With only a couple of weeks to go before I head off to Barcelona (and elsewhere) on vacation, the timing on some astonishing new archaeological findings at the city’s Cathedral could not be more perfect. Being more than 2,000 years old, Barcelona is one of those places where, particularly in the oldest part of the city, as soon as you start digging in the ground and shifting things about, relics of the ancient past start cropping up. This time however, the finds were all above-ground, and hiding in more or less plain sight.
Perhaps the most significant discovery is that the marble “cathedra” (“seat”) used by the Archbishop of Barcelona when presiding at the Cathedral, is much older than previously thought. For a long time, the episcopal throne was thought to date from the Romanesque-era Cathedral that stood on the site in the 11th century [N.B. the wooden sections and the marble barley twists are later additions.] Experts now believe that the marble slabs which make up the chair are of Ancient Roman origin, probably imported from the quarries of Carrara to the then-Roman colony of Barcino (predecessor of today’s Barcelona) sometime before the 4th century A.D.
For those of you who can’t read Spanish, I’ll sum up some of the other facinating highlights from the investigation:
– In the cloister are two inscribed fragments of a monumental Roman marble pedestal that once stood in the city’s forum, which was located a short distance away from the site of the present Cathedral; these slabs were reused as building material, and there may be other fragments scattered throughout the present Cathedral.
– The sepulcher of St. Raymond of Penyafort, located in one of the side chapels of the Cathedral, is composed of a 3rd century Ancient Roman portrait bust stuck onto a 14th century Gothic body. (I’ve always admired this piece and wondered why the head and the body seemed so different from one another: now I know why.)
– The fragmentary 9th century marble inscriptions in the Crypt, which used to mark the grave of St. Eulalia in the nearby church of Santa Maria del Mar before the relics were moved to the Cathedral and the present 13th century sarcophagus was commissioned, contained a circular opening where pilgrims could touch objects to the body of the saint. My Catholic readers will recognize that this enabled pilgrims to take away third-class relics.
– The old baptismal font, which was thought to date from the 11th century Romanesque building, is in fact an architectural element from a demolished Ancient Roman building, and like the slabs of the marble throne was likely imported from Italy. It was probably a decorative element from the cornice of a demolished Roman temple that was subsequently destroyed.
Since I always take the time to visit the Cathedral when I’m in Barcelona, I’ll be sure to seek out these objects, and have a closer peep at them. When considering new information on their origins, art objects naturally take on a different appearance, since whenever you learn more art history it’s impossible to see something the same way you did before you had additional information. And who knows: perhaps while looking about, I’ll even stumble across something previously unidentified, myself!
And now on to some of this week’s art news.
Irish novelist and commentator Colm Tóibín, a fellow admirer of all things Barcelona, recently shared his thoughts on the Tintoretto exhibition now at the National Gallery of Art here in DC. (You may recall those of a more insignificant scribbler were also published recently.) Although he forgets to mention the fact that there is a cat in the picture – a fact which is both fun and highly symbolic – Tóibín’s analysis of the “Last Supper” (1563-64) in the National Gallery show is quite on point:
This has all the aura of a secular scene, with nothing holy or graceful about it. While there is a vague halo around Christ’s head and he is clearly the leader, the one being listened to, it seems most unlikely that, with this motley crew for company, he could be about to redeem the world. The clothes of his followers are poor, as is the table itself, with half-eaten food on display.
The Year of Leonardo continues to surprise the art world with almost weekly discoveries, theories, and material for cocktail party debate. The latest example of this, a Renaissance sketch of a middle-aged, bearded man in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, is now claimed by some art experts to represent Leonardo Da Vinci himself. The drawing is not a new discovery, but the attribution of Leonardo as being the subject, drawn from life by one of his shop assistants, is. Well…sort of: back in the 1930’s, historian Kenneth Clark wondered whether it might be a portrait of Da Vinci. Personally, I’m not in a position to say whether it is or isn’t Leonardo, but to me the sketch could just as well be anyone – or no one, other than an invention of the artist’s imagination. Visitors will have the chance to decide for themselves when “Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing” opens at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace on May 24th.
Australian actor David Wenham is probably best known to my fellow nerds from his star turns as Lord Faramir in “Lord of the Rings” or as Dilios, the narrator and right-hand-man of King Leonidas in the “300” films. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the portrait of Mr. Wenham by Australian artist Tessa MacKay, titled “Through the Looking Glass” (2019), recently won the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ 2019 “Packing Room Prize”: arguably the ultimate in fanboy art awards. As they open crates arriving at Sydney’s most prestigious art museum for the annual Archibald Prizes show, the museum’s packing room staff note which ones they like the most, and then vote on a winner. While the Packing Room Prize winner has never won an Archibald Prize, either simultaneously or subsequently, in this case one can see why the staff liked this picture. Not only is it an image of a familiar, popular figure, but Ms. MacKay’s technique is a visual blend of both technical skill and enjoyable references to American Realists and Photorealists, such as Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Richard Estes.