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.
This intimate, interior setting highlights the wonder of beholding the child whose birth inspired angels to break through the heavens with the news. The dramatic lighting, eye-level viewpoint, and “crowding in” of characters provide an informal portrait of familial love.
Tempera on panel
Florentine, active late 15th century
In the 15th century, Florence enjoyed a robust cultural and economic environment. One prominent idea of the era was the rediscovery of the circle and the variety of ways it was used. It may be somewhat humorous in our current culture to recognize that a simple shape could dominate life, but the circle did.
The Renaissance was about advancement—an era full of discoveries. Dias, da Gama, Columbus, and Vespucci found places previously unknown through geographical exploration of our planet, understood then to be round instead of flat. Rediscovery of Greek and Roman mathematical perfections included the circle. The shape was incorporated into architecture in a variety of public and private buildings in Florence. The circle became a symbol of God, the universe, and heaven. Between late 1430 to early 1450, artists began using the circle as part of their painting design in a format called tondo, the Italian word for round.
As a spiritual symbol, the circle became a means of representing the patron saint of Florence, John the Baptist. He was often depicted as a youth, an example to the young people of Florence. Before the Renaissance, paintings focused on individual depictions of saints and biblical characters; however, artist Fra Filippo Lippi is credited with being one of the first to paint John the Baptist together with Mary and the infant Christ in the 1450s. Additionally, Lippi was the first to paint the figures worshipping the Christ Child in adoration as seen in his work, the Annalena Adoration in the Uffizi, Florence. This new subject was the beginning of a popular focus in the late 1400s and well suited to the tondo format.
Filippo Lippi had a bustling workshop with many apprentices including Pesellino and Botticelli. As a favorite of the Medici, Lippi fulfilled numerous private and public commissions, including a Medici tondo now in the National Gallery. While Botticelli is credited with making the round format popular in the late 1400s, Lippi’s studio and apprentices created tondi and essentially mass-produced paintings depicting Mary and John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child to satisfy the public demand.
The Medici family was partly responsible for the popularity of tondi because these round paintings became not only a status symbol of wealth, but also were of spiritual significance in private, devotional settings. To have an object of art that the Medici possessed was a means of connection to them. Tondi existed in the homes of wealthy Florentines and public spaces and soon became popular in other Italian cities. They were not commonly used in churches since they were smaller.
The creator of M&G’s tondo, Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and an Angel, is enigmatic. Scholars have been unable to attribute a specific artist, but the work seemed influenced by Pier Francesco Fiorentino yet not painted by him. Hence, the designation of “Pseudo.” However, careful study of the work indicates that its construction predates the surge in popularity of tondi in the 1480s. M&G’s painting is one of the earliest surviving tondi produced after Fra Filippo Lippi’s initial exploration of the adoration subject—a strong representative of the Florentine tondo tradition.
The painting’s details include a unicorn in the background, which is a symbol of Mary’s purity along with the white lily. Her adoring the Christ Child in a country landscape setting may be based on St. Bridget’s Revelations. The halos reveal the influence of naturalism prevalent in the Renaissance style. While the halos of Mary and the angel are typical of the flat Gothic style, the foreshortened, elliptical halo of John the Baptist is shown from a three-dimensional perspective.
As a “window into heaven,” M&G’s tondo has delighted viewers since entering the collection in 1951—the museum’s inaugural year.
John Good, M&G volunteer
While the Museum & Gallery is closed to the public and unable to offer public viewing hours, we continue removing the collection in preparation for moving to a new building and new location. Meanwhile, you can still see selected paintings and objects on display in these campus locations:
Public Hours: Monday-Friday, 8 AM-5 PM or by tour request
Luther’s Journey: Experience the History is a focus exhibition featuring paintings from M&G’s internationally respected Old Master collection. Take a closer look at the man, Martin Luther, by understanding more about his life’s circumstances during the Renaissance (1500s)—a plague circling Europe, the scarcity and inaccessibility of books, the normalcy of illiteracy, and the exacting authority of church and state. Luther’s life journey reminds us that ordinary people can be used by God to inspire extraordinary and enduring change.
Open only by appointment or tour request
The Benjamin West Collection
The seven, monumental paintings that hang in the War Memorial Chapel constitute the largest assemblage today of works by Benjamin West, the father of American painting.
