Religious art rages on in “Paintings on Stone” exhibit at the St. Louis Museum of Art – KC STUDIO
Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547), “Portrait of Pope Clement VII” (circa 1531), oil on slate (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)
The exhibition explores how artists used stone to create dramatic and emotional effects in portraits and depictions of the sacred from the Renaissance to the 18th century
The purchase in January 2000 of Cavaliere d’Arpino’s exquisite “Perseus Saving Andromeda” by Judith W. Mann, Curator of European Art before 1800 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, stimulated the creation of his masterful exhibition “Paintings on stone: science and the sacred”. , 1530-1800”, visible in the museum until May 15. The 74 works presented were chosen from a checklist of more than 1,400 examples compiled over the past 20 years.
The basic techniques of stone painting had been known for centuries, but they alone were reinvigorated by a great 16th-century artist, Sebastiano del Piombo, whose biographer Giorgio Vasari celebrated his “discovery” while a another contemporary praised Sebastiano’s aim “to make an image nothing less than eternal.
A prominent painter in Rome for nearly three decades, Sebastiano aspired to use black slate as a medium for depictions of religious subjects and life-size portraits. His austere portrait of “Pope Clement VII de’ Medici” in the Getty Museum is typically painted on a large slate slab whose surface is entirely covered in pigment. But Sebastiano also recognized that the nearly black stone itself – if left bare – could heighten the emotional impact of his paintings intended for devout contemplation, such as his many depictions of Christ carrying the cross (made mainly for aristocrats Spanish). And it was the recognition that a stone’s color or other physical properties could amplify the “message” of an artwork that both expanded the repertoire of artists’ favorite rocks and radically changed the how they were used for paintings.
Pope Clement’s youngest relative, Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), for example, fully appreciated that red porphyry was used by the Romans to create imperial portraits. He commissioned several porphyry all’antica profiles of himself—encrusted in marble ovals, like giant cameos—and at least once allowed his likeness to be painted on red porphyry, thus bestowing upon himself the gravity of the ‘Antiquity. The contemporary but distant cousin of the Florentine Duke, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France (1519-1589), is known to have commissioned slate portraits from Italy, and she may well have been the patroness of an extraordinary triple portrait of three of the minions. (presumed homosexual lovers) of her son, Henry III of France (1551-1589). All three met violent deaths in 1578; at that time profile portraits were archaic except for commemorative purposes, an implication that is echoed by the plain black background – circumstantial evidence that lends credence to the sitters’ tentative identification.
As the exhibition shows, black backgrounds were most often used to evoke nocturnal settings, in which natural phenomena (such as volcanic eruptions) illuminate the darkness, or scenes of deep emotion (such as episodes of the Passion of Christ) are played, lit to great dramatic effect by flames, the moon or an “off-stage” spotlight. Nothing is more visually thrilling than Judith in Prayer by Jacques Stella, on loan from the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Painted on highly reflective Belgian ‘marble’ – a slight geological misnomer – and meticulously accented with gold paint, Judith does not display the severed head of Holofernes (still asleep in a drunken stupor) but prays for resolution to carry out his fateful mission; the putti, meanwhile, valiantly draw the Assyrian general’s sword from its scabbard. The drama inside his tent is illuminated by a large candle in the foreground, and the image must have been dazzling when viewed by candlelight.
A different mood – one of intimate and intense piety – is exhibited in Bartolomé Estebán Murillo’s “Nativity” of Houston. It is one of three devotional paintings painted for Justino de Neve, a learned collector, priest and canon of the Cathedral of Seville, when this city was still the international commercial capital of the Spanish Empire. Among the rarest imported goods were mirrors made from obsidian by the Aztecs of Mexico, by whom they were imbued with deep spiritual significance. It is highly likely that the sophisticated prelate provided such valuable panels for Murillo’s reuse when he commissioned these paintings for private worship and contemplation.
Finally, the exhibition features many excellent examples of the use of stone as a pictorial device – as an element that can be manipulated to achieve an illusionistic effect in order to create an image. Le Cavaliere d’Arpino chose a tiny leaf of lapis lazuli – that rare rock of Afghan origin – for one of his many interpretations of the tale of “Perseus saving Andromeda” because it could be used “as is” to imitate both the sky and the blue-green water of the sea. Sprinkled with dustings of yellow-gold pyrite and streaks or flecks of white calcite, lapis evokes the cosmos – sometimes the Milky Way – and thus carries a earthly event in the otherworldly realm of myth or the divine.
Orazio Gentileschi brilliantly exploited scrolls and occlusions in translucent alabaster to create a luminous aura in which the angel Gabriel descends on clouds to announce the imminent birth of Jesus. On the right, he left the stone unpainted and allowed it to imitate the color and surface patterns of the “marble” columns and the prie-dieu before which the Virgin Mary kneels. But even such a daring feat of illusionism is overshadowed by the trompe-l’oeil artefact of Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg, who used a large slab of white marble (41 square inches) for his depiction of “the interior of the Jesuit church in Antwerp”. .” Not only does the bare white stone take the place of the architecture of the building but, double tour de force, the marble slab is actually a remnant of the stone used to build the church!
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog including important (but accessible) essays by several scholars, excellent and admirably documented entries for 103 individual paintings (almost all by Mann), a comprehensive bibliography of the subject, and an appendix which identifies (and , fortunately , illustrates) most of the different types of stone deployed by artists of the time.
“Stone Paintings: Science and the Sacred, 1530-1800” continues at the Saint Louis Art Museum, One Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park, Saint Louis, through May 15. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Closed on Mondays. For more information, www.slam.org.