Art In a New Wavelength

William BrownI wasn’t quite sure what to say when William Brown, the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Chief Curator, asked me if I wanted to hold the painting that was the subject of our story.

It was incredibly beautiful. Just looking at it up close on the table was breathtaking. You could see the brush strokes, the powerful emotions portrayed in the faces, the details in the poses of the figures and in the folds of garments. There was also the layering of paint to create the exact color the artist wanted. That’s not to mention the amazingly deep blue of the Virgin Mary’s robes. The color blue was always associated with Mary, but this blue is breathtakingly blue. That’s because the lapis lazuli blue layer in Mary’s robes was very rare. The minerals used to make the pigment for the paint was imported from another country and brought to Florence, Italy where the work was painted. Finally, there was the gold. It was finely painted on and it wasn’t gold paint. It was real.

Besides the beauty, other emotions flooded my mind. This priceless masterwork was also old, very old (c.1330). What’s more, it was very delicate. It turns out the large frame and other molding around the piece was simply for protection. The actual painting was done on a piece of wood that was only about one foot tall and one foot wide.

Art In a New WavelengthI expressed my surprise at how small it was and how it seemed overwhelmed as it was sitting in the cradle of the laser for the experiment we were building the story around. Brown told me that’s because Puccio Capanna’s Crucifixion was only one wing of what’s called a diptych, or two-paneled piece of a devotional artwork. The other panel is in the Vatican Picture Gallery and features an enthroned Madonna and Child with several angels. 

Together, the paintings could have been commissioned for use in the house of a wealthy merchant or government official. Also, that wealthy patron could have commissioned the work for use in a church or monastery. Regardless, all of the pieces were designed as one unit. Thus, they were made small.

So now, it was decision time. I was handed gloves. I put them on and then the painting was handed to me. I started to reach for it but then shook my head and said “Thank you so much for trusting me to hold this, but I think I will just look at it up close.” I will probably never get that opportunity again. But yes, as careful as I would be, the fear of dropping a priceless piece of art was just too much! I’ll be satisfied with looking at an up close picture on my phone.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!


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