Two Exciting Works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

On my last visit to Philadelphia I found myself wandering around the great museum there (surprise surprise!). I made a quick pilgrimage to some of my old faves, but as it happens with art and museums, the more you look, the higher the chance you discover something you hadn't noticed before. Of course, I was hanging around the European art galleries mostly (although I did drop in on Joseph Cornell).

My photos couldn't capture the magic, but these paintings are worth spending a generous amount of time in front of. Both of these works are predella panels from different altarpieces. A predella is the space beneath a grand altarpiece. These spaces are usually filled with small scale narrative paintings that relate to and expand on the more well known religious events depicted in the altarpiece, which are usually something like a crucifixion scene or the annunciation. 

Agnolo Gaddi, The Legend of St. Sylvester, 1380, tempera with tooled goldGallery 210, European Art 1100-1500, second floor

In Gaddi's painting, Pope Sylvester I (d. 335) binds the mouth of a dragon, sealing off its poisonous breath, and revives two victims who lay prone in the foreground. The crowned observer on the right is the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (ruled 306-337), who, according to legend, had been cured of leprosy by Sylvester. 

Dragons painted in this era are always interesting subjects, formally. I especially like how this dragon is a pet sized cutie and how tenderly Sylvester seems to be interacting with it. 

Botticelli's The Last Moments of Saint Mary Magdalene, 1484, tempera

Tempera as a painting medium can be sublime. Because the artist mixes pure pigment with a binding agent, egg yolk, and water to thin, the translucency of the quick drying paint works well to create a mystical world. Very fitting for the religious paintings found here and throughout the middle ages toward the Renaissance. 

Look at Magdalene, a lovely 15th century Cousin Itt. Depicted as a mass of golden hair, she's a face less apparition, a symbol floating on curls. Instead of these figures appearing fully corporeal and integrated into the architectural space, their presence hesitates, flickering as if flames of a candle. The impermanence and delicacy of life is in contrast with the strength of the Pietra Serena in this Brunelleschi-esque building.

Some art historians say that the transparency shown here is the product of a mistake or somehow unintentional. Whichever the case may be, I think it's pretty spectacular and very effective.


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