Saturday, 30 April 2011

Floating Marble: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

Gian Lorenzo Bernini,  Ecstasy of St. Teresa ~ 1647-52
(Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria - Rome)
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Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form.... He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire.... In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it — even a considerable share.” ~ Saint Teresa of Avila
(Source of quote:, undated)

These words, taken from the autobiography of the Sixteenth Century Spanish Carmelite saint and charismatic reformer, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), were the inspiration and reference point to one of Gian-Lorenzo Bernini's greatest masterpieces: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52). And what an ecstasy!

In the aptly accurate words of Robert Wallace, author of The World of Bernini: 1598-1680 (1970), Bernini, that quintessential Renaissance man whose genius knew no limits and who created sculptures that appealed “to the senses and emotions of the everyday world even when he portrays the miraculous, created the illusion of reality in The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa - an illusion no less miraculous for his ability to make stone seem to 'levitate' weightlessly. It is a work that could only have been achieved by the masterful hands - and imagination - of a great sculptor and visionary of Bernini's stature. According to another writer of an earlier time, Filippo Baldinucci, a contemporary of Gian-Lorenzo Bernini's, the sculptor liked to boast that “in his hands marble could become as impressionable as wax and as soft as dough. It also seems that, in his hands, stone could be made weightless and set afloat.

And therein lies the supreme genius of Bernini. For to precisely render in marble a specific moment from the recollections of a saint is no easy task; but then again, Bernini never hesitated or shirked away from a challenge such as this: to bring into existence a mystical moment and to express it  in rippling waves of stony folds.
(Quotes & sources: Wallace, R., The World of Bernini:1598-1680, 1970; Schama, S., When stone came to life,, September 16, 2006;, undated)

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As it happened, 1644 turned out to be a pivotal year for Bernini. That year, his greatest patron and staunchest supporter, Pope Urban VIII (pontificate: 1623-1644), died; and Bernini, due to earlier calamitous personal and professional circumstances (“a jealous rage caused him to have the face of his mistress slashed after discovering her romance with his brother. His reputation fell further after his bell towers for the Cathedral of St. Peter's started cracking in 1641”), had fallen into disfavour with the new pope, Clement X (pontificate: 1644-1655).
(Quote: Simon Schama's Power of Art, BBC, 2006)

The new pontiff favoured another architectural genius (and Bernini's arch-rival), Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). During this new pontificate, with his reputation on the wane and his name in disgrace, Bernini was free to undertake other commissions by private, wealthy patrons. It was around this time in his career, when he was no longer in favour and papal patronage ceased, that he accepted one such commission: to work on a private chapel. The patron was a respectable and fabulously wealthy Venetian, Cardinal Federico Cornaro (1579-1673). Cardinal Federico and the Cornaro family presented Bernini with the biggest challenge of his career; but also the chance for a spectacular comeback.
(Quote & sources: Simon Schama's Power of Art, BBC, 2006; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008)

The above six images are courtesy of:

Soon after arriving in Rome in 1644, Cornaro chose Santa Maria della Vittoria, a nondescript church of the Discalced Carmelites, for his burial chapel (the Cornaro family were patrons of this austere order of nuns who were also known as the Barefoot Carmelites). And it was here that Bernini was commissioned, not only to conceive and execute the focal point over the high altar, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, but to redesign and redecorate the entire chapel - a monumental feat that took about five years to accomplish, from 1647-1652, but a challenge that proved to be Bernini's saving grace.
(Sources: Simon Schama's Power of Art, BBC, 2006; Wallace, R., The World of Bernini:1598-1680, 1970)

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Derived from Teresa of Avila's autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, Bernini followed Teresa's own account of an event as she described it in a passage in her book: a mystical vision she had of a seraph angel. According to her memoirs, the smiling angel, standing beside her and holding a fiery-tipped golden arrow in his hand, proceeds to repeatedly plunge it into Teresa's heart. She describes this mystical experience as inflaming and consuming her soul with a great love of God. The sensuous figures of the writhing, ecstatic Teresa - her head tilted back, her eyes half-closed, and her mouth parted in an inaudible moan in complete submission and surrender to the Divine Rapture - cushioned on a cloud and the poised angel, ready and about to strike again, are depicted levitating above the altar among the undulating mass of their robes. It is this detached 'floating' effect that gives this carved stone its sense of weightlessness. Upon entering the chapel, a visitor has the feeling of having inadvertently intruded upon the beatific saint in the midst of a privately intimate, mystical moment. (Sources: Wittkower, R., Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, 1997; Simon Schama's Power of Art, BBC, 2006)

The above two images are courtesy of:   

The construction of this chapel single-handedly resurrected the disgraced reputation of the Cavaliere Bernini in the eyes of the world. In essence, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and its surrounding chapel were Bernini's biggest gamble and his most resounding success; it was, to quote the art historian Simon Schama, “the most daring drama of the body that he or any other sculptor in the history of art had ever conceived, much less executed.” The Cornaro chapel was, in a sense, Bernini's triumphant return, the harbinger of the revival of his ignominious reputation; it reinstated him in the favour of Innocent X and the papacy ever after. From the BBC television series, Simon Schama's Power of Art (2006), it is worth noting Schama's description of The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, in which he describes it as “a moment of mind-boggling drama; a moment that wavers between mystery and indecency: the body of a saint penetrated. The arrow withdrawn from its passage, poised to strike again - her pain indistinguishable from pleasure. The gasping woman levitating, defying gravity on rippling cushions of stone.” Bernini considered the Cornaro Chapel to be his most beautiful work. (Quotes & source: Simon Schama's Power of Art, BBC, 2006) 

Thereafter, with his reputation reinstated, Bernini continued his indefatigable work and to leave his unmistakable imprint on the Vatican, on Rome, and the age of High Roman Baroque.

