4: Over Your Head
This week, we talk about accession number 1952.18 at the Worcester Art Museum.
Our special thanks this week goes out to all of the students of the Holy Cross Ekphrasis class, whose brilliant work culminated in a Podcast Tour of the Worcester Art Museum that I am so proud to have been involved in. Their work has been a huge inspiration to me, and I can't wait to share it with you as those stories get published here over the summer. You're gonna want to stick around for what they have in store.
Music in this Episode:
Laid Back Guitars by Kevin Macleod
In The Sun by David Szesztay
Ay Luna Que Reluces! by Anonymous, performed by Jon Sayles
Rosa Amarela by Villa-Lobos, performed by Jon Sayles .
Riu Riu, Chiu by Mateo Flecha, performed by Jon Sayles
Welcome to Accession. Today, we're at the Worcester Art Museum, but we're not here for what you might traditionally consider art, and we're certainly not here for what you'd normally expect to find in an art museum. This story isn't about a painting, or a sculpture, or a vase, or a váse, or a photograph. It's about... well, I'll let you see for yourself when you get there. We're going to head to a familiar corner of the museum, the room right off the mosaic court, where Mentuhotep still sits, keeping watch. (As you pass Shelly, be sure to give him a nod and a wink.) From this room, we'll want to head to the next room over, if Shelly and Mentuhotep were to look to their right. Mind the stairs as you enter the room, and take a seat on one of the couches. If you look around you'll see pieces of armor and swords and other medieval treasures in cases, but the piece we're here for is not in a case, and nor is it on the walls. In fact it's on top of the walls. Today, we're looking at at Worcester Art Museum, accession number 1952.18.
If you're at the museum with us, then you are currently looking at one of the museums best secrets, which all good museums have, and one of my greatest burdens, which most art history people have. But you may have noticed that I refrained from giving the piece a name. The reason is twofold. The first is because what you are looking at is not a piece of art in the "fine art" sense, but a piece of art that would fit more in the category of interior design, or fixtures. You're looking at a beautifully crafted wooden ceiling, with enthralling designs painted all over. And most ceilings, with a few fine art exceptions that prove the rule, generally do not have names. The second reason I have withheld the name is that what the museum calls it kinda gives away the country that it came from, and today I thought we'd do a little "art history" detective work to figure that out for ourselves.
Now, the first thing you might notice is that this ceiling is made of two sets of rafters, larger rafters moving parallel to the couches on the ground, and smaller rafters in between those, running perpendicular. However, upon closer inspection, you'll notice that the pieces of wood aren't the large pieces of timber you may expect, but rather, smaller boards that have been joined together. What this indicates to us is that this roof needed to be able to breath. As seasons change, temperature and moisture levels can cause wood to contract and expand, and in extreme cases, crack and break. But with multiple smaller boards joined together, there is room for the boards to expand and contract without causing larger structural damage. Thus we are looking for a country with warm dry summers and cold wet winters.
The next thing we have to look at is the design. Every inch of the ceiling is covered in designs, either geometric patterns made largely of spiralling, orthogonal pathways, or leaves and flowers that curve into repetitive patterns that leaves and flowers don’t often curve into. Every nook and cranny of the ceiling is filled. And from this fact, and the general aesthetic, you may have already pegged that the design is somehow connected to Islamic culture. In Islamic art, we often refer to the four components of Islamic ornamentation: vegetal patterns, geometric patterns, calligraphy, and figural representations, with figural representation being almost entirely absent from architecture and religious art for religious reasons. Additionally, whatever is being covered with Islamic ornamentation is usually completely covered, without being overly crowded, an aesthetic idea that is often not quite accurately associated with the European idea of horror vacui (or kenophobia, for those of you who, like me, prefer the greek alternatives.) But if you see these two principles, one or more of the four types of Islamic ornamentation and a complete covering by said ornamentation, you can wager a fair guess that the piece is probably Islamic, if not heavily influenced by Islamic art.
