Sunday, July 08, 2012

Medieval and Renaissance exhibitions in NYC

Even though New York obviously has no original medieval buildings (except for those built into The Cloisters), the City is home to wonderful collections of medieval art. The Metropolitan Museum houses the largest and best collection of medieval art in the US, much of it on display in the main building, while many more are on view at The Cloisters, the branch of the museum devoted to the European Middle Ages. The Morgan Library and the New York Public Library house hundreds of valuable medieval illuminated manuscripts. (To see how many objects from medieval Hungary these collections hold, have a look at my preliminary checklist). I had a chance to spend two days in New York this past week - instead of these permament collections, I seeked out some Medieval and Renaissance exhibitions, which I will briefly describe below.

St. Mark preaching - Ivory panel from the
so-called Grado Chair, 7th-8th c.
First on my list was the Byzantium and Islam exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum, which actually closes today. This large exhibition is part of a series of shows curated by Helen C. Evans and dedicated to Byzantine Culture (a series which acutually started with Kurt Weitzmann's 1977 exhibition titled The Age of Spirituality). The two earlier exhibitions - “The Glory of Byzantium” in 1997 and “Byzantium: Faith and Power” in 2004 - focused on later periods of Byzantine art (the Middle Byzantine period and the last centuries of the Byzantine empire, respectively), while the current exhibition goes back to the early centuries of Byzantium, exploring the vast southern part of the Empire. The focus is on the diverse cultural traditions (Greek, Coptic, Syriac, Jewish, etc.) and on the emergence of a new force in the region: Islam. The exhibition is arranged thematically, surveying first religious art of the Byzantine empire, then focusing on themes of secular art (such as commerce or dress), finishing with Islamic religious art. The website of the museum gives a very good overview of the material on view, and more in-depth information is provided by tthe accompanying blog.

While the earlier exhibitions mainly focused on highlights of Byzantine art - icons, luxury manuscripts, goldsmith works - and on the connections of Byzantium with western Europe and Latin Christianity, this exhibition was quite different. The exhibition looked to the Eastern and Southern neighbours of Byzantium, and raised a number of very interesting and novel questions about cultural transfer and the co-existence of different traditions. Naturally, the show also includes a number of truly spectacular items: such as the famous Rabbula Gospels from 586 or the wonderful ivories of the so-called Grado Chair. The narrative was clear, and the display - as always at the Met - was wonderfully arranged. Overall, however, I was not quite as impressed with this exhibition as with the 1997 "Glory of Byzantium" - the wonderful display of icons from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai remains a vivid memory to this day from the earlier exhibition. Due to political circumstances, no loans arrived from Egypt this time. These objects, however, are included in the catalogue - their presence would have definitely made the whole exhibition different.

Head of a man.
Bohemian, 1360-1380 

Currently, there is one more exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum focusing on Medieval and Renaissance art: titled Dürer and Beyond, it displays Central European Drawings, 1400–1700. It starts with a few beautiful Bohemian drawings, well-known from the Prague: The Crown of Bohemia exhibition (2005). In other parts of the museum, there are additional special displays, including the Rylands Haggadah (mid 14th c., Catalonia), Renaissance illuminations from the Robert Lehman Collection, and a handful of Northern Italian paintings from the Accademia Carrara at Bergamo.

Antico: Hercules 
The second stop on my itinerary was the Frick Collection. I really enjoy going to collection museums - in the US, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a particular favorite of mine - so I often visit the Frick, particularly to see Duccio's wonderful Temptation of Christ, Bellini's Saint Francis, Rembrandt's Polish (or Hungarian?) Rider, etc. This time, however, my goal was to see the exhibition of the bronze statues of Antico. Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes is a small exhibition, full of first-rate works, surveying the career of Pier Jacopo Alari de Bonacolsi (c. 1455–1528), court sculptor of the Gonzagas at Mantua. Previously, the exhibition was shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The websites of both museum contain plenty of information on the sculptor and on the works on display: here are the links to the Frick Collection and the National Gallery web features. There is also a virtual exhibition available.

Bartolo di Fredi: Adoration of the Magi
Siena, Pinacoteca 

Quite by accident, I found another exhibition dedicated to medieval art in New York City, at the Museum of Biblical Art. This small exhibition space was opened a few years ago on Broadway, and is maintained by the American Bible Society. Their current exhibition is dedicated to a wonderful altarpiece from S. Domenico in Siena: The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi. Due to an exceptional partnership of the University of Virginia Art Museum and the Pinacoteca of Siena, the main panel of this altarpiece travelled to the US, to be shown alongside with its two surviving predella panels. The show was organized by the University of Virginia Art Museum, and the New York venue is the second and the last of this brief US tour. The exhibition includes a few other paintings by the master and his contemporaries. In the back part of the room, there is another small exhibition, displaying printed bibles from the time of Gutenberg.


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  2. Anthea 11.07.2012
    Thanks, very helpful and informative. I so wish that the Antico exhibition had a european venue.

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