Uffizi Gallery treasures at Michener Museum in Doylestown

Posted: April 29, 2012

Since it opened in 1988, the James A. Michener Art Museum has assiduously promoted the art of Bucks County, particularly the New Hope colony, and American art in general.

It’s a bit of a jolt, then, to walk into the museum’s special exhibitions space and encounter a display of European Old Master art, most of it Italian and all of it religious.

The 43 paintings and two tapestries come from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, one of the world’s most celebrated museums and home to a matchless collection of Italian art.

The exhibition is both the Michener’s first international project and outgoing director Bruce Katsiff’s valedictory.

Now that the museum’s core mission is firmly established, the show signals to its constituency that it’s not resting on its oars, that it doesn’t intend to become predictable, that it’s willing to invigorate its program by exploring different avenues of expression.

“Offering of the Angels” turns out to be a splendid way to achieve this objective. It has been thoughtfully selected to tell a familiar story concisely. It’s beautifully installed. And it contains a number of strong, spiritually resonant paintings.

Relatively few of the artists represented are likely to be names that Americans recognize, although the show does have a modest complement of such luminaries as Botticelli, Tintoretto, Parmigianino, Signorelli, Giordano, and, in a workshop piece, Titian.

In any case, marquee artists aren’t the point of “Angels,” which presents a doctrinally concise biblical narrative. It also demonstrates the wealth of painting talent and contrasting styles in Italy during the Renaissance and baroque periods, one of the creative peaks of Western civilization.

The show was curated by the Uffizi’s director, Antonio Natali. The Michener engaged two consulting curators to help coordinate the presentation: Marcia Hall, who teaches at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, and Diane C. Ahl, a Renaissance and baroque specialist at Lafayette College.

The show is being circulated to four American museums after being shown first in Florence as one of the Uffizi’s specially themed Christmas offerings and subsequently in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain.

The private Friends of the Uffizi Gallery, which supports ongoing restoration and expansion projects, is helping with the tour.

If you’re wondering, as I did, how the Uffizi could deprive its 1.6 million annual visitors of these paintings for an extended tour, the answer is simple. These works are never on public view in Florence, and they’ve never before been seen in America, either.

This compressed visual catechism, which dramatizes key stages in the life of Jesus, is probably the most spiritually intense exhibition the Michener has ever mounted.

Naturally it helps to be a believer, or at least familiar with the basic tenets of Christianity, but if you are neither you can still experience examples of a type of masterly painting that’s now pretty much obsolete.

I should point out, however, that Italian Renaissance and baroque paintings aren’t rare sightings in this region. Without traveling to New York, there’s plenty on view in the John G. Johnson collection, housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and at the Art Museum itself, and even at the Allentown and Princeton art museums.

The Michener installation makes this point by including four pictures from the Johnson collection and two from the Art Museum as a coda to the Uffizi loans.

At the Michener, however, the theme so predominates that the show becomes a distinctly narrative experience, not so much about individual artists as about the life and death of the Christian savior.

It begins, though, in the Old Testament, with three powerful foundation images. Jacopo da Empoli depicts a magisterial God the Father creating Adam from earth. Nearby, Adam and Eve repose under an apple tree in The Original Sin by Frans Floris, one of several non-Italian painters in the show.

In the same cluster is an early Tintoretto in which an angel stays Abraham’s hand before he can sacrifice his son, Isaac, at the Lord’s command.

The most beautiful angel in this select company of angels is the divine messenger in Pietro Liberi’s Annunciation. Ahl observed that the artist used a real bird to model the wings.

The next section of the show is dominated by Madonnas holding the young Jesus. Sandro Botticelli’s serene and touching version, in an elaborate 15th-century frame, anchors a wall of such images.

The Botticelli has received considerable publicity, apparently because the artist is a favorite among Uffizi visitors.

The exhibition catalog describes this painting as having been “irremediably compromised” by being “cleaned” and then “restored” in the 19th century. Even in its attenuated state, though, it’s an arresting image.

My eye was drawn equally to a smaller interpretation of the subject by Il Parmigianino hanging nearby, in which a Madonna with flushed cheeks reads to her son, and perhaps even more to a Mary and Jesus with St. Catherine by Titian’s workshop on the opposite wall.

Thoroughly satiated with maternal devotion, one moves on to the betrayal of the Last Supper, displayed panoramically by Bonifacio de’ Pitati and as one-third of a predella triptych by Luca Signorelli and his workshop. (A predella is the painting or sculpture at the bottom of an altarpiece.)

The Crucifixion receives attention comparable to that of Jesus’ infancy, most poignantly in a small painting by Lorenzo Monaco, the oldest work in the show, which was painted in the late 14th century as a missal illumination.

The style, with haloed figures and a gilded ground, is suggestively Giottoesque, so it’s not surprising to learn that this image was once attributed to Taddeo Gatti, Giotto’s favorite pupil.

Contrast this with a late baroque interpretation by Giovanni Domenico Ferretti, with its more theatrical Caravaggesque lighting and the mournful figure of Mary gazing up at her dying son.

This doleful image propels viewers to two depictions of the dead Jesus, both likewise tenebrist, one by Fra’ Semplice da Verona from the early 17th century and a full-blown Pietà painted by Giovanni Camillo Sagrestani around 1720.

The next chapter is the Resurrection, which give us two triumphal incarnations of an ascendant Jesus, by Cristofano Allori and Alvise Benfatto, followed by a small, luminous evocation of the doubting St. Thomas by Girolamo Macchietti.

Allori concludes the biblical exegesis by showing a sorrowful Mary grieving over symbols of her dead son.

From start to finish the journey that establishes the architecture of Christian belief is relatively brief, but, especially in the baroque paintings, it delivers considerable drama and emotion.

Michener visitors accustomed to sunny, vibrant landscapes and snowbound woodland streams should find this enchanting exhibition both challenging and rewarding.

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or edward.sozanski@gmail.com Read his recent work at http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/edward_j_sozanski.


Uffizi Treasures

“Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi Gallery” continues at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, through Aug. 10. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 10 to 5 Saturdays, and noon to 5 Sundays. Admission is by special timed ticket at $15 general, $13 for seniors, $11 for college students with valid ID, and $7.50 for visitors 6 through 18. Information: 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.

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