Check It Out: “Piero della Francesca in America”

Just across the park from MOBIA, located right on Fifth Avenue, is the famous Frick Collection. Now on view is an exhibition dedicated to seven works done by Italian Renaissance master Piero della Francesca (1411/13-1492).  Piero della Francesca in America brings together six panels from the altarpiece of Sant’Agostino, a church in Sansepolcro, Italy, the most extensive reassembling of the polyptych ever exhibited since its dismantling.  The exhibition also features Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, the artist’s only intact altarpiece in the United States.

Piero della Francesca (c. 1411/13–1492),
“Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels”, c. 1460-70
Oil (and tempera?) on poplar panel, transferred to fabric on panel
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

See Piero’s rendition of saints like Apollonia, patron saint of dentists, and Augustine, whom the artist portrayed as wearing a cloak depicting scenes from the life of Christ.  You may also recognize Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, the focus of a spotlight post on this blog few months ago [link] (did you know that it became a rule of the Augustinian Order that there had to be a likeness of Monica in every Augustinian church?).

Piero della Francesca in America is on view until May 19.  The Frick Collection is located at 10 East 71st Street.

Spotlight: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, long considered by many to be venerable biblical

“The Lamentation”, 1603
Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

figures, are the subject of popular legend and a rich visual tradition.

How to Know Them and Where to Find Them: Joseph of Arimathea was a Jewish council member, probably part of the Sanhedrin, an assembly of elected judges in ancient Israel.  As befitting this rank, he is often depicted wearing robes and a headdress.  He is usually found in Lamentation or Deposition scenes, which portray the removal of Jesus’s body from the cross.  He is also a common figure in Entombment scenes; his presence references the wealthy man’s offer to bury Jesus in own tomb.  In these usually heavily casted scenes, Joseph is distinguishable from the others because of his advanced age and his beard (the only apostle who witnessed Jesus’s death – and thus usually the only other man in these scenes – was John, who is typically depicted as being young enough to not have facial hair).

Joseph of Arimathea is often associated with Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin who is also sometimes added to Lamentation and Entombment scenes.  He is noted in the Gospel of John as having assisted Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus’s burial.  The two figures share many attributes.

“Head of a Bearded Man (Nicodemus)”, 1577–1660
Giacomo Cavedone
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (not on display)

Their New York City Hiding Places: Museums in NYC possess some lovely art featuring the attentive biblical figures in their collections.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has some sculptural groups from both the medieval period and the Renaissance, all examples of the style of the area of Europe in which they were made. 

“The Entombment of Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saint John, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea”, 1500-1510
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Joseph of Arimathea from a Deposition Group”, ca. 1125-50
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Descent from the Cross”, early 16th century
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met also has a few beautiful paintings on display that feature Joseph, including this Flemish altarpiece:

“The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor”, ca. 1520
Joos van Cleve and a collaborator
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For fans of Albrecht Dürer, The Brooklyn Museum has two of his woodcuts that feature Joseph and Nicodemus.  Although they are not currently on display, they can be viewed on the museum’s website.

Modern Men: Film and Television – Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, because of their tenderly depicted roles in the Gospels, have retained positive images in popular imagination throughout time.  They were portrayed by two of the most respected actors of their day, James Mason and Laurence Olivier, respectively, in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth.

Joseph of Arimathea has been connected to the legend of the Holy Grail since thirteenth-century French poet expounded on early Christian extra-biblical writings in his poem Joseph d’Arimathe and claimed that Joseph was the first keeper of Grail.  This became tied to Arthurian legend, which established firmly Joseph in the medieval literary and religious mindset.  His presence in these legends and the long-extending belief that he was a missionary to Britain have even made him a source of comedy in the 1974 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

“It reads, ‘Here may be found the last words of Joseph of Arimathea. He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of aaarrrrggh’”

MOBIA: Joseph of Arimathea also has a special place in MOBIA’s heart.  In the upcoming exhibition catalogue for Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion, guest author Jennifer Perry Thalheimer writes that Tiffany used his father’s likeness as the model for Joseph in an Entombment window created for the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.  This window is now on view in the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida.

“Entombment” window, ca. 1892
Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company
The Charles Morse Museum of American Art

- T.C. for MOBIA