All Saint’s Church, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire


This fascinating little church makes for an ideal excursion for anyone wanting to escape the Oxford bubble, or simply just explore the beautiful countryside around Oxford.  The tiny hamlet of Shorthampton is easily accessible by road, but perhaps the most pleasing approach is by foot, walking through the beautiful hills and shallow valleys of the surrounding landscape.  We took a train out from Oxford to Charlbury, a pretty little village not far from the city.  From there, you walk out to Shorthampton along footpaths through the fields, with some beautiful views across the Cotswolds and back down into the village.  The fields themselves tell you something of the place’s history, with medieval ridge and furrow visible around Shorthampton.  Shorthampton itself seems now to be little more than a farm and a small collection of houses, with the church’s bellcote prominently rising above the surrounding trees.

It is clear from the outside that the church has been built in several phases.  There seems to have been a chapel on the site since at least the twelfth century, with the first surviving reference to it found in a document dating from 1296.  However the majority of what we now see dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  The fourteenth century saw the addition of a new chancel, and the fifteenth century brought about radical changes to the structure.  A new nave altar was added, necessitating the expansion of the church, which was achieved by pushing the south wall of the nave out by about six feet, to the position it is now in.  The roof was, obviously, also altered in this period, with the current arch-braced roof being added.  It’s corbel stone supports are carved with human heads (not so easy to spot in their white-washes state), three representing lay people, and one representing a monk, suggestive of the church’s link with nearby Eynsham Abbey, which owned the land at that time.  There is also a stone representing a priest – the set perhaps together representing the figures of the people who would have occupied the church.  The chancel stuck on the front of the church slightly oddly, dates from 1820-24, as do the porch and bellcote, which were all rebuilt in this period.  The church is enclosed by a drystone wall, in a very pleasing churchyard with commanding views across the Cotswolds.  Its quaint and rural character is only reinforced by the adjoining orchard.

The overall impression from the outside if of an interesting but not particularly beautiful church; endearing rather than especially picturesque.  Remnants of the earlier building phases can be seen throughout, such as the rounded windows in the north wall.  However the interior is both beautiful and intriguing.  The most striking features are the numerous wall-paintings, some of them unfortunately in a very sorry state, but fascinating nonetheless. P1120364 The squint is painted with the Legend of the Clay birds, a story in the young Christ molds himself some birds out of clay, and then turns them into real birds which fly off.  This is an apocryphal story, derived not from the Bible but from various collections of stories about Christ’s childhood, found in the Gospel of St Thomas.  Having studied these stories for my undergraduate thesis, I was delighted to find an image on this scale so close to home.  They are evidence of people’s strong desire to know more about Jesus as a person.  The Bible has very little to say about Jesus’ upbringing, so people turned to these unofficial stories to fill in the blanks, as typical of the general turn in this period to focusing on Christ’s humanity.

The paintings above the nave altar also reveal an interest in Jesus’ human side.  There are two phases of painting here, the later depicting a fairly standard Christ in Majesty, but the earlier seemingly depicting the Agony in the Garden, complete with great red tears of blood, an image which again draws attention to Christ’s humanity, presenting a particularly empathetic image of him.  The Christocentric paintings are completed by the Doom painting over the chancel, showing us Christ’s promise of salvation at the day of Judgement.

The other paintings largely depict various saints, some of whom have local significance.  The local saint Frideswide of Oxford, whose relics are housed in Oxford Cathedral (within Christ Church), and who caused a spring to appear at nearby Binsey (see a forthcoming blog post), is depicted on the north wall.  This same wall features an image of an archbishop, who is likely to be St Edmund of Abingdon. He became one of the first academics at the fledgling University of Oxford, and was later, reluctantly, elected Archbishop of Canterbury.


St Sitha, or Zita, a thirteenth century saint known for her piety whilst in domestic service, is featured in the reveal of the south window.  To the east of the door is an image of St Loy, or Eligius, a goldsmith turned bishop.  He was patron saint of all metalworkers, including blacksmiths, hence his being depicting shoeing a horse.  The scheme of the west wall seems to have been either St George and the Dragon, or the Archangel Michael fighting the Beast of Revelation, but its current damaged state makes it hard to be certain of the subject.  The saints depicted are for the most part of a quietly pragmatic and humble piety, perhaps chosen as appropriate role models for the congregation of this rural church.

