Thursday, September 8, 2016

Renaissance Magazine Newsletter #7

The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430–1540

Exhibition Location: Romanesque Hall, Gallery 001, The Cloisters, New York City
January 20–April 17, 2016

Only three decks of European hand-painted playing cards are known to have survived from the late Middle Ages—two made in Germany and one in the Burgundian Netherlands, all dating from the early to late 15th century. The only complete set of these luxury cards—The Cloisters Playing Cards, from the southern Netherlands—and representative examples from the other two decks will be featured in the exhibition The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430–1540, opening January 20 at The Cloisters.

The earliest surviving deck of hand-painted woodcut cards—and the finest example of such work from the German Renaissance—will also be included in the exhibition, where contextual background will be provided by 15th-century engraved and woodcut playing cards from Germany and tarot cards from North Italy. Among the works on view will be examples by the Basel painter Konrad Witz (1400–1445) and two other artists of the period who were known as Master E. S. and Master of the Playing Cards.

The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe.

Card games originated in China in the ninth century and were later taken up in India and the Middle East. Playing cards first appeared in Europe around the late 14th century, probably through trade. Because card games often involved gambling, clerical and civilian authorities in Europe banned cards. Early European decks were not standardized and featured diverse suit pictures as well as variety in the number of suits and the number of cards.

Exhibition Overview
The three hand-painted decks represented in the exhibition—the Stuttgart Cards (ca. 1430), the Ambras Courtly Hunt Cards (ca. 1440), and The Cloisters Playing Cards (ca. 1470–80)—were made over a span of some 50 years by different artists in different locations. Although each of these decks is unique, all feature images related to hunting, a favorite leisure activity of medieval nobility. The high quality of the paintings and excellent condition of the cards suggest that the luxury sets were never played. Rather, they may have served as engaging collectors’ items, like portfolios of prints or drawings, for the private enjoyment of their owners.

Representing the earliest known deck of cards is the incomplete Stuttgart Cards (12 of the 49 remaining cards in this deck will be on view at The Cloisters). Although the theme is the hunt, no actual hunt is shown. Rather, the imagery of the Stuttgart Cards serves as a metaphor for the patron’s view of the world, evoking a chivalric past in which man exists in harmony with nature. The deck’s four suits are falcons, hounds, ducks, and stags.

On the basis of overall style and the treatment of landscapes, the Ambras Courtly Hunt Cards are attributed to the workshop of the noted German painter Konrad Witz. The suits are lures, falcons, herons, and hounds. Six cards from this deck will be displayed.

The Cloisters Playing Cards are the earliest complete set of cards, and are among the more intriguing works of secular art in the collection of The Cloisters. The exhibition marks the first time that all 52 cards will be displayed at The Cloisters at the same time. (Because works on paper are sensitive to light, normally only a small number of the cards have been shown at one time.) The suits in The Cloisters deck are nooses, collars, leashes, and hunting horns.

Six examples from the 16th-century Courtly Household cards—the earliest deck of printed cards—will provide a fascinating glimpse into the organization of a late medieval princely court. The four suits correspond to the kingdoms of Germany, France, Bohemia, and Hungary. The hand-colored cards in this set are embellished in silver and gold leaf and represent the varied ranks at court: king, queen, marshal, chaplain, physician, chancellor, court mistress, barber, herald, fishmonger, and fool. Some occupations are depicted in all four suits, others appear only once. The deck represents some of the earliest German woodblock prints in existence.

A later set of woodblock printed cards from Nuremburg around 1540, by German sculptor, designer, and printmaker Peter Flötner, is distinguished by the musical notations that appear on the back of each card. The cards from this deck—all of which will be shown in the exhibition—are hand colored, with silver and gold embellishments. The suit pictures—acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells—had by this time become standard in Germany.

Intense work helped Michelangelo maintain use of hands despite osteoarthritis

Prolonged hammering and chiselling accelerated degenerative arthritis in the hands of Michelangelo Buonarroti, sculptor, painter and one of the greatest artists of all time. But the intense work probably helped him keep the use of his hands right up until he died. That is the conclusion of doctors writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine who analysed three portraits of the artist to reach their diagnosis.

All three paintings are of Michelangelo between the ages of 60 and 65 and show that the small joints of his left hand were affected by non-inflammatory degenerative changes that can be interpreted as osteoarthritis. In earlier portraits of the artist his hands appear with no signs of deformity.

Lead author Dr Davide Lazzeri, a specialist in plastic reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Villa Salaria Clinic, Rome, said: "It is clear from the literature that Michelangelo was afflicted by an illness involving his joints. In the past this has been attributed to gout but our analysis shows this can be dismissed."

This, he goes onto explain, is because there are no signs of inflammation in the artist's hands and no evidence of any tophi, the small lumps of uric acid crystals that can form under the skin of people with gout.

According to letters written by Michelangelo his hand symptoms appeared later in life and in 1552, in a letter to his nephew, he wrote that writing gave him great discomfort. Despite this he continued to create one masterpiece after another and was seen hammering up to six days before his death in 1564, three weeks before his 89th birthday. By then Michelangelo was unable to write anymore and only signed his letters.

Dr Lazzeri said: "The diagnosis of osteoarthritis offers one plausible explanation for Michelangelo's loss of dexterity in old age and emphasises his triumph over infirmity as he persisted in his work until his last days. Indeed, the continuous and intense work could have helped Michelangelo to keep the use of his hands for as long as possible."

“Passion and Power: German Prints in the Age of Dürer”

Dürer, often referred to as the “Leonardo da Vinci of the North,” was one of the greatest and most influential German artists of the Renaissance. He visited Italy twice, from 1494 to 1495, and again from 1505 to 1507, where he absorbed the great works of his Italian contemporaries and bore witness to the classical heritage and theoretical writings of the region. Having brought back his knowledge of Italian art upon returning to the German art scene, Dürer succeeded in connecting the two artistic realms…

Dürer revolutionized printmaking, elevating it to an independent art form. He used several different printing techniques, including etchings, woodcuts, and engravings. Surprisingly, Dürer only made six etchings in his life, two of which are on exhibit at the Davison Art Center, a testament to the impressiveness of the Center’s collection. Through his work, he expanded the tonal and dramatic range of prints and provided them with a new conceptual foundation…

An especially fascinating wall was one dedicated to depictions of women.  The prints displayed here brought insight into how men of the German Renaissance viewed their sexual counterparts. Dürer’s depictions of the opposite sex are ambivalent and, at times, contradictory. On the one hand, he represented the Virgin Mary and her devotion to God, portraying her as a mother whose unconditional love for her child illustrates the ideal woman. She is a role model for her gender. On the other hand, Dürer’s secular prints of women associated them with danger, rendering them sexual and harmful. There are absolutely no prints that contain moderate depictions of women; Dürer and his contemporaries appear to have represented the female gender exclusively in these two extreme contexts. 

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