The third in a series of collaborative exhibitions between Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg, The Medieval Body meditates on the interrelation between the heavenly and the corporeal. The exhibition includes sculptures, paintings, reliquaries, manuscripts, and adornments representing a thousand-year span of the Middle Ages (c. 540–1580 CE).
From sculptural figuration to the literal worship of saints’ body parts as relics, to the eucharist, the transubstantiated body of Christ consumed by worshippers in the ritual of the Holy Communion, medieval artists centered the body. The visually stunning exhibition touches on all this terrain — striking a balance of gorgeous and gruesome.
For Catholic worshippers and theologians of that period (and for many into the present day), pain and torture provided a pathway to the divine. This is reflected in the face of Saint Quentin in the carved limestone sculpture “Saint Quentin being tormented” (c. 1420-30), unaffected and even serene as iron rods are hammered into his flesh. Jörg Lederer’s “Saint Sebastian” (c. 1515-20) conflates bodily disfigurement and masculine beauty — the saint’s limbs hang limp with the same grace as the lush blue and gold fabrics draped over his body, landing gently just above the groin. There’s an ease and beauty to the figure despite his bloody wounds, and his peaceful face is framed by intricately carved ringlets of hair.
Saint Sebastian has often been depicted sensually, from medieval and Renaissance art to contemporary queer art (James Bidgood and Pierre et Gilles’s photography and Derek Jarman’s 1976 film Sebastiane are notable examples). Artists transformed the middle-aged soldier into a gorgeous youth, in an attempt to depict vitality, a much-needed representation in the time of plagues.
Also in blue and yellow draping is the tin-glazed terracotta figure “Judith holding the head of Holofernes” (c. 1520) by Giovanni Della Robbia. The triumphant figure holds up one arm, signaling victory; in the other hand she holds the decapitated head by the hair. Despite the horror, she appears blissed out, her face serene, her clothes appearing to billow from a gentle breeze.
Central to this exhibition is the tension between the bloodied or bruised abject body (and body parts) and the beatified soul. At a time marked by plagues and suffering, following God’s path promised a blessed afterlife. In “A Monumental Drawing for a Sacrament House” (c. 1460-1538) by German architect Lorenz Lechler, nature is tamed as the sacrament house climbs closer to Heaven: as the intended 70-foot-tall construction winds upward, the snared brambles carved at the base grow less and less wild, suggesting a sense of heavenly order. A display of ornate hand-washing vessels, “An Aquamanile in the form of a Stag” (12th century), “An aquamanile in the form of a lion” (early 13th century), and “Aquamanile in the form of a lion” (c. 1350) reiterate themes of cleanliness and purity.
The exhibition also focuses on how bodies are governed and controlled by religion and by those in power. Questions of the soul — particularly who has one and who or what doesn’t — lead to questions of power. “The Chaworth Roll: A genealogy of the kings of England tracing the royal succession from Ebgert to Henry V, with a map of roads of England and a Wheel of Fortune” (1321-27, with additions between 1399 and 1413) illustrates this in a seemingly endless succession of kings who were endowed with godlike authority.
Viewing these objects within a Chelsea art gallery prompts questions about their relationship to contemporary beliefs and struggles. The exhibition’s central themes of power, societal hierarchies, plagues and illness, and power plays are uncannily close to issues that define today’s world.
The Medieval Body continues at Luhring Augustine (531 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 12. The exhibition was organized by Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg, London.
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