An Architect-Painter Builds a Temple and Poses a Paradox
OFTEN I've passed this painting in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, glanced at the extraordinary, elaborate architecture, but hurried on. Somehow this 15th-century Renaissance painting didn't fit my notion of the comfortable, straight-on view with which the Florentine artists of the early Renaissance ``constructed'' their paintings. But the architectural quality of the work would not leave me. Here is a painting, called the ``Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple,'' that seems to be so much more about the temple than about the Virgin.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Before us, filling the panel, is a luminous white marble triumphal arch, replete with colored marble columns, richly ornamented with low-relief sculpture. This represents the fa,cade of the temple.
Beggars wait outside the wide-open arched doorway, where Mary, Anna, and their women companions pause. According to legend, Mary was taken to the temple to live at age 12 by her mother, Anna. Pairs of brightly clothed and capped men walk and chat nearby, and move freely through the church. Outside the side door a man and his dog walk along a street near some houses. A handsome gray hound guards the boundary of the picture at the lower edge. Inside the spacious church, a beautiful multicolored marble floor, marked off in squares, helps measure the distance to the altars, where multipaneled Venetian altarpieces are placed. Tall gray shafts of columns - perhaps of the famous pietra serena sandstone of Florence - march along, sustaining the upper wall of windows that illumine the space. Beyond the first four columns, a tramezzo, or midway divider, separates the public space from the more private area at the far end.
Somehow this painter knew the newest ideas in architectural design. He knew that in Florence in the 1420s, Brunelleschi, the first Renaissance architect, had invented this kind of interior with columns of ancient design and low side aisles, based in part on the form of the ancient basilica or law court. But our painter went further than Brunelleschi, and added the Roman basilica's ``tribune,'' or wide niche, which he outlined in pink (perhaps the popular red stone of Verona), that shouts to us from the far end of the church.
He also knew that near Florence, in Rimini, the first Renaissance designer to write an architectural treatise - one of the most influential books in the history of architectural design - had added a triumphal arch as a fresh fa,cade for an older church, which he called a temple, in 1450.
But our artist could do more with his brush to enrich the surface of his triumphal-arch fa,cade with low-relief sculptural scenes, inlays of colored marble, and precisely ``chiseled'' examples of those enthusiastically sought parts of the ancient architecture.
With 15th-century spontaneity, he mixes parts of different classical ``orders,'' all placed reasonably and drawn with a light, accurate touch. Crisp ``flutings'' (grooves) of the ``pilasters'' (flattened columns) run vertically just behind the free-standing, colored column shafts.
Who was this painter, and what led him to make such a picture?
I learned first that, like so many treasures in our museums, this ``Presentation'' is actually only a fragment, part of a larger whole. It is one-third of a composition, the left ``wing'' of a three-piece altarpiece. The right ``wing,'' now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, depicts the ``Birth of the Virgin'' in a beautiful, more homelike building.
That explains the off-centeredness. The right ``wing'' in the Met is equally asymmetrical, as in a mirror reflection. When all three parts were originally joined, the ``Presentation of the Virgin'' on the left and the ``Birth of the Virgin'' on the right together told the stories of Mary's childhood and balanced each other.
Next, I discovered that it was no ordinary painter who made this piece, even though his fame is not enough to give him a place in textbook surveys of Renaissance art. The artist, a Dominican brother, Bartolomeo Corradini, called Fra Carnevale, was an architect. He had been a pupil of the well-loved mid-15th-century painter Fra Fillipo Lippi, in Florence, as the slender blond figures, drawn in a linear manner, show. He had absorbed the lessons of a Venetian painter in Florence, Domenico Veneziano, with his light-filled colors.