Thursday, 27 March 2014

Heart of stone

A work of Art, be it ever so humble, is long lived; we never tire of it (...). All works of Art have the property of becoming venerable amidst decay: and reason good, for from the first there was a soul in them, the thought of man, which will be visible in them so long as the body exists in which they were implanted.
  W. Morris – Art and Socialism, 1884

Naumburg Master - Uta von Naumburg 

One cannot but agree with William Morris’ opinion about the fascination, the soul, which dwells within a work of art. A power that strikes even more when it comes out from a cold and hard stone that suddenly acquires known or knowable features and that, be it only for a moment, makes us stop and stare.
I don’t know how the statue of the margrave Uta von Ballenstedt, better known as Uta von Naumburg, actually looks like, but the charming power of her  soul can already be perceived through the numerous images of her that can often be seen. 

Walt Disney's Grimhilde
This figure, in fact, has become worldly famous after Walt Disney’s Snow White (1937), who took inspiration from Uta to give life to Queen Grimhilde, Snow White’s evil stepmother. 

If you want to see the statue, you should visit the cathedral of Naumburg, in the German Land of Saxony-Anhalt. The “magic” is owed to the unknown Naumburg Master, who decorated the choir screen, where the twelve statues of the founders of the cathedral can be found.
Living between 1000 and 1046, Uta is represented among the statues of the first customers of the original Romanesque cathedral*; at her side is the margrave Ekkehard von Meissen, who became her husband in 1026. Their marriage was with high probabilities based on political reasons, nevertheless the couple didn’t give birth to any successor.

Naumburg Master - Uta and Ekkehard

One cannot fail to notice the distance between the two figures. In a traditional pose, the valorous Ekkehardt brandishes his shield and his sword, firmly looking towards the horizon. Uta’s long cloak, instead, wraps her almost completely; she’s even covering part of her face with the collar in such a way that the perfect oval shape of her face, framed by the crown, stands out clearly. Therefore the viewer can only see Uta's face and one of the hands, as the other one is hidden under the cloak.
Concealing her is precisely what draws the viewer’s attention on the few but elegantly defined details. The fine features of her face, the natural manner in which she sustains her cloak, preventing it to fall down, her melancholic look directed towards an undefined space and time dimension. Few elements that nevertheless succeed in transmitting the nobility of the figure. 

A figure that in every epoch inspired and captured passionate viewers. Disney was in fact not the only one who felt Uta’s peculiar charm; Umberto Eco himself is said to have claimed that, should he have to date one of the most famous medieval female figures, he would without a doubt choose her.

The exploitation of this image reached an extreme peak during the Nazi period, when Uta became the icon of Aryan beauty and the prototype of “classic art”, as opposed to the so called “degenerate art”. The Naumburg Master wouldn’t have thought to go as far as that.

Giotto di Bondone - The Meeting at the Golden Gate (1303 - 1305)
To conclude, I would like to call your attention to another image, a figure from a fresco which dates back to 1303 – 1305, some decades after the creation of Uta’s statue. The scene is taken from one of Giotto’s masterpieces, namely the decoration of the ScrovegniChapel, in Padua. It represents one of the episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and in particular Joachim meets Anna at the Golden Gate.

Giotto di Bondone - The Meeting at the Golden Gate (particular)

The figure in the black cloak distracts the viewer’s attention from one of the earliest kisses of the history of art, does 
she remind us of someone? 

Which had later been rebuilt, around 1250, in a more Gothic style, therefore representing an important proof of the transition between these two architectonic styles.