By Fr. George Welzbacher
January 21, 2007
Back in February of 1984, nearly a quarter of a century ago, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now gloriously reigning as Pope Benedict XVI, visited the St. Paul campus of the University of St. Thomas at the invitation of Father James Stromberg, for many years the Chairman of the University's Department of Philosophy (and affectionately remembered here at St. John's as a former weekend associate). Cardinal Ratzinger, in the opinion of many the most brilliant theologian in the world today, gave a formal academic lecture that drew a standing- room-only attendance of faculty and students in the University's largest auditorium. His topic was the sovereign contribution that beauty in the liturgy and in the sacred arts can make towards prizing open the barricaded hearts and minds and souls of men so that God's light, His saving truths, can enter in. As I recall, the Cardinal noted in passing that apart from the attraction towards the holy that sacred art at its finest can foster in the individual soul, the sheer volume, the astonishing range and the level of artistic perfection achieved down through the centuries by painters, sculptors, architects and musicians working under the inspiration of the Catholic Faith suggests, to say the least, that a tree that has produced so wonderful an abundance of beautiful fruit and medicinal leaves (like the fruit trees of Ezechiel's vision, watered by the stream that rushed forth from the temple of God) cannot be dismissed out of hand as unworthy of consideration in its claim to be inspired by the truth. (And may I remark by way of contrast that the psychotic horrors manifest in our own day in the paintings of, let us say, a William de Kooning or a Francis Bacon point to a world that has lost its way).
In support of Cardinal Ratzinger's thesis that there is a direct connection between beauty in the liturgy and the fostering of faith may I cite a dramatic illustration from the recent history of our own archdiocese. Surely it is no coincidence that prior to the ugly vulgarization of the Catholic liturgy that was imposed on us in the mid-1960's, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was blessed with so many vocations to the priesthood that in 1960-61 an entire new building, Austin Hall, had to be added to the campus of Nazareth Hall, the archdiocesan minor seminary, whereas by the final years of that same decade there were so few men aspiring to Holy Orders that Nazareth Hall was closed and was subsequently sold.
As a more positive illustration of how beauty in the liturgy can draw souls to the Church and can foster vocations to the priesthood may I cite the faith-journey of my good friend, Father John Zuhlsdorf, who was the celebrant and the impressive homilist here at St. John's at the eleven o'clock Mass on Christmas Eve. In his early adult years an accomplished musician but a rather nonchalant practitioner of the Lutheran faith, he began to attend Solemn High Mass at the Church of St. Agnes in order to hear masterpieces of Catholic music sung Sunday after Sunday by the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale accompanied by instrumentalists from the Minnesota Symphony. As the weeks and months passed he found himself feeling more and more at home in the presence of the splendid ceremonies and the persuasive presentation of authentic Catholic teaching from the St. Agnes pulpit, the upshot being that he asked the veteran pastor of St. Agnes Parish, Monsignor Richard Schuler, to give him a systematic course of instruction in the Catholic Faith. Received into full communion with the Catholic Church, he felt called to a higher service of the Church in the ranks of the priesthood. After studies at the St. Paul Seminary and at Rome he was ordained a priest by none other than Pope John Paul the Second. "Father Z" now serves the Church most conspicuously as a graduate student at Rome in the field of Patristics and as a Catholic journalist. His erudite comments during the Fox Television News coverage of the death of John Paul the Great and the election of Benedict XVI were particularly noteworthy, and you yourself may be among the many readers of the column he writes each week for The Wanderer under the banner "What Does the Prayer Really Say?" I dare say that perhaps his greatest single contribution to the authentic renewal of the Catholic liturgy will have been the significant role that he played in the extensive deliberations conducted at Rome by the Sacred Congregation for Worship, deliberations leading up to Pope Benedict's recent decree which ruled that vernacular translations of the official Latin text providing the words for the consecration of the Precious Blood in the celebration of the Eucharist shall henceforth reflect precisely what the Latin words "really say" i.e., not "for all" but (pro multis) "for many."
