When Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased Carlo Crivelli’s Saint George Slaying the Dragon in 1897, it was the first time that a Crivelli painting made its way to the United States. Now, over 100 years later, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum beautifully continues Mrs. Gardner’s trendsetting ways with its new exhibition, Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice, which is the very first US exhibition dedicated to his work.
Saint George Slaying the Dragon is only a portion of a larger altarpiece that Crivelli was commissioned to create for the parish church of Porto San Giorgio in 1470. The first installation of the two-part Gardner exhibition reunites a newly restored Saint George with its three other altar-mates; a total of six panels have survived, but two were too fragile to travel. It is fun to keep in mind while looking at these works that they were meant not to be viewed at eye level, but from below. The altarpiece stood for over 400 years before it was broken up into individual fragments, which were sold when the church was demolished in 1803.
The newly cleaned and restored Saint George Slaying the Dragon is nearly overwhelming, particularly for its precision and its boldness of color. The restored gold leaf, which serves as the painting’s sky, is astonishing. Crivelli was a master of pastiglia, which adds an embossed, three-dimensional effect that he sculpted from gesso. Many of his works showcase his gift for this, but it is particularly astounding in the armor of Saint George as he prepares to administer his final blow to the dragon.
As he was leading me through this portion of the exhibition, curator Nathaniel Silver told me that Mrs. Gardner had initially placed this work in the Gothic Room, but soon moved it into the Raphael Room (named after the artist), which serves as some indication of how highly she thought of Crivelli. In its current setting within the exhibition, on its own midnight blue wall, the piece shines in a way that it didn’t in its usual spot: The gold leaf and the vivid colors stand out exquisitely against the blue walls.
In the second installation of the exhibition can be found 20 of Crivelli’s most important works, not least of all one that is on view for the first time in the United States: The Annunciation, With Saint Emidius, which is not only the largest work of the exhibition but possibly its most mesmerizing. The work shows off Crivelli’s knack for rich, exhaustive details. Crivelli was commissioned to paint an altarpiece depicting the day that the news of libertas ecclesiastica, the right to self-government free from papal rule, reached Ascoli, which happened to be on the feast day of the Annunciation. Emidius, the patron saint of Ascoli Piceno, is shown standing next to Gabriel, who is holding a model of the city—perhaps in an offering to the Virgin Mary, who can be seen framed by an ornate doorway. You’ll have a tough time getting this painting out of your head, and benches have been placed before it so that you can gaze in comfort.
Bernard Berenson, Mrs. Gardner’s trusted art advisor, facilitated the purchase of many of her most important treasures, including Saint George Slaying the Dragon, of which he said to her: “You never in your life have seen anything so beautiful for color, and in line it is drawn as if by lighting.” If only he could see it now.