Renaissance

The Gender of Paintings by Chris Hall

Christopher Hall,  General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection , c 2009

Christopher Hall, General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection, c 2009

In his book The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey writes an essay on the perceived gender shift of art (most especially paintings), from Renaissance to Modern times, and then again in our contemporary times.  To do this, Hickey sets up two aesthetics, “masculine” and “feminine,” and assigns them attributes appropriately (though perhaps using “aggressive” and “passive” in place of “masculine” or “feminine” may have been more appropriate).  Critical language is important when setting up gender aesthetics in art.  Hickey writes that “The demotic of Vasari's time invested work with attributes traditionally characterized as “feminine”:  beauty, harmony, generosity.  Modern critical language validates works on the basis of their “masculine” characteristics:  strength, singularity, autonomy.”  Hickey explains later that the illusionistic painting of Renaissance times is more receptive to the viewer's gaze.  When looking into a painting with illusionistic space, the viewer's eyes penetrates the picture plane, which is generously offered, shared, and ceded by the artist.  In this regard, paintings with illusionistic space do have “feminine” qualities.  According to Hickey, beginning in Baroque times, paining began a march toward a more “masculine” aesthetic, gradually encroaching on the viewer's space.  With the rise of Modern Art, the “masculine” aesthetic of flatness began to dominate, with paintings seeking to reclaim the illusionistic space, at times even seeking to penetrate outside the picture plane, and overwhelm the viewer.  Modern painting, then, can be said to have an aggressive aesthetic.  

About 50 years ago, beginning with the so called “Death of Paining,” masculinity and Modern Art aesthetics have come under fire.  Postmodern critics have disparaged painting, instead favoring conceptual, photographic, three-dimensional, installation, and time based practices.  This criticism of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World was, perhaps, made with the best of intentions.  Yes, there were a few assholes among the Modern artists and Modern Art supporters, and yes, it was a bit of a patriarchy – but it doesn't follow that the Modernist, “masculine” aesthetic is sexist and patriarchal.  If we follow Hickey's logic of assigning gender attributes to illusionistic depth - or the lack of it as the aesthetic goes in Modern Art - couldn't we also assign gender attributes to color theory?  Red (and warm colors) are aggressive and advance in space, while blue (and other cool colors) are passive and recede into space.  Surely it would be madness to suggest that a painting dominated by the color red is an affront to sensitive eyes and thus an example of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World, but sadly that is where this logic carries us.

So I have to ask, what is exactly is wrong with the “masculine” aesthetic, with celebrating masculinity?  What harm does it do?  Why is it so damned?  Sometimes it seems to me that art with so called “masculine” attributes is too quickly dismissed and damned by critics, dispatched without much investigation.  If a work of art has “masculine” attributes, it is sometimes assumed that author is an insensitive pig and on the wrong side of history.  Even Hickey, a man who is himself sometimes accused of being a chauvinist, compares Modern Art aesthetics to a “dysfunctional male parent in the tradition of the biblical patriarch.”  But just because a work has a “masculine” aesthetic, it shouldn't follow that the artist is a neanderthal male chauvinist pig.  Sadly, though, that is the impression I sometimes get from critics, as if a Modern Art painting is capable eye raping their grandmother and leaving her corpse in a ditch.  The last time I check, neither Van Gogh nor his Starry Night, has ever raped anyone.  Someone should take the time to remind Sherrie Levine of this.

Surely we can each have our own tastes and opinions concerning what we may find beautiful or useful, whether it be “masculine” or “feminine” aesthetics, and Hickey sets up his argument in this way, sharing with us his preference for painting with a “feminine” aesthetic, that is paintings with illusionistic space.  While there are many gender politic issues that still need to be addressed, (pay inequality, for example), Modern Art aesthetics is not one of them.  I fear, though, that by assigning gender roles to art and aesthetics, we are only giving more ammunition to the deconstructionists who already look for any excuse to dismiss Modern At aesthetics based on gender politics.

I have been thinking about the subject of masculinity in art quite a bit recently, as I submitted a short statement along with images of my work for a future show entitled #Masculinity at the Low Museum in Atlanta.  I was excited about the prospect of participating, as I think the time is now ripe to re-examine our positions, and re-open an honest dialogue on what exactly it means to be masculine in our contemporary culture.  I think we will find that it may be safe to once again celebrate and reclaim some aspects of masculinity while at the same time also being careful and critical of some of its more ridiculous and, perhaps, more harmful aspects.  My proposal was turned down, which was kind of hurtful, considering how important the subject is to me and my work (I offered them 60 drawings directly related to the subject -  it is hard to believe they couldn't find at least one drawing that would have worked).  But you can't always win.  It would make for a pissed off Chris, though, if all the art in the show ends up being dismissive and critical of masculinity and masculine aesthetics in art, which considering today's critical climate, is a distinct possibility.  

