‘Sorrows’ Up Close

Regular visitors to The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in the last 29 years might know the “Mother of Sorrows” from the permanent collection. The oil-on-poplar panel painting, of the Virgin Mary from the late 15th century, is probably not much larger than your hand.

Donated by the Schultz family in 1984, the work has been a prized piece — chosen as one of the 50 favorite works for the Cummer’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2011. Now, the museum places “Mother of Sorrows” in a new light — as the central object in the museum’s upcoming exhibition, “The Art of Empathy: The Cummer ‘Mother of Sorrows’ in Context,” on display Nov. 26 through Feb. 16.

Jacksonville native David Areford, now an associate professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, serves as guest curator of the fall and winter exhibit. He examines the role of art in creating and shaping empathic response.

“In recent years, there have been many discussions of empathy in popular, political and scholarly debate, from the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justices to concern over schoolyard bullying,” Areford said. “I hope that the exhibition will make people think of the role of images in framing, teaching and mediating empathy as a learned practice — in Renaissance Europe and today.”

Though little is known about the 15th century artist of the “Mother of Sorrows,” nicknamed the “Master of the Stotteritz Altar” for his painted triptych altarpiece that survives in small-town Germany along with three other known works, Areford has spent the last decade researching the 9-inch-by-7-inch painting’s emotional intensity and significance in the context of contemporary Northern Renaissance artworks.

“The exhibit is designed to really highlight the idea of empathy and artwork as evoker of empathy,” said Holly Keris, the Cummer’s chief curator. “The artwork becomes your guide, showing you the types of emotions you should feel when you’re looking at it or when you are engaged in prayer.”

“We’ve got a whole gallery here full of paintings of Madonnas, and most of the other ones in that gallery are very stoic, very calm, detached and unemotional. This one is so markedly different, with her puffy cheeks and puffy red eyes,” Keris said. “It’s different from a lot of things that the general public is used to seeing.”

The emotional “Mother of Sorrows” stands out in a gallery full of stoic medieval objects, but it could be overlooked by the casual museum visitor due to its relative proportion. According to Areford, the painting’s size is connected to its function as a devotional object, intended to create intense intimacy between the owner and the image, but requiring close attention for modern viewers.

“That’s part of what we’re trying to emphasize in the exhibition,” Areford said. “We’re trying to encourage viewers to get up very close to the work and look at the details in the painting.”

The central work will be surrounded by 19 carefully selected objects on loan from seven museums across the United States and in Europe.

Areford has divided the pieces into two categories within the framework of empathy: “Hands, Hair and Veil: Meaningful Details” 
and “Seeing and Weeping: Passion 
and Compassion.”

The collection includes religious engravings by well-known Nuremberg printmakers Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts and devotional books.

Liturgical pieces are also on loan, including the “Reliquary of the Virgin and Saints,” a gilded medieval container that was used to contain fragments of the bodies of saints, strands of the Virgin Mary’s hair and other relics.

“The reliquary is our intent to think about the details in the Cummer painting,” Areford said. “There are these beautifully painted curling strands of hair that spill out along the bottom of the painting. The original audience would have thought about those little hairs and connected them to reliquaries, and to the fact that parts of the Virgin’s body, like her hair and her clothing, survived in their own churches and neighborhoods.”

Areford authored “The Art of Empathy: The Mother of Sorrows in Northern Renaissance Art and Devotion,” a 64-page, full-color catalog exhibit companion with in-depth analysis of the “Mother of Sorrows,” including findings from a scientific study of the painting performed by the Straus Center for Conservation & Technical Studies at Harvard University. The catalog is available at the museum.

“We’re very excited to have this opportunity to dig deeper into one piece at the museum and to bring together some outstanding examples of medieval art from top institutions in this country and abroad, to really highlight the significance of something that lives right here in Jacksonville,” Keris said.