Monthly Archives: August 2013

Spotlight: The Taj Mahal (1653 AD), considered a masterpiece, was built in memory of whom?

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal (1653 AD)—a white marble mausoleum located in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India—was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Widely recognized as “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage,” the Taj Mahal is also regarded by many as the finest example of Mughal architecture, a style that combines elements from Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural styles.

Ever since its construction, the building has been the source of an admiration transcending culture and geography, and so personal and emotional responses have consistently eclipsed scholastic appraisals of the monument.

In 1983, the Taj Mahal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While the white domed marble mausoleum is the most familiar component of the Taj Mahal, it is actually an integrated complex of structures. The construction began around 1632 and was completed around 1653, employing thousands of artisans and craftsmen with Ahmad Lahauri, who is generally considered to be the principal designer.

Emperor Shah Jahan himself described the Taj in these words:

Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.

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*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal

Spotlight: The novel, Don Quixote (1605 AD), is considered by many as the best literary work ever written – so what’s it all about?

don quixote

Don Quixote—a Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra published in 1605 AD—follows the adventures of Alonso Quijano, a noble man who reads so many chivalric novels that he decides to set out to revive chivalry, under the name Don Quixote. He recruits a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire, who often employs a unique, earthly wit in dealing with Don Quixote’s rhetorical orations on antiquated knighthood. Don Quixote is met by the world as it is, initiating such themes as parody, realism, and literary representation.

Don Quixote is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and the entire Spanish literary canon. As a founding work of modern Western literature, and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published. It has had major influence on the literary community, as evidenced by direct references in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1844) and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In a 2002 list, Don Quixote was cited as the “best literary work ever written”

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*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Quixote

Spotlight: “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me” – Macbeth 1605 AD

macbeth

Macbeth, written by William Shakespeare in 1606 AD, is considered one of his darkest and most powerful tragedies. Set in Scotland, the play dramatizes the corrosive psychological and political effects produced when evil is chosen as a way to fulfill the ambition for power.

Macbeth—Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy—tells the story of a brave Scottish general named Macbeth who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne for himself. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia, and he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler as he is forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion. The bloodbath and consequent civil war swiftly take Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into the realms of arrogance, madness, and death.

Over the course of many centuries, the play has attracted some of the most renowned actors to the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It has been adapted to film, television, opera, novels, comic books, and other media.

“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me”. Macbeth Quote (Act I, Scene III).

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*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macbeth

Spotlight: Can you name this fresco (1509 AD by Raphael)?

Raphael-School

 

Answer: The School of Athens by Raphael (1510 AD)

The School of Athens represents all the greatest mathematicians, philosophers and scientists from classical antiquity gathered together sharing their ideas and learning from each other. These figures all lived at different times, but here they are gathered together under one roof.

The two thinkers in the very center, Aristotle (on the right) and Plato (on the left, pointing up) have been enormously important to Western thinking generally, and in different ways, their different philosophies were incorporated into Christianity. Plato holds his book called The Timaeus.

Plato points up because in his philosophy the changing world that we see around us is just a shadow of a higher, truer reality that is eternal and unchanging (and include things like goodness and beauty). For Plato, this otherworldly reality is the ultimate reality, and the seat of all truth, beauty, justice, and wisdom.

Aristotle holds his hand down, because in his philosophy, the only reality is the reality that we can see and experience by sight and touch (exactly the reality dismissed by Plato). Aristotle’s Ethics (the book that he holds) “emphasized the relationships, justice, friendship, and government of the human world and the need to study it.”

Pythagoras (lower left) believed that the world (including the movement of the planets and stars) operated according to mathematical laws. These mathematical laws were related to ideas of musical and cosmic harmony, and thus (for the Christians who interpreted him in the Renaissance) to God. Pythagoras taught that each of the planets produced a note as it moved, based on its distance from the earth. Together, the movement of all the planets was perfect harmony — “the harmony of the spheres.”

Ptolemy (he has his back to us on the lower right), holds a sphere of the earth, next to him is Zaroaster who holds a celestial sphere. Ptolemy tried to mathematically explain the movements of the planets (which was not easy since some of them appear to move backwards!). His theory of how they all moved around the earth remained the authority until Copernicus and Kepler figured out (in the late 1500s) that the earth was not at the center of the universe, and that the planets moved in orbits the shape of ellipses not in circles.

Raphael included a self-portrait of himself, standing next to Ptolemy. He looks right out at us.

Spotlight: Who painted this ceiling – Sistine Chapel 1512 AD?

sistine-p1a

The Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo is a cornerstone work of High Renaissance art.