Sandro Botticelli by Chris Hall

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from  Adoration of the Magi  (1475).

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from Adoration of the Magi (1475).

Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter, born in the crucible of art that was Renaissance Florence.  Very little is known of Botticelli's early life.  We know that by 1462 he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi, from whom he learned intimacy and detail, and we know that he was also influenced by the monumentality of Masaccio's painting.  Botticelli would use both of these influences to great effect later in life.  It is possible that when he was apprenticed in Filippo Lippi's workshop, he may have traveled to Esztergom, Hungary to work on a fresco commission.  By 1470, however, Botticelli had opened his own studio.  In 1475, Botticelli painted what is thought by some to be his first masterpiece, the Adoration of the Magi for the church Santa Maria Novella.  The painting contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni, and his grandsons, Lorenzo and Giuliano.  It also contains what may be Botticelli's self-portrait, as the blond figure in the yellow robe on the far right.  The work was so successful that he was commissioned to repaint it seven more times.

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV invited Botticelli, and a few other Florentine artists, to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.  Botticelli's contributions included The Temptations of Christ, The Punishment of the Rebels, and The Trials of Moses.  Having completed the work in 1482, Botticelli returned to Florence, where he became enamored with Dante's Divine Comedy.  He wrote a commentary for portions of the work, painted a Portrait of Dante, his Map of Hell, and made 92 illustrations for the Inferno, which he then had printed (printing was a then a new art-form).  Botticelli's two most famous works, Primavera, and The Birth of Venus  were commissioned works by Florentine ruler Lorenzo de' Medici.  Both works reflect Botticelli's and the Medici's interest in mythological and Neoplatonic subject matter.  Known for their linear grace, both iconic paintings are considered by many to be among the most beautiful works of art in all of art history.

In late life, Botticelli became one of the followers of the puritanical, fire and brimstone Dominican zealot, Girolamo Savonarola, who preached in Florence from 1490 until his execution in 1498.  Savonarola, at first, was extremely popular with the Florentines, who expelled the Medici and put Savonarola into power as head of the republic in 1494.  Savonarola quickly established a strict theocracy in an attempt to rid the city of vice.  Bands of morality police patrolled the streets, curbing immodest dress and behavior.  Most significant, however, was Savonarola's notorious “Bonfire of the Vanities,” where citizens were pressured into burning condemned items which might tempt a person to sin.  Among the condemned items were mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and musical instruments.  Secular books and artworks were also targeted.  Among the participants in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” was Sandro Botticelli, who reportedly burned his own pagan themed works.  Giorgio Vasari writes that Savonarola's influence on Botticelli was so great, “that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.  For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone he abandoned his work."  Eventually the Florentines grew tired of Savonarola's repressive government and his claims of prophecy and miracle making (he claimed to have saved Florence from God's wrath from another flood and claimed to be able to walk through fire).  Popular legend has it that when Savonarola attempted to close down the taverns, the Florentines rebelled, and Savonarola was executed, simultaneously hanged and burned in a bonfire in the Piazza della Signoria.  

Botticelli produced little in his later years, and he quickly grew into obscurity.  He lived long enough to see his work eclipsed by another Florentine, young Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Botticelli was all but forgotten after his death, a footnote in art history, until he was later rediscovered in the late 19th century.  It is hard for me to accept that an artist can go against their very nature, and stop creating art.  When ordered to stop painting by the Nazis, Emil Nolde found a way to still paint.  How willing a participant Botticelli was in Savonarola's government, we can not ever know.  Perhaps there were other reasons why Botticelli stopped painting.  It is also hard for me to accept that great art, such as The Birth of Venus, can be forgotten, lost to time.  Such works seem timeless today.  When I was in the Uffizi in Florence, I spent what felt like an eternity in front of the painting.  Realizing that Botticelli's works were once unappreciated and forgotten is a reminder that every culture, every age, has its own spirit and aesthetic tastes.  What may be great today, could be considered irrelevant and meaningless tomorrow – and vice versa.  

Christian Martyrs in Art: A Grotesque Fascination by Chris Hall

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, devoured by lions in the Colosseum.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, devoured by lions in the Colosseum.

Maybe I have a sick mind, but I've always found depictions of Christian martyrs fascinating; you want to look away, but you can't.  I suspect I am not the only one today who thinks this way.  Of course I respect the holiness of saints, their wisdom, their many good works, and their dedication to their beliefs in the face of death.  But the imagination and grotesque beauty of the art suggests to me that the artists may have also been fascinated with their violent subject matter.  Incidentally, I've never cared too much for horror movies and realistic violence.  Usually, when the Christian martyrs are depicted in art, the violence is either stylized or symbolized in some way.

Click each image to enlarge.

