Separated by 1,500 Years, Now Two Feet Apart

The newly installed European galleries are a treasure trove for art history teachers. The long gallery of Italian Baroque paintings is a particularly exciting room for those of us who lecture and teach at the museum because of the combination of ancient sculpture and Italian Baroque painting that allows us to reveal stories about the history of art across millennia.

At the east end of the gallery, I love the juxtaposition of Michael Sweerts’s Plague in the Ancient City, from 1652, and a Roman sarcophagus from around 230 A.D., which sits right in front of the painting. These two works of art are separated by nearly 1,500 years, and yet the style and arrangement of figures is so similar, as if Sweerts copied his figures from something like the sarcophagus. It’s not just the way the figures are crowded together in a horizontal composition. It’s also the dramatic gestures and the fact that people of all ages are represented in both works of art. If you look closely at the sarcophagus, there are mythological figures—both male and female—in all kinds of poses. In the painting, you can see a similar diversity.

"Sarcophagus with Dionysos and His Followers," Roman, c. A.D. 230-240, marble, William Randolph Hearst Collection

Michael Sweerts, "Plague in an Ancient City," c. 1652–1654, gift of the Ahmanson Foundation

It’s not a stretch to imagine Sweerts would have been studying Roman sculpture for inspiration. He was a northerner who worked in Italy for ten years, and one fashion at the time was to paint scenes with groups of figures, often very sculptural-looking. To be a successful painter in Sweerts’s day, you had to show mastery of the figure. So Plague in the Ancient City is a way of showing off, demonstrating through all these different figures in various dramatic poses a complete command of figure drawing and painting.

Both the sarcophagus and the painting are about death. The story told on the sarcophagus is a merry one, though—this is a Bacchic procession, showing the transition to the afterlife. The painting depicts a story about death and anguish wrought by plague. We aren’t sure if the canvas depicts an actual event from ancient times, but surely the artist was influenced by the various plagues that swept over Europe beginning in the Middle Ages.

Mary Lenihan, Manager, Adult Programs, Education

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