Jesus in the Harvard Art Museums

After six years of expansion and renovations, the Harvard Art Museums—all three now united under one roof—reopened last weekend. I visited this Saturday in what was one of the most enjoyable mornings I’ve spent since moving to Boston. Their collection is spectacular. Since I can’t possibly recap all the standouts, I’ll focus on just a few that feature Jesus. These are not necessarily the most famous pieces from the collection but are some of the ones that engaged me the most—in terms of either iconographic content or devotional inspiration.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are by the Harvard Art Museums; click on the image to be led to its webpage.

Flight to Egypt, with the Slaughtered Innocents

William Holman Hunt (British, 1827-1910), The Triumph of the Innocents, 1870-1903. Oil on canvas, 75.3 x 126 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Triumph of the Innocents is a really unique visual retelling of the Flight to Egypt, showing the spirits of the “Holy Innocents”—the Bethlehemite babes who were slaughtered by Herod in a desperate attempt to protect his rule—leading the way. There’s so much here—the visionary bubbles filled with scenes of the messianic kingdom, the prefiguring gestures of the children, the theme of resurrection—that I think I’ll shelve the exposition of this piece for another post, perhaps for the Holy Innocents’ feast day, which is coming up next month.

Man of Sorrows

Aelbert Bouts (Netherlandish, ca. 1451/54-1549), The Man of Sorrows and The Mater Dolorosa, mid-1490s. Oil on oak panel, 37.9 x 26.5 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This pair of images was painted in the Netherlands by Aelbert Bouts, from the famous Bouts line of painters. The Man of Sorrows and the Mother of Sorrows (Latin: Mater Dolorosa) were frequently paired together, so as to urge devotees to reflect on both the suffering of Christ and that of his mother. I found it really easy to enter into these two paintings; they drew me to worship, there in that gallery walkway. 

Savonarola and the Crucified Christ

Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1445-1510), Mystic Crucifixion, ca. 1500. Tempera and oil on canvas, 72.4 x 51.4 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This Crucifixion painting by Sandro Botticelli, painter of the famous Birth of Venus and Primavera, features some pretty unusual iconography: firebrands and weapons rain down from dark storm clouds, and at the foot of the cross an angel is about to slay some kind of mammalian creature. The placard indicates that the painting is a response to the sermons of Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who throughout the 1490s prophesied destruction for Florence if the city did not turn from its wicked ways; an angel holds a lion (symbol of Florence) by the foot, about to execute judgment by sword.

To me it appears that the painting offers a message of hope. God seems to be pushing the darkness away, sending shields into the fray in defense of the city. Maybe this painting represents Botticelli’s prayer for his beloved Florence: that its spiritual corruption would be gone and with it God’s displeasure. That is, if Botticelli were, like his brother, supportive of Savonarola’s calls for renewal. The placard suggests that yes, Botticelli had “come under his [Savonarola’s] sway”—which seems odd to me, since one of the things Savonarola was condemning was secular art, for which Botticelli was most famous. One might read the storm clouds as not being from God at all, since they occupy the opposite side of the canvas, but from Savonarola, who caused much division and uproar with his denunciation of contemporary religious leaders and practices as well as cultural output. Given that this painting is estimated to have been done just two years after Savonarola was executed by the state, could it be that the storm clouds are dissipating because the agitator is dead?

Savonarola was such a polarizing figure: some segments of the church called him a heretic, a false prophet; others, a hero and a martyr. He certainly amassed a large following, but it wasn’t enough to achieve the all-encompassing reform he set out to achieve. I’m not sure what the artist’s intentions were for the painting; but I can see two possible readings.

Man of Sorrows

Roberto Oderisi (Italian, active 1350-85), The Man of Sorrows, ca. 1354. Tempera and gold on panel, 62.2 x 38 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This painting is an imago pietatis (image of pity), a common iconographic type from the Byzantine era that shows the dead Christ standing up in the tomb and displaying his wounds, sometimes surrounded—as here—by the arma Christi (symbols that refer to scenes from the Passion). All the action of the Passion narrative is thereby merged with the stillness of the dead Christ in the tomb. I really like this contrast. Can you identify all the symbols?

Pieta sculpture

Pietà by an unidentified Austrian artist, ca. 1420. Polychromed poplar wood, 92 x 72 x 29.2 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Pieta sculpture

Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

I don’t have anything to say about this one, but it just so unexpectedly moved me, this small wooden sculpture by an unknown artist.

Harrowing of Hell

Master of the Osservanza (Italian, active ca. 1425-80), The Descent into Limbo, ca. 1445. Tempera on panel, 37.8 x 47.1 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Here’s another common iconographic type: the Harrowing of Hell, or Christ’s Descent into Limbo, which the Eastern Orthodox Church considers to have been the decisive moment of Christ’s victory over sin and death. I love this visualization of Satan being squashed as Christ breaks down the door to hell to rescue the saints from ages past. His puny little legs sticking out from under the collapsed door are almost comical, cartoon-like—they remind me of the classic bit in which the guy you’re rooting for opens a door like it’s nothing, and the person on the other side gets completely flattened between wood and wall, defeated just like that.

Last Judgment (Netherlandish)

Jan Provoost (Netherlandish, ca. 1465-1529), The Last Judgment, ca. 1505. Oil and gold on oak panel, 108.5 x 92 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This Last Judgment painting was interesting me because unlike all the others I’ve seen, it does not depict a trail of the damned being dragged by demons off to hell, nor a trail of the saints being welcomed into heaven. So while the top half borrows heavily from the iconographic tradition—Christ seated on a rainbow, the earth his footstool, with a lily growing out of his right ear and a sword his left, and Mary and John interceding on either side of him—the bottom half notably avoids the sensationalistic detail of tortured human bodies and their grotesque, subhuman torturers that had been (and would continue to be) standard for so long. This one is much more subtle: depicting the moment of the first trumpet call, it shows the dead rising from their graves, their fates reflected in their varied expressions, whether of defiance or indifference, or of repentance/eagerness.

The bathing women on the horizon I’m not sure how to interpret: Have they, too, arisen from graves, and are now cleansing themselves in anticipation of their entry into paradise? Or are they women who have not died but are merely going about daily business, unaware, at present, of the return of Christ and his call to judgment? What do you think?

Be sure to stop in at the Harvard Art Museums to see its new, enlarged space and rearrangement of galleries. Cambridge residents get in free all the time with a valid ID, and Massachusetts residents get in free on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon—otherwise it’s a very reasonable $15 for admission. If an in-person visit is not feasible, you can still browse the collection online, which includes tons of additional pieces not on display but unfortunately does not include descriptions.

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