Here we have Saint Agatha of Sicily, who had her breasts removed before being tortured to death.  She is often shown holding a plate or a chalice containing her breasts.

Saint Bartholomew was flayed alive.  Oddly enough, he is the patron saint of tanners.  Michelangelo painted himself as Saint Bartholomew's flayed skin in his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.  Sometimes depictions of Saint Bartholomew can be pretty graphic, making my own skin crawl.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria was tortured to death on the wheel that now bears her name.  To have the object of your execution named after you seems like a strange honor.

Saint Clement of Rome was tied to an anchor, tossed into the sea, and drowned.

Saint Hippolytus of Rome, a convert and fellow soldier of Saint Sebastian, was drawn and quartered.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch was thrown into the Colosseum in Rome and devoured by lions.

Saint Lawrence was grilled alive.  Reportedly he had a sharp sense of humor, and told his torturers that he was he finished on one side, and that it was time to turn him over.

Saint Lucy of Syracuse had her eyes gouged out prior to her execution.  She is often depicted holding a plate containing her own eyes.

Saint Peter of Verona was hacked to death.  He is often shown with a sword in the head.

Saint Sebastian is a favorite subject among Renaissance artists.  He was a Roman soldier under Diocletian and a Christian Convert.  When he was found out, he tied to a tree and had arrows shot at him.  Saint Sebastian was reportedly brought back to life by Irene of Rome, but when Saint Sebastian went directly to Diocletian to rebuke him, he was killed a second time, this time by being clubbed to death.

Elisabetta Sirani by Chris Hall

Elisabetta Sirani (1638 – 1665) was an Italian painter in the Baroque tradition from the city of Bologna.  She was trained by her father, the painter Giovanni Andrea Sirani.  By her 17th birthday, Elisabetta Sirani was a master engraver and painter and had completed more than 80 works.  By the age young age of 19, Elisabetta had become an independent artist.  Soon she was running her father's workshop, who was incapacitated with gout.  The responsibility of  supporting her parents and her siblings, entirely through art, was, reportedly hard on Elisabetta, and may have caused her early death.  She died under mysterious circumstances in 1665, at the young age of 27.  Some say it was stress, others say it was her jealous father who poisoned her.  Before she died she had created over 200 paintings, drawings, and etchings.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo by Chris Hall

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526 – 1593) was an Italian Renaissance painter from the city of Milan, best known for creating imaginative portraits made entirely of objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books.  At a distance, his art appears as normal portraits, but on closer inspection, one can see that the objects encompassing the portraits actually overlap to make the various anatomical facial features.  Often the objects assembled in his portraits are befitting for their subject matter, such as the books used to make up his portrait study of The Librarian.

Arcimboldo's work is such an aberration from Renaissance norms that many modern critics have wondered aloud whether or not the artist was in some way deranged or mentally unbalanced.  Most critics weigh in on Arcimboldo being sane, however, and that he catered to the Renaissance's fascination with puzzles, riddles, and the bizarre, as during his time, his work was greatly admired.  Arcimboldo's work fell out of favor some time after his death, but Surrealist movement brought back a renewed fascination for his strange, imaginative portraits.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder by Chris Hall

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Buyer (Self Portrait), 1565

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Buyer (Self Portrait), 1565

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525 – 1569) was a Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes.  He received the nickname “Peasant Bruegel”or “Bruegel the Peasant” for his habit of dressing in peasant's clothing in order to socialize at weddings and other celebrations, to gain inspiration and record details for his paintings.  His earthy and unsentimental depictions of village life rituals, including agriculture, hunts, festivals, dances, and games, are a unique window into the long vanished folk culture of the 16th century.

“Peasant Bruegel's” art often has a comic, satiric spirit, bordering on sharp social criticism, such as in his painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.  On his deathbed, Bruegel had his wife burn the more subversive drawings in his collection, to protect his family from the growing political persecution resulting from the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation.  He died in Brussels on 9 September 1569. 

I've always appreciated “Peasant Bruegel's” art.  It seems that much of the art from his time focuses on flattering the ruling establishment, Princes, Kings, and the Church.  There is a Renaissance glut of portraiture and mythological subjects from the Bible and Classical Antiquity.  Bruegel's art stands out, not only for its imagination, but also for its depiction of the lives of the lower strata of society.  

I also appreciate Bruegel's art for its social commentary, another rare thing in Renaissance art.  In his painting of The Misanthrope, for example, we see the Misanthrope about to walk down a path littered with caltrops (small iron anti-personal spikes), while a grotesque figure sneaks behind him and robs him of his purse.  The inscription, in Flemish, reads, “Because the world is perfidious, I am going into mourning.”  Pieter Bruegel the Elder would criticize the misanthrope, for retiring from a cruel society, instead of actively trying to change it.  Pieter Bruegel the Elder's legacy lived on through his son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, who inherited his father's artistic talent and satirical nature.