Public Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 AM-5 PM
Oil on canvas, c. 1624
Vibrant reds. Golden yellows. Burnt oranges. These colors typically signal the arrival of autumn, but French artist, Claude Vignon, used them to bring to life a scene in the story of Esther. Vignon was born in Tours, France on May 19, 1593, to a wealthy family. His father served as a valet to King Henry IV of France. Claude’s earliest training was probably in Paris in the workshop of Georges Lallemand where he learned the mannerist style. He eventually traveled to and spent time in both Italy and Spain. These travels exposed him to the works of the great artists Caravaggio, Guercino, Reni, and Caracci. He also joined the French community of painters in Italy who followed Caravaggio such as Simon Vouet and Valentin de Boulogne.
Upon returning to France, he became a member of the Painter’s Guild in Paris and received patronage from King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. This patronage boosted his career and earned him respect and success as an artist. He also dabbled in printmaking, etching, and illustration as well as working as an art dealer and art expert for notable clients including Marie de’Medici. His work in a variety of mediums as well as his art expertise earned him admission into the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1651. Three of his children continued his legacy studying in his workshop: Claude-François, Philippe, and his daughter, Charlotte (who focused solely on still life and was also admitted to the Academy). His eclectic work demonstrates a wide array of influences such as mannerism, Venetian, Dutch, and German making it difficult to describe or define his style.
In 1624, Vignon painted Solomon and the Queen of Sheba now in the Louvre. This painting bears a striking resemblance to M&G’s Esther before Ahasuerus. The common compositions feature a king on a richly embellished throne to the far left of the painting. In the center, a beautifully adorned queen approaches the throne. Behind the queen and off to the right are several servants, guards, and pages. Vignon used this composition numerous times for various paintings including both M&G’s and the Louvre’s as well as Saint Catherine Refusing to Sacrifice to Idols, and his Adoration of the Magi (though in this painting, he reverses the scene by placing the infant king on the far right side of the painting). It is likely that Esther before Ahasuerus was also painted around 1624.
The scene depicted here by Vignon comes from the fifth chapter of the book of Esther. Through a series of events outlined at the beginning of the book, Esther, a Jewess, is selected by King Ahasuerus to be the new queen of Persia. The name Esther means “hidden or concealed” and is fitting as her cousin Mordecai advised her to keep her background secret. One of the king’s officials, Haman, hated the Jews and deceived Ahasuerus into ordering the annihilation of the Jewish people in the Persian empire which would include Queen Esther. Mordecai pleaded with Esther to go to the king to plead for mercy. However, Esther was afraid. In Persian culture, to appear before the king without being summoned could mean death unless the king held out his golden scepter. After much prayer and fasting, Esther chose to risk her life to save her people from destruction.
Vignon captures the moment where Esther humbly and courageously kneels before the king. The king in turn holds out his scepter to Esther granting his favor. Vignon’s use of vibrant, heavily saturated colors shows his Venetian influence. He excelled at painting textiles, gold and precious stones which are abundant throughout this work in which the gold especially glimmers off the canvas. The clothing he used in the scene displays 17th-century European fashion rather than 4th-century Persian garments. Vignon’s color palette and brushstrokes reveal the intensity of this pivotal moment in Esther’s life. To find out how the story ends, read Jan Victors’ Esther Accusing Haman.
Rebekah Cobb, M&G Registrar
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.
Did you ever wonder why Old Master portraits of St. John the Baptist include an elegant red drape over his traditional animal skin garment? View the video to explore this question.
Oil on canvas, c. 1630s
The creator of this moving portrait of King David is Simon Vouet, one of the most influential French Baroque masters. He was the son of painter Laurent Vouet. Although little is known of the elder Vouet’s work, Simon’s oeuvre is well documented, for his prodigious talent emerged at an early age. At 14 he was sent to England to work as a portraitist. Then in his early twenties he moved to Constantinople where he spent two years before traveling to Venice and finally settling in Rome. Vouet’s career flourished in Italy. During this time, he received numerous prestigious commissions, and in 1624 he became president of Rome’s renowned Accademia di San Luca.
In 1626 he married Italian artist Virginia Vezzi who was regarded as one of Italy’s best miniaturists. The painting to the right (perhaps a self-portrait) is attributed to her. A year after their marriage, the couple returned to France at the request of Louis XIII who promptly appointed Simon official court painter. Vouet became a dominating force in Paris. He was so prolific that it is difficult to create a clear timeline of all the altarpieces, mythological, and devotional works he produced. As one biographer noted, Vouet was a natural academic who studied and absorbed everything in his environment, from the rich color palette of Veronese to the dramatic lighting effects of Caravaggio.
