Met’s Raphael Despite Flaws Is a ‘Must See’

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The New York Sun

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has gone to great lengths to reunite seven paintings from four museums in London, Boston, and New York so that, for the first time in more than 350 years, Raphael’s “Colonna Altarpiece” (c. 1504-05) can be seen in its entirety. Yet the “Colonna Altarpiece” remains dispersed – within the Met’s galleries. So close and yet so far, “Raphael at the Metropolitan: The Colonna Altarpiece” is a tease of an exhibition and an affront to Raphael (1483-1520).

Still, this is a must-see show. We see so little of Raphael in America that any chance to view his works is cause for celebration. In addition to the “Colonna Altarpiece” panels, “Raphael at the Metropolitan” contains several sublime masterpieces: Leonardo’s drawing “Designs for a Nativity or Adoration of the Christ Child; Perspectival Projection” (1480-85); Raphael’s two oil paintings “Madonna and Child With a Book” (c. 1503) and the “Pieta,” a predella panel from the “Colonna Altarpiece”; Raphael’s drawings “Head of a Man” (c. 1504), “Head and Shoulders of a Young Woman” (c. 1503), and his Leonardo-like “Studies of the Madonna and Child, With the Infant Saint John the Baptist” (1505).

Ultimately, though, Raphael’s art tends to get lost in this bloated exhibition. Though thorough and at times fascinating, the show elevates scholarship, context, history, and connoisseurship above art.

“Raphael at the Metropolitan” gives us everything surrounding the “Colonna Altarpiece.” It includes works by Raphael, Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Fra Bartolommeo that provide precedent, influences, and context for the “Colonna Altarpiece.” Here, too, are numerous academic prints inspired by the “Colonna Altarpiece” and a substantial section devoted to the altarpiece’s illustrious collectors, who included Sweden’s Queen Christian, Paris’s Duc d’Orleans, Rome’s Colonna family, and New York’s J. Pierpont Morgan. But the exhibition fails – and here is the kicker – to deliver the “Colonna Altarpiece” itself. Curated by Linda Wolk-Simon, the show brings together all seven panels of the “Colonna Altarpiece” but scatters them throughout the gallery instead of reconstructing them. This horribly botched once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is the museum equivalent of the curator, at the goal line, dropping the ball.

A large, private devotional work, Raphael’s “Colonna Altarpiece” was originally executed for the nuns’ choir of the Franciscan convent of Sant’ Antonio di Padova in Perugia. The altarpiece was dismembered and sold in 1663 to settle debts with, among other creditors, the butcher; the convent itself was deconsecrated and converted into a match factory in the 1800s.

The Metropolitan owns three of the seven panels: the lunette, “God the Father Blessing, With Angels and Cherubim”; the large principal panel, “Madonna and Child Enthroned With Saints”; and “The Agony in the Garden,” one of the five panels that make up the predella, or the base, of the altarpiece. The lunette and the principal panel were donated to the Met by J. Pierpont Morgan’s son, J.P. Jr., in 1916. The two works customarily hang together in the Met’s European Paintings Gallery, but for the duration of this exhibition the lunette, separated like a head from its body, will remain hanging at eye level, along with the five predella panels, on a wall that is perpendicular to “Madonna and Child Enthroned With Saints.”

The “Colonna Altarpiece” is not one of Raphael’s greatest works. It lacks the buoyancy, light, and that exquisite, angels-on-high, unfurling, rhythmic complexity unique to the High Renaissance master’s most miraculous paintings. It has shining moments, however, especially in the saints’ heads and in areas of the predella. In the panel “Madonna and Child Enthroned With Saints,” the throne’s rolling scrolls, which frame both mother and child – the left scroll and pillar advancing and splaying outward, the right scroll and pillar pulling back, like a curtain, behind the virgin to allow the infant St. John the Baptist entry – rock the composition and push the virgin and child forward. The throne provides the painting with one of its few great metaphoric events.

The “Colonna Altarpiece” has been badly damaged and heavily restored, and was probably executed primarily by Raphael’s studio assistants. But the program was conceived and composed by Raphael, and the master superintended its execution. The altarpiece was painstakingly and brilliantly assembled out of geometric shapes (squares, circles, and triangles) each of which has specific and important symbolic and metaphoric meanings.

These meanings can be fully understood only by viewing the work as a whole and at the originally intended angle and distance from the painting. The Met’s installation significantly diminishes our ability to glean what is truly important concerning the altarpiece’s conception, design, and function – the poetic exploration of the themes of devotion, sacrifice, and redemption.

We lose the power of the lunette’s framing circle, which moves downward through the heads of the saints and connects the virgin, child, and St. John the Baptist to heaven and to God the Father. We also lose the experience of God, who, seemingly kicked upward by the rearing white horse in the predella’s “The Procession on the Road to Calvary,” rises into heaven from out of the virgin’s throne.

Similarly diminished is the interaction between the rearing white horse and Christ’s cross, which both turn inward, and the virgin, who, riding the throne, answers by shifting toward us, or outward. Together they remind us that Christ’s “Procession,” though earthbound, frieze-like, and planar, is the base of the throne and the beginning of our redemption; that his sacrifice will take him, and devout viewers, inward and upward; and that the virgin is the conduit for it all.

With the panels dispersed, it is hard to understand how thoroughly Raphael explores the theme of Christ as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; as both flesh and spirit. Were the altarpiece whole, we could experience Christ blessing St. John the Baptist, just as God blesses us. We could see in succession Christ floating above the ground plane in “The Agony in the Garden,” hovering slightly above the earth in the “Road to Calvary,” and floating just above his mother’s knee on the throne. It would become clear through comparison that in all realms, Christ, like God the Father, is otherworldly.

Robbed of the ability to make these comparisons – and for Raphael’s poetic metaphors to layer and to build – we experience the “Colonna Altarpiece” like a long poem scattered into stanzas, read at different times and out of order. Stripped of its spiritual purpose and power, it is just another collection of events and artifacts.

Although “Raphael at the Met” is installed in galleries where low ceilings cannot allow for the reconstruction of the “Colonna Altarpiece,” the Met could have positioned the show elsewhere in the museum. True, the inner chapel of the Sant’ Antonio di Padova cannot be duplicated at the Met, and with the Met’s eye-level installation, viewers can get up close to the panels, where they can see individual brushstrokes. But “Raphael at the Metropolitan,” which values supposed ease of access to works of art above the intentions of the artist and the purpose of the art, ultimately does more damage than merely distorting the big picture. It suggests that the ideas of curators and the function of a museum trump the ideas of Raphael and the function of art.

Until September 3 (1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, 212-535-7710).

The New York Sun

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