Art Complex Museum

The Collection


Netherlands, St. Matthew Folio, from a Book of Hours, ca.1440, Illuminated manuscript, ink and paint on vellum, CU-3

Illuminations of Devotion

Long before museums offered a place to experience art for the sake of art, leaders of the world’s religions utilized art as a tool or guide for deepening their followers’ faith. This was especially effective at a time when reading was a skill that generally only clergy had acquired prior to Gutenberg’s invention of a practical printing press in 1448. The Gutenberg Bible was the first mass-produced publication in Western Europe, revolutionizing European literacy and ultimately Western history.

In 2016, Rotations Gallery presented a cross-section of religious art and artifacts from the museum’s holdings: Jain, Islamic, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist. For early 2017, collection choices will highlight the narrative aspect of religion to be accompanied by a variety of book forms and works on paper. Distinctive examples across several cultures coupled with prints, paintings, and artifacts related to learning will be rotated throughout the year.

From the first century of the Roman Empire, Christianity had become the principal religion and system of values for mankind. Over time, once Christian worship had been legalized in 313 by the Roman emperors, the Christian Church became the largest and most influential patron of the arts. The Christian artist had the opportunity to create something beyond basic illustration. He could create pictorial symbols with his own aesthetic assertions.

During the Middle Ages (about 400–1400), Christian monks and clergy commissioned artists and craftsmen to create the visual tools to teach the tenets and narratives of their creed. In order to garner influence and strengthen the people’s faith, clergy sought the highly skilled to create icons, statues, paintings and glass. The churches and cathedrals, themselves, were built to be objects of inspiration.

When considering the collecting themes on which Carl and Edith Weyerhaeuser focused, it seems that religion of any origin may have been coincidental in amassing a significant number of objects across many cultures. This holds true particularly for objects from Italy and France during the height of the Renaissance (about 1480 – 1520). Nevertheless, collecting religious themes was quite intentional with Carl Weyerhaeuser, who read and collected versions of the Bible and other books and manuscripts. Edith Weyerhaeuser also had an active interest in collecting Christian objects and art. Among her favorite works was The Engraved Passion by German printmaker, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), a series of sixteen images depicting the events of Christ’s crucifixion. Its exhibition is planned for the summer of 2017.

These church-sponsored creations had one direct source of inspiration; illuminated manuscripts from the late Middle Ages — the calligraphic and meticulously decorated folios of teachings from the Christian Bible. Illuminations were the original designs for Christian objects of devotion during the Renaissance. Replications were often very exacting in both two and three dimensions: statues, murals, altar paintings and architectural carvings.

Gospels, psalms and prayers scribed by clergy and accentuated with hand-painted Biblical characters and scenes were bound into the personalized and popular Book of Hours. A small selection of illuminated manuscript folios with Dutch and French origins will be exhibited from February 5 through May. Although the pages had been extracted from their bindings and the images are miniature in size, they will offer a glimpse of the inspirational archetypes for Christian objects of devotion.

Objects of devotion in any faith have yet to cease being inspirational, both spiritually and artistically, regardless of origin or purpose. As French philosopher Victor Cousins coined, “l’art pour l’art”– art for art’s sake.

Maureen Wengler, Collections Manager


John Singer Sargent, United States, The Confession, 2014, oil on canvas, 53.09

From Sacred to Aesthetic

Religion has provided a magnificent spectrum of visual language and can be largely credited for art’s initial existence and growth. For ages, and from varying viewpoints, artists and collectors alike have looked to religious art for artistic convention, narratives, personal belief, as well as historical and cultural reference points. Religion does not only inform devotional objects intended for practice within, but also influences art created from an outside perspective looking in. The Art Complex Museum’s collection includes a variety of objects that come from, or speak of, faith. John Singer Sargent’s painting The Confession, on view in Rotations from February 17 through April 23, is among those objects.

For those who most closely associate Sargent with the society portraiture on which he built his reputation, The Confession, with its overtly religious content, may be unexpected. A kneeling figure cloaked in black confesses to an ivory clad priest through a latticed partition. Engaged in confidential practice, neither face nor hand of either participant can be seen. Above them hangs a crucifix. Its Christ icon appears to be gazing toward the confessors, listening. Religion is at the forefront of this painting. Nevertheless, Sargent’s main concern was with the facility of the paint; the work’s somber subject matter is tempered by the opulent brush visible in the sheen of the black dress and warm tones of cream and gold, imparting a characteristic elegance to the interior.

Although understated, Sargent’s signature handling of paint can be seen and appreciated. Still, further value may be gained by understanding the context in which the painting was produced. In the summer of 1914, following the outbreak of World War I, Sargent and his English traveling companions found themselves detained in the Austrian Tyrol, with no passports or money. The artist settled himself at the Cappella Inn in Colfusang where he proceeded to paint, finding interesting if unusual subject matter in Tyrolese crucifixes and graveyards.

By this time Sargent had familiarized himself with religious imagery. In 1890 he had begun his monumental mural cycle for The Boston Public Library, an epic multimedia project that both formally and contextually drew on religious sources ranging from Egyptian iconography to Byzantine mosaics. The murals were meant to illustrate Sargent’s belief in a positive progress from dogmatic, institutionalized religion toward individual freedom and spiritual subjectivity. This notion of positivism was however detracted from by skepticism formed by the war. Sargent returned to work on the cycle of murals after his stay in Austria, abandoning the project in 1919 after much criticism that the effort was misguided, even anti-Semitic, leaving one crucial panel unfinished and the others without their complete intended context.

The Confession is just one of many cultural artifacts from the permanent collection that have been recontextualized in Rotations Gallery, juxtaposing work from different time periods and faiths, with the hope that viewers will be able to consider the art in terms of their common themes as well as their distinct differences. Out of context, art with religious subject matter may provide outstanding aesthetic value. However the perspective from which the object came remains crucial. To better appreciate another culture’s art we must discard old assumptions and increase our understanding of the art’s significance. With increased knowledge we can increase our appreciation and, it is hoped, strive toward improved tolerance.

Kyle Turner, Collections Assistant

The Art Complex Museum's permanent collection numbers more than 8,000 pieces. The majority of the collection falls into four categories; American Painting, Prints, Shaker Furniture, and Asian Art.

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