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Wild man chandelier
Wild man chandelier

A wild man chandelier (Lustermännchen), Germany, Alpine Region, c. 1525-50. Courtesy Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg.

Can medieval art find a niche in the contemporary art world?

Gothic Spirit: Medieval Art from Europe co-organized by Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg and now on view at Luhring Augustine embraces this question. The works largely originated from ecclesiastical settings (albeit across wide aesthetic and geographical swaths); most have functional, symbolic, or ritual purposes related to the church. The artifacts evoke rites and traditions that frame religion, plus the astonishing resources needed to produce such exquisite objects. While some provenance is provided in the exhibition and catalogue, long gaps provoke conjecture about each work’s path since its creation, enriching the mystery of pieces dating back many centuries.

The unexpected setting adds to the intrigue. Luhring Augustine, a gallery with typical sleek concrete floors, usually shows thought-provoking contemporary art. But a glimpse of the diminutive statuette of the Virgin and Child, close to the entrance, evokes a church—dark, cool, and quiet. Per the catalogue, the figurine stylistically relates to works in the famed abbey of Saint-Denis—a continent away and an eon past.

Other notable items include the Astor Virgin (c. 1150)—an elegant wood jamb sculpture from Northern France, whose slender verticality proclaims its essential if symbolic purpose as a support structure. A pair of monumental lions (1210–20) from Emilia, Italy support spiral columns (13th century), topped with even later capitals; the columns correlate to a pair at the Cloisters. An oval relief, Bust of a Young Man (15th century) was sculpted by Florentine Luca Della Robbia, who, as his popularity grew, expanded his subject matter from devotional to secular, such as this example. Lustermännchen (Wild Man Chandelier), dating from 16th century Bavaria, incorporates a realistic top-half of a hirsute everyman, merged with a stag antler. It might have hung in a gathering hall, and represents an intriguing regional fascination of the time—a man in pursuit of earthly pleasures, the opposite of a devout Christian.

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