Divine Beauty in Florence

Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi is well-known to its visitors for intelligent and well-laid out exhibitions offering many new insights into the galaxies of art since the Fondazione Strozzi opened in 2006.

Some of the most memorable exhibitions we’ve seen in previous years have included:


Bronze Power and Pathos. (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/bronze-power-and-pathos-in-florence/ )

Picasso and Spanish Modernity. (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/picasso-and-modigliani-two-unmissable-exhibitions-near-lucca/ )


Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino. (See my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/in-the-florentine-mannerism/ )


The Russian avant-garde Siberia and the East. (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/09/russia-siberia-and-the-east/ )

Springtime of the Renaissance. (See my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/3-d-painting-or-2-d-sculpture/ )

Before 2013:

Americans in Florence, Money and Beauty, Picasso, Mirò, Dali, Bronzino, Art and Illusion, and many others. But you get the general picture!

The most recent one which is entitled Bellezza Divina (Divine Beauty) opened last September and closes on January 24th. Timed to coincide with Pope Francis’ visit to Florence as part of the fifth national Bishops’ Conference it explores the relationship between religion and art from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Note the word ‘relationship’. The paintings on show are not all ‘pure’ examples of religious art such as the Madonnas and Child or lives of the Saints which adorn so many churches in Italy but reflect the dialectic between religion as espoused by the Roman Catholic church and individual secular free thought.

The Catholic church was in dire straits in the mid-nineteenth century. Assaulted by the new rationalism and opposed to revolutionary movements it needed to make strong statements of Faith to regain its stronghold in people’s minds. For example, in 1854 Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception (i.e. that the mother of Jesus was born without original sin.)  Visions of the Virgin at Lourdes (1858) and Fatima (1917) were quickly seized upon by the church as instruments for the propagation of Faith. As late as 1950 the Dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin (nowhere actually mentioned in the Gospels) was proclaimed to state that Jesus’ mother was bodily taken to heaven upon her decease. (The word assumption is, of course, not to be confused with the word ascension whereby Christ rises reborn in the Resurrection to enter Heaven in full living glory.)

These dogmas and visions were supported by a school of artists, some of whose works are to be seen at the start of the exhibition. These paintings are often monumentally large and very realistic. Apart from their size I was not particularly impressed by some of these examples:

The welcomed advent of pre-Raphaelite influences into Italy is shown in this triptych


Millet’s Angelus (1859) is legendary and I was so glad it was included at the Strozzi straight from Paris’ Musée d’Orsay. It’s so magically evocative and clearly reminds one that laborare est orare, (to work is to pray).


The development of impressionist and post-impressionist movements was beautifully shown in this touching small picture by Van Gogh, strangely, despite his religious preoccupations, the artist’s only painting on a religious subject (in this case the deposition). I was sure I’d seen this picture before and, reading its label, realised it came from the Vatican museum of modern art.


In the twentieth century, ways of representing religious subjects truly hotted up with the most extraordinary disparities and ideological conflicts. Picasso’s crucifixion confirmed his practising atheism. The head of Christ looks like a cross between a pig and a wolf.


Chagall’s white crucifixion is clearly the work of a believer in touch with the angst and poverty of human existence.


To see two of Stanley Spencer’s iconic pictures including his homely last supper was truly a joy. One of them came from Cookham where the artist spent so much of his creative life and where there’s an art gallery dedicated to him

There was so much else to see and ponder, and the range and style of artists was amazingly wide. Examples from Matisse, Rouault, Moreau, Ernst, Munch, and some great Italians including Guttuso, Fontana and Previati were among those included. Spot the Graham Sutherland?

Futurist Severini’s church designs were fascinating:

The film showing the development of modern ecclesiastic architecture from gothic revivalist G. E. Street’s basilica of Saint Paul’s within the walls in Rome (with those extraordinary pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones mosaics, the largest he ever executed), through Auguste Perret (the church of Notre Dame at Le Raincy, the first religious building ever built in reinforced concrete, hence the stunning expanse of stained glass – this has to be a must on my next trip to France) and to Corbu’s Ronchamp chapel (which has been so badly imitated by lesser hands in too many examples in Italy)  was also an added delight.

Even if you are a rabid atheist this is an exhibition it would be sinful to miss if you are anywhere near Florence between 10 am and 8 pm on any day before the 24th of January.


PS All the photos above are mine. The Strozzi seems to have suspended its policy of no photographs for this exhibition.


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