Monday, June 26, 2017

Grammar and Grace - Exhibition on the Reformation at the Hungarian National Museum

Perhaps the most important event of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is the major exhibition organized by the Hungarian National Museum, titled Grammar and Grace - 500 Years of Reformation. The exhibition, which will be on view until November 5, 2017, offers a look at the ever-changing, complex relations of the Hungarian Reformation, and includes a series of unequaled treasures. The exhibition was brought to the audience by the exemplary collaboration of museums, collections and parishes in and out of Hungary, and its co-curators represent the most important ecclesiastical collections in the country. 

While the topic of the exhibition is post-medieval, the exhibition itself provides a wide range of medieval objects as well. This is partly because the narrative focuses more on continuity and connections rather than on radical breaks and destruction. Thus topics of the exhibition include the survival and reuse of medieval liturgical objects in a Protestant context, as well as the transformation of some pre-reformation artworks for later use.

The introductory part of the exhibition specifically focuses on medieval art: it provides an overview of European religious beliefs and practices of the late 15th century, so the eve of the Reformation (see image on the right). As explained in the overview of the exhibition, "Europe in the 15th century was bursting with anticipation, fear and hope. The plague epidemics – the evil feasting in the world – decimating the secular society and the church alike, the evil feasting in the world made the majority of the Christian community find new ideas to follow. Searching for salvation created forms of piety never seen before and launched new social-spiritual movements. Prophets popped up everywhere preaching about the end of the world closing in, encouraging conversion and purification of the church and declining the practice of paying money instead of acting in the right Christian way." This is illustrated in the exhibition with a series of late medieval altarpieces, statues, devotional books and prints and other objects.

Following the introduction, the exhibition surveys the appearance and rapid spread of the Reformation in Central Europe, specifically in Hungary. The theses of Luther made it to Hungary and to the royal court in Buda itself as early as the 1520s by merchants, German noblemen and Humanists. The Kingdom of Hungary fell at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, and starting from the 1530s Protestant preachers had been wandering about in the country, and new churches and religious communities came into life. By the second half of the 16th century the country was lost in the political sense due to the Turkish occupation and being torn into three parts. The permanent and threatening presence of the Turkish power, the cooperation they forced with Hungarians in the occupied regions and the power vacuum all led to an unprecedented level of freedom of speech and religion resulting in the Carpathian Basin turning into the most diverse parts of Europe in terms of denominations. The exhibition surveys these historical developments, focusing on different Protestant churches, and also chronicling religious debates and conflicts. Later parts of the exhibition tell about the role of Protestant churches in various communities: in cities, smaller towns and villages, and also focus on the role of these churches in the cultural life of Hungary. 

Loans from all over the Carpathian basin, as well as from western Europe result in one of the largest historical art exhibitions of recent year, the organization of which was no small feat for the National Museum and for its chief curator, Erika Kiss. Just as units of the exhibition focus on community and cooperation, the exhibition itself is the result of the cooperation of curators and collections. A lot of objects come from the National Museum itself, and the Széchenyi National Library was also one of the major lenders, but there are objects from about 100 lenders in the exhibition. This includes ecclesiastical collections (the National Lutheran Museum in Budapest, the Ráday Collection of the Calvinist Church), the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery, the Museum of Applied Arts and many others. In addition, several small ecclesiastical collections and church communities have lent their treasures, many of which have not been exhibited in decades. It is a carefully organized, beautifully installed and very interesting exhibition. It was designed by Tibor Somlai, who has already proved his talent with several other major exhibition designs.

Finally, I would like to point out and illustrate a few medieval highlights from the exhibition. These alone make a visit to the Hungarian National Museum worthwhile - but of course the exhibition offers a lot more.

The first part of the exhibition, focusing on late medieval piety, is naturally made up of medieval objects. Panels from late medieval altarpieces, liturgical objects - including chasubles, chalices and liturgical books - prints and small devotional objects create an atmospheric overview of religious life in Hungary on the eve of the Reformation. The paintings mostly come from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery. One of the most spectacular objects in this section is a large Gothic monstrance originally from the church of Nagydisznód (Heltau, Cisnădie, RO), which was preserved even after its Transylvanian Saxon community took up the Lutheran faith. Dating from the second quarter of the 15th century, the monstrance was discovered hidden in the church in the 18th century, and it later ended up in the Brukenthal Museum of Sibiu.  (See the image below).

One of the other highlights also comes from Nagyszeben (Hermanstadt, Sibiu, RO). It is the central panel of the former main altar of the parish church of Nagyszeben, which was later taken apart. The altar was originally set up in 1519, according to an inscription on its predella. Already in 1545, it was transformed with the addition of a long inscription, as seen on the photo below. The inscription itself is an intervention carried out during the Reformation, which actually covered up the figures standing under the cross. The panel thus is a beautiful example of the afterlife of late medieval artworks in a new, Protestant religious environment.

For more information, visit the  website of the Hungarian National Museum. You can also read about the exhibition on the website of the Reformed Church of Hungary.

A catalogue is in preparation.

Photos: © Hungarian National Museum, Budapest and Muzeul National Brukenthal, Sibiu

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