Category Archives: Art

Easter Time in Helsinki


Helsinki in early April is chilly and blustery.  All the children are bundled up in one-piece snow suits. I was wishing I had one! Finland is not a place for religious pageantry and parades as in Southern Europe.


The Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral is impressive in its grand spaces, but very austere. Aside from Martin Luther gazing skyward, there’s not much to look at. And (at least on an admittedly quick stop) I didn’t see a children’s corner with little chairs, or posters about bake sales, or ladies dusting things, or a single clergy person.


The National Museum of Finland was a much more church-like experience. This pulpit is from the church in Parainen, Finland, dated 1650. At the time, Finland was a frontier to the west of Sweden–and very handy as a buffer between Sweden and Russia. Newly built churches were required to have pulpits. Lutheranism was the state religion of Sweden, and everybody was expected to sit still for it or else.


This pulpit is from the Kalvia Church, around 1726.  I like the cloudy heavens painted on its ceiling just above the preacher’s head.


Wait, there are hourglasses? Four of them? How long is this sermon going to be, anyway? Better not ask.


My favorite item was an altarpiece depicting the Last Supper. It’s from the Ylane Church, dated around 1675.


The faces are friendly and everyone is having a nice time together. There seem to be only 11 apostles. Apparently Judas has already left the building.


Jesus (with spiky sun-ray halo) seems to be holding a child in his lap. So the story is maybe doing double duty here: “Let the little children come unto me.”

The museum also had wonderful religious wood carvings dating back as far as the 1200s. I liked St. Martin on his horse, about to share his warm cloak with a beggar. He was carved and assembled from several pieces of wood around 1320.


I gazed for awhile at the Archangel Gabriel, carved and gilded around 1500.


Then I was back on the friendly but chilly streets of Helsinki, wishing I had a striped snowsuit and a red polka-dotted hat with flower ears.

Jugendstil in Helsinki


The island of Katajanokka, just outside the center of Helsinki, might have more Jugendstil buildings per square mile than anyplace else on earth.


It seems that in the early 1900s, when industrialization was drawing rural Finns into Helsinki, there must have been a building boom.


Builders must have raced to create castles for the common people: fanciful and beautiful apartment buildings with turrets, towers, interesting windows, and beautiful decorative elements.


We stayed in one of them, and I’d have cheerfully stayed longer. I could see myself living in beautiful, friendly Helsinki. The city is known for its style. Now I see why!

My Favorite Nativity Scene, with Angels on the Buddy System

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My all-time favorite image for Christmas was painted into a fresco by an unknown artist around 1370 in the Umbria area of Italy. It depicts a shepherd playing a sort of bagpipe. His smiling dog dances in delight.  This is part of fresco fragments from the long-gone monastery of Santa Giuliana in Perugia. The fragments, covering about 20 feet in width and maybe 12 feet in height, are now in the Galleria Nazionale of Umbria.  I’d travel back there just to gaze at them again.  I wrote about this fresco last Christmas, and took another look this year.

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My favorite shepherd and his dog are really just side figures in a more conventional Nativity fresco. The entire fresco is too large to photograph in one shot, and my photography skills are pretty much limited to what I can capture on my trusty iPhone. So the view above shows the shepherd and his bagpipe, but not his joyful dog.

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The other side of the fresco, which once covered a wall, shows the traditional Nativity scene with the stable, the town of Bethlehem, musical angels neatly arranged in pairs, some friendly cattle, and Mary and Joseph with their child duly wrapped in strips of cloth–the Biblical swaddling clothes.

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The details are charming, the faces friendly and serene.

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What I find most appealing is the artist’s careful concern for the ordinary people depicted. They are painted somehow larger than life, and in loving detail.  A friend of mine commented on the cozy-looking black socks worn by one of the shepherds on his way to the stable.  At least I think they are shepherds–or could they be the Three Kings? Whoever they are, their feet are REALLY big.  This fresco was placed high on a wall, under a vaulted ceiling.  The rules of perspective would have dictated that the feet should be smaller in proportion to the heads.  The artist chose to do the opposite. Maybe the artist didn’t exactly have perspective down pat.  Then again, maybe he (or she) just wanted to contrast grounded humanity with floating angels.  These folks definitely have their feet on solid ground.

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The animals are grounded, too.  These are real sheep, solid and woolly. And each one has a unique personality, as animals do.

As a child, I always wondered what became of the sheep left behind on that hillside, after the angels in the story told the shepherds to get themselves into Bethlehem posthaste. Maybe the unknown artist of this fresco had an anwer:  the sheep trotted right along. The horned sheep seems to get what’s going on; he raises his head as though somehow lifted up by what he’s seeing.

On this Christmas Eve, my wish is for all of us to remember that we share this beautiful earth with many others. To those who celebrate Christmas and to those who don’t, I wish peace, friendship and health.

Thanksgiving Day: A Berwick Memory

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For Thanksgiving Day, I thought I’d post some paintings from beautiful Berwick Church in southern England.  St. Michael and All Angels is a little parish church in Sussex, dating back to at least the 12th century.  Parts of it are even older, dating from Saxon days. It was given a modern artistic touch in the 20th century.

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During the First World War, the famous Bloomsbury group of artists, writers and intellectuals decamped from their London homes and occupied the Charleston Farmhouse and Monk’s House in this area.  The men were mostly conscientious objectors.  They fulfilled their patriotic duty by doing farm work in Sussex.

