Wednesday, 18 July 2007

A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling -- Hans Holbein the Younger

Hi everyone -- this is the last picture. Hope you enjoyed the sequence.

See the picture.

‘Oh this cold. Let me have another handkerchief. I don’t believe I’ve stopped sniffling since I came to this house. Sometimes I wonder how I will survive here for the rest of my life – not that it’ll be long if Madam won’t let us have a fire in our chamber very soon.

‘Still, at least I’ve got Dash. There is no more pretty pet than a squirrel, I can tell you, can’t I, Dash, yes I can. See him take this nut from my own lips… There. He loves me well, don’t you Dash, and so you should for you sleep in a nest by my own pillow. If you could see him race about the chamber it would do your spirits good. He is so quick! So nimble. But that’s why we have to keep you chained when we’re down here, don’t we Dash. That’s why you have to wear that heavy chain, isn’t it. He’d be up in the rafters before you could say ‘knife’, dropping I know not what on us and pulling straws out of the thatch.

‘And he listens well, don’t you Dash. He hears all my small woes, and comforts me. He is a good listener and one who keeps counsel. Not like Chatty here. Chatty listens to what is best left unheard and repeats it. Chatty is Madam’s pet, and a fine pair they make.’

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

The Adoration of the Kings -- Vincenzo Foppa

See the picture here.

- No, Sir, I’m not the artist. I’m just tall for my age, Sir.
- He’s out, Sir.
- Perhaps at the end of the day. Or perhaps not.
- Certainly you can wait. But please don’t think me rude if I go on working. I have to get this done before the master returns–
- Yes, probably at sunset, Sir. Not that chair, it’s covered in… Oh Sir, there’s a rag in that dish there. Wouldn’t you prefer to go to the inn at–
- No, of course it’s no trouble, but as I said, I have to get this done… I’m putting on the gold. It must be layered, you see, and it’ll be set with gems and–
- Caspar’s turban, Sir, and his buttons. See, that’s where the stones will be.
- Yes it will. Quite good enough for the Pope himself.
- Sir, I don’t mean to trouble you, but my light? … A little to the left, no the right.

- I’m sorry Sir, I was miles–
- Yes, I’m the boy in the blue tunic. The Master often takes his models from the–
- She was a lady on her way to–
- No, Sir, the Master is respectable, and married.
- Yes, she had a baby and the Master asked her to sit for him, because–
- Well he might, if he thinks your face is suitable. He is working on a scene with angels and shepherds. Perhaps he’ll need a shepherd…
- Oh, no, Sir, I didn’t mean that, but you hardly look like an angel, Sir, and you did ask about modelling and I’m not the page of a great king, Sir, but I can still be one in a picture–
- No Sir, he’s never done a portrait of an apothecary, but I’m sure if he ever did you’d be the–
- What’s that, Sir? Yes, he would miss that. It’s a sketch for the picture he’s working on. I think it blew on to the floor when you came in.
- I couldn’t say – you’d have to discuss it with the Master. There might be something he’d trade for it.
- Yes, the light is going.
- No, there’s no wine here. You could try the inn down the road… I’ll tell the Master that’s where you are.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antonio Juan -- Bartolomé Bermejo

See the picture here.

‘I’ll put the devil out of frame. Just a tail or so to–’

‘That’s not what I want, Bartolomé. I want something to make the children squeal.’

‘I see. I’ll have a think about it, AJ.’

‘You should speak to Mijo.’

‘Mijo the drunk?’

‘He saw the devil once. It’s why he drinks.’

‘I see.’


‘Mijo, tell the man what you saw.’

‘Señores, It had the head of a fish and four eyes. Two in the usual Godfearing place, and two on its nips. Red ones. And it had chicken’s arms…’

‘Chickens don’t have…’

‘Chicken’s feet for arms. With snake elbows.’

‘Snakes don’t have…’

‘Shh, AJ, don’t interrupt him – this is useful.’

‘And a tongue like this…’

‘Put it away Mijo. No-one’s…’

‘Let him speak. Go on Mijo.’

