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Tag Archives: Italian

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

 

 

Object of the Month: January 2024

The Body of Christ Prepared for Burial

Oil on canvas, signed and dated: .EQVS.IO.BAGLIONVS.RO.P.1616

Cavaliere Giovanni Baglione, called Il Sordo del Barozzo

Roman, c. 1566-1644

Giovanni Baglione was born, lived and died in Rome; although he received and completed art commissions elsewhere. He was an important artist in his day, even becoming President of the Roman Academy. He authored two books including The Lives of Painters, Sculptors, Architects and Engravers, active from 1572–1642, which has become a fundamental source for study of 17th-century Italian art of more than 200 artists, particularly in Rome.

Like many artists of the Baroque era, Baglione was influenced by the younger painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He sought to borrow and integrate Caravaggio’s naturalism and technique of dramatic light and shadow, which was quite novel. The two were in competition for commissions in Rome by the popes, nobles, and influentials.

Although incredibly talented, Caravaggio was arrogant and an angry, violent man. He expressed his hatred of Baglione through mockery and insults including his writing and circulating slanderous satirical poems criticizing him. In 1603, Baglione sued Caravaggio and three other painters (Orazio Gentileschi, Onorio Longhi, and Filippo Trisegni) for libel. According to the court records from the trial, Caravaggio said Baglione was no friend of his, and that he was not a good painter. Then he outlined his views in court about what a good painter was—“a man who can paint well and imitate nature well.” Essentially, in Caravaggio’s opinion, Baglione could do neither. In his book on the Lives, Baglione also shared his own view of Caravaggio saying, “he would speak badly of painters of the past, no matter how distinguished they were, because he thought that he alone had surpassed all other artists in his profession.”

Baglione’s most esteemed painting is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Peter Raising Tabitha from the Dead, for which he was made a Knight of the Order of Christ by Pope Paul V in 1606.

In spite of the bitterness between the two artists, Baglione produced a painting inspired by one of Caravaggio’s most renowned works—the Entombment in the Vatican Pinacoteca. If not the first, Baglione was one of the first artists to emulate Caravaggio’s revolutionary style, and he described his rival’s Entombment as Caravaggio’s best work. M&G’s The Body of Christ Prepared for Burial references some elements from Caravaggio’s work, such as the stone slab and highlighting and shadowing. M&G’s painting is not Baglione’s first version of the subject, which was finished in 1608—just five years after the libel lawsuit—as a commissioned altarpiece for the church of the Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples.

However, eight years later he refined the composition into M&G’s version, which he signed and dated the lower right corner of the stone slab as Cavaliere Giovanni Baglione, revealing his knightly status.

It’s ironic, but art historians believe that Baglione’s best pictures are his most “Caravaggesque.” M&G’s treatment is a more classical interpretation of Caravaggio’s version. We’re uncertain of who commissioned the canvas, but it may have been an altarpiece because of its size of more than 7’ tall, the centrality of Christ’s body, and the details with the elements of the passion (crown and nails on the lower left).

Among other specialists, Edgar Peters Bowron describes M&G’s painting as one of his “noblest compositions and demonstrates how good he was in his maturity.”

Today, Baglione is most famous for his authorship of two important books: a guidebook about Roman churches and the volume of artist biographies. He is also remembered for his interactions with Caravaggio. Yet, he was an extremely accomplished artist and favored by popes; he also proved that he was able to learn and profit from other more talented artists.

M&G’s painting is a rare example of Baglione’s work in America and one of his most significant paintings. Dr. Stephen Pepper has described it as “the most important painting by Baglione in an American collection.”

 

Erin R. Jones, M&G Executive Director

 

Published 2024

 

Antiphonary

Antiphonary

Italian, 16th century

Below the image, click play to listen.

This object is currently on display in Mack Library, and it is featured in M&G’s 2023 Christmas Scavenger Hunt for K5-8th grade adventurers.

 

 

Object of the Month: December

Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist

Polychrome terracotta

Italian, 17th century

The vast collection at the Museum & Gallery contains many hidden treasures that are sometimes overlooked. In my years working for the museum, I don’t remember coming across this piece. Or if I had, I did not give it too much thought as it was one of many pictorial examples of a common theme—the Madonna and Child with the infant St. John the Baptist. While this sculpture may not be one of the biggest or most recognizable, it is a reminder of humility.

The terracotta sculpture was made towards the beginning of the Italian Baroque. The dramatic movement, and attention to anatomical detail is very typical of Baroque art. Mary is portrayed as a graceful, ideal beauty; and the two infants, Jesus and St. John the Baptist, look like active children. Their leaning bodies and outstretched arms lead the viewer through the piece. In fact, this similar pose can be found in another work in the museum’s collection from the Italian Renaissance, Granacci’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

It also relates back to another famous visual interpretation of these three individuals—Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. There are obvious similarities, such as Mary’s arm wrapped around an adoring St. John the Baptist and Jesus blessing his infant cousin. What may not be as noticeable at first glance is the setting. Of course, one is a painting, and one is a sculpture, but they both feature figures sitting on rocks. This iconography is referred to as the Madonna of Humility. In earlier art history and even during the Renaissance, Mary is sometimes shown as the Queen of Heaven, enthroned in gold beside Jesus. However, in contrast, da Vinci and this Italian sculptor position Mary seated on the ground, which is a possible reference to her resting during their flight to Egypt. By sitting on the ground or on rocks, Mary demonstrates her humility before her Savior.

