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The Crèche’s Cast of Characters

POSTED BY , ON December 16, 2014, Comments Off

There are quite a few characters in the crèche who are probably instantly recognizable to most people—Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men—but because the crèche involves scenes of daily life, many of the figures might seem a bit more anonymous. But you can actually learn quite a lot about the Christmas story and life in 18th-century Naples if you look closely. Here’s some insider information to help you decipher some clues and learn more about the figures in the crèche:

Creche Benito

The character of Benito—located in the far right recesses of the crèche—is actually quite common in Neapolitan crèches of the period. This figure is always dressed in blue and is always sound asleep. He is completely oblivious of the star and the announcement of the angel, symbolizing all of those who do not listen to the news of the birth of Jesus.

Creche Georgiana

The name of this woman on the left is La Georgiana, referencing the fact that she hails from Georgia, located in the Caucasus. She’s dressed in Turkish attire, with billowing pants, a tight embroidered vest, and men’s pointy-toed red boots, and symbolizes the exotic ethnicities that have come to Naples. This outfit would have been meticulously crafted on a miniature loom and is most likely made from silk from the royal silk factory in San Leucio.

Creche jewelry

The jewelry worn by the figures was not made by miniature artists, but rather the same jewelers who bedecked the Neapolitan elite. Around this woman’s neck is a necklace made of real coral. Greek mythology holds that coral came from Medusa’s blood, which fell into the Mediterranean when she was decapitated. Neapolitans believed that coral had protective powers against evil and bad luck. If you look closely, you can see many of the ladies in the crèche wearing coral necklaces and earrings.

To see these figures in person, you can visit the crèche in Gallery 209 through January 6.

Image Credit: Crèche (details), mid-18th century. Naples. Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection, Ada Turnbull Hertle, Eloise W. Martin Legacy and Lacy Armour funds; restricted gifts of Mr. and Mrs. James N. Bay, Linda and Vincent Buonanno and Family, and Mrs. Robert O. Levitt.


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Saint Anthony Across the Collection

POSTED BY , ON December 09, 2014, Comments Off

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The centerpiece of the museum’s current exhibition Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor is undoubtedly Ensor’s 1887 The Temptation of Saint Anthony. This drawing is nearly six feet tall and features the eponymous saint surrounded by a variety of temptations sent by the devil himself.

But as you look closely, the temptations depicted in the painting might not be those that you would expect to see being used to tantalize an ancient saint. In fact, Ensor’s Saint Anthony is seduced by vices that modern audiences would have recognized, including fast food and government corruption. Traditionally, portrayals of Saint Anthony—which are fairly common throughout art history—depict temptations related to lust, greed, and demons.

We took a look through our collection to see how artists from the 16th to the 20th centuries have explored this dark subject:

Fantin Latour

Cranach

Brassai

Tiepolo

Image Credits:

James Ensor. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1887. Regenstein Endowment and the Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.

Henri Fantin-Latour.  The Temptation of Saint Anthony, from the third album of L’Estampe originale, 1893. The Charles Deering Collection.

Lucas Cranach, the elder. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1506. Gift of Mr. Potter Palmer, II.

Brassaï (Gyula Halász). Tentation de Saint Antoine (Temptation of Saint Anthony), 1934/35, printed 1967. Restricted Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gaylord Donnelley and Mr. and Mrs. Ralph J. Mills.

Giambattista Tiepolo. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, c. 1734. Helen Regenstein Collection.


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In the Know: Indigo

POSTED BY , ON December 08, 2014, Comments Off

ethel stein indigo 23 BLOG

When you enter into the exhibition Ethel Stein: Master Weaver you are faced with a sea of blue—indigo blue to be precise. The midnight hue has been used for centuries in textiles across the world from Japan to West Africa to Central and South America. In these complex weavings, Stein dyed threads of varying intensities so that when woven she could build subtle abstractions out of different hues of blue. One of the lovely additions to the exhibition is a video highlighting her working process of both dying and weaving. And dying with indigo is a magical thing—it actually transforms before your eyes. So, inspired by Stein’s use of indigo and in what may be one of the last opportunities before it gets too cold to work outside, I mixed up a vat of indigo dye.

