For those of my readers who find themselves in New York between now and March 20th, a visit to the New York Historical Society will bring a wonderful treat, both for lovers of art and for Christians generally. The centerpiece of their current show, “Maestà: Gaddi’s Triptych Reunited” is a glorious panel of the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints, painted by the Early Italian Renaissance painter Taddeo Gaddi in around 1334. The exhibition is an opportunity not only to admire a beautiful work of art, but also to think about how we ourselves can use similar objects today – even if we are not so fortunate as to own a masterpiece of sacred art.
In art history, a “Maestà” is a type of image in which the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, related to similar examples in Byzantine art, are represented as seated together on a heavenly throne, often surrounded by saints and/or angels. This particular painting has been restored over the past two years and is now back on display at the NYHS, along with two panels which experts now believe were originally connected to it to form a folding triptych. By following this link one can see an animation of what the entire work of art originally looked like, before it lost its frame, was split into its component pieces, and dispersed to different collectors.
Photographs of works of art hardly ever give us an impression of their size. In this case, the Maestà is not a huge altarpiece, like the famous “Descent from the Cross” (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden in The Prado, which shocked me by its massiveness when I first saw it in person: that work is about 7 feet tall and about 8 ½ feet wide. By comparison, the Gaddi is quite a small thing, comparatively speaking. When closed, the triptych would have measured around 16 inches tall and 12 inches wide, roughly the size of a college diploma.
Gaddi’s painting does not contain any portraits of the person or family that originally commissioned the work, but from its comparatively small size we know that it was intended for private, rather than public use. The buyer would have discussed with the artist what subject matter he wanted to appear in the piece, and in this case, clearly there were certain saints whom his family had a particular devotion to. For in addition to the scenes from the life of Christ, there are a number of saints portrayed in the work, who are not there by accident or simply for purposes of decoration. We can probably assume, for example, that if a husband and wife commissioned the piece, that their respective first names might have been Catarina and Cristoforo, because images of St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Christopher bearing the Christ Child appear on the outside wings of the triptych. This is what we would have seen as a visitor to the family’s home, if the piece was closed and sitting on a shelf or a table.
This triptych would have been used both as an aid to prayer and as a beautiful object to decorate the room in which it was placed, but its practicality for the devout Catholic was that it could also have been taken on the road. The portability of such a comparatively small work of art allowed the traveler to stop and focus on the spiritual life, at whatever roadside inn or ship’s berth he happened to find himself sleeping in, at a time when travel was particularly uncomfortable, arduous, and dangerous. Stopping to thank God for His continued Grace and protection for himself and for his family, the owner of this piece would be able to keep in mind who he was, and what he believed, even if he was far from home.
Most of us are not so fortunate as to have objects like this to carry around with us, and yet the tradition of a portable devotional work is something which can easily be employed by anyone today at no significant expense. A very simple example of this is something which I employ when I travel, a practice that I inherited from my Mother. Many years ago I purchased two sizes of folding, leather picture frames with clear plastic panes. On one side of the frame, I place a photograph of my family; on the other, a simple postcard with a religious image, usually of Christ or the Blessed Mother or a favorite saint, picked up at one of my favorite art museums. It weighs practically nothing, and because the materials are all soft and flexible, it does not break, even if dropped or knocked over.
Another, slightly more hefty option for the contemporary traveler is to find a travel icon. Such objects are very easy to find these days, whether online or in a Christian bookshop, or indeed if you are fortunate enough to travel to places like Greece, Poland, or Russia. There are an almost infinite variety of single, double, or even triple-paneled images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels applied through various methods of decoupage to carved and stained pieces of wood. Over the years friends have gifted me a few examples of these from their travels to places like Prague or Ephesus, and I have purchased others of particular saints whom I admire. They fold up nicely, and stand steadily on a nightstand or desk.
Whichever option you choose, it is very easy in either instance to simply place this object in your carry on, or roll it up with some socks in your checked bag. Unlike the Gaddi Maestà, this should not be such an intrinsically valuable objects that, if it disappears into the great unknown of lost luggage, your level of upset would be catastrophic. Instead, as a simple reminder to yourself of who you are, and of He from Whom you seek grace and protection while on the road, they are an easy way to make any room you happen to find yourself in during your journey feel much more like home.