What a title for a post - can there be anything less noticed in the world's most-ogled city? In the middle of September I celebrated my birthday with a day trip to Venice, to put into effect one of my bucket list intentions to see the Basilica of San Marco. I spent a week wandering Venice as a student but for some reason I can't remember, I couldn't visit San Marco, or even see it from the outside as it was shrouded with scaffolding. In the afternoon we joined the crowds of tourists being herded expeditiously round the interior by fiercesome officials - if you want to linger and look up you have to dive behind pillars. Photography inside the church or even in the arcade is strictly forbidden, so I have had to raid unknown sources on the web for my illustrations, including a picture of the Pala d'Oro, the magnificent gold and enamelwork altarpiece which I have been studying on and off for years. This is housed on the back of the main altarpiece in a separate chapel, so it was famously missed by Napoleon when he took over Venice in 1797 and carted back its valuables to Paris. The tourist literature displays palpable continuing resentment about the French sack, which makes me laugh mightily when I think that the Basilica and indeed Venice itself is largely entirely composed of materials and art which the Venetian Republic looted from Constantinople and elsewhere. You don't hear nearly so much about that little detail of history. In the evening I attended Mass, when the Basilica was splendidly lit, and during the incomprehensible homily gazed up at the great dome with the apostles looking up at Christ in Glory. After Mass there was an opportunity to light a candle for a departed friend and spend a few quiet moments with Venice's ancient miracle-working icon (looted from Constantinople), the Madonna Nikopeia. Like so many powerful icons, she is a small and unassuming panel, dwarfed by the magnificence of her ornaments and architectural setting. Some of the jewellery which once adorned the image can be seen in the Basilica treasury.
But for the truly less noticed, look beneath your feet. The magnificent Cosmati pavement, a mainly geometrical design composed of miraculously tiny pieces of coloured marbles and semi-precious stones is undergoing restoration. Much of it is covered to stop damage from thousands of tourist feet, but here and there it peeps out in all its beauty. The interlocking squares, triangles, circles and swirling quincunxes all have meaning in medieval natural philosophy, as do the choices of coloured stones. Nothing is random or simply decorative in medieval art. I became interested in Cosmati pavements about twenty-five years ago when I ran across a book about the meaning behind the Westminster Great Pavement (Patterns of Thought: The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey: Richard Foster 1991.) The other day my husband and I tried cutting a few concrete pavers for a garden path, with disastrous results. How did these artistis cut such tiny patchwork pieces so accurately with only hand and water-powered tools? That is even more of a mystery to me than the arcane meaning of the geometry
The window as a whole is very large and elaborate in conception, and there are more expensive stained glass windows lining the nave, though Troutbeck is such a tiny place you could blink and miss it - Troutspeck, even. I guess the grandees who commissioned the many fabulous Arts and Crafts or neo-gothic holiday palaces in those parts were gracious enough to share some of their worldly excess with the local yokels who joined them for worship in these little village churches.
Now here's a funny thing I noticed on my recent lovely trip to southern Austria. While there, I made a small personal pilgrimage to the tiny lake peninsula of Maria Woerth, which boasts two medieval churches and a bishop's palace and very little else bar a souvenir kiosk
Both churches have partially preserved romanesque frescoes. With typical medieval disregard for the art taste of previous generations, this painting of Christ in Glory at the altar end has had a large hole punched through it and plastered over to install a small window.
The stained glass is fairly unremarkable, perhaps we would rather have the fresco back. But hang on, look more closely. Whatever is Our Lady standing on? There seems to be half a face peeping out from the semi-circle shape at the bottom. Most disconcerting.
I've rotated the close-up so you don't have to crick your neck. The face etched in grisaille seems to have been salvaged from another (much better) artwork. Or is she standing on the moon, and this is the Man in the Moon peeping out? All very odd.
Vellum as a microcosm of human life? Following some recent experiments with painting on skin and having researched some handling advice for the framer, this little speech delivered by King John at the Globe Theatre performance of the eponymous play yesterday made me sit up:
I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen
Upon a parchment, and against this fire
Do I shrink up.
Parchment and vellum are very sensitive to heat - they shrivel if they're hotpressed or left on the desk where the sun shines in the morning. Now we have it in Shakespeare's immortal iambs. It's one of the better lines in the play: the cast did manfully but there's a good reason why it doesn't often get an outing....
The view from my desk
Current work, places and events, art travel, and interesting snippets about Christian icons, medieval art, manuscript illumination, egg tempera , gilding, technique and materials.