Theater & art

Art review

Carlo Crivelli’s mastery on view at the Gardner Museum

Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona
“The Virgin and Child With Infants Bearing Symbols of the Passion” by Carlo Crivelli is n display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

A picture-maker of dazzling ambition, intense expressive power, and luxuriant ornamentation, Carlo Crivelli (1430 or 1435 to about 1494) may well be the finest Renaissance painter you’ve never heard of. If you do know him — and he has what amounts to a secret cult following — my bet is that, like me, you’ve never quite got your head around him.

Was Crivelli a Renaissance star, a painter of sunlit, rational, believably incarnated paintings, or a late Gothic throwback? Was he Venetian — which is to say, confidently outward-looking, cosmopolitan — or provincial? Is there a genuinely spiritual quality in his work, a hum, or is it all rather a question of flashy, hollow display?

Such questions may already have occurred to you if you have spent time in front of Boston’s two great Crivellis. One, “The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John, and St. Mary Magdalene,” is in the Museum of Fine Arts. The other, “St. George and the Dragon,” is in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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Incredible paintings both, they are joined by a third, the restored “The Dead Christ Between the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist,” from Harvard Art Museums, and about 20 other paintings from around Europe and the United States in “Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice,” at the Gardner.

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The show, which gathers together four of the six scattered pieces of a polyptych from Porto San Giorgio, was organized by Stephen J. Campbell, an art history professor at Johns Hopkins University; Oliver Tostmann, a former senior curator at the Gardner, now at the Wadsworth Atheneum; and the Gardner’s Nathaniel Silver.

Crivelli’s pictures are absorbing at every level. You could spend hours noticing new things about their spatial mechanics, marveling not only at Crivelli’s confident grasp of perspective, which, more than anything, marks him out as a painter of the Renaissance, but also at his use of trompe l’oeil (“fool-the-eye”) effects. These include false shadows and cracks in illusionary ledges; sensuously modeled objects, especially fruits and vegetables, that break out of the picture’s perspectival logic; and even “pastiglia” — accretions of plaster that protrude from the surface of the work, further complicating the play of light and shadow.

Just as extraordinary is Crivelli’s way with decorative detail. His lavish use of gold and silver leaf, metal stamps, oil glazes, pastiglia, and “sgraffito” (scratching patterned lines into the picture’s surface to reveal colors beneath) is matched by his brilliant renderings of luxurious textiles, which proliferate across his paintings like spring foliage.

What emerges is a sense of Crivelli’s all-around willingness to use every means at his disposal to play up the tension in a painting’s status as both a flat representation of three-dimensional phenomena and a physical, manufactured object in itself. It’s an urge that links him, of course, with the Byzantine icon tradition, and there’s no question, as Thomas Golsenne points out in the show’s catalog, that “Crivelli sought to recover the prestige and power of icons” in his painting.

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But this was just one aspect of his work. Another — the one I suspect most people will notice first — is the intense expressiveness of his paintings. At times, Crivelli’s eye for suffering veers toward the gruesome. You may gasp when you see the gaping cavity in Christ’s pale hand in the “Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels.” You may wince before the visceral expressions of grief in several other paintings here.

All these ingredients come together to make a potent cocktail — something sharp, even citrusy on the surface, but with darker, more potent stirrings and an arresting metallic aftertaste.

The show’s title, derived from Crivelli’s own description of himself, is somewhat misleading. He was born in Venice, but left the city in his late 20s, never to return, after an adulterous affair with the wife of a sailor landed him in prison for six months.

He spent most of his career in the Marches region of northern Italy. His Venetian origins were nonetheless a source of pride, and no doubt a handy way to promote himself — “Saks Fifth Avenue” sounds better than “Saks Hick Street.” Forty years after his departure, he was still signing his paintings “Carolus Crivellus Venetus” (Carlo Crivelli of Venice).

The Marches, which face the Adriatic Sea between Romagna and Abruzzo, were controlled by the pope, but only up to a point. Its major cities were granted considerable autonomy, and often warred with one another.

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Religious orders, as Campbell explains in his lead catalog essay, were hugely influential in Marches society, and Crivelli, who ran a large workshop, made paintings for Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustinians throughout the region. He was frequently commissioned by rich patrons of two opposing branches of the Franciscans — the Conventuals, the main branch, and a more radical, austere group, the Observants.

Both groups were often at odds with papal authority. What they and their congregations expected from devotional painting was different, and different again from what was demanded in Rome, Florence, or even Venice.

Did they expect what they actually got from Crivelli?

That is harder to say, and seems rather unlikely, at least at the outset: Crivelli is just so distinctive. Not the least surprising thing about him is his fondness for including big, phallic cucumbers with veins and warty protuberances in most of his paintings. (Consult Golsenne’s essay, “Carlo Crivelli: Portrait of the Artist as a Cucumber,” in the catalog if you wish to know more.)

Bernard Berenson, when he recommended to Isabella Gardner that she purchase “St. George and the Dragon,” called it “a gorgeous thing more beautiful than any Japanese lacqueur, decorative as no other picture whatsoever, resplendent in its gold background, its gold armour and brocade.” Remarkably, in the same letter Berenson said he would prefer “St George and the Dragon” to “every Titian, every Holbein, every Giorgione.”

Already from these gushings we get a sense of an exotic creature. As it would turn out, Crivelli was a little too exotic for Berenson: Half a century later, the great connoisseur and art historian omitted the artist from his 1952 survey, “Italian Painters of the Renaissance” — thereby falling in line with Giorgio Vasari, who had left Crivelli out of his own “Lives of the Artists.” For Berenson, Crivelli remained wonderful, but he was ultimately the product of provincial backwardness, of a culture intent on calling “the world back to the ideals of an infantile civilization.” (It’s telling that Berenson more than once compared Crivelli’s style to Japanese aesthetics, since he regarded Japan in similarly patronizing terms.)

National Gallery, London
“The Annunciation With St. Emidius.”

But you cannot look at a painting like the huge “The Annunciation With St. Emidius,” on loan from the National Gallery in London, and sustain the notion that Crivelli was either backward or childlike. It’s an extraordinary work pulsing with full-blown Renaissance ambition, not only in its virtuosic control of perspective but also in its classical references, its expression of civic pride, its secular sumptuousness — peacocks, Anatolian carpets, wood paneling, you name it — and its sense of the sacred unfolding in a real world of air and light and encompassing space.

Other works here are just as riveting. “The Virgin and Child With St. Francis, St. Bernadino of Siena, and the Donor Fra Bernadino Ferretti,” from Baltimore, is exceptionally fine.

The more elaborate “The Virgin and Child With Infants Bearing Symbols of the Passion,” from Verona, is so complex and absorbing that to call it backward-looking or primitive is simply to reveal one’s limited understanding of the nature of progress.

Art review

Ornament and Illusion:

Carlo Crivelli of Venice

At: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, through Jan. 25. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.