But the wall-paintings are far from the only interesting elements inside the church.  The space itself is dominated by the box pews, added along with the pulpit and reading desk in the 1820-24 works, but possibly replacing similar pews from the late-sixteenth or early-seventeenth century, as suggested by the cuttings in the stonework of P1120375the mould of the chancel arch and the piscine.  There was also at some point a west gallery, probably surviving until at least 1810, and which made use of the original twelfth century door, re-positioning it to give access to the gallery.  Another major original survival is the tub font, which sits opposite the entrance like a cut-off Doric column, doubtless offering a rather intimidating sight to the small babies brought to it for baptism.P1120348

The fifteenth-century elements, mainly the paintings, have not survived so well.  The theological changes brought about by the Reformation lead to the white-washing of the paintings, which were only rediscovered in 1903.  However, instruction were to add texts in their place, hence that which we see over the door, the Creed.  The preference for text continued, as seen in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century cartouche on the west wall, which contains King Solomon’s prayer at the consecration of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The nineteenth century chancel, far from clashing with the earlier building as such additions often do, allies itself with the church’s quiet simplicity.  Its best feature is the window over the altar, offering a wonderfully peaceful view out across the fields and countryside.






It is an altogether charming church, with an overwhelmingly peaceful atmosphere.  There is a real sense of continuity, with the people farming and praying amongst this beautiful landscape for hundreds of years, and this gives the whole place a very reassuring feel.  I always say (because I always feel!) the churches I write about are well worth visiting, but I would particularly recommend Shorthampton if you’re in search of a quiet moment, to put anxious thoughts to rest, or just need a break from the buzz of the city.  I suppose that, of all the churches I have visited, this is the church in which I felt I could come closest to their original purpose.  You can certainly still feel why, all those centuries ago, this spot was chosen for the location of a simple, one-man chapel, and how it has grown and developed with the passing lives of the people who lived, worked, and died, in the surrounding countryside.

The Wilton Diptych, c.1395-9





One of the great treasures of London’s National Gallery is the Wilton Diptych.  The piece, made up of two oak panels hinged together, bearing images on both sides, represents the presentation of Richard II of England to the Virgin and Child.  This form, the diptych, was designed to be close, so as to allow portability.  The diptych would thus be carried with Richard on his travels, providing a movable focus for his prayer and personal devotion.  Though it is debatable whether the work was created by English or French artists, it stands as a stunning example of the International Gothic style, characterised by the depiction of the figures and drapery, as well as the treatment of the backgrounds.

The diptych is an undeniably beautiful piece, and couldn’t fail to catch the eye, but it becomes even more intriguing when viewed in the context of the life of its patron.  Shakespeare’s presentation of Richard II has unsurprisingly become the one that has shaped modern characterisations of him.  Though it is not without its inaccuracies, it does a good job of capturing Richard’s firm belief in the royal prerogative, and the literally divine right of kings.  The Wilton Diptych ties into this idea, depicting Richard being presented to the Virgin and Child by two earlier English kings who were recognised as saints, alongside his own patron saint, John the Baptist.  The left most saint is Edmund the Martyr, king of East Anglia from about 855 until his martyrdom in 869.  Having been defeated by the Viking, Edmund refused to renounce his Christian faith, for which he was executed by the still-pagan Vikings.  His story bears some unsettling similarities to Richard’s own eventual fate.  The middle saint is Edward the Confessor, king of the English from 1042 until his death in 1066.  His epithet summarises the view of him as pious and unworldly.  Opinion is divided as to whether he did much to earn this reputation during his lifetime, but a cult did develop around him after his death, resulting in his canonisation (probably for political reasons) by Pope Alexander III in 1161.  As king-saint, Edward the Confessor served as a model to which Richard II aspired.  Richard made his own coat of arms by impaling the arms of the kings of England with the mythical arms of Edward the Confessor (heraldry as such did not exist in that period).  These arms can be seen on the back of the Wilton Diptych.  So the diptych itself offers strong evidence for Richard’s personal identification with Edward the Confessor.

The diptych also points towards Richard’s general conviction in his divine right to rule.  Alongside his coat of arms, the back of the diptych also depicts a white hart wearing a golden collar and chain, Richard’s personal badge.  In its position on the back, it serves to denote Richard’s ownership of the diptych.  On the inside however it serves a more pointed purpose.  Richard wears a literal badge depicting it, as do all the assembled angels.  This is a very simple way of showing that Richard enjoys divine favour.  He is being presented to them by a selection of worthy and appropriate saints, but the Virgin, Child, and the Holy Court already know about and favour him.


The reversed Diptych – what one would see when the Diptych was closed

While it is by no means uncommon for a patron to be presented to the Virgin and Child in this way, such blatant side-taking is perhaps a little more unusual.  But this was a particularly key period in Richard’s reign.  Created at some point in the last four years of his reign, the Wilton Diptych dates from a period when Richard became increasingly autocratic, acting on personal dislikes, and seemingly taking revenge on aristocrats who had rebelled against him in earlier years of instability. He sought and increased control over the aristocracy, and cultivated a culture of close personal rule, which has by some been called a tyranny.  Breakdowns in relations with the French after the rise of Louis, Duke or Orleans, left the way open for the return of the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, who brought a considerable force to bear against Richard, supposedly with the sole aim of regaining his patrimony, but clearly becoming a rallying point for those dissatisfied with Richard’s autocratic rule.  He eventually gained a surrender from Richard, who was later imprisoned, where he died in dubious circumstances, the most popular theory being that he starved to death in early 1400.

