The Cleveland Museum of Art
October 12, 2016 - February 26, 2017
Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain will, for the first time, present the museum’s Gothic table fountain as the focus of a single exhibition. The table fountain will be displayed among a group of objects including luxury silver, hand-washing vessels, enamels, illuminated manuscripts and a major painting. Each will inform some aspect of the fountain’s history, functionality, presumed use and context, materials, technique, dating and style.
Some of these works are important international loans, notably Jan van Eyck’s painting Madonna at the Fountain from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, which also comprises part of the museum’s centennial loan program. Van Eyck is considered the most significant Northern Renaissance artist of the 15th century, and only about 25 surviving paintings can be confidently attributed to him; Madonna at the Fountain is one of them. Since most of van Eyck’s paintings are rarely permitted to travel, this will be only the second time in history that a work by the artist has been exhibited in Cleveland.
Also on view are the Grandes Chroniques de France from the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Commissioned by the French king Charles V (reigned 1364–80), this rarely traveled and light-sensitive manuscript is a vernacular history of the French kings assembled from translated Latin chronicles and other medieval documents. Due to the sensitivity of the object, the Grandes Chroniques de France will only be on view until January 9, 2017. Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain is co-curated by Stephen N. Fliegel, curator of medieval art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Elina Gertsman, professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University. Admission to the show is free, and the exhibition will remain on view in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery through February 26, 2017.
“The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gothic table fountain is one of the rarest and most significant objects in the museum’s renowned medieval collection,” said William M. Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “We are fortunate to showcase this treasure among other iconic masterworks including Madonna at the Fountain and the Grandes Chroniques de France. These objects establish a rich context for the table fountain and answer questions about its origin, history and functionality. By bringing these artworks together, the exhibition speaks to the global influence of the museum and offers a true, once-in-a- lifetime opportunity for visitors.”
“The exhibition explores one of the world’s rarest medieval objects––the last surviving Gothic table fountain––and the only exemplar of its genre,” said Fliegel.
Impressive in their sheer technical wizardry, table fountains are mechanical devices with moving parts that spouted (sometimes perfumed) water, and are known especially from inventories. Once thought to have graced banqueting tables, they were more likely placed on pedestals in strategic locations in palaces, where they were exhibited as spectacles of ingenuity by their owners to delight their guests. Such objects did not originate in the European West, but were probably introduced through the Byzantine and Islamic worlds.
Conceptually and stylistically, the Cleveland table fountain is a stunning piece of Gothic architecture in miniature, with parapets, arcades, vaults, pinnacles, columns and arches with tracery. The goldsmith responsible for this object was unquestionably inspired by the great Gothic buildings of his time. The Cleveland table fountain is a three-tiered assembly featuring cast and chased elements to which were attached a series of enamel plaques representing grotesque figures, some of which play musical instruments. Water wheels and bells were added to capture motion and sound. The rich detail and ornamentation of this object suggest it would have been expensive to produce and highly treasured by its original owner.
Cleveland’s table fountain is datable to about 1320–40, and was likely produced in Paris for a person of high status, perhaps a member of the royal court. It is internationally recognized as a unique example of a genre now understood primarily through documentary sources. These fountains existed in the 14th and 15th centuries in substantial numbers. They assumed various forms but were always made from precious metals and sometimes embellished with colorful enamels or semiprecious stones. Table fountains were probably returned to the goldsmith’s shop for conversion into vessels or coinage once they ceased to function or the fashion had passed, accounting for the scarcity of surviving examples today.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 164-page scholarly catalogue, Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain, the third book in the museum’s Cleveland Masterwork series. Authored by Stephen N. Fliegel, curator of medieval art at the Cleveland Museum of art, and Elina Gertsman, professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, the catalogue reassesses Cleveland’s Gothic table fountain in the context of other similar luxury objects, analyzing specifically the fountain’s history, function, materials and style.
Madonna at the Fountain, 1439. Jan van Eyck (Flemish, 1390–1441). Oil on panel; 19 x 12.5 cm. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunst, Antwerp, inv. no. 411.
The painter Jan van Eyck is today considered the most significant Northern Renaissance artist of the 15th century. He was court painter to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, and was patronized extensively by the Burgundian court. It is known from the historical record that van Eyck was considered a revolutionary master across northern Europe even within his own lifetime; his approach to painting was heavily copied by other painters. Van Eyck’s virtuoso technique exploits the use of oils to describe light and sumptuous draperies with an almost photographic realism. His style placed the visible world at the heart of his painting and changed perceptions forever. There are only about 25 surviving paintings that can be confidently attributed to Jan van Eyck. Most of these are rarely permitted to travel, and the exhibition therefore presents a unique and special opportunity to display a work by Jan van Eyck at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Grandes Chroniques de France, 1378–79
The Feast of the Order of the Star, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, c. 1378–79. France, Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum. Bibliothèque nationale de France. MS. Fr. 2813, folio 394 recto.
Known as the Grandes Chroniques de France, this manuscript is a vernacular history of the French kings assembled from translated Latin chronicles and other medieval documents. It was commissioned by the French king Charles V (reigned 1364–80), who ordered that it include new sections describing his own life and the history of the Valois dynasty. The text and illustrations in the Grandes Chroniques are part of a program intended to reinforce the power of Charles V’s family and its right to rule during a period of conflict and uncertainty.
Among other historical events within the manuscript, the miniature on this richly illuminated page shows the founding of the chivalric Order of the Star in 1351 by King John the Good of France, father of Charles V. Here the knights of the order are seen wearing a badge formed from an eight-pointed star, identical to those on the Cleveland table fountain both in form and color. In the lower register, the order is depicted at its annual banquet held at Saint-Ouen. The common use of the star motif on the table fountain would strongly affirm its links to the same chivalric order.
Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, 1325–28
The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, c. 1325–28. Jean Pucelle (French, active 1319–34). Ink and tempera on vellum; 9.3 x 6.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 54.1.2. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.
One of the most influential artists of the Parisian Gothic style, Jean Pucelle completed several commissions for the royal family during his relatively brief career. This private devotional book known as a book of hours was most likely commissioned by King Charles IV of France for his third wife and queen, Jeanne d’Évreux, sometime between their marriage in 1324 and the king’s death in 1328. Pucelle’s manuscript illuminations are usually identified by the presence of inventive human-animal hybrid figures, called drolleries, in the margins. He renders these grotesque figures in shades of black and white, with only occasional washes of sheer color—a technique that came to be known as grisaille. The manuscript demonstrates a common decorative vocabulary with the table fountain, which was produced in Paris around the same time.