I had the opportunity to attend the Fairfield University Art Museum’s event, Art in Focus: “El Greco, The Holy Family” on Thursday, Sept. 22 where Michelle DiMarzo, Ph.D., a professor of Art History here at Fairfield, gave an excellent talk on the new exhibit located in the art gallery on campus. 

The exhibit, titled “Out of the Kress Vaults: Women in Sacred Renaissance Painting,” focuses on feminine figures painted during the Italian Renaissance, showcasing women who were seen as leading pious, virtuous lives. The paintings on view in the Bellarmine Gallery depict a wide variety of female subjects including the Virgin Mary, female saints and martyrs. The artworks all vary in size, from large altarpieces to small devotional paintings. Surprisingly, it is one of the smaller works that is the star of this exhibit.

“The Holy Family with Saint Anne and the Infant John the Baptist” is only 20 inches tall, but its presence is felt throughout the gallery. Created by El Greco, one of the most famous late Renaissance artists, the painting depicts the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus and embracing her mother, St. Anne. St. Joseph is leaning over Mary’s shoulder to gaze at Jesus, and the infant John the Baptist joins the family scene. It was this painting that was the subject of the Art Museum’s event, Art in Focus. 

I attended the event virtually, and DiMarzo gave an excellent talk on the exhibit, focusing on El Greco’s painting. She noted that this painting was probably what is called a “ricordo,” which serves as a small painting that El Greco would have kept in his workshop to remind him of work he had done before, or to show potential patrons what he is capable of. 

DiMarzo also noted that Mary, both in this painting and several others from the Renaissance, is commonly wearing a look of melancholy. 

“She is never just looking at her infant child, she’s looking at him and knowing what is going to happen to him,” DiMarzo explained. 

This is something I noticed as I walked through the exhibit. Nearly all of the depictions of Mary showcase her with a sad look while gazing at her son, almost as if she has a divine foresight as to what will happen to him. 

I also learned from DiMarzo’s presentation that this is the first exhibit in the history of the Fairfield University Art Museum to be curated by undergraduate students. DiMarzo’s Museum Exhibition seminar worked together to develop and curate the exhibit that is on display today. They were tasked with utilizing several artworks from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, where the exhibit gets its name. 

When developing the exhibit, the curators focused on paintings that were typically held in storage with the goal “to do what Samuel H. Kress and his foundation hoped they would do: let people have direct encounters with great works of art,” DiMarzo said. 

If you’re interested in listening to DiMarzo’s talk about the exhibit, you can check it out on The Quicklive Archive’s website. The exhibit is open until December 17 with free admission. Stop by the Bellarmine Gallery to have your own encounter with these great works of art!

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