‘Bat wings and the ears for hearing of sins. And a mouth in its belly. With snakes and the hindquarters of a goat…’

‘In its belly, Mijo?’

‘No, behind its forequarters. A lizard’s tail, with spines and…’

‘This man’s an idiot. I’ve wasted your time, Bartolomé. Snakes’ elbows.’

‘No, wait, he’s given me an… Mijo, this is for you. Maybe spend it on a bath and a shave… No? Well whatever pleases you. Come on AJ. Let’s take a stroll round the fish market, and then to Brutus’ slaughterhouse. I’ll paint you a devil that will have children fleeing the church.’

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

The Mass of St Giles -- The Master of St Giles

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What a thing! And what a thing that I should see it!

There’s the king, stuttering and sighing – can’t get the words, can’t say ‘Forgive me, Father.’ And down comes… well, I’d have hardly believed it if I hadn’t seen it.

Of course, we were all dying to know what the king’s sin was – but Abbot Giles read the note, nodded once and pronounced the king forgiven. Not a smile at the king, not a glance at someone in the congregation, not a gasp at an unspeakable deed. Just a nod, and a piece of bread and a sip of wine for the king.

If I had ever imagined such a thing might happen, I would expect a roll of thunder, some flames, maybe a voice. I caught sight of the note – just from behind, where the ink had smudged through the paper. It was just an ordinary page as I might use to reckon my accounts. The Hand of God was unremarkable, too – tall black letters carefully formed as if scribed by a diligent clerk.

I couldn’t see that it said: I suppose some things are secret between kings, abbots and God.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The Capel Family -- Cornelius Johnson

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I am looking at the artist, whom we called Master Cornelius – I remember him in his smock peering round his picture to look at us. Sometimes he would race forwards to look closely a detail on our clothes and then he scuttled back like a mouse heading for its hole.

Most of the time, there was nothing to see however, because the canvas was in the way. Tiz is giving Baby a rose, so she’s watching him. I don’t know what sort of rose it is – I think perhaps Master Cornelius must have drawn it from memory, because it doesn’t look like any variety I know.

Charles is happy because Dad is holding him. I remember Dad making a joke about how he had to hold Charlie. If he let go, Charlie would wriggle so much that Master Cornelius would paint three of him.

Arthur on the edge has his hand on Dad’s chair. It looks like Dad is so cross with him that he is not looking at him, but he’s not.

Mama was so proud of this picture. She used to show people and tell them that Master Cornelius – she called him Master Cornelis van Ceulen Janssens – that Master Cornelis van Ceulen Janssens himself, the Dutch painter, had made this portrait in exactly the way he made the portraits of the King’s (this was King Charles) children, with the curtain and bit of landscape in the background. ‘And do you know,’ I once heard her say ‘he told me twice that Princess Mary was not one iota prettier than my own Mary.’

Of course, children aren’t supposed to hear things like that, but I couldn’t help feeling pleased with myself.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

A Concert -- Lorenzo Costa

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At first we arranged ourselves in the middle of the room in our usual semi-circle, but Himself said: ‘No, no, I need you all facing me. Stand behind this table… there we are.’

Luca said: ‘But we need to see each…’

‘Never mind, never mind. I don’t care what it sounds like.’

We started with The Castle of Fair Welcome. Then there was silence apart from Himself scratching away. Then he looked round the board and said: ‘Carry on, don’t stop now.’

So I glanced at Luca and Servio glanced at me and I said: ‘The Garden of Zephyrus?’ It’s a woman’s song – one for me only. Servio joins in the chorus, and Luca plays the lute and never sings at all.

When it finished, even before the last note had stopped, Himself said: ‘I’d rather you all sung. Makes it easier for me.’

We did Apples on the Water next – it’s a long one, so we thought that would keep him happy. But he said: ‘Young man, can you try to keep your arm still? It is very hard for me to see how your hand lies if you keep moving.’

Servio tried to stop beating time and got lost – Apples has long notes that we all hold for different times. Himself didn’t seem to notice.

So we tried Three Crows, which Servio doesn’t sing. But Himself looked round the board and I stopped singing, and Luca stopped playing.

Himself asked Servio why he wasn’t singing.

