Monday, January 16, 2012

Devotion, Destruction, and the English "Deformation"

The Wall Street Journal featured this online article by Barrymore Laurence Scherer, whom I used to hear make presentations during the Texaco Sponsored Met Opera broadcasts, about an exhibition of medieval alabasters at the Princeton University Art Museum--with a definite connection to the English Deformation, I mean English Reformation:

Medieval luxury came in various materials and forms, alabaster carvings among them, and a new show at the Princeton University Art Museum reveals the intimate beauty and expressiveness of this art. "Object of Devotion" highlights a selection of 60 Medieval English alabaster panels and freestanding sculptures from the vast collection of London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Touring for the first time in North America, these carvings of holy figures and narrative scenes were produced for churches, royal chapels and domestic altars in England and exported to the Continent. And they represent an English industry that thrived from about 1350 to 1530, after which the Protestant Reformation's ban on religious imagery, combined with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England by King Henry VIII, not only ended the demand for such works but also led to their outright destruction.

According to the museum website:

The dates of the sculptures range from ca. 1370 through 1530, when the Protestant Reformation put an end to the creation of new religious art.

The exhibition draws attention to the “alabastermen,” specialists in the English Midlands, around Nottingham, who sculpted the stone mined there, prized for its high quality. The subjects were chosen to appeal to churchmen, aristocrats, and wealthy non-aristocratic patrons. The relatively small works were assembled to form entire altarpieces recounting the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary, or used as devotional works dedicated to the most revered saints. The exhibition examines the working methods of the sculptors, the exportation of much of their work to the European continent, and the stylistic evolution and different levels of quality of the sculptures. Object of Devotion also chronicles the abrupt end of the alabaster-carving tradition in England at the time of the Reformation, when works in English churches were defaced or destroyed during outbursts of Protestant iconoclasm and the alabastermen sold off their stock in continental Europe.

Mr. Barrymore Laurence Scherer (I love that name!) likes the exhibition, which will be travelling on after Princeton:

Admittedly, the rendering of the figures may appear somewhat stiff and naive compared to contemporaneous Italian work by Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello and others, yet within their formulas these alabasters often reveal remarkable visual imagination. A panel representing "The Ascension of Christ into Heaven" (c. 1380-1400) features a group of astonished apostles gazing upward as Christ, represented only by his bare feet and lower part of his robe, ascends like the tail of a rocket into a stylized cloud. Similarly, a vigorous "St. Christopher" (c. 1450-80) fords a stream, his toes protruding from the carved band representing the flowing water. While the panel's overall linear carving suggests the crisp style of Albrecht Dürer's woodcuts a few decades later, the simplified planes of the saint's head, torso and drapery seem to anticipate the streamlined neo-classicism of Art Deco half a millennium in the future.

These works often convey considerable human emotion as well, especially those pieces inspired by themes taken not from the Bible but from such popular compendia of saintly lore as Jacobus de Voragine's "The Golden Legend," compiled in the late 13th century. For instance, in a panel of "The Beheading of St. Catherine" carved between 1450 and 1470, the figure of the blindfolded saint is brutally thrust downward toward the chopping block by the executioner's foot, yet the gentleness with which she seems to feel her way is heartrending, recalling the groping for the block of the tender, blindfolded figure in Paul Delaroche's Romantic painting of "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey," one of the 19th-century favorites in London's National Gallery.

Throughout, the exhibition conveys a lively sense of religious belief amongst the people and within the clergy in late-Medieval England while vividly revealing the sophistication of life and commerce that flourished on the sea-girt isle before, during and after the Wars of the Roses.

In addition to the show itself is the beautifully illustrated exhibition catalog, including essays by several eminent scholars in the field and full-page images of the individual works, which deserves to become a popular reference book on this genre of Medieval art.

So, Henry VIII, in addition to plundering the monasteries, executing some of the greatest men in his country, destroyed a livelihood. That fact fits well the picture drawn by W.G. Hoskins in The Age of Plunder.

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