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A visible feast of faith
Put on your walking shoes: Three new exhibits offer paths to a deeper appreciation of our Catholic heritage.
Three art exhibits in New York and Philadelphia provide new opportunities this spring for Catholics to enrich their faith and get a deeper perspective on the history of the Catholic Church.
Each of them will be on view until May 19. They range from an early Renaissance altarpiece by Piero della Francesca that has not been seen since the mid-16th century, to globe-spanning devotional art from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the art inspired by the Bible in the African-American community.
“Piero della Francesca in America” at the Frick Collection in New York offers much more than its modest title implies. It unites two altarpieces created for the artist’s hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro in central Italy: “The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels” from the Clark Institute in Springfield, Mass., and panels from the dismembered “St. Augustine Altarpiece” that once stood on the high altar of the town’s Augustinian church. Both may date from the 1470s, at the height of the artist’s career.
The Frick owns several of the surviving panels from this altarpiece, taken apart around 1550 when the convent was transferred to a different religious order. These appear together with loaned pieces including the spectacular image of the standing St. Augustine, whose embroidered cape tells the whole story of the life of Christ, completed by a brooch depicting the risen-Christ with His foot planted on the tomb, the “holy sepulcher” after which Piero’s hometown was named when two pilgrims brought back precious relics of the Savior’s burial site in an earlier century.
At the Museum of Biblical Art in New York, “Ashe to Amen” takes its title from the Yoruba word “ashe” referring to the creative power of an artist to make something happen and the Hebrew word “amen,” for “So be it.”
We learn from the accompanying exhibit, “Reaching Out: American Bible Society and the African American Community,” that most antebellum Southern states had laws forbidding literacy among slaves. Once the slaves were freed, the ABS had a lot of catching up to do. One of the Bibles on display is the 2000 Good News Bible, designed in collaboration with the Josephite order for their work among Catholic African-Americans and embellished with images rooted in the Christian heritage of African-Americans.
Philadelphia’s Museum of Art is exhibiting “Journeys to New Worlds,” Spanish and Portuguese colonial art from the private collection of Roberta and Richard Huber, a follow-up to the museum’s monumental “Treasures” show of the arts in Latin America 1492-1820. The Hubers have focused on South America and Asia in their acquisition of beautiful paintings, sculpture, ivories and silver objects, almost all with Catholic Christian themes.
A revelation of the show comes with the many ivory statuettes of the saints and Christ. These often were commissioned in Spain and the designs would travel westward across the Atlantic to Mexico, and then across the Pacific to the Philippines, where ethnic Chinese craftsmen carved them and sent back the exquisitely finished product a few years later.
Curator Joseph Rishel made a point of refuting those who see such art as colonial oppression. “Sometimes you hear people say ‘look what they made them do,’” he said. But new research has vindicated the independent creativity of the artists of the “new worlds.” It is now clear that some of the most accomplished works were painted by native artists, not Europeans as used to be thought.
A favorite is bound to be the refined “Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” by Gaspar Miguel de Berrio, a native of the silver-rich city of Potosi, Bolivia. Besides the two bishop saints in the lower part of the picture, there is a small image of St. Michael the Archangel in the upper left corner.
When preparing the exhibit, a curator discovered that in St. Michael’s scales (a typical attribute of this saint, who often appears in the scenes of the Last Judgment) he is weighing the scapular, a favorite devotion of the Carmelites, against a rosary, the devotion promoted by the Dominicans. Both orders were crucial in the evangelization of the new worlds, and the two sides balance perfectly.
Hamerman, who teaches art and catechesis at Christendom Graduate School in Alexandria, can be reached at email@example.com.