Propaganda, now a pejorative word, was once synonymous with art dedicated to high purpose—the campaign of the Roman Catholic church in the 17th century to propagate its teachings and counter the challenge of Protestantism. It enlisted the finest artists and artisans of the day in a massive public relations campaign. A sample of the resulting art can be seen in Vatican Splendour: Masterpieces of Baroque Art, an exhibition which opened last week in Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada and which will later travel to Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. With its huge oil paintings, sculpture and rich tapestries and vestments, Splendour is a powerful testament to the militancy of the 17thcentury church. But the show also has current propaganda value: by sharing its priceless works, the Vatican reinforces Pope John Paul Il’s efforts to give Catholicism a more open image. And by winning the right to display them, the gallery has confirmed its stature as a world-class institution.
Splendour is the culmination of a four-year effort on the part of the gallery’s director, Joseph Martin. He initially visited the Vatican in 1982 to try to include his gallery in the The Vatican Collection—The Papacy and Art, a U.S. tour which marked the first time that the church allowed a significant number of its masterpieces to travel. Although Martin was too late to take part, he did win Rome’s commitment to a smaller exhibition: Splendour features 52 works, compared with the U.S. tour’s 237. Martin organized his proposed show around four works already in the National Gallery, and asked the Vatican for related paintings and other treasures.
Many of the show’s juxtapositions illuminate the artistic process. The gallery already had a preliminary painting of a proposed work, Nicolas Poussin’s modello for The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus. The Vatican has released Poussin’s final Martyrdom. With the two hanging side by side, viewers can see how the artist toned down the later version from the National’s small, intense model, dulling its brilliant whites and loosening up its tightly packed composition. To permit comparison with the National’s Portrait of Cardinal Lelio Biscia by Andrea Sacchi, the Vatican loaned Sacchi’s St. Gregory and the Miracle of the Corporal. In contrast to the small, serene portrait, the larger work shows
Sacchi’s narrative powers: Gregory is depicted in the act of piercing a strip of linen from a saint’s shroud, producing a miraculous outpouring of blood.
The National was unable to obtain the ideal counterpart to its The Entombment by Peter Paul Rubens. The artist based his moving, quiet painting
of Christ’s body being lowered into the earth on a much larger, more dramatic work by Caravaggio, which had toured with the U.S. show and which the Vatican was unwilling to relinquish again. Still, it did release Giovanni Bernini’s bronze bust of Pope Urban VIII so that the National could twin it with a marble bust of Urban from its permanent collection, permitting the two to be seen together for the first time since the sculptor fashioned them in the 1630s. The National’s Urban appears alert, with the buttons of his robes neatly fastened. But the marble is
flawed, which may be why Bernini created the second portrait in sturdier bronze. Almost imperceptibly altered, the bronze shows a sadder man, with one of his buttons slipping out of its hole and his vestments creased.
But Splendour is accessible to laymen as well as professionals: the works were designed to make an immediate impact on the general public. One way in which they accomplish that is by sheer scale. Il Domenichino’s The Last Communion of St. Jerome is so vast—13.8 feet by 8.6 feet—that the gallery’s large main doors had to be removed to get it into the building. Still, Communion, with its composition framed by serene classical architecture, its dignified subject of an old man near death, and the gentle, dim landscape visible in the background, is comparatively subtle.
By contrast, other works on display command attention with the brute force of wartime atrocities. In his two paintings of Saint Erasmus, Poussin depicted the agonized martyr uniü dergoing a slow disembowelling. In The ô Martyrdom of Saints È Processus and Marting ianus, another French I painter, Valentin de g Boulogne, shows two ” Christians being stretched on the rack while a torturer prepares hot coals in the foreground.
The exhibition, organized by the National’s curator of European art, Catherine Johnston, also features sumptuous robes, tapestries, medals and engravings. Still, even those objects may remind viewers, as the artists and their ecclesiastical patrons intended that they should, of the might of the church militant. And they reinforce the fact that propaganda is never more powerful than when it is in the hands of the greatest talents of an age.
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