Thursday, June 4, 2015

Saint Michael, by Luca Giordano (1663)

We return to our look at some of the work by one of history’s most prolific painters, Luca Giordano (1634-1705). 

During his 10 year period in Spain (1692-1702), Giordano carried out major decorative commissions in Madrid, Toledo and the Escorial.  He grew to greatly admire the Spanish painter Velázquez, and painted A Homage to Velázquez (circa 1692, now in the National Gallery London).  Giordano had an incredible ability to mimic the work of other artists, and for some time his Homage was attributed to Velázquez himself.  Indeed, after a trip to Venice he painted an Annunciation (now in the collection at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) in the manner of Titian, and Giordano’s ability as a mimic are clearly apparent.

Giordano was an incredibly active painter, prolific until the end of his life, and is currently credited with some 2000 paintings.  As such, some are quite wonderful and others, less so.  One of the great challenges with prolific genius is to separate the great from the near-great from the best-left-forgotten.

Giordano painted St. Michael several times.  One depiction, dating roughly to 1660-65, clearly owes its inspiration to the painter Raphael; and while that is certainly a beautiful picture (showing a profound understanding of the color blue), I much prefer the one here, from 1663, as it owes its greatest debt to Giordano’s first master and mentor, the painter Ribera.

St. Michael, along with Gabriel and Raphael, is one of only three angels liturgically venerated by the Church.  He appears twice in the Old Testament as a helper to the early Christian peoples; he appears twice in the New Testament, once first arguing Satan over Moses’ body, and again when he and his angels fought Satan and his dragons and hurled him and his followers from heaven. 

He appears repeatedly in apocryphal literature and was regarded by the early Church as the captain of the heavenly host, the protector of Christians against the devil (especially at the time of death, when the soul is most vulnerable), and the leader of Christian armies against the heathen. 

The cult of St. Michael started in Phrygia, but soon spread to the West, where it gained traction when it was recorded that Michael appeared at Mt. Garganus during the rein of Pope Gelasius.  He is always depicted with a sword or lance, and often standing over conquered devils and dragons.  He is the ultimate conception of the warrior angel in all his glamor and strength, valor and might.

Like much of Ribera’s work, there are hints of the dark, brooding genius of Caravaggio, as well as the influence of Spanish and Venetian masters.  The work is heavily reliant on the dramatic use of shadow, and a moody sense of coloration.  The picture is both … unsettling and startling; despite the heroic visitation of Michael, the overall image is somewhat horrific.

The triumphant Michael is perhaps somewhat fleshy and feminine to the contemporary eye, but the manly torso and powerful legs indicate the strength of a warrior of Christ.  The golden tresses of the angel, along with the girlish face perhaps still owe something to Raphael, as do the draping of his cape behind him. 

Curious about the cape: its pinkish color reflecting the lights of Hell seems as if the brighter, pinker side should be on the viewer’s right, rather than the left.  Also odd, too, is that on Michael’s left hip (or on the right side, to the viewer) the dragon-headed hilt of a sword is clearly visible, but the corresponding blade seems no where in evidence behind the angel.

No, the real triumphs here are the wonderfully bestial devils and the hellish landscape.  The fingers of our devils taper into wonderfully pointy fingernails, and the eyes register as dead black.  Also wonderful is the devil’s cavernous mouth, which seems genuinely otherworldly with its snake-like note of two teeth visible at the bottom.  His leathery, bat-like wings are in marked contrast to the feathery white clouds provided for Michael.  Curiously, the spear of St. Michael pieces the side of the devil almost exactly where the Roman spear pierced the side of the dying Christ.

The background has a sulfuric quality; one could almost choke on the red and brown mists.  Between the serpent wrapped around one unfortunate’s arm, a howling beast and the foot of a plummeting body, Giordano’s hell is truly a fearsome creation.

More Luca Giordano tomorrow.

No comments: