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Sanctity Pictured: The Art of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Renaissance Italy.

Sanctity Pictured: The Art of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Renaissance Italy

Frist Center for the Visual Arts | Nashville, Tennessee | October 31, 2014-January 25, 2015


Italian art lovers of the region celebrated the multi-sensory, creatively curated, and well-contextualized exhibition Sanctity Pictured: The Art of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Renaissance Italy at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (Fig. 1). As the first exhibit in Music City to focus solely on Italian art since 1934 when artworks from the Kress collection were displayed at the Parthenon, Sanctity Pictured enticed visitors with glimmering gold-gilded panel paintings and manuscript pages decorated with spectacular swirls of color. The exhibition brought together sacred art--paintings, illuminated manuscripts, prints, drawings, medals, and a painted crucifix dating from 1200 to 1550--on loan from twenty-eight American museums and libraries as well as from the Vatican collections. Works by notable artists such as Duccio, Lipo Vanni, Spinello Aretino, Sassetta, Domenico Beccafumi, and Jacopo Bassano originating from Italian cities including Assisi, Siena, Florence, Naples, Bologna, and Venice were featured.



Importantly, as curator Trinita Kennedy points out, it was one of the few exhibitions in America where such a large number of thirteenth-century Italian artworks were on display. (1) Sanctity Pictured proved to be especially distinctive due to its unique pairing of images from the rival religious orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, with the goal to draw comparison and evoke contemplation. Both societies, founded in the thirteenth century in Italy, commissioned new churches and decoration to aid in devotion, evoke piety, and provide visual representation of miraculous events especially related to their patron saints, Saint Dominic of Caleruega and Saint Francis of Assisi, respectively. Susan Edwards, director of the Frist, stated in the audio guide that the exhibition compared and contrasted, "the ways the two orders employed art as propaganda and as didactic tools for themselves and their lay followers."

For Christians during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, narrative imagery was essential for educational purposes. Moreover, images of holy figures were a means in which to reach the divine through prayer. It also concretized belief. If "seeing is believing," what was it that worshippers needed to see represented in visual form? Regarding Saint Francis, it was his role as a miracle worker and especially his stigmata, as illustrated, for example, in the roundel in the lower left corner margin of the Bentivolgio Bible from c. 1270 (fol. 5r). On loan from the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore, the miniature illustration in tempera, gold leaf, and ink on parchment by Sant' Alessio in Bigiano of Bologna shows Francis receiving all five stigmata, marks that correlated to Christ's wounds from being nailed to the cross. Therefore, Francis' stigmata positioned him as a second Christ in the eyes of Franciscan followers.


For Dominican devotees, images of Saint Dominic performing miracles and standing with his followers were important for affirming faith, exalting the order, and emphasizing discipleship. Lippo Vanni's Saint Dominic Flanked by Saints Peter Martyr and Thomas Aquinas (c. 1360) on loan from the Vatican Museum depicts Dominic flanked by his two most significant disciples. The devotional image, a portable gabled triptych made of tempera and gold leaf (missing its original frame), also served as a relic depository, a function perhaps noticeable only to the most discerning visitor. Imbedded around the periphery of the three figures are small impressions from glass reliquaries in the shapes of circles and squares that would have held fragments of bones or other holy objects. The veneration of relics was an important part of devotion where tangible sacred remnants such as these were believed to protect and sanctify the worshipper and, in some cases, provide miracles.

Other types of Dominican imagery on display were meant to move the spirit during the singing of psalms, as seen in the designs of Jacobellus of Salerno's Gradual of 1270 (fol. 48v) on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Fig. 2). The displayed folio of the thirteenth-century choir book decorated in tempera, gold leaf, and ink on parchment is one of the most ornate pages in the manuscript and was intended to inspire the Dominican sisters as they sung the musical script. For visitors to the exhibition, the accompanying audio guide greatly enhanced one's sensory experience by presenting songs recorded by two Nashville choirs in special collaboration with the exhibition, the male a cappella vocal group Schola Pads and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia. In this case, one could view the manuscript page while listening to the gradual's hymn recorded by the choir of Saint Cecelia in Nashville 744 years after the Dominican nuns in Bologna first vocalized the lyrics to celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Dominic.

