Monday, 26 December 2011

Who's the man with a boil on his head?

I came to Catholicism long after I came to hagiography.  By the time it dawned on me that I had religious beliefs, I was already enamoured of saints and something of an expert. 

It was all my mother's fault.  A jaunt to Madame Tussauds was foiled by excessive queues and as an alternative, she took me to the National Gallery.  I think I was about 6 or 7, and suspect I must have been disappointed and said so.  She soothed me down with promises of French Impressionists - a group of artists she liked a lot.

For one reason or another, I lost her somewhere around the first couple of galleries.  She sailed on to the joys of Monet and Renoir and I got stuck in the Early Renaissance.  Remarkably, she didn't panic, but simply retraced her steps and came to find me.  By then I'd found the small group of paintings by Sassetta and was gazing entranced at the scene where St Francis politely shakes a wolf by the paw - to the astonishment of the people of Gubbio.

It was a revelatory moment for me.  The first time art had sung to me.  I felt absolutely familiar with the form and style without any explanation at all.  It was, in fact, how the seven year old me would have painted the scene, had I had the talent.  I greeted mum, showed her the wonderful picture and we moved on to look at others of the same ilk.

Which immediately begged the question posed as the heading of this post.  (The image below isn't the one I saw that day, but it is fairly close, and does illustrate the point).

As it turned out, he was Saint Stephen - protomartyr and deacon, stoned to death in the very early days of the church.  His emblem, naturally, is a rock.  I was in love.  The shorthand and the directness of early Renaissance art had me hooked from then on.  I spent hours searching for books about iconography and hagiography and joyfully tracked down obscure images of obscure saints.  As far as Stephen goes, Crivelli's is probably my favourite. 

Crivelli has been one of my favourite artists ever since I found out about him.  He's a glorious anachronism.  In a world heading rapidly for Baroque, he remained deeply in love with the mixed Byzantine and Gothic traditions.  He work is feverish, intense, sublimely coloured and often filled with inexplicable fruit.  I love the way his Stephen has beautifully balanced rocks placed symetrically on his shoulders.  I love the soup dish halo.  I love that it was painted in 1476 and is contemporary with Mantegna, Bellini, Botticelli and other giants of that era - and yet so resolutely belonging somewhere earlier.  In the same year, Mantegna was painting this in Mantua.

On the feast of St Stephen, it seems appropriate to dwell a little on the art that lit up my life when I was so young and has continued to light it up ever since. 

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