CARNEVALE, Fra
(b. ca. 1425, Urbino, d. 1484, Urbino)

The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (?)

1467
Tempera and oil on wood, 147 x 97 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Two panels of virtually the same size, depicting scenes constructed on a precisely mirror-image perspective grid, are in the centre of sustained scholarly debate which extends to both the subjects, the function, and the authorship. They depict ostensibly religious subjects with a plethora of detail taken, on the one hand, from contemporary life and inspired, on the other, by humanist-antiquarian interests. One of the panels (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) represents the Birth of the Virgin, the other (in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) probably shows the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple.

These two highly original pictures can be identified with an altarpiece painted by Fra Carnevale for a lay fraternity of flagellants in the hospital church of Santa Maria della Bella in Urbino. In the seventeenth century the altarpiece was confiscated by Cardinal Antonio Barberini, and in the 1930s they were sold from the Barberini collection to the museums in New York and Boston.

The Virgin (the young girl in blue) is depicted at the head of the procession filing into the basilica-like temple. She passes three beggars - a common embellishment of the scene. Instead of the traditional Jewish priest officiating at the event, Fra Carnevale places three figures at the high altar, apparently a Franciscan, a Dominican and a hooded figure - while two pilgrims are seen against the right-hand entrance pier. The remaining figures in the church are exclusively young males who chat, rest, or walk about. The decorative reliefs on the church façade above clearly depict events in the Virgin's life, The Annunciation and the Visitation. On the basis of the columns a dancing maenad and a satyr with pipes, as well as a classical urn with a branch protruding from its opening symbolize the pagan past.