From the if-only-I’d-listened-to-mom archives:
I have suffered, and still suffer, from an unendurable infirmity of the eyes, which has been occasioned by my own folly. For while, this year, the Sun was in eclipse I looked at the Sun itself for a long period of time, and [now] have clouds before my eyes…
The words, written between 1338–48 by one “Taddeo of Florence,” have been traditionally assigned to Taddeo Gaddi (c. 1290–1366). This would make the account doubly tragic: Gaddi was the most accomplished disciple of Giotto, the greatest artist of the Early Renaissance. Happily, whether impaired or not, Gaddi continued his highly productive career, which is marked most impressively by a cycle of frescoes (1328–38) in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. In 1347 he was listed as the city’s foremost painter.
Until March 20, visitors to the New-York Historical Society can absorb a unique example of Gaddi’s work: a small but exquisite panel from c. 1330–34 depicting the Maestà (the Madonna and Child enthroned in majesty). For this mini-exhibition, this recently restored panel from the society’s own collection has been joined by two outer panels — on loan from a private collection — that likely formed the triptych’s original wings. Together they amply reveal Gaddi’s brilliant palette and poignant rendering skills — as well as tantalizing intimations of a solar eclipse. Two other Early Renaissance paintings, plus soft, piped-in choral music, add to the installation’s intimate, chapel-like ambiance.
Fourteenth-century panels such as Gaddi’s are notable, of course, for their flattened modeling and stacked forms. But this Maestà reminds us of why Matisse, among other modernists, actually preferred such paintings to the more sophisticated renderings of the High Renaissance. Despite its “primitive” modeling, the triptych positively glows with an air of grave celebration — of brilliant color wedded to a gravity of form, all in service of the transcendent.
Based on Giotto’s renowned Maestà in the Uffizi, Gaddi’s panel lends his figures much of the same graceful self-possession. The surrounding saints’ red and blue garments, subtly varied, measure out the breadth of the panel, setting off the delicate islands of faces and their gold-leaf halos. The gestures and expressions of these figures, each clutching his or her own attribute — a giant key, a lamb, a sword — impart an air of human-scaled reverence. Gazing towards the throne, their collective energy gathers about the mother and child, whose eyes meet our own. (The panel’s lucky owner, for whom it would have served as a means of portable, private devotion, would have no doubt appreciated the sense of personal connection.)
The exteriors of the two wings, depicting slightly genericized versions of Saints Catherine and Christopher, are probably products of Gaddi’s workshop. But their interior surfaces appear to be painted by Gaddi himself. They vividly depict, on one wing, an Annunciation and a Nativity scene, and on the other a Crucifixion, which is notable for a threatening blue-black mass in its upper corner: the darkened sun, as described in three of the gospels. Some scholars believe Gaddi was in fact influenced by the total solar eclipse that occurred on July 16, 1330 — an event that, had it seared his eyes, would surely have also burned itself upon his memory. The letter written by Taddeo of Florence, however, dates to a later point. This leaves us with intriguing questions. Was the writer not the same Taddeo as the famous painter? Could Gaddi have been a repeat offender when it came to observing eclipses? Does the Crucifixion eclipse represent a premonition of the “folly” mentioned in the letter?
A nitpicker might remind us that the students of the greatest masters tended to replicate their teacher’s style more completely than their spirit, and that Gaddi was no exception. And in truth, his panel doesn’t achieve quite the same rhythmic generosity and discrimination of detail as Giotto — a point driven home by a small reproduction of Giotto’s Maestà on one of the installation’s labels.
Still, Gaddi’s gem of a panel, momentarily reunited with what are very likely its original wings, is a visual delight, and well worth a trip to the Upper West Side. Visitors to the Historical Society — the city’s oldest museum — can also take in an unlikely pair of sights while there: Picasso’s stage curtain “Le Tricorne,” which at 20 feet square is believed to be the largest painting by the artist in this country, and, in the lobby, one of the original Batmobiles from the 1960s TV show. Only in New York.
“Maestà”: Gaddi’s Triptych Reunited continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through March 20.