It has to be one of the greatest exhibitions of Renaissance and Baroque sacred art ever presented in the Philadelphia area, and it is a must see at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown, running through Aug. 12.
“Offering of the Angels,” drawn from the collections at the famed Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, presents 45 paintings and tapestries from such artists as Tintoretto, Botticelli, Titian and many others, that graphically present salvation history from the creation of Adam through to the post-Resurrection appearances by Christ.
The Uffizi primarily houses the vast collection of the Medici family, and is preserved in perpetuity for the City of Florence under a pact signed by the last descendant of the family, Anna Maria Luisa, who died in 1743.
This exhibition was first curated by Uffizi director Antonio Natali as a Christmas offering of the museum several years ago, and it was so successful it was subsequently presented in Madrid and Barcelona. In America it was first exhibited in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and now the Michener, after which it will continue on to Madison, Wis., and Savannah, Ga.
“Our hope is that in America — a nation that is a safeguard for all religious beliefs — this exhibition will again meet with an enthusiastic reception,” Natali said.
In any case it is a great step forward for the Michener, which until now has been best known for its collection of Bucks County art.
“Offering of the Angels” is a somewhat misleading title; the Italian title was “Il Pane Degli Angeli,” literally, “Bread of the Angels.” Angels do indeed appear in more than a dozen of the images, but the real underlying theme is Eucharist. This was changed for American audiences, because most Americans might not understand the importance of Eucharist in the Catholic culture of the Renaissance, where it was literally the Bread of Angels as Catholics still believe.
Professor Marcia Hall of Temple University and professor Diana Cole Ahl of Lafayette College were the consulting curators for the Michener presentation, and Ahl designed the museum exhibit which follows the narrative chronologically through a series of rooms in subtly changing hues of red, with the final room dominated by a presentation of the Last Supper, in keeping with the eucharistic theme. Ahl, who studied extensively in Italy, also trained the docents who explain the often symbolic elements of the works.
Old Testament prefigurings of Eucharist include the aborted Sacrifice of Isaac (Tintoretto ca. 1550) and the Fall of Manna (Fabrizio Boschi ca. 1594). New Testament images prefiguring Eucharist include the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (Pietro Sorri 1603), Christ Ministered by Angels (Christofano Allori ca. 1610-20) and the Rest in the Flight into Egypt, (Francesco Albani 1659), which depicts angels bringing food and drink to the Holy Family.
There are two images of the first Eucharist of the Last Supper, by Luca Signorelli (ca. 1510) and Bonafacio De’ Pitati (ca. 1550.) There are also two paintings that symbolize Eucharist through the blood of Christ (Alessandro Allori, 1581 and Jacopo Di Chimenti Da Empoli, 1610).
Most of the other images portray the birth and infancy of Jesus or His passion and death. An oil on copper Nativity by Allesandro Tiarino (1650s) is interesting in that Joseph is not a passive presence; he is shown at the entrance inviting an angel into the crèche. Best known of the Madonna and Child is a Botticelli painted ca. 1466, but extensively restored.
Like many of the Madonna paintings there is a sadness or pensiveness on the part of the Virgin, suggesting premonition of her Son’s future suffering. Also, as in most images her veil partially wraps the Holy Child, and allusion to a belief that her veil would become His shroud, Ahl explained.
Complementing the Uffizi exhibit was a small collection of paintings on the same themes from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s renowned Johnson Collection.
What sets the Michener presentation apart from most museum exhibits is the skillful arrangement of the works to tell the story that inspired these great artists.
For more information, see www.michenermuseum.org.