The oldest painting in the Kimbell’s Botticelli to Braque exhibition is one they tried to purchase for themselves in 1999, Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child also known as the Wemyss Madonna (c. 1490). In the final hours the Scottish National Gallery came through with funding from three banks and private donations to purchase the piece and keep it in Scotland. The Kimbell still does not own a Botticelli, so it is bitter sweet for them to have this particular painting in the exhibition.
Some additional fun facts about this piece are that it is tempera and gold worked on canvas which doesn’t sound strange until you learn that it was uncommon to work on canvas during this period. Secondly, the Christ Child was rarely shown asleep in religious paintings of the day. In this piece He is not only asleep, but also seems to float rather than rest in the surrounding fabrics. And no, Mary has not placed her child in a bed of thorns. The rose bush is thornless, an interesting contrast to what awaits Christ in His last days.
For the largest painting in the exhibit we must turn to the Vermeer. OK, it’s not really the largest painting in the exhibit, but it is the largest existing Vermeer in the world at 63″ x 56″. I’m speaking of Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.
Did you know there are only 35 Vermeer’s still in existence? And you can see this one in Fort Worth if you get there before September 20th.
Vermeer’s handling of light entering the painting and resting on his subjects is classic. I’ve always loved the story of Mary and Martha. Admittedly, I relate more with Martha’s exhausting effort of managing every detail of a busy day, but I’ve always wished I could be more like Mary, happy to let the hustle and bustle of life pass me by for the ultimate prize of being refreshed by the words of Christ. As I stood in front of this painting I was struck by Vermeer’s ability to have us understand the deeper meaning of this story through his intelligent use of light. Jesus’ face is shown fully lit. Martha turns away from the light to complain to Jesus about Mary not helping her, which renders her face half lit and half in darkness. Mary’s face is in darkness yet completely visible because it is surrounded by the light. Think about that for a moment. There is more to this picture than simply painting three figures. Vermeer chooses to portray the very moment from Luke 10:41-42 where Jesus answers Martha’s complaint, “… ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.’” Vermeer’s depiction of this moment is poignant. What are you missing by being too busy?