It is hard not to view the Wilton Diptych in the context of what we know about the rest of Richard’s life.  From one perspective, it reinforces the idea of a pious king wrongfully deposed.  However it can equally be related to a king convinced of his own divine right to rule and desirous of a majestic and lavish court dedicated to serving him.  It was in Richard’s reign that the word ‘majesty’ began to be used as a royal epithet, with ‘highness’ being replaced with ‘royal majesty’ or ‘high majesty’ (terms which are still used when referring to the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II).  The diptych is equally lavish, making wide use of the most expensive pigments, gold and lapis lazuli, to create a vivid image.  But the expense of these materials is matched by the skill of the artists to create an even more impressive piece.  The figures are elongated in their proportions, suiting the latest continental trends, and carefully detailed naturalistic elements such as the flowers are used to create an appealing image.  The floral elements five the impression of the heavenly setting in which the Virgin and Child stand, as well as recalling the aesthetic of the most popular and impressive art form of the time, the tapestry.

The diptych gives some insight into the thoughts of a man increasingly obsessed with his own power, and yet perhaps feeling the need to reassure himself of its divine origin.  As he knelt before his diptych on his increasingly desperate travels, it must have served as some comfort to see the most Holy Virgin and Child literally welcoming him with open arms, and showing that, whatever his aristocrats might think, they most certainly were on side his.  Even it is was only in an image of his own making.

The National Gallery’s entry on the painting can be found here.


All images sourced from Wikicommons.

Finding Your Way In: Tips for approaching an artwork you’ve never seen before

One of the things people assume about you when they learn that you’re an art historian (and one of the things that we jokingly say about ourselves!) is that we make brilliant dinner party conversation.  People will throw out their favourite artists (or simply the last one they heard of), and assume that we’re not only familiar with their entire output, but have an insightful and fully-formed opinion on them.  But one of the exciting things about art history, whether you choose to officially study it, or simply indulge a passion for it, is discovering new works of art, artists, and even entire movements you’ve never before encountered.  But this can be a slightly intimidating experience.  It can be difficult to figure your way into a work that feels unfamiliar.  There are however a few things that you can look out for to help you find your way into a new work of art which I’ll be exploring in this new series.  These suggestions are in no way proscriptive, it’s important that you embrace your own response to the work, but if you’re ever stuck when looking at a new work, these tips might be worth bearing in mind.


The artist’s choice of medium can make a huge difference to the overall effect of the artwork.  Often museum labels will help you with this, but it satisfying to be able to identify the materials yourself.  Some are really easy to identify, with oil or watercolours perhaps, but this can sometimes be difficult; often the material of sculpture can be hard to pinpoint.  But with a little practice you start to gain a familiarity with the materials, and build up a knowledge of what they look like and how they’re used.

Once you have an idea of what the material is, it’s worth thinking about the qualities and constraints of that material.  The development of oil painting allowed artists in the Northern Renaissance to create amazingly realistic images, using are fully layered pigments and glazes to bring a vitality to their works unmatched by the frescoes of their Southern cousins.  It is thought that these new paints were created in part in response to the damp climate of the North, which made the plaster-based techniques of Italian artists implausible. Centuries later, the vivid colours of the Impressionists were made possible by the development of new, chemical pigments. The bright yellows and blues seen in so many of their works was made possible by these new pigments.  Their en plain air techniques were also made possible by the invention of tubes of paint, making the materials far more portable.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pont Neuf, 1872

Sculpture is perhaps even more dependent on its materials.  The physical qualities are of key importance, having a fundamental effect on what one would be able to sculpt.  The poor tensile strength of marble is the reason why so many sculptures are supported by ugly props, with bars of the material holding up their arms or legs.  This is why so many Greek gods are leaning against a conveniently positioned tree trunk.  The opposite quality enables the fantastical creations of the sixteenth century, such as Giambologna’s Mercury ( which positively flaunts the tensile strength of bronze with its outstretched limbs.

Giambologna Mercury

Giambologna, Mercury, 1580

The sculpture’s material isn’t just of interest form the point of view of its physical qualities.  Many materials also take on a symbolic quality, or accrue connotations that can impact on the meaning of the finished work.  In his seminal work The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, Michael Baxandall explored the way in which cultural associations about limewood came to be attached to the sculptures that were carved from it.  The special, pseudo-magical qualities that folklore attached to the tree itself impacted on how the sculptures were understood by contemporary viewers.  This book also contains Baxandall’s examination of the different woods on a cellular level, and the implications of this for the forms it was sculpted into.  Far later, modern sculptors such as Henry Moore would lead the ‘truth to materials’ movement, which sought to exploit the inherent qualities of the material to create sculpted forms that somehow reflected the nature of the material itself.

