Yesterday, as if all the museums I went to in January weren’t enough (no, obviously), I decided to walk to Kupferstichkabinett, in the same building as the Gemäldegalerie. I thought looking at mediæval and renaissance prints and works on paper would make a fine afternoon. Except I couldn’t. Neither can anyone. The works aren’t on display, they are too fragile. Instead you can request what you’d like to see and sit in a study room. Not what I had in mind, I decided for my fourth round through the Gemäldegalerie. (Journeys One, Two, and Three for the over-committed.)
I had the bright idea to photograph all the mediæval people of colour. I gave up on that pretty quick. Far too many. Most pieces have someone at least dressed in a way that indicates Semitic, Arabic, Middle Eastern, North African, irrespective of skin colour. Even what’s here represents only about half of the works of a particular type, like Hans Baldung’s (the Green) Der Dreikönigsaltar from 1506/07 (which I wanted to see again), with the holy Saint Mauritius in the right wing in full armour. Really one of my favourites, his hand and the red pole of his standard reflected in his breastplate and thigh, weight cocked onto his left leg, and left arm casually hooked on the hilt of his massive sword, the white flag with black buzzard framing his head like a crown.
So, what am I doing? Around the same time I started going regularly to museums, getting interested in mediæval art and history (a significant change from years of reading China and Central Asian history), getting interested in northern European and German mediæval art and history, looking at women—either as subjects or artists—in renaissance and mediæval art, I discovered the medievalpoc tumblr. I started looking at everyone in the works differently, asking questions about their presence or absence, and looking closer also, looking at every person in a crowd, their clothing, headdress, jewellery, shoes, which way they were looking, how they stood, who they were with, their eyes, noses, mouths, hair, ears, expression, colour of their skin, how the artist represented all this, and the light and shadow. Lucky there’s a lot of landscapes and still lifes in the Gemäldegalerie or I’d never get out, thirteen hundred works or something.
It was Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood that I owe much for practicing this depth of attention to detail, and much of my current love of mediæval art, being for me a work on the process of looking at specific works from a specific time and region and learning to read the interplay, symbolism, philosophical and political arguments going on, played out, and contained in them. And so standing in a museum, looking at a Germanic mediæval altarpiece with the right quarter dominated by a black man in a silver suit of armour, and another black man standing on the left of the central panel as one of the three holy kings, I had to ask what was going on?
The left wing of the Thüringisch Auferstehungsaltar aus Arnstadt circa 1430 I think speaks of this. I wanted to start with it because of the variety of skin colour. It’s possible the bearded golden-haired, silver-haired, and brown-haired figures are each respectively the same person who stood for the artist, giving four individuals who comprise this scene; even the women on the smaller right panel have varied skin hues, though less pronounced. My photograph doesn’t convey the subtlety clearly, but each of the ten have unique skin colour. What is clear is this was intentional: both the diversity of the ten people and the subtle difference of their skin colour.
When I look at the next piece then, Meister des Gereon-Altars Marienaltar aus St. Gereon, circa 1420/30, obviously the person on the left of the centre panel is black, but what about the person next to him? Different from the woman on the right, subtly different from the third man. What does it mean the men are all darker than the women, who nonetheless have their own variations within this lightness?
Every room in the Gemäldegalerie has someone like St. Mauritius in at least one painting. Up ’til the 17th century or so that is. Netherland and Flemish art from then on is uniformly of people who look typically Netherlandish or Flemish; even the Adoration of the Magis have them dressed up like local farmers. Italian art has markedly fewer as well. French and English, nope. As for why mediæval art of the Low Countries and particular the Germanic region has so many people of colour, this is another question I find myself asking a lot. I like where answering it, something that is never finished, leads me.
Along with St Mauritius, the Meister des Aachener Altars’ Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige circa 1510, the richness of their clothing, jewellery, his sword and hilt. What’s also notable here and in other pieces is there’s not just one black person in the scene. Like in Hans Suess von Kulmbach’s Die Anbetung der Könige from 1511, with the guy on his horse in the centre, peacock’s feather in his cap and glorious blue eyes. And notice the spurs the kneeling king is wearing, which many of the kings not in full armour had, like the next one, the massive Der Anbetung der Könige by Hugo van der Goes circa 1470 (this, St Mauritius, Triptychon mit der Anbetung der Könige, and a couple of others I made from several images, partly to capture the detail, partly to reduce distortion—when I say massive, I mean 2-4 metres high—and often to deal with light glare). Actually I’m mad for the clothes. I’d love if fashion like this was common again.
Jacob Claesz van Utrecht’s Triptychon mit der Kreuzabname from 1513 is one of the detail works. Yes, there’s the king on the right (love the blue scarf on his hat, more spurs, awesome sword), but in the background, two knights with pikes, dressed in white, codpieces, caps with white feathers, directly behind a person with dwarfism (which I could make a whole other post on: they were everywhere too). And in Francesco Granacci’s Darstellung aus dem Leben des jungen Tobias, 1469-1543 in the crowd scene beneath the portico, on the left, behind the two heralds (also the person on the right in the broad-brimmed hat); in Cima da Conegliano’s Die Heilung das Anianus durch den hl. Markus, circa 1497/99 up the back in the blue hat; in Dominico Veneziano’s Die Anbetung der Könige circa 1439/41 dressed in white, sitting on a camel; throughout Antonio Vivarini’s (with Giovanni d’Alemagna) Die Anbetung der Könige circa 1418/40. Everywhere.
A couple of others: Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Georg Clive (1720-1779) und seine Familie mit einer indischen Dienerin circa 1765/66 is not a nice painting. It’s large and plainly strange. The skin colour of Clive is particularly worrying. Clive was part of the British force which conquered India, and this was painted shortly after, when he was clearly enjoying the spoils of colonialism. He wasn’t in the painting originally. There is a seam where the curtain begins, marking the extension of the canvas. His daughter according to the audio guide died shortly after, hence this reconfiguring. The audio guide proposes a dual reading of this: with Clive as the submission of India under rule of the East India Company where he was the cousin of Robert Clive, Clive of India; and without as a portrait of Mother and Child.
Philips Wouwerman (1619-1668) Gesellschaft auf der Falkenjagd is one of the exceedingly rare early modern works with any people of colour in the Gemäldegalerie. I think (despite it’s out of focus) it illustrates succinctly the difference between the two eras.
In the basement. Hendrick Heerschop’s Der Mohrenkönig Caspar, from 1654(?). The basement is a dire place. Horrible, harsh, yellow-tinged overhead lighting, windows on one wall throwing glare on all the works, particularly ones like this, covered in glass. I took this from above and to the left, a compromise between reflection and distortion. It doesn’t do the work any justice, as it’s truly beautiful, the subtle colours, his expression, the bronze and copper of his clothing. The absence of visitors down there attests to the need for some serious rethinking of that part of the collection.
Four times in the Gemäldegalerie and still I feel I barely know it. I do have some favourites now, and for painting it’s a sublime place of wandering.