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Three Stellar Acquisitions Join Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Three works of art of exceptional importance have been acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was announced today by the Museum's Director, Philippe de Montebello. In making the announcement, Mr. de Montebello stressed the high quality of the works, which come from different centuries and cultures, and reinforce the Museum's ongoing commitment to continually refining and augmenting its encyclopedic collections with what he termed "the best of kind." The new acquisitions are: a 14th-century Crucifixion scene in tempera and gold leaf on wood by the Italian master Pietro Lorenzetti; a bust of the mythological figure Marsyas by the late-Baroque sculptor Balthazar Permoser; and a set of three late-14th-century handscrolls from Japan illustrating the Tale of Aki-no-yonaga (Tale for the Long Autumn Night).

"Each of these three works is truly a consummate masterpiece," stated Philippe de Montebello, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "that will enhance three different areas of our collections enormously. Lorenzetti's brilliant gold-ground evocation of the Crucifixion will now take its place alongside the other early Italian masterpieces in our galleries, such as Giotto's Adoration of the Magi, Botticelli's Last Communion of Saint Jerome, and Mantegna's Adoration of the Shepherds. The representation of the suffering Marsyas – unforgettable in its dramatic expressiveness – is an outstanding Baroque marble sculpture from Central Europe that immediately takes its place as the most important work by Permoser in any American collection. And the handscrolls, on a par with national treasures of Japan, can be considered the most important acquisition in the area of Japanese art at the Metropolitan in the past 50 years. We are justly pleased and proud to announce the acquisition of these works of such quality, rarity, and high state of preservation."

The Crucifixion by the Sienese painter Pietro Lorenzetti, who was active from 1320 to 1344, was purchased by the Metropolitan in October. Lorenzetti, one of the great founders of Western painting, was a master of dramatic action and expressiveness. The subject of the Crucifixion is one that he made his own and that brought out everything that was most original to his art. The high-pitched, dramatic action takes place against a luminous gold background, the edges of which are decorated with tooled patterns. The central cross with Christ is viewed straight on, while those of the good and bad thieves are on either side, lower and angled. Pairs of Roman soldiers punctuate the areas between the crosses, and in the foreground is a densely packed group of spectators. To the right are Roman soldiers mounted on horses and conversing with each other, and to the left are Christ's followers – John the Evangelist and the three Maries, shown supporting the Virgin, who has collapsed in their arms.

The painting belonged to a portable altarpiece that included a Christ before Pilate panel now in the Vatican Museums. The Crucifixion would have been the climax of the series. Its richness of color is particularly noteworthy – plum, sharp green, yellow, vermilion, pink, and blue – along with the use of shell gold embellishment. The artist's highly original sense of color and his refinement of detail developed as he matured; as these characteristics are highly developed in The Crucifixion, the work – which is remarkably well preserved – has been dated to the end of his career.

The superb carving of the mythological figure Marsyas that has just entered the Museum's European Sculpture and Decorative Arts collection reflects the ambitious talent and artistic force behind the young sculptor Balthazar Permoser (German, 1651-1732) on his way to becoming a major figure in the history of Northern European sculpture. The bust depicts the satyr Marsyas during his flaying by Apollo. The god of music, Apollo, had challenged Marsyas to a musical contest – the satyr's flute against Apollo's lyre – with the winner allowed to impose any penalty on the loser. Apollo won the contest, and inflicted on Marsyas the savage punishment of being flayed alive. In Permoser's marble sculpture, Marsyas is depicted in bust form, his head looking up and tilted to the right, his tortured face screaming and his vigorously worked hair radiating up in wild flame-like strands. Baroque art often used themes of cruelty allegorically as a kind of spiritual purification through the shedding of the outer, sensual skin. Implicit in this are associations with Saint Bartholomew, who was martyred in a similar manner, and Christian salvation.

Permoser had an extraordinary creative output, extending from large-scale sculpture of the Roman and Florentine Baroque to small, ecclesiastical ivory pieces and delicate, light-hearted decorative objects for Augustus the Strong and the Green Vault in Dresden. Early in his career, Permoser traveled to Italy and worked for the Medici court in Florence. It is thought that he executed his bust of Marsyas in Rome between 1680 and 1685, where he would have seen its most important precedent, Gian Lorenzo Bernini's famous Anima Dannata (damned soul) of 1619. The depiction of Marsyas shows ingenuity and imagination, as well as the artist's virtuosity in the handling of the craftsman's tools.

The illustrated handscroll (emaki) – in which literature and painting collaborate closely to tell stories with pictures – evolved into a uniquely vibrant art form in Japan from the late 10th through the 14th century. Few early examples of emaki, which were read for pleasure or enlightenment, have survived the vicissitudes of history. The Metropolitan Museum's purchase of three handscrolls illustrating the Tale of Aki-no-yonaga (Tale for the Long Autumn Night), from the Nanbokucho period (1336-1392), brings to the Asian art collection of the Museum such rarities. They illustrate a love story between an older monk and a young novice, a theme that remained popular from the late 14th through the 16th century in Japan. This set of emaki is the earliest known example with this theme as its subject.

The story begins with the moment the older monk Keikai, from the temple at Mt. Hiei (northeast of Kyoto), first glimpses the handsome young acolyte Umewaka, from the nearby temple of Miidera. They meet, exchange letters, and finally spend the night together. On his way back to his temple, however, the boy is abducted by evil goblins. The monks of Miidera wrongly accuse the monks of Hiei, who in retaliation burn down the entire compound of Miidera. The young man, blaming himself for the destruction of his temple, drowns himself as penance. Keikai then decides to dedicate himself to prayers for the boy's afterlife. The story of Keikai and Umewaka is based loosely on the real life of the monk Sensai, a late Heian-period monk who lived at Hiei, and the historical incidents of repeated fires that destroyed Miidera during the 12th and 13th centuries.

The scrolls are placed in two boxes – the outer box in plain wood, and the inner one in lacquered wood. The anonymous artist of these emaki was trained in the traditional yamato-e (indigenous Japanese painting) technique of narrative illustration, utilizing a narrow but horizontally expanding space to tell stories in pictures. He sometimes depicts different moments of a story within a single illustration, a favorite pictorial device employed by emaki artists to show the passage of time within a single framework. He is also familiar with the new Song-dynasty Chinese technique, evident in the dark shading on rocks, hills, mountains, and in the strong accents in dark ink on tree trunks.

The upcoming exhibition Great Waves: Chinese Themes in the Arts of Korea and Japan – to be held in the Douglas Dillon Galleries from March 1 through August 17, 2003 – will put on display for the first time at the Metropolitan Museum the newly acquired scrolls. They will be featured in a section demonstrating how the Chinese narrative handscroll format was adapted in Japan.

In addition to these three acquisitions, a selection of the works of art acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art during the one-year period from July 1, 2001, through June 30, 2002, are featured in the recently published Metropolitan Museum Bulletin for Fall 2002.

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