Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Glaring Across the Chasm of Flames

The Frick Collection is in the converted Manhattan town house of Henry Clay Frick. Much of the permanent collection is still arranged in living spaces, as if the family were going to move back in tomorrow. There are quiet spots for sitting and contemplating, tucked serenely between the walls of a house set down amidst the constant drone of New York’s Upper East Side. I was slowly sauntering from room to room when I entered the Living Hall and saw what is still my favorite group of paintings. The wit of the arrangement stopped me dead in my tracks and made me cackle so loudly that I was almost tossed out of the museum.

Inset into one wall is one of those large walk-in fireplaces. The mantle is just about head hight. To the left of the fireplace is the famous Holbein portrait of St. Thomas More, the Man for All Seasons; he looks to his left, across the great expanse of the fireplace. On the other side of the fireplace, looking to his right across the chasm, is a portrait of Thomas Cromwell also by Holbein the Younger.

Now, Cromwell was Henry VIII’s chief minister; it was he who was instrumental in organizing More’s martyrdom, questioning the Saint endlessly and trying fruitlessly to find or force a political justification for More’s execution. He was unsuccessful, but More was beheaded anyway, and now the pair of them, transported from their own island to this room in Manhattan, stare at one another across the flames, inviting us to guess which of the Thomases is on which side of the great chasm.

But that’s not all, for above the mantle, looking out at us from a height, is the famous El Greco of St. Jerome. He is elongated, dressed in red cape, and has his thumb plonked down into Scripture. His stern presence has been set as a judge between the two Tommys, but by his gaze and gesture he commands us to make our own judgement, and to base it on Holy Writ. Only the angle of his body within this grouping betrays his own choice, or (at any rate) the choice made by the person who had these three paintings hung together in this place.

The large fireplace, which would dominate most rooms, is subsumed by a fantastic and deliberate arrangement of portraits; the grouping uses it and gives it new meaning. It becomes a gateway to hell in an arrangement that reminds us of a notorious moment in history and tells us what the arranger thinks of the characters in the story.

And I suspect that there are similar stories to be read throughout the house, if only I had the wit and intelligence to discern them.

Get thee to the Frick.