2 August 2009

James Ensor, medieval art and death.

Medieval art is one of my favourite art periods, I just love it.

The whole spectrum of medieval art in Europe was dominated by the Christian ideology. The architecture, the astounding Gothic cathedrals, the sculptures, the tapestries, the manuscripts, the paintings, almost every form of visual display was associated with numerous aspects of cultural behaviour, custom and communication used to illustrate Christian philosophy and dogma.

I am not a Christian and I am not a religious person but I adore medieval art even if it is full of God, Saints, religious symbols, devils, angels, and bizarre creatures – maybe all those things are the reason for my adoration of this period.

I love the colours which the artists use in their paintings, manuscripts, tapestries and the roof carvings. I find irresistible the absence of perspective however I find more irresistible the imagination of the artists who created the most incredible fantastic/ surreal paintings and ideas about the heaven’s, hell’s and the world’s hierarchies.

I am fascinated by the fact that the people of the medieval period could have lived in such intimacy with death. Life was never-ending; death was a mere interruption of the continuum; after which the soul would await the Last Judgment (heaven or the hell).

The Dance of Death by Vincent of Kastav

One of the most interesting images of death in the medieval art besides the Last Judgment is the dance macabre, the Dance of Death. It is a strange fantasy for us, but probably very consistent with the medieval acknowledgement of death and life as a continuum.

The Dance of Death by Vincent of Kasta, fragment and copy
One of the best and astonishing images of the Dance of Death is in . It is a fresco made by Vincent of Kastav around 1474. It is a very strange yet wonderful image full of all classes of men, women, children, and between them skeletons walk in procession. There are ten characters in this dance; each one is accompanied by Death. In-between the skeletons dance the pope, the cardinal, the bishop, the king, the queen, the innkeeper, the child, the maimed, the knight, and finally the merchant, who stands by a table covered with goods. The skeletons are naked and some of them play music; bagpipes, mandolins and wind instruments. The merchant, who is last in joining the dance, tries to bribe Death by pointing at his money. His efforts are futile; Death will never spare a "dancer" in exchange for mere riches.

Now it is time for me to show how James Ensor fits in to medieval art and death.

James Ensor (April 13, 1860 – November 19, 1949), one of the most famous Belgian artists was obsessed with death, grotesque masquerades, and fantastic allegories. In some point in his artistic development he turned towards religious themes as well. He interpreted them as a personal disgust for the inhumanity of the world.

The most famous painting of him is the immense "Christ's Entry into Brussels". In this painting he took on religion, politics, and art by depicting Christ entering contemporary Brussels in a Mardi gras parade. It is a vast carnival crowd in grotesque masks advancing towards the viewer. Nearly lost amid the teeming throng is Christ on his donkey. Although Ensor was an atheist, he identified with Christ as a victim of mockery.

Christ's Entry into Brussels by James Ensor

His other famous painting "Tribulation of Saint Anthony" could be seen as a modern version of the famous painting "The Temptation of St. Anthony" by Hieronymus Bosch. The work features a hooded holy man inundated by Boschian creatures floating in swampy skies -- devils and demons that fart on him and defecate. In my humble opinion this is one of his masterpieces.

Tribulation of Saint Anthony by James Ensor
I think that Ensor owes debts to medieval art, medieval artists and the medieval view of the world. The attitudes and images of the period between 500-1.000 years ago are the origin of many of his paintings.

There is a major Ensor exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City at the moment. Unfortunately "Christ's Entry into Brussels" isn't included in the Show in MoMA. But I saw it once in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The exhibition will travel to the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, October 2009–February 2010.

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