Bartolo's Sacred Narrative: Exhibition Reunites Art, Maps Development of Adoration

By McBee, Richard | National Catholic Reporter, August 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Bartolo's Sacred Narrative: Exhibition Reunites Art, Maps Development of Adoration


McBee, Richard, National Catholic Reporter


The Museum of Biblical. Art in New York has mounted a remarkable exhibition with Bartolo di Fredi's 14th-century masterpiece, "Adoration of the Magi." This small but powerful exhibition, one of many in the seven-year history of the museum, is an exploration of exactly how a "painter of faith" narrates adoration.

The Museum of Biblical Art is the only scholarly museum celebrating art and the Bible in the United States and, while having major support from the American Bible Society, it is fully independent of any denomination or religion. This is reflected by the distinctly non-seasonal exhibition dates that were dictated by pre-existing schedules and artwork availability. Nonetheless, the show, which runs until Sept. 9, had to be seen.

The star "Adoration" of the show was created sometime between 1375 and 1385 for the altar of the Magi in the church of San Domenico in Siena, Italy, and is a celebration of the Virgin for the "city of the Virgin." It remained there for 400 years until it was unceremoniously removed and dismembered into four pieces. The main panel containing the image of the Adoration of the Magi was placed in the newly created Pinacoteca Nazionale of Siena while the predella was divided into three sections: one (Saints and Crucifixion) finding its way to the Lindenau-Museum of Altenburg, Germany; another (Seven Saints in Adoration) to the University of Virginia Art Museum; and the third now presumably lost.

They are now reunited for the first time in this exhibition--a triumph for two visionary museum directors, Ena Heller of the Museum of Biblical Art and Bruce Boucher of University of Virginia Art Museum, who garnered substantial support and collaboration from the Italian and Sienese cultural authorities and the Linde-nau-Museum.

Additionally seen here are two other relevant works by Bartolo (1330-1410): an earlier "Adoration of the Shepherds" (1374) from The Cloisters and a slightly later "Adoration of the Magi" (1390) from the Robert Lehma Collection, both at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

But when all is said and done, the narrative hinges on Joseph, the hapless husband of the Virgin Mary. And significantly Bartolo may be the first artist to insert Joseph in the Adoration of the Magi.

The Virgin was the patron saint and protector of Siena, and many different depictions were common in the 14th century, including the enthronement with the infant Jesus (i.e. the iconic Maesta), celestial coronation by Jesus, the venerated Virgin and Child as well as Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy). However, the narrative of adoration is uniquely found in scripture. Luke 2:8-20 reports that an angelic vision appeared to shepherds announcing the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem. They rushed there to see the newborn babe and related their heavenly vision.

This is the source of Bartolo's "Adoration of the Shepherds," which expands the biblical narrative to include adoration by the shepherds, Mary, Joseph, a cow and a donkey. Bartolo crowns the painting with seven angels appearing to the shepherds while Mary below is mesmerized by the swaddled infant. Pointedly Joseph, seen in stiff profile, is kneeling outside the primitive roofed enclosure.

The subject of adoration significantly shifts in the "Adoration of the Magi" of 1390. Here the text is from Matthew 2:1-11 and engages the historical narrative, weaving the story of the wise men (or astrologers) sighting a star that confirms the birth of the king of the Jews and encountering King Herod in Jerusalem. They then continue to follow the star, locate the newborn, worship him and present gifts of "gold, frankincense and myrrh. …

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