The Bible records an example of Mary’s meekness before the Lord in Luke 1:46-55. It was after she had received the news that she would give birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Called her Magnificat, she begins by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name…”

While not large or ostentatious, this 19-inch terracotta sculpture is as humble as its subject matter. During the holiday season, we celebrate Christ’s birth that was only made possible through the humility of a young woman and the ultimate humbling for the Savior of the world to become flesh and dwell among us.

 

KC Christmas Beach, M&G summer educator

 

Published 2023

Picture Books of the Past: Jacopo Robusti, called Il Tintoretto

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 October’s Closer Look we explored Marietta Robusti’s Allegory of Wisdom. In this video we’ll look at a work by her father who trained her. (Following your video viewing click HERE to access the additional information provided on the exhibition’s text panels.)

Domenico Fiasella

The Flight into Egypt

Domenico Fiasella, called Il Sarzana

Below the image, click play to listen.

Picture Books of the Past: Lorenzo di Bicci

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.

These beautiful panels by Lorenzo di Bicci picture four saints, two are prominent biblical figures and two are from 4th and 6th century church legends. (Following your video viewing click HERE to access the additional information provided on the exhibition’s text panels.)

St. Michael the Archangel Overcoming Satan

St. Michael the Archangel Overcoming Satan

Giovanni Andrea Sirani

Below the image, click play to listen.

 

Object of the Month: May 2023

Cassone

Walnut and pastiglia

Italian, 15th century

The antique furnishings in the Museum & Gallery collection elevate each visitor’s experience of the artwork on the walls, but the pieces also provide a historical context of the eras and cultures from which the artworks sprang. Indeed, the furnishings are also artworks in themselves.

This is certainly true of the many cassoni (plural of the Italian term for “chests”) in the collection. Like other furnishings in Renaissance homes, the quality of workmanship and materials employed in decorating each cassone convey a great deal about the fashion of their times, the technologies available to craftsmen, and the wealth and social status of their owners.

Unfortunately, much has gone against their survival to our day. Cassoni were used for storage of personal items, opened and closed numerous times over the years. That wear, along with the environment in a home, infestations of termites, dry rot, changes in taste and reversals of family fortunes all conspire against the preservation of these furnishings.

These rich, showy Italian types of chests became widespread in Northern and Central Italy, particularly Tuscany (with a number of the best artists hailing from the cities of Siena and Florence). Weddings served as the occasions for which cassoni were made, and they were in fashion from the 14th-16th centuries, a period spanning the very late-Middle Ages to the beginning and middle of the Renaissance. The oldest surviving cassoni feature primitive panel designs, while later works demonstrate lavish carving, gilding, polychrome, and more complex narrative scenes.

Much like moving trucks, boxes, and barrels accompanying the establishment of new homes, cassoni had a very specific use. Practically speaking, the chests were designed to contain the bride’s dowry and jewels, her family’s contribution to the marriage, and became one of the couple’s most important household furnishings—often at the foot of the bed. They quite literally became a vehicle displaying the status, wealth and sophistication of the intermarrying families, carried in a procession (the domum ductio) from the bride’s parent’s home to her groom’s abode.

Decoratively speaking, cassoni often feature heraldic imagery relating to the families’ crests, and the pictorial panels often contained biblical, mythological, or allegorical imagery which ranged from learned and literary to humorous and light-hearted. Cassoni themselves were so common in the early- and middle-Renaissance that they’re included in Old Master paintings (most familiar may be scenes of the Annunciation in which Mary is seated on or kneeling near a cassone situated at the foot of her curtained bed) and even picture-within-picture vignettes on cassoni panels themselves.

This particular M&G cassone entered the collection in 1957, and its features suggest a date very early after 1400, likely from Tuscany. Unlike many cassoni today, which have the panels removed and presented as separate works of art in their own right, our chest is in good original condition and is structurally sound, despite surviving 600 years of use and change. The lid is still attached with its original hinges and has a simple locking mechanism. While the lid opens and closes easily, the tight fit and years of use have worn off some of the gesso along the top edge.

Composed of thick walnut planks and framing, the chest has a large front center panel decorated with gilt and polychrome over trellis-embossed gesso. Heraldic lions (possibly leopards or even hunting dogs) face each other across the front, and the two vertical end panels blossom with delicate arabesques and outline colored shields, which likely contained familial coats of arms.

Carved, fluted pilasters frame the two pictorial end panels and are topped with vague Corinthian capitals. The primitive-style narrative at the right end is now entirely obscured, but the imagery at the opposite end remains. The subject matter is indistinct and may be biblical or mythological. Most likely, perhaps, it is the myth of Diana (Artemis) and Actaeon, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the bathing goddess is startled by a young hunter. In her anger, Diana turns Actaeon into a stag who is then hunted and killed by his own hounds. This identification seems to make sense of the simplistic representation of forest, pool, a stag’s head (lower right) and a hound in the left background. As an allegory or fable for a young couple, it may emphasize modesty, self control, and consequences for the lack of either or both.

This cassone provides insight into the artistry, fashion, and domestic life of those living in the early years of the Italian Renaissance and is a valuable part of the M&G collection.

 

Dr. Stephen B. Jones, M&G volunteer

 

 

Additional Resources:

The Oxford History of Western Art.  Kemp, Martin, ed.  Oxford University Press, 2000.

Pooley, Eugene.  “Scenes from a Marriage.”

https://blog.dorotheum.com/en/classic-week-florentine-school/

https://www.medieval.eu/bridal-chests-or-cassoni-from-medieval-italy/

 

 

Published 2023

Picture Books of the Past: Bartolommeo Neroni

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 contrast to the large altarpieces commissioned by churches, the Tondo’s circular format was well suited for private homes.