INdigo sequence BLOG

When dying with indigo, the color oxidizes, meaning that it reaches its final color as it is exposed to air. From the dye bath, it emerges a yellow-green. But within minutes it turns a rich blue (the photo shows the same skein of wool yarn over a five-minute period). Rinse and repeat and you get a more intense blue each time, which is what makes Stein’s Indigo 23 and other weavings so lyrical. The repeated introduction to the dye and rate at which the natural cotton fiber “took” the dye makes for slight undulations of color in the individual threads that make up the complex weaving. Stein, however, isn’t just dipping yarn in a vat but using a resist-technique developed in Indonesia called ikat wherein parts of the threads are prevented from being dyed. We see a similar process in Japan called shibori or in Nigeria where the Yoruba use grassy raffia to tie, stitch, and bind fabric before it is dipped in the dye vat to create intricate patterns, as seen here in this detail from a woman’s wrapper in the Art Institute’s textile collection.

WomansWrapper (Adire Eleso) BLOG

Indigo is a plant that for centuries was primarily grown in India—the name indigo means “from India” in Greek—and can be used as a pigment, dye, and was even long-held as having medicinal qualities. One of the earliest recipes is from a Babylonian tablet dated 2,700 years old. In Renaissance Europe, indigo was a sought-after commodity that was associated with the coffee and spices imported from the East. Most people would know the characteristic navy hue from the blue of their denim jeans.

The beauty of Stein’s works unfolds as your eyes follow her threads, the gradual coming and going of color and pattern, and the blended textures resulting from her refined weaving processes. You don’t have to be a weaver to appreciate that which can only be made by hand. And since the exhibition has been extended to January 4, 2015, you’ll have plenty of time to look closer.

—Terah Walkup, Research Associate, Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art

Image credits:

Ethel Stein. Indigo 23, 1988. Gift of Ethel Stein.

Woman’s Wrapper (Adire Eleso), Yoruba Nigeria, mid-20th century. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Hammer.


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Work of the Week: The Christmas Story

POSTED BY , ON December 02, 2014, Comments Off

The Nativity

Shortly after completing his training as a painter, a young artist named Baccio della Porta met the charismatic Dominican Friar Giralamo Savonarola and was compelled to give up his artistic career and join Savonarola’s monastic order. Several years later in 1504, the young artist—now known as Fra (or Friar) Bartolommeo—returned to painting with a new, intensified spirituality.

That religious devotion is apparent in Bartolommeo’s The Nativity, created in 1506/07. This delicate rendition of the nativity scene features the Virgin humbly kneeling and looking upon her child, while Joseph assumes a pose of wonderment, as if newly aware of his son’s divine nature. A trio of angels floats above, while another pair of angels stands behind the holy family and seems to reflect on both the birth of Christ and on the piece of wood that’s visible just above the child’s head, which perhaps alludes to his eventual death.

To learn more about paintings, etchings, and illuminated manuscripts from the museum’s collection that focus on the Christmas story, join us on December 4 in Fullerton Hall at 12:00p.m. for a richly illustrated lecture. Free with museum admission.

Image Credit: Fra Bartolommeo (Baccio della Porta). The Nativity, 1506/07. The Art Institute of Chicago, Ethel T. Scarborough Fund; L. L. and A. S. Coburn, Dr. and Mrs. William Gilligan, Mr. and Mrs. Lester King, John and Josephine Louis, Samuel A. Marx, Alexander McKay, Chester D. Tripp, and Murray Vale endowment funds; restricted gift of Marilynn Alsdorf, Anne Searle Bent, David and Celia Hilliard, Alexandra and John Nichols, Mrs. Harold T. Martin, Mrs. George B. Young in memory of her husband, and the Rhoades Foundation; gift of John Bross and members of the Old Masters Society in memory of Louise Smith Bross; through prior gift of the George F. Harding, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson, and Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester collections.

 

 


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Decking the Halls

POSTED BY , ON November 28, 2014, 3 COMMENTS

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One of the Art Institute’s most popular holiday attractions is our decorated Thorne Miniature Rooms. Each year, a selection of rooms (12 this year!) are bedecked in tiny, period-appropriate holiday decorations.

But similar to your decorations at home, the carefully considered décor doesn’t just magically appear. Each year, the trees are meticulously trimmed by Thorne Rooms caretaker Lindsay Mican Morgan, who spends the days leading up to the holiday season installing the tiny pieces.

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In these images, you can see her installing the English Drawing Room of the Victorian Period. This room dates from the mid 1800s, when many of the traditions we associate with Christmas now were just gaining popularity. Queen Victoria, who was married to the German Prince Albert, adopted the German tradition of Christmas trees and when a picture of the royal family around the tree was posted in the newspaper, Christmas trees became very trendy.

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There are also a number of toys under the tree, which would have been a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, children had been largely left out of holiday festivities, which included balls and plays. However, with the rise of wealth in this age, children were increasingly doted upon and given gifts like the dolls and train that you see here.

The decorated Thorne Miniature Rooms were unveiled last week and will be up for your viewing pleasure through January 6.


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