What  Do the Frescoes Depict?

A lot! The main panels down the center depict scenes from the Book of Genesis, from the Creation, to the Fall, to shortly after Noah’s deluge. Adjacent to each of these scenes, on either side, are immense portraits of prophets and sibyls who foretold the coming of the Messiah. Along the bottoms of these run spandrels and lunettes containing the ancestors of Jesus and stories of tragedy in ancient Israel. Scattered throughout are smaller figures, cherubs and ignudi (nudes). All told there are more than 300 painted figures on the ceiling. By the way, have you noticed the wealth of architectural members and moldings which dissect the ceiling? Most of those are actually two-dimensional, skillfully painted in by Michelangelo to demarcate separate compositions.

 

How Long Did it Take Michelangelo to Paint These?

It took him a bit over four years, from July of 1508 to October of 1512. Michelangelo got off to a slow start, not having painted frescoes before. He intended to (and did) work in buon fresco, the most difficult method, and one which only true masters undertook. In addition to having to learn everything about the medium itself and making initial blunders in that area, he also had to learn some wickedly hard techniques in perspective. (Consider that his figures look “correct” on curved surfaces, viewed from nearly 60 feet below.)

However, ultimately it wasn’t Michelangelo’s fault that the ceiling took four years. (Once he got the hang of things, he painted like a man on fire!) The work suffered numerous setbacks, such as mold and miserable, damp weather that disallowed plaster curing. A primary cause of downtime occurred when Julius was off waging a war, or ill to the point that Last Rites were administered. The ceiling project, and any hope Michelangelo had of being paid, were both frequently in jeopardy while Julius was absent or near death. Small wonder that the artist complained so often and bitterly about the project, really.

Contrary to popular belief, he painted in a standing position, not lying on his back. According to Vasari, “The work was carried out in extremely uncomfortable conditions, from his having to work with his head tilted upwards”

Michelangelo wrote a poem describing the arduous conditions under which he worked:

I’ve grown a goiter by dwelling in this den–

As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,

Or in what other land they hap to be–

Which drives the belly close beneath the chin;

My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,

Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly

Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery

Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.

My loins into my paunch like levers grind:

My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;

My feet unguided wander to and fro;

In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,

By bending it becomes more taut and strait;

Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:

Whence false and quaint, I know,

Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;

For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.

Come then, Giovanni, try

To succor my dead pictures and my fame;

Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.

 

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*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sistine_Chapel_ceiling

*http://arthistory.about.com/od/famous_paintings/a/sischap_ceiling.htm

Spotlight: Why is the Mona Lisa (1506 AD) so famous?

Mona_Lisa

 

The Mona Lisa  (1503 to 1506 AD) is a half-length portrait of a woman by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, which has been acclaimed as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.”  Mona in Italian is a polite form to address a woman —similar to Ma’amMadam, or my lady in English. 

 

The painting’s fame was emphasized when it was stolen on 21 August 1911. The Louvre, where it is currently on display, was closed for an entire week to aid in investigation of the theft.  After two years being missing, the theft tried to sell the Mona Lisa to the directors of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and was caught.

Leonardo used a pyramid design to place the woman simply and calmly in the space of the painting. Her folded hands form the front corner of the pyramid. Her breast, neck and face glow in the same light that models her hands. The light gives the variety of living surfaces an underlying geometry of spheres and circles. Leonardo referred to a seemingly simple formula for seated female figure: the images of seated Madonna, which were widespread at the time. He effectively modified this formula in order to create the visual impression of distance between the sitter and the observer. The armrest of the chair functions as a dividing element between Mona Lisa and the viewer.

The woman sits markedly upright with her arms folded, which is also a sign of her reserved posture. Only her gaze is fixed on the observer and seems to welcome them to this silent communication. Since the brightly lit face is practically framed with various much darker elements (hair, veil, shadows), the observer’s attraction to it is brought to even greater extent. The woman appears alive to an unusual measure, which Leonardo achieved by his new method not to draw the outlines, “mainly in two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes” (Gombrich), as firmly as that had been the use, before (sfumato). There is no indication of an intimate dialogue between the woman and the observer as is the case in the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (Louvre) painted by Raphael about ten years later, and undoubtedly influenced by the work.

Detail of Lisa’s hands, her right hand resting on her left. Leonardo chose this gesture rather than a wedding ring to depict Lisa as a virtuous woman and faithful wife.

