Can medieval art find a niche in the contemporary art world?
Gothic Spirit: Medieval Art from Europe co-organized by Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg and now on view at Luhring Augustine embraces this question. The works largely originated from ecclesiastical settings (albeit across wide aesthetic and geographical swaths); most have functional, symbolic, or ritual purposes related to the church. The artifacts evoke rites and traditions that frame religion, plus the astonishing resources needed to produce such exquisite objects. While some provenance is provided in the exhibition and catalogue, long gaps provoke conjecture about each work’s path since its creation, enriching the mystery of pieces dating back many centuries.
The unexpected setting adds to the intrigue. Luhring Augustine, a gallery with typical sleek concrete floors, usually shows thought-provoking contemporary art. But a glimpse of the diminutive statuette of the Virgin and Child, close to the entrance, evokes a church—dark, cool, and quiet. Per the catalogue, the figurine stylistically relates to works in the famed abbey of Saint-Denis—a continent away and an eon past.
Other notable items include the Astor Virgin (c. 1150)—an elegant wood jamb sculpture from Northern France, whose slender verticality proclaims its essential if symbolic purpose as a support structure. A pair of monumental lions (1210–20) from Emilia, Italy support spiral columns (13th century), topped with even later capitals; the columns correlate to a pair at the Cloisters. An oval relief, Bust of a Young Man (15th century) was sculpted by Florentine Luca Della Robbia, who, as his popularity grew, expanded his subject matter from devotional to secular, such as this example. Lustermännchen (Wild Man Chandelier), dating from 16th century Bavaria, incorporates a realistic top-half of a hirsute everyman, merged with a stag antler. It might have hung in a gathering hall, and represents an intriguing regional fascination of the time—a man in pursuit of earthly pleasures, the opposite of a devout Christian.
Another mortal subject represented in the exhibition, A Sleeping Knight (by Giovan Domenico D’Auria, 1560–70), once decorated the base of a funerary monument. Stripped of its original context, the character’s peaceful innocence charms; everyone can relate to a bit of work-time sleepiness. However, imagining the Carrara marble panel in situ on a sarcophagus, in tension with the correlative representation of the deceased, makes one wonder if the knight is shirking his duty, or has joined his ward in the afterworld.
The exhibition also includes three stained glass panel groupings, illuminated to crisp, gem-like effect in light boxes. Such windows can convey the holiest of scenes as well as the small intricacies of daily life. Two roundels from Northern France (1450), feature children at play on makeshift stilts and riding hobby horses. A large stained-glass diptych depicts Saints Margaret and Elizabeth (Cologne, 1525–30) a with remarkable plasticity; lit from behind, the jewel-hues resonate in vivid contrast to the black lines.
A tapestry panel (Germany, 1480) shows scenes from the Passion, rendered in a less polished style which feels more modern—whether by choice, or dictated by the method. These glass and wool pieces have miraculously survived through the centuries (presumably abetted by conservation), alongside several illuminated manuscripts—all of which are for sale. The most precious (and expensive, at $3.6 million)—Simon Bening’s earliest manuscript, an Imhof prayerbook—measures just 3.5” x 2.5” and retains its velvet cover and silver lock intact. Each tiny page contains densely-packed information—texts of psalms and prayers; illuminated scenes; embellished borders—meticulously painted and gilded.
A conference coincided with the January 25th exhibition opening, comprising presentations on the conservation of medieval art and architecture, the most prominent subject being Notre Dame cathedral in a presentation given by Dr. Alexandra Gajewski, among other topics. This one-two punch—an exhibition of medieval works for sale, plus a scholarly conference to not only inform, but presumably lend an air of propriety to commercial sales—is not the first undertaken by Fogg in New York. And why not? There can only be so many collectors, private and institutional, willing and able to drop millions on such items. Much like pop-up shops in Soho, limited availability and a sense of rarity raise this compact exhibition—plus catalogue and conference—to an event, even in art-saturated New York. As with da Vinci’s Salvatore Mundi, auctioned by Christie’s for $450 million, contextualizing these gothic artworks in the high-priced realm of contemporary could bring higher sales prices. You can visit the Cloisters or the Met Museum (these ties are emphasized in the catalogue text) and see comparable or better examples, but you can’t necessarily buy them. Here, the impossible might be possible.