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Category Archives: M&G Collection Online

Object of the Month: June 2024

St. Sebastian Aided by St. Irene

Oil on canvas

Dirck van Baburen (attr. to)

Dutch, c. 1594–d. 1624

In 1581 several provinces in the Netherlands joined in signing The Act of Abjuration, a declaration of independence freeing them from allegiance to Philip II of Spain. With this abjuration these self-governing territories became known as the United Provinces of the Netherlands or simply the Dutch Republic. In Baroque Painting: Two Centuries of Baroque Masterpieces Stefano Zuffi notes that by the early 1600s this Republic “enjoyed a private prosperity and social harmony that was unique.” Precise indicators of this prosperity included documentation noting a healthy daily consumption of calories, high literacy rates, and peaceful co-existence among a diverse religious population. Equally interesting is the fact that these provinces also had “the highest ratio in Europe of works of art, particularly paintings, to number of inhabitants” (Zuffi, p. 154).  This cultural backdrop produces a stunning array of artistic talent—Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Heemskerck, Honthorst, Terbrugghen, and the subject of this article Dirck van Baburen.

Although we know that Baburen was born in Utrecht in the late sixteenth century, pinpointing the precise year of his birth is not easily done. For example, in a 2007 monograph on the artist noted scholar Leonard Slatkes puts the date circa 1595. However, art historian Wayne Franits argues for an earlier date, circa 1592. According to Franits this date makes more sense because it places the painter “at an appropriate age for completing his training. . .and traveling to Rome.” Regardless, both scholars agree that the young Dirck began his career under the tutelage of Paulus Moreelse. Moreelse was a distinguished portrait painter who along with Abraham Bloemaert founded Utrecht’s “St. Lucas-gilde.”

After completing his training in 1612 Baburen set out for Italy. He soon settled in the “Eternal City” of Rome. There he came under the spell of the Caravaggisti—stylistic followers of the famed Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610). Caravaggio was one of the most original and influential painters of the 17th century. What set him apart was the dramatic illumination of his canvases which he created by using dark tonalities punctuated with bright shafts of light. This technique called tenebrism is derived from the Italian word, tenebroso, meaning dark or gloomy. Figures 1 and 2 not only illustrate Caravaggio’s innovative technique but also point to the impact of this technique on followers like Baburen.

In comparing Baburen’s canvas to Caravaggio’s Wayne Franits writes: “The Dutch painter’s famed altarpiece The Entombment (Fig. 1), [was] painted in 1617 as part of a group of canvases . . . to adorn the Pietà Chapel in the church of San Pietro. . . . It is well known that The Entombment testifies to its maker’s knowledge of . . . Caravaggio’s famous painting of the same subject (fig. 2), which hung at that time in the Vittrice Chapel in Santa Maria in Vallicella. Van Baburen’s exposure to Caravaggio’s work must have impressed upon him the fact that strongly illuminated figures set against a dark background literally stand out forcefully within a dusky chapel. Van Baburen also deployed the same basic compositional structure as Caravaggio, with its wedgelike arrangement of figures set at a diagonal, cascading downward toward the body of the dead Christ. In van Baburen’s Entombment, however, the stone of the tomb, which, like the Italian’s, also serves as the stone of unction (with its eucharistic implications), is more tablelike while the body of Christ has been rendered in an upright, almost seated position.”

Baburen would return to Utrecht in 1620 where he, along with  Gerrit van Honthorst and Hendrick Terbrugghen formed the Utrecht Caravaggisti. Although he died only four years later, his style continued to develop becoming less Italian and more distinctly Dutch. A comparison of M&G’s St. Sebastian Aided by St. Irene to an earlier version he completed while in Rome (Fig. 3) highlights these distinctions especially in the physical appearance of the characters. St. Sebastian was the patron saint of plague victims and a popular subject in religious art throughout the 17th century. The article by Armand P. Gelpi in the Resources section provides a detailed overview of his iconography and connection to the plague.

Dirck van Baburen died in February 1624; he was buried in the medieval parish church of Buurkerk.  His teacher Paulus Moreelse would be laid to rest there 9 years later.

