Thursday, October 30, 2014

Spreading Ideas In the Arts

Albrecht Dürer, Christ in Limbo
from The Small Passion
German, Woodcut, 1509-1510
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The autumn rotation of items from the department of Drawings and Prints currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum offers a wonderful “teaching moment” for the history of art in the period immediately following the Renaissance.  In three small rectangles of paper and ink we can trace the diffusion of an idea from Italy to Germany and back to Italy, then on to France and beyond. 

The three objects on display are a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, a drawing by Luca Penni and an etching by Léon Davent after the Penni drawing.  The subject of all three is Christ in Limbo (also known as The Harrowing of Hell or the Descent into Limbo).  This tells the traditional story of Christ’s descent into Limbo between his death and Resurrection.  Limbo is the waiting place of unbaptized but believing souls.  With his death they were now able to enter the living presence of God.  At his descent, he released all the souls who had been waiting there since the fall of man, including Adam and Eve and all the prophets and patriarchs and all the just who had died believing in God, but because of unredeemed sin not yet able to know Him fully and to enter Paradise.
Duccio, Christ in Limbo
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Dürer’s woodcut comes from his Small Passion of 1509-1510 and reflects influences that had already reached him from Italian art, such as similar scenes by Duccio or Donatello.  
Donatello, Christ in Limbo
Detail of Resurrection Pulpit
Italian, 1460-1465
Florence, Church of San Lorenzo

At the left of the composition we see a group of three figures, St. John the Baptist with Adam and Eve.
Albrecht Dürer, Christ in Limbo
from The Small Passion
German, Woodcut, 1509-1510
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Adam and Eve look back over their shoulders to study this descendent of theirs who is powerful enough to have broken into their world and is in the process of liberating others. 

Luca Penni, Christ in Limbo
Italian, 1547-1548
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This striking figure of three passed almost without change into the work of Luca Penni, an Italian born artist, trained in Rome by Raphael, who spent his later life working in France in the Mannerist style.  Penni and his compatriots, Primaticcio and Rosso Fiorentino, created what is now known as the Fontainebleau style for King Francis I of France.  This was the elegant, complex, aristocratic style that reigned in France in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Penni borrowed more than the three figures from Dürer.  He also borrowed much of the composition.  There is the same rounded doorway through which the souls are being pulled by Christ.  In addition, the wall of Limbo is shown as castellated.  And, the appearance of the two elders that Christ is clasping is very similar.  Furthermore, there is the same female head glimpsed in profile that appears between St. John the Baptist and Eve.  But there are also significant differences too.  Penni’s Christ is far more active in his movements than Dürer’s, as are the patriarchs.  In the Penni drawing they reach out to clasp Christ as well.  In fact, Penni’s composition, as a whole, seems far more dynamic than does Dürer’s, which seems by comparison very static.  The dynamic, though sometimes convoluted, forms of Mannerism contributed to the eventual development of the Baroque, when united with a weightier, more classical volume. 
Leon Davent, Christ in Limbo
After Luca Penni
French, ca. 1550
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Penni’s drawing was apparently executed with the intention of turning it into a print.  The actual printmaking was done by Léon Davent a few years later.  The process used by Davent was etching.   Typically for an etching made directly from a drawing, the orientation of the print is the reverse of the drawing.  This is because the printmaker has used the drawing, face up on the plate, tracing the lines from the right side of the drawing onto the wax coating of the plate, then removed the drawing and worked over the traced lines with the etching tool.  See more about the etching process here.

Alonso Cano, Christ in Limbo
Spanish, ca. 1640
Los Angeles, Los Angeles Country Museum of Art

Given that the print, be it woodcut, engraving or etching, could be diffused in multiple copies and spread widely through those copies this corner of the Drawings and Prints exhibition demonstrates how an idea or motif can have influence beyond its immediate time and place, passing from one artist and country to others. 

One such derivative can be seen in the painting by the Spanish Baroque painter, Alonso Cano.  While much is different in his composition, such as the position of Christ and the openings to Limbo, Cano has taken the idea of a group of three, composed this time by Adam and Eve with a child, and of the half turn of Adam and Eve toward Christ.  He has reversed the position of Eve, so that we see her from the back, but the group as a whole clearly relates back to the series of woodcut, drawing and etching that spring from Dürer through Penni to Davent's etching.

 © M. Duffy, 2014

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