An Illumination: the Rothschild Prayer Book & other works from the Kerry Stokes Collection c.1280-1685 until Sunday 15th November 2015
It is always interesting to get a glimpse of a private collection and in this small but well-curated exhibition we are able to view a selection of art from the collection of Kerry Stokes. The objects on display are mostly religious in subject and have been chosen by curator (and leading expert on illuminated manuscripts) Margaret Manion to complement the display of the Rothschild Prayer Book, which Stokes bought in 2014.
The exhibition is displayed across several galleries at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University. The galleries are dimly lit for this exhibition, the dark setting and carefully spot lit (no annoying glare on paintings) makes for an intimate and contemplative viewing experience, which suits the religious subject matter of most of the works. These are, for the most part, objects that would have been viewed in intimate and often domestic settings. They were probably often looked at alone, small books of hours would have been held in the hands and could have been lifted close to the face to see the small detail of the illustrations. In the case of the many books on display there was also tactile element to the way their owners engaged with them. Although, for obvious reasons, we can’t pick up the delicate books of hours on display, the exhibition does include a more robust sixteenth-century music book, which visitors are encouraged to turn the pages of (below).
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Rothschild Prayer Book, a richly illustrated book of hours produced at a period that is described by Margaret Manion in the catalogue as the ‘last great flowering’ of illuminated manuscript production. The printing press was already well-established at this point, but there was still demand for these hand-made books of hours as a luxury item. The books also reflect the changing ways in which religion was practised. The books of hours were modelled on the Breviary, used by the clergy, but were instead intended for private use at home. The book was produced by a team of artists and craftspeople, rather than by a single person. Each page is decorated with the image of a saint or other religious scenes – such as the burial in a Flemish courtyard pictured below – enclosed within detailed borders filled with flowers, architecture, animals and mythical creatures. One challenge for exhibitions of books is that the ability to display the richness of the entire object is necessarily limited. In the case of its centrepiece this exhibition overcomes these limitations via a series of high quality digitised images of the Rothschild Prayer book which you can view projected onto a blank book the same size as the real thing. The digitised copy slowly flicks through the pages and allows us to see the rich variety of illustration within the book. I understand that the pages of the Rothschild Prayer Book will also be changed during the exhibition, so if you return more than once you have the opportunity to see different pages.
Alongside the Rothschild Prayer Book are a range of other illuminated manuscripts, illustrated books, stained glass, sculpture and paintings that broaden our view of the religious and cultural contexts in which the book was made. Despite the relatively small gallery space there is actually a huge amount to look at. My eye was caught by the Schembart Buch (The Book of the Nuremberg Shrovetide Carnival). These festival books are important visual records of the culture of the period. Carnivals, festivals and processions were relatively common occurrences in Early Modern Europe, they often employed leading artists, architects, composers and so on to create large-scale events to celebrate events ranging from a coronation, to funerals and regular events on the religious calendar such as the carnival that would take place before Lent each year. These events were often amongst the most spectacular sights that many people would see, but, because they were ephemeral it can be difficult for us to recapture their effect. Carnival or festival books were often produced to record the events, because even at the time there was concern about to record the splendour of these one-off events. In this book that records the Shrove Tuesday carnival parade we can see the costume of a runner, dressed in white hose with blue and gold silks, a mask and heat with feathers, on the facing page is parade float in the form a small ship carrying a crowd of revellers in various costumes.
Equally fascinating are books such as the 1529 edition of the Roman medical text Dioscoridae Pharmacorum printed by Johann Schott. The book is open to show its elaborate frontispiece in which you can pick out small illustrations of various plants and animals collected together in ‘Garden of Eden’ like landscape. Across the inside cover are handwritten notes, reminding us of the book’s life as a practical textbook.
The polychrome sculptures, which in some exhibition spaces I find can look a little lost and dull, in this context are very engaging. Perhaps it is the intimate context and the carefully designed lighting, or perhaps it is because these are particularly fine examples with their carving, gilt and coloured surfaces all well preserved. Standing close to the two sculptuers by The Master of Heiligenblutt (c1520-25) one sees a palpable emotion on the faces of the saints. Both have subtle yet intense expressions that seem intended to compel the viewer to sincerely reflect on spiritual concerns. This subdued but intense emotion is echoed in the grief depicted in the nearby painting of The Descent from the Cross by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden. In both these works one feels that you are observing a moment of private rather than public emotion, an effect that is appropriate considering the original contexts of many of these works.
Nearby is a small high-relief alabaster depiction of the crucifixion, probably English in origin and dating to the fourteenth or fifteenth century. As noted in the catalogue, this depiction is sparsely populated, with only the Virgin, the Magdalene and St John at the foot of the cross. The three small figures are carved with thickly swathed drapery and it is worth moving around to the side of this panel to grasp the full effect of the high-relief sculpture, the understated gestures and the pained expression on the face of the Magdalen. In the background the artist has used the entire vertical space of the small panel to build up a detailed landscape in low relief, from the rocky hills to the stone walls of Jerusalem.
This exhibition is on at the Ian Potter Museum of Art until the 15th November, and it is well worth taking the time to visit. As mentioned above it is a well curated and I would add an intelligent exhibition that gives the visitor a real sense of the visual, cultural and religious life of this fascinating period of European history.
© Katrina Grant 2015