Mount Holyoke College Art Museum to Host The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy

While painting in the early Renaissance is generally defined by the work of a few exceptionally talented men—Giotto, Ghiberti, Masaccio, Masolino, Brunelleschi—most creative output of the time was rooted in the late Gothic tradition. The upcoming exhibit, The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, on view from February 9th through May 30th, aims to reveal how devotional art on wood panel was governed by the power of the church, a conservative consumer market based on new wealth, and on continuing medieval guild precedents.

Artists such as Lippo d’Andrea, Giovanni dal Ponte, Ventura di Moro, and Gentile da Fabriano are represented by paintings and sculptures designed as church altarpieces and shrines for domestic worship. According to Katherine Smith Abbott in “Circa 1410: The Face of Painting in Early Renaissance Florence,” an essay in the exhibition catalogue, one particular piece spurred the creation of this exhibit. Lippo d’Andrea’s Virgin and Child with Angels and Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari, a 2005 acquisition by the Middlebury College Museum of Art, reveals much about artistic patronage and production in early Quattrocento (1400s) Italy. According to Abbott, the work is not radical in the manner of renegades such as Masaccio. Instead it holds fast to Gothic styling.

It was this acquisition that raised questions about Lippo d’Andrea, a.k.a. Ambrogio di Baldese. This devotional creation, being so inconsistent with much of his other work, leads Abbott to believe that d’Andrea and other artists created to serve the art consumer market. In the exhibition, two busts of the Madonna and Child attributed to the School of Ghiberti (creator of the famed Florence baptistry doors) disclose the practice whereby master artists shared ideas and even workshop assistants in order to please clients.

Larger altarpieces such as Ventura di Moro’s Madonna and Child Enthroned are positioned adjacent to smaller home devotional artworks such as the Virgin and Child, ostensibly by an artist known as the Master of 1419. All the works were fabricated in the service of devotion to the Holy Family and the saints, whether to assure salvation for patrons, consolidate family power, or to serve as instructional reminders on the benefits of prayer, contends Abbott.

Through a display of artists’ materials and methods, the exhibition curators aim to explain the creative processes of artists working with gesso, tempera, and the precious lapis lazuli to create the stylized patterning, unrealistic scale, golden Byzantine coloring, and ethereal sense of space that define late Gothic tradition. Painting conservator Anne O’Connor will give a lecture and demonstration of these methods at Mount Holyoke College in the Gamble Auditorium on March 4th.

The exhibit is comprised of fourteen works from ten national and international collections, and six artworks from the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum’s collection of Renaissance and medieval sculpture. The opening reception will be on Thursday, February 11th at 4:30 pm, and lectures will be held on February 25th and March 25th.

The Mount Holyoke College Art Museum’s permanent collection of 15,000 objects features Asian art, 19th and 20th Century European and American paintings and sculpture, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art, medieval sculpture, early Italian Renaissance paintings, and an extensive collection of works on paper.