Autumn Beauty: On Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna Of The Small Trees”

Lately I have been thinking a lot about a particular image of the Madonna and Child in an autumnal landscape by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini, and since today is the first day of Autumn, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this piece with you.

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) was the most famous member of a family of painters, which included his father Jacobo and Giovanni’s older brother Gentile, as well as his brother-in-law Masaccio. This particular member of the Bellini clan (and I will refer to him as “Bellini” for the sake of clarity throughout this piece) was not only a highly accomplished artist in his own right, but also the teacher of some of the most important artists who came after him. His most famous pupils were Titian, the greatest of all the Venetian painters, and the enigmatic but short-lived Giorgione.

Many of Bellini’s larger works, which were commissioned by the rulers of Venice, have unfortunately not survived due to fires and natural disasters. Yet his smaller-scale religious pictures, such as his beloved “St. Francis in Ecstasy” (1480) at the Frick Collection in New York, are arguably to Italian Renaissance painting what the work of Jan Van Eyck is to Flemish painting of the Northern Renaissance. They feature careful attention to detail, jewel-like colors, and inviting landscapes.

Bellini completed his “Madonna of the Small Trees”, now in the Accademia in Venice, in 1487; we know this because he signed and dated the picture on the painted slab of green marble on which the Christ Child is standing in the painting. We see Jesus and His Mother standing against a pea green, silk moire curtain with a cut velvet border in pink coral. Beyond the curtain is a dry landscape in early Fall, featuring two small trees – hence the title of the painting – along with some tree-covered hills and blue mountains in the distance, all beneath a very Venetian sky. It is a wonderfully quiet and still scene, and the rich colors of the fabrics provide an eye-catching contrast to the more subdued landscape colors in the background, which is composed almost entirely of graded blues, autumnal browns, and mottled grays.

This work is related to several other paintings which Bellini produced of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus around the same time, including his “Madonna of the Red Cherubim” and his “Alzano Madonna”, both painted in 1485, and both now in the collection of the Accademia Carrara in the city of Bergamo. However this one happens to be my favorite from this period, in part because Autumn is my favorite time of year, and in part because there is a pensive, dignified, but slightly sad quality to this picture. Given the size of the “Madonna of the Small Trees”, which is roughly 2 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall, it was almost certainly painted for its original owner to use at home, as indeed were the aforementioned paintings.

In making this point I can’t emphasize enough when, as I often do, I point out to my readers that paintings such as this were not intended to be simply decorative objects. Aesthetically pleasing though they undoubtedly are, they were meant to be USED in everyday life. In creating works like this, Catholic artists like Bellini were, in part, trying to help their clients, who were men and women seeking to develop a deeper relationship with God through a more active prayer life. The fact that we can look at a painting like the “Madonna of the Small Trees” and find it beautiful is only logical. Yet if we look at it and miss the intent that went into the commissioning and the execution of this piece, then we have moved out of the spiritual into a purely material and incomplete appreciation of this work of art.

For the wealthy in particular, the challenge of being a good Christian during the Renaissance while living in a world of profit and loss, war and diplomacy, plenty and famine, was no small burden to bear. Paintings such as these helped to remind them of their Faith, and to encourage them to remember the tenets of that Faith in their dealings with others, even if (admittedly) they were not always successful in their attempts. We can see this as hypocrisy, or we can see it in the light that Evelyn Waugh would have, as in his famous letter to fellow writer and Catholic convert, Edith Sitwell: “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.”

In following the art world as I do, trying to keep up with what is going on in the auction rooms, museums, and galleries, I often find myself losing heart or even my lunch. The creative, the well-to-do, and our own cultural institutions are generally not interested in commissioning beautiful objects, let alone devotional ones, and instead are intent upon creating and acquiring works of profound physical and spiritual ugliness. Because we live in a time when all seem to act with deadly, fixed intent upon appearing and behaving in as unattractive and crass a fashion as possible, it is to be expected that our art reflects or indeed anticipates our culture.

All the more reason then, to retreat as needed back into the Age of Faith, when beautiful pictures such as this not only celebrated the beauty of the physical world, but also the spiritual beauty of God made Man: an act of selfless beauty which, like Creation itself, God brought about on our behalf.