What prompted me to embark on this whole train of thought was a recent re-reading of an article that I had filed away from the New Yorker magazine, the double issue of July 11th and 18th, 2005. The article provides background information on the recent purchase, at a price breaking all records, of a masterpiece of sacred art from the High Middle Ages by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The essay was researched and written by Calvin Tomkins. I thought that it might be of interest to you.
The Missing Madonna by Calvin Tomkins
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's recent purchase of an early Renaissance 'Madonna and Child" by Duccio di Bouninsegna, for a price said to have been between forty-five and fifty million dollars, has been greeted by most New Yorkers with unruffled calm. Although the acquisition was covered extensively last November, with emphasis on the price and the extreme rarity of works by this Sienese master, the little picture (it measurers eleven inches high by just over eight inches wide, and is painted in tempera and gold on a wooden panel) has not attracted the multitudes that would make it difficult to see....
To be sure, thirteenth and fourteenth centurv Italian paintings lack the popular clout of works by Leonardo or van Gogh, but you'd think more people would be curious about something that cost more than double what the Met had spent on any previous acquisition.
Small as it is, the painting has a powerful presence. It captures the eye from a distance, and commands, up close, something like complete attention. Holding the Christ child in her left arm, the Virgin looks beyond him with melanclioly tenderness, while the child reaches out a tiny hand to brush aside her veil. Centuries of Byzantine rigidity and impersonal, hieratic forms are also brushed aside in this intimate gesture. We are at the beeinning of what we think of as Western art, elements of the Byzantine style linger-in the gold background, the Virgin's boneless and elongated fingers, and the child's unchildlike features-but the colors of their clothing are so miraculously preserved, and the sense of human interaction is so convincing, that the two fgures seem to exist in a real space, and in real time. Candle burn marks on the frame, which is original, testify to the picture's use as a private devotional image. It is dated circa 1300.
Although the "Madonna and Child" was well known in art-historical circles as the only one of Duccio's dozen or so surviving paintings to remain in private hands, its whereabouts had been uncertain since the death, in 1949, of its last registered owner, the Belgian collector Adolphe Stoclet. In fact, the picture never left the Stoclet house in Brussels. Stoclet and his wife, who died within a week of each other, had willed the house and much of their collection, including the Duccio, to their son, Jacques, whose widow held on to it until her death. in 2001. Soon after that, her heirs (four daughters), who are very high on anonymity, agreed to lend it to an important exhibition in Siena of Duccio and his school. A color-plate reproduction of the picture--- the first one ever made--- was printed in the exhibition catalogue, but a few weeks before the opening, in 2003, the painting was withdrawn. This coincided with rumors of an impending sale, which turned out to be true.
Although everyone involved in the transaction is bound by omerta [the Sicilian Mafia's oath to maintain silence], it is known that both Sothebys and Christie's, the principal auction houses, engaged in lengthy and fiercely competitive negotiations with the heirs, and Christie's eventually won the prize.
The family was very keen that the painting "go to a public museum or institution, according to Nicholas Hall, international director of Christie's Old Master department. This was one reason that the family decided upon a private "treaty" sale, in which the auction house and the seller determine a price and then offer the work to selected potential buyers, rather than letting it take its chances at public auction; another reason was that a private sale is more private. "We got it by putting a significantly higher valuation on the painting than anyone else---by multiples--- based on its being the last Duccio in private hands and its being so impeccably preserved...."
One day last August, Hall had lunch at Serfina's on Madison Avenue, with his friend Keith Christiansen, the curator in charge of Old Master paintings at the Met. "This is going to be the most expensive pixxa you've ever had," Hall said, handing over an envelope that contained a high-resolution color transparency of Duccio's "Madonna and Child, " and a lavish presentation booklet that Christie's had prepared for prospective buyers. Christiansen, a tall. energetic man who clearly finds endless enjoyment in his work, brought these items back to his office at the Met, and took some very deep breaths. He himself never met the sellers. "The contract document must have been four inches thick, and it was the most rigidly controlled transaction I've ever been involved in," he said. "At tirnes, it didn't seem they were too keen to sell at all. I really have no idea what went on behind the scenes."