Lucas Cranach the Elder by Chris Hall

Lucas Cranach the Elder was a German Renaissance painter (c. 1472 – 1553).   He learned the art of drawing from his father, Hans Maler (incidentally, Maler means “painter” in German).  Cranach was known in his day for his portraits of German princes and the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, but is more known today for his earthier subjects, depicting classical mythology.  Cranach embraced the Protestant Reformation enthusiastically, and befriended the movement's leader, Martin Luther.  While Cranach did produce religious work, he did so with caution; during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, religious art, particularly icon painting, was looked upon as Catholic image idolatry.  Cranach had two sons and three daughters.  His two sons also became artists.  The bulk of Cranach's output depicts nude subjects drawn from mythology and religion, often shown with an eye toward innocence and naivety.  Sometimes, however, Cranach chose poses that were intentionally erotic, seductive, and even exhibitionist.

Cranach's liked paint the same subject matter over and over again.  It is interesting to me to see the same subject depicted by the same artist, looking for subtle differences between the works.  Here we have Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Lucas Cranach liked to paint mythological subjects from Classical Antiquity.  

Cranach also liked to paint old men seducing younger women.

Venus, often accompanied by Cupid, is a favorite subject of Cranach.

Cranach was also interested in the suicide of Lucretia.

Like many Renaissance painters, Cranach was obsessed with the Biblical femme fatales Salome and Judith.

Weird Renaissance Art by Chris Hall

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's  Vertumnus , 1590.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's Vertumnus, 1590.

The Renaissance isn't generally known for its weird art, but it does exist.  Here are a few examples of weird art from the Renaissance that I particularly enjoy.

The first piece is by an unknown artist.  It shows a strange man-looking baby rolly-polly infant Jesus creature being held by a bulging eyed Madonna offering her breast, which looks remarkably like a water balloon.  The painting is most likely Medieval, but I thought I would include it as an introduction.  The second piece is an icon representing Saint Sisoes astonished before the bones of Alexander the Great.  Depictions of  the Saint discovering the Alexander's bones proliferated after the fall of Constantinople in 1452.  The third piece is Giotto di Bondone's Saint Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds, c 1299.  I've always thought that this painting was charming.  Giotto is generally heralded as introducing the Renaissance aesthetic to Italy.

Next we have Giorgione's The Tempest, dated 1507.  This Venetian painting is strange and unique as its subject matter is unknown.  During the Renaissance, art was often restricted to portraiture, Biblical subjects, and Classical Mythology.  Another Venetian painting, Vittore Carpaccio's Saint Jerome and the Lion in the Monastery, dated 1509, shows Saint Jerome leading a lion into a monastery, with the other monks running away in fear.  It is an intentionally humorous piece, something you rarely see in Renaissance art.  Hans Holbein the Younger produced a strange piece in 1533, The Ambassadors.  The work shows two men behind a blurred example of an anamorphosis, a memento mori of a skull.  You could only view the skull properly by looking at the painting from the left.

Here we have Giulio Romano's Jupiter and Olympia, 1534.  Jupiter is depicted with an erect penis.  This is only Renaissance work I have seen depicting obvious sexual arousal, and therefore must have a private commission.  Next we have a Presumed Portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrees and Her Sister the Duchess of Villars, by an unknown artist, c 1594.  At first glance one might think that this is a painting depicting lesbians, but the lady on the right holding a ring, suggests that this is a portrait of a newly wed.  The lady on the left, pinching her companion's nipple, is, perhaps suggesting that she is pregnant and will soon be nursing.  Besides, lesbianism would have been too taboo a subject to paint in the Renaissance.  Finally we have Lavinia Fontana's Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez, 1595.  Antonietta Gonzalez was a Spanish aristocrat who had hypertrichosis, or werewolf syndrome, like her father, Petrus Gonzalez.  Lavinia Fontana painted portraits of both.  

Here we have a strange, unknown painting by an unknown artist, depicting a man running away in fear from a naked woman in a bed.  I have no idea what this painting is about, but I find it to be a humorous subject and like to imagine different stories to try to explain the scene.  Next we have Elisabetta Sirani's Timoclea Killing Alexander's Captain, 1659.    I've always thought the scene, depicting Timoclea trying to drown a grown man in a well.  The whole thing just seems so ridiculous, that I get a good laugh out of it.  Finally we have Aert DeGelder's Baptism of Christ, c 1710.  There are many paintings during the Renaissance that depict Christian scenes with strange, UFO references, but this is one of the more obvious among them.  

