MIDDLEBURY — When Katherine Smith Abbott heard the news in 2005 that the Middlebury College Museum of Art was considering purchasing a 600-year-old Italian painting, she was elated. This was right up Smith Abbott’s alley.
An associate dean and a professor of art history at the college, Smith Abbott specializes in Italian Renaissance art. She knew that the college museum didn’t own any work from the Italian Renaissance, and she urged the museum’s director to consider the purchase, both because of its condition and the void it filled in the college collection.
As it turned out, that panel — “Virgin and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari,” attributed to the Florentine painter Lippo d’Andrea — not only filled what Smith Abbott saw as a void in the museum’s collection, but ultimately inspired the remarkable exhibit of early Renaissance art now on display at the college.
“The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy” opened this month at the Museum of Art, and brings together 15 works of Renaissance painting that sheds light on the market for art in 15th-century Florence.
For Smith Abbott, guest curator of the exhibit, the show stemmed from her academic sleuthing into the d’Andrea panel. Soon after the college acquired the work at a Sotheby’s auction in London, she began digging into d’Andrea’s story, and soon learned that not everyone believed he was the painter behind the “Virgin and Child” panel.
“I stumbled into this whole arena of scholarly debate about who this figure is, what his circle of contemporaries looked like, and when he was working and what kinds of individuals were interested in acquiring his work,” she said.
That debate is what led Smith Abbott to envision this exhibition — the first she’s curated — more broadly. D’Andrea was one of many Florentine artists in the early 15th century producing devotional panels like the college’s “Virgin and Child” work, though their story runs parallel to the “traditional story” of the Renaissance.
“It’s a very complicated and rich moment in the history of art,” she said. “Artists began to visually and conceptually question transition.”
But many artists, like d’Andrea, resisted those experimental trends, and today these artists’ contemporaries are the ones credited with making radical changes. For artists like d’Andrea, painting devotional panels was a conservative choice but also a lucrative one; shying away from tradition was economically risky.
“These guys are really traditional,” Smith Abbott said. “They are, by sweeping generalization, conservative, tied to tradition, and not interesting in departing, or questioning, or rejecting. They really actually exemplify the market for art in early 15th century Florence.”
Smith Abbott, for what it’s worth, doesn’t put much stock in the theory that another artist painted the Middlebury panel. That doesn’t clear up all of her questions, though, and she’s still trying to find out who commissioned the panel, and where it originally hung.
Because the panel is preserved in its original frame, she’s one step closer to finding some of those answers. Smith Abbott pointed out two small crests at the base of the frame which came to light after the recent conservation of the panel. Each crest bears a different insignia. Typically, she said, including two different family crests on a devotional panel like this one indicates that the painting may have been a gift for a marriage or engagement, signifying the union of two families.
So far, she’s managed to track down the name of one family, but not the other.
“The quest continues,” she said.
THE MADONNA AND CHILD
In addition to the d’Andrea panel, “The Art of Devotion” brings together 14 other Renaissance works from 10 different collections. The content in most of these panels is strikingly similar to the d’Andrea panel: a Madonna and child invariably appear.
The works include panels originally displayed in churches, homes, and in some cases in outdoor spaces. The layout of the exhibit, designed by Museum Designer Ken Pohlman, is set up both to mimic the experience of art in a Florentine home, and to shed light on the ways these devotional panels were created and then displayed.
Some of the panels themselves are tucked into arched grooves in the walls. The space for the exhibit has been transformed into a series of interconnected small rooms, linked by open archways and corridors: a layout not unlike the architecture of early Renaissance Italian homes, Smith Abbott said, in which a visitor could catch glimpses of other parts of the home. Though panels were often displayed in private rooms, like bedrooms, Smith Abbott said Florentine patrons were acutely aware not just of the devotional value of these panels but also of the social posturing that went along with displaying the expensive works of art.
The exhibit also pays homage to what was essentially a collaborative artistic process. When a patron commissioned a work, the proceeds were divided roughly evenly between the painter, the gilder, and the woodworker who prepared the panel for painting. In the only contemporary work in the exhibit, Middlebury artist Kate Gridley depicts the multi-layered process of building and adorning one of these tempera paintings in a didactic panel. The panel hangs above a display case that shows the types of materials — including eggs, pigments and gold leaf — that early Renaissance artists would have used in their work.
Richard Saunders, the director of the museum, said that the “Art of Devotion” exhibit is a rare one for the college to take on. It’s unusual, he explained, to transport so many fragile, 600-year-old paintings from so many different collections.
An exhibit like this is also expensive to pull together, and demands an enormous amount of time and resources. This particular exhibit was set in motion long before last fall’s economic crisis, and the belt-tightening that has followed at the Museum of Art (and every other department at the college).
While Saunders acknowledged that art museums are expensive operations to run (“Just as are hockey arenas or libraries or science centers,” he noted), he praised the college for its commitment to the arts.
And he said he thinks the museum will continue to mount exhibits of this quality in the future, even if large exhibitions like “The Art of Devotion” might not happen with such frequency.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “We are definitely having to work with reduced resources, as is the entire college. We have to be more planful and inventive and creative.”
“The Art of Devotion” will be on display at the museum until Dec. 13 before heading to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts for a spring exhibition.
See the slideshow of images from “The Art of Devotion” exhibit, along with audio commentary from guest curator Katherine Smith Abbott, on this page.
The Middlebury College Museum of Art is located in the Mahaney Center for the Arts on Route 30. The museum is free and open to the public. For hours and information, call 443-5007.