‘Sir, I can’t sing and not beat time,’

I added ‘So we’re singing something that Servio doesn’t need to beat time to because he doesn’t sing.’

Himself looked confused, and then said: ‘Very well, carry on.’

We started My Love lies in the Woods, but Himself popped his head round the board again. ‘Not that old dirge. Give me something joyful about goats and flutes and…’ Luca reached for his recorder. ‘No, don’t play the flute,’ the artist said, ‘I’m drawing you on that… that thing with strings.’

‘The lute, sir.’

We thought Goatherd’s Song would be the sort of thing he meant. It made Himself send the boy grinding colours in the corner out on an errand to another part of the house.

We were about to start The Golden Ass, when Himself spoke to us again. ‘You in the middle with the… the…’

‘Lute, sir.’

‘You with the lute. What’s your name?’

‘Luca, sir.’

‘Luca, why don’t you sing?’

‘I play the lute, sir.’

‘I can see that, but I want you to sing. I need you to be singing. I don’t give a… I don’t care what you sound like.’

So Luca ah-aaa-aah’d along with his playing. He hasn’t wanted to sing much since he was ill last winter. He can’t always hit the notes he wants. I could tell he was unhappy about it – he went very stiff. I put my hand on his shoulder to remind him to soften up. Himself said: ‘That’s a lovely pose, Mistress… Mistress er… don’t move.’

We tried Mother’s Lament which has just has an ‘ahhh ahhh-ah’ part for Luca and Servio. Ah-ah-ahing is easier for Luca. He has no memory for words, but lots of memory for notes. Himself didn’t comment – just kept scratching away.

The next song was Wine is Beautiful. I know that Luca has the words committed to memory because I’ve heard him singing it when he’s… after he’s been appreciating the beauty of wine. It’s about the only time he does sing these days.

Then we did Lovers at the Windows – it’s a duet about a boy and girl in two towers. Luca and I sing… used to sing it before last winter. Luca propped our book open so he could follow the lyrics. Servio’s part has no words – it’s supposed to mimic the swifts swooping around the towers. Then we stopped.

Himself put his head round the board. ‘Keep going. I’m starting to enjoy it. If I could afford it, I would hire you to entertain me while I paint every day.’

‘We’ve done ten songs, sir,’ said Luca. ‘We’re tired, and that’s all you paid us for.’

‘God bless me, ten songs already… you’ve counted that one about the body in the woods that you didn’t finish. Give me one more and we’ll part as friends. What about that lullaby with the boats…’

‘Lullaby with boats… what’s he talking about?’ Luca muttered into my ear.

‘My mother used to sing it to me,’ Himself added, as if that might help. ‘Ships, not boats. With the masts rocking?’

‘Ships … Oh Ships of the Moon! My mother used to sing it to me, too,’ said Luca.

‘I don’t know that one,’ I said. ‘Servio?’

Servio doesn’t remember his mother.

So Luca sang a lullaby for the artist. Himself came right forward and sat on a chair to listen. I saw tears in his eyes. Fancy Luca’s cracked voice bringing someone to tears.

When the song was done, there was that moment of silence, and then the artist said: ‘Thank you very much.’ His face had lost some of its sharpness, but none of the observantness. He said, as if he wasn’t quite sure: ‘Want to see what I’ve done so far? I don’t usually… but you’re not the clients, and I thought since…’

So we filed round the back of the board. And there, among a muddle of scribbles, was us. Luca singing the wine song; Servio being a swift round a tower and me being a lovesick goosegirl floating apples downstream.

‘I look like one of them angels,’ said Servio, touching his curls.

Luca said: ‘You’ve caught milady here just perfectly. It’s like a mirror that reflects back all the good things about her. How can you know her as well as I do?’

I felt a blush rising; and Himself looked pleased. ‘But does it look musical?’

‘Yes,’ said Luca. ‘Yes it does.’

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

The Virgin and Child -- Workshop of Albrecht Dürer

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‘Well it’s not quite what I expected, I must say. I asked for a ruin in a garden, not a building site in a piece of wasteland.

