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The Getty Enchants with Alchemy Exhibits

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“Doctor Examining a Flask before a Patient within a Urinoscopy Wheel” Venice, 1494, artist unknown. Lent by the History and Special Collections for the Sciences, UCLA Library Special Collections.

The Art of Alchemy (October 11, 2016-February 12, 2017 at the Getty Research Institute)

http://www.getty.edu/research/exhibitions_events/exhibitions/alchemy/

The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena (October 11, 2016-January 8, 2017 at the Getty Museum)

http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/giovanni_di_paolo/index.html

The Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts (October 11, 2016-January 1, 2017 at the Getty Museum)

http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/alchemy_of_color/index.html

Long shrouded in secrecy, alchemy was once considered the highest of arts. Straddling art, science, and natural philosophy, alchemy has proven key to both the materiality and creative expression embedded in artistic output, from ancient sculpture and the decorative arts to medieval illumination, and masterpieces in paint, print, and a panoply of media from the European Renaissance to the present day.

“Alchemy is a fascinating subject that cuts across continents and epochs,” said Thomas W. Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute. “It is because the Getty Research Institute collections are so diverse and intricately connected that we are able to deeply investigate and present this often misunderstood subject. This exhibition reflects the human ambition to explore and understand the wonders, the materiality, and the laws of nature since the earliest times. Imagination, curiosity, scholarship, enchantment, science, philosophy, and chemistry amalgamate in the artistic processes of Alchemy.”

Ornamental monogram VD, likely early 11th century, likely Beauvais.

Ornamental monogram VD, likely early 11th century, likely Beauvais.

These three related exhibits at the Getty all explore the principles of alchemy and its modern ancestor, chemistry. The first reference to alchemy is in Egypt in the 1st century A.D. The Egyptians had a long-standing mastery of materials in building, creating, synthesizing, and painting. This knowledge combined with Greek natural philosophy led to an interest in creating synthetic materials from the systematic treatment of natural ones. The manifestation of this is the blending of pharmaceutical practices with art practices, and it’s this mixing which really captures the attention of the curators of these three exhibits. It’s easy to see why alchemy is considered the fore-runner to modern chemistry, as these exhibits explore in multiple narratives, yet also perfectly suited to an art museum exhibit. The exhibit content is supplemented by the unique perspectives of the exhibitions’ curators: several of them are full-time art and manuscript conservators. This means that the objects were carefully selected to showcase the creation process of these art pieces, and interpret the alchemy involved in that creation.

Thematically cohesive, the exhibitions all included little extra touches which expanded the scope to address more facets of the topic at hand. Curator tours of each exhibit provided a little extra insight, such as Nancy Turner’s comment about the palette of medieval colors placed discreetly behind one of the manuscripts. This palette is collecting data on the environmental effects of light, humidity, and temperature on the medieval manuscripts. Changes in the materials will be evaluated to better understand the evolution of materials in manuscripts, and to make more informed decisions on exhibiting them in the future.

“Alchemy was a science tinged with spirituality and infused with a spritz of artistic spirit. Most people think of alchemy as a fringe subject when really it was a mainstream technology and worldview that influenced artistic practice and expression throughout the world,” said David Brafman, curator of The Art of Alchemy. “Alchemy may well have been the most important human invention after that of the wheel and the mastery of fire. Certainly it was a direct consequence of the latter.”

The Art of Alchgri_artofalchemy-1emy, hosted at the Getty Research Institute, is produced in a rich color palette of burgundy with gold accents and slate blue with silver accents. It runs on a roughly chronological layout, starting with Greco-Roman philosophies about the physical nature of the world its elements, moving into medieval Asia, medieval Europe, early modern Europe, and finally into modern industry. The Art of Alchemy examines the impact of alchemy around the world on artistic practice and its expression in visual culture from antiquity to the present.On view at the Getty Research Institute through February 12, 2017, the show features over 100 objects, including manuscripts, rare books, prints, sculpture, and other works of art dating from the3rd century BCE to the 20th century. The exhibition was organized in partnership with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, where it will be on view in 2017, and is curated by David Brafman, associate curator of rare books with assistance from Rhiannon Knol.

