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Photo: Guillem F-H
Missal de Santa Eulàlia - Catalunya 1400. El gòtic internacional
Rafael Destorrents: Missal de Santa Eulàlia. 1403.
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Catalunya 1400. El gòtic internacional
Lluís Borrassà:Tabla del Retablo de san Pedro. Vocación de san Pedro
There is a great deal of local pride on display in this MNAC exhibition. The theme of cross-fertilisation in the 15th-century art world, however, is a bit of a risky one from the point of view of the Catalans. The curators have taken a chance by putting so many paintings on view, because by propping the local artwork up in the context of the true masterpieces that influenced the artists who painted them, it becomes clear that Catalunya was a cultural outpost during the extraordinary flowering of art of the Quattrocento elsewhere in Europe, most specifically in Florence and in Siena, and, to a lesser extent, in France. The minimal understanding of human anatomy and of a crude one-point perspective does not hold a candle to the work of a Giotto, for instance, or a Simone Martini, who dominated the 14th century in central Italy. Even after the arrival of the Flemish influence in the South, where by the 1430s the example of the exquisite rendering of Jan van Eyck and other northern masters inspired Italians and Spaniards alike, the brushwork of the Catalan masters remains relatively unsure and clumsy. A Last Supper (1430 to 1445) from Solsano by Pere Teixidor, for instance, looks like a painting from a century earlier than the work of his contemporaries in Florence like Ghirlandaio and Botticelli.
On the other hand, in the galleries featuring the illuminated manuscripts, the quality matches or exceeds that of anything else being produced elsewhere in Europe in the same era. An amazing Missal of Santa Eulalia (1403) from the cathedral of Barcelona is but one example of artistic excellence in this arena. In the MNAC installation, the missal, whose illumination is by Rafael Destorrents, is left open at an extraordinary painting of a Last Judgement, with a virtual version placed next to it so that the visitor can view its many details in a magnified version.
Where the objects created by Catalan artists really shine (no pun intended) is in their fine silver work. The MNAC exhibition features some jewels from various collections that firmly make this point about material luxury and technical skill. The first object that the viewer encounters, in fact, is a stunning fabrication of a silver pod holding peas of cultured pearls. Silver objects of high quality, most of them commissions for the church, fill the first galleries.
Other artists working in three dimensions also fare rather better than their painter counterparts. For instance, there is the anecdote of Pere Sanglada, the carpenter of Barcelona cathedral, who was sent on a long journey through northern Europe in order to collect ideas about what the decorations of a church choir could possibly look like. His trip ended in Bruges, where he bought a superior type of oak to bring back for his work in the cathedral.
The exhibition ends on a strong note with more illuminated manuscripts and a selection of embroideries, some of them with a startling three-dimensionality that is not figurative but literal.