Cretan Craftsman

The painter known to us as El Greco (‘the Greek’), was actually named Domenikos Theotokopoulis, which is clearly why a nickname was in order. He was raised on the island of Crete, where he trained to become an icon painter. But the tiny monastery was too small for his ambitions and he traveled, first to Italy, and then to Spain where he created most of his masterpieces. His period of greatest creativity was 1570 to 1590. In 1577 he moved to Toledo, Spain, and in that same year received the commission for ‘The Disrobing of Christ’, a detail of which is shown here. The woman in blue is the Virgin Mary, and the woman with the red hair Mary Magdalene, the woman in white is Mary Clopas. All together they are often called ‘The Three Marys’. Along with the color activity between Christ’s red robe, Mary’s blue, and Mary Magdalene’s yellow, the real subject of this detail is the foreshortening of the face of the Magdalene, the complex turn of her head and the details of her hair. She’s foregrounded and spotlit partly because she displays the remarkable skill of the artist (see post below). El Greco stayed in Toledo for the rest of his life, dying there in 1614 at the age of 72.

The Greek Was Here

This is a picture of the bottom right corner of the painting by Domenikos Theotokoupolis–El Greco–called ‘The Disrobing of Christ‘ (1577), which is in the cathedral of Toledo, Spain. He signed his paintings with ‘cartoline‘, little trompe l’oeil pieces of paper upon which the name of the artist is scrawled, as if pasted on the painting after having been crumpled up in the artist’s pocket for weeks. He wasn’t the first artist to do this. In fact, the Bellini family of painters in Venice had done the same thing in the late 15th century.

Mirror of Luxury

I took this photograph one morning outside the La Palma Hotel in Stresa, Italy, which is on the shores of Lago Maggiore. It was a bit off season, the deck umbrellas all set down and reflecting in the infinity pool. In the background, at the top of the image, you can see a sliver of the gardens of the Isola Bella, where sits enthroned the late-Renaissance palace of the Borrommeo family, one of the richest and most powerful noble families of Italy for the past half-century. In the next couple of postings, see some artifacts from the palace’s collection.

Cabinet of Curiosities

In the palace of the Borrommeo family on the Isola Bella at Stresa are found a number of striking objects, forming a very eclectic collection. Some vitrines are filled with puppets that once entertained the wealthy members of one of Italy’s most influential noble families. Even still and mute in their cases, they seem to act out their plays.

Medieval Ride

It may not be very evident what this object is, but it’s an medieval ivory saddle. Today, it’s part of the odd collection of treasures in the Palace of the Borrommeos on Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore at Stresa, in northern Italy. Elegant designs of courtly life were inscribed into its sides.

A Series from Sarnath, India

The following posts are from an afternoon I spent at the sacred Buddhist site of Sarnath, in India. The place is known as the spot where the Buddha first preached his philosophy after his enlightenment, called Deer Park in Sarnath. For over 2000 years it has been a focus of Buddhist pilgrimage. The story of Sarnath begins with the convert King Ashoka, who, after seeing the results of war, accepted the principle of Buddhist non-violence and philosophy. When Asoka, who ruled much of what is now India 268-232 BCE, accepted Buddhism (the Buddha lived some time around 500 BCE)  he actively promoted the religion, building stupas throughout his realm and erecting a series of ‘Edict Pillars’ in many sacred places. Here, too, at Sarnath an Edict Pillar was set up, and this picture is of a broken section of it, still showing, nevertheless, the script of Ashoka’s royal pronouncement (see posts below from Sarnath).

Buddha’s First Sermon

This remarkable statue of a seated Buddha dates from the Gupta period of Indian history, about 500 CE, a time when the great stupa at Sarnath was constructed over an earlier stupa from around the third century BCE. The Buddha’s face and expression artfully and powerfully conveys the peace he has found in his enlightenment (see post below)

The Wheel of the Law

Here’s another detail of the famous Sarnath Buddha statue from the previous post. The Buddha is moving his hands in a way to suggest the spinning of a wheel. This gesture is called the Dharma Chakra Mudra, or turning of the wheel of the law (the laws or rules of Buddhism). The start of the turning of this wheel was the Buddha’s first sermon at Deer Park here at Sarnath. The lower part of the statue shows two deer flanking a wheel to symbolize this.

Altar State

Pilgrims to the holy Buddhist site of Sarnath have created an impromptu altar beside the great stupa which marks the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon in Deer Park.

Gupta Art at Sarnath

The reliefs of abstract designs on the side of the Great Stupa at Sarnath date from around 500 CE, the Gupta-era in north India. But there had been an earlier stupa on the site, founded by the Emperor Ashoka around 235 BCE.

Gold for God

In Buddhism, worshiping at a site sometimes involves bringing gold leaf and adhering it to a sacred statue or to sacred stones. Here, at Sarnath, devotees have left a patchwork of gold foil on a temple wall.

Pilgrims to Sarnath

A line of pilgrims make the rounds at the Buddhist site at Sarnath, India.

Sarnath Stupas 1

These little domical shrines are mini-stupas (see below), donated by pilgrims to the site at Sarnath. In the background, Buddhist nuns are making their pilgrimage.

Sarnath Stupas

Each of these rectangular brick bases at Sarnath once held a stupa, or small reliquary chamber symbolic of Buddhist devotion. These stupas were all votive stupas donated as gifts to the Buddha.

Offerings

Hindu priests receive offerings on the ghats of the Ganges at Varanasi, India.