BRUNSWICK — The latest exhibit at Bowdoin College Museum of Art deals in matters of life and death.

“The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe” features nearly 70 Renaissance objects that examine the reminder of human mortality at a time when European society was climbing to greater economic and cultural heights.

Guest-curated by Stephen Perkinson, the college’s Peter M. Small Associate Professor of Art History, the exhibit pulls items from collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Huntington Library in California.

Most notably, it assigns authorship for the first time to several pieces sculpted by Parisian Chicart Bailly, an ivory carver active from 1490-1533 and whose work was previously unattributed.

The show is open to the public through Nov. 23 at 9400 College Station.

Visitors will confront what Perkinson described during a recent tour of the gallery as the “funny push and pull” of the exhibit pieces, which depict gruesome specters of death with vividly rendered artistry.


That tension will meet visitors in the form of a small figurine at the gallery entrance: an ivory sculpture that looks like intricately carved rosary beads.

On closer look, the beads have facets depicting “characters of the Renaissance:” a bishop, merchant, scholar, and knight.

These are the faces of Renaissance Europe, a period when the continent’s booming economy and emerging cultural landscape fed the expansion of professional and vocational fields, and carved society into distinct identities and hierarchies of status.

The living had much to lose, in other words, and Perkinson said that with the formation of status and self-hood came the simultaneous anxiety over the loss of self – or death.

And so alternating between the facets are skeletons – harrowing reminders that death comes for everyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve achieved.

“People are spending a lot of time thinking about who they are,” Perkinson said, and asking themselves, “How do I balance my rising prosperity and comfort with death?”


He pointed out that rosary beads are typically rubbed with the fingers during prayer, but this entrance-piece was clearly not: ivory that’s been handled, he said, turns yellow, indicating the piece was a collectible rather then an instrument of worship.

The design is symptomatic of the era, when people sought to use objects to signal knowledge, much of which was channeled through a Christian framework and carried a moralizing message.

As such, Perkinson alluded to the exhibit as located at the intersection of the existential and material: when people sought to express themselves and their knowledge through emblems of status, yet were still unable to avoid death as an ubiquitous, undiscriminating force that would yield a fate where “everybody ends up the same.”

The exhibit carries out this concept in eight major themes that reflect the Renaissance period and psyche, including piety, anatomy, scholarship, and morality.

Though contextualized by the historical moment, museum co-director Anne Collins Goodyear said the relevance of these concepts is not limited to those who lived 500 years go.

Positing that death is “what makes us human,” she said the objects on display transcend their historical moment and still appeal to contemporary viewers who grapple with their own self-hood and mortality.

Those themes, she said, are immortal.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Visitors examine the Renaissance artwork of “Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe,” at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

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