The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy, Middlebury (Vt.) College Museum of Art.
This exhibit brings together paintings from eleven different collections to explore how these works of art – collaborative products that depended upon a close relationship between painters, woodworkers and gilders – were made and how they served both as a focus for devotion and as an emphatic statement about wealth and status.
The above sentence in the Middlebury College exhibitions flyer describes this striking exhibit (which has since closed) that offers us insight into Christian devotion through individual family patronage in the Early Renaissance. The exhibit also chronicles the transition of Christian art from its distinguishing Middle Age/Medieval religious style into the mainstream of Italian art through such emerging legends as Fra Angelico, Pierro della Fancesca, Leonardo, Michelangelo and the rest.
In other words the popularization of religious art.
The exhibit focuses on panel paintings done by lesser-known artists who were commissioned by families who wished to embellish their homes and sometimes their churches or private chapels, artists like Giovanni del Biondo, Sano di Pietro, Lippo d’Andrea and Ventura Di Moro.
The works are nothing less than superb. And in their time they represented something new – individualistic styles serving the commercial interest of the artist and the patron, interests that certainly would have been frowned upon by the monastic icon makers who lived and worked in the service of God in the millennium preceding the Renaissance.
The exhibition includes single panels, diptychs, triptychs and even a 5-station altarpiece by d’Andrea that are elegantly painted and stylishly gilded and framed in a way that represents a time and place in history that is indisputably and forever Italian Renaissance.
The works span the Early Renaissance years from 1385 to 1475 – the High Renaissance itself is centered around the year 1500 when both Leonardo and Michelangelo were working – and show devotion not only in an artistic way but in a traditionally Christian form as well.
But it is Christian art in transition. The paintings in the show appear to begin to morph ever so slightly from the muted colors, elongated forms, faces and fingers and hard geometric drapery folds of traditional Middle Age and Medieval icons toward the High Renaissance style in which artists melded the imagery into a classical style, which was the public art of the era.
That classical style, like the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo, shocked many religious leaders by, for instance, portraying Adam nude and as a muscular Classical Greek figure. Or even by deigning to portray an image of God Himself. Because it lacked the restraint and the religious stylization that was intended to separate Christian icons from worldly art.
Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari (1410) by Florentine Lippo d’Andrea
The works in The Art of Devotion well represented wealthy Early Renaissance Florence in all its splendor when even middle-class families commissioned art. Gold leaf abounds, gilt frames are de rigeur, and the Middle Age and Medieval forms are devolving away from a long and subdued tradition during which the known religion, art, culture and history since Ancient Greece ended up being preserved in the only known refuges from the brutal world outside – tranquil, disciplined and scholarly Christian monasteries.
In the tradition of a rich benefactor purchasing icons or chandeliers for the local church, these home devotional panels manifested both artistic prestige and knowledge, and affluent exhibitionism. And to look at them today, who would not want such awesome objects in the home? They are, in a word, beautiful.
These pictures obviously are not part of a run-of-the-mill exhibit, and Middlebury College should be commended for undertaking this show. It was planned after Middlebury bid successfully in 2005 at a London auction on Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari (1410) by Florentine Lippo d’Andrea. Others come from the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in Massachusetts, the Columbia (SC) Museum of Art, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Yale University and elsewhere.
And since the exhibit involves panel paintings before linen was widely used like canvas is today, the show also is informational about technique and includes, in one panel, both the front image and then, in an adjoining room, the backside of one wooden panel exposed to show the nature of panel painting.
It was typically done with gessoed linen glued on a thick poplar panel and then carefully drawn on, adorned with gold leaf that was burnished and then worked with a compass and a punch for the halo effects, and then painted with hues from ordinary to precious. An accompanying video shows the process in detail.
The Middlebury acquisition is a sight to behold. It has the popular acanthus-leaf frame up top and pairs of auger-like columns on each side, columns that have been used in Christian art and architecture – famously in the 90-foot pillars of Bernini's baldachin for St. Peter's chair in the Basilica in Rome – to separate them from the vertically fluted columns of the classical but pagan Greeks.
In the Middlebury panel, two family crests, or stemmi, are seen in the bottom corners under each column pair suggesting the interests of two separate families which may have commissioned the painting for a marriage. The left crest is said to represent the della Rena family while on the right the crest is unidentified. Coming from 1410 this is one of the older works in the show and before preservation it was dark and drab with some later overpainting. Post-preservation it is bright and lively.
The Middlebury picture may have been made for the market and then personalized with family crests; nobody can tell for sure if the della Rena family, or the other family, specifically commissioned it from the start.
In another of the well-preserved pictures, Madonna and Child, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Catherine (1385) by Giovanni del Biondo, space is convoluted; there is an odd asymmetry in its overall appearance; halos are more intricately worked in the gold leaf; tiny figurines and the hand of God float around the upper edges; and St. Catherine is holding the longest plume pen of all time. She is the patron saint of education, and we certainly know that after looking at this work. The Virgin Mary is depicted as the perfect Mother in this work, teaching her child to read. The cloaks in this painting are flatter and less elaborate than many of elegant brocades in other works.
Another awesome picture is Virgin and Child, 1415, by Battista di Biagio Sanguigni from the Ackland Collection, a simple portrait in a flamboyant bright gold frame that reeks of wealthy patronage with enough ornament to please even the most materialistic Italian. No wonder devout priests and monks became wary. They knew scripture and its warning about the love of ostentatious wealth.
In this image the Virgin appears to be sitting or kneeling on the ground, and thus it is referred to as the Madonna of Humility. A bulbous body, robe trimmed in elegant gold finery, and an over-the-top frame with two countering auger columns on each side of the main panel mark an especially evocative art object as well as religious icon portrait. Perhaps the flat gold background was intended to remind us, through contrast, that devout Christianity and material wealth in fact originate in separate worlds.
In Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints (1420) by Lippo d'Andrea, we see a classic work more on the scale of a multi-panel altarpiece that is suspected of having been commissioned specifically for Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. It is much more imposing than the rest of the show, and is the work that goes beyond the concept of home devotion. It comes from the Yale collection. In it, the Virgin May and Christ child are seated in the middle surrounded by two saints on each side, Albert and Peter, and Paul and Anthony Abbott. Each has a separate panel. The drapery folds are very natural and a sign of the artist moving beyond Christian artistic style.
Patrons of such works were known to be quite picky about exactly what they were getting. Says the catalogue essay by Katherine Smith Abbott, a professor in the Department of Art at Middlebury, ‘patrons were liable to specify the quantity of gold leaf or the quality of blue pigment they wanted incorporated into a painting.’
Abbott writes in her essay that ‘Art historians often bemoan the loss that occurs when paintings are hung on gallery walls, rather than in the homes and churches for which they were originally intended.’ This is a noteworthy commentary, particularly as she discusses further in her essay that one patron who had died had listed under the property in his home “ten paintings; two are of saints, one is a birth tray, one is simply called a ‘panel with a painted tabernacle,’ the rest are images of the Virgin with the infant Christ”.
No painter is listed for any of the works, which gives insight into both the quotidian nature of the works and the status of the artists themselves. Only today, with time, do we appreciate the quality to be found in these treasures, and we want to know their makers better. This Middlebury exhibit gives us that opportunity, and that is a good thing.
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