pilgrim’s progress

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels

If you’re in need of ennobling – and really, aren’t we all? – you could heed no better advice than to hightail it over to The Frick Collection. The museum is presenting the first monographic exhibition in the United States on the artist Piero della Francesca, a founding figure of the Italian Renaissance. Of the seven paintings on display, six are panels from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece – the largest number from this masterwork ever reassembled publicly – along with Piero’s only intact altarpiece in this country, the magisterial Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels. If you aren’t intimately familiar with the work of Piero – and I must admit my own ignorance on the subject – it’s likely due to two reasons: much of his recorded output has been either lost or destroyed, and the surviving works, being primarily frescoes, remain in situ, scattered among a handful of churches within the Tuscan triangle of San Sepolcro, Urbino, and Arezzo. Getting to know Piero demands a degree of pilgrimage - which only seems proper for an artist whose works revolves on religious themes. So, be thankful The Frick is as close as East 70th Street. It might not be an exhaustive survey, but there’s less voyage, more visit. Because visiting with Piero’s subjects is what you’ll want to do. His cool color palette and geometrical composition contributes to a refined and meditative nature. Piero was also a mathematical theorist, which makes perfect sense when you see the clearly defined volume of his figures and precision perspective. Balanced by a naturalism derived in part from his interactions with Flemish artists, Piero’s scenes exude a serenity, whether it be Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Apollonia, Saint Monica or The Crucifixion, which seeps into the viewer, and turns the seemingly simple act of looking a pictures into an offering of nobility.

St. Apollonia

The Crucifixion

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in a new light at the frick

Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert is the largest work on panel at the Frick Collection, the intimate public gallery housed in the former residence of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Portraying the medieval saint who renounced earthly riches to embrace a life of poverty, simplicity and prayer, this particular painting belongs to a long tradition of legends centered on the life of Francesco of Assisi, who was close in time to the Italians of the Renaissance and hence often a central subject. Yet this image is unlike any other representation. For one, Bellini’s desert bears a striking similarity to the Tuscon hills. Moreover, barefoot with arms extended and ready to receive, the saint appears to be in a state of mystical transport, transfigured by a supernatural radiance that emanates from a thick impasto of clouds at the upper left corner of the canvas. All this and not a furry animal to be found. Almost. It’s a masterpiece of spiritual poetry, made even more vivid following a rehabilitative trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s conservation department. Currently occupying pride of place in the museum’s main gallery the painting can also be viewed up close in a way you’d never be able to experience in person: via high-resolution gigapixel photography courtesy of Google’s amazing new Art Project.

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