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Thursday, February 28, 2013


The Last Judgment (detail), 1536-41, Michelangelo.
The history of art is replete with religious controversy sparked by the work of one painter or another--the nudes in the Sistine Chapel ceiling for example, or Michelangelo's Last Judgment in which the nude figures were given "britches", as art purists called them, by counter-reformation painting hacks less than a century after their completion. Though his mother seems not to have been depicted nude, Christ was not so lucky. Ridiculed at the time, the so-called "britches" do not detract from the power and magnificence of the Savior's image. A similar fate might have befallen Michelangelo's ceiling had it not been so inconveniently located.

Adam and Eve, 1504, Albrecht Durer,
the great belly button booboo.

One of the stranger, more humorous religious controversies evolved from errors made by the Northern Renaissance engraver Albrecht Dürer about 1504 in his etchings of Adam and Eve. He depicted them both with navels. Artistically speaking, it was a relatively minor thing. However, biblically speaking, given the circumstances of their births (or lack thereof), it was treated as something close to heresy by the clergy of the time.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Emanuel Leutze.
Sit down, George, you're rockin' the boat.
The German-American artist, Emanuel Leutze may have created the largest framed painting of all time with his 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware, but as a history painter, he could have better done his homework. The event occurred in 1776. The stars and stripes flag in the background was not designed until the following year. On top of that, critics have claimed the boat is too small for so many men, yet in fact, it is larger (as compared to the actual watercraft). Also, the river is seen as being too wide (perhaps it was at flood stage). Most notable, however, with regard to errors, was that of depicting the father of our country as being foolhardy enough to stand up in an overloaded boat in the midst of a blinding snowstorm while crossing a swift, ice-strewn river. Idealistic bravery and heroism aside, not to mention the dynamics of artistic composition, Leutze should have known better. Oh, did I mention, the event took place in the dead of night?
Moses, 1513-15, Michelangelo.
Fortunately, Cecil B. DeMille didn't
make the same mistake.
Perhaps one of the most notable artist errors was not in a painting but in a piece of sculpture and by probably the most famous sculptor in history--Michelangelo. Did you ever look at his famous sculpture of Moses and wonder why the man had horns protruding from his head? Actually, the mistake was not so much that of Michelangelo but came as the result of a mistranslation by Jerome of the word "karan," from ancient Masoretic texts. The word often means horn, but can also mean rays of light. More accurate modern translations use the word "glorified" in referring to Moses face as he returned from the lofty heights of Mt. Sinai with the ten commandments. Michelangelo simply caused the error to be literally "carved in stone."

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