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‘The most beautiful head of the Savior’

First slide

When Andrea del Verrocchio’s bronze sculpture of “Christ and St. Thomas” was installed in its niche overlooking a busy street in Florence in 1483, it so awed the Florentines that one writer hailed it as “the most beautiful head of the Savior ever made.” Now those of us lucky enough to live near Washington can see a close replica of that head of Christ produced under Verrocchio’s direction, as well as other works by the master and his disciples, at a unique loan exhibition in the National Gallery of Art on view until Jan. 12.

The privately owned polychrome terra cotta “Bust of Christ” in the exhibit will remind visitors of the Christ in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” painted in Milan about a decade later. This is no accident, because Leonardo was the most famous of the major artists who began their career as apprentices and co-workers in Verrocchio’s bustling workshop. 

Two threads come together in the art of 15th-century Florence, and both are manifest in the paintings, drawings and sculptures of Verrocchio, who was born around 1435 and died in 1488. 

One is the sea change in spirituality brought about by St. Francis of Assisi. Around 1200, Francis led a movement dedicated to making Christ’s humanity and his sharing of the joys and sorrows of ordinary people manifest in every aspect of worship. The Franciscan brothers built huge brick churches among the shantytowns of medieval Europe and decorated their walls with vast frescoes that told the stories of Christ, Mary and the saints for people who could not read or write.

The other thread was a renewed interest in the art of classical Roman antiquity. By the 1400s, the ancient pagan religions no longer threatened Christianity, and so Christian artists and writers mined the ancient sculpture found all around them to forge an art grounded in looking at nature and portraying living, breathing and suffering human beings.

The spring

Verrocchio was fortunate to have lived in the mid-15th century when Florence was the cradle of this new civilization that we now call the Renaissance. But he was a bit unlucky, at least in his reputation, overshadowed by the more famous founders of the Florentine golden age — the sculptors Ghiberti and Donatello, the architect Brunelleschi, and the painter Masaccio — and then by the more famous masters of what we now call the High Renaissance: Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. 

Leonardo studied with Verrocchio and stayed in his studio at least 10 years. The other two — Michelangelo and Raphael — were trained by his leading students. It can truly be said that without Verrocchio there would be no Sistine Chapel and no glorious papal apartments by Raphael. “Whatever painters have that is good, they drank from Verrocchio’s spring,” wrote a contemporary around 1500.

Highlights of the exhibit, which should not be missed by anyone who loves the Catholic artistic heritage, include:

• The bronze David and Goliath, second of the great series of Renaissance David statues.

• A selection of drawings that prove Verrocchio’s role as an innovator in the medium of charcoal drawing.

• An intense head of St. Jerome, who appears to be looking heavenward for inspiration in his life’s work of translating the Bible.

• Side by side, the Boy with a Dolphin, the first Renaissance sculpture designed to be seen from every side; and the National Gallery’s Boy on a Globe.

• The model for the Forteguerri tomb in Pistoia. Verrocchio was the first sculptor to make a dynamic design in which the deceased is shown on his knees praying to the Judging Christ.

Madonna and Child

The last room of the exhibit is devoted to the Madonna and Child theme. A painting entirely by Verrocchio hangs near versions that pupils helped to execute, and other pictures inspired by him. One can only imagine the comfort that such paintings would have given to human mothers at a time when infant mortality was tragically high. They could look at the Mother of God with her Infant — destined to suffer and die — and feel that she understood them. 

Today we are accustomed to think of artists as solitary geniuses, but in the Florentine Renaissance they were more akin to motion picture directors who needed the help of numerous craftsmen and the support and input of patrons to complete their works. 

Visitors to the show should think of this as they contemplate the “Madonna and Child with Two Angels” loaned by the London National Gallery. In this painting, the sculptor’s touch is evident in the three-dimensional volume of the figures. But Verrocchio engaged the hands of the young Leonardo da Vinci and the young Perugino (who later led the first campaign to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel) to help create a masterpiece.

Hamerman writes from Reston.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019