The manuscript was included in the section "Art for Franciscan and Dominican Women," another distinguishing feature of the exhibition where works highlighted narrative images of Saint Claire of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order for women during the thirteenth century, and Saint Catherine of Siena, the Dominican saint canonized in 1461. St. Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata by Beccafumi from 1513-15, also on loan from the Getty, was one of the few artworks from the Cinquecento, as well as one of the few works painted in oil, on display (Fig. 3). The predella depicts Catherine receiving the stigmata, which was seen by Dominicans to oppose that of St. Francis. In this scene showcasing Albertian linear-one point perspective, the lines of the furniture within the architectural setting create orthogonals that recede to a singular vanishing point on the imagined horizon.

Also in this gallery, suspended at an oblique angle above visitors' heads, was a large crucifix (large compared to other artworks in the exhibition at nearly 76" tall, but small compared to others of its type) on loan from Bob Jones Gallery & Museum in Greenville, South Carolina (Fig. 4). The stylized image attributed to the Sienese painter Francesco di Vannuccio from c. 1370 shows an emaciated, lifeless Christ on the cross with the typical holy figures accompanying him: The Virgin Mary to his right, John the Evangelist on his left, and Mary Magdeline at his feet. The image's placement in the gallery mimicked how it would have been viewed in situ, mounted high on the tramezzo screen, which separated the sacred space from the public worship area of the nave of the church. The image of Christ on the cross would then have appeared to hover over the high altar, creating a powerful visual effect during the Eucharist, especially.


As visitors entered the next room, which emphasized aspects of mendicant preaching, a sizeable portrait of a friar stood out from the religious narratives, devotional imagery, and manuscript arts in the previous galleries. Bassano's Portrait of a Franciscan Friar, an oil painting on canvas dating from 1540-42 on loan from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, depicts a Franciscan monk modeled in chiaroscuro and holding a skull as a momento mori. The portrait of the unidentified sitter is similar to other Venetian friar portraits and was likely commissioned by the friar's family to be hung in private domestic quarters. Other portraits in this gallery included medals of Giralomo Savonarola and Andrea Gritti and an image of Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan presenting a book of donations to the prior of Santa Maria dell Grazia in the Litterae ducales donationis ad monasterium Sanctae Mariae Gratiarum dating between 1499 and 1541 and on loan from the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

In the last gallery hung an altarpiece attributed to the well-known Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna, a highlight of the room. The Madonna and Child with St. Francis (1285) on loan from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio bears similarities to Duccio's famous Ruccellai Madonna originally painted for the Dominican church Santa Maria Novella and now housed in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. The placement of the icon across from a facsimile of the Ruccellai Madonna drew attention to a defining aspect of the exhibition layout: large-scale reproductions of images such as this one and others (Fra Angelico's Annunciation from San Marco in Florence, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, and the Area of St. Dominic by Nicola Pisano in Bologna) which supplemented and contextualized the original artworks. Moreover, the exhibition layout was creatively designed to evoke a sense of otherworldly space: doors in the first room were transformed into pointed arches, like the ones featured in late Medieval churches, and the galleries were painted blue, a color that traditionally symbolizes heaven in Italian Christian imagery (Fig. 5).

For those who wished to take in more, a 61-minute film Stories of St. Francis by director Luca Criscenti (2010) was shown in the upper-galleries while regularly scheduled guided tours were offered to the public. In addition, an all-day public symposium was held on January 10, 2015. (2) The accompanying catalogue edited by Kennedy presents essays on a range of insightful related topics from the changing imagery of St. Francis in the Basilica of Assisi to paintings and devotion to experiencing Franciscan and Dominican churches to Franciscan women as well as detailed catalogue entries and brilliant color plates of each artwork in the exhibit. (3) Certainly, Nashvillians must agree that the exhibition and all it offered was worth the eighty-year wait.

Tamara Smithers

Austin Peay State University


(1.) Trinita Kennedy, email interview by author, March 17, 2015.

(2.) This event included a welcome speech by Susan Edwards, an introductory presentation by Trinita Kennedy and talks by Christine Sciacca, Anne Leader, Donal Cooper, and Holly Flora.

(3.) Sanctity Pictured: The Art of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Renaissance Italy, ed. Trinita Kennedy (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2014). Essays and catalogue entries were written by Donal Cooper, Holly Flora, Trinita Kennedy, Amy Neff, and Janet Robson.
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Author:Smithers, Tamara
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Geographic Code:1U6TN
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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