Tuesday, January 31, 2017

An ancient earthworks project

In his book Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time, Alexander Nagel writes about the way ideas and practises associated with relics, chapels, mosaics and other pre-modern art forms informed twentieth century artists and critics.  One of the artists he discusses is Robert Smithson, whose Non-Sites installation at the seminal New York Earthworks exhibition in 1968 consisted of containers full of rocks that Smithson had collected on a trip to Franklin, New Jersey with Nancy Holt and Michael Heizer.  Bringing stones back from significant landscapes was what Christian pilgrims did - the box shown below contains an assemblage of such precious fragments, each labelled with its location in Greek.  Nagel doesn't mention Richard Long, but he too brings back stones, or photographs of stones, as indexical signs of the walks he makes, walks that have aspects of both ritual and pilgrimage.

Box with stone and woods from sites in the Holy Land, 6th century
In the Vatican Museum
Source: Image linked to a review in the LARB 

The stones in this box are small relics of sacred sites, but Nagel describes a more ambitious attempt to bring a holy landscape back to Europe.
'Throughout the Middle Ages there was a site that was popularly known as "Jerusalem", despite the fact that it was located in Rome.  It is a chapel in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme ... where Saint Helena (c. 246/50-330) placed the relics she had brought back from the Holy Land.  The chapel came to be known as "Jerusalem" not only because it housed relics from there, most important among them fragments of the cross of the Crucifixion, but because Helena had also transported, with great effort, soil from the site of the Crucifixion "soaked with the blood of Christ," which she then laid into the floor of her chapel.  An ancient earthworks project, this site was a piece of transported territory, a bit of Jerusalem reinstalled in Rome.'
Corrado Giaquinto, The Virgin presents St Helena and Constantine to the Trinity (detail), 1744
Ceiling painting in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

One of the interesting aspects of this earth floor is that it was not an attempt to recreate a sacred landscape - as was done, for example, in the garden built by Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong which I wrote about here last year.  The earth Saint Helena had transported was not framed or sculpted into something, but simply laid out in a formless way on the ground, sufficient in itself as a sample of the prime loca sancta.  The chapel itself is interesting too, in that it predates the cathedral and was originally simply part of a private residence where the relics were held - Nagel draws a comparison with Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau.  I'll end here with a miniature by Jan Van Eyck which shows earth being turned over to uncover the cross while Saint Helena looks on.  This location doesn't resemble the landscape round Jerusalem - it is more like the kind of field familiar to the painter in Flanders.  Writing this I am reminded that bags of earth were brought across the Channel for the Flanders Fields 1914-2014 Memorial Garden at Wellington Barracks.  There is an article about this event in the Daily Express: 'Sacred soil from Flanders fields arrives for war memorial.'

Jan Van Eyck, Discovery of the True Cross, 1422-4
From the Tres Belles Heures de Notre-Dame

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