Wonders At Every Turn

Expanded galleries at the Walters display long unseen masterpieces and treasures to tickle the imagination

October 16, 2005|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

For a moment in history, the tiny Dutch Republic was the greatest European maritime power and the most prosperous society the world had ever seen. And those who could, reveled in it.

Any well-appointed home was a proud repository for fabulous bling bling from the four corners of the earth - paintings, sculpture, porcelains, gemstones, clocks, carpets, swords and knickknacks by the cartload that trumpeted its owner's good fortune and virtue.

Even in neighboring Southern Netherlands, exhausted by war and sectarian strife, the wealthy enjoyed an ambience of opulence and magnificent display. Increased trade seemed to have shrunk the globe, bringing the world's distant places, peoples and exotic creations to their doorsteps.

This mood is recaptured in Palace of Wonders, the dazzling reinstallation of the Walters Art Museum's expanded galleries of Renaissance and Baroque art, which opens Saturday.

The sweeping reorganization of the museum's collection has returned to view hundreds of Old Masters paintings and sculptures that long have been in storage, many rarely if ever seen by the public. The reinstalled paintings galleries on the third floor are complemented by a redesigned sculpture courtyard in the Palazzo building and new displays of Italian Renaissance pottery on the loggia. In addition, the reinstallation presents a suite of second-floor galleries that re-create the sumptuous environments typical of the era's wealthy Dutch and Flemish collectors: a Dutch gallery of paintings and decorative arts, a 17th-century-style scholar's study and an impressive hall of arms and armor. There is also an astounding chamber of natural and man-made wonders that includes objects ranging from intricately wrought ivory carvings, metalwork and mechanical gadgets to a giant stuffed alligator, shark's jaw, leopard skin, sea turtle shell and the bleached bones of an African wildebeest.

The Walters boasts the second largest collection of Old Master paintings in the country (behind that of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art), and its reinstalled galleries present them alongside period sculpture and other objets d'art that, like the new second-floor galleries, re-create the environments in which they would have been seen by contemporary viewers.

Among them are superb examples of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art - an area in which the museum's holdings are particularly strong - that include such treasures as a breathtaking, recently restored altarpiece of a Madonna and child by the early 16th-century master Michele Coltellini of Ferrara.

Measuring an impressive 8 feet tall, the painting depicts the Virgin and Christ Child enthroned in an elaborate architectural nave set into the deep perspective of a brilliant blue landscape of water, woods, mountain and sky.

The two central figures are flanked by Saints Catherine, Michael, Jerome and John the Baptist, each identifiable by their symbolic attributes - Catherine's wheel and martyr's palm, Michael standing on a dragon and weighing human souls as though at the Last Judgment, St. Jerome's lion and John's hermit rags. St. Michael wears a golden-yellow breastplate, an emerald-green girdle and Roman red stockings.

The painting has only been on view once, in 1996, when it appeared in an exhibition of severely damaged artworks entitled To Arrest the Ravages of Time. Some years ago, Walters curator Joaneath Spicer rediscovered the piece during a search of the museum's storage area and immediately recognized its potential.

The museum spent two years restoring the work to its original glory for the reinstallation, where it now occupies a position of prominence among the museum's masterpieces of the high Renaissance.

"Works like these are an important part of Baltimore's great artistic legacy and, as such, they deserve to be seen by the public," said Spicer, who supervised the reinstallation project. "For this reinstallation, we've brought out literally hundreds of artworks of every kind that have been in storage and that can now be enjoyed by the public again."

The Coltellini altarpiece is hung opposite a replica of a Renaissance nave where supplicants would have performed their devotions; that further helps draw viewers into the spirit of the age.

The galleries that re-create typical 17th-century Dutch and Flemish settings - such as the armory, scholar's study and the spectacular chamber of wonders - are sure to stimulate the imaginations of visitors of all ages.

The chamber of wonders is a virtual cornucopia of visual and intellectual delights. The 17th-century saw the birth of modern systems of scientific classification, which encouraged a sort of do-it-yourself enthusiasm among amateur collectors of natural history specimens.

A collection of fossilized shark's teeth, for example, which confounded early investigators, not only suggested the mystery and savagery of the natural world but eventually provided some of the first clues that led to the modern science of geology.

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