‘Renaissance Rediscovered’ opens at the Walker this month

‘Renaissance Rediscovered’ presents the Walker’s renowned collection of western European art from the 13th to the 18th century.

Masterpieces such as Simone Martini’s ‘Christ Discovered in the Temple’, Holbein’s ‘Portrait of Henry VIII’, and Rembrandt’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Young Man feature’ in the elegant new spaces.  

New acquisitions join this spectacular collection for the first time, including ‘Allegory of Painting and Music’, the first painting by Giovanni Andrea Sirani to enter a UK public collection, and ‘Still Life with Flowers’ by 17th-century Dutch artist, Willem van Aelst. 

Other iconic artists represented include Titian, Lavinia Fontana, Peter Paul Rubens and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.  

A treasure trove of ivory carvings, enamel, silver, glass, ceramics, jewellery, and textiles dating from 1200 to 1700 reveal a revolutionary period in art history when trade and travel led to the spread of new ideas and styles. Imagery created by 3D video microscopy will enable visitors to gain a closer look at star objects from the Walker’s outstanding decorative arts collection. 

Improved environmental controls will enable the Walker to showcase its extraordinary collection of prints, drawings and watercolours through changing displays for the first time.

The Walker holds a collection of more than 8,350 drawings, prints and watercolours by British and International artists, many of which have never been shown before. Highlights for the opening of the new gallery include an unflinching self-portrait by Elisabetta Sirani, and ‘Study for the Head of the Archangel Gabriel, in Allegory of the Triumph of Christ’, by Guido Reni, a fascinating design for the dome of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in Ravenna Cathedral, Italy. 

The role of the wealthy Victorian collectors who shaped the foundation of the Walker Art Gallery is addressed within the new displays. Joseph Mayer (1803-1886) presented 14,000 objects to the city in 1867, while the MP William Roscoe (1753-1831), purchased many of the most important paintings on display. The same paintings were later bought by the Liverpool Royal Institution, a group of wealthy art patrons who gave its collection to the Walker in 1948.

Liverpool’s economic development grew directly from Britain’s involvement with transatlantic slavery, with many members of the Institution making their fortunes through the abhorrent trade. The opening of ‘Renaissance Rediscovered’ offers an important opportunity to reflect on this legacy and is part of the gallery’s ongoing work to recognise its links to slavery, colonialism and empire. 

Although centuries old, the subjects these works explore are powerful and enduring themes – faith, family, diversity, migration – that remain relevant to people today. New research focuses on stories that have previously been overlooked.

From exploring one of the earliest examples of a visible Black presence in the Walker’s collection ‘Portrait of a Young Man’ (around 1520) by Jan Mostaert, to deeper engagement with the many women depicted within the gallery walls and the origins of a 19th-century ‘gay icon’ through ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian’, by Bartolomeo di Giovanni, ‘Renaissance Rediscovered’ gives refreshing viewpoints to a historic collection.  

A special spotlight on a collection of ‘Madonna and child’ paintings explores the cult status of Mary during the Middle Ages, with some works focusing on their divine and holy status, while others celebrate a more down to earth but timeless bond between mother and baby. 

A new digital interactive will bring to life the tapestry, ‘The Triumph of Fortitude (Brussels, about 1525), the largest piece on display, The brave and compelling female characters from mythology and the Old Testament featured within the tapestry are the focus in this new story-telling interactive. 

Kate O’Donoghue, Curator of International Fine Art at Walker Art Gallery, said, “We are thrilled to be returning the rare and exceptional paintings, sculptures and decorative arts from our Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque collections to permanent display in stunning, refurbished galleries. Accompanied by new perspectives and fresh interpretation which breathes new life into a historic collection, this is a significant moment in the history of the Walker. 

“We are hugely grateful to the UK Government and our other partners, including Art Fund, for their support in creating these beautiful spaces and ensuring these works can continued to be enjoyed into the future. “

Minister for Arts and Heritage, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said, “The triumphant success of Eurovision was a clear demonstration of the power of Liverpool’s cultural attractions to draw in and inspire millions of visitors from around the world. The opening of ‘Renaissance Rediscovered’ at the Walker Art Gallery means the city can add even more to its wealth of cultural offerings.    

“The £4 million provided by the Government has helped to support the gallery re-imagine its impressive collection – so that visitors gain new insights, perspectives and entertainment for generations to come.” 

Jenny Waldman, Director, Art Fund, said, “Giovanni Andrea Sirani’s vibrant ‘Allegory of Painting and Music’ is the first ever painting by this important baroque artist to enter a UK public collection. I’m delighted Art Fund has been able to support Walker Art Gallery to acquire the painting, and look forward to it going on show to the public later this month alongside other world-class art treasures as part of the gallery’s spectacular refurbishment.”

Image: Madonna and Child, painted about 1505-1515 attributed to Francesco Signorelli (about 1490-1553) Credit: Gareth Jones

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