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Bridesmaids and martyrs

25 October 2013

Nicholas Cranfield on wisdom and folly in the exhibition rooms


Among the swine:The Prodigal Son,c.1495-96, by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), at the Courtauld

Among the swine:The Prodigal Son,c.1495-96, by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), at the Courtauld

THE wise and foolish virgins do not turn up quite as often as one might imagine in art. Somewhat incongruously, a run of these beauties is to be found on the west façade of the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, dating from the 12th century.

Less widely known, but deserving of much more attention, are the spectacular Romanesque murals from the south apse of the church of San Quirze de Podret (Berguedà). Thought to be the work of an artist from Lombardy, these most probably date from the late 11th century. Since 1922, they have been sheltered in the safety of Barcelona at MNAC, the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya.

The growing mendicant and preaching orders of the 13th century promoted the inclusion of this parable in the Church's teaching. The inevitability of the Last Judgement, contained in Matthew 25.1-13, appears in the cathedral porches of Freiburg, Strasbourg, and Basel, and in Franconian churches.

The south porch of a church, where a marriage would be publicly contracted, often saw literal interpretations. A fine example is to be seen in Upper Franconia at St Mary's Church in the UNESCO-listed city of Bamberg.

The invaluable catalogue to the exhibition in the Strand in London also finds evidence of a Mystery play performed at Eisenach in 1322. It made explicit the teleological link with the Last Judgement and further identified the wise virgins as saints Mary, Dorothy, Catherine, Margaret, and Barbara.

All this might be no more than a jolly footnote in an ecclesiastical volume of iconography but for the series of popular engravings by Martin Schongauer. With their headdresses cast aside, two of the bridesmaids weep, while one indicates how annoyed she is by giving the finger. The five virtuous appear savvy and slightly too self-righteous. Dürer (1471-1528) was in all but name one of Schongauer's pupils and may have worked with him when he first left home.

In a delicious drawing dated 1493, the young Dürer depicts himself as one of the wise virgins. His expressive lips, broad nose, and the protruding chin all seem to peek out from beneath the long curly hair. The features are immediately familiar from his celebrated self-portrait. As if to emphasise that he is indeed the model for the wise virgin, he has sketched his own shapely left leg twice on the back of the drawing. Soon after his return to Nuremberg in July 1494, at the age of 23, he married. Is the drawing perhaps a private envoi to his virginity?

The Courtauld has used this drawing from the permanent collection to bring together a ground-breaking show of early works. The section of the display centres on saints and lovers and offers "evidence" that Dürer had indeed first visited Venice as early as 1494. This is seen in the typical Venetian dress worn by his model for St Catherine (drawings from Berlin and Cologne) and seemingly in a much less finished sketch (Vienna) of a wise virgin, here dated c.1495.

The world of Bellini and Carpaccio is no distance away, and we also know that Dürer used prints after paintings by Mantegna. The Courtauld has gained the exceptional loan of the drawing of the radical Death of Orpheus from Hamburg to show alongside the likely source, first identified by the 39-year-old art historian Aby Warburg in a lecture there in 1905, in a print after a lost work of Mantegna.

The Courtauld shows one of his watercolour copies from a deck of tarot cards; "Philosophy" from a series of the ten Liberal Arts and Sciences (the designer had added Poetry to make up a suit of ten cards) stands Minerva-like with a shield to defend truth. How much more freely rendered the figure is than the engraving.

When I first saw the delightful Simone di Filippo Benvenuti (called "dei Crocifissi") triptych in July 2011, Fabrizio Moretti proposed that St John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul stood either side ofthe Virgin and Child, and identified the side panels as depicting Petronius, patron saint of Bologna, with St Christopher, and St Anthony Abbot (left) and St Jerome with two unknown saints in the right. 


I pointed out that the central figure could not be St Paul, as he is not carrying a sword, and is much younger than usual, with an uncharacteristic full brown beard and think curly hair. His flaying knife and book are, however, the traditional attributes of St Bartholomew, the apostle whose feast day is on 25 August.

I suggested that the unidentified saint with the double-crowned turban, red cloak, red hose, and a sword could be St Pontianus (d. 236) with Bishop Hippolytus as a companion. Pope Pontianus (230 to 235) was exiled to the mines of Sardinia, where he was later reconciled to his theological opponent St Hippolytus, the first anti-pope, who was also in exile. Both were put to death, and are commemorated together on 13 August in the universal calendar; later, St Fabian arranged for them to be interred together in the catacomb of St Calixtus.

