Five must-see treasures at Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, Florida

From treasures of antiquity through the most cutting edge contemporary art, the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, Florida offers the best of all worlds.

Inscribed Roman Funerary Monument

This monumental carved marble sculpture is known as a “kline monument.” Kline is the Greek word for couch or bed. Such funerary monuments are known throughout the Roman Empire, but the Greek inscription suggests that it was made in the eastern Empire, most likely Syria.

This piece is new to the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, on loan from a private collection.

One of the largest and best-preserved examples of its type, it is carved from a single piece of marble and weighs nearly 4,300 pounds. It depicts a married couple reclining on a kline, surrounded by winged Erotes (personifications of love) and smaller animal figures.

“It is a memorial to undying love and its lasting memory,” Michael Bennett, PhD, Senior Curator of Early Western Art at the MFA told “Its scale, emotional power and technical brilliance summarizes the best of the Greek and Roman tradition of marble carving.”

The inscription on the base reads, “Mauremosthenes, son of Artemidoros, high priest of Dionysus, with his beautiful and beloved wife… daughter of Androneikos, Athenodotaine.”

The draped figure of the deceased Athenodotaine is completely preserved and positioned in front of her husband Mauremosthenes, whose head is missing. She is modestly dressed, with a veil over her head as she looks out serenely. Her individualistic facial features give the impression of a portrait.

Kehinde Wiley, Leviathan Zodiac (The World Stage: Israel), 2011

A larger-than-life-size painting rich in color and regal in design from Kehinde Wiley’s acclaimed portrait series, “The World Stage: Israel,” Leviathan Zodiac is part of the MFA’s permanent collection following its purchase by the institution in 2019. It went on public view January 2, 2020, but with the museum closing in March due to COVID-19 and the permanent collection off view since, this stunner has seldom been seen.

The image depicts an Israeli man in casual clothes, standing in the pose of a Greco-Roman ruler or military leader. He stands against—and is partly enveloped by—designs evoking traditional Jewish tapestries and paper-cuttings, while his head is backed by a richly worked nimbus, or halo.

The black, hand-carved frame, designed by Wiley, combines traditional imagery of the Hands of Kohen (symbolizing a blessing from a descendant of Aaron, the Old Testament high priest), the Lion of Judah (representing power and majesty in symmetrical, confronting pairs), and the tablets of The Ten Commandments.

“Wiley challenges and subverts long-held traditions of power within art history,” Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg Curator of Contemporary Art Katherine Pill told “With Leviathan Zodiac as part of the MFA Collection, and on view in the Museum’s grand Great Hall, it is a reminder to us all that broad representations of people and experiences are deeply valuable to an encyclopedic institution.”

Kehinde Wiley, 'Leviathan Zodiac (The World Stage: Israel),' 2011.
Kehinde Wiley, ‘Leviathan Zodiac (The World Stage: Israel),’ 2011.PHOTO CREDIT: ROBERT WEDEMEYER

Medici family-commissioned 17th century pietre dure

Pietre dure is an intricate process in which colored marbles and other stones are cut into thin sheets and assembled on a support to create a decorative composition. It is painting with stone and if you’ve never seen one in person, you are in for a treat.

“It was once part of a larger series that originally hung in a Medici villa outside of Florence, Italy, and is one of only six currently known to still exist in the world,” MFA assistant curator Erin Wilson told of the work. “After over a decade in storage and some much-needed conservation, it is now making its beautiful return to our collection galleries.”

Galleria dei Lavori (now known as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure), Italian, founded 1588. Panel depicting a vase of flowers, c. 1625. Hard stones and marble. Gift of Marie G. Williams, 2008. Conservation funded by the Collectors Circle. MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, ST. PETERSBURG

Head of Dionysus

The MFA installed this extremely rare 2,200-year-old Greek bronze head of the god of wine and theater in 2019. The hollow-cast, bronze sculpture is a long-term loan to the museum from a private collector.

There are fewer than 30 surviving large-scale, Greek original bronze statues in the world, according to Bennett. Of that number, only six are in the United States and the MFA now has one of them on view.

As an expert in the field for more than 25 years, Bennett described the Head of Dionysus as one of the most important and finest examples of ancient Greek sculpture in existence today.

Galleria dei Lavori (now known as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure), Italian, founded 1588. Panel depicting a vase of flowers, c. 1625. Hard stones and marble. Gift of Marie G. Williams, 2008. Conservation funded by the Collectors Circle. MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, ST. PETERSBURG

MFA St. Pete “Jade Room”

The MFA’s Mesoamerican Art gallery, or “Jade Room,” features jade, serpentine and obsidian works, all of which are gifts of Dr. Robert L. and Chitranee Drapkin made in 2019.

The examples showcase a select survey of the types of ritual objects made in Mesoamerica and deposited in elite burials.

“The Great Mesoamerican civilizations, Olmec, Maya, and Aztec, treasured jade above gold,” Bennett said. “The works in this newly-designed gallery, including masks, figurines, a segmented crown and other objects, represent one of the most important concentrations of such works in an American art museum.”

The MFA, St. Petersburg’s Mesoamerican Art gallery, or “JadeRoom,” features jade, serpentine and obsidian, or volcanic glass works (from left to right): Olmec, Mexico, Incised Mask, c. 1,200–400 B.C., Serpentine or Jadeite; Teotihuacán, Mexico, Mask, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, ST. PETERSBURG

“We wanted to improve flow and create a narrative that showcases the depth and breadth of the collection,” MFA Executive Director and CEO Kristen A. Shepherd told me about the project which groups works more closely by geographic areas along an easily followed linear timeline.

The reinstall had originally been planned to begin during the summer of 2020 and take place in phases so as not to require closing all areas to the public. With the museum shut down by COVID-19 anyhow, Shepherd decided to press full-speed ahead and complete the update in one fell swoop.

Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida: Handbook of the Collection

Visitors will not only see, but also hear a dramatic difference in the collection galleries.

The MFA is launching Resonance, a new program exploring the relationship between sound and visual art continuing a collaboration with The Florida Orchestra. TFO has produced archival recorded music selections to be played in specific galleries.

Resonance will later include spoken word and other auditory experiences to include poetry, classic prose and artists’ writings.

Surprised you can find this in Florida? Don’t be. The state has a surprisingly robust and diverse arts and cultural scene. Let the other tourists visit the theme parks.

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