It remains the case that a good eye the best tool for spotting an overlooked work of art, whether in a flea market, or in grandma’s basement or…out in a trout stream.
A man who was trout fishing in a rural area near the city of Santiago de Compostela stumbled across what experts believe to be a 14th century statue of the Madonna and Child flanked by two angels. The piece was the victim of an intentional bit of sacrilege at some point in its history, since the faces of Mary and Jesus had been hacked off, but how it ended up in the stream no one knows. It had likely been there for some time, since it was partly coated with mosses and lichen similar to that of surrounding stones, as you can see in the photos here. On Monday of this week, the 330 pound granite sculpture was removed by local authorities, and taken to the main museum in Santiago for study.
The English-language reporting however, doesn’t mention a detail that resonates with those who know something about Spanish history. Some have taken to calling the figure, the “Virgen de la Desescalada” – “The Virgin of the De-escalation”. The reason for this requires a bit of cultural history backstory, relevant to the preservation of works of art, so bear with me.
During the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, and for many centuries that followed, Christians hid their religious art from Islamic iconoclasts. Sometimes these works were walled up, or buried, or hidden in caves and other remote locations. As time went on, the location of these caches would be forgotten, as people died and populations moved.
Once territories came under Christian control again, people began to find some of these images, sometimes under miraculous circumstances. Local, regional, or even national devotions would spring up at the sites where these works of art were rediscovered. There are examples of this throughout Iberia, including Atocha (Madrid), Guadalupe (Extremedura), Nazaré (Portgual) and my personal favorite (natch), that of Our Lady of Montserrat in Catalonia.
In a more pious age, such a discovery would certainly have been treated as a sign of favor and encouragement for the local population, and would have been marked with either the construction of a chapel at or near the site, or possibly the installation of the work in an existing nearby church or monastery. Sometimes the location would become the moniker by which the statue would become known, or some aspect of the finding, such as the circumstances that existed at the time of the discovery, would be commemorated. So as Spain “de-escalates” from the very strict Covid quarantines it lived under during the spring, it’s not surprising that some want to refer to the image as the “Virgin of the De-escalation”.
Whatever its origins, it’s unlikely that the piece will end up being an object of devotion. This is partly because of the fact that at least half of Spain is now, effectively, godless, but more due to the fact that the condition of the sculpture is such that it belongs in a museum, given that at some point in its history it appears to have been intentionally defaced (by the godless.) Nevertheless, that at least some of the good people of Galicia choose to interpret this discovery as one of encouragement is something I’m entirely of favor of, given the dark times in which we all find ourselves. In the meantime, authorities tend to search the entire course of the river to see if there are other works of sculpture abandoned in the area.
And so, on to some other news from the art world this week, which I’ve used my own (somewhat) good eye for such things to spot on your behalf.
Detaining a Dealer
If you don’t follow the business side of the art world, the name Inigo Philbrick probably means nothing to you; if you’re looking for a real-life tale of excess worthy of a Tom Wolfe novel however, you’ll want to dive deeply into this one about a hotshot young art dealer who made millions in a complicated scheme (allegedly) involving the resale of the same works of art to several different owners, before fleeing the authorities. Philbrick was captured a week ago today in, of all places, Vanuatu, and is now in the hands of American authorities in Guam. Check out this readable summary (with links) from the Art Crime Blog, while ArtNet has the story (as well as links to earlier stories) about his final days in the South Pacific before being captured. Shown below, Contemporary Artist Yayoi Kusama’s “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins” (2016), which is a work that Philbrick allegedly “sold” to a German investment group, despite the fact that it was (and remains) owned by the Saudi royal family, and not for sale.
Burning for Blue
If you’re of a scientific mindset, or perhaps even if you aren’t, you’ll be fascinated by some news from researchers at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam concerning what was, for many centuries, the most expensive paint in the world – and no, it isn’t gold. Ultramarine, an intense shade of blue that was popular from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and Baroque eras in Western art, was made of crushed lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that hails from Afghanistan, and which by weight was more valuable than any precious metal at the time. Following a number of experiments, researchers have concluded that the best method for creating the pigment involved heating the mineral to remove impurities, and that later deterioration and discoloration of the paint may be related to faults in this curing and preparation method. Test results on five paintings containing the paint are particularly interesting, since scientists were able to demonstrate that this method was used on five works painted over a span of around 300 years by five different artists, where the paint was applied to three different surfaces – canvas, copper, and wood – and using two different types of pigment binder: both oil and a mixed variety (which likely contains animal- or egg-derived binders.) Below we see one of the paintings involved in the research, “The Lamentation of Christ” (c. 1460-1464), by the great Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464).
Sailing from Spain (?)
And finally, returning to Spain where we started, Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum reopened to visitors this week minus one of the most valuable works on display until recently. As ArtNews explains, Mata Mua (“In Olden Times”), an 1892 work by the French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) may be on its way out of the country, along with several other paintings. Although much of the art in the museum was acquired by the nation in 1993, wife #5 of co-founder Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza had a number of pieces which she owned outright placed in the museum on extended loan for a number of years. Spain has never been able to come up with the asking price in order to acquire these works, and in recent years the former beauty queen has begun looking into selling them off: in 2012, she sold a John Constable (1776-1837) that had been on display at the Museum for years, perhaps as a warning shot that more would follow if Spain didn’t step up. While the Gauguin is the most valuable of the works in the latest news, to my eye the most interesting of the possible sales is that shown below, “The ‘Martha McKeen’ of Wellfleet” (1944) by Edward Hopper (1882-1967), one of Hopper’s most beautiful maritime paintings from his many happy, sunny summers on Cape Cod, which belie the usual mental image of him as a kind of dour, depressed urbanite.