Monday, 30 June 2014

Renaissance Easter Eggs

Imagine you’re a 16th century painter.  People come to you and commission work.  But sometimes, the subject just doesn’t inspire you.  You get a little bored.  So maybe you decide to entertain yourself a bit.

Take this guy, for instance.
Portrait of a Gentleman – Bartolomeo Veneto, c. 1520

At a glance, it’s just a portrait of a slightly sad, slightly bored-looking guy with a penchant for poofy sleeves and draping as many dead animal skins over himself as possible.

But what’s that going on outside?

It that a robbery in progress?  Has there been a ride-by lancing?  Is this 16th-century foreplay?  Why doesn’t the guy in the foreground notice what is going on right outside his window?  Is his moping that intense?

Ok, so painting random dudes is something you do to make rent.  Painting the Madonna and Child must be a passionate act of devotion, right?  
Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John – Attributed to Yáñez de la Almedina, c. 1505

Just look at that Disney-princess-like Mary!  And such an adoring baby Jesus, who may or may not be about to strangle young St. John the Baptist!  Heck, even St. John looks happier than I thought he was ever allowed to be depicted.

…and then there’s the alcoholic intervention going on behind them.  George there apparently snuck off to indulge in a private flagon of wine, but his best friend Steve rushes to the scene to ask him to think of the kids, and remind him that he promised Melissa this wouldn’t happen again.

Right.  Everyone paints the Madonna and Child.  It’s like a rite of passage.  Let’s take on a less well-trodden Bible passage.  Something with all the drama of relying purely on faith to survive!
Elijah Fed by the Raven – Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, c. 1510

God sends a message to Elijah to go hide in a valley, noting that He ordered some ravens to feed him.  Sure enough, every day a raven brings him an English muffin well-seasoned with raven spit.
You can have an Egg McMuffin over my dead offspring’s bodies.

Miracle or no, Elijah seems to relish the idea of eating the same thing every day as much as anyone.
I would kill for burrito grande right about now.

But the thing is, while Elijah is staring forlornly at his next meal via Raven-o-gram, there is literally a chariot soaring through the sky behind him.

Everyone else around has stopped what they are doing to point and say, “OH MY GOD!!”
It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  It’s…wait, what is Apollo doing east of the Jordan?

The moral of the story: no matter how creative or artistic your job, doodling in the margins is always more entertaining than what you’re supposed to be doing.

All images are from the National Gallery of Art.


  1. I've missed a lot of amazing things staring at pies/cakes/donuts, so I feel for the dude in the last painting...

    1. Baked goods can be very distracting!

  2. That's a rickety old cloud chariot and the dude inside it isn't holding the reins. I reckon he must be an Elijah lookalike whom God has called up for a ticking off. However hard up you are, you can't make a living by impersonating a prophet. Whenever holy scripture shows a prophet behaving like dick, blame it on the lookalike!

    1. Sharp eye - it is indeed Elijah (or his evil twin). Really I think the best way God handled a mortal is when he/an angel came down and wrestled Jacob.

  3. I honestly don't know what to say. It totally is the artist getting a little bored with his/her main subject. At best it could be the artist thinking he's adding some sort of symbolism? But if I were Elijah, I wouldn't eat that biscuit. Ravens are cunning and vicious, that biscuit is probably poisoned.

    1. There is always symbolism involved. Unfortunately there are also always crass viewers like myself to ignore said symbolism. I totally agree on the safety of the raven food delivery service.