Medieval mystery

While the concept of one artist lifting another's work and using it in their own creation is one that has become familiar to most people in this digital age, it is in fact an ancient practice, honored by time if not always morality. Recently, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute investigated four very similar 15th Century paintings to determine if they were the work of a single painter (known for the distinctive way that he painted trees), or a collection of independent 'interpretations' of another work entirely.

Medieval Mystery: Who is the Master of the Embroidered Foliage? takes a brief glimpse behind the scenes - and even under the pigment - of artistic attribution, and demonstrates that there can be a good deal more to pretty pictures than ... pretty pictures.

Opening, in proper 'mystery' style, with an animated flashlight searching one of the four works under investigation, the site automatically moves on to the introductory page. Here, one image continually morphs through the full quartet of suspiciously similar works - and the evidence of some connection between the four is immediate and, as they say in the detective biz, irrefutable. (If you're surfing with JavaScript disabled, you'll lose the animations, but none of the information.) After a few words about the origins of the exhibition, Mystery offers three main areas of inquiry, with each section augmenting its theories with additional images and information.

The 'Origins' section offers probable dates for the works and the name of one artist (Rogier van der Weyden) who didn't paint them - but who's own work was clearly used as a model. In the same location occupied by the morphing Madonnas on the introductory page, the image of the Clark Institute Madonna now highlights three specific areas of the painting on mouseover (text links are also available) which draw direct connections between the 'source' artist and the four featured paintings.

The areas of interest demonstrate that later artists not only directly copied such elements as the folds in the Virgin's dress, but even took backgrounds from another van der Weyden work and dropped it behind the foreground duplicated from the first.

(These and other pages will frequently offer "Take A Closer Look" links, which, in this case, highlight specific areas of background imagery for precise comparison. Other examples might use X-ray or infra-red images to illustrate their points. While not as sophisticated as some sites, with the use of animated demonstrations or rollover magnifying glasses, the simple still images on a these pages keep the online exhibition well within the comfort zone for dial-up surfers.)

Unfortunately for the champions of the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, it appears that despite some exact-to-scale similarities, the four paintings were not even created by a single, post-van der Weyden artist, and the 'Relations' section features the evidence that leads to that conclusion. (And anyone who's ever used Photoshop to adjust the tilt of a head, or dropped in an element from another shot to enhance the finished product, will immediately identify with some of the 'Relations' evidence from five centuries ago.)

The 'Meanings' section moves away from the forensic work and provides some historical information about the symbolism of 15th century Western art. (You may not have known, for instance, that plantains were "symbols of the well-trodden path to salvation.") And with the investigations concluded, a 'Checklist' provides a basic rundown of the vital statistics for the paintings in question, and 'Mystery Solved?' wraps up the original question and the probable answer in a brace of paragraphs.

Medieval Mystery is not an extensive production, but it is an interesting one, and the investigation itself reveals facts about the art world that most of us wouldn't have known. The mother and child figure common to the paintings may well have been a Medieval precursor to 'clip art' - an image that was widely circulated for artists to drop into their compositions. A FAQ page explains how paintings done on wood panels can be historically dated by 'counting the rings.' Investigations of the paintings' famous foliage reveal that one artist actually painted in the branches of his trees before completely obscuring them with leaves. Of course, it doesn't answer who the Master of the Embroidered Foliage actually is. But even Sherlock didn't solve them all.

Medieval Mystery: Who is the Master of the Embroidered Foliage? can be found at http://www.clarkart.edu/mystery/.

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