NORFOLK, Virginia — Sometimes it’s the anonymous artworks we encounter that rattle, riddle, and enrapture us most, that remain longer among our latent visuals, the lingering intrigues of their origins and authorship ensuring they embed and endure in the mind.
This is especially so when we’re not really expecting to see anything of the sort, and even more so while strolling through, say, a museum corridor en route to another room, or around a gallery almost insouciantly because we know we’ll return soon when we have more time, or when a crowd might be smaller, or when we’re in a calmer, more focused state of mind, or maybe just simply alone.
Then a sarcophagus or gargoyle or mask might slow our pace, beckon we stop, seize our gaze. Or some relic from a crypt, or in a crypt, or maybe the whole crypt — an entire crypt as unforeseen artwork of encounter. Or a tiny ivory monument to ancient autarchy, rendered in such meticulous, naturalized detail as to challenge our preconceptions of what is manually possible at such a scale no matter the era, no matter the tools at hand. In such instances, the mere expression ‘tools at hand’ becomes an arresting thought. The lost tools in the nimble hands of a lost toiler.
Those are just some of the past instances in which I’ve felt captivated as much by an artwork as by its anonymous or relatively anonymous authorship. As viewers, we of course encounter a great many artworks or objects whose creators can’t necessarily be named, but it’s only in certain instances when such anonymity seems to be just as important to our viewing experience as the thing that leaves us stuck in contemplation — the anonymity itself permitting us a vast contemplative space that’s somehow all the more inviting to explore because we’re neither held up nor ushered in any direction upon arriving at (gasp!) a name.
A very recent such experience I relished greatly took place at The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, an institution with which I’m very familiar. I was there for a particular reason, one unrelated to their wonderful medieval and Renaissance galleries, but I found myself with a bit of time to stroll through them before they closed.
That stroll didn’t last long, it turned out, as I spent that bit of time and then some pondering this relatively standard-issue Renaissance “Madonna col bambino” (“Madonna and Child”), an altar-like relief sculpture portraying Mary, frontally related to the viewer, cradling the infant Jesus in her arms. It’s a work lacking attribution not only to a named artist, but even to the workshop of some artist — no ‘workshop of’, or ‘bottega di,’ a common enough notation regarding much Italian art, to be found.
Another common notation I was surprised not to see is one that would grant it regional specificity. Its label indicates simply, “1450-1550, Italian, terracotta.” That’s even a very broad timeframe for a Renaissance object, opening up all the more the contemplative terrain around this striking piece.
I’m no expert, but I’d place its origins in the given timeframe in Tuscany, in part for the awkward reason that by stepping back from it and kind of squinting, I imagined it in two dimensions as a drawing, one that might display just the kind of softened naturalism, sfumature and all, very characteristic of Tuscan — and perhaps even specifically Florentine — drafting at the time.
For vague reasons, its medium also prompts me to think it’s Tuscan, along with the floral details on Mary’s snug inner sleeve, and the flower-petal-like details on Jesus’ shirt, between his shoulder and elbow, which remind me of the elegantly martial sleeves common to many a sculpture of a Medici prince.
But really and truly, I’m no expert at all. What’s of value to me in this case, at any rate, is that this artwork, which for some reason struck my eye and drew me closer, not unlike other pieces earlier on in my stroll, really held me there in contemplation for a good long while because of all its lacking specifics. I didn’t deliberately seek to remain uninformed so that I could relish the fun of taking guesses as to its origins — coming up with ways to justify my guesses before checking the label to see if I was right. That can be fun, but then that’s a different, differently ‘intended’ viewing experience altogether. Nor is the piece in a show designed to provide viewers with such guesswork experiences, though that could be quite an interesting idea for an exhibition.
Rather, I found myself struck all over again by the compositional shadow-play created by the work’s great depth of relief, which at its deepest point might measure about six inches. If Jesus’s two gesturing fingers, held in the same blessing gesture as Mary’s, weren’t broken off, they might protrude furthest from the base of the piece. Instead, it seems that Mary’s forehead protrudes the most, ever so slightly, an interesting thing to end up circumstantially considering at all, since it’s generally just below the hairline, on the forehead, where someone receives the touch of blessing. Is it implied, perhaps, that Jesus is blessing his own mother?
Then, thinking so much about the work’s internal shadow-play led me to think all the more about lighting. Here in the museum’s manner of installation, the piece’s spotlight creates the very interesting effect of casting a shadow — on the wall to the left of the piece, and I assume unintentionally — that appears to be a wing. Angelic, cherubic?
And then, as is always the case with older works especially, there are many additional lighting-related matters to consider that would’ve made the work look very different, maybe even dramatically more ‘alive,’ in prior placements.
Presumably, a piece like this, in its original or intended setting — most likely in a church or private chapel — would’ve been lit by sunlight through windows from above and laterally throughout the day, changing diurnally and seasonally with the sun.
So it must’ve sometimes had two ‘wings’, no? Not merely angelic qua cherubic, but perhaps an implied angel of Annunciation, or many implied angels of Ascension!
Floating, flying, aloft!
At night, then, our iconic duo would’ve probably been illuminated from below, mostly, by candles, with so many entrancing-to-imagine shadows dancing all around and about them.
Dancing about them!
They would’ve danced and whisperily sparkled, that is, until someone or something — a gust of wind through an open door, or a door blown open! — came around to extinguish all the little flames flickering atop littler wicks. Or until the wicks spent themselves, drowning in wax. The work’s ‘special effects’ would’ve seemed ever-changing, metamorphic, in tumult, in tilt.
In a state of ecstasy, a state of grace!
And all the snuffed or self-extinguished flames? They would’ve created so much smoke.
Smoke! Plumes of smoke!
Smoke and mirrors!
A magic trick! A reveal!
Shifting lights, shadow-play, candles, and smoke then become more interesting with regard to certain words. The work is now ‘animated,’ or ‘given anima,’ ‘granted soul.’
Its deep relief and naturalism, especially in light of this notion of animation, are now arcing back to considerations about its origins.
The sculpture’s ‘animated cycle,’ let’s call it, might’ve ended, for so much of its history, with a plume, or so many plumes, of smoke.
In Italian, the word for smoke is ‘fumo.’ The word ‘fumetto’ can refer to comic strips or cartoons.
Also etymologically related to ‘fumo’ are ‘sfumato’ and ‘sfumature.’
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