Lewis: Italian art on parade at YUAG

A showdown between mythology and divinity is taking place on the first floor of the Yale University Art Gallery.

The face-off is set in Italy and comes with plenty of gold-leaf and autumnal hues, dredged up from between the years 1320 and 1650.

The exhibit, curated by the gallery’s European art curator Laurence Kanter and dryly titled “Italian Paintings from the Richard L. Feigen Collection,” features the work of artists from Florence, Siena, Rome, Bologna and Naples, including Orazio Gentileschi, Lorenzo Monaco, Ludovico Carracci, and the magical Fra Angelico.

All paintings are from the collection of Feigen ’52, an established art dealer and collector with an eagle eye, whose writings on the subject are also well-known and well-respected. While his extensive private collection has never been completely catalogued, the pieces in this exhibit are arranged and explained with great detail. The over 50 images on display are organized chronologically — with the most recent paintings in the first room and the oldest paintings in the last. While 14th-17th century Baroque works may not, at first, sound particularly sensational, the iconography of the paintings, many of which are small and subtle, will floor viewers who consider them carefully.

Two luscious women contend for the attention of visitors entering the first room. The Penitent Magdalene reclines gracefully, gazing upward, while to her right, the classical maiden Danaë is raped by Zeus, who takes the form of a shower of gold coins.

The maidens, both by Orazio Gentileschi (in 1628 and 1621-2 respectively), are buxom blondes, but they also have an edge. The Magdalenes wheat-colored hair falls upon the pages of an open tome and a solemn off-white skull — reminders of mortality. And the eroticism of Danaë’s plight is hardly shrouded. According to Greek legend, the damsel’s kingly father imprisoned her in a tower when an oracle prophesied that her son would one day murder him. The woman pictured has one arm raised to receive Zeus, and the blush on her cheeks and lips are heightened by the contrast with her skin, and enhanced by the dark crimson of the mattress in the image’s lower right corner.

One of the highlights of the exhibit, Fra Angelico’s marvelous “Saint Sixtus,” was intended as the left wing of a triptych but here is displayed by itself in the center of the room. The placement grants the saint a special spotlight in which he glows. With a steady, level gaze, Sixtus seems almost to float in his neon-coral-colored robes that draw the viewer’s gaze and hide his feet.

The walls of the gallery are initially a deep blue, then a dark rusty red. Elizabeth Manekin, an education fellow at the gallery, explained that Kanter chose the color because it echoes the color of the bolus — the reddish clay adhesive used in many of the works to attach gold leaf, and which now shows through as the gold has flaked off over the centuries.

In one small panel from 1471, the pink-robed Archangel Raphael, prevents a suicide, literally cutting the rope and then holding the survivor’s hand as they walk to safety. The panel was part of an altarpiece in Florence dedicated to the three archangels, but on its own, the small scene takes on a kind of humble majesty.

Giovanni di Paolo’s “Christ as the Man of Sorrows,” a panel from an altarpiece painted in Siena in 1460-65, depicts Christ with a ghostly, visible skeleton, gray lips, downcast gaze and berry-red stigmata wounds.

Yes, this is yet another Italian art exhibit, but Feigen and Kanter, with discerning taste and careful selection, have managed to grant celebrity to lesser-known but still masterful works and to successfully use the space to let the angels, saints and characters from Roman myth vie for the attention of modern masses.

“Italian Paintings from the Richard L. Feigen Collection” will be on view from through Sept. 12.

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