New exhibit at the Michael C. Carlos Museum explores allegory and faith in 16th and 17th century prints

Emory Report | Aug. 29, 2019

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Jan Sadeler (Flemish, 1550-1600), after Dirck Barendsz (Netherlandish, 1534-1592). The Last Judgment, late 16th century. Engraving. Gift of Walter Melion and John Clum.

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The Michael C. Carlos Museum presents “Through a Glass, Darkly: Allegory and Faith in Netherlandish Prints from Lucas van Leyden to Rembrandt,” on view from Aug. 31 through Dec. 1. The exhibition includes 90 allegorical prints from artists such as Lucas van Leyden, Hendrick Goltzius, Jan Sadeler and Rembrandt.

“The term ‘allegory’—or ‘other speaking’—alludes to a process whereby the images of persons, objects or events come to stand for conceptions variously distant from them,” explains Walter S. Melion, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Art History and director of the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory. “The relation between the thing visualized and the conception signified is often analogical.”

Melion curated the exhibit with James Clifton, director of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation and curator of Renaissance and Baroque painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 

From 1500-1700, printmakers in the Low Countries (Northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) were, as a group, the most skilled and prolific in all of Europe. Their prints, often combined with text, played an important role in the area’s religious culture during this period.

Using allegory allowed the printmakers to address the most fundamental issues binding the human and the divine — love, virtue, vice, sin, death and salvation. Understanding allegory was crucial to knowing God’s truth.

Printmakers also incorporated allegory in their work in response to the post-Reformation religious turmoil that consumed the Low Countries.

“Allegorical thinking was virtually endemic in the 16th and 17th century Low Countries, largely because Christ himself, on the model of the prophets, justified and exemplified allegorical usage in his parables,” Melion says. “Allegory was used by common folk and by members of elite society; it was preached from pulpits, permeated prayers and homilies and decorated church buildings, both inside and out. In short, it was everywhere in the common currency of religious discourse.”

“Through a Glass, Darkly” is the first major exhibition to systematically consider the form, function and meaning of allegorical prints produced in the Low Countries during that time period. 

“If we’re to understand how early modern people living in one of the great centers of religious image-making—the Low Countries—experienced and commented upon their faith, we need to familiarize ourselves with allegory,” Melion says. “My co-curator and I ask how religious-minded viewers used printed allegorical images to engage with the mysteries of faith, ponder religious doctrine and interpret the Bible. The exhibition’s 90 engravings and etchings, which date from between ca. 1500 and 1700, serve as our case studies.”

The Carlos Museum invites the community to learn more about the art and culture of the Low Countries by offering several programs in conjunction with the exhibit:

  • 2-3: Two-day engraving workshop with artist Andrew Raftery of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum
  • 14: Genever tasting with expert Steef Schelke
  • 24: Sunday FUNday: Drypoint etching

Lectures and a gallery talk also will be held while the exhibit is on display. In addition, a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Melion and Clifton will be available for purchase at the museum bookshop.

“Through a Glass, Darkly” has been made possible through generous support from the Michael C. Carlos Museum Visiting Board, the Massey Charitable Trust, the Art Dealers Association of America Foundation, and the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York.