But there is another design here that is not geometric, and not vegetal, nor calligraphy or figure, but heraldic. Not Islamic or Arabic, but European. Between the smaller rafters but on the larger ones are paintings of shields, family crests. There are two shields here, which alternate between the rafters. The one, in heraldic terms, is a chief and a saltire, or a bar at the top of the shield and an 'X' diving the body of the shield into four sections. The top and bottom sections are red, with the left and right sections being blue and yellow crosses. Alternating with those are red shields, with a white vase of lilies on the left and purple lion on its hind legs to the right. These two symbols are almost certainly indicative of specific families, and almost certain indicative of the families that owned and lived in this house. In some parts of the ceiling, you can even see other shield that belonged to the families from earlier in the lineage.
So now I think we have enough information. The combination of climate that this ceiling is built for, and the Islamic ornamentation and the European heraldry, puts us squarely in Spain. Rule was passed back and forth between Muslims and Christians for many centuries, resulting in an art that at times fluctuated between the two, but ultimately created an incredible blending of the two cultures, like we can see in the ceiling above us. And if there was a card in this room pointing out the ceiling above, it would probably mention that the ceiling is from the late 15th century, but I have yet to find that card.
Now just take a moment to think about that. This ceiling, the one above you right now, is over 500 years old, the one that you are looking at this very minute was not built for this room. It was on top of some other set of four walls, over some other floor, in a country across an ocean. To me, that's absolutely incredible.
Unfortunately for us, Spain is as close as we are going to get on geographically pinning down the original location of this roof. Because we don't actually know what family is associated with the shields that were last painted on these rafters. And despite the fact that it's a roof, that was once attached to four other walls, we don't actually know where those four walls are. The museum didn't even buy the roof in Spain. If we could find a card with information on this ceiling, we would know that it was purchased in Venice, in the 1930's. When the director of the WAM at the time traveled to Spain to see the house where we thought the ceiling originally resided, it was discovered that the room was far too small, and there is no way that it could have been that house. If you're the type who is up for some real art history research challenge, or happens to know a lot about Spanish heraldic symbols, there's at least two big questions to answer here. Whose family crests are these? And what house did that family live in? Ultimately answering one would probably help us answer the other, but as I look up at the ceiling today, both remain those brilliantly unanswered questions that give us a reason to keep telling stories.
Today as we look upon the roof, it appears dusty, muted, but, then, you might look dusty and muted too if you were a Spanish roof that was transported to Italy and then sold to America after 500 years. But blink for just a moment, and you can’t help but see the reds brighten back to a deep rose color, the blues shoot to the color of an ocean on a warm, clear day, the oranges ripen to the color of their eponymous fruit, and the greens become more verdant as the plants come alive upon the ceiling. I like to imagine that the people who lived in this house, who wanted their roof painted in this way wanted it to seem like the world above them was overgrown, like their home contained the capacity for the most fascinating forms of life, that even their ceiling had some sort of life to it.
It now may make more sense to you why there are two lamps in this room, and comfortable chairs that don't really seem to be pointing at the art. They are all there to hopefully get you to take a moment and look up. And now we've arrived back at my burden. I often find myself here as well, with much the same purpose.
I sit here and watch patron after patron wander through these galleries, without ever once glancing up and seeing the beauty just above them. Or at least, I did that once. Now I can't help but warn people as they pass through the room that they might be missing out.
I also can’t help but imagine that at some point when it was back in that Spanish home, the homeowners would have to do the same. We spend so much time focusing on the things in front of us that we forget to look up at all the little details and wonder.
And at some point in the thirties, some Venetian Merchant, or some Art Historian who was looking to save treasures from a war torn Spain; they were inspecting some house, some house lost to time, and they didn’t forget to look up, and they saw a ceiling that they though needed saving. And so they brought it to Venice, where the WAM bought it, and transported it to this room, probably adjusting the dimensions so it could have a place to sit where it fit just right. And it ended up here. And now here you are, looking up at it. Of course, if I hadn't of said anything, you might have just missed it. Don’t forget to look up.
But now by having listened to this episode and having shared this secret with you, the burden is no longer my own. When you find yourself walking through this gallery, and you see the people looking at those pieces of armor and enameling in the glass cases, it is now your job, your burden to pass along this beautiful secret as well. Don't forget to look up.
So I hope you take this as an invaluable lesson. Every time you walk into an art gallery, pay attention to what's hanging along the walls and what’s sitting on the pedestals and who's standing next to you. But don't forget to glance up every once and awhile. You never know what you might be missing. Another beautiful secret, perhaps. It just might go over your head. Don't forget to look up.