Restoration of an Italian Renaissance Jewel

How’s this for a bit of elbow grease?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced a special new exhibition to open January 15th entitled “A Renaissance Masterpiece Revealed: Filippino Lippi’s Madonna and Child”, which will run through April. The centerpiece of the show is Filippino Lippi’s Madonna of circa 1485, which was painted for the powerful Strozzi family in Florence. The panel has undergone a truly miraculous restoration, removing years of overpainting, grime, dirt and brown varnish, which had completely changed the look of the picture. However, these layers of muck in fact preserved the original, bright blues, pinks, and yellows underneath, as you will see in the comparison below.

Lippi’s family background is nothing if not interesting. His father was the great Florentine painter Fra Filippo Lippi, who started out as a Carmelite friar. When he proved to be a better doodler than a contemplative, the prior encouraged him to study painting, at which he excelled. In 1458, Lippi Senior was commissioned to paint an image of the Madonna and Child at a convent outside of Florence where one of the novices, the beautiful Lucrezia Buti, sat as his model for the Madonna.

The painter and the model fell in love, and ran away together. Filippo refused to surrender to the authorities, and Lucrezia refused to return to her parents or the convent. She then became pregnant with Filippino, whom she gave birth to later that year.

No doubt some of my readers will see this as an unfortunate turn of events from a moral perspective, and they would be right. However, what is done is done, and one does not get to obviate the consequences of one’s choices. Of course, had Lucrezia been living in the present day, no doubt she would have had her arm twisted by Planned Parenthood and so on to abort the child – being an unwed, underage mother facing arrest and prosecution or worse. Had the world’s greatest practitioners of infanticide been around at the time, we would have lost one of the greatest artists of the High Renaissance period.

In any case, eventually the two lovers were released from their vows and allowed to marry, and the couple subsequently had a daughter as well. Filippino was initially trained by his father, who continued to work as a painter, and later was apprenticed to Sandro Botticelli, who himself had trained under Filippino’s father. Filippino eventually went on to surpass his father in terms of artistic achievements, in the eyes of many art historians.

Because of his tutelage under Botticelli, many of his Filippino Lippi’s earlier works are difficult to distinguish from those of his master, similar to the way in which works by Perugino and the young Raphael can often be hard to tell apart. However Lippi’s own style continued to develop and mature, and garner the respect of his fellow artists and artisans. This extended to the point where, upon his death in 1504, Lippi was so highly regarded by his contemporaries that all of the artists’ workshops in Florence closed on the day of his funeral so that the painters, sculptors, etc. and their assistants could attend the funeral mass.

In any case, here we see the “before” version of the Strozzi Madonna and Child, now at the Metropolitan, with everything having a yellowish-brownish hue from the years of dirt and varnish:

And here is the cleaned painting, demonstrating the crystalline, jewel tones that Lippi is known for (in pieces such as his “Tobias and the Angel” here in the National Gallery), including lapis lazuli, berry red, and pale yellow:

>A Royal Academy Show Actually Worth Seeing

>Gentle Reader: A reminder that you have until Wednesday August 25th to submit your entry for The Blog of the Courtier’s Birthday Contest! Details and a link where to email your entry may be found here.

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Should the reader find himself in London this autumn, a visit to the Royal Academy is in order, for the purpose of viewing something other the soiled bed linen and perverse pottery that have previously been displayed during their summer exhibitions. The new exhibition, “Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele”, features paintings and drawings from Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts as well as the Hungarian National Gallery. The show runs from September 25 through December 12th, and tickets may be obtained at the Royal Academy’s website.

One of the highlights of the exhibition – for The Courtier anyway – is Raphael’s Esterházy Madonna of 1508. Named for the princely Hungarian family that eventually acquired it in the 18th century, it is an unfinished jewel of a painting from one of the important periods in Raphael’s lifelong development of the image of the Madonna and Child. Stylistically, it is related to his other Madonnas set in sunny, Tuscan landscapes, from the period he spent in Florence absorbing the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, among others.

