400 years ago, Anthony van Dyck painted Saint Rosalia, a daughter of Palermo who was believed to have saved her city from a plague. Our art critic visited her in quarantine at the empty Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Quarantined in Sicily, van Dyck painted a daughter of Palermo who saved the city from an outbreak. Our critic went to see her in an empty museum.does not expect to reopen before July . I had the chance to enter the museum last week, ascending through the service entrance to meet Max Hollein, the Met’s director, and Quincy Houghton, its deputy director for exhibitions. It was a joyless visit. In the Great Hall, the large urns sit bereft of their usual immense sprays of fresh flowers . A skeleton crew of guards was stationed at tables, accompanied by industrial-size jugs of hand sanitizer. The lights in many galleries were off, the gates around the gift shop drawn. Sometimes being in an empty museum gives me a thrill, but this locked-down Met, without a public, left me miserable. Rosalia, though, is already in her assigned spot for “Making the Met,” which had been nearly installed before work halted in mid-March. She seems, at first glance, to be ascending to heaven with the help of nearly a dozen cherubim, and a shaft of light beams onto her ruddy face through dark clouds at the top of the painting. I spent a while examining its light coloring, its Titianesque brushwork; this is one of the Flemish artist’s most Italian-looking paintings. It is a deceptive painting. Look fast and you might easily confuse this for an Assumption of the Virgin, and indeed the saint was incorrectly identified when the Met bought the picture during its first year in business. (“Making the Met” also includes on 14th Street, with the mislabeled Rosalia clearly visible.) The confusion was understandable outside Sicily. Unlike Peter with his keys or Catherine with her wheel, this little-known saint did not have a set of standard attributes until the plague struck. Image Detail of putti holding a human skull in van Dyck’s “Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo.” Credit... via The Metropolitan Museum of Art Image One of the putti bears roses in tribute to the woman who stopped a plague. Credit... via The Metropolitan Museum of Art Our Flemish upstart therefore had to invent an iconography for the woman who stopped the epidemic. Van Dyck decided to picture Rosalia as a young woman with long, blond, kinky hair, cheeks blushing, eyes wide with ecstasy. Beneath her, energetically sketched in a washy palette of ocher and green, lies the harbor of Palermo, and in the background is Monte Pellegrino, the hill where her relics were found. The artist gave one of the putti bearing her forward a wreath of pink and white roses, a reference to her name. Another, at bottom left, is pawing a human skull: the skull of Rosalia herself, which was paraded through the quarantined city almost as soon as she came out of the ground. It seems certain that van Dyck would have seen the first of these processions in locked-down Palermo, which still takes place every July, and which are as Baroque as one of the artist’s altarpieces. The Festino di Santa Rosalia remains one of the largest festivals in Italy, a mix of sacred and secular, with rock concerts and pasta sampling mixed in with prayer. For New Yorkers barracked in our houses and apartments, or doctors and nurses scrambling for face masks, beseeching a saint to end an epidemic may not sound sufficient. Yet the curator Xavier F. Salomon, who organized a 2012 exhibition on van Dyck’s Sicilian sojourn (and who is now chief curator of the Frick Collection), has shown that the rulers of plague-hit Palermo relied on both medical and religious interventions to stem the contagion. Palermitans could pray to Rosalia’s remains in the city’s cathedral, but only while observing strict social distancing: You could visit on just one day a week, determined by your address. One edict proclaimed that, while the city should pray for “the intercession of glorious Saint Rosalia,” nevertheless “the human instruments and industry should not be set aside.” That included strict limits on movement, and regular recording of the ill and the dead. The sick had to isolate themselves on pain of excommunication, and worse; the archbishop warned that “they will be cursed with Lucifer, and Judas and all the Devils in hell.” Young van Dyck, who could have relied on his royal connections to get out, stayed through it all. He found, amid pestilence, a subject more urgent than the courtly portraits that would eventually make his name. What could a painter, and a foreign one at that, offer this city? So much more than a picture to pray before. Having endured a quarantine which shut down his international career, having survived an epidemic that could have cost him his life, van Dyck crafted in Palermo an incarnation of beneficence in chaos. Plagues are random. They are merciless. They are, I’m now learning, most terrifying for their uncertain duration. Yet Rosalia, floating over Sicily like a hot-air balloon, promises that the horror of epidemic will lift eventually, and beauty will return. I could hardly appreciate the privilege of seeing her all alone at the Met last week, so furious was I that this new plague had deprived us of the balm of art in common. New York’s imported guardian must remain in seclusion, as must van Dyck’s four other Rosalias, two in Europe ( Read more: The New York Times
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