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In the fall 2017 season, the National Gallery in London mounted a show entitled “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael around 1500.” Here were three of the greatest artists of any period, with several masterpieces on display, and each work breathtaking and all tied nimbly together. The point was to illustrate a moderate argument — namely that Michelangelo learned from Leonardo about capturing the expressive relation between the Madonna and the Infant — but more importantly, the show made clear what genius and skill can achieve.

The seven works included one marble sculpture by Michelangelo, the “Taddei Tondo” (ca. 1504-1505); one drawing by Leonardo, the “Burlington House Cartoon” (ca. 1499-1500); and five paintings in oil or tempera. These latter were depictions of the Madonna and Child, four of which included John the Baptist, and one exception, Raphael’s “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” (ca. 1507). Chief among the Madonnas were the drawing, Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks” (ca. 1491-1499 and 1506-1508), and Michelangelo’s unfinished “Manchester Madonna” (ca. 1497). The three Raphaels included his “Ansidei Madonna” (1505), the “Madonna of the Pinks” (1507), and “Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” the only one without the Madonna. The spirit of the exhibit was captured by the contrast between the three great names and the almost off-handed reference to “around 1500.” This conveys the notion that the works of monumental genius are ratified, as it were, by an approximate point of time. All artists, perhaps the greatest ones most of all, work and exist in time even as they shape and suffer that perfidious and relentless medium. Art history casts the net that helps — or nearly so — bring the issues into a knowable frame. More… “Masters and Madonnas”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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