‘I’m not so sure about the iris. I didn’t ask for that, but the artist (not the man himself, one of his assistants) said it was very fashionable.

‘Our Lady is pretty enough – her hair is a marvel. Perhaps the man himself, you know, helped whoever painted it.

‘I’m going to save up and have the man himself to do the landscape through the arch. And perhaps I’ll have him put some carving on the stones – make them look a bit more classical.

‘But I’m glad I got a look at it before it was finished. I actually asked him to put in that cloak to hide the wall. It’s just planks and stakes – see what I mean about the building site? So that cloak was my idea. It does make me feel as if the painting is really mine.’

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Portrait of Battista Fiera -- Lorenzo Costa

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Well he’s not going pay in cash or anything useful. He’s broke -- Elena’s sucked him dry. Sucked him dry and brought down the greater pox on him. He would have done better to have spent it on getting her a consultation with me. But she’d never have agreed. She goes to that old witch Dolores. Most of the ladies do. Dolores is good at childbirth, and she knows her herbs, I’ll give her that. But I’m the pox doctor. I’m the one who travelled all that way to study under the physicians of Arabia. And those girls needn’t worry about their secrets escaping (although it’s hard to hide the greater pox -- makes you wince, even thinking about those sores). I am both successful and discreet. Did I not cure... well someone you’ll have heard of who shouldn’t even have had the pox (not that I judge -- we all make mistakes when we are young).

In any case, I’m saying ‘yes’ to the portrait. I will hang it in my waiting room so patients can see who will treat them, who (I hope) they are paying. It will be a good likeness, I think. Those three of Elena that he’ll only show you when he’s had a few... you’d expect her to reach out of the picture and grab his knee. You’d expect to smell her; you’d expect to hear her gown rustle as she undresses.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

A Man Reading -- Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden

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‘What does it say? What does it say?’ But he won’t read it aloud.

‘I need time to consider it. Let me be alone, Mother.’

He is so young to know so much, to have to work out such hard language. Why can the monks not tell us: ‘Yes you can go on living in this house’ or ‘No you must move far away from your friends and all who care for you.’

‘Have you read it Ivo? Have you read it?’

He waves his hand at me and turns so I cannot see the paper. He reads a little aloud in Latin. His masters always said his Latin was so weak. ‘Ivo, let’s get Laurent to read it – he’s a real lawyer. He would understand it. He could say if it was ‘yes’ or ‘no’ right away.’

‘Mother, be quiet. I’ve studied three years to do this.’ He turns back to the page and draws together his brows, just as he used to do as a child when he couldn’t understand his lessons.

‘Ivo, let me see.’

‘Mother, you can’t read.’

‘Ivo, I’m sure Laurent…’

‘Mother, please. Go back to your room and let me read this in peace.’

Wicked boy – how can he dismiss me, his own mother, so? How can he?

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Allegory of Love I-IV -- Paolo Veronese

See the pictures: Allegory of Love I; Allegory of Love II; Allegory of Love III; Allegory of Love IV.

When I saw the men struggling across the street with the pictures, my heart sank and I felt the floor swooping up to meet me.

I was on my bed when I came to. The curtains were drawn around the foot and one side. On the other side were Maria fanning my face, and my husband hovering nearby. ‘There, my dear, you’re with us again. It must be the heat, or the excitement, or…’

I turned my face to the pillow so as not to hear the rest.

‘She is overcome, master,’ said Maria. ‘It’s excitement at the gift you have brought her.’

‘Let’s draw back the curtain so she can see. Ready Maria?’

Light flooded on to the bed and I forced myself to look. Surely Ercole wasn’t going to hang such pictures in our chamber… how could he be so cruel?

I took in the four pictures. ‘Where are they to go? There’s no space in here.’

‘On the ceiling in the hall. The men have brought them up here to be safe before they hang them tomorrow. Aren’t they beautiful?’ He caressed the first painting – it shows Ercole wooing me even as I am adoring Paolo. How can he not see?

‘It’s called Allegory of Love. My darling, I am going to make this house a temple to my love for you.’

‘Oh Ercole.’ If he knew, he would cast me aside.

