This is a detail from a remarkable 1548 painting by Tintoretto, which was once housed in the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice. Now it’s in the Gallery of the Accademia in Venice. The whole painting shows a miracle of St Mark as the saint flies out of the heavens to protect a slave who is being attacked for worshiping relics. It’s a classic Counter-Reformation piece, reconfirming forcefully the Catholic focus on the veneration of relics. I picked out a detail of the nude body of the slave, the broken wooden clubs and loosed rope around him. One of the most difficult techniques for artists of the renaissance was foreshortening, and only the best masters could do it well. Here, Tintoretto shows his mastery not only of the nude male figure but also its foreshortening in space.
In Byzantine decoration the peacock is a common motif. In many cases, a pair of them eat grapes from a vase, often with vines growing from it. The vase shape is a kantharos, a Greek vase that was used for wine. The grapes and wine are a symbol of Christ (the wine signifying his blood), and thus the promise of salvation and the paradise that awaits the blessed. These peacocks are done in mosaic on the floor just inside the main portal of the magnificent church of San Donato on Murano in the Venetian lagoon. They date from the 12th century. All of the pavements of San Donato are done in splendid mosaics. In one scene, a fox is captured by rabbits, while in others knot designs and geometric motifs in coloured stones decorate the floor.
The famous four horses that for centuries graced the facade of the church of St Mark in Venice have now been moved just inside, replicas having taken their places out in front. They are mostly made of copper and some of the gilding still clings to them, though there are hundreds of scratches, likely made by people trying to get off what little gold there was. Indeed, it may have been Venetians themselves who did the scraping. These horses have a storied history. Where and when they were made is a mystery. Some think that they are late-Greek works, Hellenistic, made in Chios or for a Roman emperor. It’s probable they were linked to a chariot and stood at the famous Circus Maximus in Rome. At some point, either at the bidding of the emperor Septimius Severes or Constantine, they were moved to the hippodrome in Constantinople, and there they graced that legendary city for about a thousand years, until 1204 when the Venetians sacked the city and stripped Constantinople of all its finery, shipping all the loot back to Venice. The horses, too, were part of the spoils. There they overlooked the Piazza San Marco for another 800 years. Finally, they get to retire inside. If only these horses could talk.
Lorenzo Lotto (1480-56) was one of the finest Italian painters of his generation, but not so many people have heard of him because he was eclipsed by other more famous and more productive Venetian painters like Titian. But he created some marvelous works. Of his portraits this may be my favorite. It’s of a man, his identify unknown, sitting at a desk. What I’m showing here is the detail of the desk and the objects on it: rose petals, a lizard, a book, a folded piece of paper, a cap, a gold chain…. The book shows he’s learned, his clothing shows his wealth, his delicate hands his refinement and the fact he doesn’t work with them.
This is a detail of a 6th century CE mosaic from the church of San Lorenzo in Milan. The entire mosaic scene, much of it gone, depicted Christ in the Chariot of the Sun, an early and rare depiction of Christ relating him to the Greco-Roman god Apollo in his sun chariot. The city of Milan, in northern Italy, was Christianized early and was once controlled by the Byzantines, and some significant early mosaics still survive there. This figure was part of a bucolic scene at the bottom of the mosaic showing shepherds in grassy fields with their flocks. This fellow stretches out along the shore of a verdant spring stream.
At the end of a mild California winter’s day, in the last week of January 2017, I took this picture while coming home from grocery shopping. Surfers were out catching waves in the sea mist and waning light of sunset. Santa Cruz is one of most lovely places on earth. I teach here only for 10 weeks of the year, but I try to enjoy every minute of the beauty that nature offers me in that short time.
My favorite walk, possibly in the world, is along the coast at Wilder State Park in Santa Cruz, California. I live in Santa Cruz for the first three months of the new year, and always make the most of the natural beauty of the area. There are lots of stacks, like this one, and arches as well along the eroded coastline. I don’t know their names, but I call this one the Smokestack Stack because from this angle it looks like the smokestack of an old ship.
Step wells are common throughout India, many of them built by rulers near religious sites. Their basic function was to hold water, filling during the rainy monsoon months and acting as reservoirs through the rest of the year and through India’s hot summers. The Abhaneri Step Well (more properly called the Chand Baori), pictured here, looks like it was designed by Escher, with its cascade of steps and staircases leading all the way down to the bottom, so that as the reservoir dried up one could go down to the lowest levels. It was constructed about 850 CE and has around 3500 steps in total.
One of the world’s wonders is the great rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt. Built by the powerful pharaoh Rameses II around 1250 BCE, it glorified the pharaoh with a quartet of gigantic sculptures carved into the living rock of a mountain overlooking the Nile River. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is well-known for having been completely cut apart and moved to a new, higher site in 1968 when the construction of the Aswan High Dam created Lake Nasser, which would have flooded the original temple. Some other temples were also moved higher to escape the rising waters, including the pendant to this temple, one dedicated to Nefertari, Rameses’ wife. Still, many antiquities are now under the waters of Lake Nasser. I always thought it might be fun to dive down and see them.
This is a detail of one of the heads of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, found in the facade of the temple of Abu Simbel, on the shores of Lake Nasser, Egypt (see above).
This fountain is in the gardens of the Capodimonte Palace and museum in one of the world’s great cities, Naples. One doesn’t find humour in sculpture very much, but fountains sometimes have little jokes, like this one where the figure seems to cower from the rain of water drops in perpetuity.
While in Mandu, India, from the aerie of a 15th-century palace’s luxurious pavilion I could see a scene of daily life that I could have seen three-thousand or more years ago: a man directing an ox-drawn plough while his wife sowed the seeds. It seemed to me as if I was looking through a window into an ancient past. Traveling, in fact, is often a sort of time travel. You can see people living lives from the Neolithic period, or Bronze Age; see timeless works of architecture of the ruins of ancient cities, or eternal landscapes unchanged for millennia.
I’d like to introduce you to Nandi the Bull. In Hinduism the gods have vehicles or “vahanas“, upon which they ride about the universe. The god Shiva’s vahana is Nandi the Bull. In front, or sometimes inside, temples to Shiva, there is often a statue of Nandi, who sits and looks towards the main shrine of the temple, which enclosed the symbolic focus of Shaivite worship, the lingam. This is a huge Nandi sculpture at the Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal, India, which dates from the 9th century CE. Worshipers to the temple visit Nandi first, and make offerings to him: marigold garlands, saffron, ghee (clarified butter, for lamps), or even just a cash donation. This magnificent statue, over life size and in a smooth black stone, was particularly well decorated.
In India millions of children work, even at very young ages. In an era when North American children rarely seem to do ‘chores’ to earn allowance or jobs from a young age, it’s sometimes startling to see children involved in farm or textile labour. In many countries children are significant parts of the workforce. It was very common to see kids helping out in agricultural contexts in India. In Indian farming families everyone has to do something. This little girl was with two younger siblings bringing light loads of millet to the town and asked for a picture.
During festivals in India–and there are many of them–people, even those of very limited means, will draw colourful mandalas in front of their homes. At night, they sometimes put candles on them, as here at this house in Mandu. The porch upon which this radiant design was realized was a mud paving made by mixing earth with cow dung. One of the amazing things about India is how people transcend poverty and create beauty in the most unlikely of circumstances.