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Martyred Saint Holds Knocked Out Tooth in Tongs

February 16, 2013

Piero's Hypothetical Altarpiece

A reconstruction of the altarpiece shows the position of seven of the eight surviving panels. In the mid-16th century, nuns redecorating the Church of Sant'Agostino dismantled the altarpiece and cut it into pieces. The central panel depicted either the "Virgin and Child Enthroned" or the "Coronation of the Virgin." Source: Joseph Godla/The Frick Collection via Bloomberg

Walking into the sky-lit Oval Room of the Frick Collection, you are surrounded by the inimitable magic of Piero della Francesca.

Swooping and billowing, Saint John the Evangelist’s burgundy robe shifts from liquid to cloth, while Saint Monica’s scroll twists like a Mobius strip.

Equally unfathomable is Saint Augustine’s spiraling staff, which opens the blue sky like a whirlpool.

Piero is a giant of the early Renaissance, yet not everyone has been duly impressed: In the mid-16th century, nuns redecorating the Church of Sant’Agostino in Borgo San Sepolcro, Italy, actually dismantled and cut into pieces Piero’s magnificent altarpiece.

From an estimated number of about 30, only eight survive, of which the Frick owns four: “Saint John the Evangelist,” “Saint Monica,” “Saint Leonard (?)” and the central remaining fragment of “The Crucifixion.”

These have been reunited with the altarpiece’s stellar figures. “Saint Apollonia,” the martyred patroness of dentistry who had all of her teeth shattered, is on loan from Washington D.C.’s National Gallery. Though her mouth is closed, she grips a single tooth in a set of tongs.

Christ’s Life

From Lisbon comes “Saint Augustine,” whose magnificent robe depicts a colorful and immensely detailed life of Christ.

Yet it’s Piero’s painting “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels” (c. 1460-70) that gives this show must-see ballast.

On loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the work offers a sense of the grandeur and grace undoubtedly present in the altarpiece’s missing main panel.

The seated Virgin is both central pillar and conduit. Holding a rose, she rises majestically as the nude child floats above her lap and reaches knowingly for the flower, a symbol of his martyrdom.

Christ’s fluttering hands mysteriously open the picture’s compressed space. Yet it is the hand of Piero -- who imbues the works with spiritual mystery and mathematical solidity -- that transports us into an otherworldly realm.

“Piero della Francesca in America” runs through May 19 at the Frick Collection, 1 E. 70th St. Information: +1-212-288- 0700; http://www.frick.org.

Recycled Art

Born in Ghana in 1944, El Anatsui may be the greenest living artist. With the help of studio assistants, he recycles thousands of African liquor-bottle caps and tin-can lids.

These are flattened, folded, crumpled, cut, shaped, pinched, punctured and wired together to create massive woven sculptures and hangings that flicker with a Byzantine shimmer. Many nod to the coloration and pattern of traditional African weavings.

With every new presentation, each work is uniquely arranged at the will of the installer. “Gli (Wall),” a mammoth five- piece hanging, fills the circular entryway to Anatsui’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. Its filigree scrims suggest open lacework, chainmail, golden rain.

Other works resemble enormous piles of coins or metal snakes crawling across the floor and up the walls.

The most compelling pieces are small carved and burned wooden sculptures. Manageable and self-contained, these reliefs comically conflate fences, figures and totems.

Anatsui should be applauded for his ingenuity and determination, but these meandering accumulations of metal junk remain haphazard and ornamental.

Though masterfully recycled, they are far from masterworks.

“Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” runs through Aug. 4 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway. Information: +1-718-638-5000; http://www.brooklynmuseum.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s NYC Weekend Best and Lewis Lapham’s podcast.

To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund, in New York, at lesplund@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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