Tag Archives: Google Art Project

There Be Dragons in Gallery 203

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Saint George Killing the Dragon, Bernat Martorell, 1434

Saint George Killing the Dragon, Bernat Martorell, 1434

Directly off one of the main thoroughfares at the Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 203, is the epic painting of Saint George Killing the Dragon (1434-35), by Bernat Martorell, 1400-1452.  The size of the painting equates to the amount of influence this story carries in many cultures; the popular myth of Saint George, the idealization of the knight who kills the dragon and saves the maiden;  a well-known saint in medieval Europe, where the knightly code of conduct emphasized heroism and courtly manners towards women.   He became the patron saint of Catalonia, Portugal, Russia and England.  April 23rd is still celebrated regionally as Saint George’s Day in some areas of Europe.

Martorell’s painting was the central panel of an altarpiece executed for a chapel dedicated to Saint George, patron Saint of Catalonia, located in northeastern Spain.  The image is filled with symbolism and detail bringing the story to life.  Bones litter the foreground, lizards crawl around the crevice where the dragon lives, and crowds line the castle’s battlements in the background.  The painting shows St. George at the climax of his most famous adventure, dressed in armor, mounted on a white horse, while the princess, dressed in a pink gown and fur trimmed cloak, stands witness to his defense.

And the crowd roared

The Princess is Saved

Dragon DetailSaint George in the Moment

The son of a butcher and a native of Sant Celoni, a small town in Catalonia, Martorell is one of the most significant artists of his generation.  In addition to paintings, his workshop produced manuscript illuminations, stained glass windows, flags, and coats of arms.  Certain features of Saint George Killing the Dragon, such as the style of architecture in the fortress, the enclosed gardens, the fruits and cypress trees, suggest a Catalan locale, even though the story was said to take place in the Middle East.

The painting itself is part of a retable, the side panels reside at the Louvre in Paris.  These additional parts complete the episode depicting the saint’s martyrdom, however they remain relatively unknown in the cultural domain.  The scenes consist of the Judgement, the Flagellation, Saint George dragged through the city, and the Beheading.

Saint George Retable Louvre

Saint George Retable, Louvre

The geographical scattering of the pieces of the retable led to different studies, nonetheless, the mystery of the painter was only recently solved with documented evidence to support the provenance.  The enigma was conclusively pinpointed during the Spanish Civil War, when the contract for the retable of Saint Pedre de Pubol, a work by Bernat Martorell, was found in the archives.  This work closely resembles the style of the Chicago Saint George.

Commissioned for the chapel of Saint George, Palau de la Generalitat, Barcelona, Saint George Killing the Dragon was placed on loan at the Art Institute in 1921, and given to the museum in 1933.

Enjoy a the viewing of this masterpiece at TripAdvisor’s Best Museum in the World, and to the left of this painting is a small room with medieval reliquaries; the tooth of Saint John, a carved ivory portable altar, and pieces from the Treasure of Gelph.  The Chicago Art Institute is an ever changing museum where each visit offers new and unique art for the viewer.

Looking forward to sharing my next post on the Augsberg Cabinet with a fantastic video, then Albrecht Durer!




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Drunken tourist herds at the Sistine Chapel


Vatican museum

Vatican Museum

The New Year will mark the anniversary of Michelangelo’s completion of the ceiling at the Sistine Chapel.  The Vatican worries about the future of these frescoes, and may restrict visitor numbers, citing safety and preservation of the art their paramount motivators.

Time will tell how the custodians of these great works will employ technology to keep the Sistine Chapel works viable to future generations.  It is a shame that art such as this will be viewed by fewer individuals, ones that will be vacuumed and cooled according to the Vatican, but preservation of these masterpieces is the critical factor in such decisions.  A bit of online debate has gone to greater lengths at The Guardian regarding how the Vatican has treated the frescoes over their 500 year history, referring to visitors as “drunken tourist herds.”


Drunken tourist herds?

According to the director of Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, 20,000 visitors a day has produced “dust, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide, the great enemies of these paintings.”

The Chapel features 300 figures painted across 2,500 square meters by artists including Botticelli, Perugino and Pinturicchio as well as Michelangelo.  I cannot imagine viewing these beautiful works while being jostled by crowds pushing through the room.  The sheer number of visitors is criticized for giving the space the feel of a busy train station.

One recent step forward is the virtual experience of the Sistine Chapel; a great view of the ceiling and surrounding walls.  Perhaps collaboration with the Google Art Project will propel this virtual site into the mega-pixel display that these frescoes deserve.

floor of the Sistine Chapel

Built in the 1470s under Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it takes its name, the Sistine Chapel is more than just Vatican City’s most popular tourist destination.  Beginning in 1492, the building has hosted numerous papal conclaves, during which cardinals gather to vote on a new pope.  A special chimney in the roof of the chapel broadcasts the conclave’s results, white smoke indicating the election of a pope and black smoke signaling that no candidate has received the two-thirds majority.

Michelangelo wanted nothing to do with the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling; he was busy working on Pope Julius II’s marble tomb in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli church.  When Julius asked the artist to switch gears and decorate the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, Michelangelo balked; he considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter; he had no experience with frescoes.  He reluctantly accepted the commission as funding for the tomb dwindled, money being a great motivator, signing the contract on May 10, 1508.  The artist spent the next four years of his life perched on scaffolding with a brush in his hand.  He did return to Julius’ monumental tomb over the next decade.

Tomb of Pope Julius II

Tomb of Pope Julius II

The artist and his assistants used wooden scaffolds that allowed them to stand upright and reach above their heads.  Michelangelo designed the unique systems of platforms, and attached to the walls with brackets.  The legend that Michelangelo painted on his back may come from the 1965 movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy”, with Charlton Heston portraying the genius painting on his back.

Evidence of the scaffolding on the Lunette

Evidence of the scaffolding on the Lunette

Michelangelo described the physical strain of the Sistine Chapel project to his friend Giovanni da Pistoria, in a poem from 1509.  “I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,” and “I am not in the right place-I am not a painter.”

Michelangelos depiction of work accompanying poem

Michelangelo’s depiction of work accompanying poem

The frescoed ceiling has held up remarkably well in the five centuries since completion.  Part of the sky in the panel depicting Noah’s escape from the great biblical flood is missing.  The section of plaster fell to the floor and shattered following an explosion at a nearby gunpowder depot in 1797.

Work in the 1980s and 1990s restored selected artworks in the Sistine Chapel, including the ceiling and Michelangelo’s famed fresco known as “The Last Judgement.”  The restoration also undid the work of Pope Pius IV, who ordered the placement of fig leaves and loincloths on Michelangelo’s nudes during the 1560s.

Creation of Adam

Creation of Adam

Rabbit-hole of research:

The New York Times archive contains an interesting article regarding the Spark of Life in Michelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam.”  Was the artist allegorically portraying the moment when God bestowed Adam with intelligence?  Read more to draw your own conclusions.

What are your views on the preservation of art?  Is the virtual museum experience a necessary step for museums?  I look forward to chatting with you.



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