Photograph by Photo Tractatus
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Photograph by Ray You ~ January 14, 2007
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The above two videos are courtesy of:  ~

Recommended readings:

The Life of Teresa of Jesus: The Autobiography of Teresa of Avila (1960), by Teresa of Avila, translated and edited by Edgar Allison Peers: Random House of Canada

The World of Bernini: 1598-1680 (1970), by Robert Wallace: Time-Life Books

St. Teresa of Avila:Author of A Heroic Life (1995), by Carole Slade: University of California Press

Bernini: Flights of Love, The Art of Devotion (1995), by Giovanni Careri: University of Chicago Press

Sculpture (1996), by Philippe Bruneau, Xavier Barral Altet, Mario Torelli & Antoinette Le Normand-Romain: Taschen

Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque (1997), by Rudolf Wittkower: Phaidon Press

Bernini (1998), by Franco Borsi: Ediciones AKAL

Teresa of Avila And The Politics of Sanctity (1998), by Gillian T. W. Ahlgren: Cornell University Press

Bernini and the Excesses of Art (2002), by Robert Torsten Petersson: Fordham University Press

Teresa of Avila: An Extraordinary Life (2004), by Shirley Du Boulay: Darton Longman & Todd

Bernini: Genius of the Baroque (2006), by Charles Avery: Thames & Hudson

The Genius In The Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome (2006), by Jake Morrissey: Harper Collins Publishers

The Way of Perfection (2007), by St. Teresa of Avila: Cosimo Classics

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Akhenaten's Hymn To The Aten

Akhenaten and members of his family worshipping & making offerings to the Aten

Pharaoh Akhenaten, who is also, at times, known as Amenhotep IV, is often referred to as the "heretical king" of the Eighteenth Dynasty - that chaotic period in Egyptian history which his reign encompassed, is popularly believed to have been caused by his insistence and dedication to the worship of a singular god, the Aten. But as with anything in history, it is difficult to ascertain the truth and to separate fact from conjecture. Over the last century, as excavations and studies at modern-day Tell el Amarna (Akhetaten, the ancient and true name of Akhenaten's city dedicated to the Aten, which is interpreted as 'the Horizon of the Aten') have revealed more clues about the reign of this controversial Pharaoh, so unlike any other before or after him, copious amounts of ink have been shed in innumerable books - each expounding its own theories on who this man was, what caused him to bring Egypt to the brink  of ruin, to abandon his kingly duties for the sake of his devotion to the service of  a god, and the significance his governance - or lack thereof -  had on Egypt's monumental history.    

Akhenaten sacrificing a duck to the Aten
This talatat block depicts Akhenaten's hands grasping the neck of a struggling duck - with one hand, he holds the fowl by its wings while with the other, he wrings its neck before offering it to his god
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In a hot, dry and sun-imbued region such as Egypt, solar worship is a matter of course and not an anomaly; in fact, the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun throughout their recorded history. A variety of deities, including Ra, or Re, Amun, and the syncretisation of the two gods, Amun-Re, manifested different aspects of the solar-disk as it progressed through the sky. But what is different or novel about the new religion of Akhenaten (whose self-appointed name translates into 'Glory of the Aten'), who ruled Egypt for seventeen years from around 1353 B.C. E. to 1336 B.C. E., is that it focused on one, specific aspect of the sun's (Re's) manifestations: as he emerged on the horizon at dawn, Re was Khepri; as the sun climbed higher in the course of the morning, he was Re-Horakhte, or Re who was Horus of the two horizons (in the same manner in which the lanner falcon, being the embodiment of Horus, Re swept across the sky); at midday or at his fiercest, Re was known as Aten; finally, in late afternoon when the heat subsided and the sun began to set, Re was known as Atum. The Egyptians saw all these as aspects or phases of Re. (For countless generations, but especially from the Fifth Dynasty onwards, the cult of Re was centered in Heliopolis - 'City of the Sun' - located in what is today's a northern suburb of Cairo.) (Source: El Mahdy, C., Tutankhamun: The Life And Death Of The Boy-King, 1999)

It was this representation of the Aten, this embodiment of the sun's furious midday heat (generally felt between 11:00 AM till 3:00 PM) when the solar rays are at their most intense, that Akhenaten elevated to a nearly exclusive position. Abandoning - some claim that he outlawed -  the temples and cultic rituals associated with Egypt's other, multitudinous gods (along with the traditional festivals held in their honour such as that of Amun and his consort Mut's annual Luxorian Opet festival), Akhenaten raised new temples to Aten, leaving them open to the sky to allow worshippers to feel the life-giving, life-nourishing rays of the god. (Source: National Geographic Magazine, April 2001)

