Jacopo da Pontormo was the anti-Caravaggio; more accurately, Caravaggio was the anti-Pontormo. Although the former died 14 years before the latter was born, I think of them as two sides of the same post-Michelangelesque coin. Their lives bridged three centuries — Pontormo lived from 1494 to 1557, and Caravaggio was born in 1571 and died in 1610 — and their contrast couldn’t be starker, with Pontormo’s paintings enwrapped in light while Caravaggio’s stalk the darkness.
Among the painters who had the misfortune of being born too late to escape Michelangelo’s titanic influence, Pontormo seems the closest to getting Il Divino’s legacy right. While his compatriots, the so-called Mannerists, seized upon isolated aspects of Michelangelo’s style like the fabled blind men and the elephant, most notably the exaggerated musculature of his male nudes, Pontormo seems to have understood the totality of his achievement without being coerced or intimidated by it. His figures, while exhibiting a distinct sculptural presence, are imbued with Botticellian grace. His crystalline color pushes Michelangelo’s iridescence to extremes, enabled by the medium of oil paint, which the older artist had dismissed out of hand. Where Michelangelo turned his brawny saints into wrathful gods, Pontormo’s figures, though illuminated in godliness, are invariably human in their proportions and hushed in their emotions, even in the most tragic of scenes.
Caravaggio, of course, rejected any hint of sanctity, at times denying a halo even to Christ. He pierced his chaotic and violent images with an unprecedented, unsparing realism that made him one of the most original painters in the history of Western art, and a prime avatar for the dark times we’re living in now. But there is still room for the sunset beauty of Pontormo, and the exhibition devoted to his work, Miraculous Encounters at the Morgan Library & Museum, is an intimate celebration of the ecstatic sensuality of paint.
As you enter the show, you may want to momentarily avert your eyes from the central wall where the freshly restored “Visitation” (1528–1529), the show’s centerpiece, rests on a faux-altar, and turn instead toward the limpid “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap (Carlo Neroni?)” (1529–1530), a depiction of a raffishly handsome militiaman, one of the volunteer defenders of the Florentine republic during the siege of 1529–30. He holds the pictorial space with solidity and authority, and his eyes stare right at you. The directness is startling.
The immediacy of connection to “Young Man in a Red Cap” is lost in “Visitation,” unfortunately, thanks to the height at which it is mounted on the wall, presumably to approximate its relationship to the viewer in its permanent home on the altar of Pieve dei Santi Michele e Francesco, a church in the Tuscan town of Carmignano.
To admire the painting, then, means to crane your neck and waltz to and fro to avoid glare on the surface. A lower hanging would have offered a more personal experience. But measured in the balance of seeing the work in New York under otherwise ideal conditions (the room where it is displayed is the tiny Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery, which often shows manuscripts and other up-close art forms, and whose doors seal you off from the clatter of the lobby), this is a minor complaint.
In Pontormo’s art, the main event never quite constitutes the primary focus of the painting. In his great “Deposition” of 1525-28, painted just before “Visitation,” our attention is drawn more to Mary’s gentle gesture of heartbreak, a hand extended toward her dead son as she faints backward in grief, and to the minor character of angelic beauty glancing back towards us as he shoulders the legs of Jesus, rather than to the limp body itself.
At the Morgan, there are four major characters, Mary, Elizabeth, and their two ladies in waiting. If you know the story, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she visited her much older kinswoman, Elizabeth, who, through a miracle, was also pregnant with a son — John the Baptist, the precursor of Christ:
And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. (Luke 1:41-42, KJV]
But, curiously, in Pontormo’s version of events, the meeting of the two women is not what holds our gaze. Mary and Elizabeth are depicted in profile, their eyes locked, their pregnant bellies touching — nearly symmetrical poses that cut them off from our presence and immerse them in their own mystical union. Meanwhile, the attendants, who match their mistresses in age and the color of their garments, stand like shadows behind them and, like the “Young Man in a Red Cap,” stare directly at us.
And, like the “Young Man in a Red Cap,” they catch us off-guard. We don’t expect to be trapped by the two supporting characters, whose strength is magnified by Pontormo’s decision to set Mary and Elizabeth in profile. The frontally focused maidens become the emotional pillars for the two mothers-to-be as their private drama plays out.
For all of the glorious color that Pontormo lavished on the scene, with the hues of spring, summer, and autumn traveling through the women’s clothing from left to right — pink, blue, green, and orange, with the combination of the latter two, on Elizabeth’s robes, spectacularly eye-popping — no one’s face betrays a hint of joy, or even pleasure. The two maidens stare blankly, while Mary and Elizabeth seem to be sharing the foreknowledge of the violent deaths awaiting their sons. The single-point perspective of the leafless urban street behind them — a stripped-down cityscape that, according to the Morgan’s press release, influenced the Metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico — encloses the group between two sets of buildings like the walls of a tomb. Overhead, the sky darkens with storm clouds.
But what of the two tiny figures (shades of de Chirico) sitting on a bench to the lower right of Mary’s maiden? They appear to be deep in conversation, nodding and gesticulating. Are these two men, like the multitudes of peasants in the biblical scenes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, meant as signs that life goes on despite the actions of higher powers?
The two men, joined by a barely discernible woman leaning from the window above them — by all rights the most minor of characters — share their anonymity with the nameless but steadfast handmaidens. Pontormo began “Visitation” one year after the citizens of Florence had tossed out the Medicis and established a quixotic republic. By the time he finished it, the Siege of Florence had begun.
The forces arrayed against the liberties of the Florentine Republic were formidable: the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and the Papal States. In light of these events, it’s hard not to think of the two maidens in the same way that the Florentines looked at Michelangelo’s “David”(1501-04), made a quarter-century earlier: an embodiment of the city’s stoicism against overwhelming odds. It was a struggle they would not win. But for a moment, hope was alive, and the eyes of unnamed women cast their spell under the gathering storm in Pontormo’s sky.
Pontormo: Miraculous Encounters continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 6, 2019.