Fra Angelico’s masterpiece, “Lamentation” on display in Turin

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Turin, Italy (Tuesday, 04-14-2015, Gaudium Press) The Holy Shroud which is considered the most celebrated Christian relic, and Blessed Fra Angelico’s, painting Lamentation Over the Dead Christ are being brought together in Turin. These two images eloquently communicate the sacred theme of the Passion of Christ, as well as the universal need of all human beings to face death.

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Fra Angelico’s masterpiece will be on display from April 16 to June 30, 2015. An interview by Alessandra Cipolla with the curator of the exhibit, Msgr. Timothy Verdon, follows.

What led to the Diocesan Museum’s decision to display Lamentation Over the Dead Christ at the same time as the Exhibition of the Holy Shroud?

«The idea of placing a work of art next to the Holy Shroud might seem bold, the Shroud is itself an image and one could object that this would cloud the Shroud’s particularly eloquent representation with the fruit of the artist’s imagination. But the truth is that pilgrims, and the curious who come to view the Shroud, may find it difficult to connect this unique, revered relic with the historical event that it depicts, irrespective of the question of its authenticity. We are called to imagine the context in which Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, taken down from the cross and then wrapped in a cloth, as the New Testament recounts. So, it seemed to us that it would be useful to aid the pilgrims’ imagination with an image, or more precisely, a painting».

Why was Blessed Fra Angelico’s painting chosen among all of the many renowned versions of the Passion such as those by Correggio, Niccolò dell’Arca, Veronese or Mantegna, just to name a few?

«We chose an image that had an analogous sense of sacredness, not because it was worshipped as a relic, but because its master, Giovanni da Fiesole, known as Fra Angelico, was beatified by Pope John Paul II. The artist was deeply involved in the mystery of Christ, he was a Holy and religious man who belonged to a Dominican community that carried out continuous, intense reflection on the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. Pilgrims are invited to associate their imaginative process with this sacred artist’s interpretation of the Passion. As with all exhibits, there was also the question of opportunity and availability of the work of art. The painting is housed, together with a limited number of pieces by Fra Angelico, at the San Marco Museum, The Museum’s Director understood the importance of transporting this painting to Turin because Fra Angelico created it for people who needed to visualize Christ’s death, which also applies to the Holy Shroud pilgrims».

In what context was the masterpiece created?

«Fra Angelico worked on the piece until 1441 for the Brotherhood of the Croce al Tempio. I like to include this piece in the process that led to the painting of the frescoes in the San Marco Convent at the end of that decade, which represent the epitome of the artist’s spirituality. Visitors find themselves participating in a reflection, a flashback in memory. From the point of view of humanity, it helps to see that by believing, others have found peace and the ability to express something significant in their lives in a calm and very human manner. It is a message that can unite believers and non-believers alike. In this painting, and in others as well, Fra Angelico has us face an enormous tragedy, but one in which the figures represented are not desperate. The people in the painting speak about Resurrection as they meditate on the weight of this huge sacrifice».

The Lamentation has a unique story behind it…

«Exactly. The work was commissioned by a former Dominican friar that became a Benedictine monk and was the grandson of a beatified Florentine woman who is depicted among the people mourning over the dead body. The only words that can be read in the painting belong to this woman, ” Christ Jesus, my crucified love”. She lived during the second half of the 14th century and had a bad reputation until she converted and became a Dominican tertiary. But the most interesting thing is who was destined to see the painting. The woman’s grandson commissioned the work for the lay Croce al Tempio Brotherhood that had a small church near a gate in the city walls of Florence. It was outside this gate that criminals were executed. The Brotherhood had the task of accompanying the condemned prisoners from Florence’s main jail to their execution, helping them pass through their fear. Before leaving the city, inmates were allowed to get down from the cart and go into this church to see the Lamentation. In this painting, Jesus is depicted as a young man who was killed, and there is a large Tau cross towering over him that resembles the gallows. It was an invitation for the condemned person to identify with Christ. In this piece, Fra Angelico surely imagined the desperation of the human beings that were being forced to face their own death».

A situation that is still relevant today…

«The Lamentation depicts human tragedy and it speaks of the hope Christians hold in a much more powerful way than any other piece. This is another reason why we wanted to display the Lamentation, because I believe that anyone who goes to worship a sacred object, even more so when the object takes us directly to Christ, is doing so not for generic religious purposes or for a sense of pietism, but because he or she has something important in their life that they need to place in front of the final mystery. The mystery of a love that is so immense that it died for us».

How did Fra Angelico’s contemporaries see the masterpiece and how do we see it today? Do we see it in a different light?

«Fra Angelico’s contemporaries saw fewer images than we do. Today, all effigies, even the most beautiful, touch us less because we are saturated with images. We are immunized in a way that doesn’t allow that beauty and that creativity to penetrate our skin very easily. The more beautiful a representation is, the more defensive we are. Also, ancient images don’t speak to us right away, they invite us into their world, but we no longer have the patience to enter. We have to concentrate in order to allow our memory, imagination and heart to respond to the images. Yet, I believe that even the modern spectator will appreciate Fra Angelico’s beauty and expression of color, the serenity of the figures, the air of internal reflection».

Major works of art were created through great patrons who commissioned renowned artists in the past. Does contemporary sacred art exist and what connotations does it take on?

«Fortunately, yes. I like to cite the recent inauguration of the Medici building in Florence, where the family bank was, when talking about this. For this event, there was an exhibit of pieces by the painter Filippo Rossi, who has worked almost exclusively in the field of sacred art for ten years. Everyone was moved in the face of the energy from the iconography, but also by the joy expressed in these images which featured the cross. But this isn’t figurative art, it is abstract symbolism. There are two main branches today: the study of the sacred that is fitting for modern people, and narrative art that sometimes communicates the artist’s sincerity, and if done well, the artist’s talent, but other times is an instrument that revives representational art, often in the style of Caravaggio, which is the font of an extremely dubious sacredness. I personally prefer an honest study, especially if it manages to touch a wide audience and isn’t limited to speaking to a select few».

Do you have any suggestions for those who will see the Lamentation?

«I invite them to see it together with the artist. According to his contemporaries, before beginning to paint, Fra Angelico meditated and prayed. In this way and in spite of powerful emotions, he was able to control his creative whims so well that he created these images. The spectator should know that even the painter was moved. Then, ask God, as I imagine Fra Angelico did each time he painted, for the grace to know how to translate your emotion into creativity, into beauty. There are those who do so through painting and those through other endeavors, all as a part of life’s work» .

From Uni News

Who is Timothy Verdon

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Msgr. Timothy Verdon

Timothy Verdon is an art historian formed at Yale University (Ph.D. 1975). He has lived in Italy for 47 years and since 1994 has been a Roman Catholic priest in Florence, where he directs both the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage, and the Cathedral Foundation Museum. Author of books and articles on sacred art in Italian and English, he has been a Consultant to the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church and a Fellow of the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Sudies. He teaches at Standford University (Florence Program).and writes for the cultural page of the Osservatore Romano. In 2010, he designed and curated the exhibit “Christ. His Body, His Face in Art” at the Reggia di Venaria Reale in Turin. He is currently overseeing the renovation of the Cathedral Foundation Museum in Florence and a copious publication on Blessed Fra Angelico.

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