Saturday, August 5, 2017

Two Exhibitions at the Opposite Ends of Scale

Visitors viewing the altarpiece of Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus
by Cristobal de Villalpando currently on view in the Lehman Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © M. Duffy, 2017

New Yorkers are blessed this summer with two exhibitions which center around paintings of religious subjects from the seventeenth century, one at the Frick and the other at the Met.  They share a century and are both expressions of the Baroque, but they couldn’t be more different, both in scale and in tone.

At the Frick

The first show centers around a tiny painting by Rembrandt, called “Divine Encounter:  Rembrandt’sAbraham and the Angels”.  This painting measures only 6-3/8 inches by 8-3/8 inches, about the size of a trade paperback book.  But into that small space Rembrandt poured a monumental composition in miniature that includes not only Abraham and the three angels, but also a landscape, the façade of Abraham’s house and his wife, Sarah.  Typically for Rembrandt, he uses variations in lighting to help tell the story, which is drawn from Genesis 18:1-15.  Abraham is visited by the Lord, who appears as three men to whom Abraham offers refreshment and food.  The visitors predict that Sarah will become a mother in her old age. 

A visitor to the Frick viewing  the tiny Abraham and the Angels
Photo:  © M. Duffy, 2017
In Rembrandt’s interpretation, the tent becomes a house, seen in shadow surrounded with plants and a tree, with Sarah peering from the door at the top of a small staircase.  Abraham is shown kneeling before the three, a bowl in one hand and a pitcher in the other.  The three visitors are reclining and seated in a semi-circle.  A long standing iconographic tradition, going back to the Byzantine empire, depicted the three visitors as identical angels, representing the Holy Trinity.  However, while Rembrandt does represent them as winged, his figures are not identical.  Clever use of lighting and action emphasizes their differences. 
Rembrandt van Rijn, Abraham Entertaining the Angels
Dutch, 1646
Private Collection
The figure closest to the viewer, shown with wings tucked behind his back is dressed in reddish robes and appears to have very short hair.  We cannot see his face, which is turned away from us.  Only a sliver of his profile is illuminated.  The middle figure is not so deeply in shadow, but not yet in full light either.  He is eating and his wings are unfurled, but not yet spread.  His reddish-blonde hair is chin length.  The third figure, shown in dazzling white garments in full light, appears with widespread wings and golden, shoulder length hair as he gestures toward the hidden Sarah.  It is the moment of revelation about the nature of his visitors and the moment of the promise to Abraham that Sarah will have a son.

This tiny painting is surrounded by a series of drawings and prints by Rembrandt that show other moments in the life of Abraham, and even another version of the same subject.  The exhibition is a charming and interesting exercise in Rembrandt connoisseurship and well worth the price of admission to the Frick.  It runs till August 20.

At the Met

Cristobal de Villalpando, Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus
Mexican, 1683
Puebla, Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Immaculada Concepcion
The other show is also well worth the admission price at the Met, but is at the opposite end of just about every scale you can imagine.  It is “Cristobal de Villalpando:  Mexican Painter of the Baroque”.  Although it includes 11 paintings (including one loaned by my undergrad alma mater, Fordham University) the centerpiece of the exhibition is an enormous, 28-foot tall, altarpiece, lent by the Cathedral in Puebla, Mexico and exhibited for the first time in a museum.  

This huge canvas depicts two different Biblical scenes.  In the lower half we see the scene from Numbers 21:5-9 wherein the wandering Israelites are attacked in the desert by serpents, resulting in the death of many people.  At God’s instruction Moses makes a serpent of bronze which he mounts on a pole.  Anyone who has been bitten and looks at it is cured.  In the upper half we see the scene of the Transfiguration of Jesus (which happens to be the Gospel for this Sunday, August 6, 2017, the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord) in which Jesus reveals Himself in His full glory, accompanied by Moses (identified by the staff with the serpent) and Elijah on clouds as His disciples Peter, James and John look on.  

The relationship between the two scenes is made obvious by the inclusion in the Transfiguration scene of the Cross.  As the bronze serpent set upon a pole by Moses cures the snake bitten, so Jesus, when lifted up on the Cross, as He is lifted up at the Transfiguration will redeem and heal humanity.

A Change in Focus

The collections of paintings in this country were originally formed by wealthy patrons, like J. P. Morgan or Henry Clay Frick, whose tastes tended to focus on the art of Europe or of American artists who painted in the European tradition.  Their bequests and donations gave us the splendors of the Met and other large and small American museums.  However, as with every age, there were blind spots and gaps in what they provided, which our museums have been struggling to fill.  One area in which the Met was lacking for decades was in the area of later seventeenth-century French painting.  Several purchases over the last few years have filled that gap.  Another, much bigger, gap was in the area of Latin American art.  The Met has a good collection of pre-Columbian art and some modern Latin American art, but until recently very little Spanish Colonial art, leaving a large gap between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries.  A small show called “Collecting the Arts of Mexico” , showcasing recent and not so recent acquisitions of Mexican work, has been on display in the American Wing galleries since last year,  It continues through September 4 and is worth seeing.  Now we have this splendid exhibition of the work of Villalpando which will be with us until October 15. 

Villalpando was a native of Mexico City and learned his craft there.  So, although he had access to the Baroque style through his training and through works of art, especially through prints of European works, his style does represent a truly American vision.  His figures are more ethereal, more agitated and much more colorful than anything produced during the equivalent period in Europe.  His compositions are often crowded with figures and frequently are organized in an almost medieval way.  Some of his motifs appear to have been his own inventions, and his pride in them is reflected in his highly visible signatures, which often read “Cristobal de Villalpando inventor”.  As the reviewer for the New York Times suggested “the outstanding altarpiece from Puebla should be a pilgrimage site of its own this summer”1.  And so should the little painting at the Frick.

In a subsequent article I will discuss some of the other paintings by Villalpando that are included in the Met exhibition.

© M. Duffy, 2017

  1. Farago, Jason.  “From Colonial Mexico, a Towering Vision of Grace”, The New York Times, July 26, 2017.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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