The difficulty with my proposed interpretation was the absence of any symbol of martyrdom for Hippolytus. Moretti rather more neatly now proposes, on the basis that Petronius was acclaimed as a patron of Bologna in 1376, that the soldier saint is in fact St Florian, alongside the first of Bologna's patron saints, the Doctor of the Church Ambrose. This firmly locates the small devotional work (shown at "Frieze Masters" in Regents Park last week) within the heart of Emilia Romagna in the last quarter of the 14th century.

Last October, in the first "Frieze Masters", Moretti had exhibited a Holy Family with St John, by the Florentine duo of Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (1483-1561) and Michele di Jacopo Tosini (1503-77), master and younger pupil.

This is now centre-stage of Moretti's house show of Orate pro nobis in St James's (to 15 November). This cheekily claims to survey 600 years of saints by including a dubious early work by Gilbert and George (Mouth, 1983) in which Martin Klunes is one of the two young models who kneel as if in adoration of a central cross that rises above a humdrum cityscape which forms the backdrop.

The Ghirlandaio-Tosini work (dated about 1530, the year of the siege of Florence) is very much a picture for Medici Florence. As if to emphasise this, the Virgin indicates the woolsack on which she is seated, while her other hand holds a large folio volume. The wool trade and learning enlarged the city's wealth.

Like a large blue beach ball, the world's globe is nudged into position by St John the Baptist and supported by the Virgin's knee. His finger usually points to the Lamb of God, but here almost admonishes his young cousin as to say "Your time has not yet come; for you are not yet the Saviour or the World."

Moretti also has graceful work by Neri di Bicci (1418-92) of a single panel from an altarpiece from a private collection in Cambridge. Identified here as St Lawrence in glory (c.1470-75), surrounded by four angels, the triumphant deacon-saint holds a cruciform standard as sign of the resurrection, and a book, but not his usual gridiron.

Vincenzo Rustici, a later artist from Siena, who was born in 1556 and died in 1632, provides a crowded Holy Family with St Augustine and St John the Evangelist, which came up at Sotheby's in New York in June 2011.

Rustici came from a family of architects and artists from Piacenza which had moved to Siena in the 16th century. The composition apparently mirrors his brother in law's compositions. The adoring gaze of St Augustine shows that even scholars are overawed by the Word made flesh when held before them.

Back at "Frieze Masters", Moretti's saints were in seasonal good company, not only on his own stand, where a panel by Maso di Banco (?) derives from Giotto's workshop in Naples. This little figure of St Dominic, with an unusually roseate crown, has an uncertain grip on a lily stem that looks more like stalk of sprouts and holds a Gospel book seemingly written in a Coptic or Amarhic script.

Equally unpublished, Giovanni Sarti (Paris), at Frieze for the first time, was showing Andrea Vaccaro's tentative St Lawrence with a Gridiron, dressed in a rich red and gold dalmatic (c.1630), alongside the young Ribera's striking head of St Philip from a series of the Apostles (c.1618).

Sarti also had four saints by an artist active at the court of Ferrara in the mid-15th century; John the Baptist and Francis of Assisi, alongside two Eastern saints, Blaise from Armenia and the Greek Prosdocimus, reputedly the first Bishop of Padua, with a ewer pouring water. Both Blaise and Proscdocimus wear silvery-grey episcopal gloves terminating with an extended cuff with a tassel.

A previously unknown St Catherine, painted in 1626 by Simon Vouet, turned up in a Detroit saleroom in September 2006, where Dumouchelles estimated it as an anonymous 18th-century work that would sell for $4000-6000. It caused a sensation, and eventually fell for $1.9 million. Although Vouet was known to have painted at least seven versions of the saint, this painting, thought to derive from his Italian period, was not known from any engraving or other source. Seeing it (with Adam Williams (New York)), one can see how such a saint commands such a price whereas once she would have commended prayer and endurance, when first painted for the Genoese prince Giovanni Carlo Doria.

A dealer in Geneva (Rob Smeets, also showing at "Frieze Masters" for the first time) has an unusual St Sebastian (reckoned 1610) as a young teenage boy posing in his role, painted by the Parma born artist Luigi Amidani (1591-after 1629) who studied with Bartolommeo Schedoni from Modena. Vermilion blood trickles down from where the arrows have pierced him while his head his thrown back. This is a candid study, and numerous pentimenti as the artists changed the position of the legs and arms add to the liveliness of the natural study, in contrast to the stock landscape beyond.


"Orate pro nobis: Six Hundred Years of Saints" is at Moretti Fine Art, 2a-6 Ryder Street, London SW1, until 15 November. Phone 020 7491 0533.


"The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure" is at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, The Strand, London WC2, until 12 January 2014. Phone 020 7848 2526 (24-hour recorded information). www.courtauld.ac.uk

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