Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer

What does the great Dutch painter Vermeer (1632–75) have in common with Pontormo, the Florentine Mannerist (1494–1557)? At first glance, nothing. They were born in different parts of Europe almost a century and a half apart. But there here are two paintings, one by each artist, and whenever I see one of them, I’m always reminded of the other.

The first is Pontormo’s Visitation, painted c. 1530 for the church of St Michael at Carignano, near Florence

How can a 15th-century Mannerist, painting in an age and a city where princely families and the Catholic church commissioned great works of art, possibly have produced anything faintly similar to the output of a bourgeois, struggling Dutch painter whose patrons–the few he had–were mere artesans?

The other is Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662), in New York’s Metropolitan Museum

What is it that makes these two works seem alike–at least to me? Is it the bold use of colour, for which Pontormo is so famous. Because Vermeer’s use of colour is extraordinary too. That great slab of lapis-blue skirt. The way the ruddy hues of the carpet are reflected in the jug and silver dish. Is it the crisp folds of the drapery and the shadows they cast? Is it the faint sfumato that softens the outlines of the faces? Is it the peculiar, detached absorption with which the women are going about their tasks: the one a housewife, immersed in domestic chores; the others biblical characters, playing the ineluctable roles they have been cast?  Is it the economy with which each image reduces itself to the essentials, with only the merest incidental detail (the man in the background of the Pontormo picture; the silk thread hanging out of the trinket box in the Vermeer)? Or is it the way the light falls upon the women’s skin, illuminating it, making it gleam (the housewife’s right arm as she opens the casement; the hands of the Virgin and St Elizabeth)? Or is it perhaps the way that the human figures seem like props while the stage sets they occupy are three-dimensional?

Both these paintings were intended for secluded contemplation: one in a church, the other in a private dwelling. I love them both.

Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion

The religions practised in the later Roman empire were many and various. There was the official state cult, of course, centred around the great triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. But many other cults from different parts of the empire also flourished. There were the Egyptian religions, for example those of Serapis and Isis. There was the cult of Cybele, the Great Mother, which originated in Asia Minor. There were Jewish communities of traders and merchants. And there were Christians.

Relief of Mithras slaying the bull from the Mithraic shrine at Londinium. Displayed in the Museum of London.

The cult which most resembled Christianity and which appears to have represented a serious challenge to it, was that of Mithras, which traces its origins to Persia. Like the cult of Isis and also that of Jesus Christ, Mithraism was a “mystery” religion, in other words a faith that is concerned primarily with a realm that transcends the worldly sphere and which seeks to show initiates how to attain admittance to it. Mystery cults focus on truths that are inexplicable by man’s experience or understanding, and promise some kind of redemption or rebirth. Mithraism was particularly concerned with ideas of enlightenment, of moving from a realm of darkness to a relam of light. Some 500 sanctuaries are known, 35 of them in Rome itself, and 18 in its port city of Ostia. They were always underground, in the basements of buildings or in caves. At the eastern end of the sanctuary, the god was shown with attendant deities with torches. This represented the light towards which members were moving. Mithraism was especially popular among soldiers, which is why we find Mithraea in far-flung outposts such as Londinium in Britannia and Aquincum in Pannonia. Slaves and ex-slaves were also attracted to the cult, although women were excluded from it. One of the cult’s attractions was its graded hierarchy. Initiates moved upwards through a series of ranks just as a soldier might do, or a slave who was working towards freedom. The highest grade, a ‘Father’, was probably reserved for a leader of a congregation, and it was an important enough honour to be recorded on gravestones.

A Mithraean sanctuary typically held a sculpture or relief of Mithras shown seated astride a great bull, holding back the animal’s head and slitting its throat in sacrifice. The sacrifice of a bull is crucial to the cult—it is usually seen as a force Mithras must conquer to release the fertility of the earth. The spirit of the bull, it was believed, was released by its death, and its blood falling on the ground brought regeneration and renewal. Animals join in, as if working against Mithras. A serpent and a dog suck the wound, perhaps to prevent the blood nourishing the earth. A scorpion is often shown attacking the bull’s testicles as if to destroy its fertility. The cult draws on ancient Eastern parallels, including Zoroastrianism. Mithras himself is typically depicted wearing a Phrygian cap (from Phrygia in Asia Minor), which was used by the Romans as a recognizable symbol of the East.

There seems to have been some competition between Mithraism and Christianity over converts, but as Christianity grew more powerful it moved to obliterate Mithraism, and overtook it altogether. By the end of the 4th century, after the edicts of the emperor Theodosius, Christianity was the only mystery religion that survived. Its spread and popularity was due in large part to the fact of its wide appeal for women.

Text adapted from Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World © Blue Guides.

The Amphitheatre of Londinium

That the Roman city of Londinium boasted an amphitheatre was never subject of dispute. Its precise location, however, was unknown until comparatively recently. Excavations close to the old Roman road now known as Watling Street, during the construction of the Guildhall Art Gallery in 1988, revealed its stone foundations. Those are now preserved and open to the public, in situ where they were found, under the gallery.

The amphitheatre was built around AD 70, the same year that the Colosseum was begun in Rome. It was, understandably, considerably smaller, with seating for around 6,000 spectators as opposed to the Colosseum’s 75,000–although when you consider that 6,000 people represented about a quarter of the entire population of the city, it must have seemed a giant building indeed. Most of it was made of wood. Even in the following century, when it was improved and given stone entranceways, the tiers of seats would still have been of timber. The surviving remains are scanty: an illuminated backdrop showing scenes of raked seating and combatants in the arena gives a sense of the original dimensions of the building. In front of it is the surviving section of the eastern entrance to the arena, with side chambers that were perhaps guards’ houses or pens for wild animals. What is most remarkable are the preserved sections of timber drainage channel, complete with a silt sump to collect debris and prevent the drain from getting blocked. It operated by natural gravity, to flood the arena for mock sea battles, and to drain it again.

