Chopped Masterworks Reassembled in London Show

Is an art gallery the right place to look at old pictures?

“Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces Before 1500,” an exhibition at the National Gallery in London, raises that question. Museums are full of objects that some people would say are in the wrong context. They are no more natural a habitat for many of their exhibits than zoos are for tigers.

Leaving aside items that were removed from archaeological sites and transported to museums in northern Europe and the U.S., there’s still the question of religious art. Many of the works in great collections originally were made for churches.

That applies to some of the best-known images in the National Gallery: Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks,” Piero della Francesca’s “Baptism of Christ,” Masaccio’s “Virgin and Child.” All of them are fragments from larger ensembles, both visual and emotional. They have been cut out of their surroundings — often literally, with a saw — and stuck on gallery walls like butterflies in a case.

Altarpieces, as the name suggests, were placed on altars as part of a complex of ritual and belief. In front of them mass was said, candles were lit, incense burned, prayers offered up, hymns sung. None of that happens at the National Gallery, though “Devotion by Design” does a good job of recreating an ecclesiastical atmosphere.

The central gallery is transformed into something like a nave, with Signorelli’s grand “Circumcision” (1490) as the high altar, and others along the side walls. The piped liturgical music wafting in the background, however, is a tacky touch.

Most of the exhibition is concerned with putting dismembered altarpieces back together. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, secular governments in Italy closed many religious institutions, monasteries and convents and sold surplus pictures.

Around the same time, collectors with avant-garde tastes began taking an interest in 14th- and 15th-century art. As Scott Nethersole writes in the catalog, “The art market responded to the demand for Italian ‘primitives’ by ruthlessly hacking them up, extracting saleable elements and discarding the rest.”

Often, the first thing to go was the frame, an integral part of the original. In the show, it’s possible to look at the back of a few that escaped the art dealer’s axe, including Giovanni dal Ponte’s “Ascension of St. John the Evangelist Altarpiece” (c. 1420). It’s an impressively elaborate piece of carpentry. (The frame for Michelangelo’s “Entombment” (1500-1) cost almost as much as his fee for the painting, according to the contract.)

Those ruthless 19th-century dealers have left a series of complicated jigsaw puzzles for art historians. Generally, they took apart polyptychs — multipanel altarpieces. After all, not many collectors have room for the whole enormous object. They traded the panels separately.

The result is that parts of a single work may be spread around half a dozen museums. Della Francesca’s “St. Michael” (1469) is one of four saints from the same altarpiece now in four different collections; the central Madonna and Child has vanished. Experts still are working on some of these puzzles.

Recreating completely the original context for such pictures — or for any work — is impossible. To do that, you’d have to resurrect 15th-century Italians, and see the works through their eyes. Still, this show is a useful reminder that altarpieces were intended for altars, and actually they have more meaning there.

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