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To a visitor, all the objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art can seem valuable through their age and merit of inclusion in this major arts institution. Yet what we value today is not necessarily what was considered precious when these works were made. Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance looks specifically at the 16th century, and how technology, skill, materials, and artistic fame all contributed to an item’s worth. And the exhibition labels communicate this value through a unified measurement: cows.
“I’ve been reading a lot of articles on the Journal of Economic History, and I had noticed how the price of a milking cow was surprisingly consistent throughout 16th-century Europe,” Elizabeth Cleland, associate curator in the Met’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, told Hyperallergic.
The cows act as an equivalency to Renaissance market value. A silver 1585 parade tanker from Prague decorated with rock crystals equals 158 cows. An English alabaster statue of Charity from 1500-84, carved from a material so rare its uncut stones were locked away from thieves equals 40 cows. A humble tin 15th-century pilgrims’ badge with Saint Leonard (patron saint of diseased cattle) equals one-twelfth of a cow.
“Obviously people weren’t really paying for things in cows,” Cleland said. But the bovine system does offer an accessible insight into the mind of a 16th-century viewer. The valuation of the art objects drew on Cleland’s years of research on Renaissance inventories, guild records, artists’ contracts, and other documents.
“It’s partly an effort to try to get people to stop and look at the decorative arts with fresh eyes,” Cleland added. “A lot of our objects are the sorts of things that people would tend to walk past.”
Indeed, as modern art history has favored painting as the finest of fine art, hourglasses, tapestries, and chalices aren’t quite the showstoppers they would have been in the Renaissance. The clever exhibition design by Michael Langley arranges the 62 objects by themes including “fame” and “virtuosity,” and leveled tiers based on raw materials — “a bit like music with the high notes and low notes,” Cleland explained. The color scheme recalls 16th-century costs of dyestuffs, with black as the priciest, as it was made from imported logwood from North America, and beige as the cheapest. A variety of material, including bronzes, glassware, sculpture, enamels, metalwork, stained glass, and ceramics, conveys the diversity of northern European art and its complex worth.
The intrinsic value of the materials didn’t always match the market cost of the art. Fame of the artist (such as Hubert Gerhard or Albrecht Dürer), skilled labor, geographic distance of the materials, and even perceived magical properties could influence worth. For instance, glancing at the “Technology” objects, you might be drawn to the flashy gilded brass astronomical clock (59 cows). But the nearby celestial globe far exceeded its worth, at 100 cows. It rotated to chart the constellations, and the Pegasus carrying its globe references how astronomy was “the wings of the human mind” through its use of arithmetic and geometry. Although the material of these two items — brass and steel — was not rare, the knowledge they represented was esteemed and exclusive.
This was an era when the elite were collecting for kunstkammern, or curiosity cabinets, where these objects of knowledge joined oddities of nature. A nautilus shell from the Indian Ocean formed into a cup (18 cows), or Indian mother-of-pearl shells incorporated into a vessel (20 cows), gave extra emotional value through their exotic provenance.
Relative Values is a compact show, filling a single gallery. Still, through this wide grasp of media it showcases many rarely or never-before exhibited pieces, including heat-proof stove tiles from Budapest (one-half of a cow) and a lead-glazed earthenware puzzle bottle (one-eighth of a cow) used in drinking games.
“Originally the aim was to have out our most precious objects of Northern Renaissance decorative arts from the permanent collection, so it was all the highest end pieces, but then we started realizing that the most compelling ideas would be relative worth, and we had to bring in middle-range pieces and low-range pieces,” Cleland said. “I spent time in the storeroom finding things that had gone under the radar in the collection; some of the ceramics have never been on display before. We have things acquired in 1917, and they’ve never been out.”
The lower and middle classes had sudden access to a broadened art market in the Renaissance, with a brass candlestick (one-half of a cow) or a pewter salt box (one-eighth of a cow) being attainable heirlooms. At the same time, wealthier classes were able to possess elaborate objects that would confirm their high tastes and prestige. One of the most prized works on view in Relative Values is a rock crystal bird from Germany adorned with ruby eyes and gilded silver legs. Made in the 1500s when rock crystal was worth its weight in gold, it demonstrates both the talent of the sculptor in carving the extremely hard material into a realistic bird, as well as the era’s enthusiasm toward the natural world. Its value? 275 cows! Although it may not immediately draw the eye among the assembled Northern Renaissance treasures, to a 16th-century patron it was worth a whole stampede of cattle.
Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance continues through June 23, 2019 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).
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