30 September 2008

29 September 2008

Cathedral of Modena

The Cathedral of Modena

The cornerstone for the Cathedral of Modena was laid on June 6, 1099. When finished, this building was the culmination of unique collaborations for its time, one between the architect and sculptor, another between the lay civic population and the clergy. The decision to replace the existing building was not made by the bishop, as the bishop’s see was vacant at the time. Nor was it made by the nobility Maltida of Tuscany, she is recorded as being pleased the decision was made but having no part in making it. Neither person nor office we could define as the owner was responsible for choosing to renovate the cathedral. It was the customers, the tenants, the common people who demanded this new cathedral. Why did they assert themselves so?
Society of this time was famously described as being of three classes:
those who toil
those who fight
and those who pray.
Many other historians have noted this left unmentioned those important members of the community, the merchants those who buy and sell and craftsmen, those who work with their hands. True, merchants favor cities, and the various migrations / invasions after the collapse of the Roman Empire were unkind to the cities, so there may have been a substantial drop in commerce and with it the merchants. Yet, trade was never abandoned, so merchants were always there.
The contribution of the local merchant was not forgotten here. On the apse of this cathedral are the “official” measurements of city. In the image (linked) on the left is the brick, next is the ell for bolts of cloth, the perch was used to land & timber, and the coppa or roofing tile that doubled as a 3-liter bucket stave. This harkens back to the role of the basilica in Roman times, as multi-purpose structure – where civil and religious affairs were conducted. So this may be new for its time, but it also an old practice. Nonetheless, the placement of these commercial standards on prominent position is a statement of religious and commercial solidarity. Our goods are sanctified - quality and quantity – guaranteed by God.
The object of attention goes by the official name of the La Porta delle Donzelle, Door of the Maidens; but it known by its colloquial name of La Porta della Pescheria – The door of the Fish Market. This portal is famous for its depiction of the Arthurian cycle, one that may be the first visual depiction of this subject. Furthermore the doorjamb decoration, The Labors of the Months, is one of the earliest examples of this motif. (The Link opens a Flash movie of relief sculptures)

Obviously it was not intended to teach the peasants their assigned duties, for even illiterate peasants must have known what job needed to done as well as the times and order of these tasks. This must be a re-interpretation of the work, transforming it from a curse to a “mission statement.” Previously punishment from God, now work is the pathway to redemption. (So do more of it!) Even if this is what the church wanted to say, it did not prevent the people from hearing something other than the intended message. If the peasants received this as a celebration of their life, they may have considered this portal as a demonstration of good faith bargaining on the part of the church. Literally set in stone, it is a contract with the labor force.
Which brings us back to the Arthurian Cycle the main highlight of this doorway. The archivolt depicts the rescue of Winlogee, the Breton equivalent of Guinevere, from the castle of Mardoc. I am leaving out from where and how did the story come to Modena from this discussion. (Breton knights in Bari) Just let me slip this in, it antedates both the Arthurian epics of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chr├ętien de Troyes.
Why was this scene chosen is my question. The original name implies the archivolt was the focus. Interesting, the plural was employed, only one woman is depicted rescued. In that an interpretation can be made this an exhortation by the church to the nobility to behave a chivalrous manner. Another answer is that a patron named Artuisis contributed enough to have his name recorded in this manner. Why an Italian merchant would choose to be identified with a figure from Breton mythology is not known. (It is not out of place to have a donor recognized, but the allegory is a bit tenuous.) Either answer fits with what we know, these epics were tremendously popular. My favorite description is from Norman Cantor, he described them as spreading like a “medieval plague.” However, too often, we discount the affects of theater outside the church and how those activities impact inside of the church.
That in mind, I see this as a maneuver by the clergy, one with the express purpose of appealing to the peasantry. Arthur’s Christian mission comes much later with Mallory’s compilation, so the story here is a decidedly secular one. In a church that is steeped in tradition and determined to reinforce and exert its moral supremacy, adding popular contemporary subjects to the religious program is not something I expect. As popular as The Simpsons may be, I doubt Homer will be added to the Roman Catholic repertoire. There was a conflict between the clergy and nobility, but the relationships between the urban dwellers and rural framer, between the lay and the clerical were more important and it was to that audience to whom this is directed. If the portal is focused on the satisfying the peasantry, this theme fits perfectly because it gives to them something that has personal fascination.
Exploring that proposition leads to consideration of entertainment. During this time, entertainment is up close and personal, the custom being troubadours and wandering bands of musicians. Private theater occurred the houses of nobility; the public version was staged in the church squares. It seems worth mentioning that in the latter case, this was one of the few times nobility and peasantry were together, the other one being church. That some churches were at odds with these groups, seeing them as sinful and vulgar who would corrupt the order of the town does not indicate all were as fastidious. Some clerics allowed this entertainment, considering it as a complement of secular to sacred. Looking this sculpture through this tolerant lens, the subject matter is not out of character and perhaps is to be expected. A troupe passing along the road, looking up and seeing a popular story carved in stone would alert them to a possible audience for their talents. Indeed, the purpose of this sculpture may have been to attract such actors and musicians and invite them to stay and entertain the citizens. Attract a crowd, bring people to our market, we care about our customers, especially the ones that bring money.