Paolo has painted the story of my marriage. The first picture shows Ercole stealing me from him. How can he be so cruel to me? He knew I had no choice, that Ercole was who I must marry and that I was as a twig in a flooded river.

The second picture has me scorning Ercole – Paolo has even shown Maria. But I never scorned Ercole – I did as I was asked by my family. I left Paolo and allowed Ercole to woo me. I was cold at first, naturally, for it is hard for a lady to overcome her natural modesty. How cruelly Cupid beats Ercole! He might just as well be whipping me.

The third picture shows Ercole coming across me asleep and although spurred on by Cupid, he refuses to take advantage. That’s a lie also. Ercole stole several nights before the wedding. How can Paolo be so wicked? He has even shown the bed curtains of my own room. Ercole will see them and guess that Paolo was there.

The last picture shows the joyful union. We are bound in golden chains by Cupid and blessed by Venus. Ercole’s faithful dog Tray stands by. But if it’s so joyful, why does Venus look so grim? She knows my secret, and soon Ercole will too.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

The Holy Family with Saint John -- Andrea Mantegna

See the picture.

– Look at you – you’re fat as a feast day kid.
– Look at you – you’ve got hair, and what’s with the curl in the middle of your forehead?
– D’you remember that day, though? Your mum and dad took us to that garden place and we got in trouble for picking green oranges and throwing them at each...
– was an orange farm, not a garden, and the farmer came out and yelled at us?
– Oh yeah – and you cried...
– No I didn’t.
– Yes you did. You cried, and your dad had to buy you that ball to make you shut up.
– I remember that ball – I lost it down the well at home.
– Yeah, you cried about that, too.
– I got something in my eye. What were we standing on?
– Broken water tank, I think?
– Dad must’ve asked someone else to take the picture. Mum’s got her eyes shut as usual. She always shuts her eyes when a picture’s being taken.
– She gave us that white stuff to play horses with – probably to make us stop throwing oranges at each other.
– Horses, eh? That’ll be why I’m holding the stick. Shadow and Thunderfoot
– Thunderhoof. Shadow and Thunderhoof, the crime-solving horses. Remember that?
– ‘Come Shadow, I sense criminals have been here.’ Yeah, I remember. I can’t believe we used to pretend to be crime-solving horses. Where do kids get this stuff? What’s dad looking at?
– I bet it’s a bit of dodgy joinery.
– Yeah: ‘Who... What on earth... What sort of... Who would put... a door that heavy on a hinge made of leather?’
– Don’t – that’s what you sound like these days.
– As if!
– You do, you’re a carpentry geek.
– Call me a geek, locust boy. How’s the preaching going, anyway?
– It’s OK. Fewer stones, bigger crowds. You should try it – you’ve got a good voice for it, and the imagination. Crime-solving horses.
– That was not... Shut up.
– But seriously, mate, do you really dream of spending your life making barn doors and piles of shavings?

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

A Man with a Pink -- Andrea Solario

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‘What? All off? Broken up? Well really! What about this blessed portrait I’ve paid for… paid for half of. Really, the boy is too bad. Keeps changing his mind like a… like a... How could he? Didn’t even consult his old godfather that’s what I’m here for, but he didn’t say a word. Do you know, I had to find out about the engagement third hand? If it hadn’t been for that gossiping priest I might not have known until I got a wedding invitation.

‘Why’s he broken it off anyway? He always was a changeable creature even when he was tiny. Capricious. His mother fed him goat’s milk you know against my advice. I might add. That’s what goat’s milk does to children. Capriciousness. I should get them to put some goats in the background to remind him of how changeable and stubborn he is.

‘Why did he break it off? His father? His father broke it off? Whatever for? Speak up! Don’t mutter. Really? An innkeeper’s daughter? Why didn’t you say so? Someone should have told me right at the start. Well I suppose we should be thankful.

‘He should have come to his old godfather for advice. I could have told him right from the start.

‘Well, yes, I suppose I am. As paintings go, it's not a bad one. Have you been to see it?

‘I suppose I can ask Master Solario to paint out the pink and… Dash it all, I’m going to leave it and present it to the boy when he really does get engaged.’