The painting was among the first portraits to depict the sitter before an imaginary landscape and Leonardo was one of the first painters to use aerial perspective. The enigmatic woman is portrayed seated in what appears to be an open loggia with dark pillar bases on either side. Behind her a vast landscape recedes to icy mountains. Winding paths and a distant bridge give only the slightest indications of human presence. The sensuous curves of the woman’s hair and clothing are echoed in the undulating imaginary valleys and rivers behind her. The blurred outlines, graceful figure, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and overall feeling of calm are characteristic of Leonardo’s style. Owing to the expressive synthesis that Leonardo achieved between sitter and landscape it is arguable whether Mona Lisa should be considered as a traditional portrait, for it represents an ideal rather than a real woman. The sense of overall harmony achieved in the painting—especially apparent in the sitter’s faint smile—reflects the idea of a link connecting humanity and nature.

Mona Lisa has no clearly visible eyebrows or eyelashes. Some researchers claim that it was common at this time for genteel women to pluck these hairs, as they were considered unsightly. In 2007, French engineer Pascal Cotte announced that his ultra high resolution scans of the painting provide evidence that Mona Lisa was originally painted with eyelashes and with better visible eyebrows, but that these had gradually disappeared over time, perhaps as a result of over-cleaning. For modern viewers the nearly missing eyebrows add to the slightly abstract quality of the face.

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*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mona_lisa

Spotlight: Joan of Arc burned at stake (1431 AD)

JoanArc17-e

Joan of Arc (ca. 1412 – 30 May 1431 AD), nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans,” is a folk heroine of France and a Roman Catholic saint. She was born a peasant girl in what is now eastern France. Claiming divine guidance, she led the French army to several important victories during the Hundred Years’ War, which paved the way for the coronation of Charles VII of France. She was captured by the Burgundians, transferred to the English in exchange for money, put on trial by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais Pierre Cauchon for charges of “insubordination and heterodoxy”, and burned at the stake for heresy when she was only 19 years old.

Twenty-five years after her execution, an inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Callixtus III examined the trial, pronounced her innocent, and declared her a martyr. Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. She is – along with St. Denis, St. Martin of Tours, St. Louis IX, and St. Theresa of Lisieux – one of the patron saints of France. Joan said she had received visions from God instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War. The uncrowned King Charles VII sent her to the siege of Orléans as part of a relief mission. She gained prominence when she overcame the dismissive attitude of veteran commanders and caused the lifting of the siege in only nine days. Several additional swift victories led to Charles VII’s coronation at Reims.

To this day, Joan of Arc has remained a significant figure in Western civilization. From Napoleon I onward, French politicians of all leanings have invoked her memory. Famous writers, filmmakers and composers who have created works about her include: William Shakespeare (Henry VI, Part 1), Voltaire (The Maid of Orleans), Friedrich Schiller (The Maid of Orleans), Giuseppe Verdi (Giovanna d’Arco), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (The Maid of Orleans), Mark Twain (Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc), Jean Anouilh (L’Alouette),Bertolt Brecht (Saint Joan of the Stockyards), George Bernard Shaw (Saint Joan), Maxwell Anderson (Joan of Lorraine), Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc), Robert Bresson (The Trial of Joan of Arc), Arthur Honegger (Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher), Leonard Cohen (Joan of Arc), and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (Joan of Arc). Cultural depictions of Joan of Arc have continued in film, theatre, television, video games, music, and performances.

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*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_of_arc

Spotlight: The Birth of Venus (1486 AD) – Painting by Botticelli

Sandro_Botticelli_-_La_nascita_di_Venere_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited

The Birth of Venus  is a 1486 masterpiece painting by Sandro Botticelli.  Botticelli was commissioned to paint the work by the Medici family of Florence.  It depicts the goddess Venus, having emerged from the sea as a fully grown woman, arriving at the sea-shore.  The painting is on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

Art historians who specialize in the Italian Renaissance have found a Neoplatonic interpretation, which was most clearly articulated by Ernst Gombrich, to be the most enduring way to understand the painting. Botticelli represented the Neoplatonic idea of divine love in the form of a nude Venus.

For Plato – and so for the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy – Venus had two aspects: she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love or she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love in them. Plato further argued that contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty. So, looking at Venus, the most beautiful of goddesses, might at first raise a physical response in viewers which then lifted their minds towards the Creator. A Neoplatonic reading of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus suggests that 15th-century viewers would have looked at the painting and felt their minds lifted to the realm of divine love.

