Arts & Tradition

Traditional Art Has Stories to Tell

US winter exhibitions to warm the soul
TIMEJanuary 7, 2022

“[T]rue painting is such as not only surprises, but as it were, calls to us; and has so powerful an effect, that we cannot help coming near it, as if it had something to tell us,” wrote French art critic Roger de Piles in his “Principles of Painting” (1708).

Traditional art speaks to our souls—with subjects that gently guide or chastise us—while always offering us ways to become better versions of ourselves.

Across the country, there are some fascinating winter exhibitions that hold the qualities of traditional art dear. These artworks draw us in, like a warm hearth on a chilly day for, as de Piles suggested, they have stories to tell.

Art With Purpose

Faith and paternal love tenderly play out in the painting “Saint Joseph Embracing the Infant Christ” by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (commonly known as Baciccio). Joseph lovingly gazes down at his son, who is trying to tug at his father’s curly beard. It’s an endearing, universal scene designed to tug at our heart strings, as empathy pulls us into the picture. Yet Baciccio’s painting moves us beyond the earthly father-son bond by depicting a glowing halo emanating from the Christ Child, elevating us and the painting to a higher realm.

St. Joseph and the Christ Child, Norton Simon Foundation
“Saint Joseph Embracing the Infant Christ,” circa 1670–85, by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, commonly known as Baciccio. Oil on canvas; 50 inches by 38 1/4 inches. (The Norton Simon Foundation)

The Madonna and Child are more commonly depicted than Joseph and the Christ Child. But artworks of both subjects were made for the same reason—to aid contemplation and prayer in secular or religious settings.

Baciccio’s painting is one of over 60 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures in “The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire (1420–1750)” exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. All works are from the museum’s collection, and many are on view for the first time.

As art lovers today, we view the vast majority of artworks in museums and art galleries in artificial constructs behind rope or glass—far from the artists’ original intentions.

This exhibition explores how people once interacted with artworks showing the human figure. These works were once displayed in homes, churches, and art collectors’ cabinets, and the subjects were expressly chosen to educate, spark devotion, and impart or strengthen morals.

Virgin and Child Norton Simon
“Virgin and Child With Four Angels and Two Cherubim,” circa 1470–75, by Francesco Botticini. Tempera on panel; 25 3/4 inches by 19 1/2 inches. (The Norton Simon Foundation)

Viewers intimately experienced the art. Collectors directly handled prints and caressed sculptures in appreciation—as the patina (a greenish layer caused by the object’s being handled or exposed to the elements) on a bronze Venus attests to in the exhibition. Couples wishing to conceive were encouraged to gaze at paintings of beautiful lovers in order to be blessed with healthy children. The devout used images and sculptures to meditate on the suffering of martyrs, to bring out compassion, to deepen their faith, and to bring them closer to God.

Virgin Annunciate Norton SImon
Detail of “The Virgin Annunciate,” first half of the 14th century. Marble; 37 inches by 11 inches by 6-1/2 inches. (The Norton Simon Foundation)
Virgin Annunciate Norton SImon
“The Virgin Annunciate,” first half of the 14th century, attributed to Agostino di Giovanni. Marble; 37 inches by 11 inches by 6-1/2 inches. (The Norton Simon Foundation)

Divine Traditions

“The use of devotional objects as conduits for spiritual support is still a living tradition, and a thread that connects across many beliefs and value systems,” curator Aimee Marcereau DeGalan said in a press release. Marcereau DeGalan is the Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward senior curator of European arts at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Nine paintings and sculptures—from 1400 to the 1730s—are currently on display at the museum in the “Objects of Devotion: Highlights From Rockhurst University’s Van Ackeren Collection of Religious Art” exhibition.

Objects of Devotion Nelson-Atkins
(L–R) “Head of the Virgin,” circa 1700–1725, by Giuseppe Mazza; marble. “Immaculate Conception,” circa 1700, by Peter Strudel; marble. “The Holy Family,” circa 1730, by Giuseppe Maria Crespi; oil on canvas. Van Ackeren Collection of Religious Art, Greenlease Gallery, Rockhurst University. (Gabe Hopkins/Courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

The small display demonstrates the different ways that Christians used and continue to use artworks to guide and deepen their faith.

Through religious paintings and sculptures, artists of the past could effectively convey sacred truths to a largely illiterate population. They did this by imbuing the art with realistic emotions, a practice that was established in Western Europe as far back as 1300. Viewers moved by the works might have gained spiritual insights that brought them closer to God.

Head of the Virgin Nelson-Atkins
“Head of the Virgin,” circa 1700–1725, by Giuseppe Mazza; marble. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Pierson in memory of Mrs. Daisy C. Kahmann; Van Ackeren Collection of Religious Art, Greenlease Gallery, Rockhurst University. (Gabe Hopkins/Courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

Believers used the images, steeped in religious symbols, to venerate the saints, entrusting their woes and joys to them.

Standing Female Saint Nelson-Atkins
“Standing Female Saint,” circa 1450–1460, by anonymous; possibly limewood. Gift of Robert C. Greenlease Family; Van Ackeren Collection of Religious Art, Greenlease Gallery, Rockhurst University. (Gabe Hopkins/Courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

In the exhibition is a standing female saint believed to be carved in limewood. It’s unclear which saint the 15th-century German statue depicts, as any symbols suggesting her identity are missing. She holds out her empty left hand that once would have hinted at her identity. For instance, St. Catherine would have held a book, and St. Barbara would have held a sword or chalice, explains the carving’s title card.

