ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At first glance, it’s easy to cite Michelangelo as the star of “The birth, death and resurrection of Christ: from Michelangelo to Tiepolo.”
But the exhibition takes viewers through the story of the Italian Renaissance with more than 50 prints and drawings at Santa Fe’s New Mexico Museum of Art beginning on Friday, Jan. 24.
Michelangelo, the poet of the High Renaissance, appears just once.
The show illustrates more than 400 years of Italian art history through works from the British Museum featuring artists such as Gregorio de Ferrari, Cornelis Cort and Giovanni Battista Pasqualini.
You don’t need an advanced art history degree or a religious persuasion to enjoy the exhibition, curator Christian Waguespack said.
The imagery covers the three major stages of Christ’s life: The Nativity, his Crucifixion and the Resurrection, exploring all the different means of expression artists used as they moved through this critical period in art history. As the decades unfold, the artwork swirls with greater detail highlighted by faces and bodies brimming with movement and emotional expression. Religious themes were the prevailing subject matter because of commissions from the Catholic Church and private devotees.
For the artists, the patronage became a way of showcasing their skills as they reinterpreted conventional biblical stories.
“Come for the name Michelangelo and see all these other great artists,” Waguespack said.”It’s really heavy Christian imagery, but there’s really something there for everybody.”
The flowering of the Renaissance followed the flat, stiff figures common during the Byzantine and Middle Ages. Ranging from about 1440 to 1829, the period marked the development of linear perspective and other techniques of rendering a more natural reality in painting.
Michelangelo’s red chalk drawing of “The Three Crosses” (1521-1524) reveals the artist making a preliminary sketch for a larger piece.
“You see him working out the ideas,” Waguespack said. “You see him trying to get the figuration right.”
Each figure maintains a different position; the one on the left holds his legs behind the cross; the figure on the right writhes. The central Christ figure follows the descent, as a figure on a ladder appears to pull him down.
De Ferrari’s much later depiction of “The Nativity” (1659-1726) in pen and brown ink, heightened with splashes of white illuminating the Christ child, is both expressive and dramatic with its sumptuous folds of cloth.
“Everything seems to circle around the baby Christ,” Waguespack said. “It’s a piece of visual drama; it’s almost theatrical. It almost looks like stage lighting.”
Cort’s much earlier “The Crucifixion” (1578) shows somewhat stiffened figures but revels in its own luxury. The artist hand-colored the engraving on blue-grey silk. The skull of Golgotha, the site where Jesus was crucified, lies at the foot of the cross.
“You can see how contemporary (New Mexican) santeros of the 2000s still use the skull motif,” Waguespack added.
Andrea Mantegna’s “The Descent from the Cross” (1470-1500) revels in the artist’s use of line.
“The figures aren’t quite as natural as they could be, but they are emotionally expressive,” Waguespack said.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s “The Adoration of the Magi” (1750-1760) shows the later use of diagonal perspective in its detailed depiction of the figures and animals. The Magi dress in luxury.
“You see them reflecting the wealth of the patron,” Waguespack said.
Printmaker Giovanni Battista Pasqualini’s lifted the image of “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” (1621) from a painting by the Italian Baroque painter Guercino.
The artist worked with the printmaker to reproduce the image.
“It was done to be sent to the head of the Catholic church to show his abilities in hopes of commissions,” Waguespack said.
Many of these fragile works on paper survived for hundreds of years thanks to notaries as evidence of contracts.
“They were saved by the notaries,” Waguespack said. “It’s a cool bit of provenance.”