All good things must come to an end, and this weekend is the final chance to see Flesh and Blood at Seattle Art Museum. I wrote a long read for those who want an historical context for Flesh and Blood (and some reasons why it is fantastic). Last week, I highlighted five works with notable hands. In advance of the grand finale, here are five more handy highlights.
Among these five, the subject matter is decidedly darker, which seems apt for the end of the line.
Big Pricks and Little Pricks in Annibale Carracci’s Pieta
The Pieta (a scene of Mary holding the dead Christ) has been rendered countless times, and Carracci’s stab at it is not particularly innovative at a glance. It’s quite sentimental, with the Blessed Mother and putti expressing different flavors of grief. We see the physically inaccurate rendering of the stigmata through Christ’s dead hands, rather than through the wrist. (This inaccuracy persists in a lot of popular imagery, even though nails driven through hands will simply rip through flesh and bone under the weight of a suspended body.)
Setting this aside, though, Carracci masterfully emphasizes the morbidity of the scene in the contrast of the sallow corpse against the flesh of the pinkish putti tenderly touching it. That wounded hand is supported near the dead center of the painting, both the literal and figurative locus of the event. To the believer, it is an emblem of self-sacrifice, with the face of the graceful mater dolorosa hovering above.
But what’s really clever in this particular Pieta is how the putti at the right seems to look directly out at the viewer. Its eyes are watery and accusing as it pricks its little finger on the crown of thorns before it, by the bruised, pierced feet. This touch evokes that slight physical pain (the one we’ve witnessed every naive child inflict upon itself), as a contrast to the agonizing puncture wounds in Christ’s body. According to the dogma, it’s the fault of every sinner (every child of god) that he had to suffer. Carracci thus uses that little pink pointer to implicate the penitent and the planet. Ouch.
Hands On Ground Where We Can See Them
Speaking of little kids and big ouchies: “The Massacre of the Innocents” by Massimo Stanzione is brutal. It depicts the Biblical Incident which King Herod ordered the execution of all boys two-years-old or younger within his domain. Heaps of dead infants and toddlers were scrawled into many Medieval depictions of the Massacre of the Innocents, but they leave a lot to imagination. Stanzione goes straight for the gut with his up-close-and-personal view of the atrocity.
In the deep, looming shadow of two of Herod’s cops lunging for children, one can make out a little corpse. But what really stabs at the viewer’s heart is a single, chubby severed hand on the stone at front, grey in the golden light. The faces are so dramatic and magnetic that one may not notice the hand at first. The face of a screaming child and his mother at right capture the moment of horror just before he is murdered. And then on the right edge, in a slant of shadow, one sees a mother hunched over and cradling the severed head of her son, gaping in shock. It’s a chilling before and after scene. And the slack tenderness of her hand around the back of the little noggin shares the horizontal with another lifeless nosepicker at the center of the painting.
Stanzione’s compression of time and crush of flesh is a singularly horrifying vision—in my opinion, the most effective and brutal depiction of the event to this day.
Willing And Abel
The first murder of the Bible has inspired a lot of active and brooding paintings. In them, Abel is usually in a state of shock, or ready to put up a fight, or already dead. In Leonello Spada’s vision…Abel is, shall we say, taking a rather passive role.
Cain is really going at it, for some thigh-on-thigh intercrural fratricide, with the weapon more or less censored beyond the edge of the frame. (A nice suggestive log peeks out among the draped cloth below the pair, however.) Abel’s hands are flung up, getting a slight grip on Cain’s silky locks. It’s the sort of grip that doesn’t so much suggest a struggle as a search for balance while they…play Brother’s Keeper.
Honestly, the first frottage was probably just about as awkward as Spada’s depiction here, but that title would not have been accepted, even in gay old Rome. Plenty of Biblical figures would get homoerotic treatment over the centuries. (Don’t even get me started on Saint Sebastian.) But while C and A in Spada’s painting are pulling their punches, Spada certainly wasn’t in this towering bump-and-grind.
Judith Fails Barber College
Now THIS I believe. The grip that Judith has on Holofernes’ hair is no scalp massage. You can almost feel his damp hair pulling at his scalp as she clutches it in her fist. The strain of all figures involved in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes makes clear the struggle, and Judith’s determination. Caravaggio’s depiction of the same event looks absolutely cartoonish by comparison (but he was somewhat known for that).
Every visible hand is study in action, struggling against death or dealing it. Obviously, Holofernes has lost, but his hands are still clenching to the end while Judith shaves off a few pounds of dead weight.
Regarding the blade: Something you’ll not notice in photos is how the tip of the blade was a later addition. On closer examination in person, you’ll see a wash of grey and brown, which is supposed to be metal but is partially transparent. And in fact, based on the angle, it makes more sense for the blade to be fully thrust into the bedding. I am not sure if it was Artemisia or a later artist that added it, but it clearly doesn’t feel part of the original composition. Either way, it’s a reminder that you don’t get to be 400 years old (like this painting) without a number of hands leaving their mark on you.
But What About The After Party?
The Biblical tale of Belshazzar’s feast gave us the idiom “The writing [is] on the wall.” You see, in addition to infanticide and incest, Yahweh also had a fondness for certain modes of party decorum. Rule 1: Don’t use sacred vessels as drink ware at your orgy. Sadly, Belshazzar missed that one.
Mattia Preti’s monumental depiction of the feast gives a panoramic view of the garish festivities. In the upper left, you see the disembodied hand of god spelling out a Latin translation of the cryptic phrase, usually rendered by painters in the original Hebrew. In the lower right, Belshazzar points to the text (along with many other guests) and looks rather dull-witted about it.
This is apt. In the story, he really had no clue what the words meant, and had to get the exiled prophet Daniel to translate. Those who don’t know the story probably still don’t need a spoiler alert, given that “the writing on the wall” has such an ominous meaning. In short: “The party is over, Belshazzar.”
If you haven’t yet seen this great show, don’t miss it. The final day of Flesh and Blood at Seattle Art Museum is Sunday, January 26.