Monday, November 21, 2005

A renaissance rivalry

The Sacrifice of Isaac was the assignment given those who wished to compete for the honor of creating bronze doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence. The competition, which was well documented at the time, came down to the rivalry between two great artists, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. The judges had a hard time choosing between them. Both contest panels are today on display in the Bargello in Florence.

Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401-03

Brunelleschi, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401-03

"Ghiberti’s initial contract of 1403 called for him to create the east doors of the Baptistery, which, because they faced the cathedral, were to depict the life of Christ in twenty-eight panels, fourteen each on the right and left sides of the divided doors. He was scheduled to finish in nine years, but the doors were only gilded in 1423 and finally hung in 1424—twenty-one years after they were started. The delay could not be ascribed to a lack of talent in the workshop. Ghiberti’s assistants at various times during this project included some of the most eminent artists of the early Renaissance, including Benozzo Gozzoli, Paolo Uccello, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Luca della Robbia, and a sculptor who would soon astound Italy with his genius, Donatello.... Brunelleschi, whose contest panel was acquired by Cosimo de’ Medici, was now immersed in building the magnificent dome for Florence’s Cathedral." From Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World.

Ghiberti's second set of doors for the Florentine Baptistry revealed advances in technical power and a mastery of perspective that provoked Michelangelo's oft-cited remark that they were "so beautiful they could stand at the entrance of Paradise."

Sacrifice of Isaac 1429-52

Patriarchs, Auerbach, Rembrandt

On December 14th we'll return to Genesis, reading the rest of the Abraham story and continuing with Isaac and Jacob. Of interest here may be a superb reading of the sacrifice of Isaac offered in the first chapter of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis. The chapter, entitled "Odysseus' Scar," offers a masterful literary comparison of the Biblical story with the scene from Homer's Odyssey in which the returned hero, disguised as a beggar, is recognized by his old nurse.

Here's a brief excerpt, where Auerbach sums up what he sees as key differences in the distinctive styles of Homer and the Biblical authors:
"We have compared these two texts [from Genesis and Homer], and, with them, the two kinds of style they embody, in order to reach a starting point for an investigation into the literary representation of reality in European culture. The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types:

- on the one [Homeric] hand fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, full elements of historical development and of psychological perspective;

- on the other [Biblical] hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, "background" quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic."
Mimesis, chap. 1.
More about Mimesis here and here. Auerbach's description might be useful to keep in mind when we take a few minutes during the session to look at some of Rembrandt's images of Abraham and other Old Testament figures with Arline.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A guide for Gilgamesh

From Mussy:

Here is a study guide might be useful in preparing for our upcoming session on Gilgamesh. A couple of snippets:
The story of Gilgamesh was first discovered in the library of King Assurbanipal of Nineveh, written on twelve tablets. "Gilgamesh's life and his adventures during his unsuccessful quest for immortality are told on eleven of the twelve tablets." The twelfth tablet is "a description of the nether world, in which Gilgamesh rules after his death as divine judge over the shades, guiding and advising them. . ."

As Siduri the barmaid tells Gilgamesh: "'You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.'"
More here.

A few useful entries in Wikipedia: Enki - Sumer - Uruk - Ur - Enkidu - Epic of Gilgamesh. An ancient image of Gilgamesh and Enkidu can be found here.

Click on the images below to see legible maps of ancient Mesopotamia:

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Focal points for next session

For the first part of our Nov. 9 meeting, we'll explore Genesis 1 - 11 a bit more. And we'll look at elements in Hesiod as well.

A couple of passages in Works and Days to keep in view:

  • The Ages of Man (62-65)
We might also more briefly look at the story of Zeus and Metis in the Theogony, and the figure of Typhoeus, the last obstreperous challenger to Zeus in the Theogony.

The latter part of the session will be devoted to Genesis 12-23:20.