If money makes the world go round, it also fuels revolutions, artistic and otherwise; and can prove wonderfully inspirational when it flows from the right patrons to the right artists.
At the Queen’s Gallery’s latest exhibition, The Northern Renaissance, the question of money seeps through the 130-odd works on display. From the overt displays of wealth in the remarkable story-filled tapestries, to the representations of richness and power in Holbein’s portraits, to the undisguised, thrusting disgust at the pocked and warty Misers, it feels like there’s money in every corner. The social, political and religious upheaval of the 16th century changed our world forever; but it’s the increasing wealth of the chaps at the top who perhaps had the most influence when it comes to art.
We tend to think of the Renaissance as an Italian affair; the rich, fecund streets of Florence, Rome and Venice funding Leonardo, Titian et al. This show turns its gaze north, examining the impact of two incredible artists of the age: Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger, both born in the Holy Roman Empire. Each has the best part of a gallery dedicated to his work.
There are also pieces by Netherlandish and Flemish artists: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s incredibly detailed, emotion-filled Massacre of the Innocents; Jan Gossaert’s huge, sensual Adam and Eve (said to have inspired Milton when he was writing Paradise Lost); and gorgeous, silky, girlish nudes by Cranach the Elder.
Dürer’s power and influence is represented by a selection of his most famous prints, intricately detailed woodcuts and engravings that belie their origins, looking more like drawings than prints. (Again commercial decisions creep in: from one work, Dürer could make, and sell many prints.) There’s an incredible Indian rhinoceros, brilliantly accurate considering he’d never seen one in real life, and other fantastic studies of nature and beasts: the dog and the lion in St Jerome’s study is part of three so-called “Meisterstiche”: the other, A Knight, Death and the Devil also stops us in our tracks. Look out for the texture of the plump cushions and striking, radiant “light” in the fomer: this is a master at work.
From the black and white marvels by Dürer, we’re thrown into colour in the room dedicated to Holbein. Looking like a Who’s Who of Renaissance Europe, anyone reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies will spot several familiar characters fleshed out on these walls. Here’s Thomas Howard, Thomas More and Jane Seymore. Holbein’s ability to capture personality is intoxicating; there are thoughts and feelings whirring behind each face on show. One highlight here is a preparatory pencil drawing of Henry VIII’s crony Sir Henry Guildford and the portrait that followed: even Holbein’s rough prep work is a joy to see.
The Northern Renaissance hold treats for anyone interested in the development of art from 1400 onwards. Suggesting that the renaissance was a pan-European affair is hardly revolutionary, but it has given curators Kate Heard and Lucy Whitaker an excellent excuse to bring together some of the Royal Collection’s classiest renaissance pieces.
The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein opens today at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1A until 14 April. Tickets are £9.25 for adults, concessions available. Visit royalcollection.org.uk to find out more.