May 3, 2010

At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts: Paintings, and a Sculpture

Master of the Urbino Coronation, The Crucifixion, (detail), 1340-1380, fresco transferred to canvas

This is the third and final post on the art that I saw on a trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; I wrote about the special exhibition "Luis Melendez", and on a collection of Chinese pottery; today I'd like to show some paintings and a sculpture that are part of the permanent collection. It's always a treat to wander through a museum that I don't know well; there are always new visual pleasures, as in the work above. This part of a large painting struck me by the beauty of its gestures, which evoked such kind sympathy. The prostrate figure, her hand hanging down helpless, is held and caressed gently by her companions. It is a perfect image of compassion.

Giovanni di Paolo, Madonna of Humility, (detail), 1442, tempera on wood

Unidentified Netherlandish Artist, Martyrdom of St. Hippolytus, (detail), 1475-1500, tempera and oil on panel

It is wonderful to see the wealth of natural detail in larger paintings; it is especially surprising to see in a painting that pictures the torture of a saint. Giovanni di Paolo and the unidentified artist gave a great deal of careful attention to small growing things––even little snails––endowing them with touching beauty.

Virgin and Child, Italy, 1125-50, limestone with polychrome

I have a soft spot for medieval sculpture, with its direct and expressive form that heightens feeling. The long solemn face of a mother, touched by the upturned face of her child, the simple hands, touching gently, are images of love. For me, a work that is not naturalistic in the way that, for instance, Michelangelo's sculpture is, allows more of an entry into an emotional realm.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, Yellow and Red, 1927, oil on canvas

Then I walked into the 20th century collection, turned a corner, and came upon one of the most beautiful Mondrian paintings I've ever seen. It was painted with such a sensual touch: the paint looked like velvet, the light in the work shone. There was a subtle color shift in the whites, warm and cool. The balance of the elements was perfect; the large square invites as rich a spiritual experience as a Madonna and Child. Of course a reproduction gives only a pale idea of this painting, but here it is nonetheless. It capped off a day full of delight.


  1. hmmm, virgin & child. child looks very adult, and indeed loving. but I think we're not supposed to be seeing it quite like this!
    as for the Mondrian - even here so far removed from the original it sings.
    the older I get the more I hear.

  2. rappel, it's great that the Mondrian sings to you even at this remove. As for the Virgin and Child, I'm not sure how we're supposed to see it, but I do think it is full of aching tenderness, and a look of pity in the Madonna's face. Perhaps I should use the word 'caritas', which is larger than individual human love.

  3. What an varied group of images touched you on the trip. Yesterday I was behind a car with a bumper sticker that said: "Compassion is the radicalism of our time," the Dalai Lama. It deeply struck me at the time and even more so after seeing that first image.

    And, of course, I love all those Northern painters with those touches of recognizable flowers and creatures. I just put a book on Northern painters on my pile for our garage sale ... maybe I should pull it back again!

  4. liked your poetic writing Altoon...

    "gave a great deal of attention to small growing things--even little snails--endowing them with such touching beauty" I must admit I was most drawn to the small living things in the 2 particular works where you showed the detail.