‘Medieval Art Was Mainly Religious’ and Other Perplexing Curatorial Decisions

One of the dangers of being in Europe is spending 95% of one’s travelling time checking out medieval things; another is getting annoyed by museums that are insufficiently medieval. A few days in Amsterdam provided ample opportunity for both. Amsterdam the town sprung up in the late 12th century1, and it seems to be the opinion of everyone except the curators of the Oudekerk (13th) that nothing really interesting happened there before the late 15th century.

Murals in the oldest wing of the Rijksmuseum (roughly contemporary with the V&A, I believe)

Murals in the oldest wing of the Rijksmuseum (roughly contemporary with the V&A, I believe)

If you are ever in Amsterdam, the recently renovated Rijksmuseum is definitely worth a visit. Especially if you like ugly renaissance babies.2 Also Rembrandt and Van Gogh and all that. Personally I was tickled to find that Monet had painted La Corniche prés du Monaco, now a major road which last year took me to Roquebrune-Cap Martin. I also thoroughly recommend the room of 18th c dolls houses.

Alas, I cannot recommend their medieval collection. First, all items 1100-1600 are grouped together, and the collection mostly covers 1480+. There’s some cool stuff in there, don’t get me wrong, but the curation annoyed me. The signage at the entrance of the medieval and renaissance room – which I didn’t think to photograph because I wasn’t expecting to get a blog post out of it – rather apologetically informs the public that ‘medieval art was largely religious’ and in the late middle ages ‘figures became more human’ leading naturally to renaissance humanism.

Some very sombre religious medieval art, utterly lacking in individuality

Head. Desk.

Let’s set aside the ‘all art progresses toward the renaissance’ problem, and think about ‘medieval art was largely religious’. It doesn’t seem wrong per se. I’m sure we’ve all said similar things, often in response to student questions-complaints about ‘all the religion’ in the syllabus. Just in the three and a bit years I was teaching at Sydney it seemed increasingly necessary to explain not only that religion (whether Christian or other) permeated all aspects of medieval life, but also basic concepts of Christianity as pertains to the texts we were studying. So I can understand why the Rijksmuseum would feel the need to explain the whole religion thing on their signs.

But. The narrowness of the concept of ‘religious’ and indeed ‘art’ as seen in the medieval and renaissance galleries there was what really bugged me. There were a few reliquaries and chalices, and a set of ‘unicorn horns’ that had been used in worship in Utrecht, but for the most part: stand-alone statues, painted tryptichs, and isolated paintings that could be hung in homes or chapels. There’s one tympanum, but no grotesques or gargoyles – all the sculptures are ones which conform to the classical-renaissance idea of sculpture: single statues or groups of saints. There were no books, no tapestries, no coins, no images of the nobility of the region unless they were the sort where the patron of the work appears with the saint.

It also struck me that the gallery did a pretty poor job of showing the  integration of religion and secular life. There were no images or artefacts showing religious people or settings with anything other than exclusively worship-related purposes, except for a few renaissance images of the virgin and child dismissed as ‘more for decoration than veneration’ in wealthy households. There were few practical household items with religious motifs included, either.

North(ish) facade of the Rijksmuseum

North(ish) facade of the Rijksmuseum

Where items like this hunting horn appeared, there was minimal description. No commentary on the intricate animal motifs, the combination of artistic detail and practical use. It seemed as if it was there, but didn’t really count as Art. The wedding chests were well-described, but no one seemed to have noticed that between them, the hunting equipment, and the two shields, the gallery did indeed have some art that was not “mostly religious” and wasn’t to do with the human figure at all.

And then some of the signage was just insulting. Take this 15th century St Barbara, described as ‘static’ and ‘expressionless’ and ‘old-fashioned’. Look at the intricate detail in her hair, her dress. The tiny crease in her chin. If I were putting together a slideshow on changes in medieval art, this would appear at the ‘increasingly individualised, humanised 15th c figures’ end of the spectrum, even if that is a gross oversimplification.

Elsewhere in the Rijksmuseum, household items (doll houses, chairs, pottery, and so on) were integrated with portraits and landscapes and sculptures. I’ll admit to being particularly fond of the style of gallery, like the V&A or the Birmingham Museum and Gallery, which integrates technology and “art”, and I wish more places would do that for their medieval collections. A narrow approach to “art” which focuses on framed paintings and sculptures primarily of the human figure does such disservice to the metalworkers, mural-makers, embroiderers, glass-blowers and so on of the world. Especially when it comes to premodern periods, where a luxury chair is as much a status object as is a hagiographic sculpture.

Also, for a city which seems very proud of its Jewish heritage, you’d think they could scrape up at least one piece of non-Christian medieval religious art or artefacts.

Does *your* national museum have a bicycle thoroughfare through the middle?

Does *your* national museum have a bicycle thoroughfare through the middle?


  1. Actually, wikipedia seems to think that the land was being reclaimed from the 10th century, and that tram-line works have unearthed evidence of habitation from the neolithic era, but even the Amsterdam city museum, who do have displays of 14th & 15th c archaeological finds, don’t seem to rate anything before the 12th century.
  2. All due credit to uglyrenaissancebabies.tumblr.com for the delightful terminology, which provided me me an entry into the concept of art galleries in the first place. Art is not a thing that is Done in my family, and the genteel alarm of friends from well-off families upon discovering i had never seen An Art at age 21 did not help. As an entry into the intimidating concept of art galleries, ugly renaissance babies works. I am not here to Understand Art, I am here to see ugly renaissance babies! A++ motivation, would recommend.

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