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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Conrad Meit, Adam and Eve statues, Wittenberg, ca. 1510. Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha.
Two of the most momentous developments in modern European history occurred less than a century apart. The 15th century saw the efflorescence of the Renaissance, in Italy and Northern Europe, especially the Low Countries—while Northern Europe, especially Germany, Switzerland and England experienced the profound upheaval of the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century. Currently, The Morgan Library & Museum is hosting two excellent exhibitions, one for each of these two momentous moments—and both with Teutonic pedigrees. Whether we’re talking about Hans Memling or Lucas Cranach the Elder & Martin Luther, we’re talking about figures born in what is today Germany.


The first of these two exhibitions is “Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece” (through January 8). It’s one of those miniature exhibitions that look so well in the Morgan’s 20’ x 20’ x 20’ “cube” Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery.

In the center is the masterful oil on panel altarpiece that the show is all about, the “Triptych of Jan Crabbe,” by Hans Memling, created around 1467-70. It was commissioned by Jan Crabbe, abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Ten Duinen, near Bruges in today’s Belgium.

On the central panel, the Crucifixion is depicted, with the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist, and Saint Mary Magdalene to the left of the cross. Kneeling to the right of the cross is Jan Crabbe himself, accompanied by his name-saint, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order.

The two wings on either side of the central panel swing on hinges. When they are open, the viewer sees members of Jan Crabbe’s family: on the left are his mother Anna Willemzoon, kneeling with Saint Anne (mother of the Virgin) in back of her. On the right kneels Crabbe’s much-younger half-brother Willem de Winter, with his name saint, Saint William in back of him.

When the wings on either side of the central panel are closed, one sees the two halves of an Annunciation scene, with the Angel Gabriel on the left panel, and the Virgin Mary on the right (in the present installation, visitors simply walk around to the back of the platform on which the altarpiece stands to see these Annunciation figures).

At some unknown point in the past, this altarpiece was disassembled. The Morgan itself has long owned the two side panels with the figures of Jan Crabbe’s family on them, but the central panel belongs to the Museo Civico in Vicenza, Italy, while the Annunciation panels belong to the Groeningemuseum in Bruges.

Thus bringing these widely-separated parts back into one single whole constitutes a triumph for the Morgan, and is celebrated not only by the altarpiece itself, but also by a fine group of three portraits by Memling, plus illuminated manuscripts and drawings by some of his contemporaries.

Memling was born around 1430 in a Rhineland town not far from Frankfurt, and seems to have undergone apprenticeships in nearby German cities (Mainz or Cologne??) before moving to Flanders. There he probably studied during the 1450s in the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels before settling in Bruges around 1465.

There he established a large and successful shop of his own, executing numerous altarpieces and portraits; by 1480 he was being listed in the tax rolls as one of the wealthiest citizens in town. He died there in 1494.

Memling was not one of the giants of the first generation of the Northern European Renaissance, not a van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck or a Robert Campin. Rather, he belonged to the second generation—in Italian terms, not a contemporary of Masaccio, Uccello or Piero della Francesca, but rather the same age as Signorelli or Botticelli.

The Romantics and the Victorians loved Memling for his sweetness, but with the 20th century and its preference for the rugged, his status fell : Erwin Panofsky, the great god of Netherlandish art history, kissed him off in his 1953 landmark survey of that school as more like Mendelssohn than say, Beethoven or Brahms.

With the 21st century, perhaps we may once again admire his intricacy and delicacy, the grace of his slender and ethereal figural types, and the loveliness of his landscape backgrounds –which the Florentines admired in general in all the Netherlandish painters.

They also admired the Netherlandish skills at portraiture, and Memling stood out in that genre. This may be seen in the current show both in the tender portrayal of old age in the face of Anna Willemzoon, and even more in the cryptic but muscular portraits of anonymous gentlemen that hang along the gallery wall.


The Morgan’s Reformation show is “Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation” (through January 22). It occupies considerably more space than the Memling show, being located in one of those large galleries on the main floor whose name escapes me at the moment, but lies to the right of the original entrance on East 36th Street (or the left if you enter through that rabbit hole which Renzo Piano has dictated should be the sole way to reach this splendid space).

Anyway, this show – as its title suggests – takes advantage of the Morgan’s dual role as library and museum: it combines images -- paintings, sculpture and graphics -- with words in every form of promulgation, from books and broadsides to musical scores, handwritten letters, manuscripts and so on.

This is as it should be, since Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a writer not an artist. Being an art critic myself, I was more intrigued by the images, but the story told by all the words is admittedly a gripping one.

Although my primary ties, in the matter of words, are to England rather than Germany, I’m willing to concede that the Reformation officially began in what is now Germany.