Alchemy and Art by Chris Hall

Painting is not about the product, but about the process – the philosophy that drives my life. Elin Pendleton


I’ve always thought there to be a lot of parallels between Alchemy and Art, particularly painting.  Art starts as an idea, an intangible thing, pulled from the air.  It is struck with the electricity of the mind and forged in the fire of the heart.  The idea flows hot from the body, down the arms to the hands, charging the paintbrush with its task.  This is the catalyst, meeting the plastic medium, oil paint in liquid form.  Ideas are mutable, and so is wet paint.  As the mind cools, so does the paint and it begins to dry, transforming itself into a solid, idea incarnate.   This is how art is made.  This is the painting process.  

Art also has parallels to Alchemy in that the Alchemist’s true goal was spiritual enlightenment (the Philosopher’s Stone) through a process of self discovery.  Transmuting gold from lead was a byproduct of the process.  Similarly, the Artist can use the art making process to obtain spiritual growth and enlightenment, with the byproduct being a work of art.  The Alchemist’s and Artist’s true work, then, is “Transmuting the lead of matter / Into bullets of spiritual gold.”   (From Alex Grey’s poem “The Seer”).

The word alchemy is from Arabic, originally ‘Al-khemet’ which means “from Egypt,” where Alchemy was originally practiced.  Egypt was once known as “Khemet” in ancient times, which means “Black Land,” due to the fertile soil found along the banks of the Nile River.  This is also where Alchemy got labeled as a “Black Art.”  Alchemy is traditionally thought to have been invented by the Egyptian god Thoth, the founder of science, religion, mathematics, geometry, philosophy, medicine, and magic.  We know that Cleopatra was a practicing Alchemist; among her personal affects were manuscripts pertaining to the transformation of base metal to gold.  Over the millennia Alchemy would adopt aspects of Greek philosophy, Christian mysticism, the Jewish Cabbala, Arabic science, numerology, and astrology.  Famous alchemists have included the likes of; Pythagoras, Galileo, Da-vinci, Issac Newton, and Napoleon.  From its ancient occult origins, Alchemy would become the basis of modern day Chemistry and Jungian Psychoanalysis.

Besides the promise of gold, alchemy also promised the possibility of creating a healing substance called the Elixir of Life, able to cure all diseases, and, if pure enough, the possibility of immortality.  The famous alchemist St. Germaine is reputed to have found the Elixir of Life and to have benefited from its use, living over three hundred years.  Gold and immortality, however, are only a byproduct.  The Philosopher’s Stone is the real goal of the spiritually minded alchemist.  The Philosopher’s Stone brought with it spiritual purification and perfection of the soul.  Gold, being considered the purest of all elements, was valued more for what it represented symbolically than what it represented as monetary value. When gold is successfully manufactured, it is only the incidental byproduct of a much more successful experiment, the manufacture of the Philosopher’s Stone, and purification of the soul.   Success in the physical realm of existence meant success in the spiritual realm as well.  Gold becomes the physical proof that the Alchemist’s quest was successful.  

To prevent the abuse of Alchemy for selfish means and to also protect themselves against persecution from the Church, Alchemical manuscripts were often encoded or written in riddles.  In some cases these Alchemical manuscripts are not even written out, but drawn as a series of symbolic illustrations.  An example of the later would the legendary “Book with No Words,” reputed to be so complex in its symbolism, that it would take two lifetimes to master, one to decipher, and one to understand.  

To obtain the Philosopher’s Stone, one had to use the seven basic Alchemical processes, in three different stages. Each process has its own symbolic, psychological, spiritual, and physical manifestations. The original Alchemists believed that all matter was divisible into the pure elements of fire, air, water, and earth.  The process of manipulating matter through these four elements mirrored the process spiritual purification, which would lead to the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone and enlightenment.

Nigredo is the first stage on the Alchemical path, and encompasses the first two processes of Calcinatio and Solutio.  Nigredo means ‘blackening.’  Characterized by breaking down matter, the Alchemist is compelled to look deep within themselves and destroy the parts of the ego that would be in the way of inner growth.  Nigredo begins as we truly and sincerely begin to walk the path of transformation. The first step faced by all who desire to know themselves is to face the ego, and in particular, its means sacrifice, of sabotaging our desire for immediate worldly success.  Psychologically, Nigredo is a process of suffering.  Depression is a common occurrence.

Calcinatio- Symbolic of fire, it is literally the process of heating or burning.  A solid can be subjected to intense heat in order to drive off water and any other parts that may volatize, producing a fine, dry powder.  Another example would be to add water to quicklime (plaster of paris).  The water starts a chemical reaction that produces heat. Alchemists believed that quicklime contained hidden fire that was only activated by water.  Alchemists could also use sulfuric acid to burn into matter in the Calcinatio process.  Calcinatio is used in encaustic painting, when the solid encaustic wax is heated into a liquid and then mixed with pigment in order to paint.  The infusing of fire can be seen symbolically as a life force, the divine spark. Burning can also be seen as a purification rite, ridding a substance of impurities.  Calcinatio occurs naturally in life as a process where our egos are gradually worn down by the inevitable challenges in life.  Ideally, in the spiritual path, one hastens the Calcinatio process, rather than letting it be drawn out over the course of a whole life.  Through Calcinatio, stubbornness, pride, and arrogance are worn down.  Psychologically, the process relates to the cleansing of the body and the destruction of the ego, as well as burning away all the excesses gained from over-indulgence.  In Alchemical symbolism this process is sometimes represented by bringing down a tyrannical king. 

