August 09, 2012

A Visit to MOBIA

Since the Museum of Biblical Art opened its doors to the public in May of 2005 its exhibition space has hosted a number of fascinating shows with the art of the Bible as their connective theme.  Subjects ranging from "Icons or Portraits" to "Reel Religion" have been explored with the idea that an understanding of the history, imagery and symbolism of the Bible is integral to an understanding of Western culture, irrespective of one's religious beliefs.

I always check out what's going on at MOBIA as I ride past on the bus and was intrigued by the current exhibitions so this afternoon I took a little detour to Broadway at 61st Street and popped in.

The front gallery featured "The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi:  A Masterpiece Reconstructed".  For the first time in 200 years, the Sienese artist Bartolo di Fredi's marvelous altarpiece is on display as a whole alongside a few well chosen works by the master and his contemporaries.

The arrival of the three kings, or Magi, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Christ Child, is one of the most often depicted scenes of the New Testament.  In Bartolo di Fredi's example, the first monumental altarpiece dedicated to this theme, the center panel portrays the Holy Family, visited by the three kings, attended to by three servants who stand before three horses.  In the background we follow the progress of the Magi as they journey to Jerusalem, meet with King Herod, and continue on their way past several Sienese landmarks to their ultimate destination.  The left-hand lower panel, or predella, is entitled "Seven Saints in Adoration" and features Saint Agnes with six yet-to-be identified saints and the right-hand predella, "Adoration of the Crucifix", depicts Christ upon the cross with Mary the Virgin Mother, St John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, among others, in attendance. 

The altarpiece, completed circa 1385, was probably installed in Siena's Church of San Domenico but was removed from this location sometime before 1816 and and the individual panels sold off.  It is remarkable to see three major portions of the work re-assembled and presented with very informative wall labels describing the biblical references, the artistic methodology and the history of the piece itself.

In a smaller area at the back of the gallery is a second exhibition entitled "Printers, Monks & Craftsmen: Bookmaking in the Age of Gutenberg".  Culled from the Rare Bible Collection of the Library of the American Bible Society (of which MOBIA is now steward) are fourteen bibles printed between 1455 and 1525. 

The innovation of the printing press opened a whole new world for dissemination of information and the Bible was the most popular literature to be mass-produced.  Previously written and embellished completely by hand, Bibles were only available to royalty, clergy and the very wealthy.  The new printed Bibles were stylistically based on the illuminated manuscript and as familiarity with the new process grew, so did creativity in both the printed body of the book and the binding that contained it. With a focus on Gothic bindings, this survey of very early printed bibles explores regional differences in their construction and form and presents some very impressive examples of these ecclesiastical treasures.

These concurrent shows run until September 9.  MOBIA is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday and admission is free.

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