Step back in time and immerse yourself in the spiritual, domestic, and chivalric worlds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This spring, the Art Institute unveils the new Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor, presenting nearly 700 objects from the museum’s rich holdings of art from 1200 to 1600: monumental altarpieces, exquisite jewelry, and the beloved arms and armor collection.
The sumptuous display begins with a large room featuring architectural sculpture, treasury objects, and early painting that convey the austere sanctity of earlier medieval art. The centerpiece of the gallery is the meticulously conserved Ayala Altarpiece, commissioned in 1396 by the chancellor of Castile for his family’s funerary chapel in northern Spain. Spanning nearly 24 feet across and eight feet high, the painted wood altarpiece has undergone extensive treatment over the last three years and makes its restored debut in brilliant form. Two linked vaulted galleries showcase altarpieces and altarpiece fragments from Italy, Spain, and northern Europe, including the Art Institute favorite Saint George and the Dragon by Bernat Martorell. Each is displayed to suggest its original religious space, highlighting the church as a center of public life.
The spaces that follow are more intimate, focusing on the texture of late Gothic and Renaissance life. One gallery presents luxury goods and the accessories of feasting, while another displays works of art for the bedchambers of Tuscany’s merchant elite. Everyday objects from northern Europe, along with jewelry and items of personal display, complete the domestic picture of the period.
An elegant rotunda introduces the collection of arms and armor with equipment for the bodyguards of four rulers. From here, the space opens to a gallery filled with weaponry and armor dominated by two armored figures on horseback—one dressed for battle, the other for sport—and two armed and costumed figures engaged in foot combat. Finally, a gallery lined with cabinetry features the art of the sword, luxury firearms, and equipment for the hunt extending through the Baroque era.
The new installation expands the display of art of this fascinating period sixfold, premiering several recently conserved works and many significant new acquisitions—an elegant late Gothic breastplate and backplate, a rare 15th-century German portrait, and an outstanding group of 17th- and 18th-century swords. Subtle changes in the architecture of the galleries propel visitors through time and from religious to secular works, while digital labels provide an interactive multimedia experience. At the heart of this display are the gifts of major collectors whose donations serve as the collection’s foundation: the Ayala Altarpiece and Saint George and the Dragon from Charles Deering, Sienese and Florentine gold-ground paintings and early Northern works given by Martin Ryerson, a terracotta altarpiece by Florentine Benedetto Buglioni and a South German carved and painted Saint Catherine from Kate Buckingham, and George F. Harding’s impressive collection of arms and armor. All come together in the new Deering Family Galleries, offering a transporting experience to a time that continues to enchant.