24 September 2008


Gesture, Posture, and Activity

If there's one thing students are usually interested in it is their GPA

This is the tympaneum from the abbey church in Nonantola. Despite being located in a rather modest town and a bit off of the beaten track, this was an important monastery at the time of the Investure Crisis. This relief was carved by the workshop of Wiligemo (Wiligemus). It depicts the more traditional theme of Christ in judgment.
The gesture of note is the conferring of blessing. One can see this gesture in many instances of early Christian art, particularly in the mosaics of Ravenna. Compare this to the classic Roman gesture and we see some similarity. What is fascinating to this reader is its similarity to the Buddhist tradition. This is not to say the gestures themselves are similar but rather that meaning can be derived from hand position and movement.
The posture is also derived from antiquity. Consider the one of the most famous images of an enthroned deity - the stele of Hammurabi. The God Shamash confers upon Hammurabi, the right to rule by giving him the a scepter and length of rope. It is important to recognize that Shamash is seated, he does not stand to extend this gift, rather Hammurabi must reach for it. The position of authority does not necessary mean one stands over the subject. (Although my colleagues concerned with the gaze would note that Hammurabi does not avert his eyes, rather stares Shamash down.)
The activity is defined by the previous two factors - the Christ figure by virtue of his gesture and posture - is establishing his position of sanctity and authority. After all, you do not receive a blessing from the profane nor from those who are your inferior.

16 September 2008

And now for something completely different

Mark Bauerlein has a written another screed against using electronic media in the education sector. Although I prefer the concrete nature of books and spend hours examining traditional paper maps and cartography, it must be understood communications does not stand still. We (humanity) progressed from the oral tradition, through cuneiform to papyrus, then on to parchment and offset printing, finally arriving at today's magnetic and phosphor ink. The funny thing is that on each step, there was a exponential explosion, a massive increase of production from the previous state. When the printing press was introduced to Italy, the output was not just of words, drawings and maps were well represented. In the future we will see more works that appear solely in the electronic, magnetic and optical form.

Bauerlein laments that his students cannot find static material in the library, and indeed I agree, the ability to perform archival searches is an absolutely necessary skill. Nevertheless, if you graduate from a geography program and cannot use Google maps and/or Google earth then you will be handicapped - and fatally so. Demanding that students sacrifice learning the skills necessary to operate in the realm of electronic discourse to obtain those that are being superseded, and superseded at the speed of Moore's Law, is to me similar to requiring horsemanship in the days of automobiles. Yes, knowing how to ride a horse is a good skill to possess, but it will not serve you well in the commercial sector. I know many computer languages that are as dead as Latin is today, I would never ask a student to learn X.25, except to understand the primitives of communications between computers.

