Fresco Stirs a Fracas; Mother Teresa, on Display

13th-Century Artwork Prompts Query: Where Did Renaissance Begin?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 21, 2004 ( Even for those of us who live here in Rome, a lifetime only allows us to scratch the surface of the city’s rich history. For one art historian, this experience was quite literal. Scratching at a 17th-century surface, he discovered a priceless 13th-century work of art.

In 2001, a young art history graduate student by the name of Tommaso Strinati was doing research on the medieval Roman church of Ara Coeli, which had belonged to the Franciscans until 1870. Documents in the church archives indicated that 13th-century master Pietro Cavallini had done extensive painting in this church.

While not much is known about Pietro Cavallini, it seems clear that he ran a busy Roman workshop in the late 1200s. He executed mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere, a “Last Judgment” in Santa Cecilia and a small fresco in the left transept of Ara Coeli. His date of death is uncertain, but one biographer marvels that Cavallini lived to be “over 90, even though he never covered his head.”

The lack of a large body of extant work has not helped art historians become better acquainted with this master. But Strinati has provided another piece of the puzzle: While studying the hasty Baroque whitewash in a chapel in the right transept, he found faint traces of artwork peeking from beneath the surface. After extensive peeling and restoration, the find was put on public display this year. A Madonna and Child by the hand of Cavallini.

The fragment of what must have been an entire cycle of frescos, appears to be an altarpiece. The Blessed Mother stands before a waist-high barrier with a golden tapestry arrayed behind her, holding her Son, pink-cheeked and golden haired, as he blesses the viewer. John the Baptist and perhaps John the Evangelist flank the pair.

But the most intriguing aspect of the work is hidden in the background. Above the Virgin’s head there appears to be a three dimensional cornice, projecting toward the viewer. Other fragments, high on the right wall, show rudimentary perspective renderings of a cityscape, with little cupids sitting atop towers stringing garlands. For a painting done in 1285, this is an astoundingly “modern” rendering of space.

Also novel are the bright, cheery colors. Shining pinks and vivid blues make an exciting appearance after centuries of deep somber tones in Roman fresco painting.

The recent exposition of this fresco has reignited one the liveliest debates in art history: Did the Renaissance really begin in 1300s Florence at the hands of Giotto, the master fresco artist credited by Renaissance author Giorgio Vasari as father of the Renaissance? Or did it rather begin in the workshop of Cavallini, here in Rome, where the great models of antiquity were very much at hand?

It seems that the Franciscan order played a part in the creation of this new artistic phenomenon, calling for artists to emulate in painting the same clear, vigorous, natural style they themselves used in preaching. The extended association of Cavallini with the Franciscans of Ara Coeli would help further his cause as father of the Renaissance, as Giotto was already linked to the Franciscans in Padua, Assisi and Florence.

Although our lifetimes may not allow us to see a clear victory on the part of one or the other artist, for the first time in 400 years we can enjoy the refreshingly simple loveliness of one of Rome’s great masters.

* * *

A Jolting Exhibit, Sans Crucifix

Last Friday, on the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, Rome feted another holy Teresa. The life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was beatified last year, is the subject of a photographic exhibition which opened on Oct. 15.

The show, entitled “Madre,” or “Mother,” uses two dozen large black and white photographs to create an itinerary through the life, world and mission of Mother Teresa. These photos were taken by Mario Podestá, a world famous Argentinean journalist who was killed in Iraq in 2003.

The first image of Mother Teresa to greet visitors is a blue and white painted portrait by the artist Petrus. This striking depiction impresses the vibrant presence of this extraordinary woman on the mind through its use of strong, energetic strokes.

Flanking the painting are several photographs of women, children and various people assisted by Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity. The camera captures the individual character and beauty of each visage whether it be smooth or wizened, bold or timid, careworn or damaged. The photograph shows us how Teresa saw the people she helped: each beautiful, individual soul in which she found the face of Jesus.

But for us to empathize or find lovable a professionally photographed face in a comfortable gallery is one thing. Teresa saw these single, shining souls in the chaotic context of the teeming streets of Calcutta. The photos that follow acquaint us with the world that Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian by birth, adopted as her own.

Two photos, strikingly juxtaposed, illustrate the gritty realities of this world. The first, a beggar, introduces the viewer to a world where children are deliberately maimed so as to better solicit alms, the second shows just a pair of work-worn hands, gnarled from years of labor. In either case, the necessities of life demand great sacrifice.

Next to these hangs a large photo of two mothers holding their two toddlers, while two more infants sleep in their laps. One can’t help but wonder what sort of future awaits these children.

Then enters Teresa. Large images with the saintly religious at the center, surrounded by the people she loves. She walks among them, with them, part of them and their world. At the same time, Podestá captures her unearthly grace, making her the most luminous figure among them, the beacon to which everyone is drawn.

One walks with Teresa, swept up by her as well, along the hall and into the next room where we part company. Here, she reveals a little of herself to the viewer through images of her active nursing work and well as her contemplative prayer life.

The opposite wall illustrates in three images the inner life of this great 20th-century hero. The first shows radiant love in the glowing, smiling countenance, the second betokens humility, with her hands held before her concealing her from the camera and the third, striking in its sadness, calls to mind the trials of “spiritual desolation” that she suffered.

The last photographs of the exhibit are oddly arranged in the coffee shop. But upon closer inspection, this curious placement enhances the meaning of the show. This room contains the images of the lepers that have found a home in the house of the Missionaries of Charity.

The vivid images of the illness and its effects certainly makes the visitor want to turn to the bar and order a stiff drink. But it is precisely at that moment that we remember that Teresa did not turn away but immersed herself in this reality until the day she died.

The exhibition space is somewhat jarring. Visitors enter via a long, dark corridor covered with many small screens flashing words (such as “peace,” “caring,” “love,” etc.) in many languages, sometimes upside down or backward, all along the walls. Loud sitar music plays, recalling the memory of the “magical mythological courts” of ancient India. One can’t help but wonder what Mother Teresa would think.

Perhaps most distressing to the saintly religious would be the lack of any crucifix in the imagery of her life and her world. The very meaning of her existence thus seems blithely overlooked by the organizers of the exhibition. Of course, such an oversight proves less surprising when one recalls that the host gallery “Ta Matete” takes its name from the painting “The Market” by Paul Gauguin, a F
rench banker who abandoned home, wife and children to pursue a life of painting and pleasure in Tahiti.

But still, Teresa has faced greater hardships than this and so the great blown-up image of her worn, deformed feet showing every laborious step she took toward God stands in quiet rebuke to the fashionably shod, pampered and pedicured crowd of gallery goers.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome Campus. She can be reached at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation