Masterly study of sacred masterpieces

Embodied divinity


This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The word “magisterial” is overused by reviewers of academic books. Too often, it is merely a synonym for “big”. In the case of David Ekserdjian’s latest book, however, “magisterial” is, if anything, an understatement.

The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece is his magnum opus in every sense, weighing in at nearly 6lb, thanks to more than 250 superb illustrations, and with 400 double-column pages of text plus nearly 100 more of notes and other scholarly apparatus. It is comprehensive, discussing about a thousand of more than 10,000 altarpieces painted in Italy between 1300 and 1600.

The medieval world of clans, corporations and ecclesiastical orders

The publishers, Yale University Press, deserve great credit for keeping the price at an affordable level, thanks to the generosity of a long list sponsors.

Yet this beautiful volume’s real claim to magisterial status rests on the author’s ability to combine formidable erudition with pellucid prose, the elegance with which he organises his almost limitless material, and the originality of the entire enterprise. This book is the crowning achievement of a life’s work. “I first fell in love with Italian Renaissance art at the age of seventeen,” Ekserdjian tells us, “on a spring morning in 1973.” Since that first visit to the Uffizi, no other art historian has attempted a work on this scale in the field.

Indeed, the only predecessor even to sketch a brief history of the altarpiece was the man whose Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860) pioneered the discipline of Renaissance studies: Jacob Burckhardt. In an essay of 141 pages on “Das Altarbild” (“The Altarpiece”, published posthumously in 1898 and translated by Peter Humfrey in 1988), Burckhardt first discerned the essential outlines in the development of this paramount art form of the early modern era.

The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece: Between Icon and Narrative, David Ekserdjian (Yale University Press, £60)

He noticed the transition from gold background to landscape and from polyptych to unified image. He also distinguished between what he called the ruhige (“static”) and the erzählende (“narrative”) subject. This key distinction is still echoed in the subtitle of Ekserdjian’s book: Between Icon and Narrative.

Yet Burckhardt’s essay on the altarpiece, like his other writings on the Renaissance, now read very much as documents of their time. He does not disguise his aesthetic preference for the High Renaissance over both earlier phases and the succeeding Baroque period. His most celebrated thesis, the emergence of the individual in Renaissance culture, sits uneasily with modern research, which tends to emphasise continuity with the medieval world of clans, corporations and ecclesiastical orders.

Ekserdjian pays homage to Burckhardt, though his own scholarship is on an altogether higher plane. The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece divides its subject matter thematically into three main categories: icons (imaginini), narratives (historie) and mysteries (misteri). Commencing with a masterclass on how to “read” an altarpiece, Ekserdjian devotes one of his most fascinating chapters to artists, patrons and the contracts between them.

The doctrine of purgatory gave rise to masses for the dead

Although only a tiny fraction have survived, these contracts reveal a great deal about how artists and their patrons constantly demanded greater complexity and stretched the doctrinal limitations imposed by the Church. In quite a few cases, detailed drawings have survived which formed part of the contractual agreement, minimising ambiguity about what had been commissioned.

The language of these contracts is also revealing. Ekserdjian takes issue with another art historian, Charles Hope, who argues that the distinction between iconic and narrative altarpieces is false. Hope claims what is depicted in the vast majority of altarpieces are “people, not stories” and insists that saints, prophets and others should be seen solely as devotional “images” rather than dramatic characters evocative of Bible stories or hagiographical legend.

Ekserdjian’s response is to cite dozens of examples of contracts, account books and other documentary evidence in which it is clear that the artists and their patrons understood that what was being painted was a narrative, to be depicted with as much accuracy as possible. Ekserdjian demonstrates that — unlike the familiar art-historical concept of the Sacra Conversazione, used to describe the presumed discourse between the holy figures depicted — the idea of a narrative altarpiece was already current in the Renaissance.

In the great majority of altarpieces, the Virgin and/or Christ are central, usually accompanied by saints or others for whom the patrons had a special devotion. But how and why did altars acquire such significance or become so numerous? And why was so much lavished on the art initially used to decorate them and later the space above them?

Much turned on the evolving theology of the thirteenth century. The doctrine of purgatory gave rise to masses for the dead, which required family chapels and a proliferation of altars in larger churches. The altar changed position: now priests faced away from the congregation, instead of standing behind the altar. The doctrine of the Real Presence required communicants to be in a state of grace to receive the sacrament.

Hence the need for depictions of icons, narratives and mysteries, to be contemplated by the laity while the clergy celebrated the sacred mysteries at the altar. Vast sums were dedicated by families to prayers and masses to shorten the time their dead relatives would spend in purgatory. And there was competition between wealthy families to have the best artists to glorify God and, incidentally, their patrons.

These spiritual and social foundations, of which altarpieces are the superstructure, have become invisible to the modern eye. So many works of Renaissance art have been wrenched away from their original settings in church or chapel. It is impossible in a secular space to restore the numinous aura that must once have surrounded these images.

But some curators are becoming more sensitive. For its recent reopening, the Courtauld Gallery commissioned the restoration of a long lost architectural frame for Botticelli’s The Holy Trinity with Saints Mary Magdalen and John the Baptist commissioned at the end of the quattrocento for the convent of Sant’ Elisabetta in Florence. The curator, Karen Serres, was quoted by The Times explaining how drawings of the frame had been found on the reverse of the panel, where Botticelli himself had presumably sketched what he wanted. “It’s all kind of doodly,” she said.

The point, though, is that with its restored frame, the Botticelli now looks like an altarpiece and the visitor has a much better idea of how it was meant to be seen. Unfortunately, this magnificent altarpiece still lacks an altar, its rationale, not to mention the ambience of a church. Not even the grandest gallery, which the Courtauld undoubtedly is, can substitute for that.

Ekserdjian is at his best when he comes to the subject matter known as “mysteries” — what he calls “a kind of no man’s land between icon and narrative”. Unlike the “iconographically reductionist approach” of scholars such as Charles Hope, which “simply regards all the multifarious ways of representing the Madonna as much of a muchness”, Ekserdjian delves into such complex and diverse mysteries as the Immaculate Conception, the Madonna della Misericordia (“Queen of Mercy”), the Madonna of the Rosary and many more, each with its own doctrinal, geographical and mystical background.

He also deplores the perfection of Christ’s body

In their variety and ingenuity, altarpieces reflect the near impossibility of representing in a literal way such a delicate subject as the Immaculate Conception. This tradition — according to which Mary was the only mortal to be free of Original Sin, thereby enabling her to give birth to Christ while remaining a virgin — was so theologically and scripturally problematic, with Franciscans and Dominicans taking opposite sides, that even the Council of Trent avoided declaring it to be a dogma, leaving that task to Pio Nono in 1854.

No two images of the Immaculata are the same, but Ekserdjian detects common themes, such as the absence of the Child and inscriptions, often held by angels or saints, proclaiming the doctrine. The emergence of the Roman Inquisition in the sixteenth century placed a premium on orthodoxy, putting artists at risk of heresy. Vasari, the patriarch of art history, admits that he felt “uncomfortable” with this “very difficult subject” and sought advice from “men of letters” before attempting to paint it.

Recognising the importance of the increasingly precise definition of doctrine Ekserdjian devotes an entire chapter to the impact of the Council of Trent on the development of the altarpiece. The council was, of course, a response to the Protestant Reformation and a key issue was idolatry.

In their endeavour to codify the use of art for the edification of “the people”, the conciliar texts insist all adoration of images be understood as worship of Christ and the saints. Trent does not go into detail except in a brief discussion of God the Father, demanding that He no longer be “portrayed by colours or figures” — though the council offered no guidance on how God’s incorporeality was to be represented.

Later interpreters went much further in banning any suggestion of heresy or lasciviousness. A dialogue by the priest Giovanni Andrea Gilio denounces Michelangelo’s Last Judgment for its many nudes, which cause “shame and scandal” merely to “imitate the ancients”. He also deplores the perfection of Christ’s body in the almost equally celebrated Flagellation by Sebastiano del Piombo, demanding instead that artists depict the Saviour so deformed by suffering “that he no longer looked like a man”, and other martyred saints with equally grisly realism.

On a higher intellectual plane, Cardinal Paleotti shares many of the same concerns, while allowing more room for artistic license, for example by depicting the Holy Spirit as a dove or God the Father as an old man. Cardinal Federico Borromeo, the scholarly cousin of the more famous Saint Carlo Borromeo, published a tract, De pictura sacra, railing against nudity even in the case of the prelapsarian Adam and Eve, lest people who are not in such a state of innocence “conjure up many shameful thoughts”.

A faceless corpse is being buried, of which only the feet are visible

Ekserdjian shows how Trent discouraged, though did not eradicate, nudity — notoriously so in the case of Michelangelo, some of whose naked figures in his frescoed altarpiece The Last Judgment were overpainted by Daniele da Volterra, who thereby acquired the nickname il Braghettone, “the breeches-maker”. He concludes on a glorious note with a discussion of Caravaggio, who was both the last great artist of the Renaissance and the harbinger of the Baroque.

Though the altarpiece was in decline as an art form by 1600, Caravaggio was still painting them. His Death of the Virgin took the Trentine injunction of verisimilitude perhaps too literally: Mary looks, as Ekserdjian says, “palpably dead” — thereby casting doubt on her Assumption into heaven. That altarpiece was rejected, but survives.

Seven Acts of Mercy, by Michelangelo Merisi (also known as Caravaggio), 1606-1607, oil on canvas, 390 x 260cm. It is in the church of the Pio Monte della Misericordia, Campania, Naples. Our Lady, the infant Jesus and an angel with open arms look at a group of characters beneath them, symbols of the Seven Acts of Mercy

Caravaggio was obliged to execute his next altarpiece, the Calling and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, twice, perhaps because (as E.H. Gombrich famously suggested in The Story of Art) the earlier one showed the Evangelist as an illiterate peasant. This rejected version ended up in Berlin and survives only in photographic form, having been destroyed in 1945.

Ekserdjian illustrates another Caravaggio altarpiece, Seven Acts of Mercy, which is, as he says, wholly original. This great work — which shows, among other eponymous good deeds, a woman breastfeeding an elderly prisoner, St Martin of Tours succouring a beggar and Samson drinking from a jawbone — has inspired drama, fiction and poetry. The youthful figure of an angel is caught in precipitous descent, brilliantly illuminating the animated scene below with the light of God’s mercy.

In the background, however, a faceless corpse is being buried, of which only the feet are visible. Ekserdjian tells us that this startling interpretation of a traditional subject was (perhaps surprisingly) to the taste of the Neapolitan lay confraternity which commissioned it. What he does not mention is that Caravaggio had recently been sentenced to death for murder and had fled from Rome to Naples. There the image remains, its execution seemingly a work not only of charity but of penance.
Caravaggio’s masterpiece of chiaroscuro marks the culmination and endpoint of three centuries, during which the Italian Renaissance made the art form of the altarpiece uniquely its own. Its visceral power is augmented by the poignant fact of finality.

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