​Cambridge Catholic Art Exhibition Fails Catholicism 101

Occasionally – but only very occasionally – I’m pleasantly surprised to come across an article in the art press in which the author “gets” Catholic art that is the subject of an exhibition. In this case, the author is art historian Charles Hope writing in Apollo Magazine, and the exhibition is “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy”, which recently opened at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. To his great credit, Mr. Hope takes the exhibition’s organizers to task for displaying a poor understanding of Catholic theology and devotional life, something which more often than not is missing in critical reviews of exhibitions which feature Catholic art.

The idea that many of the paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects from the Renaissance which we admire in our museums were made for the purposes of prayer, is something that is alien to the majority of contemporary critics and curators. The Fitzwilliam show, apparently, is no exception; the Museum must not have bothered to have a devout Catholic priest, theologian, or layperson take a look at their exhibition catalogue first, while it was still in mockup. For example, Mr. Hope notes that a pair of icons containing images of the Annunciation to, and the Assumption and Coronation of, the Blessed Virgin Mary are described as “Christological” rather than “Mariological”.

In explaining the presence of donors, i.e. the men and women who paid for an altarpiece or sculptural group, the exhibition provides the usual stock answer which one comes across in most art criticism about the motivations behind the creation of religious works of art. The idea that the purpose of placing these donors in the completed piece was a chance to demonstrate their wealth and piety is based on an essentially Marxist understanding of history. In this analysis, it is economics which serves as the primary motivating factor, rather than faith.

Rejecting the curators’ assertions that those who appeared in these works were primarily interested in status, by commissioning these objects to show off how elite they were, Mr. Hope makes a – for contemporary art criticism – radical departure from conventional wisdom. “They were not claiming anything at all,” he notes, “but were inviting those who saw their portraits to pray for their souls, with the implication that they, in purgatory [sic], were praying for the souls of the living. In fact, most of the objects in this exhibition, apparently, suffer from a lack of curatorial understanding and acceptance of this concept.

As Mr. Hope correctly points out, the rejection of the doctrine of Purgatory by Protestants created a gulf between Catholic and Protestant understanding of this art. This is a fact which, I suspect, has influenced the mostly atheistic and agnostic views which dominate British high culture today. As Mr. Hope writes, the Catholic concern with sin, death, and the next life “was central to their religious thinking, motivating the construction of family chapels, the endowment of masses for the dead and the religious invocations which were standard in wills.”

This lack of understanding of Catholic theology regarding subjects such as Purgatory is an important and significant explanation as to why so many art critics do not really “get” Catholic art. While many non-Catholics continue to misunderstand Purgatory as a place where one’s final destination is still open to debate, Mr. Hope and Catholics in general understand that under Catholic teaching, everyone who makes it to Purgatory is, in fact, on their way to Heaven – once they finally rid themselves of their remaining imperfections such as remaining bad habits. Msgr. Charles Pope, of our fortunate Archdiocese of Washington, explains how: “even if we were to engage in the folly of thinking we ourselves, or someone else had reached perfection, the truth is we don’t really know what true, God-like perfection is. All I know is, that if I were to die today, God would have to bring to completion the good work he has begun in me.”

While it is true that (sadly) hardly any wealthy Catholics are commissioning beautiful works of religious art these days, for those everyday pray, pay, and obey Catholics like yours truly, the ideas and practices described by Mr. Hope in his review are absolutely relevant. We still request Masses to be said for the repose of the souls of our loved ones, and for those of the loved ones of our close friends and colleagues. We still go on pilgrimages, perhaps lighting candles, leaving flowers, or taking away some token of our visit to remind us of our spiritual experience – and often we do so on behalf of those in Purgatory, who cannot pray or act on their own behalf as they are being purified for Heaven.

That an institution of higher learning of the level of Cambridge should put together such a slapdash and poorly-informed exploration of Catholic theology as expressed in Renaissance art is, frankly, an embarrassment. Unfortunately, such things are mostly the norm, these days. If the fork-tongued pundits who dominate mainstream media cannot be trusted to accurately report on Catholic issues – and they cannot be – then one can hardly expect the institutions which gave birth to said brood of vipers to do any better back at the nest.

