In Medieval and Renaissance art, there are a few stock scenes after Christâ€™s death which are repeatedly, obsessively depicted. They are: deposition, where Jesusâ€™ body is brought down from the cross; pietÃ¡, where the Maries (Mother and Magdalene), apostles, and maybe an angel or two mourn for him; entombment, or burial; and finally assumption, where JC is resurrected and flies up to Heaven.
These scenes (and others, like the stations of the cross) are fascinating precisely because their content is so regimented. The Gospel says that Christ was nailed to a cross, so he has to have stigmata. He was stabbed with a lance, so he has to have a slit in his ribcage. His mother was there, so she has to be seen reacting to her dead son. Etcetera.
But since artists werenâ€™t free to deviate from scripture, weâ€™re fascinated by the differences between each rendition of these tropes. Itâ€™s sort of like our love affair with the 12-bar blues in E. We know that the song goes E-A E-A B-E, but weâ€™re interested in hearing how it goes. So, whatever, Robert Johnson throws his voice, and Muddy Waters lays on the double entendre: they’re both singing the 12-bar blues in E, but each iteration is singular and interesting on its own terms.
Likewise, a deposition painted in Flanders in the 15th century is totally different from one done in Florence in the 16th.Â The Northern Renaissance had an altogether darker outlook (think Brueghel and Bosch). The Christ being lowered from the cross in Dutch paintings tended to look more emaciated and injured than the Jesuses being deposed in the South, who appeared more saintly and placid).
This is all by way of saying the Medieval Treasury, just to the North of the big Medieval hall at the heart of the Met (you know, the one with the giant choir screen) has some great artifacts that were created within rigidly defined parameters. None of our camerafone pix do justice so, apologies. Youâ€™ll just have to go in person. Pobrecitos.
The gallery has very low lighting, which is appropriate given the content, and seems to have existed in more or less its current configuration for a while (there are several generations of wall text accompanying the statuaryâ€”typographophiles take note). We liked the colorfully illuminated Spanish copy of City of God, and the highly articulated micro-sculptures that fit into a walnut shell.
The French pietÃ¡ (ca. 1515) stopped us in our tracks. The scene is more or less life-sized, and the two figures bookending Mary and Christ are the donors who commissioned the piece (see this post for our reserved and profanity-free thoughts on money and art). Thereâ€™s all this stuff going on in the scene (killer drapery!), but the only thing that really matters is the grief in Maryâ€™s eyes. She looks like she’s about to vomit, which is about what you’d expect if you’d just seen your son tortured to death. I swear, no matter how many times I see sculptures like this, I still feel the urge to grab strangers in the gallery and shout, in my most professorial Art Historian voice, “These fucking things are made of STONE, isn’t that crazy? How does it look so much like people?”
The Medieval Treasury
Highlights: Bourbonnais PietÃ¡, a crazy statuette of Saint Anne Holding the Virgin Holding Christ (seriously, is St. Anne supposed to be huge or is the virgin supposed to be tiny?)
Memorable Quote: French, Berry, from the Tomb of John, Duke of Berry, Choir of Sainte-Chapelle, Bourges (until 1757).
Next Week: ‘Pressionism