Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Mary and Mary, quite contrary.

Okay, last go on the Christmas topic.

Ninny gave me her 2006 calendar, printed in Florence, which had lovely images of the Madonna. She told me I had to do something "creative" with them, so the challenge was displaying some of them in a way that would look nice without turning my abode into a Shrine to the Cult of the Virgin.

The first challenge was the baby Jesuses. It seems that most of the baby Jesuses in medieval and Renaissance paintings are sort of creepy looking. I don't know why this is. Maybe artists didn't get much naked baby sketching time in art school and so were clueless when confronted with a difficult, squirming little bug in the studio. Maybe they were hesitant to give the Son of God a regular drooly baby face and intentionally made him look like a sage 30-year-old trapped in an infant's body. Or maybe it's simply that cuteness standards have changed over the centuries. Whatever the case, I couldn't bring myself to look day after day at any of the baby Jesuses in the calendar. The Botticelli one wasn't too bad, and neither was Raphael's. There was a certain charm to a couple of them: in one the baby gripped Mary's thumb and in another he's playing with her hair. But even the better ones were a bit too eerie and adult looking -- I was afraid if I put them up on my wall I'd start having Chucky nightmares.

So I ruled out the paintings that had babies. I started arranging the Madonna-only paintings on the floor in different combinations and realized that Mary was almost always in a red dress with a blue mantle or head scarf. There must be some symbolism there (any Catholics out there wanna enlighten me?) I decided to go with four painting details that showed just the bust of Mary. I chose these particular ones because there were two pairs that sort of echoed each other. All four show Mary looking down and to the right. Two of them show her with brown hair, in near profile with her head bowed at the same angle, and two show her with blonde hair, in three-quarter profile with torso straight forward. I thought those similarities gave the grouping a nice balance and I offset the two columns to play up their meek downward glances. I really like how it turned out -- thanks to Ninny for this lovely addition to my home decor. The one on the upper right looks like a young teenager (and Mary probably was a young teenager at the time). The one on the upper left looks much older -- closer to my age. My favorite is the lower left -- Raphael. A blonde Jewess. Hmmm. Here's to artistic license.

And none of them look like Miranda Richardson. Maybe it's their relative lack of disappointment. Maybe it's because their slightly unsettling infants have been cut out of the shot, leaving them less anxious all around. I imagine baring your breast to the Creator of the Universe, though he is tiny and benevolent, might conceivably cause a little unease. Like the Siamese cat we used to have -- I hated to have her in the room when I changed clothes, because she looked like she knew what was going on, even though I knew that that was a ridiculous notion. Oh, wow. This is getting sort of blasphemous so I'm going to return to...

...the topic of religious art. It seems like there's less and less of it that isn't complete schlock. Even the new art in the most recent LDS international art competition, which had high standards overall, was peppered with a good amount of cutrate Norman Rockwell Mormonia. Or maybe I'm overly critical of my age -- maybe it was equally bad in the Renaissance and the trash was sifted out by the passing centuries, leaving us the lovelies that show up in Florentine wall calendars. At any rate, with enough snarky commentary, even kitsch is enjoyable. When shopping online after-Christmas sales for tree ornaments, I came across a blog with a sidebar dedicated to tacky religious art of the modern age. They have a page called Cavalcade of Bad Nativities dedicated to such horrors as nativities made up of nothing but snowmen, or cats, or owls. Eek and double eek.

And in a final tribute to bad devotional art, here is a picture of a really tacky Last Supper wall clock I acquired at a Christmas white elephant gift exchange several years back. I kept it until just a few months ago because it was just so gloriously awful that I couldn't bear to part with it. I even created a mini "Tackiness Shrine" in my walk-in closet with this clock as the centerpiece. I mean, LOOK at it. They mounted the clock hands in Jesus's chest, so at noon they obliterated his face. At the bottom of the holy scene was the word TAIWAN in large gold letters. Encased around it was a baroque arrangement of white and red silk flowers, and on the hour it chimed the Hallelujah chorus. It was truly masterful in its badness. Some days (especially when I recall Monty Python's hilarious skit about Michelangelo's tacky Next-to-Last Supper painting) I wish I hadn't thrown the Last Supper clock away. Who knows -- two milennia from now it might have been considered great art....

1 comment:

Rachel said...

One of the interesting things to me about really old art and artists is the value of being alike. No one wants that now. But it sure made it easy for the illiterate church go-er to recognize who Mary was and follow the story.