: the space between
Seeing Hans Memling’s Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara, (1479) at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, completely changed my perception of Northern Renaissance art. Beside it was a pair of headphones, you see. On these a mass contemporary with the painting was playing. I stood in front of this picture for a good half an hour, hogging the headphones for longer than was really public-spirited, mesmerized by the transformation that music made to my experience of the painting.
The objects and images that I was then studying on my MA course on Northern Renaissance Art at The Courtauld Institute, particularly the larger altarpieces such as those by Memling, appealed because they seemed laden with hidden meaning. Aesthetically beautiful, complex, and technically magnificent, it was incumbant upon us not just to accept them as memories from a devotionally and culturally disconnected period, but to take on the intellectual challenge of contextual as well as aesthetic engagement. The more we studied and spent time with the works, the more we were rewarded with little clues about how the imagery was understood, and keys to grasping its value to late medieval eyes.
Nonetheless, I always wondered whether my standpoint as a rather fair weather Anglican (Christmas/Easter, births/marriages/deaths) would prove too inherent a barrier to being able to really appreciate the devotional function and value of the pre-Reformation objects I had decided to spend my life studying. Would it always be something that I felt the need to apologise for?
Standing quietly in the Met, I felt those concerns lift. The experience was certainly not a religious one, but it was meditative, even spiritual. The two music-making angels beside the Virgin and Child appeared truly to be playing their meticulously depicted instruments, and the painting to radiate sound. In a small but significant way, hearing the music seemed to enable an empathetic relationship with the depicted donor, whose own meditation on the scene saw him transported within it. Regardless of its dislocation in the busy, twenty-first century gallery room, hearing a Mass just as the altarpiece would originally have been experienced with in the late fifteenth-century was extraordinarily transporting for my own experience of it.
Stuck on a very long bus journey later that year, I thought more about how the relationship between art and music in this period could be explored, and particularly how it could be presented. The notes tapped into my phone would go on to form the basis of the Renaissance Art and Music (RA&M) project of which this blog is a vital part. AHRC funding provided the opportunity to realize this study. But crucially, collaboration with musicologists from Royal Holloway has transformed it from its origins as an ultimately limited, one-dimensional art historical project to one in which art and music evenhandedly examined individually and together, and we are greatly looking forward to exploring the possibilities, responses and limits of the relationship between art and music.