An awe-struck Mary holds her breath as she gazes up to God in Peter Strudel’s sublime marble sculpture titled “Immaculate Conception.” The divine sculpture shows the moment when Christians believe God created Mary free from original sin.

Immaculate Conception Nelson-Atkins
“Immaculate Conception,” circa 1700, by Peter Strudel; marble. Gift of Robert C. Greenlease Family; Van Ackeren Collection of Religious Art, Greenlease Gallery, Rockhurst University. (Gabe Hopkins/Courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

Strudel’s Mary moves us instantly because he made her gesture relatable; who hasn’t held their breath and chest when aghast? Yet Strudel used Christian symbols to convey that this is certainly not an earthly scene. Mary stands on a heavenly sphere crushing a serpent carrying an apple. The serpent warns us that right from birth people are tempted to sin. Mary however, by her very virtue, demonstrates that sin can be conquered by pure faith. At her feet, joyous putti celebrate her miraculous arrival.

The title card next to the sculpture states that by the 1600s, artists had set symbols to represent core Christian concepts. For instance, art depicting the Immaculate Conception would show Mary holding her chest in awe or clasping her hands in prayer. The crescent moon (as seen in Strudel’s sculpture) or a crown of stars (as seen in paintings by Rubens and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo) indicates the sun, because Christians believe Mary to have been clothed by the sun, with the moon at her feet.

Sacred Art From the Spanish Americas

Divine art is also the focus of another exhibition at the museum, which opens in February. Fifteen Hispanic paintings from Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador feature in the exhibition titled “The Nelson-Atkins Paintings From the Spanish Americas: The Thoma Collection.” Created under Spanish rule, the paintings encourage leisure, prayer, or contemplation.

Our Lady of Mongui Nelson-Atkins
“Our Lady of Monguí,” 17th century (gold embellishment added 18th century), by an unidentified Colombian artist. Oil and gold on panel; 12 11/16 inches by 10 3/16 inches. Collection of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation. (Jamie Stukenberg/Courtesy of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation)

Of the European empires, the Spanish empire was one of the largest and longest lasting. For nearly 500 years, Spain ruled a vast realm stretching from South Asia to South America.

The Spanish colonization of Latin America began in 1535 when present-day Mexico, Central America, and parts of the Southern United States became the viceroyalty of New Spain. In 1542, South America (except Brazil and the far south) became the viceroyalty of Peru.

St. Michael Nelson-Atkin
“Saint Michael the Archangel,” late 17th–18th century, by an unidentified, possibly Bolivian  artist. Oil on canvas; 67 1/8 inches by 38 7/8 inches. Collection of Carl & Marilynn Thoma. (Jamie Stukenberg/Courtesy of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation)

European artists made the arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to create religious art for homes, convents, and churches throughout Latin America.

By the 17th century, South American artists had developed a unique Hispanic style of art, influenced by visiting Italian artists and by copying and adapting art imported from Europe. By the 18th century, regional schools and art academies fulfilled prestigious religious and secular commissions.

For instance, in the painting “Our Lady of Cocharcas,”an unknown Peruvian artist vividly depicted an Andean pilgrim procession. The composition is filled with colorfully clothed pilgrims making the high mountain trek to pay homage to the Virgin.

Our Lady of Cocharcas Nelson-Atkin
“Our Lady of Cocharcas,” 1751, by an unidentified Peruvian workshop. Oil and gold on canvas; 49 7/8 inches by 41 1/8 inches. Collection of Carl & Marilynn Thoma. (Jamie Stukenberg/Courtesy of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation)

The style and palette is almost reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s jovial peasant paintings.

Dominating the center of the painting is the Virgin Mary, a reminder for Catholics to place her at the center of their life. In her hand she holds a statue of Our Lady of Copacabana, a symbol of how the pilgrimage to Cocharcas began in the 16th century.

According to legend, a Catholic novice who lived in the Cocharcas area was guided by his Jesuit sponsor to take a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca to heal an injury. While on the way to the shrine, he found that all his symptoms disappeared. Vowing to serve the Virgin for the rest of his life, he took a small copy of the statue of Our Lady of Copacabana back to Cocharcas, and he along with the Jesuits installed the statue in the small 17th-century church.

The exhibitions highlighted here feature art created up to some 600 years ago, in the 15th century. Yet, the messages conveyed in those traditional artworks transcend time and language, as they rely on universal human experience. By appreciating traditional art, we are ultimately connecting with this inherent ancestral heritage that cherished goodness for all. Now, that’s something worth telling.

“The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire (1440–1750)” exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif. runs until March 7. To find out more, visit NortonSimon.org

At the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., the “Objects of Devotion: Highlights From Rockhurst University’s Van Ackeren Collection of Religious Art” exhibition runs until June 17; and the “Paintings From the Spanish Americas: The Thoma Collection” exhibition opens on Feb. 12 and runs until Sept. 4. To find out more, visit Nelson-Atkins.org

Lorraine Ferrier writes about fine arts and craftsmanship for The Epoch Times. She focuses on artists and artisans, primarily in North America and Europe, who imbue their works with beauty and traditional values. She's especially interested in giving a voice to the rare and lesser-known arts and crafts, in the hope that we can preserve our traditional art heritage. She lives and writes in a London suburb, in England.