Reunification in Raleigh: The St. John Altarpiece

​A new exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh covers one of my favorite subjects, the reunification of the former components of a singular work of art. The interesting twist in this particular exhibition is that, as the Sesame Street song goes, one of these things is not like the others. For one of the paintings on display in “Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece” is a contemporary artist’s imagining of what might have been, created using a combination of 14th century techniques and 21st century technology.

Francescuccio Ghissi (c. 1345-1395) was an artist who worked mainly in the Marche, a region of Italy dominated by the towns of Ancona and Urbino; the area was heavily damaged during a 2014 earthquake, as readers may recall. Little is known about Ghissi’s life and work, and truth be told he is not of great importance in art history. However he did produce a number of charming, beautifully colored and patterned works of art, such as this triptych in the collection of the UK National Trust at Polesden Lacey, a country house outside of London.

One of Ghissi’s major works was an altarpiece depicting the Crucifixion of Christ with accompanying apocryphal scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist, based on the book, “The Golden Legend”. This was a popular 13th century work by Blessed Jacobus de Voragine (lived c. 1230-1298), a Dominican friar who later became the Archbishop of Genoa. It was a huge best-seller in de Voragine’s own lifetime, and both Ghissi’s patrons and Ghissi himself as a working artist would have been very familiar with it.

In his book, de Voragine retold stories which he had collected from many sources concerning the lives of the saints. The historicity of these tales is often highly questionable, and in some cases they are little more than pious fiction. However when it comes to developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of Christian culture before the French Revolution, particularly in the arts, “The Golden Legend” is the most important source material after the Bible. The book also had a tremendous impact on world history: for example, it played a significant part in the conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and was one of the first books to be translated and printed by William Caxton, founder of the first English printing press.

The St. John Altarpiece was probably completed by Ghissi around 1370. It featured a large, central image of the Crucifixion, which is now at the Art Institute of Chicago, flanked by 8 small panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist, taken from “The Golden Legend”. Today these smaller components of the altarpiece are scattered among several museums, including NCMA, The Met, and the Portland Art Museum.  

At some point after the altarpiece had been hacked to pieces for sale, probably in the late 19th or early 20th century, one of the smaller 8 panels was lost. In anticipation of this exhibition, NCMA took the rather unusual step of working with artist and conservator Charlotte Caspers to create an original painting which provides an example of what the missing panel might have looked like. Ms. Caspers not only studied Ghissi’s style, she also read “The Golden Legend” for clues as to what story Ghissi might have originally selected to portray. In executing her painting she used 14th-century techniques and recreated materials like those which Ghissi might have used.

Technology experts next took Ms. Caspers’ work and created a hi-res digital image of the completed painting. They then applied faux cracks and aging signs to the digital image, in order to replicate those found on the original, existing panels. This photoshopped image of Ms. Caspers’ painting will be part of the NCMA exhibition, along with a documentary film showing how the new piece was made.The entire project strikes me as being just as fascinating as the reunified altarpiece itself.

Of course, much as we can admire and appreciate both NCMA’s and Ms. Caspers’ work in reuniting and quasi-recreating the lost portion of this work of art, there is also much to mourn here, as well. Ghissi never imagined that his paintings would hang on the walls of museums, to be gawked at as if they were curiosities alongside secular things such as silkscreened prints of Campbell’s Soup cans. Rather, Ghissi’s art was created in order to honor God, to celebrate the life and example of the Beloved Disciple, and to serve as an aid to prayer. That his altarpiece can be reassembled is of great benefit to anyone interested in the history of art. That it no longer serves its intended purpose however, is a loss to all Christians.    

“Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece” runs at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh from September 10, 2016 through March 5, 2017.

Reconstruction of the missing panel

Reunited and It Flemish So Good

Beginning tomorrow, the Morgan Library in New York will reunite the components of a magnificent 15th century work of art, which have never been displayed together in America before. Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece is a rare opportunity to see the reassembly of an individual expression of faith achieved through the collaboration of priest and painter. At the same time, the show is another example of how Christian spirituality has been stripped of its meaning, and turned into an art market commodity.