It happened in 1517, almost exactly 500 years ago, when Luther posted his “95 Theses,” or scholarly topics that he said he would like to discuss in an orderly manner with his fellow theologians, upon the door of a church in Wittenberg (John Calvin & Henry VIII, the other two key leaders of the Reformation, would not break decisively with the Church of Rome until the 1530s).

The key issue in the 95 Theses, together with what it stood for, was that of papal “indulgences.” These were certificates sold by authorized representatives of the Church who promised the buyer in return the remission of sins and the shortening of time that he or she would have to suffer for those sins in Purgatory before being admitted to Heaven.

Originally, the idea was that giving this money constituted a “good work,” and that “good works” – as defined by the Church – were sufficient to get a sinner into Heaven. Originally, part of the deal was that the sinner would have repented of her or his sins and begged for forgiveness, but by Luther’s time the Church had gotten so greedy that it was kind of bypassing the repenting part.

Luther was outraged by the whole practice, but not only because of its venality. He objected to the whole idea that any ordinary person needed the Roman Catholic Church to get into Heaven at all, or that good works were all that was necessary.

He thought that the only thing that would get a person into Heaven was Divine Grace, that this was only to be obtained by a direct relationship between the sinner and Jesus Christ, and that accepting Him as one’s Savior was all that was really necessary.

He also believed that the Bible should be the sole source of authority, and any practice that wasn’t in it wasn’t true Christianity. Indulgences were nowhere in the Bible that he could find.

This position – or series of positions – got Luther excommunicated, and officially classed as a heretic. Although I didn’t much of see anything about this in the show at the Morgan, the Catholic Church had a nasty habit at that time of burning heretics at the stake, so Luther must have had to hide out for years on end.

There were, however, more and more sympathetic souls around, and not only because other people besides himself objected to the sale of indulgences. There seem to have been a number of German princes who weren’t too happy with being part of the Holy Roman Empire, presided over by Charles V. They were willing to offer Luther protection.

Besides, his notions of a direct relationship between God and humans, with Scripture as the only guide, appealed to many people, not least because the churches that Luther set up conducted their services in German, not Latin (like the Catholics).

Luther also translated the Bible into German so that people could read it for themselves, and ordained that clergymen could marry. He instituted music sung by the congregation (not just the choir) and wrote lyrics to long-lived hymns himself (not least, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “From Heaven High I Come To You”).

All of this is documented in the “word” part of the show of the Morgan, which incidentally abundantly illustrates what good use Luther made of the relatively new invention of printing.

Though the Gutenberg Bible, the first European book to use movable metal type, had been published as far back as 1455, it had been in Latin. Luther’s German version of the Bible, published between 1522 and 1534, reached a far wider audience.

In some ways, of course, he was only a man of his time--a rabid anti-Semite, for one thing. He condoned polygamy when one of his royal protectors wanted to practice it. When some peasants, mistaking his ideas of a direct relationship with God for permission to bypass the civil authorities, rose up in rebellion, Luther sided with the princes. But who’s perfect? And what a lot he accomplished!

How about the images? Well, most of these images—and most of the best of them-- are contained in a shrine-like maroon-painted little structure in the entrance to the gallery (the “words” part of the show mostly goes around the gallery’s outer perimeter).

In this little maroon shrine stand the enchanting little gilded nude figures of Adam and Eve by Conrad Meit (ca. 1480 – ca. 1550), and a generous hunk of the nearly forty paintings, prints and drawings in the show by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553).

Cranach was court painter to the Electors of Saxony, and a great buddy of Luther’s, so in addition to his beguiling, oddly-childlike renditions of Adam and Eve (the first married couple in Christianity) we have portraits, portraits, and more portraits by him.

All are delicious, even if again somewhat crude in their rendition. The second-married couple of Christianity is here: Luther, together with his sweet-faced bride, the former nun Katrina von Bora (she was 26 when they wed; he was 41, and they had six children).

But so too are a marvelous hunk of Luther’s professional acquaintance—including an intriguing rendition of Luther’s sophisticated collaborator, Philip Melanchthon (what an interesting face!), and three Electors of Saxony (Friedrich the Wise, Johann the Steadfast, & Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous). Plus my own favorite, Sibylle of Cleves, Electress Consort of Saxony. What a superbly sly, off-center face she has, and what a delectably counter-tilted hat!

As you make the rounds, and look at what’s on the back of the shrine, and along the walls of the gallery, you will see some other visual gems, including an Albrecht Dürer print or maybe two…..just keep your eyes open, and don’t get distracted (as I did) by all the gripping reading matter..

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