Solutio- Dealing with processes pertaining to water or any physical process producing a liquid, Solutio can transform a solid to liquid form, a solution or a suspension.  Solutio is used by painters when they mix raw pigment into a solution or when they cut thick paint with a medium.  Water is thought of physically as prima materia, the first matter.  Symbolically it is shown as the womb, and the process of Solutio as returning matter to the womb for rebirth.  In many myths water is the original matter from which the world is created.  Taken further, science shows today that all living life came from the sea and the human body is composed primarily of water.  In Solutio, the Alchemist symbolically drowns.  Psychologically this stage represents a deep encounter with our subconscious mind.  Carl Jung would use Alchemical symbolism to develop his ideas of the collective unconscious.  Through Solutio, the Alchemist lets go of control and allows the surfacing of buried material.  This stage is often characterized by emotions of grief, as the Alchemist allow themselves to relive painful incidents from the past.

Albedo means ‘whitening’. Albedo is the second stage on the Alchemist’s path.  If Nigredo is destruction of the ego and death by drowning, then Albedo prepares the Alchemist for rebirth.  Albedo involves the creation of division, necessary for the further unification of opposites.  Albedo also refers to the inner light that arises in the face of genuine suffering brought about through Nigredo.  The white dove is a common symbol for this stage.  Albedo corresponds to the processes of Separatio, Conjunctio, Mortificatio, and Sublimatio.  In Albedo the Alchemist creates coherence and clarity via division into opposites, and then, by re-unifying these opposites, becomes reborn.  

Separatio- Separatio is a purging process, literally the separation of composite matter into its more useful and pure parts.  An example of this would be the separation of gasoline from crude oil or metals from its crude ore either by heating, pulverizing, or any other chemical process.  Filtration, evaporation, and operations using a centrifuge are also classic examples of this process.  In many myths of creation, order is pulled out from a chaos of mismatched elements.  Separatio is also seen as the purging of unwanted bad habits.  Psychologically, Separatio refers to the need to make our thoughts and emotions more distinct by isolating them from other thoughts and emotions.  This stage represents the need to focus on what has been revealed in us after Nigredo, so we can get clear on what precisely needs to be given attention, and what needs to be purged.  The process of Separatio is entirely concerned with the need to both see and take responsibility for the darker aspects within ourselves.  A common symbol for this process is the black crow, which in its color denotes the dying away of the false through Nigredo, as well as the positive possibilities for the future symbolized by the crow’s capacity to fly.  

Conjunctio- This is both the process of joining two unlike and opposite substances and the resulting product of a third substance of altogether different properties.  It is mainly through this process that the groundwork was laid for modern chemistry, nuclear physics, and modern psychoanalysis of unconscious imagery.  Conjunctio occurs when the Artist mixes their paint.  Like Aristotle, the alchemists believed that there must be a balance in all things. They concerned themselves with the fine lines between such things as courage and foolhardiness, prudence and miserliness, passion and fanaticism. By recognizing these lines both internally and chemically, perfection (the Philosopher's Stone) could be found. In the end, it is the balance of unlike things and a union of opposites that the alchemists sought.  The symbol most often used to express this ideal was the hermaphrodite. When consulting an old manuscript and the symbol of the hermaphrodite appeared, then it was shown that a union of opposites was required, either in process or chemical.  For example, fire (Calcinatio) and water (Solutio), or sulphur (fire) and mercury (water).   Conjunctio is also symbolized by the sexual union of male and female.  Just as when a man and woman copulate, a new being is born completely different from its parents.  Indeed, the eastern Alchemists of India went so far as to lose the external chemical quest and to pursue an internal quest for spiritual purity with the use of ritualized sex.  But to most Alchemists, the masculine and the feminine are not principles determined by sex or gender. It is mainly meant as a guide to find a complimenting essence.  Alchemical symbolism sometimes refers to this as the marriage of the Sun (spirit, masculine) and the Moon (soul, feminine).  The Alchemists referred to this union as the “Marriage of the King and Queen,” and they referred to the result of the Conjunctio as the "Philosopher's Child" or "Lesser Stone." 

