The Walters Art Series 

View of the atrium at the Walters Art Museum, filled with bright light, white columns, and creamy golden walls.
View of the atrium at the Walters Art Museum

by Rohini G.

This fall, and continuing into winter, Howard County Library System partners with The Walters Art Museum to bring an educational approach to art as we discuss specific works of art and the themes behind them. This series of four classes launches with The Art of Looking on October 13. Asking us to slow down and take the time to see the details, Docents Jill Reynolds and Bonnie Kind examine, analyze, and interpret artworks. Expertise gained through this session can be applied to the subsequent session on Symbolism in Renaissance & Baroque Art. The winter sessions will have an exciting and other-worldly feel as we explore Fantastical Creatures in sculpture and paintings. This will segue seamlessly into the fourth session on Chinese Ceramics, just in time to celebrate the Lunar New Year.  

Sign up for the series or individual classes that interest you. REGISTER  

The Art of Looking brings forth the concept of Artful Thinking. Developed by Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, this routine encourages students to make careful observations and develop their own ideas and interpretations based on what they see. By separating the two questions, What do you see? and What do you think about what you see?, the routine helps distinguish between observations and interpretations.

The painting depicts the aftermath of the murder of the emperor Claudius.  Gratus, a member of the Praetorian Guard, draws a curtain aside to reveal the terrified Claudius who is hailed as emperor on the spot.  Beneath the bloodtstained herm in the background lie the bodies of Caligula, his wife Caesonia, their young daughter, and a bystander.  Roman men and women are depicted at the left, overlooking the scene.
Image credit: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Roman Emperor: 41 AD, 1871, oil on canvas. Bequest of Henry Walters, 1931, acc. no. 37.165. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum. 

In this painting titled A Roman Emperor (Claudius), Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema OM RA (1836-1912), depicts the aftermath of a violent historical event. In AD 41, the debauched Roman emperor Caligula was murdered. Gratus, a member of the Praetorian Guard, draws a curtain aside to reveal the terrified Claudius who is hailed as emperor on the spot.  Beneath the herm in the background, lie the bodies of Caligula, his wife Caesonia, their young daughter and of a bystander. The blood stains on the herm* denote the struggle that has transpired as well as the setting, the Hermaeum, an apartment in the Palace where Claudius had sought refuge.

This detail from the painting depicts Gratus, dressed in the brown uniform of the Praetorian Guard, pulling back a green curtain with brown fringe and a white and brown circular pattern, to reveal the emperor Claudius behind the curtain.  Claudius is robed in white and his frightened face is half-hidden behind the curtain.  Gratus is bowing to him.
Image credit: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, detail from A Roman Emperor: 41 AD, 1871, oil on canvas. Bequest of Henry Walters, 1931, acc. no. 37.165. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

In the detail of the painting, we see Gratus pulling back the curtain that has hidden Claudius while bowing and the half hidden, scared face of the new emperor.

What a story!

Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema, the creator of this magnificent artwork, was one of the most renowned painters of late nineteenth century Britain.

Born in Dronrijp, the Netherlands, and trained at the Academy of Antwerp, Belgium, he settled in England in 1870 and spent the rest of his life there. A classical-subject painter, he became famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of dazzling blue Mediterranean sea and sky. One may add that this painting, A Roman Emperor (Claudius), differs from most in the artist’s œuvre.

Analyzing paintings and sculptures, their form, symbolism, ideas, and meaning creates a space to understand and interact with history at a deeper level. Bring your curiosity and questions to the experienced and knowledgeable docents Jill and Bonnie as we embark on this journey intersecting Culture and History.  

The Walters Art series:   

Wednesday, Oct 13 at 1 pm – The Art of Looking REGISTER.  

Wednesday, Nov 10 at 1 pm- Symbolism in Renaissance & Baroque Art  REGISTER. 

Wednesday, Jan 26 at 1 pm – Fantastical Creatures REGISTER. 

Wednesday, Feb 23 at 1 pm – Chinese Porcelain REGISTER. 

Rohini is the Adult Curriculum Specialist with HCLS. She loves literature and rainy days.

*Herm: a squared stone pillar with a carved head on top (typically of Hermes), used in ancient Greece as a boundary marker or a signpost

Ancient History: The Silk Road

The public domain map in green, blue, and tan shades depicts the Silk Road Route that ran from China through India and Persia and into Europe,, as well as a more southerly route that encompassed modern-day Malaysia and Singapore, the coast along the Indian Ocean, and eastern Africa up to Europe via the Red Sea.
Map of the Silk Road Routes (Public Domain)

Formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, the Silk Road was a vast network of trade routes that was the lifeline of commerce from 130 BCE – 1453 CE. Many different branches comprised this road connecting China, India, and Persia, with Persia being a gateway further into Europe. The main route of the Silk Road was established much before the Han dynasty; known as the Persian Royal Road during the Achaemenid Empire, it connected north Persia (modern-day Iran) to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The Persian Road was maintained with a system of postal stations and gradually expanded into the Indian sub-continent across Mesopotamia and into Egypt.  

Howard County Library System and the Walters Art Museum present a fascinating class that looks at works from the Walters Art Museum that illuminate the expansive story of the Silk Road. 

May 17 from 12 – 1 pm. Register here.  

A manuscript page with Arabic script at the top, featuring a shade tree, bamboo, and a man in a turban studying with writing tools surrounding him. A smaller figure kneels in the bottom right hand cornder.

The term “Silk Road” wasn’t coined until 1877, when German geographer and historian Ferdinand von Richthofen first used it to describe the trade routes. Historians now prefer the term “Silk Routes,” which more accurately reflects the fact that there was more than one thoroughfare. 

Many different goods including gunpowder, precious stones, and ivory were traded along this route; however, it was the exotic silk that gave its name to this road. Many of the goods traded across this route had a great impact on the cultural development of the world. Paper and gunpowder, both developed in China, and the rich spices from India contributed to both European culture and warfare. Similarly, techniques for making glass migrated eastward to China from the Islamic world. However, silk continued to be the most sought-after and expensive commodity, especially in Rome. The Byzantine emperor Justinian (327-565 CE) sent emissaries to steal the closely guarded secret of silk and bring it back to initiate the Byzantine silk industry. In 1453 CE, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Empire which closed the Silk Road and cut ties with the west.  

The legacy of the Silk Road is the impact on art, religion, technology, science, and language that fostered a growth and enrichment of world civilization. Unfortunately, disease also traveled along and the bubonic plague of 542 CE was thought to have spread to Constantinople via the Silk Road. Famous Italian explorer Marco Polo traveled overland on the Silk Road to the Mongol Empire ruled by Kublai Khan in 1275 and wrote the epic The Travels of Marco Polo (also available as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive). 

The closing of the Silk Road in 1453 forced traders to explore sea routes and discover new ports. This was the beginning of the Age of Discovery which led to a new era with the rise of seafaring nations. Join us for the class with a docent from The Walters Art Museum to learn more.