Around year four of his reign, Akhenaten set out two hundred miles north of Luxor in search of a new site - a virginal, unpolluted plain on the eastern bank of the Nile that belonged neither to man nor to any other god - and and founded a new city in middle Egypt, halfway between Egypt's ancient centres of power, Memphis, to the north (Lower Egypt), and Luxor, to the south (Upper Egypt), dedicated to his god. It was here, at what would become known as Akhetaten, that Akhenaten defined the new city's boundaries - the limits of which were clearly set by fourteen boundary stelae - and, once he chose the site, ordered work to begin immediately. As the inscriptions on the city's stelae show, exactly one year later, in year five of Akhenaten's reign, the royal family and its court occupied the newly-founded city and, for the next fifteen years, it functioned viably; it is generally believed that, once Akhenaten relocated to his new city, he never left Akhetaten again. (It was at the time of his move to Akhetaten, the new capital of Egypt, that the Pharaoh re-named himself as 'Akhenaten' and his wife, Nefertiti, as 'Nefernefruaten Mery Waenre,' which translates into 'the beloved of Waenre' - 'Waenre' being one of Akhenaten's names.)
(Source: El Mahdy, C., Tutankhamun: The Life And Death Of The Boy-King, 1999)

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters under the life-giving rays of the Aten
(In total, the Pahraoh & his queen had six daughters, all of whom were lovingly depicted with their royal parents)
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Moreover, Akhenaten proclaimed himself to be Aten's sole incarnation or representative on Earth - not dissimilar to the way the Pope is regarded by his (Roman Catholic) flock to be Christ's Vicar on Earth. Being the 'son of the Aten' or, to put it another way, the 'son of god,' Akhenaten saw himself as the sole person who possessed exclusive access to the god, worshipping and communicating directly with the Aten: ordinary people could adore the Aten  through  the god's intermediary, the Pharaoh, and gain the beneficence of the god through his intercession on their behalf. Akhenaten ordered his artists to portray the Pharaoh and is family worshipping and making offerings to the Aten, always depicted as the solar orb in the sky with a uraeus - the rearing hooded cobra traditionally seen on the brow of royal crowns and headdresses - at its centre, whose rays reached down to Earth, terminating in small human hands holding the hieroglyphic symbol of life, the ankh,  to the faces of members of the royal family, blessing them with life.
(Source: National Geographic Magazine, April 2001)

This uncompleted yet beautiful bust from the workshop of Thutmoses, is believed to be that of Queen Nefertiti
(Bodemuseum, Ägyptische Sammlung, Berlin)
Photograph courtesy of Margarete Busing ~ 2000
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Even the construction and function of the Aten's temples diverged from traditional temples in Egypt. The Great Temple, which was situated in the middle of Akhetaten and off of the city's main road, the Royal Road, which ran parallel to the Nile, differed from other Egyptian temples dedicated to the gods because as one progressed through its courts, they became more open to the air and light, as opposed to such temples as those of Amun - whose very name means the 'Hidden' or 'Secret One' - where the halls would get darker and increasingly forbidden.

Amun-Re's temple at Karnak perfectly illustrates the difference between Akhenaten's temple to Aten and more traditional temples, not only architecturally, but ideologically as well. For instance, at the heart of the temple at Karnak - as it is in most Egyptian temples - was the shrine of the god. Housed inside of this inner sanctum of the temple, the shrine was the darkest, quietest and most secretive part of the temple, in the midst of which stood the golden cult statue of the god for whom the temple had been built and the axis around which all the activity of the temple revolved. Forbidden to every person except for the Pharaoh and only a handful of select priests who ministered to the god's person (in the form of a statue) by offering it libations and incensed prayers, Amun-Ra would be dressed each day in fresh, white linens. By its very nature then, the hierarchy of Egyptian religion was exclusive - it granted those who served the gods in their temples an immense measure of wealth; and along with wealth, prestige and power naturally and consequently followed. And the more access an individual - a priest or 'prophet', for instance - had to the presence of the god, the more power that individual wielded and the grander his honorary titles were. Therefore, the cults of the gods were shrouded in mystery and jealously guarded in secrecy, precisely in order to preserve the insularity of a god's cult - and priestly power which, at certain times in Egyptian history, rivalled even that of the Pharaohs. 

Conversely,  the main distinctive aspect of the Temple of the Aten was that there was no cult statue of the god. Instead, as it has already been mentioned, the Temple was open-aired and roofless, so that as the sun-disk traversed the sky from east to west directly overhead, the Pharaoh, his family, his courtiers, and fellow Atenists worshipped the god daily, in his magnificent guise or manifestation of the sun. But there was yet another essential difference: whereas in the other temples of Egypt the Pharaoh conducted secret, unseen rituals to the cult statue of a god, here, in  the Great temple of Aten, the Pharaoh worshipped semi-publicly, making offerings and sacrifices to his god in the presence of others.
(Sources: El Mahdy, C., Tutankhamun: The Life And Death Of The Boy-King, 1999; Bard, K., & Shubert, S., Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, 1999)

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In adoration of the Aten, Akhenaten wrote 'hymns' or rather, descriptive poems to the god, and these were carved - in either long or short versions - on the walls of several tombs that were cut into the cliffs at the rear of Akhetaten. And, in the tomb of Ay, the chief minister and maternal uncle of Akhenaten — (Ay was one of Queen Tiye's two brothers; the other brother being Anen, a priest of Amun in Karnak. As the Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten's father, Tiye was Akhenaten's mother) — who was later to seize the throne after the death of Tutankhamun, occurs the longest and best rendition of a composition known as the 'Hymn to the Aten', said to have been written by Akhenaten himself.

