The Mantel Room's eponymous mantel

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 9:00 PM

Every day this week, art critic Blake Gopnik is discussing a work from the Mantel Room at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Day Five: The Mantel Room's Renaissance mantel

The best part of a week spent in the Corcoran's Mantel Room - and not a second spent with the mantel it is named after, until this, our very last day. This is typical of how we've come to visit museums: The paintings on the walls are "art"; almost everything else is "decor."

As recently as when the Mantel Room was built, in 1927, that wasn't the case. Collectors and curators came closer to being equal-opportunity aesthetes, enjoying artifacts and ornaments as much as classic works of "fine" art.

The stone mantel that gives this room its name once had pride of place in the Fifth Avenue mansion of Sen. William Andrews Clark, the Corcoran benefactor and donor of most of the works in the gallery. When Clark's pictures shipped to the Corcoran, there would have been no thought of leaving his mantel behind; it has been where it is now since the room was built, although less noticed with every decade that passes. The Corcoran was able to give me a sizable curatorial file on various paintings in the room; on the mantel, there were only a few lines of wall text.

All we know, by way of facts, is that the mantel was once said to have been salvaged from "an old Normandy castle," and that its style dates it to the first half of the 16th century.

The object itself tells us more about its making and meaning.

You can see that its sculptor had come under the influence of the Italian artists of the high Renaissance, and of the classical culture they channeled. The shepherdess at left has the grace, and the gown, of a madonna by Leonardo or Raphael. The dancing man at the far right has a foreshortened foot that depends on the life-drawing introduced in Florence before 1500, and the pose and turned head of the bagpiper might call to mind the Venetian idylls of Giorgione and the young Titian, from around the same time. The shepherd at the very center of the mantel has the stance and look of a figure from the Greek and Roman friezes rediscovered by Renaissance humanists.

But then, for all this avant-garde detail, there's plenty that shows that this piece comes from the margins of cutting-edge culture: The stylized trees, like the sheep fold seen from above in a landscape otherwise seen from the side, could come from any number of much earlier medieval works.

There's something a touch medieval about the whole mantel. The scene seems secular, promoting rural life in the countryside surrounding the home for which the mantel was made. But it also seems suffused with Christianity. Those lambs have to evoke Jesus as Agnus Dei. The shepherd at the mantel's center also recalls the Good Shepherd of the New Testament (John 10: 1-18) and his constant presence in the very earliest art of Christian antiquity; his piping companion recalls the music-making shepherds who were said to have witnessed Epiphany. The bare tree on the highest hill in the background, in a landscape in which all other trees have leaves, has to evoke Christ's "rood" on mount Golgotha. Even the oxen at the mantel's left have to bring to mind Saint Luke the evangelist, whose ox would have been seen on church pulpits and walls, while the distant city at the mantel's other end is not far from contemporary pictures of Jerusalem, with Christ entering it on an ass.

I'm not saying that these elements are hidden theological symbols, or that the mantel must be unraveled down to some sacred message that truly defines it, as though it were intended as a puzzle to unpack. I'm just making the old argument that every culture, and its art, comes infused with certain ideas and imagery that matter more than others.

I believe this mantel was truly meant to represent a view of rural revelry, at least as conceived by a patron who didn't have to shear sheep or clean up after oxen. But everything about that view also has a Christian tinge. Or rather, everything that could have a Christian reading - which was almost any image or object at all - would have been subject to one, in the normal course of daily life in late medieval France. If you take medieval religiosity seriously as a coherent account of the cosmos, then you have to think of the world as utterly reflecting its maker and His plan. The God of the Middle Ages knows at all times what was, what is and what will be: He conceived the pagan past, from the start, to foreshadow its Christian future; a country scene in Normandy in 1520 can't escape the greater, cornerstone realities of Christ the Good Shepherd and His death on the cross around A.D. 33.

This perfectly secular piece of household equipment, meant to frame a roaring fire, is also, inevitably, an altar to the Christian God. The lamb that roasts in it is also a burnt offering.

A note to my readers

After almost exactly a decade covering art for The Washington Post, this article will be my last, as I head to New York and a job writing for Newsweek.

It has been a fabulous decade in which I've been given the chance to do wonderful things. I've covered everything from great cars in Atlanta to the world's greatest painting in Madrid. In Washington, subjects have ranged from the ridiculous (Artomatic) to the sublime (Raphael's "Alba Madonna" at the National Gallery). I've been furious (at the recent censoring of "Hide/Seek" at the National Portrait Gallery) and overjoyed (at readers' support of my fury - especially Catholic readers' support). And all along, my art critic's soul has been fed by some of the world's great shows and collections, at a number of the world's great museums - right here at home in Washington.

I can't think of another newspaper that would have allowed me to go on (and on and on) about some of the more esoteric subjects I've written about: computer simulations of Old Master paintings; ancient Iraqi ceramics; the failings of neuroaesthetics. I'm not sure there's another newspaper readership that would have supported such goings-on, and even sometimes applauded them.

I'm going to miss this newspaper, and its audience. You help each other stay sharp.

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