For example, take a look at the Madonna of the Goldfinch of 1505, in the Uffizi; his Madonna of the Meadow painted the same year, now in Vienna; and La Belle Jardinière in the Louvre, painted in 1507. All of these are cousins, if you will, of the Esterházy Madonna. They all show full-length figures of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John the Baptist, spending time outdoors in an idealized landscape setting of the Tuscan countryside.

It is worth pointing out however, that the figures shown in the Esterházy Madonna seem to be more complicated than those in these other pictures. Raphael would sometimes paint half-length figures, as in a portrait, such as his Small Cowper Madonna of 1505, now in the National Gallery here in D.C. In these half-length images there is some movement, but usually in the form of one or both figures leaning or reaching for something. Similarly, in his full-length Madonnas such as the aforementioned, the Virgin Mary is usually shown to be seated and fairly restrained in her movements.

By contrast, the Virgin Mary in the Budapest picture is twisting and turning from a kneeling position. She seems to be holding back the Christ Child from slipping off the rock upon which He is seated, as He tries to grab for the scroll which has drawn the enrapt attention of St. John the Baptist, who himself is shown in a half-kneeling, half-crouched position next to her. There is a sense of twisting movement among the three figures individually, as they twist in concert around the pyramidal core established by their forms.

We know that Raphael moved from Florence to Rome in late 1508, and that there he began to come under the spell of Michelangelo.The Courtier not being enough of an expert on the subject to know precisely when the Esterházy Madonna was painted along the timeline of Raphael’s development, it is interesting to wonder whether Raphael was working on this piece when he moved to Rome and began to look at Michelangelo’s work – which is full of wriggling, writhing figures – or whether this shows that he had absorbed all he could of the tranquility of Florentine painting and was already prepared for the more robust work he was to find in Rome. Is this why he left the piece unfinished?

Admittedly, this is all pure armchair speculation, but it is an interesting piece to consider, particularly if you, gentle reader, like The Courtier, enjoy the wide variety of images of the Madonna and Child which Raphael produced during his short lifetime.

The Esterházy Madonna by Raphael, c. 1508
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

The Disconcerting St. Mary Magdalen

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalen, whose life as recounted both in the Gospels as well as in apocryphal stories of her has proven to be an endless source of inspiration to artists over the centuries. In the West in particular, we are accustomed to seeing images of the Magdalen where she is portrayed as a beautiful young woman with long, luxuriant hair. Whereas some of the earliest saints from the canon may be known only by name, with little knowledge of their deeds, Mary Magdalen was not only a source of reflection because of who she was, but also because of where she appears in the Gospels.

Sometimes she is shown alone, in imagined portraits of her accompanied by iconographic indications of her identity, such as in the panel by Piero di Cosimo which I wrote about during Holy Week. The 17th century French painter Georges de la Tour is probably most famous today for his series of reflective solo images of the Magdalen, lit only by a candle, as in the example shown in another piece I had written about this time last year. Other times the Magdalen is shown in action, as it were, based on the artists’ understanding of the Gospels. She may be shown washing the feet of Jesus with her hair, for example, or in older sculptural groups she was often shown clinging to or prostrate at the foot of the cross.

Both these archetypal solo images and group compositions allow the viewer to reflect on a woman whose life changed in a profound way upon her meeting Jesus Christ. However, because of the natural tendency of the true artist to want to create something beautiful, the Magdalen is always shown as a kind of reformed woman of ill-repute. She is always young, beautiful, and often richly dressed or adorned. Christ may have changed her internally, but painters and sculptors tended to show this through her actions or attitudes, rather than her appearance.

This is why, viscerally arresting as it is at first glance, Donatello’s great sculpture of St. Mary Magdalen Penitent reproduced below is such a profound and shocking image for us to consider. Commissioned for the Baptistry of the Duomo in Florence and carved circa 1455, this polychrome poplar wood statue is, frankly, horrifying. At the same time it is, strange to say, a hauntingly beautiful image because of what it represents.

