Works of Devotion
There are numerous outstanding devotional works to be discovered at London Art Week Winter 2020. Some were created for the intimacy of private prayer, others relate to large works intended for places of public worship. We look here at a selection of exceptional smaller pieces made for private devotion in a domestic setting that feature the iconography of mother and child, from the ecstasy surrounding the arrival of a new-born babe, to the agony of the pièta.
To modern sensibilities, it can be hard to comprehend just how important private devotion has been throughout history, making it difficult for us to understand the role and significance of devotional works of art, and their place in the religious experience. Depictions of saints were commonly placed in households as an aid to prayer: to invoke fertility, for help in childbirth or as a comfort to the ill or dying. Images of the Passion were designed to inspire penance, prayer, meditation, and compassion. Some of the following works would have been commissioned by a devout patron for whom the image was not just a visual rendition but also an object with which they could interact physically, with a kiss or a touch, as part of their act of everyday prayer and an expression of their faith.
At Ben Elwes Fine Art we can view a remarkable early Renaissance work by the Master of the Krainburg Altar. Dating to circa 1489-1490, this masterpiece triptych of diminutive dimensions was undoubtedly intended as a small altarpiece for private devotion. At its centre is a scene from the Lamentation of Christ, a composition based on the great Netherlandish master Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464). The altarpiece is now believed to be by the artist known as the Master of the Krainburg Altar, whose signature work is at the Belvedere, Vienna. Similarities include the female types, the exquisite ornamentation of the painted architectural framework seen above the figures of Saints Barbara and Catherine of Alexandria in the side panels, and the claw-like hands. It is thought the artist was active in Slovenia, then part of Austria, for about 15 years and a prominent citizen of the town of Kamnik where he had a flourishing workshop. The triptych was exhibited at the Louvre in 1904 and at the Groeninge Museum of Bruges in 2011. The distant view of Jerusalem in the centre panel replicates a woodcut by Erhard Reuwich in Bernard von Breydenbach's "Peregrinato in Terram Sanctum", published in Mainz in 1486, and thus providing a terminus post quem for the triptych.
Another composition with close associations to Rogier van der Weyden can been found in this Virgin and Child, circa 1480, with Sam Fogg. By a Southern Netherlandish or German Master, this walnut panel uses the iconography of the virgo in sole, the circular format working perfectly with the rich gilding to create the sun imagery. The work is almost certainly by a former student of, or member of the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464), with whom this image is very closely associated: the under-drawing on this panel is almost identical to van der Weyden's Madonna & Child now at the Huntington. This would have been a devotional work, for display in a private chapel or bed chamber. Only two works of the virgo in sole appear to exist in this circular format - one by Quentin Matsys in Antwerp, and this example, making it is a very rare piece.
With Christie's at their Old Masters Evening Sale, 15 December is a masterpiece of the full maturity of the Milanese artist, Bernadino Luini (c. 1480/85-1532). Luini was the most influential indigenous painter of cinquecento Lombardy, and was strongly influenced by Da Vinci. This Nativity scene, dating to around 1517-18 is one of the finest and best preserved of Luini's panels intended for private devotion. The figures of the Nativity, placed in the foreground, are imbued with calm, inviting the viewer to contemplation, and to meditate on the wonder of the Christ child and the simplicity of his origin. Unusually, the painting combines the iconography of the Nativity, implied by the ass and ox, with the Flight in to Egypt depicted in the distance.
In devotional works, depicting the holy figures at half-length accentuated the most expressive features of the human body - the face and the hands - to enhance the emotional engagement of the believer and their experience of worship. At Maurizio Nobile is this tender portrayal of the Pietà by Pietro degli Ingannati, active in Venice around 1524 to 1548. The Virgin's hand protectively touches Christ's body and she supports him on her lap, as she did when he was a baby. This intense emotion and intimate connection between the figures of the pietà are common in Northern European works of the Renaissance period. Ingannati is known to have worked in the Venetian studio of Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), where the influence of Durer and the Northern artistic taste was circulating at the time. The present work is based on a famous Pietà by Bellini (now in Berlin's Gemaeldergalerie Art Museum), although the figure of St. John differs from that of the Bellini and is probably therefore a portrait of this work's patron. There is evidence the painting has been repeatedly and gently touched, for example around Christ's wounds, signifying its importance in the process of private prayer and devotion.
A dramatic depiction of The Nativity by Carlo Caliari (c. 1570-1596) can be seen with William Thuillier. Here the artist celebrates the Christ child's arrival as an extraordinary miracle. From the high point of the 16th century Venetian School, and with the ambience of the artist's father, Paolo Veronese, this Nativity is full of telling detail such as the lovingly-rendered animals that attend the scene, the man looking down f
rom the stairs, and the joyous, air-bound putti celebrating the birth. The finely executed landscape draws the viewer into the Veneto and the foothills of the Dolomites. This ravishing scene probably dates from the last years of the artist's career, and is bound together by a tightly-knit composition and a rich chromaticism that is the direct legacy of Veronese and the Bassano family. It is now accepted that a part of the oeuvre of Veronese was executed by his son, either solely or in collaboration with his father. Carlo, or Carletto as he was known, was the most distinguished of Veronese's two sons, training in his father's studio and eventually taking over the practice.
With Walter Padovani, is a high relief in red wax from the glorious porcelain manufactory in Doccia founded by the Marquis Carlo Ginori in 1737. This Madonna and Child by Girolamo Ticciati (Florence, 1676-1744) was part of a sampler of wax models shown to potential customers so that they could select those that they wished to have made in white porcelain. Probably intended for private devotion, the high relief is remarkable for the sweet-natured pose of the Virgin and for the vibrant drapery that was such a feature of the Florentine late baroque style. This expressive work depicts the Christ child reaching out from his mother's embrace, extending his arm towards his believers, a gesture that reflects the baroque's tendency to address the viewer directly, appealing to their emotion as well as their intellect.