 

 

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education

 

Resources:

Baroque Painting: Two Centuries of Baroque Masterpieces, Ed. Stefano Zuffi

“Religious Policies in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic,” Jo Spanns

“Dirck van Baburen and the ‘Self-Taught’ Master, Angelo Caroselli,” Wayne Franits

“Saint Sebastian and the Black Death,” Armand P. Gelpi, MD

Saint Sebastian Attended by Saint Irene and Her Maid, Dirck van Baburen (attributed to)

 

Published 2024

Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist

Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist

Lucas Cranach the Elder

Below the image, click play to listen.

 

Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh: Benjamin West, P.R.A.

In this painting, Benjamin West captures one of the most dramatic events in Israel’s history.

Pietro Martire Neri: St. Jerome

Although little is known about the Italian artist Pietro Martire Neri, this portrait illustrates his stunning mastery of beautiful coloration and intricate stylistic detail.

The Young Christ

The Young Christ

Giovanni Battista Salvi, called Il Sassoferrato

Below the image, click play to listen.

 

Object of the Month: May 2024

The Flight from Sodom

Oil on canvas, c. 1630

Matthias Stomer

Dutch, c. 1600–after 1649

Very little is known about the artistic training of Dutch master Matthias Stomer. His works have similarities to Gerrit van Honthorst and Abraham Janssens, both in M&G’s collection. He spent some time in Rome being influenced by Caravaggio as did many of his contemporary fellow artists. He seems to have settled in Sicily and painted many biblical subjects. Though some think M&G’s The Flight from Sodom is derivative of a Rubens’ work of the same title at the Ringling in Sarasota, Florida, Stomer simply tells the “rest of the story.”

Genesis 19 reveals that the escape of Lot and his family from Sodom has two stages. First, God warns Lot of the impending destruction of Sodom for its immorality and wickedness and tells him to gather his family and escape the fate of the city. Unfortunately, his efforts are rebuffed by his sons-in-law. The delay means he is still in the city at daybreak. Then he is commanded, “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain.” But in fear, Lot begs to escape to a “little” city nearby rather than the mountain of God’s dictum. God mercifully allows this change, saving Zoar from destruction for Lot’s sake.

Stomer paints the second part of the drama: Lot’s negotiating his escape into Zoar. Lot’s wife is near the back of the group, signifying her growing reluctance to leave. Her faraway gaze shows her preoccupation with the past. She will eventually look back and be turned into a pillar of salt as punishment. In the foreground the blond daughter carries a basket of gold household items and engages the audience with a direct gaze. Is she asking for sympathy? For approval of her father’s plan? She definitely challenges the viewer to contemplate the event. The other daughter, mostly hidden, carries a cloth bundle on her head. She gazes straight ahead, intent on escaping with her life.

Lot clutches his red robe to him. Is he facilitating his gait or visually showing his reluctance to leave by grasping the rich garment that indicates his prominence? His raised eyebrows indicate a question for the leading angel. His open left palm indicates that the question asked is reasonable, almost a “what about?” gesture. The lead angel looks astonished at the request, mirroring Lot’s hand position with one hand while pointing definitively forward with the other, as if to say, “You want to go there?” The second angel’s hand lies near his chin, like the professor’s “stroking his beard” as he considers a student’s idea. Lot suggests a change of plan, and the angels seem to have differing opinions on it.

It may be reading too much into the painting to see in the half-shaved little dog a lesson that Lot and his family are escaping by the “skin of their teeth.” However, the running dog has more sense than Lot who has dawdled at every turn of the story, even with his life at stake. Stomer’s background indicates that the family has taken all night to leave the city (Genesis 19:16 states that the angels had to “set him without the city”). The morning has come—the time when Lot finishes his “flight” since “the sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar” (19:23). Ironically, even Stomer doesn’t finish the story. Lot and his daughters eventually find Zoar inhospitable, and the evil that Lot dreaded “in the mountain” comes to pass.