Hans Memling (c. 1440-1494) was one of the greatest members of the so-called “Flemish Primitives”, a group of several generations of artists working in 15th and 16th century Flanders which included his teacher Rogier van der Weyden, as well as Jan van Eyck, Gerard David, Hieronymus Bosch, and others. Although a German a birth, after Memling moved to Brussels to study under van der Weyden, he rapidly absorbed the new technique of oil painting. This medium produced minutely detailed, jewel-like works, which made Flemish art of this period prized all over Europe.

The Triptych of Jan Crabbe was probably painted sometime between 1467-1470. Memling had just moved to Bruges in 1465, and while not large in size (about 2.5 feet tall and just under 4 feet wide when fully opened), the piece was nevertheless a major commission for the young artist. His patron was Jan Crabbe, the Abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of the Dunes in Koksijde, a town on the North Sea coast of Belgium. During Memling’s time the Abbey was a major spiritual center, although today it is a ruin, having been smashed to pieces by Protestant iconoclasts.

The details of the Triptych, and the presence of specific figures in it, demonstrate that this was intended to be a very personal piece for the Abbot. The central panel depicts the Crucifixion of Christ, witnessed by the kneeling Abbot Crabbe himself, as we can see on the right. The Abbot is accompanied by his patron saint, St. John the Baptist, as well as a Cistercian saint (probably St. Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian Order.) On the other side of the Crucified Christ we see the familiar Biblical figures of the Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Mary Magdalene.

The flanking interior wings of the Triptych show St. Anne with an old woman, Abbot Crabbe’s mother Anna Willemzoon, and St. William with a young man, who was probably the Abbot’s brother or nephew. We can deduce from the presence of these two saints, and the fact that Abbot Crabbe’s mother was named Anne, that his brother (or nephew) was named William. The exterior wings, when folded over the central panel, formed an image of the Annunciation, with the Virgin Mary on the right and the Archangel Gabriel on the left.

While the combination of religious imagery with family portraiture in works from this period was frequently found on public works of art, such as those commissioned by the aristocracy for local churches and cathedrals, the relatively small size of this particular piece suggests that it was something which Abbot Crabbe intended for his own use. Its limited dimensions meant that it could stand quite nicely on an average-sized desk or table, while still leaving plenty of room for reading, writing, or the resting of hands folded in prayer. The Abbot may well have used it when celebrating Mass privately in his cell.

In this commission, Memling would have had to work closely with the Abbott, not only in terms of deciding upon the subject matter, but also in getting the details right. The wonderfully realistic face of the Abbot’s mother, for example, is so direct and specific despite its small size, that we must assume that she sat for Memling when he was making preparatory drawings for the piece. The storm clouds gathering over Golgotha, and the charming view of a hilly, fortified Jerusalem behind – which is really the Flemish countryside – allowed the Abbot to imagine what the Holy Land must be like, even though he himself would never be able to visit there.

At some point in the 18th century, the Triptych was divided into its component pieces and sold. The central portion ended up in Vicenza, Italy, the inner wings in New York, and the outer wings in Bruges. Although the pieces have been brought together for exhibition before, this is the first time that this will take place in the United States. Because such events are extremely rare, this is all the more reason for you to drop in, should you find yourself in New York during the exhibition’s run. It is a great thing for art connoisseurs that the Morgan has managed to bring about this temporary reunification of some of Memling’s earliest known art.

That being said, regular readers know that I have a love-hate relationship with these kinds of shows. In seeing how this beautiful, deeply personal work of Catholic devotional art was chopped into pieces for the sake of greedy art collectors, I am reminded – perhaps appropriately given the subject matter – of Psalm 22:19: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” While both Hans Memling and Abbot Crabbe would be pleased to see their Triptych made whole again, albeit only temporarily, I suspect that they would be saddened to discover that it is no longer being used for the Christian purposes for which it was originally intended.

“Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece” is at The Morgan Library in New York from September 2, 2016 through January 8, 2017.