Quite moving in itself as a piece of poetry, many scholars agree that it is uncannily similar to Psalm 104 (reputedly composed by Moses. This has led many to suppose that either Moses and the Hebrews were residing in Egypt at that time of Akhenaten's reign and, therefore, influenced or 'converted' the Pharaoh to the concept of monotheism, or, as some have proposed, that Akhenaten and Moses were one and the same person). Atenism's whole ideology is summed up in the Hymn, embedded in which is the concept that only Akhenaten had access to the god: '... there is none who knows thee save thy son Akhenaten. Thou hast made him wise in thy plans and thy power.' As the father of the Pharaoh and of all creation, the Aten is acknowledged as the begetter of all life: all plant and animal life; all races and nationalities, immediate and distant, including  Egypt's allies and her enemies - everything under the sun. So the essence of the worship of the Aten is not the solar-disk itself but rather, the power of the god behind it: the metaphor being that, just as the sun's rays  are far-reaching and omnipresent, so is the power of the Aten; at once visible to and felt by all and yet, simultaneously, invisible and omnipotent. 
(Quote & sources:, 2010; El Mahdy, C., Tutankhamun: The Life And Death Of The Boy-King, 1999)

The Great Hymn To The Aten
(Translation by John A. Wilson)

Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven,
Thou living Aten, the beginning of life!
When thou art risen on the eastern horizon,
Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.
Thou art gracious, great, glistening, and high over every land;
Thy rays encompass the lands to the limit of all that thou hast made:
As thou art Re, thou reachest to the end of them;
(Thou) subduest them (for) thy beloved son.
Though thou art far away, thy rays are on earth;
Though thou art in their faces, no one knows thy going.

When thou settest in the western horizon,
The land is in darkness, in the manner of death.
They sleep in a room, with heads wrapped up,
Nor sees one eye the other.
All their goods which are under their heads might be stolen,
(But) they would not perceive (it).
Every lion is come forth from his den;
All creeping things, they sting.
Darkness is a shroud, and the earth is in stillness,
For he who made them rests in his horizon.

At daybreak, when thou arisest on the horizon,
When thou shinest as the Aton by day,
Thou drivest away the darkness and givest thy rays.
The Two Lands are in festivity every day,
Awake and standing upon (their) feet,
For thou hast raised them up.
Washing their bodies, taking (their) clothing,
Their arms are (raised) in praise at thy appearance.
All the world, they do their work.

All beasts are content with their pasturage;
Trees and plants are flourishing.
The birds which fly from their nests,
Their wings are (stretched out) in praise to thy ka.
All beasts spring upon (their) feet.
Whatever flies and alights,
They live when thou hast risen (for) them.
The ships are sailing north and south as well,
For every way is open at thy appearance.
The fish in the river dart before thy face;
Thy rays are in the midst of the great green sea.

Creator of seed in women,
Thou who makest fluid into man,
Who maintainest the son in the womb of his mother,
Who soothest him with that which stills his weeping,
Thou nurse (even) in the womb,
Who givest breath to sustain all that he has made!
When he descends from the womb to breathe
On the day when he is born,
Thou openest his mouth completely,
Thou suppliest his necessities.
When the chick in the egg speaks within the shell,
Thou givest him breath within it to maintain him.
When thou hast made him his fulfillment within the egg, to break it,
He comes forth from the egg to speak at his completed (time);
He walks upon his legs when he comes forth from it.

How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
O sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,
Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet,
And what is on high, flying with its wings.

The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,
Thou settest every man in his place,
Thou suppliest their necessities:
Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.
Their tongues are separate in speech,
And their natures as well;
Their skins are distinguished,
As thou distinguishest the foreign peoples.
Thou makest a Nile in the underworld,
Thou bringest forth as thou desirest
To maintain the people (of Egypt)
According as thou madest them for thyself,
The lord of all of them, wearying (himself) with them,
The lord of every land, rising for them,
The Aten of the day, great of majesty.

All distant foreign countries, thou makest their life (also),
For thou hast set a Nile in heaven,
That it may descend for them and make waves upon the mountains,
Like the great green sea,
To water their fields in their towns.
How effective they are, thy plans, O lord of eternity!
The Nile in heaven, it is for the foreign peoples
And for the beasts of every desert that go upon (their) feet;
(While the true) Nile comes from the underworld for Egypt.

Thy rays suckle every meadow.
When thou risest, they live, they grow for thee.
Thou makest the seasons in order to rear all that thou hast made,
The winter to cool them,
And the heat that they may taste thee.
Thou hast made the distant sky in order to rise therein,
In order to see all that thou dost make.
Whilst thou wert alone,
Rising in thy form as the living Aten,
Appearing, shining, withdrawing or aproaching,
Thou madest millions of forms of thyself alone.
Cities, towns, fields, road, and river
Every eye beholds thee over against them,
For thou art the Aten of the day over the earth.

Thou are in my heart,
And there is no other that knows thee
Save thy son Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re
For thou hast made him well-versed in thy plans and in thy strength.

The world came into being by thy hand,
According as thou hast made them.
When thou hast risen they live,
When thou settest they die.
Thou art lifetime thy own self,
For one lives (only) through thee.
Eyes are (fixed) on beauty until thou settest.
All work is laid aside when thou settest in the west.
(But) when (thou) risest (again),
[Everything is] made to flourish for the king,
Since thou didst found the earth
And raise them up for thy son,
Who came forth from thy body: the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Akh-en-Aten, and the Chief Wife of the King, Nefer-titi, living and youthful forever and ever.