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Henry Moore, Recumbent Figure, 1938, image credit

In painting too, materials could gain their own symbolic meanings.  The most famous example of this is the use of lapis lazuli in depictions of the Virgin Mary.  The high cost of the pigment, due to it being imported all the way from Afghanistan, where it still only occurred in relatively small quantities, meant that it came to be seen as appropriate for depicting this holy figure.

The Virgin and Child

Massacio, The Virgin and Child, 1426

The price of the material is thus also worth considering.  While it is obviously often the case that materials are chosen for their expense, they can also be deliberately inexpensive.  For instance, Russian Constructivist artists such as Alexander Rodchenko chose cheap, readily available materials such as plywood, in a deliberate attempt to make their art more accessible, and to strip it of the bourgeois connotations of more conventional materials.  In other cases, the material may be chosen specifically for such connotations.  Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, created for the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, made use of Carrara marble (Michelangelo’s David was able made from Carrara marble), placing it in a tradition of nude sculptures dating back through the Renaissance to Roman art, which in turn imitated Greek art. By using this material Quinn makes a bold and positive claim for the beauty and importance of his subject, and forces his viewers to reconsider the negative effects of the bland uniformity of sculpture in the Classical tradition.  Quinn himself commented on his choice of material, ‘Marble is the material used to commemorate heroes, and these people seem to me to be a new kind of hero – people who instead of conquering the outside world have conquered their own inner world and gone on to live fulfilled lives. To me, they celebrate the diversity of humanity. Most monuments are commemorating past events; because Alison is pregnant it’s a sculpture about the future possibilities of humanity’.

Alison Lapper Pregnant

Mark Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005, image credit

So there are lots of aspects to the choice of material in artworks.  These certainly shouldn’t be treated as a tick-list of things to go through, but thinking about material in this way can offer a new perspective on a work of art, and can be an interesting approach to take when you find yourself in front of a brand new (to you, or the world) work of art.



Mark Quin quote excerpted from:

Images unless otherwise stated are sourced from wikicommons.

Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, c.1485


Over-exposure to this painting as a sixth-former had left me feeling it was at worse dull and a best that there wasn’t much left to say about it.  It seemed to be a painting you could analyse with a check-list: classical references, punning reference to family name (the wasps are a possible reference to the Vespucci family, potential patrons of the work), marital context.  It was only when I was unexpectedly re-introduced to the painting at university that I recaptured a sense of real excitement about this painting.  It now stands as one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, an amusing and subtle exploration not only of classical references and intellect, but also of human relations and social expectations.

Painted in egg-tempera and oil on a panel of poplar wood, it is thought to have probably served as part of a piece of furniture in a bedroom, possible of a newly married couple.  Though the mostly likely item of furniture used to be identified as a cassone, the chest which held the bride’s trousseau, it is now thought that the painting most likely formed part of a back-rest or spalliera.  This may have been part of a cassapanca, a sort of chest-bench, which could function as a cassone, or it could have been part of a daybed.  We mustn’t allow our modern assumptions to creep in here – bedrooms were in this period by no means entirely private spaces, and might be used as much as socialising spaces during the day.  So we can assume that thought it was placed in a bedroom, the painting’s audience was by no means limited to the occupants of the bed itself.

The story the painting is linked to originates in Homer, that of the illicit affair of Venus and Mars (in Homer they are of course Aphrodite and Ares).  Venus, married to the under-appreciated Vulcan, engages in an affair with Mars, the god of War, before they are caught, in the act, by a net crafted by Vulcan.  In Homer’s telling they are subjected to the humiliation of being laughed at by the other gods.  Though the story certainly doesn’t appeal to the modern sense of humour, and seems rather ominous for a bedroom painting, the central sort of the affair of Venus and Mars took on other connotations.  The emphasis on the ability of Love to subdue War, and thus bring about peace, has often been focused on as a positive interpretation of the story.

Botticelli seems to have been keen to cram in as many classical references as possible, on top of the subject matter itself.  The choice of the satyrs playing in the background may be a reference to a lost work described by the second-century Greek writer Lucan, which depicted the Marriage of Alexander and Roxana, while cupids played with Alexander’s armour.  This demonstrates both Botticelli’s classical knowledge, and puts him on a par with the much admired ancient artists.  Venus’ pose may reference an extant classical work of art, the Roman Hermaphrodite sculpture, which was very popular in Florence in the fifteenth century, and was widely copied.  This sculpture, male when viewed from one side, female from the other, has a similarly reclining pose, and Venus’ foot in particular seems to reference the pose of the sculpture.  However, despite these classical references, there is not a great deal of classical influence in the style of the painting itself.  The costumes are contemporary to the time of the painting, they are not archaicising, but would have been recognisably modern to the painting’s audience.  Venus’ hair is also like that in many other contemporary portraits.  So there in fact seems to be an attempt to position the ancient story in a modern context.


