Friday, August 12, 2016

The Daddi Polyptych at the Courtauld Institute.

Sometimes in my posts I can't just write as much as I would like to, because each single work might require an entire book, this time I decided to analyse just one, but more deeply. Far from me to sound boorish, but I hope this article will help you to understand and read the stories these wonderful works want to tell.
The Courtauld Institute in London has a rather extensive and fine art collection, sometimes museums have simply too many good works to write a blog article about, in these cases I prefer to focus on a single work, and my favourite work in this collection is certainly Bernardo Daddi's Polyptych. This Florentine artist who collaborated with Giotto himself is indeed very skilled and belongs to that last breath of the Italian Middle Ages that were already turning into a courtois "international" Gothic - pre-Renaissance style. We can indeed notice that from the plasticity of the figures, the iconography and indeed the theological meaning of the work and its use in the liturgical life of the church.
This particular work was executed c.1348, during that time Florence had an original version of the Roman rite, that while for some reason it was looking back, it was also starting to depart from the earlier Roman rite and churches were starting to have rather "modern" (in the art historical sense of the word) liturgical arrangements. Altarpieces also reflected this, they were clearly made as reredos for the late Medieval altar, it is when the "altar - piece" as we know it originates, which is also why it is such a pity to see them in museums nowadays often taken away from their original context which way too often is not mentioned, especially from works bought (or stolen) that are now abroad in England, Germany, France or America. These are altarpieces, not gallery paintings, this is to be reminded. Not that I am criticising that. However, this particular work is a perfect representation of this, it has all the symbolism of an altarpiece.
The beautiful Gothic frame contains one main scene and four side "stories". In the central panel we have the crucifixion, central because it was in the centre of the altar, substituting the altar cross and even more so it was representing the holiness of the sacrament of the Mass that would have been taking place right in front of it. It is a rather common iconography in Italian works: Christ's blood is being collected by an angel in a cup, recalling how the sacred Blood of Christ is that same one found in the cup at the Eucharist. Other two angels are flying, quite harmoniously for 1348, around Christ because this is Christ's sacrifice, it is after the Last Supper the moment that solemnises his promise to the world, his sacrifice, it validates it and therefore the angels from God the Father, above the scene, honour the scene. This is the heavenly and also actual representation of what is happening on the altar. The scene below is quite traditional, the Roman soldiers have just witnessed the miracle, the earth trembled "this was truly the Son of God". Mary is in total despair, John seems lost, Mary Magdalene is holding the cross, as a proto-relic, as the link Christians in the future will always have with Christ Jesus, through it, she is adoring Him, iconographically the cross will always be Christ and she is very well making that sure. Our crosses are that cross. The fulfilment of Christ's revelation to humankind. Besides, the art historical and theological description this very image tells us and reveals itself to each one of us in a different and profound way, I leave that to you all.
The four evangelists are located in the upper part of the two side panels, they represent the Biblical revelation and truth of this scene, they are the link, those through whom Christ was revealed in history to us.
As in other Medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, various saints are located in the side niches - they often had links with the particular institutions and towns where they were located, and unlike works for private chapels, donors were not represented.
This altarpiece was made for the little church of San Giorgio in Ruballa, outside Florence. 
The saints are from left to right: Saint Lawrence, one of the most important martyrs, recognisable for his dalmatic and palm branch, Andrew holding the cross on which he was crucified, Saint Bartholomew with the knife used for his terrible martyrdom and George patron of the church where the altarpiece was located, his iconography is rather charming: the spear, the shield and under his feet the famous dragon. A rather suggestive magical Gothic feature. On the other side are: Peter and Paul, patron saints of Rome and therefore "of the Church", with the sword and keys and finally are Saint James Major and St. Stephen, the first martyr, with a dalmatic and flag, probably representing the power of Christ's resurrection over death (and martyrdom) which would also be an interesting response to the central scene. All the martyrs are also holding books, the Holy Writ, for which they died, in the case of Paul and Peter, they also represent the letters and the doctrine of Holy Mother Church. St. Lawrence and Stephen open and close the altarpiece, it is interesting as their stories are interlinked in death, according to the Golden Legend and the "Invention of St. Stephen", his relics were discovered in Jerusalem and were sent to Constantinople and then to Rome so that they could rest near those of St. Lawrence, the two first and most important martyrs of Christianity, presenting you this glorious work.

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