“Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools” lives up to its name at Denver Art Museum

“Saint, Sinners, Lovers and Fools” delivers all of the things you want from a would-be blockbuster at the Denver Art Museum: a concise, consumable lesson in art history and a chance to see a body of work that has never been shown before in the United States.

Happy holidays, Coloradans looking for a solid outing on your December days off; this traveling exhibition is your gift.

Of course, you have to pay for it — $23 if you are not a museum member or $12 if you are — and that is surely something to consider. But the exhibition does live up to its name. There is a high level of drama — sacred, social, sensual — in every frame.

And, in fact, in the frames themselves. The exhibition features dozens of paintings, from tiny portraits to grand landscapes, all centuries old and preserved with immense care, and encased in frames that sometimes feel like works of art themselves. Some have architecture-like details, arches and cornices and columns, that make them distinct objects to appreciate at the show.

They have plenty to compete with in this exhibition, which features art made in the 15th to 17th centuries in and around Flanders, now part of Belgium. It was a place of great prosperity back in those days. Cities like Antwerp held deep religious beliefs and immense wealth, which — as history has shown again and again — often adds up to great art.

A good portion of that work is in the hands of the Belgium-based Phoebus Foundation, a philanthropic organization that holds significant collections, not only of European art but also of Latin American and contemporary art, textiles, artifacts and decorative objects. The organization’s mission is to get the work seen by the public, and this road show is the manifestation of that effort.

“Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools” is a rather large sampling, more than 120 Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, plus prints, three-dimensional objects and an impressive array of manuscripts. It is organized by Phoebus’ Katharina Van Cauteren and Niels Schalley, with a local assist from DAM’s in-house European specialist Angelica Daneo.

The more important names for visitors are the artistd themselves, some fairly well known, such as Hans Memling, Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, though this show is about Flemish art in general more than superstars.

That is clear from its opening move, a still life by Frans Snyders, titled “A Pantry with Game” that greets viewers at the exhibition entrance. It’s a provocative piece for a 2022 audience, a pile of dead and disemboweled peacocks, boars and rabbits all killed in the hunt. The oil on canvas work is a bit gory.

But it speaks directly to the circumstances of the time period at hand. Renaissance Flanders was a brutal, war-torn, doctrinal place, but there was also tremendous bounty to be devoured.

From there, the exhibition is arranged thematically rather than along chronological lines, starting with “God is in the Details,” a grouping of pious works that show how Christianity dominated the day. Memling’s early oil painting “The Nativity,” from about 1480 — a solemn scene with Mary and a trio of winged angels gazing at the baby Jesus — sets a serene tone.

It is offset effectively by another oil in that section, titled “Hell,” and attributed only to a “follower of Hieronymus Bosch.” Like many of Bosch’s paintings, it is a violent representation of all the awful things that happen to bad people in the afterlife: torture, suffering, being eaten by mysterious creatures. Clearly, Flanders had its dark tones and it sometimes dwelled in them.

That juxtaposition is important here, because it gives both the show and Flanders a sense of real depth. This exhibition is not propaganda for any certain time, place or individual in the way big-name traveling shows can sometimes be. We see both the highs and lows of Flanders, and it that way it feels like a real place.

The rest of the show follows that cue. The next section, “From God to the Individual,” is a set of aristocratic portraits that depict both the social customs and fashion of the day, but also the rise of a wealthy class and the vanity that always accompanies it.

Then there is “The Fool in the Mirror,” a large lineup of works that were intended to show the dubious side of humanity. Lust, greed and vanity are all on display in paintings such as Frans Verbeek’s 1550 “The Mocking of Human Follies,” which depicts a market scene full of tricksters, sluts, thieves and evil-doers of every sort. This section, with its abundance of fools and absurdities, serves as the show’s comic relief.

There are other sections that demonstrate how artists and craftspeople captured other facets of the period, paintings that depict war and the era’s growing fascination with biology, astronomy and other sciences.

“Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools” finishes with an entire gallery dedicated to “The Pursuit of Wonder,” which plays as a large cabinet of curiosities, and attempts to explain the resource-rich society’s fascination with precious objects from the worlds of art, science and nature. For this section, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science lent a hand, contributing gems and minerals, butterfly wings and seashells from its own curious collections.

There are many reasons this body of art deserves to be seen and considered at the level this exhibition suggests. The material chronicles an important part of art history, in particular the early advances of oil painting, which was still in its developing stages in 14th-century Europe. But it also captures real history; it uses art to tell the story of a time and place like no other.

And it does so with incredible detail. As the exhibition text points out, detail is what mattered to these artists. Every object on Earth — every animal, flower, fabric and jewel— was believed to be a product of the divine, enabled by God himself, and it deserved to be rendered with extreme care and precision.

If you go

“Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools: 300 Years of Flemish Masterworks” continues through Jan. 22 at the Denver Art Museum. Info: 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.

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