Bernini’s Hermaphrodite, now in the Louvre

This seems to be related to the moral or implications of the story.  As we have seen, it has been interpreted in a positive light, as representing the triumph of peace or love over War.  However, the painting may also carry more sinister connotations.  A slightly risqué interpretation is that it depicts Mars’s ‘little death’, the post-coital state, implied not only by the fact that he is asleep, but by the fact that even the blast from the conch shell cannot awaken him. This mischievous and someone tongue-in-cheek depiction can be seen as an amusing talking (or perhaps not talking) point.  It might also be interpreted however as carrying a more serious message.  It acts as a warning to the painting’s male audience.  Mars has been so seduced, emotionally and physically, by Venus, that it has led him to neglect his duties and his true warrior-like nature.  He deeply snoozes while his martial tools are used as play things by the naughty satyrs (who are themselves linked with the sinister activities of the Bacchanal).  This might be emphasised by the fact that the scene Venus_and_Mars_National_Gallery (4)is set in a dense thicket, while we see a city in the background, perhaps where the Mars figure should be, attending his duties.  The tree Mars leans against is also noticeably stunted, with its branches chopped off, with rotten stumps in their place (I would not encourage my readers to interpret this too literally), suggesting a state of ill-health, or lack of attention to good care.  The painting thus both acts as a warning to its males viewers, and as an expression of male anxiety in the face of female sexuality and power.  Far from a calming and benevolent bringer of peace, this Venus is depicted as, be it through evil design or not, depriving Mars of his ‘manly’ power and sense of responsibility.

This interpretation of the painting is supported by the fact that that other famous Renaissance figure, Machiavelli, was complaining of Florence’s lack of martial prowess in just such terms.  He saw it as a deep flaw the Florence was heavily reliant on mercenaries for its self-defence, and complained that Florentine men were no longer capable soldiers.  This he blamed in part on their being too interested in sex, and too easily drawn away, by women, from martial concerns.  He campaigned for and eventually succeeded in setting up a Florentine militia in an attempt to solve this problem (whether he succeeded in drawing men’s attention away from women is both uncertain, and quite certain).

Artworks in the Italian Renaissance home often served as conversation pieces 0 they were there to be talked about, not just to be looked at.  So although we may be drawn to one particularly interpretation, it is likely that the painting was valued in part for tis potential for debate and discussion, and its multiple possible interpretations.  We must also remember that it was not necessarily the artist alone who had a say in the content of the painting – the patron might also suggest elements, wither on a broad scale, or down to minor details.

Venus_and_Mars_National_Gallery (2)

The technique of the painting mixes ‘new’ and ‘old’ styles and methods.  While he makes use newer techniques such as aerial perspective and foreshortening (particularly well-executed on Mars’s head), he also makes use of more old-fashioned methods.  The figures are all outlined in think black lines, a traditional Florentine technique.  This perhaps helps to give the paintings its pleasing sense of clarity.  The fine folds of Venus’ robes are wonderful, and the use of think brushstrokes is effective in achieving a sense of translucency, particularly noticeable on her lower leg, and clearly designed to highlight her idealised figure.  This is an effect particularly associated with tempera painting.  Tempera is made by mixing dry pigments with, usually, egg-yolk.  The fine wispy curls of the satrys’ fur where it meets their bald upper bodies also demonstrates this translucent quality.  Botticelli has also tipped his head to modern practice by including naturalistic images of real plants, with a variety of small plants growing in the grass on which the figures recline.


Venus_and_Mars_National_Gallery (3)

So I am glad that I was given the opportunity to take a fresh look at this painting, and reach a new appreciation of it.  It is always interesting to look back a familiar material through a new lens, in my case that of considering the gendered implications of such a painting.  I hope this post has served to both draw your attention to this fascinating painting, and to spur you to take a new look at an artwork you may have thought you were bored of, but might find much more to interest you in. As ever with artworks, the more you look, the more you find.

The National Gallery’s online entry on the work can be found here.

Is there an artwork or artist you would like me to write about next?  Let me know in the comments.  Feedback is always appreciated.

Masaccio, The Virgin and Child, 1426


Masaccio’s most famous works are undoubtedly those found in the Brancacci Chapel, in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, in Florence, and his Holy Trinity, found in the church of Santa Maria Novella, also in Florence.  Alongside The Holy Trinity, The Tribute Money, and The Expulsion, have become poster-works for the Italian Renaissance, endlessly discussed (or at least cited), and burned into the memory of anyone who has studied European art history.  But for those who can’t make it all the way to Florence, London too holds Masaccio-based delights, in the form of the subject of today’s post, Masaccio’s The Virgin and Child, of 1426.