In common with most of the public structures of Roman Britain, the amphitheatre fell out of use in the 4th century, when the land fell prey to Scots, Picts and Saxons and when the emperors, harried by problems closer to home, stopped sending troops to defend this far-flung island. By the mid-fifth century, Londinium was an abandoned wasteland.

Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome

I have always been fascinated by circular buildings. The Pantheon and Santa Costanza in Rome, the tholos at Delphi. One of my especial favourites is the little-visited Santo Stefano Rotondo, on the slopes of Rome’s Caelian Hill. Below is an extract from the Blue Guide travel monograph Pilgrim’s Rome:

Santo Stefano Rotondo
Open Tues–Sat 9.30–12.30 & 2–5.

In AD 64, during the reign of Nero, a great fire consumed central Rome. It was witnessed by the emperor from a tower on the Esquiline Hill. After the flames had done their worst, Nero instigated a full-scale witch-hunt of the city’s Christians: St Peter may have died at this time. Nero then expropriated the land in the valley between the Esquiline and Palatine hills and constructed his vast Domus Aurea, or Golden House, a sumptuous gilded pleasure palace whose grounds incuded a vast artificial lake (where the Colosseum stands now). To feed this lake, water was brought by a new aqueduct, parts of which can still be seen around St John Lateran and here on the Caelian Hill, in the gardens of Villa Celimontana. To get to the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, you must pass beneath one of its archways.

Santo Stefano Rotondo is a fascinating and atmospheric building, secretive and little-visited, is one of the finest surviving Roman examples of a circular mausoleum-church. It richly rewards any effort made to seek it out.

The association of a circular design with funeral architecture is very old, going back to the ancient Greeks and the Etruscans. Imperial-era Rome made use of it too: the circular mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian still exist, one on each side of the Tiber bank. It is no surprise, then, that the tradition was also adopted by Christians. But just as Christian churches are congregational—unlike pagan temples, where access was restricted only to an elect college of priests—so Christian mausolea were also designed to accommodate crowds of the faithful. The mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian are mainly solid, with just a narrow tunnel and sepulchral chamber inside. There is no internal volume. Christian mausolea enclosed a wide open space designed to allow worshippers to process around and pay homage to the tomb within. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built by Constantine around the tomb of Jesus, is the most famous example of such a structure. In Rome there is the partially collapsed mausoleum of St Helen, Constantine’s mother; the mausoleum of her grand-daughter Constantia (the church of Santa Costanza); and this church, Santo Stefano Rotondo.

Santo Stefano dates from the late fifth century and is dedicated to the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. In the late sixteenth century the walls were decorated with scenes of the whole panoply of Christian martyrdom, beginning with the Massacre of the Innocents and the Passion of Christ and from there progressing through all the martyred saints, from Peter and Paul during the reign of Nero, through all the gory deaths died under subsequent imperial persecutors and ending with a final scene showing a row of triumphant saints resurrected in peace and glory from the scenes of earthly carnage behind them.

The chapel on the left as you enter the church is dedicated to two Roman brothers, Primus and Felicianus, both martyred under Diocletian and buried in the old sandpits (arenaria) beside the Via Nomentana. Their remains were transferred here in the seventh century, from which time the chapel mosaics date. In the apse, the two saints are shown on either side of a jewelled cross with Christ in a roundel above it (not Christ crucified; early attitudes to crucifixion are dealt with elsewhere in the book). The sixteenth-century frescoes (illustrated) show the two brothers exposed to lions and bears in the arena before being gruesomely done to death.

Below the church is a Mithraeum belonging to the Castra Peregrina barracks (the cult of Mithras is explained elsewhere in the book).

Text © Blue Guides/A.B. Barber

The mystery of the veiled virgins

Moulded in stucco above the west doorway of the Lombard Tempietto in Cividale del Friuli is a famous frieze of six graceful female figures appearing in single file on either side of a narrow aperture. Below the aperture is a semicircular door hood carved with Eucharistic symbols of  grapes. On either side of the narrow aperture, the two outermost women are richly clad. Their heads are crowned and in their hands they carry regalia or offerings: a cross and a diadem. The two figures nearest to the aperture are dressed very plainly. Their heads are veiled and they have no crown. Nor do they bear any gifts or royal trappings: they merely extend their hands towards the aperture itself, to show—-what? Are their hands raised in supplication? In adoration? What would the aperture have contained? What would have appeared at its narrow window? The date of this beautiful work of art is the eighth century AD.

Moving to Rome, to the district of Trastevere and the great church dedicated to the Virgin, Santa Maria in Trastevere. The façade of this church is adorned with a long mosaic frieze depicting a procession of ten female figures, five on each side, approaching a central Madonna and Child. The six outermost women are very richly clad in embroidered gowns. Their heads are crowned and they bear lamps, each with a darting vermilion flame. The four women closest to the Virgin, however, are only veiled. They have no crowns and their lamps are unlit. The date of this equally lovely work is the twelfth/thirteenth century.

But what is the significance of it all? I have no answer. Perhaps it is mere coincidence. But I am still sleuthing. Any help or suggestions would be very welcome.