Throughout history, artists have shown an inexhaustible capacity for creativity. Spanning 500 years, the 65 superb paintings in ‘European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’, at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) 12 June until 17 October 2021, offer a breath-taking journey from the 1420s and the emerging Renaissance to conclude at the height of early twentieth century post-impressionism. Here, we list the 17 works displayed in the first of the exhibition’s three chapters, ‘Devotion and Renaissance’.
The works highlighted here come to us from altarpieces, chapels and cloisters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Christian traditions of devotion underscored one of the most dynamic periods of creative and intellectual growth in human history.
The Renaissance, a period of ‘rebirth’, was sparked by the rediscovery of the culture and scholarship of classical antiquity, including sculpture, philosophy, literature, mathematics, geometry and the sciences. Renaissance artists revived the classical humanities through their study of Greek and Roman artefacts and, learning from the ancients, they devised new compositional tools for representation.
From Florence, new artistic principles spread to the surrounding city-states, across Europe and beyond, as new trading systems enabled people, wealth and information to circulate with greater ease. In both the north and south of Europe, artists staged biblical narratives in contemporary settings, bringing them closer to people at the time; and centuries later, bringing these same people closer to us.
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List of works in ‘Devotion and Renaissance’
Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro)
The Crucifixion c.1420–23 (illustrated)
Tempera on wood, gold ground
63.8 x 48.3cm
Maitland F Griggs Collection, Bequest of Maitland F Griggs, 1943 / 43.98.5
The Crucifixion c.1420–23 is painted on wood and depicts Christ on the cross encircled by a group of Roman soldiers and small angels who have descended from Heaven. Longinus, the soldier at the near left, has just pierced Christ’s side with a spear, while John the Baptist clutches his hands in prayer at the sight of the grief-stricken Virgin. Fra Angelico’s innovative composition allows the crowd to recede into space, achieving a pictorial depth virtually unknown at the time.
‘The Crucifixion’ c.1420–23
Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia)
Paradise 1445 (illustrated)
Tempera and gold on canvas, transferred from wood
Overall: 47 x 40.6cm; painted surface: 44.5 x 38.4cm
Rogers Fund, 1906 / 06.1046
Giovanni di Paolo imagines Paradise as a garden where saints, monks and angels — figures drawn from the past and present — gather to embrace and greet each other before being admitted into the light of Heaven.
In fifteenth-century Siena, death and the afterlife preoccupied the living. A century earlier, the Black Plague had devastated the city. At that time, by some estimates, 60 per cent of Siena’s population was lost. Construction work on its spectacular cathedral was abandoned, and the city never fully recovered. Di Paolo’s courtly vision of Paradise 1445 gave the Sienese hope for a better life beyond the trials to be endured on Earth.
Italy, active by 1457; died 1494/95
Madonna and Child c.1480
Tempera and gold on wood
Overall: 37.8 x 25.4cm; painted surface: 36.5 x 23.5cm
The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 / 49.7.5
Davide Ghirlandaio (David Bigordi)
Selvaggia Sassetti (born 1470) c.1487–88
Tempera on wood
57.2 x 44.1cm
The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 / 32.100.71
Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi)
The Agony in the Garden c.1504
Oil on wood
24.1 x 28.9cm
Funds from various donors, 1932 / 32.130.1
Dosso Dossi (Giovanni de Lutero)
The Three Ages of Humans c.1515
Oil on canvas
77.5 x 111.8cm
Maria DeWitt Jesup Fund, 1926 / 26.83
Piero di Cosimo (Piero di Lorenzo di Piero d’Antonio)
A Hunting Scene c.1494–1500
Tempera and oil transferred to masonite
70.5 x 169.5cm
Gift of Robert Gordon, 1875 / 75.7.2
Fra Filippo Lippi
Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels c.1440
Tempera and gold on wood, transferred from wood
Arched top, 122.6 x 62.9cm
The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 / 49.7.9
The Netherlands c.1455–1523
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt c.1512–15
Oil on wood
50.8 x 43.2cm
The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 / 49.7.21
The Netherlands, active by 1457; died 1475
Virgin and Child c.1455–60
Oil on wood
21.6 x 16.5cm
Theodore M Davis Collection, Bequest of Theodore M Davis, 1915 / 30.95.280
The Netherlands, active by 1444; died 1475/76
The Lamentation c.1450
Oil on wood
Overall: 25.7 x 35.6cm; painted surface: 25.4 x 34.9cm
Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G Marquand, 1890 / 91.26.12
Hugo van der Goes
The Netherlands, active by 1467; died 1482
Portrait of a Man c.1475
Oil on wood
Oval, overall: 31.8 x 26.7cm; painted surface: 31.8 x 26cm
HO Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs HO Havemeyer, 1929 / 29.100.15
Hans Holbein the Younger
Benedikt von Hertenstein (born about 1495, died 1522) 1517
Oil and gold on paper, laid down on wood
Overall: 52.4 x 38.1cm; painted surface: 51.4 x 37.1cm
Rogers Fund, aided by subscribers, 1906 / 06.1038
Lucas Cranach the Elder
The Judgment of Paris c.1528 (illustrated)
Oil on beech
101.9 x 71.1cm
Rogers Fund, 1928 / 28.221
German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach depicts the ancient Greek and Roman myth known as ‘The Judgment of Paris’. Paris, dressed in a suit of armour, was a Trojan prince chosen to judge the beauty of three goddesses: from right to left, Minerva, goddess of war and wisdom; Venus, goddess of love; and Juno, queen of the gods.
