Printmaking was a very big deal in Renaissance and Baroque Europe.
Etchings and engravings revolutionized the means by which artists could communicate with one another. Thanks to intricately crafted prints, you could learn from other artists whose works you had never seen just by studying engraved reproductions of their creations.
Add Herr Gutenberg to the equation, and you have the first "information superhighway" in the history of art.
"Masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque Printmaking," an exhibit of 85 etchings and engravings crafted between 1400 and 1650 by some of the very greatest Italian and Northern European artists, is on display at the Mitchell Gallery on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis.
The exhibit is on loan from the collection of Gertrude Weber and the Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia.
These images provide a golden opportunity to delve into an intricate, remarkably expressive craft that took the art world by storm as it evolved in the 15th and 16th centuries, and to connect with the very heart and soul of the Renaissance in the bargain.
Printmaking clearly served multiple purposes for Renaissance man. At times, its instructional application went beyond the art world, to the dissemination of the latest scientific knowledge. For example, the extraordinary rhinoceros etched by the German master, Albrecht Durer, who, as much as anyone else, got the art of printmaking off the ground.
As in the medieval period, art in the Renaissance brought Christian teachings alive to a population largely incapable of interpreting it through the written word.
Foremost among the devotional works is Anthony van Dyck's "Mocking of Christ" in which Jesus is illuminated by a crown of light even as he is reviled by his betrayers. The sculptural quality achieved by van Dyck's etched lines is extraordinary.
The omnipresence of death, another thematic carry-over from the Middle Ages, appears in Giuseppe Scolari's "St. Jerome." The contemplative saint has retired to the wilderness where he tames a stylized lion. But a skull lurks in the underbrush, a reminder that death is never far off.
But, of course, Renaissance art was far more than a rehashing of archaic themes. By the 16th century, doubt fueled by scientific inquiry had entered the world as the simple certainties ordained by the medieval mind gave way to a consuming sense of life's inherent ambiguity.
Durer's Dante-esque vision of "Christ's Descent into Limbo" provides a case in point. Jesus visits that ambiguous place on the border of hell to grant succor to the souls of the afflicted. But as he blesses them, menacing creatures from the nether world look on, creating a sense of unease that is palpable and profound.
The Renaissance reverence for physical beauty is everywhere. Paolo Farinati's "St. John" demonstrates great awareness of physical detail with free, evocative lines that convey the gentle beauty of the Baptist's body and placid facial expression.
Other pieces attest to Renaissance man's celebration of his classical past (Altdorfer's "Dream of Paris" is one example) and to the fascination many artists felt with peasants, beggars, lepers and others confined to the fringe of their society.
An excellent accompanying booklet informs the viewer of the many different styles of printing (woodcuts, relief printing, intaglio, etching, engraving, drypoint and the like) in language that is unpretentious and informative. Far and away, this is the best exhibit the Mitchell Gallery has mounted to date, and it's highly recommended.
"Masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque Printmaking" will be on display through May 21. Hours are: Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; Friday evenings 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. The gallery is closed Mondays. Information: 626-2556.