Two years earlier, the Met had paid twelve million dollars for a small, surpassingIy beautiful "Crucifixion" by Pietro Lorenzetti, one of Duccio's pupils and followers. Christiansen had thought that this would be the best picture he ever recommended to the trustees in his years at the Met, where he has been since 1977. (His official title there is Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings.) The possibility of acquiring a work by Duccio then had seemed infinitely remote. There was only one in New York, the "Temptation of Christ on the Mountain," at the Frick Collection; like the Duccios at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Kimball Museum. in Forth Worth, and a few other museums around the countrv, the Frick painting is a fragment cut from the predella to the "Maesta," Duccio's towering masterpiece in Siena. which shows the Virgin enthroned ("in majesty") and surrounded by the saints.....
Duccio's fame and influence in fourteenth-century Siena were as great as Giotto's in Florence, but, throughout the long and sometimes warring rivalry between these two city-states, history, power, and publicity favored the Florentine. By the sixteenth century, Duccio's name was largelyforgotten outside Siena. Giorgio Vasari. whose "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects" was published in 1568, extolled the great Rucellai Madonna. which Duccio had painted on commission for the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. and which now hangs in the Uffizi; he called it a pivotal work that left behind the "Greek" (Byzantine) manner and took the first step toward the modem style, but he attributed the painting to Cimabue. Giotto's predecessor and teacher. Vasari devoted only a brief entry in his book to Duccio, and got his dates wrong.
The rediscovery of Duccio and other forgotten masters, spurred by the pioneering scholarship of Bernard Berenson and others, had gained considerable momentum by the close of the nineteenth century. Early Renaissance paintings. known then as "primitives," were increasingly admired, and in 1904 an important exhibition of "Antica Arte Senese" was held in Siena. A week or so before it opened, Corrado Ricci, the principal organizer, received a letter from a friend of his, saying that the "likeable and intelligent collector from Rome, Count Gregorio Stroganoff had two pictures that he would like to be included in the exhibition. One was an "Annunciation" by Simone Martini. The other was a small "Madonna and Child" by Duccio-the painting that now belongs to the Met. It was too late to get Stroganoff s pictures into the exhibition catalogue, but both of them were in the show. Mary Logan Berenson, Bernard's wife, writing about the exhibition for the influential Paris publication Gazette des Beaux-Arts, took special note of the Duccio. "Perhaps the most perfect work" on view. she wrote, "is the little Madonna of Duccio belonging to Count Gregory Stroganoff... which, small as it is, offers so much majesty, dignity, and profound sentiment."
Stroganoff was a wealthy Russian expatriate who had lived in Rome for most of his mature life. His main interest lay in his art collection, which filled his large palazzo on the Via Sistina. He particularly liked Italian pictures of the thirteenth andfourteenth centuries, and he seems to have known a good deal about them himself...
The fact that the Duccio "Madonna and Child" is so well preserved suggests, however, that it has passed through relatively few hands since 1300. "It wouldn't be completely out of the question that the same family passed it down," Christiansen said.
When Stroganoff died, in 1910, he left no legal instructions regarding his collection. An Italian art historian named Verdui Kalpakcian, who has done research on Stroganoff, writes that the Count had a married daughter, Princess Maria Gregorievna Scerbatoff, who conveyed all rights of inheritance to her grown son and daughter, Vladimir and Aleksandra. These two wrote a letter in 1911 to the director of The Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, saying that, as their grandfather had wished, they were bequeathing two of his paintings to the museum... Stroganoff's grandchildren subsequently gave The Hermitage two more Italian paintings, but Duccio's "Madonna and Child" stayed in Rome. The Scerbatoff family moved back to Russia before 1912, and when the revolution broke out, in 1917, they were trapped there. Maria, Vladimir, and Aleksandra were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1920, at the family estate in St. Petersburg. Vladimir's widow managed to escape Russia with two young daughters: Olga, born in 1915, and Maria, born a year later. The three of them made their way to Rome, where, in a scene right out of an Ernst Lubitsch film, a loyal former employee of the old tsarist embassy offered them a tearful welcome and handed over the keys to the Via Sistina palazzo.
