Lapis lazuli found on a Medieval woman’s teeth smashes the preconception that illuminated manuscripts were solely the works of monks. Nuns may have been much more involved than is commonly believed, bringing women artists to the fore from much earlier on.
A recently published artnet article talks of lapis lazuli and its residue on teeth being due to inhaling during pigment grinding or licking a paint brush during manuscript illumination. Such exciting art decoding in this great read.
For me it also reopens the subject of materiality in art, a theme I spent much time researching in the context of my Oxford Art History Studies last year. For those of you interested in going a bit deeper, I am sharing excerpts here.
Some forms of early medieval art gave much emphasis on corporeality – quite literally in the case of reliquaries where saintly body parts were enshrined in bejewelled cases of gold and silver. Yet when looking at divine figures in Byzantine icons such as the early Christ Pantocrators, what un-mistakingly signals the divine is less their corporeal representation than the striking materiality – the preciousness of materials used – covering Christ’s body with a mantle of gold and precious ultramarine mosaics.
So let’s explore how materiality diminished in devotional painting in Renaissance Italy, how it was replaced by more earthly matters (in the human rather than geological sense) on the picture plane and how this paralleled a defining moment for the Artist.
According to Buettner, such a dense mineral association with God can be traced to the Physiologus, a 2nd century Christian text which establishes a link or even an “equivalence between God and mineral”.
Biblical mentions of gold in Genesis (2:11-12) – where of the four rivers of Eden, “The River Pishon encompasses the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold / And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone” – provides “foundational proof that the mineral kingdom had been brought into being by God himself” and subsequently underpins the abundant use of gold in Byzantine and Christian art to depict backgrounds of divine light and the power of God’s Hand.
Since the biblical mention of “onyx stone” lacks gemological precision, it would have been convenient if the now disappeared River Pishon (today identified as the dried riverbed under Wadi al-Batin spanning Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) also coincided with sources of lapis lazuli from which ultramarine pigments can be ground. Yet this has been conclusively ruled out by Carol Hill : ultramarine, as its name suggests, means “beyond the sea” and lapis lazuli originates further east in Afghanistan.
Yet Michel Pastoureau reveals another blue stone frequently quoted in the Bible but often confused with lapis lazuli in Antiquity: sapphire. Usually associated with divine illumination and the celestial virtues saints spiritually aspired to during their terrestrial lives, sapphire is unfortunately impossible to use for painterly purposes whereas lapis lazuli can be mined and ground – albeit with difficulty – into the most expensive pigment on the palette: ultramarine, a rarity of feeble covering power. Consequently, ultramarine became reserved for small surfaces of the highest symbolic value – the Virgin’s robe – while gold was limited to Christ’s Byzantine halo, later extended to Mary, the angels and saints.
Blue and gold signified the divine yet as colors rooted in minerals also made by God, they were as God himself, imbued with his divine powers. For Panofsky, these paintings, and subsequent mineral-laden Renaissance paintings, were “both a real object – and a precious object at that – and a reconstruction rather than a mere representation of the visible world”.
It is therefore paradoxical such density and materiality applied on the surface of artworks were used to depict divine figures which are by definition beyond the realm of corporeality. Hence Buettner’s argument that “mineral materiality was as loquacious as it was performative”. “Performative” being the key word here. Much was hoped from prayers in front of awe-inspiring miracle-working icons: their precious materiality and gold emanation of light being equated to possible divine power and intercession.
Yet as performative as artefacts of ecclesiastical regalia such as altarpieces, embroideries, reliquaries and tabernacles could be, another appeal lied in their transmutative quality: the intrinsic value of their materials could become full re-usable currency, should cash need be levied for war. And here the materiality of art became a different matter in the hand of its patrons.
Even though patrons asserted their power and emancipated individuality through benefaction and magnificence of religious art, ostentatious material luxury too often seemed contentious within a religious context vacillating between relishing “materially splendid works” and frowning upon public display of riches.
As Alison Wright argues based on Baxandall, an apparent solution was to “transfer investment from material preciousness to skill in the pictorial manipulation of cheaper material”. Yet if physical dematerialization had already started as Baxandall noticed in contract terms showing “a lessening preoccupation with precious pigments”, it did not need to result in a visually poor painted surface, quite the opposite. Carlo Crivelli is a case in point.
In the Demidoff Altarpiece (1476), Crivelli pursued the paradoxical dematerialization of delivering more with less, replacing paint with pastiglia (gesso relief) to achieve sculptural relief of jewels and saint attributes. Such nascent three-dimensionality on canvas resulted in physical projection of minimal gold and colored material, all technically inflated by the artist’s skills in delivering textural effects while pushing the painted surface out towards the viewer.
Visually the illusion does convey an opportunity for “experiential piety” as the art is no longer reduced exclusively to the painted surface but rather emits a multi-sensorial engagement towards the viewer.
Could it be that Crivelli further illustrated this when he made the ultramarine blue of the Virgin’s robe seem to partially bleed onto Christ’s diaphanous tunique?
I could not find any scholar interpretation on such dematerialization of color yet I would argue it visually supports Crivelli’ s making a show of its technical dexterity: he depicts in one complex drapery effect Christ’s life line as portal between divine and secular, filially linked to the Virgin yet anticipating his life draining to death, metaphorically shown as the divine blue pigments drain.
Looking at the later profusion of textural effects displayed in Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486), his virtuosity ranges from richly painted coffered ceilings, carved architectural mouldings, silky embroidered fabrics and rugs which all point to the elevated social status of the Virgin.
Yet notice the Virgin’s robe NOT emphatically laden with ultramarine blue, and therefore less costly to execute: it nevertheless appears luxurious due to exquisite gold pinpoints on her vermillion skirt, a be-jewelled bodice with a gold floral pattern engraved by Crivelli’s brush and a lavish rendering of velours sleeves reminding of the embroideries painters always tried to emulate.
The artist’s skills (not his materials) providing the illusion of riches.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you, and please share your thoughts with me in the Comment Box.
Didn’t you find the artnet article on lapis lazuli fascinating?
© 2019 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.
Full quoted references are available upon request.