(Source:, March 1st, 2000)

Stela showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and two of their daughters making offerings to the Aten
(Cairo Museum, Egypt)
Image courtesy of:

Suggested readings:

Tell El Amarna (1973), by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie: Aris & Phillips

Akhenaten: The Heretic King (1984), by Donald B. Reford: Princeton University Press

Akhenaten's Egypt (1988), by Angela P. Thomas: Shire

Akhenaten: King of Egypt (1988), by Cyril Aldred: Thames & Hudson

Akhenaten's Year Twelve Reconsidered (1988), by F.J.E. Boddens Hosang: D.E. Publications

Akhenaten's Sed-festival at Karnak (1992), by Jocelyn Gohary: Kegan Paul International

The Boundary Stelae Of Akhenaten (1993), by William J. Murnane & Charles Cornell Van Siclen: Kegan Paul International

Visual Manifestations Of Kingship During The Reign Of Akhenaten (1997), by Susan Gayle Stelford: Northern Illinois University

Nefertiti: Egypt's Sun Queen (1998), by Joyce A. Tyldesley: Viking

Tutankhamen: The Life And Death of The Boy-King (1999), by Christine El Mahdy: St. Martin's Griffin

Pharaohs Of The Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen (1999), by Rita E. Freed, Sue D'Auria, Yvonne J. Markowitz & The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in association with Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown

Akhenaten: The Heretic And His World (2000), by Leatha A. Ruppert: California State University, Dominguez Hills

Akhenaten and the Religion of Light (2001), by Erik Hornung & David Lorton: Cornell University Press

Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Age Of Revolution (2002), by Barbara Watterson: Tempus

Akhenaten: History, Fantasy And Ancient Egypt (2003), by Dominic Montserrat: Routledge

Images of Akhenaten's Daughters (2003), by Katie Frances Daniel: University of Auckland

The Golden Age of Tutankhamun: Divine Might And Splendor In The New Kingdom (2004), by Zahi A. Hawass: American University in Cairo Press

Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet (2005), by Nicholas Reeves: Thames & Hudson

Akhenaten & Tutankhamun: Revolution And Restoration (2006), by David P. Silverman, Josef William Wegner & Jennifer Houser Wegner: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Akhenaten (2008), by Dorothy Porter: Pan Macmillan

The Akhenaten Colossi of Karnak (2010), by Lisa Manniche: American University in Cairo Press

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Jeanne Toussaint: Cartier's Formidable Panther

Jeanne Toussaint

Cartier's Panthère, that instantly identifiable and enduring symbol of the world-renowned French jewellers and watchmakers - a brand often ascribed as "Joaillier des Rois et Roi des Joailliers" - has been the company's motif since its first appearance, in 1914, when it graced the face of a wristwatch decorated in onyx and diamonds in the unmistakable pattern of a jungle cat. (Source:, June 27, 2010)  

But the panther would, in time, become affiliated with more than just the name of Cartier, the brand; it would lend its image, fabled prowess and mysterious attributes to an indomitable woman - the firm's director of haute joaillerie: Jeanne Toussaint. Under her directional taste and guidance, Cartier gradually moved away from the hard, structured lines of Art Deco and into more figurative work, producing some of its most whimsical creations in the form of a zoological garden that ranged from flowers, birds and animals - particularly the elusive panther - using only the choicest, most beautiful and  finest-quality stones along with equally superior craftsmanship. (Legend has it that, while on a trip in Africa with Louis Cartier, Toussaint spotted a panther and excitedly exclaimed: “Onyx, diamonds, emeralds – a brooch!”)
(Quote: McCarthy, C.,, October 20, 2010)

Toussaint ~ 1920
(Photograph by Baron Adolf de Meyer)
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A contemporary and friend of Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, little is known of Jeanne Toussaint's early background, except for a few basic facts such as her birthplace, in 1887, in Charleroi, Belgium. Her family were apparently makers of and traders in Brussels lace - while her mother sewed and crocheted the lace, her father was responsible for loading his cart with the finished items and, in the morning, going around to the markets, selling his goods. By all accounts, business flourished and Jeanne, given a religious education, lived a happy childhood alongside her adored older sister, Charlotte.

That idyllic childhood in Belgium came to a sudden end when her father fell ill. Unable to continue his trade, Jeanne's mother was left with the responsibility of carrying on the business. At some point, a certain fellow met and befriended Jeanne's family and insinuated his way into the family's lace manufacturing business, to which he made some improvements. The man also managed to move in with the family, gradually replacing her father's position, and Jeanne's once-happy childhood turned into a difficult one. From what is known of this man is that he was abusive, first to Charlotte, then to Jeanne. At sixteen, Jeanne was seduced by Pierre Quinson, a son and scion of a French aristocratic family. Shirking military service in France and  other family responsibilities, the handsome Quinson fled to Belgium. Faced with disinheritance, Quinson, in spite of his carefree way of life, found himself pressured to return to France and to an honourable marriage.

Desperate to escape the oppressive environment of her home life, Jeanne, as her sister had done before her, left the family home and headed to the French capital to create a new life for herself - and to become Quinson's mistress. Barely seventeen, Jeanne found herself to be one of the coquettes or kept women that abounded in Paris during the Belle Epoque. It was also in Paris that Jeanne re-established contact with her sister, Charlotte. Housed in a magnificent mansion on the Boulevard Malesherbes, Charlotte was by then the mistress of a respected adviser to the Court of Auditors.

