This major exhibition of European art, curated by The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, in partnership with The Ringling, will feature more than 80 extraordinary objects. Many of these works will be on loan from prestigious institutions across the US and Europe including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition focuses on the late medieval and early Renaissance period in Europe (roughly 1300-1500), a time in which societal changes prompted a new interest in human experience, the enjoyment of nature, and the pursuit of pleasure. As a result, the art of this period functioned in a rich sensory world that was integral to its appreciation. These works were not only seen, but also touched, smelled, and heard. The exhibition will bring together sacred and secular art—including paintings, tapestries, metalwork, and manuscripts—to reveal the role of the senses in courtly ritual and religious practice.
A Feast for the Senses seeks to recover the traces of sounds, smell, taste, and touch inherent in the materiality of these late medieval objects and give them a voice, bringing them to life for the modern viewer. The oft-held notion of the Middle Ages as a period of sensory deprivation is disproven through the many objects on view that encourage sensory engagement. As visitors move through the exhibition, they will encounter interactive displays including Audio Spotlights, Scent Pop stations, and touchable replicas, all designed to encourage an appreciation of how art was designed to stimulate the senses of the medieval viewer.
Upon entering, guests will be met by the magnificent Narcissus tapestry, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This work depicts an idyllic garden setting, full of emotion and sensuality. Thousands of flowers bloom in the verdant grass and small animals frolic about, while a gentle breeze sends Narcissus’ cape flying about his handsome face. Birds are singing, water is burbling. All the senses are filled with beauty: the sight of the garden, the scent of flowers, the touch of the breeze and the sounds of nature. The idea that beauty created a motion of the soul that would thus be better disposed to love, learn, or meditate is a key concept in medieval culture.
Another gallery focuses on the way that church ritual created an immersive sensory environment and how liturgy relied on physical sensation to encourage the participant to create a spiritual inner sanctum in the soul. Stained glass transformed natural light into colored reflections, giving material expression to God’s presence as light. Music, of course, was also an essential component of the liturgy, and musical manuscripts will be displayed next to sound stations that will let visitors hear the music written on the pages. Other works will demonstrate how religious participants were encouraged to devotion through smell, taste, and touch.
The exhibition also examines how the senses were explained in medieval science. In the Middle Ages, senses were not only receptors but also emitters. For example, it was believed that the eyes shot rays that captured the object of sight. From early representation of the five senses, to illustrations of brain functions in medieval philosophical treatises, to poetical representations of the senses such as the horses drawing Wisdom’s chariot, the objects on display will illustrate the role of the senses in contemporary cognitive theory.
We are thrilled to be partnering with The Walters Art Museum to bring this extraordinary group of objects to our visitors in Sarasota. These works will not only allow guests to engage with art in new ways but give them the opportunity to view pieces from world-renowned collections. – Steven High, Executive Director, The Ringling