Museum Response Paper

696 words | 3 page(s)

In the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the sheer expanse of the space makes the initial experience, especially for a newcomer, overwhelming. Surrounded by great works of art, it is difficult to find a means of orientation for the novice. Compounded with the assignment of having to find a particular work of art to comment on, the vertigo when entering and initially exploring the Museum was somewhat debilitating. There was simply so much to see that at one point I thought that Michelangelo’s David had even been transported into the museum.

Segna di Buonoventura’s tempera painting from approximately 1320 takes an approach to the classical religious image of the Virgin Mary Madonna and the Christ Child, which seems to differ from our own aesthetic presuppositions regarding this object. The modern viewer of this painting, perhaps unfamiliar with art history, will perhaps be first struck by the seemingly unpleasant depiction of the Virgin Mary, and even the somewhat monstrous look on the face of Christ. This is a challenge to the particular historical context that we live in, however, a challenge to our preconceptions of how the Madonna and the Christ child should look, which is conditioned by the dominant images of this iconic image which we have been indoctrinated with.

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Thus, if the figures themselves may challenge some of our preconceptions of beauty, this is nevertheless overcome by the more technical elements of the work. For example, the use of color in the work clearly points to sacred imagery which even the modern museum visitor can understand, the bright gold background, almost enshrining the holy pair. This offers a clear reference to the elevated status of the Madonna and child, their belonging to a higher order of spiritual reality, which is beyond the everyday.

Furthermore, the symmetry of the painting itself also speaks to an aesthetic sensibility which can be easily understood even by the layman, as the centering of the image presents us with a direct view of the Madonna and child, an acknowledgment in this symmetry perhaps of their spiritual perfection, as figures to be emulated by the Christian believer. The viewer is meant to stand directly in front of the piece as the author positions the figures, therefore reminding us that this is a type of religious object which can cause veneration in the viewer, much like the function of an icon.

The artist has therefore clearly chosen through his aesthetic decisions to glorify the pair of Madonna and the Christ child, wishing to create precisely such an object of veneration. The painting is therefore not merely a work of art, meant to invoke an aesthetic pleasure to the senses. It appears to be designed entirely according to a guideline which wants the viewer to revere the object as itself a religious object, as an art work that also has a sacred significance, which goes beyond our everyday lives.

When I reflect upon why I selected this particular painting, I must admit that the primary reason was the aforementioned somewhat monstrous look on the face of the Christ child. It jarred me, because it contrasted with my preconceptions of what religious art should be. As I reflected more on the work, however, I began to perhaps understand the artist’s logic. For example, the famed Mona Lisa is also cited as an example of aesthetic beauty, but it does not fit into our contemporary perceptions of a beautiful woman. This demonstrates that some of our immediate conceptions of beauty can change over time. It is much the same in this work. The particular way in which the face of Christ and to a lesser degree the face of Mary are portrayed does not detract from the beauty or sacred significance of the work. Rather, it draws in a contemporary viewer, who wishes to perhaps understand the mystery of this painting. This is the artist’s intent, one could say, because the sacred world and the religious world are something that the spiritual person should dedicate him or herself to. The artist has not only created an object of aesthetic pleasure, but a sacred type of object with a deep spiritual meaning.

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