Having no other means of support, the surviving Scerbatoffs started selling the furniture and the art. Bernard Berenson, who had formed a lucrative advisory partnership with the dealer Joseph Duveen, knew the Stroganoff collection well. In 1922, he cabled Duveen a list of Stroganoff pictures for possible purchase, with Duccio's "Madonna"at the top of the list. A Duveen agent went to the palazzo to look at Berenson's recommendations, and reported unfavorably on the Duccio. "Very small and ineffective," he called it, and more to the point, "nothing for America." The picture was still unsold early in 1923, according to correspondence in the Duveen files, but soon after that it was acquired, through the Sangiorigi auction house, in Rome, by the Stoclet family, in Brussels.
Adolphe Stoclet, the son of a rich Belgian banker, had had the wit or the good fortune to marry a niece of the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens, who lived in Paris and knew Manet and Whistler. Suzanne Stevens and Adolphe soon became ardent patrons of the avant-garde in theatre and music. In Milan, where they lived from 1896 to 1902, they developed a passion for the opera and for buying Italian paintings, especially early ones....
"Everything the Stoclets collected was something you could hold in your hand, small and precious." I was told by Everett Fahy, the head of the European Paintings Department at the Metropolitan.
Reenter Bernard Berenson. In 1933, in the depth of the Depression, Berenson sent a letter to Edward Fowies, the Duveen associated he trusted more than anyone else in the firm. "Now as for Stoclet, " he wrote, "I should deplore his having to sell. If he does sell, I naturally want you to buy. First andforemost the little Duccio 'Madonna' from the Strogaanoff collection. It is the very loveliest and yet the most characteristic thing he ever did, I doubt whether a more precious painting of a primitif exiists. It is a treasure you should dive for, and let no one snatch away. " Things moved at a more leisurely pace in those days. Duveen's agent didn't get around to scouting the Stoclet collection until 1936....
Duveen again decided against trying to buy it, and that, according to Keith Christiansen, was very good news, indeed. "Duveen would unquestionably have ripped off the frame," he said, "and sent the picture to somebody to brighten it up. " Aside from Stroganoffs early restoration and some minor later interventions, the painting has never suffered the shocks and abrasions that market-driven restorers can so assiduously inflict.
Christiansen had this and a lot more information in mind last fall, when Phillippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan's director, returned from vacation and was immediately shown the Duccio transparency. "When he heard what the asking price was, he sort of blanched, and said, "Where am I going to find the money?"' Christansen recalls. "But you know Phillippe. If he wants something and the trustees know he wants it-I had no doubt that the funds could be found." In twenty-eight years as the MIet's director, de Montebello has acquired, along with countless works of art, a huge reservoir of suave personal authority. "I was just smitten by the transparency, as anyone would be, " he told me, "'and I decided we had to go and look at this picture. " This meant aoing to the London office of Christie's, where the Duccio was held. "I knew it was something we could pull off and something we must pull off," he said. "After all, the Met is the institution that bought the Velazquez 'Juan de Pareja'-in 1970, for $5,5 million-and Rembrandt's 'Aristotle with a Bust of Homer,' in 1961, for $2.3 million." He didn't mention Jasper John's "White Flag," for which the Met paid something more than twenty million dollars in 1998-the museum's most expensive acquisition until Duccio. Auction records keep being broken for more than that, of course; Picasso's Rose Period "Boy with a Pipe"' went for a hundred and four million dollars at Sotheby's in 2004. For de Montebello, the Duccio's price was almost incidental. "It's not what you pay for the important things that people remember," he said. "But, if you don't buy them, it's forever, and that's unacceptable."