Dr. Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member

 

Special Note:

Scholars have discovered that Stomer used “Naples yellow,” a color created by combining antimony and lead. First mentioned in the late 17th century, Naples yellow appears in Stomer’s early work. Determining whether the blond daughter’s robe uses Naples yellow, might facilitate dating The Flight from Sodom within Stomer’s oeuvre.

Botticelli, Michela, Costanza Miliani, Eva Luna Ravan, Claudia Caliri, and Francesco Paolo Romano. 2024. “Naples Yellow Revisited: Insights into Trades and Use in 17th-Century Sicily from the Macro X-ray Fluorescence Scanning of Matthias Stomer’s ‘The Mocking of Christ’” Heritage 7, no. 3: 1188-1201. https://doi.org/10.3390/heritage7030057

 

Published 2024

 

Object of the Month: April 2024

Cassone

Walnut with parcel gilt

Tuscan, 16th century

While the Museum & Gallery is most widely known for its collection of religious Old Master paintings, the founder of the museum also developed “supplemental collections of period furniture, icons, decorative arts, textiles, and objects of art” (Drama & Beauty: Great European Paintings from the Bob Jones Collection). The original intent of these sub-collections was to provide a setting for the artwork that would allow modern viewers to understand and appreciate the religious and domestic contexts in which the paintings might first have been displayed.

By the 1970s notable authorities of furniture considered these once-ancillary collections to rival some of the world’s best. Joseph Aronson, who wrote a number of authoritative histories of furniture, “considered the Renaissance furniture collection the finest in America” and lent his expertise to write a catalog containing Furniture in the Bob Jones University Collection, which was published in connection with M&G’s 25th anniversary celebration in 1976.

Specifically, this Italian Renaissance walnut and parcel-gilt Cassone epitomizes the history, breadth, and educational value of M&G’s period furniture collection. Purchased for the collection in 1966, the Cassone came from French & Company, in New York City. Founded in 1907, French & Company was once considered one of the world’s largest dealers and had provided art, furnishings, and even interior design to some of the best-known families of America’s Gilded Age, including the Vanderbilts, Astors, Gettys, Rockefellers, Mellons, and duPonts (and subsequently in the collections of the major museums endowed by those families). The company thrived under its first two generations of leadership and was noted for its library of documentation, which provided purchasers with exhaustive histories (or provenance) of the items acquired. The company was then sold several times, and much of its remaining stock was auctioned in 1968. M&G is pleased to provide a home for a number of French & Company pieces.

The history of cassoni dates back to the fourteenth century. Originally functioning as wedding chests for new couples—and paraded through the streets in wedding procession—cassoni often contained the bride’s dowry and became cherished treasures in newly established homes. The decoration of cassoni grew in sophistication over the years and entire workshops were devoted to the artform. Frequently portraying Biblical, classical, or mythological subject matter, the front panels of these chests displayed any number of craftsmanship, from carving and gilding to built-up gesso decoration and painting. Even notable artists such as Sandro Botticelli, Paolo Uccello, and Donatello applied their skills to decorate cassoni for the wealthiest clientele.

M&G’s Cassone likely dates from 16th-century Tuscany and is constructed of carved walnut. Standing on diagonally-set lion paws, the chest’s special features include gilded gadrooning, the detailed and deeply-set carving on the front and side panels, as well as the ogee dome molding. The unique top paired with the end panels shifts the most intricately carved subject matter to the front of the chest and only the front two-thirds of each side (figure 1).  This technique differs from the usual appearance of cassone, which are most often depicted at the foot of a couple’s bed in Renaissance art. It’s likely that this particular cassone was commissioned to solve a specific architectural challenge in its new home—possibly resting in the shallow recess of a wall or passageway. As such, it is not typical of the traditional traveling chest, but represents “a step in the evolution of the credenza form” (Aronson).

