Ava Maria…Which One?

10 04 2010
For many years I’ve had random, infrequent exposure to the “song” Ava Maria, and basked–sometimes euphorically, in the haunting beauty of the music while never realizing there are actually two different musical compositions with differnt lyrics wooing me with their radiance.  I discovered this by accident drafting this essay and have untangled the mess.
Josquin Desprez, (also known as Josquin des Prez), a major composer of church music and operas of his day, is our Renaissance-era composer, having written this motet (sacred lyrics with unaccompanied choral composition).  He wrote it in the late 1400‘s to the lyrics of the Latin text of “Hail Mary” also known as “Ava Maria ”(Latin for Hail Mary) or the “Angelic Salutation,” (Luke 1:28) in reference to a Roman Catholic prayer based on what is said to have had multiple variations before the Council of Trent and published as Op 52 no 6. (Op, I have learned, refers to the Latin word Opus translated meaning “Work”.) Desprez’ piece is polyphonic.
 The piece I confused this with is Franz Schubert’s Gesang III or Ellen’s Song also known as Ava Maria. It was written specifically for voice with piano accompaniment in the early 1800’s and whose originally German lyrics are a prayer to the Virgin from Sir Walter Scott‘s “The Lady of the Lake” (originally introduced to me through the charming Anne of Green Gables).
These two composers are by-no-means the only ones to have set music to that title, or to the Hail Mary prayer(s) with the majority composed during Renaissance and throughout the 18th century. Another prime example is by Charles Gounod who composed melody and added words to the first prelude of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” which I have also heard and admired.  Having passed an enjoyable evening exausting youtube’s supply, here are a few favorites.  I was moved by the visual messages in the final clip. (Isaiah 53: 2-4, Matthew 12: 47-50 )

Albrecht Durer, Self Portrait, 1500

10 04 2010

This self portrait of Durer, likely painted in his studio in Nuremberg, has always captured my attention. Close scrutiny reveals a remarkable person in whose face I see a quiet self-confidence. He is after all 28 years old, successful, well-established in his arts and in his prime-of-life. His quiet gaze reveals an introspective, melancholy man–a seemingly honest one, evidenced by the exactingly painted features of his face. His “Christ-like” pose is the subject of much speculation from art critics.  So many portraits painted by artists for others feature significant objects.  Surely it was meaningful to include the tool of his trade–his hand, which seems almost elongated in a forshadowing of the coming Mannerist movement.

I admire his Northern Renaissance attire; rich, warm, muted colors, luxuriously fur-trimmed and contrasting effectively with the dark background and strong lighting coming from the side, which amplifies the effect of illuminaton. Even the stylized inscriptions burn with light. I especially love the way he’s painted the reflections in his luminous hair. Perhaps there is a bit of pride there. I had a similar hairstyle in the “big hair” 80’s and it was a vainly high-maintenance one. Counter this magnificent mane with his practical, wispy bangs. I imagine they were invented by annoyance when strands fell into his face disturbing his work. I’ve always believed men and woman come-of-age at 30 and are, perhaps, their most beautiful in this full maturity, touched, but not altered, by the beginnings of decay and all the profound insight that brings. This portrait confirms it for me–his earlier self portraits reveal not nearly as magnificent of a man.

Albrecht Durer was the Renaissance Man-of-the-North. His woodcuts and engravings, a tedious and exacting art, and representing the greatest focus of his artistic pursuits, were and are today considered the finest ever produced. (1) He was a man who managed both quality and quantity and excelled in many other art forms besides. His paintings are considered some of the great treasures of his era. While his success during his time was guaranteed by securing the position as court painter to Emperor Maximilian I, his success during our time, is likely due-in-part to the careful preservation of much of his work and the fact that he directed considerable effort to educating other artists. Evidently he was well-admired, well-connected, and a “good steward” of his work enabling us to enjoy and learn from him today, and to better understanding the artists and environment of that day.

There seems to be confusion on weather Durer was a participant of the Reformation.  He did sketch Eurasmus, the great Catholic reformer at a later date and this got me to thinking.  Whatever his conviction, I hope he wasn’t a coward reluctant to “reform” because of  professional implications.  Regardless of position or religious convictions, Northern  Renaissance  painters were certainly influenced by the Reformation.  It’s echoed in their paintings of secular subjects–of nature and the activities of the common man. Some see this as an affront to the Council of Trent mandate to produce meaningful, emotional, religious art, but for most, like Durer, I suspect, it was a landmark of the spiritual liberation the Reformation brought outside the reach of Rome. This bold, or perhaps simply candid self-portrait is evidence of a response. 

 I took some time to review the public record of his paintings and feel, as a whole, the portraits he painted after 1500 are much more soulful and revealing than earlier ones.  His style seems to have changed at about the time this self-portrait.  While Durer did produce much beautiful religious art,  his squirrels, his owl, his famous rabbit, are among my favorite pieces, as are a few of these later portraits. His use of detail is exemplary of Northern Renaissance art. There is a reverence and beauty in them that captures the spirit of the Reformation and redirects the heart to God’s greater cathedral–his creation, both in nature and in the heart of man.  I find this man both artistically and spiritually inspiring.

(1) http://www.artchive.com/artchive/D/durer.html

The Self Portraits of Durer http://www.artchive.com/artchive/D/durer.html

Staring Durer in the Face–another view  http://www.judithdobrzynski.com/3013/staring-durer-in-the-face


Religion or Politics? –You decide.

10 04 2010

Artist: Melozzo de Forli

Foundation of the Library, Sixtus IV Appoints Platina Head of the Vatican Library, 1475

This visually inviting fresco is considered by some art historians to be Melozzo de Forli’s first major work. A colored fresco, it was first seen by me in a book featured in black and white, giving the impression of an engraving and making it an appropriate representation of the appointment of first Prefect (librarian) to the infamous Vatican library.

Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina, kneels before the regally seated Pope Sixtus IV while pointing to the Latin text he authored praising Sixtus IV. When Paul II abolished the ordinances of Platina’s boss, Platina, as a result, lost his own position, and reacting violently in a heated campaign that landed him in prison. Perhaps it was Platina’s Greek scholarship coupled with bold activism that led Sixtus IV to encourage him to write Vitæ Pontificum or Lives of the Popes, afterwards granting the critical work a home in the Vatican library and making him Prefect. Platina authored other works in his lifetime, but is chiefly recognized for his assistance in the artful renovation of the library. While the invention of movable type was to become a key influencing factor in making books widely available, Sixtus IV and Platina built admirably on the former library of Pope Nicholas V to made a great many codices (handwritten books) in Latin, Greek, and other languages, available to the hungry minds of the emerging Renaissance middle class through the gift of what might be considered the first modern public library.

I’m not surprised to learn Melozzo was influenced by Piero della Francesca, who was not only an artist, but a mathematician. A love of math is evident, even to a novice such as myself, in the abundant, well-proportioned lines of this piece. In relief, the architectural “fan” in the backdrop effectively contrasts the repetitive, almost busy framework while the vanishing point, behind the Pope’s nephew, a future Pope, creates a somewhat competing focal point to Sixtus IV. Perhaps he was favored? Two ornate pillars act as a point-of-perspective and frame for the picture and contribute to the painting’s Greek monument-like composition, while the rich texture of the marble in the background columns softens the overall effect. Melozzo was apparently noted for his use of perspective and foreshortening.

The individualized features of each subject in the painting are enhanced by their icon-like poses. To me, they resemble chess pieces beneath a symmetrical chess board. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence considering Sixtus IV played many of his nephews, several featured here, like pawns in a political arena.

Apparently only a small body of Melozzo de Forli’s work exists for comparison– much of his work, like the subjects he painted, were destroyed or greatly altered by fire, acts of war and the ravage of time. Surviving works include the Ascension, painted in the basilica dei Santi Apostoli of Rome and preserved at the Vatican Museum, along with his angels in the Vatican Pinacoteca. Also, surviving as a testimony to his ability to inspire are works from his notable pupil, Marco Palmezzano. Melozzo is believed to have painted for the infamous duke Federico da Montefeltro, Lord of Ulbino, who also commissioned a great library in Ulbino and whose daughter married one of Sixtus IV’s nephews. Chessboard, indeed.



The Renaissance in Rome, Charles L. Stinger, Indiana university Press, 1998.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Jean k. Cadogan, Yale University Press, 2001.

ON THE VATICAN LIBRARY OF SIXTUS IV. BY JW> CLARK, M.A., Reprint from Cambridge Antiquarian Society’s Proceeding & Communications, March, 1899.

The Vatican library, by Father Leonard Eugene Boyle, O.P., The Library of Congress, online.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, online

Encyclopedia Britannica, online

Vatican Museum Website


Palazzo Ducale, Urbino

10 04 2010
The Palazzo Ducale, Urbino or Ducale Palace, was built on a cliff in the ancient city of Urbino largely in the 1460’s and later, under the genius of prominent architects of that time. It’s infamous owner, Federico da Montefeltro, a condottiero and mercenary general for the papal powers, was arguably one of the most passionate humanists of his time, and fashioned his home into a icon of art, learning, and human achievement. Inspired by the renowned architect Brunelleschi, the facade, symmetrical courtyard and towers, and great entry staircase are among features said to rival Florence’s best architectural expressions of beauty, gracefulness, symmetry and classical structure, making it a prime example of Renaissance humanistic expression.
When studying this era, it seems at first that all roads lead to Florence, however, the Duke and his castle stand staunchly in the background playing strong supporting roles in many Renaissance political tales. June Osborne, author and art historian best describes the foundation of this monument in her book The Story of a Renaissance City: “The city of Urbino is encircled by walls, it rises in layers – Roman, then medieval, and then the crowning achievement of the Renaissance.” (1)
At the palace’s very heart lies a library-study (studiolo) once considered second only to the Vatican library in volume and scope, and lavishly decorated with symbols honoring the liberal arts and showcasing craftsmanship considered “the single most famous example of (the) Italian inlay.” (2) while honoring at once both Greek scholars, Italian artists, and church leaders.
Other notable, well-educated humanists resided in the cultural center of Urbino such as Baldassare Castiglione, count of Novellatra, ambassador, notable author of the era, and member of the Urbino court. His most famous work, The Book of the Courtier, was based on his experiences in the Urbino court and defined gentry for the Renaissance era. His striking portrait, attributed to the great painter Raphael, depicts a richly dressed, courtly gentleman with warm, intelligent eyes–certainly well-suited in every respect to represent a well-polished humanist of his time.
When I visit Europe, Urbino and this monumental palace, which is now an art musuem (National Museum of the Marches), is one experience I don’t want to miss.

From Foders Travel Guide: “If the Renaissance was, ideally, a celebration of the nobility of man and his works, of the light and purity of the soul, then there is no place in Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance, where these tenets are better illustrated” (3)


link to a great picture of the palace http://www.paradoxplace.com



1. Urbino: The Story of a Renaissance City, June Osborne, Francis Lincoln ltd., 2003

2. WIKIPEDIA   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ducal_Palace_of_Urbino

3. http://www.fodors.com




Hello world!

23 02 2010

Favorite photo from my son’s Europe trip last year. 

It talks to me and says, “You must come visit someday.”

I’d love to see what’s on the other side….

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