Mortificatio (or Putreficatio) - Perhaps the strangest of the alchemical processes, it pertains to death and rotting.  In Mortificatio the matter in question is symbolically seem as tortured and killed by various alchemical operations.  It is also symbolic of penance or just punishment. It was not at all seen as cruel and mean spirited.  Saint Augustine would say, ''Punishment, when deserved, is Love.”  Mortificatio is the next logical step.  Literally it is the process of rotting.  Organic elements would be left to decompose in a controlled environment.  Chemically the process is similar to fermentation.  Another example of this would be a compost heap.  Symbolically the process is associated with psychological darkness, mutilation, and defeat.  It is symbolized in St. John of the Cross's poem “Dark Night of the Soul.”  Spiritually, this refers to a kind of inner death process in which old, discarded elements of the personality are allowed to rot and decompose.  This process can involve difficult mental states such as depression.  Mortificatio is followed by a stage of rebirth in a process called Sublimatio.  

Sublimatio (or Distillation) - Sublimatio is a process pertaining to air and the separation of substances.  It is derived by the physical process of heating matter and having it pass directly into a gas state. When this is done the gas ascends to the top of the vessel where it reconstitutes in an upper cooling region.  It has a long history, being used for the production of such things as alcohol and gasoline.  Sublimatio is an elevating process, symbolic of giving up the ghost and the shedding of impurities.  It is a process of purification and an internal quest for spiritual perfection.  Here, the Alchemist undergoes a type of rebirth resulting from the deep willingness to let go of all elements that no longer serve spiritual evolution.  Sublimatio can be achieved through many activities such as intense prayer, break down of the personality, and deep meditation.  The process is symbolized in illustration with ladders, stairs, flying, and mountains, anything that suggests ascending.  Psychologically, Sublimatio does not result in escapism, but rather in being able to deal with seemingly mundane things with integrity.  A common Alchemical symbol for the result of Sublimatio is the Green Lion eating the Sun.  It suggests a healthy triumph and an embracing of a limitless source of energy.  Sublimatio is necessary to ensure no impurities from the inflated ego are incorporated into the next and final stage.  

Rubedo, meaning ‘reddening’, is the final stage. Whereas Nigredo and Albedo were concerned with the chaotic void and division, Rubedo is entirely concerned with unity, with the result of this unity being the Philosopher’s Stone.   However, this wholeness is not a mere return to the Primal state.  Rather, we re-capture the primal unity of the child-like state, while at the same time achieving something much more, the mature wisdom of a sage.  The cycle of death and rebirth is finally broken.

Coagulatio (or Greater Conjunctio) - Belonging to the symbolic process of Earth, Coagulatio results from the combination of Fire, Water, and Air.  Physically, it is the process of converting other matter into a solid.  Cooling a liquid can produce a solid, hence water to ice.  A solid that has been dissolved into a solvent will reappear when the liquid part has evaporated, hence salt from salt water.  Heat can also produce a solid, such as the coagulation of the egg in a pan when fried.  Coagulatio occurs in the drying of paint.  On a symbolic level to produce a solid is to fix an ego, to localize and make concrete an identity, and manifest in the flesh.  Several creation myths describe how dry land and creatures sprung from the waters of an endless sea.  Coagulatio is the ultimate marriage of Heaven and Hell and is the pinnacle point in the Alchemist’s career.  The end result is the Philosopher’s Stone, and is often symbolized by the Phoenix, the bird that has arisen from the ashes.   Coagulatio, when properly performed, is a return to the Garden of Eden; it means existence on a higher level and being in tune with the divine mind.  In other traditions it is referred to as Enlightenment, or Nirvana.  

In closing, I hope that I have adequately explained the many physical and psychological parallels between Alchemy and Art.  I find the process of making Art to be spiritually rewarding.  It is a path of self discovery that I hope will continue to pay dividends into the future.  Halfway down my Alchemical – Spiritual journey in life, I believe I am, appropriately, somewhere in the middle stages, around Conjunctio.  It is a journey that can be spiritually taxing at times, which is a challenge for me, as I am apparently a tough study; I have gone through the painful Nigredo stage at least half a dozen times or more.  Still, I have every reason to be optimistic that I might just someday be lucky enough to find the Artistic equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone, if I continue to create and make Art.

Finished on my 39th birthday, 5:56 AM, December 16th 2014.

Uccello's Saint George and the Dragon with a Poem by Chris Hall

Paolo Uccello, Saint George and the Dragon, 1470

Not my Best Side by U. A. Fanthorpe


Not my best side, I'm afraid.
The artist didn't give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn't comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don't mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.

II 
It's hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It's nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn't much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon--
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl's got to think of her future.

III 
I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can't
Do better than me at the moment.
I'm qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don't you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don't
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don't you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You're in my way. 