What I believe the good professor is missing is that we need to learn how to more effectively use the electronic format. It is true we approach a screen differently than the paper one. Nonetheless, how many times do you scan a book, ignoring the little boxes and footnotes? Art History survey and Geography texts are rife with little boxes that describe and explore tangential topics and I always must point these out students who invariably just plow through the text and ignore the colored box or graphic. Here and in my studies, I am constantly fiddling - poking - modifying my electronic text to provide a better interface to the reader. (Which is difficult when you consider I cannot control the browser - the screen size - or the environment that the material is presented!) Unlike the professor, I am willing - nay - obligated to learn how to use this form and to teach what I have learned to others, that's why I returned to school after 30 years. Unfortunately it appears the professor believes he has learned enough, and doesn't need to learn anything else. What's more unfortunate is that he has a soapbox from which to present his appeal to authority.

12 September 2008

Ravenna Baptistries

Baptistery of the Arians 490 CE(?)
Baptistery of the Orthodox 450 CE

These are images of the respective tondo from each Baptistery. Baptism was (and remains) a sacred rite in the Christian faith and is rife with symbolism.
The Arian heresy is named after Arius, a Bishop who questioned the nature the of Christ. What he asked was whether Jesus was always God or did he become God during his life? To the pagans, steeped in the tradition of rite of passage, baptism represented that transformation. Various Gothic tribes adopted the Arian belief system, mostly for political reasons. When Arianism took hold in Europe, Catholicism was as tolerated as Catholics tolerated the Arians, that is, barely at all. However, Theodric, despite being of Arian sect, promulgated tolerance. So this structure co-existed with the earlier example.

Note: That is my interpretation of Arianism and it ignores much of the spiritual aspects of the belief system. I am, after all, a meandering Marxist Art Historian.

When the barbarian invasions started, the majority of Roman aristocracy and ruling class abandoned Rome for Ravenna. At a time when all roads lead to Rome, it was not a good thing as the traffic on those roads went by the names of the Huns, the Vandals, and the Visigoths. Conversely, Ravenna was surrounded by marshes and so did not allow a prolonged siege. Funny thing is, even with these invasions, the markets still existed and trade flourished. So in the midst of the barbarian invasions, Bishop Neone was able to raise the money and find the artisans to work in his cathedral (which no longer standing) and the baptistery which is extant. This work dates to 450-460.

08 September 2008

More Portable Art

The Muwahhid dynasty minted coins that inspired subsequent regimes of the area and rest of the Islamic societies. When they succeeded the Almoravid dynasty, they changed the nature of the coinage with new weights and new forms. In this instance, the ruling authorities employed these new qualities to separate themselves from previous regime. The most distinctive change was to mint the silver dirham in a square form. Augmenting and continuing this motif, the gold dinar was minted with a square in circle motif. Another alteration was to replace the traditional Kufic script with the more elegant Nashk. In all respects, this dynasty seemed to want to break away from previous tradition, and establish new ones of their own. To this they were quite successful. This was in part due to the tremendous advantages the geography of this area provided them. The Caravanserai that brought salt south towards Ghana returned with gold. When later trade expanded the products to slaves and ivory it brought in more high value trade goods. Therefore, it is not surprising the gold coins they minted were heavy and ornate. The society wanted to emphasize their preeminence in both trade and religious affairs, and had the wherewithal to accomplish that task.
Examining the dinar, we see a large picture space, one that provided ample room for names and titles as well inscriptional messages. These qualities made it popular to the rulers because it provided them opportunity to express their political and religious views. On the other hand, it was the volume of dirhams minted that led it to become the primary trade currency of the western Mediterranean. These coins were also were adjusted comply with the popular attitude, just as was the case in the Levant and Egypt. Inscriptions again were the issue. Probably in response to contact with Christian merchants, inscriptions were modified to read Muhammad is our Messenger from Muhammad is the messenger. (My emphasis.) Obviously, the intention was to placate the foreign populations this coin was intended to serve. Not all inscriptions were aimed at solely foreign audiences. One common inscription was the ruling authority’s exhortation that he was the commander of the faithful. Obviously, this was intended for domestic consumption in addition to foreigners. However, we must keep in mind, despite this common wording, the intended communication was not necessarily the same one.

