Pontormo: Miraculous Encounters at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum is a small exhibit, tucked away in a gallery the size of a doctor’s waiting room. But the impact of being so close up with two Mannerist masterpieces will stay with you for some time.
Both paintings, the Visitation and Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap, were completed by Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1557) during the siege of Florence that took place between the years 1528-1529. Preparatory drawings for each painting are also included in the exhibition.
Dominating the intimate space is the almost six foot high Visitation, immediately familiar in style—elongated, pastel-draped, almost floating figures—to Pontormo’s Deposition from the Cross in the Capponi Chapel in The Church of Santa Felicita. A bench has been placed in front of the painting, inviting us to be front row viewers at this street scene, paralleling the position of the two tiny men in the lower left corner.
We sit down and witness the meeting between Mary and her older cousin Elizabeth, both pregnant with Jesus and John the Baptist respectively. Behind the cousins are two female attendants. (In 16th century Florence, respectable women rarely appeared in public, and then, only accompanied by handmaidens.) The attendants gaze directly back at us—the viewers—adding to the sensation that we are active participants in a scene of utmost importance.
For Florentines, the biblical narrative of the Visitation was of utmost importance. Bruce Edelstein, the co-editor of the exhibit’s catalogue writes: “Indeed, the Visitation is the moment in which John is supposed to have been cleansed of original sin while in his mother’s womb, a special privilege conferred on the Baptist.”
Pontormo’s painting has been installed over a side altar in the small parish church of Pieve dei Santi Michele e Francesco in Carmignano for close to 480 years now. But Edelstein proposes that the painting may have been commissioned for a Florentine location because of: 1) the background urban architecture 2) the custom of the accompanying handmaidens and 3) the connection to St. John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint. John’s elevated status is further emphasized by the fact that Elizabeth is not bowing to Mary as she appears in most depictions of the story. John’s mother is on equal footing with the future mother of Christ.
The exhibit catalogue is brimming with wonderful details: Pontormo may have modeled his composition on a Baptistery mosaic that also shows Elizabeth at the same height as Mary. The two men on the bench are, most likely, the sidelined husbands, Joseph and Zachariah. The donkey peeking out around the building on the left could be thought of as a prefiguaration of Mary’s donkey on her ride to Bethlehem.
Pontormo’s Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap was painted in the same time period as Visitation but the work is radically different in style and subject matter. Here, Pontormo is capturing a contemporary image — a supremely elegant young man who could easily turn heads on a Milan runway today but who is totally in style with his time. Exactly who he is, is uncertain — perhaps Carlo Neroni from the once exiled Neroni family that conspired against Piero de’ Medici.
Again, the catalogue enriches our understanding of the exhibit. Quoting the diarist Agostino Lapini, we learn some fashion fun facts about the 16th century youths of Florence who rallied to defend the town. Lapini tells us that they “…abandoned the traditional hood for ‘hats and capes’ (cappelli e berrette) and began to cut their hair, while prior to the siege they wore their hair long, down to their shoulders…”.
These primary sources and other documentary evidence are what make this exhibit so thrilling. The Visitation is a profoundly spiritual painting interpreted through the images of four Florentine women, rarely seen on the streets, yet carrying with them the pride and beliefs of their city. Portrait of a Young Man is an equally arresting image. We see a volunteer soldier, standing before us in the height of fashion and ready to defend his town to the death.
The once-in-a-lifetime occasion of seeing these two works at the Morgan Library in New York arose due to the Carmignano parish’s decision to lend the Visitation as part of a crowdfunding project to restore the medieval church and convent. The exhibit is on until January 6, 2019, and then will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in LA, from February 5 to April 28, 2019.