At the Walters, art on the wing Review: Much is divine, but -- alas -- some of the works in the 'Angels from the Vatican' are less than heavenly.

November 11, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In "The Annunciation" (1582-1584) by Federico Fiori (known as Barrocci), the winged archangel Gabriel kneels before the Virgin Mary holding a lily, the symbol of her purity. Mary raises her hand in slight surprise, but the peacefulness of her countenance indicates acceptance rather than alarm. The whole scene is suffused with such peace and love that it conveys the essence of the Christ child Mary will bear.

Of the 98 works in the Walters Art Gallery's just-opened "Angels from the Vatican," none is more beautiful or more typical of the show's spirit than this. Because angels are symbols, messengers and guardians of the good, they appear in art as positive, comforting presences. So the exhibit is permeated with a tone of joy and optimism that nevertheless avoids the saccharine.

Coming as it does in the period leading up to the December holidays, it's an especially welcome show, despite flaws of selection on the part of the Vatican and of installation at the Walters.

The show stops here on a tour of six cities in the United States and Canada. It was selected to demonstrate the breadth of the Vatican art collections, and its tour is partly designed to acknowledge and broaden the support of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, the mainly American organization that donates funds for conservation of Vatican art.

The theme of angels gives it focus but is broad enough to allow for inclusion of many different kinds of works, from ceramic vessels to silver and gold chalices, paintings to church vestments.

Although in largely Christian countries such as this one, angels are usually thought of in a Christian context, angels and angel-like spiritual beings inhabit other religions. And, as the show points out in a section devoted to origins of angel iconography, the idea of the human form with wings is much older than Christianity.

Nevertheless, coming from the Vatican, the show is inevitably Christian in emphasis, and the installation at the Walters, which mainly follows the organization of the catalog, reinforces the Christian connection. After an initial section introducing the concept of angels and a section on non-Christian origins, the show proceeds to sections on angels in the life of Christ, angels in the life of the Virgin Mary, angels in relation to the saints and others in the Christian community, angels on objects related to the Mass.

So the Christian audience may find the most to respond to in this show. But the abundance of beautiful and sumptuous works should please any art lover. Artists include Guido Reni, Fra Angelico, Giovanni di Paolo, Guercino, Ghirlandaio, Veronese and Raphael (represented by two small works).

And there's much to enjoy aside from the big names, including several icons from the Eastern Orthodox church, a fine ninth-century B.C. Assyrian relief carving, a first-century A.D. Roman tomb pediment with a strikingly dignified head of a woman, a grand 13-by-17-foot, 17th-century Italian tapestry, and 18th-century silver and gilt liturgical objects of spectacular workmanship.

The show has its share of problems, though. Given the size and scope of the Vatican's huge collections, some of the works selected don't make a lot of sense.

A group of three 4th-century B.C. vases, made in the Greek province of Apulia in southern Italy, border on the crude in craftsmanship. The engraved figures on a group of Etruscan bronze mirrors are so faint that one can hardly see them at all. The 19th-century church vestments make a dull presentation. The latest work in the show, Salvador Dali's "Angelic Landscape" (1977), amounts to no more than pointless kitsch.

To these must be added some problems with the Walters' installation. The show is installed in two of the grand, lofty-ceilinged painting galleries and on the second floor loggia of the building's central courtyard. Many of the works are small. Hung (necessarily) at eye level in the painting galleries, they leave vast expanses of empty wall space above.

The Walters has introduced a show-related gift shop, now unfortunately a custom at blockbuster-type shows. But, in this case, the shop intrudes clumsily into one of the two big galleries, taking up at least a third of it and destroying its proportions. The big tapestry, hung on a wall of the narrow loggia, can't be seen from the proper distance, and a dynamic sculpture of "The Annunciation" (1967) by Virginio Ciminaghi has been installed against a wall instead of in the open where one could walk around it. All in all, the installation looks awkward, and given the narrowness of the loggia, there will be trouble moving around if the hoped-for crowds materialize.

Despite these difficulties, the show is well-worth seeing. It's not every day that Baltimore gets traveling art of the caliber of much of this exhibit, and its angelic theme will surely put visitors in a joyous frame of mind.

'The Invisible Made Visible: Angels from the Vatican'

Where: Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (until 8 p.m. Thursdays and Nov. 27, Nov. 28, Dec. 26, Jan. 2), through Jan. 3

Admission: By timed ticket, $12 weekends and $10 weekdays; seniors and college students, $11 weekends, $9 weekdays; ages 6 to 17, $8.50 weekends, $6.50 weekdays; free for children under 6. Tickets available at the Walters or through TicketMaster

Call: 888-844-4242 or 410-547-9000 for information, 410-752-1200 for tickets

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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