The scene with the three kings has the same gold curtain behind it, but the ground is a green grass lawn sprinkled with flowers. The youngest king, slender and blond, looks unsure of what to do. He half hangs back, half approaches the baby, shyly, tentatively. He’s an amateur among professional actors of the sacred. Awed into awkwardness by the event, he’s a stand-in for us.
The next painting in the series, “The Coronation of the Virgin,” is a single continuous scene that rises in tiers. At the bottom, 19 saints kneel in rows. They face a steep staircase that looks to be made of rainbow-colored clouds. At its top, an enthroned Christ reaches to steady his mother’s new crown.
The saints, for all their glamour, are earthbound. With their embroidered cloaks and crosiers, they’re too heavy, too human, to climb that cloud-staircase. Still, they’re riveted by the sight of it, or all but two of them are. In the painting’s foreground, St. Thomas Aquinas, intellectual-in-chief of the Dominican order, holds out an open book of psalms to us like a maître-d’ offering a menu. Less invitingly, farther back in the crowd, a gray-haired Saint Peter, clutching his keys to heaven, eyes us over his shoulder as if suspicious of our intrusion.
Of the Marian paintings in the show, none is more sublime than the Gardner’s own. When Bernard Berenson, who brokered its purchase, referred to it as “a darling” he wasn’t wrong. It has two separate but related scenes. In the lower one, the deceased Virgin lies in deathlike sleep amid a gathering of apostles. Four are about to lift her bier — you can sense from their postures that they are anticipating its weight — while others whisper among themselves or stare in numbed sorrow. Jesus presides over all, carrying Mary’s soul, in the form of a bright-eyed child tucked in his arm.