In late July, the museum’s 14th-century triptych altarpiece Madonna with Child and Saints by Jacopo di Cione was removed from the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery to undergo emergency conservation. The empty 36-square-foot space it left was filled with O‘ahu-based artist Masami Teraoka’s The Cloisters / Tsunami—a decision that’s eliciting a wide-range of responses from visitors.
Curator of European and American art Theresa Papanikolas took a picture of the installation and posted it on Instagram with the comment: “I’m trying something a little different in our Renaissance gallery.” That’s an understatement.
At first glance, Teraoka’s large, square painting fits right in with the other works in the gallery, with its gilt aesthetic, and echoes of di Cione’s pairing of full-length figures. But pause for a second, and you’ll do a triple take.
“Our Renaissance paintings of the Virgin and Child send a very clear message about divine hierarchy and the unique role of the Virgin Mary within it,” Papanikolas says. “In those, the Virgin sits enthroned as a benevolent Queen of Heaven and the influential Mother of Christ, a familiar iconography of the celestial realm that Masami completely overturns.”
In the left side of the picture, Teraoka painted himself hoisting a baby-toting bishop by the feet, exposing the bishop’s feminine underwear. Beside them, a mostly naked pregnant nun looks down at a groping cherub in papal garb. In the right half of the painting a nude pregnant woman hangs limply in the arms of a fully robed clergywoman. And all of this drama takes place in New York City—amid The Cloisters and a pair of Babel-esque towers being struck by flaming airplanes. As yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, the setting takes on an especially deep resonance.
Painted between 2002 and 2005, The Cloisters / Tusnami is an interpretive mash-up of headlines from that period and milestones in Teraoka’s own life—from the Sept. 11 attack to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to the birth of his daughter, Eve, after his wife’s battle with cancer—permeated by the ongoing sexual misconduct of Catholic clergy, which he colorfully lampooned in last year’s exhibition Feast of Fools.
Docent Bill Pearl incorporates The Cloisters / Tsunami into his regular tours through this gallery. “Things here have different meanings,” he tells a recent group. “These figures are both people jumping out of the World Trade Center, and fallen priests.” The whole group says, “Ohhh.”
Without a contextualizing tour, and only a brief description on the wall, much is left (intentionally) to the viewer to interpret, guess at, or simply take in.
“Some people have said it’s anti-Catholic,” Pearl says. In fact, one visitor even sent an email to the museum saying, “The missing Christian mural saddened me. The piece that replaced it is—how shall I say—awful.” Obviously, religious subjects hit people on a personal level, which may be exactly why Teraoka references them so often. Rarely, if ever, are his works placed in physical apposition to their source material—here, sandwiched between two 14th-century sculptures of Mary with baby Jesus.
“In Teraoka’s vision of heaven, the Virgin emerges not as a personification of salvation, but as a well-intentioned, yet ultimately powerless, advocate for the victimized,” Papanikolas says. “We chose to place Masami’s painting in juxtaposition with traditional Christian imagery to inspire discussion about the power of art not only to communicate scriptural doctrine, but to raise questions about how religion—especially organized religion—functions in societies across history.”
For some of Bill Pearl’s tour attendees, like Sarah from Australia, the temporary gallery dynamic works. “It’s good for your brain to be sparked into some thinking,” she says. Another tourist, Robert, was surprised. “It’s interesting. It hearkens back to certain classical elements, and then makes you kind of do a double-take.”
“On the whole, Masami’s painting is getting a really good response all around,” says Papanikolas. “One of our mandates as an encyclopedic art museum is to draw connections between contemporary art and the art of the past, and Masami Teraoka’s work offers a wonderful opportunity to think about how religious art communicates in terms of very specific visual ideas, and how these ideas have changed over time.”
See it while you can! The Cloisters / Tsunami is set to hang in the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery through the month of September, pending conservation of the Jacopo di Cione.