Also of interest, the remarkably dimensional, carved frieze (figure 2) has been variously explained as a battle scene or a depiction of Death riding an ox-drawn chariot through a sacrificial scene. The key clues in the frieze include bystanders observing the action from the safety of colonnades on the left and right. Most prominently on the front left is a woman holding a round vessel and a man who appears to be strangling a sheep held aloft in front of him. The front right draws the viewer’s focus to a king, surrounded by an entourage. The central figure in the scene is indeed a man on an ox-drawn chariot, riding through a plain, which is covered by furrows and ridges. Near him are 5 warriors with weapons drawn. More difficult to see in the distance above him on the plain (moving from left to right) are a ridged-back dragon, a tree, and a walled city on a hill.

Since cassoni often depict a felicitous message for newlyweds, using classical, biblical, or mythological imagery, deciphering the elements is a fascinating undertaking. In the case of this M&G cassone, newlyweds are reminded of the exploits and love contained in the story of Jason and Medea. While there are many Greek and Roman variations of the story, the key elements remain.

Jason’s father was the rightful king of Iolcus, but was overthrown by his half-brother, Pelias. Jason’s life was saved by his mother, who sent him away to be protected and educated by the centaur Chiron. When Jason returned and wished to re-take the throne, Pelias required that he undertake a quest to find and return the Golden Fleece from where it lay in Colchis. After a series of adventures Jason and the crew of his ship Argo (hence the collective name Argonauts) arrived in Colchis, where Jason requested the fleece from King Aietes. Aietes agreed to give Jason the Golden Fleece if he accomplished three feats of bravery intended to be deadly to Jason. Unknown to the king, his daughter, Medea, was charmed to fall in love with Jason and help him survive and succeed.

First, Aietes required that Jason plow a field with fire-breathing oxen, but Medea gave him an ointment to protect him from the flames. Jason next had to sow the field with dragon’s teeth.  When he did so, the teeth turned into full-grown warriors (spartoi). They would have killed Jason, had he not been told how to defeat them. He threw a stone into their midst and the confused warriors, not knowing who had thrown the stone, attacked each other.

Finally, Jason had to retrieve the Golden Fleece from where it hung on an oak in the sacred grove of Ares. The grove was protected by an undying, unsleeping dragon. Here again Medea protected Jason by administering an herbal potion that made the dragon sleep. Finally, the hero and his love Medea flee from her father and return to take the Iolcus throne from Jason’s uncle. Unfortunately, their happiness was short-lived; but that part of the couple’s story is—understandably—not portrayed by the artisan of this very special Cassone.

 

Dr. Stephen B. Jones, M&G volunteer

 

Sources

www.getty.edu

www.metmuseum.org

www.historycooperative.org

Aronson, Joseph.  Furniture in the Bob Jones University Collection. 1976.

Drama & Beauty: Great European Paintings from the Bob Jones Collection. Museum & Gallery, Inc. in association with D. Giles Limited, 2022.

 

Published 2024

Picture Books of the Past: The Tribulation of Job

Enjoy this series of segments highlighting Picture Books of the Past: Reading Old Master Paintings, a loan exhibition of 60+ works from the M&G collection. The exhibit has traveled to The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. and the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida.

In The Tribulation of Job, Francesco Fracanzano masterfully captures a mood of despair. The broken jar, a vivid metaphor for Job’s broken life, coupled with the mocking gestures of the supporting figures further highlight his isolation. But what happens after God’s visitation? How has this battered (but faithful) servant changed? As you explore Fracanzano’s masterpiece listen to the creative monologue from the exhibition’s audio guide for insight into these questions.

Mrs. Siddons as Lady Macbeth

Mrs. Siddons as Lady Macbeth

George Henry Harlowe

Below the image, click play to listen.

 

 

 

Object of the Month: March 2024

Crucifix

Tempera and gold on panel, c. 1380

Francesco di Vannuccio

Sienese, active c. 1356-1389

Among the many treasures in M&G’s collection hangs a unique and exemplary example of late fourteenth-century Italian art. In 1374, the Black Death struck the city of Siena and its surrounding countryside for the third time in twenty-six years. The return of the plague devastated the city, which was already struggling from political and economic instability. Tragically, most of the victims of this wave of the Black Death were children. In the wake of this period of grief, an unknown patron commissioned Sienese artist Francesco di Vannuccio to paint a crucifix or croce dipinta (painted cross) for his or her church. During the fourteenth century, large painted crucifixes were a fixture in Italian churches. They depicted Christ dead on the cross flanked by Mary and John the Evangelist and were often highly decorated in gold. Positioned above the altar, these crucifixes provided a focal point for worshippers.

Francesco’s patron included an unusual request: the image of Mary Magdalene facing out toward the worshipper with her hands raised in the ancient orans pose of prayer. Of the 214 surviving Italian fourteenth-century crucifixes, only fourteen have Mary Magdalene present. Of those, only one intact crucifix, M&G’s, features this extremely rare imagery of Mary Magdalene. With its unique depiction of a ministering female saint, Francesco’s crucifix was born out of the need for spiritual solace in the aftermath of the Black Death.

Little is known about Francesco di Vannuccio. Few of his paintings survive. He signed only one work, a double-sided panel now housed in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. Despite this small surviving body of work, all of Francesco’s paintings demonstrate that he possessed a keen eye for intricate decoration. He was also closely attuned to the religious concerns of his day. Francesco’s depictions of physical and emotional suffering made him stand out among his fellow artists. In his crucifix, Christ’s arms are pulled taut by the weight of His body. His fingers curl and His feet twist around the piercing nails. Blood spurts in a wide arc from the wound in His chest and drips from His head, hands, and feet. While other crucifixes show the mother of Christ serenely grieving, Francesco painted her face deeply lined in anguish. Poignantly, she reaches for her Son, something not seen in any other fourteenth-century crucifixes. Francesco’s Mary is a mother mourning the loss of her Child, a sight many worshippers would have personally related to following the third outbreak of the Black Death.

Beneath Christ’s feet, Mary Magdalene prays. Despite being one of the most popular female saints during the fourteenth century, Mary Magdalene’s presence in crucifixes is rare. Most depict her small in scale contemplating the cross. She does not directly engage with the worshipper as Francesco’s does. During the fourteenth century, Mary Magdalene was revered both as the “blessed sinner” (tradition combined her with the repentant sinful woman in Luke 7) and as the “apostle to the apostles” because of her encounter with the resurrected Christ and her role of spreading the news to His other followers. Painting the blood flowing down to her head and her bright red robes, Francesco depicted Mary Magdalene as being baptized in Christ’s blood. With her hands raised in the orans position and facing the worshipper, Francesco also depicted her as the “apostle to the apostles.” The ancient orans pose represented the worshipper’s openness to God’s grace and was a gestural expression of faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. By the fourteenth century, this prayer position was reserved solely for the clergy. Thus, Francesco’s Mary Magdalene is an apostle actively ministering to the worshippers.

Painting Mary Magdalene in this active role, Francesco and his patron were likely inspired by Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Catherine was a writer and preacher who advocated spiritual reform. She was beloved for her piety and her healing the sick during the third wave of the Black Death. In her ministry, Catherine looked to Mary Magdalene as an example of religious devotion and service. Writing to her female followers, she urged them to “follow the Magdalen, that lovely woman in love, who never let go of the tree of the most holy cross. No, with perseverance she was bathed in the blood of God’s Son…she so filled her memory and heart and understanding with it that she became incapable of loving anything but Christ Jesus.” Mary Magdalene’s love for Christ drove her to brave the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb and proclaim the news of the Resurrection to anyone who would listen.

For worshippers living in the grief-filled years of the late fourteenth century, the sight of Mary Magdalene offered comfort both in the cleansing power of Christ’s sacrifice and His Resurrection. Almost six and a half centuries later, the message of Francesco di Vannuccio’s gleaming cross continues to resonate today.

 

Dr. Allison Wynne Raper, Adjunct Instructor at York Technical College

 

For further reading:

Ole J. Benedictow. The Complete History of the Black Death. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2021.

Catherine of Siena. The Letters of Catherine of Siena. Translated by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. 4 Volumes. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000-2008.

Katherine Ludwig Janson. The Making of the Magdalene: Preaching and Popular Devotion in Late Medieval Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

 

Published 2024