Medieval exhibitions are quite rare. Exhibitions about medieval sculptures are of the unique kind. The Bonnefanten museum in Maastricht, Limburg (NL) has the honour of showing ‘The Master of Elsloo: from lonely hand to collection of Masters’, and displayed a beautiful group of more than 50 late 15th century and early 16th century sculptures.
The name of ‘Master of Elsloo’ was first published in 1940 by art history student J.J.M. Timmers. Later on, he developed an impressive career as a Professor. In 1936 he had organised an exhibition, which included two sculptures of St. Anne with Virgin and Child. He then noticed similarities in style and techniques, such as the colorful paint, the drapery of the fabric, the position of the child Jesus. He attributed them to one sculptor and named it after the village where the scupltures were originally from: Elsloo.
For over three decades Timmers was the only one who published on this subject, before it sparked new interest. Unfortunately, the original patrons are unknown, so this gives us no information at all. Extensive research on the sculptures and woodworking techniques was done and instead of similarities, there where also a lot of small, but distinctive differences found. This ultimately led to the conclusion that ‘The Master of Elsoo’ was in fact a group, or even several groups, of sculptors, and were in business for several generations.
At the Bonnefanten museum you can see the result of the current research project, initiated in 2010 by the Belgian Royal Institution for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA). Next to researching the development of the body of work, using archival and technical research, it also shows you the issues of the national border of Limburg. When first named, the body of work was limited by borders and viewed as part of the history of Limburg. However, those borders didn’t exist in the Middle Ages and is a limited perspective. The research team focussed on the Belgian, French and German influences.
You are led on a tour through the chambers, and are invited to find out who ‘the real master of Elsoo’ was. At the end of the tour you can cast your vote, and perhaps you’ll discover the truth about this mystery.
While trying to unravel the mystery of the sculptors, this all sounds a bit technical and detached. It is certainly most interesting, but for me the best thing to do is to just look at the sculptures. They are of high quality wood and craftmanship, and very well preserved and restored. Most of the paint has been restored in the 19th and 20th century. In the spacious layout of the chambers you have plenty of room to admire all sculptures from up close and from different angles. They often stand alone, just for this reason.
However, they are also out of context. Originally they were a part of a cloister, an abbey, a church, a chapel, a procession. And I wonder, how did people perceive these colourful sculptures ? Did they see only the saint they were praying to ? Or also the beauty of the sculpture ? Did they touch the sculptures? The exhibition leaves that to your -historical- imagination.
If you want to know more about the Master of Elsloo and medieval sculptures, the exhibition catalogue is a good start. It contains several essays and a complete exhibition catalogue. In general, the province of Limburg has a very rich history and offers many medieval sites, castles, ruines, churches, cathedrals to explore. Catholicism left a clear mark on the beautiful cities and countryside.
>> The exhibition runs untill 16.06.2019 at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. Visit the old city centre with beautiful streets and churches. <<