07 September 2008

Art in your Pocket

Every coin that has ever been issued under public authority since the invention of coinage is a historical document…. The Greek coin, then, enjoys the advantage of being at once the best thing of the kind Greek art could make and an official document withal. - G. F. Hill, Historical Greek Coins
The obverse of Damaretia above depicts a Quadriga driven by male charioteer in long dress who is being crowned by a flying Nike. In the exergue, a lion leaps to the right. The reverse has a female head facing left. She wears a laurel wreath and is surrounded by dolphins in a circular incuse. The coin is from Syracuse and bears the name of a queen, the wife of Gelon. Reputedly, the silver used to mint this coin was from the tribute paid by the Carthaginians. It is unknown what event the initial design commemorated; it could be a victory in athletic games or the military victory that brought in the tribute. What is clear is the popularity of the design. Although changes were made, e.g., the wreath was often replaced with a plain cord or fillet, the design was copied over the subsequent decades. The motif proved to be so popular that the engravers in Syracuse enjoyed a new status as artists. Another significant thing is that this 6th century BCE coin coincides with the appearance of the laurel in vase painting. That may represent the emergence of the cult of Apollo. Another possibility is that the artists were paying homage to Apollo who was considered a patron of the arts. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC are specimens attributed to Kimon and Euainetos. This is interesting because these are among the first attributions in the history of art. Although we do not know for sure, it is likely that the artists who carved the dies for coins also worked in other materials. Carved gems and similar small-scale work would have been a natural lateral move in skills and techniques. If so, these attributions must have been immensely valuable from an advertising point of view.

Greek Applied Arts at CSU World Art

05 September 2008

Visible Earth Strangeness

This is a test of the link to Visible Earth which causes much strangeness when accessed from the side bar.

Update: Alas, the strangeness continues, it is in Blogger itself.

For The Record: Blogger does something very weird to that particular URL (http://visibleearth.nasa.gov). It chews up the DNS entry and sends it to my ISP. I then must wait 30 minutes for the ISP DNS cache to clear before I can access the site. It's a shame because the site is interesting.

The URL in the link is correct. If the user copies the link location and pastes the link into the navigation bar it works fine. It only fails when a user clicks on the link in a Blogger window, either from this entry or from the sidebar entry. It will also fail if the user requests the link to open in another window or tab. Therefore the link only fails when the DNS request is made going through the Blogger page (and server).

04 September 2008

So you've been asked to give a talk

There's an interesting meme floating around Science Blogs, how to give a talk. There's a nice video too. Although they concentrate on science, this advice fits to any discussion. I suggest you read their entries before continuing here as I refer to some of their do's and don'ts.

I divide it into three sections: Preparation, Visuals, and Delivery. There are two ways to approach it, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde techniques.


Dr. J:

Practice before the talk! Recognize that the audience will follow the speaker's eyes. If you're staring at your computer screen, that where the audience's eyes will be too. So your cheat sheet is just a list of ideas which you want to cover. This way you can maintain eye contact with the audience and "float" using your eyes to direct the audience's attention. If you're looking at the screen they're looking at the screen.

Know your audience and prepare accordingly. Too many times I've had guest lecturers come in and talk way over the head of the students. You must use a vocabulary they understand and deliver it in an appropriate manner.

Work on pronunciation. I have extreme difficulty saying the word "ubiquitous," and will excise it from my lectures. If you have the same problem, do as I do, simply break open the thesaurus and find another word. Watch your speech patterns, and work to eliminate "OK," "you know," and other figures of colloquial speech. ("You understand" is a good substitute for "you know.")

Mr. H:

Don't! Wing it and you'll sound like a pro! Don't read a book or this post, just play it by ear. Hopefully you have a tin ear.

Ignore the knowledge level of the audience. Assume they know everything you know, have read every book you've read, come from the same neighborhood you lived, visited all the sites you've been to, and generally don't need to attend this talk. Introduce subjects without background information, the more complex the better. Best of all use a foreign language, especially obscure dialects.

Don't practice saying difficult words then mispronounce them throughout the entire talk. Better yet, use multiple mispronunciations. Better yet, use trite phrases repeatedly, Better yet, mispronounce repeated trite phrases. Better yet...


Dr. J:

Use a sane color combination. I dislike bright white screens so my backgrounds are colors. However, I also use text boxes so that I can have sufficient contrast. Don't use complementary colors, they hurt the eyes as much as bright white. Standard fonts - Serif for titles and headings, sans serif for text. No more than 5 lines per slide if you're in a big hall (75 people?) as students in the back won't see it.