Cranach’s vision of this popular myth has been interpreted as an allegory of alchemy: a rudimentary form of chemistry guided by the belief that base metals could be transformed into precious metals. Under this lens, the goddesses represent three stages of transmutation. Mercury is shown as a white-bearded man, which could allude to the final step in the alchemical process where ‘white mercury’ was added. He holds a glass orb (in place of the golden apple of the myth), perhaps evoking the mystery of the alchemists’ laboratory.
‘The Judgment of Paris’ c.1528
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
The Adoration of the Shepherds c.1605–10 (illustrated)
Oil on canvas
144.5 x 101.3cm; with added strips:
163.8 x 106.7cm
Rogers Fund, 1905 / 05.42
The Adoration of the Shepherds c.1605–10 is an emotionally heightened depiction of the birth of Christ. Here, El Greco (The Greek) takes principles of the Italian Renaissance to their extreme: exaggerating the pyramidal composition of outstretched figures and applying heavy shadows across the canvas. The painting vibrates with energy, as sinuous lines direct our gaze towards the architectural dome covering the scene.
El Greco began as an icon painter on the island of Crete, where the Byzantine style of flat forms and gilded details prevailed. He spent the majority of his thirties in Venice and Rome, adopting the Italian technique of single-point perspective, before finally settling in the Spanish town of Toledo. A unique figure in the late Renaissance, or Mannerist period, El Greco drew upon many influences to form an idiosyncratic style.
‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ c.1605–10
Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari)
Boy with a Greyhound c.1570s
Oil on canvas
173.7 x 101.9cm
HO Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs HO Havemeyer, 1929 / 29.100.105
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio)
Venus and Adonis 1550s (illustrated)
Oil on canvas
106.7 x 133.4cm
The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 / 49.7.16
Venus and Adonis 1550s re-imagines a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses — a collection of 250 mythological stories on the theme of transformation written in 8 AD. The painting depicts the decisive moment at which the goddess of love, Venus, tries to dissuade her mortal lover, Adonis, from venturing out on an ill-fated hunt, where he is killed by a wild boar.
Within this allegorical account of an impossible love destined to end in tragedy, the artist includes elements of pathos, such as the hunting dog straining at the leash and the cowering Cupid. Ovid’s tale was popular during the sixteenth century, and Titian’s studio is believed to have produced some 30 variations of this theme.
Titian was one of the best known artists of the Venetian Renaissance. He was celebrated for the dynamic interaction of form in his paintings, seen here in the entwined bodies of the two lovers. Titian found inspiration in the quality of light in the Venetian lagoon, evident in the vibrant colours used to render flesh tones and the dramatic sky.
‘Venus and Adonis’ 1550s
Buy the ‘European Masterpieces’ publication
Make the most of your experience. Keep as a souvenir the exhibition publication European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, available to purchase online through the QAGOMA Store or at the exhibition pop-up shop during the show. The full-colour 240pp hardback is available in two special cover editions, choose your favourite work — either Caravaggio‘s The Musicians 1597 (illustrated) or Marie Denise Villers with Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes 1801. Alternatively, select the publication of choice when purchasing your admission tickets online.
The Australian-exclusive exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) from 12 June until 17 October 2021 is organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art and Art Exhibitions Australia.
The order of artworks in ‘Devotion and Renaissance’ by Katharine Baetjer, Curator Emerita, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
All works are Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Dimensions are given in centimetres (cm), height preceding width.
Featured image detail: Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia) Paradise 1445