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Hope and Healing

Exhibit highlights work across disciplines and institutions

By Donald N.S. Unger

Ortensio Crespi (attributed to), Lamentation, ca. 1610-14: Oil on canvas, Richard L. Feign & Co., New YorkWe often fail to see things that are right before our eyes: we lack perspective; we lack context; we lack the right frame.

Five years ago, when Franco Mormando, associate professor of Italian and chair of the department of romance languages and literatures at Boston College, was involved in the rediscovery of a long - lost painting by 16 th-century artist Jacopo Tintoretto, “The Raising of Lazarus,” the meaning of the painting wasn’t immediately clear to him.

“In doing the background historical research on the painting,” Mormando says, “I discovered that the painting was dated to a period of plague in Venice and that ‘Saint Lazarus’ was historically considered a ‘plague’ saint—a heavenly protector against the plague—so I concluded that the painting was probably an ex voto offering in time of plague, even though there are no overt signs of the plague in the scene.”

This was interesting and familiar territory to Rev. Thomas Worcester, S.J., associate professor of history at Holy Cross.

Fr. Worcester had team-taught a course “Saints and Sinners: Christian Exemplars as Cultural History,” with Professor Joanne Pierce of the religious studies department. “Several of the saints we considered were ‘plague’ saints—such as Saints Sebastian and Roch—saints to whom people prayed for deliverance from the plague. So, when Franco Mormando suggested doing a show on painting and plague, I was immediately interested.”

This set of realizations led to the reconvening of an interdisciplinary group of scholars, across four institutions, to mount the forthcoming ambitious and historic exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum , “Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800.” The exhibit will feature 37 paintings, on loan from museums and collections around the world.

The four curators—Gauvin Bailey, an associate professor of art history at Clark University; Pamela Jones, an associate professor of art at the University of Massachusetts, Boston; Mormando; and Fr. Worcester—had previously worked together on a similar project.

Jones cites that previous experience as one of her motivations for getting involved in the current project.

“On the personal side,” she says, “the four of us curators had had a wonderful experience working together on the exhibition, ‘Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image,’ which was on view at BC’s McMullen Museum of Art in 1999. Therefore, when Franco brought up the possibility of working together on an exhibition focusing on the plague, I was favorably disposed.

“On an intellectual level,” Jones continues, “I have always been especially interested in interdisciplinary topics. Often art exhibitions are concerned solely, or, at least mainly, with artistic style and the attribution of given works of art to given artists. Exhibitions of that type are perfectly valid, but my own work has always been deeply interdisciplinary, so I have welcomed the chance to work on exhibitions of a broader historical scope with colleagues who are not all art historians themselves.

“I also find particularly stimulating research projects that resonate with contemporary socio - religious issues,” she adds—“and the plague certainly fits that profile. Although bubonic plague itself is fortunately rare these days, plagues such as AIDS are still a horrifying reality. Like early modern plagues, AIDS raises religious, medical, philosophical and social issues of great importance. Our exhibition treats these questions in the context of early modern culture.”

“In spring 2001,” Fr. Worcester relates, “I approached Fr. McFarland and Dean Ainlay, and they were very enthusiastic. They contacted the Worcester Art Museum on our behalf, and the project began to become a reality. Some months later, Gauvin Bailey spoke to the president of Clark University about the project. Holy Cross and Clark then formed a partnership with the museum to sponsor this show.”

According to Fr. Worcester, one crucial aspect of the current exhibit is its chronological—as well as interdisciplinary—scope. That roughly a third of the population of Europe perished in epidemics of bubonic plague between 1348 and 1350 is well known, Fr. Worcester says, and this record has been thoroughly studied. Less well known, he notes, is the degree to which epidemics of plague recurred locally into the 18 th century. Pointing out that, in 1720, half the population of Marseilles perished in such an epidemic, Fr. Worcester explains that the Italian peninsula, as a hub of trade—a nexus of seaports with links to East and West—was particularly susceptible to this problem, as new strains of plague were constantly being imported.

“Italian cities often sought deliverance from pestilence by enlisting the help of local saints who subsequently combined the roles of city patron and plague saint,” Bailey notes in his essay in the exhibit catalog. “We have seen several examples of this in this catalog, notably Saint Januarius, patron of Naples , or St. Charles Borromeo, his counterpart in Milan . Such saints often dated back to early Christian or medieval times, and their cults were only resurrected in the context of the plague in the early modern period. Borromeo, a contemporary figure who played an active role in the post-Tridentine reconstruction of the church, was a famous exception.”

The image of Borromeo may be seen from more than one angle, Fr. Worcester suggests: Cardinal - Archbishop of Milan, a diplomat of the Holy See under his uncle, Pope Pius IV, and an important actor in the Catholic Reformation, Borromeo is venerated for his selfless ministrations to victims of the plague—in one sense, then, this and other paintings of Borromeo serve to proclaim the good works of the Church and its steadfastness in the face of disease and death. In another sense, according to Fr. Worcester, these images may be seen as a correction, intended for members of the clergy and laity who fled a scourge—in a commonplace of the time—and, in so doing, severed the bonds, husband from wife, parent from child, neighbor from neighbor, priest from congregation, which held society together.

Fr. Worcester places particular emphasis on the ways in which an interdisciplinary approach to art, to history, to culture “can provide a window onto times past—not only onto institutional or political history—but to the history of mentalities of fear and security, to the history of popular and elite religion, to the history of daily life.”

In the here and now, all of the curators see the exhibit as having direct impact on their scholarship, their teaching and their students.

“My work on the exhibition is fully integrated into my intellectual life at the University of Massachusetts Boston ,” says Jones, “and has seen fruit in recent talks I have given in the United States , Britain and Italy .”

Fr. Worcester points to the current semester:

“I am teaching in the College’s First-Year Program this year,” he says, “and our theme is ‘Confronted by Suffering and Loss, How Then Shall We Live?’ The exhibition will be the culminating event of the year, in April, when we take all 130 students to the museum.”

Bailey has similar plans:

“I intend to bring students into the galleries,” he says, “and have them study and present in front of artworks. This ‘up close and personal’ approach to studying art is 10 times more effective than working with slides in a darkened lecture room. Also, I hope that I can get some of them hired as docents or interns, giving them a better idea of how the museum works–invaluable expertise for those planning careers in the museum field.”

“As a result of working on this project,” Mormando says, “whenever I study, teach or write about early modern Italian history and culture, I constantly ask myself: What about the plague? How has it affected the history or particular theme I am studying?

The “Hope and Healing” exhibition will run from April 3 through Sept. 25 at the Worcester Art Museum. Additional information can be found online at: http://www.worcesterart.org/Exhibitions/

Donald N.S. Unger is a New York City-born writer of fiction and nonfiction and a political commentator for NPR affiliate radio WFCR. He lives in Worcester.

More on the exhibit in this issue:

Hope and Healing>
Excerpt from the exhibition catalog on Antiveduto Grammatica’s work, “Saint Charles Borromeo and Two Angels" >

From the Dean's Desk...>

 

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