If any of my readers should find themselves up at Cambridge for this show, which runs through June 4th, I’ll be curious to read and share your comments with your fellow readers on your impressions of the exhibition.

Pinturicchio – Detail, “Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John the Baptist” (c.1490–5) The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

A Michelangelo Returns Home For Holy Week

Just in time for Holy Week, which begins this Sunday, one of Michelangelo’s most beautiful religious sculptures has been put back on display in the Florence church for which he created it.

In 1492, following the death of his patron Lorenzo de Medici in whose palace he had been living, the 17-year-old Michelangelo went to stay with the Augustinians at the Basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence. He did so partly out of the need for new digs, but also in order to study the anatomy of the bodies of the recently dead, as the friars ran a hospital for the poor. In gratitude for his time there, the artist carved a large, wooden sculpture of the crucified Christ, which at one time was placed above the high altar in the main part of the church.

This Crucifix was known to later Renaissance writers such as the first great art historian, Giorgio Vasari, but its whereabouts had been lost over the centuries. It was only rediscovered in the 1960’s in a hallway of the friary, unrecognizable beneath layers of dirt and bad paint jobs. Now, after restoration and a lengthy tour, the sculpture has been placed back on display in Santo Spirito, although in the sacristy rather than in the main church. In the early 17th century, a large Baroque baldachin or canopy was erected over the high altar, which is probably why the Crucifix was moved in the first place.

At the time when the young Michelangelo created this piece, his figures were elegant and graceful, but nevertheless monumental. The Crucifix was carved almost life-size, in a realistic fashion, while his over-life-size Pietà and colossal David were still several years away. There is as yet no trace of the bulky, roided-out figures that came to characterize his later work.

Unusually in art history, Michelangelo’s figure of Christ was sculpted completely nude, rather than covered by a loincloth. We know that Michelangelo preferred to portray nude figures whenever possible, even in religious works. Famously, many of the figures in his later fresco of “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel are completely naked, including that of Christ Himself. Of course – and this is only my personal theory – the tradition in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere of dressing statues in actual articles of clothing so as to heighten their realism, as one sees in the annual Holy Week processions in Seville, might suggest that this Crucifix originally had a loincloth of actual fabric wrapped around it.

From an historical perspective, there is a strong argument to be made that Jesus was probably completely naked when He was crucified, even though we rarely see this portrayed in art. Nudity was commonly part of the Romans’ choreographed humiliation of this very public form of execution. However, Christian artists have tended to shy away from full nudity in their representations of the adult Jesus.

At the same time, an argument could be made that Jesus did have some sort of loincloth, for political reasons. Judea in the 1st Century was a hotbed of insurrection, often spearheaded by fundamentalist Jews violently opposed to Roman rule, and factions of religious leaders insistent upon strict public observance of the religious law. These individuals may have found the public nudity of a fellow Jew, even a convicted blasphemer and condemned criminal, to be a cause of scandal or of potential ritual uncleanliness to the population – particularly for an execution taking place outside the walls of Jerusalem during Passover, as pilgrims were heading in and out of the holy city.

In any case, I must confess that I do have a quibble with the reinstallation of this piece, much as I appreciate the fact that it is back in a church where it belongs, rather than hanging in a museum. The decision to suspend the Crucifix from the ceiling of the sacristy seems to me a poor one. Yes, I understand the idea that this method of display allows people to walk around the piece and admire it from all sides, without crowding in front of the altar. Yet to me, the net effect is to turn this devotional object into something with an unreasonable expectation of movement. While it will not turn and shift in the air currents of the building as, say, a mobile by Alexander Calder would do, it nevertheless does at least slightly lessen its spiritual impact by hanging in the middle of the room, and evoking the possibility that at it might start to spin or weave from side to side.

Still, hopefully this newly restored and reinstalled masterpiece by one of the world’s most important artists will once again become a focal point in the upcoming Holy Week observances for both the people of Florence and visitors to Santo Spirito.

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.