The Duccio was being offered not only to the Met. The Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, had already turned it down, reportedly because of the price....
The Met's only serious rival at this point was the Louvre. The Louvre, like the Metropolitan, had no Duccio to anchor its glorious collection of early Italian art, and its acquisition money, from museum funds and private sources as well as from the French aovernment, were eminently tappable.
DeMontebello, Christiansen, and Dorothy Mahon, the museum's head of paintings conservation, flew to London on September 24h. They spent two hours with the little painting. They held it in their hands, and examined the surface with a ten-inch maginifer. Its state of preservation amazed them. In this case, the modeling of folds in the Virgin's deep-blue mantle was largely intact. Duccio had used a high-quality in blue made from azurite, Mahon told me later, after she and her colleagues had analyzed the picture in the Met's conservation studio. "The buildup was so skillfully done," Mahon said, "with different colors of azurite and then lead white in the final one.,, (White is more resistant to chemical change than dark colors are.) Seeing the painting at Christie's was enough to convince de Montebello. "There was not an ounce of doubt in my mind about it." he told me. A sense of urgency-he was aware that his colleagues at the Louvre had already been to see the painting-led him to make an offer on the spot, an offer that was, he indicated, close to the asking price.
The director's move stunned Christiansen. "I never expected that he would make an offer." he said. "I thought this was the first phase-normally,we would retum,he'd talk to the trustees. and of course you'd try to get the picture here, but that was out of the question. The picture wasn't leaving Christie's until the whole deal was finished." DeMontebello concedes that he moved much faster than he normally would have. "Technically, I was not authorized to make an offer," he explained. He had talked to several key members of the board, though, and, as he put it, "I just took a chance that my trustees would go along and they did. But my offer was to Christie's. They were going to relay it to the seller the following week, so I knew I would have time, and in fact by the time they relayed it to the seller I had already got the approval of my trustees." (Note the recurrent modifier here: my trusttees.) De Montebello dispatched several of his trustees to London to look at the painting, and he made sure that as many others as possible had a chance to hear Christiansen talk about it. Christiansen's eloquence on the subject is torrential. He views the little painting as a decisive step in the evolution of Duccio's style, which reached its apogee about eight years later in the "Maest "' altar-piece. As he put it to me, "It's part of the whole revolution in expression that takes, place in the late thirteenth century and early fourteenth century-the revolution which of course has as its real figurehead neither Duccio nor Giotto but Dante. Dante is an absolute contemporary of Giotto, and a near-contemporary of Duccio, he's writing at exactly the same time, and he even made a scene with Giotto and Cimabue in 'The Divine Comedy.' The fact that Dante chose to write in the vernacular, in Italian rather than Latin, is one of the turning points of the West. And this is precisely what these artists were about as well-finding a vernacular as opposed to an intentionally elitist, anti-popular form of painting. This is the real thing; painting is no longer an illustration but something that attempts to evoke a human response from the viewer."
Although the purchase would put a large dent in the Met's acquisition funds for years to come, de Montebello reports that some trustees told him, "If you have to pay more, to get it, pay more.. ..
Duccio's "Madonna and Child' went On view at the Metropolitan ... as the centerpiece of a second-floor gallery containing the Lorenzetti "Crucifixion" and other early Italian pictures from the collection....
You can scarcely fault de Montebello for attaching his favorite modifier to the new acquisition. "It's the single most important purchase during my twenty-eight years as director," he said....
De Montebello was quite touched that, among the many congratulatory letters the museum has received about the painting, there was one to him from Thomas Hoving [Mr. De Montebello's predecessor at the Met.] He was even more touched by the letter from a visitor he had never met, who wrote, "Finally, the Met has its 'Mona Lisa.'"