By Stephen Perkinson
With contributions from Naomi Speakman, Katherine Baker, Elizabeth Morrison, and Emma Solberg.
Published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art from June 24 through November 26, 2017.
We often imagine the Renaissance as an age of exceptional human progress and artistic achievement. But, intriguingly, macabre images proliferated in precisely this period: unsettling depictions of Death personified, of decaying bodies, of young lovers struck down in their prime. While the explicit goal of these memento mori was to remind viewers of life’s fragility and convince them of the urgent need to turn away from earthly pursuits, many of these objects also embraced the material pleasures of life, as they were elegantly crafted and composed of luxurious materials.
Morbid themes run riot in the remarkable array of artworks featured in The Ivory Mirror. Nearly 200 illustrated artworks—from ivory prayer beads and gem-encrusted jewelry to exquisitely carved table sculptures and printed imagery—present us with an aspect of this era that is at once darker and more familiar than we might have expected. In the midst of an increasingly complex and uncertain world, Renaissance artists turned to poignant, often macabre imagery to address the critical human concern of acknowledging death, while striving to create a personal legacy that might outlast it. The essays gathered here discuss the development and significance of this transformative art of the past, while exploring themes that are still relevant today: how does one navigate the implicit tension between mortality and morality and seek to balance individual pleasure with the pursuit of a greater good?
Stephen Perkinson is Peter M. Small Associate Professor of Art History and guest curator, Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Naomi Speakman is curator in the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, London. Katherine Baker is an assistant professor of art history at Arkansas State University. Elizabeth Morrison is senior curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Emma Solberg is assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College.
Published by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
240 pages, with 174 color illustrations