Last week I had the opportunity to see The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London, showcasing some of the Renaissance works of art from the Royal Collections.
The exhibition began with a map of northern Europe from the Liber Chronicarum (Nuremburg Chronicle, 1493), setting the boundaries for the exhibition’s scope. It’s a fascinating map, with Scotland existing almost as its own island and the mountains of much of mainland Europe looking like something from an illustration of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
From establishing the exhibition’s topography, the curators then provide the viewer with those most influential figures:
Martin Luther (in a woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1548); the philosopher and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (1517); Sir Thomas More (drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1526). These three figures provide some context for the exhibition, which focuses not only on the artistic endeavours of the artists of late medieval and early modern Europe, but also the intellectual and cultural environments in which they worked.
These are complemented later in the exhibition by display cases filled with books, including a copy of More’s Utopia (1528) and Henry VIII’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments Against Martin Luther (1521).
The title page of this royal copy of the Defence, signed by Henry, shows the legendary story of the Roman, Mucius Scaevola, who, during the siege of Rome by the Etruscans, mistakenly killed a scribe instead of the enemy king, Porsenna. Mucius burned his right hand to show his indifference to Porsenna’s threats of torture.
Dürer’s illustrations from the 1498 print of the Book of Revelation take up a wall of the second room. Fifteen illustrations were produced for the Book, of which eight appear in the exhibition, including the Whore of Bablyon, and The Apoclayptic Woman.
It is not only the subjects of the sketches, engravings and paintings that are of concern in this exhibition; art as a craft is also a prominent concern. It was a pleasure to see this page from Dürer’s Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion (1528), his treatise on the proportions of the human body:
From sketches and engravings, The Northern Renaissance then treats the viewer to three paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder. His Judgement of Paris wonderfully captures how artists situate their own times within Classical narratives. The emotion captured in his Lucretia conveys both virtue and shame. The decision to hang these two paintings either side of Jan Gossaert’s Adam and Eve (c. 1520) creates an intriguing triptych. Each picture captures only part of much longer stories, and each speaks to the other about notions of beauty, culpability, and narrative. This moment, about half way through the exhibition, brings the viewer back to the beginning. The security desk at the entrance is intriguingly flanked by two banners: enlarged versions of Adam and Eve, guarding the gates of this northern renaissance.
The second half of the display mainly focuses on royal and court portraits, one of the highlights being François Clouet’s depiction of an eighteen-year-old Mary Queen of Scots (c. 1560).
A copy of the Whitehall Mural also makes an imposing appearance, despite its relatively small size. The mural was originally painted in 1537 on a wall of the Privy Chamber at Whitehall Palace. It was destroyed by fire in 1698. The mural depicts Henry VIII and Jane Seymour standing in front of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. A statement of Tudor power (and prowess), the first part of the Latin inscription on the centre plinth reads:
If it pleases you to see the illustrious images of heroes, look on these; no picture ever bore greater. The great debate, competition and great question is whether father or son is the victor. For both, indeed, were supreme.
For me, one of the most striking images is a sketch of The Lady Parker (c. 1540-43). The expression captured by Hans Holbein the Younger in this portrait of the wife of Sir Henry Parker is difficult to describe, but it has stuck with me over the past week. There’s something captivating about her. Grace was the daughter of Sir John Newport and was married to Henry Parker when she was eight years old. It is possible that she was a lady-in-waiting to Jane Seymour and she was present at both the baptism of Prince Edward and the funeral of Jane in 1537.
I particularly enjoyed seeing the intricately decorated field spaulders and vambraces made for Henry VIII in about 1544. Designed to protect the upper arms and forearms, they were made in Italy and modified in the royal workshops at Greenwich.
The final room of the exhibition contains several paintings of the Virgin and Child, as well as Pieter Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7), an image with which I am familiar from books, and it was wonderful to see this version. The curators had also been careful to highlight the changes made to Bruegel’s work: when the painting came into the possession of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, the slaughtered babies were painted over so that, instead of a massacre, the scene appeared to be a more general one of plunder.
This is just a taste of the exhibition and it’s definitely worth seeing if you get the opportunity. It runs at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until 14 April 2013.