DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Forget Snakes on a Plane, Now It's Snakes in the Gallery

Demeter in front of a masterpiece he calls jokingly calls "Pass the buck". Photo by Matt McClain/Washington Post
When you think of art, you think of snakes - right? You don't. Well, Bela Demeter does. For 35 years, he was a reptile keeper at the National Zoo. After he retired, he became a docent at the National Gallery of Art. As he wandered around the Gallery giving his guided talks, he realized that the art there contained a lot of reptile motifs. So now, a few times a year, he gives a special walking tour entitled Dragons in Art.

We took the tour yesterday. And we discovered that not only is it about snakes and dragons and toads, it offers equal parts art, myth, religion, science, and history. And, as an added bonus, Demeter infuses his engaging tales with a keen sense of wit.

Demeter admits that he uses snakes and dragons as a luring come-on for his true purpose. "We're really trying to expose you to the arts," he says.

In all, the tour covers 10 galleries and 6 centuries of art.

We began in the massive rotunda, examining a statue of the Roman god Mercury. Mercury is often represented holding a caduceus, which has become a symbol for medicine. The caduceus depicts intertwined snakes. But actually, using Mercury's ornament for medicine is a wrong representation, Demeter says.

"Mercury did a lot of things. The Greek and Roman gods, they multi-tasked. Mercury was the god of liars and thieves and merchants - in fact mercantile comes from the word Mercury. But he never had anything to do with medicine," Demeter noted.

"The Romans and Greeks had a profound respect for snakes. The Romans used snakes in their worship and they had priests like our snake-handling ministers of today," he added. "But if you know anything about snakes, they are escape artists." That is why some species of snakes are in different parts of Europe today - they are the direct descendants of escaped snakes carried by the Romans to the lands they conquered.

With the advent of Christianity, however, humans view of snakes took "a decidedly sinister turn," Demeter pointed out. There were 2 reasons for this. First, the Egyptians, who held the Jewish people in captivity, worshipped snakes. In fact, famed Egyptian queen Cleopatra was known as "the serpent of the Nile." Christianity was designed to rebuke the pagan beliefs of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

And then, of course, there is the fact that the concept of original sin from the Garden of Eden tale is forever intertwined with idea of temptation from a wily, Devil-like serpent.

So for the next few galleries we examined various artists' renditions of the snake in the Garden of Eden. (For an example, look at the picture of the "Rebuke of Adam and Eve" by Italian artist Domenichino, which Demeter jokingly refers to as "Pass the Buck.").

In one of those pictures, an evil-looking cat is in the foreground, staring back at each viewer of the picture. Demeter has a theory about why the cat was included. "I've read the Genesis story and I don't remember any cat," he said with a laugh. "But in the 15th Century, the cat was associated with the Devil. Think about witches and their familiars. Their familiars were never a dog; they were always a cat. In fact, during that time, there was an effort in Europe to kill every cat. By the 1400s, cats were almost extinct. But something else was going on at that time. Europe was swept by a number of plagues. The plagues were carried by fleas that came on rats. And what kills rats - cats. That's something to think about."

Demeter says that such examples point out one of his steadfast beliefs about art. "No art is formed in a vacuum," he says, pointing out that understanding the history, culture, and beliefs of a period in which a piece of art was produced helps you understand and appreciate the art much better,

St. George slaying the dragon
Christian art of ages past also often depicted the battle between virtuous knights such as St. George and evil dragons. "These were really showing the power of the church in subduing evil," Demeter said as we began examining a series of dragon in Christian art.

In fact, Demeter said the great artist Leonardo da Vinci had his own beliefs about depicting dragons in art. "When you are drawing a dragon, you should use as many real parts (of animals) as you can," da Vinci was supposed to have said. "That will make it more terrifying."

Early Dutch painters always included real-life images with highly symbolic meanings in their works. We looked at one Dutch painting that Demeter noted included a frog so realistic that its species can still be identified today. "That's how well the Dutch did their art. It's amazing," Demeter noted.

Frog or toad: Now you should be able to tell
From the paintings, we moved to sculpture, examining first a series by DaRavenna involving Neptune and dragon-like sea monsters. In the same gallery, were incredibly realistic depictions of frogs and toads. Demeter explained how those depictions were so life-like. "They used real models as molds. Now you can't use a live frog. And you can't use a dead frog. So they would stun the frog by putting him in either vinegar or urine," Demeter explained. Of course, that process was painful for the animal. In fact, Demeter pointed out that one of the replicas was actually mislabeled by museum experts. It was called a toad when actually it was a frog. And how did Demeter know. The small statue had its mouth opened in anguish and only frogs open their mouths that way.

Chinese dragon vase
The tour finished in the gallery containing exquisite Chinese porcelain vases. The Chinese have a quite positive view of both dragons and snakes. "They are not mean. They bring good luck. To have been born in the year of the dragon is the best. To have been born in the year of the snake is the second best," Demeter said.

The Chinese have a very involved mythology surrounding dragons. They believe it takes 3,000 years for a dragon to fully form and that they go through many stages during that time. The Chinese also believe that dragons bring rain. Demeter said that there may be a scientific reason for that belief.

"The ancient Chinese were very astute observers of nature. We have found remains of crocodiles in China with a skull of more than 30-feet. Such a crocodile would have been huge. It could have weighed tons - in short, a dragon. Crocodiles are also effected by barometric pressure. When it drops, they move. Thus, it would have been natural to associate them with rain," Demeter said.

"The Chinese were also aware of dinosaur fossils. You put that all together and you can easily see where the dragon mythology comes from," he added.

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