Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Vision of Ezekiel

Perhaps there are still lovely, overlooked landscapes to be found, even if they are only hidden away in paintings.  Ingrid D. Rowland describes one in a recent article on 'The Gentle Genius', Raphael, for The New York Review of Books. Walking through the Pitti Palace in Florence you can be overwhelmed by paintings large and small, almost shouting for attention.  'Amid all this beautiful clamour any viewer can probably be forgiven for missing out on what The Vision of Ezekiel has to offer beneath its strange image of God descending in a cloud of apocalyptic monsters: an infinitesimal landscape with a tiny Ezekiel in the foreground, no larger than a silverfish, transfixed by a burst of heavenly light. But what a landscape! Its lazy river recedes back into endless depths between steep wooded hills. In the space of perhaps two inches by eight, the painting takes us on a dizzying flight straight up the Tiber valley to the green heart of Umbria, to the road that still leads from bustling cities like Florence and Perugia to Rome. It is a landscape as softened by the slow action of wind and water as Leonardo’s famous drawing of the upper Arno valley is stark and spiky, and it is a vision no less evocative of nature’s omnipresence, of perspectival depth and the artist’s commanding eye—but all contained within the lower margin of a painting that is largely taken up with a bizarre, and entirely unnatural, celestial vision.'

Raphael and Giulio Romano, The Vision of Ezekiel, 1516–1517

Of course Rowland is not the first admirer of this landscape and it is actually mentioned in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550).  'He also painted a little picture with small figures, which is likewise at Bologna, in the house of Count Vincenzio Ercolano, containing a Christ after the manner of Jove in Heaven, surrounded by the four Evangelists as Ezekiel describes them, one in the form of a man, another as a lion, the third an eagle, and the fourth an ox, with a little landscape below to represent the earth: which work, in its small proportions, is no less rare and beautiful than his others in their greatness.'  In an exhibition at the Prado last year, the painting was hung next to a tapestry of the same subject, woven in Flanders and destined for the canopy bed of Pope Leo X.  However, the tapestry omits the landscape and so do the painting's preparatory drawings.  According to Rowland, 'the landscape seems to have been painted almost as a whimsy, but if so, it is the whimsy of a master. In its perfection this lovingly painted portrait of a place flies in the face of conventional art-historical wisdom, which says that the old masters who managed large workshops entrusted this kind of background detail to assistants and concentrated their own efforts on the faces and hands of the major figures'.  And yet, she concludes, 'when it comes down to it, why should a master painter be interested only in foregrounds, or figures?'

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