Abandoned by Quinson, Toussaint had affairs with several men, among them: a fashionable society painter, an industrialist, a senior public servant and then with a wealthy business tycoon, Pierre Hely Oissel. Oissel would eventually become president of Saint-Gobain and one of the great loves of Toussaint's life. (They eventually married in 1954 when Toussaint was sixty-seven years of age.) Oissel introduced Toussaint to the pleasures of fashionable Paris - restaurants, the opera, the theatre, et cetera. In these demimondaine venues, Toussaint met some of the city's other famous coquettes, including Germaine Nanteuil, Loulou Neris, Clara Drum, Charlotte Neusillet, Fozan, Emilienne Alençon, Liane of Pougy and Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel. Toussaint and Chanel struck up an immediate friendship and the two became inseparable; they remained friends throughout their lives. (Source: Breton, T. G.,, 2010)

Jeanne Toussaint painted by Paul Cesar Helleu ~ ca. 1920
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World War I cost the lives of millions of young men and devastated most of Europe. It was after the devastation of war that Toussaint met and fell in a love with Louis Cartier, forty-three years of age, and one of the three Cartier brothers of the jewellery empire.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Louis, along with brothers Jacques and Pierre, built and expanded upon an empire which originated in 1847 when Louis-François Cartier took over the jewellery workshop of his teacher Adolphe Picard at 29 Rue Montorgueil in Paris. A few years later, in 1853, he opened his first boutique in the neighborhood of the Palais Royal, in the vicinity of other luxury shops. In 1898, Alfred Cartier and his son, Louis, established a jewellery firm on the Rue de la Paix known for very fine platinum settings which were especially designed to set off the qualities and colours of the finest stones available. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the three brothers had endowed the Cartier name with international renown by opening branches in London and New York; they travelled to India, Russia, the Persian Gulf and the United States in search of exceptional jewels, making a name for themselves with royal courts around the world. (One of Louis Cartier's innovations was the wristwatch. In 1904, urged by his friend, the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was unable to read the time on his pocket-watch during flights, Louis collaborated with Edmond Jaeger, the watchmaker, to create the first wristwatch. During World War I, Louis devised the 'Tank' watch, the wrist chain of which was inspired by the caterpillars of iron war tanks.)  (Sources:, 2011; Breton, T. G.,, 2010)

Although Toussaint loved Louis and would liked to have become his wife, Louis capitulated under the pressure applied by his brothers and father who feared the possible dire consequences such a marriage would have on the firm, and did not marry her. However, Toussaint remained Louis' mistress and, even though she could not draw or sketch, was hired by Louis Cartier in 1918. (Source: Breton, T. G.,, 2010)

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Assigned an office at Cartier's Rue de la Paix address, the two remained close until Louis' death in 1942 while on a trip in the United States. And it was Louis who taught Toussaint all she needed to know about fine jewellery, the identity of the highest-quality stones and about the importance of settings. Assisted by the designers of the house, Edmond Forêt, Charles Jacquot, Gérard Desouches and Pierre Lemarchand, she relied on her imagination to design watches and accessories. During her apprenticeship at Cartier's and even after her appointment to the directorship of the haute joaillerie department in 1933 (she headed the department until her retirement in 1968), Toussaint explored different motifs: animals, dragons, chimeras, flowers, and her favourite of all, birds (parrots and flamingos were a particular favourite) - all inspired by the exoticism of India, Persia, and the Far East - themes she would explore and re-visit throughout the decades of her tenure at Cartier. (Source: Breton, T. G.,, 2010)

Toussaint possessed a style as fiercely unique and inventive as Chanel's - she coupled turbans with silk evening pyjamas or a Chinese suit with long strands of pearls - that gained her entry into Paris's fashionable and artistic circles. Toussaint established for herself a reputation for chicness, a reputation she especially honed as one of Cartier's more imaginative jewellery designers - she revelled in the combination of different coloured stones, juxtaposing precious alongside semi-precious stones such as yellow sapphires and tourmalines, amethysts and corals, lapis-lazuli and diamonds.  But it was her identification with that mysterious jungle cat, the panther, that her name became synonymous: nicknamed 'The Panther' for her evidently forceful spirit, Toussaint also had a penchant for wearing coats made of the felines' skins and  her apartment, it was said, was strewn with panther skins. 
(Sources: McCarthy, C.,, October 20, 2010;, June 27, 2010)

In the 1940s, Jeanne Toussaint turned back to nature taking her inspiration from plants and animals. She revived the trend for yellow gold - for decades, platinum had been the favoured metal for settings - and designed remarkable jewellery for such prominent clients as Barbara Hutton, the Duchess of Windsor, Daisy Reginald Fellowes, and Nina Aga Khan, whose husband typically ordered a whole collection of panther-themed jewellery.
(Sources:, 2003;, June 27, 2010)

June 14th, 1940, the German army entered Paris (Belgium had already fallen to the Germans, just over a month earlier, on May 10th); for the German occupiers, Paris was a plum of a prize. The cosmopolitan city offered a bevy of entertainments: movie houses, burlesque theatres, and dance halls - all available to them. Allied bombing struck in the industrialized suburbs, but not the city centre itself. After the Normandy invasion, Paris  poised anxiously for its long-awaited liberation. The resistance tracked the slow progress out of the Normandy coast and towards Paris. On August 19th, the Communist-led resistance cells rose up against the German garrison commanded by General Dietrich Choltitz. On August 23rd, Choltitz received orders from Hitler instructing him that “Paris is not to fall in the hands of the enemy, except as a heap of ruins,” instructions that Choltitz, for whatever reason, ignored. (After ordering the city destroyed, Hitler famously asked his staff, “Is Paris burning?”)

