Saturday, March 27, 2010

Moon So-young: "Art in Everyday Things"

Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I
(Image from JoongAng Daily)

I subscribe to Korea's JoongAng Daily primarily because it comes with a parallel subscription to the International Herald Tribune, i.e., the international edition of the New York Times. I started reading the Tribune nearly 25 years ago, when I first lived abroad, in Switzerland, and have read it more or less continuously ever since. In lean times, I've had to depend on the library copies, but most of the time, I read it on my own dime.

Anyway, because I depend on my subscription to the JoongAng Daily for my copy of the Tribune, I make a point of reading the Daily as well . . . perfunctorily. Or I did so until a little over one month ago, when I discovered a reason to read it with interest. An article by Moon So-young, "Jesus: Savior, martyr, antitrust crusader" (February 19, 2010), captured my attention, for it analyzed, in quite intelligent, well-written English, the 1650 painting Christ Driving the Merchants from the Temple by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678):
The work by Jordaens is a typical Baroque-style historical painting, with a wide canvas and a spectacular tableau full of people and animals engaged in dynamic movement and reactions to one another. The livestock sellers are busy trying to avoid the lash of Christ, while some people at right watch as if enjoying the scene.

One man in the center particularly attracts the eye. Still sitting in his chair, he's falling backward, screaming. Coins pour out everywhere beside him, while accounting books scatter, identifying him as a money changer.

Baroque painters frequently painted this scene for perhaps two reasons. The first is specific to the Baroque era: The episode is dramatic and is accompanied by violent action, which was appealing to the tastes of the time. But the second will be familiar to anyone outraged by a bank bailout in the aftermath of last year's financial crisis: Many of the painters just enjoyed having a good laugh at the financial elite.

In the 17th century and the time of Jesus, money changers were not just currency dealers but also offered comprehensive banking services. In particular, in 17th-century Flanders, where Jordaens lived, money changers were at the center of a major development of commerce and international trade in the region. Most of them also lent money as well, receiving interest in return.
Moon embeds her analysis of this particular painting within a larger historical analysis of the changing pictorial depictions of this scene from John's Gospel (2:13-16), and I invite you to take a look.

Yesterday's analysis by Moon, however, was of a painting political, not religious, except implicitly. The article -- "Propaganda via portrait paintings" -- offers an analysis of the above painting by an unknown artist, the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I:
In this painting, the queen dons elaborate lace, ribbons and countless strings of large pearls. It is said that she wore extremely splendid dresses like this to inspire others. She loved to wear pearls, in particular, because they symbolized purity and chastity, in keeping with her nickname "The Virgin Queen."

In the background of the portrait are two windows showing significant events during her reign. The left window depicts the Spanish Armada confronting the English fleet. Spain, the strongest power on the high seas at the time, was prospering thanks to its intense focus on trade with the Americas. But England began taking an interest in the region as well, disrupting Spanish trade. As a result, Spain attacked England in 1588.

England defended itself using ships with excellent mobility and long-range cannons, striking a victorious blow on the Spanish fleet with a fire attack. The Armada hastily retreated but was further damaged by storms. The window on the right side of the painting depicts this turbulent scene.

In the portrait, the queen's hand lies triumphantly on a globe. A closer look shows that her fingers cover the Americas -- a statement that England, which emerged as a new naval power after defeating Spain, would exercise its influence in earnest in the New World across the Atlantic. English people at the time must have felt a surge of pride for their queen when they saw the painting. What an effective piece of propaganda this is!
And a good analysis of this Armada portrait, sometimes called "the Drake version." I would have added only the religious significance of "The Virgin Queen." Elizabeth reigned in a time of religious turbulence throughout Europe, and England was still merely superficially Protestant. In the image above, we see Elizabeth as a near 'Queen of Heaven' -- ruler, anyway, of the world -- and bedecked in almost celestial glory, even to the quasi-halo of lace about her neck. During a time of spiritual confusion, her image could serve as an icon to a not-entirely-secular faith vested in England. This is part of its power and significance as propaganda (though any fine-grained analysis is complicated by the fact that the portrait was retouched by a different hand in the seventeenth century).

Moon undoubtedly knows much of this, but as a journalist, she's beholden to word limits, and what she does include in already interesting enough to keep me reading -- and to keep me looking forward to her articles, which can be found archived by the JoongAng Daily under "Art in Everyday Things."

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At 8:48 AM, Blogger Whitey said...

I read her column, too. She's good. Nice to see her getting some attention here.

At 9:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

She certainly deserves attention. Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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