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.

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.