Few if any animations. They're OK if you want to introduce comic relief or make an impact, but must be used like you would cayenne pepper - with great care!

Provide sources or names the audience will recognize. Don't read every source, just let them know where they can find the information you're delivering. Most Art History types will recognize Vasari as the author of "Lives of the Artists," a few will know Panofsky, and fewer still understand Mieke Bal.

Mr. H:

Comic sans!! Use obscure fonts, especially script, gothic / olde English and italic versions of them. Wing Dings can really liven up a slide. Write your PowerPoint slides on a Mac then present it on a Windows PC. Be sure to use Mac only fonts like Linotype or Helvetica. Use lots of bullets too! Pack that slide so full that even you can't read it!

Animate to the point that the computer crashes. If you don't know how, then indiscriminate use of bold can stand in for annoying animation. However, NOthing beaTs wierD CapitZation and, stRAnge(!?!) pUncTuati0n to make.it.illegible.

Cite obscure, preferably nonstandard publications and sources. It's difficult in the education setting but if you can violate copyright and trademark law, so much the better. If you can't do that, then don't give attributes, make them guess where to find it.


Dr. J

Prepare the audience. Tell them when questions should be proffered. Can they just "popcorn" them, should they raise their hand, should they write them down and ask at the end. Otherwise you'll have dead silence and a distracted audience.

Don't surprise the audience and stay on topic. Surprises tend to overshadow all other content, rambling confuses them. My first slide after the title one is "4 things you will know after this lecture." At the end of the lecture, I bring up each of the things on separate slides to drive home the point(s) of the lecture. I always draw test and essay questions from that pool of those things. I try to keep it down to 4 things because I work with lower division undergraduates (freshman and sophomores). See the point about knowing the audience.

Our department's mantra is that slides used in the lectures should be the visual argument, and your voice is the textual one. That said - don't read the slide! One exception - if you have a long quote which you want to read. I read Procopius' description of Theodora, a racy and slanderous passage from Secret History, and it always excites the students.

Mr. H:

Go off topic - ramble on dude, ramble on! Surprise the audience, introduce non sequiturs and other irrelevant topics. Confuse the heck out of them by tossing in throw away lines that make no sense to the subject at hand. It keeps them on their toes.

Don't tell the audience when to ask questions and then they do, go ballistic! Belittle their knowledge level or opinion. Make them as uncomfortable as possible - frightened is the best possible position. If you're packing heat make sure they know you're not only willing to use it, you're likely to use it! Extra points if you can get them to leave puddles in their chairs.

Contradict your visuals. If the slide is blue, tell them it's green. Doing this gives you the chance to go ballistic when they question your text. This goes in the behavior category but what do you know, where did you learn this, you wanna get up here and taLK@!@ How abOut you just leave now cause yOu're faIling thIs class Now!

02 September 2008

Duomo d' Modena, Porto della Pescheria

Margaret over at The Earthly Paradise has a tag on her blog expressing interest in the Arthurian Legend. Since I delivered a symposium lecture on the Porto della Pescheria I thought I throw this up here in case she wanders by...
This is, according to R.S. Loomis, the first instance of the Arthurian legend. It is believed that Wiligemo and Lanfranco were exposed to this story by the Crusaders departing from Bari, Italy. At the time, the two were working on the Cathedral of Bari and later worked here in Modena. My argument is the position and placement of this sculpture was deliberate action by the town to celebrate the peasant. Visible to the local market and main road bisecting this town, this was a billboard of sorts. Any wandering troubadours would see it, and so recognize Modena as a place where their performances would be welcome. Come the time for the Carnival, I'll explore this theme and idea further.

Mary At Ravenna

Mary and Christ Child, Sant' Apollinare

Is this the first image of Jesus as a child?
In the other mosaics of this program and site, the Christ figure is portrayed as a preacher, healer, and ruler. This image portrays him as a child, the precedent for this is unknown to me. In the other two nearby sites that antedate this building, the Neonian Baptistery and Galla Placida, the portrayal of the Christ figure is as an adult.

Ravenna Page