Blockbuster show casts art as first to unify Europe
The city of Brussels is to host the largest showcase of European art that the continent has seen, an exhibition that aims to prove how "joined up" its artistic heritage really is.
The Grand Atelier: Pathways of Art in Europe from the 5th to the 18th Centuries brings together 350 masterpieces from 150 museums for the first time in the biggest collaborative exhibition in the history of Europe.
The show aims to trace the artistic cross-fertilisation in European culture from the end of the Roman Empire until the French Revolution, and it is staged to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome which led to the formation of the European Union.
Spanning myriad artistic traditions and including treasures that have never before travelled outside their native lands, artworks from 27 countries have been lent by galleries and museums from Birmingham to Budapest.
"This exhibition shows how no artistic tradition in Europe could see itself as separate and isolated in its development. It is showing cultural interdependence," explained Pascal Griener, the exhibition's co-curator. "Even the British Isles could not escape from this reality; British culture cannot be understood if not interrelated to the different currents that dominated Europe."
Highlights of the exhibition include Leonardo da Vinci's classic Study of Anatomy, borrowed from the Royal Collection at Windsor, which goes on show alongside a Jan Van Eyck masterpiece from Turin and Rubens' baroque The Boar Hunt, on loan from Marseilles.
Also featuring in the show is the gilt-covered eighth- century gospel Book of Dimma, which has been removed from Trinity College in Dublin for the first time in 300 years, and The Adoration of the Magi, a whale-bone carving of the baby Jesus from the V&A, which experts have claimed is a collective effort by artists hailing from Spain to Scandinavia.
Some masterpieces which are considered quintessentially English, German or French are revealed as bearing cross-fertilised elements, while the influence of master painters, such as Rubens or Da Vinci, is traced across the breadth of the continent's palaces, courts and cathedrals.
Rubens gained such pan-European "celebrity" stature in his lifetime that almost every sovereign wanted to commission him, while the Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck was regarded as a consummate European, travelling to Italy before becoming Britain's leading court painter. His many voyages were reflected in his portraits which mixed Flemish realism with Italian rules of composition.
During medieval times, there was a wide circulation of artefacts across Europe, Mr Griener said. "Workshops that produced the most beautifully illuminated bibles, gospels and calligraphy were sent around the whole of Europe and artists were in the habit of travelling around."
After the 5th century, a Roman mission that came to the British Isles led to the flourishing of a hybrid artistic style in Ireland in which the Italian tradition was harmonised with the country's indigenous ornamental custom. Later, the circulation of Christian drawings across Europe meant that the image of the Virgin Mary, painted by artists such as Da Vinci and Michelangelo were imitated to create an international style.
Some of Europe's greatest cathedrals were designed by architects who were called from one city to another to assist in the design of ambitious projects. Many adapted plans that they had used elsewhere in Europe. A series of plans of cathedrals drawn on parchment and dating from the 12th to the 15th centuries which illustrate this are displayed in the show, as well as the elaborate plans for the elevation of the facade of Strasbourg Cathedral in 1400, drawn on nearly five metres of parchment.
During the Renaissance, the King of Spain began collecting European artworks, inspiring Charles I of England to do the same. "He was so enchanted by the King of Spain's collection that he wanted his own European collection as soon as possible and acquired over a hundred Venetian works of art," said Mr Griener.