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Travelogue F47

November 3, 2015

The medieval section also housed cathedral miniatures, roof or walls peeled back in places to reveal church innards. I also came upon ivory devotional diptychs, on which flecks of paint still stood out: green, yellow, red. The tones befit the passion scene depicted therein yet were joined by the peculiar presence of demons and beasts consuming the damned beneath one of the six Gothic arches structuring the interior, the tension lost and gained with the closing of the diptych unto itself.

From the Rhein valley, a number of impressive sculptures had made the trip and showed in their way the passion, the will to reduce in scale proved largely uncoupled from an analogue desire to reduce in symbology. Each of the 15th century altarpieces seemed awash with figures of varying stature, fore and aft: son in light, father and ghost lost to museum shadow. To each and every piece would have had to be consecrated an interpreter specializing in the language deployed by that work alone.

A nearby sculpture depicted Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, both of whom had been swaddled in rich, golden folds that I could scarcely believe wood. Another showed an emaciated Sebastian, courtesy of Würzburg’s Riemenschneider, standing and pocked with arrows and the years, neither affliction visible on his overly long form, the grain of the wood and its knots enhancing the unreal, lifeless air towards which form and matter often tend. With the arrows has also disappeared his left hand holding the length of cloth that once pooled about his legs.

Still another altarpiece, this time from Catholic Germany, placed Mary and mother Anne in bourgeois interiors and garb. The artist had left Mary’s hand tilted and Anne’s raised in warding. The work’s organization exercised such an influence on the onlooker that he or she naturally fixated on the hands, exposed to the piece’s largely open upper half, whereas the lower was lost to the closed scenery of table-leg and benches. Only the folds of draped cloth suggested the least movement.

Among the more bracing pieces from this period I counted a Giovanni di Paolo piece from 1440, The Ecstasy of Saint Francis. The work, once the left wing of a triptych of which the other wings presumably depicted Francis’ receiving the stigmata, set out in dramatized fashion Francis laying eyes upon a seraph. I spied an aureola at the center of its vaguely human form, where I could make out but with difficulty a head in three-quarters profile and no fewer than four wings, all in a brilliant scarlet hue, heat or holy coming off its body not in waves but rays.

A series of wooden panels at the section’s end depicted a collection of Roman statesmen become treemen. Their fate had been decided not so much by the material worked as by the the way in which the skin emerged from the black arcs and whorls worked by the artist. The effect rather recalled tree growth patterns, such that the interior resembled that which I might have seen upon dissecting a bough and examining its irregular growth rings.

Like those abnormal rings, the liens in those faces would themselves tell a tale for those capable of making out the signs. Were I more skilled, I might learn more of the sorrows lived by the old bole that was Magnus Pompeus. Upon closer examination, it seemed that the artist had deepened the overall effect by a wash of black flora and fowl, captured in wood the color of pitch, which had come to roost in that treeman taken root.

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