The Sacred and Profane

Entering a world of lush golds and velvet reds, surrounded by Madonnas and Byzantine icons, it was as if I had walked right into 14th century Renaissance Venice. Harvard Fogg Art Museum’s “Sacred and Profane Visions from Renaissance Venice,” showcasing 30 paintings and prints by Renaissance masters such as Titian and Bellini, comprising of collections from the Museum of Fine Arts to the Louvre, may quite well be one of New England’s most exciting exhibitions this year.

“Sacred and Profane Visions” speaks to the core of the Harvard University Art Museum’s unique vision. The works from our permanent collection, complemented by important loans, will create a rich context for exploring this extraordinary nexus of artistic development,” says James Cuno, the Director of the Harvard University Art Museums in explaining the significance of this exhibition.

True to Cuno’s words, the broad range of Venetian Renaissance art, coupled with the rarity of these pieces, create an extraordinary show. Spanning over 200 years of Venetian Renaissance art, the paintings range from 14th century iconic religious scenes to naturalistic portraits from the 16th century. An early Titian drawing entitled “Trees near a pool of water,” display foliage drawn in fluid, quick strokes. The subtle contrasts in tone result in a rich texture of light and shadow. Another rare drawing by Titian, entitled “The Submersion of the Pharaoh’s Army in the Red Sea,” depicts the Biblical story of the Red Sea. With bold strokes of ink, Titian recreates the chaotic yet spectacular nature of this tale. The light sparkling on the sea, the smoke rising above the cities, the Pharoah’s army retreating on the left, as well as the triumphant Israelites to the right all combine in a drawing that ensnarls and captivates the viewer’s imagination.


Although these small idyllic drawings often reflect on the Venetian’s way of life during this period (for example, how “The Submersion of the Pharaoh’s Army in the Red Sea” reveal Venice’s dependence on its surrounding lagoon against foreign invasion), there is no doubt that these drawings are but mere subplots of this exhibition.

Entering the museum, the viewer is immediately confronted by the condensed collection of golden Madonna paintings rather than by the less dominating ink on paper drawings. Paintings of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus have long defined the Renaissance revival, and this exhibition is no exception.

The seemingly monotonous ways in which Virgin Mary and Jesus are depicted, however, may easily deter the viewer from admiring the details in each individual painting. Virgin and Child often appear in repetitively similar postures—Virgin Mary cradles the Child in her arms, and they are often found clothed in rich, dark-colored robes in all of these Madonna paintings.

Beneath this fabrication of monotony, subtle variety does occur. In fact, it is precisely this underlying variety that makes this show so interesting. While Pietro’s “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels” shows a large enthroned Madonna rich with religious imagery, Vivarini’s “Virgin and Child” on the other hand, depicts Virgin and Child in a much more naturalistic manner. While “the” Child in Pietro’s painting looks more like an adult filled with knowledge and wisdom, Christ in Vivarini’s painting appears naturalistic and child-like. Rather than appearing in the formalized convention of wisdom and knowledge, the child in Vivarini’s painting comes across as a vulnerable baby.

The focus on the gradual progression from iconographical elements to a naturalist setting ultimately culminates into the Fogg Museum’s core acquisition for this exhibit—The “Sacra conversazione”(also known as “Virgin and Child with Saints”), a Venetian altarpiece by an unknown artist dating from 1515. The altarpiece depicts the Virgin and Child occupied in a sacred conversation with saints, a “sacra conversazione.” With the paintings soft colors and sense of space, its former attribution to Renaissance masters such as Bellini and Conegliano is hardly surprising.


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