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Giovanni da Milano: Seeing with the Senses


Above: Giovanni da Milano (Italian, Lombard, active 1346–69). Christ and Saint Peter; the Resurrection; Christ and Mary Magdalen. Tempera on wood, gold ground; 9 3/4 x 24 7/8 in. (24.8 x 63.2 cm). Private collection (L.2010.13)

Two years ago I had the good fortune of being in Florence when, at the Accademia, which every tourist visits for its collection of sculpture by Michelangelo, there was a marvelous exhibition devoted to the great fourteenth-century painter Giovanni da Milano (Italian, Lombard, active 1346–69). I spent hours in the exhibition and it was there that I first saw Christ and Saint Peter; the Resurrection; Christ and Mary Magdalen. Who would have guessed that only one year later it would become available for purchase and that a friend of the Metropolitan would buy it and place it on loan to the Museum after its cleaning by the Museum's chief restorer, Michael Gallagher? It is currently on view in the European Paintings galleries, and will be through the fall.

The subject is from the Bible, as it usually is in works from this period, when the most prestigious commission an artist could receive was for an altarpiece that would be seen by a large public in one of the churches of the city. To the left, Christ grasps the hands of Saint Peter; in the center is the Resurrection; and to the right, Mary Magdalen, the converted prostitute, reaches out to touch the risen Christ. I was struck at how the artist divided the three scenes by two trees, creating a space that is continuous but partitioned. It is a sculptural space: shallow and defined by the figures that inhabit it. I love the way the sleeping soldiers lean up against the sarcophagus; the way Christ stands on the lid rather than floating above it, as was commonly shown; and that one of the soldiers puts his claw-like hands on the lid:


Over the past year, the more I looked at the picture, the more I became convinced that its theme—theme, not subject—was touch and sight. Look at Saint Peter. He grasps the hands of Jesus, but he averts his eyes. On the other hand, Mary Magadalen looks at Jesus, but her outstretched arms don’t touch him. Indeed, according to the Biblical narrative, Christ is saying to her, "Noli me tangere" ("Do not touch me"). "Hmm," I thought. "This is really crucial not only to appreciating the interpretation Giovanni has of the subjects, but also the whole nature of his art. Isn't he saying, in effect, that although painting engages our vision, it can also suggest the sense of touch?" The more I thought about this, the more certain I was that Giovanni was underscoring an important aspect of painting at a crucial juncture in the history of European art. The paintings of Giovanni's predecessor Giotto di Bondone (Italian, Florentine, 1266/76–1337) are about space, a space that seems to extend beyond the picture frame and that has an illusory depth. Giovanni's paintings, by contrast, always adopt a shallow, sculptural space. The reality he attempts to create has an extraordinary physicality, which he makes even more palpable through his use of beautiful colors and the delicate modeling of his figures—a novelty when he worked in Florence in third quarter of the fourteenth century.

I thought I'd see if that great fourth-century theologian, Saint Augustine, had anything to say on this matter. Here's what I found in Augustine's Sermons on the New Testament, in a commentary on one of the scenes painted by Giovanni da Milano: "Look and see; 'feel and see'. See with your eyes alone; see with all your senses. Because [Jesus] was seeking the inner sense of faith, he presented himself also to their outer sense."

Now that this picture is on view at the Met, each day I pass through the galleries and stop before it, entranced by its delicacy and beauty, and moved by the way the artist has transformed the task of "illustrating" episodes from the Bible into a profound meditation on the nature of art and perception.

Keith Christiansen is chairman of the Department of European Paintings.

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