Jan. 19, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 9

This 16th-century French tapestry,"A Demoniac Delivered and A Pagan Converted," will be on display at the next McMullen Museum exhibition.

McMullen to Showcase 'Secular/Sacred'

By Rosanne Pellegrini
Staff Writer

An exclusive exhibition opening next month at the McMullen Museum of Art is the first to explore multiple ways in which medieval and early modern objects communicated both "sacred" and "secular" messages to viewers.

"Secular/Sacred: 11th-16th Century Works from the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston," which runs from Feb. 19-June 4, will display works from the Boston area's most significant medieval and early modern collections.

Comprising nearly 100 objects - including illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, silks, stone sculpture, metalwork, paintings and some ceramics and early printed books - "Secular/Sacred" takes an inventive and interdisciplinary approach to the study of the style, subject matter, functions and reception of works of art from the 11th through the 16th century, with emphasis on works from the 15th century. The exhibition is organized thematically in six sections, including "Beasts," "Ministers and Magistrates" and "The Sacraments: Sacred and Profane."

One of the showpieces of "Secular/Sacred" is a fully illustrated 33-and-a-half foot long, 15th-century French manuscript scroll from the Boston Public Library collection which records the history of the world from Creation through the year 1380, with 57 detailed miniatures illuminating the text.

A public reception to celebrate the exhibition opening will be held at the museum in Devlin Hall on Monday, Feb. 20, from 7-9 p.m., featuring music by popular campus jazz band BC bOp!

"The McMullen Museum is pleased and proud to collaborate with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Boston Public Library in examining their collections from a new perspective," said McMullen Museum Director Prof. Nancy Netzer (Fine Arts). "The present exhibition takes as its premise that the traditional division of artworks dating from the Middle Ages and early modern period into categories of sacred and secular is too rigid to accurately reflect the multiplicity of messages that most of these objects convey."

Seeking to articulate the secular and sacred discourse engendered by each object in the exhibition, according to the organizers, the exhibition's co-curators have examined from various disciplinary perspectives the multivalent secular and sacred sources of the objects' meanings.

They show how some artists depicting biblical narratives inject sensual details from contemporary secular life, like sumptuous clothing, jewels and architecture, to impress the viewer with the subject's relevance. Or, they reveal how seduction works in reverse by infusing a scene from contemporary life with spiritual meaning to awaken the viewer to higher concerns.

By re-thinking scholars' traditional division of medieval and early modern objects into "secular" and "sacred" categories and by examining the history of this categorization, Netzer says, the exhibition shows visitors how to decode these images, and reveals how lines between the two categories blur for each object.

Netzer adds that the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue will be dedicated to the memory of museum benefactor John McMullen, who died last fall.

The "Secular/Sacred" co-curators and catalogue contributors represent a variety of disciplines, and include Netzer and 10 other BC faculty members: Associate Academic Vice President for Faculties Patricia DeLeeuw; Prof. Pamela Berger (Fine Arts); Calderwood Professors of Islamic and Asian Art Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom; Prof. Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner (Romance Languages); Assoc. Prof. Michael Connolly (Slavic and Eastern Languages); Prof. Robin Fleming (History); Asst. Prof. Stephanie C. Leone (Fine Arts); Assoc. Prof. Virginia Reinburg (History); and Assoc. Prof. Laurie Shepard (Romance Languages).

Also helping curate the exhibition is BPL manuscripts curator Earle Havens and independent scholar Lisa Fagin Davis.

As always, the exhibition will be accompanied by a series of public events - including a lecture series featuring exhibition co-curators, and concerts of medieval and Renaissance secular/sacred music.

In addition, to capture the significance of the MFA-BPL-BC collaboration, a documentary on the process of shaping the exhibition will be available on Boston College Web sites and will be screened during the exhibition in the museum.

For more information on the McMullen Museum, the "Secular/Sacred" exhibition or public programs, call ext.2-8100 or see

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