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Friday, December 9, 2011

Mixed Media Baroque

Christ Afixed to the Cross, ca. 1640s, Sacro Monte, Varallo, Italy
Although we don't tend to see them now so much as we use to, there was a time in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s when hardly a tourist area in this country didn't have its own wax museum. A few, such as the venerable Madam Tousaud's in London (and elsewhere), still exist and are considered classics, but the vast majority were second-rate tourist rip-offs catering to teenagers or younger, where movie creatures from Frankenstein to Frank Furter (Rocky Horror Picture Show) strutted their stuff next to poor likenesses of rock stars and recent presidents. Though the wax museum is an outgrowth of the late 18th and 19th centuries, the yearning to create realistic, painted, sculptural likenesses goes back much further. The medium was not colored (or painted) wax but painted wood, and the work dates back to the early 1600s.

The Road to Calvary, ca. 1600
In the beginning, two artists collaborated. Giovanni d'Errico carved the figures and an artist who went by the name, Morazzone, painted the frescos forming a backdrop for them in decorating a series of chapels (now some 45 in number) of Sacro Monte, Varallo, in the mountains of Northern Italy. Starting with Adam and Eve, but primarily dwelling on the life of Christ, the elaborate tableaus depict the gospel story from the annunciation to the cruicifixion and entombment. I mentioned wax museums at the start because the installations remind one of what we might encounter in that venue. Photographed, one might even go so far as to say they resembles "stills" from a motion picture on the life and death of Christ. Yet much of the chapel complex is over 400 years old. It's a mixed medium extravaganza rivaling a passion play, in the finest baroque tradition, perfectly preserved over the centuries by the monks of the Sacro Monte shrine.

Christ Before Pilate, ca. 1600
Pontius Pilate sits in judgment; Ciaphus presents his case. Christ is diminutive, humbled, cloaked in a short, red robe mocking kingly grandeur, while all about are up to a dozen Roman guards, Jews, and onlookers. Though carved, painted wood is the medium of choice, the clothes, the swords, the spears, the Roman helmets, all are real. On the walls in back, the fresco artist, Morazzone, a follower of Gaudenzio Ferrari, has recreated with trompe l'oeil fidelity the grand arches and architecture of the Roman court framing a crucifixion and still more painted figures in an overall mixed-media presentation to rival or even surpass the best Madam Tousaud ever had to offer. Over the centuries, various painters and sculptors have worked to enlarge and maintain the numerous tableaus exhibited. If this presentation is sufficient to awe us today, think what an impact it must have had on the thousands of weary pilgrims who trekked up to this remote, mountain monastery four hundred years ago.

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