The New York Times gave the show a smash review, but I’ll bet few people have bothered to see "Medieval and Renaissance Treasures from the Victoria and Albert Museum," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s going to be around until Aug. 17, 2008. Don’t miss it, for in the random potpourri there are two spectacular art treasures -- the finest of their kind on earth.
The V & A is refurbishing its medieval galleries and someone thought of sending to the Met a handful of goodies instead of putting them in deep storage. Yet, like many "storage" shows, this one has no theme, no continuity, no reason given for the choice of works. The modestly sized hardcover catalogue, priced at $27.50 in the Met bookstore, is lushly illustrated with useful entries on each of the show’s 35 items. But in the exhibition, you’ll have to read kindergarten level labels to find out the most rudimentary facts about the treasures.
Best go straight to the two spectaculars, the Carolingian masterpiece, the Lorsch ivory bookcover of 810 A.D., and the Virgin in boxwood of around 1500 by Veit Stoss (a Polish woodcarver whose real name was Oltarz Wita Stwosza), perhaps the finest small sculpture ever made in Germany in the fecund early Renaissance.
Charlemagne and his crafty first minister Alcuin got the bright idea to modernize art by pulling together the most able artists into a court workshop in Aachen to copy and adapt the most lucid and classical works of early Christianity, which had supposedly been commissioned by Charlemagne’s adored role model, the emperor Constantine. They wanted to break free of the delightful but jingle-jangle and mostly incomprehensible decorative works of the preceding Merovingian dynasty. In doing so they cooked up what is known as the Carolingian renascence.
One of the finest illuminated manuscripts made in that court workshop is the Lorsch monastery Gospels, consisting of 473 pages created between 790 and 814. Compared to the blissfully tangled and tortuous style of Merovingian illuminations, the Lorsch Gospels are like the Sistine Ceiling. This monumental book was decorated by two lavish bookcovers made of ivory. In their day the ivories were considered to be virtual miracles.
One of those amazing covers is now at the Met. The model in this case was a five-part Imperial diptych of around 500 A.D. In the V & A’s cover (bought for a couple of pounds in the mid-19th century and worth maybe $25 million today), you have the Virgin and Child flanked by probably Jeremiah on the left who holds an empty scroll that originally was painted with an inscription proclaiming the coming of the Lord. I have no idea who the character on the right is who holds a censer and cylindrical box. And I don’t think anyone knows for certain. Above the Virgin is a pair of flying angels with intriguingly spiky draperies holding up a mandorla with a beautiful bust of Christ. Below the Virgin is the Nativity on the left and the annunciation to the shepherds on the right. (For those who want to delve deeper should be warned that Wikipedia reverses the photograph of the bookcover).
The thing might look a bit unrealistic to the contemporary viewer, but in its day it was as shocking as the birth of perspective. In 500 years human figures had not been created with such realism, verve and splendor. Amusingly enough in the same case immediately to the left is another ivory, this of around 400 A.D., showing a pagan priestess before an altar. As the inscription above states, it was commissioned by a member of Nichomachorum family, staunch supporters of the old religion and rites. The Carolingian artist may have been inspired by such an ivory (and the startling 5th-century ivory angel, which the V&A didn’t send).
Look at the five-part bookcover the way Bernard of Clairvaux taught his followers in the early 12th century -- pass your eyes slowly and reverently over each tiny detail. Start with the face of the Virgin and then wander millimeter by millimeter over every bit of this vivacious carving. Don’t miss such details as the Virgin’s foot jutting out in high relief, which must have made the 9th-century viewer gasp in astonishment. Don’t miss the thick, deep tangle of drapery folds on all the figures; or the fat, marvelously rendered faces -- they look like wise old Greek gods -- or the architectural details from the wondrous arches to the fabulous round and rectangular temples in the Nativity -- surely taken from a manuscript depicting the wonders of ancient Rome -- and the palatial roof over the Christ Child in the splendid manger. Pass your eyes over each expressive hand and agile fingers. Gaze into every bulbous pupil and you’ll be hypnotized.
And don’t miss the second marvel in this potpourri, Veit Stoss’ Virgin and Child, made for an unknown patron who must have fainted when the silken shroud covering the tiny boxwood was pulled away. Stoss is renowned for his gigantic painted and gilded altarpiece in St. Mary’s cathedral in Krakow. The figures in the monumental Assumption of the Virgin are some 18 feet tall. This tiny mother and child looking like a carved gem in this dusky, dense boxwood shows that the master could handle any dimension.
I wonder if this pert young mother holding her gangly, bald baby, looking at us with a fetching smile, is really the Virgin Mary. She stands on the crescent moon, sure, but that impish face, that huge, fashionable cloak and the nutty hat flung over her head is pretty secular. Plus, there are no signs whatever that either the woman or her child had haloes. I strongly suspect she’s a lovely young woman, proud and happy about her child, showing off to his father. Who he is, I have no idea. But maybe he’s the face of the moon, sleeping placidly. I do know that moon-man is not Veit Stoss. Why? Stoss was condemned to hang for embezzlement but spared because of the glory of his art -- yet the hangman thrust a red-hot poker into both cheeks, disfiguring him horribly.
"Medieval and Renaissance Treasures from the Victoria and Albert Museum," May 20-Aug. 17, 2008, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005).