Carthusian Context: Does An Upcoming Art Exhibition Get It Right?

Something which I often comment on in these pages is how many of the Old Master paintings which we see in museums or study in books or via online images are presented to us out of context. We don’t get a sense of their scale, placement, or use in the areas where they were originally intended to be used. An upcoming exhibition at The Frick promises a rather unique presentation, for those who want to experience something approaching what was originally intended for the art on display, but I’m not entirely sure it will be without its problems, when it comes to understanding the Catholic context for these pieces.

“The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Jan Vos”, which will open at The Frick in September of next year, will reunite two religious paintings commissioned by Jan Vos (died 1462), who served as Prior of the Charterhouse of Genadendal near Bruges, in modern-day Belgium, for about a decade beginning in 1481. A Charterhouse, for those unfamiliar with this term, is a monastery of monks in the Carthusian Order. The most famous Charterhouse in the world is the Grande Chartreuse, located in the mountains north of Grenoble, France. It is perhaps best known for the Chartreuse liquors produced there, as well as for it being the subject of the 2005 German documentary film, “Die große Stille” (rendered in English as “Into Great Silence”) – which, if you have not seen, should immediately go into your watching queue.

The older of the two paintings, known as “The Madonna of Jan Vos”, was painted sometime between 1441-43, and is one of the last works by the great Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck (1390-1442); it was likely left unfinished at his death, and completed by his assistants. The panel was originally displayed in a public area of the Charterhouse, perhaps in one of the side chapels of the monastic church, but today it is part of the permanent collection at The Frick. It features all the hallmarks of Van Eyck’s work, from the intricate geometry of the tile floors and embroidered canopy, to the sparkling jewels on the crowns and on the borders of garments, to the lushness of the countryside and intricacies of the townscape seen through the arcade in the background.

Frick

The Van Eyck is being joined by a second painting commissioned by Jan Vos during his time as Prior, the so-called “Exeter Madonna” (1450) which is now in the collection of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. This piece is by another great Flemish artist, Petrus Christus (c. 1410-1476), and as you can clearly see, Christus was obviously shown the Van Eyck painting by Vos, and asked to create a somewhat simpler variation on it. While not as ornate as the Van Eyck piece, because it was created for Vos’ personal use rather than public display, it has its own charm, particularly in the brightness of its tone and the rather inviting way in which the pavilion opens up to the blue sky of midday.

Berlin

According to The Art Newspaper, the Frick is taking the unusual step of placing both paintings in a small space, described as being about the size of a monastic cell, “to evoke a bit of these former ways of interaction [with works] and hopefully make people engage with the art of this period in a new way.” This will certainly bring the visitor into a far more proximate relationship with these two panels than would normally happen in a large gallery space. Other pieces in the exhibition will similarly reflect up-close-and-personal devotional practices of the Carthusians at the time of Vos,

While all of this seems a good idea, I do wonder if there’s a slight problem with the placement of the “Madonna of Jan Vos” in particularly. I’m not well-versed enough in the history of these paintings to suggest otherwise, but I would note that most art historians believe that this picture was executed to assist the faithful in their devotional and penitential practices, “and that forty days of indulgence was granted for reciting the Ave Maria and the Pater Noster to the image.” In Catholic practice therefore, a work such as this would usually be placed in a more public space, rather than inside an individual cell. Veneration by the faithful would become rather too crowded if everyone had to climb into a room designed for the use of a single individual. Thus, while the “Exeter Madonna” would be more at home inside a gallery space the size of a monastic cell, the “Madonna of Jan Vos” does not belong in one.

Be that as it may, while there is a long time to wait just yet, this show promises to be a wonderfully immersive experience for those interested not only in Flemish art of the High Middle Ages, but also in the devotional life of Carthusian Spirituality.

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Rediscovered Raphael? Beautiful Renaissance Image Of The Virgin Mary Comes To Light

I have a potentially major, and extremely beautiful, art discovery for you to enjoy this morning.

