Starting in the lower left with the dead son being mourned by his father, the bodies move in a diagonal upward sweep that ends with the slave, waving down the rescue ship. This diagonal line represents the moral recovery from hopelessness to optimism experienced by the soldiers of the Medusa. The nude bodies also represent allegorical or mythological figures found in Neoclassical works, but the intrusion of contemporary elements like the cotton socks upon the feet of the dead son and the sailor pants upon the father dissuades the viewer from seeing these bodies as allegories or mythological figures, allowing Géricault to accomplish his goal of injecting Romantic elements into a Neoclassical painting and elevating a contemporary subject to that of a history painting.

Aulus Metellus, Late 2nd or early 1st century BCE

19 Aug

The kings of Rome were overthrown in 509 BCE, establishing the period of the Republic. During this period, Rome conquered vast amounts of land throughout the continent of Europe, which put a strain on its political system and weakened the power of the Senate. Art was used to insight political and social change and ease the tension on the political system. The life-size bronze statue Aulus Metellus was used to speak to the people, assuring them that their government was working in their interests. Artists of the Republican period were keen on creating believable images based on careful study called naturalism. Romans loved accurate and faithful portraits of their leaders and were drawn to the confidence in the Republic exuded by these faithful representations.

Aulus Metellus is a remarkable statue due to its naturalism and its ability to interact with the viewer. The life size statue of a Roman official (the name is inscribed in the hem of his robe) stretches his hand out toward the crowd he is addressing. With his arm outstretched toward the people, the official is letting the public know that he has the power and authority to help them. His pose makes him ‘one of the people’ rather than some god-like government official. His toga is neatly folded and draped around his body, which is un-idealized, marking him as a governmental official, but an official that is of the people and works for the people. His features are common and not idealized like the statues of the gods were. Viewers would be able to identify with this statue and place their trust in the government this official hails from. The portrayal of senators and officials as caring and strong individuals helped restore trust and ease the tension on the Republic’s political system.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962

16 Aug

As one of the most influential modern art pieces, Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych exemplifies everything Pop art with its explicit references to an icon of pop culture: Marilyn Monroe. Pop art originated in London with the Independent Group (IG), who were attracted to advertisements depicting American materialism and mass culture. Everything mass culture- movies, music, advertisements- became the central subject of British Pop art. Warhol was influenced by the British Pop artists and began to focus on popular culture. His studio became known as The Factory, a nod to the industrial mode of production used to churn out mass amounts of material goods. Marilyn Diptych was the first painting in which Warhol used the assembly-line technique of silk-screening photographic images onto a canvas, permitting him to create many versions of a single subject, instead of hand painting.

Like everyone else in America, Warhol was attracted to American movie stars like Monroe. He liked to use images that anyone would instantly recognize in his art. His aesthetic becomes the mechanical, mass produced objects or images people saw every day. The five rows of Monroe’s portrait resemble the filmic strip, acknowledging her status as a movie star. The repetition signals mass production, as products and images are turned out one by one, while also serving to undermine the image’s meaning. The photograph Warhol uses of Monroe is a publicity photograph from the movie Niagara, marking his interest in her public self and not in her private self. The diptych style is taken from the Byzantine icons of Christian saints. By placing Monroe’s portraits in the diptych, Warhol is commenting on the saint-like nature of the famous, which gives them a kind of holiness and immortality. Marilyn Diptych is an icon of Pop art due to its references to pop culture and its comments on mass production and consumption.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, 1836

15 Aug

As America began to move into the vanguard of the industrialized world, American artists began to take pride in their native landscape, preferring thorough Realism over the Neoclassical scenes taken from ancient history that were popular in Europe. Landscapes were popular with Americans because they identified the wilderness with the biblical landscape of the Holy Land. American Romantic painters like Thomas Cole began to produce monumental American landscape scenes, starting what became known as the Hudson River School. Cole’s The Oxbow stood to celebrate the sweeping and panoramic landscape of North America while also portraying the growth of civilization.  Through monumental landscape paintings, American artists found a way to prove themselves as equal or better than the European tradition as the landscape made a gave the young country a history.

The low lying landscape is cut diagonally by the rugged, stormy mountainside of Mount Holyoke creating a contrast between the violent wilderness and the pastoral landscape down below. With his own painting equipment set up upon the mountainside, Cole asserts his presence on the mountainside to take part in nature’s moral effects while also asserting the importance of the untamed wilderness toward American landscape painting. At the time The Oxbow was painted, Mount Holyoke was a popular tourist destination that included overnight accommodations for visitors. Cole decided not to include the infringement of civilization upon the landscape, but the impending storm atop the mountain seems to suggest that the landscape will eventually give way to civilization. For Cole, the landscape constituted America’s “antiquities” and therefore, places the American landscape tradition on the same plane as the European tradition.