Expanded Text of Alexander Nagel Interview

Raphael's universally admired painting was given to the National Gallery by Andrew Mellon.
Raphael's universally admired painting was given to the National Gallery by Andrew Mellon. (National Gallery Of Art)
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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Alexander Nagel, 44, is best known for an award-winning book on Michelangelo, and for research into Renaissance concepts of history that he conducted during a two-year stint as Andrew Mellon Professor at the National Gallery's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Art. This fall, he was appointed Professor of Renaissance Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York -- art history's CalTech.

This is quite a complex painting.

On the one hand, there seems to be an emphasis on a single moment, and on the other hand an emphasis on things enduring through time.

There is the sense that John's head has just looked up, that Christ's head has just turned, that the Virgin has come to attention, and that all of them are magnetized for a second by the cross that Christ has grasped. At the same time, it's hard to imagine it as a moment in any obvious sequential drama: the whole thing seems poised and static.

And that contrast seems to me to be reflected in the composition of the picture. In how the figures represent a highly dynamic group distributed in space and involving quite a bit of twisting and turning, and yet they also create a kind of flat, orderly hexagon on the surface.

GOPNIK: The tondo form does seem to allow a special awareness of a flat disc, yet also of an opening into depth.

NAGEL: And the painting's round shape, you could also say, is constantly in movement and yet also seems highly stable.

So in both the treatment of the narrative moment and the structure of the composition, a great deal of motion and complexity is reconciled with something very stable and unchanging.

This duality in the painting also produces a particular kind of theological emphasis. It advances the notion that the contingent, the earthly, the episodic, is also part of a larger, timeless plan. All the separate little episodes of history -- a child dandled by his mother in a meadow, for instance, as she puts down her book -- look to us like they've happened in an almost accidental way, but this painting reveals that they're all part of God's supratemporal plan.

GOPNIK: After all, why is there a cross in this scene, so many years before Christ's Crucifixion? The object is almost a toy, two flimsy reeds lashed together by a little shepherd boy named John. Yet even as Jesus reaches for that toy, the part above his fingers assumes the proportions of the crossed beams he will be nailed to -- at that moment, the reeds become the cross of the crucifixion.

NAGEL: Yes, The cross here can exist as a symbol of the Crucifixion before the actual event of the Crucifixion because the divine plan cuts through mere chronology.

This relationship between history and the divine scheme is a persistent, profound issue in Christian theology. And in this painting a new set of artistic problems -- which have to do with balancing a detailed description of nature and human bodies with a larger sense of compositional and structural order -- have created new insights into it. After all, this is a religious picture, and it does its job very well.

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