By August 25th, 1944, the resistance and the advancing Americans annihilated the few remaining collaborationist and German pockets, finally setting Paris free; General de Gaulle entered the city the next day. Snipers opened fire on him from a hotel, but he was not hit. He addressed Parisians and the world: “Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!” (Sources & quotes:, 2007;, 2011;, 2004)

  “L'Oiseau Libéré” ~ 1944
Created by Toussaint and Pierre Lemarchand, the design of the singing bird in an open cage, a symbolic concept of France's newly restored freedom from the German occupation on August 25th, 1944, and the end of the war.
(Coral, diamonds, lapis-lazuli, platinum & yellow gold)
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Even though some of Paris's most notable luxury and fashion houses opted to close their doors for the duration of the war (some never re-opened again), others, Cartier's among them, did not and chose to remain open. Toussaint, with her irreverent wit and defiant spirit, chose to express her resistance to the German occupation through the one medium available to her and one she knew and loved intimately well: coloured stones. And she expressed her defiance via the one platform at her disposal: Cartier's exclusive boutique windows on the Rue de la Paix. (Left in charge of Cartier's during the turbulent war years, Toussaint, just prior to the occupation, organized the transfer to Biarritz, in the south of France, of a stock of jewellery valued at 50 million francs and deposited at Cartier's for safekeeping by some of the firm's clients, many of whom had fled Paris at the approach of the Germans.)

In 1940, Toussaint, with the assistance of  a colleague, Pierre Lemarchand, created a brooch of a bird imprisoned behind the golden bars of its golden cage. Using stones representative of the patriotic colours of France - white (diamonds), blue (lapis-lazuli) and red (coral) - the 'caged bird' brooch was symbolic of the occupation of Paris - and France - and was prominently displayed in Cartier's windows. It was an audacious maneuver but one which caused the jeweler to be summoned to the headquarters of the German Army in France and to be imprisoned for a few days; she gained her release only through the personal intervention of Gabrielle Chanel.

Days after the liberation of Paris, Toussaint and Lemarchand re-created the brooch; but this time, as the 'liberated bird' and displayed it once more, as they had  previously done, in the windows of the boutique. In the 'liberated' version of the pin - “L'Oiseau Libéré” - the little bird is seen perched outside of its opened cage, poised for flight and singing joyously. According to jewellery dealer Dianne Lewis-Batista, Toussaint “felt that jewelry needed to be based on joy; what better subject than birds?
(Quote & sources: McCarthy, C.,, October 20, 2010;, June 27, 2010; Breton, T. G.,, 2010)

Panthère clip-brooch, the Duchess of Windsor’s Collection ~ 1948
(In 1948 the panther motif went three-dimensional when The Duchess of Windsor commissioned a golden cat perched atop of a cabochon emerald)
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Toussaint is perhaps best remembered for the jewellery she designed for the Duchess of Windsor.

The course of the courtship between David, Prince of Wales - later, briefly known as Edward VIII - and the American divorcée, Wallis Warfield Simpson, was charted in jewellery: the important moments of their courtship and the momentous events of their lives together were set out, literally, in precious stones. During his brief period on the throne (from January 20th to December 11th, 1936), as well as before and during the whole of their married life together, the couple commissioned exquisite jewels from the great European jewellery houses; Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels foremost among them. With the Duke of Windsor’s encouragement, Jeanne Toussaint produced some of her most extraordinary work, among them an articulated onyx and diamond panther bracelet designed in 1952 - perhaps the finest among her three-dimensional “great cats” jewels. A further testament to the admiration of the Duke and the Duchess for Jeanne Toussaint’s avant-garde designs is found in a splendid flamingo brooch, ablaze with rubies, sapphires, emeralds, citrines and diamonds, produced in 1940, just before the start of World War II. (Source:, 2010)

The Duke & Duchess of Windsor

Cartier's Indian experience began in 1901 when Pierre Cartier was commissioned to create an Indian necklace for Queen Alexandra from various pieces of her jewelry. As queen consort of Edward VII and Empress of India, the necklace was to be worn with three Indian gowns sent to Queen Alexandra by Mary Curzon, Vicereine and wife of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India at that time. Indian decorative influence was pronounced in London because of India's singular position as the 'jewel in the crown' of England's Empire and henceforth, it was Cartier's London branch, headed by Jacques Cartier, that handled the firm's Indian business.

Jacques Cartier made his first trip to India in 1911, the same year as the Delhi Durbar in celebration of the coronation of George V and Queen Mary. It was during this trip that he consolidated his contacts with India's maharajahs, spending time with them at their dynastic palaces. This was to result in not only a long and profitable patronage of the firm by India's royalty, but also a distinctive influence that would infuse as well as inspire Cartier to new heights of creativity in the art of jewellery design. Interestingly, while the Indian princes were interested in having their jewels reworked and re-set in more fashionable European styles – particularly following the celebration of George V's coronation at the Delhi Durbar in 1911 – it was the traditional use of carved coloured stones and enamel work that inspired the orientalist feeling which came to characterize Cartier's Art Deco designs in the 1920s popularly known as “Tutti Frutti” or “fruit salad.” The moniker is derived from the combination of carved and engraved sapphires, emeralds, diamonds and rubies - many of which were acquired in bulk from India and  used to assemble individual, commissioned pieces of jewellery; a limited number of “Tutti Frutti” designs were produced. Created between the early 1920s into the late 1930s, these jewels reflect the pursuit of the exotic 'chic' that so captivated the sophisticated European and American collectors of that period. (Source:, 2006)

It was on that tradition that Toussaint, who had also traveled to India and helped launch the mania for Mogul-style jewels - sometimes referred to as 'Hindu' jewellery with Indian coral and cabochon emeralds - had built upon. (McCarthy, C.,, October 20, 2010)

Toussaint revived Cartier's “Tutti Frutti” signature style, which had been inspired not only by India's princely caste but also by their treasure trove of engraved Moghul stones, creating unique pieces for such distinguished clients as the ultra-chic Mrs. Daisy R. Fellowes.