The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Sienna focuses on medieval art and the alchemy of painting with gold, but also examines the modern processes of conservation and restoration. Manuscript illuminator and panel painter Giovanni di Paolo (c.1399–1482) counts as one of the most distinctive and imaginative artists working in Renaissance Siena, Italy. The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena, on view October 11, 2016 through January 8, 2017 at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, brings together several examples of his brilliantly colored paintings on both panel and parchment, including the work that scholars consider to be the artist’s masterpiece.

“This exhibition had its beginnings, like many others at the Getty, in the conservation studio when a small panel painting by Giovanni di Paolo came to the Museum in 2012 for treatment thanks to the generosity of our Paintings Council,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “This opportunity gave our conservators and curators the chance to study the panel, compare it to other works by the same artist, and eventually develop an exhibition that presents Giovanni’s art in all its richness and complexity.”

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The signed and dated central panel, the so-called “Branchini Madonna,” on loan from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, was the only portion identified as part of the altarpiece until 2009, when scholars in Europe connected it with other works. When asked about the exhibition, Norton Simon Museum President and CEO Walter Timoshuk said, “The Getty Museum has presented a wonderful opportunity to learn more about our ‘Branchini Madonna,’ a highlight from our early-Renaissance collection, and we are delighted to see it exhibited in this revelatory way.”

Today color is appreciated primarily for its aesthetic qualities, but during the Middle Ages it was also recognized for its material, scientific, and mechanical properties. The manufacture of colored pigments and inks used for painting and writing was part of the science of alchemy, the chemical transformation of matter. Manuscripts not only transcribed the scientific practice of alchemy—a medieval antecedent to modern chemistry—but were created with alchemically produced materials.
From October 11, 2016, through January 1, 2017, The Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center sheds light on medieval manuscript illumination within the context of alchemy as early chemistry and craft practice. With objects from the Museum’s renowned manuscripts collection complemented by generous loans, the exhibition examines colorants and medieval recipes for pigments and imitation gold in a presentation that highlights the Getty’s ongoing research into the materials used by book illuminators.

'Recipes for Making Ink,' 15-16th centuries, England. Collection of alchemical, medical, and technical instructions and recipes. Note the pages of different sizes, showing how the text was altered and added to throughout the years. Lent by the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, USA.

‘Recipes for Making Ink,’ 15-16th centuries, England. Collection of alchemical, medical, and technical instructions and recipes. Note the pages of different sizes, showing how the text was altered and added to throughout the years. Lent by the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, USA.

“Alchemy was the medieval antecedent to modern chemistry,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Manuscripts exemplify this tradition well, not only as a medium by which scientific texts were transmitted, but because the painted illuminations are themselves made with alchemically produced materials. Our ongoing research into materials that were used for manuscript illuminations reveals an alchemical rainbow of colorants made from plants, minerals, and metals.”

Manuscript Conservator and exhibit curator Nancy Turner provides some insight on the exhibit.

Manuscript Conservator and exhibit curator Nancy Turner provides some insight on the exhibit.

“Contrary to the popular misconception that the pursuit of alchemists was simply chrysopoeia, or the making of gold, for many alchemists the goal was nothing less, in fact, than the reproduction of the divine act of creation itself,” says Nancy Turner, J. Paul Getty Museum conservator and curator of the exhibition. The term used to refer to paintings within books – “illumination”derives from the Latin illuminare meaning pages “lit up with gold.” Having come to epitomize the art of book painting, gold is used not only for its incorruptibility, purity, and high value as a material but also for its spiritual connotations. Among the examples on view in this section of the exhibition is Pentecost (about 1030-40). The illuminator depicted the moment when the Twelve Apostles are imbued with the Holy Spirit of God. The shimmering gold background adds to the radiant, visionary images, and was achieved by painting onto the parchment layered applications of granular gold paint, which was polished with a stone burnisher to achieve a highly lustrous effect.

You can even download your own Alchemical Symbols guide so you can create your own magical formulas! Explore the exhibit websites for videos, images, and other resources to delve into the world of alchemy.

-by Dani Trynoski

Danielle Trynoski is the co-editor of The Medieval Magazine and manages her own website at CuratoryStory.com. Click here to read more articles by Danielle.

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