Those of you who attended or have seen my lecture in Chicago last May on the problem of sacred art in a secular world, may recall that part of my presentation demonstrated some horrible cataloging by major auction houses around the country. This portion of the talk was intended to demonstrate that a number of people in the art world are making some rather rookie mistakes when it comes to sacred art; what’s worse, buyers as well as sellers are relying on the alleged expertise of these individuals when it comes to identification. Lest one think that I had only come across a few isolated examples, I wanted to demonstrate how this sort of thing happens on a regular basis, without having to hunt very long to find examples of it.
The painting shown above was sold at auction over the weekend by a major auction house in a large American city. It was described in the catalogue as a 17th century Italian oil on canvas depicting “The Annunciation” which, if you are familiar with the Bible, or know a bit about art history, it obviously does not. For one thing, the Virgin Mary is never depicted in art dressed as a half-naked slave girl. For another, the Annunciation takes place before the conception of Christ, not at some point subsequent to His birth. At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel didn’t just swoop down from Heaven like some sort of celestial stork, toss the Baby Jesus on the ground, then go tap Mary on the shoulder and say, “Hey there, go over and pick up your new baby.”
What this painting *actually* depicts is a moment described in Genesis 16. Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl owned by Sarah, the wife of Abraham, has borne Abraham a son, Ishmael. Subsequently, Sarah has given birth to Isaac, her own son by Abraham. Because of Sarah’s jealousy, Abraham has expelled Hagar and Ishmael from the encampment, and mother and son have wandered off into the wilderness alone with a jug of water and some bread. Eventually they run out of food and water, and are preparing to die.
At this point in the story an angel (identified in some retellings of the story as St. Michael) appears to Hagar, and points her to a nearby well where she can get fresh water for herself and her son, so that they can survive. Hagar is also promised that God will make a great nation of Ishmael’s descendants. Tradition – and yes I am over-simplifying here so don’t @ me – is that those descendants are the Arabs.
While not as popular an artistic subject as the Annunciation, the Biblical account of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and their subsequent rescue by the angel has been represented many times in Western art. In fact, it was a popular subject in Italian painting during the 17th century, the time and place from which the misidentified painting hails. Here’s an example by the great Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669), now in the collection of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota:
This more loosely-painted version is by the late Baroque-Rococo painter Gaspare Diziani (1689-1767), and now hangs at the St. Mungo Museum in Glasgow:
And here’s another version by the early Baroque painter Simone Cantarini (1612-1648), which is at the Pinacoteca San Domenico, in the Italian ciy of Fano:
As you can see, the expulsion of Hagar was not exactly an unpopular subject for Western artists, including 17th century Italian artists. Perhaps some of my readers couldn’t recall this Bible story until being reminded of it, and perhaps a few others weren’t even aware of it until today. However, I feel reasonably safe in assuming that many or even most of you did know straightaway that the first image in this post wasn’t a depiction of the Annunciation. In my book, therefore, you have every right to congratulate yourselves.
Why does this sort of egregious art error continue to plague the market? Laziness is one factor; the general secularism of contemporary society is another. On a practical level, it doesn’t seem to me to be so terribly difficult for an auction house or a gallery to pick up the phone and ask the local parish priest if he can help identify a work of Christian art, and yet this doesn’t seem to be happening on a regular basis. Otherwise, these kinds of mistakes would not continue to pop up over and over again.
This example does go to show, however, that knowing your Bible can be beneficial in the present age. Even with a low opening bid, no one ended up bidding on this piece. Had it been properly identified in the sale, perhaps there might have been a different result for the consignor.