Notre Dame du Taur, Toulouse.

Jammed in amongst a street full of shops and other old buildings is a sweet little church that you can easily not notice at all as you walk down Rue du Taur from the Place du Capitole, the main square in the French city of Toulouse, to the Basilica dedicated to St Sernin, the patron saint of the city.  Yet, here was where the remains of St Sernin (or Saturnin) were first interred, only being transferred to the newly built basilica down the street when the crush of pilgrims became too great.

St Sernin was the first bishop of Toulouse, supposedly appointed by St Peter himself in the 1st century AD.  The church is named Notre Dame du Taur (Our Lady of the Bull) because, for refusing to worship pagan idols, St Sernin was allegedly martyred by being tied to a bull and dragged around by a rope until he was dead.  Legend has it that the place where the rope finally broke is where this church is today.

The church was built in the 13th-14th century, and the facade is of characteristically ‘Toulousain’ red brick, but not overly impressive.  And the only way to take any sort of picture of it in that very narrow street is from down a nearby alleyway.

Red brick façade of Notre Dame du Taur, in Toulouse, France.

Red brick façade of Notre Dame du Taur, in Toulouse, France.

Inside, though, it’s a little gem.   Quite short and squat, with side chapels but no transept, nearly all the surfaces, including the vaulting ribs, are quite nicely decorated.

Inside Notre Dame du Taur, looking towards the altar down the short nave.

Inside Notre Dame du Taur, looking towards the altar down the short nave.

The surfaces inside Notre Dame du Taur are quite intricately painted and gilded.

The surfaces inside Notre Dame du Taur are quite intricately painted and gilded.

Many medieval churches were once gilded and decorated like Notre Dame du Taur

Many medieval churches were once gilded and decorated like Notre Dame du Taur

Over the altar is a 19thC tableau depicting the moment the rope broke and St Sernin’s body, and the bull, came to rest.

The painted tableau over the altar showing the martyrdom of St Sernin is from the 19th century

The painted tableau over the altar showing the martyrdom of St Sernin is from the 19th century

There are several stained glass windows with traditional imagery that I also think are rather nice, like this ‘Pieta’, although I suspect that they are a relatively modern addition, from the 19th or perhaps even early 20th century.

This lovely stained glass window of the Pieta is not original, but a much later addition.

This lovely stained glass window of the Pieta is not original, but a much later addition.

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The Victory of Faith

You could be forgiven for wondering what this painting is doing in a blog themed around religious art and architecture, but its title is “The Victory of Faith”.  It supposedly shows two devout Christians who have been captured by the Romans, but who have refused to renounce their faith in Christ, and so are to be sacrificed to the lions in the arena on the morrow.  They are sleeping peacefully beneath a sign of the cross that they have somehow scratched into the dungeon wall behind them, secure in their faith, and in the knowledge that they will be received into heaven as martyrs.

"The Victory of Faith" 1890-91:  St Gorge Hare, Irish, 1857-1933.  National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

“The Victory of Faith” 1890-91: St Gorge Hare, Irish, 1857-1933. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

The artist is St. George Hare, an Irish artist who usually specialised in portraits, but exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy in London in 1891.  It was, apparently, his first major treatment of the nude, but not his last.  The painting is in the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia, and their caption includes the droll observation, “The depiction of naked women in chains seemed to hold a special interest for Hare, and he returned to the subject frequently.”

Inside St Pierre, Avignon

Looking at the same church as in yesterday’s post, here is the nave directly behind those carved walnut entrance doors.  St Pierre is a small late gothic church, with no transept, but it has a short aisle on each side of the nave, and some small and shallow chapels coming off the south aisle, which is to the right in this picture.

The nave of the church of St Pierre in Avignon

The nave of the church of St Pierre in Avignon

Here is one of the chapels.  Still visible are the flaking and corroding remains of some extensive painted decoration, on the walls inside and right around the architrave of the chapel entrance.  In many old churches in Europe, even if they were once painted, there is no longer any sign of painted decoration because it has all worn off or fallen off long ago.  In this chapel enough still remains to make you realise that it would have been  a very beautiful thing when it was freshly painted.

Most of the elaborate painted decoration of this side chapel of St Pierre in Avignon has deteriorated and flaked off the walls and surrounds

Most of the elaborate painted decoration of this side chapel of St Pierre in Avignon has deteriorated and flaked off the walls and surrounds

Enough small patches of the original paintwork remains to demonstrate the incredibly skill and care that went into the decoration of this chapel

Enough small patches of the original paintwork remain around the architrave to demonstrate the meticulous skill and care that went into the decoration of this chapel

Orthodox icons?

In a Catholic Cathedral?  What are these doing here, I wondered to myself when I saw them on the wall inside the main entrance of St Patrick’s cathedral in Melbourne, Australia.

Madonna and Child and Christ in Majesty are typical subjects for Eastern Orthodox icons, but it is unusual to see such stylised artworks in Catholic churches.

Melbourne Icons 1

Melbourne Icons 2

But all is not what it seems.  Look closer and you will see they are in fact very recent paintings, made by a local artist ‘in the style of’ Byzantine icons, in 1999.

Melbourne Icons 3

The 150th Jubilee celebration of the laying of the foundation stone of this cathedral occurred in 2000, so these works may have been commissioned for that event, or they may have just been a gift to the church from the artist or some other patron.  Either way, they are completely out of character, and a stylistically bizarre thing to put on the walls of this church.

Although, I have seen some other quite odd mismatches in some much older European churches, so there’s no accounting for taste.  Or lack of it.

Four Madonnas

The Virgin Mary, with or without a Christ child, was probably the single most popular theme in all of Western art from before the first millenium and for most of the next.  The four I have chosen here illustrate very clearly the sudden dramatic change in painting style and realism that occurred from the beginning of the mighty period now known as the Renaissance, in the mid-14th century, to the late 15th century.

The first of these, from Siena around 1370, presents Mary as a flat icon, with a little attempt at three-dimensional modelling, against a gilded backdrop with an ornately decorated halo.  This is less stylised than its Byzantine predecessors, but its composition and proportions owe more to convention than to accurate observation.  Oddly, her breast seems to be where her collar-bone ought to be.

Madonna and Child: Siena, Italy, c.1370 by Paolo di Giovanni Fei

Madonna and Child: Siena, Italy, c.1370 by Paolo di Giovanni Fei

Sixty years later, in Florence, Fra Filippo Lippi’s version is more human and realistic in its facial proportions, and the Madonna is now in an obviously three-dimensional space, although still a quite formal one.  The heavy gilded background has been reduced to just a saintly plain solid gold halo.

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels: Florence, Italy, 1434, by Fra Filippo Lippi

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels: Florence, Italy, 1434, by Fra Filippo Lippi

Fifty more years on, and Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna is much less an idealised Virgin than a portrait of a local Venetian beauty, her gaze direct and personal.  The symbolic halo is now only a token outline, and the drapery behind places her in what could be a domestic interior.

Madonna and Child: Venice, Italy, 1480s, by Giovanni Bellini

Madonna and Child: Venice, Italy, 1480s, by Giovanni Bellini

Only another ten years later and from Verona we have this very carefully observed portrait of a young woman outside in the open air, in front of a distant landscape.  Her face has three-dimensional substance courtesy of a strong single light source, with reflections from her white head-dress softening the deep shadows in her left cheek.  This is a very modern-looking representation, heading towards a photographic accuracy, and a long way from the first of these four images.

Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist: Verona, Italy, 1490s, by Michele da Verona (Michela di Zenone)

Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist: Verona, Italy, 1490s, by Michele da Verona (Michela di Zenone)

David Hockney, in his book ‘Secret Knowledge’ makes similar observations to these with a series of different paintings, and he argues that the greater realism from the middle of the 15th century onwards was as a result of the discovery and use of optical aids to image making, in the form of lenses, mirrors, and a prism device called a camera lucida.

It is a convincing theory, and the new optical knowledge that allowed artists to more quickly establish accuracy of representation had a sudden and profound effect, and explains the sudden improvement in the works of Flemish painters who were the first to make use of it.  The new techniques would have taken a while to spread to other areas of Europe, but I think there is good evidence that by the middle of the second half of the 15th century news of them had made it to Venice and Verona, don’t you?

The Three Graces

In the pantheon of ancient Greek deities, the Three Graces were Olympian goddesses, and daughters of Zeus.  Their names were Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia, and respectively they symbolised beauty, joy, and abundance. Or something similar like splendour, mirth, and fertility. Homer describes them as being handmaidens of Aphrodite, goddess of love.

What makes them interesting is the consistency and frequency with which they have been represented in art throughout the ages.  They have nearly always, since ancient times, been depicted nude, and standing in a connected group with their arms touching or embracing each other.  Sometimes the group is a small circle, where they are facing each other, but more commonly, they are shown standing more in a row, two facing one way, one facing the other.

Many of the most famous artists in history, for instance, Raphael, Botticelli, Rubens, even Picasso, have all based works around these three Greek goddess figures.  Here are a few of the many versions I have found and photographed myself.

Three Graces, Roman 2nd century AD, copy of Greek work 2nd century BC

Three Graces, Roman 2nd century AD, copy of Greek work 2nd century BC

Three Graces, 11th century Roman sculpture, based on a Greek model from around 300BC, heads restored in 1609

Three Graces, 11th century Roman sculpture, based on a Greek model from around 300BC, heads restored in 1609

The Three Graces Supporting Love; after 1765: by Francois Boucher 1703-1770

The Three Graces Supporting Love; after 1765: by Francois Boucher 1703-1770

The Three Graces; 1794: by Baron Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1754-1829

The Three Graces; 1794: by Baron Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1754-1829

The Three Graces, salon of 1831: by Jean-Jacques Pradier, 1790-1852

The Three Graces, salon of 1831: by Jean-Jacques Pradier, 1790-1852

For my own very secular interpretation of this theme, see “Three Graces: The Handmaidens of the Aphrodite Beach Surf Club”, at my personal artwork website.

Now this is what God should look like…

…don’t you think?  A big grey-bearded white man, floating on a cloud up in the sky, ready to hurl thunderbolts down at you if you step out of line.  This is almost exactly the childhood image I had in my head after years of Baptist Sunday School.

Cartoon of a bearded God, with arm outstretched, on a cloud with angels and cherubs

Tiepolo cartoon of God on a cloud with some angels and cherubs

Actually I didn’t find this painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in a church, it’s in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but it’s a preliminary sketch, made about 1760, for a finished painting that was commissioned for the cathedral at Este, near Padua, Italy.  So I think it’s OK to include it here.

I like Tiepolo’s drawings and sketches better than his finished works.  They have a lively freshness about them, and although this is oil on canvas, it’s more of a coloured brush drawing than a painting.  Technically, I suppose it’s a ‘cartoon’, and if Tiepolo was alive today, I think he would be a great comics artist.