Wait a second! They’re portraits! (Madame Tussaud’s Wax Sculptures)

Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London was one of my favorite places when I was a kid.  Being dragged to museum after museum was usually bearable, but I would breathe a sigh of relief when Madame Tussaud’s was on the agenda.  That I was looking at art never occurred to me, though.  The lifelike sculptures, the Chamber of Horrors, including a particularly chilling wax rendition of The Death of Marat (painting of French revolutionary murdered in his bath, below), did not leave room in my child’s mind for thinking about art.

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793, Oil on canvas, The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

It turns out that the process for making wax sculptures today is relatively straightforward, if time-consuming.  At Madame Tussaud’s, the museum staff take measurements of the person for whom they’re creating a likeness, make a clay model and a steel frame, then a mold is made and hot wax is poured in to it, hair is inserted strand by strand, eyes and teeth are added, and paint is applied.  Like I said.  Straightforward.  Though in the past it must have been more difficult, wax always been particularly conducive to creating figures.

The real Madame Tussaud got her start making wax portraits of celebrities of the time, such as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin.  She went on to make wax death masks of beheaded aristocrats during the French Revolution, including Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and Marat himself. The wax “masks” were carried through the streets of Paris by revolutionaries as both a “let that be a warning to you” and as trophies.

It really should have occurred to me before now that the wax sculptures are portraits, although in my defense, we don’t usually think of portraits as being created for entertainment purposes. But this fact still allows them to be portraits, doesn’t it?  I mean, take a look.  This is a portrait:

Judi Dench and Daniel Craig (from 007 set), Madame Tussaud’s, London

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Curative Miracles? Orsanmichele!

Orsanmichele.  (Say it with me: or-sahn-mi-KAY-lay.   Rolls off the tongue.  Seriously, say it a couple of times and you won’t want to stop.)   When I think Florence, I think Orsanmichele.  Not the Duomo, not Michelangelo’s David.  Don’t get me wrong — I love all of it.  But a church, originally built as a grain market, with statues commissioned by the guilds of Florence around the outside, on the Via dei Calzaiouli (“via day-ee  calz-eye-oo-WOH-lee”), which means, “street of the shoemakers” — it really doesn’t get better than that.  And to top it all off, Via dei Calzaiouli is a pedestrian-only street.  Get it?  The street of the shoemakers is for walkers only!  (I’m sure that’s not intentional, just an interesting coincidence.)   Orsanmichele on Via dei Calzaiouli.  Doesn’t just saying it make you smile?

Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy, 1337-1430

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Getting All Medieval

I’m a sucker for the Black Plague, which I’ll admit sounds kind of twisted, and has led to some, um, let’s just say unfortunate movie and book choices, the most recent one being, “The Season of the Witch.”  Wow.  What a disappointment.  You’re probably wondering why I was disappointed, when the previews probably looked awful.  I was blinded, I tell you!  Blinded by the seductiveness of the Black Plague!  That time period seems like such rich fodder, and movie-makers squander it again and again. (Also, don’t bother with the enticingly titled “Black Death” with Sean Bean.  Oy.  I  have a vague recollection that “The Advocate” was pretty good, and I did enjoy “Kingdom of Heaven,” but in all fairness, those are just set in the same time period, not Black Plague-centric.  I rest my case.)   One positive in all of this is Connie Willis’s “Doomsday Book.”  Check it out if you haven’t read it!

I can also get pretty excited about the Crusades, which sounds almost as wrong.  At this point you may be thinking that I’m in the SCA, into re-enactments, and those Medieval feast places.  Let me just say that I am not. What I do love is the history and art of this time, and while trying to figure out where this post is going, I keep being drawn back to Vezelay, a major pilgrimage center (exciting in an acceptable way, right?) and where the Second Crusade began, preached by Bernard of Clairvaux.  So let’s start at Vezelay Abbey, also called Sainte-Madeleine, in France.  This place fascinates me because I love to imagine the Crusaders about to take off for parts unknown, having seen images like this from a Crusaders Handbook (don’t you love the eyes in the chest and no head?):

Monstrous Races, Crusader Handbook, 12th century

and the Heathen of the World in the lintel (just above the doors, under the tympanum) at Vezelay.  My favorite heathen are the Panotii, who supposedly had ears so big that they could wrap them around their bodies. (I remember when I first saw a picture of this and thought those were wings.  Nope.  Ears.)  The people with dog heads are a close second. (click here for more images)

Panotii, Lintel, Sainte-Madeliene, Vezelay, 1120-32

Imagine what they thought they were getting into when they left on a crusade with images like this around!  And imagine their surprise when they got to parts unknown and found people more or less like them!  Yes, people of different skin color with different customs and ways of life, with different plants, animals, and food, but not people with ears as big as their heads.

Then check out this image of Jesus and the Apostles in the tympanum (above the lintel).

Tympanum, Mission of the Apostles, Sainte-Madeleine, Vezelay, 1120-32

Look at how much movement there is. What, you say?  Just looks like a bunch of people standing around to me!  Well, compare it to this:

St Trophime, Arles, France, 12th century

The sculpture in the Vezelay tympanum looks agitated in comparison, doesn’t it?  Don’t those people make you itch to move?  No one is standing still at Vezelay, as if to say, quit your yapping, Bernard of Clairvaux!  Let’s get on with it!  Those apostles want to jump out of that tympanum and take on the Heathen of the World with you!

Don’t get me wrong — I know that the Crusades were brutal, awful, misguided.  But they happened.  And some amazing cross-cultural exchange went on despite all of the violence and misunderstanding, which may be a topic for another time.  And of course I don’t know what it was actually like to be leaving on a Crusade, or to have my husband, son, friend, leaving.  Or to live at that time. Or to experience the Black Death, for that matter.  But I firmly believe that people are people, and that in some ways, there’s nothing new under the sun.  That people in the 12th century had a lot of the same feelings and emotions that we have today.  Even some of the same experiences.  That this is what keeps history interesting.  It’s the history of people.  Of us, really.  How cool is that?