A Biblical Theme- Relational Matrix
Updated: Jan 29
An essay on reinterpreting a Baroque Masterpiece- Brian Keeler
“ A cyclone of action” is how a large figurative painting was described in the descriptive wall plaque at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This was jotted down on a quick sketch I did while standing in front of the large canvas that was an in illustration of a famous scene from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. The scene was indeed a dynamic whirlwind composition of interlocking figures involved in a life and death struggle of high drama. This “cyclone of action” was used in this figurative ensemble to structure the narrative of The Judgment of Solomon.
The artist, Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) was of French birth, but who made his career in the early 17th century in Rome. So, for all intents and purposes, he is Italian in his art. In fact his paintings are in the tradition of the great Italian painter, Caravaggio. Also, the catalog for this exhibit is subtitled, "Beyond Caravaggio."
This exhibit was visited in the winter of 2016 and it was truly enthralling and an eye opener for the mere scope and virtuosity of the paintings. But also, there was the surprise and wonder aspect of the show, as this was a painter that I’d never heard of. If I'd encountered his work at a museum previously, it must be that his canvas somehow melded into the others. This show gathered dozens of paintings from around the world and came with a beautiful scholarly catalogue as do many shows.
The one painting that I gravitated to more than once, was a work that depicted the moment when a child is about to be slain by a swordsman from the order of Solomon. Actually there were two versions of this theme. In one, the child is hoisted up by one arm by the executioner- offered reluctantly by one of the mothers. Two prostitutes have been brought before King Solomon to resolve a dispute, a high pitched harangue ensues over who is the true mother of an infant. Both mothers bore children at the same time and one died- an therein lies the conflict, as both now say the surviving child is there own. How the King was brought in to settle a squabble in a brothel is not explained. Unable to find a way to resolve the dispute, Solomon orders the infant cut in half, and each mother will then be given half of the severed corpse. The true mother acquiesces to save the child, thereby resolving the issue and showing the truth.
I did not previously have a personal engagement with this theme. It was the art that drew me in. And as we suppose, this is the purpose of this type of religious art. Stained glass windows, illuminated manuscripts, statuary, icons and drawings and paintings devoted to Biblical scenes were intended to do just that- educate, inspire, involve.
The subtitle of this essay is the relational matrix. And this idea of being a participant in the drama illustrated is how I understand the relational idea. Whoever views the work becomes a participant somehow. De Boulogne accomplished this by having one of the figures (in several canvases) with their backs to the viewer, thereby creating a surogate viewer, which in turn invites us to join. And then we are ethically, if not spiritually involved and not just passive witnesses in the moral dilemma presented. When viewing art and especially great art, and even more so when grand themes of the Bible are presented, our relational aspects become even more attuned if not complicit. Complicit? We are generally uncomfortable with the implication of being involved in a nefarious our gruesome act, as we should be. This is because we are accused of somehow condoning or furthering an act usually regarded as repugnant.
As my painting is inspired by de Boulogne's canvas, his in turn was inspired by others. An etching by Orazio Borgiannini based on the same theme is itself inspired by a work by Raphael in the Vatican Logge. There was an entire oeuvre or tradition that supported this work of de Boulogne. Others preceded him and were working in similar veins including the sculptor Bernnini and the painter Guercino.
For this project of mine (creating a painting inspired by 17th century version) I hired models, friends to come in for a few hours to assume the poses of this painting and some others. I was minimizing any connotations with our era as I wanted this work to be able to fit in with a Renaissance era idea. That idea is a novel about a painter who is part of the Verrochio workshop in Florence in the 15th century. I was not entirely successful as I am sure the interior does not qualify. However, the apparel and general appearance is at least not of our era. The pose was derived from de Boulogne’s version. but with differences. I have appreciated the way the Baroque masters unified the darks and this case with de Boulogne the ensemble of figures is silhouetted against a dark background. This is the method of many artists of the era. One can see the tilted pyramidal armature in de Boulogne’s painting. That carried through in mine as well, although not by intent. It was pleasantly revealed to me as the work coalesced. There are other geometry rhymes and rhythms that appeared too. The parallel angles in my painting of the raised sword and the scepter in Solomon’s hand nicely intersect the triangle’s lower baseline at right angles.
There is an inclusion in my painting in the background room- a painting that I invented, depicting Verrocchio’s bronze statue of David. This brings in another Old Testament figure, who is also a sword-wielding assassin. The visual rhyme is also a connection to my planned novel set in Verrochio’s studio.
The interior setting that I used, is our 19th century house and it offered the enfilade of a room in the distant off to the left with cool window light. This brings in the Dutch Golden Age but also early Renaissance work like Van Eyk’s work and even Piero della Francesca. Van Eyk’s Arnolfini Wedding, a double portrait is referenced here as well. The convex mirror on the wall in my painting is the connection here. The reflective surface, presents a small self-portrait and adds another dimension. Van Eyk’s painting famously used this device with the 12 smaller mirrors surrounding the main one, each portraying an aspect of the life of Christ.
De Boulogne’s treatment is the opposite. He does away with the proscenium effect of a stage with deep space, and reduces the ensemble of actors to frieze-like narrow band of space. This is part of the reward in appreciation that comes through doing a study based on an old master work. It can also be humbling.
The composition of the original includes other figures, murky background men but most notably the grey colored corpse of the other child, who is lying across the center in front of Solomon. The true mother clasps her milk-filled breast in a pose that suggests impetuosity and desperation.
While painting this work I began reading a book titled, “The Remarkable Wisdom of Solomon” by Henry M. Morris, a text which explores many of the Biblical references. From the beginning the author causes us to wonder just how legitimate the general wisdom of Solomon could be. In fact the author agonizes over the slipping from grace by Solomon in later years. There are many less-than-noble characteristics and behaviors of Solomon. Take the fact that he had over 700 wives in addition to his original wife. There is some mention of adultery in the Bible. Hmm, the double standard and other inconsistencies do not exactly inspire adulation let alone a model of virtue or wisdom
Well, with a uninspiring biblical background of Solomon himself, the narrative by contrast and the theatricality redeemed this episode of such an angst-filled moment- this was engaging aspect to me. And the artistic presentation of de Boulogne was by contrast very inspiring.
The genre scenes in the show of de Boulogne’s work at the MET exhibit outweighed the religious paintings. And they were truly remarkable Wonderful depictions of tavern life are portrayed with an array of interesting characters; gamblers, card players, musicians, fortune tellers and waiters are painted with amazing skill. What was life like for the painter of that era is a question that comes to mind. The encounter with great art at such venerable museums makes us appreciative of our culture and history. For de Boulogne, he is taking sacred history and everday life and reinterpreting these themes for all of us. We are fortunate indeed to avail ourselves of great art of the Baroque era.