Courtesy Portland Art MuseumPanels of a 14th-century Italian altarpiece have been reassembled for an exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. The display includes videos of how a missing panel on the lower right of the altarpiece was recreated and aged using mathematics. One video shows what happens when mathematicians reversed their algorithms to establish how the altarpiece may have looked in the 1370s.
Courtesy Portland Art Museum
Panels of a 14th-century Italian altarpiece have been reassembled for an exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. The display includes videos of how a missing panel on the lower right of the altarpiece was recreated and aged using mathematics. One video shows what happens when mathematicians reversed their algorithms to establish how the altarpiece may have looked in the 1370s.
When Dawson Carr was a curator at the British Museum, colleagues sometimes asked in disdainful tones: “Why do we have so many religious paintings?”

Carr, now curator of the European collection at the Portland Art Museum, imagines the same question will come up in Oregon.

His response is the same: The story told in religious art is the human story; it can mean something to everyone.  

Just opened at the museum in downtown Portland is an exhibition of a 14th-century Italian altarpiece that shows the crucifixion of Jesus flanked by stories associated with St. John the Apostle. The apocryphal tales depicted by artist Francescuccio Ghissi come from “The Golden Legend,” a collection popular in medieval Europe.

St. John, aging as one moves through the panels, urges a philosopher to sell jewels and give the money to the poor. He raises a woman from the dead. He drinks poison and is unharmed, then raises two more people from the dead, signs that inspire his pagan poisoner to be baptized.

The images plumb human desires and foibles and hold up the possibility of a higher life.   
Carr says Ghissi’s work reflects the fledgling Renaissance, with depictions characterized by clarity, drama and humanity.

The Portland Art Museum, located in the most unchurched region of the nation, has not shied away from religion. An El Greco exhibit in 2015 brought visits from Catholic schools. Last year, the museum hosted the work of pop artist Sister Corita Kent.
Brian Ferriso, director of the museum, was educated by Benedictines and says his sense of order and beauty was influenced by the monks.  

On permanent display are dozens of images of Christ, Mary and the other saints. There is a Boticelli crucifix. One painting from the 1480s shows St. Dominic with eyes simultaneously full of pain and love.

The Ghissi altarpiece exhibit, open through July 9, is more than a painting on a wall.

For starters, there’s a story about how the work came together — or back together. It’s not clear in what church the altarpiece hung. But Ghissi worked in the Marche, the mountainous Italian region between the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea. Perhaps the 15-foot-long altarpiece was for a side chapel of a cathedral, or served as the main image in a smaller church.  

What is clear is that during the 19th or early 20th century, the work was sawed apart so individual panels could be sold for a higher profit. Over time, the fragments ended up in U.S. collections. A depiction of a resurrected woman came to the Portland Art Museum in 1961 as a gift from variety store owner Samuel H. Kress. Museums in North Carolina, New York and Chicago had to be convinced to lend their parts of the altarpiece so viewers could get a rare look at the whole — almost.

One panel is missing, so a Dutch artist recreated what experts decided would be the most likely scene — the baptism of a pagan priest. Charlotte Caspers used ancient materials and techniques, including natural pigments bound by egg yolk. The exhibit includes a three-minute video of Casper’s meticulous process, which gives a window into the life of medieval artists. Also on display are her initial sketches and notes.

The new panel would create a jarring contrast with its 650-year-old companions, so a team of students at Duke University created algorithms to age a digital image of Casper’s recreation. With crack patterns and faded color, it’s a print of that electronically seasoned image that has been placed into the altarpiece. But nearby is Casper’s actual work, giving a sense of what a shining spectacle the altarpiece must have been six centuries ago. The clever Duke students took images of the rest of the panels and ran their algorithms in reverse, so viewers can see a video of how the whole piece might have looked when new.
Also in the room is a display of dozens of pigments used in the medieval period, including a smoky red made by grinding up the bodies of dead beetles.

The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh organized the exhibit and was first to host it.