Recently, art historian and television host Bendor Grosvenor was researching the collections at Haddo House, a country estate in Scotland that was once owned by the Earls of Aberdeen, when he came across a painting that struck him as interesting. The piece, which was extremely dirty and murky under old layers of varnish, is an image of the Virgin Mary, depicted with her hands crossed over her heart. For some time it has been attributed to a minor Italian artist, Innocenzo di Pietro Francucci da Imola (1490-1550). Mr. Grosvenor thought the painting was too good to be by a lesser hand, and asked for permission to have the painting examined and cleaned.

What emerged is the beautiful painting you see in the photograph below, flanked by Mr. Grosvenor and his co-presenter Jacky Klein from the BBC television show “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces”, which is believed to be a lost work by the great Renaissance master Raphael. A drawing of a similar image by Raphael, plus the fact that closer examination revealed pentimenti – changes to the painting made by the artist as he painted – as well as preparatory underdrawing typical of Raphael’s working method, helped persuade Mr. Grosvenor that this was the real thing. The painting has been dated to about 1505-1510, which would cover both Raphael’s “Florentine Period”, when he spent much of his time living and working in Florence, and the early part of his “Roman Period”, which began after he moved to Rome permanently in 1508.

In looking at some other works by Innocenzo, whom I must admit I had never heard of, it is somewhat difficult to understand why this piece was ever attributed to him in the first place. While he painted in a style that was similar to Raphael’s, his modelling and facial expressions are often somewhat clumsy, and certainly nothing like that shown in this work. For me though, what seals the deal here are the hands: Raphael had a very distinctive, elegant way of painting fingers and fingernails, which you begin to recognize the more familiar you become with his work. Zoom in on the Pope’s hands in Raphael’s somewhat later “Portrait of Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals” and you will see what I mean.

Other details, not conclusive in themselves, are also typical of Raphael paintings of the Virgin Mary from this period in his career, including the dark blonde hair braided into plaits and pulled back into a bun, the diaphanous veil falling over the head, and the simple gold embroidery at the edges of the fabrics. The painting also has a very Raphaelesque color scheme of a salmon pink dress, accompanied by a turquoise blue mantle which has a rich green underside. Raphael frequently used variations on this color combination in his images of the Madonna and Child – including his somewhat faded and dirty “Tempi Madonna” of 1508, which was painted around the same time as the dates of possible execution proposed for the Haddo House painting. Personally, I suspect that the same model posed for both pictures, as we can see if we look at the curve of the lips and the brow of both figures.

Raphael has always been my favorite artist, ever since I can remember (with Velázquez as a close second.) He is the Mozart of painters, and while some exclusively prefer tortured souls or cerebral detachment in their art and music, for me Raphael, like Mozart, is a kind of celestial preview. His art often embodies the “sprezzatura” advocated by his good friend Castiglione, who of course is the patron and inspiration for this blog. There is a seemingly effortless grace in his work that, as Mr. Grosvenor says, makes you ask, “How did he do that?”

Viewed purely as a work of art, this painting is a significant addition to the catalogue of works known or believed to be by Raphael – if in fact a majority of art experts come to accept this as being from his hand. It is obviously very beautiful, aesthetically speaking. It is also hitherto relatively unstudied by art historians, and as such will prove to be a great adventure for those who want to try to research subjects such as its provenance or the materials and methods used in creating it.

As a work originally created for religious purposes, it is a deceptively simple piece. Like some other almost pre-Tenebrist paintings of Raphael, where there are dark backgrounds and no elaborate settings to distract our gaze, this picture is wonderfully direct. Rather than complicated compositional theatrics, we are presented with a very quiet, reflective image of the Mother of the Savior, delicately indicating her Immaculate Heart. It is such a lovely, tranquil image that, within the next few years, I suspect you will begin to see it illustrating covers of spiritual books, prayer cards, and so forth.

For those of my readers in the UK, you can learn all about the details of the discovery when the latest episode of “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” airs tomorrow night. Unfortunately Mr. Grosvenor’s show does not currently air in the U.S., at least not yet. However his blog is on my list of must-reads every morning, and so I want to highly recommend it to you. He is far more knowledgeable than I about art history, and I often learn new things from him. Therefore if you like what I write here or in The Federalist, you will most definitely enjoy his work – and more importantly, kudos to him for finding this lost masterpiece.

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.