Accessible Art History
My Five Favorite Works
Asking an art historian to pick their favorite work of art is like asking a mother to pick their favorite child. There are just too many wonderful pieces in the history of art to choose from! But, I did my best and picked five works that truly speak to me. To be "fair", I chose works outside of my specialty of medieval art. I'll do a post on that subject on a later time.
The Ghent Altarpiece is one of the most complicated and well known altarpieces in the history of art. It was painted in the 1420's and is attributed to two brothers: Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Another name for this piece is the "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb". There are many panels on this altarpiece and they depict a variety of scenes: Adam and Eve, two choirs of angels, an enthroned Virgin, St. John the Baptist, God on His Heavenly throne decorate the top half on the altarpiece. The bottom panel is where the piece gets its alternate name. Saints, clergymen, soldiers, and sinners form a procession. They are on their way to worship the Lamb of God.
This work was the first one I ever viewed on Google Art Project. The rich colors of the three holy figures were what caught my attention initially. Rich ruby, deep sapphire, and vibrant green robes pull the viewer's eye. When you zoom into the work, the details are astonishing. The jewels on the crowns reflect the light, each curl of Mary's hair is painted, and every figure has their own unique facial expression. It is a work made with such care and love, I can't help but to adore it.
Bust of Nefertiti
The Bust of Nefertiti is one of the famous works of ancient sculpture to survive to the modern era. Nefertiti was queen and Great Royal Wife to Pharaoh Akhenaten, during the 18th Dynasty in New Kingdom Egypt. This piece is believed to have been made around 1345 BCE by the sculptor Thutmose. It was discovered in 1912 and is on display in the Neumes Museum in Berlin.
Since I was a kid, Ancient Egypt has fascinated me. It is such an incredible period in history, where humanity grew by leaps and bounds. To me, this sculpture represents that moment. Where humans were driven to create a piece of art to capture what a person looks like. Before this period, Ancient Egyptian art was heavily stylized. But this bust is not. Nefertiti has full round lips, a long graceful neck, and noble features. Even thousands of years later, she is still a symbol of beauty.
Judith and Holofernes – Artemisia Gentileschi
The story of Judith and Holofernes is one of the most popular subject in Renaissance and Baroque art. Judith was a beautiful widow in the Jewish town of Bethulia. It was under siege by the Assyrian army led by the general Holofernes. The Jewish forces were much smaller and it looked like they were going to lose, but Judith wasn’t going to let that happen. Knowing that Holofernes desired her, she snuck into his tent one night. After he passed out from drinking, Judith decapitated him. This action was gruesome, but it saved her people. Artemisia Gentileschi painted her version of this story between 1616-18. She takes the tenebrism even farther than he did, the background is dark, it appears inky black. The decapitation is nearly completed. Judith confidently swings her sword through Holofernes’ neck. Her maid is engaged in the action, holding the general down as blood gushes from his neck.
As a woman, the stories of both Judith and Artemisia strike a chord with me. (For my readers that don't know, Artemisia was raped by her tutor and the ensuing trial was quite traumatic for her.) Using her painting talent, Artemisia captures the emotion and power that stems from Judith's strength. It makes me aware of my own strength.
Pietà - Michelangelo
The theme of Pietà is quite common in Medieval and Renaissance art. One of the most spectacular examples is the 1498-1499 example by Michelangelo that is housed in St. Peter's Basilica. In this scene, we see a beautiful, angelic Mary, cradling Jesus after the Crucifixion. The two figures rest on top of Golgotha. One of the most striking elements of this work is the fact that it does not focus on the pain wrought by Jesus' death on the cross. The stigmata are small, almost indiscernible. He looks peaceful, almost as if He is sleeping. Although much of Mary's body is hidden by the intricate folds of her garment, her youth and serene expression should be noted. Instead of focusing on the horror of the Crucifixion, Michelangelo chose to focus on the glory of the Resurrection.
The first time I saw this work on the screen in my art history class, I actually cried. The beautiful serenity of Mary and Jesus, despite the horrors of the Crucifixion moved me. Michelangelo took a piece of rock and was able to transform it into a holy scene worthy of being in heaven. I am blessed enough to have seen this work on a few trips to St. Peter's Basilica. Despite the incredible size of this building, the Pietà manages to hold its own.
The Abduction of Proserpina – Bernini
Besides Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini is my other favorite sculptor. Whereas Michelangelo exemplifies the Renaissance ideals of perfect proportion and calm, Bernini is all about the drama. My personal favorite work by him is the Abduction of Proserpina. He sculpted it between 1621-22, when he was only 23 years old! This work shows the story of Hades and Proserpina (Persephone). The god of the underworld found her to be so beautiful, that he wanted to marry her. But, Proserpina did not want to go. But, Hades was stronger and was able to abduct her to his realm. This work is an incredible Baroque masterpiece.
The most remarkable part of this piece is the way that Hades' fingers press into Proserpina's thigh. As a viewer, I almost forget that this is actually just a piece of marble! The raw emotion of this piece also amazes me: Hades' determination and Proserpina's terror. There is a strong, diagonal line that moves through the work. This invades the viewer's personal space and makes them a part of the story. Bernini hits every note on creating a Baroque masterpiece.
As an amateur art historian, there are many pieces of art that I love. However, these five works have all impacted my life in one way or another. They all invoke an emotional response and leave me in awe at what humanity is capable of.
What are your favorite works? Let me know!