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by Thomas Hoving
|Navigate due west from the main entrance of the Metropolitan Museum along those narrow, forbidding corridors to the Medieval Hall and suddenly there's a refulgent light at the end of the tunnel. It's a tapestry in the far-off distance, as colorful as a laser beam. It was woven in the late 15th century in Brussels and uses the cross of Christ to depict the genealogical tree of the order founded by the quirky and splendidly devout St. Francis of Assisi.
This mythical family tree traces a direct bloodline between the Virgin and Child in heaven, Pope Sixtus III, and St. Francis. Francis is in the center receiving the Stigmata surrounded by saints -- the likes of Anthony of Padua, Elzear and Clare. The intensity of this tapestry lifts you up and scoots you into the Lehman Pavilion, until late June the home of the stunning exhibition, "The Treasury of St. Francis of Assisi."
This is a "must-see" show. Some of the church treasury items and paintings are unbeatable. St. Francis was, you'll recall, a privileged, rich dandy born in the late 12th century who, after hearing a voice coming from a crucifix, renounced the material world and, until his untimely death at 40, participated in an amazing series of charitable activities, giving his finery to a beggar, befriending lepers, preaching to the birds, restoring decrepit churches and founding the Franciscan order, which was one of the few uncorrupted monastic organizations of the late medieval world. His basilica was decorated by the finest painters in history, among them Cimabue and Giotto, and its treasury the recipient of a unique bounty of royal gifts.
The knockout pieces are:
A gilded glass 13th-14th century reliquary containing bits of his seamless old brown robe with a strikingly beautiful image of the saint receiving his cherished stigmata.
Another reliquary for Francis' simple, highly scratchy robe, this gloriously wrought one made in Paris in the 14th century. On the back in gilded silver there's an enchanting image of the Nativity with Christ hanging in a basket above the Virgin and Joseph almost as an afterthought.
Of the paintings, make a bee-line for:
Number 24, the St. James painted by Giovanni di Paolo in the early 15th century; number 21, Fra Angelico's delicate and moving St. Anthony of Padua of 1400-1455; and the two crucifixes by the so-called Master of the Blue Crucifixes, numbers 2 and 4, which were created in the mid 13th century and which are powerful and sinewy.
You won't miss the array of large-format color photos showing the horrible destruction to the world-famous Giotto and Cimabue frescoes caused by the 1997 earthquakes and they might just persuade you to write out a check for the restoration cause.
The Lehman Pavilion has seldom looked better, I thought when I'd completed the tour. And that made me think, hey, after nearly 30 years isn't it about time for the Met and the Lehman estate trustees to consider distributing Bobby Lehman's treasures throughout the appropriate galleries of the mighty Met, as he wanted, and use his glowing jewel box of a building for the purpose for which it had been designed?
Not long before he died, when Bobby was confined to a hospital bed in his Park Avenue apartment, I used to bring him treasures from the Cloisters not unlike those in the St. Francis show -- the 14th-century Book of Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, for one. I got a kick out of watching his eyes glow with pleasure. In one of those sessions, while he was lucid of mind, we cut the deal for the Met to get Bobby's grand collection of Old Masters and incomparable drawings, build at the museum's expense the Pavilion to house them recreating some rooms from his private museum, and have his estate pay for curators' salaries and the upkeep of the Pavilion in perpetuity.
I explained to him that like other "name collections" at the museum, J. P. Morgan and Bache for instance, we ought to show his works all together for, say, 25 or 30 years and then send them to the departments where they belonged. He understood clearly and agreed to it, saying that he considered it slightly pushy to have a separate "name collection" forever.
After Bobby's death the executors of his estate and its lawyers shot that deal down and made dinosaur sounds that maybe the fabulous Lehman collection might go elsewhere if I kept on chattering about Bobby's "true wishes," which hadn't been formally memorialized except in my notes.
At one point I got frightened that the Lehman goodies would never show, for the trustees were arguing against providing upkeep. Worried about what we'd do with a $7-million building (gorgeously constructed with no steel, just those great blocks of stone) tailored for the Lehman material that might never appear, I instructed architect Kevin Roche to design the Lehman Pavilion to be a spectacular exhibition hall that would stand on its own and would be a bright vista all the way to the main entrance. Our plans even included ripping out the lugubrious "great stairs" opposite the entrance.
When my trustees caved and renounced the deal Bobby and I had cut, the Lehman executors and legal watchdogs stopped hassling me.
There have been some incredibly fine special exhibitions in the Lehman Pavilion since it opened in the early 1970s -- the gilded bronze Hellenistic Horses from San Marco in Venice, a superb show of the smaller sculptures of Henry Moore, Goya's two Majas from the Prado, and now this captivating ensemble from St. Francis of Assisi. We know the Lehman building works for exhibitions. Visitors delight in being drawn to the back of the museum where they seldom go.
What few realize about these "named collections," supposedly sealed off from the rest of the Met's holdings by "constitutional law," is that inevitably, when the trustees of the name estates or foundations think about it, they become assimilated into the rest of the museum. The classic example is the mammoth and diverse J. P. Morgan collection (everything from Greek and Roman, to armor, medieval delights, old masters, and on and on). Back in 1914 when the Morgan hoard was given to the Met, the place was literally put on the map. Morgan and his trustees insisted that his stuff be housed in a museum-within-a-museum, the stones which now house the arms and armor department and the musical instruments upstairs. The deal was to be unbreakable for the rest of time. The Met trustees said, "Okay."
Over the decades as the Met collected so marvelously, the Morgan Wing began to look a bit arrogantly isolated from the rest of the holdings. The separation seemed almost an affront to visitors and scholars alike who had a hard time comparing one Rembrandt in the Morgan collection, say, with another in the European paintings department.
In the '30s the Morgan trustees quietly and graciously suggested to the museum board that it was time to distribute J. P.'s works throughout the museum for the benefit of both.
It happened. In a trice the Morgan name and reputation received a geometric boost since "J. P. Morgan Collection" appears (BIG) on thousands of labels in most museum departments and his Morgan Wing houses two excellent departments.
With this solid precedent and the thrilling look of the Lehman Pavilion with "The Treasury of St. Francis of Assisi," isn't it time to carry out Robert Lehman's true wishes, give his name a tremendous boost, and gain increasing pleasure by the acquisition of a breathtaking special exhibition hall?
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.