Donatello’s Magdalen is portrayed with gaunt features and emaciated limbs; she has apparently lost some of her teeth. Her beautiful, long hair is now matted, dried out, and unkempt; her richly colored silk robes have been replaced by what is probably a shift made of camel’s hair. There is nothing of the proverbial “happy hooker” about this woman to attract us to her. If anything, she reminds me of the Wicked Witch of the West from the film version of “The Wizard of Oz”.

In his “Lives of the Artists”, Giorgio Vasari describes the tremendous visual impact this statue made upon artists such as himself: “which is very beautiful and well executed, for she has wasted away by fasting and abstinence to such an extent that every part of her body reflects a perfect and complete understanding of human anatomy.” The stark realism of the sculpture impressed the Florentine public in Donatello’s day as much as it did Vasari, who lived many years later. In his admiration for Donatello’s capturing of the human figure however, Vasari loses sight of the spiritual dimension of the image.

In this piece Donatello reaches within himself to come up with an internal expression of suffering and penitence expressed in a plastic form. One could be forgiven for thinking that this sculpture was, in fact, Spanish, for Spanish polychrome sculpture was very often a no-holds-barred affair when it came to representations of suffering. What Mary Magdalen may have been, Donatello declares in this work, she is no longer: the courtesan has now become the penitent ascetic. Perhaps because he himself had aged, or perhaps because he himself had experienced great suffering in his own life, Donatello was able to get inside the mind of the penitent and reflect what was going on inside himself.

While artists like de la Tour may have titled their paintings “Penitent Magdalen”, there is very little in the way of external suffering in such images. These Magdalens are still plump, attractive, and sensual, so that the change that is occurring within their soul affects them only inwardly. Donatello’s Penitent Magdalen is ravaged by her penitence; her sin has caught up with her and she is ridding herself of it. It may not be pretty to look at, but yet it is exceedingly beautiful that someone could reject the stain of sin to such a degree that they would voluntarily take on this extraordinary amount of suffering.

Today Catholic websites will be flooded with very pretty images of the Magdalen in honor of her feast day, and there is nothing wrong with that. But taking the time to reflect on this decidedly not very pretty image by Donatello would seem to be more to the point in properly honoring St. Mary Magdalen. Our faith ought to make us exceedingly uncomfortable at times, and not fat, lax, and contented.

Over the past several decades many of us Catholics have become Christians co-opted into neo-pagan secularism, and to such a degree, that we push the virtue of suffering into the background, as some sort of unpleasantness from another age which we would rather forget. We abstract or effectively whitewash our crucifixes to show no or as little blood as possible, or we replace them entirely with poorly-executed images of the Risen Christ. We turn the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass into a low quality campfire sing-along, which the poorest-funded Cub Scout Troop would find embarrassing, where all of the songs are about ourselves. We would rather not go to mass at all than have to humble ourselves before the Divine by recognizing our lowly and sinful nature – let alone make the tiniest gesture of genuflecting when we arrive or leave our pew.

None of this exceptionally selfish, ungracious, and flat-out bad behavior is something that The Magdalen would understand. As a witness to the salvation of mankind, hers was a privileged position that brought about a profound change in her, humbling her and leading her to reject the temptations of the world. Ours is a Faith founded upon the blood sacrifice of God Himself, and built up over the centuries by the prayers and suffering of martyrs and penitents. Perhaps we do not have to deprive ourselves to such a degree as shown in this image of the Penitent Magdalen. On the other hand, given the self-satisfied materialism and moral relativism that is, frankly, poisoning Christianity, perhaps there ought to be a movement to place copies of Donatello’s sculpture or holy cards of it in every church.

St. Mary Magdalen Penitent by Donatello, c. 1455
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence