Portable Piety: Hitting The Road With Those You Love

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.        

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When Your Mom Is A (Renaissance) Bae

When we look at a great piece of art, we are usually caught up in what we might call the “big picture” of the picture. A sculpture of the crucified Christ causes us to think about the meaning of His death on the cross, or a portrait bust of George Washington makes us think about his courage and resolve in the founding of this country. Yet sometimes we should take the time to appreciate the “little picture” in a work of art, and see what we can learn about ourselves in the process. So today, I’d like us to look at a Renaissance painting made up of both big and little pictures, but perhaps focus a bit on that aspect of it which asks us to consider the relationship between mothers and daughters. For this masterpiece does so simply by causing us to compare and contrast how a mother and daughter are dressed in the picture.  

The magnificent, over-life-size Portinari Altarpiece, or more formally, “The Adoration of The Shepherds with Members of the Portinari Family, Accompanied by Saints Anthony, Thomas, Margaret, and Mary Magdalen”, is now in the Uffizi, but was originally created for the family chapel in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. It was painted around 1475 by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482) for Tommaso Portinari and his family. Tommaso was a financier with the Medici Bank in the Flemish city of Bruges for many decades; his wife, Maria Maddalena di Francesco Baroncelli, came from another prominent Florentine family (but more on them later.)

There are many fine details to admire in this work, from still life paintings of flowers in the foreground, to incredible levels of embroidery detail on the robes of the angels. Notice also how the tiny landscapes behind the figures feature other scenes from the Gospels apart from the Birth of Jesus. On the left, above St. Anthony Abbot’s bald head, we see the very pregnant Virgin Mary being assisted by St. Joseph as they come down a steep, rocky hillside into Bethlehem for the census, followed by the donkey on which the Blessed Mother had been riding. On the right, we see the Three Magi mounted on horseback on their way to Bethlehem, with one of them sporting a rather jaunty, white piece of headgear that looks like cowboy hat. The townsfolk are gathered nearby, with a child pointing in wonder at the luxuriously dressed foreigners, while one of the attendants asks a local the way to the stable.

The donors, i.e. Tommaso and Maria and their three children, kneel on either side of the Nativity scene, beneath the standing figures of their respective patron saints. The men of the family are dressed in expensive, but fairly simple costumes. It is rather the women of the family who draw our eye, and well they should, for these two Italian ladies are like haute couture fashion plates from the 15th century.

Signora de Portinari is not the curvy, full-figured woman we often expect to see in Renaissance paintings. She is elegantly dressed in a fitted, black velvet gown, with white fur cuffs and bodice detailing. She wears a wide, satin sash around her waist somewhat like a Japanese obi, a black veiled cap trailing diaphanous white silk, and a gold and jewel-encrusted collar necklace that probably cost the price of a house in those days. This is the only piece of jewelry she is wearing in the picture, other than her wedding ring.

To her left and set back a respectful distance behind, her beautiful daughter Margarita is also finely dressed. She wears a green silk dress with laced bodice, trimmed with matching dark green velvet. Her jewelry consists of a gold chain necklace with a jewel and pearl pendant, and a brooch pinned to the side of her cap. The young girl has magnificent strawberry blonde hair that cascades out very naturally from beneath her headpiece like a waterfall.

I think it is not unfair to observe that, unlike her daughter, Signora de Portinari is not exactly what we would consider pretty. Yet she is unquestionably a very elegant woman. If Coco Chanel had been a dressmaker during the Renaissance, she might well have dressed a lady exactly like this. Her high cheekbones, angular features, and slim figure would make her an ideal customer for many fashion designers even today.

In looking at the image of the mother and daughter kneeling together, one cannot help but wonder what the relationship was like between the two of them. Did the little girl turn out to be as fashionable and elegant as her mother? Or are we given a clue by Margherita’s tumbling, untamed hair that she had a bit of that hotheaded, rebellious streak, which we so often attribute to redheads? Did they argue about clothes, even as her mother picked out the finest clothes for her daughter to wear in formal settings, about what the mother wanted her to wear and what the daughter herself wanted to wear – something which mothers and daughters have argued about since time immemorial?          

An open question in art history at the moment is why, when this painting for the hospital chapel was completed, it was not actually delivered until 1483. One theory is that the Portinaris were a bit too close to what was going on in Florence at the time. Not long after this piece was completed Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, a relative of the Signora de Portinari, was involved in the “Pazzi Plot” to overthrow the Medici family. He and another conspirator stabbed Giuliano de’ Medici, the brother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, nineteen times while he was attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence one Sunday.  Lorenzo, who was also attacked in the same assault, managed to escape, but Giuliano died on the floor of the cathedral. Many of the families of the conspirators were punished directly, or were found guilty by association.  

Bernardo, who fled to Constantinople after the assassination, was later captured by the Turks and turned over to the Florentines. He was publically executed in Florence a year after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici – in fact, Leonardo da Vinci made a well-known, contemporary drawing of his corpse hanging from a rope. The final round of purges arising from the conspiracy took a few more years, so it is possible that the Portinaris thought it best for the family to lay low for a bit, rather than making a show of presenting a gigantic – and subsequently very famous and much-admired – work of art to the people of Florence.

However, despite the wealth and grandeur that you see in this painting, and despite whatever caution they may have exercised in their art donation, the Portinaris were eventually ruined. Tommaso made a number of bad investments on behalf of the Medici, which caused them to close the branch of their bank in Bruges. After several attempted comebacks, he ended up dying in a pauper’s bed at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, the very hospital for which he had commissioned this painting. His estate was left with so many debts, that his eldest son refused his inheritance, so as to free himself from his late father’s creditors. What happened to the stylish Signorina de Portinari, or to her daughter Margarita, I do not know. Perhaps a reader with greater knowledge of Italian history will be able to tell us in the comments.

What we do come away with in this picture, however, is not only an appreciation for a beautiful work of art, and a document of the styles and fashions of the time in which it was created, but also the opportunity to engage in some thoughtful consideration and discussion. The dynamic between mother and daughter is very unique, something which those of us with “Y” chromosomes can never fully understand. In works of art such as this, both mothers and daughters, as well as those who love them, can see a bit of their own relationships: what they were, are, and will be, in a timeless embodiment of that unique relationship.

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The Portinari Altarpiece (Detail)

Satan Snacks: Florence’s Delicious “Last Judgement” Mosaic

If you’ve ever had to scramble to tidy up your place before your parents come to visit, then you’ll appreciate the superhuman effort involved when Papa Francesco is the one coming to visit.

On November 10th, Pope Francis will be traveling to the city of Florence for the first time, on the occasion of the 5th National Ecclesial Convention of the Italian Church. The event, which takes place every few years, brings together bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity to discuss the state of the Church in Italy. Just in time, Florence has completed the restoration of its famous Romanesque Baptistery, the first major renovation to the structure in many decades. Restoration of the famous two sets of bronze doors which Lorenzo Ghiberti created for the structure in the 15th century has also been completed. The Pope will tour the Baptistery before making his way into the Duomo, i.e. the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, to address the participants at the Convention.

While most historians focus on the Baptistery’s remarkable architectural symmetry, including the influence it had on the study of perspective, or on the hugely influential doors by Pisano and later Ghiberti, for me perhaps the most interesting aspect of this building is its magnificent mosaic ceiling on the interior. This lavish, imaginative work shows us the beginning of the transition away from the Byzantine style around the 13th century, as interpreted by Venice in particular, and the emergence of a native, Tuscan form of art. While still very much in the artistic orbit of Byzantium, here we begin to see details which, later, will come to indicate the early Florentine Renaissance.

Of particular note is the wild vision of Hell in the Last Judgment section of the ceiling, in which an enormous Satan is simultaneously munching on the souls of three of the damned, along with the assistance of his minions. This representation made a profound impression on the great Florentine poet Dante, who particularly loved this building, and in his “Inferno” he describes the Devil exactly thus. Also note the presence of crowned rulers and hooded clerics who led their people astray on Satan’s right, who are about to become the next items on the infernal banquet: a sobering image, indeed.

While many Medieval artists portrayed the Last Judgement with greater horror, or deeper introspection, there is something about the almost comic book rendering of this image that draws and holds the eye. The searing red rocks and flames, juxtaposed against the putrid gray-green of the Devil and his demons, gives quite an impact. It transforms the golden background from the standard Byzantine convention for representation of religious scenes, into an evocation of sulfuric clouds and an oppressive atmosphere.

As the artists who worked on this piece understood, while the Devil will no doubt enjoy the never-ending sushi conveyor belt, it is certainly not going to be pleasant for those of us who own up here.

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Detail of "The Last Judgement", Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence