Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Two Beheadings

Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)
The Beheading of St John the Baptist
Oil on canvas
124.5 x 166 cm
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)
The Beheading of St John the Baptist
Oil on canvas
243.5 x 318.4 cm
The National Gallery, London

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) was one of the greatest muralists of the latter nineteenth century

During his lifetime he was one of the most universally admired painters in the world. 

In 1895 a huge banquet in his honour was given at the Hôtel Continental in Paris. It was  chaired by the sculptor Auguste Rodin, at which the entire spectrum of modern French art was represented including Fantin-Latour, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Signac, Bourdelle, Bernard, Carrière and Gauguin. 

His works were for public buildings in France such as the Panthéon and the amphitheatre at the Sorbonne. Few were smaller in scale. To see his work you have to travel in France (or Boston)

For those who like categories, he was a "symbolist"

The execution of John the Baptist is not a frequent subject apart from Caravaggio. It is rather gory

It is not set in a dungeon. Rather in a garden in the open air

In the nineteenth century, public executions were still common. In France beheading by guillotine was the norm as it was felt to be more humane than by hanging or other means. The last public execution in France by gullotine was in 1939

They were regarded as good sources of entertainment.

There is something of that attitude in the figures of Salome and Herod.

Of course the execution of an innocent as John was revolts and repels us

The Barber picture shows Salome witnessing the execution of John the Baptist, charger in hand, ready to take his head to the offended Herodias (Mark 6: 21-28)

The National Gallery picture shows the same execution, with differences

Salome was said to be modelled on Chavanne`s wife. Herod is supposed to be modelled on Anatole France

The National Gallery work is unfinished.

In the Barber work, Salome stands apart and is separated from the event that is about to happen. But she does appear to be a bit impatient at how long the whole event is taking. In the National Gallery work she appears to be a creature with nerves and a stomach of steel. A Lady Macbeth. A figure entirely lacking in pity and charity. Like a spectator in the audience of one of the gory afternoon confessional TV programmes listening to people confessing on day time TV to the most terrible of crimes.

In the National Gallery work, the Baptist has been moved to centre stage but the central image is the cross at which he is gazing with intensity. It appears to be illuminated. The two central figures are John and the cross. 

In the Barber work,  the Baptist faces front looking at us in the audience. The figure is iconic. He lit by some unreal light. He has a halo. He is putting forward his neck for the executioner to strike.

Puvis de Chavannes entirely reworked the background in the Barber picture. The tree is a major figure. Not so in the work in The National Gallery. Both in both works the tree oerforms an important function in the staging of the human figures

The tree is a fig tree. It appears to be barren or before the summer when it will bear fruit

The fig tree is redolent with symbolism.

The fig tree could be a reference to Israel. But it can symbolise much more than that.

Habbakuk Chapter 3 describes the time of oppression by one`s enemies as when
"the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit appears on the vine,
Though the yield of the olive fails
and the terraces produce no nourishment,
Though the flocks disappear from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls"
Yet even in such desolation the prophet sings:
"18 Yet I will rejoice in the LORD
and exult in my saving God.
19 GOD, my Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet swift as those of deer
and enables me to tread upon the heights"
John appears to be imbued with the spirit of Habbakuk

Luke 13 and Luke 21 also are relevant

In Luke 13, after the call to repentance (which was also the call of John in the wilderness) Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree the parable of the barren fig tree, a story about the continuing patience of God with those who have not yet given evidence of their repentance and a warning to those who have not repented that the Kingdom of God may be nearer than they wish to think.

In Luke 21, Jesus tells the Lesson of the Fig Tree as a sign of the Apocalypse:
"The Lesson of the Fig Tree. 
29 He taught them a lesson. “Consider the fig tree and all the other trees.
30 When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near;
31 in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away"