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

Art Criticism #Fail: Taking A Second Look At Christ

Art Criticism #Fail: Taking A Second Look At Christ

One of the problems with looking at art, let alone writing art criticism, is that it can be easy to forget the meaning of what it is that we are looking at. Perhaps because we live in an age in which we are taught that meaning is subjective, this mindset not only taints the viewer but the reviewer as well. I must confess that I can easily get wrapped up in the finer points of technique, or in recounting the history of a particular work, and overlook the spirituality of the art I am thinking about when I write a blog post or review an exhibition.

Last week for example, I wrote a summary of some interesting summer art exhibitions that I recommended to my readers. I mentioned a show about 1930’s American painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and suggested that visitors should also stop and check out the museum’s latest addition to its collection of Old Masters, a painting of Christ carrying the Cross by Sebastiano del Piombo. I pointed out that there are several versions of this piece, since it was one of the artist’s most popular compositions at the time he painted it, but that nevertheless it was a good buy for the Art Institute and worth seeing.

Reaction to the Art Institute’s acquisition of this painting could not have been more different across the spectrum of art media. Over on Apollo for example, contributor Louise Nicholson pronounced the piece “superb”, praised its condition and composition, and noted its blending of the monumentalism of Michelangelo with the “mystical twilight” landscape of the Venetians. Meanwhile, at-large critic Blake Gopnik over on ArtNet described the painting as “important, but flawed”, explained that del Piombo rarely managed to emerge from the shadows of his contemporaries, and opined that this is another instance among many in del Piombo’s career in which this was the case.

Yet none of us who wrote about this piece, myself included, wrote a single sentence regarding the spirituality of this painting. Intrigued by its provenance, lighting, and angles, and in the rush to give an opinion on the significance of the piece, we forgot that this was more than just a work of art: it was created as a means for spiritually connecting the viewer to Christ. In other words, all of us failed to actually *see* the picture.

If you have a tablet or laptop computer, or you can kneel down on the floor for a moment, take a look at the accompanying photograph of this painting from below, and consider its impact from that angle. Here is Jesus falling on the Via Dolorosa, His face grimacing in pain as the road to Calvary unwinds before Him. If you happen to position yourself to the right of this image, as you look up at it you get the impression that He is looking at you. This painting is a direct, in-your-face reminder that God is doing this for YOU, as you kneel in prayer before it.

Meanwhile the figure of St. Simon of Cyrene, who has just been roped in by the soldier shown in the shadows to help Christ carry His Cross, may cause us to reflect on different aspects of the Way of the Cross. There is a practical determination in his expression, as he figures out how best to help pick up the Cross that Jesus has fallen under. However there is also an illumination of St. Simon’s face, as he is caught up in the same light that illuminates the features of Christ. Is he getting an inkling of something else at work here? Is he realizing that this is going to turn out to be an even more extraordinary event in his life, than the already extraordinary event of his being forced by the Romans into helping a condemned prisoner whom he does not know?

Look also at the depiction of Jerusalem in the background of the painting. Although we know from the Bible that Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus around Noon, and that He died around 3pm, notice that the red skies over the city already look more like sunset than midday. Perhaps del Piombo is artistically anticipating the darkness that we are told fell over the city, when a powerful storm came up, and an earthquake rent the veil of the Temple in two. The artist may be telling us that, even before Christ arrived at Golgotha, the world was already darkening in anticipation of what was about to happen.

Perhaps because so much Christian art has been created over the last two millennia, and so much of it is crowded into our art museums, we have become indifferent to works like this. But consider what a great weight an artist like del Piombo bore on his shoulders, in painting this image of Christ carrying the Cross on His. This was not a work of art that was intended to flatter a wealthy patron, or decorate that empty space over the sideboard. It was intended to make the viewer pray, and in particular to meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus.

What a tremendous challenge it must be, for any artist to really try to get that right. And what a pity that both the public and critics so often miss the forest for the trees, when we look at such spiritually significant works of art. We can only hope to remember, and try to do better by it.

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The Faithful Traveler – On Your Radio!

I’m extremely pleased to share with you that my dear friend Diana von Glahn – aka The Faithful Traveler – now has her own daily radio show! You can hear Diana on Monday thru Friday at 11am on RealLife Radio, streaming online wherever you happen to be. You can also listen on-air if you’re in the Lexington, Kentucky area on 94.9 FM and 1380 AM. Missed a show? You can catch the podcast version on Diana’s site, via iTunes, or the RealLife Radio site. And on the RLR site, you can learn about their other programming from people whom you may already know from the writing world, like Elizabeth Scalia and Allison Gingras.

If you’ve seen her on television or DVD’s, or heard her on other radio shows and podcasts, you know that Diana has a knack for this sort of thing. She is bubbly and a lot of fun, but can also quickly get to the heart of a serious matter being discussed. (It’s all that piercing legal analysis Diana and I learned at the knee of the late, great Dr. Charlie Rice at Notre Dame Law School.) And each week, in addition to special guests, Diana will have some great regulars: her husband and Faithful Traveler co-creator David von Glahn; Denise Bossert; Jeff Young, aka The Catholic Foodie; Amy Wellborn; and Jerome Robbins, many of whom may already be familiar to you.

If you like what you hear, be sure to consider two things. First, make a donation, since things like bandwidth and hosting do not come free, even if the download does! Second, go leave a positive review on iTunes or through Diana or RealLife Radio’s sites, so that they know you’re listening and enjoying the program. As content producers, we all live and die by feedback, so even if you just want to say “Great job!”, your comments are unbelievably welcome. Thanks!

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