Renaissance prints showcased Art: The BMA exhibit highlights fine works in the museum's permanent collection.

Fine Arts

October 06, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Lucas van Leyden's engraving of "The Return of the Prodigal Son" (about 1510) is a tour de force of Renaissance printmaking. As its focus, two groups of figures bracket the central image of the son kneeling before his father to ask forgiveness. But the image includes so much more: an elaborate group of buildings on the left, a craggy landscape from which springs a group of trees with every leaf delineated, a scene of rural life stretching off into the distance at the right.

The image not only makes the parable visible but also teaches the viewer something about the architecture, costume and everyday life in Van Leyden's time. It needs careful perusal.

And it's only one of 120 works in the Baltimore Museum of Art's current show "The Pious and the Profane in Renaissance Prints," a rewarding exhibit of manifold treasures which BMA curator Susan Dackerman has presented with a richness of didactic material.

Museums often give lip service to making the best use of their permanent collections while spending much of their effort on big traveling shows. Well, here's an exhibit that shows how it ought to be done.

The BMA has one of the finest holdings of Renaissance prints in the country. It numbers thousands of works, and is both broad and deep. It embraces northern and southern Europe, religious and non-religious subject matter, and a wide range of artists. This show includes works by famous names such as van Leyden, Albrecht Durer, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Andrea Mantegna and Martin Schongauer as well as many lesser known but important figures. As for depth, there are no fewer than 25 prints by Durer in the show, including two of his greatest, "Melancolia I" and "Saint Jerome in His Study" (both 1514).

Dackerman's selection shows some of the museum's greatest treasures and reflects some of the period's developments, especially the variety of subject matter encompassed.

Religious prints were of course produced in large numbers, with the New Testament dominating but the Old Testament growing more popular after about 1500. Among the works devoted to the life of Christ, one of the most famous and influential of all was Martin Schongauer's "Christ Bearing the Cross" (about 1475-1480).

This is not the usual small print from a "Passion of Christ" series, but a large stand-alone work (11 by 17 inches) in which Christ is shown within a multitude of figures that give an idea of what a noisy, crowded, unruly scene it must have been.

Among the Old Testament subjects, Jacopo de' Barbari's "Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes" (about 1501-1503) illustrates the story (in the Greek Bible but not the Jewish canon) of the Jewish heroine who saved her people by beheading the Assyrian general when he was asleep. This was a particularly popular subject, Dackerman notes, among the Italian city-states which were subject to frequent attacks.

As the Renaissance revived interest in the classical past, stories from ancient history and mythology occupied many artists. Among these is the most amusing print in the show, van Leyden's "The Poet Virgil Suspended in a Basket" (1525).

The Roman poet Virgil fell in love with the daughter of the emperor and she decided to teach him a lesson. So she told him that one night she would have him hoisted from the street to her window in a basket. But instead she left him suspended halfway up, where all the public could see him the next day. The picture focuses on a group of people gossiping about the event and pointing to the basket with the poet in it in the background.

Then there's the pound-the-tongue picture. Among allegories and moralizing messages, Nicoletto da Modena's "The Fate of the Evil Tongue" (about 1507) shows a group of putti (cherubs) hammering on a forked tongue that lies on an anvil, as a caution against evil speech.

Because prints were multiple images that could be disseminated, they were often used as propaganda. Nicolo della Casa's "Cosimo de' Medici" (1544), after a painting of the same subject, shows the Florentine duke dressed in such an extravagant suit of armor (even decorated with scenes from the labors of Hercules) that he looks like the tattooed man from a side show.

Among the exhibit's beautiful moments, Durer's "Saint Jerome" stands out.

Its textures, its light and shadow, its exquisite rendering of everything from the saint and his protective lion to the panes of the room's windows make this one of the greatest prints of all time and one of this fine show's principal ornaments.

The Baltimore Museum of Art, at 10 Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st Streets, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission $6 adults, $4 seniors and students, 18 and under free. The print exhibition runs through Jan. 3. For information call 410-396-7100.

Pub Date: 10/06/98

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