The large painting (it measures an impressive 135 x 74 cm), would originally have functioned as the central part of an altarpiece.  Commissioned for the Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine, in Pisa, by the Pisan notary Ser Giuliano degli Scarsi, the painting explores the desire to make the Mother and Child both supernatural, and real, human.  This leads to a mix of elements that may seem something at odds with one another to the modern viewer, but which express this central Christian belief in the humanity of the Virgin and Child.  The figures are on a monumental scale, far larger than the instrument playing and singing angels who surround them.  This presents a hierarchy of importance, the larger figures of the Virgin and Child present their far high status.  This scale is emphasised by the composition of the painting, with the Virgin and Child raised above us on a throne, making us look up at them reverentially, something that would have been further highlighted by its being mounted in the altarpiece.  The use of a gilded background also creates a sense of them being in a special, removed space.  There is no attempt to position the throne and its support in a realistically represented space, which may seem to create an odd contrast with the cleverly articulated and perspectivally treated architecture of the throne itself.

Masaccio._Madonna_and_Child._1426._National_Gallery,_London (3).jpg

However, Masaccio cleverly contrasts these ‘unrealistic’ elements with more naturalistic modes of representation.  One aspect of this is his interest in perspective and lighting.  The painting has a central vanishing point, with the other elements in the painting arranged according to this single- viewpoint perspective.  He has even attempted to present Christ’s halo, a supernatural aspect the nature of which was cause of some debate, in a foreshortened fashion, to accord with this sense of perspective.  He uses a strong sense of directional light to model the figures, and draw attention to the gentle folds of the Virgin’s mantle and dress.  His understanding of how to use this light is demonstrated by the fact that the shadows are consistent with the direction of the light.  The impressive foreshortening of the instruments of the front two angels gives the painting a clearly defined sense of depth, aMasaccio._Madonna_and_Child._1426._National_Gallery,_London (4).jpgnd again adds to the sense of reverence, placing the Virgin and Child just beyond our reach.  The architectural elements such as the throne both follow the perspective, and offer a sense of realistic familiarity.  The use of Corinthian and composite capitals recreates recognisable architectural details from the city of Pisa itself, giving the viewers a sense that the Virgin and Child are somehow in an Italian setting.

This sense of appealing to the everyday experiences of the painting’s viewers is also carried through to the realistic treatment of the figures themselves.  Rather than remaining distant, aloof, or sombre, Masaccio’s Virgin and Christ appear as a real mother and child.  Christ, often depicted in Virgin and Child images as blessing, or with a general sense of awareness of his own divine nature, here clutches at the grapes offered him by his mother, and sucks at his fingers (those usually used for blessing), just like a real child.  While he is rather large, his plump body and tousled hair recall the features of real babies.  This is mirrored by his mother, who carefully cups her hand around him to hold him on her lap, and gently offered his the fruit.  But, with the serene but perhaps slightly sad expression, we are shown that she understands the significance of her infant child.  We are led to contemplate the undeniable humanity of Christ, an aid to the contemplative religious meditation of the viewer.  This awareness of his human nature only serves to make his later self-sacrifice and the events of the Passi0n all the more profound and moving.  This human aspect of Christ was increasingly emphasised in religious movements of this period, in the preaching of the Mendicant friars for instance, and in the growth of confraternities, and in the numerous festivals and ceremonies commemorating the Passion across Italy.  The angels in this painting almost act as stand-ins for the viewers, they are highly individualized, with different hairstyles for example, and their facial expressions emphasise their individual responses to their religious experiences.  They are much like the human worshippers gathered before the altarpiece itself.

This level of human signification is used in tandem, and in some senses responds to, a layer of symbolic meaning.  The most obviously symbolic element in the painting is the bunch of grapes.  This symbolically recalls the wine of the Eucharist, and thus Christ’s blood, and the Passion itself.  This is particularly touching given the childlike behaviour of Masaccio._Madonna_and_Child._1426._National_Gallery,_London (2).jpgthe Infant, it brings a sense of dramatic irony to the painting, with the viewing seeing the baby foreshadowing the sacrifice of the adult.  The emphasis placed on Christ’s fingers, particularly those he playfully chews or sucks, brings to mind the blessing gesture, and with it Christ’s teaching and works prior to the Passion.  Thus the child prefigures or foreshadows the life and works of the grown Christ.  The words of Mary’s halo are from the Ave Maria, the Hail Mary hymn, thus emphasising the Virgin’s spiritual significance, and connecting her with this image of Christ.  Not only is she pictured as the mother of Christ, but the reference to this hymn highlights her intercessional role – the painting’s viewers would be reminded to pray to her to intervene on their behalf in the Court of Heaven.  This was one of the main reasons the Cult of the Virgin became so popular, because Mary was thought to have this intercessional power, potentially reducing the time the individual human soul would have to spend in Purgatory, so it is interesting to see how Masaccio has linked these two developing religious tendencies, the humanity of Christ, and the power of the Virgin.  To further highlight the Virgin’s importance, Masaccio has used the by then accepted move of using rich blue, made from lapis lazuli, for her mantle.  This stone, found in Afghanistan, was hugely expensive, due to its relative rarity and the distance it had to travel, so came to be seen as the appropriate colour for a figure of such high spiritual significance as the Virgin Mary.