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In 1941, several artists from the group were hired to paint new murals and decorations in the ancient church.  These are some of the few remaining works of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Quentin Bell.  They depicted themselves and their friends, both as country laborers and as figures in sacred scenes.

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The artists were all free-thinkers and even atheists living unconventional, sometimes scandalous lives.  But the local religious authorities hatched an ambitious plan to give artists employment; they hoped the plan would spread all over England’s ancient churches.  That didn’t happen, but I’d like to think the Bloomsbury group occasionally attended a service at the little country church they decorated so beautifully.

Berwick Church stands as an example of cooperation and understanding between people with very different views of the world.  After the tumultuous election season Americans just endured, I think we can use some cooperation and understanding. We’re different, but we can stand together.

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As for me, I’m spending Thanksgiving Day on an airplane, heading off on a new adventure.  They’re serving pumpkin pie in the airport lounge.  It’s pretty good!

Eugene, the Painter Prince of Sweden

Prinz Eugen, Duke of Narke, 1910, painting by Anders Zorn, Public Domain

Prinz Eugen, Duke of Narke, 1910, painting by Anders Zorn, Public Domain

If I were born royal, I’d for sure want to be a younger child.  It looks to me like Prince Harry has a lot more freedom than the more direct heir to the throne, Prince William.  In Sweden, Prince Eugene was the fortunate younger son of the royal family in the late 19th century.

Eugene was born in 1865 in Drottningholm Palace, on a beautiful island about an hour by boat from Stockholm.  It’s still the home of the Swedish royal family, and makes for a dreamy visit. Eugene was fourth in line to the throne, so he was pretty much free to do as he liked. Nobody expected him to marry and produce an heir, although he did cheerfully carry out many royal duties.

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What Eugene wanted was to paint and to hobnob with artists and writers. He found the perfect spot for his home on the island of Djurgarden, with views over the water of the Stockholm skyline. He studied painting seriously, in Stockholm, Olso and Paris.

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Today, his beloved home, Waldemarsudde, is an enchanting museum with the rooms left as they were at his death in 1947.

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His top-floor studio space is a gallery with rotating exhibits, some by artists the Prince patronized during his long life.

In his studio and on his peaceful grounds, Eugene contentedly painted the Swedish and Norwegian landscapes he loved. The painting just above is a beloved country home where he spent time.

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Eugene decorated his home with the work of other artists who were his friends. He considered “The Water Sprite” by Ernst Josephson, 1884, to be one of his best acquisitions.  Josephson did three versions of this painting of a character from Swedish folklore. Eugene offered it to the Academy in Stockholm, but they considered it too daring to accept.  It seems the problem was not so much the nudity as the style.  Josephson was breaking away from the time-honored traditions of Realism and Naturalism.  He was getting into the movement that later became known as Symbolism. Eugene was more than happy to keep the painting, which dominates his salon.

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Inside Waldemarsudde, Eugene studied, read, and entertained his friends–most of them artists, and many of them partisans of the then-radical ideas of the 1880s. Although he was named the Duke of Narke at his birth, Eugene much preferred artists to royalty.

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Having seen Drottningholm Palace, the Royal Palace in Stockholm, and Waldemarsudde, I’m with Eugene.  The palaces are showplaces, gilded, confining, and a little dreary. Waldemarsudde is a light-filled home.  I’d choose the artist’s life over the Royal Prince’s any day.

 

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

More Lion Sightings with St. Jerome

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I’m always on the lookout for images of St. Jerome and his lion. Legend has it that when the saint retreated to the wilderness to study and pray, he came upon a lion with a thorn in its paw.  St. Jerome didn’t run or climb a tree.  He stopped and removed the thorn. From that day forward, the grateful lion stayed by his side. The fresco above is from a ceiling in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino, painted it between 1540 and 1565.

Pala Tezi, Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci, known as Il Perugino, 1500

Pala Tezi, Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci, known as Il Perugino, 1500

A more primitive, but still endearing, lion is in the painting above, from the Galleria Nazionale of Umbria in the town of Perugia.

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

The artist painted the lion and the saint sitting peacefully together in a simple landscape, in front of the cave that Jerome may have lived in.

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

Another painting by Perugino shows the saint in contemplation of the Virgin and child, accompanied by other saints.  In humble adoration, he’s set his cardinal’s red hat on the ground–and who is lurking beside him?

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

In turn, Jerome’s faithful lion gazes adoringly at him.  Isn’t this what we all love to have our pets do?

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

The lion’s face is distinctly human.  How many of us humanize our pets? It’s an ancient impulse.

St. Jerome, Pintoricchio, around 1495

St. Jerome, Pintoricchio, around 1495

The same museum in Perugia has another painting of the saint in the same pose–also with his cardinal’s red hat set humbly on the ground. It’s by Bernardino di Betto, known as il Pintoricchio.

The friendly lion is guarding the hat–and St. Jerome.  Who wouldn’t like to have a tame lion riding shotgun all the way through life? Jerome’s lion always had his back.

In medieval times, retreating to the wilderness to meditate was a radical action. Jerome would not have been the first man eaten by a lion in the wilderness. At a time when nature was frightening, St. Jerome was revered for being at one with nature. In our times, retreating to the wilderness still has its risks, but it’s becoming more and more an expensive luxury. Our wildernesses are shrinking and human over-development is routing wild animals from their age-old homes.

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I treasure any wildlife sightings, like this fox right outside my window.  And I’ll keep looking for glimpses of St. Jerome and his lion.

My previous post about St. Jerome and his lion is at

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/08/06/st-jerome-and-his-lion/

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!