King David, the subject of this portrait, was one of Israel’s most gifted (and complex) kings. He is unique among Old Testament figures by virtue of the fact that he is “fully known.” His remarkable biography is well documented in I and II Samuel, but it is his innermost thoughts revealed through his more than 70 lyric poems (or psalms) that render him most lifelike. Here we come to know “the man after God’s own heart” who despite this intimate relationship with God sins egregiously. Vouet’s masterful technique powerfully captures the complexity of David’s personality.
Although initially captivated by the dramatic naturalism of the Italian Caravaggisti, by the time Vouet returned to Paris, he had integrated classical elements into his painting style. For example, in this portrait the dramatic compositional line and naturalistic portrayal of the aging King is offset by the figure’s classical pose and the diffused (rather than stark) lighting. This stylistic integration of the dramatic and restrained is well-suited to the dualism of the portrait’s iconography.
Color symbolism was prevalent in 16th-century religious art, and often a single color would have more than one meaning. Here, Vouet uses vibrant red and yellow gold fabrics not only to accentuate David’s kingly wealth but also to insinuate the frailty of his nature. In religious iconography, red can symbolize both love and hate, yellow gold sacredness or treachery. All of these qualities are interwoven into David’s complicated history and readily acknowledged by him in his Psalms. In addition, Vouet masterfully captures the emotional depth of “Israel’s singer of songs”(II Samuel 23:1). Notice the intricate detail in the weathered face and hands; notice, too, the tear in the psalmist’s eye as he gazes heavenward and prays. It’s as if we hear him plead: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were” (Psalm 39:12). It is not surprising that the harp, David’s attribute, has come to symbolize not just the Psalms but all songs and music created to honor God.
Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education
Oil on canvas
Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari was born in Italy in 1654. Scholars still dispute Chiari’s origins with some believing he was born in Lucca and others Rome. With encouragement from his mother, Chiari learned the foundations of painting around the age of 10 from Carlo Antonio Galliani. He moved on at the age of 12 to study under the well-known Carlo Maratta, who drew inspiration from the classical style of Raphael and the Renaissance. Chiari’s earliest documented work, Venus with a Hermit, was dated 1675. Sadly, the work is lost.
Chiari was active in the late-Baroque period. His body of work displays the characteristics of both the High Baroque style as well as the Rococo which is reflected in his color choices. His paintings exhibit the influences of Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni, Cortona, and Andrea Sacchi. While he clearly drew inspiration from his predecessors, he took those ideas and transformed them into his own. His early commissions consisted of frescoes for various churches and chapels in Italy, and he also helped prepare cartoons for mosaics that would later be installed in St. Peter’s Basilica. Perhaps his most important client was Pope Clement XI who commissioned Chiari to paint St. Clement, the pope’s patron saint, most likely for the Basilica San Clementi. This led to an ongoing patronage by the Albani family (of whom the pope was a member). He also served as the director of the Academy of St. Luke from 1723-1725.
The landscape and composition of M&G’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt show similarities to both Chiari’s Christ and the Samaritan Woman and Adoration of the Magi. In this scene, Mary and Christ are seated on a plant-carpeted rock beneath the shade of a palm tree. Mary (wearing her signature colors of red and blue) wraps a comforting and supporting arm around Christ while holding a book in her opposite hand. Christ reaches out to obtain some of the fruit foraged and offered by Joseph. Several putti arrange the palm branches to provide the maximum amount of shade to cool the weary travelers. Another putto dangles from the left of the tree passing dates to be put in the basket held by the two below him, and a young angel kneels in front of the Holy Family offering a jar of water from the small brook at Mary’s feet. To the right of Joseph in the background, two angels appear deep in conversation as they tend to the donkey.
Chiari nods to his possible birth city through the Romanesque architecture in the distant town. Chiari’s work beautifully illustrates a scene of refreshment and reminds the viewers that even the Holy Family too needs time to rest and refuel.
M&G’s painting has an interesting provenance as it was once owned by the Earls of Dunraven from Adare County in Limerick, Ireland and possibly displayed in the family’s Clearwell Castle in Gloucestershire, England. It was probably in the collection at Adare Manor, principal home of the earls until the manor’s sale by the 7th Earl of Dunraven in 1982 to a family from Florida. Today, it is a luxury hotel. M&G’s painting was purchased in a 1982 Christie’s auction by renowned art dealer, Julius Weitzner. Dr. Bob Jones, Jr., a close friend of Weitzner, was able to acquire the painting for the Museum & Gallery where today it serves as a beautiful representation of Roman Baroque painting.
Rebekah Cobb, M&G Registrar