Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Baby Jesus Bear

I’m a sucker for a good prank, and damned if artists don’t possess exactly the kind of creative mind to truly fuck with someone. The May issue of Wired offers a few brief tales of painters who used their medium as a means of revenge, and it has fueled my passion for creative, terrible vengeance. It includes some good ones, such as James Abbott McNeill Whister’s decision to paint his former patron — Frederick Leyland, for whom Whistler painted his famous Peacock Room before they had a falling out— as a hunch-over, piano-playing peacock-man.

Which is clever, but foremost among these recounted incidents was the story of the fourteenth-century painter Buonamico Buffalmacco. Also known as Buonamico di Martino or Buonamico di Cristifano, this Florentine artist found the perfect revenge to wreak upon a stingy patron. As Wired succinctly notes, “A patron refuses to pay him for his fresco of the Virgin and Child, so the Italian painter substitutes a bear cub for baby Jesus.”

Simple. Awesome. Hilarious.

Immediately upon learning of this, I set out to find an image of this righteous desecration. It makes me happy that it exists for any reason, but that it resulted from Buffalmacco’s desire to piss someone off made me all the more eager to lay my eyes on it. Alas, it was not to be. For one, the incident isn’t exactly the most celebrated in Buffalmacco’s career. His Wikipedia page, for example, doesn’t even mention it. Being better versed in art history, Spencer helped me look and we ultimately arrived at a disappointing answer: He restored the Christ child to the Madonna’s arms once he was paid.

From Adrienne DeAngelis’s account of the incident:
[H]aving painted in fresco at Calcinaia a Madonna with the Child in her arms, he who had charged him to do it, in place of paying him, gave him words; whence Buonamico, who was not used to being trifled with or being fooled, determined to get his due by hook or by crook. And so, having gone one morning to Calcinaia, he transformed the child that he had painted in the arms of the Virgin into a little bear, but in colors made only with water, without size or distemper. This change being seen, not long after, by the peasant who had given him the work to do, almost in despair he went to find Buonamico, praying him for the sake of Heaven to remove the little bear and to paint another child as before, for he was ready to make satisfaction. This the other did amicably, being paid for both the first and the second labour without delay; and for restoring the whole work a wet sponge sufficed.
So it’s a yay-boo thing: boo, the bear no longer exists, but yay that Buffalmacco at least managed to squeeze more money out of the man who commissioned the fresco. Also, the search yielded an additional surprise. Again, from DeAngelis:
[Andrea Tafi, of whom Buffalmacco was a disciple and with whom Buffalmacco resided, made] it a custom, when the nights were long, to get up before daylight to labor, and to call the lads to night work. This being displeasing to Buonamico, who was made to rise out of his soundest sleep, he began to think of finding a way whereby Andrea might give up rising so much before daylight to work, and he succeeded; for having found thirty large cockroaches, or rather blackbeetles, in a badly swept cellar, with certain fine and short needles he fixed a little taper on the back of each of the said cockroaches, and, the hour coming when Andrea was wont to rise, he lit the tapers and put the animals one by one into the room of Andrea, through a chink in the door. He, awaking at the very hour when he was wont to call Buffalmacco, and seeing those little lights, all full of fear began to tremble and in great terror to recommend himself under his breath to God, like the old gaffer that he was, and to say his prayers or psalms; and finally, putting his head below the bedclothes, he made no attempt for that night to call Buffalmacco, but stayed as he was, ever trembling with fear, up to daylight. In the morning, then, having risen, he asked Buonamico if he had seen, as he had himself, more than a thousand demons; whereupon Buonamico said he had not, because he had kept his eyes closed, and was marveling that he had not been called to night work.
I’m calling this yay-yay: the first for not burning the house down, and the second for effectively using flaming bugs to take advantage of his master’s deeply held religious beliefs. All that being said, I still was hoping I could see the Madonna and her Baby Jesus Bear, and so I decided to simply create the best substitute I could manage on a work night.

Now, it belongs to the ages.

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