Botticelli’s art was never fully committed to naturalism; in comparison to his contemporary Domenico Ghirlandaio, Botticelli seldom gave weight and volume to his figures and rarely used a deep perspective space. In the Birth of Venus, Venus’ body is anatomically improbable, with elongated neck and torso. Her pose is impossible: although she stands in a classical contrapposto stance, her weight is shifted too far over the left leg for the pose to be held. Moreover, her positioning on the edge of the shell (which cannot be identified as real), would certainly cause it to tip over. The bodies and poses of the winds to the left are even harder to figure out. The background is summary, and the figures cast no shadows. It is clear that this is a fantasy image.

Venus is an Italian Renaissance ideal: red-haired, pale-skinned, voluptuous. Botticelli has picked out highlights in her hair with gold leaf and has emphasized the femininity of her body (long neck, curviness). The brilliant light and soothing colors, the luxurious garden, the gorgeous draperies of the nymph, and the roses floating around the beautiful nude all suggest that the painting is meant to bring pleasure to the viewer.

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*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_Venus_(Botticelli)

Spotlight: Inca Civilization & Culture (1200 – 1530 AD)

Inca

The Inca Empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. The administrative, political and military center of the empire was located in Cusco in modern-day Peru.

From 1438 to 1533, the Incas used a variety of methods, from conquest to peaceful assimilation, to incorporate a large portion of western South America, centered on the Andean mountain ranges, including, besides Peru, large parts of modern Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile, and a small part of southern Colombia into a state comparable to the historical empires of Eurasia.

There were many local forms of worship, most of them concerning local sacred “Huacas”, but the Inca leadership encouraged the worship of Inti—the sun god—and imposed its sovereignty above other cults such as that of Pachamama. The Incas considered their King, the Sapa Inca, to be the “child of the sun.”

Architecture was by far the most important of the Inca arts, with textiles reflecting motifs that were at their height in architecture. The main example is the capital city of Cusco. The site of Machu Picchu was constructed by Inca engineers. The stone temples constructed by the Inca used a mortarless construction that fit together so well that a knife could not be fitted through the stonework.

Inca calendars were strongly tied to astronomy. Inca astronomers understood equinoxes, solstices, and likely zenith passages, not to mention the Venus cycle. The Inca calendar was essentially luni-solar, as two calendars were maintained in parallel, one solar and one lunar. As twelve lunar months fall 11-days short of a full 365-day solar year, those in charge of the calendar had to adjust every winter solstice. The twelve lunar months were each marked with specific festivals and rituals. Time during a given day was not reckoned in hours or minutes, but rather in terms of how far the sun had traveled or in how long it takes to perform a task.

The economy of the Inca Empire has been characterized as involving a high degree of central planning. While evidence of trade between the Inca Empire and outside regions has been uncovered, there is no evidence that the Incas had a substantial internal market economy. While axe-monies were used along the northern coast, presumably by the provincial mindaláe trading class, most inhabitants of the empire would have lived in a traditional economy in which male heads of household were required to pay taxes both in kind (e.g., crops, textiles, etc.) and in the form of the mit’a corvée labor and military obligations.  In return, the state provided security, food in times of hardship through the supply of emergency resources, agricultural projects (e.g. aqueducts and terraces) to increase productivity, and occasional feasts. The economy rested on the material foundations of the vertical archipelago, a system of ecological complementary in accessing resources, and the cultural foundation of ayni, or reciprocal exchange.

Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro and his brothers explored south from what is today Panama, reaching Inca territory by 1526.  It was clear that they had reached a wealthy land with prospects of great treasure, and after one more expedition in 1529, Pizarro traveled to Spain and received royal approval to conquer the region and be its viceroy. This approval was received as detailed in the following quote: “In July 1529 the queen of Spain signed a charter allowing Pizarro to conquer the Incas. Pizarro was named governor and captain of all conquests in Peru, or New Castile, as the Spanish now called the land.”  When they returned to Peru in 1532, a war of the two brothers between Huayna Capac’s sons Huáscar and Atahualpa and unrest among newly conquered territories—and perhaps more importantly, smallpox, which had spread from Central America—had considerably weakened the empire. Pizarro did not have a formidable force; with just 168 men, 1 cannon and 27 horses, he often needed to talk his way out of potential confrontations that could have easily wiped out his party.

The Spanish horsemen, fully armored, had great technological superiority over the Inca forces. The traditional mode of battle in the Andes was a kind of siege warfare where large numbers of usually reluctant draftees were sent to overwhelm opponents. The Spaniards had developed one of the finest military machines in the pre-modern world, tactics learned in their centuries-long fight against Moorish kingdoms in Iberia. Along with this tactical and material superiority, the Spaniards also had acquired tens of thousands of native allies who sought to end the Inca control of their territories.

Almost all of the gold and silver work of the Inca Empire was melted down by the conquistadors.

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*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inca