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Smith College Museum of Art, Exhibit

February 18 - March 12

Brought to Life: Painted Wood Sculpture from Europe, 1300–1700

September 16, 2022–August 6, 2023
Brought to Life logo text with green branch and a detail of a polychrome piece with many angels with the same face

This exhibition investigates the materials, techniques and reception of painted wood sculpture in Europe between the 13th and the 18th centuries. Polychrome (multicolored) wood sculptures are today recognized as art objects, but at the time they were made, viewers interacted with the sculptures as if they were alive. Most of the works on view here represent sacred figures from Christianity, and their lifelike appearance was central to their function as objects of prayer and devotion. Whether located in a church or a home, the sculptures were part of a multisensory experience. They were often dimly lit by candlelight. Worshippers would have touched, held or kissed them. The air around them may have been filled with the sounds of music and the fragrance of incense. The exhibition aims to recreate elements of this original viewing experience.

To make these objects, teams of specialized artists in workshops collaborated to intricately carve blocks of wood and add paint and gilding (gold decoration). Limewood, walnut and oak were primarily used, which were readily available and relatively easy to carve. Wood also had religious meaning, symbolizing humility and regeneration. Many carvings were part of larger, more complex ensembles. Today, sections of the original sculptures are often damaged or lost, but conservation technology allows us to learn about how they were crafted and may have once appeared

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Smith College Museum of Art
20 Elm Street at Bedford Terrace
Northampton, MA 01063
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