De Grazia initially divided the works according to where they had been painted, but as installed by DAM European-art curator Timothy Standring, the exhibit is organized according to subject matter. There are obvious pitfalls to that sort of approach--just look at the DAM's confusing display of its own European collection on the sixth floor--but downstairs, Standring has sidestepped them all. The show actually makes better sense in the Hamilton Galleries than it does in De Grazia's catalogue.
The dominant theme in Old Masters is Christian imagery, which Standring has sprinkled through the series of galleries. The first two rooms are filled with depictions of the Virgin Mary and scenes from the Old Testament. Another large gallery is devoted to scenes of the Crucifixion. Finally, in a fourth and final gallery, the lives of the saints are arrayed along with other religious scenes.
Some of the strongest pieces in the show are the paintings of madonnas in the front galleries. Devotion to the Virgin was all the rage during the period surveyed by the show, and Domenico Veneziano's "Virgin and Child," a tempera on panel from 1430-1435, is a case in point. The painting lays out many of the Renaissance innovations that emanated from the Florentine school, including perspective and luminosity. Veneziano captures an exhausted Virgin holding her unruly nude Child, who is seen pulling at her garments. "Virgin and Child" has a bad crack up the middle and is covered in crazing. Such scars are typical of the paintings in Old Masters, many of which display the ravages of both time and bombardment.
A gorgeous oil on canvas by Boccaccio Boccaccino has a different style than the Veneziano--it was painted nearly 100 years later, after all--but it takes the same subject and bears the same title. In Boccaccino's painting, a placid Virgin, her head cocked to one side, holds the Child's foot and head as he stands on a table. The faces of the Virgin and Child are beautifully done, and the classic composition, with the figures posed before drapery and an open window, is exquisite.
Even to students of the genre, Veneziano and Boccaccino will be obscure names. And many of the finest paintings in the Old Masters exhibit are by artists who could fairly be called minor players. However, the collection does include some big names. Perhaps the most important painting in the show is "The Holy Family with St. John the Baptist," an oil on canvas from 1620-1622 by Flemish baroque master Jacob Jordaens. In this painting--which does not derive from a biblical story--the Holy Family is posed in a circular arrangement, their faces lit against the deep, dark shadows of the background. This lends a theatricality to the piece that is a signature of the baroque movement.
Another big-name baroque artist, Pietro da Cortona, who worked in Rome, uses the same device in the wonderful 1641 oil on canvas "The Virgin Appearing to Saint Francis." In this painting, an apparition of the Virgin and Child descends via an angel-borne cloud into a night garden where Saint Francis is praying. The background, which was originally intended to be dark, has darkened still further over the years, obscuring many details and even some of da Cortona's original figures.
This same darkening effect crops up again in "Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther," a 1655 oil on canvas by Rembrandt. Questions of authenticity have plagued many purported Rembrandts, but this one has been cleared by Holland's authoritative Rembrandt Research Project. Nonetheless, it's in terrible shape, despite having just gone through a state-of-the-art restoration. The surface is so muddy and covered with cracks that it's hard to make out much more than the main elements, and some of the crisp detailing seems to indicate recent repainting.
The large center gallery, which is devoted to the Crucifixion, contains some compelling examples of early northern European painting. "The Crucifixion," an anonymous oil on panel painted in Southern Germany during the sixteenth century, is tremendous. Christ is seen in death on the cross; on either side of him are the two thieves. Below this tragic scene is a crowd that includes soldiers and the Virgin, who has collapsed in her lamentations. Though painted in the 1500s, there is no sense of real space--the figures are simply piled on top of one another. It appears that the artist was unaware of an Italian invention from a century before: pictorial perspective.
The same ignorance of Italian innovation is seen in another, later painting of the passion, this one done in Flanders. In "Christ Carrying the Cross," an oil on panel painted between 1553 and 1560 by the artist known as the "Master of the Augsburg Ecce Homo," the dominant compositional device is the strong diagonal created by the cross. The lack of perspective is obvious as Christ struggles on his way, beset by grotesque villains who dog his every step.