On Saturday 12th January 2013, thirteen History of Art undergraduates, two post-graduates and their lecturer (you can see some of us in the picture below!), left Birmingham for the capital to see The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, an exhibition drawn from the Queen’s illustrious art collection at Buckingham Palace. It was the perfect complement to our module ‘Women and Artistic Culture in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period’.
Ready for our private viewing in the Drawing Room at HM’s London residence, we leapt from our Virgin Pendolino train (a number of students, I should say, travelled down with Chiltern Railways) like the youthful art lovers that we are. Some got the Tube to Green Park and others to Victoria, but our fate soon became clear. Instead of using the mighty palace’s gold-topped gates, we were ushered towards a diminutive side entrance, and visions of corgis at our feet were replaced by a throng of tourists queuing to get into the very public, and not at all exclusive, Queen’s Gallery (even the impressive looking columns in the picture below, which shows the entrance vestibule to the Queen’s Gallery, are, as one intrepid art historian among us discovered, faux-marble and hollow).
Once we had overcome this minor disappointment and made our way through security, we entered the first room to be greeted by Quinten Massys’s fascinating portrait of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who writes in his study like a sixteenth-century Saint Jerome. But links to Jerome, a profoundly chauvinist thinker, do not go down well with a class of feminist art historians and our attention was quickly redirected. That said, I much admired Albrecht Dürer’s tiny 1514 engraving of the studying saint, and particularly the lion and dog sleeping like old friends at his feet.
The exhibition’s Dürer room gave us a fascinating insight into the German printmaker’s world, and the extraordinary Apocalypse series reveals the extent of Europe’s superstitions in the run up to 1500, when, it was believed, the world would end. Much time was also spent examining (particularly by Jamie, our token PHD student) Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents, and it was fascinating to learn that the artist’s depictions of slaughtered children had been subsequently covered up.
Portraits of Kings, Queens and nobles occupied much of the gallery’s wall space, and familiar faces such as King Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scotts glared down at us with typical indignation. But perhaps the most interesting of them all was a portrait of King Louis XII of France from the workshop of Jean Perréal. With a medallion round his neck and a right-royal double-chin, this French monarch is a key player in our period of study, and in 1499 he married Anne of Brittany, one of the most important patrons of the arts in Renaissance France. It is images like this that help to illustrate the extraordinarily convoluted and worryingly inbred Valois family tree.
Having nearly missed her train from Birmingham, Jordan Read, a Canadian exchange student in our class, had to fight her way through the busy streets of London to reach Buckingham Palace on Saturday. But she preserved some energy for gallery-going (a notoriously exhausting pursuit) and I caught up with her to see how she had got on.
‘Despite a bumpy travel, the exhibit was terrific!’ She told reporters outside her halls of residence on Wednesday night. ‘Then again, I think any exhibit in London is incredible compared to the extremely limited art exposure in Vancouver; I’ve seen enough Emily Carr to last me a lifetime.’
So what, I asked Jordan, made this exhibition so special? ‘The great thing was that it complemented our class, Women and Artistic Culture, really nicely. Normally I feel under-educated when I visit exhibits and find myself spending more time reading the curatorial notes beneath the art than actually looking at the art. It was really thrilling for me, as a student who has never properly studied art history before, to recognise stories and characters that were depicted throughout most of the exhibit. I particularly liked Lucas Cranach’s Lucretia from 1530, mostly because of the contrast between her semi-nudeness and her lavish costume, but also because I was familiar with her story from reading Bocaccio’s “Famous Women”.’
Finishing on a negative note, Jordan explained, ‘My only disappointment was the postcard selection in the gift shop; there were more of the Queen Elizabeth II’s face than there were of art from the exhibit.’
We may not have purchased enough postcards, but the exhibition itself was an illuminating and entertaining affair, and will no doubt serve us well as we continue the study of women in Europe during the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period.