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by Fred Stern
|The amazing Metropolitan Museum of Art has come up with yet another show of its treasures. "Mirror of the Medieval World," Mar. 9-July 4, 1999, features nearly 300 art works and is sure to draw a cool 100,000 visitors. Easily.
Like the recently concluded show of Netherlandish paintings, "From Van Eyck to Brueghel," this exhibition presents works from the Met's permanent collection, ordinarily installed at the museum proper as well as at the Cloisters, the museum's famous castle-like ancillary uptown in Fort Tyron Park. The Met has been showcasing its permanent collection quite a bit lately, and this time has even gone so far as to put the exhibition in galleries usually reserved for traveling shows.
The space, just adjacent to the Petrie European Sculpture Court, is a bit cramped. The collection would look much nicer in the breezy, garden enclosed Cloisters, especially at this time of year, when freshly planted herbs and the just returned birds bring spring to that felicitous location.
Yet as cramped as it is, it's still mind-and-eye enchanting, especially when you think that the objects shown were all acquired since late 1977 during the tenure of William D. Wixom, who has recently retired as chairman of the Metropolitan's medieval art department.
Basically, the show highlights outstanding examples of art for both everyday and liturgical functions, dating from the Bronze Age to late Gothic, right down to the early 16th century.
The exhibition is not arranged chronologically as one would expect, but by category -- 16 of them, leading from flora and fauna to portable icons and reliquaries. This installation can provide interesting juxtapositions, and the viewer can freely wander around the space without breaking an artificial sense of continuity often imposed in museums.
My favorite work in the show is a Monk-Scribe Astride a Wyvern. The monk sits backward on his wyvern -- a two-winged dragon -- with a pen in his right hand, a knife or scraper in his left. The wyvern's tail serves as his writing podium. Curators believe that this North German, mid-12th century cast and chiseled leaded brass object was part of a base for a large candlestick in a church. The vegetal patterns on the wyvern's body give away its Romanesque origins.
Another delightful item is a tableman -- a piece for a board game called "tables," an early form of backgammon. It shows a boy guiding the blind Samson, and is carved from walrus ivory, from Germany (Cologne), around 1150.
The early Byzantine Steelyard Weight and Hook, dating from the first half of the 5th century, appears to be the bust of an empress holding a folded scroll in her left hand. Her right hand seems to reach out from under her mantle to gesture as she speaks. The carefully sculpted bronze figure might be any one of a number of queens from the Theodosian house, but as royal portraits tended to depict generalized aristocratic features rather than specific facial characteristics, it's hard to tell which queen it represents.
The exhibition has a wide assortment of glass roundels, highlighted by a dramatic, North Lowlands presentation of Joab Murdering Abner. The scene depicts the vindictive, jealous Joab, King David's nephew, killing one of David's generals. The desperate life-and-death struggle of Abner is rendered in colorless glass, silver stain and vitreous paint. It has been in the Cloisters' collection since 1984.
A German 16th-century glass roundel portrays the netting of quail based on a design by Augustin Hirschvogel (1503-1553). Concealed by a blind with a painted cow on its front side, the bird catcher attempts to scare a covey of quail into his nets. Neither he nor the birds are aware that there is another predator at work, a fox who has just left his lair. Such a roundel would have been used for the glazing of windows of a manor or hunting lodge. Hirschvogel produced an extensive series of these hunting images for glass transfer, and though few have survived, 25 of his drawings are in the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest.
One of the most coveted pieces in the exhibition is the boxwood Standing Virgin and Child attributed to Nicolaus Gerhaert von Leiden, North Netherlandish (between 1460-1473). Von Leiden was the finest and most influential sculptor of his time. The statuette is 14 inches high, with elegant carving front and back, suggesting it was meant for display in the round. The exquisite, deeply carved folds of the Virgin's robe and the child's restlessness gives the sculpture the sense of drama central to much Gothic sculpture. It was a gift of Lila Acheson in 1996.
A courtly figure in cast copper alloy also caught my attention. He appears to hold a baton-like object while a sword is suspended from his cloak. Nothing seems to disturb his finely chiseled features or the elegance of his attire. The piece is from the tomb of Isabella de Bourbon (d.1465) in the Abbey Church of Saint Michael, Antwerp, and dates from about 1476.
Of the more practical medieval items on view are the Met's aquamaniles -- or vessels for water. Indispensable throughout medieval Europe, aquamaniles were often used to pour water over the hands of a diner at a noble table, while an attendant would hold a basin and present a towel for him to dry his hands. On view here is a beautiful aquamanile in the form of a lion from the Cloisters. Made in Nuremberg around 1400, the lion sports a subtle, yet fierce looking dragon as a handle.
A salt cellar seems practical, but it hasn't been determined whether the one on view in the shape of a boat was used in ecclesiastical functions or decorated a nobleman's table. It is clear however that the mid-13th century French masterpiece, in its mere five inches, demonstrates some of the finest Early Gothic goldsmith work. It never ceases to amaze how luxurious biblical references can be -- this one, perhaps referring to the role of Jesus as fisher of men, is made of gold, rock crystal, rubies, emeralds and pearls.
Among a rich assortment of illuminated manuscripts are four leaves from a Spanish "Beatus Manuscript" from 1180. A beatus manuscript is an illuminated commentary on the Apocalypse, the biblical revelation to Saint John. Vibrant, dramatic color contrasts, powerfully controlled linear treatment of figure and drapery and intricate penmanship distinguish these pages.
A processional Byzantine cross from the first half of the 11th century in silver gilt is a unique survivor in its present condition. Its front is encrusted with medallions of Christ, the Virgin and John the Baptist, while the obverse side is plainer, with medallions but no gold filigree. Eight hammered silver sheaths held together by eight ball-shaped finials attest to the care of its construction.
Among the architectural fragments are Five Arcuated Lintels (archlike carvings) from Northeast Italy, late 8th or early 9th century, workings of the Longobardic School. The inventive designs reveal highly skilled craftsmen who wrought these objects probably on islands along the Venetian coast.
It is hard to select a favorite among the jewelry on display, but for me an elegant brooch in the form of a bird takes first prize. Scandinavian, bronze, around 600 AD, it is similar to the saddle mounts from Vallstenarum in the Stockholm Historical Museum. The position of the head, supported by the raised leg, indicates that the bird is sleeping.
The show catalogue is remarkable for its completeness, a testament to the editorial work of Wixom with contributions by 11 noted scholars. It is the forerunner of more extensive compilations for the Met's medieval art department.
FRED STERN is a New York based art historian.
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