The Short and Violent Life of Michelangelo Caravaggio: Artist, Brawler, Murderer, Pimp by Chris Hall

Ottavio Leoni,  Portrait of Caravaggio,  c 1621

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, c 1621

His paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting (chiaroscuro), make it possible for painters like Rembrandt to exist. Caravaggio’s commissions for religious works featured violent struggles, grotesque decapitations, torture and death, perhaps a reflection of his own tumultuous life. 

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599

His early life was colored by the loss of his father, uncle, and grandparents from the plague, and seeing their stripped bodies piled up in cart to be taken away.  As a young man in Milan, he got into a fight with a policeman and killed him.  Fleeing justice he resettled in Rome and began painting. Caravaggio quickly burst into the Rome art scene and despite his paintings being controversial (on one occasion a painting was rejected because he used a well known prostitute to model as the Virgin Mary), he never lacked for commissions or patrons.  Yet he handled his success poorly and lived a violent life, always on the run from the law for being involved in fights and for vandalism.  Caravaggio’s police records in Rome fill several pages.  An early published account of him from 1604 describes how “after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him." 

On 29 May, 1606 Carvaggio killed again, this time it was a notorious pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni.  Caravaggio stabbed Tomassoni in the groin with a fencing sword and he bled to death.  Caravaggio’s motive for the murder is unclear.  Some have suggested it was over a gambling debt, or a contested point in a tennis match, others have suggested that it was because Caravaggio stole one of Tomassoni’s prostitutes for his own stable, or had slept with his wife.  Whatever the cause, the result was that the Pope issued a death warrant for Caravaggio, a Bando Capitale, which means essentially that there was reward out, literally, for his head. 

Caravaggio fled to Malta by way of Naples, taking refuge with sympathetic patrons and continuing to paint.  In 1608, in Malta, Caravaggio was on the fast track to become a Knight of the Order of St. John.  This was not to last, however.  Only a few months later and for reasons unclear, Caravaggio battered down the door of Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, one of the Order’s most senior Knights, and shot him, leaving him seriously injured.  Caravaggio was imprisoned in the guva, a bell shaped dungeon underground, with a trap door exit in the ceiling.  After only being there a week or so, somehow Caravaggio managed to escape, first by climbing up and out of the guva, making his way out of the fortress, and then by climbing 200 feet down a sheer precipice and into the sea, where he swam for three miles and got on a boat bound for Sicily.

Caravaggio, David Holding the Head of Goliath, 1609-1610

Now with assassins on his trail from both Rome and Malta, Caravaggio began sleeping fully clothed and armed.  While he still continued to paint, his behavior became increasingly erratic and he would tear apart his canvases at only a slight word of criticism.  Caravaggio soon made his way back to Naples where an attempt on his life was made.  It is thought that it was the Knights of the Order of St. John.  Reports in Rome said that Caravaggio was dead, but he survived the attack, seriously injured and with his face disfigured, but still alive.   In the summer of 1610 Caravaggio attempted to purchase his pardon from Rome with three canvases.  Ironically, one of the canvases, David Holding the Head of Goliath (1609-1610), features a Caravaggio self portrait, as Goliath’s severed head.  On 18 July he was on his way north by boat with the paintings when he died on route under mysterious circumstances, some saying exhausted from a life on the run, worsened with lead poisoning (from his paints) and a malaria fever, others say by assassination, from someone representing either Rome or Malta.  He was 38.  

Michelangelo "The Hangman" Buonarroti by Chris Hall

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Self-Portrait

Raphael called him "The Hangman" for his temperament and solitary nature.  Michelangelo “The Hangman” Buonarroti produced some extraordinary work, of which I am sure many of are already familiar . . . these are some details from the Sistine Chapel, depicting scenes from the Bible as well as Christ at the Last Judgment.  I was once fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see the work in person.  I wish I could say that it was an ecstatic moment, but I was immersed in a sea of humanity, all of us blindly bumping into each other and stepping on each other’s toes, for having to look up to the distant ceiling in order to see the work.  But it wasn’t a complete let down; I still got a real sense of the scale and could appreciate the magnitude of Michelangelo’s accomplishment.  By the way, "The Hangman" had a grim sense of humor.  The flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, seen below in the Last Judgment, is a self-portrait.  Also, King Minos the Demon Judge of the Damned, also shown below, is a portrait of Biagio da Cesena, the church official who started a campaign to censor Michelangelo's work for its nudity.  When Cesena complained to the Pope about him being portrayed as a demon, the Pope responded that his "jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain." 

Click on the images to enlarge.

Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus by Chris Hall

Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c 1560

I’ve always rather liked this painting, so full of life when compared to a lot of Bruegel’s other works.  And the interpretation of the myth, the fall of a hero and nobody notices, almost seems contemporary.  It is not with any surprise that nearly a dozen poems exist riffing on this painting.  Of the lot, my favorite is William Carlos Williams poem, titled the same as the painting:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned 
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning