Medieval Art in Chicaco

Here is a review of a recent volume of Museum Studies, for those with interests in medieval art and culture and who can hie themselves to Chicago now and then. The review was published by The Medieval Review, a listserv subscription service out of Western Michigan.

Nielsen, Christina M., ed. Devotion & Splendor. Medieval art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Museum Studies, vol. 30, number 2. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2004, also distributed by Yale University Press. Pp. 96. $16.95. ISBN The Art Institute of Chicago, 0-86559-214-4, Yale Univ. Press 0-295-98458-9.

Reviewed by Gabriele Neher
University of Nottingham

Devotion & Splendor. Medieval Art at the Art Institute of Chicago is a deceptively modest looking paperback of just under 100 pages, with a very handsome detail of a Catalan fifteenth-century depiction of Saint George killing the dragon on the cover. What it actually contains is an up-to-date catalogue of all of the 58 pieces that make up the medieval holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago, supplemented by an Introduction by Bruce Boucher, the Eloise W. Martin Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture and Ancient Art at the Art Institute and an essay on the provenance of the exhibits written by the editor of the volume, Christina M. Nielsen. All in all, the result is a very interesting collection, which is more than just another catalogue-- the difference here is in placing the items in the context of, for want of another word, "fashions" in museum's purchasing and collecting. The other interesting feature of this catalogue is the fact that it cuts across media, and thus brings objects together which would, ordinarily, be displayed in different departments.

The origin of this special edition of Museum Studies was an exhibition at the Art Institute in Chicago, from September 25, 2004-January 2, 2005, where the 58 items catalogued were displayed in two adjacent galleries. The range of the objects assembled is impressive, and highlights the quality of the medieval holdings of the Art Institute; its eclectic mix of medieval artifacts covers the sixth to the fifteenth centuries, and includes objects as varied as a Northern Spanish Altarpiece (the Ayala Altarpiece, Cat. No. 36) from 1396 and a Siculo-Arabic ivory casket from the first quarter of the thirteenth-century (Cat. No. 2). Also included in the collection are some superb examples of textiles (such as Cat. Nos. 7, 8, 21, 29 etc.), and such diverse treasures as a drawing by Pisanello (Cat. No. 10), a pilgrimage jug from the sixth century and a number of enamels and illuminated manuscripts. Each of the works is illustrated, many in full color, and given an extensive catalogue entry focusing on the use and context of the item.

Christina M. Nielsen's introductory essay, "'To step into another world': building a medieval collection at the Art Institute of Chicago" is best introduced by quoting the author herself. She writes that "when viewed as an ensemble, the museum's medieval works are in many respects as informative about the twentieth-century--its personal tastes, social influences and art-market trends--as they are about the Middle Ages' (7). She traces the origins of the collection to a taste for all things Gothic in the late nineteenth-century, and especially the 1890s, when American collectors became interested in medieval artifacts. A number of wealthy local philanthropists led the way in Chicago, amongst them Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson and Mary Mitchell Blair. The latter's interest in the medieval highlights the significance not only of individual patrons acquiring and bequeathing medieval objects to the Art Institute, but also the role played by collective groups of patrons such as the Antiquarian Society of the Art Institute of Chicago. Nielsen traces changes in collection patterns, and the increasing professionalisation of museum purchasing in her informative essay, whose highlights are the 11 illustrations which show some of the various ways in which parts of the Art Institute's objects have been displayed over the years. The images also tell of the many and varied fortunes of some of the objects depicted; some have remained in the collection of the Art Institute and are highly valued for their rarity and quality, others have been shown to be inferior or fake objects, and have been removed from view. Other changes in the display relate to the medium of the objects in the collection. Where previously collections were arranged according to donor, the medieval objects of the Art Institute are now dispersed in various departments according to their medium and date of creation.

All in all, Devotion & Splendor rewards a closer engagement with its catalogue entries and opening essay by raising questions that go far beyond the matter of the medieval collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.


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