So we see in this painting Masaccio bringing together many different elements and contemporary concerns and religious ideas of the society he lived in, tapping into deeply help religious beliefs as well as exploiting new artistic techniques, and tying them together to create a work which appeals to both the human, and the spiritual, in its viewers.

There is an interesting side story to this painting.  The payments for it were collected on Masaccio’s behalf by none other than Donatello.  He was also working in Pisa at the time, and was friends with Masaccio.  It is interesting to be reminded of the extent to which artists were friends, new one another, and even collaborated.  It can be tempting to be drawn into the post-Romantic idea of the artist as lone genius, and it is refreshing to be reminded that artistic networks were more fertile, active, and indeed frequent, than we might now imagine.

The National Gallery’s entry on the painting can be found here.



Photo credit: Wikicommons.

Alexander Rodchenko, Oval Hanging Construction No.12 (1920)

This seminal work by Rodchenko (1891-1956) is a key example of the Constructivist Movement.  Dating from 1920, the sculpture is a demonstration of the ways in which artists such as Rodchenko sought to make themselves ‘useful’ in a post-Revolutionary Society.  The birth of Soviet Russia brought about fundamental shifts in attitudes towards culture.  There was a strong inclination to see both art and artists as part of the bourgeois society that the 1917 Revolution had swept aside.  With works like this, Rodchenko and others took up the task of justifying their existence in the new society that they had played a part in bringing about.


Alexander Rodchenko, 1935

A major part of this was to try and establish art as relating to some sort of practical purpose.  Artists had to be useful members of society, no longer the peddlers of decorative fluff, but workers, with a role to play in perfecting the new nation.  The choice of material for this sculpture can be characterised as almost ‘anti-art’, rather than being made of exclusive and expensive traditional materials, bronze or marble say, it is made from plywood, which was cheap and readily available.  This sense of democratisation is carried through to the crafting of the object – it is deliberately simplified, and straightforward.  The process of creation has been demystified, so that any viewer might be able to understand how the sculpture has been put together.  Constructivist art was supposed to be educational, and we see this reflected in the methods of construction.  This piece of sculpture actually went on tour, but not, as one might expect, to museums or galleries, but to factories, and other centres of industrial production, where it was used as an example of different ways of construction.  To this end, the sculpture is designed so that it can be folded flat in on itself, making it highly portable, something that would have been particularly necessary given the relatively flimsy materials it is made from.

Overall the sculpture thus gives a sense of bringing an egalitarian air to art.  Moving away from both the ‘decorative’ bourgeois art of pre-Revolution, and the more obscure ideas of many early twentieth century avant-garde movements, it expresses a sense of purpose and clarity.  Though one might argue that something is lost by this desire to demystify, to simplify, the sculpture, and its creator, seem to work with the idea that knowledge should not be hidden, but instead shared freely with all: the Communist approach expressed in art.  It is new art, for a new society.

St Dubricius Church, Porlock

20160323_165541My family have been holidaying on the coast of Exmoor every year for nearly a decade now, and we still find new and fascinating things to see and places to visit.  One such site is this marvelous church, St Dubricius, in Porlock.  We frequently drive through the village or Porlock to get to its even smaller neighbour, the harbour village of Porlock Weir, but it was only on our last trip that we stopped in Porlock itself, with the express purpose of making a visit to this unusually dedicated and oddly-spired church.

Dyfrig.jpgSt Dubricius was a sixth century Celt, born in the Kingdom of Ergin, and became a highly influential scholar in the areas around Herefordshire, Brecon, and Glamorgan.  His Welsh name is Dyffrig, and it was to Wales, and the Cathedral of Llandaff, that his remains were brought on the 23rd May 1120 (he of course died some time earlier!), having lived out his last days as a hermit on the island of Bardsley, where he retired having set up a school at Henlland (Hentland) on the Wye, and a monastic college at Llanfrawthir (Llanwith Major).  It might seem odd that this church in Somerset should be dedicated to a saint who spent most of his life in Wales, but it is thought that he may have passed through Porlock on his travels, possibly even founding an earlier incarnation of the current church.  Our modern, Rome-centric view of pre-Reformation Christianity also distracts us from the fact that Christianity came to the West Country via Wales, from Ireland, so a Welsh facing, as it were, church is quite understandable, and indeed common in this region.

20160323_162452_HDRThe most striking quality of the exterior of the church is its bizarrely truncated spire.  The majority of the body of the current church dates from some time between 1180 and 1280, but the tower itself may have elements from earlier than this.  The spire itself is likely thirteenth century, and is covered with oak shales, giving it a pleasingly Scandinavian feel.  The truncation itself is thought to not be by design, but rather the result of damage inflicted by the Great Gale of 1703.  This seems to have been left, without any attempt to add a point to the spire again.  Considerable work was done to the church in the fifteenth century, which was also when the fine polychrome chapel was added (which I believe was the Harrington Chantry Chapel – see below), a slightly odd decorative addition to the otherwise sturdy and robust façade.