Mrs. Daisy R. Fellowes wearing the Tutti Frutti 'Hindu' necklace
(Photograph by Cecil Beaton)

Tutti Frutti 'Hindu' necklace designed for Mrs. Daisy R. Fellowes ~ 1936
(Altered in 1963)
Modeled after a 1935 Cartier design for an Indian maharajah—the necklace has over 1,000 stones—cut diamonds and sapphires and carved ruby, sapphire and emerald leaves imported from India.

Panther perched on a 152.35 carat cabochon sapphire
Brooch designed for the Duchess of Windsor ~ 1949
 (It was this very panther that launched the “big cat craze”)
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A diamond, emerald and onyx panther bracelet
(Sold for $458,500 (est. $80-120k) at Christie's N.Y. in 2010)
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Tiger lorgnette made for the Duchess of Windsor ~ ca. 1954
This articulated yellow diamonds and onyx tiger brooch, reminiscent of the draped ram's skin suspended from the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, was created for Barbara Hutton ~ 1957
(Photograph by Nick Welsh)

Tutti Frutti dress clips/brooch made for Linda Porter ~ 1935

It is no exaggeration to state that  the Duchess of Windsor’s most important - and extraordinary - jewellery was a result of a collaboration between herself, the Duke, and Jeanne Toussaint. At the end of November 2010, a sale was held at Sotheby's London of some twenty intimate gifts from the Duke to the Duchess, all made by Cartier. These historical pieces of jewellery had been auctioned once before.

The twenty-piece collection was sold on behalf of millionaire Wafiq Said, who had acquired it at the original sale of the Duchess of Windsor's jewellery back in 1987 in Geneva. At that sale, three-hundred pieces were auctioned, a year after the Duchess’s death on April 24th, 1986, in Paris. (The 1987 auction of the Duchess's jewellery collection fetched over $50 million, far higher than anyone could have predicted. It was one of the most successful sales in Sotheby's history.) At the time, film stars, tycoons and even royalty were said to be among the bidders vying for a piece of history.  
(Sources: Cohen, T.,, December 1, 2010; Anderson, G.,, February 13, 2010)

Custom-designed flamingo brooch with feathers of rubies, sapphires and emeralds, and a beak of citrine ~ 1940
 The brooch was delivered to the Windsors just days before the Germans invaded Paris in June, 1940
(It attained £1,721,250 at Sotheby's auction re-sale in November 2010, London)
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The famous onyx and diamond articulated panther bracelet which once belonged to the Duchess of Windsor
(Auctioned for £4.5million, the 1952 bracelet is the most expensive ever sold)
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Toussaint photographed in Paris by Cecil Beaton ~ 1962
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In 1955 and in tribute to Toussaint’s influence on jewellery and modern design, the French government awarded her the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor. (Source:, June 27, 2010)

Jeanne Toussaint died in Paris in 1978.

Suggested readings:

Cartier: The Legend (1983), by Gilberte Gautier: Arlington Books

Reflections Of Elegance: Cartier Jewels From The Lindemann Collection (1988), by Harry St. C. Fane, Hans Nadelhoffer, New Orleans Museum of Art & Eric Nussbaum: new Orleans Museum of Art

Made By Cartier: 150 Years Of Tradition And Innovation (1993), by Franco Cologni & Ettore Mocchetti: Abbeville Press

Platinum By Cartier: Triumphs Of The Jewelers' Art (1996), by Franco Cologni & Eric Nussbaum

Cartier: 1900-1939 (1997), by Judy Rudoe, Cartier (Firm), British Museum & Metropolitan Museum of Art: Harry N. Abrams

Cartier (1997), by Philippe Trétiack, Cartier (Firm): Universe Publications

Les Must de Cartier (2002), by Anne-Marie Clais: Assouline

Cartier (2005), by by Philippe Trétiack: Assouline

Cartier (2007), by Hans Nadelhoffer: Chronicle Books

Cartier: 1899-1949, The Journey Of A Style (2007), by Nuno Vassallo e Silva, João Carvalho Dias, Thierry Coudert & Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian: Skira

Cartier: Innovations Throught The 20th Century (2008), by Michel Aliaga & François Chaille: Flammarion

Cartier I Love You (2009), by Bruce Weber & Ingrid Sischy: Te Neues Pub Group

Amazing Cartier: Jewelry Design Since 1937 (2009), by Nadine Coleno: Flammarion

La Panthère: Le Fabuleux Roman de Jeanne Toussaint (2010), by Stéphanie des Horts: Jean-Claude Lattès

Cartier and America (2010), by Martin Chapman & Karen A. Levine: Prestel Pub

Cartier: The Power Of Style (2011), by Eva Eisler, Rony Plesl, Pierre Rainero & Pascale Lepeu: Rizzoli