Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith and Holofernes.

I have seen many old oil paintings—of religious scenes, of mythologies, of rich people’s foodstuffs tumbling decadently from gilded dishes on large tables in hauntingly dim rooms. I saw these things at Seattle Art Museum’s new exhibition, too. But the 39 paintings and one statue in Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum, which opens today, feel like a particularly aberrant bunch. They span the 16th and 17th centuries. There are some El Grecos. The promo copy talks a lot about the use of chiaroscuro, and the images are organized predominantly around various views of bodies.

But between the image of a naked, sallow, bedraggled Mary Magdalene being raised heavenward by three childlike angels (Giovanni Lanfranco’s Assumption of Mary Magdalene) and the brutal beheading in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, the show feels like it's tilted toward some uncanny vision of classical art. In doing so it serves as fine reminder of how much our memories and connotations of periods can get distilled down to a few images. The Mona Lisa is not the Renaissance, but her ubiquity can obscure the period’s diversity.   

Also, the show just contains some outright stunners, such as Battistello Caracciolo’s The Virgin of the Souls with Saints Clare and Francis. It’s an enormous, dramatic piece, painted so the figures—a young man being lifted in purgatory by an angel, among others—appear as cutouts against a midnight background. Its chiaroscuro, as it happens, is lovely. 

Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum
Oct 17–Jan 26, Seattle Art Museum, $30

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