20160323_163619The substantial porch now contains one of a pair of tombs left by the Will of Alive Hensley, in 1527.  Carved in nearby Dunster, the tomb in the porch commemorates her and her mother, while the other to the left of the altar, commemorates the burial place of her 20160323_163352husband, who, according to the aforementioned will, died in Porlock.  These are two of the several noteworthy tombs in the church.  The south aisle contains a monument to a knight, likely of the thirteenth century, locally called the ‘Crusader’, due to his cross-footed pose.  It is locally thought to represent Sit Simon Fitz-Roges, who 20160323_162756died in 1306, and whose family held the manor of Porlock.  It has clearly suffered some alterations; the recess in which it sits is probably fourteenth century, and made for a different figure, and in order to fit the knight effigy into it at a later date, he has suffered the indignity of having his feet cut off.

20160323_162826The other tomb, which alone would make the church well worth a visit, commemorates John, 4th Lord Harrington, and his wife Elizabeth Courtenay.  This impressive alabaster memorial contains two finely carved figures, of a standard worthy of a cathedral, let alone this small country parish church.  In his will Lord Harrington left instructions for a chantry to be set up, with two associated priests.  In this pre-Reformation period this was commonplace amongst the aristocracy and those who could afford it.  The priests would say masses for the deceased founder’s soul (and any other specified in his will, deceased or still living, probably including past and present members of his family, his children, and such), in order to reduce the soul’s time spent in Purgatory.  The founder would have left money not only to pay for the building of the chapel, but also to pay the priests to perform these masses.  In some cases this may have involved promising them, say, the rent from certain properties or land, as well as simpler sums of money.  The memorial is no longer in its original position, as it would have been in the chantry itself.  Nothing was done to act on Harrington’s will until 1474, about three years after the death of his widow Elizabeth.  He himself had died in 1417, on expedition in France with Henry V.  The monument probably dates from 1474 or thereabouts. The priests were usually chosen from the nearby Cleeve Abbey (on which I will probably write a blog post), and lived in what is at least now called Chantry Cottage, which stands next to the church wall.  Though20160323_162837 the memorial has lost the polychromy and gilding which would have made it even more spectacular many beautifully carved details remain, including Lord Harrington’s garland of roses and leaves, and the ornate netting of Elizabeth’s hairpiece.  The stiff folds of her dress make little attempt to imitate a real lying figure, looking more like the deep flutes of a column, but they pleasingly fold to demonstrate the presence of her pointed feet, in line with the armour clad feet of her husband.  Both their heads lie on cushions supported by angels.  It is thought that the canopy above them, with its dense tracery patterns, is slightly later in date than the figures themselves, perhaps suggestive of even further delays in the creation of the chantry and its monument.20160323_162920

Other interesting features inside the church include the font, which dates from the fifteenth century reconstruction.  Its pattern of tracery, foliate forms and shields is pleasingly proportioned, and it is likely that the shields themselves would have once been painted to contain the arms of locally significant families.  The church also contains the remains of an early fifteenth century clock, which was apparently in use until Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.  Without face and hands, it would have struck the tenor bell in the bell tower.  The bells are also of note (no pun intended), with a ring of six, the earliest of which dates from 1617.  They are rung from a gallery, constructed in 1987, which overlooks the north aisle.


Canopy of the Harrington Memorial


One of the more recent additions to the church is the reredos, sitting behind the altar, dedicated in April, 1931. It contains numerous images, sculpted and painted, of figures and saints connected to the church including, alongside an image of the Resurrection, St Olave, the patron saint of the nearby chapel at Porlock Weir, Alan Bellendon, Bishop of Aberdeen and Chancellor of Aberdeen University, and rector at Porlock between 1642 and 1647, as well as St Petroc, St Cranoc, St Bridget, St Brendon, and of course, St Dubricius himself.  It is medievalising in style, looking more like a product of the Arts and Crafts Movement than the 1930s but makes an interesting focal point in the church.


The overall impression of the interior is of it being slightly cluttered, quite full, especially compared to the relative sternness of the exterior.  It is however a church full of interest, and it more than repays a visit.  I was unfortunately not able to see all of its marvels, as it also contains a Chapel of the High Cross, built as the Parvise Chamber in the fifteenth century, and eventually restored as a chapel in 1985, but it was sadly, on this occasion, locked.


The churchyard also boasts a yew tree, rather stunted and looking slightly worse for wear, claimed to be over 1000 years old. All in all this church lives up to the beautiful and rugged landscape which surrounds the village, and would make a worthy stopping point for anyone finding themselves in this wonderful corner of the West Country.


I am as ever indebted to the compilers of the little guide book available for sale in the church (a rather fine colour-printed affair), for information on the church and its history, the proceeds of which go towards the maintenance of the church.  Information about the church and service times can be found here, and the current rector is, I believe, Bill Lemmey.